South Africa celebrated Human Rights day on the Monday of my seventh week in Cape Town. Though it meant nothing for me and I would have to work for my American clients, Tristan closed his office, lounged on my terrace and sipped gin. In some respects, it was the pinnacle of domestic bliss as I made him lunch and an ocean breeze floated through my flat. As I cleared the plates, I leaned over his lounge chair from behind and kissed him on the forehead.
The bliss rested on my ability to ignore that our sex life failed to excite me, a shaky foundation for bliss. The crux of my therapy had been that I spent too much time chasing men based on physical appeal and not enough for emotional connection. Now it seemed I had overcorrected and it was even debatable that I had succeeded on the other side of the equation. . .
On Tuesday I walked to the Starbucks in Camps Bay to read. A barista from Congo wrote his number on a receipt for me. His eyes sparkled above his mask. He had dark black skin and a thick accent. I let him work while I focused on finishing the tome John Adams by David McCullough. In a way I had hoped it would inspire me to be a better lawyer, but instead Mccullough’s descriptions of Paris when Adams lived there made me want to go there next. Yes, even hundreds of years ago Paris glittered and held court as the epicenter of the epicurean life. Its position remains unchallenged and feels as eternal as anything else in this ethereal life. Towards the end of his life, McCullough reported that Adams wrote this in a margin of one of his books:
“Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill and increase good, but never assume to comprehend.”
It was a good admonition for me this week. Never comprehend.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t feel more sexual desire for Tristan. On paper I found him beautiful, but I accepted that I could not comprehend why and never would. Finally on Friday I texted him. My first therapist, I explained, said that all relationships end for reasons which are apparent early on in the relationship. As I had never felt the sexual spark, it wasn’t fair for either of us to continue. It made me sad to say this, but here too I felt vaguely wiser. Whereas in the past I might have let something as good as I had with Tristan linger for longer without direction, instead I bore the possibility of loneliness here.
The incomprehensible continued. What I thought to be romantic interest from the Congolese barista was merely his side hustle revealed after about a half dozen WhatsApp messages. What exactly he hustled remains unclear at this moment.
And on Saturday what I thought to be sexual interest from a Malawian was merely his actual hustle. It had been one of those quick interludes on Grindr in morning horniness and Gift had shown up at my door. In my travels to Africa in the past, in the small villages I have seen joy the sort that rarely shows itself in America. Typically, I do not post it for fear of it being labeled as poverty tourism or worse, poverty porn.
Gift’s smile exuded that simple, unadulterated joy and we quickly started to make out. His toothy grin made me swoon and he surprised me by being well endowed and that made me extra silly. But after we had undressed and just as things started to get hot and heavy on my bed he said “so will you have something nice for me after sex?”
Paying for sex cheapens the experience, but as I can now report that is far preferred to being propositioned in the middle of it.
It cut my soul.
We didn’t have sex, but I was so aroused that I had to finish myself. Then we laid there. He asked me about why I broke up with my last boyfriend. I think there, I understood or came much closer to it. Much of the last five years or so I have spent in a hazy fog of questions at the top of the pyramid of needs about self-actualization. My last relationship ended because I felt we didn’t connect fully, but how to explain that? And bizarrely it seemed that paying someone like Gift came the closest to an exchange of needs that we could ever have because that’s what he needed and I did at least have a need for sex. And though the romantic in me once would have imagined that a relationship could blossom with anyone, with time I had become a cold-hearted realist and knew that only an educated man would satisfy my emotional and intellectual needs.
I paid Gift, thanked him and let him go.
If I stayed in Cape Town, I had to accept that some men like Jair, Adam and now Gift simply lived in a place near the bottom of the pyramid of needs. My own American doubts about being desired and desires to find a connection mattered about as much to these men as having food in a casket. As Gerald Brenan said: “Those who have some means think that the most important thing in the world is love. The poor know that it is money.”
A cascade of guilt overcame me after pondering on this. My ten months of therapy and the paucity of dates in the pandemic had created a witch’s brew of desire for me to go back out into the dating pool. Indeed, it’s embarrassing how much of these “Dispatches” had focused on the foibles of those dates. To seek a connection, I proudly own. The presumption that others in the dating pool had the same need, in retrospect, fell somewhere at the border of naivete and entitlement.
After the waves of guilt, waves of gratitude overcame me. As a young gay in Los Angeles, I had been simultaneously a world away and yet not so different than the young men of need here. True, I always owned my education and that gave me considerable personal power. But with little money in the bank, I had certainly resorted many times to obsequious flirting with older men to gain small favors of access. Those invites, or being on the right list, made a difference. No one gets out of this life without selling at least a piece or two of their soul along the way.
But I never had to sell my body. My only real contemplation of the subject came after it was too late. Sort of like someone wishing they had bought the brownstone on the upper westside in New York City in the seventies. Why I had not considered it when it was a real possibility? Because, unlike the brownstone, this asset has declined in value over time.
To think of it in such a detached, philosophical way is the ultimate privilege while others do it to pay rent. And the question of prostitution generally tested the limits of where my libertarian streak met my liberal views. On the one hand, how presumptuous of me to assume I know what’s better for someone else and certainly selling their body for a night can’t hurt. On the other hand, it does seem that doing so night after night would eventually wound the heart beyond repair.
The South African government still has not responded to my request for an extension of my visitor visa. Werner and other South Africans have assured me it will be granted, but as the deadline approached, I began to contemplate a return to America. With age, I have learned that managing expectations helps us manage our disappointments. It has added meaning to my shopping excursions as I have started to look for gifts and some trinket to remember these months of my life. American friends continue to post daily on Facebook of their vaccinations. Some have posted as well of their first experience in dining out in over a year. What I feel upon seeing posts like this is another witch’s brew of feelings. This time, of course I feel some measure of guilt, having lived conservatively, but quite well in the past year. Simultaneously I feel some measure of pity. How small life must be with so much fear. We ought to fear not having lived more than death, but few live that mantra even if they preach it. And for myself, was I actually living it? Of course, coming here to Cape Town and (thus far) defying all conventional wisdom in America which admonished me to stay home, felt like I had lived. But the Buddhist say that once the mind is expanded it never returns to the same size. Consequently, the longer I stayed here, the smaller the victory felt. In the end, hadn’t I just rented an apartment on the other side of the world and reviewed client emails there?
Bantry Bay, Cape Town, South Africa