In Public Save a Life, Drink Outside
Protecting each other from harm? Caring about one another even when it’s hard? Is it too corny to say that I’ll drink to that?
“It’s your birthday! Meet me at 10:00 a.m., and we ’ll walk to the park.”
I rolled my eyes, but I didn’t say no. I couldn’t say no to him. For him, I took a weekday off work—and I never took weekdays off work. And I hated day drinking then, but for him— for him —I would day drink.
Six inches of snow fell the night before. I wore my hiking boots with Gortex and wool socks to keep dry and warm. We stopped to pet Balto the Dog, a bronze statue just inside Central Park, frozen to the touch, and he pulled out a bottle of bubbles, and he pulled out some jus d’orange, and he pulled out a champagne flute, real glass! I held the drink in mitten-covered hands and took a sip.
It was all so silly. It was all so impractical. It was February, for fuck’s sake! He’d done so many small nice things to put it all together. The drink bubbled on my tongue. This is what laughter feels like , I thought to myself, in drink form . It might have been my first-ever mimosa. Mimosas before 11:00 a.m. bundled on a snowy walk in Central Park. I’d lived in New York for less than a year. Out to myself, and then others, and then everyone, as bisexual, I’d just broken it off with my long-distance girlfriend. Andrei was there to make me feel better, against my will, and to remind me that there were other fish in the sea, and that New York itself was a veritable fish ladder.
Andrei was older than me, in grad school, from Poland, short-haired with a cropped beard, and gay. Unbidden, he said, “All the bisexuals came to New York eventually. You’re destined to catch one sooner or later. And probably sooner!”
I almost spit mimosa out of my nose, and it burned somewhere in my sinuses.
Thirteen years later to the day, my social circle shrunk overnight to the size of one. I—by then a homosexual and a molecular microbiologist—celebrated my birthday in late February 2020. It was the last time I would see anyone for nearly four months. I walked past gays and straights streaming out of brunches in SoHo on my way to the Laundromat; I knew what was coming for us, but like an episode of The Twilight Zone , the world was humming along like everything was fine. Everything was not fine. Work was remote and relentless. Covid activism was nonstop; everything was broken. I was nervous to even jog outside, let alone take off my face mask and drink with my open mouth—and in the company of other people and their breath? No. No way. Not for a thousand clams.
In New York City, there was an absolute lack of reliable and accurate information. Hospitals were so overwhelmed with sick and dying patients that they kept dead bodies in refrigerated trucks. Everything shut down. Restaurants and bars. Social gatherings were all canceled. We didn’t know when it would be different, when we could safely meet friends and strangers again. In three weeks? By Easter? My scientist friends knew that once Covid went global, it would likely disrupt us and our newly dangerous social interactions for weeks, for months, for years, even. But everyone, and even Andrei, called me crazy.
Then a friend sent me a research preprint , originally published online on April 7. The researchers, in Hong Kong, studied 318 Covid-19 outbreaks among 7,324 cases in 120 cities. Of these cases, most transmissions occurred within the home or on transport. Only one transmission occurred outside.
By May, between this study and a few other contact-tracing reports, I was convinced: Outdoor gatherings weren’t totally risk-free when it came to Covid-19 transmission, but they were pretty good, nearly safe. And we humans aren’t islands. We can’t be isolated from one another entirely and forever. To protect ourselves and each other in the pandemic—while satisfying our mutual need for connection, for one another—outdoor social events were safe enough, as safe as we could get.
Even this knowledge took time to seep into my body, which had begun reflexively pulling away from others, even outside. But yes: I took off my mask when running and biking. I almost laughed at how much easier it was to fill my lungs, how precious fresh air feels against naked skin. This felt like a small freedom, one I freely took knowing it would not harm others—the only type of freedom I’m interested in.
To protect ourselves and each other in the pandemic—while satisfying our mutual need for connection, for one another—outdoor social events were safe enough, as safe as we could get.
But I still didn’t see my friends, even outdoors. I didn’t want to get sick—or worse, to get them sick. Summer’s release from my teaching responsibilities felt stagnant with a social circle of two, just me and my bae. Yes, we did adopt a dog, and I loved him, but that didn’t do it either. We faggots deserve to see our friends. And, then, he came home.
In the years since Balto and snow and mimosas, I’d never left New York for more than a month. But Andrei had: First, San Francisco; then Germany; then Los Angeles. Andrei wasn’t at my birthday party in February 2020—drinks indoors, Nowhere Bar on Fourteenth Street. By May, there he was. He’d moved back! And there I was, helping him cart his things into an Upper East Side rental. He had isolated for a week after his flight from LA, and I was the first person he saw once he was free. He needed help, and helping him seemed worth the risk. He asked for a hug. Masked, I offered an elbow.
Two weeks later, New York’s spring was in bloom. We all sneezed, the masks barely helped with the pollen, my N95s were smeared with my snot, but who cared, as long as it wasn’t Covid. We could go outside again, in shorts, in T-shirts. We could meet up again. Do you want to go for a walk? Shall we bring wine to the park? Outside was safest.
And there we were, Andrei and me, back in Central Park, but on its north end now. Grass, no snow. Our drink: rosé from cans and fresh crushed strawberries, in season. We laid together on blankets, out in a wide field, one of the only places in Manhattan where New York has much sky. Oh, there was sky! My head on his chest as he slept and I read, wine in my hand, sunscreen smell on my skin.
