Jordan and I got talking some time after midnight. Of course we were still there. Jordan had eventually put a small tumbler of fine bourbon into my hand and I had been nursing it slowly like a long conversation with an old friend. J and his beau had left but a couple more people had dropped by and we were having fun watching Sarah and Magenta move from circling each other cautiously to being attached at the hip like they’d known each other forever. It hadn’t really occurred to me because it wasn’t something that affected me personally–I mean, it’s not like I cared–but Madge was older than we were by a fair bit. She and Toph were goths and I pretty much thought of goths as a Generation X thing, but the first generation of them were from the Baby Boom.
But it came out when we were talking about Wednesday’s Child. “The band’s name is totally ironic, you know,” she said, taking a hit of some very fine California weed Jordan provided. “But my stage persona is basically demented fifteen-year-old girl psycho killer.”
“And has been since you were a fifteen-year-old psycho killer?” Ziggy asked wryly.
“Ha. Pretty much.” Her Doc Martens were up on the coffee table and her multiple layers of stockings were showing holes. “Since the days when I dressed like this because I couldn’t afford to get new ones after tearing the old ones in the slam pit.”
“It’s called moshing now,” said a newcomer in a Kangol hat and sunglasses as Magenta passed the joint to him. I had forgotten his name but he had a large mustache and a sax player vibe about him, like he’d come right from a gig at the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note. “You know? Mosh pit.”
Magenta just laughed throatily and snatched the joint back, curls of her dark purple hair hanging in her eyes.
“Do you ever miss the days when you went from gig to gig in a van?” Ziggy asked her.
“Good lord, where do you think I spent most of last year?” she said.
Ziggy looked surprised. “I thought you were doing better than that?”
“Darling, I’m flattered you think so highly of us, but The Cure we’re not.”
“None of us are,” I said.
She patted me on the scarred hand. “It’s not just that. In Europe, first of all, you can play a lot more gigs in a much smaller expanse. The cities–the countries!–are more densely packed. And the cities themselves are often so old you can’t drive one of your massive tour buses to the venue even if you had one. So we do a lot with van touring. It’s cheap and it means better profits but oh–” She stretched and yawned and her back cracked audibly. “It can be hard on a body at my age.”
“Your age?” I asked.
“I turned forty on Halloween,” she said with a solemn nod.
“Halloween? Really?” Ziggy asked,, incredulous.
“Well, no, but it’s a convenient time to have it,” she said. “Magenta’s Birthday Observed. We’ve always got a huge gig on Halloween.”
“You want a gig on your birthday?” Sarah asked from across the table. She was sitting crosslegged on the rug.
“There’s something else in life I’d rather be doing than on the stage?” Madge asked in return. “If there is, I best quit now.”
Sarah nodded in respect if not agreement.
Jordan broke off from another conversation by the espresso machine and came to sit with us. “Everyone doing all right? Anyone hungry?”
The maybe-sax-player groaned and gripped his stomach. “You gotta be kidding.”
Jordan shrugged. “Just checking. Wasn’t sure if everyone had a big meal earlier or what.”
“Trav, we’re fine. Really,” I said, patting my own tummy. “Take a load off for a while.”
He motioned for the joint, took a hit, and then after passing it, took a pre-rolled one out of the case in his breast pocket and set it on the table, in case anyone wanted more.
“Okay, here’s a question,” Sarah said. “You’ve all known him longer than I have so maybe you know.”
“Who and what?” Ziggy asked.
“Why do some of you call him Trav and some of you call him Jordan?”
“Why, what do you call him?” Magenta asked.
“Well, I called him Mr. Travers at first, honestly,” Sarah said. “And Mills called him ‘Trav’ but I felt like it was an old boy nickname and wasn’t sure about using it. And then he told me to call him Jordan, so I do.”
Mr. Blue Note got a little prickly. “Why’s it matter to you?”
“I’m just curious, is all. Jordan, which do you prefer?”
Jordan gave a shrug, his usual deadpan in place. “Doesn’t matter to me. I answer to ‘hey you.'”
Ziggy seemed to get prickly back. “It does matter. I think you’ve picked up on something, Sar’. You’re right, it’s the good old boys who call him Trav, the straight folks. Family calls him Jordan.”
Family meaning queer here.
“Except Daron called him ‘Trav,’ just now,” Sarah said.
“Because there’s a straight person present,” Ziggy said, with an examining look toward Mr. Blue Note.
“Straight but not narrow!” the guy said sharply.
“Daron talks like a straight person when he thinks straight people are present and he talks like himself when he thinks there aren’t,” Ziggy explained.
“What?” I found myself on the edge of the couch. “What are you talking about? Talk like myself?”
“Granted, there’s not a big difference, but that’s one of them.” He turned to me. “You used to always call him Trav. Now you call him Jordan almost all the time.”
“Well, in my mind he used to be Trav and now…” I blinked as I realized I still had these two versions of Jordan Travers in my head, the “old” Trav from when we’d first met, and the more recent one. “I got to know him better.”
“I don’t think it’s a gay/straight thing,” Jordan said. “I think people who know me well enough use my first name and people who don’t use my nickname.”
“And you’re saying you only let queer folk get that close to you?” Sarah pressed.
“I don’t think it’s that strict.” Jordan shrugged again.
“It’s totally your straight nickname,” Ziggy insisted. “Daron’s the only one of us who hasn’t quit using it all the time.”
“Hang on, hang on.” I waved my hands trying to get them to all slow down. “Are you saying you can tell who’s queer and who’s not by how they refer to him?”
