This is only my third summer in New York, and so I’d not yet had the chance to swallow the Gayest of Gay Pills (Truvada aside): a trip to Fire Island. I admit I didn’t know all that much about the place — where it is exactly or how to get there, or that you can’t drive anywhere once you do, or that only two of the barrier island’s many villages strung along its length are actually gay, the Pines and Cherry Grove, each serving slightly different sets of gays, or that they are next to each other but separated by a scrubby undeveloped area known as the “meat rack” for its cruisiness. I learned all this and more this past weekend when I impulsively decided to take a train there on Saturday night with Wray, an up-for-anything person who had slid into my DMs earlier this summer, to attend the annual Pines Party.
Some backstory: I had checked out the website for the event, a fundraiser for a number of LGBTQ+ orgs, whose centerpiece is a Saturday night beach bacchanal that lasts until 6 a.m. This year’s prom-esque theme was Return to Wonderland: “‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice as she awoke from another summertime dream,” curiously began the party description. And so I decided I needed to be there, to see the chaos and feel the testosterone, to “go down the rabbit hole,” even if the pricey tickets were sold out.
Scrolling Instagram to see if anyone I knew might be going, I saw Wray filling his Stories with calls for a travel companion. Thinking it would be a very silly way to lose my Fire Island virginity, taking a last-minute trip with some guy off the internet, I responded to his post. Like the island, I didn’t know much about him, or even what he looked like in real life with his filtered Insta feed. He claimed to be an expert at sneaking into parties and charming his way into the fancy homes of obliging older men — daddies, as in sugar — making me feel only a tiny bit better about making the journey without tickets or a place to stay. “I could even sneak into the Met Gala,” he bragged, when we met at Penn Station just a few hours later. Luckily, we found tickets to the party on Facebook while in transit. I wouldn’t sleep again for 18 hours.
8:05 pm | I meet Wray outside of Penn Station, in order to catch the 8:22 train to a town called Babylon. He’s shorter than I expected, wearing tiny purple shorts that coordinate well with my tiny fuschia skirt, and a golden necklace he says he designed himself which says “Self Repaired.” His lips are just as big as they appear to be online, and his mound of unnaturally blonde hair is stuffed into a trucker’s cap. On the train, we swig mini bottles of flavored vodka while I try to figure out exactly who he is. But Wray is more eager to teach me the Fire Island ways, telling semi-instructional tales of going there himself — stories that involve his “daddies,” “mountains of blow,” nude sunbathing, and little to no sleep. I’m clearly nervous about the lack of a place to stay, so he starts hitting up his men, including one doctor who he has to contact on a burner phone (it’s actually an app which disguises his number) because said daddy had blocked him.
9:00 pm | After a few more vodkas, Wray lets on that he’s Canadian, and also a former stripper (“not a go-go boy”), a DJ, an event promoter, and a wannabe fashion designer. He refuses to tell me his age, but implies strongly that he’s still under 30. Like me, he’s lived in New York since 2019, though he’s spent less time going out in Bushwick and more time perfecting the art of appealing to other people’s, uh, generosity.
9:57 pm | At Babylon, we hop on the train to Sayville, where we then catch a shuttle bus to the ferry. Wray, scrolling through Grindr, gets a special alert from the app: “Fire Island has seen an increase in COVID cases, including fully-vaccinated people … Get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect your community.” He’s nervous about the Delta variant and has spent much of the day chastising other guys online for partying on the island after testing positive. He tells me he won’t be hooking up with anyone this weekend, and I agree, setting ourselves up to fail. He’s still texting the doctor, but the guy says he has a “jealous Latin fuckboy” staying with him this weekend.
10:07 pm | The next ferry, to Cherry Grove, doesn’t doesn’t leave until 11. Fortunately, there’s a bar by the dock. Adam, a middle-aged hunk with a smoky voice and an arm brace, is downing Miller Lights and Marlboro Lights next to us at the bar. He tells us that he “runs logistics” for the Pines Party, but tore his mountainous bicep while trying to lift an RTV earlier in the night, sending him to the mainland ER. Now, he’s on his way back, loaded up on painkillers. Wray, intrigued, asks to take a photograph of him, and then takes a dozen. Adam isn’t quite in the mood; he just went through a breakup. He’d bought his ex a $2,000 engraved watch and a cruise to the Mediterranean, but then the boyfriend admitted he couldn’t live up to Adam’s lifestyle anymore.
11:00 pm | The ferry at last. Far offshore, Wray takes a piss off the back of the boat. When we disembark a hungry twink rushes Adam, asking if he’ll show him how to get to the party. “Sure, I’m papa bear,” Adam says, and the boy screeches back, “I’m baby bear!!!” “Whose Goldilocks?” someone else calls out, but then he sees me, in the pink skirt.
11:35 pm | Wray walks me past the house of a daddy he once hung out with; the guy told him he was into crystals and yoga, but when Wray got to his house, he found out he meant crystal meth. As we walk toward the Pines through the “meat rack,” we’re joined by a guy in a white polo who offers me, the newbie, some words of advice: “If you don’t have sex with these guys, they won’t be your friend … And if you’re not masculine, you’re gonna be tested by a lot of bitches.”
12:23 am | No bags are allowed at the party (“Please leave all backpacks, purses, man-bags, & clutches at home”) so Wray and I look for somewhere to store our things. We stuff as much as we can into two fanny packs which, ironically, I carry like a “man-bag,”and everything else we hide under the boardwalk. Wray does a few push-ups to get ready, and puts on a neon-yellow ski mask. He gives me a pink one, “like Spring Breakers.”
