How much do we actually change as we grow old(er)? As much as I'd like to think I'm more composed, more comfortable in my own skin, there are humbling moments to remind me that that might not be the case.
Yesterday afternoon, I had another coffee date with a fellow who contacted me online. Pleasant enough experience, but I left knowing I had no desire to continue the conversation. Walking back to the car, I fought off Booted Contestant Syndrome, a combination of tears, despair and a Why-am-I-not-good-enough meltdown you can see every week in the final minutes of ABC's "The Bachelor". Instead, I admired the lovely tree-lined street and asked myself the same question I had twenty years ago: "Where does a single gay man look if he hopes to find a decent lifelong partner?"
Back in 1989, I first stepped into the unknown in an attempt to find love. I'd heard about Oak Lawn neighborhood in Dallas and driven down the main street on a few occasions, not daring to stop, illogically fearing that parking or getting out of the car would result in my being spotted and fired from my job with a religious institution. If not unemployed, weren't there homophobic gangs lurking around corners? (As a kid, I had a paralyzing fear of the bogeyman. And cracks in the sidewalk.)
When I finally dared to walk into a Dallas gay bar, it was a brief, jittery visit. It was a weeknight and too early for bar hoppers. I ordered a drink, found a stool and kept my eyes on a TV screen. Yep, don't mind me. I just stopped in 'cuz the ol' Zenith was on the fritz. To my surprise, I had an intruder by my side in minutes. Darrell was his name. I remember him spelling it for me. (Was he wanting me to send him a card?) I nervously answered his questions with disinterest. Clearly, I wasn't ready for love or whatever it was Darrell had in mind. And then he swooped in. What was going on? I bowed my head at the last moment and his kiss landed on my nose. I panicked and hurried for the exit, managing a slight smile as Taylor Dayne's "Don't Rush Me" played on the sound system.
Driving home, hands shaking, I already sensed that the bar was not going to be my haven. Love would have to come from somewhere else. But where?
Okay, still no answer. So last night, after months of contemplation, I went where I was almost certain Mr. Right would not be. I headed to Numbers, one of the few remaining gay bars in Vancouver.
It was a struggle from the outset. I walked the dogs and decided to stay home. Then I told myself to just walk by the club. No need to go in; another walk would burn off the Häagen-Dazs (a spoonful or two anyway).
As I walked, my inner voice taunted me. "This is a mistake. Are you really looking for an aging boozer? You're old now...middle-aged for Pete's sake! (Proof of your ancientness: You use phrases like 'for Pete's sake', for Pete's sake!) You'll be the creepy old guy everyone thinks is leering at them. Yep, a mistake."
Methinks my inner voice watched too many seasons of the Simon Cowell era of "American Idol".
In addition to the nagging negativity, I was overcome my nervousness. Remember Tom Hanks asking someone out for a date in "Sleepless in Seattle" as "Back in the Saddle Again" played on the soundtrack? I hadn't been in a gay bar in Vancouver in a dozen years. What had changed? Wasn't there a bathhouse next door? What if I accidentally walked in the wrong place? What was the crowd like now? Was there still a coat check or would I have to lug my bulky winter coat around the place? Did people still dance? Was the dancing different,...more complicated now that there are all those dance shows on TV?
Deep breath. Maybe it's easier to be Tom Hanks in "Cast Away", talking to Wilson the volleyball.
I managed to walk up the steps to the club. The right club. Step one, check. The guy inside the door told me to spread my arms out and ran something like a curling iron up and down my body. Security measure or was this an odd way to warm up the crowd for a drag show? I then had another guy take my driver's license and scan it. After forking over six bucks (for Numbers?!), I was granted admittance.
Apart from the security screening the other immediate difference was the lack of a heavy smoke cloud filling the bar. I easily spotted the signage for the coat check, shed twenty pounds and tried to march confidently to the bar to order a drink. Cash only. A smiling bartender directed me to convenient ATM on the lower level. At last, I had my Corona in hand. Beer goes straight to the gut with middle-agers, doesn't it? At least the lime wedge could count toward my daily fruit and veggie intake. Yes, beer can be good for you.
The bar looked the same as it did in the '90s, only darker. Maybe it was my vision that was failing me. Don't squint. Doesn't look attractive. Adds wrinkles. Ooh, was that what all those "leering" guys were doing way back when?
I toured the various levels and rooms of the club. Total time warp. No changes, except the place had about a fifth of the people I recall it having on Saturday nights of yesteryear. The beer belly/too tight t-shirt look prevailed. One guy bucked the trend with an argyle sweater. (How is it that a conservative look comes across as loud?) The dance floor was empty. There was no crowd to blend into. I retreated to the main level and parked myself on a stool as speakers pounded out Kylie Minogue's latest. Yes, she's still making music...just less relevant.
I was that uncomfortable guy from Dallas all over again (only now I wore an aging face mask like the guy who slipped into Canada on a flight from Asia last year). What to do, what to do? I couldn't smile and amuse myself by the dancing fools. There were none. Couldn't try hopelessly making eye contact with a wardrobe-challenged handsome man or a Check Out My Biceps stud. None on both counts. I gazed around the sparsely populated room and took the cue from the other singletons. I pulled out my BlackBerry and read my emails from work. Bar goers are as closed off as ever, just supported by different crutches.
I much prefer wine to beer, but I downed my drink in fifteen minutes. I fought off the urge to flee, eying the door hoping to see a nice looking, possibly approachable man make his entrance.
Am I too picky? Being in a bar brought back the judgmental, superficial me. Dismiss him before he dismisses you. I realized it was a protective stance but also a non-productive one.
I scurried to the coat check, retrieved my jacket and made for the fresh air outside...or at least the smoky clouds the wafted about until I'd passed the twentysomething throng that blocked off the sidewalk area at nearby Celebrities.
On the short walk home, I didn't have any tree clusters to distract me, just masses of concrete that blanketed the ground and towered on all sides. I knew the bar wasn't the place, but I'd gone in to rule it out based on experience rather than on speculation. The bar was a bust. Same for online dating.
I walked faster as Booted Contestant Syndrome fought for dominance. Not even a disastrous nose kiss to console myself. That's it. I'm done. Single for life. The dog guy. I could learn to knit little coats for them. How about online Scrabble? Maybe I should collect something from the Franklin Mint.
Everything's better, of course, in the light of day. I don't even like those stupid collectors' plates. Besides, I'm clumsy; they'll chip or break. I can cancel my order, right? No more thinking about dating. Just be.
I should go for a jog though. Work off that beer. You know,...just in case.