Livet er nå
(I wrote this piece to submit to an anthology about tattoos and it wasn’t selected for publication, so I decided to share it here instead. First posted on Medium on 9 March 2023)
I have a Norwegian phrase tattooed inside my right wrist. It says “Livet er nå”, which I’m almost certain means “life is now”. It’s a quotation from a Norwegian teen drama that I discovered when I was thirty-five years old.
In October 2016, I moved to London from my native Ireland. I didn’t give the move much forethought. I gave my boss three hours’ notice before walking out of my job. I booked a flight that was so last minute that I couldn’t get a direct flight from Ireland to London and I ended up flying via Copenhagen. I lived in youth hostels, sharing a room with up to twenty-four other people. I found some part-time teaching work and I became a full-time slut.
At this stage, I’d been single all my life. When I moved to London, I weighed over twenty-eight stone (392 pounds or 178 kilos) and I’d had approximately one romantic or sexual encounter every five years for my adult life. I had begun to believe that I would die alone.
But in London, my life changed completely, and at the age of 35, I finally got to live the gay adolescence that I’d always felt cheated of. I discovered chubby chasers, and I had a sex life. I leaned into it entirely. I went to strange men’s houses and flats. I went to hotels. Some of these men worshipped my belly. One of them forcefed me chocolate. Some of them slapped me and called me names. Some of them licked my nipples until I squirmed. One of them introduced me to poppers. Some of them held me while I cried.
After six weeks, it was time to go home for Christmas. I’d never spent Christmas anywhere other than my hometown of Ballincollig and in spite of the wonderful time I was having in London, it didn’t even occur to me not to go home again. I was getting the train to Fishguard and then the ferry to Rosslare, because I couldn’t afford a flight from Heathrow to Cork. I was dreading going home, back to my Catholic family and all their depressing drama, back to the country of no sex.
I didn’t have any friends in London yet, and I didn’t go to any Christmas parties, but I decided to find myself one final man before I went back to Ireland, so I’d have a memory to cling onto to help me survive Christmas. I was on Growlr, the app where men can meet “bears”. After years of resisting self-identifying as a bear, because I’d seen it as giving into the fatness that I hated so much, my new London self had embraced this identity that allowed me to connect with so many men. As I browsed Growlr, a man called Pedro sent me a message, telling me I was hot and saying he really wanted to meet up. Excellent! I’d sourced my last man before the dreaded return to Ireland.
Pedro asked if I could host him and I said that I couldn’t as I was living in a hostel, sharing a bedroom. I asked if he could and he said he lived too far away. He suggested that we meet in a gay sauna instead. I’d never been to a gay sauna or bathhouse before. When I’d lived in Dublin, I’d known where the gay sauna was located, and I had occasionally stood around the corner from it, watching the men who walked in that direction, wondering if they were going to the sauna, thinking about what they might be doing there, but never actually felt brave enough to go in there myself. I always felt that my fatness barred me from being welcome in gay settings. But London had brought out a new fearless side in me. I told Pedro that it would be my first time in a gay sauna and that I was excited.
I met my date outside the sauna. He was tall, slim and a few years older than me. He was quite handsome. He hugged me and greeted me. At first, I couldn’t identify his accent and then I realised that he was deaf as well as Spanish and that was the accent I was hearing. I felt like I was in an indie movie, a lonely fat Irish man embracing a deaf Spanish chubby chaser in the cold in Vauxhall just before Christmas. An unlikely pairing.
I couldn’t believe how out in the open the sauna was. The gay sauna in Dublin had been hidden down a side street. This one was a two-minute walk from the station, with massive rainbow flags flying, and a reception that any passer-by could look into. We went in and paid and were each given a towel by the sullen and silent Polish man who was working there.
Pedro led me into a changing area. I took my clothes off and put them in a locker, as did he, and I followed him into the showers. Here, he took his first proper look at me and lifted my belly up lovingly, telling me how beautiful I was. I looked at the other couple in the shower. I’d never been quite this publicly sexual with someone before. I had only very rarely kissed another man in public, so being publicly naked and being touched by another man in an open shower was wildly thrilling, even if it was only my belly that he was touching. The other couple didn’t even seem to notice us. When we’d finished drying ourselves after the shower, Pedro wrapped his towel around himself. I tried to do the same, but I was too fat for the towel to fit around my waist and so I threw it over my shoulder, walking out of the showers completely nude, once again feeling brave and very distant from the me who’d arrived in London six weeks earlier.
