In the heart of south Florida lives a small village humbly called, Wilton Manors. If you know Florida you know that Florida is full of strip malls. Wilton Manors is no exception. However, Wilton Manors strip malls are different than most Florida strip malls. Instead of an Olive Garden, you’ll find a sex shop that sells exotic artifacts like poppers and pleather harnesses and shiny silver handcuffs that gleam at you through plexiglass cages. Instead of a hair salon that reeks of Altoids and peroxide, you’ll find a spa that plays trance music and offers important self-care luxuries, like anal bleaching and "colon hydrotherapy." You won’t find a Best Buy or a Hobby Lobby or a Target in Wilton Manors strip malls, either. But you know what you will find? Nightclubs. Gay nightclubs.
Lots and lots and lots of gay nightclubs.
Why? Because Wilton Manors houses homosexuals. She has more homos per capita than anywhere in the country with the exception of Provincetown, Massachusetts. As an avid popper enthusiast, it should come as little surprise to you that I fucking vibe with Wilton Manors.
Tonight I’m with one of my favorite people on the planet: Savannah Katz. Savannah Katz has relocated from New York City to Wilton Manors because she says she wants to live a “slower-paced life.” “I can’t keep going out like this!” she wailed to me, after a particularly hedonistic West Village weekend, her dark curls falling to her forlorn eyes. ” (Clearly moving to a town with more gay bars than gas stations is an obvious solution to a quiet, ~lowkey~ existence).
We’re at one of the strip mall gay bars and I am smoking a cigarette outside, trying not to cry. I don’t smoke cigarettes, for the record. I would say I don’t cry at bars, but crying in bars is pretty on-brand for me.
“Hey!” Savannah sing-songs, her chocolate-milk eyes glittering into the distance, her long, skinny arms rocketing into the starless night sky.
I throw my hand over my heart and scream into the abyss.
“What’s wrong?” Savannah asks, her gamine face visibly bewildered.
I glance down at my trembling fingertips which are bedazzled with cream-colored press-on nails from CVS. “You just screamed,” I clip. I feel self-conscious. When I feel self-conscious I clip.
Savannah stares at me, sadly. “Trauma response!” I say (a little too) brightly. Suddenly it feels imperative that I lighten the mood. As if I haven’t been the emotional grim reaper, darkening the ambiance, snatching happy souls out of skulls, since my wife of eight years and I decided to separate this August. “Anyway,” I stretch my face into one of those “too-wide” smiles people force when they’re hanging on by a thread, “what were you pointing at?”
Savannah’s face glows like a Ferris wheel at a carnival. “Spotted,” she announces, “there is a dyke on the premise.”
“WHERE?!” My eyes madly dart around like bats on amphetamines. Contrary to popular opinion, our excitement has nothing to do with us wanting to get laid. Savannah is taking a break from fucking and I’m way too raw for sex. And the feeling is mutual, no one wants to fuck me either. My nice friends might tell me otherwise, but I know I’m vibrating at a manic frequency right now. Heartbroken energy is an unpredictable energy that works as a sex-repellent no matter how hot you are. I get it. I don’t fuck heartbroken people for the same reason I don’t fuck drunks. You don’t know if they’re going to kiss you, hit you, or vomit all over your brand-new Mui Mui platforms. I’m both drunk and heartbroken right now, thus have probably dried out the pussies of every lesbian within a 100-mile radius.
So why are we aroused by a lesbian spotting if it’s not for sex? Because a lesbian spotting is rare. If life was a safari the lesbian would be akin to the African Wild Dog, one of the most elusive wild animals in the bush, so sleuth they’re rarely seen by human eyes. Like all seasoned lesbian trackers, we try to simmer down our boiling excitement, so we don’t scare this exotic creature off into the night.
I silently stare into the distance, praying to Melissa Ethridge that Savannah’s sighting wasn’t a mirage or wishful thinking or simply a by-product of booze-addled vision.
