by Guest Contributor Soyluv, special to Racialicious
My ex boyfriend would stop canoodling with me, as soon as his elder brother came into the room we were in (they were roommates in a house together).
He’d snuck up on me, pressed the length of his body against mine in the kitchen — sweet warmth and closeness radiating between us two — all the while, keeping an ear open, or both, for the tell-tale sounds of his brother’s movements and whereabouts. And I could tell. I could feel the slight edge beneath the love-up. There was no real reason for his brother’s movements to inadvertently police his behavior, other than his own perception of what such behavior would reveal about himself. And anything connected to softness wasn’t good. Even, someone you have been seeing for a while. I got hip to that real quick. Anything remotely in the vicinity of softness just wasn’t good.
Neither one of us lived with parents or elders, we were not engaged in an illicit affair (as far as I know!); it was well known that we were seeing each other, my friends knew him or of him, and his brother (and his few close friends) knew me and was comfortable with talking and hanging out with me when I was over. I could tell there was something bubbling under the surface behind all this and I realized that it wasn’t directly connected to me.
It was him.
Even when I called, I could always tell when the fellas were liming home by him, (even if I hadn’t heard them yet in the background) the threesome: his bro, their other homeboy and sometimes, a couple other or select various young men. I finally told him this once at his “hello”, that I could already tell he was around company but we never fully unpacked that observation. In fact, the entire pitch of his voice would change, harden, but ever so slightly, but enough still, like vivid colors getting sucked out of a portrait. The warmth fervently sealed out of his voice — on purpose, lest it betray him in the proximity of other men. It was so bloody pronounced to me, I wonder why he didn’t hear it himself (I asked, he said he didn’t) and why he didn’t hear the way it made me cringe and shrivel a little on the inside.
Of course, I wanted to hear the same level of sweetness, kindness and quirkiness in his voice and conversation, as when we were one-on-one, whether the trio of guys happened to be watching a basketball game or football, or shooting the breeze. It bothered me that this mask of masculinity, a particular kind, would come on in this way, always, in certain circumstances. Invariably, we always “could not talk” if The Guys or another guy was around, and he would have to pledge to call me back. Sometimes, it wasn’t even a live game in progress on TV, sometimes it was just an intense video game battle amongst them or some Guinness in hand, liming with the guys and therefore, an attendant conversation with me in that space, just could not take place. It wasn’t about attention to me, it was about spaces and access and most of all vulnerability.
In public spaces, the facade governed his interactions with me and the world. He smiled a lot less (if at all), he yielded to me less, his body was tenser, the whole vibe radiating off of him changed and I felt it acutely. This was a guy who could not, would not, casually caress me, even inside his home space, before his own kin. He wasn’t mean or anything like that in the interim, just off, like a switch. Until he was free to reactivate. And I wouldn’t push him to either. When all I wanted was to cover him in cuddles (no matter who was around or within ear-shot), I found myself tempering and adapting my own behavior and my own wants. Like him, cool while the front descended over him, then on again when it was lifted, softly squeezing my hand, tracing the lines of my inner palm, once out of sight of certain folk. This — all rooted in these rigid notions of “manliness”, against the backdrop of dancehall music and its rules and regulations about the performance of masculinity, black masculinity, West Indian and Caribbean manhood — its rules and regulations, predominant religious doctrines and stringent gender socialization.
Pseudo-nationalistic narratives of Caribbean/West Indian masculinity intersect with black masculinity (because not everyone in the Caribbean in black) and these form part of the nexus of larger systems of masculinity and identity. (Not that I am implying that any one kind is better or worse than the other.) When you add migration into the mix, you have Caribbean masculinity converging with black masculinity, inside of an arguably more peculiarly racialised space in some ways. My ex, for example, would see certain aspects of his own expression of masculinity, as firmly yoked to being an island man. As a West Indian woman living in the states, I would almost want to take some of these as a given at first, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t problematic or that I should accept them.
I know too, that there is something about the stereotype of stoicism inside my learned construct of masculinity which unfortunately, attracts me at times.
Very, come into my parlour-esque.
Then I am boggled by, and or frustrated by the very thing that attracts me.
I learnt to deal with this more and more, because we really did love each other. And what’s a girl to do, right? We did connect and open up to each other in a myriad of ways, some of which, have never happened before in my life and maybe not ever again. We talked about race in America, black masculinity, my issues with it. How, as a black woman, I both loved it, loathed it and grappled with it. I could see and feel and in some instances, hear, how loving me, how the fear of loving me and the vulnerability of that terrified him. But still, I coaxed him. It’s okay. The first time he said he loved me, was like pulling teeth. I will never forget the utter look of anguish and resignation that contorted his face. It was like watching wooden Pinocchio fight not too lie — but couldn’t. Not because I think he could lie about that to my face but he didn’t want to acknowledge, to make real the feelings that had grown between us. He didn’t want to say it and he was at odds internally with my compulsion that he do so.
