Sometimes, when you haven't spoken to another person for days, you long for human contact. It can be anything: a smile from a shopkeeper as you hand over the money for your pint of milk, a phone call from someone in India claiming to be called Valerie and asking if you have had an industrial accident lately or, more usually, someone sitting opposite sipping from a pint while you imagine what kind of kisser they'll be.
As I have been chained to my desk at home churning out work in an effort to keep that roof above my head, I find myself arranging more dates. I don't particularly want sex, or even love, but I need an excuse to spruce up, clean my glasses and leave the house before I head farther up the loner classification scale - from 'recluse' to 'hermit'. Such is my need for human stimulation, I'm not only selecting dates based on their ability to hold their own in a lengthy email conversation; I'm also picking those who look nice.
So here I am, on a warm day, sitting in a bar I've never been in before, waiting for This Guy, who's bright, bonny and - judging from the 10 identical pictures he has sent me - buff as hell. I have to be careful with men whose bodies are polished to perfection. Usually, their faultless pecs and gorgeous guns hide many a personality flaw. While they're almost always really nice guys at the heart of it, a lot of the time they don't have anything to say.
But I am sick of wrangling with hyper-intelligent gays who think they know everything and spout opinions dragged up as fact. So, I'm here, waiting for Mr Pretty, early and with a drink. I don't look at my watch as I don't want him to walk in and see me checking the time, as I give a shit. I stare straight ahead at the two men licking each other a couple of tables away. It is 4.30 in the afternoon.
He has chosen the place. It's a gay bar, which I imagine is very busy during the day but is sparsely populated today, although there are groups of men standing outside, bearing their chests to the sun and laughing. There is a faint whiff of vomit and, perhaps, poppers about the place, and I briefly mourn the days when people could smoke in bars, thus masking all these unpleasant odours with a glowing Marlboro Light.
I spy him before he spots me. He is taller than I thought he would be, his dirty-blond hair slicked into a side parting, and wearing a white T-shirt with a wide crew neck which grazes his collar bone. His jeans are slim-fitting, but not skinny. On his feet he wears Converse the same colour as mine. Mine are dirty; his look like he bought them five minutes ago. Despite his slender frame, his shoulders are broad, every muscle in his arms as defined as it's possible to be without being a steroid-happy bodybuilder. He beams as he sees me and walks over to me. I stand and put out my hand for him to shake. Ridiculously, pathetically, I puff out my chest.
Within 10 minutes we have got all the pleasantries out of the way and he is sitting thoughtfully playing with the stirrer in his white wine spritzer. I eye my pint, a little embarrassed. I realise I have no idea what he does for a job; it has never come up.
While he's telling me about the town he grew up in (somewhere in Kent, never goes back, his sister still lives there and is a hairdresser, her husband is rough, she's trying for a baby), I try to imagine what he might do for a living. If he were a model, or dancer, he'd have said so early on - they always do. He looks like he might work in a shop, the kind of place where the clothes are either utterly unremarkable as to be undistinguishable from market stall tat yet 1,000 times the price, or a store where everything looks like it was knitted from tablecloths by drunk ex-prostitutes (All Saints, perhaps).
My eyes fall to his chest again. That takes some work, I guess. Oh, God, maybe he's a personal trainer. I can stand the suspense no longer. I ask. He smiles. He's really glad I asked. He takes a big gulp of his drink. I'm expecting something pretty big.
"I do PR for a group of gyms," he says, setting his drink back down on the table with a satisfied plonk.
"Ah, that explains it," I reply amiably.
He knits his brow. "Whaddya mean? Explains what?"
"Well," I gesture at his toned torso. "The buffness. The bod. I guess you've got to look good for your job, right?"
He looks down at his rock-hard gym-tits as if seeing them for the first time, before prodding one with his finger. He slowly tilts his head back up to me.
"You think I look like this because of my job?" he asks.
I'm unsure what the right answer is here. He's looking miffed. I've said something wrong. When in doubt, answer a question with a question.
