Short Story: One Man’s Poison

As I walk towards Café Néro, my stomach feels knotted with nerves.

Of course “dates” are always slightly nerve-wracking, but more worrying than whether Mike will look the same as his photo on Grindr, and even more worrying than wondering if Mike will fancy me, are my own reactions if this should all go wrong.
Because the truth is that “dating” hasn’t been working particularly well for me. And my feelings of desperation about being single have not only pushed me to what feels like the the edge of ea breakdown, but are now being matched my weariness of the experience of modern dating. So I have promised myself that this, today, is my last attempt. And I’m not sure where that leaves me if it all goes tits up yet again. Do I have to resign myself to being celibate until the end of days?

The problem is that in the ten years during which I was with Rob, (‘99 to ‘09), the world moved on. In fact I’m coming to see that the world not only moved on, but left me way, way behind.
Since we split up I have tried bars, nightclubs, and the internet.
The bars are full of kids, of course – kids who don’t even notice a forty-nine-year-old codger like myself and “chatting” which, last time I looked, was what you did when you wanted to meet a cute guy in a bar, seems to be a lost art. When I have tried to talk to someone they have just looked vaguely embarrassed and shuffled away. Chatting, it would seem, now equals not speech, but typing messages into a computer, and the kids in the bars actually do seem to spend more time typing on their phones than talking to each other these days. The music makes real talking difficult, I suppose.
I worry sometimes that it’s just me getting slower, but everything really does seem faster now. TV has a reader on-screen telling you one bit of news and a scrolling banner (or two) telling you something entirely different. Driving is no longer enough — you have to be able to look out for speed traps and scan for red light cameras and follow the signs and read the GPS and talk on the phone at the same time. Everyone on the tube of an evening is travelling and reading and listening to music. Some of them have one ear-bud removed so that they can talk to a friend at the same time.

People multitask all of the time, and even when it comes to dating, everyone seems to be chatting to everyone else all at once. It’s like the entire world is suffering from attention deficit disorder. Even guys in relationships, judging by my contacts on Gaydar, seem to spend as much time looking for extras to fill the gaps between meals as they do eating at home with their husbands. It’s all faster, faster, faster, and more, more, more, and having spent ten years of calm evenings and weekend-length cuddles, I’m honestly worried that I’m maybe just too old for it all. I’m starting to think that I’m the only gay man left on planet Earth whose brain hasn’t been turned, by the internet, into mush.

