This excerpt is from late in Race Point Light. The narrator is Fair Shaw. He is just arriving at the Boatslip, a hotel on the water in Provincetown that hosts a tea dance every afternoon during the summer. It is June, 2004. Shaw is with his partner, Chris, and their friend David Sepe. A much younger guy named Julio has joined them. They have visited galleries, bought bathing suits, and now they’re going to dance. Chris is considering hiring Julio as a bartender at a gay bar in Boston that he manages. Occasionally, in their conversation, Fair Shaw and Chris speak of a painting that they have seen earlier, an abstract oil of turbulent, dark color with a white and yellow explosion at the center.
But we were at the Boatslip and could hear the music. At the Boatslip, we were also just at the edge of the West End, which may be the oldest part of Provincetown, and close to the center of what was Provincetown’s lawless past, for it was said in the eighteenth century that smugglers and traders lived here. There has always been someone around to say that Provincetown is “lawless.”
The Boatslip, on the waterfront side of Commercial Street, has hosted the tea dance for as long as anyone of us can remember. We went down a ramp from Commercial Street under a wing of the building—for a moment we were in cool shade—and came out into the sun on a vast deck above the waters of the harbor. There was a bar and a large tent over to the left and a huge space in front of us and to the right in which men gathered—the inn was behind us now. The music came from the tent. The sides of the tent were rolled up and even this early—it was around five—the space there was filled with men dancing. We drifted over to the bar—Chris was leading the way—and to the railing nearest the bar. We began to arrange ourselves along the railing where we could hear the water behind us and see the men dancing in front of us, and feel the hot sun on our backs.
The men were what it was all about—them and the music. Beautiful men. The most popular costume was shorts and rubber flip-flops. Maybe half the men wore t-shirts, or tanktops, the rest were barebacked, their skin shining with sweat. The place was crowded, and the energy of the space under the tent—the crowd spilled out onto the deck beyond the confines of the tent—was driven by the music and by the power of male sex among so many men so minimally clothed in such a small space. The breeze from the ocean seemed barely to reach the dancers in the middle of the throng. Many men were tattooed, the tribal markings across the shoulders or in the small of the back or on the arm. Or they were tattooed with colorful Japanese-influenced designs of tigers or dragons across a shoulder and down an upper arm, like a sleeve. Many men had leather wrist bands or arm bands, like mine, although, so far, Chris and I were the only ones with medieval rings of dragon heads.
“Fair gave them to me.” He flashed them for us. “This afternoon.”
I showed him mine.
“They’re beautiful.” Julio wanted to try one on. Then he wanted to know where he could get one.
Very soon David sidled over to stand behind Julio. He took hold of Julio’s traps and squeezed. “Wanna dance?”
Julio let his eyes close, feeling David’s hands on his shoulders, and then he said, “Yes. Let’s dance, only—” He spoke to Chris and me. “—I don’t want you to leave us.”
“We won’t. Go dance.”
So Julio and David peeled away from us and headed toward the tent and the dance floor.
“I think he’s in graduate school and is bartending to pay his bills.”
“What’s he studying?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you going to hire him?”
Chris grinned. “I think so. We can always use somebody who looks like him. I checked his references, and he’s OK. I think he’s a good kid.” He held my hand. “Are you having fun?”
He shrugged. “We started out this afternoon, and there were just the two of us, and now it looks like there are four. Sometimes you don’t like it when that happens. I want you to be happy.”
“I know. But I feel pretty OK with it today.”
He squeezed my hand.
And, in a few minutes, when Chris had finished his drink, we joined the men on the dance floor, moving through the crowd until we were near the center. It was too crowded to dance much, but the music was in control whether there was room or not, so we did what we could. And since everybody else was moving too, we gradually found a place among the beautiful sweating bodies and danced.
“It’s a long way from Maine, isn’t it?” David had moved over next to me. Now he was grinning. David himself was from Walton, in upstate New York.
“It’s a long way from Walton, too, man.”
David liked to tease me about being from Maine—Maine being the local equivalent of the Ozarks, actually the local equivalent of the South.
“Chris, what do you like best about all this?”
I thought about what Chris would say—Provincetown, the shore, the beach, the sky, the men, the hard sun.
Then he spoke in a voice pitched almost too low for me to hear in the din. “Being here with Fair.”
That’s the way Chris is.
I looked around the floor. In some directions, what was beyond the pounding bodies was the pounding sea. In the late afternoon, the rays of the sun, coming in almost horizontally from the southwest—that is, from slightly offshore and to the right—were a deep golden color and turned all the white houses that ringed the bay to gold. Even the men, whose shoulders lifted and fell with the rhythmic thunder of the music, had their tans deepened by the time of the day and the optics of the light coming to earth on a severe slant, the discoloring of the white light of the sun by the gases in the atmosphere. The sun’s rays were being curved just at that moment by the gravitational pull of the earth immediately under us, shifting their color. They danced—all these men around us—and they displayed a beatific smile and seemed unaware they were subject to such terrific and immense and ponderous forces.
“What are you thinking?” Chris was standing at his full height and looking down at me.
