I’ve never been good at cruising men. Call me dense when it comes to gay flirtation in public spaces. For unless your approach is clear and direct, I’m likely to miss the raised eyebrows or enticing winks. I like the unambiguous, in your face approach to picking up men, or ‘cruising’ as it’s known. Admittedly, I must have been at the back of the queue when God was handing out Gaydar.
“Did you pack this bag yourself, sir?” she said.
“Yes, I did.”
“And has anybody given you anything to carry?”
“Have you been to Barcelona before?”
I was temporarily distracted. I had got to the airport on time with at least ninety minutes to spare. But looking around, it seemed as if everyone from work was in Heathrow airport with me. At a separate check-in counter not too far from where I stood were the two Peters, little and large, Forde the friendly Australian guy, and the boss-eyed Canadian woman whose name I can never remember. All of them are from the same research centre that shared a building with my former employers in Brixton.
They were off to a conference on AIDS in Madrid, I recall. It felt good not having to be among their numbers. Big Pete looked up at me briefly, just as he bent down to see about his hand luggage. I gave the cordial giant a quick, nervous wave. He glanced behind swiftly as if to confirm that my gesture was meant for someone else. But the look he returned was still very quizzical, even after seeing no one standing behind him.
It’s funny how they could never recognise me outside of the office. It was the same story at lunchtime in the predominantly Black Brixton neighbourhood where we worked. As they cruised the streets, focusing only on that which was directly before them, no more than two steps ahead, it was always I who walked up to greet them. After the first few times made them jump with fear, I decided to just walk on by in future.
Now, it seemed as if we were about to share the same bargain bucket flight to Barcelona, and my heart skipped a beat. “But I’ve resigned, for God sake,” I told myself. Anyway, I’ve just buried my best friend and really couldn’t be bothered with polite chitchat right now. If I avoid eye contact, they’ll only see another scary Black man and probably won’t have a clue that it’s me. Here goes.
“Have you been to Barcelona before?” she asked again.
“Yes, yes, I have,” I said, shaking cobwebs from my thoughts.
She looks at me bemused, pushes hair from her eyes, and taps something into her computer console. A young black man steps up to the check-in desk beside me.
“Can you take off your glasses, please?” he is asked by another assistant wearing a tad too much makeup.
“She only wants to see if you’ve got nice eyes,” the freckled girl handling my departure says.
The young man lifts up his shades, pokes his head forward, and shows that there is nothing sinister lurking behind his innocent stare. He looks across at the first assistant, smiles up at me, and does indeed have lovely eyes.
He is wearing an elaborately patterned blue and white shirt, which looks like an obvious purchase from a foreign holiday somewhere hot. He steps from the counter toward his boarding gate with the swagger of what some might call a camp queen, but you can never tell in these metrosexual times. His shirt is unbuttoned low enough to reveal a lean, muscled torso and bear arms with thick, strong hands and wrists. His beige army trousers hang loosely around his waist, exposing white Calvin Kline underwear with expensive blue and white trainers at his feet.
As he swaggers off clutching Louis Vuitton hand luggage, he is clearly aware of being watched and much too used to it. The larger of the two check-in girl coos, “Oooooh, that one’s got buns like two fat watermelons.”
“Yeah, he’s got a nice face an-all, Love, but I don’t think he’s your type, do you?” her more formal colleague snaps back, slapping her friend firmly down to earth. “I’m sure you don’t want to remove your hat, do you, Mister, err, Bo-kay?” she says, turning her attention back to me.
“Don’t want to have a bad hair day today, do you, sir?” her friend pipes in, still blushing under heavy makeup but giggling now.
With check-in completed, I change cash to sterling traveller’s cheques; buy travel insurance from Boots, the chemist, and stand in line for the usual surveillance: you know, the frisking; scanning, show me the sole of your shoes routine.
I got lost trying to find the boarding gate for flight EZY99. At first, the signs said gate 22. Then they changed to gate 101, which means I must now repeat the frisking, scanning, show me the sole of your shoe act again. When I eventually get to the entrance to gate 101, Mr Blue-And-White shirt is sitting on the floor smoking a cigarette.
“This isn’t a smoking area.”
“It is now!” he says, flashing an all over smile with big brown eyes. “They’re twenty-five minutes late, and they’re still not ready to board yet. That’s bargain bucket airlines for you!”
“Well, I think I’m gonna sit right here and have a sneaky cigarette with you. If we miss the plane at least, we miss it together.”
“Wasn’t you staring at me back there earlier?” he says, without warning. At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, but then he repeated the offending words.
“Weren’t you staring at me?”
“You what, mate?” I said.
“Back there at the Check-In?”
“What makes you think that?”
