“I just can’t believe you missed it,” said Caroline as she cut into her avocado toast. “It was my wedding, you know? And I really wanted all my friends to be there.”
“I’m sure it was still a special day without me,” I offered, sipping my cappuccino. I’d ordered nothing else, knowing how overpriced this place was and deciding to have breakfast at home (something else which had annoyed Caroline — now you’re just going to sit there and watch me stuff myself like the fatty pig I am, she’d moaned, stick-thin as ever.) “It looked great in the pictures.”
“I know, but…” She glanced at the bustling Dalston street with a sigh. “Well, you know what I mean!”
“No, I don’t!” I took a breath. “Look, I may not know much about weddings, and romance, and… healthy relationships, but surely the day was about you and Matt. Right?”
“I guess, yeah.” She seemed dubious. “I just know you would have loved that place. It’s gorgeous up in the Highlands. Probably quite similar to where you’re from in Denmark.”
“I don’t know about that…”
“And the cottages were so glam, honestly.”
“Yeah, I’m… sure at fifteen-hundred a head, they would’ve been…”
“Who knows when I’ll arrange a big, fab holiday for all my friends again? It’ll never be anything as grand as that, obviously…”
“Caroline. Why are we still talking about this? It was two years ago. You bring it up every time I see you…”
“I know, I know.” She sipped her pineapple smoothie and gave a strained smile. “Guess I’ll just have to invite you next time there’s a big trip.”
“Sure. Please do.” Please don’t. The truth was I didn’t particularly fancy spending a week in the company of a bunch of straight people I didn’t know, in accommodations that would reduce my already fragile bank balance to nil. I hadn’t fancied it then, and I didn’t fancy it now. It was all right for Caroline. She was a lead designer at Yellow Bee in Soho, while I was still a junior stuck at Zesty in Kilburn, even though we’d both been in the business the same number of years. I guess she was just more of a people person than me. She’d worked a series of fixed-term stints, was well-liked and knew about opportunities going everywhere. A good connection to have, which was why I caught up with her every few months when she reached out. God knows what she gained from it. A listener, I suppose. Or an accessory. The much-vaunted Gay Bestie.
I slurped the last of the cappuccino foam. Across the busy room, I thought I saw a guy I’d once had a bad one-night-stand with.
Caroline had moved on to the topic of Matt, who never cleaned the house, but got offended when she suggested he do it since he, a freelance sound engineer, spent more time at home. “And it’s just like, why do we have to fall back into these traditional gender roles? It’s so not what I wanted our life together to be, you know? His best suggestion was that we hire a cleaner, so we won’t be arguing about it anymore. And it’s like, yeah, we could do that, but I don’t want us to be those people, you know? When we have children, I don’t want them to see us as these people who have a cleaner. But God knows when that’ll happen, the kids. Because I feel like that’s another thing where his head’s just not in the game. I mean… are you listening? Malthe. You’re on your phone.”
“Sorry.” I looked up from a message from my flatmate Aoife about watching a film that evening. “I just… sorry.”
Caroline rolled her eyes. “Anyway, it’s all a bit frustrating. He’s frustrating.”
At least you have someone, I wanted to say, but knew I shouldn’t. Matt was hot. I’d love to have someone like him in bed with me every night.
I tried to look on the bright side. “Didn’t you say last time that he did that really sweet thing with the…at-home spa…surprise thing?”
“Yeah, but that was in April. That was, what, three months ago. It’s like the Janet Jackson song. What has he done for me lately, you know?”
I laughed, then realised from her stern face that it wasn’t meant as a joke. I shrugged. “He always struck me as pretty…sweet and understanding. I’m sure that…you can just talk these things out with him. Right?”
That was the wrong thing to say. She glared. “No, but Mal, I told you. That’s the thing. I try talking to him and he just gets super evasive.”
I nodded slowly. “All right. So he’s being a twat. That sucks.”
“Right?! I’m glad you agree.”
