I don’t know what possessed me but it was a Friday night and I’d been stuck inside for what seemed the whole winter. I had a severe case of cabin fever and had to get out. It was nine thirty in the evening; a time when I’m normally fixated on the box and longing for my bed because the feet are playing me up and I feel like crap. Then out of nowhere came this urge to go out and meet people - gay people.
There was another motive. I’d been contacted via the internet by an attractive man just a couple of years younger than myself. Cultured, interested in the arts, music, seen a bit of life and wanting to get to know someone at least superficially before hitting the sack; you know the type. He’d expressed interest in a meeting and said that he was in the bar on Friday nights and specifically, this Friday night.
Now despite my dotage, I’m not stupid and fully realise that that is not a date under anybody’s definition. He hadn’t arranged a time, so clearly wasn’t so interested that he wanted it contractually bound. It was a vague, ‘maybe I’ll see you there’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, it was the deciding factor and I decided to give my need for social contact and the possibility of something more a go; you should never give the needy half a chance!!
The last time I’d been to a bar in Amsterdam was probably two or three years ago. I can’t be more specific because my memory about that sort of thing’s shot to pieces these days. One of the reasons is that the bars are soulless deserts until about ten thirty at night and don’t get busy until after the witching hour. By that time normally, I’m in a medication-induced half-sleep and battling the demons in my feet and legs. This particular evening however, I was wide awake; in less discomfort than normal and seized by the need to take advantage of every window of opportunity my neuropathy gives me. Nevertheless, I knew that just getting to the nearest bar wasn’t going to be easy, requiring some walking and a tram ride and taking the walking stick wasn’t an option, so I took an extra pain killer just in case.
Now I’ve learned a thing or two over the years and in preparation, gave myself a serious talking to. I awarded myself ten self-confidence, bonus points to start off with, with the aim of hitting more before the evening was over and knowing that point zero was the time to come home. For those who don’t understand, these are the single guy’s imaginary boosts to his confidence designed to make him feel good enough about himself during the evening ahead and help him through the first hour or so, or at least until drunk enough not to care anymore.
Then came the hour of primping and preening in the bathroom. Don’t laugh, the older you get, the longer it takes to achieve even looking your real age! So nose hairs, ear hairs, wayward eyebrows, goatee and side burns were all dealt with. Showering, scrubbing, hair washing and personal hygiene all scrupulously done.
Clothing was the next problem. It’s still winter, so showing off the hairy chest under the T-shirt ‘V’ wasn’t an option and I needed a top jacket that would have enough pockets to stuff the cap, gloves and scarf in when I got there. I settled for good-fitting jeans and a shirt big enough to hide the spare tire. Both jeans and shirt were dark coloured. I wanted to blend in, not stand out like a geriatric peacock. So, finally satisfied that no matter what I did, I wasn’t going to improve the best I could be, I set off on my little adventure.
I was heading for a bar that I thought would be the most comfortable and least intimidating for a first venture out in a long time. From what I remembered, the patronage was a mix of bear types, bar flies, bored tourists and Asian boys with their mentors, plus the odd complete psycho to liven up the proceedings. More importantly, it was generally a slightly older crowd and I wasn’t going to expose my fragile ego to a bar full of narcissi (is that the plural of Narcissus?)
When I arrived outside the bar the feet were playing up, the butterflies were doing the fandango in my stomach and I nearly turned around and went back home. I had to lecture myself; ‘For God’s sake, you’re 63, not some virgin teenager hitting the scene for the first time!’ The virgin teenager in me was screaming to get the fuck back home but bravado won out and I walked in.
Now body language is everything during the first two minutes when you walk into a bar. I knew this and had rehearsed the casual confidence and natural half smile that were necessary but still stumbled in with two left feet; fixed my rabbit-in-the-headlights stare on the row of stools at the bar and flew, jet-fuelled onto the nearest vacant stool. One of my ten self-confidence bonus points already gone and the evening hadn’t even begun. Not a great start and the disinterested glances that greeted my arrival seemed to go on for hours. Nevertheless, once ensconced on my stool, I felt more at ease and ordered a beer from the grizzled barman. The last time I’d been here, this barman was on my wish list for Christmas but time takes its toll on us all,l I guess.
A beer wasn’t a good idea considering my medication but it was ordered before my rational brain kicked in. Oh well, one wouldn’t harm. Actually, after five minutes, most of my fears were ebbing away. One thing about gay bars in Amsterdam is that they never change, never! The bar owners are too tight to invest, the few tourists that still come find it quaint and the local clientele is not that demanding. The only thing that moves with the times is the price of drinks. Three and a half euros for a small beer; good grief!
My favourite begin to an evening had always been perching on my stool, with my back to the wall and with a good view of the circus. Taking time to case the joint and see what, who and where was essential, especially if I was on my own. See but not be seen was the motto, at least in the beginning. I began by looking around to see if internet guy was here and then realised I wasn’t entirely certain I’d recognise him if he was; there’s a certain generic look that I find attractive but lots of guys have that look and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t really recall his profile face clearly. I had to hope that he would find me first. Actually, the bar that Friday was not exactly teeming with ‘my types’, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t missed him.
There were two guys whom I recognised from twenty years ago. The difference being that now they were both bursting out of their T-shirts like Arnold Schwarzenegger and were probably just as old. Always intimidated by muscle Mary’s, I bitchily concluded that these guys were steroid queens but nevertheless still slumped over my bulging stomach on the stool. One more point lost!
