On Duval Street
by Andrew Sarewitz
I walked into the bathroom of a Manhattan restaurant I used to practically live at before COVID decimated their industry. There was a distinct aroma of soap and summer dampness. The memory it stirred was not a New York City scenario. It was a sense memory from time spent in Key West, sometime after her 1980’s destination “Heyday,” but before the carnage brought by suburb-size cruise ships and hoards of pale tourists in sun visors and stupid hats changed things irreversibly. It’s a perfume that permeated the room I liked to take year after year on Whitehead Street. I may not want to bottle it, but it’s a smile-inducing reminder of a place and time gone. And like my youth, it’s not coming back.
There are a few subjects I have tried to write on over the years. Unfinished prose numbering in the double digits, dusty and shelved.
I fell so deeply in love with the island, that I seriously thought of abandoning my home in New York City to become a Conch transplant.
Key West had once been a cross section of humanity. The evidence was the Old Town neighborhood in which I stayed. The guesthouse was a resort of detached wooden buildings reserved for men, on a corner plot behind white picket fencing, next to an ancient banyan tree and a landlocked lighthouse. Across the street was a mansion of a tourist sight, rampant with adorable, wayward cats, notorious for having a sixth digit on each front paw, exclusive to the property. Diagonal to the gay guest house were quaint private homes spreading north, with flower beds and ivy covered railings, sweet but set too close together for side yards. At the forth corner, to the west, stood rows of graceless public housing, double storied, painted green and claustrophobically shuttered. Comparable to New York City in this sense: it all trafficked together. Writers, artists, sailors, soldiers, visitors stayed. And escapists, burnt out from a rat race of big city careers, who came to open up bars and restaurants and reclaim their under-valued sanity. And at the most southern land in continental America, gay men and women stayed to safely be themselves. In the years before I was there, Key West bragged the largest gay community per capita in the United States, ahead of San Francisco. AIDS changed that.
Key West isn’t famous for her beaches. I love the water, but I’m not really a sand person. It’s the town and human element I found addictive. The night life, the food, the heat, even the seediness. And due to salty ocean cross winds, no biting mosquitos. From the first visit to my last, I traveled there by myself. And though my inaugural trip was to escape an imploding relationship, from the moment I landed in an American Eagle Saab Turbo plane seating 20, I wanted to kiss the ground like it was a savior I hadn’t known I needed.
For a dozen years, the tradition was set. Take a cab from the single runway airport to my guesthouse on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. Check in, drop my luggage in the room, walk the length of Duval Street, east to west and back again. It was coming home, if home was a vacation. And I was treated by the townies like a returning local.
There were days I was unhappy, like in any honest experience. But the overall love-memory sustained is of a paradise no longer on any map. Often staying too long at the fair ground, I came back one last time and found the architecture was familiar but the spell had been broken.
During the middle years, the desperation to return to the island points to my being miserable in New York and at my job. Once I arrived on Key West, I needed almost no sleep. If I found my way back to the guesthouse by 4:30 a.m., I’d be up and outside by 8 in the morning.
Key West is — or had been — a place to easily get laid. Coming from New York City, I frankly found that unnecessary. But for people coming from home towns where sex wasn’t as overtly available, Key West was often a holiday of sexual abundance. And it was an international hotbed of visiting couples looking for a third to join them. I admit I liked having it around me, but I didn’t travel there for that. One season, a friend called me the “Virgin of Key West.” A twelve day vacation without having sex. I wasn’t moralizing. It simply wasn’t my focus.
I did sometimes meet men. Here’s one experience I won’t forget.
Short, white, blonde, muscled, 25, dressed in yellow shorts, high tops and a blue tank. Clean shaven with beautiful, full, ruby lips. I met him late on a Friday night mid January, on a dance floor at a bar on Duval Street. By this time, the famous disco, The Copa, had burned down and been reconstructed. In its original incarnation, The Copa was practically reason enough to visit the island. That and Sunday tea dance on the wharf behind Atlantic Shores Motel (now water-front condos). The new Copa structure was an enormous, cement horror that would have fit better in an urban setting. I’m sure the locals wanted to have a city-like dance club for their own recreation, but that’s not what visitors were looking for on a small town island. The new Copa closed after one season.
When making a memorable connection on a dance floor, I usually associate the electricity with the records that are tossed. I can’t remember what was playing when I saw Josh for the first time. Though not shy in other areas, I am an introvert when wanting to meet someone. I’ll blame it on a fear of rejection and let’s leave it there. When he smiled at me, I took his hand and walked him to the middle of the crowded dance floor. Already on my third cocktail, we danced body to body like teens at the prom. Around 3 in the morning, we went to a 24 hour diner off Route 1. He told me he lived in New Orleans. We talked over coffee and a predawn breakfast before we headed back to his motel.
By the stairs leading up to his room was a hot tub. A good amount of the island’s gay guest houses had them. They attracted men looking for anonymous action late at night. Not normally judgmental with these kind of things, I found wading in a tub of warm, carbonated water kind of disgusting. In this case, we were by ourselves. The lighting from the area was soft and arguably romantic. After a few minutes of passionate kissing, I lifted him in my arms like we were in a Clark Gable movie and carried him up the stairs, praying I wouldn’t trip and ruin the moment.
When we got to his room, his metallic laptop was open and active on his bed. He closed and moved it to the dresser top. I won’t go into graphic detail beyond saying we used four condoms.
