I should have known better than to start my first relationship in Vancouver on a Welfare Wednesday, but like all messy affairs, it seemed like destiny at the time.
Welfare Wednesday is the last Wednesday of the month, when welfare cheques are issued. You knew it was Welfare Wednesday at Doll & Penny’s when there were rations of cigarettes, alcohol, Kraft Dinner and toilet paper next to every table. It was the time of the month when the poor and marginalized could afford hired help, and they made sure to get every government-issued penny’s worth. There weren’t enough ashtrays in the café to keep them from overflowing, fights broke out, and there were arguments over bills.
“We didn’t order this many drinks,” one slurred to the contrary. My personal favourite was: “You don’t expect me to pay for that shitty meal! I didn’t finish it!”
I cursed myself for picking up the shift from Elsa, who had obviously realized it was the café’s time of the month when she saw the schedule. Straight welfare recipients hated me because I was gay, and the gays hated me because I wasn’t on welfare. Topping it off was Chakra’s drag music, which she kept rewinding and repeating in preparation for an upcoming show. Moments like these are why I can’t do steroids or own a gun.
Dante was sitting at Table 41 with the staff of Graceland, where he worked as a go-go boy. Graceland was the closest thing to a New York club Vancouver had. Before it was a nightclub, the space had been a commercial bakery; the loading dock served as its entrance. Tuesdays were “Bad Boys’ Night Out,” and to prove it a slideshow of Bob Mizer photos was projected against the cement walls as you entered.
The dancefloor looked like the set of Jailhouse Rock. Go-go boys danced on pillars and a metal catwalk that circled the cement floor. Psychedelic images were projected on revolving banners and snippets of ’50s porn looped upside down and backwards on sheets that dangled from metal rafters. The music was strictly acid-house: tribal beats, Indian rants mixed with sirens, and a hint of Madonna. The dress code was bandannas tied around shaved heads, baggy jeans and big clunky Doc Martens. Everything was yellow smiley faces and “Have a nice day.”
Dante was Graceland’s star go-go boy. His standard uniform was black army boots, wool socks, micro-shorts and a flattop haircut that he kept manicured at Nick’s barbershop on Thurlow St.
Dante didn’t dance; he flailed against the music — back, arms and legs cracking in the air, his body an elastic metronome to the music. A small crowd of men would gather beneath him whenever he danced, myself among them, jockeying for position, trying to catch the sweat from his tight little body on our tongues like flakes of snow.
We had been cruising each other for months. Table 41 went silent from the intensity of our gazes. I was 20 years old and had not had sex since moving to Vancouver four months earlier. I was so horny I would have military-pressed the table over my shoulders for a piece of Dante’s ass.
“Hello?” Vince, the owner of Graceland, said, waving his menu between Dante’s and my eyes. “Can we order?”
Vince had a face like an altar boy and an entourage like the pope. Everywhere Vince went, his promoter, Sid, and a team of hot, sweaty young guys were sure to follow. Vince and Sid transformed every table they sat at into Don Corleone’s den. They would whisper into each other’s ears conspiratorially while the glistening specimens accompanying them wriggled in their seats like children in a shopping cart.
Andrew and Chakra cornered me while I was smoking a cigarette by the ledge next to the green metal door.
“You’re not seriously thinking of tricking with Dante, are you?” Andrew asked.
“Why, did he ask about me?”
Although he was the crème de la crème of clubland, Dante was no fixture at Doll & Penny’s — far from it. I saw Dante everywhere but the café. For whatever reason, Andrew and Chakra took issue with his presence, like he had crossed some invisible border.
“Dante was one of Russell Harrington’s busboys,” Andrew explained. “Except he got bussing tables confused with having sex in the bathroom.”
He’s slutty? I thought. This had never occurred to me. What go-go boy doesn’t want to settle down?
“He’s not good for you, Tony,” Chakra said, taking my cigarette and Bogarting it.
“Look, if you guys have got some axe to grind with the guy…”
“It’s not that,” Andrew tried to explain.
“Then what is it?”
“We’re not allowed to say,” Chakra said.
Andrew and Chakra blocked the path to my section and tried telling me clairvoyantly what they were forbidden to say. Their faces scrunched up a Morse code of wrinkled eyebrows and pursed lips until they gave up in exasperation, like it was my fault I couldn’t read minds.
