As I’m approaching the café I can see that he’s already there. Amidst the bustle of the crowds milling their way through the streets just north of Shaftesbury Avenue he sits at a steel trestle table, nonchalantly finishing off a cigarette. And even as he spots me ten metres away and greets me with a loose wave his eyes drift off to scan the passing throng, admiring and inspecting.

As I sit down next to him he stubs out his almost-finished cigarette in the ashtray and reaches for the Mocha that’s sat next to it. It always was a Mocha I recall. There was no way he could just content himself with a Latte or Cappuccino, satisfied with the delayed kick of caffeine. He needed chocolate as well, to double the effect, to drive home the jolt.

“I got here early so I ordered one”, he says. No “Hello”, no “Hi, how are you”. These things are taken for granted when we meet.

If we meet.

The waiter comes over and before I can tell him what I want Aaron beats me to it. “Another Mocha and a decaf Cappuccino. That’s if you’ve not changed?”
“I’ve not changed.”
“Fine. That’ll do.” For Aaron that’s the end of the conversation with the waiter and the guy takes the hint.
“So, how are things?” I ask. The reply is as descriptive as it gets.
Sometimes, having a conversation with Aaron is like getting blood out of a stone. You have to squeeze and squeeze just to get anything of value. It’s like when you’re making fresh orange juice and you get to the last bit of the pulp where you know there’s some fluid lurking but you’ll be damned if it can be found.
“I hear you and Andy split up”. OK, so I hadn’t just ‘heard’, I’d driven past and seen the ‘To Let’ sign up, rung Paul and discovered about the argument that they’d had. “Tell me what happened?” It’s a simple request but it may not get a simple response.
“I just went off him. It was lots of things. The way he’d stay out late and wouldn’t tell me where he was, the way he treated the flat as though it was a hotel, the way he left his washing up in the sink.” I interrupted him before he could continue his litany of complaint.
“You went off him.”
“I went off him.”

There’s silence for a moment and Aaron fills it by reaching for another cigarette. The packet of Benson & Hedges is almost finished and I know that in one more fag’s time he’s going to get even more edgy. He takes the penultimate offering of nicotine and lights up with the same bronze lighter with the horse-head crest he’s always had since we spotted it in that antique shop in Chiswick. Aaron had noticed it and straight away just had to have it. No haggling with the dealer, just straight in and straight out. I’d told him afterwards that he could have got it for at least twenty-five pounds less but he didn’t care. With Aaron it’s all “see – gotta have”.

Surprisingly for Aaron, he picks up the pack and offers me the last stick of tobacco. “Do you want my last Rolo?” he asks cheekily.
“I don’t smoke.”
“No of course. I remember. No change there then.”

He takes a drag.

“Why Benson & Hedges?” I ask.
“Because why?”
“Because that’s what it’s always been.”
“Ever thought of giving up?” I say. He looks at me briefly and then turns away, blowing out the smoke from his last inhalation into the ever-present crowd still walking by on the street. A passing girl coughs as she swallows a lungful of tobacco, which makes her look round and give Aaron an evil glare, not that he notices.
“Not really. Not sure I could.”
“No will power?”
“Who knows why. Perhaps I just don’t want to stop.”
“I wonder if the desire to smoke is genetic?” I ask.
“Of course not”, he replies, “it’s the nicotine. Besides, if it was genetic you’d have whole hoards of lost tribes cultivating tobacco to satisfy their needs, but that isn’t the case. What a stupid …..”
And then he stops, because he knows exactly the point I’m making.
“How is Helen anyway?” he asks.
“Great. She’s had another promotion at work and now she’s leading her whole section. She’s responsible for over 60 people.”
“Who thought working in a call centre could be so much fun?”
“Well she loves it. There’s nothing she likes better than talking to all the people who phone up and helping them with their banking. She finds that if she in some little way can help people run their lives then that makes her day.”
“Almost a vocation”, jokes Aaron.
“Utterly a vocation”, I reply. He smiles for the first time and I grin back.
“And you still……”
“Fancy her?”
“Oh yes.”

