Can two men go out for a quiet dinner without looking a bit, well, gay? Or have we moved on from such crass stereotypes in the metrosexual 21st century? Paul Sussman finds out
Not so long ago I was having dinner with a (male) friend of mine - just the two of us in a cosy little Italian restaurant in Soho - when he suddenly started laughing. "God, this all looks a bit gay, doesn't it?" he chuckled, indicating the plastic carnation in the middle of the table, the bottle of sparkling white wine, the tomato salad we were sharing. "I wonder if anyone thinks we're like... you know... a couple?"
The idea had clearly never occurred to him before, either on that occasion or any similar one, and the more he thought about it the more he laughed. I laughed too, although not with quite the same carefree gusto. You see, whenever I eat out with another man it always occurs to me that people will think we're gay, and while it would never actually stop me from going to a restaurant with a mate, my enjoyment of the experience is inevitably tempered by a carping sense of self-consciousness and unease.
I should qualify this immediately by saying that I have absolutely no problem with homosexuality. I have gay friends and relatives, and I deplore homophobia, I thought that Stephen Gately was fantastic as the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Given that people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Pol Pot were all avowedly heterosexual, a bit more gayness in the world would almost certainly be a good thing. It's just that I don't want people to think I'm one. Especially when I'm eating dinner.
My discomfort levels do vary depending on the type of restaurant and the person I'm with. Curries, for instance, are hardly any problem at all, especially if I'm with my mate Douggie, a rugby-player whose lumbering frame and scrunched ears allow for no confusion whatsoever as to his sexual orientation. In many ways, indeed, going for an Indian enhances my sense of brute manhood, conforming as it does to that classic British male stereotype: the tikka-massala-guzzling, breast-obsessed drunk.
At the opposite end of the scale, on the other hand, you have situations such as that described above, where everything about the dynamic - the intimate surroundings, the sparkling wine, the friend with the high-pitched voice and crisply pressed chinos - screams "gay" for all the world to hear. Worst of all are dinners with my father, an 83-year-old who dresses in what can only be described as "predatory sugar-daddy chic" and invariably ends the meal by clasping my hand across the table and announcing in a tear-choked voice, "I love you, Paul." You can just feel your insides shrivelling as other diners lean into each other and whisper: "So, that's what a rent-boy looks like."
Curiously, I feel no similar discomfort in other one-on-one situations with male companions. Drinking together, going to the gym, watching a film, even ice-skating - I always feel perfectly relaxed and secure. There's just something about the intimacy of a restaurant, the association of food with romance, that taps into my deepest sexual insecurities; pressures * me into behaviour and menu-choices that, while not necessarily coming naturally to me, will at least serve to telegraph my bullish heterosexuality to anyone happening to look in my direction.
In a "two-guy" situation I always try to stick to "manly" beverages such as beer or whisky - the sparkling wine mentioned was a momentary aberration - and plump for cholesterol-packed, hunter-gatherer-type main courses (rump steak, rack of lamb) rather than flans, tofu or (the ultimate no-no) anything involving filo pastry and baby courgettes. I try to tell stories that involve me miming punching someone, or throwing a rugby ball, or unclipping a bra and squeezing it's contents. Most pathetic of all, I always but always make a point of telling the waitress in a jokey-but-firm sort of way as she leads us to our table: "We're not lovers, you know!" (On one occasion this drew the memorably caustic response: "That's unlucky, because I can't see any woman wanting to shag you.")
I wish I wasn't like this and that I could go for a meal with a friend and not worry that our fellow diners saw it as the prelude to a night of fellatio and mutual nipple-licking. In many ways I wish I was gay; at least then I could enjoy my seafood fettucine without obsessing that people perceived me as something I wasn't.
I'm not gay, however, and I do obsess. No matter how delicious the food, meals with male companions inevitably carry with them a weight of neurotic baggage that, while not completely spoiling the meal, make it less relaxed than it would be if I was eating with, say, a female companion (or, the ultimate confidence booster, two female companions, both bisexual).
Mind you, it's worse eating in a restaurant on your own. Then you start to worry that not only do people think you're gay, but that you're gay and haven't got any friends either. Take it from one who knows: that's a real appetite killer.