When you’ve been single for as long as I have, the idea of walking into a room full of friends and acquaintances hand-in-hand with a guy, of kissing someone in front of them – it all feels like a big deal. It’s as if, with that interlacing of fingers, that meeting of lips, you’re taking yourself off some kind of shelf, ruling out a whole host of other options.
Tuesday is a case in point. I’m hovering at the bar, awaiting a glass of white. Stephen arrives first.
‘I’m not getting you a drink!’ I say, with a laugh.
It’s a long story.
He looks mock-offended. ‘I was going to ask if I could get you one.’
‘Oh! Thanks, but not to worry – I’ve got one coming.’
There’s a bit of small talk, then he says,
‘So, what about you and boys? Anything going on?’
Experience tells me guys like Stephen don’t ask this question out of polite curiosity, which is confusing. I’ve known him for getting on for a year. We met at a dance and continued to see each other quite often, usually fleetingly, whilst moving at speed to music. Recently I’d found myself seated next to him at a dinner party and had a ball. Then, at an actual ball, I discovered his fun side and together we danced the night away. But not once in that time has he shown any interest in me other than as a dance partner, so this is disconcerting.
But even more disconcerting, and the real reason I’m now doing fish out of water – where is my wine?! I need something to do whilst I figure out what to say! – is that, for the first time in a long time, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question. If I didn’t fancy Stephen, I would just say ‘yes’, think of FFS, smile goofily, and go on my way. But I don’t do this.
‘…errr…’ I scratch my head. ‘Umm…’
Time for the good old-fashioned turnaround.
‘… I don’t know. What about you?’
He too ums and ahs for a moment before concluding, ‘It’s complicated, and no.’
‘Yeah, same, sort of, no, I don’t know. I don’t know!’
Articulate or what? Evidently I don’t want to rule out an option, not until I know what the deal is.
‘I’m sorry, is this a difficult question? Would you rather I asked you about books? Have you read anything good recently?’
No, I wouldn’t rather he asked about books, because books make me think of FFS which in turn makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.
He looks past me to the sofas. ‘Would you like to sit down?’
That’s an easy one. ‘Yes!’
So we do. Now he begins in earnest, with the body language and the subtle flirting and the compliments etc. More disconcerting by the minute. And it doesn’t help that Sam, Rachel, Freddie… oh loads of people I know have a ringside seat.
‘Shall we get the tube?’
What’s strangest about the way events are unfolding is that this is exactly how I’d like things to have played out with so many people in the past, but now that it’s happening with Stephen….
The next train isn’t due for five minutes.
‘What’s the most fun thing you can think of doing for five minutes?’
‘Dancing!’ I say, feeling a bit sorry for the guy. I’m not making it easy for him, but then I don’t think I want to.
He takes me into hold. The train comes; we board. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried waltzing on the Circle line but that evening, for the first time, I did. It should have felt like all my Christmases had come at once but something about it doesn’t feel right. I’m not relaxed, I’m definitely not drunk enough, and when he suggests going for a drink sometime, I’m faking it, kind of.
Because I’m too much of a coward to say what I feel.
We’re approaching his stop.
‘So, how about that drink?’
‘Yes,’ I say again, though with less conviction than before.
The train pulls into the platform; the doors open.
‘This is you, right?’ I say.
‘Well, goodnight.’ I lean in to kiss him on the cheek.
‘You’re not coming for that drink?’
It’s gone midnight on a weekday, so no, Cinderella is not ‘coming for that drink’.
I glance at my watch. ‘I have to go home.’
We say goodnight in the doorway, then he’s off. I settle back into a seat, thinking and probably saying aloud, ‘WTF?!’. Part of me wonders what FFS would say if I told him about the events of the evening. I can’t know for sure, but it would almost certainly make me laugh.