IT’S MY TURN
He literally swept me off my feet after seeing me in Skeletons, a play by Baltimore schoolteacher / playwright Wortham Tinsley, on February 11, 1989. Tall, sexy, and bowlegged, Andre Johnson was seven years older than I was. During our relationship, I was at my most creative, my most successful, and at my highest dollar earnings. I really worked hard during the seven years we were together, which is why I never stopped long enough to see that I wasn’t happy.
Andre reminded me of the gospel singer BeBe Winans. He was 6’3” and had size 13 feet. He was extremely masculine and hairy, and I loved the secure way he made me feel whenever he put his arms around me. However, there was one thing about him that really turned me off -- he had a front tooth adorned in gold. I know that the “gold grill” is popular with rap culture today, but back in the day it was very much a Baltimore phenomenon. It signified wealth, and Andre was into showing off whatever wealth he had.
When I met Andre, he was living in the same house as his ex-lover. They had spent several years there and had built a wall to divide the house in two. Ironically, Andre, like Tim, had lived across the street from me, and yet I never knew it. That very first basement apartment I endured in 1976 had been across the street from Andre’s beautiful two-story home, yet I never saw him during those days. He and his lover were too busy to be out and about; they were working hard to provide all the luxuries they desired. I, on the other hand, was running back and forth to The Garage, The Clubhouse, The Nickel Bar, Odell’s, The Hippo, and any other hot, gay club that I could find. The reason Andre did not move out of his home when he and his lover broke up was because he did not want to give up the things he had there. He loved material possessions, such as chandeliers, statues, and huge paintings. Inside their home, on their respective sides of the wall that they had built, each held on to his treasures and neither wanted to leave.
Andre had most of his things crowded into the upstairs of the home. It was all so ornate. I felt like I was in a museum and could break anything at any moment. He seemed oblivious to the cramped space and moved about his articles like a gentle, graceful giant. I told him I was uncomfortable seeing him in that environment. The message I was really sending was, “I’m not coming to visit you in this house with your ex-lover living right downstairs.” Within three months, he moved out of that home, took up residence with me, and was trying to run the show. I had a roommate at that time, and Andre decided that the gentleman needed to move out and be on his own.
Instead of my friend leaving the apartment, Andre and I ended up moving into another unit in the same building. As some of the items I had in my apartment didn’t fit with Andre’s design scheme for our new place, I sold the things to my ex-roommate. Not being able to afford everything up front, my ex-roommate promised to pay me back on a payment plan. Whenever he was late with the money, Andre would show up at his door, like he was the bodyguard of a loan shark. He could be intimidating that way. I found it sweet, at first.
As I mentioned before, Andre liked a lot of material things and did not mind working for them. He was holding down two jobs when I met him. His main job was as a research technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they tested the HIV virus on monkeys. I never visited him at that job and he seldom spoke of it. He loved animals, and I knew he hated what the virus did to those monkeys. His second job was at a ladies’ retail store, as a security guard. He used to bring me all kinds of gifts from that boutique, like t-shirts, jewelry, and funky little fashion accessory items.
I had taken my first HIV test shortly before meeting Andre. Because of the way my life had been, I was pretty sure that my number was up. I had lived with an intravenous drug user and had engaged in unprotected sex with random men, in places I shudder to mention. The day I took my test, I was told that I had to wait two weeks for the results. During those two weeks, I went on a shopping spree. I charged up a ton of clothes, bought my first leather jacket and lots of shoes. I figured that since I was going to die, at least I could go out in style. I assumed that I would not have to pay the charge account, because I would probably be dead before the bill collectors came after me for payment. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for my credit rating, life threw me a twist of fate. I tested negative, so I was stuck paying off those clothing expenses for years to come. There is a strange sense of guilt and relief that comes from testing negative for HIV, when you have so many friends who have died from the AIDS disease. To AIDS we lost a talented director in Wortham Tinsley, who had introduced me to Andre. I was grateful for this introduction, because Andre would provide me with the longest stable relationship of my life.
Andre was very supportive of my career as an actor. He truly believed in me, but was also very vocal in his disapproval of some of my friends. If they were not helping to advance my career, he saw no use for them. He frequently warned me, “They are only trying to suck the life out of you and use you up.” He often spoke horribly of my friend John Hall, who was part of a storytelling group I had formed called Umoja SaSa! He compared John to the Eve Harrington character from the movie All About Eve, saying that John was trying too much to be like me and plotted to take everything I had worked so hard to achieve. This was so not true. John was my right hand in Umoja SaSa! and was more loyal to me than any of my friends around me at that time.