There were dispensers mounted on the wall and Pedro grabbed an intimidating number of condoms and sachets of lube from them. He went into a cubicle. The cubicle was just about big enough for us to lie down in. The floor was cushioned to make lying down more comfortable, but the towels were definitely needed as the surfaces were covered with vinyl or pleather or something similar to make them easy to wipe down and naked skin could easily stick to them. Pedro helped me to the floor and started kissing me passionately. I noticed that three of the walls were mirrored, as was the ceiling. This was a room purpose-built for gay sex. I should have been focused on Pedro, but all I could think about was the construction workers who had made this place — the carpenters, the decorators, the upholsterers. Had they been straight men? Did they know they were constructing gay sex booths? Did they have moral qualms about this? Even though the rest of Ireland seemed to have shaken off the homophobia of my childhood years, I found this difficult to do and I still assumed that most, if not all, straight men found my existence difficult to tolerate.
I looked at my reflection as Pedro worshipped my belly. I hated my body, and wasn’t someone who generally spent very long looking at mirrors, but I liked looking at me now, looking at myself being cared for, being treasured, being touched. This was how my body should be looked at.
We had a wonderful afternoon in that cubicle. Pedro came twice, which I’d never made anyone do before this. Pedro asked me if I’d like to see the rest of the sauna. We walked around together and saw the sauna, the steam room, and the hot tub. We passed a cinema room, where a pornographic film was playing on a big screen, and six naked men were engaging in group sex. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Group sex was something I knew was theoretically possible, but I didn’t think it ever really happened, and I certainly didn’t think it would happen on a Monday afternoon. I gawped at the orgy until Pedro led me away, back to the showers. He lovingly washed my back while a slim young man, who didn’t look a day over 18, watched us hungrily, and I felt as proud as punch that I’d landed this man, that I was so fearless with my naked body, that I’d made Pedro come twice, that I was in a city where group sex happened on a Monday afternoon. The me of six weeks before wouldn’t even recognise this me.
We left the sauna together, even though part of me wanted to go and sit in the hot tub and part of me wanted to watch the orgy. Pedro and I got on the Victoria Line. His deafness meant that we both had to speak loudly and so our conversation couldn’t be very private and once again I was thrilled at how public all of this was. Everyone in that carriage could hear us talking about the sauna, could hear him tell me how beautiful I was and could see him kiss me goodbye as he got off at Oxford Circus.
Here I was at thirty-five, finally feeling like a real gay, living a real gay life.
When I went home that Christmas, I stuffed all of the gayness back inside me. I had come out to my super-religious family five years earlier, but it wasn’t something we ever spoke about. It was a sad and difficult Christmas. My dad was very ill with the cancer that would later kill him. My brother’s marriage was breaking down.
One night that Christmas, I stayed up until 5:00 am in my parents’ kitchen, watching the TV show that every gay on the internet seemed to be going crazy for at the time. It was the third season of a Norwegian teen drama called Skam. The entire season, all ten episodes, consisted of only one storyline: 16-year-old Isak, his coming out as gay, and his first romance with a boy, Even. I cried a lot while watching it, as Isak tried to come to terms with who he was. I’d never seen a show focus more precisely and more realistically on the gay teenage experience. In the final scene of the series, Isak is talking to his best girlfriend, Eva, and she asks him if he’s happy that he met Even because it means he knows for sure he’s gay now, and Isak says no. He says he’s happy that he met Even because he’s no longer hiding in his room playing computer games and watching Netflix. He’s happy that he met Even because he wasn’t living before and he’s realised that “livet er nå”, that “life is now”.
That Christmas, I had a choice. There were very good reasons to stay at home, to support my sick dad and my suffering mother, to be there for my brother and his family. There were reasons not to go back to London. I only had enough money to pay for about two more weeks in youth hostels. I think many people wouldn’t have gone back to London in those circumstances. But I kept remembering the feeling of Pedro kissing me goodbye on a crowded Tube, the feeling of seeing an orgy on a Monday, the feeling of throwing a towel over my shoulder and striding into the corridor of the sauna completely naked, and I knew that my answer was Isak’s answer. I was going back to London, because “Livet er nå”.