As a gift to my girlfriend I went back into the closet for the night of her wedding. I hated the idea, but our mutual friends convinced me to find more productive outlets for my militancy. She comes from a large Palestinian family, and I was persuaded that there was no harm in toning down my love of men for the duration of her nuptial feast.
“Besides, they could very well ask you to leave if they catch you hunting groomsmen,” pointed out a close friend who had already met the family.
Ask me to leave? My exposure to the ways of Arab men was admittedly limited, but I had heard of their protectiveness. Her family was traditional enough to plan the wedding halal, so no alcohol would be served and I would have no room to misbehave. The idea of a dry wedding was foreign to me, but so were the guests.
My girlfriends and I had our own table, which stood out from the masses of cousins, second cousins, and great aunts filling the rented banquet hall. Everyone but ourselves seemed Middle Eastern in origin. I was the cherished gay in a group of the most covetable single women I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. We loved weddings, and every wedding we’d attended thus far had ended with my girls owning the dance floor, dancing their hearts out while enchanted young men summoned the courage to join. By finding my way to the centers of these dance circles I would broadcast my closeness to the girls, so that whenever I would leave them for a drink I would instantly have buds, bros, dudes, and buddies I didn’t have before. I never tired of the attention it gave me. I imagine the effect is similar to finding a handsome magazine model interested in learning your name.
After the ceremony was finished and the dinner was eaten, the dancing began. It was a while before the hired troupe of traditional dancers finished their show and the DJ exhausted his playlist of Middle Eastern pop songs. My girlfriends and I clapped from the sidelines. The melodies had life and felt appropriate to the romance of the occasion, but not knowing any Arabic, we couldn’t connect to the moment. We could only observe it, which was pleasant until our feet started to hurt from standing. By the time we heard familiar music, the crowd had already loosened up without us. It didn’t take us long to catch up, but it was some time before I noticed things were not how I expected them: enchanted young men were not surrounding us. Ignoring the music for a moment, I studied my girlfriends. Their dancing didn’t have its usual confidence and their expressions looked dejected. They weren’t enjoying the Palestinian flavor of the wedding. Their furrowed brows and side-glances drew my eyes to the gyrating mass of young men occupying the center of the dance floor. Not one was paying any attention to the girls of my gang or the veiled young women in distant orbit around the banquet hall. I was stunned. These dapper emirs were dancing with each other, and enjoying – solely – each other’s dancing. They all lip-synched along to the American pop
songs the DJ chose. They looked each other in the eyes when they danced, and sang into each other’s faces. No one stared at the floor or studied the ceiling; they looked at each other, smiled, sometimes laughed, and shook a lot. Maddeningly, they played with each other’s neckties.
“Are they for real?” one friend of mine asked another. Another friend grabbed my arm. "Gay?" The bride had joined us. "No. Arab." She laughed. "How're you doing?" she asked me.
“I’m good” I lied. I felt like an anxious puppy watching a tennis tournament. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to play with their ties. I wanted to know if the family would ask any of them to leave with me. But the longer I studied them the more convinced I became that we were cut from different cloth. Dancing, for me, at best has always been a prelude to something more. But these young men, in full view of their elders, were engaged in the consummate act of closeness. I couldn’t join; I would taint something beautiful. They were dancing honest and free. I would bring, not an honest love of the moment, but a vain hope for the next.
My girlfriends, as girls, couldn’t be traitors. Their scruples weren’t mine: they were determined to attract the boys over to us. I joined them in trying to initiate, unsuccessfully, a subtle dance off between the two dance floor vortices. The girls with headscarves throughout the room smiled at our failure. We danced our hearts out while occasionally glancing back at the young men who now wore no jackets and still hadn’t noticed anyone outside their fraternal throng.
My date, the maid of honor, shoved me. “You’re dying to.” “I can’t.” “As if anyone’s going to notice…” “If any of them gets as close to me as they are to each other, I’ll blow our cover.”
“I refuse to believe you’re the only one on this floor with a boner.”
“Believe it!” the bride said. Her husband joined her. “Arthur’s afraid of your brothers,” she laughed.
“Habibi!” his arms shot out to me. “Come, come, come!” “No! No! No!” “Yes! Yes! You are my brother too. C’mon!” He threw his arm around my shoulder and marched me over to the groomsmen. They raised a cry for him and sucked us into their whirl. They all looked me in the eyes, but I don’t think they noticed me. They weren’t even listening to the music; they were watching it in each other, as if through each other’s pupils they followed light shows of happy synapses. I became self-conscious. There was music in me they were looking at, and I didn’t know how to look back. I felt fake.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to purge myself of my secret. They smiled at me, encouragingly. They saw trickles of joy where I felt tears of pressure. The groom said something in Arabic and they laughed and tightened the circle. He let loose, happy on his day. He must have asked them to take me in. He found it hilarious and, euphoric, kissed my cheek, then leapt from the throng back to his wife.
I wanted to warn them, I wanted to stop them. But they wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t hear the song. I had no choice but to meet their eyes and watch the music for my cues. They were so close to me, these happy, warm young men. They didn’t want more, they had what they wanted: not me, not each other, but the moment we all fed into, in the culture they had a place in.
I left the circle, and breathlessly returned to my seat far down the banquet hall by myself. I don’t smoke, but I wanted a cigarette, something bitter to balance my sensations. I settled for dark coffee. I can taste it as I write this.
I’ve gone dancing since. I’ve danced among my own great fraternity of gay men again. I returned to my culture, but now I feel fake where I used to feel most honest and most free. I wish my girlfriends had joined that circle that night and saved me, because now, far past their help, I miss the music those princes saw in my eyes. Arthur is a Seattle filmmaker whose forthcoming debut feature is a love story (WinningDad.com). He can’t decide if he wants a boyfriend or a puppy, but knows he likes camping with scotch. Follow his mishaps on Twitter @MovieMensch.