I knew I wanted him from the moment I looked up and saw that blond hair flopping over his eyes. Everyone thinks he chased me, but it was me. I wanted to slip from the yellow plastic cafeteria seat and follow him when he passed our table and said, Unjani. Hallo in our language, Ndebele, given back to us in a strange accent. How could someone speak so softly behind those strange, shattered-glass blue eyes?
Lunch was over and I was checking that my black and green headscarf was tied neatly, ready to go to my World Politics class. Here he came, this boy, his hair the color of the autumn veldt.
You can see right here that this isn’t lawyer-like language. Some people, my friend Sello for one, likes to use all these flowery words. He is a poet. But for me, a yellow-haired person is a yellow-haired person. Autumn is autumn. That is all. But this boy said one word, Unjani, and made me understand how two things are not so separate after all.
Everyone thought he attached himself like all those others who stood at a small distance throwing sticky ribbons of words to reel me in. Ever since I turned 13, I’ve been followed by Hey, Mariaan, big wide smiles, too-quick jokes. They say this is what happens when you are beautiful. Myself, I don’t see it. It’s just a symmetrical arrangement – bones, skin, eyes, cheeks that lift when I smile. And I was ready to smile at him but I couldn’t. Words struck out of my head because of a white boy. From that minute, I knew I was going to follow him around until he gave in and asked me out.
The next day, Tuesday, he came by at the same time and I received another of those jagged-blue looks that pinned me. On Wednesday he didn’t come even though I spent the whole lunch period copying my Sociology of Deviance class notes out again so I could stay in the cafeteria for an extra twenty minutes. I nearly missed class.
Back in ‘96, I was in my third year at Wits, the University of the Witwatersrand, taking a Social Science degree in Criminal Justice and Political Science. I still have the Lolly-stick framed photo of all of us on Mandela Square right outside the men’s ‘res’, me and my best friends, Dziko and Sello. Oh, the hope in those young fresh faces staring into our new South African future.
On Thursday, I made sure I was at the buffet at 12:10 pm when he slid a tray right next to mine. Unjani. He was smiling.
“Where were you yesterday?”
I was startled that he’d said my words for me and I laughed, “I was here.”
“I must have missed you. I’ve been practicing my Ndebele.”
“So you have more than one word?”
I didn’t care that we were holding up the line of hungry students. His face was golden and that color went with his eyes and his hair and the color of his shirt. I can still remember the shirt, white with blue lines forming a grid across it. Those neatly aligned boxes.
He asked me to sit with him. I remember exactly the way my skirt felt against my legs, the smooth metal of the fork between my fingers, the small salt sachets that we ripped open to make little salt dunes. And how I kept wondering what it would be like to sit closer. Iye, so crazy, so greedy for him.
“You are here every day.”
He didn’t ask me the usual line about what I was studying. Just this bald statement that really meant I am here for you.
“This is where we come.” I am also here for you.
“I’ve seen you with your friends.” I have been waiting to speak to you.
“I have seen you, too.”
And we started laughing. It seemed so obvious to us that we could speak this way so that our minds could say other things.
I leaned forward.
“They have just painted this place. I like these colors of green and white and blue.”
I wanted him to know that we needed to remember everything about this moment. And he smiled.
He came to dinner at the apartment I shared with Dziko and, as we ate, I could feel the heat of him when he leaned towards me to say something, when I leaned forward to catch his words.
Usually, I was the one who sat back and let the others do the talking, make the jokes, pass the wine. But with him, I couldn’t fill his plate fast enough. Surely he must want more of Dziko’s bobotie, more beans, more cabbage?
“I must look very hungry.”
“All students are hungry.”
“Let me have more of that lekker curried okra.”
“Dziko made it. Dziko makes everything.”
And that was another thing. I was always first into the kitchen, pulling my mother’s old cooking t-shirt over my head, grabbing vegetables from the fridge, chopping the herbs, while the oil sucked its teeth in our big pan on the stove. This time, I sat on a stool, gripped my shaking hands. I can’t do anything. What’s going on? And Dziko, my big-haired, five-foot-nothing-in platform-shoes friend, said, “It’s okay, Mariaan. Just sit there and drink this tea.”
And she didn’t even roll her eyes when I said I must be mad, because she knew I was. How else to explain it?
And after he left, I stared at our rusting bathroom mirror with only patches of silver on the left side. What had he seen when he had held both of my hands to say good night? What made him bend down as though he was going to kiss me? And why didn’t he? If I stood directly in front of the mirror, half of me disappeared completely. I picked up Dziko’s hand mirror, expecting to see some different Mariaan but the same one stared back with big eyes. So. Here was something new, something that made me feel as though I had stepped out of gravity.
Dziko found me in the bathroom, “-Kai. You are going to sit here looking into the mirror all night?”
I put the mirror down.
“I am not looking in the mirror.”
“Mariaan, you are in love.”
“Awa. What nonsense is this? I must wash the dishes and go to sleep. We have a poli-sci test tomorrow.”
Dziko led me into the bedroom we shared, “The dishes are done. You have been up here nearly an hour. Come. It’s time to sleep.”
“Dziko, I’m so sorry. You did all the work and I have been so lazy.”
She looked at me closely, and gave me that mischievous Dziko grin, “He has really got to you, this one. A white man, too.”
South Africa—two words to evoke lions, rugby, gold. But behind those words lie the stories repeated over during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For our parents this is how it was, the stink in the carpet, the stain on the sheets that is fading, but can never quite go away. For us, we were running into the future, away from our parents’ past and the pain and torture, the Amnesty International prisoner-of-the-month. We wanted new songs and new clothes and new feelings. And, maybe, new love.