Another drag. I know what’s coming and prepare myself for it. The questions, the denials, the chase, the kill. Aaron puts the cigarette down and stares straight at me.

“I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?” Actually, that’s a bit of a facetious question on my behalf because I know exactly what he doesn’t get. And despite the fact that he doesn’t get it he keeps on bringing it up whenever we meet. Sometimes it takes an hour or two to get to that point but this time it was just a few minutes.
“It’s just so ‘Bob and Rosie’. I still don’t get it.”
“What’s there to get? Perhaps Russell T Davies can write good TV drama after all? It’s not all Queer as Folk.”
“Queer as fuck. He should stick to writing Doctor Who books and those weren’t any good either.”
“But that’s just fiction. We’re talking about fact here.”
“So you keep telling me.”
“So I keep telling you.”
“I still don’t get it though. It just doesn’t make sense. Leopards don’t change their spots.”

We met at London Zoo, in front of the big cats. I guess the red ribbon wasn’t that big a clue these days but the way he smiled at me when I smiled at him was. We both junked our friends and spent the afternoon laughing at baboons’ bottoms and avoiding the marauding herds of school children. Who needs zoos when it’s already a jungle out there? We agreed to meet up again the following day and duly had coffee at the Starbucks in Kensington, Mocha and a decaf Cappuccino. Then we had another. And then we had coffee at his place. And the rest.

We saw each other for a few weeks and then drifted apart. He was always on the move, restless, never satisfied with what he was doing and I was starting to realise that this wasn’t really what I wanted at all. But despite going our separate ways we stayed in touch, hence the Mocha and the decaf Cappuccino. Initially we saw each other about once a month but for the past 3 years we’d only talked 4 times. We both knew it was because he was avoiding me, because he didn’t want to face who I was, what I’d done, what I’d become. And a little of both of us knew it was because he was avoiding himself as well.

“Tell me again how it started”
“I read a book.”
“The Bergner book.”
“The Bergner book. Have you still got the copy I sent you?”
“It’s in a box somewhere.”
Of course I knew the answer before he said it. It was the same answer the time before when we had dinner at that Italian place in Pimlico. In fact I could tell you exactly how many pages he’d read.
“I read 23 pages and then put it to one side. I didn’t like it. It screwed me up.”
“What didn’t you like?”
“Just the whole idea. What a joke.”
”Oh yeah, sure. Look at me. One big comedy act.”

The waiter turns up with the coffees, placing my decaf down first before putting the Mocha in front of Aaron. “Thanks” I say as he turns to leave. Aaron says nothing. He grabs a packet of brown sugar from the stand on the table, tears it in half and pours it into his mug. He then takes the spoon on the saucer and stirs it in.
“Not sweet enough?” I ask.
“Never sweet enough.”
He finishes stirring and, resting the cigarette in the ashtray, takes a sip. I take a mouthful of the decaf and remind myself of summers spent on the continent where people really know how to drink coffee. Somehow a café in Soho is never quite the same as Demel in Vienna or Lewandowsky in Salzburg. Just second best. You think it’s good at the time, you think it’s the final answer in lazy afternoons with just a friend and a mug of something hot, but once you’ve been and tasted the real thing, you realise just what you were missing.

“I changed. It’s not funny. You can too.”

I feel like we’ve done this conversation about a thousand times, but Aaron never gets bored of initiating it. He wants to know, he wants to hear and deep down, well, he just wants.

“I guess, but how? How can I change something that’s so utterly built into me, something I was born with?”
“You ever seen those Magic Eye pictures?” I ask. ”You know, the ones with the strange swirls and patterns?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen them. I could never make them work, never get round the idea that underneath there was a duck or a car or something.”
“Yup, me neither. Anyway, your life is like that magic eye picture. You think you know what it is, you think you understand what it’s about, but actually it’s something else entirely.”
“Like a duck…”
“…or a car. Yeah right.”
“But I could never get those pictures. I just couldn’t do them. Despite my sister going ape because she spots a cow or something I never saw anything. Just a swirl of lines and blobs.”
“But do you believe that there was something there, even though you couldn’t see?”
”Sure, my sister and her mates got it. All of them saw the sodding cow. Everybody except me. Of course the cow’s there. I just couldn’t see it.”
“And when I tell you about Helen?”