As I round the corner, I can see Mike sitting outside. He’s texting on his phone, and because I assume that he’s texting me to see where I am, I speed up to save him the trouble.
“Mike?” I say, when I reach the table.
He glances up at me, raises one finger, then returns his attention to his phone and continues to type. So not to me, then.
I stand for a few seconds waiting for him to acknowledge my presence, and then, deciding that whatever he’s doing, it must be important, I fix a (probably stupid looking) smile on my face and sit down.
The good news is that Mike looks even better in the flesh than he did in the photo. He is about my age, or more probably a couple of years younger. He looks fit and sporty and has cropped black hair, full somehow tasty-looking lips and some rugged stubble covering his chin. He’s wearing jeans and a blue Fred Perry top. His arms bulge slightly where the short-sleeves end.
I watch his thumbs zipping across the tiny screen as he texts and then decide to go and get myself a drink instead. When I return five minutes later, he’s still at it.
“So, are you writing a novel?” I ask, an admittedly lame attempt at humour.
“Uh?” Mike says without looking up.
“Something important?” I ask, nodding at the phone.
“Hang on,” he says, and proceeds to type a few more words. He then puts the phone down on the table, spins it so that he can see the screen all the same, and then, finally, looks up at me. “So,” he says. “Jim62, right?”
“James,” I say.
“Just James is fine,” I say.
“That’s right though, isn’t it?”
I nod. “It is. So!” I say.
“So,” Mike says, unconsciously stroking his iPhone with one finger.
“Beautiful day for it,” I comment, looking up at the stunning blue sky, the first such sky we have had in London for over a month.
“Um,” Mike says, and when I lower my gaze, I see that he has returned to his texting operation.
“Work?” I ask.
“Um?” Mike says.
“Is that work? What did you say you do again?”
Mike frowns at the screen and then looks up at me. “I’m sorry?”
“What do you do?”
“What, work-wise?”
“IT. I’m in I.T.”
“So are you working there?”
Mike frowns and shakes his head indicating non-comprehension.
I nod at his iPhone. “Is that work?” I mime his thumb-typing.
Mike laughs.” Oh!” he says. “No! No, I’m chatting to this guy… hang on.” He swipes at the phone screen and then points it at me. The screen shows a muscle-bound bear with thick chest hair and a full beard. He’s wearing leather jeans and one of those diagonal military belts. He is incredibly sexy, but in an entirely virtual kind of way. I doubt personally that people who look like that really exist, well, not outside of the porn industry at any rate.
“You know him?” Mike asks.
I peer in at the screen as if to ponder the question. “Hum,” I say. “Leather Bear Stockwell. No, I don’t think so.” As if I would know Leather Bear Stockwell. It’s an attempt at irony, but I don’t think Mike gets it.
“Right,” he says.
“Is he a porn star?” I ask.
“Dunno,” Mike says. “But I intend to find out.”
I sip my coffee and watch Mike as he continues to frantically exchange messages with the leather bear. I watch people wandering up and down Compton Street enjoying the sunshine and try to remain calm. “Is this how one knows a date isn’t going well in 2011?” I wonder. When your “date” continues to browse right in front of you, is that how you know it’s not going to work out?
“Mike!” I eventually say, unable to bear the constant clicking emanating from his phone as he types.
“Um?” he asks, glancing at me and then, apparently, finally, twigging, “Oh!” he says, laying the phone down. “Sorry, he’s just very hot.”
“But I’m here.”
“Yeah,” Mike says. He doesn’t sound enthusiastic.
“Maybe you’d rather go and meet him,” I offer in the flattest tone of voice I can muster.
Mike nods and sips his coke. “Yeah, probably tomorrow,” he says. “He seems busy today.”
I cover my mouth with one hand and stare at him, barely unable to believe my ears. “So why am I here?” I ask eventually.
“I’m sorry?” Mike asks, propping the phone up against his glass so that he can see the screen and me at the same time.
“Why have I just travelled in from Walthamstow to meet you?” I ask.
Mike raises one eyebrow and grins at me lopsidedly, saucily even. “I don’t know,” he says. “Why have you come in from Walthamstow?”
I’m confused now. Having been ignored for the last ten minutes I’m now surprised to see that I’m being given what can only be described as a come-on.
“Look, Mike,” I say with a sigh. “Let’s cut the crap. If you’re into…” I reach for his phone (he looks a bit panicked about this) and then having checked the screen, I put it back where it was. “If you’re into Leather Bear Stockwell,” I continue, “then there’s not a lot of point to this, is there?”
Mike shrugs. His eyes flick up and down as he gives me the once-over. “You’re OK,” he says. “You look pretty fit to me.”
“Oh,” I say, irritated at the sensation of flattery I feel despite everything else that is happening here.
“Which gym do you go to?”
“I don’t.”
“You look like you do.”
“I swim.”
“Right. You said you’re a top, yeah?” Mike says.
“I’m sorry?”
“On Grindr. You said you were top? Active.”
“Oh, I don’t think we discussed it actually,” I say.
“So are you?”
“Well yeah, but frankly…”
At that moment, Mike’s phone chirrups again. He leans down and peers at it and groans. “Oh Jesus!” he says.
As he picks it up and starts jabbing at the screen again, my irritation swells to anger, then fury, and then, surprisingly, thankfully, crosses some invisible boundary, and slips over the other side into amusement. This guy is beyond rude. He’s insane.
“Bad news from Leather Bear?” I ask, trying to stifle the laughter now creeping into my voice. “Can’t he make it tomorrow after all? Has he got a porn movie to make?”
“What? Oh… No…” Mike says, vaguely. “No, it’s this other guy. Fucking lunatic.”
He points the phone at me. This time the image is of an astoundingly ordinary, but not unattractive looking guy in an arran sweater. “You have been warned,” Mike says with a laugh. “Steer clear!”
I lick my lips and wonder what kind of guy Mike would consider to be a lunatic. “So what’s up with him?” I ask.
“Won’t shag unless he’s in love,” Mike says. “I mean… love…” He rolls his eyes. “Like anyone still believes in that!”
I struggle to control my eyebrows which I fear are making their way to the top of my forehead.
Mike jabs at the phone. “There. Blocked.”
“You met him?”
“Yeah,” Mike says. “Right here in fact. He said he was a bit old fashioned. I thought he just meant the jumper, ha ha! But no. Prehistoric is more like it. Into, um, opera and reading books and going on dates…” Mike makes a silly geeky voice and pulls a face as he says, “books” and “dates.” He shakes his head. “Oh and love,” of course.
“God!” I say. “How awful. What did you do?”
Mike types another brief message on his phone, and then smiles wryly, so I assume that things are still going well with Leather Bear Stockwell.
“So yeah,” he says, returning his attention briefly to me. “Umh… stay away from funny-boiler.”
“Funny boiler? Is that his handle?”
“No, bunny boiler,” Mike says. “With a B. And no, it isn’t, but it should be.”
“What is his handle?”
“Um…” Mike pulls a face signifying lack of interest. “Um, Brian Irving or something.”
“Right, well…” I down the last of my coffee and clap my hands preparing to leave. Surprisingly this seems to get Mike’s attention.
“So!” he says, downing the dregs of his coke with flourish. “Fancy a trip to Sauna Bar?”
“Sauna Bar?”
“The sauna,” Mike says, “in Covent garden.”
I laugh. “You want me to go to the sauna with you?”
Mike nods exaggeratedly. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s just around the corner. Can’t have you coming all that way from Wapping for nothing, can we?”
I shake my head and struggle to hide my smile.
“Come on,” Mike says, mistaking my smirk for coy embarrassment. “You know you want to.”
I laugh again, a short gasp of a laugh – almost a snort.
“What?” Mike asks.
I wrinkle my nose and shake my head. “No,” I say. “No, actually, I don’t, Mike. This um… well… it isn’t happening.”
Mike shrugs and turns his attention back to his phone again. “Oh!” he says. “This one’s cute.” He points it at me. “D’you know this guy?”
I glance at the headless picture of a guy in leather chaps and a posing pouch. “Hard to know…” I say with irony which, again, Mike misses. “But no, I don’t know any of them.”
Mike types a new message on his iPhone and pushes his lips out into a pout. “Wish I could say the same,” he says, still texting. When his phone chirrups again, he swipes at the screen and says, “Oh my lord!”
He flashes the screen at me and I catch a glimpse of a purple-headed penis. In closeup.
“Oh my,” I say. “You’re right. He is gorgeous.” And then I add, “See you Mike,” and I stand to leave.
As I walk away, I’m not sure if Mike has even noticed, so I glance back to check. He seems unaffected. He is too busy typing to care.

