Nonfiction Editors’ Pick: Provincetown

 

“Over and over he slipped into the gulf between what he knew and how he was known.”

 —Mark Doty, “Charlie Howard’s Descent”

 

Black or white. Open or shut. Up or down. Chocolate or vanilla. Shirts or skins. When things are this way or that, they are easy to understand. Lights are either on, or they’re off. Through my twenties and into my thirties, I operated this way: believing that being a Democrat was the same thing as not being a Republican, and that saying that I was not a man was just another way of announcing myself as a woman. Gay or straight. You’re one or the other, and if you’re gay you’re either keeping it a secret or you’re not. You’re in or you’re out. If you’re in, you’re closeted, and if you’re out, you may as well slap a pink triangle on your forehead. But age and life have a way of braiding notions together like rope, then gnawing on the weak spots. I’m not one for sports analogies, but it’s fair to say that I’ve carried the ball for both teams now, and have learned that the distance between the closet and the rest of the room is wider than the average threshold. That space—that airless, definitionless realm—that we walk across on our way out is its own country with its own regime. It takes prisoners.

Before I knew all that, I was in my early thirties when my boyfriend John and I ate vegetarian sandwiches high up on a second-story deck of a café in Provincetown, watching drag queens thread their way through crowds of chunky, short-haired lesbians. It was my first trip to Provincetown. On the sidewalk below the café, a very tall, muscular black woman wearing a sequined, legless body suit and feathered orange headdress stalked the asphalt in blocky high heels. She handed out glossy postcards advertising her one-woman show with her nails so long that sliding each individual card off the top of the stack seemed like a skill that took practice. Holding each card delicately between finger and thumb, she served them up with flirtatious eye contact and teasing remarks. Muscled, broad shoulders and thick arms were exposed by the cut of the glittering orange bodysuit, and her eyelashes were almost as long as her fingernails. Her voice, baritone and oaky, but also feminine and melodic, drifted up to us on the balcony. She called men and women alike “Honey” as she touched them lightly with her fingertips. She had on more makeup that day than all the makeup I have worn my entire life. She was the first drag queen I had ever seen.

I leaned against the railing of the balcony and closed my eyes, feeling the sun on my face. The babble of tourists, shuffling of feet, and the woman’s teasing, flirting voice, created a soothing white noise. The familiar sound of pencil lead against toothy paper let me know that John had his sketchbook out. I opened my eyes and watched the parade of people strolling along Main Street, fingers interlaced with those of their lovers. A short woman with lustrous black hair pulled back into a ponytail held hands with a stocky woman with a buzz cut and a rat tail while they window shopped for T-shirts. A slim man in low-riding jeans leaned his back against the bricks of a storefront while his bulky, motorcycle-guy boyfriend whispered into his ear. The slim man giggled, and every muscle in his body relaxed. Two men with wire-rimmed glasses and stomachs bulging under their T-shirts strolled by holding hands.

Provincetown was a place for lovers. And, blessed as I was with the mind of a straight thirtysomething, I assumed these people were out. To the extent that I bothered to think about it at all, I assumed that they acted this same way in their own hometowns—that they held hands and kissed in public wherever they went. My worldview resembled a genetic chart, and it’s as if “gay” and “out” were two recessive genes that could combine to form this particular, immutable quality. Further, and I cringe to admit this now, my narrow reflections on the matter carried a “good-for-them” quality—the kind that would include a light, playful punch to someone’s shoulder. “Bully for you.” It’s possible to admire the swirling beauty of the goldfish without ever noticing the confines of the bowl. It took over a decade, and the loss of my own bowl, to re-cast these notions into something resembling real life. When I had my heart and my membership to the straight world stolen simultaneously by a woman, I had to readjust my vision to notice the curving glass. But that all came later.

John and I had finished our sandwiches and joined the parade of people on Main Street. He slipped his hand into mine and gave my fingers a squeeze. It did not occur to me to plug us both into the place on the grid where “straight” and “out” intersected. It didn’t cross my young, privileged mind that those two qualities automatically co-exist. Always. The slanted, afternoon sunlight beat down, lighting and warming me. I continued my people watching, checking out a woman in her twenties with clipped black hair laughing while she told a story to her girlfriend. Her fingers were wrapped around a paper coffee cup, and she gestured widely as she made her point. The girlfriend, whose ponytail was threaded through the back of her baseball cap, was smiling as she listened. She had her fingertips hooked into the pocket of her partner’s jeans, and they rode there as the pair made their way through the crowd. She was gay. She was out. Good for her.

John and I stayed at a bed and breakfast run by a straight couple in a town down the road from Provincetown. Sitting by a fire pit in their front yard, sharing a bottle of wine, John and I fantasized about moving to the Cape and starting a B&B. This is what our hosts had done, and we toasted their good decision. John clinked his glass against mine, his trimmed beard and round glasses becoming less visible as the night grew darker. He was a painter, and I knew he was paying attention to the dying light, how it lit only the rims of the brick buildings and backlit the leaves, deepening the colors. He was attuned to how colors shifted as the light changed.

