Catamaran rides in Cape Town depart from the V&A Waterfront, a massive mall and dining complex that attracts locals and tourists alike. Before leaving to meet Jair, I finished reading Les Miserables. It put me in such a mood that I experienced the first pangs of homesickness since my arrival. I messaged Jair to meet me at Starbucks so I could quelch those feelings with a Pike Place.
He’s late, again. As a veteran of dating in the black American community I began to wonder if CP Time had a global following and he arrived as if it did. He wore an all-white track suit and big sunglasses, a cross of Star Bangled Banner Whitney Houston and the ghost of Jackie O. We kissed, but his leisurely arrival put us dangerously close to the departure time.
“Here’s the thing,” I said, “I want you to negotiate the price because they will lower it for you.”
One of the great things about Jair is that he immediately understood. The black African ticket agents harass tourists like carnival barkers. The day before I had walked by and inquired about the price. They had been so busy upselling me for a private boat ride for “you and your lady” that I couldn’t even begin to barter on price.
He does so quickly and we waltzed onto the catamaran just before it departed.
I fell in love with Cape Town in January of 2019 on a catamaran ride. Previously I had known it was summer in the Southern hemisphere during our American winter, but on that catamaran ride I felt that truth.
Before we even left the harbor, all the guests on the boat snapped selfies for their social media accounts. My eyes wandered from the majesty of Table Mountain, out to the open sea and back on to Jair. He busied himself immediately with taking videos, preening and posing presumably for a Cape Verde audience back home.
The staff on the boat already knew that supporting the peacocking of the guests ranked near or higher than safety. A white Afrikaans deck hand in his twenties with sandy blond hair came over and offered to take pictures of us. We took some together and some of Jair separately. Without any words, we had conveyed that we were together in some way and that I would have no desire of pictures of myself.
In America, at least in a city like Los Angeles, a twelve- or thirteen-year age gap still implies that the older of the duo has means, but the sensibility of this has dulled. Mostly, the tittering around that sort of thing has mellowed into a détente — you do what works for you and I will do what works for me. But, distinctions continue to be made, even in California. Many times, on a date with a black American man — even with a man at or near my age — the waiter would leave the bill in my quadrant of the table. Was it because I emitted the quiet certainty of a man accustomed to being served? Or was it because my date is a black American man? Which of these cues had the waiter subconsciously followed? I presume the latter, as one of the gnawing aspects of American racism is often its subtlety.
Here in Cape Town, for better or worse, there’s no such subtlety. After taking our photos, the deck hand offered to bring us drinks. I inquired about the beer and Jair inquired about champagne. I had a flashback of sending Darnell a poinsettia instead of roses. The deckhand looked to me for the decision and I asked for two champagnes.
I thought of Jair’s posing and ordering champagne and I thought of Victor Hugo . . . Youth goes where joy is, to festivals, to brilliant lights, to loves . . . but where I was in that? In my deepest fears I was just the old American with a wallet, but I wondered is that too a part of the natural order of things?
After the catamaran, we walked through Sea Point in search of Chinese. At Empire Asian we found it, welcomed into the restaurant with an empty, dry tank where lobsters had once enjoyed their Last Swims.
“Where are the lobsters?” Jair asked.
“COVID” said the hostess in her sparse English, technically leaving open the interpretation that the lobsters had passed from COVID rather than the paucity of guests.
She sat us near the patio.
Several times in our conversations Jair had intimated at animosity which had been directed at him from black South Africans. I had not witnessed it personally. However, after similar conservations with Uber drivers from Zimbabwe, I did not doubt it. As we walked to the restaurant he complained of conversations where they made him feel as if he shouldn’t be attending university in Cape Town, with his voice rising in anger about how much he spent to be here.
“They also say I am a rent boy,” he said as we sat down for dinner.
“How” I asked.
“This one at the gym sees me working out and tells me that I need to keep my body good for my clients,” Jair said.
“He said that to you out loud at the gym?” I asked with shock in my voice.
“Yes, and then he kept finding ways to message me on social media to repeat the same thing.”
“How old was he?” I asked, “and was he gay?”
“Yes,” said Jair, “when I blocked him he would create new accounts to send the same message.”
“Jesus,” I said.
By this point Jair had tears welling in his eyes.
“All of the South African gays think we West Africans are here to steal their men,” he said.
One of the more interesting things about travel to Africa has been to see its layers. Americans subconsciously and typically think that anyone with black skin is from the box of Africa, a continent nearly three times the size of Europe. Meanwhile, we will sometimes pinpoint white Americans to an exact spot on the continent of Europe based on appearance.
I had noticed one or two profiles on Grindr or Tinder where someone had claimed to be from West Africa. From the way they said it, I knew it had positive overtones in the dating marketplace. It hadn’t escaped me that, typically, West Africans looked a lot taller and more like black Americans.
All labeling boxes in certain people. Pity the staid Italian accountant who must deliver on his culture’s promise of virility. And what a sad state of affairs for the broke German wastrel expected to bring financial solidity to the relationship. And it broke my heart to see Jair, a student earning his masters in engineering, as he struggled with the fact that people sexually objectified him.
“I mean, can’t they see, I am more than a dildo” he asked me, fully crying by this point in time.
“Listen,” I paused.
“Do you see this?” I asked him as I opened my shirt collar with my right hand and held his hand with my left.
“Some people will always objectify you,” I said, “don’t you think I get messages merely using the word woof with demands to see all of my hairy chest? All the gays objectify a little.”
“It’s true,” he said, “shame.”
“And I wouldn’t pretend that I have experienced what you experience,” I said, “but I know that someone who’s with me will love all of me, including the fact that I have a hairy chest and that’s what you need to find.”
It calmed him and I felt myself that I had reached new powers. Always before in my life at the nearest whiff of tears, I would direct the conversation elsewhere, anywhere to avoid the difficult topic. Instead, I had engaged. But I had still not addressed the even thornier topic that this brilliant young man, who so resisted being called a rent boy, expected me to pay for nearly everything.
Thankfully, I had the respite of time later in the week with Tristan who picked me up for dinner on Wednesday. We went to Kloof Street House, by far my favorite restaurant in Cape Town. Tristan had become a rock of mine here, even though I felt we had developed different feelings for each. At dinner over ostrich and kingklip fillet he proposed a weekend out of town.
There was an absurdity to this on several levels. First, as I was quite literally 10,000 miles from home and had only been in my seaside apartment for three weeks, I felt no need to “get out of town.” More problematically, I knew what a weekend out of town implied for a relationship. Earlier I had already told Tristan that I felt the sexual chemistry between us wasn’t where it needed to be, so I punted on the question of a weekend out of town, engaged on the logistics of it and surprised him by picking up the tab.
There are weeks when you punt and weeks when you catch. I couldn’t give Tristan what he wanted, but I couldn’t say no either. There are dates that dazzle you and some dazzling that you do for dates to keep them hooked. I couldn’t quite yield to Hugo’s portrayal of the old as the going, but I could at least imitate his ability to turn a euphonic phrase.
Bantry Bay, Cape Town, South Africa