Sections Precarious Life in Motion
Johannesburg, South Africa

Love with No Place to Go

Gcobani Qambela

I do not know what it is like to be chosen
To be looked at like something
That matters
To be held with warm hands
To be embraced
To be turned into a home

I do not know how to make anyone stay
How to fight for what is mine
I do not know how not to stay
When everything leaves
Bokang Maragelo, in Things the fire left behind, p. 16

Love with No Place to Go

Speaking at the launch of the bookstore, The Commune, in Braamfontein 2019, Johannesburg, academic and poet, Danai Mupotsa shared how so many of our conversations are saturated by conversations about hate. Speaking in the context of colonial education, Mupotsa continued to share the ways in which we are taught in ways that are very violent. Mupotsa challenged us to think about conversations about love and what it would mean to love in ways that give political freedom: “I love you in such a way that gives you your freedom”.

In a current world climate that is filled with what anthropologist and novelist, Kharnita Mohamed, calls “a litany of death”, it is not surprising that many as Mupotsa notes treat love in possessive terms. As Mupotsa observes, many of our understandings of love are premised on lack and insecurity. In many contexts where so many have not learned or been given the tools to love the self, we experience love through a deficit lens. Living in a world that Mohamed calls unbearably sad, and that is increasingly characterised by various forms of intensified violence against women and children, the environment and various other marginalised persons, it is not unreasonable that discussions of love and loving do not saturate our daily lives.

Yet, in her keynote at the African Feminisms conference in 2019, Kharnita Mohamed continued to challenge us to, if we can, “feel it all”. Mohamed reminded us that choosing the path of numbness does not save us. Mohamed shared that masculinities, especially the ones that are vicious and cruel, are premised on the inability to feel, or on denying feeling. As such, as challenging as it may be, Mohamed tasked us: “If we can, we have to feel it all”.

In this tradition of resisting feeling and numbness, I share a challenging experience that made me feel so deeply in profoundly moving and sometimes heart-breaking of ways in 2019 to the present. This is one of the most challenging texts I have ever had to write. It has taken months of thinking through, sometimes having words to put down, but often being eluded by vocabulary to articulate what I long in my heart to say.

I want to write about love and the grief that comes from parting with a lover too soon. In some ways this is easy, as the story is not complicated. I loved someone, who loved me, and we parted. So, the story perhaps is not as profound or remarkable as I would like, or imagine. Yet, it is the grief and loss that comes with parting with a loved one that I long to express in words.

As Jamie Anderson shares, “grief … is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot … [grief] is just love with no place to go”. In this piece, I want to meditate on living with love, that has no place to go, and grieving someone who is still alive.

Journeying to love, sensuality and sex(uality)

I was deeply elated about the move to Johannesburg, or “#MyJozi” as a friend and I often referred to it on social media. After nearly three decades in the Eastern Cape, I felt excited to leave the province “where Nelson Mandela is from”, as I often say to my American colleagues, friends and students when describing where I am from. A few months before the move, a friend and I often watched videos together on the internet of skyscraper living in Johannesburg. We fantasised about sunsets on rooftop buildings that we saw in the music videos we watched on YouTube.

Importantly, having experienced the somewhat drought of dating possibilities in our romantic lives in the largely rural province, we both visualised dating and meeting loving partners in Johannesburg to share life with. Having both experienced sexualised forms of violation in our younger years, and being aware of the intricate ways these have (re)shaped our relationships to intimacy, we imagined the ways we would like to experience and “do” sensuality, sex(uality) and love in this new chapter.

We imagined passionate nights, ecstasy and profound feelings of joy and presence in our lives. Having suffered not only sexually in the past, but further through structural and economic forms of violence that threatened to eclipse our dreams of building lives of optimal well-being for ourselves, my move to Johannesburg and the new job meant in significant ways a close to what had been over a decade of financial struggle. My heart, therefore, welcomed this new adventure from the purest place in my heart. As a friend at the time shared from a David Gray song, “This Year’s Love”, we hoped the new adventure to Johannesburg would bring a love that lasts, for we’d both been waiting on our own too long.

Someone to talk to

It is a statement that has stuck with me for years. “In Jo’burg, you can find someone to sleep with in five minutes, but you will never find someone to talk to”. This is a statement my friend, Thabiso, made referring to dating life and struggles in what we call the city of gold in South Africa, Johannesburg.