Several miles away, on the highway, cars with rainbow bumper stickers streamed steadily past on their way to Provincetown. I imagined that in the safe darkness of those cars, male fingers wrapped around male fingers and female fingers played with the hair at the nape of women’s necks. Beyond the highway the grasses that topped the dunes with fringe changed colors in the sinking sun. When I think of it now, it’s the language poet Mark Doty uses to describe Cape Cod that comes to me, with his gun metal ocean, hammered silver skies, and pewter tides—the smooth language of metals. Playful, delicious Cape breezes blew across us as we talked into the night. With my feet propped against the rocks that bordered the fire pit, I drank wine with the man I would eventually marry, and then later divorce.

Married or divorced. Together or apart. In love or out of love. These dichotomies all proved false over the next decade. My assumptions had to adapt, had to take on dimensions. It was like that trick of taking a two-sided strip of paper, twisting it in the middle, then taping one end to the other: that which used to have two sides now only has one.

 

The next time I went to Provincetown, eleven years later, the sandwich place had been replaced by a creperie, and John had been replaced by Kara. I had done those things that straight people do, if it’s possible to generalize: married, had kids, and divorced. I was now doing the things that many gay people do: coming to terms with who I was and who I loved, stumbling through a long, clumsy period of denial, and then relaxing into the truth. I loved this woman, and I had never loved a woman before. That happened fast, but my coming out was a slow series of acts—worthy of its own essay. By the time we went to Provincetown, the important players knew. My parents knew. John knew. Our close friends knew. And so we were out, but the important lesson is this: nobody makes it all the way out. Nobody gets all the way across the miles of nothing that separate the closet from the rest of the room.

Kara and I now keep a photograph on our refrigerator of me at the creperie. It was taken so late in the fall that it’s almost winter, and the deck is wrapped in clear plastic walls to protect customers from the coastal wind and damp. My back is to the street, and I am wearing dark, reflective sunglasses and gazing directly at the camera, directly at Kara. I am smiling the relaxed, lazy smile of someone made fluid by hours of early morning lovemaking in an antique oak bed on the second floor of a bed and breakfast right in Provincetown proper. Behind me, through the plastic wall, the buildings across the street, the hand-holding passersby, and the aluminum ocean beyond are blasted out in white October light. In this picture, I’m not interested in the cerebral experience of marveling at gay couples being openly in love, for I am too busy experiencing it myself. On my face, there is no trace of the memory that I ever sat on that same deck sharing a sandwich with a man.

There is also no trace of the ten years preceding that moment. It took a decade for John and I to marry, buy a dilapidated house, have a daughter and then a son, and then to realize that we weren’t in love. Worse, our differences made us rail against each other, made him hurl a guitar stand at the wall so hard during an argument that it penetrated the sheetrock in the living room and stuck there like an arrow. When he patched the hole the next day, he said, “Love shouldn’t be like this.” Our fights drove me to the bottom of countless wine bottles to escape my growing fear that I would live forever in this loveless marriage. The bottles accumulated in our basement like firewood. I lived those days somewhere in between the poles of drunk and sober—also worthy of its own essay.

The order of events made it easy to explain to our friends and families. Out of a combination of laziness and kindness, we spared most people the uglier details of our coming undone and told the story like this: we were married, then I turned out to be gay, so naturally we got divorced. We parted amicably. We even shared the house for a time. Looking back, I know that we contributed to the cultural mythology that people are one thing or another. We all know stories in which someone lives some tortured portion of their life passing for straight and then just can’t take it anymore. I let people believe this simpler version of my story because the truth is harder to explain. I was unhappy, and I fell in love with someone else. That she was a woman felt beside the point. With the ball tucked in the crook of my elbow, I ran hard for the other side, never looking back. I only changed uniforms because they told me I had to.

When Kara and I went to Provincetown, it was Women’s Week. All season in Provincetown, it’s this or that week—festivals designed to appeal to tourists looking for a reason to make the drive to the fingertips of the Cape. Women’s Week consisted of all-female revues, female musicians and stand-up comics. The irony of a celebration of one gender in the town where gender matters less than anywhere else was lost on us, as was most of the festival. Kara and I had been together for all of four months. That’s four months of coming out in a small town, four months of divorcing my husband, four months of parenting my two young kids through the rubble that their childhood became, and four months of trying to understand that sexuality is a continuum rather than a place. Who we love is a journey, not a fixed set of coordinates. We had lived those four months under the kind of pressure that causes fermentation, and Provincetown felt like the cork had finally been pulled and our love was allowed to sparkle and bubble as it slid down the sides.