It’s like it physically hurt to discard the mask and admit love.
To him at any rate, the two were practically mutually exclusive.
And I demanded to know, to hear it articulated. Yes, I did. It was the early morning hours after my Halloween party, last year. I was dressed like a leaf-cutting ant. He was dressed like a graduate (after admonishing me that they, The Guys didn’t do costumes but he showed up in costume anyway to my surprise).
“Do you love me?” I asked him point-blank to his face.
His brother and friend were loading music equipment back into their rental, five floors down on ground level.
My two girl-friends from out of town had retired to my bed behind a closed door to overnight.
“Well, do you?” I wouldn’t let him side-step me without saying. I already knew the answer but I had to hear it verbalized out loud. Only then, did it become more real. I was also annoyed that he was about as marginally uncomfortable with having sex with me inside my laundry room before, where we scrambled into in the early aftermath of my party. The DJ tables, abandoned by him and his brother, several people were still milling about the place as I giggled and we skirted away. It wasn’t so much bashfulness on his part, than another silly code of masculinity. All this selective aloofness was driving me up the wall. Who cares if you want to whisk away with me out of sight and that makes you giddy and happy?
Bringing feelings to the surface with a certain kind of man entrenched in a relentless code of masculinity is sometimes like this: a whole lotta coaxing and assuring, before any actual declaration of anything (if there is any at all). It sometimes feels like their own codes of behavior, the rigidity that is required, will lock them away from experiencing you — love — if they let it. It can also be very exhausting for all parties involved. Loving shouldn’t be so hard! But sometimes it is.
So, I dangled a metaphorical carrot (but we love each other) and coaxed. I promised that I would never do X, Y, and Z — like I needed to promise anything. I cajoled and in all of this, never once stopped to require anything of him. The only thing I wanted was love reciprocated and articulated.
It was like my own other needs didn’t exist. And at the time, they didn’t. I was so focused on making him feel safe, on erasing his terror and his paralyzing vulnerability — I ceased to even think about myself. And you say all those things you say to make your man feel safe: no, I won’t hurt you and the like, even though nothing is promised to any of us in the grander scheme of things.
There are few guarantees in life.
I have dated a variety of men: black American men, multi- / bi-racial American men, East- Indian Trini, white American men, mix Trini, black and mixed Jamaican / Trini / Bajan / Crucian/ St. Lucian, mixed Latino, Argentine — no one has a monopoly on masculinity or how it gets articulated.
Some men were more flexible on certain aspects, some less so. Race, national culture, socioeconomics, pop culture and other forms of culture intersect at different points to make each guy a little different in some ways but there are always those threads of connection too.
My ex, by his own admission, represented a particular kind of version of masculinity at work and he knew this. We’d joke about it. Sometimes the jokes weren’t really jokes at all. “I have hair on my nuts, you know,” he would say to me, in relation to something that he perceived as especially infringing on the hirsuteness of, not to mention possession, of his testicles. And I would say, “yes I know. I’ve seen them.” During the time we were together, he often lamented in jest, the sobering effect that I had on it — his masculinity. It was like I “made” him do cute things, much to his chagrin. Next thing you know he was referring to my beloved child-hood bear (Paddington) in the second person too. Not because I told him do this, or do that; this is what happened when he was free to be. To drop the mask and just be. All those sides are already there in him. Could he have benefited from not compartmentalizing so much? Or from being able to fully engage with all aspects of himself with his male friends and male family members around? Probably. Who knows? It may not have saved us though.
Later he said he couldn’t be with me because our religious views didn’t match up. Additionally, he was a homophobe, who had weaned “faggot” out of his vocabulary at my frequent urgings.
Meanwhile, I’ve attended Pride parades and I have Tanya Chalkin’s “Kiss” up on my bedroom wall.
From my vantage point, I saw how the stifling bind of masculinity, on top of race in America, coupled with minimal job prospects frustrated him no end. His much-professed return to his church came almost as a direct response in part, to all these. But shit kind of did hit the fan even before that discussion. His inflexibility on certain things, his closed off worldview on some matters were directly connected to his construction of his masculinity. Anything less, was not being a man, and that was the one thing that he was.
He had staunch unyielding views on gender roles, giving oral sex: “no gyal can’t sit down pon mi head / if a gyal try dat she dead” and all that, femininity and what that entails; he believed that a man did not “talk” about some interior things, even as it stifled him visibly. He repeatedly espoused info passed on from his father like the perennial favorite, “doh truss a woman who has too many friends” (apparently, I was one of them, so I was already a wily woman from the jump). He didn’t share his pain. He couldn’t unpack himself emotionally with his lady. Why? Because a man — and a black man especially — didn’t do that. Last I heard from him — he’s still a man with hair on his nuts. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking the lessons and experiences with me, wherever my next relationship (when it arises) goes. Unflinching masculinity be damned.
Still love it too bad though.