by Annabeth Leong
I found it for the first time in the middle of a hot night. I'd been on a long walk through forbidden places—the cemetery, the city government complex, the golf course. As much as I would have sneered at the golf course by day, darkness transformed it into something grass-scented and fantastical. Sometimes I went on these walks with a friend, but this time I'd gone alone, and this time I picked up a tail on the way back through a bad neighborhood—a collection of young guys who mumbled to each other and laughed menacingly and turned every time I turned.
I knew better than to run. I fingered the switchblade I carried in my pocket, but I've always been honest with myself, and I knew that even though it made me feel tough I didn't actually know how to use it. I just liked the weight of it, the rhythmic swing of it along with my steps. Keeping my apparent cool, I made my way to the narrow downtown strip where things would still be open, planning to duck into the first unlocked door I found.
The guys followed, but they didn't close the distance, so I kept walking until I came across that door I'd been looking for. Even before I stepped through it, I felt the tingle of fate in my belly. This was one of the times in my life that turning left instead of right changed me forever, and sometimes in my memory it is as if that pack of guys goaded me to that place according to the machinations of divine purpose.
Stepping in, I found a set of smoke-filled rooms populated by a collection of beautiful misfits. Punk music blared from the speakers and everyone was drinking black coffee and chain smoking and making out with each other indiscriminately in corners, on the couches, and on the floor. In the front room, they had a poetry slam going, and in the back room they were playing chess. I ordered a coffee from the Robert Smith lookalike behind the counter, and I was too embarrassed to ask where they kept the cream and sugar, so I drank it black. I drank coffee black for the next ten years.
I had read about places like this, and seen glimpses in movies, but I had never before believed this could be real outside of fiction or histories starring ex-pats and the lovers of Anaïs Nin.
This is the place where my heart is buried. Today, the building has been demolished along with the dirty park beside it, both replaced by patio seating for an upscale sports bar, but on that spot of earth I fucked and loved and cried and shouted along with dozens of bands and was shamed and saw my lovers in the arms of others and performed my poetry to acclaim or to mockery and was praised and shouted at and became someone.
It's hard to know which stories to tell. I told one for my 90s post, and I can't think of that place without remembering those two lovers in particular. I still have a photograph of my golden-eyed man from those days—I'd forgotten that he'd fried his hair to an unnatural orange, but I can still lose myself in the shape of his profile. And after the place closed, he kept the key to the door and wore it around his neck, as if we might someday find another door to that same place, with a lock that would whisper open in response to a familiar touch.
When I found that place and those people, I was still coming out of the shadow of an abusive relationship. I remember confessing to my new friends in a dark whisper that my ex had told me I belonged to him forever, and that a part of me believed that and was afraid that he'd come after me. The golden-eyed man beside me wrapped an arm around my waist with a lewd, proprietary expression that left no doubt that we'd been fucking. "Well," he drawled, with no fear in his voice at all, "I guess I'm playing with another boy's toys." Everyone laughed, and it's the last time I can recall feeling afraid that way.
It wasn't all perfect, of course. There was the night I was yelled at by a wild-eyed woman furious that I'd pointed out a poem she'd written about her ex to her ex. There was the night a few of us started having a threesome in the back room and it turned into a fight instead. There was the night the owner backed me into the building's small kitchen and kissed me hard enough to cut my lips with his teeth, saying that the two of us were like Kerouac and LuAnne and clearly it was inevitable that we should fuck, as I winced at the scratching of his beard and fought to get away.
But there was also the night a woman came to read her poetry and stood up tall in one corner and declared, "I never apologize for my work, and I never explain." I'm still in awe of that one, and still trying to live up to it.
In our nostalgia posts over the past couple weeks, there's been the suggestion that nostalgia is about happy times, but I don't think it is. I was in a deep depression for much of the time I hung out at this place, but my feelings are all vivid in my memory, the sadness bright and sharp and the joy desperate and full of adrenaline. I remember that I knew even then that I would one day feel nostalgia for that place and time, and that this fact made me laugh with dark irony because I struggled to get through each day and longed, at the time, for a different nostalgic past.
I think nostalgia is a byproduct of becoming and change. I wasn't happy then, but I was moving. I was learning something about who I needed to be, even if many of the lessons were messy and painful. And because I was so screwed up and confused, I was free to transform. Nostalgia, for me, comes when I feel too finished and I start to miss those times of seismic upheaval, those times of possibility.
I wasn't the only one changed by that place. Anyone who used to hang out there still speaks the name of it in a hushed tone, still trades stories, still proves cred by what they witnessed and participated in and when.
Our whole town was changed by it, and even though its physical form has been obliterated, I still see the echoes when I visit my family. On my last trip, I sat in another coffee shop a few blocks from where the old one was and watched a beautiful woman in a silk corset with hair dyed bright red, and I knew that in those days, she would have been with us.