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Diary of a Restaurant: Ch 25 – Ivan

Feb 17, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

Our initial arrangement with Ivan and Ted had been a loose business agreement of decoration of the restaurant dining room in exchange for catering services, but it soon became a much closer relationship. They developed an emotional and almost proprietorial attachment to the restaurant and our family, and we began to rely on them for advice and practical support. When our daughter Maeve, discovered the satisfying ‘thwack’ a chopstick made when it was stuck into the Styrofoam wainscoting, Ivan chuckling, repaired it, while gently admonishing her. 

Before long we were regularly getting together for Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

On Maeve’s sixth birthday, when Donna and I found that we had to work, we took her and Rory to the restaurant with us, hoping that it would be quiet enough that we could sit for a little celebration. It was busy though, so the children celebrated instead with Ted and Ivan, in to celebrate Ivan’s birthday which was the same day. They brought gifts of Barbie dolls for Maeve, who hardly seemed to notice her parents’ absence as she sat swinging her legs and filching grilled calamari from Ivan’s plate.

“You wouldn’t eat that if you knew what it was.” said Rory.

“I would so!” she answered. “Do Elmo again, Ivan.”

Ivan had worked on a Sesame Street film and had mastered Elmo’s voice. Maeve begged him relentlessly to speak to her using it.

Under a furrowed brow, Ivan’s eyes shifted back and forth, then winked at Rory.

“Elmo wants to know where all his tasty little rings are disappearing to” said Elmo’s voice.

We had known of the ravages of AIDS before we met Ivan and learned that he was HIV Positive. In 1984, one of our neighbours, a cheerful and engaging man who worked as a steward for Air Canada, weakened, lost weight and just seemed to fade away over the summer. We were told that this strange new illness was to blame.

Transmission was a mystery at first, causing some general concern, but as it became obvious that the vast majority of those infected were gay men, many felt that they didn’t need to worry as it was unlikely to affect them. But some people did not want to be placed in a situation where a gay man might touch them. 

There were those who said that AIDS was judgment on an immoral lifestyle, declining  contact with gay men and suggesting that they should be dismissed from jobs in hospitality – a suggestion that was flatly ignored by the industry. Being less bound to social mores and open to other lifestyles meant that we were quickly alerted and sympathetic when colleagues and friends were falling ill or worried about it. 

And society at large didn’t seem to care. In the beginning, there was little public support for those suffering from AIDS, – many were shunned, their care left to friends or family. Gradually, and mainly through the efforts of the gay community, things began to change, hospices were opened and fundraisers held. Anxious to do something, we helped with meal programs and supported fundraisers -Donna organized catering for the first Fashion Cares in 1987  and remained closely involved with it for years after.

 Still, we were blind-sided by friends whose advancing illness meant they could no longer work.  Our friend, artist Rob Flack, suddenly plagued with dementia and grinning broadly, demanded champagne for everyone in the dining room. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I remember coaxing chef André Théberge back to his table at brunch – feeble and unbalanced he was determined to get to the stove to make his own omelet.  

 “Very well,” he said, with an arrogant moue, “but only Anne must make the omelet.” 

I had never been overly fond of André but seeing him so diminished and vulnerable filled me with pity. And Anne did leave her work in the office to come out and make his omelet.

So we were surprised that Ivan, in spite of his HIV status and emphysema, gave little thought to his health. While others tended carefully to their well-being, he continued to work hard and party, drinking and smoking heavily. His situation was tenuous yet he carried on unchanged, while other bright, healthy young men were suddenly afflicted with Kaposi sarcoma or lost to dementia. 

He might be out occasionally with a bad cough, but rebounding, would be back working long hours doing hair and wigs for film and television, or adjusting decor at the restaurant, seeming none the worse for wear. Through the funerals and memorials for friends he remained philosophical and resigned, his subtle humour never far from the surface. He might drop a wry comment, but it was through his eyes and brows he was most expressive.  Sitting at the bar with a glass of white wine, his hair coiffed, his moustache bleached and waxed and smoking a cigarette in a long holder, I would see the shift and twinkle of his eyes, the raising or knitting of his brow as he viewed arriving guests.

We had expanded the bar area at the restaurant, relinquishing office space to provide extra seating. Ted and Ivan had begun to decorate but progress was slow. Ted was working on another film but Ivan had stopped working for a bit, having turned down an offer of a David Cronenberg film. We were used to them working at their own pace but once again we were concerned about Ivan.

Although we rarely spoke of it, we were hopeful that there might soon be a breakthrough – a drug or a vaccine to combat the virus and block the inevitability of  AIDS. Ivan’s success in living with it made us hopeful that he would last long enough to benefit from a solution that must surely come.  But at the time, there seemed little promise or interest in finding a cure. 

One afternoon late in the summer when I was out running some errands, I stopped by their house to see Ivan. I sat with him on the deck sipping iced vodka as the bees buzzed among the silver lace vines in the trellis above us. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I do remember that I poured out my worries about the business to him and he was soothingly philosophical. He seemed subdued but the summer afternoon had such a lazy feel to it that I thought nothing of it and left feeling much better  – and quite tipsy.

We didn’t see much of Ivan during that fall until Thanksgiving  – he had not gone back to work. Ted would come by the restaurant now and then, sometimes to rent some equipment for a shoot or just to have a coffee. He’d joke that Ivan was getting absent- minded and that he would sometimes disappear, leaving Ted to go looking for him. He might find him finally in an out-of-the-way bar chatting up some handsome young bartender. He laughed but we knew he was worried.

 They arrived for Thanksgiving  dinner laden with treats –  chocolate, a massive centrepiece for the table and as always for a special occasion, Pol Roger champagne. Though decked out in his usual finery, Ivan was even more quiet than usual, often absent from the conversation. 

When Maeve asked him to do Elmo’s voice, he replied, with a sharp, sardonic laugh, “Elmo’s not here. He went out on the tracks and got run over by a train.”

She seemed briefly troubled by this, but shrugged and seemed to forget about it. 

It was an uncharacteristic response for him and I wondered if he was depressed, remembering how quiet he had been when I visited him in the summer and unloaded my petty problems on him. 

We didn’t see the two of them again until Christmas. Ivan was even more diminished, very quiet, his hair, uncharacteristically, just slicked back and untrimmed. As if to compensate, Ted was more animated than ever, chatting, opening champagne and arranging a great mass of flowers that he had brought.  Donna’s sister Lisa and her husband had joined us for dinner and brought their new baby daughter, who was just a few weeks old. We fussed over the baby, toasted her with champagne before Lisa made a little nest for her on the couch and we gathered around the table.

Ivan ate little and shifted uncomfortably on his chair. Finally, as we were clearing the main course plates, he stood up unsteadily and headed for the living room couch. We caught up to him, just as he was lowering himself to sit on top of the baby.

“Don’t sit on the baby Ivan!” said Donna, with a soft laugh, steering him to an adjacent armchair.

Ivan looked at the sleeping baby with confusion, then back to us with expressionless eyes. It was then we realized that we were losing him.