"Well, don't you?"
"No, not really," he starts slowly. "I mean, if anything, I got the job because I take such good care of myself, but the work I did on my body was all for me."
He then sits back and watches me, as if he's placed a wrapped present in my lap and is waiting for a reaction.
"Cool. So how long have you been doing that job?"
This isn't the answer he was looking for. He ignores my question and ploughs on, thumbing the gap between his pecs the entire time. My eyes are drawn to this action; I half-expect his chest to open and the barrel of a gun to poke out.
"I believe everybody has a responsibility to look after their body, and to be the healthiest they can be," he says.
"Oh, I agree."
He looks at me, his eyes deliberately moving from my forehead down to as far as he can see over the table, to my stomach. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he peeked under the table to get a shot of my legs. Finally, he speaks. Just two words, which aim to cut right through me like a sushi knife.
One corner of his mouth turns up as if being pulled by piano wire. "I mean, do you go the gym?"
I tell him that I do, and that I also run.
"Well, A for effort," he drawls, stirring his drink like he's getting busy with a cauldron. "But for attainment, well..." He giggles.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. "I don't have time to sweat it out in the gym all day," I reply, as coolly as I can muster. "And anyway, I've got better things to do with my time."
He eyes me suspiciously. "Well, my body to me is like a project. I want to improve it, to look great. I... sculpt it. Yeah, sculpt... into the look I want. Y'know?"
"And it looks great," I nod. "But having a banging bod isn't the be-all and end-all."
"Isn't it, [my name]? Isn't it?" He leans forward, finally removing his finger from his chest and jabbing it into the table.
"Well, unless you're about to get painted by Michelangelo or appear in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, having the perfect physique isn't going to get you very far," I answer, rather stupidly forgetting athletes and other sporting heroes.
He stands up. "I couldn't disagree more. Drink?" And with that, he slopes over to the bar, pouring his lithe form onto a stool while he leans over the bar and flirts with the tanned, taut server.
He lingers at the bar rather longer than I would consider appropriate, but I'm in no hurry for him to return. I casually cast my eye over his behind while he chats to the barman. It is pert and perfectly rounded; it shows every hour spent on it on the gym hasn't been in vain. I can't help but think some of those hours might have been better served in its owner developing a personality, but who am I to judge, with my lumps and bumps? Nobody is exactly queueing up to fuck my brain. Oh, he's back.
I attempt a change in conversation topic, but he is fascinated by my opinion that the quest for the perfect body isn't high on my list. He really can't understand it. To hammer home the point, he sits forward in his chair and exclaims: "I can't believe you don't want to be the absolute best you can be. It's mad."
Wincing, I reply that I do strive to do my best, in most things at least. "My career and friends and family are important to me," I say, "but being muscle-bound isn't high on the agenda. As long as I'm healthy and look OK in a T-shirt, that's fine by me."
He's amazed, and clearly thinks I'm deluded, as he then begins to outline a workout programme that will help me achieve his ideal. I admire his tenacity if nothing else.
"Would it be fair to say you couldn't go out with someone who didn't have a perfect body?" I prod gently, noticing that I'm nearing the end of my drink.
He considers. His pecs twitch. "I don't want to be with someone who's lazy, no," he answers, totally without malice. I laugh at the ridiculousness of this statement. My glass is empty.
I have two options here. I can bring things to a close and leave the bar, his words about my corporeal inadequacies ringing in my ears, or I can stay for another drink and try the ultimate challenge - to see if I can get this uptight gym bunny to chill out a bit. I imagine my living room, hot and uncomfortable. Hollow. Rather like my date.
I stand and smooth down the front of my trousers. "I'm going to the bar," I smile. "Do you think that temple-like body of yours could survive another drink?"
Stats: 31, 5'11", blond/blue
When: Spring 2012
Where: London, W1
Pre-date rating: 7/10
Post-date rating: 5.5/10
Date in one sentence: The body beautiful forgets to concentrate its energies on the brain.
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