We joined the very same parade John and I had watched years earlier. Up and down Main Street, we browsed for T-shirts and earrings, stopping to kiss at every opportunity: against the brick façade of an art gallery, under the brilliant orange canopy of a shade tree, in line to buy tickets to a drag king show, and again while we shared a chocolate ice cream cone on a park bench. Bicycle bells rang out as residents navigated the throngs, tried not to run over any strolling tourists. On our way back to the bed and breakfast, I kissed her on a street corner, as two men walked by. One said tauntingly, “Oooh, girls kissing.” We didn’t even look his way, for his smile was evident in the lilt of his voice. I pulled her closer. Kissed her harder. The sound of feet shuffling on the sidewalk moved past us. There was a tree arching above us, its leaves in transition from green to yellow to dust. Beyond that, the Cape Cod sky was a late afternoon silver, and it felt so close we could almost touch it.

On our first night, we slid into a booth at a busy restaurant, ordered drinks and celebrated our decision to take this trip. We clinked our wine glasses together, toasting each other, new love, old love, freedom to love who we wanted, and being on vacation, eating in a nice restaurant. Surrounded by red vinyl bench seats and mirrors on the walls, we toasted the excitement of being in a busy tourist town with art galleries, boutiques, shops selling wooden and glass bangles, sparkly scarves, packets of note cards wrapped in cellophane with impossibly crisp corners, tank tops with pictures of beach cottages across the chest, and wall calendars with photographs ranging from the scenic to the near-pornographic. One store sold clothing on the first floor, and nothing but dildos and other sex toys on the second. Pastel colored missiles in dusty boxes spread across what seemed like acres of tabletops. We browsed through these items with all the seriousness of people shopping for a new food processor or a coffee maker, comparing the various settings and features. In a newsstand I bought a rainbow bumper sticker in the shape of a cowboy boot.

We were out. We were loving it.

But even out gay people in America are covert operations experts, engaging in herculean acts of holding back, hiding, communicating through the subtlety of glances and signals. This is what I know now. Couples develop agreements, some unspoken, some not, about how to answer questions about their marital status, how to check into hotel rooms in small towns, and who should answer the phone at home on which days. Things are changing, but we never forget that sometimes people like us get beaten, tied to barbed wire fences, and left to die. Years ago, a young gay Maine man named Charlie Howard was thrown off a bridge in a town not so far from our own. He drowned, begging his murderers to help him as he went under, in the steely Penobscot River. And so, even when we are out, we still need to go in sometimes. But in Provincetown, we shed those inhibitions like itchy wool blankets. We can stop acting like gay people and act instead like people.

That rainbow cowboy boot bumper sticker went on the back window of my old black Saab before I even drove it home. A couple years later, the frame rusted through and I sold that car to the junkyard. I like to imagine the sticker still visible after coming out of the crusher—a small bright spot in a vast jungle of twisted, rusted metal.

Provincetown is that small bright spot.

Back home, in rural Maine, we eventually came as far out as possible. We went on, years later, to have a commitment ceremony, we go to parties and events together, and the words “wife” and “partner” roll off our tongues without a hitch. But one foot is always still on the other side of the threshold of the closet door. We know how to slip unnoticed back across that wasteland.

 

Our trip to Provincetown was over five years ago, and this past summer we marched together in a local parade here at home. We were two people in a contingent over seventy strong, walking in full-on rainbow garb, making a statement about equality. This was not a pride parade. This was a small-town, summer parade, and our group was in the lineup after the Kiwanis club but before the bagpipe band. With a same sex marriage initiative on the Maine ballot, the statewide campaign had urged supporters to organize visibility opportunities like this one—we were urged to march, to be seen, to make noise.

As we walked, Kara held a plastic rainbow flag in her left hand. It snapped and unfurled over and over in front of the crowd. I reached for her right hand, but she pulled away. That trip to Provincetown was years behind us—a small bright spot somewhere on the timeline over our shoulders. Here at home, she couldn’t be seen holding hands with a woman, even when we were wearing our colors, marching in a parade behind the marriage equality float. She feared that someone—one of her students, the superintendent, a conservative parent—might see. She pressed her lips together firmly and let her eyes go soft in apology as she pulled her hand away. I couldn’t be upset. She was right. We weren’t that kind of out. Not here.

The parade was part of the International Festival—the weekend when the border towns of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and Calais, Maine, celebrated their goodwill toward each other by erecting a beer tent, hiring a local band, and inviting vendors to line both sides of both main streets. The walls of trailers selling sausage sandwiches and cotton candy were broken only by the bridge spanning the St. Croix River marking the border with Canada. On the north side of that bridge, gay people had marriage rights. On our side, in an effort to win those same rights in the upcoming election, we had to join the Shriners and the spangly, cartwheel-turning girls from the dance school in the parade. We were marching in parades all over the county that summer, just trying to be visible, trying to be less scary, trying to win votes.

