Ten years or so ago, I was rolling in my old Econoline van down highway 101, road tripping the long and curvaceous route along the West Coast.
We had left an overcast April in Vancouver behind us, and had the high beams aimed for California.
She had long long legs and fingers, lips that could talk me into pretty much anything, and a babysitter for the next 16 days. I had a half-racked Visa card, most of my last pay cheque, and a pair of chocolate brown Italian leather pants.
The van had a knotty pine tongue and groove interior, leopard-spotted fun fur fold-out bed, and a stereo that rattled the rearview mirrors so much that the screws kept coming loose and I had to crazy glue them back in permanently so I could see to change lanes.
We drove straight through Florence, Oregon without stopping, on account of how the last time I was there me and my buddy with the nose ring got chased out of a Texaco station in the middle of the night by a gas jockey, a cashier, and a mechanic waving a crow bar and screaming, ‘run you faggots, run’ and what not, and so we did.
The whole experience had left me with a strong urge to fill up my tank anywhere but in Florence, Oregon.
Yachats was a hippie beach town with too many espresso bars and stores that sold sunscreen and semi-precious stones and mini dream-catchers for your car.
She wanted to freshen up in the ladies room and wash her panties out in the sink so she could hang them on the antenna to dry like she liked to do. The ladies room was the last place I wanted to be caught with my pants down, so I ducked into a music store instead of sweltering in the car.
My heart stopped and then dropped into my matching brown boots when I laid eyes on the woman behind the counter of Michael’s Music on Main.
I could tell her silver hair had been jet black once, cropped short around an errant cowlick that curled above a row of lines wind-worn into her forehead. Laugh lines too, appeared like parenthesis on either side of her mouth when she smiled at me without showing her teeth. Top two buttons of a denim work shirt undone enough to show off a Stanfield medium white crewneck T-shirt, the kind that come in packs of three.
I felt myself staring, hands undone at my sides; unable to even pretend I was shopping for records or perusing the wall of second hand ukuleles and beach guitars.
I couldn’t stop looking at all of her, how veins bulged under the brown skin on the backs of her hands, the shape of her wallet traced by a faded spot on her back pocket, the line of her jaw still square and strong and handsome after at least six or seven decades.
I left without speaking much or buying anything, and it took another hundred miles or so of coastal road for me to identify the emotion that had spun in my stomach since I had sighted Michael.
Mostly, it was relief. Up until then, the oldest dykes I knew were in their forties, and though I had never asked the question out loud, I had often wondered where the older lesbians disappeared to when the time came.
I guess I thought they were around but that time had disguised them somehow, cloaked their queerness underneath cardigans and slacks and soft-soled sensible shoes, maybe slippers, even.
Until I saw Michael, I had always been unable to imagine old age with me in it.
Last week, I was in a Thai restaurant in Portland, on tour with a gaggle of poets from Seattle. We had an hour to eat and get to the theatre and when the waitress came to take our orders, she asked me first. I did as my grandmas taught us all, and I let the ladies at the table order before me. Courteous social etiquette and cultured decorum are highly valued in Thai culture, and our waitress dipped her head at me in approval and took my order last.
The 23-year-old slam poet who sat across from me shook her long blonde ringlets at me, and half-feigned disbelief at my behavior.
“You didn’t. You didn’t just let ‘the ladies’ go first. I can’t believe you just said that in public. You sounded like my grandfather or something.”
I felt the blood heat up under my tongue, but remembered my cardinal rule of the road: no arguments or processing before show time, and no educating an American unless it’s an emergency, especially when travelling in a mini-van with a bunch of other Americans.
But then she kept talking. “You’re like, so stuck in the whole butch-femme thing, which just enforces the whole gender binary. It’s so over and done with. You’re so outdated.”
I took a long, cool sip of tap water with crushed ice and lemon, and followed it with a slow full breath.
“You’re right. I am outdated. In fact, I’m a fucking endangered species. A gentleman. Old school. Not male, but often read as one, making it all the more imperative that I come complete with decent manners.
“You may have read about my kind in your gay history class at university. I’m a butch, of the polite variety. Raised up by a family of kick-ass women, fine ladies every last one of them, who would have my hide if it were any other way. It is how it is done.
“I was also taught how to French braid long hair, and to carry a handkerchief at all times. You might not relate, raised by hippies like you were, and them being different cultures altogether, the hippies and the Irish Catholics.”
I remembered to smile the whole time, and made a mental note to never jump out to fill up the gas tank when she was driving the van, and to be sure to let the door swing shut freely, should she be walking behind me.
A real gentleman doesn’t waste favours on the unappreciative.
I like to think that’s how Michael would have handled it.