With my friend Yves, there’s always an adventure. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when I joined his gay aerobics team on an excursion last March to a cabane à sucre outside of Montreal, that a year later, he would talk me into a costume party.
So much about that last sentence amuses me. First, if you’re speaking of men, saying gay aerobics is mostly redundant. Secondly, has nobody mentioned to Montrealers that aerobics hasn’t been a thing since the early nineties? At least where I live, in Toronto, it hasn’t. Have Montrealers been aerobicizing all this time, or, like the trend-setters they often are, are they at the forefront of a neon spandex revival? Who knows. Also, they don’t just do aerobics, they’re a team! Finally, just the idea of dozens of gay aerobic dancers swarming a maple sugar shack, well, who would say no to such an invitation?
I had tagged along as they piled into three school busses—there are apparently a lot of gay men doing aerobics in Montreal—and we drove an hour north into the Quebec countryside. After a syrupy, fatty meal, I learned we were not going home, not yet. We moved into an adjacent barn that became a makeshift nightclub, one of the team members acting as deejay. With no way back to the city until the buses left, I joined in. But then, without warning, the song changed to one for which the group had apparently been practicing choreography, and I had to dive off the dance floor after nearly being trampled. To avoid the arms swinging in unison that nearly knocked me to the ground.
When I visit Montreal, Yves sees himself as my local social convener, so when I announced I was returning, he kindly invited me to accompany him to a costume party for the 50th birthday of a friend’s partner. No, I didn’t know the birthday boy, but a three-course dinner was included in the fifty bucks we’d shell out in advance, he said, and it was something fun to do on a Saturday night.
I hate costume parties; I cannot emphasize this enough. The time and effort required, in the middle of one’s busy life, to assemble something decent. The suffocating polyester fabric. The impossibility of coming up with an idea that’s both clever and doesn’t make you look hideous. Or that won’t knock drinks out of someone’s hand when you turn around.
However, I’m currently taking a long-planned sabbatical to rest and pleasure-travel, so none of my regular excuses held water. I couldn’t say I was too busy to pull together an outfit; he’d given me several weeks’ notice. And, since I was driving, I could hardly argue that I had no room in my luggage. Besides, I would know a few of the guys from last year’s adventure, which had been bizarre and briefly perilous but also hilarious and joyful. I said yes. I trusted Yves.
The theme was ‘Gatsby’ (1920s) or ‘Gold’, which I found odd because it was in fact two themes possibly united by their common colour palette—but not necessarily. Yves himself was renting a full Solid Gold disco uniform but a rental would’ve been too expensive for me, since Montreal was the start of a two-week road trip to New York City. The only affordable option I could pull together, as I flipped through Toronto’s Value Village clothing racks, was decidedly in the ‘Gatsby’ camp.
When we met at six-thirty on the appointed evening, Yves informed me we would first have drinks at a friend’s condo and then make our way to the party, which I learned didn’t start for another two hours. Which meant who knew what time we’d be eating. I regretted not having a snack, and it occurred to me that Yves had been stingy with the night’s specifics and I hadn’t asked enough questions, just like the year before.
At drinks, everyone but me changed into their costumes. I told the guys I’d rather wait until we reached the party, because it was cold out and my costume was, well, not all that warm. They emerged from behind bedroom doors to reveal smart full-length black outfits, heavy on the formal black, and light on the gold. Yves put gold glitter in his beard and had gold platform disco shoes. Luc wore a gold-trimmed black bullfighter outfit. Raul, also apparently doing disco, simply looked stylish with a gold belt over black pants and a black shirt.
“None of you chose ‘Gatsby’.” The apprehension must’ve shown on my face because Raul handed me a drink and said, “I’m sure there’ll be others.” Then he mentioned another omitted detail, that the event was taking place in a swanky French bistro, the kind with white tablecloths and waiters who wear uniforms, not in some casual pub, as I’d imagined. My dread mounted.
