Exhale by Sophia Soames
Human beings were strange, I’d always thought that. People were so easily fixated on labels and small, uncomfortable boxes where everyone was supposed to fit into their designated, perfectly shaped spaces. Me? I’d never quite felt comfortable with any of those ideas.
Perhaps I was too hung up on myself and the fact that I was far from perfect. Despite ridiculing the subject whenever it came up in conversation, I’d always wanted to fit in, yet never really did. I wanted to be someone who identified as something. I wanted to be ordinary. But that was not as easy as it sounded, because at the end of the day? I was Jamie Walters, and running the Jamie Walters Show, i.e. my life, was a full-time job.
Life had swung me around by an invisible leash for as long as I could remember, and as I’d grown out of my awkward teenaged skin, the adult version of me had craved showstopping freedom. I supposed that was what I wanted to identify as. Free to love whatever and whomever I wanted to love. I craved validation because that was normal. We all wanted to be told we were good. Loved. Accepted for whomever we chose to be.
And despite drilling all those big words into my brothers and sisters for the last couple of years, accepting them for myself had proved a hard pill to swallow. The sheer idea in my head—the fact that I may…or may not…be someone who fitted into any of those preconceived acceptable boxes—had made my quest for contentment a bumpy ride. I wanted a happily ever after. I wanted a family. I wanted so many things, yet I had no idea where to go from here.
Here, you see, was a strange and uncomfortable place.
I wanted out of here, that was clear, and lately, my battle to find something, anything to grasp on to had turned me into a stupid, thumb-aching, phone-addicted, app-stalking monster. Well, to be honest, it was not so much part of trying to move on in life, instead it was clearly all part of my usual madness. I’d fixate on something, determined to follow it through, my trademark stubbornness guiding me to success or, quite possibly, total failure. Like becoming a car mechanic. Learning how to knit because one of my mates did. Figuring out how to bake shortbread. Admittedly, my shortbread was still a crumbly disaster, but I would get there. Somehow. Like a brave knight in a fairy tale, I never knew when to stop and admit defeat.
My twin brother had found love, so all-consuming that he and his partner made me a little nauseous with their lovey-dovey chatter and constant handholding and feeding each other breakfast cereal with heart-shaped eyes and stupid matching spoons. My older sister was more than happily cohabiting with a dude who called her princess and was saving up to take her on holiday to Spain. My brother Aaron was engaged to someone who’d already taken our last name as her own on Instagram, and my youngest brother Toby and his girlfriend were like an old married couple. And me? What was left of my life was a steep crater, out of which I was desperately trying to dig myself while every tiny attempt at returning to normal sent me sliding backwards.
As for my current brave quest… Yeah. Not so brave after all. I wanted something different. I wanted to see if the small seed festering in the back of my mind would take root and grow. I kept telling people that The Great Jamie Walters was a man with an undiscriminating dick and an even more undiscriminating mind. Sadly, The Great Jamie Walters was good at battling with words, less brilliant at putting his ideas into any kind of action.
Hence this new hook-up thing I had going on, except I wasn’t sure about it anymore. At first, it had been fun, signing up to the app and creating a little profile for myself. Now though, that app and every little notification from it filled me with fear every time it’s logo popped up on my screen. I say ‘fear’ because I was terrified what the outcome of my latest ludicrous idea would be. These were childish, romantic dreams that I knew deep down would lead to nothing but embarrassment and misery, where I would bleed out alone on the floor, my poor, innocent heart in splinters. I was pretty much on my knees already, and it was all my own fault. I’d listened to people who told me it was time to go on the rebound, selling me silly ideas that I had to get my head back in the game. Find someone to have a bit of fun with, without the tiresome strings. I didn’t want a relationship. Okay, some days I did. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted, other than knowing I wanted something that was mine, and mine alone.
I didn’t want a box all too myself. I didn’t want a Jamie label. I wanted someone who would crawl in there with me and soothe my wounds. I wanted to cohabit in a little box of my choosing, whatever that looked like. I wasn’t desperate, but I was almost twenty-four. It was time I admitted to myself and made good on the fact that I was most definitely some kind of pan-bi-queer-sexual thing who was, as always, lost without a mate.
