OK – weather is fine. Time for an old man to find out what is going on in the world. Round the corner is, according to the city guide books, the centre of the European gay scene. As a man who has only knowingly known about five gay men and two lesbians, and they never chose to discuss their sexual orientation, I own up to being ignorant of the most important thing in the lives of twenty percent of the population.
I’d looked up the three streets in Schöneberg, with allegedly the most action, so it was onto my bike and peddle the five kilometres between me and my study objects. I peddle slowly across the manic Tempelhofer Damm crossing. Four lanes of lunacy, with drivers regularly exceeding the speed limit by two to three times. They have to jump red lights at that speed.
No point in arriving bathed in sweat for the sake of two minutes, and it gives me time to reflect about the occasion that a man, a good friend, even older than me, had tried to engage me in sexual activity. He made a pass at me I suppose. I didn’t oblige him, and have wondered ever since what it is that prevents us from obliging gays who fancy us. There is the taboo of course.
He would say that I led him on. Well, I didn’t tell him off the first time he sneakily kissed me on the lips. I thought it was a mistake. It’s common now to go around hugging and kissing; a fashion I can’t be doing with. I assumed he had gone along the line gripping the women and failed to notice it was a bloke in front of him. But that didn’t explain the lip-business. Perhaps he’d had a few and his aim was not up to much. But it happened a second time. I tried not to be prude or narrow minded, but did eventually have to call a halt. I suppose I do think in clichés after all.
The truth was I just didn’t fancy him. But many women do sexual favours for blokes they don’t fancy, including husbands, so why couldn’t I humour a friend with a simple physical act. I’d wipe an incontinent person’s backside if it were needed so I’m not squeamish. Nurses deal with unwanted bodily functions caused – OK, usually by illness. Which is why I respect prostitutes who do the same – OK, caused by hormones or a control mania or just plain nastiness or misogyny. In fact, I respect nurses and prostitutes in equal measure. Whores get better paid but they also take more risks and don’t get to work many day shifts, so that is fair enough. It is a worrying thought that a misogynist would seek out the company of a woman and pay for sexual favours.
So, my mission is to find out what it is about a gay relationship I can’t deal with. In truth it’s a bit of voyeurism. It’s a lovely evening so why not go look how the other fifth live. I try to think through all the men I know and can’t come up with a twinge of excitement for any of them. I arrive at the first street – quiet as the grave. I don’t fancy walking in and out of bar after bar, so it was on to the next street, which was only a minute away. Same thing!!! What was I missing?
Third street. I hear a rumble in the distance. No over-ground trains around here. And then I see it. Well, I don’t actually see it, not the pub that is, for the men standing in front of it. Men! And I mean hundreds of them, all drinking, flirting, talking very loudly. Believe me! You have never seen so much testosterone in one heap in your life. The pub is so jammed I can’t see the front door and the men spill out halfway across the street. It is awesome and in some way frightening. I’m serious – I’m scared, but reflect that it is the first time I’ve witnessed several hundred men, drinking on a warm summer’s evening and there is no trouble. There are no police to be seen so no trouble is expected. Why the fear? Because we have been told to be afraid of people different to us? God pays back in mysterious ways. Fear is my just desert for morbid voyeurism.
In retrospect my next action was stupid. I ride on by and think, ‘It’s just too bizarre. Where would I start?’
What I should have done is got off, locked the old wire donkey to the nearest lamppost, and gone in and mingled. I should have found out what animated them and tried to understand what is going on in their minds. Truth is I’m still too squeamish about breaking a taboo so engrained into my youth.
Around the corner is the beautiful Viktoria Luise Platz, where many people just go to hang out on a warm summer’s evening. I thought that a quiet moment of introspection was needed.
The fountain in the middle of the square is remarkable and casts a fine cooling effect across the lawns and out over the gravel-sand paths, to be finally trapped by hedges. There are plenty of seats just in front of the hedges, but all are occupied – one by an old trampess, who was amazingly fat for someone living out of waste-bins. I know I should sit next to her and chat and give her a couple of Euros, but for the second time that evening my courage fails my convictions. Plenty are sitting on the grass, but I am not up for that. Sitting on the ground and standing up again from a squatting position have become so difficult that I know I fail to do it elegantly. Why can’t one wear one’s age with pride? Just look at all the beautiful young people putting on the agony for the opposite sex and you will understand why one doesn’t want to ruin their efforts with inelegance.
