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I’m not a homosexual man. My best friend is a homosexual man. He’s also from Argentina. He speaks short, choppy English, like he’ll say, “We go here, yes?” when he wants to go somewhere, usually a pub or bar of some sort. My favourite one, though, is when he says “holiday.” He says it like it’s a national day for someone called Holly, as in: “Holly day.” His grammatical glitches sound so funny and sweet that I don’t have the heart to correct them. Besides, it’s his version of the way things are and who am I to say he’s wrong?
I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve tried to learn it on a few occasions, but to be honest, the only Spanish words I’ve ever had to use are hola and cerveza Just like a mechanic would have use for the words carburettor and spark plug, I’ve learnt my own specific Spanish vocabulary.
I’ve never learnt the word for scars because we’ve never explicitly talked about them – anyone who does ask my friend he deals with himself. It’s his business; I don’t get involved.
Years ago I was in a pub with my girlfriend. She’s not my girlfriend now for more reasons than I care to go into, but then that day she wasn’t exactly acting like she was my girlfriend anyway. She was annoyed because I wanted to watch football. We were in central London, and it had taken us ages to find a pub showing the game – we finally stumbled across one on Charing Cross Road. Her feet were killing her by the time we settled in with our drinks and, boy, did she let me know it. Amy was one of those people who don’t have it out with you when they’re annoyed, but instead go stock-solid silent. She wouldn’t talk to me or look at me, so I left her to it. She hated football or, at least, didn’t understand it. We were very different in our likes and dislikes, but we coped, after a fashion.
That day we were coping by me watching the football and her, with her back to me, reading a celebrity gossip/fashion/self-help type magazine. It was Manchester United versus Tottenham – I’m a United fan. For once it looked like Spurs might even beat us, so I was staring intently, concentrating on the game, meanwhile keeping the peripheral vision in my left eye ticking over so I could see what she was doing and whether or not she was still mad at me – which she was, at that point.
Then, in the peripheral vision to my right, I saw a guy looking directly at me, edging closer and closer to the high bar stool I was sitting on. I could see he was short and chubby with a pretty pronounced beer belly, an unshaven face, a closely shaven haircut, wearing glasses and a sort of half smile on his face.
It’s funny because I remember reading once that it’s supposed to be girls that have the better peripheral vision of the sexes, but Amy had unflappable tunnel vision on her magazine, and there I was taking in everything around me.
Anyway, my first thought was that this guy had to be some sort of lunatic. The almost childlike, innocent and unmoving, unerring stare conjured up images of day release, of dribbling, of schizophrenia, psychopathic tendencies; only the day before there’d been a story in the news about a psychologically disturbed man pushing another man under a tube train for no good reason. I kept him in my periphery, but I couldn’t for the life of me concentrate on the game.
I could tell he was plucking up the courage or the words to actually say something to me, as by this point he was face-on to my leg, which was face-on to the TV. No one else in the pub appeared to have noticed this, least of all my girlfriend, and I began to wonder: If this guy were crazy and knifed me to death, would anyone do anything?
It took a few minutes like that, him studiously studying me, me studiously ignoring him, before he finally leaned his mouth over to my ear and asked: “What is your name?”
It’s an innocuous question – it really is. It’s pretty much standard that if you don’t know someone, the first thing you ask is their name. Yet there, in that pub, in central London – where people go out of their way to avoid talking to others whenever possible – it felt like a very loaded question. Besides that, there was his voice, softly but obviously accented; too soft, too sensual, too like a bedroom voice to be used where men were watching football and ignoring each other, unless personally acquainted.
Thing is, I always moan that southerners aren’t as friendly as northerners – I’m a northerner – and I kind of wanted to make a point that, even in the south, I was still friendly (Take the boy out of the north, etc.), so I said: “Julian.”
But I didn’t ask for his name – I mean, I didn’t want to go overboard. I stared at the telly, seeing nothing. He stared at my face, seeing everything.
