My O.C.: Wine Wednesday Lessons

Neighbors surprise each other with camaraderie in tough times.
Illustration by Kara Pyle

Which TV personality do you have a crush on?”
Do I answer what would be acceptable? Or answer truthfully? 

I was sitting in a lawn chair on a neighbor’s driveway, sipping a drink and pondering the week’s icebreaker question along with a dozen other people. These were not the kind of people I would normally hang out with, but spring 2020 wasn’t a normal time. The pandemic had invaded our quiet Huntington Beach neighborhood. Visiting my usual circle of politically liberal friends and family was just too risky when all we had to protect ourselves was a bottle of hand sanitizer and a flimsy paper mask. Instead, the only people I saw who didn’t inhabit the little squares on Zoom were the ones I had honked and waved to on my morning commute before the pandemic. Answering this question truthfully seemed as dangerous to me as catching the mysterious virus. 

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Thirty years prior, I had fallen in love with Lynn, also a woman. We bought our first home in Surf City in 1993. In 1996, the federal Defense of Marriage Act was passed, which prohibited same-sex couples like us from getting legally married. The majority of voters in Huntington Beach back then most likely supported the federal law, but I figured if Lynn and I portrayed ourselves as polite, tax-paying citizens, no one would care that both our names appeared on our checks and we had only one queen size bed at home. As long as the neighbors didn’t ask and we didn’t tell, Lynn and I were “safe.” We wouldn’t contribute to the statistic in the (2007) Orange County Human Relations Commission report during that period that concluded “Gays and Lesbians continue to be among the most targeted victims of hate crimes.” 

Fast-forward to 2020. Same-sex marriage was federal law, but Lynn and I were still hesitant to kiss each other goodbye outside our front door before going to work. The years of having one foot in the closet and one out had become a comfortable and convenient habit. 

One Wednesday evening, shortly after the world shut down, I was walking our poodle, Joey, when I saw a group of neighbors two blocks over sitting in lawn chairs in a circle on the driveway. The group’s laughter broke my dour mood from the nightly statistics of the pandemic’s death toll. A loud voice pierced the laughter and called to me: “Why don’t you come join us? It’s Wine Wednesday.”  

I was so surprised that I did what I had always done: I smiled and waved. 

When the following Wednesday came, I was Zoomed out and desperate for some in-person contact. I put the leash on Joey, grabbed a lawn chair, snatched a bottle of lemonade, and walked to the circle. The neighbors scooted their chairs to fit me in as I approached. They petted Joey, sipped wine, and joked around while I did my best to size them up. I saw that about half of them were probably over 60, like me, but I was the only one wearing a mask and unaccompanied by an opposite-sex partner. 

When the next Wednesday arrived, my head was bursting with questions. Was it a good idea for me to go back? What if the neighbors asked if I was married? Was it wise for me to answer honestly? If so, would everyone in the neighborhood find out that Lynn and I were more than roommates? My cabin fever yelled at me to get over it. Again, I put the leash on Joey, grabbed the lawn chair and lemonade, and showed up. This time, everyone called Joey by her name when they reached down to pet her, and some had even brought along their own canines. 

After a few weeks, Wine Wednesday became a ritual I looked forward to, even if I wasn’t entirely truthful about who I was. I started to learn things about my neighbors. Just like the sourdough starter one of them regularly fed to a jar to get a whole loaf of crusty bread, we nourished the needs of our group as the pandemic wore on. We added visors, sunglasses, and sangria for our first summer together and a fire pit, blankets, and brandy for our first winter. We brought cupcakes and Champagne for birthdays and anniversaries and shared memories standing around the all-too-fresh grave of one of the neighbors we unexpectedly lost. Continuing our weekly ritual, we always answered the icebreaker question of the evening. 

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That night, the question wasn’t “What was your worst vacation?” or “What’s your favorite season of the year?” It was “Which TV personality do you have a crush on?” 

Without a moment’s hesitation, I took a leap of faith and said, “Rachel Maddow.”  

There was silence for what seemed like five minutes, but it was probably five seconds until one neighbor countered, “I’d prefer Tucker Carlson.” She paused. I was trembling inside while tightening the grip on Joey’s leash. This is the end, I thought. She added, “Besides, his thinking is more in line with mine.” 

Everybody laughed, and then I got it. This neighbor opposed my politics, not the gender I was attracted to! Nobody seemed to bat an eye at my fantasy date choice. And just like that, I had both feet out of the closet. 

Now whenever Lynn drops by Wine Wednesday, everyone says “Hi, Lynn!” If she’s not there, my neighbors ask how she is. Much to my delight, we have moved past “honk and wave.”  

Two years after my first driveway circle, when life began to open up again, I mentally prepared myself for the dissolution of Wine Wednesday and a return to our pre-pandemic habits. Again, I was surprised: The driveway gatherings still draw the original participants, their dogs, and even new attendees.  

Wine Wednesday forged a camaraderie among people who under normal circumstances, would not have cleared their schedles to spend two hours together every week. The driveway is where we can relax and soothe our anxiety over events that seem to slip out of control. Wine Wednesday has revealed our common denominator: We need each other to connect when the going gets tough. Lynn and I are finally “safe” to be seen for who we are—a real couple like the others.