After business hours, I met Ray at the Dragon Room Bar in Santa Fe. On this warm late afternoon monsoon rains threatened outside.
“Gawd, I just love your hair. Will you let me do it sometime?” Ray, a man rich with compliments, asked while we found a cozy corner, and ordered the notable margaritas in this near-kitschy Santa Fe icon.
We buddied up because he adored my daughters and made sure that when their high school prom came around, they looked absolutely spectacular. He helped pick their dresses, shoes, and he masterfully sculpted their hair and makeup. There was never a charge for his talent. “I do this because I just love your girls.”
Handsome, with eyes that glowed like embers in a campfire. We stood eye to eye, the two of us no taller than 5’ 5” depending on which shoes we wore. His brown hair was perfectly styled. He was fit from his morning workouts, and his attire always ironed, tucked and flawless.
Ray was fun and easy to know. Regardless, his gayness in rural New Mexico wasn’t always well received. Ray was young and out. If you didn’t like his sexual proclivity, that was your problem. Not his. “I’m like a dragon,” he said. “Full of fire and not ashamed.”
The more I got to know Ray, I learned that he wasn’t always the exquisite appearing man that I briefly knew. “Honey, I was fat as a kid—Bubba fat. Gawd, the other kids were so mean to me, all the girls and guys—-well, they just called me a fat queer. Now mind you, darlin’,” Ray said in his muffled Texas drawl, “I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what a queer was, but I did like looking at the privates of other boys when I could.”
Ray’s face turned ashen when he went into more detail about his life and lies. “You know that I never had sex until I was 24! Can you believe it?”
He pulled his wallet out and opened it to a plastic protected high school graduation photo. His hair, the color of dark wood, brushed to his ears, framed a round face that could not smile.
“That’s me, honey, the fat queer. My only friend was a 1975 Dodge that my mother gave me. But I never went far from home where I watched old movies on the tube. I loved Oreo cookies. Could crunch down a whole bag during the movie.”
I asked Ray his diet secrets. “Sex. Lots of it!” he said laughing. “Hon, when you bare your booty, you better look good so that you get the best lovers in town.”
His eyes turned downward. Tears rolled over both cheeks. “I’m sorry. I guess this old boy just needs an honest hug.”
I reached for his hands and gave them the mother’s touch that said I care. “Ray, you are hardly old. You’re not even 30 yet.”
“I know, but I feel so old. Look here,” he said as he rolled up the long black shirt sleeve from his wrist to his elbow. “See this sore? It means I’m going to die. I’m fucking going to die, Charmaine. I don’t want to die. I swear to gawd, I never wanted this disease. I just wanted someone to love me, someone to care for me, someone to be here for me. I would have made him very happy.”
Six months later, Ray’s skin turned a shade of yellow as his liver failed. He stayed home, alone mostly. With the support of a walker, Ray stopped by my shop to say hello. He wasn’t the same young man. His clothes hung on his skeletal body. His eyes lost their fiery glow. His voice weak and shaky.
“Hey there, girl. Thought I’d come by and say hi,” Ray said.
He was so frail that I feared hugging him. He could break.
“It’s OK,” he said reading my fear. “I won’t break.” He pushed his walker aside and we embraced. Instinctively, we knew this was to be our last visit.
Ray’s mother took his ashes back with her to Texas.
No one ever said AIDS killed this dear man. They just said he died of cancer.
Ray’s impact on me was my realization that he and I wanted the same things in life. Neither one of us sought stardom, just to find acceptance and love beneath the stars.
I haven’t been to the Dragon Room Bar since that day in 1994. I read that since the original owner, Rosalie Murphy died in 2000, that it’s just not the same place and the once notable margaritas are now mediocre.