Ed had just gotten into town. He’d driven all the way down from Boulder Creek, in Colorado, and had never been to New Orleans before. His friend Louis lived there, in the French Quarter or on the edge of it, just off Esplanade Avenue. His first night in town Ed was excited and wanted to see the sights.
“The sights are the bars,” Louis told him. “There are no other sights.”
“Oh, c’mon. What about the architecture?” Ed asked and Louis had just looked at him.
So they went to the bars. There were many bars. They hopscotched from one to another all over the lower Quarter and the Marigny district. Hours went by.
“Is there anything else to do in New Orleans besides drink?” Ed asked.
“You mean other than look at the architecture? No, not a damn thing. Except eat. You wanna eat?”
They walked over to Bourbon Street and went into a little all night diner called the Clover Grill. It had wide front windows and was well-lit, bright and gleaming porcelain inside. The Clover was a gay diner. That is the Clover cooks and countermen were gay as was most of the clientele. It was a very gay atmosphere. Louis didn’t tell Ed any of this. He’d let Ed make up his own mind about the place.
“What’s good here?” Ed asked, looking around.
“Get a burger. They cook them under hubcaps.”
“Are they clean hubcaps? Like, I hope they haven’t been on any trucks or anything, have they?”
“Now how the hell should I know?” Louis said. “Why don’t you ask?”
“Well, you never know.”
All the tables were taken so Ed and Louis sat at the counter. Soon a young blonde counterman came up in a clean white t-shirt with a red and white paper cap on his head. The counterman smiled, batted his eyelashes, and began wiping the counter in front of them with a wet dishcloth.
“What can I do for you two darlins?”
“Two burgers, sugar pants. I’ll have fries with mine. You want fries, Ed?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You want your burgers dressed?”
“Yeah, dressed. Give us the works. And a beer for me. You want a beer, Ed?”
“No, I’ve had enough. I’ll have a coke.”
“Oh honey,” the counterman said. “We don’t serve any alcohol here.”
“Oh hell, I forgot.”
“But you know what? Just traipse your little feetsies right over to the bar across the street and you can get yourself a little old cold beer and bring it on back over here if you like.”
“I’ll do that, thanks. You sure you don’t want a beer, Ed?”
“You’re okay me leaving you alone a couple minutes?”
“Oh, don’t you worry about him, darlin!” the counterman lilted. “We’ll take good care of your friend while you’re gone!”
So Louis went out and crossed Bourbon Street and entered the bar. It was a gay bar called Cafe Lafitte in Exile. A strange name for a bar, even a gay one. The original Lafitte’s had been a couple of blocks further down Bourbon in an old ramshackle 18th century Creole cottage. It had been the most popular gay bar in the Quarter way back in the 50s and 60s. But the tourist hordes had begun encroaching further and further up Bourbon Street as the years went along and its homosexual clientele had been gradually supplanted by straight tourists with lots of spending cash, which the old Lafitte’s landlord had preferred.
So the gays eventually abandoned the old Lafitte’s and moved up to this 19th century townhouse with a wraparound balcony. The new Lafitte’s—in Exile, get it?--was more of a dance club now, with loud throbbing music and flashing lights and neon and televisions all over the room. Not a subtle place.
Louis stood at the bar and waited. He looked around at the crowd. It looked like a slow night. He spotted a girl at the bar nearby. A good looking blonde, young, in her early twenties. She was looking at Louis. Not only was she looking, she was outright staring. She was smiling a big wide smile too, like she recognized Louis and was extremely glad to see him.
It’s definitely a woman, Louis thought. No way a man could fake that. And the clothes she had on: blue jeans, a black blouse and plain leather jacket. No queen would dress like that. Not showy enough. She didn’t even wear earrings. But what would a girl like her be doing here? Well, he reasoned, it wasn’t unheard of for tourists to wander into the Bourbon Street gay bars. After all, New Orleans was the place where people came specifically to let go of their usual hometown prejudices and inhibitions, do things they otherwise wouldn’t normally do.
