“Voting isn’t marriage,” a girl on the grass said.
Groups of students were spaced six feet apart from each other on Columbia University’s South Lawn. I was lying on my back, feeling the grass in the spaces between my fingertips, noticing the rise and fall of my stomach. I could hear car horns on 116th Street not too far away, and the occasional whooping and cheering from people on the sidewalk. It rose and fell like my abdomen, breathing.
I don’t really get hungover, but I was a little worn out from the previous night when my roommates and some friends had blown off some election steam. In between the drinking games and general drama that seems to occur anytime you get a group of queer people in the same room, there had been moments of somber reflection. We hoped, but we didn’t know.
Now, Pennsylvania had just been called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I had been in Zoom therapy when I found out, and some guy outside my therapist’s apartment had started playing “America the Beautiful” on a saxophone. Then I took the M60 to Columbia’s campus — where I was a grad student — waving out the window at the groups of people congregating and dancing in the streets, some with signs, some with pots and pans. I felt, as I have never quite felt before, part of something.
I had come to campus to lie on the grass, to listen to the breath of the universe. “Voting isn’t marriage,” the girl six feet away said to her friend who had objected that Biden wasn’t the ideal candidate. “It’s public transportation. You’re not picking the love of your life; you’re riding whoever gets you to the next stop.”
And Biden would get us a little further — except, I thought. Except, the notion of marriage rights being taken away by the Supreme Court. Except, the Republicans in the Senate and the House. Except, the pandemic. Except, continued police brutality against Black and brown bodies. Now was a moment to breathe; I was trying to remember that. But I wasn’t so sure I was ready to dance yet.
Later, my roommate Anna and I went out with our neighbor Mike. We all went to the Stonewall Inn, my first time being there since I’d arrived in the city. “What a f*cking time to go,” Mike said, and while we walked from the subway station, we talked about the history. We sipped from an overpriced bottle of rosé as pride flags began to dot the crowd. My people were waiting for me; I was coming to them. I could feel it.
It was the most people I had been around since the start of the pandemic. We popped champagne, we drank rosé, we indulged in some trashy bodega hard seltzers. We couldn’t get a table at Stonewall, so we hung out in Christopher Park as men made out with men and women made out with women to the sway of the rhythm we were all moving to.
The night was just starting to get dark. The wine tasted pink and watery, dry. We were tightly packed, but masked, and the beat of the city, the cacophony of car horns blasting on the street next to us, made us feel closer to each other, made us feel like part of something. The world started to blur around me, rainbow colored lights across the street, kisses shared freely. I felt as though my heart was rising up through my throat, rioting inside of me. I could feel the beat of my pulse. This was where I was always meant to be.
I wasn’t ready to dance but — maybe it was the drinking– I was swaying my hips.
Moving my hips like yeah. Nodding my head like yeah. Four floors up, someone with a speaker had started blasting music — Gaga, Miley, Aretha, a little Sinatra for good measure. We started a kickline — just the three of us, first, and then more people, our legs rising and falling. “This is my city now,” I told Anna; I had only moved here two months before, and was careful not to cling too quickly to the title of New Yorker, awkward and newbie and baby-faced as I was.
“I claim this city,” I hollered. I claimed the queer people in it, and we danced. We danced fast, and we danced slow. More friends came — Dmitri, Adam, Gabriel, Izzy, Luz — and then we decided the scene was getting too crowded to be considered safe in the middle of a pandemic.
We wound up at the Chelsea Pier, lights twinkling across the water. “Do you ever think about just jumping in?” Izzy asked me. Izzy is a bad bitch, and they want the world to know that. The notion of self-destruction sparked something in me, and I clung to the bench I was straddling, nodding enthusiastically.
“L’appel du vide,” I said. “It’s French. You ever think about jumping in front of a subway train?”
“Oh, I’m a suicidal whore,” they said. Stevie Nicks was playing from someone’s speaker: “Edge of Seventeen.” I was still swaying back and forth. I could feel the lights on the water, I could feel them twinkling. The notion struck me like a poisoned apple — malaise and blue in the middle of a magical moment. I tried to remember that we had voted out a despot and were welcoming in a democratic leader, that we had made it through a fair election, and that that was something to celebrate — even if the world didn’t quite feel right.
“Times Square at 8 PM,” Dmitri said. Dmitri took such good care of us, doing vibe checks, making sure we were all drinking water. At Halloween, one of his friends had done drag for the first time. It takes a village to raise a queer, we all said. We helped him get ready, helped him become her. And when he was her, she said that she had never felt so cared for, even when she was in the hospital.
