image by Michael Wynne

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

When I was twenty-one I dated a man in his forties. I’m not sure I would have called it dating back then – I was too full of anxiety, self-loathing, and indiscriminate lust to have any clear idea what I was doing at all. Sex I liked, and I’d do it with anyone who’d do it with me. I’ve changed since then, though there are nights at the baths when to look at me behaving, you’d think I was as I’d always been: indiscriminate. David – who I will tell you about – is thirty-five. He is Taiwanese. I did not know these things when we started making out.

When David and I got to the point of exchanging ages, I wanted to flatter him when I said 23, because I figured he could be slightly older, though I also feared, while I was on top of him and he was on his back and I was rubbing my cock into his crotch, that he might be considerably younger, as young as the other guy from a few days ago, who I will also tell you about. When men guess my age to be 45, I feel pleased, and even though 45 is a lot of years, it is still much less than I am now.

The tall, slim Taiwanese guy was 35, twelve years older than I guessed him to be. I felt relieved. I didn’t want a repeat of what had happened the week before. What had happened the week before was that, at the same bathhouse, another man had followed me into the dry sauna after cruising me in the showers, and sat himself down next to me on the top ledge.

“It’s your first time here,” I said.

He looked at me, a hesitation, deliberating whether to deny my statement.

“How can you tell?” he said.

“Your enthusiasm,” I said.

He frowned.

“You seem enthusiastic,” I said, and made a kind of gleeful hand gesture with both hands. It was not an entirely kind gesture, but it was the truth.

“That’s the aim, though,” I said.

“What is?”

“Enthusiasm,” I said. “To maintain a decent level for the duration.”

“Of?”

To which my answer was: “Life.”

I scanned my own level of enthusiasm, which over the past couple of years, at least since they closed the sauna in Shoreditch and for other reasons too existential to go into, had begun to wane.

He moved closer.

He touched my cock.

We kissed.

His cock was thin and long and cut. He was lean and had soft dark hair around his nipples, across his chest, and down to his pubes. He had shaved his arse-crack. This I discovered when he nudged closer, leaned his back against my side and lifted one leg onto the bench to offer me access. It was a tight and shaven arsehole, but he liked what I was doing and pushed against my finger for me to go deeper. Every now and then he turned his head to the side for a kiss. I liked stroking his scruffy beard when our faces were close together. We had an appreciative audience there in the sauna; I imagine he assumed an audience was part of the deal and wasn’t aware that one could like or dislike an audience.

“Where are you from?” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “Far away.”

“A country would be good,” he said.

So I told him.

“And you,” I said.

“London,” he said.

“A borough would be good.”

“Lambeth,” he said.

“So this,” I said, gesturing to the area beyond the sauna, “is your manor.”

I did not mention the attacks that had happened the day before on London Bridge, not far from where we were sitting, three men with knives strapped to their wrists stabbing wildly at strangers. Already the city had installed barriers on the bridges, between the road and the pavement . So soon, I thought, as I’d cycled from home to the sauna. I did not mention the attacks because I figured he might be Muslim and I didn’t want to put him in a position where he’d feel the need to set himself apart from the attackers. Besides, I liked the position he was in, leaning against me, the slightness of his body against mine, the way he fitted against my ribcage.

I asked him how old he was and he asked me how old I thought he was, and because recently I seem to be attracting men in their twenties, I said 23.

“Eighteen,” he said.

I thought: “18!”

This stayed with me for the next few days: his age; me at that age; being an older man with a much younger man. Even my nieces and nephews are ten years older than him! If the child my friend Jules and I were hoping to bring into the world had been conceived, they would have been about this young man’s age. Maybe it’s my shame and self-loathing talking, maybe there’s nothing to feel disturbed by. Sometimes I wonder if everything I write is an unpicking of states of anxiety.

“Are you even allowed in here?” I said.

“I must be,” he said. “I’m in here, aren’t I?”

When I have encounters with much younger men, I try to abide by The Campsite Rule. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, didn’t want to just walk away. When I was his age I was having sex with men in their forties. Liking it did not enter into the equation; my behaviour was driven by compulsion rather than choice. But my issues are complicated and messy, and not everyone is as fucked up as I was in my younger days. I know men who’ve had rich and healthy sex lives since the age of fifteen.

One summer evening during those few months I “dated” the older man, we went for watermelon at a café on the seafront. Other friends of his were there, too, although I remember only his friend Rakefet. She was boisterous, and the man I dated liked her a lot. She was, as fag hags and gays stereotypically are, entertaining. Her name was the Hebrew word for Primrose. We were sitting round the table on that warm evening eating watermelon and the salty Bulgarian cheese often served with watermelon in that part of the world. I was probably awkward and silent, and Rakefet wanted to make conversation.

“So,” she said. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I felt wounded by the question, surprised, caught off guard, as I often am by unkind gestures. I don’t remember what I said. How could I have known what to answer when I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I probably did respond. Maybe I did have some idea about what I was planning to do. I didn’t know that being a writer was even an utterable option.

And yet that was the question that came to mind when I was sitting next to the young man in the sauna, him still leaning against me. What do you want to be when you grow up? We didn’t speak and we didn’t touch after that. A man around my age came into the sauna and sat down on the lower ledge, his face level with the young man’s crotch. He nuzzled his way in between the guy’s legs, and that’s where I left them: The older man enthusiastically sucking on the younger man’s cock, and the younger man enthusiastically taking it all in, all the joys and sensual pleasure that this place has to offer, and I leaned in closer and whispered, Welcome, and he turned to me for a kiss. Thanks, he said, and returned to the source of his pleasure.

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