By Russell Saray
“His mask is bigger than his Speedo.”
“Look straight ahead, honey.” I gripped Steve’s hand with my wedding ring in full view. Onward we marched along the six-foot-wide wooden boardwalk, our masks up, holding a chilled bottle of Guiluhem 2018, our house rosé that we consumed in copious amounts like Kool-Aid at childhood picnics. Exercising our new “social contract” with friends seemed to be working in Fire Island Pines. No more than four, occasionally adding a fifth (when sympathizing that COVID made it difficult to find a husband), meet outdoors and sit spaced apart. Low cal Skinny Pop Popcorn served in mini ramekins to avoid shared hand dipping. After two weeks passed, we introduced pre-plated lunch and dinners outdoors. The fresh salt air, cool breeze, and laughing together felt wonderful.
Everyone on Facebook had been complaining of weight gain while isolating, returning to fattening comfort food and blaming it all on closed gyms. The scenery in The Pines told a different story. Beautiful, sculpted men peppered the stunning sandbar’s landscape. Apparently, everyone under 40 had been surviving on a one-a-day Tic Tac while working with virtual trainers. “It’s their age.” Steve said. Thank god I had a supply of oversized tank tops. Why wasn’t I born with their genes?
An unexpected gaggle of youth tromped into the socially-distancing cocktail party of six. They hugged and kissed the hosts. We backed away. “Don’t worry, we all have antibodies.” The twelve of them had watched the Oscars togethers in late January and everyone got sick. “A few days later, once I couldn’t smell my pot or taste my vodka, I knew something was wrong,” a tall lanky one chuckled. Another chimed in, “Being positive has its advantages.” I couldn’t become one of those self-righteous finger wavers. We excused ourselves. I pondered. As those “few days later” passed, how many people had they been in contact with? My head kept doing the math. The knot in my stomach tightened, but my abs stayed flabby.
Two weeks passed, our social contract still in good working order, we anticipated a quiet 4th of July. The historic 45th “Invasion of the Pines” where thousands gathered to watch our sister community Cherry Grove’s 300 plus drag queens arriving in the harbor had been cancelled. The hickory and smoked ribs slowly roasting filled the air. Steve had expanded and set the outdoor table for our three guests and admired his arrangement of fresh cut hydrangeas. We walked on the beach before our guests arrived. The inner tube surrounding my stomach prevented me from strolling topless like I did in my 30s. Dumbfounded, many looked like they had dunked their face in flour with poorly applied sunblock, I asked myself, “how difficult is it to blend?”
After a dip in the pool, our guests freshened up with their own towels. We blew air kisses. You knew it was a good lunch when it ended by 4 pm. While Steve clean up, I checked my messages. I felt like a rock had been thrown through our window. A picture of 300 plus brats frolicking on the beach, music blaring, an open bar and there was no air separating their kisses. I forwarded it to our board President. The phone started ringing. Other board members and concerned residents started chiming in. The police were called over and over. But they made no serious attempt to disperse the swelling crowd. Messages appeared: “OMG, COVID spreaders, Not welcome. Kick them out.”
Our safe haven felt distinctly unsafe. Gate locked, we ate by ourselves that night, cuddled and lost ourselves in the new Perry Mason on HBO. I tossed and turned. The marathon all-day rosé had me getting up on the hour. Steve brought some fresh brewed coffee to the outer deck. We wiped the dew soaked Sunbrella fabric. The robins chirping away fled as the annoying giant black crows descended. I kept picking at a chipped nail and wondered where I had misplaced my file – my “go to” tool to relieve anxiety instead of biting them. I checked my text messages before my now predictable NY Times depressing Covid update. The rock that had been thrown through the window now felt more like a Molotov cocktail. Instagram lit up with a picture of hundreds of shirtless guys who had been partying the night away. Messages and hash tags this time read: “Fuck your mask, fuck your social distancing, fuck your vaccine…#fireislandpines, #beachlife, #coronivirus.” Why? Gays are better than this. We aren’t those straight irresponsible Covid-idiots in Florida and Texas. My coffee started repeating. The Pines reputation burst into flames. Within hours every major news and social media platform seized on the misbehaving as their lead story. Video of the beach party revealed a self-proclaimed rebel spewing, “I have Covid. I don’t give a shit. I hope I spread it.” NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, SKY and the BBC repeated his proclamation and these distressing images over and over. We wanted to crawl in to a hole. Friends and family near and far checked in. “Are you safe? What the hell is going on?”
Gates locked. The island seemed much quieter. Nervous chatter could be heard in the outdoor grocery lineup among those waiting six feet apart and wearing masks – despair, embarrassment and anger in everyone’s eyes. Our collective twelve weeks of isolation in the city and four weeks of re-entering the world in our beloved home had been blown away. Were we that naive? Surely our own would be better? Had the AIDS epidemic not taught us anything? My generation barely survived it. Theirs seemed to have forgotten it. They may look good in a Speedo with an oversized mask, but ignorance and selfishness couldn’t be concealed.
I started boiling the pearl barley for my Egyptian Barley Salad with Pomegranate for our planned vegetarian meal with new friends. A sure lunch favorite. I had worked hard to score hazelnuts for my Carrot and Fennel salad. The hydrangeas Steve had cut held up well through the week. We longed for a sense of normalcy reclaiming our “social contract” with an outdoor distancing rendezvouses. Bing. A text message, “Sorry guys. Last weekend’s events rattled us. We don’t feel comfortable…” I replied. “We know how you feel. The barley will keep. Lunch will have to wait.”