sweden’s west coast capital

IT WAS NEARLY TWO YEARS AGO when I met with some colleagues from a partner company at a business conference in Gothenburg, Sweden’s west coast capital. Known for its waterfront, architecture, and openness, Gothenburg sprawls along in an ever-welcoming air of freedom and tolerance, watched wisely over by a giant nude statue of Poseidon at Götaplatsen, the central square. 

It was there that I met with several colleagues from their British office, including Nicola, a senior ranking manager, and Martin, the head of marketing. I encountered Martin at check-in at the conference, where he was telling his loved one Alex that he had arrived safely and that he would call him back. Martin is married to Alex, you see, and they are both men. Night after night, we all went out together. As everyone else in our entourage was straight and female, that meant that I was the only person who was attracted to women.

This made for a wholly interesting experience.

Each night in Gothenburg degraded into a succession of restaurants and bars, and more alcohol was always just a snap of the fingers away. Such is the nature of international business meetings. It was amid this Scandinavian bakgrund that Martin, a spectacled, good-natured, gray-haired fellow of about 45 years who begins each morning with a jog, began to reveal the stories of his life. His awakening to his true nature began, of all places, in a public urinal in the Midlands sometime in the 1980s. He was about seven years old.

“How cliché,” he remarked. “Of all the places to figure out you are gay, I was in a men’s toilet.” 

It was a curious tale, to be sure, and it had me rummaging through long-discarded memories in the attic of my own childhood. When had I first realized I was attracted to women? Was it watching Madonna prance around to “Lucky Star”? Surely, I hadn’t come to the realization in any kind of public lavatory. Men’s lavatories smelled bad and were full of hairy men. It seemed the least amorous place I could think of. Because of this early encounter, Martin progressed to his membership in this alternative clan, the men who love men and not women. He showed me photos of a resort in the Canaries where only men dared venture. There were beaches and cafes where there were only men. Men swimming. Men eating. Men hugging. No women. Only men.

For me, it was like a scene from a science fiction film or just an ominous dream. A world without women. A sense of dread set in. Usually, in life, being alone with men was part of some kind of punishment. Organized sports, for instance. Or the army. Surely, at any moment, a belligerent coach or sergeant would appear and order these gay men to start doing jumping jacks.

Other than drinking, Martin and Nicola would spend the evenings checking out men. Once they had their eyes on a particular waiter who wore a blue shirt and was in good shape. Nicola, a freckled, voluptuous Scottish woman, wore an open black shirt that left little to anyone’s imagination, with a silver sparkling necklace draped across the knolls of her breasts, as if to rule out any chance that they could escape my notice. She was a stacked, well-built, high-bosomed Celt, and her tangles of red coiled hair were crimson and supernatural. How could Martin not see this? I wondered. How could he not appreciate this? Why was he gawking at a Swedish waiter? Instead, he pulled out his phone to show me a photo of a royal guard he had taken in Stockholm. First he showed it to Nicola, then to me. “Look at how beautiful this guard is. Isn’t he amazing?”

I didn’t know what to say. It looked like a man in a uniform. The uniform looked uncomfortable.

“But what do you think about me?” I ventured. “Do I look all right?” They whispered to each other. “Not in that shirt,” said Nicola. “No one would be interested in a man wearing a shirt like that!” It was some black thing someone had gifted me ten years ago. I hadn’t thought anything about wearing it. Or anything else. They laughed harder. What kind of strange world did they inhabit? A world where Swedish policemen were sexy and Scottish tarts were nothing to lose sleep over? A world where magic took place in public toilets? A world where shirts mattered?

It was Pride Month, and the trams of Gothenburg were festooned with rainbow flags. They shuttled this way and that, like imperial warships of old. One evening, Martin toasted the trams and rainbow flags with his beer. “One month, that’s all we get,” he said. “Eleven months out of the year, we live in shame. Some of our families are ashamed of us, even though they say they aren’t, and we’re also ashamed of ourselves at times. But each year we have this one month.”

By this point, I was exhausted. I wanted to retreat back into my world, a world of women, a world of women who are neurotic and throw things at you even when you try to compliment them, or ignore you, or just do mysterious things you can’t begin to understand. The soothing motion of watery, emotional, curvy women. I was tired of rainbow flags, Swedish waiters, royal guards, men’s toilets, and ugly shirts. I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin. In that moment, I understood how exhausted Martin must feel. As he said, for just one month out of the year, he could live openly in his world. The rest of the time he was forced to live in mine.

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