When I tell him about Helen, something stirs. It shifts itself from the deep recesses of his mind where it’s been hiding for years, desperate to make an escape bid. And now, slowly, cautiously, it makes it’s way forward, testing the ground, checking for traps.

“I’ve never been to France you know?” he says.
“I’ve never been. It exists though right? I’ve read the maps, seen the pictures. Paul and Gary went over last summer to Marseilles and came back raving about it, how great it was, about all the clubs and the bars. It exists, I’ve just never been.”

He pauses and the stiring something pauses as well. Suddenly it’s faced by the jailer, by the absurdity of trying to free itself. What was it thinking?

“So, cure me”, he sneers.
“I’m sorry?”
“Cure me. Shouldn’t be too difficult to do. Just a prayer or two. Once around the rosary and I should be done. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”
“You know that’s not what it’s about.”
“Yeah, but it’s a cool picture. I can see them now. The front row of the Liquid Lounge, all dressed in nuns habits. That’s drag and a half. Really ‘Sound of Music’.”
“I can picture it”, I laugh. Aaron takes another drag on the cigarette and looks around, as though to check whether anybody’s listening. Then he leans in.
“But seriously, what do I have to do? I want to be straight; what do I do?”
“You don’t do anything, that’s the point.”
“So is it you? What are the magic words you’ll say? No, let me guess, a dozen copies of Razzle and a man-sized box of tissues is all I need.”
“You need to get beyond the symptom and look at the cause”, I reply, ignoring his remarks. “You need to find out what’s made you feel the way you do and sort that out. You can’t cure somebody of homosexuality because that’s not what needs to be sorted out. It’s just the manifestation of what’s going on underneath.”
“And what is going on underneath?” he asks. “Care to put your X-Ray specs on and let me know?”
“Tell me about your Dad?”
“What? You want to throw that one at me. Tell you what, I hear Freud works just around the corner. Let’s go fetch him and see if he can tell me anything about my Oedipal complex?”
“Tell me about your Dad. Just tell me. Humour me.”
“Well, he’s 55, works as an accountant with his own firm. He and Mum own this huge house in Wilmslow. I think he should retire, he can easily afford to, but I guess he just keeps on working to earn more and more.”
”When was the first time he said ‘I love you’ to you?”
”When was the first time?”
“Um. I’m not sure. Let me think.”
“When?” I’m pressing him.
“I don’t know.”
“Has he ever said ‘I love you’?” I stress the ‘ever’ and wait a clear ten seconds but Aaron’s only reply is to take another drag on the cigarette.
“That’s a ‘No’ then?”
“That’s a ‘No’”

In the four years I’ve known him, Aaron only spoke about his dad once. That was when we arranged to meet up a year or two back, but he had to cancel because his father was coming down to London and he’d arranged to see him. It sounded far more obligation than desire on his part. Apart from that Aaron never really spoke about his family. There was a sense of estrangement; being ostracised from his parents, as though they were the people who conceived him and that was really all their role in his life was.

“Ever go and play football with him?”
No answer.
“Cricket, rugby?”
“Look, will you just fucking shut up about my dad?”
“I think you shut him up a long time ago.”
”What do you mean?”
“When you were a child, who did you want to be?”
“Who did I want to be?” He smirks at the idea. “Batman!”
“Wouldn’t it be good to be somebody important and powerful? Nobody knows who you really are but they all admire you. There’s a sense of purpose and direction but none of the hang-ups of background and family. Batman was just Batman.”
“And you weren’t.”
“I so sodding wasn’t. I was about as far from Batman as there was. I wasn’t vaguely close to being Robin or even Alfred the butler, I was just nothing. Have you ever known what it’s like to wait to be picked for a game of football, and you’re always the last to be chosen and the teams are complaining over which one gets you, because neither wants to be lumbered with you? No wait, have you ever known what it’s like to run home from school at full belt because if they catch you they’re going to beat you up. Or even better, having to keep hold of your rucksack all day because if you let go of it they’re going to spray-paint ‘queer’ on it.”
There’s a silence in which I can’t think of what to say so I don’t. In the faces of the turned heads of the others sitting near us I can see that they don’t know what to say either. That doesn’t stop Aaron completing his tirade of anger.
“Fuck, I hated them. I still hate them. Look at me, it’s almost 20 years later and I still fucking hate them. I can’t picture any of their faces but if I ever see them…”

