Nick drove us to St. Louis that night, because if I had driven, we never would've made it. Every exit ramp on the interstate would have taunted me to turn around and eventually I would have succumbed. I needed to be the passenger, trapped in Nick's rusted-out Toyota Camry, hurtling towards danger with no control over our ability to reach our destination. If anyone caught us, I thought, my life would be ruined. My future would vanish faster than I could grasp for bits and pieces of my hopes and dreams. I was scared, ashamed even. Nick pulled into a poorly lit parking lot. We were now just a block away from the most frightening place I had ever considered patronizing at that point in my life: the Coffee Cartel. Not an actual cartel, but indeed an actual coffee house, a coffee house that catered to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth.
You see, Nick and I were both 19 years old growing up in small towns in rural Southern Illinois about 30 miles apart from one another. We had met on a chat service popular in the late 90s called ICQ. And after months of chatting, I worked up the courage to visit Nick at his house when his parents were out of town. That felt safe, confidential. When Nick wanted to hang out again, I agreed. After all, we were the only two gay people in all of Southern Illinois. At least that's what my naive 19 year old self had concluded at the time. For our second meetup, Nick proposed adventuring out to Coffee Cartel, his favorite spot in St. Louis to hang out. "It's queer friendly," he said, "You'll like it." Now, I had no idea what queer friendly meant, and the perplexed look on my face didn't go unnoticed by Nick. He followed it up with "A lot of kids like us hang out there. You'll like it." When the light bulb went off and I realized what queer friendly must've meant, it felt like every baritone in the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus was in my head singing the words, "Absolutely not. You're not ready for this." And yet, some higher rainbow power took over my vocal cords and I very meekly said, "Yeah, sure. Why not?"
A week later I found myself a block away from some queer friendly place thinking, how did I get here? What am I doing here? Am I ready for this? No one outside of Nick and a few other ICQ regulars knew about this part of me. As we started to walk to Coffee Cartel, I felt an overwhelming sense of fear, anxiety and excitement, all at once, kind of like that feeling you get when you make the first turn in a very dark haunted house. The only thing that brought me comfort was the fact that I felt like I looked good.
I had put on my favorite regular fleece for the night, very fashionable in my mind in the late 90s. Coffee Cartel was on a corner in the central West End, a hip St. Louis neighborhood known for its live music, brick-paved streets, and youthful vibe. The coffee house occupied the first floor of a small red brick building. The large pane windows had a film on them as if they were long overdue for a washing and well-worn metal tables and chairs were strewn about on a large patio out front. I tried to open the door for Nick, but fear and anxiety were definitely overtaking excitement. Nixon impatience set in pretty quick though, so he swung that glass door open and just nudged me inside. It was bittersweet. Literally. The air smelled of burnt coffee and fresh waffle cones. Apparently, the baristas here were hired more so for their boyish looks and flirtatious demeanor and less so for their latte skills.
But hey, their ice cream was a huge hit. The front of the shop was very narrow, allowing you to order and move to the right for pickup as if you were on an assembly line. I hated coffee and it was way too cold for ice cream. So I ordered a cherry Italian soda and followed Nick into a small annex off to the side of the narrow front room. The annex was filled with chatter and smoke, the walls lined with flyers for everything from open mic nights to HIV AIDS support groups that nicely papered over the peeling paint and sporadic holes here or there. The room was filled with people sitting shoulder to shoulder, young men in skirts, girls with short purple hair, piercings on people's faces in places I didn't even know you could Pierce. I stood there in my bright yellow fleece, entirely overwhelmed.
These people seemed so different from me. And unfortunately the Italian soda was no elixir for my fear and anxiety. My heart was starting to beat abnormally fast. Shields were up. Everyone's face kind of muddled in my vision as if they were the featured perpetrators on an episode of Cops. Before fight or flight could kick in, Nick grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward a table meant for two that was occupied by at least six. He made sure I had a spot to sit and then started in on the gossip. One boisterous, tall guy with spiky blonde hair and a football player's build looked over at me. "Hi, I'm Eric," he said. I learned that Eric was from yet another small town in rural Illinois, about 15 miles away from my small town. Eric and I started to talk about school and then television. And though I could tell he was judging my fashion sense, he maintained a friendly demeanor. Without realizing it, hours had passed. My Italian soda was watered down by melted ice and talking to Eric started to feel like I was talking to a friend, but a friend that knew my secret. It almost felt like I belonged. At that very moment, Eric confirmed my suspicion and outwardly made fun of my fleece. Without missing a beat, I threw a snarky comment back at him. I can't remember what I said, but I believe it involved Big Bird. Eric laughed at my self-deprecating joke, and Eric has a very joyful laugh, a high-pitched chuckle. Eric's laughter penetrated right through the shield I had been carrying that night and arguably, had been carrying my entire life. That shield kept my secret. It kept me safe in a heteronormative world. It was shattered by Eric's laugh. My defenses were down. Eric was my age from my side of the Mississippi.
He was more comfortable with his sexuality than I ever thought I could be, and he just laughed at my joke. It was the validation I needed at that very moment in that smoky annex of the Coffee Cartel. I smiled. The smell of burnt coffee made its way back into my nostrils, so I looked up to scope out who was about to sip on caffeinated tar, but quickly realized that as my fear and anxiety had waned, the faces of those in that tattered annex became much more vivid. They didn't look so different anymore. In fact, these were the faces of people just like me. Now, sure, most of them didn't look like me, and none of them would've probably been caught dead in a bright yellow fleece, but that didn't matter. They were just like me. Before finding this coffee house, they were searching for place, hungry to confide in others who understood their feelings, who felt their pain, who would celebrate their victories and comfort them in their failures. Boys who could talk about cute boys together. Girls who could talk about dates with other girls and everyone in between. I turned back to Eric, "Hey, we should hang out again sometime." "Cool," Eric replied back. And just like that, for the first time since childhood, I felt like I was home.