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Impatiently looking through the stainless steel slide, her vocabulary was peppered with profanity. “Hey man, where the Fuck’s my twice-baked potato?” The cooks looked at each other and attempted their best ‘I’m ignoring you’ stance. But she was impossible to ignore. Suddenly the entire kitchen burst into laughter. Helena was hysterical, no matter how hard she tried to play it down. Shag haircut and headband tied around her forehead, giving Olivia Newton-John – the It girl of the moment – a run for her money. Helena was far from having the All-American look. Her dark exotic Asian beauty was a sight to behold in those blonde and bland days.
Helena’s first question to me was ‘what’s your name?’ Her second question was ‘Are you flaming?’ I quickly learned flaming was her term of endearment for gay men. I was attempting to carve out a new identity for myself, but I was also learning that old habits linger. Wanting to be the perfect boy had morphed into trying to be the perfect gay man. Only I hadn’t figured out that in order to be the perfect gay man, one must first be comfortable in saying ‘I’m gay’. So my best confessional tone and nod of head yes was met with a boisterous “Hey man, what the fuck you whispering for? So happy your flaming!!! We can hang out.”
My sheltered Midwestern bubble was about to be burst. I had no idea or experience with Asian culture outside of late-night Anna May Wong and Charlie Chan movies. Helena seemed to delight in my inexperience and loved to tease me about my general ignorance about things. When Helena announced her roommate was moving out she told me to move on in – she would be delighted to have a “Flamer” as a roommate. I had to begrudgingly decline. My busboy income could hardly afford her upper scale apartment. My current residence, downtown in the drug area, was so infested with roaches I’d taken to sleeping in my clothes with the lights on. Helena simply wasn’t having it. “What the Fuck man, pay when and what you can afford- after all, we’re family.” Her wish of living with a Flamer was coming true.
I arrived at Helena’s apartment with just a few boxes of clothing, my half of the bunk bed my brother and I had shared as boys, and a very large stack of Cher posters. I quickly realized how fortuitous my new living arrangment would be. Going through the front door I couldn’t help notice there were beads. Bamboo and wood beads. Crystal beads. Every few feet more beads. This maze of beads… Helena loved beads. I always knew when she was making her way to my room because the beads would start swinging and slapping the walls.
Helena also loved red. Everything was red. There were red silk sofas and red lacquered cabinets combined with dragons, and woven baskets with peacock feathers. Helena’s surroundings were as exotic and forthright as she was.
There also seemed to be clothes EVERYWHERE. There were clothes on hangers, clothes in dry cleaner bags, piles of clothes in every corner. An ironing board and iron was standing at attention at the foot of her bed. I soon learned that this was a permanent fixture.
I also quickly learned that being a beautiful glamorous woman doesn’t allow much time for housekeeping. Perfect makeup and hair comes first. And being tidy and keeping a house clean was such a deep part of my own personality. So, my first day off I decided to do Helena and myself a big favor. I would do what my mom always called a deep clean. Doing a deep clean was ingrained in me as part of my Midwestern culture and upbringing. And no deep clean was complete without a bucket of bleach water. I’d watched ma-maw dozens of times: ¾ Clorox bleach diluted in one-gallon water. I could feel the excitement build. What can I say? I simply loved to clean.
Helena had so many things in the apartment that were unfamiliar to me. One of them was a figurine of a man sitting with his palm up. I didn’t know it was Buddha. I had never heard of Buddha. However, Buddha looked really dusty when I spotted him sitting prominently on the shelf. And boy, did he ever bubble in that bucket of bleach water! Needless to say when Helena came home to bubbling Buddha, the beads hit the wall…. HARD!!! I could only plead ignorance, and Helena laughingly forgave me.
There was much to learn and much to love during my time living with Helena. Despite our broad cultural differences, her generosity and heart knew no bounds. Attempting to carve out a new identity left me many times hiding out in my bedroom. I would retreat, feeling that I was never going to be able to navigate my new world. It was easier to hide. Helena wasn’t having it. “What the Fuck you doing in here alone?” Alone time or personal space was simply not on her radar.
Many were the nights I’d come home after double shifts, knowing Helena was sleeping with the sinuous sounds of Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb wafting from her bedroom. “Guilty” was her favorite sleeping tool and with the arm up on her stereo, that vinyl would play continuously into morning. Sitting alone in the room of red, Buddha would watch from a safe non-cleaning bucket distance. I was making a new life. I would think to myself, ‘maybe, just maybe, you’re going to be okay, Eddie’
Then, a roar from the parking lot. Three matching trans Ams would pull in side by side. Almost simultaneously with the engine roar, I would hear slapping beads and scuffing feet from Helena’s room. Within seconds, she would have fried rice sizzling on her wok, and Eric, Norman, and Allen- her brothers – would be laughing and talking over each other. Speaking their own language and not English, I had not a clue to what was being said. Suddenly the familiar “What the Fuck man, grab a bowl and have some rice” cut through the confusion. And as I found my place at the dining room table I looked around. At that moment and time this was my family. Buddha-blessed and filled with love, Helena helped bring me ‘out’ into my new life.