Embers of the Night

It was Christmas season, more than half my life ago, when I met Ruby Flame at a party held in a rickety Victorian House of some local swingers.  I didn’t know much about the hosts at the time, would find out the hard way in the not too distant future.  That’s a whole other story belonging in the annuls of the Never-To-Be-Written, yet it plays into this one.  There weren’t many places a drag queen, Ruby in this case, was free to dress in full regalia in the mid 1970’s of Springfield, Missouri.

For the festive Christmas gathering, I donned a full length silk-screened, vintage red and green floral dress, slinky and custom-made for a fashion plate in the 1930’s.  My dark hair was pulled into a tight chignon.  When Ruby introduced herself, there stood my opposite.  Much shorted and proportionately heavier than I, she was squeezed into a fuzzy white mini dress, a long blonde wig, a tight collar of tinkling gold Christmas tree balls, and make-up that burned brighter than any light I’d ever seen in a human being.  We latched onto each other like two flickering embers, and ignited.  Before saying goodnight, I was invited to photograph Ruby’s next make-up session for her appearance at an underground performance/gay bar.

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Her make-up artist received my friend and I the day of the shoot just as Ruby finished a shower.  We scanned the messy room and waited for the queen to appear.  Shirtless and stripped down to jeans, had I been anywhere but in her house. I would not have recognized Ruby in Billy, her given name.  Ruby had an energy field of a rocket ship leaving the launch pad, and Billy was plain as yoghurt.  He sat with his back facing me, did not look into my eyes, and spoke only to the wall in front of him.

As the eyes were drawn on, Billy’s quiet voice morphed into Ruby’s lower octaves.  But when the lips were applied, Billy left the room.  Gone.  Watching this transformation was like a magic act, with all the tricks on the table.  But more importantly, was the recognition of Billy’s plight. Never having thought of it before, I knew I could be and do whatever I felt like any time or day or night, within reason.  But shy Billy, with an invisible job, a ghostly life in a time and place of non-acceptance, could never be fully alive in the light of day.  Ruby lived like a spy of the night, fleeing from one after-hours unknown club to another as the Mistress of Ceremonies with a heart of bursting magnitude, and a  passion for life to be carried out in only the darkest caves.

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Ruby and I maintained loose contact and I always asked after her with mutual friends.  A couple of years after our initial meeting, someone casually told me Ruby was no longer with us, her flame consumed by her own hand.  For days that lead to months, I wondered Why, why, why, Ruby?

To many, especially in big cities, drag queens are part of our cultural landscape, an acceptable creative expression.  But all these years later, I continue to think of her appearance and disappearance as equally dynamic: eye-opening to say the least.  In my mind, Ruby sits on par with film stars who die young, beautiful, and forever remain that way in the public’s conscience: puer aeternus, eternal boy, or puella aeterna, the girl’s version.  Ruby, a girl who existed only on stage, was just as much Billy, a young, invisible boy.

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I’ll remember you always.

16 thoughts on “Embers of the Night

  1. I’m going to say I told you so in the best sense possible. Gorgeous tale. Perfect photos. Virtually flawless writing. See. Thanks so much for this. And thanks for Ruby; you’ve given her to the world.

    • Thanks, John…She was difficult to get born because there is more that I could say, cultural and poltical comments, did say more in fact, but edited and edited until I hit the core of feelings I had about her

    • We all probably do have that one person that opens our eyes to possibilities never dreamed. She is one of the many reasons I live in NY, and I wish she could have gotten here, or somewhere more hospitable before she decided that life was not worth living.

  2. I love the tale of Ruby, like so many who were forced to live a lie to satisfy others, lived like the infamous candle in the wind whose bright light went out far too soon. The impression left on your soul was a brilliant and poignant one, something carried in your heart for many years and now shared with such beauty that I can also envision Ruby transforming from Billy and being what she was meant to be.

  3. Steph, I loved the story. Although reading your reply to John, I wish I had been a fly on your computer & read everything before it got edited out!! I got to meet her once at a Christmas party most likely in the same house, she was in full regalia, was wearing big Christmas ball earrings with short hair. She was amazing and a thrilling person for this little country girl to meet. I only saw her perform once. The pictures are especially poignant and I’m so impressed that you actually got to do a photo shoot of her transformation. You have given me a glimpse of Billy – who I never got to meet in person. Thank you! Sally

    • Sally: What I edited out was opinion and reflection. I decided to stick to the action and the feelings and keep myself less visible because it really wasn’t about me any more than as a witness. The other stuff made it more about me and it was not as interesting or poignant, and poignancy was my ultimate goal.

      • Well, you hit it! I’m a Wild Nature of New York blog fan! Love to you Steph and have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.

  4. Oh those precious and beautiful souls who mirror such insight and growth for us! Billy as truly beautiful from the core, with external permission set free in the ruby red slippers of Ruby. When clicked together, he and she help us learn to go home…all the way home to true love of and for ourselves.

    Stunning share.

    Here is to celebrating those brave trail blazers who find themselves born outside the box. They help all of us see our boxes and once seen, we know better the courage to live freer and unconstrained.

    -x.M

    • Dear M: So grateful to have you continue to read. That piece has been brewing since I met Ruby, actually. Am trying to balance being a writer with a person who loves photography but doesn’t want to rely on it. It means, most likely, fewer posts, longer pieces, more depth. Thank you for your most appreciated comment and I will continue to write with reader like you in mind.

  5. What a beautifully sad story. Thank you for bringing her to life once more, for all your readers to know and love. She was a comet flying overhead, a butterfly landing for a moment in front of you.

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