Steve is enjoying this trip so much. I am chronically tired. But I keep quiet, trying to sleep whenever I get the chance. In reality, this means on any train that has more than one free seat. This was all his idea. Aimlessly crossing Europe back and forth without any logical itinerary. We haven’t seen a proper bed in over a month.
Today we’re in Paris. The city of Love.
For someone like me, a 22-year-old gay man who still isn’t out yet, and has never been in love, Paris is the saddest place of all. We are only meant to spend less than 10 hours here and leave home with the last train tonight. Our inter-rail tickets will expire at midnight and this month-long odyssey will finally come to an end. Much of this fleeting visit to Paris will be wasted on the underground, figuring out Europe’s second-largest subway system. Eventually, we find ourselves climbing a hill overlooked by an elegant white structure at its summit.
“Sacré-Cœur!” exclaims Steve proudly in his mock French accent and speeds up towards it like a child let loose.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is located in Montmartre, Paris’s bohemian district. As I stare at the noble church, I can’t help thinking about the countless love movies that have been made right here. Remember Amelie and that epic motorcycle scene? Aie!
Like Amelie, I also dream of love. Not just any love. One powerful enough to create the universe with a single breath. A love that can crack these hardened walls that are choking my heart. Do I deserve love too? Maybe my love is not meant to be. Emotions are getting the best of me, which means it’s probably a good time to leave. I pull Steve away, urging him to go.
“Look on your right, turn!” Steve screams at the top of his lungs in shock.
“What…” I begin, unsure of what’s caught his eye.
“Two faggots kissing! Look on your right … there on the bench!”
“No!” I gasped in disbelief.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: two young boys, neither of them likely to be older than 15, exchanging passionate kisses on a bench in a broad daylight with thousands of tourists passing by. And no one cared. I guess that’s why they call it the city of love. Only Steve and me staring like idiots, obviously with very different intents.
“Sick!” my friend cried. “This is bloody sick. Let’s go!”
No … I can’t Steve … don’t make me go … let me watch them, please. They are so beautiful. I have spent a lifetime thinking none of this is possible, that my life was a mistake … Now I know that was wrong Steve, I was so wrong …
Of course, I said nothing like this. I walked away like a pussy, nodding at all the mean comments Steve threw at the couple, pretending I couldn’t care less about the topic. But inside I wept from joy and longing, my soul kept shaking in aftershocks of love … gay love, which I had just witnessed for the very first time.
As soon as I returned home to Serbia, a country I still loved despite its systematic and widespread homophobia, I went straight on the Internet to find what I’d seen in Paris: my man on the bench in Montmartre.
At that time, it was the beginning of the 2000s, most of the apps that make up our everyday lives didn’t even exist. And even if they did, my cell phone was about the size of a brick with a small narrow screen on the top that could barely allow me to distinguish phone numbers and dates.
Soon I came across this weird website that had a very basic design and a name that still baffles me: FIG. I would find out later that it was a platform mostly used by people who cheat on their spouses. It took me a while to figure out how to create a profile, but when I did, it looked perfect. I described myself as “old-school romantic” and for the profile picture, I used a cropped image of my electric blue eyes. For my sexual orientation, I chose bisexual. Not that I have ever kissed a girl, but bisexual sounded more palatable for Serbia. Even today, in that part of the world, most gay men still identify themselves as bisexuals. Quickly, a window with a message popped out saying: “You have eyes of an angel. Kiss, Robbie!”
It turned out Robbie was a guy from nearby Croatia, a country we Serbs have been at war with for most of our recent history. But who cares about wars when you’re in love!
I remember thinking for a long time that Robbie was a 29-year-old handsome man from his profile picture on Skype. When I met him for the first time, I learned he was a chubby marketing manager who was 11 years older than he’d told me he was. Oddly, he wanted to meet at the city centre where he arrived carrying a massive umbrella with an ugly floral print. It was not meant to rain that day, and as we got talking, it turned out he was not a marketing manager either. He never really explained any of these lies, but back home you don’t even expect anyone to tell you the full truth. That’s what they call “being discrete”. You expect them to lie and you find it sexy.
But I fell in love with Robbie. I think I would have fallen in love with anyone who’d come out that day and said nice things no one had ever said to me. I fell in love with him and he fell in love with my crotch. At least that’s where he spent most of our first date when we finally arrived at the cheap hotel he’d booked.
All I can remember from that night was seeing a ball of fat moving up and down my body and the shocked face of my mum looking at me from every corner of the hotel room. This wasn’t how I’d imagined my first sex to be. There were no flowers, no wine, no dinner at a loud Italian restaurant where the mandolin and bass buzzed off the walls. There was a lot of sex and a lot of promises that never came true.
Robbie: Where would you like me to take you on a trip?
Me: Montmartre. Paris.
Robbie: You have a nice cock!
Sometimes I think I live in a chronic state of heartbreak. Every time I meet someone, I think it must be him. I tell myself: that’s my man on the bench at Montmartre. The man with whom I will build a home with, (the white fence is optional), the man whom I will own a dog and pack my suitcases for exotic holidays with. The man who believes in love as deeply (and naively) as I do.
Usually, this man turns out to be, what my friends snarkily call, “a relationship of the month.” Sometimes it lasts a few weeks; sometimes it even survives several months if I can delay sex long enough. And then the games start. The game of disappearing when I need him to be there, the game of pretending to want an open relationship after three weeks of knowing me, the game of ghosting, the game of him suddenly experiencing all sorts of depressive conditions so he does not have to meet me, the game of losing his phone or his phone being stolen, the game of a sudden loss of a family member and the like. But what we rarely ever get to play is the game of truth.
I can’t help but feel that because gay people spend most of our lives lying to others and ourselves that we do not feel comfortable with telling the truth. The truth is awkward, and it often requires us to openly show our weaknesses to others and come across as vulnerable. Heaven forbid! You don’t want to be perceived as weak — Girl Power!
Vulnerable does not mean being fucked up or needy or unmanly or any of that. Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen.
I’ve always dreamt about meeting someone who could love me for who I am. Remember John Legend’s song ‘All of You’. I always cry listening to it.
’Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
No one has ever loved me like that …
When I turned 30, I was already an expert in moving on. Next … Next … Next …
I am moving on at the speed of light.
I guess it helps that I’ve uprooted my life more than once and lived in a dozen countries.
In the beginning, it would take me a few days to recover, then … a sleepless night or two. Nowadays, I have already moved on before even meeting the guy.
This story was originally published in Episode 3: Love on Different Kind of Gay podcast.