After splitting up with her boyfriend at 31 and starting to date women online, would Laura Kaye find love?
C is Spanish. She tells me that life in London is so hard that it is making her into a hard person. She has stopped helping people because they take too much and do not give back. In Spain, it was always easy for her to get girlfriends, but in London she finds all the women to be sad and quemada, burnt. She works as a waitress in a restaurant in Chelsea. One of the waiters, a Polish man, has a problem with her being gay. A few days before I meet C, he came up to her and said there were some friends of hers in the restaurant. C said it was unlikely, because she knew nobody who could afford to eat there. He pointed to a table where two butch women were sitting and then burst out laughing. C wants to be an artist. She shows me a tattoo that she got that day of a flower. Every time she feels sad, she gets a tattoo. One day, she wants her whole body to be covered in them.
I dont know what I would have done without the internet. I came out when I was 31, after a brief and chaotic relationship with a woman, for whom my feelings ebbed away as dramatically as they had come, leaving me at times wondering whether I had ever had them in the first place.
Before that, I had been with a man for five years. He was my best friend, kind, intelligent and handsome, whose presence I found and still find reassuring. I loved him, but our relationship was curiously passionless. When it came to love, I just assumed I was a bit cold. I was different from most of my friends in that I found it easy to separate sex and emotion, I never got hurt or jealous, I had never had my heart broken. In my mid-20s, I began to wonder if I might be gay. I kept turning the idea over in my mind. But since it was based on a hard-to-define intuition of my being somehow different and not because I had ever felt attraction to a woman, it was easy to dismiss.
N is a bicycle courier. We meet at a bookshop wine evening. When I text her to ask how I will recognise her, she tells me she will be the only person there who looks like a bicycle courier. All day I wonder what this could mean. I picture a woman with strong arms and tattoos. When I get there, she is wearing cycling gloves and a peaked cap and does not take them off all night. Ive never met anyone who loves her job as much as N. She does not care that her friends are earning double what she earns. She loves hanging out in Soho Square with the other couriers, waiting for the next job to come in. She cycled to Japan. It was great, she tells me, but there were sadly no lesbians in Asia. Her next trip is going to be from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. I ask if she buys souvenirs along the way. She says she gives away anything she owns. She is 31, homeless and has no possessions except her bike, and that is how she likes it.
When I finally fell for a woman, I knew immediately that I had never had those feelings before with a man. I was overwhelmed. I followed the woman around like a little puppy dog, much to the amusement and bafflement of my friends, who had never seen this side to me. Then, all of a sudden, it ended, leaving me with a thousand questions, the most pressing of which was: am I gay?
In truth, I knew that I was, but I did not want to be. And there were so many confusing elements to weigh up. It seemed strange that I had never felt attracted to a girl at school or university; that in those febrile times of adolescence, I had never looked at another girl and thought about kissing her, never idolised an older girl at school or had one of those intense friendships that turn into something else. I thought that if it was so hard for me to fall in love, maybe the next individual would be a man. It is difficult to conclude anything from one experience, and yet it had undone everything. I had come out of it feeling dismantled, all my expectations for my life that I had never articulated laid bare. I needed to test my hypotheses about myself by finding another woman. That would be the proof.
That was where the internet came in. At that time, I had no gay friends; I did not know what queer even meant. I did not know how to be gay. I could simply get on with my life and wait for love to strike again, whoever it was, whatever their gender, but the question was too urgent for me, too insistent. So I decided I would start to date women, as much to find friends and some kind of community as to find love.
R is a trapeze artist in her spare time, and this means she always has bruises on the backs of her legs. She wants to meet me early, so she can be back home in time to watch Ice Road Truckers. When I ask what it is she likes so much about the show, her eyes light up and she tells me it is the music that creates a real sense of jeopardy. The trucks are driving over this dangerous road over a frozen sea, and they put cameras on the bottom of the trucks, so you can see how thin the ice is. Next week, she is going to Alaska with her sister. They are trying to visit every state in America. They chose Alaska because her sister thinks that is where real men are. R lives in a crumbling flat with no heating. She cannot get the landlord round to fix the heating because she does not want him to find out that she has a pet pygmy hedgehog: they are not allowed pets. It is nocturnal and runs around her bedroom at night. I ask if she is afraid she will step on it, but she says she hasnt so far.
I signed up to Guardian Soulmates and OKCupid (this was in the days before apps) and switched my preferences to women only. My first date was with an artist. I waited nervously in an empty cafe one summers afternoon. We talked for a long time about geodesic domes, until it was almost embarrassing. She made big surreal sculptures out of fibreglass. I spent most of the time staring at her, trying to work out if I found her attractive. Afterwards, cycling off, I thought with relief that the experience had been as sexy as a job interview.
Quite a few of the dates went like this. Each one that I did not find attractive seemed to be proof that I was not gay, which I knew was a perverse test, but one that was easy to buy into. Part of the relief also stemmed from the fact that I would not know what to do with a woman if I did like her. I was not confident at all when it came to women, especially those who had been gay for a long time and who I thought might regard me as a novice or even a timewaster.
K is studying to be a photographer. She loves Lars von Trier and we talk about the film Melancholia. If there was a planet hurtling towards the Earth, she would not kill herself in advance, she said; she would wait for the impact. She used to have two pet rats. Both are buried in Victoria Park. One was grey, one black and white. The grey one liked being stroked so much it was as if he was having a long orgasm; he would flutter his eyelids and get cross if she stopped. K has OCD and until recently could not eat in a restaurant without wiping the glasses and polishing the cutlery on her sleeve. She tells me she is a Top. I ask what that means, though I can guess. She says that she likes to be in control during sex. I ask what happens when she meets another Top. She says, I will win.