We would walk for miles most nights.
First we would smoke a big joint, purchased from the dealer who hung out at the Quoc Thé, the basement Vietnamese karaoke bar up the street with the dirty glassware and the overwhelming incense. Then, in search of munchies, we would head north to the 7-11, the only place in Kensington Market open after dark, other than the Portuguese billiards hall where I, a young woman of the Goth persuasion, was most definitely not welcome.
On nights when we didn’t load up with every form of chocolate then return to the flat to eat and pass out, we would walk around the city for hours. We walked because we were skint most of the time, or would rather save our money to buy drugs than pay for transit, but also because everything was within walking distance. Sort of. We thought nothing of leaving a club at 2am and walking three or four miles home, even in the freezing cold. Most stuff was closer. But on those nights when we intentionally went for a walk, we would just wander for hours. Sometimes it was down into the empty financial district, other times up to the posh enclaves of old mansions in the Annex or Yorkville where we peered curiously into windows to see people’s fancy decor.
We would come home after these walks, or any night we were out clubbing, staggering into the Market past the nausea-inducing stink of trucks full of live chickens parked and awaiting slaughter in the morning, to be greeted by a small black cat that sat at the end of the alleyway we traversed to get to our door. It would always run away before we got close to it, and over the months it never seemed to get any larger. But it was there every night, regardless of the weather, seemingly waiting for us.
These walks were mostly just Florian and I. Basil often worked nights, and had just acquired himself a pretty boyfriend, so he wasn’t around as much. I don’t ever recall him walking with us, if that makes any difference. I would wear a long black silk velvet opera coat from the 1920s, with a hood lined with white rabbit fur. It made me feel like Snow White. The fur had begun to split and tatter from not being properly stored for fifty or so years, but I liked it that way. It played to my ‘just risen from the grave’ style. Florian wore a huge hooded cape that he had bought with someone else’s credit card, or a card that he had signed up for and had no intention of paying off.
One night, miles from home and weary from our trek, we flagged down a cab. The driver got one look at us and decided he didn’t want to take us and tried to drive away, but I had the door open and was already climbing in, Florian behind me, silent.
In the rear view mirror, the driver caught sight of Florian’s long, blond hair, his pointed nails, and his evil Cheshire cat smile and joked apprehensively in a heavy Jamaican patois, “Who is this guy, the Prince of Darkness?”
Florian began to cackle in that way that you do when you’re stoned off your ass and think something is far more amusing than it actually is. “The Prince of Darkness! The Prince of Darkness…” He emulated the driver’s accent in a way that you could still get away with back in those days.
The moniker pleased him. It stuck. He began to use it to refer to himself in the third person. “The Prince of Darkness is making pasta for dinner!”
During this time and in the years preceding it, we had all devoured the early vampire books by Anne Rice. Copies of Interview With the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were dog-eared and plentiful — we each had our own copies that we brought with us when we moved to Toronto.
One night, Florian laid out his theory as we walked.
“I’m Lestat, because I’m blonde, and because I am the Prince of Darkness. Basil is Louis, especially because we used to be lovers. And that makes you Claudia.”
“The little girl?”
“Yes. Because we will always take care of you.”
“Hmmm… That’s not how the story ends. Lestat kills Claudia. Or at least helps the other vampires kill her.”
“But remember that first Claudia poisoned Lestat and left him for dead. But that won’t be us. I will never hurt you, I will take care you of forever, I promise. And you will do the same for me.”
The ‘let’s all be Anne Rice vampire characters’ was funny at first. When we told Basil, he thought it was a hoot. We started calling each other by our vampire names. Then one day I came home from work to discover an elaborate, porcelain-faced doll laid out on my bed. She was dressed in Victorian garb, right down to her little lace-trimmed pantaloons, and had a wardrobe more extensive than my own.
“Do you love her, Claudia?” Florian/Lestat asked.
“Uh, it’s a bit weird. I’m not really a doll person. And she must have been really expensive.”
“Never mind that, money is no object.”
Florian had been flush lately, it was true. Designer clothes, dinners at the hottest restaurants; he was always quick to pull out his wallet to pay for everyone. But now it was always cash instead of the department store credit cards. He liked to pretend that his family was rich but he worked a minimum wage job at a poster framing shop when he wasn’t in class at a local (second rate) art and design college. He was away most evenings now, our walks abandoned as the nights got colder, and would never say where he had been.
The day after Christmas, Florian went home to visit family, while Basil and I stayed in Toronto. When he returned just after the new year, Florian began acting peculiar, bragging about how the family had up and flown off to their “villa in Venice” on a whim. As you do.
A bottle of Vicodin prescribed to Florian’s brother appeared in the medicine cabinet, dispensed from a pharmacy in their hometown and dated during the time he claimed the family was in Italy. A few weeks later when his boss was slated to stop by, Florian had us running around the apartment pulling down and hiding all of the framed artwork, a good dozen or so pieces that Basil and I only just realized he had stolen from work.