“I don’t know what you’re worried about,” I said. “I’ve been serving the guy for nearly 15 minutes and all he’s said to me is, ‘I’ll have a Coke.’”
That’s when Elvis came to pick up an order and shouted, “Hey Tony! Do you know my friend Dante?”
“To see him,” I shouted over Andrew and Chakra’s shoulders.
“He wants to meet you. You should talk to him.”
I pushed my way past Andrew and Chakra and poked my head around the corner for a peek at Table 41. There were 10 people sitting with Vince and Dante and they were looking in our direction, checking on Elvis’s progress.
“I can’t go back to that table now! Tell him to come over here.”
Elvis rolled his eyes at me. “All right,” he sighed. “For a homo, you really don’t get how this sex thing works, do you?”
Elvis came back a few minutes later. “He doesn’t want to chat you up while you’re working. He said you should meet him at the Gandydancer tomorrow night.” I looked over at Dante and gave him a thumbs-up.
Elvis watched our exchange like a tennis match. “You’re serving his table for crying out loud!”
“I don’t want to jinx it by saying something stupid!” I said.
“Hello?” Dan said, poking his head around the corner. “It’s customary for a restaurant to have waiters!”
We were still waving goodbye to Andrew and Dan beneath the marquee lights of the café when Chakra said, “Tony, don’t let Dante hurt you.”
“You listen to too many divas, Chakra,” I laughed. “I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
Chakra grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “As your cousin, promise me you’ll use a condom!” she said.
“All right,” I said. “I promise.”
She hugged me tight then pulled my arm under hers. “Walk me home,” she said, like she was the one who needed protection.
The Gandydancer had just reopened after a lengthy renovation and was still enjoying a bump in business. I put my Ontario ID back in my wallet and stepped inside the bar. Dante was already there, shaking his booty to Erasure’s “A Little Respect.”
I grabbed a beer and watched him until our eyes met. The song ended and he came over to where I was standing, grinning from ear to ear.
“At last we meet,” I shouted over the music.
“Took long enough.”
“Yeah, I’m kind of shy.”
Just talking to him made me hard. He was wearing a tight black T-shirt and 501s rolled up to the top of his army boots. His face looked like it belonged on the cover of a Smiths album.
“Want to go somewhere?”
“I thought we were here.” I looked around and noticed every eye in the bar was on Dante’s ass. “On second thought…”
We went to Dante’s apartment in Caroline Court, a roach-infested former hotel guarded by a pair of white stone lions. “Malcolm Lowry and Marilyn Monroe used to live here,” Dante said as he unlocked the door to the building.
The apartment was painted black and lit with red light bulbs, giving it the feel of the inside of a refrigerator. It was littered with clothes, dirty dishes and empty take-out containers. The walls were decorated with Prince posters and photos of various incarnations of Dante, tacked to the walls with push pins. The only place to sit was the unmade bed.
“I have a confession to make… I’m on acid,” Dante said. “Is that okay?”
“I just want to be completely honest with you.”
We started making out. Dante stopped me as I started pulling his shirt off. “I don’t want to put out on the first date.”
“Head is okay; I just don’t want to get fucked, that’s all. I’m waiting for some test results.”
“What kind of disease?”
“A blood disease. Not AIDS! Something rare.”
“Something like that.”
“Is it a good idea for you to be on acid, then?”
“It helps me deal.”
This is when a normal person would get off the bed and say, “Thanks but no thanks…” Not me. I interpreted this as a sign of true love.
My reluctance to suck Dante’s cock was mollified by the acid that prevented him from getting hard. After his jaw got tired from sucking mine, Dante looked up from between my legs and asked, “Want to fuck me?”
“What about the test?”
“Fuck the test.”
At this point in my life I could still count the number of times I had had sex, and in all those times I had never once fucked a guy. In my little world, anal intercourse was something reserved for a third or fourth date. I didn’t even know about douching yet.
“Sure,” I said.
Dante would not stop directing me as I tried to fuck him. “Put your hands on the small of my back… okay… okay… there, don’t move.”
“They’re slipping,” I panted, trying to find a rhythm.
“Fuck yeah!” Dante shouted and began quivering.
“Are you all right?”
“You hit my G-spot.”
“You don’t know what a G-spot is?”
“Oh baby, you’re greener than I thought!” And then he drifted off to sleep.
Dante called the next day, much to my surprise.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. “Can I come over?”
He arrived at The Holly Lodge looking haggard and tired, like he had been up for days.
