Spike drummed the remaining two fingers of his left hand on the bar. He had turned off the music 15 minutes earlier, reinforcing the message that we were closed to the stubborn table of two. Kitty waited for him at Table 13, drinking a Bloody Caesar and kicking a crossed leg, his loafer dangling from his toes like a high heel.
Chakra, Andrew, Spike and I had drawn the short straws for Christmas Eve. It had been busier than we had anticipated, singles mostly and friends saying goodbye before the dreaded Greyhound back to the Interior or the redeye over the Rockies.
Spike let us drink on our shifts on the condition we let him get drunk with Kitty. The three of us were giddy as kids waiting for Santa, shooting B-52s and warming ourselves with Baileys and coffee piled high with whip cream then topped with a drizzle of crème de menthe.
To his credit, Andrew forgave me for fucking up his tips that one time but not without a measure of revenge. We were having our staff meal together — he, the Magnum Burger, which started with two beef patties on a French roll smothered with every cold cut in the house and topped with bacon. I was having a caesar salad. The rusty edges of the romaine were liquid papered with thick clumps of dressing just the way I liked it.
“How old is this bacon?” I said, holding up a long grey strip of meat that looked like it had been picked up off the floor. I was too poor not to eat it.
Andrew started to speak but stopped himself as I dangled then dropped the bacon into my mouth. A Bette Davis smile cut a trail across his face. The corners of his mouth had reached his ears when I started to gag.
“Those are anchovies, Tony,” Andrew said.
It was a small price to pay for Andrew remembering my name.
“I thought they would never leave,” Spike fumed, pulling the door closed behind the last table. “All right, let’s lock up and get out of here.”
“We haven’t done our side duties!” Chakra said. Failure to complete side duties was punishable by death.
“Fuck that,” Spike said. “It’s Christmas.”
Chakra, Andrew and I were standing under the blinking marquee lights before we knew it. It looked like midnight, but it was only 8:30pm.
Andrew filled the silence with, “I’ve got the joints from my Christmas stocking.”
“I made homemade egg rolls today,” Chakra said. She checked to make sure the coast was clear and then opened her bag to reveal a bottle of well vodka. Shitstoika I think it was called. Andrew and I couldn’t have been more amazed if she’d shown us her dick.
“Christ Tony, you really need to pay more attention behind the bar!” Andrew said.
We made a pit stop at the SuperValu for cranberry juice, SPAM and ice, then went back to Chakra’s at the Strathmore Lodge. Chakra’s apartment shimmered like buried treasure at the bottom of the ocean. One wall was devoted to tiaras, sceptres, sashes, plaques and photos. It was blinding. So were the sequined dresses airing out on the furniture.
Chakra changed out of her work jeans and into a dress and heels. She tied an apron around her waist and fried up some SPAM and egg rolls while Andrew passed a joint around and I poured us some stiff Cape Cods. We gathered on the floor around Chakra’s coffee table, trying to keep the grease off our clothes.
“What’s with the tiaras?” I asked.
Chakra and Andrew nearly choked on their SPAM. “Have you not heard of the Imperial Court System of Canada?”
Andrew asked between gulps of Cape Cod.
“I’d scratch you if I was wearing my press-ons,” he said.
Andrew explained how ted northe, the empress of Canada, brought the Imperial Court System to Canada from San Francisco in 1964. They had been crowning empresses at a lavish ceremony at the Commodore Ballroom since 1971.
“Am I drunk or did you just say the empress of Canada?” I asked.
“I’m running in 1991,” Chakra said.
“For empress of Canada?”
“Empress of Vancouver, stupid!” Chakra’s lips quivered in anticipation thinking about it. “I’m going to help people with AIDS; I’m going to bring the community together…”
“I’m going to learn English,” Andrew cut in.
“Why wait until 1991, Chakra?” I asked. “Why not run next year before the Gay Games?”
Chakra and Andrew looked at one another and answered in unison: “Politics.”
The salty meal made us drink faster. We took turns taking swigs from a bottle of Grand Marnier Chakra had forgotten she had and then passed around the second of Andrew’s two joints.
“I know a place where there’s booze,” Andrew said. “Celebrities.”
“A gay bar on Christmas Eve?” I whined. “Wouldn’t you rather watch It’s a Wonderful Life or something?”