A young blond woman and her equally blond boyfriend marched next to us, brazenly holding hands as we passed the storefronts and the movie theater. With their free hands, they waved rainbow flags. While marching in support of our love, they blissfully celebrated their own.

The parade threaded between booths selling fried dough, crabmeat rolls, jewelry, and dream catchers. My daughter wore a full-sized rainbow flag as a cape and held hands with her friend Ruby as they handed out candy to kids along the parade route. At their age, girls could hold hands. Ruby wore a canvas bag slung across her chest and judiciously distributed brightly wrapped Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, and Starlight Mints.

Our float was a white pickup truck, adorned with flags and banners, pulling a trailer of three television sets tall enough so everyone could see them and rolling a video comprised of still images of families—two moms with their arms draped around each other and their children, two dads staring tenderly at their infant, families doing all the normal things that families do. A catchy pop song called “We’re Marching On” blasted out of tall speakers, and the entire thing was followed by our group wearing bright-colored clothing, waving flags, bouncing beach balls, smiling, and waving. Kids along the parade route, whatever their parents were thinking, loved us. We were a kaleidoscope. A jukebox. A prism in the sun.

I positioned myself in the group so I could keep an eye on Abby and Ruby, but also see Kara. Some people in the crowd clapped for us, and I thanked them with a nod and a smile while keeping the pavement moving under my feet. Others were harder to read. As they checked their watches or stared at their feet, I tried to imagine what they might be thinking and tried not to be afraid for any of us. Still others were easy to read, but their message was ugly as they glared directly into my eyes. One man frowned with deep, droopy jowls and gave me an emphatic thumbs down. One woman hissed at me, “Bunch of queers” as we went past. She was a bracing reminder of what we already knew: we were not in Provincetown. We were back in the minority. Back in the world where some people thought we should live in closets with the doors bolted shut from the outside. People who would toss us over bridge railings and walk away.

In places, entire groups of people clapped. Cheered, even. Gave us the thumbs up. Came off the curb to high-five us. The glaring, scowling, watch-checking people had to realize that it was the people standing on both sides of them who were cheering. I hoped that they started to feel just a little bit alone. I hoped that, somewhere deep within their will, a crack started to form: or a question. “Is it just me?”

Our group passed a used car dealership, and suddenly the clouds broke open with buckets of rain that soaked our flags and banners. We scrambled to cover the television sets with blue tarps. The rain lasted only a minute, then ceased, but dark clouds crowded over the downtown. The white truck rounded the corner by the park, and we reached the end of the parade route just as rumbles of thunder rolled in from across the river. The group quickly folded the banners and deflated the balloons.

A few minutes later Kara, the kids, and I stood in line at Burger King in clothes damp from rain and studied the backlit menus while we waited for our turn to place our order. Our rainbow gear—flags, snap bracelets, flowery leis—was all stowed in the back of the car. In regular, rainbow-free clothing, we were covert again.

Behind us in line, a young straight couple had their arms over each other’s shoulders. Her hand was on his chest, her head nuzzled up against his neck. It was as though they had finished making love, hopped out of bed, and headed straight to Burger King instead of just rolling over and lighting a cigarette. His hand strayed to her rear end, and they giggled and kissed. Right there in the Burger King.

I glanced at my wife to find her looking directly at me, and we settled for a long moment of green eyes locked with blue. I thought of goldfish and their glowing, swirling tails whispering against the curved interior of the glass, their breath bubbling toward the surface. And I thought of a small rainbow sticker still visible amidst wreckage. So vibrant it must be visible from space. And I thought of a descent off a bridge into cold water.

Kara kept her hands in her pockets.

Nobody makes it all the way out.

6 Responses to “Nonfiction Editors’ Pick: Provincetown”

  1. Katy

    Excellent read, Penny. A journey that took many brave steps outlined beautifully. Truly wonderful.

  2. Ruthie Rohde

    Penny,

    This is a spectacular essay in all ways – the thoughtful journey it takes the reader on, the gorgeous concrete details and descriptions, the political content all add up to so much more than the parts alone. I will file this with the most cherished essays and use it (with your permission) as a teaching tool working with those who have lost their voice and their power in a world where too many are kept invisible.
    Gratefully yours
    Ruthie

  3. Katherine Mahon Holmes

    As usual, written beautifully. Penny your writing is as brave as you. Thank you for sharing your love for writing and your story that got me in the gut, my heart, and throat. May love win. May love win.

  4. Lane

    Excellent article! I was one of the lucky ones to be able to march in so many parades in Maine last summer and cheered from my sofa in California when the ballot measure passed in Maine. Jim and were so proud to be able to do even a tiny bit to help. If only no one had to still feel the need to hide. Thanks Penny

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