In those years, the years between my twenty-sixth and twenty-ninth birthdays, the years between being single, in a relationship, and single again, I came to understand that anything is tolerable, anything, if certain conditions are met. I will continue to make a career out of dancing only if I can guarantee I’ll book a second Broadway show; I will swear devotion to and engage in all manner of emotional gymnastics with you only if you’ll make me a sandwich when I want one; I will put myself through the intense depravation, deep self-loathing, and nearly debilitating anxiety of participating in Broadway Bares only if I am cast as a lead strip.
This past June, I submitted five copies of my resume, five copies of my best lean-back-to-catch-shadows-on-my-abdominals photo, and a form ranking my own dance abilities, noting my rehearsal availability, and giving my measurements to the producers at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I didn’t specify on my form that I would only donate my time to the fundraiser if I were cast as a lead strip. I assumed my shirtless photo spoke for itself.
Being a lead strip carried more significance in my mind than it should have, I was aware of that. But I wanted to know what it felt like to have a number built around me, to bathe in that specific brand of attention and admiration—and validation—that came from being wanted solely because of the hard work I had put into making my body look the way it did. I wanted that validation from not only the 7,000 gay men in the audience of Roseland Ballroom on that one night in June, but also from the Broadway dancers I had been auditioning and working with since I was twenty-two, the people in front of whom I felt I’d, somewhat clumsily, gone from being a boy to being a man.
But more than anything, my desire to be a lead strip bore the same kind of clawing at youth and delusional grandstanding that keeps people trapped in show business for decades. Just one last show, people tell themselves. Just one more audition, just one more unpaid showcase, just one more nude scene. For me, the lead strip would be my final blaze; I’d burn out in one last red giant explosion of narcissism. Then, I told myself, no more naked photo shoots, no more shirtless profile pictures, no more dancing in mesh at Chicago. I’d cover it up and become someone respectable that a yet to be identified person could bring home to their mother without worrying that I’d already been Google Imaged by the whole family.
Two weeks after I submitted my pictures and application to Broadway Cares, an email appeared in my Inbox with the subject, “Broadway Bares Offer.” The theme for this year’s show was “Happy Endings,” and each number would be based on a different classic fairytale, then given a raunchy twist. I had been cast in the Pinocchio number, which was to be choreographed by a Ms. Lorin Latarro, the viciously talented Broadway gypsy I’d known in a peripherally social way for years. The email from Broadway Cares didn’t specify who had been cast as the lead wooden boy, but it seemed to me I was the obvious choice. Me, with my prominent, pointed schnoz. Me, with my extensive experience dancing shirtless. But because I had no intention of performing in Bares unless I was a lead strip, I did what I had done during the past few months when the fear that I’d die alone and lonely overtook me: I Facebook bombed Lorin.
I had sent my fair share of messages to friends of friends (strangers) whose profile pictures were appealing; aggressive messages that I hoped were infused with light self-mocking, informal wit, blatant flattery, and base sexual innuendo. If I had considered the success rate of my Facebook-bomb dating campaign, I might have guessed what Lorin’s response would be, which was no response at all. My message to Lorin had pulsed with the unmistakable sweat of desperation, just as all my messages to potential dates had. Two days and still no reply later, I asked around among my friends and learned that someone else had already been cast as the lead strip. I sent a follow up message to Lorin that simply read, “I was having a moment. The moment has passed. Forgive me.”
I had two options: I could back out of Bares right then, or I could see what unfolded if one of my many conditions and qualifications in life wasn’t met.
A few weeks later, I found myself on the floor of a 42nd Street dance studio with the twelve other boys in the Pinocchio number, listening to a welcome speech given by one of Broadway Cares’ head honchos. I had become very familiar with that speech by participating in the other BC/EFA fundraisers throughout the year, the speech expounding upon the idea that those of us lucky enough to have come to New York after the worst of the AIDS epidemic would never be able to fully comprehend what it had been like. The fact was that, no, I couldn’t imagine what it had been like to show up to work at a Broadway show day after day, sign in at the callboard, and learn which of the cast and crew were still alive and who had died in the night. It was a time in history that was both too far removed and far too close to my current reality for me to ever truly make sense of.
