A Hinge Date Saved Me From The Streets Amid London Lockdown
Me: Have you ever done cybersex?
Him: If it’s essentially getting freaky on FaceTime, then yes. You?
Him: You swear?
Me: Oh, shit. Maybe.
My Hinge match is a year older than me. I’m 23. He has 6’4 worth of body to snuggle up with – his words when I said I was cold – and he plays basketball. I’m 5’5. His thing is fashion. He owns a clothing line. Mine is food: I’ve helped distribute surplus food for different organisations, and I love to eat. He’s a local East Londoner. I’m from Bergen in Norway. And apparently, he’s lived half a year in chastity. Congratulations.
Him: I’m sure you’ll be able to sit on someone’s face again soon.
Me: Not sure I’ve done that before.
Him: You’re lying.
Me: I don’t think so. What about you?
Him: Surely you’d remember. Yes, a long distant time ago, when there was sunlight and no viruses. In the winters, when there were late-night dinners.
Me: So I haven’t.
Him: Why’s that?
Him: Lol, why do you keep having flashbacks?
That’s it for us – I receive a meme of some hip openers and a slick insinuation to start practising them.
I remember dining with my girlfriends in Bali once when one of them said, “You’re so complex… and it’s not a compliment.” Dancing to funky throwbacks that screeched through the nightspot’s budget speakers was like being in my element. Gap years can be stressful for insecure kooks who consider the ocean’s playground and high school much the same. With my longboard taking off somewhere, I had proper washing machine spins, not exactly gliding like the elite. This was four years ago.
Replace people who chuck too-long surfboards on their motorcycle racks and pit-stop the local 7-Eleven equivalent with people who wear too-small beanies and rainproof backpacks on sunny days. Hackney is to London what Canggu is to Bali – a paradise for hipsters, both aspiring and established.
In early February, I was forced to leave the hostel where I was staying and working in London. Half an hour of chatting with the manager didn’t mean getting to the bottom of his rationale. Without further ado, I started hopping among hotels, a hostel, a hippie community and mates. On the nights I thought squatting was my last resort, Couchsurfing hosts saved me at the very last minute.
“You’re not sleeping on the streets,” my middle-aged host said. He turned on the radiator, got me a clean towel and left me to rest.
Two weeks flew by and I was accepted into the food bank charity at which my friend was the kitchen manager. I slept in a cosy corner there and worked in the kitchen every morning. Some hundred homeless people had at least some food security thanks to the operation.
I was seeing Noah,* whom I’d met on the dating app Hinge. He specialised in bedroom disco and heartbreak funk. Though Coventry (in West Midlands) born-and-raised, he had lived in South London for over a decade. For our first date, I had invited him to the charity for Hare Krishna chanting and Prashad (blessed food). His profile said this: You know I like you if I try to kiss you on the first date – and at the pub, he did.
It was early March. Due to a case of overbooking at the charity, I volunteered to give space for new volunteers. This meant I could be closer to Noah.
“You could be my Couchsurfer,” Noah said.
We’d go to his gigs and run around the venue, like two people in love, before he, the bassist, was due to play. Back at the flat, we’d drink blackcurrant wine like two children and dance like two grandparents while the food simmered in the kitchen.
“You know when a couple has been together for so long they only talk about work and food?” he asked. He gobbled down a bite of the vegan tagine.
“And sex?” I asked.
“Not a thing anymore.”
Noah’s sex slave joke didn’t vex me, and his request to pay me didn’t sound unfamiliar, but it disappointed me that he would ask. Prior to me, his flings were Filipina and then Indonesian, like me. I didn’t realise we were going by the rainbow spectrum so systematically, and that the Indonesian specimen was so good he had to have it twice.
While I didn’t blame Noah, my fate of being fetishised as an Asian woman was getting old. Our breakfasts were becoming silent. I still clung onto the belief that the bedroom and everyday life were two separate worlds.
Noah went on tour. I sent him pictures of his newly-watered plants, my farmers’ market haul and homemade rhubarb crumble. After a few days, he returned with an awkward, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said, and continued tidying my corner.
He lied down and stared at the ceiling. I climbed on top of him.
“Sorry,” I said. The tour was cancelled due to the pandemic. “I don’t feel like doing it.”
“It happens,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“You’re getting hard.”
“I don’t feel like doing it.”
“Yeah you do. You always do.”
“I don’t feel like doing it now.”
“Well, I do.”
“That’s all that matters.”
My mate, Rob,* led the digital team at a London startup. He looked younger without a beard, so for work purposes, he kept it. His wooden beard brush was an essential.
“It sounds really bad,” Rob said.
“You sure?” I asked.
“You look like a concerned dad.”
“I’m not. But you don’t move in with some guy you just started seeing. That’s stupid… How old is he?”
“And how old are you, mate?”
“29,” I lied.
Our beer glasses clinked. We were at a pub in Brixton, which is in South London.
“He texted me,” I said. “‘You’re a big girl.’ He’s passive-aggressive.”
“What did you text?” Rob asked.
“‘I’ll be back late. Is that cool?’”
“Don’t go there tonight. You can stay with me for as long as you need.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“It’s normal to be nice,” he said. There were signs of pity between his brows and in his eyes, and he couldn’t relax his jaw.
Although Rob’s career was sorted, his living situation wasn’t. Ever. We slept on the fourth floor at a hotel. Two female sex workers and a male pimp operated on the ground floor. Rob had ADHD and couldn’t tolerate my calm mood. One evening, he chatted with the workers and somehow discovered drugs in the kitchen plant pots.
We were heading to a guesthouse. The commuters adjusted their advanced masks before the tube’s arrival. Rob invented a song about two homeless people. I sang along.
“A homeless person is someone who can’t go back to their parents,” I said.
“My parents won’t let me come home,” Rob said and laughed.
A fellow guest knocked on my door. If I didn’t hand him my lighter, he’d act out his withdrawal symptoms. An odour of urine and crack loomed from the corridor. I locked my door and climbed in bed early. My neighbours were repeatedly shouting and making up behind the cardboard wall. Rob had already found his place.
I did my final trek and settled into my new home. Some people need to be put on the spot to better understand why things went wrong. I sent Noah a narrative of our significant moments. He blocked me.
Though unjustifiable, the link between some of my former sex partners’ behaviours and their traumas from childhood to young adulthood seems like a recurrent theme. Family tragedies, let alone families, are intimate, and so are our sexual development. Noah and I were fated to spiral to toxicity while polar cases of complexities brewed underneath two souls fancying each other over the physical pleasures of life, including food, and the idea of each other.
As for Rob? Poor lad broke his phone, so we lost contact.
The gift of the coronavirus: it digs up memories, such as sitting on someone’s face, and it withdraws me from needy nomadic ventures and the postponed activities of the external world, which so easily interfere with a healthy healing process – in complete serene solitude.
*Names have been changed.
Cover by Maria Molinero