Words: Jarred Thompson
Being under lockdown has strained and stretched all forms of human relationships—sometimes reminding us to be grateful for the friends and family we have; other times uncovering past wounds we thought we had dealt with. For me, it’s felt like I’m blind-folded and in slow-motion, on a rollercoaster with highs that peak when I least expect them to and lows pushing me back down to Earth on the tail-end of ambivalent feelings of intense longing. What in particular am I longing for in the lonely ennui of lockdown I’m still not able to put my finger on exactly, but there are times when I am able to put a face to the longing. It’s the face of my boyfriend, Olivier, who, because of the closing of national borders, is currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A longing for simple things
Amidst the many feelings circulating in the South African landscape—pain, anger, anxiety and sadness—there is, for me, a palpable sense of intense longing. Longing for a time when a trip to a restaurant, a bar or braai doesn’t illicit a kind of wariness if it’s ‘safe’ to do so or the longing for a time when you don’t have to double-check if you have your facemask with you before you leave the house to go shopping. I’ve felt longing most potently in my romantic relationship, where the intimacy of having someone close enough to touch, hold and love has taken residence in my fantasies. It’s an odd thing to yearn, so passionately for something so simple and yet, this is what lockdown has reduced us to: the longing for simplicity.
During lockdown, I’ve tried approaching my experience and my now long-distance relationship with what Zen Buddhists call ‘beginners mind’: dropping expectations, assumptions and self-images to see what’s really there at the bare bones of ordinary, every-day living. And what is really there for me are feelings of illogical resentment—‘why couldn’t Olivier have made it back before lockdown’—and, at other times, moments of tenderness where Olivier and I admit, over the phone, to our fear of the future, both individually and as a couple. In these conversations, we speak about the nights we can’t sleep—when the racing thoughts in our heads won’t slow down—and how much of the temporal experience of lockdown in separate countries is some sort of relationship crucible: where each of us strive to intuit as best we can about what the other is going through on the other side.
In essence it’s a relationship conducted through a screen, as many of our professional and social relationships have become. It seems to me that ‘the screen’ has become the quintessential symbol of the pandemic.. But as some screens display Olivier’s WhatsApp contact (where he’ll message to check up on me), and other screens pop up to remind me of photos we took together in 2019, there are still more screens that have replaced the literal windows of my work, social and educational life. With the screen just an arm’s reach away, life begins to feel spatially and temporally compressed—I think about work almost all the time and, being stuck at home, I have to remind myself when to switch off, stop working, and give ‘the thinking mind’ a rest. This is where having a special someone does make the world of difference, even when they’re far away. There are moments where my midday phone calls to Olivier are a welcomed relief, where a joked shared can loosen the tension building in my head and where the concern in his voice over how I am remind me that I am still being held in his embrace, just from afar.
Life in the Congo
On Olivier’s side things are a lot different. When asked about it, he admits that in the DRC queer people have to self-monitor their mannerisms, and how they present themselves in public, a lot. Saying this, it isn’t surprising when he tells me there are a lot of down-low gay men and women who live undercover lives. Olivier goes on to mention an incident where a security guard didn’t allow him to enter a friend’s house because the “tight-fitting shorts” he was wearing was “too sexy” for a man to be wearing, according to the security guard’s fashion standards. This is just one example of the kinds of micro-surveillances, and aggressions, which occur to subtly ‘straighten’ any individual who may present themselves slightly different to a majority. When asked about the incident, Olivier says that it could have been because of his sexuality, although he is not entirely sure. I find this sense of uncertainty quite telling. It seems to me that queer people the world over experience differing degrees of uncertainty about their bodies within certain heteronormative spaces.
