It was October 2005 when I received a call from Mr. John Smith. I hadn’t spoken to the man in question since graduating high school, so it was quite surprising that his voice should happen to turn up on the other end of my phone. At the time of our conversation, I was approximately nineteen straight years and one-point-two-five gay years old. I had just returned to Winnipeg after coming out in Ottawa, and was fresh off the gay boat.
His voice was not how I remembered it, probably because I had barely spoken to him before. John Smith, a character who I shall provide you with few details other to say I knew him from Church, was a pear-shaped man in his mid to late fifties. Save a few brown hairs that clinged to the side of his head, John’s most distinguishing feature was his running shoes. No matter what formal clothes he happened to be wearing (typically a brown suit with a robin’s egg collar shirt and a thin red tie) he always sported the same pair of worn-out, stained-grey sneakers.
I knew John in high school only through the corner of my eye. I saw him every Sunday night at mass, and in passing at a smorgasbord of school events. Aside from awkward introductions and talk so small you could hardly knew it was there, I knew very little about him other than he wore a cross and had unforgivable fashion sense. Listening to him fumble on the phone, he told me that he heard I was back in town and got my number from a friend (well ex-friend) at mass.
It took him long enough, but he finally confessed to me that he was organizing a Church event and wanted me to be a part of it. Back in the closet, I would have jumped at the chance to further camouflage myself, but now that I was outside of it, I hadn’t the slightest interest. I politely declined, but he would not take no for an answer. He turned out to be a natural salesman, because shortly after I agreed to meet him for coffee which then turned in to dinner.
“I will pick you up Tuesday night at eight,” he hung-up.
When the evening in question finally arrived, I had no clue what I was getting myself in to. I suppose the writer in me has always been curious, like a Rugged Fox I am always poking my nose in somewhere it doesn't belong. Dressed in my big woolen sweater, I stood outside the front entrance to my apartment and watched the sun slip behind the trees. The leaves on the sidewalk were all kinds of yellow and orange. The bitter chill in the air forewarned frost. Moments later, a navy-blue Toyota Corolla stopped in front of me.
I did not notice the gigantic sty on his right eye when I first sat down in the passenger seat; I was too busy looking at his shoes. Once I confirmed his identity, I smiled hello and tried to hold back a high-pitched scream when I caught sight of his monstrous eye. I kid you not, but his right eye ball was not only bright red and swollen, it was oozing! In his left-hand was a crumpled piece of Kleenex that he kept dabbing against it.
Descended from a long-line of hypochondriacs, I was convinced that I was not going to get out his car uninfected. I kept my fingers interlocked in my lap and steadied my voice as if everything was normal. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about in that car ride, except for that he was taking me to his favourite Italian restaurant. “It’s a hidden gem... hands down the best calamari in the City... you are going to love it!”
The restaurant, like most places in Winnipeg, was still stuck in the early eighties. At the front door, a red bubble gum machine greeted guests instead of a hostess. “Get a black bubblegum and win a free piece of tiramisu!” it welcomed. The dining room did not fare much better. Each wall reflected the same pastel scene from Italy which repeated every time the wallpaper ran out. Hanging from the ceiling, black speakers strung the soundtrack to Moonstruck.
“Red or white?” he asked me, as the server walked up to the table. She looked at him with an air of familiarity and me with a touch of sympathy.
“White,” I said. These were the days before I switched to red.
“The two of us will take a litre of your finest house bianco and of order of calamari to start.”
The wine glasses on the table were miniature size, and then when waitress returned she filled them to the very top. He rose a glass to cheers me, and I clinked his glass hesitantly. I was afraid that somehow his sty would transfer from his glass to mine and I’d wake up looking like Quasimodo.
“So…” he said, “when I will see you on Sunday night again?”
“Oh, most likely not for some time," I ripped a piece of bread on the table and dipped it in oil. "I stopped going to Church once I moved to Ottawa. I just don’t think it’s really my thing anymore.”
I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to share with him, but I also couldn’t stand to watch him struggle to put together another sentence.
“Did something happen?” He acted genuinely concerned, but for the first time that night, I suspected he knew a lot more about me than I did him.
“No." I still wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted; but it certainly had nothing to do with me helping out at his event. Did he want to convert me back to Catholicism? Did he want to save me from a well-dressed life filled with grave sin and top-40 dance music? Was this an intervention – was this my opportunity for salvation?
The appetizer arrived and I took a small sip of wine while he refilled his entire glass. My appetite had shrunk, but I ordered an entrée anyways because I didn't know what else to do.
“I don’t know if you know this,” I started, “but I came out of the closet while I was away. I don’t go to Church anymore because it is not fashionable.”
My naïveté really began to shine through at this point, because I was totally unprepared for his reaction.
“I am gay too!” he burst out, so excited he dropped his knife and fork in his lap.
“Oh shit,” I snapped.
It was at that moment that I realized what the server and everyone else in that dining room had known all along. All this time it was me he was after; how could I have been so clueless? There I was in a dark restaurant on a date with an over-weight, bald, alcoholic man who had puss dripping down from his right eye and I was the one who was half-blind! He didn’t want to warn me about the Book of Revelations, he wanted to slip off his running shoes, drop trow and show me his favourite verse! The crazy part though, is that, that isn't even the part of this story that bothers me.
Fueled by cheap wine, he broke out in to a passionate religious rant that burned through my eggplant parmigiana and fizzled out half-way through dessert. Although, I can’t remember word-for-word what he said, I was too shocked at the time, I can still hear the three names he began every sentence with: God, Jesus and the Lord.
“God created us this way for a reason, you see, he doesn’t want us to marry and have kids because he doesn’t want to distract us from doing his work.”
“Jesus chose us to be his special ones. We are the disciples of this earth – the lone soldiers!”
“The Lord has not abandoned us, don’t be mistaken. He has called us to a higher meaning.”
By the end of the meal he had finished every drop of wine except for the three ounces in my glass. He paid the bill, got up and rushed to the washroom. I, on the other hand, was frozen in my seat. I felt like not only had I been hit by a truck, I was also dragged behind it. I couldn’t process any other thought or emotion other than a childish want to go home. His cheeks were the same bloodshot colour as his eye when he returned. In the parking lot, the temperature had dropped below freezing outside, and without cab fare or a clue, I crawled back in to the seat beside him.
I began to pray that I would get home safe - but then for the first time it occurred to me that I had no one to pray to. Whatever residual spirituality I had left up to that night, this man with beat-up shoes had officially beaten out of me. Pulling up to my apartment he offered me a night-cap of Crown Royal from the bottle he had in his trunk. When I refused he offered me a toke. I leaned over to unbuckle my seat and that is when he kissed me.
A few years later, I told this story to one of my best friend’s, over coffee, who was studying Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He had returned home for Christmas, and the two of us laughed at the men we had become. I was a high-profile homosexual while he was three vows away from becoming a priest. In a tear-dropping conversation, he told me that because of our friendship, he was on a mission to heal the deep wound between the Catholic Church and gay community. I was right there with him until I heard those words again. Every time he mentioned the words "God" or "Jesus" I returned right back to the deep-fried smell of calamari. I suggested afterwards, that if he wanted to change the past, he was going to have to do some basic editing first.
At 27 years old, I don’t pray to God anymore, I pray to Meryl Streep. In the name of Kylie, Mariah and Celine Dion I am much more comfortable with faith these days, and Hallelujah for that.