He looks me up and down for a moment then with a twitch of a smile at the corner of his lips, stubs out a cigarette on the sole of his Sneakers, and says, “Nothing.”
“No, go on. Finish it.”
“Not if you’re gonna get offended.”
I was beginning to get a little narked, but I didn’t want this clown to know it. You can’t always be sure with some guys, so it was better to err on the side of caution. I already had some moron rastaman stalking me at home because he read in the newspaper that I’d written a gay play. Next thing I knew, I had a brick through my window after he said he couldn’t talk to me anymore ‘cos I was a battyman.
“Look, mate,” I said to Mister Blue-and-White shirt, “Them Check-In girls were cruising you back there. Not me. I ain’t gay.”
“Did I say you was, though?”
“I’m letting you know, just in case.”
“I love women, too, bruv,” he says. “Just keeping it real.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. “So, wasn’t you smiling at me over at the Check-In?”
“And so what if I was? A black man can’t smile at another black man these days?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“I’m saying it seems to me, mate, it was you smiled at me first. I was just being polite.”
Listen, man, let’s not even stress ourselves about it. Forget I said it. I’m sorry if I offended you. Want one of these?”
“What is it?”
“Didn’t you just put one out?”
“I know. They’re moreish. Have one.”
“Cheers,” I said, knowing full well that I shouldn’t have taken it and risk being chastised by airport security. But I was trying to be polite again. Trying to let bygones be bygones. You know how it is when you’re travelling alone. How you end up talking to people who you’d never usually spend time with in real life. But he was cute. And, I guess, I must have been crusising him now.
“Where are you from?” he says unexpectedly.
Now, I’m always a little bit cagey on this particular question. Never knowing whether to tell the truth and nothing but the truth or stick with the old well-practised lie. On my wilder foreign travellers, even in the USA, for example, I can usually just say “England.” But in England, that reply alone is never sufficient.
“Well, I’m not from Uganda or somewhere like that going to this conference on AIDS in Madrid, if that’s what you’re asking me?” is what I say to him, totally avoiding the question. “Is that where you’re going?”
“What makes you think that?” he says, scornfully.
“Because there’s a bunch of organisations here going to a conference on AIDS in Madrid. Half the people I used to work with seem to be here.”
“That’s not what I’m asking you? Where are your parents from?”
“Gentlemen. This is a no smoking zone. Can you put your cigarettes out, please?” said an officious-looking stewardess, sauntering past in a hurry.
“Yeah, sure! When we’ve finished them, he says under his breath. “Daft, ennit?” I’m moving to Barcelona for six months. I’m a global Gypsy, me. Then I’ll be back in Blighty again, temporarily. Can you believe it? Look, we’re boarding. You ready?”
We take our luggage and follow the prompts as directed.
“Good afternoon, have a nice flight. Good afternoon, have a nice flight. Where are you staying in Barcelona?”
“Up in the hills.”
“Oh yeah?” Mister Blue-and-white shirt boards the aircraft first. “Where do you wanna sit? At the back?”
We walk to the back of the plane where he opens up the overhead luggage compartment and locks his designer case away. I’m waiting to do the same thing in the same row, when he says, “Sit there, man,” pointing to the row of three empty seats in front. “I hope no one’s gonna sit down beside me. I’ll just do my unapproachable vex nigger look.”
“I won’t need that one today.”
“No. You got the Rasta hat on. They’ll avoid you like a drug mule. I wanna stretch out. I’m feeling sleepy. I had a few too many Whiskies in the bar. I hope my car’s gonna be there when I get there? Do you think so?”
He collects the complimentary miniature pillows and paper-thin wool blankets from the adjoining seats and opens them all.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, yeah! I’m Elliott,” he says, stretching out a thick opened palm to shake hands firmly through a gap between the seats in my row.
“Nice to meet you, Elliot.”
“Nice to meet you too, Paul,” he says.
I am a little startled at hearing my name from his lips, and he must have seen the curious look flash across my face. He stops, suddenly, motionless.
“Don’t worry, man,” he grins. “I’m not stalking you. I heard someone saying your name when we got on the plane.”
“Oh, I used to work with four of the guys upfront. Not in the same organisation, but we worked closely together, in the same building.”
There is a 30-minute silence between us as the EasyJet flight is delayed once again. We are tracking along the runway, finally, when a crackling Tannoy system announces, “This is a non-smoking flight. Any passenger caught smoking will be taken to the back of the plane and asked to leave.”
I laugh out loud and turn to look for Elliott’s reaction. But Elliott is fast asleep.
It’s my fault for not responding to his prompts, I suppose. Like I said, I was never good at cruising men, and you’ve got to be careful with some down-low types. We say nothing more on the short flight to Barcelona, and not once does Elliott open his eyes. I, on the other hand, can never sleep in transit.
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