“Wait, I paid for that!” I said, as he yanked a print off my bedroom wall and shoved it under the bed.
“No, you didn’t!” Florian looked at me pointedly.
“But I gave you the money for it…”
Was this why he was always loaded? Selling stolen art (okay, posters) and ripping off his boss, who had been nothing but wonderful to him, as well as to Basil and I, welcoming us into his home on more than one occasion?
Later, we screamed at one another. I called him out on everything, the stolen art, the supposed villa in Venice, the drugs.
“Is there where you’re getting all this cash? Ripping off your boss, ripping off me?”
“How dare you question me! How dare you insinuate that I’m lying!” Florian roared at me, a stinking Gauloises cigarette waved dangerously at my face between his dagger-sharp nails.
Always too blunt for my own good, I said, “But you are lying. There is no villa in Venice. Who are you trying to kid?”
“I’ll have you know that all of that cash is earned. I’ve been working as an escort for months. And the money doesn’t seem to be of concern to you when it’s paying for your drinks, or your coke.”
He had a point. I was happy to enjoy his largess. And this explanation clarified a lot of things; the cash, his absences, the massive toilet floaters the size of pop cans that wouldn’t flush, which Basil and I were forced to confront on a daily basis.
“I want you out. End of the month!”
“What?” Shit, the entire lease was in Florian’s name. He could totally kick me out on a whim if he wanted to.
“I’ve been planning this for a while, I want your room for my business.”
He grabbed the local weekly entertainment paper off the coffee table and flipped it open to the garish sex trade ads in the back, pointing to a small text listing for ‘Le Chat Noir’.
“I’ve been doing out-calls exclusively, but it’s safer if customers come to an in-call location. I know of some other guys who would rent your room on a nightly basis to have a safe space to work out of.”
“So you want us to leave?”I asked, in tears.
“Just you,” he smirked. “Basil will be staying and working with me.”
Oh, Basil. My heart sank. I had never felt so betrayed.
I moved three doors down, sharing an actual attic garret in a dirty rooming house with a friend from Halifax who had shown up in Toronto a few weeks before. Basil and I still spent time together, less so at first but he quickly tired of his home doubling as a brothel, with Florian’s clients and other sex workers coming and going at all hours.
“Nobody cleans. My food gets eaten and is never replaced, my clothes and CDs have been stolen, and Florian has become a full-on coke head. It doesn’t feel safe. Last week one of the guys was attacked by a trick.” This time, I bit my tongue and kept my over-honest opinion to myself. I was just happy to have him back.
A few months later, I left the garret and moved into a place with Basil next door to where we had lived with Florian. The black cat continued to sit at the end of the alley we shared to get to the street from our front doors. Parties at Florian’s could be heard throughout the neighbourhood and lasted days, even weeks. One night the sound of fighting and then breaking glass startled us from our slumber.
The next day, while headed to my door at the back of the old Victorian house where we lived, I stepped over a garbage bag that had been left in the middle of the narrow alley. Searing pain in the front of my right calf and the sight of blood gushing from my leg set me to screaming. Blood pulsed in great bursts from a cut in the front of my leg.
May, the Chinese lady who lived at the back of Florian’s building came running out and probably saved my life, yelling in Mandarin for her kids to call 911 and throwing a towel on my leg to apply pressure to the wound. She insisted that in her culture she was now responsible for my well-being and cooked me dinner every night for the two weeks I was on crutches.
In the ER, a doctor removed a triangular piece of glass from my calf about an inch wide and three inches long. I turned it over in my hands, watching the light reflect off it, marveling at how huge it was and that it had been inside my leg! For some reason I don’t quite understand, I saved that thing for decades until it got broken during a move.
By the time I had recovered enough to get up and around, Florian was gone. Disappeared in the night, according to the landlord, owing months of back rent. Not to mention the cost of replacing the glass in four windows, which he had disposed of by putting the huge shards, unwrapped, into garbage bags in the alley, intended for regular collection.
There were rumours that his parents had shown up, aghast at how he was living, and dragged him back to Nova Scotia. Others that he had found himself a swank apartment in Yorkville and was still running his business from there. Yet another that he had found a rich sugar daddy to pay his way.
Both he and the black cat were gone, and Basil and I did not miss either of them for a second.
And then, a card. Addressed to Basil. Posted from the town where Florian’s parents lived, asking if he could crash with us for a few days while he found a new place in Toronto.
“He’s come to kill us!” I screamed, only half-joking, when Basil showed me the card.
“No, he’s not, you’re being silly. Besides, he already nearly killed you. And if he does still think he’s the Vampire Lestat, it’s just you he’s after, not me.” Basil replied with a wink.
“I don’t want him here, Basil,” I begged. “Please tell him he can’t stay.”