It felt good to be with him. It felt good to be outdoors, where our shared air was, we knew, safer—less stagnant, fresh. And to touch a human who wasn’t my boyfriend, to lie together, to sip some wine and let the sun warm our skin: What did we do to deserve such joy? Who knows, but here it was anyway.
And we needed it. And I needed it. Come fall, I was forced back inside classrooms; we didn’t know if they’d be safe. All through the winter, until the vaccine, I didn’t fly, I didn’t eat out, I didn’t go to a bar. I cooked for Andrei and Ngofeen—my pod—and, as the months passed, walked with other friends in the park, adding layers, a coat, a scarf, a hat. Even mittens.
For a few weeks in 2021, after vaccinations took hold, I thought we were in the clear. Cases in New York dipped down to near a hundred a day in this city of eight million. I went back to bars—The Eagle! The Cock! Boxers!—and didn’t worry too much when the masks came off. I kissed boys on their cheeks, old friends I hadn’t seen in years, friends of friends I met for the first time. Their faces felt new to me, this faggot tradition of touching cheeks touching lips, generations old. Friendly touch can be erotic when we’ve gone so long with so little. Drinking indoors, drinking anywhere, being together, worry fading, all this felt good and right and true. We’d been through it. And now we could try to heal, and now we could remember, and now we could be together again.
That moment didn’t last, not exactly, not for me. This thing is not leaving us alone. Now, in 2022, it’s not Alpha, but Beta and Delta, not just Omicron, but Omicron 2.0 (BA.2.12 and now BA.4 and BA.5). I take my epidemiologist friends’ advice: Look up the cases in your city, and when they’re high, add masks and take gatherings outside. I felt good when my city of millions had only a hundred cases of Covid-19 a day. Today, as I write this, it’s 3,500. I listen to my epidemiologist friends: So many people are getting tested at home, which means we’re undercounting cases now; be aware that you may be underestimating the risk. Currently, the percent of positive tests in New York City is 13.9, an indication of how bad testing is—that number should be close to 1 percent if we’re testing well, and certainly less than 5 percent if you can take the number of cases being found seriously.
It’s not even just Covid-19 either. Recently, monkeypox crept into the news. Fear and anxiety and emergency vaccine-appointment slots were all we talked about, we being men who have sex with men and our sexual networks. (Lord knows trans and cis women do also fuck men who have sex with men, mostly because we’re all great at sex beyond the binary.) So we got the old crew together: mostly queer HIV, STI, and Covid activists. James, Keletso, and I started writing. Days of edits later, all our work done on Zoom, the piece seemed on the brink of being killed. James implored me to come out. To The Eagle.
“Get a drink with me!”
I didn’t want to be at The Eagle, crowded as it was, with Covid cases in our city spiking once again.
“The roof is open!”
So, because we could be outside on the roof, I agreed. On the train there, we got fact-checking notes and copy edits, and James and I, not shirtless but at The Eagle, wrote the editors back. I had a beer, and James a Red Bull, and the beer was watery cool against the city summer night. Gay sluts trying to protect gay sluts, trying to keep spaces like The Eagle safer for the people—our people.
After we pushed send, the rain started coming down. They closed the roof. I ran into a boy I once dated on my way downstairs. He was just as beautiful as ever, tall and shirtless and smiling at me. Once I got downstairs in my mask, it was too crowded. No. This didn’t feel safe. Drinking outside with gays felt holy; drinking inside made my body tight with anxiety. I wanted to care for myself and others. It feels good to care for myself and others. Tipsy, I left and walked to the train in the drizzle.
What a joy it is to minimize the risk of harm to ourselves and each other.
What a joy it is to minimize the risk of harm to ourselves and each other. What a joy it is, winter or summer, on a balcony or a roof, in a park, on the street, to meet with a friend face to face and share a drink—or a juice or a tea or, hell, even a water, if they don’t drink. I’ve heard great things about Trader Joe’s Lemon Ginger Echinacea juice (100 percent juice!). Me, I love hot toddies—I had one on a cold November night meeting with a friend to talk about our trauma, their recent breakup, my recent loss. We shivered and pulled each other a little closer. I let the drink warm me from the inside. I got home bone cold, cold boned, but happy to have connected in a way, outside, more likely to leave us both full of companionship, yes, but safer from a virus that is still here, that seems not to be going anywhere, and that can still do us harm.
This summer, after my book launch for my new collection of essays , I walked ten blocks south to an Irish pub with an outdoor area. When I arrived, the heavens opened, a summer storm. And there was a dozen of my friends, waiting for me, smiling. The outdoor section had seating, and the bar had food, and the open sides of the structure let in the breeze and just a bit of the rain itself. It felt like sitting on a summer porch, thunder in the distance. It felt like relief and love and joy.
I sat between my boyfriend and Andrei, sipped a beer, closed my eyes, and let the breeze blow against the skin on the back of my neck, raindrops and conversation bubbling up from all around me. Protecting each other from harm? Caring about one another even when it’s hard, even when it requires sacrifice and chilly fingers? Is it too corny to end with I will drink to that ?