This is the second Museling. It is the story of the very first time I had a real crush on another boy. I say boy; he must have been a man really. I was only nineteen but he was twenty-two at least.
A transcript of this episode is below.
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Now, I’ve been thinking about calling him Mike… or Dave… or Jim. Something like that. But it doesn’t work. His name’s John. He was always John.
I first saw John in 1999 at the Old Fire Station in Oxford. He was playing Gregor Samsa in a production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and he was electric. I thought he was the best thing I’d ever seen. The second time I saw him was in his bedroom a couple of months later. I’d been cast in one of a group of shows that were being taken to the Edinburgh Fringe that summer and there was a meeting. I suppose his bedroom must have been convenient. He didn’t stay for the meeting – he had something cooler and more important to be doing… obviously – but, when I arrived, he hadn’t yet left to do… whatever it was that he was going to be doing instead of breathing the same air as me for the evening – and I remember looking at him lounging on his windowsill and thinking: Why can’t I be like that?
It wasn’t until a year later that I realised I fancied him. I’d just split up with my last ever girlfriend (to date) and had started to accept that there were boys I wanted to kiss – there was a boy called Nick Jackson, for example; I really wanted to kiss Nick Jackson – and, because of my enthusiasm and my attention to detail, apparently – or so the director told me afterwards – I was cast in a play that was going on tour to Romania. September 2000. The play was Karel Capek’s Reason’s Universal Robots. I was playing most of the robots. And John was playing one of the scientists.
And it was amazing to work with him. I was expecting him to be kind of… starry but he wasn’t. He was approachable and nice and his work was amazing. The way he worked was amazing. It was wonderful to watch him work. It was really inspiring.
Now, the phrase ‘punching above one’s weight’ was very popular at the time and, you know, John was a better actor than me, he was cooler than me, he was more attractive than me, more sexually experienced – in the sense that he was sexually experienced – so I knew that I was punching above my weight just spending time with John. But I wanted to spend all the time with him. I wanted him to seduce me. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. I had never even kissed a boy at that point and I was pretty scared of what might happen if I did but John… made me want to find out.
And I should probably say here that he seemed to like me. As in, he seemed to like my company. And I thought it was just possible that he found me attractive, in a careless sort of way.
He had his guitar with him while we were in Romania. He used to strum Britpop songs and Nirvana, I think, and songs from the 80’s, and I used to listen to him and think: Surely there can be nothing more attractive than this man. He was growing a beard for his role in the play and I thought it looked so good. I started to grow one myself after the tour had finished, partly in tribute. He’d once shaved part of his chest hair to make a heart shape, for a party, and, at one point in the show, I had to put out my arm (as one of the robots, obviously – the most advanced one, I think; the one who falls in love at the end) to signal that he should stop moving. And, as the tour progressed, I started to misjudge the distance so that my hand would actually touch his chest and I’d feel the wiry, regrown hair through the fabric of his t-shirt. I can still remember how that felt, actually.
One day, we’d all been eating in a restaurant somewhere and, after everybody else had gone outside to smoke or whatever, John and I were left to make sure that the bill got paid and John was talking about what it had been like to come out to his parents. Perhaps I’d asked him about it. I remember telling him that I thought it must be very hard to have to come out and that I couldn’t imagine what my parents would say if I came out and he said something like: Yeah, everyone says that. But it’s not like it’s something that you’re ever going to have to deal with. Right?
And I thought about that for a long time afterwards. For months. Months and months. I kept asking myself why I hadn’t just said: Ha! That’s what you think. Or: Oh, I don’t know about that. Or even: Yes I will. At some point I will. Some point soon.
Now, of course, it seems to me pretty clear that I would always much rather have been able to tell myself that he just didn’t know I was gay than have to accept that he wasn’t all that interested. It’s still something of a theme in my life. I still chase people who are not all that interested and I still find other reasons to explain why they might not be… responding. But, back then, I wasn’t even aware of it, I was just… hooked on the feeling, I think. That continual swing between hope and perceived rejection that crushes feed on. That odd adversity of misery and joy that Dinah Washington sings in Mad About The Boy. I spent a lot of time in the months after the Romania tour singing Mad About The Boy to myself and thinking about John.
I don’t do that any more. But he does pop into my head from time to time. I’m thinking about him today because I’ve found something I wrote about him – or something that was inspired by him, at any rate – in late 2000 or early 2001, not long after we came back from Romania. I’m not going to read it to you – I mean, it’s terrible, it’s embarrassing, I made some really poor choices when I wrote this – but there’s one part that I almost like just because I feel as though I’ve managed, I think despite myself, to evoke something of the narcissism of a crush. That sheer solipsistic obsession with one’s own feelings that I’m still so familiar with. So I’m going to read you that bit. In a slightly edited version.
‘Time and again,’ I wrote, ‘I tell myself that I can’t think about you, that I mustn’t invent conversations, situations, that revolve around you, that involve you feeling for me anything like what I feel for you. Because I cannot begin to think about you without inventions and fantasies tumbling out and adding themselves to your portrait until you are no longer recognisable, until I would no longer recognise you, so pale and uninteresting you must be in comparison. It’s as if I draw your face, from my twisted memory, onto the skin of a balloon, and the representation is faithful to an extent. Until I begin to blow it up, and then anyone else would recognise it as swollen and deformed but I worship it because it seems to speak to me. I know that the balloon will burst in my fingers and I will get hurt like every other time – because, despite everything, I know that this is like every other time and that you don’t actually correspond to what I have made you in my imagination, that you don’t really care about me at all, that you are polite to me when we meet because, in a quirky, geeky way, you think I’m funny. And, listen to me, I even persuade myself that I’m right and that it’s stupid to carry on like this and I get to the point where I have deflated the balloon to where it almost resembles you and I’m ready to put it back in the drawer. And then you send me an email – what’s that all about? That takes time! And you remembered that I was growing a beard, you tosser. As if you cared!’
I was in France when I wrote that, teaching English to French school kids in a place called Limoges – which is, yes, the place where the porcelain comes from. Correct. I did see John once, however, very briefly, on my birthday, when I travelled back to Oxford to spend a weekend with my friends. He couldn’t join us for dinner but he cycled over to say hello and, as it happens, we met on the street as I was walking from the station and we talked, awkwardly, for two, three minutes. And then, when I came back to Oxford at the end of that academic year, I found out that John was having a house-cooling party. He’d done his finals and was getting ready to leave. So I forced my drama friends to go to the party so that I could go with them. And then I spent the evening following John around his house and sitting next to him and staring at him until it was clear even to me that he was trying to avoid me. And I saw him once more, a few months later, for a few moments, after a show at the Oxford Playhouse that neither of us was in. I remember him laughing but not, I think, at something that I said.
And I haven’t seen him since.
But, as I say, I still think about him from time to time.
The first boy I really had a crush on.
This is one of the songs he used to play.
[Married With Children – Oasis]
This is Married With Children by Oasis and this has been the second Museling. You can find out more about the podcast at muselings.uk. I’m Charles Adrian and you can find me on Twitter as @charldrian.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020