It isn’t a date. Definitely not.
We are not meeting with a view to anything other than having a few drinks and, at my request, ten-pin bowling. It’s all perfectly innocent. Two pals going to score some strikes, but not each other. Yep.
So if it isn’t a date, why am I wearing those trousers that hug my backside the snuggest, and that polo shirt that makes me look the buffest (no mean feat, I can tell you)? Why am I spending too long making my hair ‘just so’ and leaving my flat super early to make sure I get there on time?
It’s not a date; there’s no romance. I don’t need him to be impressed; I don’t care whether he fancies me, right? I have no answer for myself so I glare into the mirror one last time and head out of the door.
This is actually our third meeting. I’ve always told myself it is better not to meet people from Twitter or Facebook – despite lots of very kind, and some really quite salacious, offers – yet there’s no point having a rule if you’re not going to break it. We have actually been aware of each other for the best part of a decade: contributing to the same messageboards (God, remember those?), being friends on MySpace, connecting on LinkedIn and basically using every single outdated social media vessel – and watching them all go under – to be in each other’s lives without ever actually meeting. There has never been even a hint of romantic interest – and we were both with other people for the most part, anyway – but I do, for whatever reason, find him interesting. Fascinating, even.
A few years back when, on the eighth day, God creates his biggest blunder @theguyliner, he follows me. Anonymous is as anonymous does, so I don’t let him know we have a real-life connection, as gossamer-thin as it is, and we @ occasionally and there are maybe a couple of DMs but it’s never anything other than talking about telly or awful old gay venues that have long since bitten the dust.
And then I make a mistake.
I refer to something in a tweet that reveals who I am to anyone observant enough to notice or care. And he does both. He messages me elsewhere: “You are the Guyliner AICM £5” he exclaims, using a reference we are both, sadly, old enough to get. At first, I am crushed. But somehow I don’t mind him knowing; I know he’ll keep the secret and if he doesn’t, well, nobody’s going to burst into flames. And in a way, it is nice somebody else knowing. Secrets are lonely – that’s we usually feel compelled to share them. And I have felt every level of lonely on this blog.
He keeps it to himself. And life goes on. Until, a couple of years and a few DMs later, we decide to meet for the first time. No big expectations, no agenda, just the fact that we really might as well.
As I travel on the bus to meet him tonight, I cringe at the thought of that first meeting. It had actually gone pretty well, until the 800th round of gin and tonics sent us over the edge. I was annoying, and drunk, and nervous, and so made a balls of it. We parted on Tottenham Court Road, beyond the hour of the last Tube, walking away from each other almost certain we would never meet again. And as I swayed and belched on the night bus home, I felt regret. What a shame 10 years of online friendship had been ruined by three hours of low-quality moonshine in two of the worst bars in London.
I believe in letting things go if they’ve come to a natural conclusion. It didn’t feel like it was over yet.
I resolved to fix it – something I don’t really do; I usually slink away from my mistakes – and I took him out to dinner to apologise. And although he kept me waiting a little, and kept a cool distance for most of the meal, I knew I had won him over. I can, and do, bring out the charm when I have to. And it thawed and became easy and by the end of dinner we were friends.
When we parted at the station, him heading to one line and me to the other, I asked if he would like to do it again and he said yes, and I leant in for a kiss on the cheek, realising immediately that he had gone for my lips and missed, his nose landing in my neck and a haze of Neroli Portofino. As I descended to the Bakerloo, I felt something, a strangeness, an excitement. I adjusted my lapel pin, scratched my chin and thought, well. Well, well, well. But I am over dating and men are all dogs who deserve every flea they get, so decide to concentrate on making this amazing man my friend instead.
Which brings us bang-up-to-date and right here for meeting number three. I arrive early and pace the street, nosing into a minimarket and idly picking up bottles of fizzy drink I’ll never buy. I don’t want him to see me waiting, standing there like an idiot. I hate waiting, but I hate to arrive first even more. Finally, it’s time, and I stride back to the Tube station, with none of the usual palpitations or stomach somersaults that go hand-in-hand with my other rendezvous. This isn’t a date. Remember.
He’s there. He looks me up and down very quickly. I greet him with a matronly brush of my cheek against his – no awkwardness this time – and we go bowling. We talk easily. I drink a pint. He sips wine. I thrash him at bowling quite unintentionally. As far as I can tell – and so he recounts much later – the arse-hugging trousers do their job. He is very gracious in defeat, and asks where we should go next. I let him decide. After all, he’s read all the blogs and knows all the tricks. He suggests Soho. Well well, again. We head there, scene of so many of my dates – almost all disasters. Thank goodness this isn’t a date, eh?
He takes me to a bar I have never been to before – for good reason, it is like being trapped in Pat Butcher’s jewellery box – and we sit down at a long table, next to each other, gazing out of the window at the sights and states of Soho beneath.
Our sense of humour and outlook on the world is so similar, we are either meant to be the best buddies in the world or sworn enemies hell-bent on destroying each other.
He is just coming out of a breakup and tells me there is another guy who has expressed an interest in him. Whether this is bluster to make me envious or not I have no idea, but I do find it mildly amusing and also slightly unnerving. I’m not on a date, of course, but what if I am on a date? What if I snooze? How much would it hurt to let this go, whatever it is?
Then: “I’m glad I’ve met you.”
I am genuinely taken aback – I don’t think anyone’s ever said that to me before. Most men wish they hadn’t. I mean, you’ve been reading this blog the past few years, right? I’m awful. Few who meet me walk away smiling.
I redden and we go on to talk about something else. We have a lot in common and the silences are few and far between. Remember. This isn’t a date. But it is certainly something.
Soon, the bar closes and we are tipped out on the street. It is late, and a weeknight, but it feels too early. Tomorrow would be too early. We decide to go for one more, that we definitely don’t need, and yet I suddenly feel strangely sober. The bar is busy and loud and we have to lean into each other to hear what we’re saying. The only time in my life I’m not happy about Madonna blaring into my ear.
As he leans in to talk to me, he steadies himself by putting his hand on my waist. And then the silences start and I know what that means – this is not my first time at the rodeo. We gaze out for a while at the scene before us like trembling emperors watching gladiators do battle, until finally we turn to face each other. Silence again. I decide to break it. There will never be another tonight.
“If you’re going to kiss me, you might as well get on with it.”
As he moves closer to me, I realise it isn’t just a date, it’s the date. The very last one. The future starts now.