“It ain’t no wonderful life,” Andrew deadpanned. “Now get your coat on.”
We walked arm in arm down Davie St to keep from falling over. Andrew had on the giant fake fur coat with matching muff and hat that he had made himself. Chakra and I leaned against him like bookends, trying to suck the warmth from it.
Whether it was called the Lester Court, the Embassy or the Retinal Circus, Celebrities is where Vancouver has gone dancing since 1914. It was the tallest building on Davie for a time; now the front was painted black with the name written in purple, punctuated by a reel of film.
Where once there was oak panelling now there were mirrors, glass and neon. The spectators in the mezzanine went from the Daughters of the Empire to hippies tripping on Hendrix to homos looking to get laid. A pink Cadillac convertible was pointed at the dancefloor from a wooden platform.
“What is it with this town and decorating with automobiles?” I shouted over the music.
There was a point where I was drunk and dancing on a speaker to a remix of Divine’s “You Think You’re a Man” when I remembered a promise I had made to my dad when I told him I was moving to Vancouver.
“Promise me you’ll go to church on Christmas,” he said.
“Okay,” I told him, thinking it was a small request at the time.
Midnight mass had come and gone when I woke up on Chakra’s couch. She and Andrew were curled up under his fake fur coat on the bed. I wasn’t sure if I needed to throw up or pee, but I went to the bathroom to cover all my bases.
I leaned over the toilet trying to gag, but it didn’t work. I pulled my pants past my knobby knees and tried to stay inside the lines as I peed. Then I saw my face in Chakra’s mirror.
Andrew and Chakra had taken it upon themselves to see what I would look like as a woman while I was passed out. They could have at least made me pretty. I had made plans to spend Christmas with Dan at his place in East Van. Not to mention, I needed to call my family. How was I going to do either looking like this?
The Noxzema I stole from Chakra made my face look worse. There was no way I was crossing town looking like this, not even in a taxi. I decided I would spare myself the humiliation and spend my first Christmas in Vancouver alone. That was when I finally threw up.
I crawled into bed, hugging a pillow to my stomach. Then I saw the time on the clock radio. It was close to the allotted hour to call my family at the annual gathering. Figuring there was no point in putting off the inevitable, I wrapped myself in a blanket, gathered my cigarettes and lighter and sat on the milk crate that I used for a chair in the living room. I lit a cigarette before dialling my parents’ number.
“Are you smoking?” my sister said instead of Merry Christmas.
How do they know?
“What have you got planned for today?”
“Dinner with the family that put me up when I arrived here,” I lied. Elliot and Megan had invited me for Christmas dinner, but I was afraid of becoming morose and homesick.
“Sounds nice and quiet. Not like here.” There was a commotion of voices in the background: a brother-in-law was yelling at a nephew; a sister cackled like a witch. I could smell the turkey and chorizo; the heat of the kitchen steamed my glasses through the phone.
“My youngest was asking about you,” my sister said. “She asked why we sent you away. Isn’t that funny?”
“I’d never thought of it that way,” I said.
My niece might have been on to something. I hadn’t been banished per se, but to some degree I had performed a service for my family. They would no longer live in fear of catching me in the act of being a homo.
I was handed from sibling to sibling like a hot potato, each conversation a mimeograph of the last: “How are you?” and “What are you doing for Christmas?” My father was distant as always. “Where are you working?” he asked.
He would have had a coronary if I told him.
“In a restaurant,” I said.
My mom cried into the phone like she was visiting me in prison. “Don’t forget to pray, okay?”
“All right, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Before saying my final goodbye, my sister held up the phone and my entire family of 18 shouted, “Merry Christmas, Tony!” blowing me off my milk crate.
The entire call lasted maybe 10 minutes. I got up from the floor and went into the kitchen to make some instant coffee to go with my cigarette. As the water boiled on the stove, I grabbed the staff phone list from the refrigerator door and dialled Dan’s number.
“Is it too early for me to come over?”
The trip to Dan’s place was the first time I had left the West End since I dropped my bags off at The Holly Lodge. Not only was I lost, but my face looked like it had been drawn all over with crayon. Luckily, that was a prerequisite for getting on the Victoria bus.
Commercial Dr was a notoriously cheap place to live and very lesbian. With the exception of Dan, I didn’t know a single gay man who lived on The Drive. Not one with a good body, anyway.
