I think of my wife Diana. Diana the paramedic with the reading hands, the quiet smile that plays on her lips while she eats my spaghetti.
I am standing on my flat’s balcony. Barefoot, her dark hair loose she hands me a cup of coffee, kisses my cheek, and asks me what I want to eat for supper. There’s birdsong. I look at the gardens of the ground floor flats. They stay with me like a page in a J.M. Coetzee novel. I think of campfires burning in the dark, telling ghost stories at Scout meetings, Khayalitsha burning, the children who lost their lives in that fire. I think of iron faces, winter news in the outline of this, as I read the newspaper. There’s nothing as beautiful as the woman in the photograph who is the bride of high summer days. That woman is Dawn, my mother. I think of Port Alfred, my father at the wheel of the car, I am fighting with my brother. We don’t speak. The last time I saw him was at my mother’s funeral. He was growing older.
He still looked handsome though in his dark suit and Rhodes tie. We spoke briefly. His son was at university studying music and his daughter was finishing off her last year of high school. After the funeral we get home, Diana and I make love, I watch a National Geographic documentary on how climate change and global warming is affecting the rainforest. I eat a pear, and catch the juice with the back of my hand dribbling down my chin. It’s drizzling. The clothes on the washing line is getting wet. It’s too late to save them. I think of my brother as I heat up the leftovers of a takeaway chicken curry from the night before. I eat standing at the kitchen counter. Drink a glass of water. Rinse my plate in the sink, dry it and pack it away. I think of Dawn, how bone-thin she was. She was a minister’s daughter, her mother an English teacher.
In the weeks to come I am overcome by grief. I buy dirty magazines. Hide it under my side of the bed. I start seeing a therapist again. Talk about the close relationship I had with my mother. How she was the only woman who ever really understood me. Sometimes I talk about Diana, how submissive she is, my brother, how we’re not close, how successful he is, how envious of that part of his life I am. I like this therapist. She reminds me of Dawn. The shape of her lips, her well-toned arms, she likes to wear dresses, heels. She’s very feminine, full of life, joie de vivre; she has children, a dreamy husband. The husband is stern-looking in the photograph, so are her two boys. I tell her about washing Dawn’s back, drawing infinite circles on Dawn’s back as a boy. How Dawn taught me how to drive, how she bought me my first typewriter.
The next documentary is on owls in Great Britain. There’s an owl flying through the air in slow motion on the screen. I look at Diana beside me. Her mouth is open. She’s wearing a slip. Her eyes flutter in sleep. I touch her face gently wanting her to wake up, wanting someone to talk to. I want to run her a bath, wash her back, and draw infinite circles on her back. I want to hold her hostage in my arms again, listen to her breath deepen as I kiss her neck and shoulders, gathering her to me. Later when we’re watching the National Geographic channel together I go to the kitchen to make a bedspread picnic of crackers and cheese and green olives in a bowl. We drink sparkling white wine in paper cups. I watch her fingers reach tentatively for the olives. She eats the cheese off the crackers before biting them in half.
I come to life in my brother’s Cape Town flat. This was Dawn’s idea. That I stay here while completing my degree. I never see my brother. When we meet up with each other we’re like strangers. Sometimes he picks me up, takes me for an expensive meal, and shows off his car. Then he disappears again. I never see him for weeks. The less I see of him, the better. I think he must think I’m very strange. All I do is study. I never invite friends over to the flat. I don’t have a girlfriend. I think he feels sorry for me. I hate thinking, feeling that. Mostly I eat pasta. I eat lots and lots of pasta, watch cooking shows, and learn how to use two remotes, take long walks up and down Long Street, and I buy ice cream which I eat with a dessert spoon out of the tub while watching Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner films.
I’m watching an adult film. It’s a gay film. It’s the first time I see a man naked. The television is on mute. Outside it is raining men and women. I’m thinking of people who only say things to be polite. Of how before I do things now, I have to wait for the tiredness to lift from staying up the entire night studying. I’m thinking of my brother and Dawn. How everything around me is fragile when dissected. Sometime I think of the hospital room I found myself in when I was barely twenty for depression. I sleep with married men. I sleep with married men for money. I buy clothes with this money. Tell Dawn I have a job at a campus radio station. Dawn tells me I don’t need to buy new clothes. She tells me I should save the money, and that my brother will look after us. I don’t think of my dad who died in a car accident when I was a baby.
When you are too much alone with your own thoughts you go mad if there is no one to distract you from your studies, your cave, from your books. Whenever I feel like this I go to the beach. Wear my swimming shorts underneath my jeans. Find my own warm sandy space on the beach, spread out my towel and strip down to my swimming costume. I sunbathe. It gets hot, then hotter. I take out my sunscreen out of my tog bag. Put my sunglasses on. I want to fuck. I go swimming. The first wave hits my waist. I duck my head beneath the next one. In a way I feel free. I watch a couple run into the waves, the white girl shrieking in delight as her coloured boyfriend follows behind her. He splashes her, playfully grabbing her arm and pulling her in deeper while she laughs and screams. It’s like I’m watching a soap opera from far away through blurred vision.