12:45 am | Heading toward the beach, the dancey pop music gets louder and louder, and suddenly a glowing, multicolored carnival, just feet from the crashing waves, appears. Wray says he doesn’t stand in lines, so he takes off running down the shore, in an attempt to sneak into the event from the behind. Walking into the party, one might think it’s Playboy themed, with all of the muscle-y boys in rabbit ears and fluffy bunny tails. But then I notice Cheshire cat costumes and big burly gym rats with towering Mad Hatter hats. I spot very few people dressed like Alice, however, and for a party full of queens, not a single Queen of Hearts. Tweedledees and Tweedledums are everywhere.
12:49 am | Within five minutes, Wray attracts his first daddy, a hairy Italian guy with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Wray introduces himself as Giovanni, his old stripper name. The man’s name is Franky, and when he tells us he’s a mailman on Long Island, Wray makes a handful of jokes about big packages and accepting deliveries. Franky hates the theme, “because it’s not very sexy,” and tells us the easiest way to avoid wearing a costume to the party is to just wear a jockstrap. When he goes to “buy” us drinks, Wray tells me, “Welcome to my life.” Later, I find out all of the drinks are free.
1:16 am | On the way toward the stage, where oiled-up men and a DJ are dancing in front of a humongous, glowing Cheshire Cat with moving eyes, Wray runs into two shirtless bears he knows. Apparently, he hooked up with one of them last summer (“I fucked him while the sun was going down”) and one of them last week, though neither of them knows that about the other. “My plan! It worked perfectly,” Wray cackles, when we walk away. Franky looks disappointed, and suddenly begins taking more interest in me, pointing toward Wray and exclaiming, in that heavy accent, “This kid!”
2:02 am | Since we didn’t have to sneak into the party, Wray decides we should sneak into the VIP section: a small stage overlooking the sea of shirtlessness. Franky sticks with me, and tells me how grateful he is to have lived through two pandemics, the AIDS crisis and now COVID. He’s been coming here since 1980, and what he likes the most about the island these days is the energy, and hanging out with younger boys: “I like the young guys. I’m not bitter. I’m not one of these old guys that are like, ‘Oooooohh, I wanna take you home.’” Then, he offers to take us home. Maybe too fittingly, the DJ starts playing Gaga’s “Alice,” and the thousands of men below us, old and young alike, start dancing hard, while glowing bubbles float over their heads. Franky apologizes for sticking to me “like glue.”
2:50 am | In an attempt to lose Franky, I sidle up to two other older men with New Balance tennis shoes, droopy pecs, and bad dance moves. One of them, gesturing toward the speakers, tries to prove how with it he is. “This … is Kylie Minogue,” he says, smiling at me. When I ask his friend why he loves this party, he says, “It’s like eye candy for the gays.” I watch his eyes wander to the view in front of us: a boy dancing in mesh black shorts, his hairy ass completely visible and shaking in yet another older man’s face.
3:15 am | Wray is not interested in doing anymore dancing, so he leads us to a round circle of white-topped VIP tents in the sand, away from the dance floor. Though each one appears to be just a few feet deep and a few feet wide, if you go through a curtain in the side, there’s a sexy darkroom out back. I follow Wray and a few of his friends — where they appeared from I’m not sure — into one of the tents, crowned with a giant cardboard ass in a jockstrap, with a bunny tail over its hole.
5:37 am | We stay in the tent until the sky turns from black to gray and it begins to rain, making the whole sand-in-your-crevices situation a bit more bearable. I follow Wray and a handful of older gays and their younger boy toys back to a fabulous home at the end of a long boardwalk. The owner, a real-estate agent, claims the place was built by the first gay phone-sex operator. Some of the boys disappear into a bedroom, and the remaining men offer me Champagne. I take turns relaxing in their steaming courtyard hot tub and skinny-dipping in the cool rain, in their pool overlooking the ocean.
8:06 am | Eventually, a boy in a red cape appears from the bedroom and makes everyone a plate of bland scrambled eggs, which I wash down with a vodka cranberry. A gaggle of very handsome, toned, Spanish-speaking men in Speedos show up to the house, and one of them tells me a romantically ridiculous story about meeting his husband at Equinox. They hang out for a while, and then excuse themselves to do drugs in the bathroom before heading to the morning party.
9:08 am | Drunk and exhausted, I beg Wray to take me back to the ferry. First we dig our bags, now covered in beetles, out from under the boardwalk. On the way to the docks, he makes a pit stop at yet another gorgeous glass house hidden in the trees, catching me off guard. Inside, a very coked-up, naked young guy is bent over a mid-century modern armchair for an older man. When the guy tries to inspect his ass, the chair falls forward, and someone in the kitchen calls out, “It’s not a party until there’s an accident!” Wray pops into the bedroom, where a middle aged Israeli is lying on his back next to a foot-long dildo. “Are you a he, she, or an it?” he asks me. His housemate gives me a Kind bar and points me in the direction of the harbor.
10:36 am | At the “Canteen” by the ferry dock, I get a coffee and watch a man with salt-and-pepper eyebrows try to pick up the barista, whom he says he saw dancing last night at the beach party. “I can’t die without saying these things,” he tells me. Pulling away from the pier, I see the morning party happening by the harbor. Several guys wave their shirts at us.
11:13 am | On the shuttle van to the train, with a dozen other dreary-looking gays who also clearly didn’t have a place to stay, I put in my earphones and play a Joni Mitchell song, in an attempt to calm my brain. But the sounds from the loud bus radio drown out the music. I pause my Spotify to realize it’s a Sunday church service. We sinners all laugh together.
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