The elevator door opens. I step out and then abruptly stop, wondering whether I can keep going.
I’m in one of Melbourne’s most popular gay clubs and that familiar nervous shaking in my legs has returned: the same thing I felt as a 13-year-old approaching a bunch of boys at lunch-time in the hope they might let the sissy boy join them.
Muscular bodies sway in front of me in tight singlets that reveal more than they hide: there are glamorous hats, tattooed hands pouring champagne, old friends overwhelmed with emotion at seeing one another again after such a long time.
I’ve come with my friend, Yuji, a Japanese biochemistry student who’s here on exchange.
After ordering a beer, he sits down at the bar and takes out his phone.
“You’ve found the perfect place to play Sudoku,” I grumble, while paying for my glass of Coke.
I remind myself to relax, thinking of my old friend Milos’ advice: “If you want someone to notice you in a gay club, you have to pretend that you’re having a great time.”
So, I take a deep breath, close my eyes and dance.
It doesn’t take long before I’m moving joyously, eye closed, whooping and moving my arms like a wild thing, as if this is the last dance I’ll ever have in my life.
Suddenly, I feel someone’s hands grabbing my arse.
I’m smiling thinking of the man who has sought me out. In this crowded room, he wants only you! I can’t believe it.
I open my eyes and come face to face with my admirer and see an older man so drunk he can barely stand, drink wavering in his hand.
I jerk like when you fall asleep on the bus and hit your head on the window.
“Hello,” I mutter.
He says nothing, but his alcoholic breath races towards me like a stallion.
I feel sick.
As the two of us stare at one another in silence, I see in him what I never want to become, and – despite his drunkenness – he knows I’ve got what he will never get back.
“I think your hand is on my arse, sir,” I say politely.
He removes his hand, raises his glass, makes a toast and staggers over to the next man, whom he also honours by grabbing his private parts.
I look back at my friend, still at the bar.
“Yuji, let’s go … I have to go. Now. Sorry.”
I’m almost screaming in desperation to get the fuck out of here.
Despite the throbbing music drowning out any intelligible thought Yuji understand in an instant, collects our jackets and follows me outside.
“What happened? I didn’t see it,” he begins.
“Nothing. That’s the problem. Let’s go to McDonald’s – I’m hungry.”
Fast food chains might be a popular place for people to go when they need to sober up, but I just need somewhere to pass the time. I can’t keep explaining to my roommates why I’m coming home so early on Friday nights.
We’re sitting down with food. Yuji’s still busy with Sudoku, so I log onto Grindr – where else?
I know this disaster in the nightclub cannot be fixed by anything, but random conversations on this sex-obsessed app do sometimes help revive my illusion that … maybe … just maybe, I will hear the words I so desperately need to hear tonight.
I’m not your typical Grindr guy; I’m not crying out for sex, yet I still receive a few messages that come flashing across my screen hopefully.
One in particular grabs my attention. Not because of the photo of text, but because of the unusual profile name of the 28-year-old who’s sent it: Lion-hearted.
In my experience, Grindr users aren’t well-known for their creativity: most profile names don’t go beyond XXL, domtop, humantoilet, couplooking4fun and similar.
Who is this silly man? I smile, wondering if he might be as imaginative as me.
We’re soon exchanging messages like two prisoners who have just been released after decades of confinement. This man’s name is Fred and his replies are long and deep – I can barely believe that, like me, he loves the film The Hours.
But when it comes to similarities, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Fred’s messages are sent with lightning speed, each word echoing with intensity – just the way I like it.
Other men have told me I am too much, but not Fred.
As soon as I saw your photo, I felt a powerful attraction – something inexplicable, he writes.
Inexplicable – who uses that word on Grindr? The man of my dreams, that’s who!
I know then, as midnight approaches, that I have found my soulmate. I feel like I’m in a whirlpool; I’m losing the ground under my feet.
At 28, Fred is already a paediatric surgeon. He’s only recently returned to Australia from East Timor where he spent the past few years volunteering in local hospitals, operating on orphans and saving lives with Doctors Without Borders.
He isn’t bothered that I work in a call centre, is fascinated by the PhD I’m going to start in a few months’ time.
Still, there’s one question I need to know the answer to: Why Lion-Hearted? I ask.
