Scritch, scritch, goes the chalk as I re-christen my pool stick. I poise myself at the edge of the billiards table, knees bent and stick reared as I gear up my break. I pull back and deliver…
Fifteen balls are sent flying in every direction, some colliding with each other and some with the edges of the table. I watch as the blue 2-ball slowly makes its way towards the far left pocket—rolling, rolling, rolling, until finally it falls down the hole with a satisfyingly gentle thud.
“Nice break,” my friend Shawn tells me.
Yeah, it was a nice break, I think. Self-five.
I circle the table like a hunter stalking his prey. I have a few shots available to me, but the bright red 3-ball is lined up perfectly with the middle right pocket, the color sticking out on the green table like recent bloodshed in the jungle.
I shift left to right, looking for my shot. With my right eye squeezed shut, I kneel to line up the cue ball with my prey. My stick is my spear, and I’m going in for the kill.
* * *
I grew up with a pool table in my garage. It was small, made for kids, but I was small too. I didn’t quite learn all the right rules until recently, but I practiced my aim all the time. Eventually the thing got a little too old and a little too dusty—it was taking up space, so we decided to chuck it. I fell way out of the habit of shooting pool until I found Kavakaze, a small and somewhat desolate kava bar smack in the middle of Tallahassee, Florida.
For those who may not know, kava is a root that is ground up and dissolved in various liquids to make teas and brews. Used traditionally as a ceremonial drink in the Pacific Islands, kava has anxiety and pain-relieving qualities. Another feature at Kavakaze is kratom, a leaf they use to make their brü, which can have the same qualities as well as an occasional increase in energy and cognition.
I personally have dealt with depression, anxiety, and a mood disorder for the past nine years. I’ve tried a handful of antidepressants and mood stabilizers, but until very recently none of them were the right fit. I’ve been on a trial run of a latuda/lithium cocktail, and it’s been okay. Now, I’ve been known to enjoy the occasional drink or two, but I have to keep an eye on when I’m drinking, how much, and why. I try never to have more than three beers regardless of the situation I’m in, and I rarely consume any other form of alcohol. Most importantly, I try not to drink alone.
Kavakaze is unique in that they’re a bar, yes, but they don’t serve, sell, or possess alcohol of any kind. The kava that they offer is a drink tantamount to liquid relaxation, relief, and sometimes productivity. It relaxes the mind and body just the right amount so that all those walls you may subconsciously put up just crumble to dust.
Sounds a little like alcohol, right? Well, the key difference is that there’s no hangover. For myself, at least, I haven’t noticed any negative side effects of kava or kratom. If anything, it’s helped me maintain my focus while studying, relieved my constant body aches, and lessened my social anxiety to let me interact with new people.
The best part about Kavakaze, however, isn’t what they sell—it’s what they promote: an open, accepting, and encouraging environment where one’s identity and sense of self only matters insofar as you might find something in common with another patron. Whereas I have felt judged in many social spaces for being an openly and visibly transgender guy, that part of my identity has never presented a problem at Kavakaze. The bartenders and patrons alike are oblivious to visual and social differences, creating an entirely neutral atmosphere where one is free to simply exist.
Moreover, many of Kavakaze’s patrons are patrons for the same reasons, be it anxiety, pain, insomnia, or loneliness. I have had conversation after conversation with people there who have experienced issues with mental health similar to my own. I even met another trans person my first night there—she sat down next to me at the bar and struck up a conversation, and before I knew it we were talking and laughing about our transitions.
I have actually made a good deal of new friends at the billiards table in the back corner of Kavakaze, most of whom are male. They’ve never questioned my gender or identity, only my lack of pool skills. Even then, they’ve all been more than willing to teach me how to hone those skills; Shawn has spent hours shooting pool with me, giving me tips and pointers whenever I need a hand.
The male patrons and even the employees at Kavakaze are a real treat. Interacting with cisgender men has always been difficult for me, because the men I’ve come into contact with previously have often been very binary and very masculine, sometimes to a toxic level. For some reason, Kavakaze’s atmosphere allows people to shed their stereotypes and just be, freed from the sacred laws of masculinity so many people hold dear.
At Kavakaze, you can shoot pool and sip tea. You can watch the game and discuss mental health during the commercials. You can sport team jerseys and tattoos while jamming out to a ukulele session. You can get in a good bro hug before sitting down to talk about some personal stuff. There are no boundaries at Kavakaze, and there is nothing stopping anyone from having a good time.
For many people with identities and expressions that don’t stick to the status quo, it can be difficult to find one’s place in the world, let alone a space to figure it out. Kavakaze provides this to their patrons, free of judgment and full of camaraderie. In a society where masculinity governs much of how we interact with each other, it is a welcome break and insight into how much easier it would be to exist free of gendered expectations of each other.