“You know Buddy, right? He says he knows you from junior high.”
I played along with Jo Beth, not wanting her to know that I had no idea who this “Buddy” was. I knew my Buddy’s. I was a Buddy. In any town, one Buddy always keeps up with the others.
Jo Beth had arranged a date for me: a 19 year-old divorcee whom her boyfriend knew. Jo Beth’s boyfriend was 25 or 26. Jo Beth and I were 17, high school seniors, moving so fast.
“Buddy wants us to come over before we go to the bar. He’s dressing for the show. It’s his first time, you know.”
So now I had to go see Buddy; I had to prove to someone that I did not remember Buddy. But would anyone be convinced that we had never met, that we’d never be able to pick each other out of a crowded club or recognize each other on one of Birmingham’s increasingly lonely streets?
“Steve will get me, we’ll come get you, then we’ll grab Denise and head over to Buddy’s.”
It was all set.
Denise was attractive and kind of reserved. She and I kept thinking “divorcee, divorcee” as Steve drove us to Southside, the hills leading up to Red Mountain.
The four of us walked up to Buddy’s door, and before we could knock, someone else opened it. Someone tall and raging.
“Buddy’s still getting ready,” he said. “You know how long it takes!”
With a heavy eye roll, he stood aside and let us into the apartment corridor. We could see down the hall to one closed door, the light beneath it heralding orange, a glow I couldn’t place.
“Sit down,” our host offered as he waved to the “living room,” an area the size of a good pantry. Then he passed us a joint, pungent and expertly rolled in that way some have of showing you just who’s boss.
It was good stuff and a good thing because it soaked up the minutes that turned into almost two hours as we listened to some distant beat. I couldn’t place where the stereo was, but I assumed in Buddy’s room. It was early 1974. Jo Beth and I would graduate in four months, but right now, the Supremes were singing “Stoned Love,” followed by Freda Payne’s “Deeper and Deeper.”
Finally, “Buddy” emerged, smiling, as he managed the hard-wood corridor, his spiked heels causing him to wobble now and then.
In a shimmering gold dress complementing the long black hair that waved down his back, and with a thin silver bracelet dangling from his extended hand, he more than met my eyes.
“You can call me Trina,” he said.
We followed Trina and her friends downtown to a place on 23rd Street whose neon marquee announced “Chances R.”
My previous bar experience had been limited to sneaking into The Crazy Horse on Morris Avenue–the street designated as “Underground Birmingham,” mainly because traffic crossed it north and south via several bridged overpasses. Morris had cobbled streets, sewer smells, and The Crazy Horse whose house band might have been The Rockin’ Rebellions, though maybe I’m confusing that with shows I heard advertised on WSGN at the Oporto Armory.
“What’s the Chances R,” I asked, not realizing the convolutions I had entered.
“Oh, it’s a show bar,” Jo Beth said. “This is Buddy’s first time.”
I wanted to ask: “First time for what,” but I didn’t want to disappoint Denise who, if anything, looked even more puzzled than I was. Our places in the back of Steve’s car weren’t exactly precarious. But we did feel the pressure.
By now it was almost 10:30. A Friday night, so my parents wouldn’t expect me till one. The bar was jammed like I had never seen. Of course, I had never seen.
“I’ll find us a table,” Steve said. And he did. Right in the middle of a room the size of the interior of my parents’ house, 2000 square feet. The lights were up and we were all revealed.
“Could only get two chairs, though,” Steve apologized. So with Jo Beth on his lap, and Denise on mine, we sat. And waited.
Steve ordered us beers. I kept looking around the room, trying not to be obvious. I knew of gay bars. I just didn’t know why we were in one.
All over the club, very effeminate men were enjoying each other. This was the gay world I had heard about from certain other friends and from my high school drama club adviser.
Looking backwards now, I keep wondering how and why I got to this place, this bar, this side of life. I never took chances. Though I had longish hair, I smoked dope only occasionally; in fact, I had just started the past summer. I was in the National Honor Society and earned a safe driver’s discount from our insurance company because of my good grades. But right now, in a place I had never heard of five minutes prior to being there, a 19 year-old divorcee was sitting on my lap; a boy named Trina who thought he knew me from some former world was sitting at the table to my left, awkwardly adjusting his panty hose; and right before my eyes, a show was starting.
I don’t know how many performers took the stage that night, lip-synching show tunes and torch songs, and the occasional R&B oldie. I know I thought it would be funny if some of the macho guys from my school’s football team—guys who intimidated me, blackballed me from social clubs, and called me “sissy” or worse behind my back—could meet one of these show queens. They wouldn’t know. They couldn’t guess. But they’d be amazed and all over themselves to “get some.”
At some point, maybe after the 3rd or 4th number, Denise and I looked at each other, and I don’t know if it was the beer, the pot, the flamboyance of the night, or some strange chemistry filling our air, but we locked up in an embrace that I think qualified for some Olympic sport. I’ve always enjoyed kissing with passion. Maybe it dated from that night.
When we did take breaths to enjoy more of the show, I got a little confused. I couldn’t speak my confusion even after exchanging all I had with Denise. But looking at the stage, at the crowd, I started wondering things like: are the effeminate men attracted to the Queens? Do the Queens want to be women, and if so, which men in here would they want? Which ones do they want now? Are those women over there gay too, and if so, are they attracted to the Queens, Jo Beth and Denise, or each other? And what about that guy who just performed? Keith, his name was, who sang that love ballad on acoustic guitar. He really sang, and his voice was a low alto. He even had a faint, wispy mustache. Who was he? What did he prefer? Was he anyone’s Buddy?
In all of this confusion I kept feeling Denise holding me tighter and tighter. Deeper and….
Just past midnight, we left The Chances R. Jo Beth and I lived in Bessemer, a good thirty-minute drive from there. We, at least, had a curfew.
On the drive home, Denise sat far from me, which I didn’t understand. Something had passed between us, I thought, but I didn’t know what or why. We didn’t talk the whole way back. But as Steve pulled up at my house, she moved over very quickly and gave me one more moment of herself.
But she didn’t give me her number, and after they drove off, I never saw her again.
Or Buddy, for that matter.
Not even Trina.
And neither Jo Beth nor I ever mentioned them again even after she broke up with Steve. Even after we got closer on another night when the love just wouldn’t last.
Terry Barr’s recent essays have appeared in Iron Gall Review, Turk’s Head Review, Sport Literate, and Construction, among other journals. He is a regular contributor to culturemass.com, writing about the music of his life. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.