To understand my relationship with Joe, I need to zoom out, a bit like a mosquito does when deciding on its next meal.
Summer. It was so hot even the cats in North London flats banged their heads against the windows, trying to escape. KFC and Crocs released a collab, the Kentucky Fried Chicken® x Crocs, which sold out in seconds, with many still in limbo in the online trolly. Statues of colonial masters, exalted by the great institutions, started falling from London to Bristol. The book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, appeared on bedside tables, shadowed by towering houseplants. White guilt became the trending image of the season: the guiltier, the better. All the way from Hinge profiles to quiet moments, you could feel tenderly while listening to drill and going all-in in that yoga class that had you Ohming and Shanting. Art from the Global South, carefully described as indigenous or native art, started to appear in charity shops all the way from Hackney to Finsbury Park. It became quite fashionable to hang a painting of a dark, abstract body, passively signalling that you neither approved of the Male Gaze, nor of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, but partook in wild, wild sex.
That summer you were free and beautiful, dipping in canals to cleanse yourself of the sticky heat, feeling radical as the Waltham Forest local newspaper issued warnings of swimming in the canals: industrial waste, syringes, nuclear seepage, but you chose to dive into the water anyway. The algorithms pushed the poetry of Langston Hughes and Derek Walcott on you; reading black poets, you felt you had single-handedly dismantled systemic inequality through your erudition. You felt the world was a serene, lyrical exchange of trans-cultural poetic sensibilities. You would tell me about the protests you went on, about how fashion was empowering, and I too felt inspired by how inspired you were.
After 22 months on an NHS waiting list, a therapist diagnosed me as asexual, with a proclivity towards suicidal ideation, and I said thank you, I’ve waited for so long, now it all makes sense, and I started to feel less like Public Enemy 2.5, which as a male body, (but ethnic +1), (religious +1), (migrant +5), but free of desire, basically made me a saint. Newly elevated, I started to consider the life of an ascetic, researching books written by lost Sufi masters on the erotic possibility of old trees.
But at the same time, somewhere in an ex-council in Hoxton, Joe was making a new Tinder profile. As he later explained, the pictures were chosen to show his availability. Him standing by the canal, wearing an overcoat, holding a coffee. Another with him hugging a cat, moustache and multiple earrings clearly visible. His bio: small dishes, vinegar, and long texts, was carefully constructed. It showed his warmth, acumen, and desire for genuine communication.
Joe’s room was tiny. A single bed with some legroom. There was a large window though. He kept his speciality Japanese tea there with a porcelain pot and cups. Then there were the niche theory books, with titles I don’t remember. I Googled and found links to spatial biopolitics, transcultural memory, and the ocean as an archive, which sounded like Joe was an oceanographer, and the mic he hid in his overcoat only further confused me.
Joe couldn’t wait to tell me about the books. He also pushed Deleuze’s and Nietzsche’s theories of resentment onto me, convinced that a body like mine needed critical theory to Kill the Father of Being Born in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time (my words). There were a couple of notebooks, two wooden speakers, Dr. Martens, and a photo of him with his best friend. With his Moscot glasses, long curly mullet, bushy moustache, and oversized overcoat, he looked like an early pilgrim that went on the first ships to the “New World” hunting for exotic loot, undiscovered pleasure, unfathomable treasure. I’d joke, “In the 17th century, you’d be on a ship coming for me”, and when he started to fuss, I’d add, “and I’d probably worship you as a God”, and I could see a faint smile that was immediately wiped away. “That’s a bit racist”, he’d say.
That summer, while all of London was having fun, I was in the British Library. I had secured a small grant, via the British Council, to research the formation of self-image in what Freud affectionately describes as “the circumcised tribes”. I tunnelled into my research, forgetting to eat, and even before my body started to revolt, the loneliness got me. My words caught in my throat. I incessantly checked my phone for notifications. It had been 2 months since I had spoken with anyone. I’d go to the all-night Starbucks in St Pancras station, and sit by the window, watching people. I wanted someone to talk to, to be asked how I was doing. Didn’t they know my research was for them? That the lost story of circumcision, would revolutionise the body as we saw it today? In my loneliness, I saw myself cast as a new statue for the future. I’d imagine myself as a shit-stained statue just outside the British Library, but maybe in a lighter shade of copper.
“Are you done with that?” the Starbucks employee asked.
And before I could respond, before I could read his name tag or tell him that I was still drinking my latte, the empty cup was taken away, along with any chance for a conversation.
One day when I was sitting in the ground floor cafe, Joe came up to me and asked what I was reading and we started to chat, then smoke Joe’s rollies, and then drink pints, finally ending up in his room because it was closer for me to get back to than the journey to Amersham 😉 I was struck by how openly he talked about his experiences, his chaotic relationship with his mother, and how he described his emotions so thoroughly. Then there was his anxiety, which he talked about with full transparency. I really thought that a new language for men had finally entered the mainstream, and I blushed as I thought of Joe as a kind-of hero. The devotional character of our dynamic quickly took hold, and before long Joe was confiding in me. Once I had been vetted as a man that admired him, Joe got rolling. I’d listen to stories about his insider knowledge of the Berlin techno scene, be shown photos of women he’d slept with, but which I hadn’t asked to see, I’d learn of his passion for Tao Te Ching, the Meditative Order that he was part of, and learn of his dates, “that one wanted to marry me”, “that one paid for dinner and cigarettes”, “that one looks traditional but she does sex work”, and about art, his mainstay and lifelong passion, which he talked about from a commanding place, but when I asked if I could see something he’d made, there would always be a sophisticated explanation, something about work and production being compromised and my “literalness”.