But the Broadway Cares producer was saying something at that first rehearsal that I hadn’t heard before. He was making the point that every one of us taking part in Broadway Bares was an activist. What we were engaged in was a continuation of what had begun when those drag queens rioted at Stonewall in the summer of ’69, what Jerry Mitchell did when he danced in a g-string at Splash in order to both raise money for the friends dropping dead around him in the ‘90s and take the fear out of sex for gay men again, and what was happening now with gays and lesbians demanding the right to make the same mistakes our parents made and our siblings will make, getting married, divorced, and married again.
I had never thought of what we did at the various Broadway Cares events as even remotely comparable to what those queens, punks, street kids, and twinks did when they charged police barricades to keep the Stonewall Inn’s doors open. But I found a quote from a man named Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt saying that what made that mafia-owned, shit hole of a bar in Greenwich Village a place worth rioting for was that when you walked in, past the suit-wearing, straight-acting gay men cruising at the bar, you got to a back room where the drag queens held court by the juke box, and there, you could find men pressed cheek to cheek, swaying to the music, locked in a slow dance. Stonewall was a place these men could show an affection and a tenderness toward each other that they couldn’t have risked displaying elsewhere, even on the streets of Greenwich Village. Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt had been one of those queens lording over the back room. He is quoted as saying that, at the time, the gays were resigned to being locked-up in paddy wagons and jailed for dressing in drag; they were used to being degraded and belittled and beaten by homophobes on the street; they were even accustomed to the fact that calling themselves full citizens of the same United States as their straight friends was something of a joke. But when the police raided Stonewall for no reason other than that it was known to house homosexuals and cross-dressers, those queens went berserk. “If there’s one place in the world where you can dance and feel yourself fully as a person and that’s threatened with being taken away,” Lanigan-Schmidt has said. “Those are fighting words.”
When that first Bares rehearsal began and we got down to the business of learning our Pinocchio choreography, I began to think about the attention and validation I’d been chasing, and, for the first time, thought about something else that might be going on every year at Broadway Bares. The money raised was always impressive and necessary, the bodies on display were always painfully flawless, but maybe Bares was also the annual Stonewall riot of New York show folk. Maybe, more than anything else, we were coming together, getting buck-ass naked, and defending the space created by Stonewall and Jerry Mitchell and Harvey Milk and all those queens, divas, activists, and instigators who had come before us; the space where we could love on ourselves and on each other, be sexual and sexualized without fear of being beaten or locked up or killed by violence or by some cruel, indiscriminate disease; we were defending the space where we could come together, feel ourselves fully, and, above everything else, dance.
About two weeks before the Bares performance, I got a message from my buddy, Clifton, telling me about his friend, Gary. Clifton believed Gary might very well be my future husband. Gary was thirty-four, had attended Harvard and Yale, now worked in private equities, and was a nice Jewish boy from Cleveland.
I had to admit, I was not in the market for a husband, but, seeing as certain criterion had been met—financial solvency, Ivy League education, the understanding every Jew has of my relationship with my mother—I was willing to make a few concessions.
“Let me handle the introduction,” Clifton said. “I’ve introduced three of my friends to their future spouses. Trust me on this one.”
A week went by. Then another. Clifton disappeared into a busy work schedule while I became consumed with getting my body ready for Bares. Sometime in the three years between now and being painted green in the 2009 Bares, I had mislaid the mania I’d once possessed, the particular form of crazy that had allowed me to starve myself and pop diet pills in an effort to transform my body into looking like someone else. But, even while rehearsing for the Pinocchio number, I wasn’t delusional: I knew I was going to be dancing in front of not only 7,000 judge-y gay men at Roseland, but also in front of and among a few hundred toned, sculpted, supple-skinned performers, most of whom were a good many years my junior. So I employed a bit of the masochistic discipline every dancer has in reserve by staying away from alcohol, hitting the gym twice a day, and avoiding eating dinner at eleven o’clock as is the manner of most showpeople.
