He reminded me of all the inadequacy I’d felt the first time round. It was a Caribbean restaurant, where the spices made your mouth burn, and I was out for dinner with friends. He sat a table away, half hidden by a pillar. His hair was longer and he had the beginnings of a beard but he still had the smile that reminded me of why I’d been interested in the first place.
Aldo was a man who, a year ago, rejected me in a club. That’s the short version. It wasn’t malicious or mean, he just had better options. I remembered exactly how it felt to be on that dance floor, the words he whispered in my ear, the way it felt to walk away, but this isn’t the story of being rejected. This is a story about sex with very little actual sex in it I’m afraid. Meeting Aldo is, to date, one of the most awkward things that has ever happened to me, and what came along with it were intense feelings of failure.
I sipped the tap water, the ice soothing the heat, and I kept glancing at him. I’d heard stories since I’d met him, about how he’d slept with other people’s boyfriends, about other men he’d slept with before, and the relationships he’d had. He was a symbol of what I wasn’t; a sexually active man. All the things I’d felt about him weren’t feelings of failure at all, they were feelings of jealousy.
‘Ooh, who is it?’ Sam asked, a man I’d met that night with facial piercings and long hair pulled back into a bun.
‘It’s someone I met in a club once,’ I said. ‘Nothing happened though.’
‘I’d ride him. Why didn’t you?’
That’s a good question that requires a little history to give a full, and honest, answer.
Years ago, I remember kissing a man for the first time. His name was Patrick. He was a year older than me, we were at a party, we were outside talking and then he kissed me. Those few minutes were the most romantic of my life. His hands ran through my hair, down my back, then he put them down the back of my jeans. If it had been raining, I’d have felt like Hilary Duff. After that, a friend walked round the corner, the kissing stopped, and his hands left me. He went inside and found himself a drink.
All I could think about was sex. What sex with him would be like, the various places we’d do it, the foreplay that we might partake in. I thought about the ways it would come around, by candlelight in an old house like The Notebook, but it never happened for reasons I’ll never fully understand. Even then, I still had a fond interest in sex. I found that what interested me more was the build up. The electric touches and light grazes, but as I got older the way I looked at sex began to change.
When I was eighteen I lived in London for six months, and didn’t know many people, but two things were categorically different about me. The first, I spent less time thinking about sex and the second, my fast teenage metabolism had given way to not liking the way I looked side on. I used to look in the mirror and see my ribcage without breathing in and when I puffed out my stomach it looked like it didn’t belong, like some odd obtrusion, as if an alien might burst out. It didn’t look like it was part of me, it didn’t fit. Now, I never even glance at myself in the mirror naked. My flat can look like I’m sitting Shivah because all the mirrors are covered with clothes and towels.
Even with both of these changes I spent a lot of time on Grindr. I could talk to men, I could joke with men, and I could tell them stories. I was a Grindr conversationalist, which is not what the app is meant for. On the off chance that I did meet up with someone, it was never like The Notebook. I would keep my T-shirt on, and make it so the lights were dimmer. Mood lighting is the new candlelight, right?
As I was leaving a man’s house one night I had a realisation. He was pulling his pyjama pants on, neglecting to wear a top, and he was getting antsy that I wasn’t already gone. I was fully dressed (I always had been) and I hovered by the door on my way out, never sure how to end these interactions. He ran his hands through is matted hair and then he said something: ‘I thought you’d talk more.’
Very few people have said that to me. If anything, it’s normally ‘Can you talk a little less?’ I’m quite a loud person, especially around friends, and rarely feel overly shy when meeting new people. Yet, in any sexual situation I’m often mute before, during, and after.
I watched Aldo stand up and he headed to the door smiling with his friends. Before he was out of sight, he turned and caught my eye before looking away. I knew then that that was the most intimate interaction I’d ever have with him. It was the most intimate interaction I’d had with a man in a long time.
When I think back to the night I first kissed Patrick I couldn’t stop talking. I chatted to him all night, made jokes, asked about him, I even opened up to him a little bit. What had changed between then and now? Why was it so easy to charm Patrick, but now I was considering eye contact with a near perfect stranger intimate but the idea of a conversation with him made my knees shake.
What I realised that night, trying to wash down a spicy lamb shank by resting an ice cube on my tongue, was that my quietness around men has nothing to do with the fact I can’t talk to them. I don’t chat to men because I know, that if it goes well, at some point down the line we’ll have sex and I’ll have to get naked. That is where the problem lies. The idea of getting naked in front of someone terrifies me. Let alone, in front of someone who’s supposed to have some desire or feelings of lust or attraction for me. My biggest fear is getting undressed, and a man saying ‘ugh’, and then he turns out the lights, like pulling off my top will incite a gasp as if Quasimodo had come down from Notre Dame.
I’ve imagined being naked with someone over and over. I’ve thought about the different ways I could hide my stomach, the angles that I might look better from, the pros and cons of turning the lights off. I’ve thought about the way it would feel to have someone touch the stretch marks on my side, to run their fingers down my chest where it sags, the way I’d look better lying on the bed when everything is pulled down by gravity, the fact I could never be on top, the way it would feel to have someone grip the ass I cover with long-length shirts.
I’m often the first to joke about my weight. I refer to myself as the ‘chubby gay best friend cracking jokes at the buffet table.’ I often insist I don’t mind the way I look but the truth is, I do not like it. I do not like it one bit. Often those jokes are made to try and find some sort of reassurance from the person I’m talking to. Giving them an opportunity to say ‘You’re not chubby’. Even though they say those things, not matter how forced they may be, I don’t like the way I look. I wear clothes two sizes too big because it hides what’s underneath. I tell people I like tops ‘baggy’ so I can move in them, when actually I am terrified of people seeing what my body actually looks like.
I could go to a gym, but they’re the worst place to be if you feel like you’re overweight. I think we should have gyms only for beginners, where it’s okay to be chubby and not know what an elliptical machine is or how it works. Where after six months, if you’re showing progress, you’re allowed to ‘graduate’ to the places that ‘Gym Rats’ go to in their vest tops and Nikes. A gym, to me, is a place that shows no mercy, a place that points out I eat a lot, and don’t look good after doing so. A place that feels hostile, like an exclusive club for non-fat people. Even more than all of this, I fear that if I do go to a gym someone might think ‘Good on him. It’s about time he lost that weight.’
I want to like the way I am. I shouldn’t have to try and change myself to feel comfortable. It’s a betrayal to who I am and, no matter how much I feel like I might need to, I shouldn’t have to go to a gym and get skinny or muscly to feel like I’m lovable.
When Aldo left that restaurant, when I thought about Patrick, when I tell someone I haven’t eaten that day, when I say I’m full, when I say I’m not hungry, when all these things happen I feel horrible. I feel horrible for saying those things, horrible for looking this way, horrible for thinking that way.
Self-esteem and sex go hand in hand. If you feel comfortable with your partner you’ll be able to enjoy yourself. I have never felt comfortable with anyone in that way. I have always kept that poly-blend barrier between me and him.
After the waitress had cleared the table and we’d paid the bill, we stood outside the restaurant, waiting for a taxi. Aldo was long gone, and it was just starting to rain.
‘Why didn’t you fuck that guy?’ Sam asked.
‘He just wasn’t really my type,’ I said.
‘On Self Esteem and Sex’ originally appeared in The Glass Hive in 2016.
You can watch Jon Paul Roberts read the essay here.