When I go to the pool what I do is I get a locker first and put my backpack and my jacket in the locker. To get a locker you need a one pound coin and if I don’t already have a one pound coin I will ask for change at the desk which they are always happy to supply. Once my backpack and my jacket are in the locker I take my drawstring bag out of my backpack and go to the changing room to change into my swimming trunks. I used to have these Adidas trunks in what you might call the speedo-brief style but they started wearing out because of the excess chlorine in this pool so now I just wear some blue beach shorts I bought from Fat Face a year ago before I went to Croatia. They drag in the water but they’re okay.
After changing I go back to the locker to put everything back in the locker before I go to the pool. Yesterday I was doing this when I found my access to the locker blocked by another guy who was putting some stuff back into his locker directly below mine. So I stood there and waited for a moment, holding all my clothes and my drawstring bag and my little oilcloth sponge bag which my girlfriend hand-sewed for me and my swimming goggles and the key to my locker and I’m waiting for him to put his things away. At first I thought he hadn’t noticed me but then just after he closed his locker, just after he got to his feet, just after he began walking towards the men’s changing room, he tilted his head in my direction and said: ‘fag.’
For a moment I really thought he’d said ‘thanks’ which a certain kind of Estuary English can pronounce as something like ‘fanks’, but then he turned his head again towards me, as if to catch me in his periphery, to confirm that I’d heard what he had said so quietly. He went into the changing room. I put my clothes and everything else in my locker and went into the pool.
There are moments in one’s life – no, that is wrong: moments in my life, I should say – when I feel like I’m living out the events of some absurd short story, one in which some hidden power is constantly leaving banana skins in my path and garden rakes in the long grass. Obstacles to make me hurt enough to feel I matter. At first I thought I must have been mistaken and that maybe I misheard, or he didn’t say anything at all, or he said something but it wasn’t to me, or it was something in another language, or he really was just saying ‘thanks’ because I’d been so patient in waiting for him to put his stuff away and not been all ‘EXCUSE ME’ and tried to lean over him and thrust my crotch in his face while he was still down there which I would guess he’d like even less. But the explanation which required the fewest unreliable assumptions was that he had called me a fag.
While swimming, I thought of all the different ways I could have responded. I could have walked over to him and tapped him on the shoulder and been all ‘excuse me sir you dropped something’ POW slamming the hard base of my palm into the tip of his nose, driving fragments of cartilage into his neanderthal brain if I’m lucky, spraying blood and other assorted bodily fluids across the beige tiled flooring. Or, equally confrontational but righteously nonviolent, I could have just dropped all my stuff on the floor then and there and got all Brixton on him and been all ‘EXCUSE ME WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME’ and then if he were like ‘fag, i called you a fag, fag’ I’d be all ‘NO YOU DIDN’T, YOU SAID ‘FANKS’, BECAUSE YOU WERE SAYING THANK YOU BECAUSE I WAS SO PATIENT WITH YOU’ and he’d be all ‘ok sir sorry for the misunderstanding sir’.
The most appealing option to me was public humiliation. I wanted it to go like the second option, except there’d be lots of people around to hear what he said to me – good, right-thinking people, housewives and children and a few tough blokes who used to be in the army – to hear what he said to me and to be so disgusted at him and sympathetic to me and to take my side when I would go to the reception and ask for this awful man to be banned from the leisure centre for life.
And yet even while I was thinking all these things I couldn’t remember what the guy looked like. His face was a shapeless blur to me, a sort of haze of hate and anxiety and deep-rooted daddy issues. He had ceased to be anything except the guy who called me a fag. He was a NPC who had played his part in temporarily undermining the confidence of my avatar. The moment when he called me a fag had been the apogee of his existence. When he went into the changing rooms he had no more reason to exist, had simply blinked out of existence, and now he had never existed in the mind of anyone else except me. Fag.
In the pool I wasn’t wearing my glasses and without them the world takes on a whole new vagueness. I looked hard at everyone who approached but of course it was not him. Perhaps I would not have recognised him even if it were. I started to feel stupid. I blamed myself. I had been standing too close to him. I shouldn’t have been looking at him in that way I have of looking at people that makes them feel weird. This has always been a problem for me. Everybody says so. And I am a skinny guy with a floppy haircut and glasses and a sponge bag, all of which might seem to a certain kind of person kind of, well, faggy. When I am thinking all these things in the pool I’m swimming faster, more forcefully than usual; this is also when I imagine my most violent retributions.
After I get out of the pool the first thing I do is go back to my locker and open it up and take out my towel and my sponge bag then I go to one of the shower cubicles with a little door and I shower and I wash with Dove for Men shower gel and a supermarket brand of combined shampoo and conditioner. I wash my hair twice. I used to just wash with water but my girlfriend complained that I still smelled like chlorine when I got home. There are other showers open to everybody where you come in from the pool but I don’t use those anymore, not because I’m shy about it but because it seems antisocial to inflict my toiletries on everybody else.
In the shower I started to feel like I really had no right to feel stupid or hurt or confused about anything at all. I have had so many things easy in life. I was lucky enough to be born in possession of a certain amount of what they call privilege which I too frequently take for granted. If I had born a little poorer or belonging to a different class or or with skin a different colour or of a different gender or sexuality surely I would have had to take a lot more of this kind of thing. And this was it? This was what was making me sad? I very much wanted to not feel anything at all.
And then what I realised is that I never used to feel anything about being called names. I was called all kinds of things at school and they didn’t say them quietly while they were walking away from me, they said them loudly and to my face, while looking in my eyes, and eventually it became such a frequent occurrence that it ceased to bother me. What I mean is that of course it bothered me but there was only so much bother I could take; it is exhausting, being bothered. My defence was a sort of stoicism. I really believed that all they wanted from me was a violent reaction and so I cultivated a perfectly impassive attitude to whatever humiliations were inflicted. Not that I really had it so bad even then. I never took a comprehensive beating. I did at least reserve the right to shove back if I were pushed. But I played that role for so long and eventually the mask becomes the face. I became my own indifference. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way. But now, quite unexpectedly, here were some feelings.
When you’re a child, you think that people grow up. You really believe in the myth of adulthood, the one spun by adults to keep kids in their place: that when you arrive at a certain point in your life you become changed forever in a way that automatically confers on you special rights and responsibilities. You really think that everyone will be good to one another because we will have all grown out of those bad things that children do because they are children and don’t know any better. All of this is a lie. Here is a secret: nobody ever really grows up.