Then, three days before Bares, I received a text from Clifton, saying, “Guess who I’m bringing to the 9:30 show…”
“But shouldn’t I meet my husband while coming out of synagogue or in the reading room of the Morgan Library or something?” I replied.
“Listen, Donna Reed,” Clifton wrote back. “Every gay man should be lucky enough to meet their banker husband while looking snatched and being the object of seven thousand fantasies, ok?”
Knowing that my future-husband would be in the audience was the exact push I needed to get me through those last three days of rehearsal, gym time, and early dinners before Bares. I kept reminding myself of the larger picture—I’m a fighter! I’m an activist! I’m like those drag queens at Stonewall!—but I became obsessed with looking the way I assumed a thirty-four year old double-Ivy educated Jewish banker would want his twenty-nine year old chorus boy husband to look. I felt if I could pull off this one last scam, fool just one more person into believing that great abs and pecs and glutes just happen to be what my genetics blessed me with, I would no longer have to worry about where love and affection were going to be coming from in my life. With the marriage box checked off, I could pursue other things, bigger, more important things, things that did not include dancing with my clothes off.
By that Sunday, the day of the Bares performances, I had eliminated refined sugars and complex carbohydrates from my diet, I hadn’t had sex in longer than I could recall, and I most definitely would have begun slurring my words after just one glass of wine. In a way, I felt I had purified—no, re-virginized—myself for Gary.
The day began with a 9 am tech and spacing rehearsal. Because Chicago had a matinee and an evening show that day, I wasn’t going to be at the Bares dress rehearsal later that afternoon, and spacing through the number without lights, without a screaming audience inches from my feet, and without the nerve-fueled performance adrenaline was all I could expect. But I reasoned I had done the 2009 Bares without a dress rehearsal, and I hadn’t eaten for a month before that one, and still I’d been fine. I figured this year would be, in comparison, easy and breezy.
I didn’t have to perform at either the Chicago matinee or evening show that day. I think I slept in my dressing room, actually, and only saw my cast mates long enough for the women in the show to tell me they were worried about my weight and the boys in the show to tell me I looked fantastic. At 8:50 pm, I sprinted out of the Ambassador Theater stage door and ran up Broadway to the Roseland stage door entrance on 53rd Street. Bares wouldn’t begin for another thirty minutes, but dancers were congregated on the sidewalk—already in thongs, neon body paint, and layers of glitter—smoking cigarettes or just getting a reprieve from the thick, damp air in the overcrowded backstage area.
I went into Roseland, and downstairs, in the ensemble holding room, I found the rack of costumes marked “Pinocchio.” I was suddenly shy about stripping naked and stepping into a dance belt with all those people around. I reminded myself that everyone there had already been looking at naked bodies for hours while I was napping at the Ambassador, and one more bare ass in the air would be about as interesting to that crowd at that moment as a Mets game might have been.
After putting on my costume—brightly colored Harlequin pants and a checked vest that fastened and easily tore away by virtue of magnets sewn into the seams—I went to find the makeup station. The MAC artists had barely painted the black mask over my eyes and the hair people had just finished spraying my hair into a carefully combed helmet when a stage manager began pacing the holding room, yelling, “Pinocchio on deck, Pinocchio on deck.”
