by Jennifer Spiegel
nipples beads mealie pap
The television is on and there are reports of war. Zaire will be the Congo by the time I leave South Africa. Everyone sits around, drinking coffee, reading books, playing cards, rolling joints, writing memoirs. Everyone in hostels is always writing. The sizzle of static is on the telly and I hear the drivel of backpackers telling their stories.
My legs’exposed, white’are folded underneath me. I sit on torn-up couch cushions with stuffing creeping out of thick, scar-sized rips along worn cloth surfaces. Underneath my body, I feel lumps’possibly metal springs. I look up from my journal to my thighs, and I can see the varicose veins’slight, delicate, thready’like fragile cracks in Grecian urns.
I close my journal, having only written one line across the top of a blank page: Johannesburg, no muse. I pull out a postcard. I’ll write a postcard to Nick. I write one word, two words, three words, four. I write Nick rapidly, frantically. The words pile up like the stories of backpackers, like body parts rendered lifeless by mine fields in African soil.
A postcard to a stranger who gently ripped the past from my bones on starry Mapumalanga nights. Gently, gently. Love beads and thumb rings, fingers in pap. The taste of chocolate on the roof of his mouth. The smell of wine and wet grass.
* * *
The airport is lively, despite the late hour. When I board the plane, I imagine Zachary’this ex-husband of mine’rushing past ticket counters, hurrying up escalators, emptying his pockets of all metal items to get past x-ray machines. He’s like a businessman gone awry. I picture him running through gates, searching for me, the love of his life, about to board a plane for Africa with a stop in Las Vegas. I think of him frenzied, wanting to knock over captains and pilots, having words to say to flight attendants. He’ll want to shout, ‘Stop that plane!’ He’ll want to come on board and take me by the hand and pull me down the narrow aisle, my carry-on bag thumping along behind me on the backs of seats and thighs.
He’ll yell, ‘But you’re the love of my life!’
The plane takes off at 11:30 p.m. and, below the aircraft, America lights up like a candelabra. It’s a landscape on fire, crying out my ruin in hackneyed agony.
Zachary never shows, even if only to bid me farewell.
* * *
In Vegas, I discard the ring.
There are slot machines in the terminal. I play four quarters and lose them all. I watch the clock and try to figure out the time in Africa.
Say it with zeal.
Zachary never said anything with zeal anymore.
I do something crazy. I take off my wedding ring and drop it in the tray that catches all of the coins in an airport slot machine. I drop it, turn around, and walk away.
I like to think of what might have happened to it. I like to imagine an old lady, blue hair, not really paying attention when she slips in her quarter. I like to picture her pulling down the bar and watching the cherries and lemons and jackpots swirl around in hopeless ardor. It settles on a medley of meaningless objects and she believes herself lost. That’s when she discovers her treasure. That’s when she finds a diamond ring in her slot machine tray. She sees it there and realizes that its presence is independent of her action, independent of her arm wrenching, of her quarter outpour. She picks it up and examines it, takes note of its value’it’s exquisite’and she slips it on her finger, knowing she’s rich.
* * *
sarong Soweto sweet potato
Africa’s first draw is its poetry.
Imagine frangipani creeping over red-brown mud. Beasts like giraffes and lions walk through thick jungle. Giraffes eat leaves from vine-heavy trees. Lions barely make the foliage crinkle under big cat paws. Elephants are heavy-footed. The earth is so deep, though, that the thunder of elephant feet is not like the drums of distant tribes, but more like a summer storm. Rumbling, sweet, welcomed. These creatures join other creatures under a sky of deep jewel colors.
And that’s just the animals.
There are people, too. For some reason, they’re always women. They’re women cloaked in brilliant fabrics that rebel against muted earth tones. Their wraps seem to enfold the women in circles. If unraveled, the women would spin like tops in magenta. They carry things’babies, fruit, wood. They’re on the go, rushing past skinny goats, calling out words to happy children.
Africa is only poetic. Its people and panoramas are poetic, even its poverty and politics are poetic in the demand for justice, mercy. It’s undeniable. Africa is one great big Shakespearean tragedy. Every book about every agonizing struggle features beautiful revolutionaries with scars etched onto their faces. Every protest is led by a man who should be king but has been in prison or stuck in Soweto instead. The stories, the dramas’they are not about criminals. They are about uncrowned princes.
I flee to Africa for the poetry.
South Africa. I don’t choose Zimbabwe or Gabon, though those names are more poetic. I choose South Africa, a compromise. It’s safe. I can dip my foot in the pool and still run under the cabana. I can shop and barter at markets, but all the grocery stores are well-stocked. I can buy the fabrics women elsewhere wear and hang them on my walls. Their clothes, my art. South Africa is my white world far away from the white world. But never forget this: South Africa is my compromise and I choose it because I am a white woman.
In Africa, melancholy is high fashion.
* * *
We marry at twenty-two.
Others smoke cigarettes, drink vodka, have seizures, get depressed. These things make people hover over typewriters, pounding out startling truths.
Just knowing he’s nearby does it for me. As long as Zachary and I are together, I write sonnets, rich prose. He’s my drug, and I need him.
‘You are my muse,’ I say to him.
We are not sedate. He makes me a fanatic. We discuss French Existentialism, naked and tangled up in white sheets’the angst a chord in our song. We make love like virgins, like whores, like deserted island inhabitants, like fish re-discovering water. We argue all night till he storms out and I call my mother.
In every poem, Zachary is ‘you.’
I write graduate papers. I get A’s every time.
I teach composition. He is in every thesis sentence.
I write journals and diaries, directing them to Zachary.
‘I wrote this for you.’ I hand him college-ruled spiral notebooks. These are his birthday presents. He reads them under comforters, on his back, the light by the bed hot and yellow.
‘Sit next to me while I read.’ He takes the notebook.
‘I don’t want to distract you.’ I stand in the shadows. ‘You read. I’ve gotta change a light bulb.’
I pretend to be busy in the next room. I stand by open windows, watching moths dance around porch lights, sometimes banging into them and dying. I stand and wait for Zachary, my muse, to finish reading.
I sit next to him on the bed.
‘I love you so much.’ He pulls me towards him. ‘You have no clue how much I love you at this very moment.’
I kiss his lips, slip into the space next to him, wonder what will happen when this moment passes. Will he still love me?
* * *
rave shave torch bugs
Sandy sends me on safari.
For one month, I wander around Cape Town. She hates the sight of me walking down Adderley, coming at her with comments about whites and blacks in South Africa. All day, every day, I wander the streets and sit in cafes, eating salads and trying to write in my journal without a muse. I dissect the details of my finale with Zachary, picturing him there, the way he looked when he stood on the curb, blowing Judas kisses. ‘I love you so much,’ he once said. At this very moment, he had added.
‘I’ve bought you malaria pills. Start them now. You don’t want to get bitten by any bugs, especially mosquitoes.’ Sandy hands me a phone card with fifty Rand on it. ‘Use this in case of emergency.’ She throws her dirty backpack on the floor. ‘Here. Pack this.’
After five weeks in Cape Town and two months of divorce, I fly to Durban to meet a group of backpackers who have signed up to go on a safari trip with an Afrikaner named Elmer.