My eyes crash land on the woman two tables to our left. She’s got an American Spirit pressed between her chapsticked frown. A set of keys are clipped to the belt loop of her jeans. Her feet are adorned in sensible white sneakers and their wide stance claims their “right to take up space” in a man's world. A “bro, I dare you,” twinkle quietly foxtrots inside of her no-nonsense glare. Standing before me, ladies and germs, is a signature-edition lesbian. There’s even an invisible flannel draped across her broad shoulders. Flannel, my darling, is not just a garment to keep you warm in the fall. Flannel is an energy, like most things. (Savannah, for example, doesn’t wear her keys, but she wears her keys—if you know what I mean).
The two of us being the seasoned safari guides we are, gun-sling over to the lesbian in question. “Hi,” Savannah meows, “We’re lesbians, too.”
The lesbian raises an un-botoxed brow at Savannah, suspiciously. “Really?”
“Really,” Savannah, raises her brow back.
“Really,” I parrot. I’d raise my brow in solidarity but my forehead has been frozen for years now.
Savannah clumsily tosses her arm over my shoulder. “I just moved here from New York. This is Zara. Zara still lives in New York. But she’s heartbroken and staying with me ‘till she goes back..”
I notice the lesbian notice me for the first time. “Sorry to hear that. My girlfriend just left me,” she takes a sharp inhale of her American Spirit. “I get it,” smoke billows out of both nostrils like a prom dress.
“What’s your name?” I ask, suddenly gut punched. Do you know what I find so jarring about heartbreak? The emotional seesaw. One minute you’re riding high, not a care in the world. The next the wind has been knocked out of you and you’re laying face first in the dirt tasting blood in your mouth as you think about the fact that you’ve lost your entire world and how things will never be the same ever again.
“I’m Sue,” she says matter-of-factly. “What’s your name?”
I pause for an awkward stretch of silence. “Zara,” I finally manage. My name feels foreign in my mouth. I’m borderline surprised to learn that I am Zara. This has been happening to me lately. It’s like I keep forgetting who I am. Zara? Who’s THAT? Have you ever caught a glimpse of your reflection in a funhouse mirror and are startled when you realize the distorted girl looking back at you—is you? That’s what the past few years have been like.
It suddenly dawns on me that Savannah’s arm is no longer slung over me. On top of being unfamiliar with myself, I’ve also been very disembodied lately. I could be walking around with shards of glass poking through my flesh, and wouldn’t even notice unless somebody else pointed it out.
“Cool name,” our Sapphic Sue, says cooly. “So tell me about this dude that broke your heart?”
“Dude?” I ask, guzzling my cocktail.
“Bro, man, guy, boyfriend, husband—whatever the hell he is. What happened?”
“Wife.” Just saying the word “wife” is another sock to the stomach. “And I am still trying to figure out what the hell happened.” I take a final swig of my Bacardi diet coke.
“Wait, so you’re not straight?”
“What about me reads as straight?”
“Girl,” Sue chortles, “you’re femme as fuck. You don’t read as gay. You must know that.”
“Oh, Zara is a surefire lesbian. The biggest dyke I’ve ever met!” Savannah pipes, bounding back into the scene like a cocker spaniel, tightly clutching a fresh Skinny Margarita, like a dog with a bone.
Sue throws her hands into the air like she's under arrest. “I don’t mean disrespect. I just don’t see many lesbians who look like you guys—I mean girls—I mean women…” her voice slinks away, shamefully. Zara, in her usual exuberant state, would ride this opportunity out. She’d have fun playing the role of the smug femme. She’d drone on and on about the social stigmatization of the color pink in queer "spaces," she'd blame the patriarchy, she'd get all puffed up, and coo something self-aggrandizing, like “what does a lesbian look like to you?” But Exuberant Zara has left the building. All spicey iterations of Zara have left the building. And in her place is just another rundown woman too tired and too vacant to participate in the identity politics game. (For the record I'm not just fatigued from the shit-storm that has been the past six months, but from a fucking lifetime of conversations and internet think pieces like this). “Don’t worry about it. I truly don’t give a shit if you think I look straight or gay. And I give even less of a rat’s ass if you call me a girl or a dude or a woman or what-fucking-ever,” I deadpan (not for dramatic effect but because I am dead inside).