Two hours later, we called a taxi and set off. Inside the restaurant stood roughly seventy people holding champagne flutes, each of them beautiful and classy, and, like Yves, Raul & Luc, entirely dressed in black except for minor hints of gold. They might’ve been going to an awards ceremony or the opera. It was as if they’d all called one another and decided that gold would be an accent colour; that to choose the opposite, to dress mostly in gold with black accents would’ve been garish and tacky. A woman in a slinky cocktail dress slung a gold purse over her shoulder. A man in black dress pants and a black silk shirt sported a pair of oversized gold-rimmed novelty glasses. Another man wore patent leather shoes, a black button-down shirt and a black tailored vest. His tie, at first glance entirely black, glinted with a touch of gold thread when the light caught it just so.
That not a single person had chosen ‘Gatsby’ might not have been so bad, had I dressed like a gangster in a pinstripe suit. But no. My costume was 1920s beach wear, a pair of skimpy boxer briefs, a tank top, and a ridiculous bowler hat.
I considered staying in my street clothes, but they were slovenly compared to this chic crowd, so to wear them would’ve sent the message that I hadn’t given a shit. It might’ve been better, rather than to show disrespect, to simply flee, cut my losses, and go for a half-chicken dinner at St-Hubert, but I didn’t want to be a bad sport.
I sighed, went to the washroom, and changed. A forlorn expression stared back from the mirror. I was wearing horizontal stripes. Like an idiot. Like someone who’s just remembered that horizontal stripes are never, ever, flattering.
Like a prisoner.
I gave my reflection a pep talk. “You can do this, John. Own it. You don’t live in this city. You never have to see these people again.”
Wishing I’d had a few more drinks at Raul’s condo, I emerged from the washroom. The very first person I encountered asked if I was a dancer. “What? Oh, no!” I laughed nervously and moved quickly away, wondering but afraid to ask if he thought I was part of Yves’ aerobics team. The restaurant door was opening and closing, sending icy drafts through the room as each new gorgeously turned-out black-clad guest arrived. When a second person asked if I was a dancer, I understood: they thought I might later be gyrating atop a speaker.
I found Yves and huddled next to him for safety. Someone approached, looked me up and down and, the corners of his mouth curling upwards, said, “So, I’m guessing you didn’t receive the second email.”
The second email, the proverbial memo I literally did not get, had informed everyone they had abandoned the ‘Gatsby’ theme. People had complained that it was too difficult, so they’d settled on ‘Black and Gold’. Wide-eyed and murderous, I turned to my friend. “No, Yves. I did not get the second email.”
He shrugged. Didn’t remember getting one. “Don’t worry, you look great!” he said, ducking my hands, which were reaching for his throat. A woman wearing a full-length black evening gown tried to cheer me up. “It’s okay, I also did Gatsby,” she lied, and pointed to a gilded hairclip that could’ve been from any decade. She looked like Angelina-fucking-Jolie.
I. Was. Freezing.
Then the birthday boy arrived and the room erupted: “Surprise!” Didn’t I mention it was a surprise party? Maybe that’s because this was the first I’d learned of it; yet another detail Yves had neglected to pass on.
Consider this man, this person I don’t know, as he arrives at his party. He has received neither the first nor the second email. A cheer greets him and he scans the crowded restaurant to find over seventy elegantly-dressed friends. In the middle of the room stands a complete stranger in horizontally-striped underwear. Who did he think I was? What did he imagine had happened to me? He made his way through the gathering, kissing and hugging his friends and when he reached me, his eyes betrayed a flicker of bewilderment mixed with embarrassment, and he hugged the person to my left.
My humiliation complete, I awaited dinner. Yves and his friends took pity and sheltered me at a table that hugged the wall, but they had a good laugh at my expense and took photos that were posted to Facebook before I could object. The food arrived a thousand years later and though it was good, I was so ravenous I would’ve been happy with slop.
I don’t really blame Yves. Tucking into dessert, I remembered the true sense of the word adventure, that it means an unusual and exciting experience or activity, but one that comes with hazards. Someone else might’ve foreseen such hazards: the possibility of suffering a concussion if you choose to dance in the middle of an aerobics team, or the significant chance of public mortification if you choose a bathing suit for a costume party with strangers. I am obviously not so clever. When Yves invites me on his next outing, I’ll need a few more particulars before I commit.