I wonder what it’s like for the puppy that’s the runt of the litter? I wonder how he copes as the others beat him to their mother and get the milk before he does? As he falls behind in suckling he gets relatively weaker and weaker and soon he just doesn’t have a chance. What’s going through his mind?

“Why weren’t you any good at football?”
”I don’t sodding know? It’s not as if I didn’t try. I just wasn’t any good. It was alright for them, out on Saturday mornings with their perfect fathers, playing for the local boys team, wearing their Man United strips. D’you know, I never had a Man United strip. I never had any strip. I’d have liked a Man United strip.”
”I had the boots, a second hand pair from my cousin. I used them once. They’re probably still sat under my bed at home.” And by home he meant his parent’s home, the place where he’d grown up, gone to school, passed his exams and finally fled to discover a new life at University. To begin again, start over without the hang-ups and hurdles of the past.
“Except you can never really start over.”
“Sorry, thinking aloud. I was just wondering whether we can ever really make a fresh start. You know, wipe everything under the carpet and just get up and begin from scratch. Do you think we can do that? Start again playing football?
“What the hell has that got to do with it?”
”Would you like to start again?”
“How? How am I going to do that? You suggesting that I should just pack up everything, go somewhere else and behave as though I didn’t exist before? Suddenly I can be David Beckham? Is that how to escape my past?”
“You can’t do it”, I reply. “Imagine applying for a job. You go in and the first thing they want to know are your qualifications. That’s a link to the past. Where have you been working? Have you always lived here? What are your hobbies? You can’t escape who you were and what you’ve done.”
“So, Mr Blindingly Obvious, I can’t escape the fact that I was crap at football and just about everything else.”
“And you can’t escape the fact that you hate your Dad. You can try and ignore it, push it to one side, box it up and put it on a shelf or up in the attic, but it’s still going to be there, like that pair of football boots under your bed at your parents house. You may have forgotten about them but they’re still there. It’s not going to go away.”
“And the point of this is?”

Aaron sets the question and leans back, taking another drag from the cigarette. He’s almost finished it and his next action will be to reach for the packet and light up the last of the twenty.

“What if you could have been Batman? What if you were meant to be Batman? What if something happened to stop you becoming Batman even though that’s who you were destined to be?”
“Nope, you’ve lost me. Besides, black and blue aren’t my colours. I think you’re on a non-starter here.” He leans back and smiles at his own joke.
“Work with me on this. What could have stopped you becoming Batman?”
”I didn’t have a Bat-Mobile? I always secretly wanted to be Cat-woman?”
“What if nobody had shown you how to be Batman?”
“So Batman went to superhero school to learn how to fly the Bat-Mobile?”
“Perhaps. And if he hadn’t been taught?”
“Then he wouldn’t be able to fly it? And this affects me how?”
“Who taught you to be a boy?”

Do you know that the Azande people of northern Zaire believe in magic? They live under a perpetual fear of being cursed by their enemies and they are constantly going to witch doctors to help foretell the future. There is no such thing as luck and every misfortune is the result of a spell cast on you. The only way to break the spell is to cast an even more powerful one back to overpower the forces of your opponent. This cycle of action and reaction just continues to spiral and spiral till nobody knows what started the conflict in the first place, but they’re still all paying witch-doctors to cast spells for them to win a struggle whose source is way back in forgotten memory.

