That night I met a man – he was twenty-four – and he seemed to fancy me. IAn extract from ‘Spinning Plates’ – Sophie Ellis Bextor
don’t even remember checking if I fancied him. Boys hadn’t been interested in
me in my teens so it didn’t seem important who I liked.
Justin is nice. Justin is familiar. Justin is easy like a Sunday morning.
Here he is on said Sunday morning, cross-legged in his un-ironed chinos, sipping his coffee, a copy of Vogue draped across his leg.
…wait, Justin doesn’t read Vogue.
But today he does, apparently. That’s new. A regal-looking ebony-skinned model purrs at me from behind a glossy front page. Justin’s eyes aren’t moving. So either he’s frozen midway through the 200 pages of Gucci and Armani ads or he’s fixating on something internally. Something causing his brain to overheat.
I know Justin’s daydreaming face. Well, he doesn’t really daydream. He’s too assertive for that. Some people have ‘resting bitch face’. Justin’s face doesn’t rest. He constantly looks like he knows all the escape routes from a building and is sussing out another one, just in case.
Haha, ‘Justin Case’. Perhaps that can be my drag name, if I ever grow the balls to go outside in heels (and then tuck those balls back between my legs, cus, that’s generally the point of drag).
The house is too quiet. Waiting to be filled with music or TV or arguments; banal topics spat into the silence. Justin’s favourite hobby recently has been arguing. The littlest things. But I’ve found after years of… whatever this is with Justin… that the littlest things are what get to him most. We could break down on a motorway and calm, rational, sensible Justin will take care of things. But the smallest mess “don’t you have a cleaner?” Spending too much time on Candy Crush “you have ample free time, why waste it?” Or presents “I don’t see that Capricorn print I bought you anywhere. Did you not put it up? Did you not like it?” become serious sources of contention.
Perhaps I’m being paranoid, or defensive (highly likely) but they always seem like little opportunities to barb me about my job. Or more importantly, the luxuries that job provides me with. The money, the time, the adulation. This morning, it was coffee.
“Why do you make your coffee black?”
“I don’t know, Justin. I drink things too fast sometimes. So when it’s hotter I drink it slower, I guess?”
“So it was pointless giving you that milk frother then?”
“No, that was a nice gesture. I do use it sometimes”
“I moved it here from my place because there isn’t enough space in my kitchen. I thought you might want it.”
Little spats like these are like hairline fractures that zigzag their way into bigger cracks that I imagine consume all relationships at times. I say I imagine, because Justin is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a relationship. He is the benchmark, the only point of reference I have for what is normal and what is rational in a relationship.
For me, this feels like the closest thing I can have to love, without the world finding out. And he resents that. The fact that we have to keep it a secret. And every micro-managed decision we make is on my terms and not his. And those hairline fractures run like little estuaries into a split right through us.
“Why are you mailing your drag wigs to my house under my name?”
“Do I have to go another Christmas with my family pretending I’m not seeing anyone serious?”
“Why do you order Hello Fresh? Can we not be seen in a supermarket buying groceries together now, either?”
Justin wants a normal relationship. I would like that too. But I’m a Premier League footballer. That’s not a profession where people like me are allowed normal relationships.
As if right on cue, the delivery van hauls up at my front gate. Justin’s eyes break free of their spot on the page and notice. A smirk flickers on his face for a moment. Long enough for me to see. A chuckle slips through his lips. Loud enough for me to hear.
“I’ll leave you to pick that parcel up. Can’t let them know your boyfriend lives here sometimes too can we?”
He’s looking for a fight. But he’s going to be disappointed. I’m not in the mood. We had a period of a year or so where he never mentioned the sneaking around. I’d hoped it could be a pattern we’d slipped into. An unspoken understanding we’d reached. But that was selfish, or naïve to hope so. I started getting recognised out and about more often. And the wigs started showing up at his house, under his name, after he’d refused to order them for me if I sent him the money. To Justin, drag was just another lie for me to hide behind. The only hint of my true personality I would dare to show off.
Things I could be seen doing:
Drag – Yes
Justin – No
He still hasn’t shifted from his chair when I return with the parcel; as if the paparazzi has motion- detecting cameras fixed around my fucking living room window. He hasn’t apologised to me either. Normally that’s my role. I’m a chronic people-pleaser. I know how lucky I am for the lifestyle I have and I apologise every day for it. And myself. And any misdemeanours I may or may not have committed. It’s almost like survivor’s guilt. Apologising for my good career. When there’s an argument, regardless of who started it, it’s my fault.
I sit back down slowly, as if dipping my toe in cold water, waiting for a response from him. I would have just gone and sat in a different room but, this is my house. Justin is the one being a prick. I’ll stay where I am.
