I’ve been contemplating for several days something, and I’ve been trying to distill it into meaning, and put nice little bullet points on how this relates to things that have been bugging me about some common Discourses I’ve been seeing, but at the end, I only really have a story. So here, have a story.
About ten years ago, sometime in the eventful 2006-2007 George W. Bush-ruled hellscape of my identity development, I was just starting to figure out how I felt about my conservative upbringing (not great) and whether I was some brand of queer (probably, but too scared to think about what brand for too long). I was working as a server at a popular Italian-inspired sit-down restaurant that was the closest thing my tiny South Carolinian town had to “fancy” at the time but isn’t really fancy at all.
The host brought a party of four men to one of my tables. It was hard to tell their ages, but my guess is they were teenagers or in their early 20s in the 1980s. Mid-40s, at the time. It was standard to ask if anyone at the table was celebrating anything, so I did. They said they were business partners celebrating a great business deal and would like a bottle of wine.
It was a fairly busy night so I didn’t have a LOT of time to spend at their table, but they were nice guys. They were polite and friendly to me, they didn’t hit on me (as most men were prone to do – sometimes even in front of their girlfriends, a story I’ll tell later if anyone wants me to), and they were racking up a hell of a tab that was going to make my managers happy, so I checked on them as often as I could.
Toward the end of their second bottle of wine, as they were finishing their entrees, I stopped at the table and asked if they wanted any more drinks or dessert or coffee. They were well and truly tipsy by now, giggling, leaning back in their chairs – but so, so careful not to touch each other when anyone was near the table.
They’re all on the fence about dessert, so being a good server, I offered to bring out the dessert menu so they could glance it over and make a decision, “Since you’re celebrating.”
“She’s right!” one of the men said, far too emphatically for a conversation on dessert. “It’s your anniversary! You should get dessert!”
It was like a movie. The whole table went absolutely silent. The clank of silverware at the next table sounded supernaturally loud. Dean Martin warbled “That’s Amore” in some distorted alternate universe where the rest of the restaurant went on acting like this one tipsy man hadn’t just shattered their carefully crafted cover story and blurted out in the middle of a tiny, South Carolina town, surrounded by conservatives and rednecks, that they were gay men celebrating a relationship milestone.
And I didn’t know what I was yet, but I knew I wasn’t an asshole, and I knew these men were family, and I felt their panic like a monster breathing down all our necks. It’s impossible to emphasize how palpably terrified they were, and how justified their terror was, and how much I wanted them to be happy.
So I did the only thing I knew to do. I said, “Congratulations! How many years?”
The man who’d spoken up burst into tears. His partner stood up and wrapped me in the tightest, warmest hug I’ve ever had – and I’ve never liked being touched by strangers, but this was different, and I hugged him back.
“Thank you,” he whispered, halfway to crying himself. “Thank you so much.”
When he finally let go of me and sat back down, they finally got around to telling me they were, in fact, two couples on a double date, and both celebrating anniversaries. Fifteen years for one of them, I think, and a few years off for the other. It’s hard to remember. It was a jumble of tears and laughter and trembling relief for all of us. They got more relaxed. They started holding hands – under the table, out of sight of anyone but me, but happy.
They did get dessert, and I spent more time at their table, letting them tell me stories about how they met and how they started dating and their lives together, and feeling this odd sense of belonging, like I’d just discovered a missing branch of my family.
When they finally left, all four of them took turns standing up and hugging me, and all four of them reached into their wallets to tip me. I tried to wave them off but they insisted, and the first man who’d hugged me handed me forty dollars and said, “Please. You are an angel. Please take this.”
After they left I hid in the bathroom and cried because I couldn’t process all my thoughts and feelings.
Fast forward to three days ago, when my own partner and I showed up to a dinner reservation at a fancy-casual restaurant to celebrate our fifth anniversary. The whole time I was getting ready to leave, there was a worry in the back of my mind. The internet web form had asked if the reservation was celebrating anything in particular, and I’d selected “Anniversary.” I stood in the bathroom blow-drying my hair, wondering what I would do if we showed up, two women, and the host or the server took one look at us and the “Anniversary” designation on our reservation and refused to serve us. It’s not as ubiquitous anymore, but we’re still in the south, and these things still happen. Eight years of progressive leadership is over, and we’ve got another conservative despot in office who’s emboldening assholes everywhere.
It was on my mind the whole fifteen minutes it took to drive there. I didn’t mention it to my partner because I didn’t want to cast a shadow over the occasion. More than that, I didn’t want to jinx us, superstitious bastard that I am.
We walked into the restaurant. I told the hostess we had a reservation, gave her my last name.
She looked at her screen, then looked back at us. She smiled, broadly and genuinely, and said, “Happy anniversary! Your table is right this way.”
Our server greeted us, said, “I heard you were celebrating!”
“It’s our anniversary,” Kellie said, and our server gasped, beaming.
“That’s great! Congratulations! How many years?”
And I finally breathed a sigh of relief, and I thought about those men at that restaurant ten years ago. I hope they’re still safe and happy, and I hope we all get the satisfaction of helping the world keep blooming into something that’s not so unrelentingly terrible all the time.
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