Teatime in Seaside was as different from the South’s version as Aunt Shirley’s iced tea recipe was from Blakely’s mother’s. Tea dance at the Slippery Boat was a loud, crowded excuse to start drinking and dancing long before sunset. There was no tea in sight.
Blakely forced himself to enter after he saw the sign painted along the wall. Amid portholes and paddles and a quaint nautical theme, someone had painted All Hands on Dick below the club’s name. Blakely couldn’t decide whether it was an act of vandalism. It seemed like a fairly aggressive theme for an afternoon party.
Inside, he was even more taken aback. He was not inside at all. After passing through the door and past a long bar, he was outside again. The Slippery Boat was actually an enormous deck that stretched out over the beach and water. There was a pool in the middle and bars at every corner. The entire planked surface was crowded full of men dancing, drinking, and flirting shamelessly.
Unlike Aunt Shirley’s Porch, the Slippery Boat was the realm of the tourists. These were the young, beautiful, crazy-for-the-weekend boys who couldn’t afford to live in Seaside for the entire summer. They were hanging in groups, dancing shirtless, and making out in broad daylight.
Blakely grabbed a cocktail in a flimsy plastic cup and leaned against the railing to take in the scene. He had never seen anything like it. He had never even imagined anything close. Sure, he knew there were nightclubs and pick-up bars in the big cities. But he never could have guessed that this much sex and sweat could be crammed into a sunny summer day.
He felt that same sense of wonder he had experienced earlier when stepping from the bus. It was all so amazing and glorious and gay. But at the same time, Blakely was intimidated. He was not a part of any group here. He didn’t know anyone. He was not partying for the weekend. He was alone and slightly buzzed and overwhelmed by the crowd of twentysomething Adonises. Despite his best intentions to be carefree and gay, he just couldn’t force himself to hold a steady gaze when another man tried to catch his eye.
Suddenly, the pulsing music stopped midbeat. Sweaty, shirtless boys awkwardly halted halfway through their sexy dance moves. A microphone crackled to life.
“Welcome to the famous Slippery Boat tea dance,” the DJ’s voice boomed over the loud speaker. “And welcome to our annual summer kickoff party.”
There were hoots and applause, even though Blakely suspected the crowd had no more of a clue what the announcement meant than he did. They didn’t need an excuse for a party. Blakely wondered if every afternoon was just as wild.
“Now, for those of you who don’t know how this works, you’re in for a big surprise -- or a big scare. Because on this day, Seaside royals leave their castles to mingle with the commoners. If you’ve got what it takes, you might win a knight in shining leather or a beautiful queen all of your own. If you don’t, watch out and stay out of their way!”
With that warning, “Dancing Queen” started to play in the background. At the far end of the deck, the crowd parted in what could have been respect or fear. Blakely saw silk flutter. He saw jewels sparkle. He saw sashaying steps floating in linen trousers. Although he had just left them on Aunt Shirley’s Porch, he shared the tourists’ stunned reaction as he watched the gang in all its glory.
“The Queenies!” the DJ announced. “Seaside’s fairest maids and evil queens all rolled into one. For all you budding princesses out there, hold your tiaras high!”
Bea led the group with his chin pointed regally in the air. He glanced occasionally to the side, past the rims of his smoky glasses, to scrutinize the members of the audience. But he never missed a delicately placed step. Jimmy, the terrified waif from earlier, strode just behind like a lady-in-waiting, wearing a thin-strapped tank top and platform flip-flops. At least ten similarly fabulous men fanned out behind them in perfect formation.
Blakely hid his face in his drink cup as they passed, blushing and hoping they wouldn’t recognize or attack him. He thought Jimmy turned to catch his eye, but in a moment they were at the other end of the deck, poised and on display along one side of the pool. As they struck their tableau, the music faded, and another song ramped up to take its place.
“Bad to the Bone” made for a harsh contrast in musical styles. But that was nothing compared to the sight the crowd found when all heads snapped away from the Queenies and back toward the entrance.