Olivier goes on to tell me he that feels more comfortable in spaces like Melville (in Johannesburg) where he knows he can express his sexuality without recourse. However, things are not as clear-cut as that. In the DRC, Olivier acknowledges that a part of him feels more ‘at home’ in his country of birth where the threat of xenophobia is highly unlikely. Moreover, he feels less likely to experience crime in Kinshasa compared to Johannesburg. When he tells me this it makes me realize just how different we experience being in South Africa because—while I am wary of my sexuality and how I present myself in certain spaces—I do, nevertheless, move through the city without thoughts of xenophobia threatening my mobility. For Olivier, things are much different and, by being in the DRC, he doesn’t have to be mindful of the language he speaks or the accent he speaks in. I imagine us traveling to the DRC together one day but that experience would most probably involve a cautious monitoring of our public affections for one another, affections we display unthinkingly in most places we visit in Johannesburg. This brings to mind the kind of double-bind most queer Africans find themselves in: trading parts of their intersectional identity to negotiate their African’ness and their queerness in order to seek some semblance of a ‘home’.
On another, perhaps more resonant, level I learn that the DRC experiences regular power-outages much like what we experience in South Africa. It’s a subtle reminder that, despite our distance, we are on the same continent in countries that are both grappling to create better infrastructures and economies that can salve the wounds of historical social inequalities. In these power outages, in either country, I realize our lines of communication, as a couple are as fragile as the power grids of the DRC and South Africa respectively. The feeling of being powerlessness is a hard thing to sit with in a long-distance relationship. When Olivier contracted malaria and landed up in hospital in the DRC I was powerless to help or be with him. All I could do was offer words of comfort and reassurance. When my mother contracted Covid-19 and I was waiting for my own test results, Olivier felt powerless to help me deal with the emotional turmoil and heaviness I was experiencing. Caught in our current predicament, words, and their stringing together, are the life-blood of a distant relationship under lockdown. The irony of the situation is that as much as words are needed between lovers, most times they are simply not enough and can simply never measure up to the actual presence of a lover nearby.
Staying connected and falling in love
Yet, in order to string ‘genuine words’ consistently together, in order to ‘be there’ for your significant other, requires one to not shy away from uncomfortable feelings. I’ve learn it requires breaking oneself open, again and again, to ask each other: ‘are you okay’, ‘are we okay, ‘is anything wrong’? Sometimes there is something wrong—a tongue-in-cheek comment has touched a nerve in the other—and a conversation about feelings and intentions needs to be had. Other times, just the simple ‘relationship check-in’ is enough to remind us that we’re still there for one another and that we’re still in this together. This is where communication via text, photos, memes, video-calls, Instagram posts, Facebook tags, Twitter DMs—all these social mediums—comes in to helps us stay ‘connected’ to one another’s life during this time. I think full immersion in one another’s life is what builds a romantic relationship.
But what about desire? Physical, hot, sweaty desire? Yes, there’s that too. I go back to my comment about ‘beginner’s mind’, which is to say that I still desire sex, a lot, but that I take my sexual urges as they come, enjoying in the pleasures I can offer myself. Keeping the eroticism alive—recounting and envisioning future erotic, sexual, and sensual play to come—is one way Olivier and I psychically ‘invest’ in our future post-lockdown. As cultural theorist Sara Ahmed says: “[love] is our relation to particular others that gives life meaning and direction, and can give us the feeling of there being somebody and something to live for […] how one loves matters; it has effects on the textures of everyday life and on the [intimacy] of [our] social relations.” Reading this quote, it strikes me that it was during this time of global upheaval that Olivier and I first said I love you to one another. It was a powerful speech-act and one that wrestled meaning and direction from the uncertainty of life in a pandemic.
It’s clear to me that the texture of our combined everyday lives are very different and so is our lived. There is no doubt a cultural divide between us and I think a lot about how we may, in the future, come to navigate those divides openly. By loving Olivier I’ve come to acknowledge how little I know about other parts of Africa and how much further I have to go in fully immersing myself in what it means to be queer and African. Perhaps, the physical distance inadvertently allows us the space to see each other more clearer, without the ‘blurriness’ of physical proximity. Perhaps this large crucible of pressurized time and space is what we both need to melt past our emotional guards and show a tenderness and vulnerability that will give us the tools to walk the divides that culture, language and distance may place together.