I shuffle towards the edge of the bench as Len lights a cigarette and grins cheekily.
“My wife thinks I’ve quit,” he explains, stuffing the lighter back into the depths of his duffle coat.
Minutes later, cigarette half-finished, his eyes are still glistening with the knowledge he’s indulging in something so forbidden.
Len and I met years ago before losing contact the way people in big cities so often do. Then, one day, we collided in the street, the way people in big cities so often do, exchanged emails and have been meeting up on Sundays ever since while his wife is out with friends.
Most afternoons we sit in the sparse park, under the skeletal trees ravaged by winter, and talk about nothing in particular. There’s a stony pillar inside me that no one has managed to dislodge.
Six months ago, my sibling died after a long battle with terminal illness, and apart from my boss, I haven’t told anyone. The fact no one notices isn’t so surprising: for much of my life, my face has been etched indelibly with the most downcast, dour expression; my sour smile is an insult to this world.
But when I receive a simple message from Len: How are you? How is your family? I’m no longer in the fugue state that has seen me wandering through supermarkets without any recollection of getting there, or forgetting appointments I’d promised to turn up to. The sandstone has been chipped.
My sibling died, I write, quickly, before I can change my mind.
In honesty, though, I don’t expect a response.The past two years have taught me that this news is suicide to friendships. I was not the one dying in palliative care but my close association to death made me too toxic to touch. When people ask How are you? they only ever want to hear one answer.
So, the fact that Len replies at all, a mere one minute later, is something remarkable. Even more surprising is when he reveals having lost a close relative to the same illness. His words: I’m sorry, stroke my face like sunlight filtering through a dusty window.
All this time I had thought that I was alone, but Len and I are together in grief. Next time when we meet, he smokes one final cigarette and pops a chewing mint before heading home to his wife.
As I say goodbye, he extends a hand and presses two index fingers into the nape of my neck as if he’s inspecting whether a piece of fruit is ripe enough to eat. I can’t remember the last time I was touched by another and can’t be entirely sure, either, if what I just felt was pleasant or perhaps more unsettling.
I want to see you.
Len’s message is urgent, imperative.
Until now, they’ve usually all begun with a jovial: Hi my friend, how are you?
This time, there’s a desperation to his words that I’ve read before, in so many messages and emails from my chat room days. Want – the verb cuts like a sheath through the bracken. I’ve been to enough rock concerts and public spaces to know that when a man wants something, he will do anything to make sure he gets it.
What’s wrong? I ask.
But Len doesn’t have any reason for worry. I want to have fun, he explains.
Fun. I understand, then, this is a closeted man’s code word for sex, fucking, a quick blowjob.I admit, part of me can’t help but tease him by asking what exactly he means by fun.
You’ve got a swimming pool, he points out. We can go there. Just us.
The message, on its own, could mean a million things, which is exactly why he’s written it this way. I know what I’m dealing with now. I should have known there was an ulterior motive to this friendship that has carried me through the last few months. All this time, I thought I was being guided by the gallant wings of an eagle, but instead I’m holding onto a scaly dragon.
“Oh my God, that’s so hot!” a gay friend almost shrieks with excitement when I tell him about Len’s proposition.
But another has more sobering advice: “Mitchell, either way you lose with him.”
And it’s true.I learned from my friend Sandy, the loner who had an affair with a married man, that adultery can change you forever.
Sandy, whose company I once lived for, has left me now to lie in a desolate land of longing for what she cannot have.
Some of the last words she spoke to me were: “Don’t ever fall in love with someone who’s married.”
I’m careful not to follow her path, but my silent resistance seems to have the opposite effect on Len. Over the coming months, he bombards me with intrusive text messages and emails: I WANT TO SEE YOU NOW.
I never reply but that doesn’t stop him for giving warnings: I’M WITH MY WIFE, DON’T CONTACT ME! The explanation mark at the end sways like a criminal who’s been hung in public.
Well, my trust has been strangled, squeezed into nothing. I understand that when Len touched me, he actually wrapped a noose around my neck, just waiting to tighten his grip until all I am is a body, his body; an almost-corpse.
Sometimes, when I walk past that park where we sat, or the cafes we ordered takeaway from, I think about Len – not about the us that could have been, but how he justifies sleeping next to his wife each night when his mind is roaming towards the temptation of other men.
And I feel relief that, in a lifetime of constant heartbreak and ache, this time I avoided being weighed down with a Graham Greene catalogue of loneliness. A year or so ago I might not have had the assertiveness to stand my ground, but once you have gained the steely strength of self-respect, it’s hard to hold anything else.
As I’ve said before, I’m one of those spot-them-from-another-planet gay men, so I’m familiar with supposedly straight men who glimpse me and think that I will gladly suck them off or let them fuck me before they throw me away dismissively and believe I will feel privileged to have been given such attention.
Men like Len look at me and think: well, there’s no question he’s gay; he’s timid; he’ll give us what we want. But that isn’t what I want. With Len, and most of the others, I can only ever exist in code-word text messages, in public toilets, in cigarette breaks. I can never be anything more than in-between filler, and living with such a timer is like having a grenade embedded in my heart; I could explode at any second and no one will be there to piece together the shards.
And so I insist on monogamy, no matter how medicinal it might taste and even though everyone I know – gay or straight – has been cheated on by their partners at one time or another. I admit it’s not the biggest problem of my life – I’m perennially single and don’t hold much, or indeed any, hope of ever having a relationship, and while I don’t believe in marriage at all, though I know what I want.
It’s easy to idealise love; that’s what we’ve been taught to do from the time we consumed Disney cartoons as kids. Just because I’m a loner doesn’t mean I haven’t figured out that having a boyfriend or a husband is a whole lot more about deciding whose turn it is to take out the garbage or stack the dishwasher than staying up all night to watch the sun rise in the morning. That’s the stuff of Instagram stories, not real life.
Still, just as I refuse to partake in casual sex, I will only ever give myself to someone who wants the whole of me: the boring me who goes to bed early; the annoying me who doesn’t drink tea, coffee or beer; the crazy me who flies to another city to spend hours with a friend; the pedantic me who knows the difference between an em rule and an en rule; the realistic me who knows this life might make me unwanted yet, until I find such a person, I am happy to stay single, mono, me.