“Let’s go to lunch,” Tracy said, seeing how frustrated I was after discovering that I had miscalculated the distance needed to rough-in a door that I was helping her install in a newly framed wall.
“Fine. How about chile rellenos?”
“I know this restaurant,” she said, “but I don’t remember the name… down on Southwest Boulevard. You go past the overpass and then there’s the train trestle… you know?”
I have a clue, but she insists that it is not in the Westside. “Not that far.”
Tracy and I share some things in common, like getting fatigued and making no sense after only a few hours of working on something. She has Lyme disease and I have… well, whatever it is I have.
She knows how to get to the place though and gives me directions while I drive us there in my pickup. “The next light,” she says.
“You mean Summit?”
“Yeah, that’s the name of the street. Turn left at the light.”
“That’s El Tacquito,” I said, as I turn onto Summit and pull over to park.
Suddenly I am overwhelmed with a sense of loss that I haven’t felt in years. My throat thickens. My eyes squint, waiting for the once too-familiar sensation to pass.
Instead I start to sob. Tracy reaches over and asks what’s wrong.
“This is where I first met Johnny,” and I tell her the story as I gradually regain control.
Many years ago, I met my friend Alfredo for lunch in this very restaurant. Alfredo knows everyone on the Westside, home to a large Hispanic community in Kansas City. Our waiter was only 16 or 17 years old, cute as a button and friendly as all get out. “Johnny’s gay,” Alfredo tells me just before introducing us.
Of course, Johnny was off limits then due to his tender age, but the priest who was bedding him hadn’t gotten that message.
I would drop in to El Taquito for lunch a bit more often than usual after that, but Johnny didn’t work there long. Johnny had a problem with being reliable. And with drinking. And with party drugs.
I met Johnny again about ten years later at the notorious Dixie Belle, a popular gay hangout. He was as irresistible as ever, but now legal. And drunk. And willing to go home with me at 3 am on a weeknight.
When he saw Michael’s picture in the day room, Johnny commented “he’s just my type!” I led him upstairs, opened our bedroom door and said: “Michael, meet Johnny.”
That was the beginning of one of our most memorable friendships and relationships. Johnny would wander into and out of our lives for the next few years. Undependable as ever, but always sweet and loving and a part of our extended family.
We tried to help Johnny several times. He taught Mexcian folk dancing to barrio youth. He was good. We paid for bus tickets for him and his dad to travel to Mexico for a competition.
Our house was a landing pad for people in need for years, but we had strict rules against possession or use of street drugs, and little tolerance for abusive drinking or smoking. Still, we were pretty laid back and indulged in moderate drinking and even the occasional toke ourselves.
Johnny wasn’t able to control his bad habits though. They controlled him. Maybe that’s why he ultimately tested positive and got sick. His health declined pretty quickly after his diagnosis. Maybe a year or two at most.
I remember getting the phone call from his brother on Valentine’s Day, 2001. Would I come down to Truman Medical Center, KC’s public hospital, and talk to Johnny’s mom and family? Johnny’s body was being kept alive on life support machines and they were struggling with deciding what to do.
I’m not God, but by this point in my life I had seen enough death and dying to be certain for myself. Johnny’s spirit had departed that body some time ago. When I saw all of those tubes and wires, I recalled a conversation we had had a few months earlier. One of Johnny’s biggest fears was being kept alive by machines.
I don’t know what their priest had told them, but Johnny’s family knew he was already gone too. I think they just needed someone else to give them permission to do what had to be done and they knew Johnny trusted me.
Johnny’s mom could not bring herself to order that the machines be disconnected on Valentine’s Day and I’m pretty sure Johnny also understood why his body had to wait one more day. That is why Johnny’s death certificate reads February 15 instead.
We donated the cemetery lot for Johnny’s final resting place. We would never buy land to bury our own bodies, but Michael inherited six lots in a beautiful spot in the middle of the city. Our own ashes will probably be near Johnny again at some point.
I don’t know why my friend Tracy tried to take me to this particular restaurant on this particular day. It was closed for the day, which seems appropriate somehow. I do believe in coincidences, but I also believe there is a time to tell every story.
This one’s for you, Johnny. We miss you so badly.