As I trundled up the stairs to the stage with the other boys in my number, I tried to review the choreography in my head and breathe deeply. The number before ours ended, the lights blacked out, and, in the darkness, the twelve of us rushed the stage. No sooner had the music begun and I had made my first choreographed, puppety move than my magnet-fastened shirt split open. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world: the shirt was to be ripped off by my dance partner in a few counts of eight anyway. But as he and I went for our first lift, I was focused on trying to keep my shirt from slipping off my arms, not about the fact that the dance shoes I was wearing for the first time might not find traction on that slippery Roseland stage. I wobbled when my feet hit the stage, but I didn’t fall on my face, not until about twenty-five seconds later, when I threw myself into an overly-aggressive split that my partner was choreographed to pick me up out of. My shoes were so slippery and my body was so jittery with nerves that both my dance partner and I collapsed in a heap on the floor downstage center.
We recovered quickly and kept dancing, but I spent the rest of the number pissed off, clenching my toes within my dance shoes, trying not to fall. When we got to the end of the number, I reached into my dance belt to grab the streamers that I was supposed to throw on the final button of our number. But I hadn’t considered just how tricky it might be to reach into my dance belt, grab the pack of streamers and situate them into the proper throwing position in my right hand while running the width of the stage and handing off a cane to another dancer with my left, all in one count of eight. So when the number ended and the lights blacked out, my hand was still groping hopelessly in my pants for a packet of streamers no one would ever see.
I was terrified of facing our choreographer’s disappointment—good thing I didn’t give you the lead strip, is what I assumed she was thinking—but Lorin said she hadn’t even noticed the blunders I felt had certainly ruined the number. It was then I remembered that this was another reason I had wanted to be a lead strip myself: if there’s a dude onstage wearing ass-less lederhosen, as our Pinocchio was, chances are no one is looking at the boy in Harlequin pants stage right.
By the end of the show, when I rushed the stage with the rest of the cast, danced the finale, listened to speeches about fundraising and safe sex, I was once again aware that, despite feeling as though participating in Bares was about something bigger, more important, than I’d ever acknowledged before, the ultimate reward for going through all that dieting and exercising and long hours of rehearsing was the fact that being ogled by thousands of strangers while dancing in little to no clothing is really a terrific ego massage. The rotation began, we all elbowed each other aside in an attempt to reach the edge of the stage, and commenced with bumping and grinding while strangers and familiar faces alike reached up to stuff dollar bills into our thongs and dance belts.
Just when I was thinking that the immediate gratification of dancing for dollar bills really did have some perks over dancing for a salary in a Broadway show, I spotted Clifton in the crowd. He indicated to his left, and there was Gary, handsome and put together in a button-down shirt and jeans. The contrast between Gary and all the tank top, short-short clad men in the audience imbued him with an otherworldly, shimmering kind of aura.
Gary smiled up at me. I bent down and put my face near his.
“Are you my husband?” I yelled over the thumping music.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding, his face opening into a broad grin. “I think so.”
Gary put a dollar bill in my dance belt and there, on the runway at Roseland, we began to kiss.
So it’s not the steps of Temple Beth Shalom, I thought to myself. But it’ll do.
Gary promised to get my number from Clifton, and the two of them faded back into the crowd. I kept dancing until the rotation ended, then deposited the soggy, crumpled dollar bills from my dance belt into the bags for Broadway Cares backstage. I headed down to the holding room to have my smeared makeup retouched and take a long swig from the jug of tequila Jerry Mitchell was passing from person to person. The room immediately began to sway in a pleasant, fuzzy way. Then the crowd of naked dancers seemed to part and Gary appeared, coming toward me, looking like Moses on casual-Friday. It was then I realized I had no idea what working in private equities meant and that I hadn’t really looked at Gary’s face before kissing him and declaring him my husband.
He was handsome, with sharp, defined cheek and jaw bones, a curved, prominent nose, and globular blue-gray eyes that seemed never to blink. As he stood before me, so close I could smell expensive hair product and a hint of the vodka he’d been drinking, he kept trying to look into my eyes and recreate the moment we’d shared on the runway. I became squirrely and twitchy under his gaze. My eyes began darting around the room, looking anywhere but into his. I heard myself begin to chatter mindlessly about how I’d fallen on my face in my number, how I could really use a slice of pizza, how the show this year had been better than any of the shows I’d seen in previous years.
