I have never really been bothered by my own age. The wisdom I have convinced myself to possess has tended to my appearance so that I look as one always ready to come to terms with specific truths. Still, I am glad to be of this world, and it is no sin to laugh at some of its complexities. At 36, I travelled to Santiago and was welcomed by a fiery summer that agitated the bulls too much. As they charged down the cobbled streets, I wasn’t entirely afraid of them. They were alive, the bulls, in a sad way, angry at the crowd’s surprise – their notion that death couldn’t claim them all at once.
Looking down at these people from my hotel room and savouring how reckless and confident they were, I chose to force a closeness because understanding them was the same as the innocence they had all given up. They were ready for escape, entirely clueless about the day they would need saving. Whatever they were up to was planned fun, and later in the day I was with them in a bar, drinking wine and hearing them being awfully loud.
It was a big place. Because it was full, it made sense to see some of the women taking their pitchers to the garden and laughing at their own cleverness. They were beautiful women with firm bodies. They were also different from the men. I mean, you could say the men were careless with themselves, giving up just when gentle beauty was attainable. Those with beards appeared too strong, and those without were on the lookout for validation. This place was far from being judged or ruined. I remember listening to Paulo Nutini on the plane just so I couldn’t take that freedom for granted. Being in the air was, for me, pride distorted with just a little sound. The history of this place demanded that we practise a higher understanding, acknowledging everyone with a smile, and, afterwards, I saw again the old Italian couple who acted unbothered by everyone, and I didn’t wish to accept, as they already had, that this was a temporary refuge. So we all did things, and for formality, I bought a hat, sunglasses, and a leather belt. I touched hands with another man and instantly felt a genuine dislike for him.
The occasional stares in this bar did not bother me, for they weren’t as severe as some shouting cojones. It was what counted, for you needed it to run, to evade a bull, to not become predictable. Apart from the drinking, what I saw a lot of was the walking in and out. Because of it, I had shared my table with a young man who, just from looking, could tell you what someone wanted desperately to forgive about themselves. Of course I doubted what he said; he was a serious lad but not bitter. The ship captain before him hadn’t been amused by the day’s confidence. Maybe he had seen too much of life to believe its ease sometimes. My impression of him was that he had failed at something, and his rushed English was his way of denying that. “To hell with the Los Blanco!” The story vilified the sport. But I had cared to listen because I was in need of company. Everyone always is. And in a place like this, the playfulness climaxed in imperfect ways – someone fouling the air with cigarette smoke, voluntary gestures that claimed the most random ideas, an ease that wasn’t shared all round. I felt shunned, excluded by the familiarity.
I knew how long I had been here. Days really, and my coming couldn’t be falsified by my own excuses. I wanted to be. Having fun was for those already convinced they still needed figuring out. Whatever I did, I tried to do truly. I say this because the camera I brought along had been gifted to me out of curiosity. I hadn’t used it for closure or exposure, just reassurance. Here, I had snapped without guilt a group of bare-chested boys as they hauled hay into the back of a carriage. They looked nothing like Tarik. They were poor and satisfied.
I will tell you that Tarik’s money is always working to deny others his attention. Boys feeling intimidated by him take their desires somewhere else, and they find what they really want. He has never been afraid of saying it to me. “I don’t see you as queer, you know?” He is always amused by the kind of peace he gets just by staying away from certain people. It is better unnamed.
Tarik had come to me in a rush, and for a while, I was convinced he was chasing an admission more than he was chasing me. See, another man saying “I love you” is a valid similarity.
We always make love in his apartment because he is the one who decided who I’d be and who he’d be. The need to integrate our pasts has never come up, and it is how he owns me that gives me access to his money. I need it and he knows. Being a man has never been enough help; I needed it to hide from the lack that stalked me. I needed it to hide from other things too.
Tarik himself is well-rounded, for he knows when to be dramatic, coy, or straight-up demanding. Also, he is wary of the laziness that comes with loving someone, and his desperation is something I quiet with limited vulnerability. It has always been clear to me he will never be like most people. He does not see how unfair it is that a single word means everything: our fears, our views, our failures. Maybe homosexuality had been extracted from the recklessness you find in places you have to seek out first. These are places that fail the wait people like us have endured. Boys on boys, girls on girls, and the scenes become pitiful quickly. I always went alone because I knew once Tarik got a need for it, it would destroy him. It wasn’t cheating, just a parody of what we had.
I remember him as too certain before my flight. He knew I would come back to him, and this was enough reason not to delay it. Someday, he will lose his face, and the features that compliment it will decay also. His anger can’t be catalogued with his flaws – it never says enough, and as a man of feeling, he presumes it dignifies him to make jokes out of his moments, to brush aside his need for understanding. He has relatives living in Santiago, and we have a similar way of describing it – a place so far away.
But this place I came to had long ago had its wars, and now that peace was being taken for granted, those clever enough had found ways of pricing its beauty. A captured sunset hadn’t given him the idea; it was how he had always primed himself for such an achievement. He thinks foreign comfort in the midst of new people is bound to leave one feeling dangerous. He loved me and wanted it for us. To do him a favour, I ignored the waiting days and ventured into his excitement. It was beautiful there, so easy and normal. But at work they said he couldn’t go, and he came to me angry, breaking his wine glass on the wall. When that wearied him, he reasoned with himself, saying I had to go because it wasn’t fair to waste effort. He said I had to go, for whatever I brought back he would always have a need for. I didn’t understand him, but I still wanted to go.
