Dispatches from a Nomad #2: Time

Vegetable vendor, at Neighbourgoods Market at Biscuit Mill

Normally, the second week of foreign travel brings the peace of restored circadian rhythms. On this trip, however, I clung desperately to the idea that I would never inconvenience my clients. Most nights I tried to stay up until 3am like a young partygoer, only for emails. Many nights, I failed.

Tristan, I saw again several times this week. First, we dined at La Perla overlooking the Atlantic. It’s routine Italian, but COVID demanded its due and La Perla had a wonderful outdoor dining patio. Often on the Continent, the other side of the table simply expects that I will pay because I played the role of the wealthy American. Indeed, I have a lot of dollar privilege here in Cape Town, but Tristan pleasantly split the bill and we returned to Bantry Bay.

He read my essay on Darnell, about the most exposed I can make myself without words coming out of my own mouth. We sat outside on the terrace of my apartment. He sipped Inverroche Amber gin and we enjoyed the waves crashing on the rocks of Bantry Bay as the sun set over the Atlantic.

“I liked your essay,” he said.

The flattery worked.

“It must have been hard to finally submit,” he said.

“No,” I said, “submitting felt like finishing that era. The hard thing will be if it is published. I mean, I’m here in Africa for Christ’s sake. If I were to go to Lagos or Uganda next, would I really want to be openly gay in the New York Times?”

He indulged me in the fantasy of a publication. I indulged myself in the fantasies of selling an option and of living on royalties while in foreign capitals.

He is younger than me, but sometimes he felt older in our conversations. Recently in therapy and, in particular, after reading The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck I began to cope with the natural order of things. Because Victor Hugo said it best, I will quote him here:

“Moreover, what is called much too harshly in certain cases, the ingratitude of children, is not always a blameworthy thing as is supposed. It is the ingratitude of nature. Nature, as we have said elsewhere “looks forward.” Nature divides living beings into the coming and the going. The going are turned towards the shadow, the coming towards the light. Hence a separation, which, on the part of the old, is a fatality, and, on the part of the young involuntary. The separation, at first insensible, gradually increases, like every separation of branches. The limbs without parting from the trunk, recede from it. It is not their fault. Youth goes where joy is, to festivals, to brilliant lights, to loves. Old age goes to the end . . .the affection of the young is chilled by life; that of the old by the grave. We must not blame these poor children.”

Only in my forties had I seen this arc and yet Tristan knew it much earlier. In his twenties he began to shed periphery relatives and others who lived far outside of his gay life. How had I failed to see this?

“What you will write next,” he asked and took me out of my reveries.

“These Zim Uber drivers,” I said, “no one has told their story.”

“Go on,” he said.

We discussed it and he generally agreed. In the Midwestern United States where I grew up, journalists termed it the brain drain to describe the flight of the educated young to the coasts. In my first trip to Cape Town in 2018, I immediately noticed that nearly all of the Uber drivers were Zimbabwean. Then, I had recently stopped in Zim to see Vic Falls. At the time I would have said Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls, so please forgive me for demonstrating my newfound familiarity. On that trip, a vendor in Zim sold me trillion-dollar bills. I bought them for my nephews in total ignorance of the plight of the Zimbabwe people and the pain these bills represented.

Indeed, most, but not all of the Zim Uber drivers trace their time in Cape Town to 2009 at the tail end of that hyperinflation. One such driver, Malvin, however, came in 2006. He told me he often sent money back to his mother in Harare. Anything other than the American dollar had questionable value in Zim. So, he said often in lieu of sending rand, he had participated in a scheme that literally transported food into Zimbabwe for his mother.

I tipped him nearly the cost of the ride. As an American, I immediately saw parallels to Mexicans working in California and throughout the southwestern U.S. But, I also sensed deep differences as every Zim Uber driver intended to return to Zim. I will return to the Zim Uber drivers in later writing.

Conversations with Tristan do not sing but they do delightfully skip. The lust I wanted to feel doesn’t come even though we do rendezvous sexually. He has no meat on the bones and despite his financial successes, I still can’t shake the feeling that he’s another boy looking for a father.

Despite all of the attention from Tristan, I managed to set up another date with a man named Jair. I suggested dinner and he suggested what looked like some of the most expensive restaurants in the Western Cape. My wallet felt loved, but I did not.

“These look fine,” I messaged “but just be clear if you’re wanting me to pay then let’s have a main and a drink.”

Jair’s offended in the messages. He said he was a student and didn’t even know that I was American. Somehow, in the next several texts we navigated those feelings and I, of course, agreed to pay. What good is money anyway?

We met on Wednesday. And as I wrote this, I began to fully understand how smitten I was with Jair because I remembered little at first. And then bit by bit the night came together. Me standing outside of Kloof Street House nervously holding my phone because I do not want it stolen. I waited for Jair to arrive and he’s late. Usually not a great a sign, but any veteran of gay dating has endured far worse.

He walked up in a flamingo bright Under Armour collared shirt with a broad smile. His beard scraggled down, too thick to call it anything other than a true beard. Too thin to be a mountain man. He’s built solid, a little like my trainer back in Los Angeles, but perhaps I make the connection because he’s also from West Africa. I find out that he’s from Cape Verde but is here in Cape Town studying biochemistry after attending NYU. His father has passed, his mother still lived in Cape Verde and he has an older brother there too. He peppered me with endless questions and I feared that I was droning on too much. He insisted on seeing each other again and then he left early, immediately after dinner. I’m left wondering what exactly happened because I agreed. Am I thinking with my head upstairs or the one downstairs? Or both, I asked myself, with a hint of hope in my thoughts.

Successful gay dates without sex do happen, but about as often as a lunar eclipse. More likely I feared the worst — that the flattery was for my wallet. But I reassured myself because of that absurdity. Yes, I played the part of greying, American lawyer on the grand tour. But anyone who really knew me would know that I had slugged my way to it. The success, true, but a mirage nevertheless. Even a relatively short series of misfortunes would reveal something worse than Gatsby. A nouveau riche not really rich and not quite new anymore.

To successfully date requires that we suspend doubts and provide faith. In this case, faith that a younger, assured and confident man with a future could be attracted to me without Daddy issues. Even as I wrote this, the fear nearly surfaced at the shame of appearing absurd in hoping for love. But I knew deserved it and I knew more than before that I could give it. If anything, submitting the essay on Darnell made me realize there is nothing left. No artifice remained, so why not hope for the best with Jair?

On Saturday, I went to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Biscuit Mill. Some spaces in Cape Town feel so white it’s hard to fathom they exist in Africa. The Neighbourgoods Market is one of those spaces. It’s set in a brick warehouse with a live DJ and I felt nearly transported to Los Feliz in Los Angeles.

Food vendors set out prepared dishes in hopes of winning an Instagram war. And what bougie market would be complete without artisanal doughnuts? It’s an indoor/outdoor space clearly filling the void of gathering and party spots made scarce by the COVID pandemic. On this particular Saturday, it’s mostly a crowd of white South Africans in their twenties, sprinkled with others outside of that demographic. The young, like Hugo said, attracted to bright lights, loves and festivals and in this case, a hipster market with overpriced doughnuts. In other words, a market in more ways than one.

I saw a West African man buying ramen and decided to message Jair to suggest a catamaran ride. Perhaps, I was still the kind of person who could stay up until 3am, but I just needed a different reason.

Bantry Bay, Cape Town, South Africa

Nomad. Sometimes writer. Sometimes slut. Afrophile. Investor. Art Collector. LGBT. See also: https://twitter.com/HunterStJamesIV