Confession #1: My friend J moved to London a month before I did, so I was not entirely alone when I arrived. (She made the far more practical choice to enroll in teachers’ college in the UK rather than my wing-and-a-prayer approach.)
Confession #2: I am a geek.
My social life, for those first two months in London, revolved around a pub called Pages. This was the first (and only) scifi pub I had ever encountered, with Star Trek-themed decor and a model of the Starship Enterprise hanging from the ceiling. I believe that during the week it was a relatively normal place, but on Saturday night, it belonged to the geeks.
£3 got you in the door, and if you didn’t turn up early – particularly on Buffy-themed nights, called Nos (Nosferatu) Nights – you wouldn’t get in at all. Inside, some folks were in costume, others were just dressed up – my friends had a distinct goth flavour, with corsets and lace, chainmail and vinyl. We were there to hang out with people who loved the thing we loved, to be geeks together in a safe space.
We were also there to watch the newest episodes of scifi TV shows, played on bootleg discs mailed from North America. These episodes wouldn’t air in the UK until months, or even years, after they aired in the States, and going to Pages was the only way to see them. (This was back in the infancy of the internet, before iTunes or streaming or pirating.) When you’re passionate about something, patience is not so much a virtue.
It being a bar, there was also booze, which helped me to be a little less awkward. And once the episodes were over, they jacked up the music and we danced until the end of the night. I sprinted for the last tube home more than once – London is a giant, sprawling, international city, but even on Saturday night the tube shuts down before midnight.
A decade later, I still miss Pages. I still think there should be scifi pubs just like there are sports bars. In fact, I think there’s functionally very little difference between the two. There has never been another social space where I have felt so accepted, so at home.
I grew up in a small, conservative private school. My graduating class had only thirty-nine people in it, and I’d known about half of them since I was four. I left that school very well educated but socially… challenged.
I lived at home through university, so I never had the explosion of self discovery that seems to happen in that first year out in the world. But, free from all the expectations and assumptions of high school classmates who had known me my whole life, in university I began to slowly unfurl.
I realized that I was probably gay, or at least bi. (The moment when it clicked that being a lesbian didn’t make me something else, but rather explained who I had been all along was an epiphany. It was freedom. But that is a story for another time.)
I also began to read about paganism, and Wicca in particular, and found it fit my worldview much more closely than either of the organized religions I encountered as a child.
(I felt bad for my parents sometimes – rather than outright rebellion, I just grew progressively stranger.)
I met J during this time, and she was the first friend I had with whom I felt safe to explore that side of myself. (Not sexually, just for the record. J and I never dated, or ever wanted to.) Back in the dark ages of the Internet, when the online world was just taking its first steps beyond CompuServe and AOL, we used to hang out on the same mIRC chat room. (It was devoted to the television show Babylon 5.) In addition to both being scifi geeks, J and I also shared a love of theatre, and books, and travel. Years of not fitting in at school conditioned chameleon tendencies into me, and spending time with someone so much closer to who I was on the inside was a profound relief. I didn’t have to hide nearly as much.
As I mentioned above, J moved to London a month or so before I did. Shortly after she arrived, she spent the weekend at a science fiction convention and made friends with all the most interesting people there. (J is very much NOT an introvert.) When I finally turned up, J couldn’t wait to introduce me to them all.
Exactly one week after I arrived in London, there was another convention. It was for a show neither of us watched, so J and I didn’t go for the whole weekend, but J insisted we turn up for the dance on Saturday night.
It was too cold to wear my party clothes for the long schlep out to the hotel by Heathrow airport, so I packed them in a bag to change into when I got there. Once I was all dolled up, though, I ended up with a heavy bag of everyday clothes slung over my shoulder as I hovered on the edge of the crowd.
The dance hadn’t started yet, and people were just milling. J disappeared to say hi to another group of friends, and I ended up by myself, surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were all very nice and welcoming – J had told them all about me – but they were also cooler and prettier and more confident than me. I felt painfully awkward. I’m not good with new people and I don’t do chit chat well. I perched on a chair on the far side of the table from everyone else, listening to conversations about people I didn’t know, and tried to look nonchalant. I felt like the dorkiest dork in the world.
It was easier at Pages, though. In smaller groups, and with a shared passion for Xena to start us off, I got to know these new friends. I got to see them geek out just like me, not just about tv shows, but about books and theatre. Most of them were pagan in one way or another. And a majority of the women identified as bisexual.
They were my safe space. I was still shy and I was still awkward, but I had such freedom to explore. I tried on so many different pieces, just to see how they fit. I wore leather trousers and metal bras, lacy goth, and revealing cyberpunk. I wore too much makeup, or none at all. I drank rum coolers and danced to cheeseball pop music. I played pass-the-icecube in the pub late one Saturday (mouth to mouth, with a little kissing, until there was nothing but a melting sliver on a cold tongue), with half a dozen other girls – no boys allowed – just because it felt good.
Saying goodbye to those girls, walking away in the middle of that exploration to go on tour with the circus was a shock to my system. In retrospect (and with huge irony, given the story of how I got the job) it was the worst possible timing.
“You know the funny part about this line? If you’d asked pretty much any of them, they’d have said the same thing about everyone else. [We] had a long talk about that once. And none of us ever realized we were the “cool kids” at Pages and at the cons until someone from outside the group told us. We were just being who we were and dressing how we wanted to. Perception is a funny thing.”