The way Amy and I had met had been fairly similar in many ways really: fairly incongruous on the surface. We met at a party held by one of my friends. I ignored her as I didn’t know her and so inadvertently became attractive by being aloof. Years later we’d ask each other “Remember when we met?” and argue over who couldn’t stand the other more on first meeting – whether her pestering me had been more annoying than my ignoring her. She persisted, though. She was undeterred by my aloofness and won me over. By the time we were in the pub on Charing Cross Road, the tables had turned – she was the one who wanted nothing to do with me.
Back in the pub and undeterred by my simple response, the funny little bespectacled man ventured forth again, rocking on his toes, which meant his extended belly touched my leg.
“I like Tevez. He is Argentinean. I am from Argentina.”
That was how I found out he was from Argentina.
“That’s interesting,” I said (It wasn’t.) “He’s very good.”
Despite the ongoing outward innocence of this encounter, there was still the nagging in my gut that there was something not quite right about all this – something not entirely on the level. I desperately wanted to see what Amy was doing whilst not drawing attention to the fact I was looking at her, my brain trying frantically to operate my left peripheral vision whilst maintaining the illusion I was watching the football. Amy, alas, had absolutely no idea what was going on – the magazine was still king for her.
“My name is…,” he said, somewhat belatedly. I didn’t catch what he said; I was doing my utmost not to get drawn into a real, full-on conversation with a real, full-on stranger. Every time he spoke, he leaned into my face and I could feel his stubble against my skin, feel his voice as he breathed out, a push of air into my ear.
“Oh, right,” I said.
He was still smiling. By now, he was standing even closer to me.
“You’re very handsome,” he said.
I was becoming increasingly wary of the direction this conversation was taking. Whilst trying to reconcile what this guy had just said to the idea that South American men can be affectionate and complimentary to each other in a way that English men can’t, that there was no loaded meaning behind what he had just said, I was also aware that normal people just don’t say that sort of thing to complete strangers, regardless of what continent they’re from. This situation was completely and utterly beyond my range of experience.
“Thank you,” I said, still staring directly ahead, drinking more and more quickly and hoping I’d given a good answer.
He felt the conversation was going well, I could tell: His smile was still broad and friendly. I felt ridiculously uncomfortable. I felt even worse when he next said, “Are you bisexual?”
I nearly spat my beer all over the guy sitting in front of me. Then, I felt his erect penis underneath his fully extended stomach rubbing against my leg. I moved my leg away instantly. That was the only time I directly drew attention to the girl sitting next to me.
“God no, no – I mean. No, I’m with my girlfriend – this is my girlfriend,” I hurriedly answered, indicating Amy with my free hand. She was still, incredibly, engrossed in her magazine.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean embarrass,” he said, retracting his belly and his erection.
“That’s okay,” I said, “No harm done.” I looked at him properly then, for the first time. I realised his smile really was a friendly, unmenacing smile, and I felt ashamed I had taken him for a psychopath. He obviously wasn’t a psychopath, just someone looking for someone to like him, some company, a bit of fun.
“You are very handsome,” he said again, but he was moving away, knowing this conversation was over.
“Thank you,” I said again, and I meant it – it’s nice to get compliments, after all, no matter where they come from. I turned my attention back to the football, relaxing finally as I realised it was all over. He sidled towards the bar, still looking at me as he retreated.
When he had gone from me at last I turned to Amy. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face at the sheer absurdity of the situation – both flattering and bizarre in almost equal parts. A half smile was working its way across her face, too.
“Tell me you just heard that,” I said.
She burst out laughing; I burst out laughing. The tension between us was finally broken and we laughed, really laughed, together. She told me, weeks later, that she had been considering breaking it off between us. If anything, the funny-looking gay man saved our relationship – well, for the two months it lasted afterwards.
I glanced up again and saw he was making his way to the toilets, looking over his shoulder as he did so, watching us laugh. I caught his eye ever so briefly, stopped laughing, and returned my gaze to the game. Amy went back to her magazine. The moment of reconnection really was that transient. I saw him turn away and head down to the toilets. I thought nothing more of it. Despite the early scare, the game finished 4-1, to United.
“Come on,” she said when the final whistle went. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I just need the loo,” I said.
She kissed me, and I headed to the door marked toilet, dropping my glass off at the bar on the way. The stairs were narrow and steep, so I kept my hands on the walls to help me down.
