I am 24 and at a friend’s flat. She is having a party. Well, I say party – the lounge is full of people, there are bottles of vodka and dubious mixers on the kitchen table and there is a queue for the toilet. It’s as close to a party as we’re going to get this evening.
I am a different animal as a 24-year-old. I’ve yet to endure all the various, turbulent life experiences that will teach me to be kinder, more humble, accommodating, friendly – all that shit.
Instead I am almost a quarter of a century of awkwardness, curiosity and sugar-topped vitriol masquerading as confidence. A familiar tale to many, I’m sure.
I’ve not been out of the closet long – I’m still working out what to do with my wonky wiring and feelings that I’m now allowed to have. And I get super-nervous around other gay men.
As I pour myself a really large gin and tonic, alone, my friend glides into the kitchen and says: “Claire’s friend Matt is here. He’s gay, but a bit weird. Watch out for him.”
I thank her for – well, warning me, I guess – and pour an extra shot of gin into my glass, sending the contents splashing all over the table. 38-year-old me would get a cloth and wipe it up, but time machines aren’t a thing yet and so 24-year-old me vaguely waggles some kitchen roll in the spillage’s direction and strides out to the lounge to witness this weirdo for myself.
I spy him immediately. He is kind of good-looking, despite being dressed in clothes you would describe unfortunate at best. He throws his head back in laughter at something the guy he’s with is saying.
I have met the other guy before and know for a fact his banter is up there with a night in a Bangkok prison in the LOL stakes, so I assume the hysterical laughter is for somebody else’s benefit. It then occurs to me that maybe he too has had a ‘warning’.
I play that desperately unoriginal game every young gay plays: faux-blindness. Oh, boys, you all think you’re being so clever, but coyness is the one trick every gay guy likes to pull out of the bag first. It’s never convincing and always ends in disaster. But I’m yet to learn that.
So it begins. I pretend I haven’t seen Matt at all and instead trundle over to a corner and start talking to someone much better looking.
It continues this way for around an hour or so. Whenever he walks into a room, I find the earliest opportunity to leave it and if finding myself trapped in a group conversation, smile politely before making my excuses and going to the loo. He does the same – he never addresses me directly and doesn’t cast his eye over me at all.
While our paths don’t cross and we haven’t said a word to each other, the air is thick with something – and it’s not cigarette smoke. Our fellow party guests eyeball us nervously, nudging each other, as if wondering who’s going to bite first.
Eventually, I take a pew in the kitchen and join another conversation. Matt enters soon after me and sits opposite. I am between the kitchen wall and the table and can’t possibly get out without appearing very rude. So the conversation continues.
Matt doesn’t say much, but looks across at me often. It is definitely not lust in his eyes – his hooded eyelids convey a dash of contempt, if anything. I decide I don’t have anybody to impress and let forth what I suppose at the time would’ve passed for bawdy humour but would now seem crass and attention-seeking. I’d do anything for a laugh.
At the next gap in conversation, Matt takes a swig of his drink and leans over, saying loudly to me: “Do you know, I think you’re the most arrogant person I’ve ever met.”
The room goes deathly quiet – the only sound is the ice clinking in my glass as my hand trembles.
I laugh derisively and he gets up and walks out of the room.
About half an hour later, I decide it is time to go. I call a cab and wait for it outside the flat – the sky getting lighter and lighter as I smoke the bollocks off a Marlboro Light.
I hear the familiar diesel engine sound and my chariot pulls up. Suddenly by my side is Matt.
“Er, hi,” he says.
“It’s bye, actually,” I beam as I open the cab door.
“But…” he starts breathlessly. “Aren’t I coming with you?”
“What?!” I shriek. “Why would you be coming with me?”
“I thought I’d be coming home with you,” he says plainly.
I’m incredulous. “Why? I thought I was the most arrogant person you’d ever met.”
“You are. And I want to come home with you.”
I’ll never forget his look as I carefully close the cab door and tell the driver to go – his hopeful face getting smaller and smaller in the distance until it is just a dot.
I’m sure Matt wanted to teach me a lesson I’d never forget, and he did – just not the one he was hoping for. The only thing I learned from him was that I should stop being a dick at parties – and that men are depressingly impossible to read.