The Art of Loneliness
“I have something I need to tell you,” Ellen said over the phone.
A friend from college, who was now in graduate school in Oregon, called me at my mom’s house in Denver while I was home from graduate school in Montana. We were both back in Colorado for the holiday break. Ellen was pretty, funny, smart and sexy. And, she was one of the few people who had stayed in touch with me.
“I can’t wait to hear your news!” I said.
“I don’t know how you will feel about this,” she continued carefully, “and I really hope you will still want to be friends…I’m a lesbian.”
A cacophony of emotions flooded over me. No one had ever disclosed to me that they were a lesbian. I didn’t know ANY lesbians. None. Not one. I knew a few gay guys, all of whom I had witnessed having the living shit beat out of them at one point or another.
But perhaps worse than not knowing any lesbians, I had no one in my life to tell I was a lesbian. Definitely not my homophobic family. And more disappointingly, I had no friends, colleagues or classmates who seemed mature enough to confide in, without them blabbing about it uncontrollably as an exciting bit of gossip. Not only had those gay guys I knew been beaten up—their beatings were often accompanied by having their car’s tires slashed and engines tinkered with. I wasn’t about to share something that could leave me pummeled and stranded in an empty parking lot late at night.
But Ellen, who had always seemed mature beyond her years, was definitely someone who could be trusted with top-secret information. Plus, I’d had a crush on her since I was a freshman.
“Well, now that you mention it, ha…ha…ha…” I stammered, overwhelmed with panic. I was desperately listening for the “click” of the other phone in the house coming off the receiver. I continued as quietly as possible, “I guess I should tell you I’m a lesbian, too.”
This was the early 1980’s. We didn’t have email. We didn’t have cell phones where we could call or text each other in secret. We were on LANDLINES, hiding in our respective parents’ basements. I knew my mother didn’t have the skills to tap the line, but I also knew she suspected me of being a lesbian and was ready at all times to pick up the handset off the kitchen phone just at the right moment to hear, “I’m a lesbian
“Really?!” Ellen shouted in a whisper. “I’m so glad! How long are you in town?
“Till a few days after Christmas,” I said.
“Me, too! Let’s go find other lesbians!”
“If you can drive, I will find out. My parents won’t loan me their car.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow. We have so much to talk about.”
It’s Christmas Eve and there is a light snow falling on the icy roads. Oddly, this was the only night both Ellen and I could wiggle out of family commitments. At seven in the evening I pull up in front of her parents’ house. I have borrowed a lean, mean road machine from my folks—the Ford Country Squire station wagon. It could totally take us to the lesbians even though it was a beater car that had been rear ended so many times my dad finally drilled a hole in the tailgate door and chained it shut with a padlock.
Ellen was waiting by the door, and immediately got into the car. A real, live, lesbian was now sitting next to me.
“It is SO good to see you!!!! And we’re in luck,” she said whipping out a small newsprint magazine, “There’s a lesbian bar called Three Sisters—and they’re open TONIGHT. AND they have a happy hour with free hors d’oeuvres until 9 p.m.!”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. Ellen was the only person I knew who could find a lesbian bar in Denver open on Christmas Eve. “What is that magazine?” I asked.
“It’s a Denver gay rag… my friend Robert gave it to me.”
OH MY GOD—Ellen was so HOOKED UP. “Where did Robert get this?!” I asked amazed, having never seen anything like this around town.
“He got it at Tracks—you know, the gay bar where lots of drag queens like to go.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that place,” I lied. I had never heard from anyone, anything, about any such bar. How much of an asshole could I be? “Alright, give me the directions.”
And off we went, into the cold night to meet tons of lesbians. Many of whom I imagined were my age and would be dancing, socializing and saying, “HURRAY! WE FINALLY FOUND EACH OTHER AFTER ALL THIS TIME!”
As we got closer to our destination, we both realized we were heading into a rough neighborhood in Denver, known for it’s high crime rate and frequent gang drug busts. We turned off the main boulevard and onto a dark side street. Even though we’d only heard tales of this neighborhood, now we could see with our own eyes how scary it was. As we passed under street lights—the few that weren’t busted out—I was white-knuckling the stirring wheel as we drove deeper and deeper into the neighborhood.
We watched the street numbers on the passing buildings until we reached one that matched the address of Three Sisters. It was a small building, sitting in the back of an empty parking lot, presumable theirs. I slowly pulled into the lot and crept up to the building so we could get a closer view, cruising by painfully slow looking for a sign.
“Is this it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ellen.
“It’s hard to tell.”
“There’s no sign.”
“Do you see any lights?”
“I think there’s light coming out of that small window over there.”
“Is that the front door?”
“It looks like it.”
“Do you think it’s open?”
“I could knock,” Ellen said reaching for the car door handle.