On one of our first dates, Andre and I went to a party and he got so drunk that he started nodding off in the car on the way home. At the time, I was at the peak of my work with my other performance troupe, Actors Against Drugs (AAD), and I took my job very seriously. I feared and respected alcohol. Far too many times, I had seen what its abuse did to people, and I could not afford any drama to mess up my substance abuse work. I thought about the drugs that Frizell had done and immediately took control of the situation. In no uncertain terms, I informed Andre that there would be no drinking if he expected to stay in a relationship with me. From then on, during the remainder of our years together, Andre never drank more than one glass of wine or one mixed drink at social occasions.
Andre truly valued having a relationship with me. I used to tell him that, although I felt he loved having a relationship, I did not think he liked me. I just happened to be the person attached to the relationship. One of the reasons I doubted our compatibility was the fact that we had very little in common. Most of his friends were lesbians, while most of mine were gay men. I liked to sleep with the television on, he liked to snore in silence. He loved church and gospel music, I did not. He loved huge, ornate furniture, and I liked simple throw pillows and furniture that people could lay all over. Even when it came to porn, he preferred to watch it alone and I liked watching it with a partner.
Sex was always awkward. Andre did not know how to initiate sex in a romantic way. More than likely, neither did I. He did not make me feel desired. We never discussed what we liked, or shared what turned us on. We quickly turned into an old married couple, just comfortable with occasional sex because it was expected. And when we did it, there were often more “misses” than “hits.” We got to a point where we seldom even spoke of it. There were times when one of us would walk in on the other taking care of his own needs in the bathroom. Life became too busy for me to even focus on sex, as I was doing two, sometimes three shows a day between Umoja SaSa! and AAD. But all my friends thought I had a wonderful life with my big, strong, hard working, dedicated “husband.”
After a year, we moved out of our apartment and found a co-op in east Baltimore. It was a huge four bedroom, spilt-level townhouse, right in the middle of Fulton Avenue. Like an oasis in the middle of a desert, it was located on the only renovated block in the area. Everywhere around it was a ghetto. We had alarms on every window and the backyard had a gated fence. Inside, Andre had the entire place carpeted in white. He bought even more chandeliers, and furniture that was so beautiful, people feared to sit on it. Our living room was sunken and housed a larger than life portrait of the two of us posing together. We had two aquariums and, although I loved our two Oscar fish, “George” and “Martha,” I hated cleaning the tank.
Our years together seemed to go by in fast forward. We worked. We shopped and bought a lot of things. I owned two sewing machines and a steam press, and designed and created most of Andre’s clothes. I had to admit -- he did look great in them. He had the height and build to carry off a lot of styles. He loved the attention he got when we went out to concerts and to social functions. We spent holidays with our families and, although my family adored Andre, I always felt like a polite stranger when we visited his. Andre was the oldest child of a large family, and his parents were still married. His father and his youngest brother were heavy drinkers, and there was always some kind of commotion whenever they got together and liquor was around. His mother made me feel even more uncomfortable on one occasion, when we visited his family’s home in Baltimore after moving to West Chester, Pennsylvania. Although we had lived together at least four years by then, and although several of his family members had stayed in our home over the years, his mom told him that she preferred we sleep in separate rooms. I was so insulted that I vowed never to stay with his family again.
Andre had a way of answering the phone that irked my friends -- he always asked them to identify themselves, even when he recognized their voices. It did not bother me. The few times my father called, he would refuse to give his name, so Andre would refuse him the privilege of speaking to me. I found that hilarious. He was a great buffer between my father and I, since I preferred to limit my contact with my dad anyway.
The thing I notice as I revisit my memories of Andre is that he was drawn to the image he saw of me on stage. He always admired my talent, but I could see he wanted to be on stage too. He was a gifted singer, but he had no confidence. On occasion, I would have Andre sing a song to open my storytelling shows, and he always sounded wonderful. But he always looked like a dear in the headlights! He joined the James Cleveland Men’s Gospel Workshop chapter of Baltimore, and excelled as a choir member. Still, he lived vicariously through me, wanting more of the spotlight.
I will never forget the time he drove twelve hours with me to North Carolina, when I went to audition for a role on NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries. His boss fired him from his part-time job because he chose to be there with me instead of showing up for work. When I booked the job, the producers offered him the role of an extra in a hospital scene, after teasing him about being my bodyguard. Andre was so excited -- you would have thought he’d gotten the lead in a Spike Lee movie!
