The name was a misnomer, leftover from a time when dingy, back-alley Southern bars gave you a contact buzz if you passed too close to the open door. In downtown Asheville, the old gay bar memorialized a generation of memories, the walls still infused with fifty years of tobacco stains and the lonely pickup lines of blue-collar patrons. In the back room, I sat with a scraggly goatee and a fresh tattoo, watching the pool balls skid across the balding green felt. I sipped a beer, letting a pool stick idly lounge in my hand. I was losing, but I was home.
A wary businessman wandered in and, after surveying the room, ambled over. He introduced himself, giving a name I have since forgotten, and began a long-winded, one-sided conversation about work. He was annoying but seemed harmless, although his disheveled clothes hinted at one too many drinks.
“I’m not gay,” he said suddenly. “I just like this bar. I mean, I’m not a bigot or anything. I just like women. But they make the drinks better here. Stronger.” He took another swig to punctuate the point, then set his drink on the table.
Without warning, he staggered to his feet, and stood directly in front of me, placing his hands on the lapels of my jacket. Cocking his head, he pulled my coat apart and grabbed the breasts hidden beneath the folds of my shirt, kneading the unexpected flesh hard enough to bruise.
“You’ve got boobs?” he said, wonder and disgust in the muddled cocktail of his breath, his hands still squeezing, seeking a tactile confirmation. Time slowed, expanding into an infinite moment as I stood in shock, unthinking; his hands roamed across my breasts, searching for answers and finding none.
In retrospect, I want to remember violence, the defensive ownership of my own body, but shock is paralyzing. I stood, frozen, until he dropped his hands. I mumbled that I needed a cigarette and walked outside. Curiosity supersedes human dignity; he followed me, trying to reconstruct my anatomy with words.
“So are you a dude?” he asked. “I mean, do you have a dick, too?” He scrutinized my jeans for a tell-tale bulge. “How do you find people who want…?” He gestured at me, bewildered, and shook his head. “I like women, but I wouldn’t even know what to do with you,” he declared. Judgment passed, he went back inside. Through the doorway, I watched him pick up my pool stick where it had fallen, forgotten, on the floor. I put out my cigarette and left the bar.
I finally got angry once I was safe inside my car, doors locked, engine on. I scrubbed at my face with my hands and felt the unfamiliar stubble of my coarse, uneven beard. My body was an amalgamation of gender, an enigma that must be solved: male or female? These small intricacies of identity have become everyone else’s business, and Smokey’s was no longer home.
[Published in Gertrude, Vol. 22]