Gay Ghosts II: Safe


"Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them. You simply say, 'Here are the perimeters of our attention. If you prowl around under the windows till the crickets go silent, we will pull the shades. If you wish us to suffer your envious curiosity, you must permit us not to notice it.' Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire."

- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

"What’s noticeable about gay bars in the main is not their status as centers for public political organization but their anonymity. Equality also means the right to a space of one’s own, and gay bars represent a sort of separateness, or freedom from scrutiny, that’s available nowhere else in the culture. Unlike members of other marginalized groups defined by ethnicity or religion, gay people do not grow up in families comprised of people who share their demographic profile. There is, at first, no mother tongue to describe their experience of life, no traditions to bind themselves to the world. Gay bars are where gay people have, historically, found one another to learn that language and those traditions — and to invent them. Being gay is not a religion, but a place in which people come together to celebrate who they are in the face of life’s obstacles could be compared to a church."

- Daniel D’Addario, "The Gay Bar as Safe Space Has Been Shattered," time.com, June 12, 2016

In the children’s story of Ferdinand the Bull,
the bull gets off. He sits down, won’t fight.
He manages to walk out of the ring without that
sharp poke of steel being shoved through
his back and deep into his heart. He returns
to the ranch and the sniffing of flowers.
But in real life, once the bull enters the ring,
then it’s a certainty he will leave ignominiously,
dragged out by two mules while the attention of
the crowd rivets on the matador, who, if he’s good,
holds up an ear, taken from the bull, and struts
around the ring, since it is his business to strut
as it is the bull’s business to be dragged away.

It is the original eagerness of the bull which
take’s one’s breath. Suddenly he is there, hurtling
at the barrier, searching for something soft and
human to flick over his shoulder, trying to hook
his horn smack into the glittering belly
of the matador foolish enough to be there.
But there is a moment after the initial teasing
when the bull realizes that ridding the ring
of these butterfly creatures is not what
the afternoon is about. Sometimes it comes with
the first wrench of his back when the matador
turns him too quickly. Sometimes it comes
when the picador is driving his lance into
the bull’s crest–the thick muscle between
the shoulder blades. Sometimes it comes when
the banderillos place their darts into that same
muscle and the bull shakes himself, trying to
free himself of that bright light in his brain.
Or it may come even later, when the matador
is trying to turn the bull again and again,
trying to wrench that same muscle which he uses
to hold up his head, to charge, to toss a horse.
It is the moment the bull stops and almost thinks,
when the eagerness disappears and the bull
realizes these butterflies can cause him pain,
when he turns to hunt out his querencia.

It sounds like care: querencia–and it means
affection or fondness, coming from querer,
to want or desire or love, but also to accept
a challenge as in a game, but it also means
a place chosen by a man or animal–querencia–
the place one cares most about, where one is
most secure, protected, where one feels safest.
In the ring, it may be a spot near the gate
or the place he was first hurt or where
the sand is wet or where there’s a little blood,
his querencia, even though it looks like any
other part of the ring, except this is the spot
the bull picks as his home, the place he will
defend and keep returning to, the place where
he again decides to fight and lifts his head
despite the injured muscle, the place the matador
tries to keep him away from, where the bull,
sensing defeat, is most dangerous and stubborn.

The passage through adulthood is the journey
through bravado, awareness, and resignation
which the bull duplicates in his fifteen minutes
in the ring. As for the querencia, we all have
a place where we feel safest, even if it is only
the idea of a place, maybe an idea by itself,
the place that all our being radiates out from,
like an ideal of friendship or justice or perhaps
something simpler like the memory of a back porch
where we laughed a lot and how the setting sun
through the pine trees shone on the green chairs,
flickered off the ice cubes in our glasses.
We all have some spot in our mind which we
go back to from hospital bed, or fight with
husband or wife, or the wreckage of a life.
So the bull’s decision is only the degree
to which he decides to fight, since the outcome
is already clear, since the mules are already
harnessed to drag his body across the sand.
Will he behave bravely and with dignity or
will he be fearful with his thick tongue lolling
from his mouth and the blood making his black
coat shiny and smooth? And the audience, no matter
how much it admires the matador, watches the bull
and tries to catch a glimpse of its own future.

At the end, each has a knowledge which is just
of inevitability, so the only true decision
is how to behave, like anyone supposedly–
the matador who tries to earn the admiration
of the crowd by displaying grace and bravery
in the face of peril, the bull who can’t
be said to decide but who obeys his nature.
Probably, he has no real knowledge and,
like any of us, it’s pain that teaches him
to be wary, so his only desire in defeat
is to return to that spot of sand, and even
when dying he will stagger toward his querencia
as if he might feel better there, could
recover there, take back his strength, win
the fight, stick that glittering creature to the wall,
while the matador tries to weaken that one muscle–
the animal all earnestness, the man all deceit–
until they come to that instant when the matador
decides the bull is ready and the bull appears
to submit by lowering his head, where the one
offers his neck and the other offers his belly,
and the matador’s one hope is for a clean kill,
that the awful blade of the horn won’t suddenly
rear up into the white softness of his groin.

One October in Barcelona I remember watching
a boy, an apprentice, lunge forward for the kill
and miss and miss again, how the bull would fling
the sword out of his back and across the ring,
and again stagger to his feet and shake himself,
and how the boy would try again and miss again,
until his assistant took a dagger and stabbed
repeatedly at the spinal cord as the bull tried
to drag himself forward to that place in the sand,
that querencia, as the crowd jeered and threw
their cushions and the matador stood back ashamed.
It was cold and the sun had gone down. The brightly
harnessed mules were already in the ring, and everyone
wanted to forget it and go home. How humiliating
it seemed and how hard the bull fought at the end
to drag himself to that one spot of safety, as if
that word could have any meaning in such a world.

QUOTES CITED IN PASSAGE; POEM, "QUERENCIA," BY STEPHEN DOBYNS; INTERIOR IMAGES VIA PULSEORLANDO.COM, THE WASHINGTON POST, CLUBZONE.COM, AND YELP