“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” the great Elton John once sang. What a touching sentiment — and song. I recently saw the video on Radio Capital TV in Rome, and John’s 1976 No. 6 hit sounds just as lovely today as it did when I was 7 years old and could feel every word he sang even if I didn’t completely understand what he was singing about.
Now that I do, though. I have to say I can’t quite relate, which might surprise a certain good friend of mine. Several years ago, when she was visiting me in Buenos Aires from L.A., she asked me a strange, fascinating question: “When was the last time you cried?” She insisted that she couldn’t imagine me ever crying over anything. Later, she added apologizing, too — not because she thought someone with my unimpeachable character would never need to, but because, as I later found out, she thought she had one coming from me.
Had I known I’d done anything to offend her (and agreed that I had indeed been offensive), she wouldn’t have had to ask. In her assessment of me, she was right on the first count: My tears don’t fall freely or regularly. I have a recurring dream in which I receive devastating news and struggle to cry just a little bit, as if my life depends on it. But on the other count, she was dead wrong: “I’m sorry” comes incredibly easy for me.
That’s a good thing because lately I’ve had to say it a lot, mostly because I have a considerably harder time saying, “No.” My former therapist might blame my people-pleasing tendencies, which at the time, he concluded, was damaging some of my relationships. I may have shed some of my people-pleasing ways in the ensuing nine years (along with a few of those relationships), but “No” still seems to be the hardest word,” especially when an unwanted suitor should be on the receiving end of it.
In the past, I’ve been labeled everything from a tease to a “nigger” when I wasn’t upfront with guys I didn’t want from the start. That character flaw may have reached a critical point during my most recent stint in Rome, as the guys there brought out the worst in me. Previously, I wouldn’t have expected it from Italy, considering that it’s the site of two of my most fondly remembered romances of my late 20s and early 30s — the ones I had with Massimiliano and with Paolo.
Thanks to them, for years, Italian men enjoyed a position of high estimation in my mind, despite all of the horror stories I heard to the contrary, the ones about how they’re after only one thing, and how they’d say practically anything to get it. That’s really not much different from most of the guys I met in Buenos Aires, and for years, I’d been unwilling to chalk up the worst of their romantic shortcomings to the Italian heritage that so many of them share, because, well, in my mind, Italian men were just so incredibly charming and sexy.
Then I returned to Rome for the third time, which, as far as the guys there went, was so not the charm. When Paul, a UK expat who is a university professor in Rome, dismissed them as unbelievably shallow on my first night in the capital, I didn’t want to believe he might be right. I still wouldn’t dream of filing them all under that particular heading, but after experiencing them firsthand on their turf for the first time in nine years, I see he had a point.
It only took me all of 24 hours to get it. I’m still not completely sure if it was because I’ve changed or because the men there have, but everything seemed so different between us. It could be that I’m just scarred for life from love’s battlefield, but by the time I left, I regarded every guy I met as the enemy, and I’d more or less lost my will to fight.
Perhaps the shift had something to do with the past month having been the first time I’d experienced Italy’s gay culture in the age of Grindr. With the introduction of online hook-up tools like Grindr and PlanetRomeo into Roman gay life, guys no longer have to talk to you when they single you out in a crowd because they’ll probably find you later online. And when they do, they now can jump right over language barriers and land in the middle of a king-size water bed with their pants hanging down below their knees.
“Sex?” is not something most guys would have said upon meeting someone in a club in Rome, or in Milan, or pretty much in any place that didn’t have dark rooms, in 2004. But on Grindr and on PlanetRomeo, it’s perfectly acceptable — at least in Rome, which was the first place I’d ever been routinely approached online in such a crass, brutal, blunt and monosyllabic manner. (The guys outside of Rome had a bit more finesse when offering their opening lines, but their restraint never lasted long.)
After several weeks of openings like “MI SCOPI OGGI POMERIGGIO” (or “FUCK ME THIS AFTERNOON”) and “ciao ti va di fare una bella scopata?” (or “hello you want to do a good fuck?”) and being asked out by Romans (the ones with better opening lines than “Sex?” or “Looking for?” or “Hung?”) and then ultimately being blown off by them after agreeing to meet them, I lost my appetite. In the end, with the exception of a few hours on my first Sunday evening in Rome, I spent my entire five weeks in Italy pretty much celibate, hoping for but not expecting just one guy to restore my faith — and interest — in Italian men.
I encountered a few decent ones online and off, but perhaps scarred by all the “Sex?” talk (not to mention, years of bullshitters in Buenos Aires and Bangkok), I declined without with actually declining. I found myself intentionally leading them on, giving the impression that I might be interested when I knew I wasn’t, because it was a lot easier than just saying, “No.” Eventually, after I played noncommittal long enough, they’d catch my drift, and disappear before I ever had to be the bad guy, though in a way, that’s exactly who I was being.
