Fantasy Island

Commentary: In Exile

by Will Doig
Published on January 13, 2005, 12:00am | Comments

My mother's main goal in life is to be warmer. At any given moment, she's devoting a significant portion of mental resources to figuring out how to be just a little warmer than she already is. In the winter, she layers long-sleeved shirts made of shiny, stretchy Thinsulate™ material and rubs her triceps with her palms, periodically squinting at the thermostat to make sure it's set firmly at 70.

In this way, as in many, I take after my mother. When I was about 15, I got so cold while skiing on a particularly bitter day that I vomited my expensive lodge pizza all over the expensive lodge floor. Throughout the winter, I'm afflicted with a chronic cramp in my neck, the result of scurrying around the city tensed up against the cold. I wear scarves the size of red carpets. Between November and April, I despise New York.

So next week, with hordes of other on-season Americans, I'm flying to Puerto Rico, which, it turns out, you don't even need a passport for, because apparently that island's our bitch. For most of the trip, I'll be in Vieques, which one guidebook gamely describes, with a chortle, as an opportunity for gay and lesbian travelers in Puerto Rico to be "away from prying eyes."

If there were any doubt as to the way the straight world thinks of gays and lesbians, it is put to rest in the "gay and lesbian" sections of travel books. What fun a gay or lesbian traveler can have in this tolerant world! And what dangers lurk! Our itineraries, according to these books, should preferably consist of amenities, accommodations and eating establishments specifically designed for the gay or lesbian traveler. Some of these perks include:

Guesthouses. Gays and lesbians shun the impersonal nature of franchise hotels. We prefer the environs of a tastefully furnished gay-owned and operated chateau. These multi-room homes often feature a porch with wicker furniture and a fluttering rainbow windsock, and appear to have been constructed out of pink-frosted gingerbread by a suburban Republican. A common area provides the ideal opportunity to socialize with fellow travelers, who, in the photos, are 50, balding, and ensconced entirely in festive linen garments.

Diskotheques. When traveling abroad, the gay or lesbian traveler seeks out high-energy nightclubs similar to the ones they would patronize in their own homes of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Miami. Foreign countries often have several of these entertainment venues, in addition to quieter, comfortable, more laid-back gay bars, a gay coffee shop, and a restaurant that serves mimosa-inclusive brunch until 5 p.m.

Bookstores. Boy, gays love to read! But only if the book is about the trials and tribulations of coming out, AIDS or hustlers, or is an art book featuring black-and-white photographs of hustlers or beach enthusiasts.

Oh, the beaches! Snug-fit box-cut swimming apparel doesn't hold a candle to the crystalline tides and tanning opportunities. According to the gay and lesbian section of the travel guide, the gay beach is a place to socialize. But who approaches strangers on a beach? Frolicking in the surf consists of awkward, waist-deep standing in circular formations with people you already know, splashing each with obligatory aplomb.

Vieques, Puerto Rico, is apparently well-stocked with gay American expatriates who gave up their careers in marketing to live the life they'd always really wanted to live. They run guesthouses now. They snorkel. Many of them own scooters. They scooter around the island, this strange co-opted gay paradise floating in the Caribbean Sea.

Many gays, especially gay men, seem to be locked in this never-ending struggle to be both bohemian and success-oriented, both flip-flops and stylishly boardroom. Some seem to achieve this by working in an oppressive corporate environment for the first half of their lives, and then opening a bed and breakfast in some warm-climate nook while they live out their golden years away from society.

This feels both appealing and contrived. I, currently gay and moderately young, feel the urge to abandon life in New York several times a day. The idea of running a little guesthouse in a remote section of the world, setting out the wicker chairs and the windsock, actually holds a great deal of appeal.

But there's something strange about it, as well. It feels too scripted. It feels like exactly what the writers of a travel book are just dying to stick into the gay and lesbian section. This bohemian gay fantasy of running a guesthouse on a tropical isle -- there's something almost perverse about actually going through with it. Running away is something you do as a teenager, not an adult.

Gay men live in a fantasy world in so many respects, and moving to Puerto Rico and opening a guesthouse is like taking waxing your chest and living at a circuit party to just another extreme. I wonder if they get bored, sitting on the porch and listening to the waves and lamenting their former lives in New York and Miami, missing the clubs and the glamour. Did they go to the Caribbean on holiday and make some drastic, desperate decision to stay there permanently, giving up real life for what they'd read in the travel books about gay paradise?

Next week, I'm going to be staying in a high-rise hotel in San Juan for part of my trip, and a small, tastefully furnished gay-owned guesthouse in gay-friendly Vieques for the other half. On the phone, the owner of the guesthouse sounded happy. Happier than this city normally allows me to be. Calling the hotel in San Juan, the woman sounded harried, as if she worked at the New York Hilton on Sixth Avenue.

I already know I'll be tempted to stay in Puerto Rico. And, of course, I won't do it. I'll start to think about my favorite restaurants and Central Park and the fact that April is just around the corner.

Will Doig writes biweekly from his exile in New York City. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.


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