I didn’t want to upset Joe, to jeopardise our friendship, and regrettably, I didn’t say anything about how I didn’t want to hear about his views on women. I wanted him to have that happiness because I wanted our friendship to last.
Then there were stories about his penis. I don’t know if this is an art-guy thing, but he would tell me about how, and he’d adopt a grave tone, “sometimes it doesn’t fit”, and this would be when he was talking about women from East and South Asia, which he gravitated towards, about how even though with his dad being a foot taller than him, “they have the same sized cock”, “but it looks bigger on me because I’m shorter” and I would listen, squinting my eyes, with a combination of repulsion and tenderness. I was simultaneously fascinated by how he performed promiscuity and how small he felt. When he was feeling proud he had a mischievous smile. Being angry at him was akin to scolding a younger brother. When a European man described women to me, I was obliged to listen. Luckily, my only desire was figuring out what desire felt like, otherwise, Joe would have made me feel worthless.
I didn’t pay any attention to his words, because they contradicted his actions. He’d send long, back-to-back texts about his feelings and at any moment could reference niche Taiwanese dishes, Indian films, and Nigerian writers. He spoke 9 languages, all with a degree of fluency, which he told me he picked up in squats around Germany and Spain. I could barely speak two languages, and Joe had mastered all those languages, even speaking my own better than I did, and most impressively, he had acquired the language of emotion.
There were moments on our walks by Victoria Park, when the trees were in bloom when Joe would be telling me that tree is called ‘Geisha Gone Wild’ (real name) and that maple is called ‘Emperor One’ (real name), and in between appreciating the ache of all that nature, I’d feel repulsed by his way of claiming the world, and I’d want to confide how I’d been raped as a kid. That I was sick of hearing his stories and desire made me angry and that I was only listening to him, enduring these stories, to humiliate myself, to allow him to psychologically fuck me because I felt empowered by his myopic delusions. But instead, he’d tell me about the girl from Rio, or the one from Hong Kong, about how he’s writing letters to at least 7 of his exes, and that it’s so very sweet of them to send him letters. Occasionally, feeling generous, he’d show me one, “This one came from Oslo”. Sometimes unable to contain my anger,
“Let’s go fuck something up”, I’d say.
And he’d curl up, disgusted by physical violence, which I learned was far less preferable for him than emotional violence. I’d follow him to supermarkets where he’d steal smoothies, playing out a micro-revenge fantasy against his corporate father who made sure his son never had to work for a living. Then he’d also like telling me how much he didn’t like women, that he’d “sucked dick”, and would share his comprehensive analysis of everyone he met, hoping to please me with his intellect. The contrast between the supreme knowledge he had of others and that of himself, made my head hurt. I’d think of how with his analytical abilities, he could do anything, but then I learned that all of his talk of emotion, it was practised. A skill that he had also analysed and acquired like a system and any attempt to spot a genuine emotion inside him was like looking for where the electrical wiring disappears to. Even with all the words describing anxiety, all the expressions of vulnerability, and all the kind, supporting things he said about others, there was concrete inaccessibility to him. An empty house you get lost in, he always made you feel that you were saying the wrong thing. Joe was skilled at that, and he’d squeeze every last drop of compassion from you.
To piss him off I’d tell him how Europeans were dirty because they didn’t wash their asses, whereas we from the civilised world washed our asses with water.
“It’s not cleaner to rub your ass with water”, he’d challenge me. “You’re actually pretty racist”, he’d add.
And when I bunkered in, shaming him about having an unwashed ass, he’d attack me at the jugular, which was my desire to visit Spain. It was his home, and as an authority, he’d tell me about just how racist Spain was, that they called the off-licences Pakis there, and at the stadiums, they’d howl, and he jumped in the middle of the street and made monkey sounds to illustrate just what Spain was like. With each word spoken my dream of Spain shrunk and Joe’s cock grew to the inches that separated him from his father.
I felt so awkward I laughed with him, also jumping like a monkey in the street.
That summer, Joe stole a small fan to cool down his room. He also realised that he was addicted to love. But the closer he got to complete intimacy, which he actively created, was directly proportional to his losing interest. He discovered how he was a proper romantic, unable to let go of love – hoarding letters, mementos of old relationships, photographs, and the feeling of travelling. His wild global ethnic cruise, collecting post-colonial POC women who fell for his emotional availability, his rugged, German looks and his tea ceremonies, made it so that bodies like mine, holed up in the British Library, researching Freud’s cut tribes, inherited the narratives of complicity and anger, having our language, our loss, hijacked only to be re-interpreted to us. And from his little bed overlooking a luxurious Hoxton tree, listening to post-Techno in his Norwegian headphones, imagining some new art theory about being a smuggler or a fugitive, contemplating the tenderness of his emotions as he planned his next Tinder date, he’d think of what he would teach me next.