“Anyway…” I sipped the nothing left in my cup. “At least you have someone. Dating in your thirties is not fun. I mean, it wasn’t fun in my twenties either…”
“What do you mean? I’m sure it’s fab,” said Caroline while shooting off a text. “You’re single, you’re independent, you can just go out whenever and, like, meet someone walking down the street…”
I grimaced. “It’s not quite like that.”
“Oh my God, actually. Actually.” She put down her phone and pointed her fork at me. “You should meet my friend Jeff. He would be perfect for you. He’s so fit.”
“Oh — okay…”
“That’s him.” Unrequested, a picture was shoved in front of me on her phone. It showed Caroline standing next to a tanned, grinning guy in aviator sunglasses and a vest, Pride flags daubed across his cheeks. “That’s us at Pride.”
“He’s fit, right?”
“Yeah, he seems…very physically fit and hearty…Hey, so have you heard of any jobs going at —”
“Should I give you his number?” asked Caroline as she packed away her phone. “Or I can give him yours and tell him to drop you a text. And you guys can just sort something out.”
“I mean, let’s maybe pump the brakes a bit. What’s he like? Do I even… have anything in common with him?”
She shrugged as she skewered the last of the poached egg. “You’re both single. Both fab.”
I stared at her, waiting for more. That was it.
Her eyes widened with a realization. “Oh my God, that’s another reason you should’ve come to the wedding! You could’ve met him. I could have put you two in the same cottage.”
That Sunday night, I’d invited Caroline — once again — to see me perform at Mike’s Open Mic in Angel. The upstairs room of the pub was emptier than usual — only about fifteen bums in the seats. I was stood at the back with Aoife, hopping slightly up and down, while on stage Jared wrung laughs from his usual routine about how his girlfriend didn’t understand sports.
“You nervous?” Aoife whispered.
“Always,” I said, shaking my head at myself. A woman entered from the stairwell, carefully transporting a pint. I squinted. Not Caroline. “I can’t believe Caroline isn’t here. I mean, I can, but…she promised the other day that for once, she’d make it.”
“Five years, I’ve been doing this now,” I muttered. “And she hasn’t made time even once to see me. God, I’m so sick of her…insincere bullshit.”
“I think you’ve just got straight people burn-out. You need to spend less time around straights.”
I gave a hum of agreement.
Just then I received a text. Speak of the devil. So sorry babes but will have to miss u tonight! This weekend’s been manic so Matt and I are taking it easy. But best of luck! C
I stared at the message. I packed away my phone. Aoife was saying how Theo, her partner, had said they’d join us for drinks around ten; they were just pulling a late shift at the helpline, but hoped to see me perform next time. I nodded and said a vague word of thanks. I was thinking about Caroline’s wedding, how she kept badgering me for not having attended. Well, my stand-up wasn’t as important as a wedding, but still. I felt a hot prickling all over, coupled with the pre-show nerves. And now Jared had vacated the stage, and fuck, Mike the emcee was announcing me: “He’s a funny dude, a long-time regular and someone whose name always makes me think of a dry Scotch whisky — it’s Malthe!”
Aoife squeezed my shoulder and let out a whoop as I barrelled to the stage. I grabbed the mic from Mike and faced the glare. My heart was pounding.
I’d prepared two routines — one my usual brand of jokes about bad hook-ups and bad dates and getting ghosted, the other about Caroline. The first was a safe bet. Wouldn’t alienate anyone. I’d spent time crafting it, memorizing it. The other, the Caroline one, was angry and bitter and couldn’t be done if she’d been here and, well, might not prove funny to anyone other than myself. Plus, I’d dashed it off in about five minutes and hadn’t really bothered to learn it properly.
I should really do the first one.
Standing there as the applause died down and I shielded my eyes against the glare, I felt an urge to do the second.
The room was silent. A sea of darkened faces stared back, expecting me to somehow make them laugh, and soon.
The trouble was, I couldn’t even remember how the routine started. My stomach lurched. Fuck — how the fuck do I start?
I stared at the impatiently shifting crowd in front of me.
Oh. Oh, yeah.
