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.
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.
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.
I’ll remember you always.