Justin’s brow is now a hard line, his gaze scanning the magazine like the laser pointers from a James Bond movie. I sit and stare at his face, the harsh outline of his jaw, the cold grey of his eyes, the slight curve of his broken nose. The bridge of it sticks out a little too much now. He complains about it regularly. He says his nose stops him from liking his face. He says he would be ‘traditionally handsome’ if his nose was just a tad smaller. I’ve offered to pay for a reduction before, but it was met with a harsh “oh, so you think it’s horrible too, then?”
Maybe this links back to the boyfriend thing. Maybe he assumes if he was prettier, or famous-ier, or husband material…ier… I wouldn’t be so cagey about being out and about with him.
But I’m not with Justin for his looks anyway. I’m with Justin because he… well, he… he bothered to delve beneath. Beneath my shiny surface of football and TV smiles and get to know the shy, confused gay man beneath. He understood. He was patient. But it wasn’t as much of a problem when my football team was in the lower leagues. It becomes a problem when you’re on Sky Sports every week. And FIFA. And touted as an England call-up hopeful. That’s when the cameras start to take notice.
A thought strikes me… clicks into place… and I see Justin differently for a moment, like a new filter on a camera. He feels depressingly similar to the reason I persevere with Jerome, my overblown fart of an agent. Convenience… and the fear of having to strip myself naked for someone all over again… and risk losing everything if it goes sour.
Eww, comparing someone whose dick I regularly put in my mouth to an overweight balding man in his sixties was not the mental image I was going for. But… maybe they both did serve similar purposes. Not the dick-sucking. But like plasters stuck over leaking wounds for so long that the adhesive has congealed with my skin… become an extension of it. Ripping free would be too painful now… the wound would just take too long to heal properly again. If ever.
Sitting next to Justin in that moment, I feel nothing but a gnawing sense of apathy. Like I could replace his nose… his clothes… his voice… anything, and be looking at a complete stranger.
I imagine him not here. Imagine him in someone else’s living room, or with them in the supermarket, or introducing them to family at Christmas time. And I picture me, sat here on my own, free from judgement. Free from the anxiety that accompanies collecting a parcel or ordering a wig online.
Would we both be happier?
I never really stopped to think if I liked Justin. I mean, I liked him… but I did I like him? Was he my type? Was he my kind of partner? The only prerequisite when we started talking all those years ago was that he had liked me. And that I should be grateful for that. Because if I didn’t have Justin, I really was alone. And unlovable. I was a gay footballer. Who I liked wasn’t important. If someone ever broke through that shiny façade of the football and the glamour and actually liked me for who I really was, I supposed I should just be silent and grateful and flattered; like a 19th century daughter looking to be sold off like cattle. “Oh, you like me, Mr Gentleman Caller? Let me hitch up my underskirts and bend over for you…”
The thought reminds me of once, after Justin and I had just had sex. It was the early days and I’d been drunk, giddy, stupid and decided to tease him. I’d rolled over to find my phone on the floor and dug out a picture of 2012 Callum and thrust the screen in his face. ‘Whaddya think?’ I’d giggled, watching as he drew back his face to focus on the screen, waiting for his horrified response. It was me with a disgracefully bushy emo fringe, with enough makeup caking my eyelids and forehead to rival Ryan Ross from an early Panic! At The Disco photoshoot. ‘Christ, is that you?’ He said, half laughing, half uncomfortable. Somewhere in the muffled clouds of post-sex bliss, a sense of embarrassment and hurt had trickled into my brain, like when you poke fun at yourself to make people laugh, but then those people agree with what you’re saying. Slightly offended, I’d just pressed on with making him squirm as much as possible. ‘Would you still fuck me if I looked like that?’
‘Well, no, you’re about thirteen in that picture.’
‘Sixteen, actually. So, legal. But I mean if I dressed like that now.”
Justin’s eyebrows had shot up, and he glanced at the ceiling. He’d probably just wanted some peaceful post-sex sleep, but his weird new fuck-buddy wouldn’t let him till he answered. “Well, you’re still the same person underneath. No matter what you do with your hair or… makeup, so yeah… probably”
“Ugh”. I’d rolled over. “Boooooring.”
“Well what do you want me to say? Ewwwww fuck off, I only like you when you look a certain way?”
I wasn’t sure what I’d wanted. Maybe the idea of someone wanting to have sex with me because they liked and cared about me was a foreign concept at the time, so I’d wanted to sabotage that too.
I sometimes think back and wonder what happened to that soft, understanding, patient Justin. Replaced now by the man sat cross from me, an angry mass of willowy limbs and sneering lips.
I shake my head. I’m being dramatic, and silly. But I’m still pissed off. And when my phone chooses that exact moment to light up on the coffee table with the incoming call of ‘April la Bonte’, I don’t try and hide it. For once, I quite relish the opportunity to piss him off too.
