The first thing I remember is the yellow and black neon sign: Men’s Bar. It stuck out in the cold, foggy darkness of the Copenhagen night. I was drunk as usual. A lone traveller doing the rounds of a new city’s gay venues. I love those nights. I head out by myself, sit down with a beer, and quietly observe the people around me. This was before the advent of the iPhone and 3G internet. There was no hiding in Facebook or Grindr, communicating with people through ‘windows’ from afar. I would sit there with my beer and eventually, without fail, someone would strike up a conversation, and I’d make new friends. I’d usually get laid too.
As I strode up to the neon sign, the happy warmth of my drunkenness offsetting the chill of the Scandinavian winter, I was surprised to see a young man stoically clutching the railing of the small set of stairs leading up to the bar entrance. Initially I thought he was holding himself steady to keep from falling backwards but as I came closer still, I realised he was trying to prevent himself from being evicted. There, on the steps with him, was another man patiently but sternly prying his hands from the railing with slow, strong determination. The entire operation was taking place in silence, and because of the lack of violence or aggression I happily slipped past the two, into the gloomy bar, where my eyes immediately began to explore.
It was a dark and seedy venue, where women weren’t allowed, but which welcomes men of a certain age, who have overcome the delusions of their youth. Men who’ve given up on the pursuit of beauty, and the capitalist, consumer-driven psychology that prioritises the cosmetic over the tangible. That lifestyle all gay men explore during their homosexual adolescence and that encapsulates the extraordinary depths of vanity and hedonism for which many of us are known. Well, most gay men explore it. And some never leave.
I did a quick scan of the venue and was struck by how small it was. The barely lit, sepia interior revealed a couple of upturned barrels and a smattering of bar stools resisting the gravitational effect of the actual bar, which had attracted a few regular flies through the warm familiarity of its relatively handsome, young tender. His mission, it would seem, was to keep them awake. Or alive. Beside the bar was a dark, black space that I instantly identified as the ‘back room’; it emanated a mixture of shame, stale semen and possibility.
Having surveyed the room I sidled up to the small cluster of downtrodden patrons seated at the therein and, enjoying their interested glances, took my time examining the display of beers on offer. After selecting the cheapest looking drop I ordered a stubby and plonked myself down on a stool to the right of an elderly man whose tall, slender build and flowing silver hair betrayed the heritage of a Viking. Despite his (at least) 80 years of age, I could discern the cast and gait of a sexy, strapping young man in his features and physique, and was immediately entranced by his general stillness. He was a serious looking fellow who drank his beer and stared straight ahead. Buzzing around to his left was a shorter, middle-aged man, dressed in a crisp, patterned shirt and slacks, and who clearly hadn’t quite come to terms with no longer being 20. As I settled into my stool the 80 year old glanced at me, a look I caught and returned with a sweet smile to indicate that I’d like to talk if he was up for it.
He took the obvious course initiating conversation and asked where I was from, having doubtless determined my foreign-ness due to my inability to order in Danish and my being a short, dark-haired hobbit adrift in a sea of Scandinavian warrior-gods. I was immediately struck by the deep musicality of his voice. Many Danes seem to have an inherent vocal musicality, his was baritone, and coated in the historic rust of a long life.
“Australia” I informed him, still smiling to make him realise I was in the conversation for the long haul “I’m here for a semester at the University of Copenhagen”. He seemed to enjoy this so we got talking about my studies, about travel and about the Royal Family; it was not long since Princess Mary had married Frederik so there was a heightened sense of interest between our two countries at the time.
Another couple of beers passed, with me chatting to my new, old friend while the bartender and more energetic homo watched on, every now and then interjecting to re-establish their right to eavesdrop. As the conversation continued we shifted from talking about me (a favourite topic), to talking about him. At this point I should confess that I don’t remember the name of my Danish man, but remember that it was something traditional. Lars perhaps, or Bjorn or Kasper. Let’s call him Kasper because he still, and will always, haunt my memory.
I asked him about his life in Denmark, where he’d grown up, if he had always been in Copenhagen. I asked him about being gay and what that had been like; it’s a subject I always find interesting because the homo-cultural landscape has altered so rapidly and so dramatically over the years. At the beginning of the 21st century, for example, the prospect of me coming out in cosmopolitan Melbourne seemed ominous and laced with probable persecution. Today that same experience is almost the norm, and I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for people who are older, who were born into conservative 1930s Europe where a few years later homosexuals were being carted off to concentration camps. Indeed, my imagination was running wild at this point with stories of the evil Nazis impeding a blissful wartime love affair between two angelic schoolboys during the Danish occupation.
It turned out, however, that Kasper had lived quite a traditional life. A life that would seem unremarkable to the average Joe, but was entirely remarkable to me. Kasper had been married for over 40 years, and had resolutely lived a lie the entire time. He’d known he was gay since his early 20s he said, but he’d stayed with his wife out of a sense of duty. He had taken his wedding vows very seriously, had stuck by the poor woman for 60-odd years and had 3 wonderful children, each of whom was now in their 40s, with their own family! Here, of course, my imagination began to run wild once more. The inevitable, torrid affairs! There must have been tragic love, covert sex and the eventual realisation that it wasn’t to be. That he must fulfil his duty and his obligation to his family.
I wanted to hear about the tears and joy, the meetings and dalliances. I had no issue with his situation from a moral perspective. I knew that some ‘straight’ men were gay. I knew that they fucked about on their wives and children, and ordinarily I judged them harshly. But Kasper was from a different time. A time when it might not have been safe for him to come out. He might have lost his job, his friends, his family…he might have been physically assaulted or even killed. We can’t all be brave pioneers for gay rights and I could understand how he might get caught up in his lie – I just wanted to know all about it.