Gary leaned in to kiss me, presumably to shut me up, but I pulled away, giggling—actually giggling. It had been so easy, out there under the lights with the music pumping and thousands of people watching, to believe that love could happen, just like that, from only a friend’s recommendation and a soft, public kiss. But backstage, in the sour-smelling, sweat-soaked, claustrophobic reality, I was having trouble feeling like anything but a fraud. I tried to re-establish the physical intimacy that had been so easy and instant on the runway by taking Gary out into a hallway, away from the unflattering florescent lights, the flashing cameras, and the squealing chorines. But all I could think as I tried to converse and kiss, kiss and converse, was that this thing I was presenting to him as me was impossible to sustain. I had tried to convince myself that I could marry someone I didn’t know anything about as long certain other qualifications were met. And I assumed that, at least in some capacity, Gary felt if he was going to be set up with some dancer, the obvious qualifications of snatched and striated had better be adhered to. I was very aware that Gary and I were approaching the jagged edge of a pretty serious let down. I would learn there was more to Gary than the schools he had attended and the stocks he had acquired, and he would learn that the creature from the runway was, once that intense discipline had waned, really just me. The fantasy would be gone and so would he, and it would be my fault for, once again, purporting to be something and someone I’m not, and for wanting to believe that a thing as messy and barbed as human connection could be formed from one kiss.
Gary left, leaving me with pledges he would call and a sense that I’d lost my chance at a hedge fund husband. The midnight show began and before I knew it, I was back on stage. I didn’t fall this time, I did get my streamers out of my dance belt for the final button of the number, and Broadway Cares ended up raising a record 1.2 Million dollars. I went to the after party at a gay bar one block away with my smudged Harlequin mask still painted on, and drank tequila and chatted with friends until the bar lights were turned on at 4am and we all shuffled out into the improbably cool, breezy night.
I woke up around noon the next day with a hangover and a sore throat that would develop into bronchitis within the week. I filled a prescription for antibiotics, missed a few days of work, and, while watching marathons of Brideshead Revisited and The West Wing on my couch, I had waffle fries and club sandwiches and cheesecake delivered from the diner down the block. I watched my body spring back to its normal, more sustainable appearance, and I tried not to mind all that much.
During those days on my couch, I thought about all the rioting and protesting, beginning with Stonewall and continuing onward, and about that all too recent moment when AIDS was still the great murderer of the gay population. These were eras and events that might, ultimately, remain beyond my understanding. But I felt they were also the kinds of awful inevitabilities that had allowed us—us meaning all of us—to get where we needed to go. Now gay men and women could show physical affection on the streets of Greenwich Village and drink where we wanted to drink and dance where we wanted to dance and fuck who we wanted to fuck. But still, after all the lives lost and all the wars waged, I didn’t know two men who now felt safe out in the wider, straighter world, locked in a slow dance. I hadn’t yet been to a gay marriage ceremony, but I supposed those men making vows and creating registries at Macy’s were dancing cheek to cheek at their own wedding receptions. But for those of us nowhere near binding our lives to another person, where could we go to let someone in past the physical, into our ugly inner worlds of anxieties, preposterous aspirations, unexplainable habits, and irrelevant, laughable aggressions aimed at decades-old grudges? Where was the riot ensuring that I would someday, once and for all, find it easier to, instead of first reaching for the aggressive, sexual touch, ask for a simple, quiet slow dance? What atrocious, inexorable event did I have to live through, what conditions and qualifications did I have to first concede to, before I could stop believing in the fantasy of perfect bodies and the necessity of disposable incomes and the glories of sport fucking, before I could feel safe, locked in a much closer, much more terrifying kind of slow dance.