I left his room as the sun was coming up, walking the quiet early morning streets of Old Town. I knew this wasn’t love but the passion had been sweet, like a hazy high, where all things are simultaneously heightened and dulled.
The following afternoon, I left my guest house with an Anne Rice paperback to have brunch at the counter of a local seafood restaurant on Duval Street. Two older gentlemen I’d known as vacation regulars stopped to say hello. One, named Joseph, told me how envious he was. He was staying in a room on the ground floor of the guest house where I had been the night before. With voyeuristic longing, he watched from his window as two men performed, unaware, in a hot tub. Apparently I had slipped Josh’s soaked underwear off him and put them on the stone and asphalt edge before carrying him naked to his room.
Feigning shyness, I said I hadn’t realized we were being watched. I hoped that Josh wouldn’t be embarrassed if he found out there were other eyes on us. Joseph rolled his eyes and said, “believe me, he wouldn’t be bothered.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “This is Key West.”
“You don’t....never mind,” he said.
“Don’t what?” I asked. “I just met Josh last night. He lives in New Orleans. He’s studying to earn a degree in social work at Tulane.”
“Social work. That’s good.”
After an uncomfortable, silent moment staring at me, Joseph said, “That’s Drake Dakota, you moron. He’s a porn star. Everybody knows that.”
I am no innocent but I don’t watch porn. Bartenders with chiseled bodies are my unfulfilled fantasies. Approachable but unattainable, just out of reach. They talk to me and at least pretend to be happy to see me, particularly when I tip as if I actually have money in the bank.
The following day, Josh — a.k.a. Drake Dakota — showed up at my guesthouse mid afternoon, walked right by me, looking down at his pager. He seemed to be searching for a room number. An hour later, he passed me again, exiting the grounds, counting twenty dollar bills.
I’m glad I didn’t know. Maybe he was playing a part, but I like to believe he was happy to have met someone who just thought he was a cute, southern boy. And if I’m wrong, at least I got the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” experience for the price of eggs-over-easy at a Route 1 diner.
This morning I woke up having had a vivid dream of returning to Key West. It was a good dream. But I couldn’t find my way around a place I used to call mine.
About the Author
Andrew has written several short stories (links to published work at www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as scripts for various media. His play, Madame Andrèe, garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival series in August of 2019, as well as receiving an Honorable Mention from both the 2018 Writers Digest Competition, Play/Screenplay Division, and the 2018 New Works of Merit Contest (Loyola University, New Orleans). The script for his play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition and Andrew’s spec script for his sitcom, The White House is a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition. Published and Award Winning Short Stories The Sum of Our Differences Equals Mom, The Write Launch, to be published in November, 2020 Don’t Speed in Horseheads, NY: The Blood Pudding, publication September 3, 2020 The Weight of Platinum: Prometheus Dreaming, Los Angeles, CA, publication August 22, 2020 The Wholly Separate Sides: BigCityLit Magazine, New York, NY, publication August 10, 2020 Tim to Fifty Ninth: Soliloquies Anthology, Montreal, Quebec, publication, June 23, 2020 Ladies and Gentlemen, Cher: Punctuate Magazine, Columbia Literary Magazines, Chicago, IL, publication, May 16, 2020 Corona Entry; Prometheus Dreaming, Los Angeles, CA, publication, April 4, 2020 The Other Side of the Coin: Prometheus Dreaming, Los Angeles, CA, publication, January 24, 2020 Then the Tidal Wave: Prometheus Dreaming, Los Angeles, CA, publication December 20, 2019 Lady Vanessa: BigCityLit Magazine, New York, NY, publication November 24, 2019 A Woman Named Samantha: Bangalore Review, India, publication August 21, 2019 Miss Marcia: Cobalt Press, Baltimore, MD, issue 21, publication August 8, 2019 Stands a Boxer: Prometheus Dreaming Literary Magazine, Los Angeles, CA, publication July 11, 2019 Harold and Al, All Covered in Fur: Prometheus Dreaming Literary Magazine, Los Angeles, CA, publication June 12, 2019 Blue Roses and Diane: Second Place Prose Award, Havik, Las Positas College Journal of Arts and Literature, Livermore, CA, publication May, 2019 Color, in Black and White: Trilogy Award Nonfiction Finalist, Hidden River Arts, Philadelphia, PA, May, 2019; Prometheus Dreaming Literary Magazine, Los Angeles, CA, publication October 26, 2019 The Wholly Separate Sides: NYMBM, New York, NY, publication May 20, 2019 The Big Sneeze: Jenny Magazine, YSU Student Literary Arts Association, Youngstown University, Ohio, publication November 15, 2018 ...And into the Fire: NYMBM, New York, NY, publication June 27, 2018 The Banquet: Yes + No Magazine, London, UK, Page 58, Autumn Issue, 2017 The Tale of the Sisters Landau: Cobalt Press, Baltimore, MD, publication July 19, 2017 In the First Person: Chelsea Station Magazine, New York, NY, publication July 5, 2017 Stephen was...: Plenitude Magazine, British Columbia, Canada, published June 8, 2016 Contributed essay to "A Giant of 20th Century Russian Art, Vladimir Nemuhkin;" published by ArtDaily, June 6, 2016 Project Gus: publisher: Untreed Reads, San Francisco, CA. Editor in chief, Jay Hartman, 2013 My Father: publisher: Untreed Reads, San Francisco, CA. Editor in chief, Jay Hartman, 2011