“Hi,” Louis said to the girl.
“Hi,” she said, still smiling.
“What’s your name?”
“Maria, what’s yours?”
“Could I ask you a favor, Louis?”
“Well, that depends.”
“Oh, it’s nothing bad. I mean, not really.”
“I just want a drink. Would you buy me a drink, Louis? If you do I’ll give you a kiss.”
She really was beautiful, the more he looked at her. Who cared if she was just playing him for a mark?
“On the lips?” he asked.
“Of course, on the lips!”
“It sounds like a bargain. What would you like?”
“Gin and tonic!”
The bartender came up. “What’ll it be, sweetcheeks?”
“Well, apple blossom, it’s like this. I’ll take a bottle of beer, any kind, and the young lady will have a gin and tonic.”
The bartender went away, came back with the drinks. Louis paid for them, left a generous tip. He was feeling good. The girl had come around the corner of the bar and stood next to him. She was still smiling--no, positively beaming--at Louis. Like I’m some kind of knight in shining armor, he thought. And she’s beautiful too! Is she the one? The girl of my dreams?
He handed her the drink and they touched glasses. “Here’s to dreams coming true,” Louis said.
She kept smiling and staring at him. Louis couldn’t get over it. How did a beautiful girl like this just drop out of nowhere and start coming on to him? In a gay bar of all places!
“I’m wondering,” she said “what it’s going to be like to kiss you.”
“Well, you don’t have to wonder long, you know.”
And Louis put his beer down on the bar and leaned over and kissed her. He lingered there, feeling her warm lips on his, very softly. What a wonder it was!
When they broke off Louis looked at her, at her wide glittering eyes, her smile. Was he falling in love?
“That was very nice,” he said. “Very nice. If I ask for another one will I have to buy you another gin and tonic?”
“No,” she said and this time he held her against him and it was a perfect kiss, harder this time, a perfect complementary building of a kiss on top of the last, softer one.
After that she didn’t wait to ask for another. The third one was all fire and hurricanes and world shaking sexual electricity. Louis was a very happy young man. It seemed as if his life had changed just like that, in an instant. Nothing would ever be the same. His life was changing entirely. The universe opened up to him. Time stopped.
He thought fleetingly of his buddy Ed. How long had it been since he’d left him? Minutes? Hours? He didn’t know and didn’t care. Time had gone right out the window.
Ed could take care of himself. Ed would understand. How often does something like this happen? True love in an instant! He knew it now, love could really happen at first sight, like a thunderbolt out of the sky. It was true!
Louis had his arm around the girl and she hugged him and kissed his neck. Louis spotted a couple of guys down the end of the bar staring at them. They were talking in low conspiratorial tones.
A couple of sour fags, Louis thought. They don’t like the straight folks showing off, making displays of affection in their bar. Well, to hell with them, he thought. This is love!
“Listen,” he said. “Would you like to get out of here, go with me someplace?”
“Oh, I can’t,” she said. “I’d like to but I can’t.”
“I really would like to, I swear! But I can’t.”
“Well, I don’t think my boyfriend would like it.”
“Boyfriend?” Louis straightened up a little at that. “What the--boyfriend? Is he here?”
“Yeah, he’s over there. See those two guys? He’s the one on the left.”
She nodded toward the two conspirators. Well, now it made sense. Or did it?
“Jesus!” Louis said. He took his arm off of her. “What the hell’s wrong with you people?”
Louis picked up his beer and walked out the door into the street. Just like that he was back in the regular world again, back into loveless time once more.
What a scene! he thought. Had it really happened?
When he reached the opposite sidewalk and the sound of the Lafitte’s dance music had receded he glanced behind him to make sure no one was sneaking up on him.
If I’m lucky, he thought, maybe the girl will be there, telling me it was all a misunderstanding...
