Recognizing What They Had, 20 Years Too Late

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Modern Love

When I was an art student in London, I worked part time as a barmaid at a pub in Notting Hill. It was the perfect job for me. Being in a crowd of people every evening stopped me from feeling lonely, and the bar prevented anyone from getting too close.

I found relationships with people difficult. I was gay but didn’t know it yet. Growing up among the British landed gentry, I didn’t think gay was something I could be. All I knew was my friendships with girls were complicated by the fact that I sometimes wanted to kiss them, and my relationships with boys were complicated by the fact that I often didn’t.

Working in a pub was safe, where my contact with the patrons was confined to jokes and orders thrown across the bar above the high volume of rock music blasting from the jukebox in the corner.

A few months after I started working there, I arrived at my shift to find an unfamiliar guy leaning against the bar. He was laughing with his friends, a pair of crutches propped against the bar stool. He was the center of attention and clearly known by everyone, although I had never seen him before. His head was entirely bald, which suited him with his dark skin, and when he hobbled off to the bathroom, I noticed that one of his legs was missing below the knee.

I had been brought up to believe it was bad manners to ask questions, so it took a bit of eavesdropping before I learned that his name was Mikey, he was a regular, and he hadn’t been in the pub when I started working because he was in the hospital having his lower leg amputated — apparently because of cancer.

Soon I started looking for him whenever I arrived. If I saw him approaching the bar, I would pour his drink, anticipating his order, and watch his face light up when I pushed it toward him. He must have eavesdropped too, because he started calling me by name, waiting for me if I was serving someone else and hanging around after I had served him.

When I collected beer glasses, he would lope up behind me and put his chin on my shoulder like an overgrown puppy. I would turn my head and kiss him on the cheek, his eyes would crinkle into a smile, and then he would swing around on his crutches and head back to his friends. If he was sitting on a bar stool and I walked past, he would put one arm out and catch me by the waist.

“Nicky, my adorable!” he would say.

“Mikey, my beautiful!” I would reply.

I would ruffle his nonexistent hair, and he would grin bashfully and let me go. He never asked anything more of me. It was the gentlest friendship I had ever experienced.

When he returned to the hospital for more operations, I visited him. I would sneak in joints and we would sit on the fire escape, smoking. I never asked him about the cancer, the operations or his prognosis. I didn’t want to be nosy; I figured he would tell me what he wanted to, and the rest was his business.

One evening the landlord of the pub threw a fund-raising event for cancer research. First prize in the raffle was dinner for two at a Michelin-starred restaurant. By accident or design, Mikey won it. At the end of the evening, he hopped up to me, put his arm around my waist and whispered into my ear, “Will you come with me?”

I saved my tip money so we could take a taxi to the restaurant. Formal attire was required, so Mikey dug out a tie and an outrageous purple and green plaid suit, which he wore with the trouser leg tucked into his waistband to hide his stump. The restaurant was filled with dapper-looking businessmen dining in bored composure with clients or wives.

Mikey and I felt spot-lit in the middle of the room — the skinny blond chick in a floaty goth dress with multiple ear piercings, and the dude in the loud suit with half a leg. It was obvious we didn’t belong, and we milked it for all it was worth.

The waiters gave us special treatment, perhaps relieved by the break in the monotony, showering us with attention as if aware that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, which it was. The meal was seven courses, throughout which a jazz band played on the far side of an empty dance floor.

“Do you think anyone ever actually dances?” Mikey said after we finished dessert.

“I shouldn’t think so,” I replied, looking around at the formality of the patrons, who were studiously ignoring both the jazz band and the waiters, as if displaying any interest might betray a lack of savoir-faire.

“Would you like to dance?” Mikey asked, a gleam in his eye.

“Can you?”

“If you don’t mind holding me up.”

I followed him to the dance floor, where he handed his crutches to a waiter. The sleepy jazz band perked up. Mikey put his arms around my shoulders and leaned heavily on me, and the two of us made slow, three-legged progress around the floor, hugging each other to keep our balance.

Everybody watched us while pretending not to. I giggled, feeling like we were in a movie. Mikey looked like he was on the greatest adventure of his life, and I felt happier than I have ever felt, before or since, while dancing with a man.

In the taxi afterward, just before he dropped me home, Mikey kissed me on the lips. His mouth was soft and cushiony. When I pulled back, he looked at me with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret — a combination, perhaps, of respect and regret.

Mikey asked me out a second time, to a party some friends of his were giving at their house. I went but felt awkward all evening, as if I were an impostor. These people had known Mikey forever, and I was taking him away when there seemed to be a tacit need for them to spend as much time with him as possible.

I left feeling as if my presence in Mikey’s life had been an intrusion. Unable to label what I was to him, and certain I was monopolizing his attention unfairly, I pulled back.

Another guy started drinking nightly at the pub; this one who wore a bandanna like a pirate and rode a motorcycle. I wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle, so this seemed like a good enough reason to start dating him.

I didn’t explain this new relationship to Mikey, nor did he ask.

When I turned 21 later that year, I gave a birthday party to which Mikey came. He caught me alone during the course of the evening, while the biker was occupied buying pints at the bar.

“I bought this for you,” he said, handing me a small black jewelry box. Inside was a gold pin in the shape of a tiger with diamonds for eyes. I opened and closed my mouth, unable to find any words.

“I want to give you my blessing,” Mikey said. “You have my blessing.”

A few months later Mikey died. I didn’t go to the funeral because I was unsure of his friends’ feelings toward me. I was just some girl who had trespassed out from behind the bar, who had briefly become something unnamable in Mikey’s life.

I didn’t believe I had the right to grieve for someone who had not quite been my friend, not quite my boyfriend, not quite anything I could put a label on. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, but I couldn’t articulate why.

Twenty years later I went back to the pub, hoping to discover where Mikey had been buried. I wanted to tell him I had loved him but hadn’t known how to have platonic love with a man. I wanted to apologize for coming into his life with my mixed signals so soon before he died.

I wanted to tell him I wished I had been brave enough to ask questions about how he felt, what he was going through, how I could be a friend to him. I wanted to say I was sorry if anything I had done, or any way I had behaved, had hurt him. I wanted to ask him to forgive me for being so young, so thoughtless, so insecure, so naïve.

But the pub had changed ownership and nobody had heard of a kid named Mikey who loped around on one leg, a boy with a ready smile and sweet heart. A boy who makes me cry even when I think of him now.