The Gate Crasher

Joining VIPs at the Life Ball

“The ticket was EUR150, but for a pretty thing like you I’d do 85,” said the tall man standing in the Rathaus Park.

“I’ve only got 50,” I said, in feigned distress.

“Just give it to him, we can’t use it anyway,” said the slender man on the tall man’s arm.

“Is it real?” I asked

“No, it’s fake,” said the slender man in a snap.

“Alright, 50?” I said as I reached for my wallet. I pulled the crisp bill out, attempting to conceal the rest of the cash I’d taken out for the evening. “I’ll take it, but follow me to the gate. I’m not about to get ripped off.”

I was in no mood to lose EUR50. I had just returned to Vienna after a year in the U.S. and things weren’t going according to plan. Having recently come out, Vienna was a new city to me; but the Austrian guy I was staying with had gotten on my last nerve. I was looking for trouble, but not that kind.

“Okay, we’ll see you through the gate, but we’ve got a flight to catch”

The ticket was in fact very real and got me into one of the world’s most renowned HIV/AIDS charity event, Vienna’s Life Ball. Since 1993, the Life Ball has been a vehicle for education and research funding, bringing attention to the deadly disease on a global scale, and a meaningful boost toward a cure. With 2011 the anniversary of the discovery of the disease, the Life Ball was sparing no expense.

The crowd outside the Rathaus was dense and pulsing. Each character on the scene flaunted his own unique brand of fantasy fetish: Centurions in platform boots mingled with electric green tricks, while Dionysus bought tequila shots for passing pony girls. It was hard to tell who was part of the show and who were the mere mortals. Standing back, I watched the crowd, as the large heart shaped wingspan parted in front of the Gothic town hall, unleashing a tidal wave of flamboyance.

I couldn’t understand most of the show. Mostly because it was in German. Or was it English? The distortion from the PA system made it hard to be sure. Either way, the unfamiliar celebrities were no match for the parade of feathers and leather. I began to push my way through the crowd outside, towards a bar staffed by pilots clad in gold wings, locking eyes with a bartender sporting a well-groomed ginger beard.

“Ein Bier, bitte!” I shouted, extending a hand over the gaggle of Goth ballerinas in front of me. He smiled and nodded, as I pushed through the black crinoline and lace. Full to the top, he handed me my beer and I paid him. “Danke,” I said with a smile, turning and disappearing into the crowd.

As I made my way up the steps of the Rathaus, an all too familiar buzz went through my right thigh. My Handy. It was that Austrian guy calling me. I was staying with him while I looked for a place, but it seemed his Austrian stare wasn’t syncing with my American glare. I flicked my phone open.

“Yes,” I bit.

“Where are you?”

“Walking into the party”

“I thought you didn’t have a ticket”

“Yes, but I do have a sense of adventure that you seem genetically deprived of. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get drunk and make bad decisions.”

I pulled the phone from my ear and hung up, holding the button down until the phone shut off. I shoved the dead phone into my back pocket. I had no time for nonsense tonight. With my blonde hair and brown eyes as wide as the joint in my pocket, the Austrian guy would regret not coming along. When you leave me to my own devices, interesting things can happen.

Inside the Rathaus was a menagerie of hyper-sexual caricatures of personality that would have put pagans to shame. Pharaohs with metallic silken wing spans; nearly nude bodies slathered in every color of the rainbow; dapper dominatrixes in coat tails with mustaches any man would envy; and more leather clad muscle men in archangel-sized white wings than I could count.

I was glad I had brought my camera. May I take your picture became my standard line and a wonderful excuse for being alone. I spent what seemed like hours ascending and descending the stone stairs draped in red carpet, taking photos of the most interesting creatures I encountered and grifting drinks from the momentary friends made in passing.

The party seemed to be sin incarnate, the kind I had been warned about as a child. Room after room, the labyrinth of exhibitionism laid out before me. Maybe it was the booze, but the night took on all the aspects of a dream. Time and space were forgotten. Staircase after staircase, archway after Gothic archway, a never ending stream of other people’s deepest desires and imagination puked out before me in a orgy of electronic disco and charity donation.

After reviewing the venue in its entirety, I made my way to the main room. A large hall with a stage in the middle that had been decorated with the white skeletons in hot air balloons, flanked by VIP sections and draped in purple light. Again I confided my confidence in my camera, stealing pieces of souls when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“I’d like you to meet my friend,” said the impeccably dressed man behind me as he motioned to his left. A wide-eyed Saudi-Londoner in his mid-30s dressed in a tuxedo and jeans smiled back at me. His black feather bow-tie caught my eye. My smile was unabashed as I extended a firm handshake and a cocked hip. “The name’s Simon,” I lied.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Simon, would you like a drink?”

“No thanks,” I said with a coy half smile, “I’ve got a joint in my pocket. Would you like to join me outside?”

He said nothing, grabbing my hand, pulling me through the crowd towards the stairs.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I make hits,” he boasted.

“I’m sure… So you’re a record producer?”

“Something like that.”

Glitter, feathers, and what I hoped was spilled drinks now covered the red carpet pouring down the stone staircases. After finding a quiet spot to smoke and establish my credentials, we made our way back upstairs. I grabbed his hand with a stoned giggle, noticing the stares of other young creatures following our movements.

His hand clasped mine hard as he thrust his arm forward to show the bouncer I was qualified to be behind the velvet rope. He pulled out a chair for me as I reached for my cigarettes. The thought that I might do exactly as I pleased overpowered my respect for the historic building. I struck a match and lit my cigarette as I took my seat.

“What do you want to drink?” he asked

Sweetly zonked and empowered by the spirit of Dorian Gray, I called for champagne. A bottle was quickly ushered to the table and an ashtray placed in front of me.

“Are you here with anyone?”

“Nope,” I said, “How long have you had the ticket?”

“About three hours, I scalped it outside”

“That’s fierce. I like a free spirit,” he said leaning into me. “Do you have plans for later?”

“I don’t make plans, and I don’t make breakfast.” I smiled. He smiled.

The party wore on, and I was introduced to the table. It seemed to be an elite group of designers and industry insiders that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t care. Nothing is less becoming than a fan in the VIP room anyway.

A pair of twins in tuxedos and heels were obviously running the show. Topped in imperial riding hats with flowing black feathers, they posed on each other while their young boyfriends sat bored at the table. I tried to make conversation with the other boys but their English was limited, or they simply didn’t care to converse with tonight’s trick. As the producer and I made the social rounds, business cards were exchanged and invitations extended.

“Come to Milan, the city has a lot to offer,” said one of the guests

“And what would we do in Milan?” I said.

“What ever you like. Take my card and give me a call, if you’re ever in the city. I’m sure we could entertain you, or the other way around,” he muttered in a casual manner. I laughed and turned away to dance by myself.

The night wore on and became increasingly blurry. The party left the VIP room and mingled with the rest of the crowd while bodyguards made perimeters around us. Lights flashed and creatures reveled as the producer pulled me out of the party, home to his hotel.

Broke and on my own in a foreign country, my youth had been my only leverage. I awoke the next morning, alone in a room at the Hotel Imperial. He had left for London a couple of hours earlier, assuring me that he would fly me there in the next month. I didn’t believe him, but why let it spoil the evening. It’s better he was left thinking he swept me off my feet.

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