The texts came in on Sunday night from “Elaine,” a flame, saying: “I’m at a bar having a bisexual breakdown … It’s hard to be one person and feel all of these feelings all the time … The bartender just brought me water … please come.”
I realized that, while I’ve had lots of people reach out to me for help in the pandemic, they all had been asking for a phone call or a video chat. This might have been the first time in a year and a half that someone had told me that they needed emotional support in person.
Of course, I went.
It felt weirdly like old times. It felt strangely normal. But it was surely a crisis: Elaine tends to withdraw and isolate when she’s struggling. If she was asking for this kind of help, it was a big deal.
I wondered what I was getting into. There are times when the connection between Elaine and I is regular and predictable as a Swiss watch, and other times when she suddenly panics and might need space for months at a time. Until her text, we’d been in one of these periods of indefinite space. Normally, her coming back into my orbit means we pick up dating and intimacy right where we left off. But now she was melting down and reaching out — had she taken our normal pattern into account? Was that what she needed? Or was she desperately looking for support and this night it was important that we break that pattern?
So many patterns have been broken over the last 18 months. What’s different about the ones that endure?
There was a period of time in bars — I’d say about a week — where a lot of bouncers would ask to see your vaccination status, but not your ID. Some bars still haven’t figured this out. The Mint, located a stone’s throw outside the Mission, on Market Street near Guerrero Street, understood that a vaccination check only makes sense if you’re carded as well. It’s a whole new process. I can’t really blame bars for being slow on the uptake with this, though; there have been so many mandates, so many changes, and not all of them have made much sense. Why should bars be any better at interpreting the novel and ever-changing hoops we all have to jump through?
The Mint was nearly deserted. Fewer than a dozen people seemed like they were hanging out, listening to endless rounds of karaoke. But the karaoke kept going, and the groups milling under the colorful lights were small but mighty, determined that the show would not stop.
“They’ve taken such good care of me!” she said. She comes here to lose her feelings in the lights and the singing. It’s a place where she can meet queer women more organically than on a dating app, and the bartender was happy to gossip about which women in the small crowd were available; not many, that night. She had been on a date with a woman the night before, and her date’s stories of the trauma she had faced as a gay woman had broken Elaine’s heart. “Many gay people, myself included, have so much trauma. At this point I’m downright frantic for a gay woman who’s safe, healthy, and ready to fuck,” she said. “Instead, you go on a first date and the stories you hear just break your goddamn heart.”
Knocking back her two-drink minimum at The Mint, the feelings she’d held in since that date erupted.
“I was that girl weeping in the corner of the bar, hoping nobody would notice me,” But they had noticed. And they’d given her water, and then when her mood seemed to need more regulating, they gave her small refills of booze, keeping her steady. “It was really effective. They knew when I needed hydration and when I needed medication.”
I wondered if bars have more people breaking down now than usual. I could see that going either way. Every time I ask bartenders what the “new normal” is, they tell me they haven’t figured it out yet, either.
“Do you want to split my Mai Tai with me?” Elaine asked.
We took turns sipping from it, as she told me about what she’s feeling. We held hands. Okay, I thought, I’m here to be a shoulder to lean on. That’s all that’s happening. I can do that.
A moment later, we were standing up in front of the hallway to the bathroom kissing. Which was great, but now I knew it was going to be a roller coaster of a night.
“Am I your craziest girlfriend?” she would ask me later.
“No,” I said.
“No?” she said, disappointed. “Am I in your top three?”
I considered. “Top five.”
“What do I have to do to make number one?”
“That’s really not the direction I want this to go.”
I’m not much of a person for public displays of affection, and I realized, as we were overtly kissing in a very public way, that it’s been 18 months since I’ve seen anyone making out in a bar, and that it probably means something different now than it used to. In the before times, maybe it was annoying, maybe it was cute, but it was no big deal. It was just something people do.
Now? We’re supposed to be wearing masks if we’re not drinking. We are flagrantly violating the city’s health ordinance, and we’re doing one of the most risky things you can do with another person in an airborne pandemic. We used to be part of each other’s pods, but in the past few weeks? I don’t know what she’s been doing, and she doesn’t know where I’ve been. So many people are looking — do we symbolize something to them? Are we rebels? Are we part of the problem? A symbol of life in the face of adversity? Does this come across as some kind of intimacy flex?
Nobody said anything. Bar staff and patrons walked around us on their way to and from the bathrooms.
We repeated this pattern for a while — talk, make-out, talk, make-out — and the talk seemed to calm her and the physical connection seemed to ground her. We hugged a lot. I stroked her hair. Nobody bothered me about ordering drinks. The staff really were looking after her, and didn’t think the situation would be helped if I was drunk, too. I was so impressed, and so grateful.
Finally, Elaine offered a moment of indisputable truth: “This karaoke is really bad tonight.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It’s weird, I remember The Mint being higher caliber than this. I don’t know if it’s an off night as well as a slow one, or if the pandemic has driven some of the best singers away, or what.”
“What would you sing if you were to get up there?”
“Oh, I dunno. Most of my repertoire isn’t karaoke friendly.”
She rolled her eyes. “Sea chanties.”
“Hey, I like sea chanties and Celtic folk music. I’m into what I’m into. But … you’ve never heard me sing, have you?”
“Okay … there are a couple karaoke songs I can do …”
Her eyes lit up. “Really?”
We filled out the little piece of paper. I remember the lines for karaoke in The Mint used to be dozens deep … but I was up after just four people. A small but very dedicated group stepping up on the little stage over and over again to keep this going.
I walked up. The DJ handed me a microphone.
“I’ve never sang in a mask before … ”
“We’re all getting used to it,” he said.
I picked Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. In the before times, this was a karaoke go-to for me; I could belt it out like no one’s business. Now … now I’m realizing that it’s a very long, very demanding, song, and that I haven’t sung in front of people in a long time. Well, that’s not quite true: I was at a birthday party in a park the day before, and I did a little sing-along. And … it was hard. It was a lot harder than I’d expected it to be.
But there I was. The intro was playing. I had decided to show up when someone I care about reached out, and everything followed from that. It was Martin Luther who said, “if you’re going to sin, sin boldly.” I took a deep breath, and sang at the top of my lungs.
It felt great. All of it: having someone say “come to the bar,” making out in public, singing like I used to … it felt like living again. Sinning boldly. Making the world just a little bit more dangerous by trying to show up for someone I love. For now, this is the new normal.