“How little, I think, we know our condition on this earth.”
He looked away, at the other men and at the deck, crowded with bronzed, glistening men, and toward the sea. Chris had regained his beauty after his bout with death. Two months after he had been in the hospital, he was no longer on the IVs. He regained his weight, moving from 140 pounds to 160 and then to 180. Now, he weighed 190 pounds. He looked healthy and beautiful and confident. Perhaps the new cocktails would stay effective. With his health returning, Chris had broadened his interests again to the men and women he worked with, to the other members of the chorus, and to his singing. The posture he took while dancing with me—tall, proud, handsome—was suggestive of the posture he took with his life.
There were the ones not here. When I first moved to Boston twenty years ago, men were shocked to hear that someone they knew, knew someone with AIDS. Now everyone knew someone with AIDS. Back a few years, you’d ask a man that question, and he’d answer the first six or eight names quickly enough, as if he were naming the disciples or the states on the East Coast, and then he’d slow down with the next names, and then at some point, he’d get a faraway look in his eyes and settle down to naming at a steady pace, and unless you stopped him, he could keep naming scores of men he’d known who died from AIDS, enough to—seemingly—overwhelm the capacities of all the cemeteries in Provincetown. There was no rigid pattern to the disease. Men were infected, and the length of time between infection and death varied from man to man. It was now beginning to be apparent that those who had been able to hang on long enough were going to survive. The truth was that luck is one of the controlling factors in the epidemic—bad luck that the man you are having sex with is himself infected, bad luck that you become infected yourself, and on and on. Good luck that you were infected late enough to be able to survive until now, when protease inhibitors are available. There are other factors—how near you are to a major teaching hospital, how good your insurance is, whether you are the kind of person to read the early notices of the new gay disease and to adopt new practices right away, that is, to quit having unprotected sex immediately on first hearing about it, whether you are diagnosed during a Republican or during a Democratic administration. I was glad for Chris, and I was aware of how much luck had played a part in his survival, and of how much luck—that is, bad fortune—had played a part in the deaths of our friends. It was the Renaissance concept of Fortune and Fortune’s wheel. All of us are on the wheel, and she spins it when she will, and nothing, not energy, or drive, or beauty or virtue or intelligence can countervail Fortune’s whimsical decision to turn her wheel and so raise some of us to the heights and throw others of us crashing to the ground.
I wondered how many others in the throng around us were persons with AIDS, like Chris. Fortune holds us all in her hand, and that is nowhere more obvious than here, as medicine discovers what may be a way to stay alive. This was what Tim fought so hard for, participated for in dozens of demonstrations in ACT UP, and then did not live to see. I am told that this is always the way with plague. Camus, I believe, says these things at the end of The Plague. The plague is killing us, and then the plague stops killing us, and people begin to live again, and while public health can explain it—the rats and the fleas and the plague bacillus, and the population of rats declining below a level necessary to sustain the plague—the question whether one will die is a matter of luck. We, most of us here on the deck of the Boatslip, perhaps have become the lucky survivors of the plague.
“Come back to me.”
Chris was doubly beautiful for having come so close to dying. I reached out and touched his hand. He smiled, and for a second, our moist fingers touched.
“What are you thinking of?”
“I was happy. I was thinking of our good luck.”
“I think we’re lucky too. I think I am lucky, lucky to have you.”
“Wouldn’t it look good over the sofa?”
I laughed. It would. “Why don’t we go back tomorrow and get it?”
“You mean that?”
“The dark one? or the one with the white?”
“The one with the white.”
He grinned. “Are you getting hungry?”
I was. I looked around. Julio was beside us.
“Can I dance with you guys?”
Chris grinned at him.
“How long have you been coming to Provincetown?”
I had been coming twenty years. Chris, at 42, had been coming twenty-two years. David, who was ten years older than Chris, probably had been coming to Provincetown longer than any of the rest of us, maybe thirty-two years.
But Julio had shifted his position and didn’t hear what I told him. He was dancing away from us, his eyes still down and his mouth pulled back into a small smile. In these conversations on the dance floor, proximity is all. They begin when you come close to someone and end, often in the middle of a sentence, when the flow of bodies around the floor eddies and pulls you away. In that way, they are like life.
Chris watched him go. “He is like me.” He was speaking directly into my ear. “He never came out. Nobody, once they thought him old enough to be aware of sex, ever thought he was into other-sex sex. From the beginning, there would have been a consensus. Julio is into men.”
Julio came back. He had taken off his shirt, and his skin glistened. He swung his arms in time to the music back and forth from front to back and then lifted his fists together above his head and seemed to duck his head into his armpit. Then he came up and looked at the two of us and grinned. “What’s up?”
“I think we’re getting ready to go.”
“Can I go with you?”
“Sure. We’ll get Dave, too.”
“Where are you going?”
“I have an idea.” It was Chris. “What about going out to the beach? Getting food and going out to the beach instead of going to a restaurant?”
“Race Point. It’s deeper, and it’s farther away.”
Dwight Cathcart. Race Point Light, Boston: Adriana Books, 2010. An excerpt from Part 6. Available at https://adrianabooks.com.