On Sunday afternoons after brunch, we gather for service in the alcoves of our favorite bar, the bar across from the most famous tattoo shop in the city, the bar between the pizza place and the vape store, the one with the cover charge meant to keep pub crawls and bachelorettes out. As the last of the day's light streams in through crystal prisms, it refracts into scattered rainbows. We settle into lacquered wooden stools next to mirrors that reflect the polished bar with its underlit liquor bottles, the murals of Saint Johnson and Saint LaBeija, portraits of our saints, the planes and shadows of our own faces. Our bodies humidify the air. In our hands sweats a well vodka or a craft beer or a mocktail or nothing, depending on how long it has been since payday. In our laps sit our bags or our phones or each other’s searching hands. We have gathered here, all of us, in the shine of the highlighter on her nose and chin, in service to the tensile strength between us.
The stage lights heat the air until it shimmers like a mirage. When our officiant enters from the balcony, a hushed silence falls over the crowd. The spotlight follows her down the stairs, and in her wake, stray flakes of glitter and errant sequins float to the ground from her white robes. Thick black shadows emerge from her eyelids and arch up her temples like wings; above them sit stripes of teal, indigo, mauve, and hot pink. As she moves through the crowd, she carries herself like a queen: shoulders up and back, purposeful strides. We recognize her from the service last week or one of her other gigs or social media or from earlier, in the crowd, where she sported a five o'clock shadow and tight pants. When we reach out to her, she clasps one of our hands in both of her own. We feel the impression of her fingers on ours long after she has turned away.
As she steps up onto the makeshift stage, her platforms clomp like our heartbeats. Her song begins. Only silence emerges from the hollow at the base of her throat, yet as she mouths the words, she throws back her head. She spreads her arms as wide as any other diva. Her gestures are big, like her personality, and her performance embraces us.
We tithe dollar bills by folding them into her palms or tucking them into the edges of her outfit. We hoot and whistle. More money—shaped like pinwheels, stars, tiny squares—soars over our heads. She bows and it disappears into her outfit. When the song hits its final note, she opens her mouth and closes her eyes.
After the opening salvo, the house playlist kicks on. We dance body to body—bounce, wiggle, strut. We mouth the lyrics to Lizzo's "Juice" and Robyn's "Dancing on my Own". Our chorister robes fishnets and mesh; our glitter our camouflage; our tenderness full throttle: we know how to love and we know how to get it on. As the disco ball comes down and dazzles light patterns across the crowd, we glimpse each other’s unguarded selves. Some of us inhabit the spaces between and among genders, those borderlands where all new experimentation gleams. Some worship the alchemy that science allows. We refract gender; we turn the knob on the kaleidoscope: when from one angle we are butch lesbians, from another we are clean shaven young men. When from one angle we are twink fags, from another we are baby dykes. The viewfinder spins and spins. We reflect available light: the spangles of our body glitter, the droplets of our sweat; the luster of pearls, sunlight through water, an oil slick, the inside of oyster shells, fish scales, quartz flakes, soap bubbles the moment before they pop.
In these years between plagues, we are not afraid to touch each other: we grasp forearms, touch lightly at the small of a stranger's back as we move through the dance floor. Between our bodies we feel other the press of other—invisible—bodies drawing us toward one another and pulling us away. When we pray—and for many of us, this moment on the dance floor is ecstatic prayer—we light it up for the dead. Our saints are other people whom only we mourn and we tattoo their names on our bodies in memoriam. Lea, the motherly dyke who loved and cooked for every one of us who ran here sad and scared from our hometowns, we who avoided even the sunset in our rearviews. Ms. Thea Afrodite of the House of Afrodite, who took in struggling kids and turned them into a competition-sweeping, organized team, who refused to ever let them call her mother. Robby, the elderly leatherman who taught a carousel of boys carpentry so they might support themselves in skilled labor instead of street hustling. Our love for each other is a homing beacon, the flash of a lighthouse in an oceanic dark.
When the music ends and the lights come up, we gather ourselves to leave: change outfits, wipe makeup, unzip and zip, gather jackets, pay tabs. Outside, we project an air of menace. Outside, we burst into gossamer. Enlarged from dancing, some of us emerge unsteady on legs like newborn colts, knock over barriers and gates, clomp down the daybreak streets, expand upwards until our transparent eyeballs rove inside midtown condos. We pass dioramas of party gays snorting lines off toilet tanks. Two men in business suits shucked from their body like petals fuck up against the glass. We stride down the freeway and out past the suburbs into the counties beyond, past truck stops and swap meets, where we nest. We morph into the wings of dragonflies or the buzz-and-husk of cicadas or the carapaces of Junebugs—everything that shines or reflects or refracts a prism of color so bright it singes. Brazen and bravely, we glow.
Emrys Donaldson is an Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville State University whose work has also recently appeared in Electric Literature and LitHub. Read more at emrysdonaldson.com.
Other stars in the Saguaro asterism:
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He was gentle and quiet until my hands filled up, then he made me his pushpin...
The Chinese Man and the Desert
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Woodland Wisdom Tooth
An ancient bird broke away from the brigade and snuck in / to watch a film on trees.
I Asked Pain Its Address,
Ashish Kumar Singh
Here, the pain says and points to my leg like a child unsure of where the Arctic might be on a map.
Sneha Subramanian Kanta
On a June night when the south-westerly monsoon winds bring drizzles to Mahrashtra, my father asks if we must call my grandfather. I immediately agree.
Time and Tides