The work he does suits him. He looks prepared, and that was what they were on the look-out for. I once worked as a messenger, and when he found me, he was readying himself for the weekend in the back of my taxi. A forced laziness had consumed him, and I chuckled at the thought that all the invites he was flaunting were lies. But they weren’t, and it took me weeks to finally return the tie he had left behind. His apartment smelled clean, and the fragrance had clung to everything, even the utensils. We drank tea at midday because it wasn’t really his thing to cook. Also, he said it was unlike him to be so forthcoming, and he hoped I wasn’t mindful of how his thank you wasn’t too plausible. I wasn’t. We didn’t sit for long, and I left him with my number. I was already accustomed to a simple crowd. They were people I respected, and how we talked made me forget about people like him. So when he called, I picked up on the fourth ring. He wanted me to drive him to some event but still gave me the option of saying no. I wanted the money so I got him there, and he made me wait for him inside. I kept to myself. Occasionally he’d find me but then drift back to the people with cufflinks. They were everywhere, and I had no reason not to look. They had been blessed with what they needed, and my presence wasn’t at all necessary. I snuck out because it was easier that way. For days, I thought of him as angry, embarrassed by my own smallness. I thought of him as decisive, deleting my number and becoming strict with the others, “Drop me and leave. Don’t wait.” When he finally called, his apology wasn’t rehearsed. He said he was sorry and scared me with his directness, “I like you, I really do. I have been wanting to tell you that.”
There was no evidence of memory in this bar. The people were too proud. Almost all had to know that the fruit for the wine came from the hills. They didn’t grow wildly. The order up there defined the farmers and their children. They were serious people, sometimes saying hello and waving their calloused palms. They were not in our midst. Here were people eager to be remembered, eager to always be alive. Looking across, I couldn’t help but notice the boy with the silver bracelet. He sat with others, and their talk kept exposing them. There was no beseeching in their voices, tempting each other into a state of dependence, and I convinced myself they were for each other. It was obvious to me what it felt like to be in their presence, and if that giddiness could be substituted for anything, could it be a soft silence? He had small eyes. Their connection, the four of them, wasn’t at all complicated; in the long run, they were bound to forget about each other. There was no telling who the boy favoured. I saw that they were wary of pride, thinking it suited them to accept the equality their friendship demanded.
It was good to look at the boy. The Roman numeral tattoo on his neck had to be appreciation for something, say, the freedom that made words for people like him. Maybe he could admit without hesitation that he was straight or not. Looking, for me, was judging also. His firm jaw I’d always love. His hands also. Being here was their way of making honest people of themselves, and it could be his friends had failed to know him as much as they ought to, and maybe in moments when he was alone, some thought bothered him so much he felt like crying. He could very well forget how to live and still be a boy.
There was no point underestimating life in a bar. Perspective plays its part in leading us along. I saw that he had a happy face and their get-together was proper. But it was wasteful to just sit and sit with him. His goodness would matter to me if we were naked together, but even that I had to earn. His life was blossoming, and he would need reasons to stay. He had to be 22, depending on how you asked. Asking wrongly could very well fool you into thinking he wasn’t impatient with waiting. And what exactly did his friends want? The normalcy or relevance of friendship? The times they had taken his company for granted couldn’t lead to their downfall. They would, for as long as they wanted, have moments like this to redeem themselves. I wanted him more than they ever could.
I started understanding Tarik’s struggles just by looking at the boy. To Tarik, I wasn’t only a man he loved but also someone temporary, and it wouldn’t have helped him to know that his failure was letting me understand his type of loving. His words were his vice, and his faith in the notion of love was kept strong by the illusion that he was doing enough to hold on to me.
“I love you.”
“I want you always.”
“I will do anything for you. Do you believe me?”
He spoke to me tenderly and I wanted so much to believe him every time, but he’d never relish the kind of judgment that comes with our intimacy. I wanted to see the looks on faces as I kissed another man, I wanted to understand what it felt like to be shunned, I wanted to know my limits. Tarik was afraid of being known, and for that I didn’t wholly love him. The clarity of what we really should have become I try not to admit because I know it is the only way I can give God the advantage. He has never wanted people like us. Funny that I hadn’t heard the sounds of church bells. God wasn’t here, and therefore, he wasn’t inside this boy. This boy was present, and I wasn’t afraid of this betrayal. I hoped he was different, someone that could relinquish my need for him, act carelessly. I arose, full of wine and dreams. In my head, he turned and smiled. In my head, we were together, and I had mastered his face enough not to be embarrassed by his sleep. We were naked, and I was afraid to speak because if I was to ask, then he’d say he wanted to become things he’d never be afraid of. He had to be my boy. He had to.
Felix Otieno is a 24-year-old working as a security guard for a company based in Kisumu. He hopes his works can portray the society of today in its truest form. He can be found on Twitter @kingkinte5.
*Image by Christopher Alvarenga on Unsplash