Sergio got farther than most. He’d spotted me at Coming Out, a bar across from the Colosseo, on my first night in Rome and contacted me on PlanetRomeo the next day (so typical of the new Rome-antic gay guy). I told him when I agreed to meet up with him that I wasn’t interested in anything physical and spent our entire dinner date trying to think of ways to end it early.
Eventually, though, he reeled me in with decent conversation and the unexpected revelation that we’d actually met several years ago at Glam in Buenos Aires. I probably shouldn’t have sent him mixed signals by inviting him up to my place afterwards, but the people pleaser in me knew that he would have been disappointed had I just called it a night after we split the bill, and I couldn’t have that on my conscious.
We’d spent the previous 90 minutes or so communicating on a purely platonic level, and I’d actually started to warm up to him. I wasn’t sure if I was attracted to him, but I was pretty certain that he wouldn’t give me time to figure it out or settle for mere friendship. I was relieved when, after we’d spent a half hour watching videos on Radio Capital TV, with him suggestively trying to decrease the space between us on the two-person sofa while I awkwardly attempted to widen it, he announced he should go home because he had to work at 5am. But instead of leaving, he started putting his hands all over me. One for the road? I cringed on the inside as the 190-meter-tall octopus pawed me, while on the outside, I just sat there like a lifeless blow-up doll.
Eventually, Sergio got the message without my having to say a word (like “No”), because I hadn’t said a word. “Well, at least I know it’s you and not me,” he announced, pressing his body up against the supposed evidence. Then he quietly left. I felt a mix of emotions: first relief, then guilt, then relief again because at least he only lived a few blocks away and hadn’t traveled far for nothing. When I closed the door on Sergio, in my head, I was closing it on the prospect of making any kind of meaningful romantic connection in Rome. Even if I met a guy I liked, would he give it more than one date to develop?
Then two and half weeks later, I met Gianluca. When our eyes locked at Circolo degli Artisti the Friday night before last, and he came over and introduced himself, I thought he might have potential. By the time he bought me a beer and ignored his friends to struggle speaking in English with me, I was certain he did. He moved pretty quickly, as apparently, is customary in Italy. Within moments of getting my number (and calling me while I was still standing there), he added me on Facebook.
The next morning, when I woke up and saw several messages from Gianluca along with his Facebook friend request, I felt a twinge of foreboding as I accepted. I knew where this story was headed, and it would probably have as much to do with my actions as his. Neither one of us disappointed.
During our several conversations on Whatsapp, he kept bringing up the things he wanted to do with me (Sample: “And I want stay whit you and want you inside of me sex”), asking if I wanted the same thing. How was I supposed to tell him no? Instead I took the coward’s/tease’s way out, not saying, “Yes,” but definitely not saying, “No,” either. (When he asked, “You want sex whit me and aleep tigheter?”, I replied, “I’d like to meet up.”)
No offense to Gianluca. He’s a sweet, good-looking guy and, at age 39, refreshingly age appropriate. But I think a confluence of factors ruined any chance we might have had getting more than halfway to first base. Had we both spoken the same language, our conversations might not have been so one-note and one-track. Had my impression of Italian guys not been so poisoned by the ones I’d been coming across, I might not have been so wary and weary. Had I just told him “No” when he asked if I wanted what he wanted, I wouldn’t have had to keep promising to let him know when I was free. Had I not turned into the type of guy I hate, I wouldn’t have kept failing to be true to my word.
Last Friday afternoon, a day and a half after I arrived back in Rome from Tuscany (naturally, neglecting to contact Gianluca as promised), he gave me one final chance.
Gianluca: “I want you when you free?”
Me: “Hey, are you going to Circolo later?” [I thought it would be the perfect way to meet him in a crowd and, hopefully, avoid all the premature pillow talk.]
Gianluca: “I don’t kniw, but I think no
Eanna meet me at 18:30 near my home?
Or after dinner, I want you”
Me: “Where do you live? Not at 18.30 but maybe later…. I will message you later.”
Gianluca: “Ok sexy don’t forget me ok? I want you this night”
I didn’t forget him, but I didn’t write either. The discomforting thing is that I didn’t feel guiltier than I did. They (Italian men) had driven me to it.
On Saturday morning, he sent me two final messages:
No serios man. Delete my contant. Bye”
Then he deleted me from Facebook.
I was relieved, and in one brief remorseful moment, I considered writing him to explain why I’d been such a jerk. In the end, though, I merely offered the one word that comes so easily to me.
At least I never had to tell him “No.”