They could have told me my cousin was gay. I was 19 and it was 1982 and I was more than a little shocked. I hadn’t seen Cousin Denis — who later changed him name to Xavier — since we moved to BC when I was 9. We’d had great fun as kids, running all over and playing hide-and-seek like kids do. In 1982 I went to Montreal because my family was moving ‘home’ and I was helping my 16-year-old sister Michele with the transition. I wasn’t moving; I had other things to do.
When I re-met my cousin in Montreal I couldn’t believe it. His hair was big and blond and coifed and he wore a tight sleeveless t-shirt, tight, faded jeans and a bit of make-up. The fact that I might have looked as strange to him in my turquoise halter top, broom skirt and long, straight hair — the country cousin from Sooke, BC – didn’t occur to me. Michele and I sat across the living room from him at a mutual aunt and uncle’s place all night. I felt cheated and amazed at the same time. Why didn’t my parents tell us we had a gay cousin? My sister and I talked about the dilemma long into the night.
At our next family get-together — slide shows at the same mutual aunt and uncle’s — Xavier started the conversation. What kind of music did we like? Did we want to drive downtown Montreal and see some sights? I got used to talking to him even though my French was creaky and rusty. He had his own hair salon on St. Denis — a funky, shiny salon in an old Montreal building with 12-foot ceilings, high windows and radiator heating; brand new 80’s and chic like high-end New York.
Xavier took Michele and me out on the town in his big car, down and around St. Catherine, St. Denis and St. Laurent streets. We listened to amazing FM stereo but only recognized Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac and the Stones. Driving down St. Catherine Street Xavier pointed out some of his friends, women, and added in perfect English, “That’s a guy. That’s a guy. That’s a guy”. What a biology lesson for two teenagers from Sooke! I saw the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. Blonds, brunettes, hats, heels and a saunter. After a glass of wine at his apartment – more old Montreal architecture with high ceilings, black-and-white linoleum, green-and-white walls — I began to realize my city cousin was a classy young adult with a very big heart. He was bodacious, extravagant and kind and surmised that I must live a very simple life on the quiet West Coast.
Before returning to BC and my own launch into adulthood — my boyfriend and I were moving to Port McNeill, whoopee — I got my hair cut at Xavier’s salon. He cut my bangs that were to my shoulders into super-wispy ones, and parted my hair on the side. Voila j’etais transformed. I had compliments for a year. I always returned from my visits to Montreal with a new do and what could have been the first bob in BC in the 1980’s. With each haircut Xavier told me how to explain the cut to my hairdressers back home because I could never get the same cut.
Xavier died of AIDS in August 1990 at the age of 31. With HIV/AIDS research still in its infancy, I was told he was subjected to many tests and many research doctors. He was in hospital with pneumonia the last months of his life and while I hadn’t seen him for a few years, I dreamt of him just after his death. In my dream he lay emaciated on the hospital bed and I sat beside him. We were talking and he reached out his hand very, very slowly. I held it. Then he died. That was how I said goodbye to my gay cousin from Montreal, the intelligent young man who once showed me a different way to live in the world.
Christine Goyer-Swift finds expression through writing and dance, and inspiration through long walks and solitude. “Writing is a window into my life, recording, witnessing and continually emerging.”