I went to London with trashy dreams, expecting to finally have the sexually free gay experience I thought everyone else was partaking in. However, being a monogamy-lover at heart, I could never fully commit.
It was some Friday night in London.
“Having fun, sexy?”
Girls Aloud blasted through the underground club as the man, balding beneath his Red Sox cap, slid his hand underneath the backside of my newly purchased American Apparel briefs.
In a more traditional setting, it would have bothered me that a strange man, a little over twice my age, was grabbing my ass cheek. Or, at least, I like to think it would have. But dancing in a sweaty club no bigger than my own Camden flat, I found myself singing the Girls Aloud lyrics:
Take a Walk on the Wild Side of Life, life… Bring it Back to the Other Side.
I wasn’t entirely sure what the poetic girl group meant by ‘other side’, so I decided they meant my ass as I moved his hand from my left to right cheek.
“What’s your name, cutie?” He asked.
“Dominic.” A blatant lie. But what a great name.
He returned my lie with “Paulo” and then: “You gotta phone number?”
I was about to say “You’re Gonna Have To Work Harder Than That”, but then I remembered where his hand was parked.
“Um… I don’t know my number.”
I wasn’t lying. I actually didn’t know my number. Calling someone in England involved about 15 digits, and I never made an attempt to learn my number. I was too busy downing Olympic-sized pints of (what would have been illegal back in America) beer.
“Don’t worry. I get it.”
Paulo removed his hand and retreated back into the fog of half-naked men.
I don’t know why I didn’t run after him to correct the error. I’d like to say it was because I didn’t care about him, but in truth I found the balding 42 year old supremely sexy. I think my lack of pursuit had to do with my friends – Zach and Ryan. I’d come to the club with the two of them, and they were giving my interaction with Paulo that eye that said ‘Girl Don’t Be Desperate’.
I wasn’t desperate, just harbouring a fleeting interest in furry forty year olds. But I didn’t want them to think they were right, so I let Paulo disappear to find another 20-something going on 18.
Zach, Ryan and I were a sort of gay cliche: three young homos forming a self-proclaimed clique called “The Gays”, a preposterously uncreative named that I think I originated. Despite the homogenous gang title, we were three young 20 year olds with very different taste.
Zach preferred a young gym body in bright tank tops with tightly manicured hair, though he inevitably just found men that were attracted to young, naive Jewish boys. Ryan preferred… attractive men… but with one fatal flaw, like white-guy-dreads or a missing tooth.
And I preferred… Well, I’m still not sure. A hunky 38 year old really got me going, but I didn’t have the confidence to commit to such an act. If they promised intelligence but then acted like a douchebag I was pretty much set up for a relationship.
At this point in the club, Ryan and Zach were nowhere to be found. Without a doubt, the dance floor’s tightly packed orgy of men was against London fire regulations. But no one seemed to mind. It provided the noncommittal intimacy that everyone desired. The type where you could give the stranger next to you a quick Handy-J and no one would be the wiser. This public-privacy was found all over East London. But it was perfected here, at the aptly named GUTTERSLUT.
I bobbed through the mass, still irritated that no one feigned any interest in my underwear purchase, when a tall blonde bloke stumbled into me.
“S’cuse me. Sorry — ”
He was beautiful. Thick lips, a strong square jawline, and a type of sports jersey that didn’t seem to be ironic. Everything I wasn’t.
We smiled. I was convinced he was straight — until about 45 seconds went by and we were making out. His lips were even better when up against mine.
“I’ve never met a Brit with such strong features.” I said, generally in awe.
“I’m not a Brit. I’m a Geordie.”
“What the fuck is a Geordie?”
We went outside so he could smoke. He explained that a Geordie was what you called someone from Newcastle, a city in the north that was oftentimes considered to be more Scottish than British. Newcastle was also a beer, popular in hipster bars back home in Minneapolis, but generally considered to be trash by Geordies. When I asked him why he didn’t have a Scottish accent, he told me it was beat out of him in acting school. Suddenly, I found us not only talking for over 20 minutes, but also having a lot in common.
“I’m Donald, hun. Wh’bout you?”
He hadn’t touched my underwear, but that was just fine.
“Chase isn’t a name.”
“Yes it is. It is too a name.”
Donald smiled a big toothy smile. Turns out his teeth were even prettier than his lips.
“No it’s not. It’s like naming your kid Jump.”
I laughed. He was flirting.
“What’s new? My whole life’s an offense.”
He explained to me that he was a drag queen. I was wary, assuming that every gay in East London was “a drag queen”, but then he showed me pictures. He was good. His style was based off Lucile Ball and his drag name: Ginger Johnson. I loved everything about it.
“You should audition for Rupaul.”
“Trust me, I’ve tried. They don’t like Brits.”
In the morning, Donald would stumble out of my bedroom looking for his iPhone.
Despite being a poor American in an expensive city, my flat was — as they would say in Northern England — mint. (That means swanky.) Our university had set us up with hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a smoking patio. Rats were nowhere to be found. Donald commented that the lack of rats was suspicious for Camden Town, the neighborhood where I lived. Camden was known for its music scene, its drugs, and its tourist-attracting grunginess. Amy Winehouse famously OD’d a few blocks away.