But when he looked all Louis saw were the boyfriend and the boyfriend’s friend standing in Lafitte’s doorway staring after him intently, whispering to each other.
They’re trying to decide what to do, Louis thought. But Louis already knew what they would do. They would come after him. They had to. It was pride.
The Clover Grill was bright and gleaming as usual, all cheerful calm and warmth inside, smelling of grease and grilled onions. The place was crowded, every seat full except the one waiting for Louis. On the counter was Louis’ plate waiting for him. Ed was already a couple of bites into his own meal.
“Hey!” Ed said, pleased. “You’re right on time, the food just got here. You were right about the hubcap. I gotta try that sometime.”
Louis wedged in between Ed and a fat queen on his left. He sat down on the stool and picked up his napkin and unfolded it on his lap. “There’s gonna be a fight,” he said.
Then he picked up the ketchup bottle, shook it, uncapped it, and poured some of the stuff onto his hamburger.
Ed had stopped chewing his food. “What?” he said. He looked around. “What did you say?”
“I said there’s gonna be a fight. There’s two of them. Outside. Are you with me if it goes down?”
“What do you mean? How’d you get in a fight?”
Being such a small place half the customers in the Clover had overheard what Louis had said. A certain level of tension spread immediately throughout the room. A fight? How exciting!
Ed didn’t know what to think. How the hell had this happened? Ed hated fights, hated and avoided violence of any sort. He had just been enjoying his first meal in New Orleans in a funky little diner where they cooked hamburgers under hubcaps. Pleasant, nice, no problems. And now this? Ed’s appetite disappeared. He dropped his hamburger back on his plate. He felt nauseous.
“Who?” he asked. “Who wants a fight?”
“See those two guys outside? They’ll be coming in here any minute now.”
“They better not!” the counterman said.
“But what did you do?” Ed asked.
“Do? I was making out with one of their girlfriends.”
“Over there?” the counterman said. “Oh, uh-uh. If you were making out with someone in that bar, big fella, it definitely wasn’t no girl. It might’ve looked like one.”
“No, it was a girl. I know drag when I see it and this was no drag act.”
“Some of these sisters are pretty good at hiding it, you know.”
“This one was practically oozing estrogen all over me, okay?”
“They got pills for that,” someone said.
The counterman laughed. “Yeah, sweetie, I wouldn’t be so surrrre!” Ed didn’t care about any of that stuff. He was only worried about what might be coming through the door. A fight? Involving him? His first night in town, here not more than five or six hours, and he was about to be dragged into a fight? No, he didn’t want any part of it...
Everyone in the Clover was buzzing with the news. People were looking out the window at the two young men pacing in the street. The tension was filling the air. A fight! In the Clover! How frightfully exciting! How rollickingly macho!
“That boy better not come in here,” the counterman said, narrowing his eyes, looking out at the two young men as they continued to pace back and forth, drawing closer and closer to the Clover’s door. Louis, chewing on his hamburger, glanced over his shoulder to watch them.
“Oh, he’s coming in all right,” he said. “He has no choice.”
And sure enough the boyfriend made his move, opened the door and came striding into the diner, followed closely by his friend. Louis kept his back to them, eating his food. The whole place went quiet. All you could hear was the sound of the griddles and fryers hissing and spitting grease. Louis could sense the two of them behind him, very close now. He felt a finger tapping at his shoulder. He half-turned on his stool to face them.
“You and I have business,” the boyfriend said. The young man’s voice was even but Louis could see he was nervous. His eyes betrayed him. Louis almost felt sorry for him then. Louis didn’t want to fight either. It was the girl who had done this, forced them into this awkward and stupid public showdown.
“No, I don’t think we do,” Louis said, “have business.” Then he slowly turned back to his food.
“I want to know,” the young man said, his voice rising, “what you think you were doing with my girlfriend!”
Louis said, “Why don’t you ask your girlfriend what she was doing?”