I growled into the mic: “Straight people.”
There were some nervous titters.
Still, I covered my eyes with my hand.
I breathed in.
“Phhhhhhhhhhh… Straight people.”
More laughs this time.
I let the pause stretch on, let it eat into my five minutes on-stage until the pause became the joke. Mike was probably shitting himself, thinking I was having some kind of breakdown. Someone — probably Aoife — gave a few claps. Bless her.
I lowered my hand and looked up. “Straight people don’t get it.” I started pacing. “They don’t! I’m sorry, but you don’t. Straight people — don’t — get it.”
A ripple of giggles. They were following me. They were with me on this trajectory.
“I have this friend. Her name is, uh, Charlotte. Charlotte’s straight. Charlotte doesn’t get it. We’ll be catching up in some brunch place that she’s picked, where it’s like, twenty quid and your first-born child for some honey granola, and she’s like” — I mimed sitting down, looking up with a squinty grimace: “Oh my God, Mal! I can’t believe you didn’t come for my destination wedding in the Highlands so you could pay hundreds of pounds to sit and make small talk with all my straight friends who you don’t know, and be there in the background for my super-special day!” I made a sad-clown face. “Mal! You could’ve sat there while all my straight friends got drunk and flirted and snuck off to have sex! You missed your chance to stand by and applaud my super-special, societally accepted relationship with a hot man which you will never have.” I dropped my voice into a deeper demonic register. Then raised it back up to Caroline’s whiny inflection. “How could you do that? How could you be so inconsiderate?” I mimed picking up food from my plate and throwing it.
The audience was laughing. A lot. This was working.
“Straight people don’t get it.” I paced again, buzzing. “Charlotte doesn’t get it. She doesn’t! Do we have any queer people in the room tonight? Come on, shout it out! Don’t be shy. You’re safe. This is a safe space.”
Aoife whooped. A couple of male-sounding shouts followed.
“Good! Good!” I grinned. “Oh my God, you’re here! You made it! Thank you for that, for shouting out just now. Thank you for your bravery.” I did a military salute. “Have you ever had this from a straight person — my friend Charlotte does this” — I mimed sitting down over brunch again. “Oh my God, Mal. You should meet my friend…”
Laughs. Anticipatory groans.
“He’s gay… You would love him. I should set you two up. I should! You’re an item now, okay? It’s happening. Because he is the only other gay guy alive in the world, and he has a dick, you have a dick. It’s gonna be great. Yay! I fixed it. I fixed your love life. You’re welcome.”
More laughs. Proper, consistent laughter.
“Straight people don’t get it. Charlotte will be like “— Sad Charlotte face. “Aw, last night my hot husband surprised me with a special spa night at home, but I just wish he’d clean the house a bit more.”
“I’m like: Last night I saw my crush have sex with someone else right in front of me while I was too high on ketamine to walk.”
“Charlotte is like — hmmm, last week my husband and I went on this holiday to Bali and made love in our hut while the sun rose over the Indian Ocean, but sometimes I wonder, is there more to life than this?”
“I’m like: Last week I contracted gonorrhea for the third time from the same guy, and when I tried telling him, he called me a messy slut and blocked me.”
“Charlotte is like — hmmm, I’m thinking of having perfect babies with my perfect husband, but will I be too happy once I start a family of my own?”
“I’m like: Last night I got catfished on Grindr by this old man who opened the door and begged me to pee in his mouth.”
Even bigger laughs.
“Well, I’d already travelled all the way to Limehouse and I did need to pee, so I was like…”
I mimed begrudgingly unzipping and relieving myself. The crowd laughed.
“Straight people don’t get it.” I paced. I ran my eyes over the front row. “Except some of you. Some of you are all right! Everyone in this room is all right. But, fuckin’ hell… It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. When your dating pool is one percent of the population, and within that one percent, everyone’s got commitment issues, low self-esteem, drug addiction, sex addiction, mental health issues, fuckin’ terrible taste in music…” I paused for laughs. “Most of it stemming from horrendous childhood trauma, the trauma of realising that you’re not mummy and daddy’s perfect boy, you never will be, and you can’t ever be like all those happy — fucking — straight people.”