”What kind of a stupid question is that? Nobody taught me to be a boy. I just am. Look at me. Stubble, dick, adam’s apple. It’s a dead big giveaway.”
“OK, so that’s you physically, but what about emotionally, relationally, psychologically? What makes you a boy in those ways?”
The cigarette in his hand is almost finished and he stubs it out in the ashtray, but instead of reaching for the last one in the packet he grabs his Mocha and takes a sip. He grasps the mug in his hands, transferring the warmth of the coffee to his hands, pauses and then takes another sip. Finally he puts the mug down.
“I don’t know.”
“How do you learn to drive a car?”
“Somebody teaches you. You practice till it becomes natural, till you’re not thinking about what to do when you change gear and instead it’s just one simple flowing action. Clutch, shift up, shift right, shift up, declutch in one fluid action, as natural as breathing in and out. Then you take a test and if you don’t cock it up you get your licence. I passed the second time.”
”Who taught you to be a boy?”
“Nobody? How can you teach that to somebody?”
“How do you play football?”
“You kick the damn thing.”
“When did you practice that?”
“I never did. My dad never took me remember? We did this half a coffee ago.”
“And while he wasn’t teaching you football, was he teaching you fishing or how to tie your shoe-laces or how to build sand-castles or simply what it meant to be a man?”
Another drink from the Mocha. Another pause.
“None of those.”
“None of them. Anything at all.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
”Yes you do. Why did you call me up to meet? Why again? You want to do this, you’ve just got to face up to the reality of the situation. You can’t hide behind the swirls and shapes of your magic eye picture and pretend that there isn’t anything underneath. That’s rubbish, that’s not the way forward. You need to talk about the kids at school. You need to talk about your father.” My voice is raised, but not in anger but in passion.
“I don’t need to talk about my father. I hate my fucking father. What would I want him to teach me anything? Why would I want to be like him? Look at him. He didn’t care about me. If he did he’d have spent time with me, taken me to football games, gone fishing, taught me to tie my laces. He didn’t do any of those. Why the hell would I want to learn anything from him? Why the fuck would I want to be like him?”
He reaches for the last cigarette, lights it and inhales deeply to settle himself. His left hand raised to his eye wipes away a speck of sentiment. The couple on the table next to us glance briefly towards him and then look nervously away.
“That’s just the point. You were born to be like your father, to learn from him, to copy him, to discover who he was and shape yourself on him. Your purpose was to play football, go fishing, learn to tie your shoelaces. So, when he wasn’t available who did you learn that off?”
“I didn’t. My mum. Who knows?”
“You rejected your maleness because you rejected your father. You didn’t like who your father was so you rejected him, but he was all you understood maleness to be, so you also rejected that. But that wasn’t the answer, because you were born to be a man. How can you reject an identity that you are?”
“And that made me gay?” he says taking another drag.
“Cannibals”, I reply.
“Cannibals. Do you know why cannibals eat other humans?”
“They like the taste?”
“They want to ingest their qualities. They want to get hold of the things in them that they admire, perhaps the intellect, the charm, the skills they have. It’s almost a compliment.”
“Are you saying it’s an accolade to be eaten by a cannibal, that I should aim for it?”
“Something like that. But now look at yourself. What makes you tick sexually? Who are you attracted to?”
“Why’s that important?”
“Look, answer a different question. What kind of guy would you like to be?”
“No, seriously. If you could change one thing about you what would it be?”
”I’d change my hair. I hate this black stuff. I’d much rather have it blond.”
“What don’t you just peroxide it?”
”You know that’s not the same.”
“Ok, now answer me this. What things did you like about Andy?”
“His smile, his laugh, his blond hair, the way …. Well fuck me.”

The penny drops. In fact, it doesn’t just drop, it goes into overdraft. It draws out and extends as much credit as it can. But this is a loan with as yet no purpose, no spending plan. It’s as though Aaron just inherited a fortune from his long lost Aunt and he has no idea what to do with it. The only thing he knows is that he doesn’t have to eat Tesco Value Baked Beans ever again.