Despite my excited curiosity, however, I was to be disappointed. Kasper had never been unfaithful. He promised in earnest that, while he had known for decades ‘what he was’ he had never cheated. It had been his wife and no other. It was only in the last couple of years since she’d had passed away that he had begun to explore his sexuality.
“Did your wife ever suspect anything?!” I asked, incredulous that a person could have sufficient restraint to deny their true nature for the better part of a century. “There was once”, he replied, the nostalgia of the episode evident in his voice and expression, “when we were walking down the street in the small town that we lived in, and a beautiful young man walked past us. He was tall and tanned with golden hair and I turned to look at him as he wandered by. I glanced only briefly but my wife noticed. She must have noticed before as well, and she asked ‘Why do you turn to look at the young men but never the girls?’ I didn’t know what to say”.
So she did know. I thought. And he wasn’t the only one making a sacrifice. I wondered then if she’d ever cheated. If she’d suspected that her husband was gay and was having an affair, so had one of her own. But I said nothing.
“And so what happened when she died?” I asked.
“I wasn’t bound by our wedding vows anymore.” explained Kasper, “I felt as if death had parted us and I was free to be…what I am”.
“So you started coming here?“
“Yes, to Men’s Bar.”
“And what about your kids? What have they said?”
“They don’t know. I will never tell them what I am.”
He kept repeating this phrase, and it’s truly the part of Kasper that will haunt me forever: ‘what I am’. I remember the words so vividly, because they seemed to emerge from the very depths of his psyche. They represented the truth he’d been trying to express for a lifetime, but still couldn’t bring himself to say. These words were the closest Kasper might ever get to ‘I am gay’.
His confession shocked me at first, but I understood it. Here was a man who probably wouldn’t live all that much longer – who knows, he may well be dead now. And he wasn’t looking for a new love affair, just to salvage the final years of his lost gay youth; to spend a little time trying to be true to himself.
“What about friends?? Does anyone know?!” I demanded.
“My friends here at Mens’ Bar” he replied, gesturing around the tepid room.
“Aren’t you worried that someone will catch you?”
“No one I know would come here.”
“They probably think that about you.”
“Then we’ll catch each other.”
“And how long have you been coming?”
“Only a couple of years”
This next question you probably shouldn’t ask a man his age but I was so fascinated by Kasper’s story I couldn’t help myself.
“And… have you had sex with another man??”
“Yes. I have. For the first time a few months ago. He gave me a blowjob out there, in the back room.” My gaze followed his hand as he gestured to the dark, empty space.
I looked up and stared into that darkness, watching a vision play out in my mind. I imagined Kasper being led out there slowly, foggy from age and alcohol. Being taken into a still corner of the seedy expanse so that he would have something to lean up against. Being given a salty, sweaty kiss by a relative stranger who then got down on his knees, loosened Kasper’s belt and took his cock in his mouth. I wondered how it had felt. Whether there had been a kind of emotional release, the kind that happens when you return home from a hard day’s work and are finally able to relax. I wondered whether he’d been able to cum.
It was then that I started to feel incredible sadness for Kasper. This silver-haired ghost sitting next to me in the gloomy light, having deprived himself for so long, haunted by his own homosexuality. I wanted to hold him and caress his leathery skin. To kiss him tenderly and make him feel loved. To take him home to my apartment and lay him down in bed and take his clothes off, take off my own and let him hold my naked, youthful body, with sunlight streaming through the windows to drive away the shadows he was used to, once and for all. I wondered whether the sunlight would cast a spell over Kasper, erasing the wasted years and transforming him into a young Danish man with the world at his feet and the future in the palm of his hand. I wanted to give him the gift of my flesh. Let him taste my cock and ass and chest and groin and smell the smell of a man’s sweat and cum as in a lengthy, passionate embrace. I wanted him to at least have that. But as my thoughts faded back into the darkness, reality set back in.
We sat in silence for a while, Kasper and I. In my mind the whole bar stopped speaking, but I’m sure it was just the two of us. Then as I got up to say goodbye, I gave him a kiss on the cheek, a lingering kiss, hoping that my soft lips would leave some kind of impression, and I promised to return in the coming weeks to talk further. I meant it at the time, and turned up again late one evening, but Kasper wasn’t there.
He looked up at me as I was leaving, this beautiful ghost of a man, smiled a faint smile and shook my hand firmly. He was no victim. Perhaps he could have been happier had he made other choices. He could have been brave and blazed a trail for those who would come after, but that would entail its own set of sacrifices, and plenty of heartache. Instead, he’d chosen a life in the shadows, and he would spend the rest of his days lurking there. But he will have a small legacy. I will live my life as a gay man for all the things Kasper felt he needed to give up. I will live for Kasper, in the sunshine. And people will know what I am.
Roland Taureau is an Australian writer and performer currently hiding out in the middle of the Aussie desert. On the weekends he dresses up in women’s clothes and struts around the sandy hills, imbuing new colours upon the arid landscape. Roland also traverses the theatre and cabaret scenes in Australia and Europe, terrorising audiences with the sardonic and sexualised humour of his alter ego, Prince Pout III.
Falco Verholen is a Dutch ftm artist with a weak spot for the mysterious, otherworldly and animalistic. He loves telling stories through art, comics and video. Currently working on several game projects. Lover of indie games, nature, Murakami, internet comedy, seriousness, silliness and discovering / connecting art, stories and above all, people.