I walk through life with my heart on my sleeve, he replies. And I’m also a Leo in horoscope.
I am Libra, I type, quickly Googling our horoscope compatibility. Over 75! Not even my favourite dating site, OkCupid, has ever produced a result like this!
But before I can process the information, new notifications pile up on my screen. Fred’s telling me he checked the same compatibility website and we seem to be a great match.
I’m so drunk on his intoxicating words that I don’t even remember Yuji and I leaving McDonald’s, don’t know whether we walk or take the tram back home.
I stay away until 3 a.m. exchanging messages with Fred effortlessly.
Although I suffer from chronic insomnia, I sleep like a baby that night, drunk with the hope that all my years of waiting are finally over.
It’s Fred’s message, not my alarm clock, that wakes me in the morning.
I want to tell you that this morning the sun is warmer and the roses in the park smell more sweetly. This is our first morning together, handsome. Good morning!
He sends me selfies from the park where he goes running.
Blinking my eyes open, I wonder if I’m still dreaming.
You’re wonderful, I write. Are you real?
I am real, and I’m yours, he confirms. When we first meet, I want us to drink chardonnay, eat rare French cheeses and talk about The Hours.
I rarely drink, so I spend that day researching wines, learning how to distinguish dry from sweet. In the end, I even buy a bottle to prepare my palette.
Goran, this first date must be perfect, I say. Don’t spoil it with serious stories about wartime Bosnia. You have to be confident and – above all – look happy. Remember what Milos said?
Funnily enough, I couldn’t remember a second of my first date with Fred because, from that moment, we saw each other every day afterwards.
His visits were always fleeting, but I lived for the sound of his knocking on my door, felt my stomach turn to quicksand each time he glimpsed his watch knowing that he would have to leave and the hours until we could be together again would be so painfully lonely.
“Why do you always have to go so quickly?” I asked him gently, running my finger across his soft face.
“Sorry, love, but I have an important surgery tomorrow and I need to get a good night’s sleep.”
Fred bit my finger sweetly. “This weekend,” he promised, “I’ll make up for everything.”
On Friday morning, I woke feeling – at last – the same enthusiasm others had for the end of the working week to be over, and the delicious freedom of an entire Saturday and Sunday to begin. Fred would return to me with his undivided attention.
At 7.30 a.m., summer’s unrelenting heat was already making me sweat, but I’m more surprised by the blank screen on my phone.
No message from Fred.
He must be running late for work, I think.
I send him a message: Good morning, my angel. I missed your message when I woke.
Soon, Fred’s WattsApp status becomes active and I see him typing.
I’m melting, but it’s not from the heat. What beautiful words is he going to send me?
I realise that of course everything is fine; he was just busy. You have to give people space sometimes! I remind myself.
I wait and wait for a reply. I’m on the bus to work and there’s still no word from him. As the bus navigates its way through the traffic, I start to Google Fred. I’ve been so distracted by his company that, until now, I’ve never thought of doing so.
Fred doesn’t seem to have a Facebook account – well, maybe that’s a good thing. He has better things to do with his time than posting pictures of his holidays or what he ate for breakfast.
But the more I search, the more I fail to find anything about this man at all.
I try different combinations of search words, like “Fred cardiologist Melbourne” without success.
Eventually, I find a photo of him on the website of a local medical centre with the caption: Alistair Williams GP has recently joined our team.
Wait … Who is Alistair?
Now when I have a name, I learn that he has just finished his medical studies, that he is not from Melbourne and has not spent a day in East Timor. I squeeze my cell phone as irrefutable proof of another cruel game that I simply did not deserve.
I’ve always wondered why people do this, don’t they realise that others have a soul and that they also feel pain. Isn’t it easier to just tell the truth and live with it? Growing up as a gay man usually involves living in a lie to some extent. We lie to ourselves and others that we are straight when we are not. For many gay men, getting out of the closet doesn’t mean breaking free from the vicious circle of lying.
Eventually, I get off the bus and start running in the heat.
I’m running like a child who needs to get home and bandage their wound, hoping that if I run fast enough, I can escape this – all of this.
“Goran, you are exactly 33 minutes late,” the team leader snaps when I made my way into the call centre. “You’re losing the whole bonus this month.” I smile sarcastically and. turn on my headphones just in time to answer the call: “This is Goran, how can I assist you today?”