“The Meanies!” the DJ shouted. “The princes of pain and the lords of leather. If you have a mean streak in you, get your best snarl and your nipple clamps on!”
Blakely could feel the clomp of heavy boots through the floorboards. But the display of leather straps, beer bellies, and gratuitous tattoos was what almost knocked him over. Despite the array of chains and studs, leather caps and chaps, buckles and bands, there was not a lot of coverage provided. These gruff men looked half naked and fully pissed off.
As they passed, they ignored Blakely completely. He sighed in relief and downed his drink. He was not on their radar. The surly group stomped its way to the end of the pool opposite the Queenies and assumed a threatening stance.
“Now, everyone on their best behavior,” warned the DJ’s voice as the music faded. “Get on the dance floor, and put your best foot forward. If you make the right moves, you could become royalty too!” As he turned the dance music back up, he turned his attention to the gangs of men. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s everyone play nice. Stay out of each other’s way, and don’t fight over the boys…or anything else.”
There were a few defiant hisses and growls. Then the music picked up, and the crowd melded back together. The infectious dance beat gave courage to the startled audience, and feet began to move. As the Queenies and Meanies dispersed and stalked through the masses, Blakely no longer had any doubt that these wild groups of men were indeed gangs.
“You must be Blakely Crawford,” a fey voice called out. “I’m absolutely charmed. And I’m completely horrified that I was in such a tizzy back at the Porch that I was unable to introduce myself properly.”
“No problem,” Blakely said. The young man was slight and Asian, glittered to the max, and taller than Blakely -- if you counted the pink foam platforms of his flip-flops.
“I’m Jimmy,” he said, “and I have wonderful news for you. You’ve been tapped!” He reached over and playfully rapped Blakely’s bare shoulder as if anointing him with a magic wand.
“Tapped? Is that a good thing?”
“Honey, honey, honey,” Jimmy reprimanded lightheartedly. “The Queenies don’t just tap anyone. It is an honor of the highest order.”
“Sorry. I’m still pretty new in town,” Blakely apologized.
“Well, let Jimmy enlighten you.” He put a slender arm around Blakely’s shoulder and turned him toward the ocean. With their backs to the crowd, they looked out over the railing toward the blue horizon like a pair of senior-citizen lovebirds on a cruise ship. “Welcome to Seaside, where the Queenies reign supreme. Where a lovely young lad like yourself can be lifted from the filthy hovel of this tourist trap to the summit of Queendom.”
“You mean become a Queenie?” Blakely asked, horrified.
“Tap tap,” Jimmy sang out. “Only a chosen few are as lucky as you.”
“I don’t think I could,” Blakely stammered. “I mean, that’s not really why I came here this summer. I was going to…”
“To what?” Jimmy prodded. “To serve us iced tea? Scrub Aunt Shirley’s dishes? Sleep your way through a summer of tourists?”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t even know the Queenies existed till an hour ago.”
“Well, it’s your lucky day,” Jimmy exclaimed. He turned Blakely around to face the seething crowd of men. “Otherwise, you get this. It might look exciting on your first day, but after countless drunken afternoons and tweaked-out tourists, you’ll see it for the sleazy back alley it truly is.”
Blakely’s heart dropped. Back alley
. He thought of his ex. He thought of betrayal and guilt and how attraction could turn to filth so fast. He wondered if this party was just a tanned, glamorous version of all that. Could Jimmy be right?
“All hands on dick,” he mumbled, realizing how crass things can become when they cross the line.
“Exactly,” Jimmy agreed. “Disgusting. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it gets a lot worse after dark and below deck. Right below these dancing feet is the infamous Penis Pier. If you want to crawl under there with the rest of the trampy tourists, that’s your choice. Or you could join the ranks of Seaside’s one and only ruling class.”
“What about the Meanies?”
“Pshaw!” Jimmy spat, but his eyes went wide with fear, no matter how bitchy he tried to sound. “They’re even worse trash! In even worse outfits! You’ll have nothing to do with them.” His tone left no room for argument.
