In the end it was, and I can’t emphasize my amazement at this enough, a superb night. After the obligatory three hours of lectures about the company’s performance during the last quarter were out of the way, we headed in dribs and drabs to Soho. Eight or nine years ago, getting on the tube with friends was a unique and intoxicating experience. Just doing something so ordinary with people who wanted to go somewhere with me was for some reason a highlight of my early twenties. On Friday night I felt some of that intoxication again, perhaps because it was the first time I’d travelled on the tube with my colleagues from this job. We were all going to the same place, to Old Compton Street, a small avenue about 150 metres long that I feel I have spent half my life in. Surprising that my company should choose to book one of its bars out for an office party, even with a gay MD. I was really looking forward to getting there, though as we approached the colourful, crowded thoroughfares of Soho I felt the heavy hand of self consciousness fall on my back. I was leading the way with a group of people who didn’t really know that this was my spiritual home, where most of my socialising was done. What if I bumped into someone from that ‘other’ life?
I did ironically see someone outside Costa Coffee, and I waved politely, though I didn’t stop to chat. I herded my little group of office colleagues into the large bar at the top of the street, where we would have the top floor to ourselves until three in the morning. The ground floor was heaving, with loud house music booming from massive speakers and men kissing openly in the middle of the dancefloor. At that moment I wanted to stay down there; even though I’d be on my own, I would be around gay men. My brethren, if you like. Upstairs my group were greeted by the rest of the office, who had cleverly got taxis there and taken all the seats minutes before we arrived. At first we all sat or stood in little cliques, not saying much, while vast quantities of free alcohol sat enticingly around the place in ice buckets. For a short time I really wished I could go downstairs, down to the environment that I thought I belonged in. Upstairs I felt trapped with seventy straight colleagues who I didn’t really want to be trapped with.
Eventually the music began, music that had been chosen by all of us, and something of a party atmosphere began to develop. Food was served; with a full stomach I forgot all about any silly desire to drink. Gradually things improved. Some good songs were played; people started dancing self-consciously on the spot. I’m not sure how long it took for my nerves to fully subside. I think there may have been a turning point when Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ was played, at which point the entire company descended on the small dancing area and threw some shapes. I was ecstatic, having chosen the song. After that it was fun, fun, fun, for me at least. I managed to spend the next three hours dancing like a maniac to some of my favourite songs, without a single drop of alcohol passing my lips. During that time most of my colleagues simply faded, as the alcohol took over and virtually incapacitated them. Meanwhile I just kept going. One particularly drunk girl from sales came over at 1am and told me how cool she thought I was; an hour later her slightly less drunk boss said almost the same thing. “While the rest of us fall, you are literally the last man standing,” he told me, sounding quite sincere.
Being out as a gay non-drinker in such a company a year ago filled me with panic. On Friday night nothing had changed, they were all the same scary heterosexuals that towered over me in terms of confidence a year ago, but for perhaps the first time I could truly be myself amongst them. I didn’t try to hide my inner campness as I became increasingly flamboyant on the dancefloor. In fact by 2am I think I must have been drunk on the atmosphere, because I was throwing myself about in the exact same way as everyone else who was pissed. My body had the flexibility and flaccidness of a body thoroughly intoxicated with alcohol; I was on the same high that I would have experienced with alcohol inside me, but I didn’t have a single ounce of it in me. Something had happened to me. I’d found the key to replicating the inner warmth of alcoholic intoxication, in sobriety. After that, there wasn’t really any going back.
One of the most attractive men in the company came up to tell me how much he had appreciated my music choices all night. “Apart from all the happy-poppy shit, I reckon your music taste is spot on, mate. Spot on.” I’d never really spoken to the guy before; we ended up chatting for half an hour about our favourite music. I loved it, not only because he was gorgeous to look at but because over all in my life I haven’t had many what could be called conversations with straight men. It means a lot to be validated by such people, and I know it shouldn’t mean that much, but it does.
As 3am approached I was alarmed to see the nice sales girl who’d paid me a compliment much earlier in the evening slumped in a corner, clearly drunker than anyone that thin should ever be. Others noticed the state she was in too, and after a few minutes a worried looking director of the company went over to see if she was all right. The girl clearly wasn’t all right; she looked offended at being woken up, as well as quite ill. When they asked if she wanted to go outside for some fresh air she kicked up a fuss, just like I would have done were I that drunk. A couple of bar staff got involved; the fuss turned into a scene; after lots of stern words and finger pointing the poor girl finally left, with her boss looking mortified as he followed her.
The chances of her getting into serious trouble with the company are slim. She’s one of the most popular people there, and she certainly isn’t the only one with a bit of a drinking reputation. I don’t know what they expect to happen, giving all that free alcohol to us. Some of the guys got a bit randy as the night wore on; one hunk in particular spent most of the night chasing female colleagues around the dancefloor. Watching him I felt a bit sad, not just because his pathetic attempts to seduce the girls kept failing miserably, but because I couldn’t help wishing I was one of those girls. I’ve long since accepted that I will never be attractive to the type of man I really want – the straight man, basically – but that doesn’t stop me from feeling a little pang every time I’m reminded of it.
On nights like that it’s hard to not to be bothered about the main thing which separates me from everyone else: my sexuality. I can’t just chase after the guys I want on the dancefloor, because none of them are built to be interested in me. For heterosexuals, events like these are convenient breeding grounds for relationships. Being a man who has an unfortunate tendency to fall for pretty, young, straight men, it can be a form of hell. Not drinking on Friday night was a hell of a feat, and I’m sure better men than me might have fallen off the wagon in slightly different circumstances. I survived it, though. Weak and pathetic as I may think I am sometimes, I must have some metal in me to survive an event like that without drinking anything. Because of that, I will always remember it fondly. No, I didn’t get off with the hunk, but I danced for three hours to great songs that I love, I talked and laughed with friends, and I found that some people really like me for who I am. Not bad, really.