Andy wasn’t exactly a typical gay man one would find on Grindr. He was tall, strong, and as he proudly described himself, straight acting. He was a builder by trade. He drank ale pint after pint and talked about football and women nonstop. He didn’t have a profile picture on Grindr; that made the chance of him being cruised by other gay men on the app almost zero. He contacted me on the app one day. I didn’t know what had prompted him to initiate the contact. I was only an ordinary Chinese guy studying at a British university and lived alone in a small flat. Perhaps it was the right time and place. We lived close to each other, and we were both online looking for a hook-up that evening. He came to my flat and we had sex and exchanged phone numbers. The advantage of keeping regular contacts with someone reliable in the neighbourhood outweighed the uncertainty and anxiety of having to find a new person online each time. We started seeing each other.
I harboured mixed feelings about Andy. He was a good sex partner. A bit rough, perhaps. But somehow I liked the uninhibited way in which he expressed his desire. That also triggered something in me, and it felt liberating. He didn’t know much about Asia and didn’t pretend to do so. Having met many feel-good-about-the-self China critics through online dating, his unpretentious simplicity seemed charming to me. But he was hopeless in expressing his emotions, perhaps as a result of his repressed childhood experiences or his heavy exposure to a hypermacho working-class culture. He seldom kissed or hugged me unless I took the initiative, as if anything beyond sex would turn him gay. But when I kissed or hugged him, he didn’t seem to object, and perhaps even secretly enjoyed it. I made some efforts to keep him in my flat for slightly longer after sex, first by enticing him to television and Netflix series, until his passion for football and superhero films became too overwhelming for me. I then found him some small DIY job in my flat, starting with fixing a dripping tap, then assembling a bookcase, and then putting up a new table where the two of us could sit down for dinner. He didn’t seem to mind the free labour I asked him to perform and even took enormous pride in showing off his skills. I was also happy to reward him with some home-made stir-fry and rice fishes to return the favour. I joked that we were ‘friends with benefits’.
There was just one thing: Andy and I never went out together since we started seeing each other three months ago. I thought with great envy about the romantic things that dates, or boyfriends, could do together, such as going to the cinema or taking a walk in the park. He seemed quite reluctant at my suggestion of going out, so we ended up staying in my flat. One day I decided not to cook anything. I then proposed that we go out to the pub at the street corner where they had curry nights, and it would be my treat. He looked reluctant at first. There was an unfathomable expression on his face that I couldn’t read. I took his hand and dragged him out of the sofa. Seeing that I was determined, he eventually gave up resistance and followed me.
We sat at the pub eating curry and drinking beer. The katsu curry microwaved by the English chef wasn’t particularly nice, but we devoured it all. I liked the feeling of sitting in a busy pub surrounded by people, which reminded me of my social existence and the noisy Chinese restaurant setting I was familiar with. A pint down the throat, Andy’s face turned slightly red and radiant. He seemed to have forgotten about whatever had concerned him in the first place.
A few guys wearing singlets and cargo trousers walked up to us. A big guy with a moustache put his hand on Andy’s shoulder and greeted, “Andy! Haven’t seen you for ages. Where have you been?”
That guy looked friendly, but Andy seemed terrified. His hand twitched and his eyes were on the beer glass. He mustered a few words saying he’d been busy with work and life. From their fragmentary conversation, I pieced together that they were once mates working on a building site and used to watch football together after work. Andy’s disappearance from the group activity seemed to roughly overlap our time of knowing each other.
The guy looked me up and down in slight curiosity. Andy had to introduce me: “This is Tao, a friend’s brother. He’s studying at a uni.”
My mind went blank. I was more expecting him to call me a friend, if not a date or a boyfriend. We were dating, weren’t we? What had we been doing in the past three months? He was obviously embarrassed about me in front of his mates, ashamed to be seen with me together in a public space. What was the embarrassment about? That I was gay, soft-spoken, effeminate-looking, and therefore not ‘straight acting’? That I was younger than him? That I was attending university? That I looked Chinese and therefore not White or British? I didn’t know the reason. I couldn’t think.
Fortunately, their conversation didn’t last long. At the end of it, he promised to re-join them for one of the football nights. After they were gone, Andy looked a bit uneasy. He avoided eye contact with me. We finished the pints quickly and walked back to my flat. Neither of us spoke on the way.
I sat silently at the dinner table and gestured him to sit down. He followed. I looked at him in the eye: “What am I to you? A friend’s brother?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it.” He blushed. “You know these guys. They won’t understand this.”
“Are you embarrassed about me?” I wasn’t going to give up.
“No,” there was a glisten in his eyes. “I was ashamed of myself.”
He then explained to me, plainly and with some reluctance, his growing-up experience. How his dad had brought him up to be a real man. He was taught to play football and to fight with other boys. He didn’t like some of these, but he wanted his dad to take pride in him. He’d known that he liked men for a long time. But he never had the courage to tell his dad about it. Now his dad had passed away. He could still feel the hard gaze upon him. “I’ve failed him,” he said.
Initially, I was only listening, relieved that he eventually started to talk about his past and show his emotions. I’d never seen a grown-up man cry this way. He looked so vulnerable. I took him in my arms, rubbing his shoulders and stroking his hair. Finally, he pulled himself together and sat up straight.
“What now? What are we going to do?”
I could see the hesitation in his eyes. So I went on, “Are you going to stay in the closet and hide me from everyone else?”
A couple of minutes of silence. Knowing him, it would be difficult for him to make a decision. I sighed. I felt that I’d pushed him hard enough that day and decided to make a compromise, “OK. Why don’t we watch some football on the telly? I’d like to go with you to the football night with your mates. Even a university student needs to learn about football. Now, tell me the rules. How does the game work?”