The Drive was too far from the clubs, the tubs and the beach for any gay man with common sense and a Speedo. Some questioned the East End’s very existence.
Dan lived in a bland concrete house on Graveley St, just steps off The Drive. The front was one big grey slab with a couple of windows for eyes and a door for a mouth. A child could build it out of Lego.
“What happened to your face?” he asked.
“Chakra and Andrew.”
“Can I get you some sake?”
“Like on M*A*S*H?”
“The Japanese might see that differently, but yes.”
Dan took me on a tour of the house and introduced me to two of his three roommates. All were social workers with some sort of drug dependency. Jason lived in the basement and belonged to a cult, while Helen suffered from koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons.
“That must be torture,” I told Dan.
“She’s afraid of choking on them, not looking at them.”
Jason and Helen weren’t speaking to each other on account they had both had an affair with Alice, Dan’s other roommate, while they were still a couple. Alice complicated things further by continuing to see other people.
“We should hang out in my room to avoid getting caught in any crossfire,” Dan said.
Everything in Dan’s room was at floor level. All he owned was a futon, a small set of drawers, a modest selection of secondhand clothes, a boom box and lots and lots of cassette tapes. “Any requests for music?” he asked.
“What have you got?”
“Jane Siberry, Indigo Girls, Toni Childs, Cowboy Junkies…”
“They’re with the ex. Joni Mitchell?”
“You don’t know who Joni Mitchell is? That settles it: as my Christmas gift to you, I’m going to put you in touch with your inner Joni.”
Dan dug Blue from the pile of cassettes and put it into the player. He crawled across the floor to grab an old cookie tin from a drawer then patted the spot next to him on the futon for me to sit down. He opened the tin with a soft grunt, and the scent of skunkweed filled the room like incense. “You can’t listen to Joni Mitchell without a little pot.”
“So what brought you to Vancouver?” I asked, alternating tokes and sips of sake.
“My ex and my student loan, in that order.”
“You followed him here?”
“I fled. He fell in love with some 20-year-old twink.”
“You look a lot older.”
“I get that a lot. How old are you?”
“Too old to be bussing tables at some gay café.”
“How did you know?”
“That’s my cut-off age for being a waiter.”
“What about you? What are you doing in Vancouver?”
“It keeps changing. I want to write mostly, but I can’t help wondering if I wasn’t trying to get away from my family.”
“They’re the worst!”
“I considered the priesthood.”
“I got as far as the monastery,” Dan said.
“No way! What stopped you?”
“All the sex I was having.”
An avalanche of sound from the kitchen startled us. There was cursing and then what sounded like symbols followed by even more cursing. I panicked. It sounded like someone was breaking in.
“Something tells me Alice is home.”
Helen and Jason were in the kitchen staring in disbelief at the mess Alice had made. How one person could upend so many shelves in so few seconds was beyond our comprehension. Alice had obviously found what she was looking for because she was mixing a thick white paste with a whisk.
“Who invited Divine?” she asked when she saw me. She was only the second black person I had seen in all of Vancouver.
“This is Tony. He had a run-in with some drag queens,” Dan said. “What are you doing?”
“With laundry detergent?”
“I thought they smelled April fresh,” Alice said. “Did I mention I dropped acid?”
“No, you didn’t.”
My first Christmas in Vancouver will go down as the one I spent with Dan and his roommates, getting high, drinking sake and eating buckwheat pancakes for Christmas dinner. It also marked the beginning of my affair with Joni Mitchell. I took my cue to leave when Alice tried to convince us she saw an African elephant in the velvet bullfighter painting in the living room.
I was too stoned for the bus, so I walked back to the West End from Commercial Dr without a clue as to which way was north. I paused on the Cambie Bridge. It was the first time I had ever seen the city skyline from a distance. To my right was the dome of BC Place Stadium and the aluminum testicle known as Science World. On my left was the floating McDonald’s and a crater where Expo 86 had been.
The city was bone dry, but the mountains were covered with snow like the Paramount Pictures logo. I could almost hear the wind whistling between the peaks. With makeup all over my face and a hand clenched to the horizon, I announced to the city of Vancouver, “I don’t care if I have to lie, cheat or steal; as God is my witness, I will never eat buckwheat pancakes for Christmas dinner again!”