The day our episode aired, he threw a huge party for everyone to see him walk across the background, pushing a wheelchair. I thought it was cute, at the time. When I got my job as a host on QVC and had to move to Pennsylvania, he retired from his job of twenty years to move there with me and take care of me. One of the first things I did when I learned of my job offer was to pay to have Andre’s gold tooth taken out. With his new, improved smile, he immediately had headshots taken. He decided he was going to pursue a career in entertainment along with me, while he cooked, cleaned, and managed my career.
Andre was always thinking of ways to use my celebrity to make a better life for us. It was his idea to start a doll business after I designed handmade, cloth African dolls for a silent auction at an AIDS benefit party. Starting a business seemed to give him something to do and it also gave us something in common. But it was a lot of work because, although Andre had a lot of ideas, he lacked the business skills needed to execute them. I felt pressured to make it happen for him and, at times, I felt it took me away from pursuing what I wanted to do. And that was to get better roles in film and television.
Once the dolls became popular, it was like a rollercoaster ride. I sold the dolls to QVC, produced a show for QVC on African art, and began traveling to doll shows all over the country to sell our line. When I was booked as an extra in the movie Philadelphia, I “pitched” our dolls to the background casting director, referencing their popularity on QVC. This led to Andre being cast as a street vendor in a scene where he would be selling the dolls outside of Denzel Washington’s law office. The scene did not make it into the movie. Neither did my own background role as a random client in the law office, but it was a big thing for us at the time. I also gave the dolls as gifts to various celebrities or entertainment professionals I hoped to work with. After I saw that one of the characters on the sitcom Martin had black dolls in her bedroom, I sent a doll to Hollywood casting director Robi Reed, who I believed was casting the show at the time. When Andre told me that Ms. Reed called to personally thank me for the doll, I was ecstatic. I kept thinking she would fly me out to guest star on Martin, but that did not happen.
We named our business A.N.D., which stood for Andre-n-Dale but also for Art-n-Design Productions. It suddenly became all about the business and nothing in our relationship was about us as lovers. I was so unfulfilled. There were times I would complain to Andre, saying, “I’m giving you everything you want, when are you going to give me what I want?” I used to remind him, “I came into this relationship for love, nothing else, and if I don’t feel loved then there is no reason for me to want to stay.”
He would cry and tell me how much he loved me, then would fix me a wonderful meal or buy me a beautiful leather coat. He was difficult to talk to about problems. One time he got mad at me and couldn’t express what he was feeling, so he punched his fist through a door. He knew from my past experiences that if he raised his hand to strike me, there would be no more relationship. And he valued that more than anything else.
When my contract with QVC ended, Andre was already planning the next phase of our lives. We would open African gift stores, one in Virginia and another in Baltimore. It was frustrating writing the business proposal because, although he was a fifty percent partner, he was not helping me do any of the paperwork. But when the loan came through, he knew exactly what he wanted to buy. He was quick to spend funds, but not quick to do the accounting involved.
I went along as usual. Andre was loyal to me and I did want him to have the things he deserved in life. He had sacrificed so much for me, I just kept thinking that if he could get ahead, stand on his own, and make a success of the business, then maybe he would not need me. I loved the idea of moving back to Baltimore. I did not like living in West Chester during my years at QVC. What made the idea of moving back even more appealing was that Baltimore had become a hot bed of television shows and movie locations. The television series Homicide: Life on the Street was shooting there regularly. Bruce Willis was there completing photography on the film Twelve Monkeys, and months after that, Jodie Foster would be in town to direct Home for the Holidays.
I was looking forward to returning to my hometown with the fame of having been a television show host. I though it would mean I would get offered better parts for film and television roles. Because Andre would take up residence in Virginia Beach, I could finally have a place of my own that I could decorate as simply as I liked. No more statues and glass chandeliers.
When I got back to Baltimore, I rented a small apartment in the building above my store. I was happy with my leopard throw pillows and my futon across the floor, and now every piece of my Diana Ross and the Supremes collection hung on all the walls. On the work front, however, the acting agents seemed less than impressed with my QVC success. I was still being offered only extra work. I played an African dignitary in a scene with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys, a drag queen prostitute on Homicide, and yet another drag queen on a pilot called Falls Road. The production people from Home for the Holidays were very impressed with my store, and even rented some of the African masks I sold for a museum scene. Yet when it came to my being cast for the film, I was relegated to playing a background driver stuck in traffic.