I felt a bit drunk by the time I reached the bottom and nearly went into the ladies. I redirected, did what I had to do, washed my hands, and checked my hair in the mirror. I saw the door to the solitary toilet cubicle was closed. I noticed a slight crack in the top-left of the mirror. I grabbed some tissue to wipe my hands dry with and looked again at the closed cubicle door from a different angle in the mirror. It was then I saw the blood seeping from beneath it.
Hospital. Carlos is asleep. His wrists are bandaged: the wrists he cut through with a broken glass that had previously held a gin and tonic. He told me later if he couldn’t communicate with people anymore, he might as well be dead. People had been shunning him and judging him and pushing him away his whole adult life once they knew: his friends, his family. His attempt to communicate his real self had seen him completely ostracised, even by those he loved. So, he turned to strangers, and sometimes that was even more dangerous and just as heartbreaking. See, it’s all about communication with Carlos, which is kind of ironic given our communicative difficulties.
That was the problem with Amy and me. Not Amy. Not me. Amy and me. No communication, no connection. Despite our feelings about Tevez and beer and Argentinean wine, Carlos and I really have little that is significant in common. Carlos isn’t even his real name, it’s just what I call him as I can’t pronounce his real name. After five times of asking and smiling and nodding and not really hearing, I don’t feel I can ask anymore. But that’s the thing, names aren’t important.
Our conflicting sexualities is something many people do not understand, often vehemently and loudly; they cannot grasp how we can be so far apart on so very many issues and yet spend so much time together. They don’t understand. But they’re the sort of people Amy was – it’s not about football, it’s not about who you fancy: It’s not about what’s on the surface, it’s the stuff going on underneath it all that’s really important.
Maybe it’s more about connection – the just being able to sit in someone’s company and feel wanted, feel necessary, feel a part of their lives and be important to them; know that, if you were to get up and leave, you would be missed – or at the very least, have your absence noticed.
Carlos dismisses my conclusions about what would have happened if I had not found him bleeding in the cubicle – if I had just left the pub. I know the truth is I would have never known anything more about him, would have simply retold the incident as an amusing anecdote that ended when our conversation ended. Some other punter would have gone into the toilets, found him bleeding away, and saved him. Maybe they would have had their own story, albeit with a different beginning and ending, like me and Amy.
Carlos and I are probably in the middle section of our friendship now, unless we live to be very old, which is doubtful considering the majority of our time together involves alcohol. The middle for me and Amy was fairly inconsequential – six months dating followed by two years cohabitation. Our ending was pretty familiar territory, too, broken bottles and boxes in the street: the usual. I know these things happen as they’re going to happen so I don’t worry too much about Carlos’s exaltations about fate – it’s not about fate, it’s just life.
For a while, Amy and I would talk about how Carlos saved our relationship. We had so much to talk about after this one instance that all the other dried-out conversations flooded and became lakes again. We were happy again, for a time. Yet, she never could understand why I spent so much time with Carlos afterwards – despite my explaining to her about the continuing responsibility I felt towards him. She didn’t understand that the connection, once made, I couldn’t break, for fear that something horrific would happen. I also never told her that this connection was two-way, that he saved me, too, made me realise there was more to a relationship than stony silences in pubs. So, the scars underneath the surface, my infidelities, her infidelities, despite being hidden, were still open, still raw and slowly but steadily being filled up with the bile of new deceptions.
Unlike Carlos’s scars. They are healing now, at least on an emotional level. Physically, he still has a few raised, bumpy lines across his wrists that are much paler than the rest of his skin and draw attention sometimes when he pulls back his sleeves – you can see it, people physically recoil or quietly but obviously gasp when he does it. It was the last straw for him – his final attempt at contact was rejected and laughed at and so he tried to end it all. Someone would have saved him, I keep telling him that, but it doesn’t matter. I saved him, I was there. Despite the fact I was the main reason he was there in the first place, it doesn’t matter, it’s fate, apparently, and I’m willing to go along with that – it makes more sense than the rest of the reasons I’ve given myself for decisions I’ve made. It was meant to be that I would have to atone and he would have to be saved. I had put him in that situation, and it was my duty to keep him out of it, for as long as it takes his scars to heal – as long as it takes my scars to heal.