“Call me whatever you want to call me,” Savannah’s voice drops three registers and her bougie private school accent has transformed into a throaty, exaggerated Long Island accent, “just don’t call me late to dinnah!”
I cackle loudly, but only to mask the bitter fact that for the third time in the last five minutes, I'm once again gut punched. I realize I’m homesick. I miss New York accents. I miss New York. I miss her. I miss her so badly I can feel it in my teeth.
“Hey—” Sue says, as gently as a lesbian-who-wears-her-keys-around-her-belt-and-still-doesn’t-quite-buy-that-feminine-women-are-authentically-gay can, “—when are you going back to New York?”
When am I going back to New York? Good question, Sue. Who am I and when am I going back to New York? Oh, shit. Tomorrow. Gut punch #4 is a blow so hard I don’t need to look into a mirror to know I’m already starting to bruise. “Tomorrow,” I whisper, “I can’t fucking believe it. I’m terrified. So terrified I haven’t even begun to process that tomorrow morning at 11 AM I’ll be on a flight back home. Only not home because my home is no longer mine, and I’ll be living on my friend’s couch.”
“No way,” Sue’s voice sounds alarmed.
“It’s New York City! I can’t afford my own place right now! Do you know how exorbitant rent in that god-forsaken town is?” I glower, crossing my arms over my broke as fuck/broken as fuck heart.
“That’s not what I mean!” Sue sighs as if she can’t win with these crazy high femmes from “the city" who she keeps accidentally offending, at 11 p.m. at this random gay bar in a Florida strip mall. “What I mean is my flight is the same time as yours, tomorrow. Unlike you, I’m not going back to New York, I’m going to Ohio—but I too want to dry heave when I think about being back in the place that defines the love of my life. Who no longer wants to be in my life.” Sue’s eyes have a heaviness to them. But a young heaviness. Like a child walking home from school, after a day of being bullied in the cafeteria for the first time ever and is wrapping his brain around the dark notion that school is not a kid’s paradise, that his peers can and will be crueler than the world's strictest adult, that maybe nowhere is truly safe and holy-shit is he going to feel this all-consuming sense of dread and pending doom for the rest of his life? I understand the heaviness. I understood it as a bullied kid; I understand it as a displaced adult. Is going back to a life that no longer wants you all that different from eating your lunch hiding in the stall of a middle school bathroom?
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Hey,” she lightly touches my arm. Not in a sexual way (arm touching is many things, but sexual is not one of them).
“Why don’t we meet at the airport in the morning, early before our flights?”
“Can we drink wine?”
“Nah,” Sue’s mouth creeps into a wicked smile, “we’ll need fireball shots.”
I don't do fireball shots but the moment the term “fireball shots” cannon out of Sue’s well-hydrated lips I am flooded with relief. “I’m so in,” I purr like a cheeky kitten. Fireball shots are perfect. They don’t remind me of anything at all.
There’s an interesting thing that occurs when you’ve just had the rug pulled out from underneath you. You serendipitously find yourself interacting with strangers who are going through the same thing. It’s like all the shattered souls magically come out of the woodwork at the same time and find one another. Sometimes it’s in the back of a shared cab. Sometimes it’s in a public restroom. Sometimes it’s in a bar. (It’s usually in a bar). It’s like two perfect strangers waiting patiently for the bathroom, by happenstance exchange a casual glance, and this powerful unspoken current ZAPS between them. And the glance turns into an eye lock. And BAM: It's An Instant Connection, Your Honor. And the connection is rooted in, well, shared pain. And shared pain is a powerful vehicle for connection. So powerful that it can cause a shy heartbroken shell of a thirty-something to plan on doing fireball shots before noon with a forty-something problematic dyke from Ohio she only met a few hours earlier, outside of a strip mall gay bar, on a starless summer night, in a gay little village in the bleeding heart of south Florida.