Snogging couples occupy most benches. I don’t want to intrude so rule them out. OK! They probably wouldn’t even notice me, but one has to show consideration. Or does one? It’s not like in my young day (I wish I hadn’t written that but I’m not going to delete it) because we had to screw in the back of cars or under park benches if it got really desperate. Parents always contrived to make it as hard as possible – well my mother did, bless her. She would lie about her comings and goings so we never thought we had even time for a quickie. The old man felt for his sons and their need to get their end away sometimes. Nowadays every young couple has a private somewhere, where they can shag their brains out so park benches should be left for the aged and infirm, who need somewhere to sit.
And there is the rub. My wife’s cousin Mildred is always banging on about how useless and lacking in drive and motivation many young men are nowadays. School and university graduation results would seem to substantiate her assertion. Girls have more about them than the lads. I blame the mothers! I’m sure my brother and I and all our mates, achieved a high degree of determination and a low degree of cunning because our mums did their best to keep us pure. Obviously they didn’t succeed, but we had to work a lot harder for it than lads do now.
Mildred was a psychotherapist and has another theory. She says the large number of broken homes mean that many women are left isolated with the kids to bring up. In their loneliness, they take a son as husband surrogate and de-skill him so he is dependent on the mother. I like my theory more. It gets you down your pint quicker.
Right I’ve ruled out the grass. Besides problems of elegance, my hay fever is giving me hell. I’ve ruled out the snogging benches out of feelings of decorum. And lo! I spy a bench with a single woman of mixed race, forty something, with a slightly careworn but very caring face; a face with serious character and interest in it. I’ve long known that I am a face person. Never mind the legs and body. If the face is right I can fall in love in seconds and that face was right.
But she is sitting on her own and probably wants to be on her own with her thoughts, certainly has a partner of some sort in her life, for such a beautiful woman cannot be short of admirers and she had just got another one. If I sit down next to her, she will surely think I want to hit on her and she will feel disturbed. That isn’t fair. Everyone is entitled to a bit of space. On the other hand, why should I sit on the hay-fever ridden grass when she is occupying a whole bench?
I walk over and stand near her.
‘I’d like to sit here but I really don’t want to disturb you.’
That sounded pathetic.
A weak smile says, ‘Lying bastard. I’ll give it two minutes before you try to ask me out.’
I sit down and remain silent, watching the fountain. She stares resolutely in any other direction but mine. She takes out a book to read. Looks heavy stuff but my bifocals won’t focus. The reading lens is too short and the distance lens too long. Bloody age again! But I know I won’t give in and get varifocals. I may be old, but I’m not condemning myself to tunnel vision one day earlier than necessary.
She has to look up from her book. A young man winds up his jeans as far as they will go, and pulls his pink shirt over his head like a footballer who has just scored a goal. Why do footballers do that?
Anyway, we can’t see his face, as it is well covered in shirt and he presumably (like me) has only limited vision. That isn’t stopping him. He climbs into the fountain basin and wades round trying to keep dry. Can’t be done! After two rounds of the fountain, he is soaked. At the end of his fountain odyssey he stops. He punches the water vertically two or three times with his left arm which has a strange dark blue colour. I can’t identify why or what he is wearing on his arm. He then climbs from the basin and walks off, head still covered, jeans still rolled up to over his knees, as though his actions must be comprehensible to his audience. I realise the dark blue arm colour is a plaster-cast or something similar to hold a fracture firm. Perhaps the tour round the fountain gives him a few minutes relief from itching under the plaster.
‘Does he do that every evening?’ I venture to ask her; she who is next to me and is no longer reading.
‘No idea. I’m not usually here,’ she answers.
‘Looks almost like a ritual,’ I risk saying.
She returns to her book. I now dare try a disruption. Her face has me so enchanted that I have to chance something.
‘What are you reading? Looks like poetry or very short stories.’
I’ve done it. Now she knows I can see nothing but shapes at one meter fifty.
She says something I don’t understand. Now she knows I don’t hear too well either. I ask for a repeat.
‘They are essays,’ she says slightly louder.
Essays. That’s not giving a lot away.
She falls back into silent reading.
I consider many times asking her to go to a nearby café and share a wine with me. I don’t do it. But I so need to sit opposite that face. It’s like an illness. I want nothing from her but to look at her face. Why don’t I just tell her that?