The crowd had gone quiet. I could just about see Aoife’s face at the back. She was glowing with pride.
“When I told Charlotte that, she was like” — I mimed sitting down again. “What’s that? I wasn’t listening. Do you wanna meet this other friend of mine who’s gay?”
The crowd laughed. My eyes sought out Mike at the wall. He grinned and sliced a hand through the air — time — and I shouted as I walked off, handing him the mic: “My name’s Malthe, you’ve all been great, thank you!”
“That was good,” said Aoife downstairs in the bar as she bought us two pints and handed me mine. “That was fucking good. Cheers.”
I gulped down the crisp IPA, still pulsating, levitating, with adrenaline. “I didn’t think it’d work. I thought I was gonna bomb. Thought I was gonna alienate them.”
“But you didn’t!” She set down her pint and rubbed my back, then fished out her phone. I suddenly saw shaky zoomed-in footage of myself, my blown-out, chalk-white face and ratty, oversized jumper.
“You filmed it?! I didn’t think Mike allowed that.”
“Fuck Mike. As soon as you said straight people in that voice, I knew I had to.”
I smiled and asked her to put it away; I hated that tinny sound of my own voice. Then I put down my beer and wrapped my arms around her in a tight and grateful hug.
The next day, Aoife put the video up on Facebook. At first I didn’t think anything of it — I was happy to see likes and laugh-reactions accumulating from her largely queer friends, even some shares. In fact, I kept checking on the post as I tried in vain to focus on work that Monday morning, sat in my corner of Zesty’s bright office, redesigning the logo animation for a laundry detergent to make it more “swooping” — whatever that meant.
How lucky, I thought to myself, that catching up with Caroline had actually given me some great material to work with. How brilliant that something so annoying from one part of my life could be used in another, totally separate —
Wasn’t Caroline friends with Aoife on Facebook?
“Hey, Aoife. I know you hate voicemails and so do I, but you haven’t replied to my messages, and hopefully when you see I’ve left a voicemail you’ll realise that it’s serious, so, uh. Listen, could you please take down the video of my performance? Because I just checked, and you’re friends with Caroline on Facebook, and so she might see it, and I really don’t want her to. But — thank you for putting it up. But please take it down. Okay, thanks, bye.”
I lowered the phone and stared out of the window in the stairwell. The streets of Kilburn were dull and grey in an incipient downpour. Doors slammed distantly. I checked the time — almost lunch — then saw a newly arrived message. From Caroline.
My heart sank into my stomach.
It read: Hey Mal. If you find it such a chore to spend time around me, then you really don’t have to. C
“Shit.” Too late. I struggled to compose a reply, but what the hell could I say?
Hey Caroline. I assume you saw the video and (understandably) were offended. In stand-up we often exaggerate things from real life…
No, don’t mansplain stand-up to her.
Hey Caroline, I’m sorry, but I feel it’s important to know the bit you saw wasn’t strictly about you. It was about a lot of things…
No. Not true. It had been about her.
Hey Caroline, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I hope we can still be friends.
Did I? Was I?
The message felt limp and ineffectual. Maybe silence was better. Maybe trying to fix this would only deepen the rift. Maybe this didn’t need to be fixed, and it was all somehow for the best. Maybe I was just a coward and a liar, good at lying to others, but especially myself.
God, the rush from last night did feel far away now.
I went back to my corner of the office to work, ignoring the knot of guilt in my gut. Maybe it, in time, like so many things, would subside.
After a while, I texted Aoife to tell her to keep the video up.
Erik Pardos Olsen is a Spanish-Danish writer, raised in Denmark. With a BA in Film Studies from Copenhagen University, he is currently based in London and writes fiction around themes of loneliness, dating, sex, and queer identity. When not writing, he is a professional video editor, occasional short film director, and actor. He is represented by Abi Fellows at The Good Literary Agency.