The proliferation of increasingly accessible dating and hook-up sites, such as Tinder and Grindr with their geographical location trackers, has meant that for many, particularly in urban areas, the possibility of finding companionship and/or sex is always one click away.

In a 2018 article for The Vox, gay psychiatrist Jack Turban shared his research with gay men using Grindr where “there’s a possibility of meeting a sexual partner within the hour”, finding that sex and pleasure have come to be mediated by technology. While these applications certainly can provide pleasure and fulfilment, we know as well that they can cause distress to the users.

I started using Grindr when I moved to Johannesburg in July 2018. For a long time, I was mainly browsing, for I lived at home with my aunt in Orlando East, Soweto. Yet, once I had settled into my then new job, I started to look for a place and moved to central district of Johannesburg in late 2018.

I met someone on Grindr, in 2019. We met in late March. He “tapped” me, and it was his biography that caught my attention. His said, “NSA? Don’t even try it”. His biography was different from many I had seen on the site. Here was someone to talk to who it seemed was looking for more than “No Strings Attached”, and it won’t be just a hookup. I responded to his “tap”.

It had been one of those nights where I was up working and writing in the early hours of the morning. I logged into the application and started scrolling through the plethora of profiles. It was then that I saw Nkosi. It was not the first time I had seen him on the application, as he seemed to frequent it. He was one of the brave ones who used his real picture. This night, something must have aligned as we ended up talking, and meeting a few minutes later. Nkosi lived two floors down from me in the same skyscraper, one of the largest in the district we lived in.

As I did not have my full picture on the site, and with my identity hidden, we oscillated about where to meet. “My roommate is not around”, he said, assuring me that if I was “downlow”, I would not be found out. “That’s ok, I live alone” I responded, affirming that he could come over. Indeed, he would.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. Slightly anxious, but relaxed by the beers I had been having, I got up to open the door, taking one deep breath before revealing myself to him. We would spend hours on the couch talking about everything and nothing all at once.

There was something about his eyes that immediately caught my attention. His eyes are that of someone who seems to have witnessed extraordinary things. Yet, it was his soft and gentle voice that drew me to him the most. Having seen him jovial in the building and out and about a few times, I never imagined his voice would be so tender and comforting.

This weekend was a particularly tough one for him. His friend and roommate was at a funeral for a friend who he confided had just recently transitioned. We shared playlists, listening to music in the early hours of Johannesburg. We read poetry, including Henry Scott-Holland’s “Death Is Nothing At All”. He was particularly moved by the ways in which Scott-Holland conceptualised death as merely slipping “away into the next room”. As such, even during the physical deterioration and expiration of the physical body, to loved ones we remain eternally what we were.

I cannot remember at what point he left in the morning, only the feeling of complete calm and ease I felt sitting on the couch with him and just talking. I liked him. For months, as Scott-Holland writes in the poem Nkosi and I read our first night, this night or rather early morning with Nkosi would mark the beginning of “absolute and unbroken continuity” with him and I. As friends would attest, his name became “ever the household word” in conversations, chats and eventually hangouts. For a while, all was truly well. Nothing was hurt, and nothing was lost.

Bleeding in the dark

“You saw what I wrote on my bio right?” Nkosi would ask me with a hint of a very slight grin on his face as I started to make dinner in our open plan kitchen a few weeks after we met. He was in the lounge, on the couch looking toward me as he asked. I pretended I could not remember what his bio had said, but he would continue without me having to think too hard. “I am equally loving, and equally detached”, he filled the memory gap for me. I imagine there might have been a slight show of disappointment on my face as I lied and uttered some Maya Angelou quote about needing to believe people when they showed and told you who they are. Yet inside, I felt my heart break. What I had thought would be a genuine romantic connection, was turning into another stereotypical dating narrative of someone not wanting to share their heart. The rest of the night continued with dinner, and lots of kissing.

While Nkosi and I had met a number of times before since our initial night, this was the first time that we had been sitting with each other properly – a first date, of sorts. I had lied and said I did not remember his biography, but I remembered it very well. Yet, what I had remembered was the disclaimer on the Grindr bio for the “NSA crew” to not waste their time. This new disclaimer of him being able to love with favour as equally as he was able to detach from people was a new one I did not know.