Our home in Kensington had always offered a welcome bit of crash space for anyone from Halifax’s punk or gay scene that might be passing through, just visiting, or looking to move to Toronto permanently. Everyone who came here made their way to Kensington, found us, and got hooked up with other ex-pat Bluenosers who were in the city. That’s how it worked before the internet and cell phones. So there was an expectation; just as Florian had made space for us years before, we would have to make space for him.
I was terrified that he really was coming to kill me. For not loving him, for disrespecting and betraying him. For not worshipping him in the manner that he expected.
On the day he arrived, another friend from Halifax in tow, I watched from the window of the shop across the street as he strode up the alleyway to greet Basil with a huge hug. They talked for a bit, and then he was gone. He dropped off Kerry, another friend from Halifax, who crashed on our sofa and never left and that was the last time any of us ever saw him.
A few years later my taxes got audited and I had to contact Florian in order to get rent receipts. Finding a gay man in the late 80s, pre-internet and in the midst of an AIDS epidemic, was not easy, but after months of sending letters to his family and calling people who knew him, I finally tracked him down. He was living in Vancouver and mailed me a beautiful card, a kind, thoughtful letter, and receipts for every payment I had made to him, despite the fact that he rarely passed those payments on to the landlord. Any animosity between us on his part was seemingly non-existent; it was as if none of it had happened, or that he didn’t remember any of it, and I felt petty and foolish for thinking he wanted me dead.
In 1994, when the film version of Interview With the Vampire was released, I was recovering from a rough couple of years. Another ‘vampire’ who purported to have loved me had made my life a living nightmare and a year of losses including my job, my home, and my boyfriend had left me emotionally battered. After I rebuilt everything; new job, new home, better, kinder boyfriend, my brain kind of shut down. The doctor likened it to a mild version of PTSD, the fact that I was experiencing anxiety and depression now that everything was going swell was a good thing, she insisted. It meant my brain finally felt safe enough to be vulnerable. Because it was the 90s, she was happy to shower me with free blister-packs of Paxil. “Try this, most people have great results!” she enthused.
Now, when doctors prescribe anti-depressants, they run through a list of questions to determine if that drug is safe for you, and one of the questions she asked was, “Do you do any street drugs?” Present tense. Do. So I answered no, because while I had taken all kinds of drugs in the 80s like they were free candy, I hadn’t indulged in much of anything beyond an occasional beer or cocktail for a few years. What they should actually ask is “Have you ever done any street drugs?” And then which ones, and how long ago.
Paxil and other anti-depressants alter the serotonin in the brain. Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that LSD residue can remain in the serotonin for up to ten years. So when I popped that first Paxil and then headed off to the opening night of Interview With the Vampire, dressed to the nines in full mid-90s Goth garb, I had no idea what I was in for.
The first scene of Interview With the Vampire where Louis first meets Lestat starts at the Mississippi River and pans along a dark New Orleans street to a row of bars and brothels. When the ‘Taverne du Chat Noir’ sign appeared on the screen, something in my brain exploded. Overcome with a cold, piercing fear, I let out a screech that filled the theatre. I scrambled down onto the floor in front of my seat where I rolled up into a ball, convulsing in sobs. It was Florian and he was coming to kill me.
My boyfriend coaxed me back up off the floor. He knew the story of Florian, as well as the ‘better living through chemistry’ adventures of my misspent youth, and that I had taken the Paxil earlier in the day. But one look at Tom Cruise as Lestat, his pale face and blond hair, the epitome of sneering evil, looking so very much like Florian (or so I thought at the time) and I had to flee. Unable to look at the screen, I started crawling up the aisle on my hands and knees, bits of dropped popcorn piercing my palms, sticky splots of spilled soda ruining my dress, the boyfriend pulling me up to my feet and out into the lobby where he got me situated on a bench and I tried to explain what was happening; I was having an acid flashback and nothing would stop these waves of terror I was experiencing.
“I can’t, I just can’t, he’s coming back to kill me!”
It would be ten years before I was able to sit and watch Interview in its entirety. Even at that point, it hadn’t aged well, and I found most of it oddly hilarious, especially given how scared I had been when trying to watch it the first time. I bought a framed poster of that famous Tournee du Chat Noir painting from Florian’s old boss, explaining my reasons for doing so and telling him about the stolen art. He had known all along.
“Florian was a troubled soul,” he said, as he handed me the wrapped frame. “He never seemed quite stable. I kept him on because I thought I could be a good influence and mentor. But I was often concerned for his safety. I was worried that he might hurt you as well, to be honest.”
And then I remembered Florian’s menacing grin the night the cabbie called him The Prince of Darkness; he was like some kind of cartoon villain, still residing in the crevices of my mind, waiting to strike when I was least suspecting. Trust your cab drivers, friends, they see so much of the world and their instincts must be sharp and accurate. They are wise in ways the rest of us cannot fathom.
In memory of Anne Rice. You inspired us in many ways, some of them not wholly intentional.