“For the most part yes, except you still slip, you know.” Ziggy tucked an arm around mine just when I was instinctively shrinking away and I made myself try to relax. “You put the straight mask on better than any of us.”
“I…you…make it sound like that’s a bad thing.”
“It is if you consider the mask a mobile closet,” Magenta said with a chuckle. “You don’t have to wear it around us, you know.”
“I’m…I’m kind of freaked out right now.” I felt an intense discomfort that felt like more than just the fact that they were all looking a me. Like something was trying to crawl right out of my ribcage from inside the middle of me somewhere. “Why can you all see when I put the mask on and take it off and I can’t? I can’t even tell there is a mask.”
“That’s why,” Madge said, and leaned over to give me a smoky kiss on the cheek. Mixed with her perfume it smelled like incense. “If you can’t see the mask, you can’t see the mask.”
“What mask?” I asked. “No really, I mean, I try to just be myself. I’m like this. I’m… I’m…” I gestured helplessly with my damaged hand.
She patted me on the shoulder. “It’s all right, dearie. No one is trying to be queerer than thou here. Least of all me.” She cackled. “Topher and I were bi when got into the goth scene–hell, everyone was–but women are just too much feckin’ work! I admit it: I’m a do-me-queen. I like a good, rough man who just wants to fuck me long and hard.”
“Oh, really,” said Mr. Blue Note.
Madge laughed that laugh again, same one as when he’d called it a mosh pit, and I realized she was laughing at him, not with him.
I tried again. “I’m–” There wasn’t a word on my tongue to follow it though.
“A conformist?” Sarah tried.
“Banish the thought,” Ziggy said, saying what I was thinking. “For Daron, conformist is a dirty word.”
“I know,” Sarah said with a sly wink in my direction. “Then what, D? What are you trying to say?”
“I don’t know!” I said it rather louder than I intended. “Why do I have to be a… a… word or a thing? Why do I have to… to… figure it out?”
“Yeah,” said Blue Note. “What’s with all the labels, anyway? I don’t need one.”
Madge and Ziggy both laughed at that. At that point he excused himself and went to find the facilities or a beer or something.
“Of course you don’t need a label,” Ziggy said with a snicker after he was out of earshot. “The generic product doesn’t get one.”
“Does he play the saxophone?” I asked Jordan.
“Yeah, that’s Larry Fortner. Did I introduce you?”
“No, I don’t think so. Just a guess.”
“Yeah, sax, and flute when necessary.” Jordan picked up the other joint and lit it with a lighter that had been sitting on the table.
“He’s a pig,” Magenta said. “Not that that makes him unique.”
“He’s a good sax player,” Jordan said with a shrug. “If he’s lech-ing on you, though, let me know, and I’ll shuffle him out.”
Magenta rolled her heavily lined eyes. “I can handle him, dearie. He’s just an optimist.”
I was still squirming around inside my skin. I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling or what I was supposed to be thinking.
Magenta, Ziggy, and Sarah all went off to the kitchen together then in search of hydration, leaving me and Jordan alone on the couch.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I just don’t know what to think.” I found myself staring at my scarred palm. “I used to worry that I was giving myself away all the time. That there was some secret handshake that straight people knew that I didn’t and they’d find out. But it’s actually the opposite. There are secret gay handshakes and I still don’t know what they are.”
“They’re not actually secret, just–”
“You know what I mean. There’s no handbook or something. I’m not always good at picking things up from subtle cues.”
“I know.” He flipped the lighter over in his fingers and set it on the table. “Ziggy’s right, though. I mostly went by the nickname before I was out, and these days I’m much more likely to introduce myself as Jordan. So it’s kind of like Trav is my straight name.”
“But what do you mean by ‘out?’ It’s not like the press refer to you as ‘openly gay music producer Jordan Travers.'” I felt a little queasy just thinking about the possibility of being referred to that way.
“I mean I don’t do anything to hide it anymore. I don’t bring a woman date to awards ceremonies just for appearances. I don’t deny it if someone asks–though so far no one has, other than one guy who was interested in me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t interested in him.”
“But you used to?”
“Bring a woman to awards ceremonies and that kind of stuff? Yeah. I wouldn’t say I was ever truly in the closet, but I was cautious in case it hindered my career. Maybe two or three years ago, though, I got fed up with that kind of thing and decided to stop. I’m not sure anyone other than me actually noticed anything different, though.” He was doing the Jordan shrug a lot that night. He looked worn out and tired, like he had at the Freddie dance-funeral.
“You should kick us out and get some sleep,” I told him.
He laughed. “I wouldn’t have to kick you guys out for that. If I wanted to, I’d just go in the bedroom and crash. What about you, feeling sleepy?”
“No. Something about this place makes me question my existence every time I come here, though.” I cracked a stiff knuckle and tried to loosen the tension in my fingers. I hadn’t done my exercises yet that day. “How would you take it, though, if the press did start referring to you like that?”
“As ‘openly gay Jordan Travers?’ I guess if it didn’t hurt my ability to do the work I want to do, I wouldn’t be against it. And if it actually helped anyone out there to know, I guess I would be for it. But until that happens I won’t really know how I’d feel.” He yawned. “If it happened to you, though, you’d hate it.”
He was right but I had to ask, “How do you know?”
“Because you hate being put in a box, D. You hate labels and you hate the thought that a label might pin you down.”
“I though it was Ziggy who defied labels.”
“Ziggy embraces labels when they’re useful to him and discards them when they’re not. You? You’re allergic to the glue on the back of them no matter what they say on the front.” He patted me on the leg. “The only label you’ll tolerate says ‘musician.’ And that’s what I love about you.”