There was a clique of a few really young guys acting like humming birds round a feeder. They were hyperactive and alternating between frenzied chatter amongst themselves and flitting to the bar to flash impossibly long eyelashes at whoever might buy them a drink.
Another group was gathered round the pinball machine. These were lads in their late twenties; smartly dressed, short hair and street savvy. These guys are at the peak of their game and know their own pulling power. I used to be like that for a few short seconds in time. However, that didn’t shake my confidence; I’ve never been into younger guys so I didn’t see them as intimidating, until that is…
…I’d been staring for too long. I realised it at the very second that one of them turned to meet my gaze but it was too late. The lip curled into a Presley sneer and the eyes narrowed, gimlet-like, into bullets of sheer venom. As he turned to inform his friends that the perv in the corner was eying him up, another self-confidence point bit the dust. The collective group glare that followed nearly lost me another point but by that time I was ordering another beer I shouldn’t drink and considering flight.
For the next few minutes, I counted all the spirits bottles hanging behind the bar; fixated on the mechanical porn on one of the TV screens and tried to regain some self-control. Luckily I was rescued by a tap on the shoulder. Thinking it was the guy from the internet, I turned optimistically to greet my saviour. It wasn’t that guy but it was someone else that I half-remembered from years ago and he looked pretty good! After confirming mutual recognition, I bought him a beer and he sat down next to me. My twenty five year old internal man-about-town, returned and the next half an hour was spent chatting, catching up on mutual friends and subtle but unmistakeable flirting. The restoration of a point to my confidence chart came from the fact that he was also flirting with me! And he wasn’t drunk and didn’t seem to have any hidden agenda; yippee!
Okay, to cut a long story short; I’d repressed my needy gene, brought about by a long time without this sort of contact and was playing it cool. I was proud of myself because everything was in control and we had clicked. You know that feeling when it’s just right and you know you’ve read the signs and body language correctly. It got to the point where I was musing on the evening’s end and what I’d do if internet guy walked in. Overconfidence; fatal!
He asked me if I’d like to get out of there and go back to his place nearby. I contained my excitement and feeling like that teenage virgin again, demurely accepted. Trust my rational mind to choose that moment to poke me in the conscience…’Ahem, aren’t we forgetting something!’ I swear to God, I got icy chills but came out with it anyway. Lowering my head close to his, I uttered the words!
“By the way; I think you should know; I’m HIV positive; is that going to be a problem?”
I honestly thought it wouldn’t be but that was completely my own fault. By his look and his conversation, I’d sort of assumed he was too. Big mistake; never judge a book by the cover! He recoiled as if I’d thrown my beer over him and I could see him struggling to remain politically correct:
“ Uhm…yeah, well you see…I didn’t realise…uhm… no I can’t do that, I’m sorry. See you around.”
Two immediate confidence points lost right after the look he gave me and one more after the excuse and I felt as though someone had hit me with a sledge hammer. I was furious but not at the fact that it actually was a problem; that’s a risk we all have to live with but at the lily-livered, cowardly response! This was a guy who had lived in Amsterdam for most of his life; was not much younger than me and must have lived through the HIV/AIDS years and yet he couldn’t get away fast enough, despite apparently finding me sexually desirable just five minutes before. Talk to me damn you!
Only five bonus confidence points left and they were barely keeping me from running out of the bar in hysterics. I decided to wait another half an hour to see if internet guy showed up and had prepared every available barrier to that being a potential disaster too. This time, I would ask him right out first but even then I knew that I’d still have to confess sooner or later. The eternal optimist kicked in then and the third beer was ordered. I was feeling somewhat woozy but nevertheless perversely proud of myself. I hadn’t always disclosed at the right time and realised that I’d overcome a subconscious barrier without really trying. I felt I’d be telling every time from now on; not that the opportunities were falling at my feet but there you go, three beers can work wonders and blunt edges.
It was getting busier but it remained the same eclectic mix that I was comfortable with. I accidently caught the eye of the younger guy from earlier but this time my lip curled first and he got ‘the look’ full in the face. Revenge is a sweet bitch, however small the victory.
Suddenly my sixth sense alerted me to the fact that I was being watched. It was a guy at the other end of the bar and he was staring unashamedly. Not bad looking, if a little worn around the edges. Now I knew I looked more than a little rough around the edges too, maybe there was a match here. I casually picked up my glass and putting on my slightly tipsy, ‘come hither’ look, stared back, more meaningfully. I think the penny dropped when his head suddenly lolled forward. He recovered quickly but the glazed eyes gave him away and when he dribbled as he leered at me, I got the message; he was completely out of it. Another point lost; I was being seduced by someone who needed to be blotto to do it; great boost to the ego that!
Okay, enough already. I looked at my watch and realised I’d been there for less than two hours. I got up, put on my coat and headed for the exit. Of course, internet guy chose that very moment to arrive and despite looking me full in the face, he walked right on by. With my remaining confidence points falling to the floor like leaves in autumn, I stalked out and went home.
It was okay, really; c’est la vie. It sounds like a good old, self-pitying rant but the evening had actually been good for me and I quickly realised it. I’d confirmed my place in the world at that snapshot in time and was okay with it. You’ve got to laugh at life sometimes, because it can never be a Hallmark greeting card: it wouldn’t be so interesting if it were.