Alex Palmer writes the Agony Uncle column for Meant for Men – a magazine aimed at gay men, for their life and issues. What started as a genuine and ground-breaking feature has become a snark fest, due to Alex’s boredom and personal cynicism. His respect for the correspondents has dwindled away in direct relation to his own self-respect as a journalist. He no longer believes in his readers’ search for a soulmate, or in the column’s headline: “Is He Really the One?”
In the early days, Robbie Cooke was Alex’s co-presenter of the column. They’d been lovers, too. But that’s now all in the past. Unlike Alex, Robbie still sees the anguish and need behind the letters received by the magazine. He wants to help the writers, rather than turn their situations into journalistic entertainment. He and Alex may still work as partners on the magazine, but their fundamental disagreement on style means they’re no longer partners off.
A life of excess and casual lovers is wearing Alex out, yet he’s in denial. He’s determined he doesn’t need Dear Alex to set him straight about what’s wrong with his life. But gradually he comes to realise what he’s really missing: Robbie’s sense and compassion, and his love back in Alex’s life. The problem is, by the time Alex is desperate to make amends, Robbie may have already moved on.
This story was originally published as Dear Alex in the Dreamspinner Press anthology Make Me a Match.
© Clare London
“You know, he answers the whole damned lot?” I was still marvelling at my discovery of Robbie’s astonishing tolerance, even over supper. I’d taken a new date to the local riverside bistro, where I knew I could get a reasonable steak and a couple of bottles of wine, cheap enough not to strip my wallet but strong enough to get the guy amenable to a more adventurous fuck. “All the sad, sorry letters I don’t use, he replies to them. Okay, so it’s a standard form, but if they give an address, he writes back to them personally. I thought he stopped that, months ago, when the mail started to increase. God, the time it must take. I never see him doing it in office hours. Bloke must have no life outside work at all…”
“Alex.” My new guy broke in. I hadn’t heard that biting tone in his voice before. Hell, I’d picked him up in a hot, dark, noisy club, and the only other conversation we’d had so far were grunts of half-drunken sexual satisfaction, back at my flat that first night. He left afterward, not even bothering with a shower, but that suited me fine. It wasn’t often I took things on to a second date, anyway, though he’d been sexy enough for me to consider it.
“Shut the fuck up with the work stories,” he sighed.
Looking more closely at him, I saw all the things I usually liked in a body: blond hair, good strong shoulders, thick, wide lips. And some other stuff I didn’t, like the frown on his face and the rather too sharp glint in his eye. “That’s all you’ve talked about, all evening. Robbie this, Robbie fucking that.”
“Robbie fucking nothing, I think,” I laughed, though a little too loudly. “That’s my whole point—”
My date stood up, abruptly. I watched as he threw down a few banknotes for his supper and pulled on his jacket. He looked down at me and rolled his eyes. “Maybe you think I’m impressed with the fact your name’s in a magazine. Maybe you think that’s all it takes, off the page as well as on. I should appreciate your incisive wit, your pretentious rants. I should be grateful to be your audience for the night.” I know my eyes widened with surprise, though whether at his attitude or his own obvious fluency, I wasn’t sure. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I guessed so. You don’t listen to me, but you expect me to listen to you. Well, that’s good enough for one fuck, but not much more. Not for me, anyway.”
I watched him walk out of the restaurant with a broad, strong stride. He had a bloody fine arse. I picked up his half-finished glass of wine and poured it into my own. I’d have called out after him—tried to wheedle him back to the table—but, rather embarrassingly, I couldn’t remember if his name was Bob or Brad.
Bloody hell. I decided to take my time over finishing the wine, and maybe go on to a club. A different one. I didn’t want to bump into Bob/Brad again tonight, and listen to more of his cheap pearls of wisdom about my literary skills. I didn’t need professional critique from a lug like that. I didn’t need much conversation at all, to be honest. My dates were there to fuck and have fun, not fraternize with.
For Christ’s sake, the last thing I was interested in was whether he was “Really The One”!
I had to write to you for advice. Why won’t he stay the night? We’ve been dating for weeks, but he never stays over. I really thought we had something special, something different. But I caught him late last night, whispering into his cell, getting dressed again in the dark. Trying not to wake me. He tells me there’s no one else. Dear Alex, if he’s really The One, surely he’ll understand why I’ve been checking his calls…?
“Where’s Robbie? He’s not at his desk. He’s late.”
From behind her editorial table, Lynne peered at me through the smoke of another of her foul-smelling cigarettes. “And a good morning to you, too.”
“Fuck off,” I said, halfheartedly. It was Friday and I’d come early into the Meant for Men office to work on the week’s column, intending to leave afterward, maybe go down to the coast for the weekend. Find some cheap seaside bed and breakfast, eat and drink well, visit some clubs, lose myself in an unfamiliar town for forty-eight hours. I’d thought I might ask Robbie to come with me. The idea of it came to me the previous night, and had—rather irritatingly—stayed with me until this morning. Of course, we used to do that sometimes, escape for a while after a particularly tough week at work. We’d let off steam, spend some time alone, do whatever we wanted. Like I said, we used to. When we were dating. Anyway, no expectations nowadays; of course, it’d be just as friends. Though if he wanted more, we could share a room. That’d be far from hardship for me…
“Bad night?” Lynne was grinning, obviously at my expense. “Missed out on your nightly shag?” I’d entertained her plenty of times with stories of my sex life. Variety was the spice of my life, and I didn’t usually have any problem finding people to provide it for me.
