Sometimes I saw her shoot across a road before anyone could pin her down. Sometimes she was kicking back at a club on Oxford Street. She carved her way through that place—the tattoo of a serpent marked her stride. She lived in a rambling house in Surry Hills and danced at peep shows in Kings Cross. Now and then I saw her strutting through Taylor Square, missing a stiletto, puffing smoke in the air. Her spirit was bruised but she carried herself with dignity. She fought for friends who lost their way no matter how often they let themselves down. She hung in there because she knew what it was like to be queer in a straight world. She knew what it was like to be afraid. She knew how it felt to be judged. Her name was Aunt Ruby.
We hopped on our bikes and pedalled through Darlinghurst, rolling up at terraces in crumbling alleys. She rapped on doors, picking stuff up, dropping things off. Money changed hands and we took off, flying down Crown Street—two wild outlaws. William Street was flooded with cars streaming into The Cross. We jumped off our bikes and cruised the footpath, the neon red Coke sign bold and bright. Hookers paraded outside the laundry on Bourke—skin-tight blouses on waif physiques, leather minis hitched up long slender legs. Cars pulled over and they swaggered to the kerb puffing cigarettes.
Ruby and I hit Darlinghurst Road—it was like dipping our toes in a snake-pit. A cacophony of techno music, tinkering poker machines, footsteps smacking concrete. I followed Ruby into shops, cafes, dirty book stores. She was always quick, light on her feet. We slipped past blokes in caps, faces buried in smutty magazines. She got chummy with queens in slick coats, stuffing pills in pockets and texting phone numbers. Junkies scurried in and out like rats. They hit up smack in grubby cubicles and slunk out with forlorn eyes.
The night rolled on and we hit the clubs—a world of neon sleaze. The sound of Iggy Pop raged inside … ‘Sweet sixteen in leather boots.’ Aunt Ruby nodded at some chick and we nudged past queers with teased hair and studded belts. The doors swung open and music kicked us in the teeth … ‘Funky bar full of faces, beautiful faces.’ We pushed and shoved through a crowd of punks and ducked into the loos. Aunt Ruby squatted on her haunches and took out the meth. I kept my eyes peeled, smirking at dumb jokes, graffiti-scribbled walls. She sprinkled the gear in a pipe and sparked a lighter. She clamped her mouth on the barrel and sucked the smoke. Ruby let out a wild grunt. She sprang to her feet, rushing hard. She handed the pipe over and I slugged the dope. We closed our eyes and the hunger subsided—just for a while.
The bar was full of queers, the stench of grog and perfume. Dark lashes thick with make-up peered from shadows—boys laughing, talking tough, girls strutting, striking a pose. Wall-to-wall mirrors reflected blue and red strobes. A hundred eyes were on us but we shrugged them off, stepping through fog to claim our spot on the dance floor. Ruby and I lost ourselves in growling guitars and grinding beats. We hit that floor with a gang of freaks—an angry stampede. Hours disappeared, one song merged into another. Ruby and I thrashed it out till we had nothing left to give. We stomped off the dance floor, hearts racing, catching our breaths. It was hot and damp, everyone circling, closing in. People stared at Ruby’s wild hair and thumping strides but she didn’t blink. She thumbed her nose at them and punched the door open.
We shoved past thugs trying to drag us into strip clubs, rednecks staggering out of pubs, homeless guys scrounging in gutters. Everyone was out for something but we were on top of the world. Ruby and I fled under the cover of darkness, Iggy Pop ringing in our ears. ‘We’ll ride through the city tonight … we’ll see the city’s ripped backsides.’ Oxford Street was dead aside from sweepers churning up and down. Rainbow flags hung sad and limp—all signs of life sucked out of the ‘golden mile.’ We left it behind, flying high under a canopy of plane trees. Ruby and I weaved over the road, laughing, sighing, a chilly breeze tickled our necks. We rolled up to her bedsit and raced inside before the sky lit up.
I loved her ravishing drapes, classical lamps and animal furs. I loved the scarlet rug on her vinyl lounge. We kicked our shoes off and cranked the stereo, dancing to a Blondie album. Ruby had the most incredible collection of coats, boots and handbags, a queen-size bed and posters splashed on her walls. We swallowed Valium and sprawled on that bed in each other’s arms, drifting to sleep after another weekend pounding streets.
We woke to the clang of church bells in the steeple next door. Tenants were shouting and slamming doors, taking showers, clobbering about. Ruby and I curled up in her feather quilt. Hours drifted, the fog from the Valium lifted and the world morphed into view. I twirled Ruby’s hair and stroked her deep olive skin. I scanned the crevices and moles on her body, the scars on her arms. I tried to stir her but she wouldn’t budge. She lay buried in pillows, guarding her secrets.
I crashed at her place for days, one freak after another bashing on the door. Some rocked up with a warm smile, a loving embrace. Some marched in shooting off at the mouth. Ruby never let them take her for a ride, never let them push her around. She gave them advice, company, a shake-up or a shot of meth. Everyone got what they needed and left feeling better after a visit to Aunt Ruby. She was always one step ahead, knowing things I couldn’t see. She pulled me up when I was kidding myself. Ruby said things I knew deep down, things I couldn’t face. She said I was foolish and naïve, I took risks I couldn’t handle. She said she’d lost too many friends who wouldn’t slow down.
I saw Ruby a while back, treading Crown Street on a windy day. She was rugged up in a coat, rubbing her arms for warmth. I called her name and she looked up, tears trickling down her face. She spied me through world-weary eyes and ducked into an alley, pretending she was invisible.
That’s the last time I saw Aunt Ruby. I hope she’s out there somewhere. I hope she got out of that place.
James May writes fiction, theatre and freelance journalism. He work has appeared in The Big Issue, the Queer Press and the HIV/AIDS sector. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Wet Ink, Page Seventeen and Melbourne’s Banquet Press.