“I got the results back from my blood test,” Dante said, his hands in his face.
“I have HIV.” He started bawling uncontrollably. I hugged him, kissing the top of his spiky head, secretly fearing infection.
“I know I should have told you when I had the chance, but I was so fucked up. I got a letter saying I had been exposed to AIDS and I freaked. I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt so alone. Part of me wanted to push you away because if you liked me, I would have to tell you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere. We’ll play it safe.”
“Can I stay here tonight?”
“Of course you can.”
“Promise not to tell anyone,” Dante said.
In my mind I was already calling Dan.
“Of course not,” I said.
At first we treated the virus like it was a baby, something to appease and pacify. Dante’s doctor gave him a list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” that we read together, holding hands. Then Dante had to write a list of all the people he had had sex with so the BC Centre for Disease Control could oblige them with the same form letter Dante had himself received.
“Is it bad that I can’t fit all the people I slept with in the last six months on this sheet?”
It was only a matter of days before “the rules” went by the wayside. I was licking Dante’s balls, avoiding his cock with my mouth, when he said, “You can suck it, you know.”
“Can I put a condom on first?”
“Would you ask me that if you didn’t know I was HIV?”
A couple of days later we got high at my place and Dante wanted me to fuck him. I didn’t keep lube in the house since I didn’t normally fuck, so we went through my apartment looking for a lube substitute.
“This will do,” Dante said, taking a bottle of vegetable oil from my cupboard. “We can pretend it’s the ’70s.”
“Why don’t I just go buy something?”
“I need to get fucked now!”
The vegetable oil combined with the pot equalled fantastic sex. Once again Dante directed me until I told him to “Shut up and let me fuck you!” Sweat dripped off my nose and onto his stomach as I pulled out of him. I started rolling the condom off my cock and saw it was broken.
Dante and I looked at each other in frozen silence. “I’m sure it’s fine,” Dante said.
Easy for him to say, he already had HIV. I tried to remain calm nonetheless. “I’m going to wash up.”
I called AIDS Vancouver for their opinion, which was to get an AIDS test, which I was not prepared for. It took two weeks to get the results of an HIV test and I was afraid the wait would kill me, positive or not.
I was desperate to talk to Dan, but that would involve telling him Dante was HIV. I’m not sure what concerned me more: word of Dante’s HIV status being traced to me or people thinking I had it.
For all intents and purposes Dante and I were a couple, and I felt a certain amount of loyalty toward him because of it. We had our moments where it felt like there was a real connection between us, but they were few and far between. The last straw came when I took him to see Beaches on Valentine’s Day and he said that he liked it.
“So how are things with the go-go boy?” Dan teased, waving away the cigarette smoke that hovered above Table 31.
“Yeah, Tony,” Chakra and Andrew chanted like snotty little girls. “How’s the go-go boy?”
“Fine. Everything’s fine,” I groaned.
Prudence, the busboy, sat up in his chair and cleared his throat. Prudence was the latest in the revolving door of busboys — gay foals, desperate to do high school over and be popular. Prudence reminded me of a brunette Molly Ringwald; his pouty lips looked like they had been pulled off a frozen signpost and he wore more belts than the rings of Saturn.
“Tony, there’s something you should know,” Prudence said in a hushed tone. “There’s a rumour Dante has AIDS.”
So that’s what Chakra and Andrew were hinting at. People knew! I could relax! “I know,” I said without thinking. “We’re being careful.” I was so touched by Prudence’s concern for my wellbeing.
Dante woke me up the next morning pounding on my door. “What’s this I hear about your telling everyone at D&P’s I have AIDS!”
I pulled Dante into my apartment to avoid a scene. “What are you talking about?”
Then it came to me: Prudence.
Dante threw himself against the wall and pounded on it with his fists. “The news is up and down the street!” Dante screamed in a hoarse voice. “EVERYBODY KNOWS!”
“Dante, I promise, I never meant to hurt you. It was four in the morning. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”
He looked around the apartment for something to break, but the place was still empty. “I hate this,” he said. “I feel like I’m the only one that has it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“I believe you,” he sobbed.
We hugged the way we had the night he found out he was positive. Somewhere in our embrace we absolved each other of what obligations we had bestowed upon ourselves. I didn’t have to feel guilty for leaving him and he didn’t need to feel indebted to me for not running scared.
I still can’t watch Beaches without thinking of Dante.