Blakely watched the leathermen stalk through the crowd like wolves among sheep. He had a hard time believing that they could be so easily dismissed. He saw the careful way Bea and the other Queenies shot glances at them across the crowd. He saw the big, tough men glare back like they were hungry and repulsed at once.
Bea snapped his fingers above his silver head. Jimmy took flight. “Must dash, darling,” he called back over his bony shoulder. “But don’t forget, you’re a qualifying Queenie!”
Blakely watched Jimmy flip-flop into the crowd. He was nice, if a bit sparkly and opinionated. Blakely had no intention of joining any gang, let alone one as unorthodox and cruel as the Queenies. But Jimmy had a point. It would be nice to belong, to have friends and a place where he could start over.
Blakely watched as the seas of attitude and anger parted, as the gang members separated again, drifting almost naturally to opposite sides of the busy dance floor. Then he saw something he didn’t expect. He saw someone who didn’t fit neatly into the messy demographics of Queenies and Meanies and partying tourist boys.
The man stood at the edge of the Meanies crowd. But he didn’t appear to scowl or growl or wear leather. He was dressed simply in jeans and a T-shirt. And suddenly, he was the only thing Blakely could focus on in the blur of the tea dance.
He was tall and lean. The white shirt fit snugly over his wide shoulders and long arms. The jeans sat low at the taper of his waist. His brown hair hung softly across his broad brow, highlighting his deep brown eyes and solid jaw. There was nothing gelled or plucked or pierced or pretentious. He was simply handsome in a way many gay men had forgotten how to be.
Blakely couldn’t stop staring. It was as if his shyness had melted away along with the noise and bustle of the crowd he no longer heard or saw. There were no longer any pumped-up boys in tank tops, no fearsome leather thugs, no cackling men in makeup. There was only this captivating stranger who had stolen Blakely’s attention unknowingly. Tall, dark, and handsome, without the hero’s swagger. He was Blakely’s very image of manhood -- honest, reliable, tender, and strong.
And then -- improbably, impossibly -- the man looked up and met Blakely’s gaze. Their eyes locked as if they’d been searching for one another for a long time.
The last thing in the world Robert Gibson had wanted was to accompany the Meanies on their annual recruitment trip to the Slippery Boat. He had no interest in the Meanies or the tourists. And dancing was the furthest thing from his mind this summer. But as he had tried to leave the Arm Pit, the entire gang had spilled out of the bar and caught him up in its leathery midst. Men in buckled harnesses rarely take no for an answer. And as the Meanies swept him along in their wave of gruff excitement and insistence, Robert decided this would be his final demonstration of neighborly good manners -- as if he’d had a choice.
But now his mood had shifted. His leather hosts were distracted by the possibilities in the dancing crowd. The summer sun throbbed with a beat all its own. And Robert found himself staring into blue-gray eyes that reached out to him from the backdrop of the blue-gray sea.
The young man was beautiful in his innocence. He certainly didn’t seem to fit in here. Despite the youth in his face and the muscles in his arms, there was a fresh wonder in those eyes that wasn’t clouded by the reckless arrogance of the tourists. He seemed to be the only other person here who wasn’t a part of this game.
His strawberry hair was neither blond nor red; it was more like molten gold. His lightly freckled shoulders were creamy; they hadn’t yet seen much of the sun. And Robert was convinced, without even a word of conversation, that this beauty with the ocean eyes hadn’t seen much of the world.
Against every bit of reason in his head, Robert stepped toward that gaze. He knew how cruel the world could be. He knew how things could fall apart. He knew he could not offer a word of reassurance to this hopeful young man. But nothing could stop his feet from following the undeniable pull of attraction.
Just a name, Robert thought to himself. If I can just hear his name, I will believe that there are some pure, good things left in this world. I will leave him untouched and untainted, and I will take that name away with me -- a sound to remember beauty always.
“Leather and Lace Dance!” the loudspeaker boomed. The music kicked in louder.
“Leather!” half the crowd shouted.
“Lace!” the other half countered.