The Great Jamie Walters. Well, let me tell you, I really didn’t feel all that great right at that moment, rattling along on an Underground train on my way to another frighteningly real, properly terrifying Grindr hook-up.
I didn’t understand why I hadn’t met the love of my life already. I wasn’t ugly or revolting, just normal. Normal and happy and funny and flirtatious. I lived in a big, messy house in West London, sharing space with my siblings and the random collection of other people that made my life worth living. Parents: none. We’d pretty much raised ourselves, and that was the way I liked it. Yet where my siblings had mostly found stable relationships with other seemingly fully fledged grown-ups, I was lingering behind, hanging on to my dysfunctional dependency on my ex-girlfriend. A few people from my year in school were already married. Trudie at work had a kid. My mate, Jonathan, whom I’d known forever, had already gotten divorced twice. I’d been both his best man, and his shoulder to cry on, more times than I wanted to remember, yet now he was apparently blissfully happy with someone new. My baby brother had a second kid on the way with a girl who worshipped the ground he walked on, while I just sat back watching him live a life I couldn’t create for myself. I didn’t get it. Why, for once, couldn’t that happy ending be mine?
Okay, I did get it a little bit. I’d bombed my last relationship. Kizzy, who was still my best friend in the whole wide world, had spelled it out for me in black and white. I was wonderful, she’d said. The best friend she could ever have asked for. I just wasn’t the one for her, and she wasn’t the one for me. It had been an overwhelming relief the day we’d decided to break up, for good. Like my many attempts at shortbread, we’d slowly crumbled, and both of us were drained to the core. She needed time away from me, and I needed to stop trying to fix everything that had been wrong between us. There was no fixing the Jamie and Kizzy Show, however much that hurt.
So, I was going to get out there and rebuild myself or die trying. I was going to live life to the fullest. Experience had shown me love was a fragile beast, ready to eat you up and spit you out with no warning. At least, that was how it had been for Kizzy and me. A devastating turmoil of love and grief that had smashed into the ground around us, leaving us lost in the embers of what had once seemed so perfect. I’d dwelled on it, I knew that. Dwelled on every small disaster that inevitably denied our happy ending. Mourned the future we could have had. Cried for a life that would never be mine because one day, someone else would make Kizzy the happiest girl in the world.
With a sigh, I glanced out the train window, or tried to, but saw only my reflection against the dark of the tunnel. For someone who was terrified, I looked okay, I guess. My hair was my best feature, long, dark wads of thickness framing my face. It was also good for hiding behind when my happy, confident self needed a rest. I’d even used it to enhance my profile photo on that damned app. Me, twirling my fingers through a strand of hair as I gazed out at life from behind my self-imposed safety curtain. I looked cool in that picture. A bit of early spring tan on my skin, my dark-brown eyes complementing my cheeky almost-smile. Perhaps I wasn’t buff enough, but I didn’t really care. I needed this—to get out of my funk and find something new to grasp hold of. A tiny bit of laughter, a warm body against mine. Anything to make me feel because right now, the life I had was slowly draining the blood from my body, one small cut at a time.
I thought maybe if I could get this milestone over and done with, I would know where I was heading. Another small step up the ladder out of the murky uncertainty that had my heart flip-flopping around in my chest. I would find someone to get me back into my groove, I was sure of it. How could I not when everyone else on Grindr was after the same thing? Half of them didn’t interest me in the slightest, and the rest…
If I was very honest, every single person on that app scared the living daylights out of me. I wanted someone nice. Kind. Someone who would hold my hand the way my brother held his boyfriend’s when life got up and smacked him in the face.
I had tried biting the bullet and agreed to a straightforward hook-up with a thirty-something dude looking for a one-off encounter. He’d sold himself as safe, experienced with no strings attached, ever. He’d seemed a good choice—until, with a grin on his face, he’d grabbed my junk, and I’d fled in an Uber mere minutes after we’d met.
My second attempt had been with a guy around my age, who’d looked pretty in his photos and perfect on paper. He flaked out on me and left me standing outside a bar feeling like an idiot. I’d drunk myself into a stupor and almost got myself run over on the way home. Karma obviously had me on their hitlist, and my chances of getting anywhere near a dick that wasn’t my own were fading fast.
