Dance Hall Days at The Copa

Dance Hall Days at The Copa

Suggested Listening: “Cake and Eat It” by Dead or Alive

His name was John. We were friends until one day he was gone. I can’t remember John’s surname but wish I could, which is one of the reason’s, I suppose, that writing this autobiographical blurb took so damned long. John was one of the good guys, and that I cannot remember his full name is what pains me most. I remember the day John had to leave our orbit, and we never heard from John again. 

We weren’t a band. John wasn’t my boyfriend but Mark’s main squeeze. The two of them did me the favor of picking up a wrought iron table from a thrift store one hot day because the table was too fabulous, they knew I needed a solid surface, and they dragged the dang thing up a tight flight of stairs into my apartment one block north of East Las Olas Boulevard in the Victoria Park neighborhood. 

The pink stucco coach house was a bike ride on Tom’s handlebars from the Fort Lauderdale beach. Tom taught me how to prepare Fettuccini Alfredo from scratch after we argued about prepackaged pasta in aisle five. “He’s right, you know,” a beautiful woman persuaded. “Fine,” I agreed, never looking back. 

That apartment was heaven. A red poinsettia grew wild below my bedroom window. A tropical bird sang every morning with every sunrise. Sultry were the palm trees, thick fronds always heavy with the added weight of humidity. A faded piece of teal paper hung downstairs, a piece of paper that gave directions on what to do in case of a hurricane. I’d read the bullet points once while washing a load of vintage sun dresses but brushed the faded warning aside. 

A hurricane, to us, was wind and rain. 

The photograph of me and John was the first image that came to mind when I saw the Twitter thread. Or is that “X?” Whatever that letter means. “Drop a pic of yourself that could be album cover” the Tweet read. I deliberated, holding the photo between two fingers and thinking back. There was reluctance. I deleted the Tweet three times before publishing a private moment because my private thoughts and memories are, well, just that. 

I had so much to say, and my thoughts were a jumble until this afternoon. What good is my fading memory now? “Did you write it down?” Adam would always ask. Most of the time I heeded his words. But the majority of all I’ve ever written has been discarded, tossed into the trash. The finer words would never come. That’s what I thought back then and still do. And in my youth, writing inside that Art Deco apartment I shared with Anthony, typed words would be tossed, crumpled sheets discarded into the closest available trashcan next to a white porcelain sink in a subway-tiled bathroom. 

I would return to find the papers removed. Curious as to what happened, I would wander into Anthony’s bedroom to find them smoothed atop his drafting table. 

“What are you doing?” I was horrified and took my words back. 

“No.” Anthony snatched the paper from my hands. “No. You don’t understand. This is good.” 

“I want it back.” 

“Too bad.” 

Those crumpled sheets of paper are somewhere in his possession, I’m sure, as is the plastic fish. We had two. I kept one when we parted, and that plastic fish has held a prominent spot in the freezer of every refrigerator I’ve ever used. That was the rule set forth when I moved: plastic fish to remind ourselves that we would never go hungry. He took the lobster. I have the salmon. Or maybe it’s a trout. The red paint has long since faded. But ever since that day I’ve eaten — usually well. 

John and I understood each other without saying a word.

Anthony never minded that John stayed over, sometimes for days on end. John was hungry. And John needed a place to crash. He needed a place to think, and he trusted I would never harass or press. John had hit some rough times, and there were some rough times ahead. 

That was the apartment without air conditioning. Perhaps that’s why we frequented the clubs every night to feel a cold blast of relief followed by cold — and numerous — drinks. There were the two-for-one Long Island Iced Teas served in tall hurricane glasses or large vintage Mason jars depending on the establishment. There was Perrier-Jouët Champagne. There was Cointreau. 

There was sweat on the dance floor on those sultry South Florida nights. Hard bodies, jacked and tan. There was cocaine. One night, there was AIDS. Thick padding covered the corners of bars lest someone slice open their flesh. The cups were suddenly disposable, so there was terror and plenty of fear to go around. My friends — mostly waiters, musicians and artists — were scared for their lives. Many of them have passed away. 

So, there was music — always music to wipe away thoughts of what could happen: Bronski Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wang Chung, Dead or Alive, Grace Jones, and Vicious Pink. 

“Buffy!” The gay men called to me when “Ccccan’t You See” played, a cult classic and a favorite. “Come on!” 

Who could resist? The Copa was one side of the musical coin, where I could dance from midnight until dawn without worry. I was free to feel fabulous. We all were, club goers fraught with childhoods too heavy when youth should have been spent as a advertising campaign of the perfect. 

Oh, the lies the televisions we did not own bled. So we spun. Grace Jones and Divine graced us with their presence on a stage we performed on one Halloween. Caasi was Grace Jones. I was Boy George. We rented a stretch limousine, cruised the Strip, and signed autographs for the unsuspecting. We were rich with winnings, raking in one-thousand dollars each. That was a lot of money back in those days. 

And maybe we would be famous when what John really wanted was to survive — to rise above and unscathed. 

Was it possible, though, to capture a moment with words? I held the photograph of me and John and recalled lyrics when what I needed was the silence. The silence is what occurred when the Copa closed for the night, but the night was 4 o’clock in the morning. In the hours before daylight, I knew John was planning his escape. 

I don’t know who took our black and white photographs that morning. It may have been Anthony with one of his many cameras. But an idea turned into a photo shoot. En route to my apartment, behind the Lagniappe Cajun House, was a construction site, so Mark — the only one with a car — parked. 

The streets were quiet. Still sweating, we squinted against the rising sun. My silver wig, askew, was drenched. The little black chiffon dress clung to my black tights. We pretended to pose for an album cover even though we’d never be that band. But in our own fields of art, we would be famous one day. So we posed. The point wasn’t profundity but a snapshot back at a moment in time, hours — or maybe days — before John moved away.

I’m sure many of you, dear readers, remember losing contact with people who’d moved away. Friends we’d met didn’t give out the numbers to the landlines registered under someone else’s name. A handwritten letter needed a postage stamp. A permanent address was required.

All these words later, I still can’t remember John’s last name. Sharon was the woman who took the downstairs apartment, where I first lived before moving upstairs with my longtime friend. We traded paperbacks, three of which I still own. 

I remember hugging John one last goodbye before the front door, the same door I hugged Steve who left my apartment in tears. 

Today, I listened to the music we spun to on a blue-lit floor to try and shake your surname from deep inside my memory. Last night, I scanned a photograph of me and John, uploaded it to Twitter, and deleted it three times. “Something to remind me.” And I stopped wishing I could remember a specific but a feeling. 

As the sun rose in the east that morning, construction workers — young, jacked and tan — began to show, whistled at me from above, as they walked over the crumbling concrete and beside the trailer John and I leaned against. A quiet respite became an active construction zone, so we departed to whistles and waves. Now, I hear those first hints of commotion off East Las Olas Boulevard and remember the end to an idea we had after another night at a club that is no longer there. 

Months after the photograph was taken, I traded sultry nights for cool Autumn days, returning home to Chicago after my mother passed away. The photograph serves as a reminder of how quickly life can change. After a prolonged and internal debate last night, I posted a photograph of me in my youth for all the world to see. I hope John’s out there somewhere in this great big, beautiful world. I hope he is well and happy. 

After stumbling over the words I never think will be good enough to read, I transferred handwritten notes to the website and tossed crumpled paper into the trash. Some habits are hard to break.

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