By the time I get back home, my amusement has faded and I’m actually feeling irrecoverably depressed. It seems an unavoidable truth that I don’t fit into this brave new world, and increasingly probable that I’m the only person left on the planet who requires a date, a one to one chat, and perhaps even a romantic dinner before moving onto that first kiss. Tonight, the future really does feel hopeless. And yet having had the joy and the heartache of a ten year relationship, I’m simply not able to sign up for these short stories that pass for “fun” nowadays. Everything Rob and I had – the laughter, the shared memories of foreign beaches and leaky tents, the intimacy with friends and relatives, and even the the fights and the heartache at the end – I want it all over again. I like that intensity. Maybe I’m just that kind of guy. I never did like short stories much, I suppose… always preferred to invest my time in a whopping novel that made the backpack way too heavy but at least left me with a profound sense of loss once it was over. Maybe it’s the same genes doing their stuff here.
I put some music on and slump onto the sofa. I stare at the mantlepiece where a photo of Rob and I on Bondi beach still takes pride of place. Ten years. Ten years! I should probably remove it. That would probably be for the best. But then why would trying to forget the best ten years of my life be the healthy thing to do?
I wonder if Rob is finding this dating game as difficult as I am. If he’s still with Giles – the twenty-seven year old he left me for – then probably not. But despite the whole Giles business, out of all of the people I know, Rob is probably the only person I could talk to about this. That’s what happens when you spend ten years with someone. And yet, of course, being my ex, he’s the only person I can’t talk to about this.
I take my new phone from my pocket and switch it on. I stare at the little orange Grindr icon. My Grindr date hasn’t been much more successful than my Gaydar or Gayromeo dates.
I suppose the problem is one of probability. With guys like Mike meeting three or four guys a day, and guys like me meeting one a quarter, the probability of meeting someone like Mike rather than someone like me, is – I work it out in my head – one in three-hundred and sixty. Today was the first time I have ever gone to meet someone from Grindr though, and it’s unfair, I suppose, to judge the whole concept on a single date, but all the same… isn’t Grindr just the whole faster/more/faster concept pushed to its limit? Can relationships between men get anymore immediate, anymore superficial than this?
I launch Grindr and look at Mike’s smiling face. He’s still online. He’s probably still sitting outside Café Nero.
My phone chirrups with a message from him. It says, “Whappen?”
I think for a moment about replying, but if he doesn’t “get it” by now, how could I ever explain?
Another message from Mike: “In sauna bar. Coming?” and I wonder how he manages to use his phone in the sauna without damaging it. And I wonder why he would want to go to a place where men are waiting for sex and still continue searching through cyberspace. I think he probably has some major (but common) personality disorder. I should probably remove him from my favourites. Or delete the app altogether.
But then another icon catches my eye further down the page: the guy in the arran sweater.
I click on it. The title is “Bill Erling,” his name, presumably. I stare at the photo for a while. A normal bloke called Bill Erling hiding in a big jumper that his mother probably made.
Bill looks vaguely embarrassed about something. About having his photo taken perhaps. Or the jumper. Or being on Grindr maybe. Or perhaps, like me, suddenly finding himself in cyberspace in 2011 and not quite knowing how to cope with it.
His text reads, “Is it hopeless out there? Or are you going to prove me wrong?”
I sigh and think, “OK. One last try. But this really is the last one.”
“Hi,” I type. “I’m James. A little bird tells me that you and I have lots in common. Fancy a coffee somewhere sometime?”
I nod to myself and absentmindedly stroke my iPhone as I wait for him to reply.
My phone chirrups. I click on the message. “You and I?” it says, then, “OMG! He’s literate! Hello!”

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