In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks reminds us that it is often the absence of love, not its presence, that makes us realise how much we need love in order to survive. It is through love that we experience kindness, feel cherished, valued and wanted on earth. We are living in an incredibly cruel and unloving world. As hooks writes in All About Love, abandonment risks moving us into “a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again” (p. x-xi).

Nkosi’s disclaimer of being equally loving, and equally detaching at the same time marked a (re-)entry into toxic forms of technology mediated dating. I had read and heard many a story of people meeting people online, and then the next day they are back on Grindr, searching for more. The endless availability of “options” online means one is always easily disposable as people scroll on to the next person. As another friend wrote to me in my early months in Johannesburg, there is a “restlessness” in Johannesburg with many people never quite settling into the city. I suspected that Nkosi’s warning was linked to his perception of me being “a feeling person”. His way of being was the opposite, one of detachment, he indicated. He smiled as he affirmed that he could see I was someone who felt, or seemed to feel a lot.

In this era of not “catching feelings”, one is perpetually required to be on guard, and to not feel, because loving someone is somewhat one of the worst things one can do for the heart. As such, in this world, one has to perpetually live within what Bokang Maragelo calls the cruelty of mourning people who are alive. Maragelo argues that we become oceans that survive through learning to drown the self.

Oppressive sadness

Nkosi and I continued to see each other for months from our first meeting in March, until he left the country to go work in Asia in October 2019. Much of what we had continued to go unlabelled, although it became clear I was in love with him, and he with me much later. In our last text exchange, I thanked him for the beautiful months that we spent, and asked he open his heart a little more to people on his new adventure. One of his last texts to me confessed how much our relationship surprised him, in part because he had not met or been approached by someone who “showed genuine interest” in him.

I have experienced forms of deep and “oppressive sadness” with the way in which Nkosi and I ended things because it is so characteristic of how so many dating attempts have transpired in my Johannesburg chapter. Tshepo, in Kabelo Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, remarks that “I’m bleeding in the dark. This is what my life has come to” (p. 26). In some ways this reflection is about that bleeding. The kind of bleeding that is internal, unseen, but yet viscous and piercing to one’s internal reservoirs of hope.

I am a lover of love, and while I am often judged heavily by my friends for “catching feelings”, I love love, and being in love. However, as a 32 year old Black man who is same gender loving, I am keenly aware of my mortality and worry if I will ever experience the love I long so much to.

Many studies and writings have described the profoundly lonely lives of ageing Black gay men, who may be successful in acquiring mainstream capitalistic markers of success, yet die very lonely and largely unloved lives.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, the Nobel laureate in literature, Toni Morrison shared how interesting it is “to love somebody” even as it may demand a lot intellectually. bell hooks continues that “to love is heroic” and that we should move from thinking about love as only in relation to death. As Morrison said, one of the challenges with loving is the threat of getting hurt. Zebron, chatting with Tshepo in Kabelo Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, remarks that “You believe too much in people, that’s why you get hurt so easily” (p. 33).

Breaking before mending?

In her writings “On death, desire and spirituality” in relation to African women’s archives, Nthabiseng Motsemme has asked, “are we walking in our own grief?” In writing this piece, the ending has turned out very differently from what I had imagined. During the process of writing, I reunited with Nkosi, albeit only on text, for now.

Initially, I thought the chapter would be of cathartic use, where I close it being able to declare – kuhle moya wam – all is well in my spirit. Yet now I end it with someone who had exited my life returning. When I shared Nkosi’s return, a friend was quick to share what a bad idea it is to return to an old lover. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts”, she reminds me, citing Toni Morrison.

I do not know what will happen between Nkosi and I. I know that I think a lot about ageing as a Black same-gender loving man. I think a lot about how time and the years seem to fly by. I worry a lot about the unbearable pain I would feel to die never having experienced fully reciprocated love from a romantic partner.

Many of the people in my life demand a lot from me as “the strong friend”, yet, like the Maragelo poem I opened with, I long to know what it is like to be chosen by someone who does not need me like some of the people in my life do.

As Sello Kabelo Duiker writes in The Quiet Violence of Dreams, often we have to live with questions, even as the answers become more elusive. “It is not easy living with questions, there is enough uncertainty in life as it is”, Duiker writes.

For now, I will have to live with the questions.

calm waters stretch out to the horizon under gray clouds

Original photo by Harli Marten

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