December 2003 (rev February 2010): How often have I been in love? I don't
know. How often have I told someone I loved them? I don't know. I only
remember uttering the words to three people in my life, although I must have
said them to others. The first was when I was twenty and he was nineteen; we
lived 140 miles apart and saw each other at weekends. The actual
circumstances in which I told him, however, I have forgotten.
The next time
was twenty years later, to the (now) Ex, a month after I met him, in the
apartment I was staying in in Los Angeles, when he had said or done
something that made me laugh and I realised how happy I was to be with him.
To my relief, he repeated the words back to me, telling me he had waited to
say them until I had spoken first.
The last time was a year after the Ex and I split up.
He was a dancer I had been dating for two months, a serious individual who
was sometimes baffled by my sense of humour and lack of common sense. It was
at the end of a week when he had blown hot and cold and I said the words
hoping to convince him once and for all. But when he did not respond I knew
it was too late; the next day he said our time together had come to an end.
A year later he gave as his reason that he felt I was still too close to the
Ex, while I had been convinced he was afraid I was growing too close to him
(the dancer, that is). Who knows where the truth lies - in both senses of
the word - ?
And the others? Well, I must have said it to the first
person I lived with and if he remembers when I have forgotten, I must hang
my head in shame. What about Antony, with whom I lived for three years? We
were close - sometimes too close - but he was not the kind of person to
spontaneously tell someone he loved him and maybe he and I never did. Then
there is one other candidate for this memoir, Francesco, whom I loved, but in
a kind of frustration, and I suspect I never told him so, although as he was
dying I am sure he knew it was true. (Thanks to my appalling memory I have
never been tempted by the vanity of an autobiography or memoir.)
The theme of love returned to me while I was in Pattaya
last week. Thailand's first, and probably still largest, seaside resort, the
town is most famous for its hundreds of bars where young women and young men
wait for customers who will buy them a drink and time in bed. But while some
have no goal beyond whatever money they can negotiate with their clients,
many are hoping for a lifelong commitment. Take me to Europe or the United
States, they whisper with their eyes to likely candidates; give me a home,
buy me clothes, send me to college, buy me a car, and I will devote my life
to you. I will even tell you I love you. And if truth resides in hope and
intention rather than provable fact, then such love is indeed often true.
And so all over Thailand in the bars at night and on
the beaches during the day, white men in their thirties, forties, fifties or
older are accompanied by attractive young Thais in their twenties. Apart
from the disparity in age and ethnicity, they do not fit a common pattern.
Some couples are are deep in conversation and laughter, others sit for hour
after hour in almost motionless silence. Sometimes the farang -
foreigner - is surrounded by compatriots drinking, talking and joking, while
the young Thai sits for hour after hour, not understanding, staring into the
distance, occasionally turning to his or her companion and smiling.
Body language hints at the underlying relationship but
cannot always be trusted. Not every entwined couple is in love. Many have
only just met and the arm on the shoulder, the arm, the leg or somewhere
more intimate is little more than a bid in an auction where the prize - sex
for the farang, money or a gift for the Thai - has yet to be won. And
after the first orgasm the interest of one may last longer than that of the
other, and a hand or gesture may be trying to halt the tide of rejection.
All that can be certain is that an outsider rarely understands the dynamics
of a relationship and those in that relationship are often little better
In Pattaya I met a couple who have been together for an
over a decade; one a rich European in his fifties, the other a once-poor
Thai ten years younger. They spend little time together, and even then there
is little conversation; indeed the language barrier is so strong that I
suspect that it was not words that brought the two together and I suspect that money is the only glue that keeps them side by side.
Meanwhile there are the beach boys in their twenties
who tell me about their boyfriends in America or Europe. One visits twice a
year, sometimes sends money; another sends his young friend a ticket every
so often. There is talk of college and work and business and maybe one day
it will work out as it has for others before him, but in the meantime year
after year passes and the older man stays in his well-paid job and
comfortable lifestyle and the younger man makes a living from each new wave
of farang that arrives.
Are they all, young and old, in love? Do their stories
deserve to be told with the same intensity as Romeo and Juliet? After all,
Shakespeare's young lovers barely knew each other before they died. It was
lust that drew them together and ignorance and youth that drove them to
death. Can love only be the affection and respect that draws too individuals
of similar status together. If a young man's love for an older man depends
on the comforts the latter brings him, does that dilute the notion of love?
Remember the ancient Greeks and the mediaeval Samurai, where all a youth
could offer his older male lover was his personality, his talent and
devotion and where he received, if not financial riches, then the wealth of
experience that helped him become a man.
The truth is that the word love is indefinable, a
chameleon that describes not so much an emotion but the depth of an emotion.
And that emotion may be negative as often as positive, may indeed be a
blend, a maelstrom of emotions that neither partner truly understands. Thus
love is possession and greed and jealousy. It is generosity and selflessness
and respect. Love is placing the other above oneself. Love is warmth, love
is happiness, love is peace.
And, outwith the family and friendship, underlying each
of these emotions lies lust. Lust for the partner's body or lust for what
that body represents, which may be anything from affection to money to
power. Lust may also be for oneself reflected in one's partner's eyes - I
lust for you because you find me attractive, and it is my own beauty that
lies at the heart of my desire for you. For many gay men in their twenties
and thirties, lust can be overpowering and blind us to the other components
of love. It is the body or wallet, not the personality, they see and
attention can soon pass to the next attractive man who walks past.
Having reached the age where love is analysed more
often than experienced makes it easier to resist its charms, both illusory
and real. A month ago, I met a quiet young man with pleasant features who
spends 60 hours a week working in a restaurant for 75 a month. Although he
has two years of university education, he has none of the sophistication or
experience of western men his age. His English was poor, my Thai worse. We
can do little more than guess at the extent of each other's lives. Yet
within a week, he had told me he was in love with me.
So what was the attraction: my face and body, my personality or the fact I bought
him meals and drinks and occasionally gave him money? The cynic would say
the last, the romantic the first, while the realist hazarded a combination
of the three. I put it down to inexperience and naivete and the exoticness
of having a farang take an interest in him.
On the principle that it is better to be honest and cruel than deceptive and
I told him that he didn't know me well enough to
love me, that I was too old for him and - if he wanted money - not rich enough.
I made it clear that I did not love him, we
have nothing in common, I am not looking for a partner and even if I
were, that man would be closer to my age, wealthier, able to communicate
with me much better and with a similar education and awareness of the
world. Eventually, through simple English and incomprehensible Thai, he
understood most of what I was saying.
I had thought that was the end of it, but text messages
passed and we still see each other once or twice a week. He's relaxing to be
with; we help each other with our different languages and we tend to end the
evenings watching DVDs. He does not tell me he loves me, only that he misses
me sometimes when we do not see each other. I call him Little
Brother as a reflection of the affection and responsibility I have come to
feel. Call it love if you want; I don't.
The Little Brother moved away from Bangkok and met the man he has been living with for the last three years. They
live a bucolic life in a village in the North-East near the LB's family. For three years I lived in Bangkok with another young man whose place in my heart lay halfway between sibling and spouse; when I moved back to London we realised how much we missed - and loved - each other. After I spent two years commuting between the UK and Siam, he now lives in London with me.