“No! I’m asking you! I want to know what you were doing with my girlfriend!”
“I’m going to call the po-liiiice!” the counterman sing-songed. “Don’t you boys be bringing this mess in here! It’s very rude, you know!”
Louis felt the finger poking him on the shoulder again, more vehemently this time. He spun around slowly to face his adversary, then more slowly still he rose to his feet. Louis was quite tall, at least five inches taller than the boyfriend. His physical advantage had the desired effect. The boyfriend’s composure was further shaken. Louis knew damn well he had the advantage now and he knew the boyfriend knew it too. Louis stared calmly into the young man’s wide glittering nervous eyes.
“Whatever is between you and your girlfriend is between you and your girlfriend,” he said. “Go talk to her if you can’t control her.”
“Fuck you!” the boyfriend said. His friend put his hand on his arm, trying to calm him. The friend was even more nervous than the boyfriend. The friend was like Ed, he didn’t want any part of this. He wanted out now.
“I’m dialing 911!” the counterman said. “Look! See my fingers on the telephone? They’re dialing 9-1-1, see?”
“The cops’ll be here any second,” Louis said. “I think you better get the hell out.”
“Let’s get out of here, let’s go!” the friend was saying. “We don’t need this!”
“Your friend’s being very sensible.”
“No! I want to know exactly what you think you were doing with my girlfriend!”
“Who cares what I think?”
“Let’s go!” the friend pleaded.
Louis leaned toward the boyfriend, staring down at him, hard. “If you don’t go away,” he said with his best Dirty Harry impression, “and leave me in peace I will take care to make sure that you do.”
I will take care to make sure that you do? What the hell did that mean? Well, at least it sounded genuine, Louis thought.
The boyfriend was confused, didn’t know what to do. He was desperate to keep his dignity.
“I’ll be outside waiting!” he said finally.
“Wait all you like. I’m gonna finish my dinner. If you’re still out there when I’m done, then we’ll take care of business.”
The pair left the diner and the tension in the room flowed out after them. The crowd was elated, high on all the excitement. The gays started jabbering at each other.
“Tourist rednecks come down here to get their jollies and then get all bent out of shape when something happens!”
“Too much drama, darling!”
“Well, he was kinda cute, wasn’t he though!”
“Had a nice butt!”
“They’re still out there! Look at them, walking back and forth like angry jaybirds. They must be crazy!”
“Those people are high on Ecstasy,” the counterman observed. “Did you see their eyeballs? Totally flying.”
Louis looked out the window. The girl had come out of Lafitte’s and had joined them. Louis looked at her. She had me, he thought. The girl of my dreams. It made Louis sad thinking about it. Meanwhile the boyfriend was pacing furiously back and forth while the girl and the friend tried to calm him.
“They try anything this time and I’ll really call the cops! Don’t you go out there sweetheart or you’ll wind up in OPP with the rest of that trash.”
“I’m gonna enjoy my dinner,” Louis said. “I aint going nowhere. If he wants to wait for me, let him wait.”
People were still talking. They were talking about the girl now, wondering if it was really a girl after all.
“It does look like a girl.”
“I like her jacket! But those boots! What are they, Payless? Ugh!”
“It’s too dark, you can’t tell her face from here.”
“But it might be a girl, you think?”
“Yeah, it might.”
“I’m telling you all it was a girl!” Louis said. “Every inch of her screamed female, all right?”
“Oh, as if that means anything! I know plenty of queens, dearie, who are all female right down to their Gucci thongs!”
The gays cackled delightedly. Louis gave it up, went on eating his food. Pretty soon the word spread that the trio had finally gone away, got tired of waiting. They had wandered back down toward Canal Street, toward the purlieus of the tourist hordes where they belonged.
“I just don’t understand it,” Ed said. “You were gone five minutes! How could you get in that kind of trouble in five minutes?”
“I thought it was true love,” Louis said. “For a second there I really did.”