It seemed all these men wanted was to get into my pants as quickly as possible with no commitment to even try to forge anything else. There was no small talk, no invitation to a cosy walk in the park, a cup of coffee or even a drink, no mention of lazy kissing sessions on a Sunday afternoon—all those things I’d imagined us doing in the rose-tinted fantasies in my stupid head. Instead, I got requests for dick pics and queries if I could host, so they could have their wicked way with me. In hindsight, I did want them to have their wicked way with me, just not like that. It had taken me a little time to get used to it all and to shut down the idiots and weed out the ‘possibles’, and there weren’t many possibles, I could tell you that.
So, I’d changed my strategy and looked for someone older, hoping their experience and maturity could show me how to do this. Kind of take me under their wing and get it all over and done with. I’d quickly discovered it didn’t work like that either. I didn’t want a bloody bear or an otter. I didn’t understand half of the terminology thrown about in conversations, and how the fuck was I supposed to know if I was a top or a bottom when I didn’t even know if kissing a man would get me into the mood? What I did know was I didn’t want the impersonal ‘ideal’ hook-up I’d imagined. I wanted to find love, not just someone to give me yet another forgettable orgasm. I didn’t need a Daddy or a femboy or a twink. I just wanted someone to give me a simple hug and tell me things would be okay.
It wasn’t that I was frightened of the prospect of having sex with a bloke, but where I would normally be all flirtatious and confident around beautiful women, around men, I was timid and more than a little terrified of their advances and the many uncomfortable conversations that would inevitably come up.
My single status was a lonely burden to carry. I’d known I was somewhere on the queer scale, like, forever. I just wanted it verified and stamped so I knew where I stood. The uncertainty didn’t sit well with me because I didn’t really struggle with anything else in life. My siblings were cool. Work was cool. It was just…I’d grown up with so many rules around what my future was allowed to look like, rules that simply didn’t exist anymore, yet I wouldn’t let them go, building impossible fences around my heart and refusing to let them splinter.
When things had ended with Kizzy, it had destroyed my vision of that future being with a woman. I’d thought she was everything I’d ever need, and the idea of replacing her with someone else still felt too foreign in my head. Trying out being with a man had seemed like a good idea—even to Kizzy, who’d laughed at my immature ramblings and fears, which was not cool, but neither was I. I was confused, stupid and lonely, and it had once again put me in an impossible situation.
Which was why I had pulled myself together for one final attack. I’d concocted this great plan of action and updated my Grindr profile with a new sultry photo, stalked people left, right and centre, and even tentatively chatted with a few men. And then I’d taken some chest pics and… No, I hadn’t gone that far. I was ready to take baby steps to try out those little things that sat comfortably in my head. I was not ready to become an internet porn star. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I knew it didn’t work like that. Nobody would actually know it was my dick on that site, but I would not be shooting pics of my privates for strangers to perv over. Nope. Maybe a younger version of myself would have done something insane like that, but that was before my twin brother met an award-winning adult entertainer who ended up moving into our living room and stealing my brother’s heart. I was nothing like either of them and had no ambition to take the world by storm in any genre. I was a car mechanic. I loved getting all dirty and covered in oil and fiddling with large tools, but as my brother-in-law would have teased, I meant that literally, no sexual innuendo intended.
Then all of a sudden, bam and there he’d been. Another lonely human being looking for a connection. He’d messaged me first, with an incomprehensible string of random emojis, hearts and vegetables mixed in with words and laughter, reeling me in like a hungry mouse following a trail of tiny morsels of tasty chocolate and stinky cheese. Hence, I now found myself on a train heading for a station I’d never heard of, despite having lived in London for a good few years, on my way to meet a man I knew only through a handful of blurry selfies. Well, that wasn’t quite true. I’d made him send me a photo of his ID, which was a super weird thing to ask, I knew that, but he’d agreed when I’d explained that even though his Grindr profile said he was twenty-one, in his profile photo he looked like a kid of about thirteen. Honestly, the dude had a baby face. I felt like a pervert even thinking of him, yet here I was.
