The bloke serving me at the counter says in a gruff northern accent, 'Anything else pal?'
I look him in the eye, 'No that's everything thank you'. I hand him the money and walk away.
To the naked eye a simple transaction, yet to me this signifies a major advancement in my relationship with straight men ( yes, I am assuming he was straight ).
You see I have a very difficult relationship with straight men. I first started to recognise it when I noticed that I had none of them as friends. That seemed disproportionately suspicious. I knew straight men but only through my women friends, work or gay mates. I decided to take a look.
What I uncovered was a very subtle, but nonetheless damaging avoidance of contact or exposure to this sizeable chunk of the population. There was an amazing piece of choreography taking place with me side stepping, tip toeing and outright tangoing to minimalise the time I had to be around them. If at a party my girlfriends left me in the kitchen with the guys I would awkwardly mumble an excuse to use the bathroom. If I spied groups of (again assumed) straight men in my pathway I would suddenly find the other side of the street more alluring, and if I had to pass by with no escape I would usually find an excuse to look away or down at my feet in order to avoid eye contact.
So looking this guy in the eye at the shop and experiencing a lack of anxiety was strangely important.
I was once taken to Cubs when I was little and I immediately felt out of place. It was like being thrown into an environment where I just felt weird and the weirdo at the same time. I just wanted out. I never returned and had the acceptable excuse that all they did was play football and that I couldn't so there wasn't any point. Everyone seemed relieved at that analysis, it being so much easier to deal with than: I am unlike all the other boys, I feel like a freak and I have no idea why but I think I will not survive being in that place all alone.
It is scary being different and young and confused as to why nobody else feels the same way or has the capacity to explain it. It is the stuff of nightmares. Rather than ingratiate myself to the other boys at Cubs I simply wanted out. That response to the terror of being the freak has fed into how I navigate any other situations where I am faced with the men I felt I did not belong to.
When I realised I had cast the whole of straight mankind to being vindictive, judging tormentors or at least disdaining superiors, I could no longer escape into a scenario I had rehearsed and practised for most of my life: it had to be challenged.
One day I was entering a park and squashed onto a bench was a group of five painter/decorators enjoying their lunchtime. Emboldened to challenge my habit of casually looking anywhere but the direction of this group as I walked by, I decided to do something new - look at them. So I did.
What I noticed for those breathless seconds was that they were gloriously unaware of my presence and avidly enjoying their sandwiches. Again it sounds small and throwaway but suddenly a powerful script of avoidance was suddenly disintegrating in front of my very eyes.
My fear is that if straight men see, know, suspect or consider me to be gay then I will suddenly be revealed as the 'freak.' I need the freak to be hidden and so I cannot risk being exposed. Which means I have to avoid contact. Naturally I dress up this very simplistic and devastating dilemma by being (almost) totally unaware that I am doing it. So natural is the aversion that I hardly notice its there. It's a practised slight of hand allowing me to feel that I have cast off the trauma of my early years and become a well rounded gay man who is able in all situations to hold his head up high rather than cast his eyes to the floor.
I'm a recovering blokeaphobe. I'm finding that if I just stay with my initial unease, breathe and pay attention to what is ( or usually not ) going on then I start to relax and even enjoy the company of straight men. They are new to me and I'm curious about them. I'm beginning to dissolve all my arms length judgements about who they are and what they do and think and I'm left feeling a warmth and even commonality I never knew existed