“Stop, Dziko. It was nothing. He is just a friend.”
“I am not going to argue with you. Let us see what happens when he comes by our lunch table tomorrow.”
Of course she was right and of course when Jan turned up the next day I continued to behave like my body didn’t belong to me. I didn’t know how to pick up the fork or drink the water. All I could do was sit with empty hands and wait for him to bring his voice to me.
While I tried to get used to this new person that I had become, I watched him, so courageously coming back to us each day. Dziko made him welcome, but Sello wouldn’t smile back. Sello, who had been my friend from grade school, helped me with my volcano poster in science, who had shown me the fierce blood-beat of the great poet Mafika Gwala, “And you once asked why/blacks/live so fast/love so fast/drink so fast/die so fast … It starts with the number/you found smeared on the door/of your home”. This same Sello blossomed his own words, became published, described in such language how we separated, even how parts of us left and then reassembled as we walked in this country. As we passed on our jagged paths between homes, into classrooms, out of stores, we were never the same person twice in the same day. And this same wise and gifted friend now shut his face against Jan.
I had to speak to him.
“You are being rude.”
“What does he want? A black trophy woman?”
“Sello-mine, please don’t talk like this.”
“You don’t like black men anymore?”
I’d always hated the black this and white that. For my parents it was political, but I grew up with Indian friends and even an English friend. She could never come home with me and I couldn’t visit her house either, but we were still friends at school. We went shopping together to celebrate Madiba’s freedom. We were really celebrating our own while people gave us funny looks.
And here I was in love with Jan and I couldn’t understand how it was possible, couldn’t move away from the heat of him. He stepped over the invisible lines that separated us and I stepped forward to meet him.
His eyes showed me that he, too, couldn’t see how he had come to fall so suddenly, so hopelessly. It was as though his mind was trying to catch up with the legs that had already sprinted away with his heart. I ran with him. I didn’t question how we got to this place. For two months we blistered each other with looks and passed secret scorch marks when our hands touched. When we finally made love I thought the whole house would go up and the smoke would shoot into heaven and sear St. Michael’s eyebrows.
He came to our apartment each day. We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table, my feet on top of his. He said I distracted him, but he brought a new kind of focus for me. I flew through assignments, tests, and exams. Everything became pared down in those first three months: Jan and study. My grades soared and I placed first in my class. Meanwhile, Jan complained that his studies weren’t as interesting as the dimples above my rear end. I had to frog-march him through his college work, and he managed reasonable grades. He liked the practical side of his course. He was going to be a police captain. We laughed at the idea of meeting each other in court, me in a barrister’s wig and he in his three-starred captain’s uniform, giving evidence.
I remember his smell, of grass and sky. Sometimes, as we lay together after making love, he would examine the scar at the side of my right knee, or the lines on the soles of my feet. Sometimes I made him lie on his side, so I could trace, with one finger, the subtle mountain range, from shoulder, to ankle, exploring his pink and brown and gold, and the pale color of first milk.
I kissed the back of his neck,
“You have been deceiving me. You are not white at all. Especially here.”
He turned over onto his back and lifted my arm above my head, “I want to see this, under your arm.”
“You have seen this armpit before.”
Kissing my shoulder, he traced his tongue over my collarbones, “But not like this, with the light behind you. Looks like that kopje outside town.”
“You are saying I look like a lumpy hill?”
“I love that lumpy hill almost as much I love this lumpy hill. I used to hike up and watch the sun go down.”
“You don’t go anymore?”
He smiled, “Somehow I’ve been busy for the past few months. But I’ll take you.”
And he pulled me close so I could feel him against me from face to feet, and I could imagine us sitting on the kopje in the afternoon sun and how it would feel to lie against the sun-warmed red rock.
He nuzzled me, “Are you going to tell your parents?”
“First thing, when I get home. Then I’ll tell them I passed my finals.”
I turned over to face him, “Really? That easy?”
“Why are you so surprised?”
I sat up. Jan settled the pillow behind me so I could lean back against the headboard.
“I don’t know how my parents will take it.”
He kissed my fingers. “You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.”
“Be serious for a minute.”
He looked up at me, “What?”
“It’s okay here. But my parents, my father. I know he’s not ready for us. And your parents. What will they say about your Ndebele woman?”
He considered the back of my hand,”Agree with me that you’re the most beautiful woman in the universe. I want you to meet them.”
That small hesitation. How could I visit their Bloemfontein home in my wrap skirt and head-tie? What would their family think of me standing in their living room? Would I have to greet them in Afrikaans, Goeie more. Hoe gan dit met u? Would they know any Ndebele? What would we discuss while their black servants came and went with drinks and food? The thought of it made me feel shriveled. It was great to be post-racial at Wits but how post-racial were they in Bloemfontein?
For my parents the end of apartheid was too new to be called history. My mother had seen her father beaten to death by two police officers during a raid. My father had held her back from throwing herself under the sjambok. He had never forgiven them. How could I bring my trainee police officer boyfriend into their home?
This moment had been crawling around at the back of my head. Jan and I had joked about it, but to Mama and Papa it would be a betrayal of everything their parents had fought for. And I didn’t want to think about Jan’s parents. It didn’t matter that I was going to be a lawyer, or how beautiful Jan thought I was. The black-white thing had caught up with me and I couldn’t just pretend it was something that belonged to my parents’ generation.
I looked at our interlocked fingers, I saw how they must look from the outside, reflected in huge floor-to-ceiling library windows on campus. And I thought, how fragile fingers are.