The mass of bodies rushed together, covering the deck in frantic motion and severing the line of sight between the two men. For the first time in several long minutes, their gaze was broken, and they lost each other in the commotion.
Queenies plucked chosen men from the crop of tourists, escorting them like beauty queens. Meanies grabbed their recruits, manhandling them like kidnapping victims. Other members brought out piles of clothing. They carried them reverently like ceremonial garb among the shouts and mayhem.
Lace shawls were draped over the heads of the Queenies’ picks like virginal veils or old ladies’ doilies atop lampshades. Leather vests were handed out like badges to the toughs chosen by the Meanies. Their arms were shoved roughly into the new uniforms.
Blakely was spun around by manicured hands, adorned with a lacy cover, and his vision was obscured by the delicate pattern. He peered through tiny holes and flowery cutouts, searching for the stranger who had transfixed him, but the mottled shadows that fell on his face made the world gauzy and faces indistinguishable.
Robert was just distracted enough in his search that he allowed his arms to be forced into leather sleeves. Furry forearms shoved him forward into a line of similarly clad men who looked much prouder than Robert to be wearing their new vests. However, the man Robert sought was not among these happily scowling recruits.
The costumed men were lined up, facing off against the other side like highly stylized linemen in the world’s craziest game of football. It was as if these lines of men in disguise were lines of demarcation in Seaside, forever and symbolically separating east from west, Meanies from Queenies.
The lines began to move with the music. They shifted in opposite directions so that each man in leather faced a new man in lace with each sideways step, at every beat of the music. They were not dancing together, but dancing against one another. Tension clouded the air. The opposing dancers created friction between them. In the contentious standoff, each man that faced another became a faceless, angry enemy.
Then the world stopped. The lines had moved so that Blakely and Robert were paired off facing each other. Blakely pulled the lace shawl from his head, letting it fall around his shoulders. He stared openly at the stranger who now wore the leather vest of the Meanies.
Robert was breathless as the face before him was revealed, but he found sufficient air to ask, “What’s your name?”
Grunts and squeals of protest rumbled through the lines of men as Blakely and Robert stood transfixed before one another. Their singular focus had stopped the confrontational standoff of the dance. Neither noticed. The two of them were oblivious to the antagonistic ceremony they had halted.
“Blakely,” Robert repeated slowly, cherishing the feeling of the name on his tongue.
Hearing his name spoken so softly and sweetly, Blakely couldn’t wait for proper introductions. As the fury built around them, he seized the moment, leaning forward on tiptoes and placing a gentle kiss on the lips that had just caressed his name.
And then the entire deck of the Slippery Boat seemed to explode. That kiss across the clearly drawn lines of the Queenies and the Meanies was the spark that ignited the mounting tension.
Blakely and Robert were dragged away from each other. The dance floor became a stampede of shrieks and hollers. Penny loafers and combat boots stomped and fled. Swirls of leather and lace spiraled throughout the crowd like oil and water, mixing together turbulently and ultimately separating to their own sides.
The riot lasted only moments as the sun made its way toward the sea, as if to hide itself beneath the waves from this horror. But the moments were wild and rushing and disorienting. Tattooed shoulders and bony elbows were thrown, and the DJ quickly put on Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” As Blakely was pulled to the back exit of the deck, the loudspeaker announced, “Tea dance is over!”
“That’s a first ever!” Jimmy exclaimed dramatically, pulling Blakely down the steep wooden steps to the beach below. “Tea dance never ends before sunset. Never!”
“Who is he?” Blakely asked desperately. He clung to the railing for dear life and pointed across the crowd. He resisted being pulled to the sand and losing that last glimpse. On the other side of the deck, the handsome stranger was being bullied out the front entrance to the Slippery Boat.
“That…” Jimmy paused emphatically. “…is your enemy. That is the Meanies’ newest recruit.”
“What’s his name?”
“I heard someone call him Robert.”
“Robert,” Blakely repeated. Surrendering his last bit of strength with that name, he allowed the tiny man to drag him to the wet sand, leading him through the pilings of the pier and all the way back to Aunt Shirley’s Porch.
Scott & Scott