Happy Birthday, Traci

According to Sean the whole island is going to be there. It will be the last chance for the locals to party together before the summer tourist weekend crowd gets there. Traci, the birthday girl will be putting on her usual show. She can be surprisingly graceful and sexy. I have the sense that Traci recognizes a certain loss, a settling for something less, a poignant recognition that her dreams had never included slinging draft on the late shift at the Island Do Drop Inn.

I say as much to Sean. She nods slowly, as if to say, “Yeah, Charlie, the line forms to the right on that one”, but what she says is that for years Traci’s party has been a coming out, much more important than just a birthday or so it seems to her. “Watch and see,” she says.

As the last ferry to the island pulls out of Depot Bay Terminal the winter sun slips behind the western mountains, streaking the sky with purple fire and leaving the water awash in gasoline rainbows.

I tell Sean that the first night I saw the place it seemed to me to be a time lapse, a wrong way mirror, a reminder of my desperate search for another life, a need to escape, a need to fit in. It always felt romantic, utterly compelling to me, to believe that the reward for winning the big one was a place where nobody knew my name, where everybody had a story, where the rum was cold and the beaches deserted.

I flash back to my first trip here, to the odd tingling sense of anticipation of going to watch the band. I saw her and everything changed. Make me laugh, Melissa said.

It was not quite two years ago.

The island now seems to be like any other small hardscrabble working town, with little local industry and tourism as its basic source of revenue. The locals have chosen the apparent simplicity of island life and its inherent poverty over the complexities of the mainland. There is a mixture of defiance and resignation in the choice. When I meet them in the bar, and I do that nearly every night that I am on the island, I have a sense of untold stories, of lives that used to be. There is a far off look in their eyes, a drift into lost opportunity, unused talents, long ago victories.

I know that one from the inside out.

I take a break from the conversation and go out to the car deck to stand in the wind. I need to take a minute, to let the night wind blow scrape everything clean. I remember, for no good reason, the 19-year-old Charlie Granger, that’s me, all hair and anger, storming down the wet November streets in my hometown, staring fixedly ahead, trying desperately to ignore the lights in the windows of the people who were already home. I was sick with a loneliness that no amount of cocaine, no quantity of Jack Daniels could ever touch.

Standing there in the wind, the rain-slicked dock glowing in the lights of the ferry, I think this must be it, the home I have been looking for since those long ago days when the war was everywhere and my heart was full of rage.

A barren, potholed, asphalt parking lot ends in float dock bordered by massive wooden pilings made of trees that were last seen in this part of the world fifty years ago. Jeri, Sean’s partner, picks us up at the ferry. We drive up island to the Hall. I get out, say thanks and walk up the short flight of wooden steps outside. The door bangs open and in I go.

Big tree branches line the walls, balloons float above the marshmallow jello trifle, a disco ball hangs from the ceiling. The party is clearly in progress. People are sitting with food on paper plates in front of them, beer bottles, drinks to the side in paper cups, an indoor nighttime picnic. It feels like a Fourth of July in Somewhere America, a small-town get together, been that way for years. All that’s missing are the political speeches and a baseball game. Kids are running everywhere. There is the faint smell of marijuana in the air.

I follow her voice and see her near the bar that doubles as a sound and light room for the community theater. She’s dressed in drag, kd lang in lotus land.

“You look great. “

“Do you like it?” she asks. “I had a great time figuring it out, trying stuff on,” she tells me, spinning for effect, as if to say, “This is how I look when I go to an island bash.”

“Yeah, you did a great job. You look… edible.”

“My turn to bar tend for a while.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Not long after we go to the bar, I realize that the older folks, the parents with young kids, have all gone home. The hard-core party is finally under way.

The local photographer, Larissa, with her riding crop and velvet covered jumper’s helmet poses pictures of the birthday girl. Something implied, flaunted, ownership maybe, something possessive in the way she handles Traci.

The gay /straight thing, the who is and who ain’t and mostly who ought to be, has devolved into outright lust. It must be that time of night. I have seen this before on the island, a moment in every bash when it goes from drunken desperation to a kind of hunting party where mostly everyone does something that leaves them both embarrassed and strangely eager to do it again.

It always makes me uncomfortable: less the sexuality of it, I think, and more the need to put on a show. I have come to realize that my own travels through the intricacies of my own desires have left me more private, more closed, more damaged, than I had imagined.

Melissa dances with everyone. I watch as she dances with Traci. She seems vulnerable, shy, available, defiant, and she knows everyone is watching.

I have kidded her about this before. Told her that she uses it as seduction. She laughed, saying that’s how it is here. “Men and women, men and men, women and women, whatever.”

She has always said that she likes the way I am with her at parties, that I leave her be. I want to feel more connected to her, to all of it, but watching her now, it’s just not happening.

It gets late.

“Let’s go home.”

A look says no.

“Are you sure?”


“Later for you,” I say, with a tired smile.

She heads off in the direction of the bar.

Melissa gets a drink and sits down with her friends on the edge of the stage. Frozen in the disco lights, they scan the dance floor, eternally expectant, like aspirants waiting for a sign.

I drive the little red station wagon I bought for her up the rise, past the empty bar. She has left one of my Art Pepper tapes on the deck. It has become one of her favorites. Art blows his junkie sweetness into the wet night air. I can see the empty LA jazz club, the needles in the stinking alley behind it. I can smell cheap whiskey, stale perfume, fried food. I am aware of a magnetic pull towards another crash and burn night on the outskirts of paradise. Oh yeah, says Pepper’s horn, I’m going get up and make this one shine. Oh yeah.

I stumble up the path to the empty house, past the open gate. I fall into an unmade bed. When I look at the clock a little later, it reads, 4:30. It can’t be that late, can it? I am awake and waiting; aware suddenly that this is the first time I have waited for someone to come home, someone who isn’t my child.

Others have waited up for me.

“I may be busy,” I remember her saying.

Goddam. She has had other priorities here. Tonight has been full of signs and I think that they may have been there for a long time. I have missed them, or ignored them. Doesn’t matter.

I am angry with it, helpless, like an abandoned child.

I am aware of car noise and voices in the driveway. I stay in bed. Melissa comes into the house. She leans heavily against the bedroom wall. She sighs. She’s tired and more than a little drunk. I watch her undress and turn on to my back so she can snuggle in. She’s asleep before she hits my shoulder.

Lying next to her, it is apparent to me there is no place in this place for me; that I have always been an outsider, even here, in my own house; it is obvious that I don’t understand the local ordinances, that I have no alibi for my heart’s whereabouts. Love is always a gambler’s chance and we always play for table stakes, I guess. As I stare at the relentless minutes ticking over on the clock, it occurs to me that someone may have just folded their hand.

The house is winter cold when I go up the stairs. The fire is out in the woodstove. I lie down on the living room couch to wait for sunrise and the ferry ride home.

Outside, the cold night wind slams shut the gates to the garden.

Photo Credit

“Disco Ball Solar System” A. Strakey @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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