An old man walks round the circular perimeter path looking at all the seat dwellers. Is he a voyeur enjoying the youth making out and hoping to see a grope or two? More likely he is trying to pick someone up for the evening. He stares long at me every time he passes. If I so much as twitch, I’m sure he will approach me. It would be a disaster. Petrified sums me up.
I realise for the nth time that I have no interest in some aging gay. How dare he look at me lasciviously when I’m in the presence of a stunning woman?
It must be clear to him that I don’t, in any way, belong to the stunning woman. She is by no means beautiful but she has ‘it’, that je ne sais quoi of good years spiced with experience. She has the joy of the good times and the character building of the bad ones lined in her face. She is so special!
He disappears behind the water cascade. A couple enter the square; I keep calling it a square but it is clearly a round. A couple enter the circus ring from stage right for that is what it has now become. He is tall and elegant but so clearly proud of his acquisition that it is tasteless. His acquisition is stunning. No. His acquisition is startling; has bodybuilder physique with such monumental pectorals that they can double as a bosom and she flaunts them as such and wears very tight trousers with slightly high-heeled sneakers at their base. The combination causes a walk like a man not used to heels and skin-tight slacks, which I deduce as they approach, is exactly what he is. I’m sure I can detect a hint of lipstick. They are so proud, one can’t be cross with their vanity. I am mesmerized by so much bad style and I fail to notice what is going on next to me.
The wind blows and the trees rustle. All other sounds are momentarily blocked out and I have looked away from her for just a minute while I consider my options and admire the audacity of the gay couple. I Think of Julian Clarey. I admire him, not for his gay send-up comedy, but for his outrageousness. What courage? And while I’m thinking that, under the cover of the rustle, she has got up and quickly walks away, with a cute and provocative ‘bye’.
I just manage to return her farewell before she is out of earshot and the face has gone forever. Run after her!
For Christ sake. At my age? What do I have to offer her? It would be an insult to try to get closer to my goddess. Get old gracefully with the proven woman, whom you love to bits and give up on pipe dreams. You wanted nothing from her. If she had gone along with an adventure, it would have been out of economic necessity. The world is full of women who have given their life for a cause – man or family or both – and end middle-aged paupers. It would be disingenuous to pretend I can be anything to her. I once had a colleague who screwed his way round the Balkan states, promising to take young women from their destitution and then moving on before they had time to get their side of the deal. He was very tall so he got his comeuppance. All the bed-work played havoc with his back and he died well short of sixty. I know not from what; shame I hope! Or perhaps a cousin or brother of one of the cuckolded women caught up with him. I warned him that they settle scores in Slovenia differently to us.
The fountain suddenly stops. The quiet is awesome. I leave.
On the way home I find myself cycling behind a girl, maybe eighteen. She has chosen very tight slacks for the evening and knows her backside is a treat for an old man in a dry month. She can’t carry it off. Her body language reveals serious embarrassment. Why wear them if you feel awkward? I accelerate even though I am very tired, just to put her out of her misery. She drops a long way behind.
Although we are on the four-lane Sachsen Damm, it is lonely and troubling in the twilight. The cycle path is far from the road and the cars move quickly. To the right is a deep cutting, hiding part of a motorway junction and to the left industrial estates, long shut up for the night. No one would have seen or heard a predatory attack. Perhaps she is more scared than embarrassed. I’m suddenly glad I made the effort to overtake her.
She’s scared? – I’m scared! Thinking of predatory attacks has made me realise that I’ve been foolish, and unlike the girl with the nice arse, my danger could have easily been avoided by taking keys to the main entrance of my apartment block. On my way out the house, I noticed the bicycle exit from the building had been used by junkies to prepare their fix. The telltale squares of charred aluminium foil were around the door. I only have a key to the bicycle cellar entrance. What do I do if a half dozen crazed crack buddies are shooting up in the lonely bicycle entrance when I arrive? I certainly won’t try to get by them, because once on the wrong side of them there is no quick exit from the other end. I could be overpowered and robbed in seconds and no one would hear. And why wouldn’t they attack and rob me? I am economically sound and they have nothing but a habit. What I have in my wallet would feed that habit for some time. I’ll look carefully before entering and call the police if there is anything suspicious. That’s rubbish too. It assumes that they will be by the door again. In fact, there is a labyrinth of corners and corridors, once in the bicycle cellar. I could be well beyond the point of no return before I spot them.
In the event my paranoia is for nothing. There is no one down there and I park and lock up my bike in peace.
Photo courtesy of David J