Encore from the Archives: The Swing Shift

[Originally published on the gar spot in January 2011.]

The fantasy started that night, in the shades of black he wore and the shades of tan that made up our skin as we stood together in the wings overlooking the orchestra.  I stood behind him and allowed my hand to brush against his, allowed my breath to circulate a bit near his left ear before escaping to add to the humid thickness above our heads.  We survived intermission, serving the musicians in the green room, and now they reappeared refreshed on stage.  Our quality time resumed as we listened to the glorious music in our secluded corner, a treat beyond category.  That night we swung with royalty.

Our boss made sure our tuxedos fit just right, no slacking, no slouching, no cuffs drooping over the hands like a shaggy-haired dog.  Reggie’s tux fit ever so right that night.  Not so much as a loose thread hung from his jacket, as it contoured every muscle of his shoulders.  In the front, the white shirt obeyed the mounds on his chest and betrayed them through the fabric.  Reggie’s legs and ass filled out his pants just right to cause a sensation inside of me; they were loose enough to be of comfort to him, but tight enough to make me wish my fingers took the place of the stitching that held them together.  Reggie did not conk his hair that night, but left the small, tight tuft of hair on his head in a natural state.  We fidgeted silently with each other.  Such motions had to be cloaked in silence.

I lived for those Saturdays together.  Beneath the humid stuffiness of the night’s air, beneath the canapé of notes produced by the band, beneath the wings of the curtain – draped like the giant wings of a black butterfly to protect us – we glowed on each other the kind of light that could only shine from those who beckoned tender acknowledgment, of being and presence.  We saw only each other in the glow, as we truly appeared.  Such a joyously verisimilar sight of two men in each other’s gaze could only exist in these darkened corners.  We tried the movie houses, like others of our kind, but found they did not work for us.  Even without much light, our darkened skin as it touched each other seemed to reveal too much of our intimacy to outsiders, in the flickering light of the projection on the screen.  No, here, backstage at the swing club where we both worked, it was safer here.  And of course there was always the music.

On the stage, the piano player, in his subdued, regal splendor, pounded out a methodical beat.  The orchestra caught the cue and obeyed.  Reggie and I knew the piece well and had debated its meaning many times.  I’m sure our interpretations differed substantially from those of the pale skinned audience in the club.  They probably heard a dark jungle full of Negroid foreboding, a tantalizing fantasy in the same way a Halloween story can scare the senses without causing any permanent discomfort; for them the story would end eventually, and all would return to normal.  That’s not what we heard.  We heard in the muted trumpets a muted man who’s scream couldn’t be softer or more painful.  He wore a face not entirely his own to appease those with delicate sensibilities as he dutifully executed demeaning chores on their behalf.  “And even if we play the game,” Reggie said, “we still ain’t safe.  They can take it all away like that <<snap>>.”

Reggie spoke of one mask, though really we wore two.  One came with birth, the other grew out of necessity.  One shielded us from the harshness of those with fairer skin, that we may appear docile and harmless and not a threat to them.  My favorite version of this mask was always the happy watermelon man, with the natty hair, thick red lips, and wide grin shining over his food of choice.  The image was so unlike me or those I knew that it always struck me as ironically humorous, through its grotesque facade.  And I saw him everywhere, a constant reminder of how I should look, or how they saw me, regardless of how I saw myself.  But our other mask defied easy description.  How can you describe the invisible?  True, there is always the image of the limp-wristed sissy, fussing over hair or nails – but that mask only worked if you worked in entertainment.  There it became acceptable.  Worn anywhere else and it would land you in the hospital’s emergency ward, or morgue.  So the other mask, then, was no mask at all.  Invisible, it rendered you invisible and thus less of a threat to others, and less a danger to yourself.  To be the man you knew you had to be was your best protection…

(Read more here.)

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


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