Being open to love in times of uncertainty

Thinking back on recent experiences in Sydney and Hong Kong, Pancho Mulongeni muses about how love has changed during the time of coronavirus. Will it ever be the same again?

The Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi gave life to the Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love in 2000 with the piece Yumeji’s Theme, a song without words, brimming with melancholic themes, known in western romantic compositions, but with a Chinese feel.

Walking the streets of Hong Kong, I remembered this evocative song and the story from the film, set in 1960s Hong Kong, when Britain still ruled a city that was the Venice of its time – a crossroads between east and west.

Winning a silver medal among film critics searching for the best film of the century, In the Mood for Love is about love in times of restraint, withholding and avoiding direct contact with the object of one’s desire.

This hits too close to home right now, for the millions of people under a mandatory house arrest of sorts. And so my dear reader, the biggest lesson I have for you from my time in Hong Kong is not how they managed to whittle themselves down in the Covid-19 global rankings but rather how to still be open to love, even in these times of uncertainty.

With so much talk about social distancing, particularly in the United States where study after study reinforces the idea that this is what their large population needs to do in order to halt the virus, who would have time to think about love – or more specifically sex?

Still, people will continue to fulfil the most primal of human needs. One of the cities that was hardest hit at the start of the HIV-Aids pandemic, New York, has circulated official guidelines for sex in times of coronavirus. I implore you to read these online because I cannot do justice to their specifications here.

What I can tell you is there is no evidence that the coronavirus is present in body fluids discharged from the sexual organs – semen and vaginal secretions. The virus is in saliva, understandably, since it spreads easily through droplets released during coughing. Kissing then, and not having penetrative sex, it seems is the highest risk activity for Covid-19.

Will we invent the equivalent of the condom, but for mouths? I for one hope not.

While spring is on the horizon for the northern hemisphere – most of Europe is still in chilly weather – this may be the most unromantic season in living memory. It need not be that way, though. We can still be in the mood for love with our glances, eyes fixing upon those of another, a smile acknowledging that the feeling inside is mutual.

I have had a number of such experiences, the last of which was on the day I had to fly out of that Mecca of the gay community known as Sydney. I was on my way to pick up laundry, but my eye caught a glimpse of this man, perhaps my age, curly blonde hair on a skateboard with a handle, the kind that is so common among commuters in big cities.

He smiled at me, perhaps as soon as I let my gaze meet his. Did he know the way to the park, I asked. Of course, he did, but so did I. Now with his attention sealed, I proceeded to make more small talk – where was he for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras just two days ago? Camping with friends, so he missed it, pity, but he had a good time anyway. And so it proceeded from one word to the next, until I admitted I did actually know my way, but if I did not pretend to be lost, how could I have had him slow down a little, amidst the morning rush? It did not matter that there were people dashing past us, towards George Street, the main artery of the city, or heading to catch a train in the station, time stood still for those moments.

Did I kiss him? That is a tad too much to share in this column, but he did eventually go off to work. Meeting a stranger in Sydney, Paris, New York or Hong Kong has changed, but hopefully not forever.

By Pancho Mulongeni. This article was originally published in The Namibian.

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