“Mind your own bloody business.” I scowled back. I was phrasing an even more vitriolic response when Robbie’s voice came from behind me.
“Alex? There was a problem with the server but I’ve rebooted and the system’s back up. You can work on the column as soon as you like.”
He was very close to me. He was a similar height and so his breath brushed my neck, tickling the hairs. The effect on me was sudden, instinctive, and quite shocking. Sensation crept all the way down my spine, slow and sensuous, making my thighs tense and tugging at my balls. I leaned back very slightly, as if to absorb even more of his personal space. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his hand lift as if to touch my shoulder, like any colleague might do. For a wild second, I felt a craving for it, totally beyond my control. Then the hand fell back to his side.
I felt dizzy and strangely bereft. What the hell was up with me?
“You look fucking dreadful, Alex,” said Lynne, loudly and cheerfully, staring at me with obvious relish. “White as a sheet, and your eyes are rolling like some mad horse. Apparently celibacy doesn’t suit you.”
“Apparently your acid reflux suits you,” I snapped back.
She grinned and laughed even louder. “Nah, you’re fine. Same old spit and poison, eh, Robbie?”
Robbie smiled, though not as broadly. He passed me, on his way over to the two small desks we shared at the back of the office. I followed. He had the files out ready for me, the letters we’d decided to feature, and the blank template I used for the formatting. Dear Alex, it said across the header. Is he really The One?
“The deadline isn’t until two,” he said. “You’ll have no problem getting it done.” He didn’t sit down immediately, and he seemed ill at ease. “Okay if I leave around then? I’ve got some plans for the weekend, and I’d like to get off early for a change.”
My own plans skulked back into the dark, empty cupboard of my mind. “Sure.” There was a healthy glow to his skin; maybe he’d lost a bit of weight recently. His clothes were smarter, too.
“You look good.” The words sounded strange, as if I’d never actually said anything like that to Robbie before. “Going somewhere special?”
Curiouser and curiouser: he blushed. “God, no, not really. Just a new friend I met. He’s got a place on the south coast near Brighton, and he wants to show it to me. We thought we’d make a trip of it tonight, take our time with the journey down, visit a couple of bars along the way…” He glanced over at me. “Alex, don’t try to look interested. I don’t need you to. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
“What the hell do you mean?”
He sighed and sat down at last. We looked at each other over the two narrow desks, but it felt like a chasm. There were hardly any other people in the office yet, except for Lynne, but even so he dropped his voice. “You remember when we started all this? We were both new ex-college kids, both had stupidly grand ideas about marketing the magazine, pulling in the readers—making it count.”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “And we did that, right?”
He didn’t answer directly. “You’ve done well here, I understand that. You’ve got the voice they like to hear, the sardonic style that attracts readership.” He nudged one of the letters out onto the open desk. “Like this one. The man who creeps about at night, checking his boyfriend’s cell. The pair of them, creeping around each other.” His gaze darted back up to meet mine. “What are you going to write to this one?”
I frowned. “He’s a loser. The boyfriend’s obviously fucking around. I say he’s bed-hopping, and our man is just one piece of arse on a potentially long list. Make a new call, is my advice. Call up a life. “Really The One”? The one of way too many others, I’d say.”
Robbie was nodding. “Just what many readers are thinking to themselves. Amusing. Witty.” He wasn’t laughing.
“Both of them are idiots, thinking there’s any guarantee of finding something that’ll last,” I said. I gestured to the selection of letters in front of me. “They all are. They already know they’re losers. They just can’t be honest.”
“Is that what you are? Honest?”
“They need me to tell them the things they already know. Least I can do is add some humour to it. Sugar the pill.”
“Christ, Alex.” Robbie sighed. “He’s hurting. Can’t you see that? It’s just a sad bloke, not knowing where to turn. You never used to be so intolerant. So cynical. When we started this, it was gentle. It was going to be helpful. You said there wasn’t enough support out there in the market for the gay man. Always plenty of help on where to hook up and party…”
“…but not enough on where to hide and hurt.” I remembered, of course I did. “So I was naïve.”
“You were kinder.” Robbie gave a rueful smile. “Still had the same sharp way with words, though. Sharp, strong, clever and, yes, honest. But back then, it was in a different way.”
“They like it.” I stared down at the letters but the words blurred in front of me.
“Some of them do, yes.” He nodded. Ever the diplomat, Robbie. “I’ll give you that. Some of them write and say thanks for helping them make up their mind.”
“They do?” I was startled. I’d never really thought about that, that the readers kept up some kind of correspondence.
He was watching my reaction, the look in his eyes dark and unfathomable. “Yes. That’s in among the death threats and the hate mail. And those guys who think you were solely responsible for the disaster that is their love life.”
I started laughing, but it sounded brittle. “They need to get a life, is all.”
“Like yours?” Robbie’s tone was unusually sharp. “You only see one letter at a time, Alex, and that’s all it is to you. There are people’s lives behind that—a whole context you never give any time, any attention. You’re not getting the whole story. All the men who aren’t as articulate as you, who aren’t as open about how they feel. All those who don’t want casual sex, night after night, but who really are looking for a soul mate. So many of these relationships might actually work out, if they could give it another chance, if they got some commonsense advice. Found an ear to listen.” He was looking quite agitated. “All these who truly do want to know, “Is he Really The One”.”