J.D. Isip

we were lost and didn’t know which star
was north

Javier Zamora, “June 10, 1999”

Heaven is Rage in WeHo—a mess of lights and music and young, beautiful bodies that are themselves light and music. It’s 1999, and the world is about to end or begin again. Some people say God is a collection of all of us, of everything as it melts back into itself. Two cocktails down and a shot Marcus shoves into my hand, “Some courage, Bitch!” and he kisses me on the cheek. I kiss him back, smiling at Christian and Joe and Kelly and Fernando, “Courage!” 

Rage was born in the 80s. At the height of all the dying, here was sanctuary.

Everything is God and everything is good. Our shirts are off. We’ve been at the 24-Hour Fitness under the marina for weeks getting ready for Pride. I wore a trench coat over my shirt and shorts at gym class all through junior high, and here I am sweating, a little drunk, letting friends and strangers run their hands across my chest and back, along my arms, and I feel light and happy, happier than I can ever remember feeling in my life. 

“Oh, we’re already naked drunk?” Craig is dancing with two handfuls of shots. The Boys all dive in and drink up. He’s holding two last little glasses, Morpheus in the Matrix, “I only have these two left and no way to take off my shirt.” I laugh at him and reach for one. He pulls it back, “I just have to get this shirt off.” Marcus comes from behind, pulls Craig’s tank over his head in one fluid motion, still dancing, “Give the boy his drink and both of you get your asses out here!”

I met Craig almost ten years earlier, the first openly gay man I ever knew. He had a ponytail, wore a vest, and talked about sports like they interested him. Josh kept telling me we should meet, said it would be good for me. Honestly, it would be good for Josh, too. I worshipped most of my straight friends; these uniformly Lakewood-handsome, boyband white boys—Bobby, Casey, Justin, Josh. In the 90s having a gay friend had a certain street cred (like having a trans friend now), but none of them were interested, or at least openly so (like teasing your trans friend now). 

Josh had been weird ever since that night we got drunk on Zima and punch and his girlfriend, Rose, dared us to kiss, and we didn’t stop for a little too long. Josh started to kiss Rose but kept holding my hand. I awkwardly felt Rose up while she started giving him a handy, and Josh pulled my handy tight against his ass pressing it so I felt the muscles—swim team glutes—squeeze and contract three or four time as he came. He looked past Rose’s hair into my eyes for a moment, then let my hand go and closed his eyes. Rose asked me to not wake her parents on the way out. Afterward, we’d have lunch or go to a movie, and Josh would ask if I had seen Craig. I should really see Craig.

Rage is packed. Go-Go boys on black boxes, Janet Jackson on the screens, every drink tastes like cough syrup and tin. We only ever leave the dancefloor to piss or make out with the random ex. Craig is lean and muscular, the best abs out of all of us, curly brown hair already wet in sweat, his skin reflects the red and yellow strobes. I feel the heat of his breath on my cheek and ear. I think that’s Kelly’s chiseled chest pressed into my back. We are melting into each other. We are good.

“No, no,” Marcus folds his hand around Kelly’s, “None for this girl (he means me), we want to find her in the morning.” They tap the little tablets in a toast and toss them back. I don’t need it. I already feel invincible, my arms keep reaching up. I think of standing next to my mother in church, how she lifted her hands and told me later we were holding up Jesus. I picture Jesus looks a little like Craig when I met him, his long hair out of the ponytail, his pierced hands holding two shots, his lovely body walking across an ocean that used to be light and music and men, held up by whatever wish or hope or faith or alphabetical pill we place into our mouths, “This is my body,” lifting our hands up, fever dancing, melting, “Do this in remembrance of me,” more drinks, more hands, more light and love than some of us have ever known.

A place where things
were said and done,
there you can remember
what you need to 
remember. Melancholy is useful. Bring yours.

Li-Young Lee, “With Ruins”

It’s New Year’s Eve. We are counting down, champagne in hand, all of us more tired than we want to admit. I’ve just seen myself in a mirror and wonder how he fits here anymore. These are people I love: Shonna, Shannan, Marcus, William, Philip, Craig. And I don’t know them anymore. How invisible will this next new year make us to one another? Three, two, one… Craig is kissing me. It’s awkward, my mouth tastes like beer, champagne, shock. I push him back. “This is what you always wanted, J.D.” he says – I see his lips say these words, I wonder even as he is speaking, Is it?