I watch them kiss as they step out of the waves. The white girl is wearing a white bikini. She looks exquisite. The boy is holding onto her waist from behind. He is nuzzling her neck. They hold hands as they walk past me. I pick up my book. It’s Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I read, I swim, I turn brown in the sun, I drink warm soda from a can that I bought before I hit the beach, I pick up the book, I put down the book, and when I get bored I watch the people around me. A man reading a newspaper, his feet in leather sandals, sitting beneath an umbrella with a cooler bag, his wife (I presume) sitting next to him in a similar beach chair, also wearing sunglasses. She would intermittently press a sandwich in his hand or something to drink, or his reading glasses. She was paging through a glossy magazine. I watch young families, the mixed race couple until I fall asleep.
I’ve come out here to Grahamstown to write the great post-apartheid South African novel. I rent a room in a Bed and Breakfast. I sit outside by the fireplace in a patio chair. Rusty nails are coming out of it. I think too much. That’s the trouble with me. Instead of green hills I see blue hills. The trouble with madness is that you think too much. I let the sun shine on my face and try not to think too much. In a land far away, people are on the move as fast as mating rituals in the animal kingdom. They are getting out of bed, waking their children, taking showers, fixing breakfasts, fixing their hair (in that order). Yes, writing bold lists, drawing up hot itineraries like lost beak-nosed birds with fire in their belly. And like me they are surely writing out what their priorities for the day are. And later, everything around me is covered with an intense aura of pink light.
He is back from buying cigarettes. His name is Jakes. His hair is wet (from a ten-minute shower). I can’t shut him out no matter how hard I try. He is my education. He is my companion guide to angst. I know when he leaves he will not leave a note telling me where he has gone, what time he will be returning. He will have vanished into thin air like the thin man. Please love me I said in my youth and my early twenties. I met Jakes on the Translux bus to Grahamstown. He was young, and I’ve never been with someone so much younger than myself. I’ve always slept with married men. There were always children, a wife, but I had a connection with Jakes. When the bus stopped he gave me a blowjob in a bathroom stall. It feels incredible to be desired in this way. Jakes makes me think of the very first time I was with a man.
The man was older, European, a media and communications lecturer. I loved him from afar for the first semester. Turned out he had a thing for his students. He liked going down on them, being dominant, giving pleasure. He was the first man who kissed me. Afterwards I asked him how he knew I was gay. He said it was the love struck way I looked at him over James Baldwin. We would spend Sunday mornings going to church in the mornings and driving to the beach in the afternoons. He had a thing for the beach, church, fig preserve and for picnics. He cut a romantic figure in my solitary life. I told no one about this relationship which lasted the better part of a year. He introduced me to his golden cocker spaniel Sully. He introduced me to mediums and astrologers and consulting them on my future.
He introduced me to Cape wine tastings, weekends away to Franschoek, tiramisu, Anna Kavan, Karin Boye, Ann Quin and Anna Akhmatova. Jakes and I spent most of our time in the bedroom of the Bed and Breakfast in Grahamstown. I even took to smoking his menthol cigarettes. We’d watch soap operas, and cooking shows like I had when I was his age at university. He is young and restless, frustrated with his business and finance courses. On weekends he disappears with his friends. Let slip that there was a girlfriend who is a first year. Of course I was angry. I felt used but it was Jakes who reminded me that I had a life waiting for me back home and that there were two kinds of lovers in this world. I confide in Jakes. Tell him when I broke up with my lecturer I stopped going to church.
Religion didn’t seem important to me anymore. I don’t know why, it just didn’t. I thought of my maternal grandfather, Dawn’s father, the minister. How he would let me sit on his knee, brush my hair out of my eyes, tell me that I looked like Dawn, had Dawn’s eyes, her hands, her smile. How safe he made me feel every time I saw him behind the pulpit. Jakes said that in this world people love all the time. It didn’t always make sense when they left. I loved his energy, the fact that he seemed so lost and fragile to me, couldn’t decide what to study or follow his dream of becoming an actor. His head seemed to be in the clouds, messing around with a first year, a girl fresh out of high school. On our last night together Jakes and I ate a fancy steak in a fancy restaurant. I felt all the eyes in the restaurant on the two of us. Jakes said I was imagining things. We held hands, kissed when we left. It was dark. Nobody could see us.
Disguise yourself in any way, shape, and fish. Form, variety, tree, bulb, flower, seed and I will accept it. I think of Diana. Of how when I introduced her to Dawn I said, ‘this is my future wife,’ or something like that. I remember how gracious Dawn was to her.