Although the store kept me very busy at first, the absence of a constant companion in bed with me at night had my eye wandering. Andre wasn’t the greatest sex partner, but I always told him that he was great for snuggling up with on cold nights. One day, a guy rode past my store on his bicycle. We made eye contact and he came in and started talking. I learned he was a janitor at a local apartment building. He said he was living with a woman with whom he had no sexual relations, although they slept in the same bed. He said his life had no sexual passion, and I realized neither did mine.
We started having an affair and it got very kinky. I would dress him up in ladies’ panties and take pictures of him. One afternoon, he stayed in the back of my store dressed like a maid, and I would have sex with him in between waiting on customers. The excitement gave me such a rush. I looked forward to the fantasies we would create on his visits. I kept dressing him in female clothing. The contrast of his muscular, masculine body in lace and fishnets was a fetish I never knew existed in me before.
On occasion, I would drive to Virginia Beach to check on Andre and his store. Snuggled in bed next to my secure, safe bodyguard, I dreamt of the kinky sex I would have with my little “panty man” and would suddenly produce a wet dream. At thirty-eight years old, there I was having a wet dream. I seriously began to rethink my future with Andre.
Andre came to visit me in Baltimore, shortly after my visit to Virginia, and made it very clear he wanted to have sex. I did everything I could to avoid it, but when I finally succumbed, I had to fake an orgasm so it would end quickly. The clock was ticking on our relationship, but I did not know how to bring it to a close.
While in the midst of production on my one-man show, I could see how many of the incidences in the show were mirroring my own life. I had placed myself in a self-imposed prison of a relationship, and I needed to release myself from my own chains. My show was about personal freedom and self-realization, and each night that I recited my monologues on stage, I built up a little more courage.
I was not looking forward to Easter weekend when Andre would come for his next visit. However, being that Easter is a time of resurrection and new birth, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to free myself. That day, as I waited outside my store for Andre to arrive, I kept thinking of what I would say. I was nervous, but I knew what needed to be done. Finally, I saw his car approaching the corner.
“Let’s go to Red Lobster,” I said as he drove up. He opened the passenger side and we gave each other a quick hug.
The drive was pretty quiet. I needed to save what I had to say until we were in public. I was not sure what he would do if I tried to break up with him in the car.
When we arrived at the restaurant, the waitress brought us those delicious garlic cheese bread muffins. I reached for one and waited for him to start the conversation.
“Dale, so what’s going on?” he questioned. “You’ve been so quiet. I know something’s up. I’ve had a strange feeling driving all the way up here from Virginia.”
“I don’t know any other way to say it other than to just spit it out,” I confessed.
“Is there someone else?” he asked.
“No,” I lied. But the lie was true by my own justification. That little maintenance guy on the bike who I was fucking was not the reason I wanted out of the relationship. I needed to be out for me.
“Andre, I am different,” I continued. “Doing this show has brought out things in me I never knew were there. I need to explore this cross-dressing issue that’s going on inside of me.”
The tears started flowing. I could see the salty water from his eyes stain the garlic muffins. The waitress cautiously asked if we were ready to give our order.
“I’m not hungry,” Andre sobbed, as he got up to leave. I followed him out to the car. “I knew you were gonna do this to me,” he cried. “I could feel it all the way on the drive here.”
He cried all the way back to my place. He dropped me off and drove right back to Virginia that same day. I was numb, but relieved that I had done it in person, face-to-face, instead of through a letter or a phone call.
My relationship with Andre was the most secure relationship I had ever experienced with a man, and I was giving it up. Seven years with a partner who had worked hard to provide and make a better life for us, and I was giving it up. Seven years of things, but no passion. Seven years of looking good on the outside, but not feeling anything on the inside.
He did not fight me on my decision. It ended as soon as our lawyer, who was his sister, had us sign off on a legal agreement that separated our stores and business properties into individual entities. The only things left between us were a huge business loan and a few credit cards that Andre ran up and stopped paying after we broke up. You would think that by that point I would have known to run a credit check on a man before letting him move in. Leaving Andre, I felt like Diana Ross leaving Berry Gordy. He had believed in me and had been the biggest supporter of my dreams, but I was missing something and I needed to find “my turn.”
“It’s okay to grow up and step out on your own. Just remember to say ‘thank you.’”