Spoiler alert: they break up in the end.
Here is a list of things that these photographs could make me feel, but don’t –
Really anything other than ick.
I took these photos on the road trip that was our victory lap. The last dance. A parting gift, if the gift were a cruel joke. Whatever. After being confined to our rooms for the better part of a year, and the majority of our relationship, the world opened up just a little. And that didn’t play out as I’d expected. Instead of getting better, things between us started unravelling. I hear this is a common story for a mostly-lockdown love.
I went to Durban for a couple days. It marked the first time, in a long time, that we weren’t in the same city. Time apart always asks us to confront the things that exchanges of the flesh encourage us to ignore. “I shouldn’t feel nostalgic about a relationship I’m still in,” I explained to a sister. I tend to overlook bad feelings as paranoia, or too much caffeine, or something else. But after this experience, I’m going to nominate Bad Feeling for its rightful place on the periodic table.
So, I have this feeling. Maybe because he’s suddenly reluctant to touch me. Maybe because I’d watched too much romantic turmoil playout in episodes of The Bold Type – our generation’s Sex and The City, and I’m truly unsure that’s a compliment. Or perhaps because I was reading Junot Diaz’s collection, This Is How You Lose Her and highlighting slippery lines from The Cheater’s Guide to Love. “And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t. And you did.”
Hindsight is twenty-twenty. So, it’s clearer now than it was then.
At that moment in our relationship, our leading man had a near-ingenuitive commitment to deceit. So of course, the Bad Feeling persisted. It was time to have an uncomfortable conversation. Things weren’t working. Though at the time, I didn’t have an aerial view on why. I accredited it to something as anodyne as ‘timing’. Cute. The summary of our conversation being, “I don’t want to be in a relationship with myself, for you.” He listened. He really did. He put on his most apologetic doe-eyed softboi and convinced me he was still in it. It was a damned Magnum Opus – and one of the many conversations he performed in place of a confession. So, in the pattern of ‘say all the right things but make no changes’ that had become our relationship, we committed to a road trip together.
If it had been a different year, maybe we’d have talked about Zanzibar, or Bali. Or wherever it is that you run to, to feel alive again instead. But the state of the world being what it was, there were some pretty severe conditions around crossing borders. So, we made plans for the desert. Planning the route, there were big gaps between named towns. And Google Earth gave us pixelated offerings of parched landscapes.
But why not take a long drive into nothingness? El Oh El at that bare-faced metaphor for our depreciating love. We had fallen into something like effort but nothing like romance. And in the vastness of the Karoo, we really let that unappealing fact have its day in the sun. Quiet speaks something out of you, that you might have chosen to ignore.
Sometimes, like this time in the desert, we feel trouble before it happens. We feel it coming. We start to hide parts of ourselves away as the wind picks up around us. With my soon-to-be-estranged partner in the passenger seat, we rode a pillow of dust past roadside graves, from Gauteng to the Northern Cape and northern-most part of the Western Cape. Stopping longest in Doring Bay.
That little lighthouse town and its salt-seared corrugated roofs didn’t show us a single branded billboard or signpost. When last were you in a town without even one franchise in it? No PEP. No Tops. Not even a KFC. The Badlands of the Cape, with its horse-drawn carriages and heaving middle-of-nothing windmills, were as insistently beautiful in reality as they were in my imagination. But this isn’t about the road trip or the landscape. This is about how hard it is to locate yourself in the middle of something deteriorating.
On the trip, the two of us were fine – consumed by the mission. Packing non-perishable foods, mounting bicycles, and checking for petrol stations. There’s a way that sinking into tasks temporarily relieves us from the bigger questions. I heard someone say recently that there’s a hidden form of laziness in working hard, without asking if there’s a better way to be working. And I think there’s some truth in that. If not laziness, at least fear. Because it’s far, far easier to busy yourself than to admit that turbulence is coming. And you, you alone, are the thing that will have to survive it.
On the way home we started to hit tollgates again. Began checking for speed cameras again. We were returning to Johannesburg city and its familiar anxieties. Our last fifty kilometres – a shy scream of highway fires. The billowing black smoke – some kind of deliverance. In the next couple of weeks my community seemed to go through a standing ovation of breakups. Perhaps all of us realising the shortcomings of our lockdown loves. The breakup Hun from Twitter went through yet another breakup. The restaurant manager ended things with her girl. The DJ caught him and ended it, even though he denied it. And Homie and I were (was) no different. Our slow-motion ending started at me basically dumping myself, on his behalf, and peaked with unravelling a damn masterwork of lies. Followed by enough gaslighting to illuminate the N3, from here ‘til Namibia. And finally, the encore of a begged-for, toothless apology. The result was a hurt so severe it left an emotional gag reflex in the place that nostalgia should be.
So, these photographs. These photographs, of that road trip, feel like faded holiday destination coasters. Part of the inventory of a life that you hold on to out of duty, rather than admiration. A joy that is past tense. Hills of brush and stone. The lamp of a lighthouse smoothing over floating kelp. And landscapes, asking as loudly as I’ve been, can you feel me forgetting you?
You can pack a car. And buy a bicycle rack. And plan a route. And read an article on How To Roadtrip With Your Significant Other. But things go wrong. We don’t always get what we deserve. And that’s okay. I’m learning to step back from frantically fixing. And learning to let the weak things break.
All photography by Hallie Haller