Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.

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Confessions Part 2: My date with a Cambodian girl

On my first night in Phnom Penh, a thunderstorm ravaged the sky and the heavens opened up to release a torrential downpour of which I hadn’t seen the likes of since I was in Singapore. I took a seat in the common room of the hostel and watched the storm roll through the sky. The common room was more of an open terrace area, with a bar, pool, and snooker table. As I sat watching the storm, one of the Cambodian girls who worked at the hostel approached me and introduced herself, before asking if I wanted to play a game of pool with her. I told her that I wasn’t very good, but she just laughed and said it didn’t matter. Her name was Sana, and throughout the course of our few games she even gave me a few pointers and tips, so that I began to be not quite as bad as I had been at the beginning of the evening. However, I had a big day of sightseeing ahead of me the next day, so after a few games I said goodnight to Sana and went to bed.

The next evening Sana was off duty, and after she finished she asked if I wanted to join her at a local bar down the road to play some more pool. They had cheap jugs of beer, she told me, so I got dressed and we headed down to continue my education in playing pool, and sink some balls and beers. A few more of her friends turned up, coming and going and having a beer or two here and there, and before long I realised that we’d been there for a couple of hours, and had polished off several jugs of beer. It was at this point that Sana mentioned something about going dancing. After a few more probing questions, I gathered that Sana was talking about going to a nightclub later. Sure, I thought, why the hell not?

I’m not sure if something got lost in translation, or whether I was just oblivious to the signs, but to me the whole thing still seemed totally innocent at this point – a few beers and a drunken dance with a new friend. We went back to the hostel, because Sana said that I needed to get changed, and that she had “a nice dress to go dancing in” that she wanted to put on. Figuring we would be going to some of the nicer places in the area, and not just the street side beer gardens, I switched my singlet and thongs for a collared shirt and enclosed shoes. After I got changed, she told me that we had to go back to her house first, so she could change into her dress. I didn’t know why she couldn’t just change at the hostel too, but at this point I had relinquished any control over the direction that the evening was taking. So as I stood at the top of the stairs while Sana chattered to her mother and sisters from inside another room, who occasionally peeked through the ajar door to get a better look at me, I came to the realisation that I had unwittingly let this scenario become, for all intents and purposes, a date.

The first bar we went to was called Heart of Darkness, which only had a handful of patrons, most of whom were nursing beers and playing pool. As we sat down on one of the couches, Sana scooted right over next to me so that our knees were touching, and that was when alarm bells really started to go off in my head. So naturally, I asked what she wanted to drink. “Whatever you’re having, you’re the boss.” As I ordered two margaritas, I also realised that this time the shoe was on the other foot for me – as the man in this situation, it looked like I would be paying for this date. I still had no idea how it had happened, or how I was supposed to get out of it. Sana became even more flirty and a little bit tactile, getting closer so our knees where pushed together. Despite my best attempts to shuffle into a less suggestive position, I had to face the fact that my inaction or disinterest in the situation were not going to get the message across. So that was when I grew some balls and finally said what I thought everyone should have already been thinking.

“Hey, I need to say something. And I probably should have said it ages ago, and sorry that I didn’t… But you should probably know that I’m gay.” I didn’t feel the immediate change in atmosphere that I was expecting, and for a moment of horror I thought she hadn’t heard me, and that I would have to repeat the awkward confession again. But after a moment, Sana half-heatedly mumbled something, barely audible over the music. “Whatever you want to do, that’s cool. Whatever you do, that’s okay.” It was a better reaction than I had expected, though it wasn’t a hundred percent clear that she had understood what I had said. I tried to keep the positives coming by assuring her that I still wanted to dance, so we changed venues to another club called Pontoon, which had a few more people who were up and dancing. That still didn’t help the mood though, and I ended up buying her another drink, just because I felt so bad. We did dance for a little bit, but the mood had officially taken a nose dive since I dropped my bombshell, and in the end she was feeling drunk enough for me to walk her home. I did that, thanked her for the evening, and gave her a hug before retiring back to the hostel.

***

Coming out is a very peculiar thing. Most of the time we think that once we’ve done it – made that big step towards being openly homosexual – we’re out of the closet and that’s that. I still remember the little thrill I had after confiding in many of my close friends, one by one, and the relief that came with releasing another fragment of that burden. But once it’s done, you never really expect to have those nerve-wracking experiences, uncertain of how people will react or how you’ll be received. I had a pretty gay life back at home – I worked in a gay owned business, I went out to gay bars every weekend, most of my friends were either gay men or fag hags. I also took a lot of gender studies classes at university. I never made a huge point about disclosing my sexuality, but I was just used to people assuming I was gay based on a lot of the facets of my life. Either that, or it just comes up in conversation when meeting new people. I mention it in passing, or add it into part of a story to provide some context, but I never had to flat out say it just for the sake of saying it.

But when I was so removed from my old life, and thrust into a position that was blatantly assuming my heterosexuality, I really struggled to stay true to my identity as a gay man. Coming out the first time is hard, but having to do it again can be just as difficult. It feels as though you’re in a constant backslide, with a constant need to reaffirm your identity and save yourself from falling back into the script of normativity. Especially in South East Asia, where even the legalities of homosexuality still seem a little blurry, you never know how people are going to react. Maybe Cambodian girls just have really bad gaydars: in Sihanoukville I had another hostel worker girl doing splits by the pool for me in her bikini, and begging me to buy her a beer. It was uncomfortable, and there was no real way to stop the suggestive advances without making some kind of proclamation that would only result in more awkwardness for everyone.

And that really does suck. I hate feeling uncomfortable just for being myself. And I hate to think that I probably made Sana quite uncomfortable too. She was a lovely girl and I wouldn’t wish what I put her through upon anyone. Having said that, I don’t think what happened was entirely my fault. It was just a failure to communicate my feelings on something that Sana herself was being very clear about. In my journey so far, I’ve learnt a lot about myself, done some things I never thought I’d do, grown as a man, and ultimately, I’ve changed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but amongst all the change I need to stay true to myself, and not let go of the fundamental things that make me who I am.