“No, NO—don’t get out of the car!” I said rolling past the front door and circling around to the end of the parking lot furthest away from the building. If this was actually the place, I couldn’t park my parents’ car parked close enough to make it clear the occupants of the car were in that particular building. The Country Squire has a long and consistent history of the ignition starter going out, which required calling my dad to come fix it. Terrified the car wouldn’t start again, we sat in silence for a few minutes while the motor was running.
“What do you think?” Ellen asked.
“I can’t tell if this is it,” I said.
“It’s got to be it. This is the address.”
We heard a series of pops in the distance.
“Are those gun shots?” Ellen asked tentatively.
“It kind of sounds like it,” I said. And risking everything in this life as I knew it, I turned off the motor so we could hear more clearly. We sat in silence until we heard another series of pops go off.
“That’s definitely a gun,” Ellen said.
“Yeah, that’s definitely a hand gun,” I confirmed.
“It sounds like it’s quite a few blocks away. We’re probably far enough away to not get into any cross-fire,” Ellen observed.
“Yeah, what are the chances they are gonna come right here?”
“Really slim. The person with the gun is probably really focused on situation at hand. And the police will probably come soon.”
We sat in silence waiting to hear the police siren, which never came.
“Ok, I said, “lets just make a run for it—if the front door is locked, we’ll just run back to the car and get out of here.”
We slowly got out of the car and closed the doors as quietly as possible and then scurried up to the front door. Ellen, who had always been brave in my eyes, boldy reached out and turned the door knob, which opened up into a warm and dimly light room with a few tables, chairs and fully stocked bar.
We stepped inside and saw the bartender reading the newspaper. She was a weatherworn gal in her sixties and when she smiled to say “howdy” I noticed she was missing a couple of front teeth.
“Hi,” we both said simultaneously.
“Is this Three Sisters?” asked Ellen.
“It sure is,” the bartender said. “Come on in and warm up.”
We slowly made our way up to the bar and climbed onto stools.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.
“What ever you have on tap,” Ellen said.
“A diet coke.” I said. I was the designated driver.
The bartender served us with a kind smile and then went back to reading her paper.
My adrenalin was racing as I tried to scope out the establishment as non-chalantly as possible. Even though it felt like a million eyes were staring at me, there was only one other patron present, an elderly woman sitting at the end of the bar looking extremely somber. My skin was tingling from both sitting next to Ellen and anticipating the front door flying open with a storm of lesbians. As the next half hour passed, the door never opened. Ellen and I sat in silence nodding our head to the music, acting like this was perfectly normal and we were enjoying ourselves.
After another fifteen minutes Ellen announced, “I’m going to ask when they will serve the hors d’oeuvres,” as she slid off her stool and headed toward the bartender.
The bartender looked surprised when Ellen inquired about the hors d’oeuvres. Ellen pulled the gay rag out and pointed to the listing. This seemed to trigger the bartender into action. She came out from behind the bar with a bag of potato chips, tore open the bag and set it on a table. Ellen asked me cheerily, “May I bring you some hors d’oeuvres?”
She went and gathered a handful of chips, came back to the bar and laid them out on a drink napkin. We had skipped grabbing a bite to eat on our way to the bar imaging there would be cocktail weenies and cheese fondue.
We both nibbled on the chips trying to think of a polite way to ask the bartender if there were any other girl bars in town open on Christmas Eve. Instead of speaking up, we kept on looking like we were enjoying our evening while really feeling deeply uncomfortable and out of place.
As we finished the chips and our drinks we watched the one other customer’s head slowly sink over her glass.
“Are you ready to go get some pancakes?” Ellen inquired.
I was no longer the sole member of the secret, deviant society I had founded over a decade ago. In fact, now I didn’t feel deviant at all. Even though the bar was a bust, the unconstrained fun had finally begun: tee-hee-hee’ing with Ellen about women, driving all over Downtown Denver and eating pancakes at midnight in the 24-hour IHOP.
We twirled the little metal Lazy Susan at our table and sampled drips and drabs every single flavor of syrup IHOP had to offer. But nothing made pancakes taste better than sitting next to my biggest lesbian crush ever.
When the topic of dating arose, Ellen said, “I’ve been seeing someone…for a few months. She’s super-hot,—really tall and get this—a fire fighter.”
I was short and had a large student loan debt.
“I’ve been on some dates with a couple of women,” I lied. “I can’t tell if they liked me or not.”
“Did you like them?” Ellen asked.
“I kind of liked them…I was really busy with final papers for a bunch of classes. After the semester break, I think we can re-connect.”
Maybe someday Ellen would be single again. Or at least she might be home for the next Christmas break. Only having to wait a year to hang out with another lesbian instead of an entire lifetime was something to look forward to.