Damien says: 'Ooh, she's been working out, hasn't she?'
'Well, I've been doing weights, and . . .'
'That's no mean chest, Stephen. No
Damien takes off his denim shirt, putting his shoulders back and slipping it off quickly, as if there was a swimming pool at his feet. He tightens the muscles in his shoulders and shuffles towards Fred, who brought me and Steve. Fred laughs.
We're in a gay club, talking to Fred and Damien and Simon, who are gay; who are, in their own terms, queer, a word I feel uneasy about - the exact meaning changes all the time. I'm still wearing my overcoat, hands in pockets. I feel awkward, maladroit, groping for the appropriate words and gestures, sliding around in this treacherous linguistic zone, choosing my phrases from a very narrow channel of bland correctness, like a footballer being interviewed in the players' tunnel.
'So,' says Steve, 'Do you . . . I mean, you must work out? Yes?'
Damien smiles, and puts his right hand on his left hip, and crosses his left hand over to his right hip, and plucks at the hem of his vest, and slides it up over his head like the swimmer in the Levi's ad. Then he neatly - neatly? I seem to keep noticing this neatness, this poised and precise body language, but . . . would I even see it if Damien was straight? - places his vest over his left arm, and stands with his head back, smirking and looking down his nose.
Simon: 'Ooh, she's shaved her chest. Or is that Immac?'
Damien looks at me, and I'm fiddling with the wrapper of a bar of chocolate in my
pocket, looking back, not wanting to smirk, but not wanting to have no expression at all; I
can't quite catch the right tone. The guy has
shaved his chest. And what do I think? I have no opinion.
'Ooh, horrible,' says Simon. 'I hate a shaved chest. It's like . . . it feels like you've put your hand in the wrong place.'
I try to smile at Damien, and, oh no, oh God, I'm raising my eyebrows. I've turned into Kenneth Williams . . . so I cough, and take the chocolate wrapper out of my pocket, and look at it, and put it back. Damien knows I'm heterosexual, he must know (or does he? What am I saying here?), and he turns his chest slightly towards me; both of my hands are back in my pockets, in my coat, which suddenly seems an absurd garment to be wearing, and I have an urge to take it off, but . . . what, right now? 'Well,' Simon is saying, 'I wouldn't really know when it comes to
Cindy Crawford, because I'm a screaming poof.' Damien turns to Fred, who squeezes Damien's right nipple. The music is En Vogue's 'Give it Up, Turn it Loose'. Damien and Simon are moving their hips around, jigging their shoulders, and they're thirty years old: straights wouldn't be doing this; they'd be frowning over their real ale, talking aobut football, on a deeper level of self-delusion. When you go to a gay club, you realise how much of a straight life is based on pretending that sex doesn't exist, that all of the dressing up and drinking and dancing, for God's sake, is not purely and simply an arena for sex.
Here the sex is more overt. People on the dance floor swing around and turn to each other, shirts open. There is no real sense of being in your own personal bubble, or of just dancing with each other; there's real communication, eye contact, stuff happening all the time. You have to watch yourself. No, what I mean is, you have to be careful. No, what I mean is . . . See what I mean? I'm on my way to the bar, and I've stopped to read a gay magazine, something you can't do in a newsagent without getting a filthy look, and a guy, he's wearing a leather jacket and jeans, he looks a bit of a bath-dodger, comes up to me, and says: 'Hello.'
'Hello.' He picks up a magazine from the pile, looks at it, smiles at me.
'I buy you . . . a dreenk?'
'I buy you . . . une biere?' What do I do? A foreigner, on his own . . . Would it be churlish not to accept? Anyway, he's already moving, takng my hesitation as an affirmative. He's at the bar; I nod. Three minutes later, he's back, and he hands me the beer and touches my hand. I move my hand away, trying not to do it too sharply, and lift the glass up.
He puts his arm on my shoulder. I feel terrible, squirmy, desperate to be at the bar of a scruffy pub, talking about the way Spurs are organising their offside trap.
'Have you . . . do you have a boyfriend?'
'No. Non. Absolutely no.'
'No? Well then . . .'
'But . . .'
'But what?' He has one arm around my shoulders, and is groping my thigh with the other. I take a step back, pushing him away.
'Vous etes . . . gay?'
'Non. Pas moi.' He looks at me, disgusted, and walks over to where a man is sitting at the edge of the dance floor, and kisses the man on the cheek. I move backwards, fast, striding past someone with rings through his nipples, smiling back at a man in a suit, and then ducking out of his way, caught in a hailstorm of direct sexual communication.
Ten minutes later, I'm in a taxi; the driver asks for my destination, and then says: 'You an Arsenal fan?'
I fold my copy of tomorrow's Sun, and slap it down on my thigh, and bark out: 'Yeah]' And I snort loudly and cough into my bunched fist. I say: 'Cup this year, then.' Somehow I can't help myself.