April la Bonte is an up-and-coming indie singer-songwriter. Straight-talking, good humour, and a big social media presence. The type you’d see slung on the arm of a member of the Arctic Monkeys. The Alexa Chung, Phoebe Bridgers type. Undeniably cool. She also did an acoustic set in Bournemouth’s ‘Sixty Million Postcards’ bar whilst clad in a ‘Callum Lovell’ football shirt with my name and shirt number 37 on the back.
Whether she was genuinely a football fan or just attempting to appeal to a more laddish market, the shirt got her trending locally on twitter. Immediately my name started flashing up everywhere and the people with keyboards and too much time on their hands started to gossip and speculate. The fact both our surnames started with a ‘La’ sound made the celeb couple amalgamation game very easy.
But it was only when the football club’s official social media pages started to join in that I started to take real notice. Perhaps they were hoping for their very own pop-star tie-in just like Newcastle United and Geordie Boy Sam Fender. All of a sudden there she was at the end of season football awards ceremony and me being the awkward, people-pleasing person I am, we exchanged numbers.
I don’t know why. Was it just sheer flattery? I mean, growing up, I had the odd bit of interest from girls. My face never really lost that boyish charm, and the age of ‘pretty-boys’ made popular again by Leonardo in Romeo and Juliet through to Justin Bieber and One Direction had served me well in terms of being ‘that shy cute one who is good at football’. April was very attractive in that ‘girl next door’ kind of way. Her hair was short and bob-like, her features sharp, pixie-ish and petit, which let her experiment with a range of androgynous, boyish and stereotypically girly looks. She’s 24, dazzling like a sunbeam and almost endearingly naïve to the etiquette of fame and public appearances. Her insta followers outnumber mine by almost 100K but meeting her made me realise that the football shirt and been no ruse. She was starstruck. It was our promotion season so my stock was already rising. But now I was pop singer-certified ‘cute’ as well.
The awards ceremony was dominated by photos of us. Headlines of ‘Indie- Pop Rocker finally gets her man’ and ‘April has her eyes on the South Coast’s Local Hero’.
Now let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Women just don’t do it for me. I know that. Justin knows that. April doesn’t know it yet, but soon will.
But that doesn’t stop Justin from hating her any less.
She invited me out to see a gig in the summer. I went, along with a few lads from the team. She was good. She gave me a shout-out which made me die a little inside. I didn’t tell Justin. Not until he’d already read the articles that came out after, and he didn’t speak to me for two days. I didn’t get so much as within ten metres of her all night, but for Justin, that didn’t matter. The fact was that I could be seen in public with her, and I couldn’t with him.
But the fact of the matter was that my stock was rising, on and off the pitch. Jerome had never been happier, and had moved swiftly to negotiate a new contract with the club for their ‘rising star’. I was on the up, and April was a useful facet to getting me there. We’d helped each other. Fame is essentially about marketing yourself just right, and we were delving into new fanbases together.
And right now… Justin could suck it.
“Hi April!” I say with an extra bite of enthusiasm than perhaps is necessary. “Tour finished already?”
Justin’s eyes are unreadable behind an icy sheen stare. He adjusts himself in his seat, rising slightly, as if he can’t decide whether to stay or go. In the end, he does so with cartoonish emphasis, as if to overcompensate for his indecisiveness a second earlier. The model from VOGUE on the front page goes down on the coffee table with a smack, and Justin stamps into the hallway.
April wants to meet in person next week. A coffee and a bite somewhere. It feels strange agreeing to plans and not overthinking the details. The who, the where, the what. But before I can appreciate this simple social act, my eye hovers over the headline in VOGUE’s centre-pages; specifically chosen, a tactful parting shot from Justin.
I cut the call as early as socially acceptable and pull the magazine towards me. The headline reads ‘Footballer Jake Daniels On How Coming Out Has Set Him Free’.
I’d heard about Jake. It was a lovely thing to see. Someone so early in their career having the bravery to open up about themselves. He’d won Blackpool’s Young Player of the Year award the previous season, so he clearly had promise.
But then I think about myself. In the Premier League. The idea of stepping out at Old Trafford, the Emirates Stadium, Saint James’ Park… all of which were on our fixture list this season, and being scared to go take a throw-in, literally metres from the paying public whose main goal in those moments are to get in opponents’ heads and put them off. What kind of things would they say to me? What kind of things would my own fans say? Was I thick-skinned enough to take it?
Or would I hide behind sparkly-eyed pop singers for the remainder of my career, while Justin slowly destroyed himself with jealousy in the shadows away from the cameras?
His message to me is clear, as Jake Daniels smiles warmly back at me in a cashmere alpaca coat. “This could be you, Callum. If only you had the courage to admit to the world who you are.”