When I first offered to write about this, I had very little idea about the turmoil of feelings I would go through while revisiting that day in October 2012. It is almost like reliving it again.
Random memories flash through my mind - the sun hitting my face as I stood outside the house waiting for him, his faded, dirty workman’s trousers, not being able to breathe because of the new bra I’d worn for him, the green of his eyes in my room’s dim, energy-saving bulb.
It was my third (and last) Autumn in England, and I was lonely as fuck. I was depressed, in love with my ex, avoiding my dissertation supervisor and spending most of my available time on OKCupid in a desperate bid to relieve the crushing cycle of loneliness that my life had turned into. Nothing, really, was working out, though. I’d gone on a couple of dates the month before, but neither had amounted to anything, and with every passing day I lost hope further and became even more desperate. It was around then that I met Jeff.
He messaged me - I remember that clearly - a very confused few lines about how he thought I was perfect but that he was feeling too misogynistic to have anything to do with women. It wasn’t the kind of message that deserved to be dignified with a reply. And yet, reply is exactly what I did. I had been stalking his profile for the previous half hour or so; he seemed interesting and funny, was cute, and a massive pothead to boot. Surely he didn’t quite mean what he’d said in his message? He sounded so nice!
I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I messaged back, and we got talking...and didn’t stop. For the next 6 days, we talked almost without a break - the only times we didn’t were when we fell asleep or when he had to set up equipment for a party (he made custom music gear). It was so good.
All my life, I’ve followed a pattern of getting into super intense relationships super fast and this was no different. I ignored it when he said that he was pathologically incapable of thinking about the future, when a long term relationship was what I wanted, and while I attempted to educate him when he made some transphobic remarks, I mostly overlooked them. I was infatuated and I would have forgiven him for murder. For 6 days we IMed and texted, and on the 7th day, he drove down from Newcastle to York to meet me.
I still remember how excited I was that day. I thought of outfits in my head, rejected them, emptied my wardrobe and suitcase looking for the perfect dress and ultimately settled on black velvet and tweed. A date wasn’t just a date for me - it was also my only chance of getting outfit photos and I was determined to get a shoot done.
I waited for Jeff in front of my house, stomach churning in nervousness as I saw him cross the road towards me, a tall, lanky figure dressed in baggy black. It was awkward, as any first date where the stakes are so high usually is - 6 days of talking constantly had led to an intensity that could only manifest in awkwardness upon meeting. I remember the walk into town - the late afternoon sun in my eyes and the way it caught in his long hair, longer than mine, his cracked aviators, the way he crossed the road practically disregarding traffic, my dress riding up over my new tights.
We walked to the Museum Gardens for photos as the sun was going down - he wasn’t a very good photographer, in fact, he was probably the worst I had ever worked with. Looking at those pictures now, though, something occurs to me. I have a theory that unless you are a professional photographer, the way you make your subject look depends entirely on how you see them. I look haggard in the photos from that day, haggard and tired with all my worst features highlighted - because that is how he saw me.
Things, however, got better after that - we went to a pub, one of my favourites, talked over drinks and stayed for dinner. I was taken aback by how eerily similar to my ex he sounded, my ex who I was still in love with. He looked like my ex and he sounded like my ex and as the evening went by, I found myself crushing on him terribly. So terribly, in fact, that over dinner, I asked him back to my place and he agreed happily.
We walked back in the chilly October night, he bummed a cigarette off me, and when I said I was going to put my hand in his jacket pocket because it was too cold, he took it in his instead and said, “I would rather hold your hand.” We bought Rizlas and tobacco from a tiny gas station shop, retrieved the weed from his car and went up to my cramped, dirty little bedsit. And that’s where the nightmare began.
He skinned up and we sat at the window smoking. I hadn’t had weed in months and this was some strong shit. I got very high very soon, and as it always happens when I get high with someone new, I started quietly freaking out. I kept thinking of my sister and my best friend - my stoner buddies who were far away in India and all I wanted was to be with them. I couldn’t care less about this odd, gangling stranger sitting next to me.
Eventually, though, I came down enough to scoot over to him and cuddle - I was horribly affection starved after all. He called me “cutie,” which I heard as “Vicky” in my stoned haze and immediately froze thinking he had called me by his ex’s name. I managed to relax again after a while, but it was the strangest experience of my life. Drowsy from the weed, I wanted to do nothing other than cuddle with him - I couldn’t even think about kissing him, all I wanted to do was just sit there cuddling. Anything else seemed incomprehensible. I felt like I was 15 again, like I was a virgin who had never been in such close proximity to a guy before. Despite being shy and awkward in real life situations, I usually recover well enough during sex, but that day I was a virgin all over again in a way I hadn’t been even during my first time.
