Diary of a Separation (Our Past Offers Answers, But Not Excuses)

A car journey through East London provides space for analysis and reflection

Photo by the author

Saturday 11th May 2019

Whilst driving from Ao’s tonight, I had a eureka moment. It was almost as if I could visualise my past and present on the windshield and they were both talking to me.

The tale they told me was one of culture, identity and belonging. At the same time they also warned me not to use these three elements as an excuse to cover up my shortcomings.

When it comes to relationships, we are as shaped by culture as we are by our personalities. In my case, being born and growing up in a chiefly macho culture was an influential factor when I began having girlfriends in my teens. The aim in those years — and still in 2019 — was to get the young woman in bed as quickly as possible. There wasn’t much preamble in the interaction. Dating was not a concept we were familiar with — not that we’re much acquainted with it now — which meant that that first, nerve-wracking, much-looked-forward-to outing served as introduction, matchmaking and making out, all rolled into one.

The housing situation during my adolescent years in Havana didn’t lend itself to the development of intimacy in a couple. Intimacy was synonymous with sexual intercourse. Which, when you shared your one-bed flat with four or five other people, was not just inappropriate but also logistically difficult (how many times did it cross my mind to send my granny on an hour-long errand so as to have some private time with my girlfriend?).

In the middle of this and already in my mid-20s, S entered my life. And tonight as I drove through Bethnal Green and Shoreditch past single-bright-bulb-lit minicab offices and hipster hangouts, I finally understood what she was after. Twenty-three years after we first kissed on Basarrate St in Havana, the penny dropped. Just don’t call me a late developer, please. Some of us need that extra time every now and then. What S was after was the slow building of a long-running relationship, friendship and partnership. In my head, I was convinced I had agreed to it, but my body and attitude said the opposite. I was still operating on a bedpost-notch mindset. Not that I was ever into numbers but I, too, went with the culture without challenging it.

One of the trendy terms to have come out in the last few years is erotic intelligence. Regardless of how we feel about its meaning, I think it’s worth having a discussion on sex as not just a physical activity. Sex starts in the mind. It is as much a spiritual, mental and emotional exercise as it is physical. The younger me didn’t understand that. In fact, the younger me wasn’t even aware of that. It’s taken me a separation to see the light at last. I hope it’s not too late.

What S was trying to do with me, her partner and the father of our children, was to take our relationship to the next level, especially once the children had flown the nest. A level in which our sexual partnership would be intimacy-based. An intimacy rooted in companionship, friendship, communication and respect.

I failed at it pretty badly. And much as I would like to blame my culture and environment, the truth is that I was given opportunities to get my act together.

The irony is that with Ao, I have already been looking at building a partnership similar to the one that fell by the wayside with S. I just wasn’t aware until now.

The Suleymaniye Mosque looked stunning tonight when I drove past it. It shone like a lighthouse on Kingsland Road, guiding lost East London revellers to shore.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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