“Bugger me, I’m a cannibal.” The cigarette drops from his hand into the ashtray and he doesn’t notice. His eyes are looking slightly above and beyond him, as though he’s spotted a bird he’s never seen before and he’s concentrating on working out exactly what its colours are, the wingspan, the shape of the beak.
“You’re a sexual cannibal. You’re missing so many things in yourself, or more importantly you think you’re missing these things, and you’ve eroticised the desire for those missing things. At the same time that testosterone was making the boys in your school interested in the girls, in the ones who were different to them, it was doing the same in you, making you attracted to the ones you were different to. But you never established your similarity to the boys; they were always different because you hadn’t learnt to be like them. So instead of puberty sparking off heterosexual desire, you found yourself sexual attracted to the guys in your class. You never got to be the man you were designed to be because you never went to that school. You’re still trying to teach yourself the lessons, but how can you do that if you don’t know what the syllabus is?”
“Stop. Stop it now. Just pack it in.”
”I haven’t even started. You hate the boys in your class because they were different and they didn’t let you in on their difference. They spotted that you didn’t fit, that you didn’t belong and they exploited it mercilessly. They probably called you “queer” and “poof” before they or you even vaguely knew what the words meant. But those were the labels that you digested, swallowed until they were really you.”
“I’m going to get up and walk away” he warns. He looks like it as well. He’s poised ready to jump up and run away from the truth that bearing down on him. I got to let him know that this isn’t the answer, that a solution needs to be found, not avoided.
”That’s what you’ve been doing your whole life Aaron. You’ve been walking away from the things that you can’t handle, from the truth of the situation. As a child you subconsciously walked away from your father and what it meant to be a man. You didn’t even realise you were doing it, it wasn’t your fault but that’s what you did. But you can walk into nowhere; you have to have someplace to go. You weren’t headed for ‘well-balanced male’ so you created something else, somewhere separate. You had no identity as a child or a teenager because you didn’t want what was offered, so you joined in a created one to replace it. You took on this label of ‘gay’ because it gave you purpose and meaning, function and status. It explained how you felt, how you acted, your emotions and desires. But it’s not really you. It’s a false place, a fantasy, a fabrication that hangs in front of and hides your true destiny, your real identity. You aren’t gay because there is no such thing as gay. There’s just thousands and thousands of guys who never discovered what it really meant to be a man, desperately searching for meaning and purpose.”
“And love.”
“And love. Of course you want to be loved. We all want to be loved and to love in return, but that foundation of love comes from our parents and family. If we never really experienced what it meant to be truly loved, how can we express it? You so want the love of a man, but that goes back to your childhood. You’re trying to complete the stages of emotional growth that you never went through, but it’s all become screwed up and sexualised. It’s perfectly valid to love a guy. I love my friends, but sexual expression of that love is inappropriate, it doesn’t do me any good. I was designed to relate sexually to a woman, to complete and compliment what she is. I can never do that with a bloke. I can’t complete him because he’s already got what I’ve got. The desire inside us is for ‘the other’, but with you men are ’the other’. That’s why you’re attracted to them.”
The cigarette is still lying in the ashtray and Aaron hasn’t noticed that it’s almost burnt through. He’s concentrating on every word I say. “This isn’t the place to have this conversation”, he says.
“So where is?”
“I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know if I want to hear any of this anyway.”
“So why are you still here?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything at all. I feel like you’ve just blown up my entire world. I feel like I did the night Andy walked out and I just felt empty, as though everything I though was real wasn’t, as though my whole life was fake but there was nothing I could do about it.”
He looks down at the ashtray and sees the remains of the cigarette. He scowls remembering the empty packet.
“I know what I do want to do now though. I want to have another fag.”
“Why don’t you just give them up, right here, right now.”
“I can’t. How can I give up something that’s such a part of me? It’s as though I was born smoking.”

And as he speaks, two girls pass us arm in arm wearing leopard skin pants, but with a twist.

The spots are all blue.

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