“We’ll watch the speech,” he said. He was carrying a tambourine. He guided us back to the subway station, raising it high above his head and shaking it at cars that passed by.
No one noticed me crying in Times Square. Or, at least, I don’t think anyone noticed me crying. If anyone did, they didn’t say anything. There were too many people to carry on anything resembling a conversation. My face was half-hidden by a mask, and I was wearing waterproof mascara.
I couldn’t even tell you why I was crying, exactly. There was so much going on inside my head while we waited for the Vice President-elect and President-elect to take the stage. There was the personal: I didn’t know how the girl I liked felt about me. There was the community: I had found a truly magical group of people to hold me, and I had never felt held before, not ever. There was the historic: The world was changing and I felt like a part of it (not to mention I was pretty drunk). The tears were a release — happy and sad at the same time. Or maybe not happy and not sad at all; maybe just an expression of being overwhelmed.
Anna let me put an arm around their shoulders to prop myself up. At the pier, the whole group of us had posed for a photo and gotten someone off the street to take it for us. I had been in the stage of drunkenness that meant that I couldn’t quite see the image when I looked at it, and so now, a little bit sober in the middle of Times Square, I pulled out my phone and looked at it again.
“This is what community looks like,” Dmitri had said. The only other time I had gone to Times Square had been for a Black Lives Matter protest — my first time in Times Square and also my first protest.
Anna had taken me to that protest. I trusted them. I wasn’t physical with very many people, but I wanted to be. I had never understood before that touch was a love language that I could actually speak in. They were my friend, so they let me lean on them until I had stopped crying.
We both had to pee — something rather difficult to do in NYC in the middle of a pandemic, let alone in Times Square. So as Kamala Harris came on screen, Anna took my hand and led me down the street in search of somewhere to go to the bathroom — anywhere but Chick-fil-A.
I read the speeches later and was moved by them. But when the speeches were being given, I was still halfway drunk in a Shake Shack bathroom thinking about how lucky I was to have found the people that I’d found. And I was moved by that, too — that I had this group of people, that I could turn to Anna and tell them that I needed something and they would tell me they had my back.
We made it back to Harlem, to the building where Anna, Dmitri, and I lived. We lit a joint with our neighbor, Sid who is also queer and probably the first cis man I have ever allowed myself to trust, depend on, and befriend. He is a warm and loving person, an empath. “I thought we could do stoop karaoke,” Arjun said.
I didn’t really trust myself to sing in front of people. But I had danced, and if I could dance, I could do anything. Besides, these people were good at figuring out what I needed, pushing me to be the person I could be — the person I was afraid to be.
The four of us ended up belting out “La Vie Boheme” from memory to the chagrin of neighbors trying to get past us into the apartment building. These were theater people, and though I had never acted, could barely sing, and had never worked backstage, I was drawn to theater people. I was glad I lived with them, drawn to these people with their energy and their creativity and their way of making magic without even trying.
“That was bucket list for me,” I said to Sid.
I wasn’t sure how to explain it. It wasn’t just that “RENT” was the first musical that made me feel seen or made me want to move to New York. I wanted to explain how much this moment meant to me, and I felt like I did that too much, detracting from the moment by trying to explain the moment, or setting it aside in my head to write about it later. It’s difficult for me to be fully present; I’m too much of a writer for that. But singing that song, I was in the moment.
The evening ended with Sid playing his guitar, us singing with him on the stoop. He sang “Fast Car.” He sang “Is This It?” It was like he was making a “Welcome To the City, Baby Dyke” playlist for me, the gayest music he could possibly think of, and I was eating it up. He sang songs with an exquisite sort of melancholy and cynicism. I wanted to be romantic and sentimental. I wanted him to play “As Time Goes By.” But in between the weed and the flow of conversation, I forgot to ask him to.
It’s hard to be a romantic. On the episode of “SNL” that he hosted that night, Dave Chapelle called Trump an optimist; that isn’t the kind of optimism I mean. I think I lose myself in romanticism sometimes the way I lost myself in dance.
I reached the peak of my high as I was crawling into bed, having said my goodnights to Anna, Sid, and Dmitri. I thought of what I had said when I was drunk: that this was my city now, and that these were my people. My city had taken a giant breath today, and my people were waiting to see what came next.
I loved these people, and I was beginning to think that they cared about me, too. I would protect them. I would fight for them. That’s what community is, and that’s what love is. The night Biden became President-elect, I was surrounded by people I would go to great lengths to protect and care for.
That’s what’s gotten us through the last four years. That’s what’ll get us through the next four years.