Writing for GaysWithKids has given me the opportunity to really reflect on the lessons I've learned and how I'm going to apply them as a parent. But as parents, we become so preoccupied with teaching our children lessons that we forget we're still learning ourselves.
I want to tell you about someone I once knew who has now left the country. His name is Zibi and he's from Kraków in Poland. Zibi and I met about 10yrs ago on one of the dating apps. We were in our 20s. He had a sort of thuggish look as he shaved his head but, in contrast, his voice was high pitched with a very thick Polish accent and he spoke super fast. Nothing wrong with any of that, but he just wasn't my type.
Strangely, we stayed in touch over several years. Odd messages of small talk developed over time into flirting here and there. Perhaps the years matured us. Whatever the reason, we decided to give it another go.
I popped over to his place one Friday night after work for a drink. He was now a chef living in a studio apartment in South London. He opened the door. Either he'd changed or my tastes had, but I found him attractive. Being in his 30s suited him. As he led me in he complained about having put on weight, but I found him cute and cuddly. He had one of those lovely faces that only Polish men seem to have.
When we entered the living room my jaw dropped. He'd turned all the lights off and lit what looked like a hundred candles. The bright glow of the flames flickered across all the walls. It was magical, and one thing led to another...
Later that night we lay in bed together. At around 3am he fell asleep. I lay awake staring at the flickering candlelight on the walls. A familiar feeling started to gnaw at me – I wanted to leave. It's an obsessive thing I'd always had. Basically, I don't like to spend the night anywhere other than home. I know, it's silly. Obviously there are times I have to do it, like on vacation or whatever, but if I can avoid it I'll avoid it at all costs! Well that night the little voice in my head convinced me I wouldn't be able to sleep unless I was at home. I gently got out of the bed, put on my clothes and then slipped out of the flat.
Yes it's crazy, especially considering I had to get about 3 night busses home! When I was waiting for the last one, surrounded by drunken people somewhere around Drury Lane, I got a text from him. It simply said "You left me."
Obviously I felt terrible, but I was too ashamed to explain this overwhelming insecurity I get when spending the night away from home. What made it worse was that I'd left all the candles on so he'd slept in a fire hazard. He'd then woken up in an empty bed, no longer with the person he'd had an intimate night with. Any normal person would've dismissed me as a freak. But I made my excuses and amazingly he forgave me. He made me swear to him that I'd come over the following Friday and stay the night.
That Friday night we sat on his sofa chatting. I confessed that I'd never been able to stay overnight in someone else's bed. Strangely, he completely got it. I told him I liked to sleep with the TV on, which he said we could do. I told him I like my space in bed, to which he said he'd give me space. "But I don't like to be held" I said. "I won't hold you" he said. And so began my night in a different bed.
'This isn't so bad' I told myself as I lay there. Then, I broke my self-imposed rule by cuddling up to him. Before I knew it I'd fallen asleep.
I visited him again the following Friday, and the Friday after that, and again several Fridays in a row, each time staying overnight. We got into the habit of going shopping together for dinner and wine. Candlelight was replaced by Lidl bags (that's our version of Walmart, for all you GWK readers in the US) and I got to know his OCDs – meticulously putting the shopping away, obsessively cleaning up to the point of me shouting at him to sit on the sofa with me. He'd cuddle me while I chose something on Netflix. Then I'd stroke his face while he watched it. His thick Polish voice, which sounded high pitched and fast before, now soothed me. I stopped missing my own bed because being with him felt like home.
It was around that time I went back to university part time whilst working full time so our meetings subsided. We drifted apart, but I always thought of him. Then my son, Felix, was born in the US and I stayed there for a few months. When I came home I started back at work and then back at university.
But the whole time I thought of Zibi. I wanted him to meet my son. I messaged him but there was no response. Time passed and I emailed, still no response. My messages became more and more desperate. "Zibi where are u??" I'd say, but nothing back.
Then just the other day I saw his reply in my inbox. My heart leapt as I opened it. It said:
"Hi Salim. This is Jacek, Zibi's brother. I'm sorry to tell you that Zibi died two years ago."
I couldn't believe it. Zibi was dead. But I could still hear his voice; I still felt his face on my hand.
Jacek went on to say that Zibi had had some kind of epileptic fit and hadn't made it through. His family had come to London to collect his body and take him back to Poland. I worked out that it happened not long after I last saw him. The whole time I was thinking about him, he wasn't even in this world.
This man taught me how to let him in, and also how to let go. I'm now left wondering what would've happened if he hadn't passed away. Would we be boyfriends? Or would I have continued to take him for granted like just another guy with a quirky voice? I fear the latter.
I don't exactly know what lesson to pass on to Felix - perhaps to cherish everyone, or to let people in. Or perhaps I'll just teach him not to take life too seriously. After all, a bed is just a bed.
Check out Salim's own blog about parenting as a single gay dad.