After awhile, though, we kissed - hesitant, nervous kisses, obviously no tongue. Cuddling with him was surreal - Jeff’s skinny, bony body felt almost exactly like my ex’s, and stoned as I was, I kept thinking he was David and almost called him that a couple of times. It wasn’t really Jeff I wanted to be with after all- David, despite everything, was the man I loved and everyone else was just a pale substitute.
We moved to the head of the bed and cuddled some more. He kept touching my back, my thighs, my belly - he touched my belly a lot, squishing it and squeezing it and telling me he liked it. That put me at ease - my belly and the way people treat it is one of the most important things to me in these situations. He seemed nervous, though, and kept giggling; if I hadn’t known that he’d been in relationships before, I would have thought this was his first time.
After a while he asked me that I didn’t want him to touch my boobs, did I? Surprised, I questioned why he thought that and he referred to my recent blog. When I didn’t have a handy answer, he looked up at the ceiling and said, “Way to kill the romance, Jeff”. “You can touch them,” I said and he smiled and told me he’d get around to it.
By this time I was quite sober, and so I sat at the window and lit a cigarette while he dangled his legs from the fire escape and smoked another joint. Later on he said that it was the second joint that fucked him up, and while I was inclined to believe him at that point, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem so likely. Weed is not a psychedelic or a hallucinogenic - it doesn’t alter your perception of reality like that. It is, in fact, more of an amplifier of moods, it brings to the surface whatever you are feeling and intensifies it. In which case, the weed just made his latent, or maybe-not-so-latent racism spew forth.
We cuddled up again, and this time he touched my boobs nervously once or twice. I was sober enough by now to take the lead and I pulled off his shirt. He was as skinny as I thought he would be - gaunt and bony, his ribs starkly outlined. The first thought that hit me, though, was, “He is not David.” I asked Jeff if he wanted me to take off my dress, and when he nodded, I pulled it off. A few moments later, I took off my bra.
It was strange. I was suddenly aware of the silence of the night outside my window, my heartbeat, the greenness of his eyes. He didn’t say anything and took one of my nipples in his mouth. A few seconds later he mumbled that he liked them. I had been straddling his hips all this time, and I moved away and lay next to him. He started stroking my hand. Then it came out. “This is different, isn’t it?” “God I never thought this would be an issue.” “I sound like such an asshole.” “Your hair is black, and your skin and your body – it’s different, and the way you smell.” “I never thought I would have an issue with your race, but now I realise that I have only dated white girls.” “I’m really freaked out by your race.”
I’m really freaked out by your race.
I didn’t process it for a long time. In fact, I hardly thought or even felt anything. I couldn’t think. The fact that this actually could happen and that it was happening to me just didn’t register. Nothing registered. The first thought that came to my mind was that of finding my bra. As I looked around for it, he asked me what I was searching for. I told him and he said that it wasn’t about my boobs. It was about my boobs, though - even in that bewildering moment, I knew it was about my boobs.
I put on my bra, and in that moment of shock and confusion, went back to cuddle with him. He told me how things had moved too fast, how he didn’t even know my last name, how he had been with his ex for so long that it was difficult for him to be with anyone else, but all of it washed over me like so much nothingness. I’m really freaked out by your race - those were the only words that echoed in my mind, a mind rendered empty of any other thought. I’m the wrong race, the wrong race, I don’t belong here, what am I doing in this country, in this man’s arms?
In the dim light, his eyes looked greener than ever, and they were the eyes of a stranger. They were the eyes of a stranger I could never know because he was fundamentally different from me, they were the eyes of the strangers who had looted, pillaged and raped my country and its people for 200 years. I was the wrong race.
Living in England for close to two years had made me keenly aware on a daily basis that I was the wrong race. From rude bus drivers, to waitstaff who looked through me only to talk to my white companions, to my traumatizing experience with immigration at Heathrow that August, I was never allowed to forget for a moment that I was the wrong race. I had hoped, though, that when I was in bed with a guy who presumably liked me, when I was in a moment of such vulnerability, I would be allowed to forget that and become one half of two people making each other feel good. But since I was the wrong race, even that wasn’t allowed me.
I still cuddled with him, because it was comforting to have a warm, bony body holding me, but I couldn’t look at his face anymore. As his excuses faltered, the horror inside me grew, and everything about him started to feel alien. After a while, I couldn’t bear it any longer and sat up. He kept trying to explain things, but I tuned him out, I just couldn’t listen anymore. He asked me if he could stay the night - I made excuses about my single bed, pretended to fall asleep and more or less shooed him out, shut the door behind him and slumped back against it feeling completely empty.
I spent the rest of the night editing the photos he had taken until the wee hours when I passed out. I woke up a while later - it was daylight and I texted him. He replied saying that he was just getting back home from a party. I texted him a couple more times later that day and finally, in the evening, we got on IM. He was sorry, oh so sorry. He apologized and told me how awful he was feeling and what an unforgivable thing it was to bring race into into the situation, but I didn’t really care for any of it.