He had blondish-brown hair cropped close to his skull, apart from on the top, leaving a few curls that fell over his forehead, and when he smiled his face showed deep dimples in his cheeks—he said he always smiled easily. That phrase had gotten to me. We’d only exchanged a couple of days’ worth of random messages, but I had a clear picture of him in my mind. Here was a guy with an easy, sunny disposition, who openly told me what he was doing and what was going on in his head. I felt like I knew him, which was ridiculous when all I had to go on were those few words alongside pictures of him feeding his cat, having a cup of tea, working on his degree, speaking to his mum. Thinking of me.
He didn’t know me, but he said he was excited to meet me, get to know me, introduce me to his cat—an ugly little tabby called Hulk. That admission had made me laugh. And even though I’d drawn it out, not wanting to commit to meeting up, once he talked about Hulk the cat, I’d pretty much agreed to everything he asked.
Leo. That was his name. He was quirky and funny and a flirt too, the little shit. He’d described himself as skinny and wiry, but I didn’t believe him. In his recent pictures, he looked broad-shouldered and tall. Manly in a boyish way. Someone who could protect me while making me smile. According to his stats, I was an inch taller than him and older and wiser, which made me feel safe. Or safer. If he turned out to be an axe murderer, I’d have no problem overpowering him and knocking him out. I hoped. Fuck. I had no idea what I was doing. It would probably end in disaster like all my other attempts. I was nervous—no, fuck that, I was bricking it. I wasn’t prepared. I hadn’t done any of those things I’d read up on—groomed or pruned my man parts or given myself an enema—and I had no idea what he expected.
I hadn’t thought this through, that part was blindingly obvious. Instead, I was irrationally impulsive and too shell-shocked that I’d once again agreed to meet a virtual stranger and once again I was throwing myself head first into the deep end. Girls had always kind of just fallen into my lap during nights out or drinks at the pub with friends. Those apps for meeting women had never appealed, not when I so easily danced between flings and relationships.
Did I really want to do this?
I hadn’t even told my brother where I was going. I’d just skulked off, slamming the door behind me like a truant teen. And now here I was, stepping off the train at Gardener Grove Tube station. I’d pictured an area dotted with troughs of plants, flowers and hedges. Instead, there was an industrial estate to the right, a depressing apartment block to the left, houses in shades of grey, kids messing around below the raised platform and a chain café on the corner with chairs and tables outside.
I stood there, taking deep, noisy breaths as I tried to make my legs move. He’d sent me a message saying he was at the end of the platform, next to the bench, happily waiting for me, but I didn’t dare to look for him. I’d recognise him, he’d assured me, followed by a string of his usual strange collection of random emojis.
I didn’t even recognise myself, standing there with the pale, spring sunshine on my face, my eyes closed as I took another uneasy breath. He was here. I was here. Worst-case scenario, I would be back on the next train heading home to safety, still a butt-virgin but with my pride and dignity intact. Best case? I would be back on a train tonight, a changed man, no longer a stranger to another man’s touch.
I laughed at myself and shuddered. What was I thinking? What was I doing? Okay. Deep breath.
I turned around and walked along the platform, following the stragglers. The train was long departed, leaving me walking almost alone. The last person disappeared down the staircase on the right, and then there was just me and a bloke standing awkwardly by the bench at the end.
I didn’t know why I’d pictured him as being much younger. Even at a distance, it was perfectly and painfully clear that he was a man, not a boy. He was the same height as me, but that could have been his hair, and the same build—broad shoulders shown off by a trendy bomber jacket teamed with washed-out skinny jeans and clean trainers. He was twirling a cigarette between his fingers. Painted nails, the colour different on every finger. That made me giggle under my breath because…I don’t know. I’d thought he’d be perfect. I’d thought he’d be someone I couldn’t measure up to. Yet seeing him for real calmed me down. He was just a messy, normal guy, and he looked utterly terrified as I approached him. He stared at me. I stared back.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” my mouth stuttered out with a stupid smile plastered on my face.
“Only when I’m nervous. I haven’t smoked today. I didn’t want to smell like an ashtray for you. I don’t smoke inside, just when I’m out. I should stop I know, and… Sorry, but, seriously, I can hardly breathe right now. You look like some kind of supermodel.”
You look like some kind of supermodel?He couldn’t be more wrong. But those were the first words Leo Leblond said to me.