When I first visited the Double Header four years ago, I immediately noticed the logging equipment and yellowed photos decorating the walls, but I was a couple beers in before I noticed something familiar about the logging-town-era women in the photos, something I associate with a sense of belonging, and catharsis, and waking up during Pride weekend in an unfamiliar apartment wearing only a mink stole and Sharpie drawings of cocks. These women of yore were drag queens, from an era when drag queens were called "female impersonators," and I had wandered into the oldest continuously operating gay bar on the West Coast.
That night, the clientele seemed mainly to be residents of the Mission shelter across the street, either not in drag or passing very well, but the second time I stopped by it was full of bears. The place's level and flavor of queerness seemed to vary greatly. The night I met Mary Anne, I have no idea who was there besides her. I'd experienced immediate attraction before, usually inspired by asses that appear to be violently dominating whatever hopeless garment tries to contain them, but never had that been mixed with awe. I had been actively avoiding dating, and even actively avoiding perfect asses, but this was like a hit-and-run by Venus fleeing a DUI.
In a cape and gold-embroidered pillbox hat, she looked like goth Audrey Hepburn in a John Waters movie. It felt like I was seeing the work of my favorite artist for the first time—which I was; Mary Anne is, among many things, a clothing designer. One after another, she put my favorite songs on the jukebox. When she and her friends got up to leave, I knew I had to approach her, but not what I could possibly say to such a person. The friend I was out with suggested I write her a note, so I wrote, "You have great style and your taste in music is impeccable," on a coaster with my number.
I still think that night we encountered a distillation of the Double Header's decades of queer romance, as if its final drag show suddenly manifested itself as a relationship. To my surprise, Mary Anne texted me later that night saying that she had a partner but that she would like to come to my reading at City Hall the next day. We quickly discovered everything she does for fun I do for work and vice versa—I write books of poetry, she designed poetry book covers for Ugly Duckling; I explore abandoned buildings, she's the marketing and outreach director of a salvage yard. Both of us consider throwing parties an art form. I posted on Facebook, "I think I just met the girl version of me," and two weeks later she had keys to my apartment.
Gem and Sterling (THEIR REAL NAMES, AAAAH) are a couple of guys who had been happily married for 51 years when they gave me some advice: Don't go out looking for the love of your life, and pay close attention to the way you feel when you first meet anyone. Five or even three years ago I'd have told you love at first sight is a lie fabricated by Hugh Grant's teeth—but I knew when I saw Mary Anne that if she loved me, I would marry her.
About a year into our relationship, "Will you marry me?" became a question we exchanged at least once a day, and when it was clear both of us really meant it, sometimes also, "Was that the real time?" We decided roughly when we wanted "the real time" to be, and that we both wanted to propose (my favorite improvement queers have made to the American wedding tradition).
Both of us love elaborate dates—in the first weeks of our romance, I took her to a rooftop overlooking downtown where we drank Sofia Coppola (the canned pink champagne that comes with a bendy straw) and listened to Roy Orbison through a shared pair of headphones. She took me on a "Haunted/Holy Date," which involved a Catholic mass, a surprise picnic on the waterfront, a cocktail in a glass skull at the Hideout, and bottle rockets in a tiny park overlooking Lake Washington. That was the best date I've ever been on. Absolutely anything was possible. I wanted my proposal to celebrate that feeling and my hope for its indefinite continuation.
The Double Header shut down about a year after we met. Though it had become one of our favorite bars, we sensed the end approaching. There were rarely more than five other patrons, it often closed at 10 p.m., and the floor-rattling bass from the dance club below drew attention to how quiet the place was. This of course was sad, but the fact that there are places in the world where queer spaces are no longer necessitated by persecution is one of the very few things these days that suggest to me humans are still evolving.
As middle-school teachers, Gem and Sterling didn't even go out to bars when they were young because if they were outed they'd lose their jobs. Mary Anne and I could sit in an Olive Garden squeezing each other's boobs and everyone would just keep eating breadsticks. But that's exactly why we need places like the Double Header and the Eagle—they're places to celebrate our heritage and the people who made our freedom possible.
My excitement when I found out the Double Header had been bought by the owners of another queer drinking hole, Re-bar (the Double Header will soon reopen as a joint called Night Jar), was surpassed only when they agreed to let a bunch of my friends in during the remodel, for my proposal. On the anniversary of the day we met, I took Mary Anne for drinks at the Smith Tower while my friends hid in the dark bar behind the newspapers covering the windows. I was so nervous as we approached that I got a nosebleed. When I tried to get on one knee, I lost control of my legs and flopped onto the ground. As she put on my ring, our friends poured out of the bar throwing flowers and googly eyes and pregnancy tests. My friend Bree distributed witch hats, and somebody passed around a vial of poppers. A guy who'd frequented the Double Header during its heyday said, "This makes me so happy—I haven't smelled poppers outside this place in years." I inhaled a big face-warming hit, taking communion in the church of Jean Genet and John Rechy and Eileen Myles, all the brave outlaws and the moldy corners their love set fire to. We drank champagne and shot off bottle rockets and Mary Anne's great-aunt mistook the poppers for flower essences (don't worry, she was fine).
Considering Mary Anne dressed up like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and sprayed me with a Super Soaker of whiskey on my birthday when we'd only known each other a month, I had absolutely no idea what form her proposal would take or when it would happen. Though I thought about it all the time, she still managed to blindside me.
I thought I was going to a Twin Peaks viewing party, but when I arrived no one was there but our friends Kevin and Jasmine, who told me Mary Anne went out to get snacks. After a few minutes we heard a roaring sound mixed with faint music. It sounded like a parade going by. "What is that?" said Kevin. "Is it coming from outside?" I'd been to Kevin's many times, but when we got up to investigate the noise I noticed a room of the apartment I had never seen before. I thought it might be a door to the hallway. Was there a party across the hall? All I could see inside were candles and balloon animals. I became convinced that this was either a stroke or the onset of my first ocular migraine. I stepped through the door to find Mary Anne, a hot-pink eight-foot-tall inflatable tube man of the kind often found in used car lots flailing behind her, and a radio playing a kids' brass band rendition of "Mambo Number 5." A Roomba circled the heart-shaped rug that said "Will you marry me too?" where she stood. We alternated between kissing and shrieking for the rest of the evening.
I'm thankful every day to live in a time and place where I don't have to hide in a special bar to dance with the woman I love, but I still wish I could go to the Double Header circa 1960, and there's nowhere I'd rather our romance have begun. When a place has enough stories associated with it, it becomes mythological. Each new story made in such a place inherits the power of the ones that preceded it. I think love is all about the creation of mythology: I had no doubt, kissing Mary Anne under that flailing tube man, that we are supposed to be in the same story. When I was panicking one night because even when you marry someone the story ends sometime, Mary Anne said, "This is forever. We're in forever right now," and it was the first time just existing had ever been enough for me.