Then it started coming out bit by bit. How disgusted he had been by my boobs. No, not disgusted, never disgusted. But big areolae are a turn off, you know. “I saw your face when you looked at them,” I said. “Yes I know,” he replied, “I felt like such a dick, doing that, but I couldn’t help it.” And then, the final horrifying blow. “I have this thing, you know, I can’t explain it, but sometimes I look at a woman and think how pretty and beautiful she is and then suddenly a switch flips in my brain and she turns into a sweaty, fleshy, disgusting human being.”
I was stunned. Even in the light of everything that had happened in the past 18 hours, I was stunned. There was nothing, really, that I could say in response, and eventually, I hit the block button. Thus commenced an agonizing week of the battle in my psyche between desire and horror.
Because I still wanted him. I wanted his skeletal body, so like my ex, his gentle voice, so like my ex, the way he touched me, so like my ex. Desire is a complicated, tangled web, entirely without reason or explanation. So how DO you balance it with rationality, with knowing that the person you desire is a monster? Desire exists in the oddest of places, but never had it existed in a place so strange as this for me. I couldn’t explain it, and the resulting guilt had a life of its own, circling me in arms of cold rationality, and then holding me in a death grip of self-loathing.
The more I fought with myself, the worse it became. How could I, of all people, think this way? I was doing a Masters in Postcolonial Studies - surely I would know better than to want the guy who had brought the racism I faced on a daily basis in the world outside into the sanctuary of my room? Who, at such a vulnerable, intimate moment, had launched an attack of that kind on me? Desire is a many headed beast, and in that week, I learned exactly how perverse it can be. Was it my latent colonial trauma that made me like him still? Did I truly, deep down inside, believe that I deserved to be with white men who couldn’t see me as a person? The fact that they didn’t had been demonstrated to me previously - a (white) guy I dated for three months dumped me because I couldn’t temporarily provide him with sex, and countless others saw me only as an exotic creature with “caramel skin and big dark eyes.”
It was othering, but an othering I still could tolerate at that point of time because it was othering entwined with desire, and as a fat woman who had never been considered attractive in her native country, it was enough of an ego boost for me to overlook the fact that to these men, I wasn’t entirely human. Jeff changed all that, though. His way of othering was outright rejection, and not something I could just brush off.
How is it possible to negotiate desire across races? How do I know that the blue eyes and fishbelly pale skin I love is not just because my ex had it, but because as an Indian woman, I have a centuries old burden on me to automatically value those particular features over my own? How do I know whether much of what I find attractive is actually the result of colonial trauma? Could a white man ever find me attractive and see me as a person, or is his attraction just part of his complicity in a centuries old trope of brown women being wanton, sexually available and “exotic”?
Desire is hard to negotiate in most cases, but when you take two people who have centuries and even millennia of oppression and violence colouring their every move, how can you reach a place of equality and mutual respect? How do you undo history?
I probably raise more questions than I answer, but these are questions I’m still trying to find the answers to. I finally got over Jeff the next week during a conversation with him on Facebook where he told me that he didn’t “feel any spark” when we met. Ultimately, it was his rejection of my persona, and not my race, that wrote him off in my head, and I realised that as a Postcolonial subject, my desire to dissociate with my race is so potent that I don’t see a rejection on those terms as a rejection at all. Obviously, it is enormously problematic, but what do you do when you have such a huge historico-cultural burden on you to essentially not be yourself?
I now have a neat little piece of paper from an English university that qualifies me to speak authoritatively on these things, but in reality, I’m struggling to find the answers, just as most people like me are. Meeting Jeff was a turning point, because he made me realise that racists are not just overblown caricatures of evil but come in every shape and form, and sometimes you trust them enough to get into bed with them, only to be subject to their attacks.
It’s devious, and all-pervasive - I’m pretty sure that Jeff doesn’t think he is racist, just as so many others like him don’t. That’s what’s scary: you never know who it’s going to be. They could be soft spoken, kind and gentle, and you wouldn’t even feel it in their touch, until the dehumanizing moment.
I wish I could say that I haven’t been in any situations like that since then, but that would be a lie. After that episode, I’ve been taken in by (white) emotional con-men who used me to get free homemade porn, and subject to particularly horrifying bouts of harassment and abuse by them for not giving them porn. I’m beginning to think that for men of that particular race, I can never be anything more than “caramel skin and big dark eyes” in a “curvy, voluptuous” package. They deny me my personhood - to them, my brains, my sense of humour, my taste in books and music matters very little.
To them, I am exotic in my alterity, not as real as a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, and not as much of a person either. Given a choice, though, I would rather face a racist like Jeff than the kind who gushes over the desirability of my otherhood. Because when they tell you to your face that your race freaks them out, you know exactly where you stand. And once you know where you stand, that’s when you can start to fight back.