I wrote to him every year I was in the Air Force. Flirted. Told him about the guys, the shifts, the new bases, my newfound Christianity. Told him a lot about that. And he was patient, indulgent. Didn’t flirt back. Was genuinely concerned I’d get myself found out. Surprise: I did. I got back and figured I “had a shot” for some reason. This is how I took my shot: sent my twin brother, my very straight twin brother, with roses to his apartment. Joseph must’ve owed me big time, or maybe it was a moment when he thought his recently discharged twin needed a win. “He asked me if I wanted to come in,” Joseph told me later, “I don’t know which one of us was more embarrassed.”

Would you believe I pulled the same rose thing a year later with a guy named Robert? At least I slept with that guy. It was fine. A lot of build-up for fine to tell the truth. Joseph didn’t deliver that one. Instead, I left them on his car, and Shonna and I hid in her van to watch Robert get off work. The van was filthy. There were rotting oranges she forgot were on the floor. We laughed about those oranges and the roses and my terrible romancing for hours, for years. “Are you okay?” Craig asks, a little high, a little confused, “I’m sorry, J.D. It’s just a kiss.”

Just. Two days after rehab we were at Christopher’s for some big, lavish party. Christopher, a party planner to millionaires who acted like he was one; Christopher who I worked a party for once, who pulled me aside and told me, “You are here to serve, not to talk. Don’t talk to these people, don’t put ideas into their heads.” I thought he was cruel, but he was smart, calculating… worldly wise, wiser than me anyhow. I still feel raw, Dan is here for me to moon over, indifferent, and Christopher is super charged for some reason. “J.D. sleeps in my room,” he announces as we separate off. Dan seems relieved. Chris is fitter than I imagined, and hard, pressing into me. I kiss his arm, “I don’t know if I can,” I start to say. He kisses my neck and back, “It’s just sex, baby,” his hands are everywhere, “it doesn’t have to mean anything.”

I haven’t talked to Christopher since that night. I look at Craig and think about not talking to him forever, “Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. It just caught me off guard.” He smiles. Craig has the best smile. I mean, aesthetically, Marcus has the best smile, but Craig’s is goofy and childlike, sincere.

I was waiting tables, dating around, drifting, and Craig decided to go to Santa Cruz and get his degree. We wrote again. We knew each other then, real friends. I gave him grief about his leanings toward Twinks; he gave me grief about becoming a “full grown fag.” Here was my gay mentor and first crush, and he was still in the closet with his family. At his graduation, he made me take the Pride sticker off my car and told me to tone it down at dinner. He was so afraid. All these people gathered to celebrate him, a gorgeous Santa Cruz night, the promise of the wide Pacific, and Craig was terrified. 

His father just passed away a month ago. I remember first meeting him at that dinner, seeing Craig and his brother in that face, feeling his too-strong grip, seeing him measure me up. “I’m just a friend,” I thought, but maybe he heard just like me, like a word that is bullshit. Craig did come out to his dad before he died, and his dad was great – really great. “Why did I wait so long?” Craig said one night at The Silver Fox, “Why do we wait so long, J.D.?” His mom had just died, and he knew his dad was getting worse. For decades, I hadn’t thought about kissing him. But at that moment, I wanted to. It wasn’t lust, but something else. I wanted that fairy tale gift of making everything better with my lips, with as much love as I could put into them to say, “The curse is broken.”

But I didn’t do that. “I wish you were here,” he texts me. Can you imagine him saying those words to me in my twenties? This is the inelegant way that time or God or fate or all of them tie up the loose ends. I think of sending flowers or some other inept gesture toward love. Instead, I type “Me too” kiss emoji. We both mean it. This is what you always wanted.

J.D. Isip (he/him) published his first collection of poetry, Pocketing Feathers, with Sadie Girl Press (2015). His second collection, Number Our Days, is forthcoming from Moon Tide Press (2023). His works—including poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and plays— have appeared in many magazines and journals including Ethel Zine, Borderlands, Pilgrimage Press, Poetry Quarterly, and Sandpiper. He is a full-time English professor in Plano, Texas.