Memorial Day Bonfire in Stanardsville, Virginia

In a half-circle, in the dark, we sit in folding chairs, in a clearing in the woods, facing the fire. By gravitation, we gay men mostly sit to the right, women to the left. Johnny offers tequila, tiny plastic cups. Conversation is sparse, affable. We gaze into the avid fire. Three of us, middle-aged men once married to women, talk together about our children, their schools, their jobs. Three large women argue about who is fattest. “I can’t ever find clothes to buy. This is my cook-out shirt. Invite me to another cook-out, you’ll see this shirt.”

More women join to discuss in detail their employers’ pee-tests, the tricks to trick the tests. Their bosses watch them pee. It creeps them out, but they comply. A fabulous drag queen, not in drag tonight, praises my cocker spaniel’s “drag queen eyelashes.” Two young women, a couple, busy at the grill, make beautiful food. Grilled fruit for dessert. Jazmin says she doesn’t like watermelon. Several men laugh loudly. One of them spells it out: “How can you be black and not like watermelon?” Apprehensive, I glance at Jazmin. “Shut up, you silly queen,” she replies. These white queens are her friends.

In this group, we know something, not always enough, about the damage to each of us, the names we can be called, the shit people talk. Fondly, everyone calls everyone else bitch and slut. A quiet love warms us, as surely as the tequila and the overwrought bonfire.

two days ago a few miles away
back at my home staring
out of the woods two
bright red circles new as tall as I am
made of dirt and roots—
earlier that day before trees fell
I walked outside—the sky roared—
I felt I was on the beach
the ocean far above—a year ago
I slid down a hill foolish to walk
at midnight—ten feet down my face
wet with scratches my glasses gone
I didn’t want to move—I knew
I had to pull myself back up
through those thorns—jamais vu,
those moments when something
is unfamiliar though you’ve seen it
a thousand times—nonrecognition
terrifying or delightful—
my life our lives
full of lies so habitual
that we will never notice them—
what if the story of my life was
I had something beautiful
and I forgot about it
didn’t take care of it—

I open my eyes. So my eyes were closed. I walk over to thank one of the cooks. The food is great. She answers softly, “I didn’t know what this party might be like. I wanted the food to be good.” Our hosts, Daniel and Kenny, together twenty years, legally married earlier this year, have separated now. We all know this.

The cooks go into the woods, looking for sticks to hold food in the fire. We watch for half an hour as one woman tries to roast marshmallows and wienies. The food burns or falls off. She doesn’t mind. We make stupid jokes about wienies. Daniel is at one end of our semicircle. Sitting next to him during four hours, I feel the density of his clotted rage and pain. Kenny, at the far end, cuddles with his new boyfriend. Between our hosts stands the bonfire, ravenous, ecstatic, flinging light on us, holding us all together—so hot that its flames are blue and white. Inside the fire, a log drops, and a fleet of red sparks shoots straight up, as high as the trees.

Fred Everett Maus is a writer and musician living in Earlysville, Virginia. He has published poetry and other creative writing in The Citron Review, Hineni Magazine, Open Space, Jacket2, Palette Poetry, Richmond magazine, Roanoke Review, and Vox Populi. He teaches and writes about music, and is co-editor with the late Sheila Whiteley of The Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness. He is a certified teacher of mindfulness meditation and Deep Listening.

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