Dying Alone, Living Together
Partnership has never come naturally to me; the idea or the lifestyle of it. When I feel the most at peace is when I am alone. When life makes the most sense to me is when I can reflect on it in solitude. Billie Holiday sings in her blues song “Solitude”: “In my solitude, you haunt me with memories of days gone by.” This, I suspect, is one of the reasons people can find themselves attempting to escape quietude. In this space, ideas and memories both pleasant and traumatic are able to flood the mind.
It was in my solitude that I first thought about death; what it means to die, what I might suspect happens or does not happen after death, how many time one dies in a lifetime and who I might do it with. It has only been recently that I have discovered for myself that togetherness and life can be just as complicated and rigorous as loneliness and death.
It was my early teenage years that I first considered this weighty topic of death. At the time, I felt confident enough to begin the survey about what I might expect from death, assuming my death wouldn’t be a type of violent spectacle. Even as an adult, I still hope that my death is a quiet, soft, apolitical thing—something I have never been allowed to be in life. I remember, I closed my eyes in that adolescent bedroom and allowed the darkness and silence flood me and I thought about my belly. It was big. I thought about my skin. It was bad and brown. I thought about the anger I had from abuse that I did not want to hold and I was sure nobody else would either. I was exacting, cold, and cynical. I was not Noah from the black gay television series Noah’s Arc who was warm, sunny, and generous. Nikki Giovanni said in “Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day” that she was not an easy woman to want. I felt the same way and made decisions from this space. In my own little makeshift oblivion in my room, I decided that I would certainly die alone.
This idea has experiential evidence. Growing up I had many examples of partnered black people, but I also had many, many examples of black people who died unpartnered. I knew many grandmothers that were abandoned and widowed. I knew many mothers who were mistreated and accused of being too loud, too independent, too fat, or too ugly to be partnered. I knew black gay men who never loved again after their romantic partners were taken in the long, dark season of the HIV epidemic.. I knew, and still know, many older black gay men who are single simply because they fail by too large a margins what is considered beautiful, masculine, and worthy. Because of these observations, at a very young age, I decided that my mother was right that this world was unfair and I would probably never find a romantic love that would be forever.
This too was affirmed by research. The millennial generation I belong to is trending towards unpartnered lifestyles. When contextualized by me being gay, the potential for romantic partnership seems even less likely. If I even further contextualized my chances on finding long-term romantic partnership inside of race, gender performance, and economic status, I would be almost foolish to gamble my happiness and peace on the idea of a romantic partnership. Even as a child, I’ve always been a kind of realist around things like love and I killed the dream of happily ever after, Prince Charming, and a wedding before it could grow legs and torture me into adulthood. I was at peace with dying alone.
Often romance and desire are crafted as immaterial, spiritual things. Language usually associated with Abrahamic religions are often used to describe love: soulmate, fate, faith, and destiny. In actuality, love is more of a mathematical and political event. If you do not align with a certain aesthetic and/or behavioral standard, you may end up alone. I decided I failed too many white supremacist patriarchal beauty standards to place any hope in the lottery of long-term romantic partnership. I was not interested in hope and was more interested in finding comfort in the idea of not having a romantic partner. Simply, I was too big, feminine, and too mad to be loved.
I assumed I handled the most difficult things there are for humans to grapple with, but deciding to participate in a romantic relationship has proved me wrong. It is not dying alone that should haunt anyone, but the idea of living together. Like men often do, a man disturbed my peace over two years ago and is still at war with how I assumed my life would go. He is beautiful. He is kind. He is brilliant. He is a poor communicator, anxious, and hates chocolate. (He is not willing to improve his relationship with chocolate.) Our relationship is a constant struggle about an array of topics, but it is always truly about power. Two men socialized in a patriarchal society who are interested in having and doing all of the things that life has to offer them will often struggle for power. Our relationship so far has been a constant practice of returning to love and realizing through conflict that although power may be an individual thing, freedom can be a communal pursuit.
Attention has always been a currency for me, even as a child it is what motivated me to read more, write better, and perform in the arts. This desire for the others’ gaze often arrives in my relationships as well. When my partner is unable to give it me in the amount or way I desire, I would turn cold instead of vulnerable. Coldness and distance still feel powerful, where vulnerability can feel like a relinquishing of the patriarchal power I have been trained to center. I would get upset over minuscule things because conflict felt safer than exposing myself. During this emotionally toxic behavior, he responded to it by saying “You pick fights with me when you want attention and don’t want to be vulnerable enough to request it.” I was exposed and named and held accountable. I knew I had to change.
Moments when we push one another to elevate how we move and feel through the world are the times I realize the biggest spiritual leap I’ve made between my teenage years and my twenties is the one concerning my relationship with loneliness and dying alone, both being things in which I’ve found sanctuary. In togetherness, you have to transgress ideas of individualism and examine toxic behaviors and ideas that you can often let grow in solitude. I never thought of romantic relationships as serious political, creative, or intellectual work until I became partnered. It was not the lusty, capitalist, patriarchal event I had thought it to be, but a real continuous, rigorous art project.
In this discovery, it has made me wonder how we can collectively return romantic love back to the rigorous and creative space and not make it begin and end inside of desirability? Often romantic partners must double as trophies and proof of one’s desirability and worthiness. What would romantic love look like if it was normal for romantic partners to be actual creative, spiritual, and intellectual partners that mutually enhance and elevate one another? Concerning the black queer and gay male community, I fantasize about how this might transform how we interact with one another in and out of the romantic love. Through my experience with my current partner, these are the existential and political ideas that now haunt me.
Ultimately, what I've learned is dying alone for me is easy. Living together is the location of my deepest struggles.
Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.