Let’s Pretend We’re Married (KJ Shepherd)

The bartender caught us photographing the front door. Every reflection in a bar is two-wayed, even at the urinals, especially during townie hours. But any bartender worth his salt knows that townies would know the old local gay spot: who takes pictures of their neighborhood unless they are already becoming a stranger? Before we could make our way to the corner, minutes from the seawall by foot, he called after us: “Y’all going to come in or what? We actually got good beer.” 

Like lemurs or ravens, the collective name for queers, especially those fleeing the scene, is a conspiracy. 

Galveston sits about fifty miles south of Houston, off the coast of Texas. Sometimes you say you’re from one city and sometimes you say you’re from the other, the answer changing with the Gulf winds, but I know the truth is really somewhere in between, in the sprawling marsh. Various colonizers have used Galveston Island for centuries, and the namesake city has held many roles: pirates’ haven; portway to Texas; birthplace of Juneteenth; medical hub; bootleggers’ paradise; philanthropists’ playground. While the city kept growing within its waterbound confines before deflating in the 1960s, it long carried the scarring from a hurricane at the beginning of the twentieth century. When I was a child in Miami (or somewhere in another sprawling marsh), I knew about Galveston because it was the only other city the national newscasters would cover besides mine during hurricane season. Did you also learn about geography in public school by charting tropical storms on grocery store maps? 

There isn’t really a collective noun for hurricanes, but after about four or five, a local becomes a townie.

We followed the bartender into the dimly-lit space, relieved when he said there was outdoor seating. Our first date had been a six-hour odyssey of heady beer and backseat kissing, but we hadn’t been inside a bar since any pandemic low tide felt truly calm. As the man opened the back door, we were shocked to find an entire second bar, complete with a gazebo, lounge chairs, and a waist-deep pool that could sit eight adults or fifteen horny homosexuals. We could reasonably address every man at the bar as “Daddy”—a surprise since we were both now squarely in our mid-thirties, Covid pushing us past the Jesus line, the sea breeze and overcast skies showcasing my jagged hairline and your crow’s feet. 

You said you wanted to be thick just like me and then lost like ten pounds of pandemic weight. 

Robert’s Lafitte touts being the oldest gay bar continuously owned and run by the same person. It celebrated its golden anniversary just before the pandemic, and unlike too many gay and lesbian bars across the country, its fiftieth year under the same hands wasn’t its last. The “Robert’s” refers to Robert Mainor, the son of a Southern Baptist deacon who bought the bar at the turn of the 1970s and created multi-person puppets for Lafitte’s decades of drag shows. The “Lafitte” part partially refers to the existing name of the gay bar before Maison purchased it–a possessive oddity similar to Ruth’s Chris Steak House–but also reflects the island’s longstanding celebration of its pirate past. Jean Lafitte, the strapping French-speaking Sephardic Jewish slave trader who controlled the Gulf of Mexico through ruthless marauding, allied himself with Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans–only to see the U.S. Navy oust him from suddenly-secure American waters a handful of years later. Before he left, he burnt his outlaw town of Campeche to the ground; Galveston proper would grow from the settlement’s ashes a couple decades later. In the early 1970s, not long after Lafitte’s changed hands to Mainor, an arsonist burnt New Orleans’s Upstairs Lounge to the ground, killing 32 gay men in another swamp haven. When I still lived in Florida, a maniac mowed down 49 queers at a bar I used to go to. We all walked around for weeks, figuring out which of us stayed home and which of us went to the bar with cheaper cover. What is pride if not pirated joy? On which anniversary do you give ashes?

“Crystal Waters by the crystal waters,” one of us joked after two beers. 

We had reached the part of the trip where neither of us says much. We had spent the day playing the same game we always do when we’re out of town. Every block offered another semantic maneuver: “Maybe we could–” “That place might be nice if–” “If we ever moved in there–” You hated the way my borrowed shirt clung to your chest and back in the humidity, even when I told you that you were a dream. My first girlfriend; my undergrad fiancée; my first wife. We had joked they would come after abortion and homos under this administration, and then it stopped being funny. I had an acquaintance who said in Russia, the saying goes “In every joke, there is a kernel of a joke,” but then she transitioned and became a microcelebrity. The bigger the joke, the sweatier the dream. 

The only reason to enjoy a Texas summer is all the sweat I can lick off your back.

Wrapped up in every microjoke about leaving Texas is a micro-micro joke about everything we need to do before everything gets worse. Job, shoes, résumé, permanent residency, headphones, lube. At least I can’t get you pregnant, no matter how often I mount you. They want to take away PReP and I can’t get you to commit to anything beyond Hanukkah. I stopped buying you everything until you said you missed it. I can’t say I miss you when you’re out of town because you think it’s pathetic. Do you want to go to the East Coast or the West Coast? Do you think about me when I’m gone for more than a day? How many times do I have to convince you not to bolt, and how many times have I decided to just leave the gate open because maybe you shouldn’t know I take naps when I’m stressed or sing to myself in the shower or live off tuna and crackers when I’m not cooking for you. Maybe the best thing about a boyfriend is going back to your own bed.                                                                                 

“You okay?” you ask for the eighth time until I tell you that’s just what my face does these days.

Maybe you’ll finally get a tattoo with me and maybe you won’t. Maybe they’ll make all the queers get tattoos before the roundup and maybe they won’t. Maybe this election will be the last free one and maybe it will be the next one. Maybe I’ll fuck the daylights out of you today and maybe I’ll fuck the daylights out of you tomorrow. Maybe Chicago and maybe New York and maybe the Puget Sound, maybe wherever I can get hired first. Maybe one more pitcher of Shiner for Daddy. Maybe we’ll only exist in the present tense and maybe we only ever exist in the present tense. Maybe you’ll actually say you want to move in with me and maybe that’s a sweaty dream that died a week before I wrote this. Maybe my wife. Maybe I’ll let you pay for dinner after the drive back, somewhere in the sprawling marsh because you wanted seafood, and maybe I’ll sit there at the picnic table with you poking through some fish sticks and tiny fried shrimp, you and me and the new mosquitos, certain of the malt vinegar on my tongue and your knees rubbing against mine and last good night chill until October.


KJ Shepherd lived in Austin, Texas.


image: Christine Naprava is a writer from South Jersey with a soft spot for photography. You can find her on Twitter @CNaprava and Instagram @cnaprava.