It wasn't fair. EJ had found him, brought him home, set up a comfy, warm bed of hay in the basement; she'd even named him. But from our first encounter on that cold January night, Mister Peepers only ... [+]
"Really?" I said, skeptical. "That's a job?"
"Dorothy?" he replied. "This is Emerald City. Anything is possible."
I told him my name wasn't Dorothy.
"Well, you'll always be Dorothy to me," he said dramatically.
I told him I'd never met anyone quite like him before.
"And you never will again." He struck a pose, head held high, chin jutting forward like a thoroughbred. "I'm your horse of a different color."
I laughed out loud. My friends had warned me about New Yorkers. They're not like the rest of us, but that was one of the reasons I'd moved there.
He told me he also worked at the "Stallion Club" off Sheridan Square and invited me to "stop by some night when you're free." I smiled and said I worked nights.
"We all do, honey," he replied. "This is the city that never sleeps."
I was intrigued, but hesitant. Finally, one night, after my shift, I suggested to my roommates that we stop by the Stallion Club. It was a Thursday. The marquee read, "Ladies Night" and I mistakenly thought it meant us. I suppose I really was Dorothy from Kansas back then. I was so naive. Anyway, we found a table near the bandstand and there she was, up on stage, poured into a black sequined dress, wearing six-inch heels, lip-syncing to Liza Minelli's "New York, New York." When she finished, the MC ran onstage. "Let's hear it for Bobbi . . ."
"With an ‘i,'" she shouted over him, raising one finger and gyrating. "From Ka . . . Weens." She punctuated it with a pelvic thrust and a "rim" shot from the drummer. The crowd went wild —wolf whistles and cat calls. She bowed, and as she stood up she removed her brunette wig. The cheering swelled.
"That's him, " I said, shocked. My horse of a different color. Damn! I was impressed. He looked better in that dress than I ever would. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
***After that, we were inseparable. Bobbi with an "i" from Ka-Weens. He would stretch the word like a rubber band, and it always made me laugh. He showed me how to apply makeup and how to walk "for effect" in high heels. I'm not sure what I showed him, but he said he loved me the way best friends would always love each other. We discovered we wore the same size and exchanged outfits. I never wore his outside the apartment. I was too shy. He begged me to let him wear mine on stage. I thought he was kidding, but he told me he'd always wanted to be a nurse. One night I let him, our little secret.
It was like high school. We talked about the boys we dated, the boys we slept with—he more than me—the ones we had crushes on from afar. Mine was a second year CCU Resident named Neal. His kept changing; Archie from Astoria, or Jerry from Jersey City, he called them. Mine finally asked me out. His never did. Eventually, mine asked me to move in, which meant moving out.
I tried to stop by. We talked on the phone. But it wasn't the same. I had another man in my life now. No more Stallion Club. Still, I missed him.
A year later, Neal and I got engaged.
"I've got the perfect dress," he told me.
I knew better than to think he was kidding, but my family's reaction, what would they think?
"Screw them," he said. "It's your wedding. It's your life."
He told me that, when he was sixteen, he'd come out to his parents and his father had kicked him out of the house. "After giving me a good beating for a going-away present."
He'd moved to the Village, where he was a street hustler, until a "John" introduced him to the Stallion Club.
"They're my family now," he told me. "When the worst thing happens and you survive, you stop being scared."
***The worst thing happened in 1985. I went to see him every day. We laughed and gossiped, but no exchanging outfits. He had visitors. Young men like himself. Some came back. Most didn't. Nobody knew how to handle this plague called AIDS. But everyone knew how it ended.
One day, near the end, I saw a woman in his room—older, sitting close by the bed. She was talking to him. I doubt he heard her—the morphine drip. There were tears in her eyes. "I'm here," she told him. She held his hand and kissed it. Very brave back then. "I love you, Duane." DuWayne from KaWeens. I tried to smile, but couldn't, so I closed the door and continued my rounds. When I returned, she was gone.
Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy, the listed cause of death, was a rare, opportunistic disease that preyed on weakened immune systems. By 1985 it wasn't nearly so rare.
They held a memorial for him at the Stallion Club, piping "New York, New York" over the PA system, but there was no cheering, no wolf whistles, just tears. Several people got up to speak, some in drag. I spoke about the first time we'd met. How I was his "Dorothy," and he was my "horse of a different color." Afterward, strangers came up and hugged me.
He wanted his ashes spread along Seventh Avenue. It was illegal, but we did it anyway. He left me his wardrobe. Neal asked me to wear the outfits.
"Just around the apartment," he said, but I couldn't. It felt sacrilegious somehow. I donated them to the Stallion Club. They were raising money to fight the virus. But for many, it was already too late.
Soon after that, I got pregnant. Neal and I left Saint Vincent's and moved to New Jersey.
***That was eight years ago. Today I'd brought my daughter to the Big Apple to show her where I met her father.. There were rumors St. Vincent's was closing. I wanted one more visit.
We stopped in Sheridan Square, where a man sat feeding the pigeons. My daughter asked if she could help.
"Of course," he replied, and gave her a handful of breadcrumbs.
I pointed down the street to the For Rent sign on the faded marquee. "How long has that been closed?"
"The Stallion Club?" he answered. "Several years at least, why?"
"I knew someone who used to work there."
"Really?" He eyed me, surprised. "What was his name? Maybe I knew him?"
I looked at my daughter, still happily feeding the pigeons. "His stage name was Bobbi."
". . . with an ‘i.'" He interrupted, raising one finger. "From Ka-Weens." And still seated, he gave me his best impression of Bobbi's signature pelvic thrust and smiled. "I knew him well." The sleeve of his shirt slid down. That's when I noticed the lesions on his arm. Kaposi Sarcoma. Before I could ask, my daughter turned to the man and spoke.
"Did you say Bobbi with an ‘i'?"
"That's my name, too." She announced proudly. "And today's my birthday."