“Y’seen my phone?” Donald asked my flatmate Justin, a hearty midwesterner who was busy watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother.
From behind, I mouthed He’s With Me, to assure Justin that Donald wasn’t an intruder.
I knew that underneath Justin’s salt of the earth grin he was angry at me for bringing home another stranger. On the first day of our orientation a funny looking policeman in a tophat told us we weren’t allowed guests after 10pm. I’d broken this rule half a dozen times before Donald, and Justin was fond of rules. I was fond of foreign men and casual sex, so our relationship was doomed from the start.
Luckily for me, Justin was an ever-nice Minnesotan. His smile grew even wider as he responded:
“What does it look like? I can keep my eye out for it?”
After a failed attempt at finding Donald’s phone, the two of us went to brunch. I pushed around the avocados of my vegetarian English breakfast and stared at Donald’s morning scruff.
“I used to be a rugby player.”
I dropped my fork. This guy wasn’t real. Not only was he a drag queen, he also fulfilled my Idaho-raised fantasy of hooking up with a farmer-football player type.
Donald went on to explain that he was an ex-rugby player because of a massive neck injury that left him bedridden. Being immobile, he found himself crocheting, watching drag videos on YouTube, and doing a lot of morphine, which eventually sent him down the golden brick road to the Arts.
Somehow, in the mystery of GUTTERSLUT, I’d nabbed a ginger diva with a rugby player’s build. I started planning marriage.
We walked back to my flat through the Camden Markets, talking about everything from politics to family histories to wigs. The Markets were an eccentric place. If something could be considered alternative, kitschy, groovy or ethnic in any sense, it could probably be found in Camden. Here, in this north London enclave, on any night of the week you could choose between salsa, jazz, metal, Irish dancing, or burlesque featuring paraplegics. In this bizarre bazaar, Donald and I felt tame and almost conservative.
We settled on a small park behind a group of goth kids smoking a bowl.
We’d been talking for hours on a green city bench. The sun had set and the goth kids had left, meaning the real drug addicts were coming to use the park. I walked Donald back to the tube station, but he didn’t have enough money to ride the train. He told me he prefered to walk, and went off towards whatever box of London he called home. I smiled, and immediately stalked Donald’s entire internet presence.
The next weekend, Donald invited me to come back to GUTTERSLUT. Only this time, he was performing. I was anxious to see him in person after a week of stalking his Twitter. But my anxiety had different plans, and required me to drink a discounted liter of Strongbow and change my outfit four times.
Around 1am Zach came back from a wine bar and asked why I hadn’t left. I guess he found my nervous stammering endearing, because he changed his clothes and pulled me to the club.
We arrived at around 2:30 in the morning to find Donald towering over the orgy. The already 6 foot plus Donald, now in heels, with a very large red wig to top it off, sashayed through the crowd. He commanded his disciples with a sincere camp that made me quake in my Nike Dunks.
How can I match that? I thought.
I pulled away to the bar.
“Isn’t that Donald?” Zach asked.
I shook my head.
“I don’t know.”
It was definitely Donald. I bought another Strongbow to muster courage.
He inevitably found me and asked me to dance. Embarrassed by my self-perceived inadequacy, I stared at the floor and two-stepped. His friend, an old woman that looked a lot like Helena Bonham Carter (who would later offer me cocaine in the parking lot — which I would politely refuse), would whisper in his ear:
I Think Your Date’s Embarrassed by Ginger.
Donald would ignore her, but think the same.
It wasn’t that I was embarrassed by Ginger, but that I was embarrassed by myself. I went to London with trashy dreams, expecting to finally have the sexually free gay experience I thought everyone else was partaking in. However, being a monogamy-lover at heart, I could never fully commit. So there I was, standing next to a Lucille Ball that I sincerely liked, unable to explain my reservations. In America he would have been perfect. But we were in London, and nothing could last.
Always the performer, Ginger grabbed my hand and made me strut alongside her.
Donald, over the next few weeks, would be a gem. He would bring me back champagne from his work trips, buy my friends drinks, and walk me to class when I didn’t quite know where I was going. He was a dream. He wanted to take me up to Scotland to show me the ‘real parts of the country’. I imagined a drag queen and me, sleeping in an unheated cabin in some place Scottish-sounding like Lossiemouth or Buckie. It was fanciful, like a Mary Kate and Ashley movie. But I was the one with nothing to give. I’d come to London empty, looking for cheap thrills, and had only wit to offer back to Ms. Johnson. Miraculously, that seemed enough for him.
I stopped answering Donald’s texts, and never saw him again.
I didn’t return to GUTTERSLUT, afraid that I might bump into Ms. Johnson and have to own up to the coward that I was. Instead, I headed into other orgies of half-naked men, gathered to hide their failures and forget their fears. It was easier to be in a community of never-ending trade-ins and trade-ups, because getting what I wanted would mean I’d have to stop running.