by Jennifer Spiegel
Tribal tattoo on the small of Zachary’s back.
I trace my index finger over its gray edges. Tracing it, claiming it.
He sprawls out on our bed, face down, nearly naked. Boxers half-off, arms outstretched. ‘My world is crashing down on me.’
I place my palms flat against his back, pressing firmly. Holding his world together.
You have no right” He says right lethally so I consider rights and legalities within the context of our marriage. I’m aware of promises and commitments and vows but not breaches, limitations, or exclusionary clauses. Perhaps this is my mistake.
‘You have no right to ask that.’ He can’t even look at me.
I’ve just asked him to tell me about certainties.
He rolls over onto his back. I touch his chest, feel his heart beat.
He pulls away. ‘I want to sleep.’
I sit there, still upright, in the dark. I think to myself, I will always remember this moment.
I put my hands on his body again. I touch memorized lines. I search for his pulse. I move my hands, feel the rise and fall of his chest, the pulling in of his abdomen, the places where the body gives.
‘Let’s just go to sleep.’ His only words for me’no anxious declarations of love, no rushing to convince me of any truths. He just wants to go to sleep.
I don’t take my hands off of him.
‘Go to sleep, Jillian.’
I wrench him over and make him face me. In the dark, he stares at me. I pull him towards me and it isn’t where he wants to be. I kiss him on the mouth and think no no no. I kiss him until he kisses me, until he gives in to the sensation of flesh on flesh, fingers on skin. A dissonant tangle of limbs, a struggle for lost cadence, bodies frantic, and I want to change him. I want to change him and so I touch the things about him I can change. I strip him naked because our words have become burdens and I can’t get him’I can’t get at him. And I touch him till his reluctance gives way and I have his physicality’that’s what I have’and there is no semblance of his world being my world being his world. And when he is touching me he is fucking me and it’s like we have no past. We have no past and so we fuck and we fuck and we fuck for our future is dead and dead and dead and he doesn’t even want to’he doesn’t even want to touch me’but he does it anyway. He does it because of where my hands and mouth are on his body, which is unaffected, then tense, then slavish. We fuck and it feels like fucking, which is what I hate, but I do it anyway because I think, I really think, if I do it this way and if I do it that way and if I do it long enough with my hands and my mouth, turning my body inside out, it will cease feeling like fucking and I will reclaim what it is that has been so irretrievably, so irrevocably, so permanently lost.
* * *
bras braais fingers socks
I sit around a tree-trunk table in the Coconut Bar of Shakaland in KwaZulu/Natal, where South Africa is green. It isn’t really called the Coconut Bar, but that’s how I like to think of it. It reminds me of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and, if I had my drink of choice, I’d be drinking something milky and sweet from a coconut half. Instead, I sip beer and snack on Spanish peanuts, which have been generously laid out for us by a Zulu woman of indeterminate age.
Stop number one on the safari. Shakaland. The old movie set for Shaka Zulu, named after Shaka, who united the Zulu tribe. A tourist trap. It’s Zulu Disneyland, Zulu Old Tucson.
Ten people met in Durban, loaded their things into a mini-van, and headed to KwaZulu/Natal in the eastern part of South Africa with an Afrikaner named Elmer at the helm. We drove through the rolling green hills where sugarcane grows and the Zulu people work rich fields, walk muddy roads, and carry colorful bundles on their heads. The climate is subtropical; the landscape is thick and green.
Mostly, these people are English with a few German exceptions. There are only three males’Elmer, Jens (a German guy), and Nick (a Brit). We are a predominantly female, English-speaking group. We sketch, keep journals, talk about boys, and have secret lives in other countries. But, for now, we are preoccupied with Shaka Zulu.
‘They used to show Shaka Zulu in school.’ It’s the New South Africa and Elmer is a new Afrikaner, taking backpackers on mini-van excursions throughout Zululand and Mapumalanga. ‘Educational purposes. Like your Roots or something.’ He points his chin in my direction. I’m the sole American. I’m never the sole anything. ‘It’s still on TV every so often.’
‘Have a beer, Elmer.’ Nick, the Brit, pulls up a chair.
‘I can only stay a minute. I have to check on something.’ He sits down.
‘Shaka Zulu, huh?’ Nick’s voice, male and English-accented, is like a song to me. ‘So what else can you tell us about growing up in a pariah state?’
Elmer runs fingers over his stubbly chin and smiles.
‘We don’t mean to insult you by asking.’ An English girl sips her beer.
‘I’m used to it.’ Elmer thanks the Zulu woman for his drink. ‘One story only.’
‘That’s fine.’ Nick smiles.
‘When I was a little boy, the black woman who worked for my family slept under my bed at night.’ We lean forward over Spanish peanuts while Elmer speaks in hushed tones. ‘We were all defying the curfew.’
‘Yikes.’ Nick licks peanut salt from his lips.
Elmer stands up. Our eyes follow him. He’s our unifying force, our Shaka Zulu. ‘I’ll be right back’I’m going to make sure the dancing is still going on tonight.’
‘The dancing?’ The German girl sinks into the arms of her German boyfriend. They wear scary ripped up concert t-shirts and black combat boots. They seem progressive. ‘Not dancing.’ She lets out a moan.
‘There’s Zulu dancing every evening.’ Elmer turns on his heels and leaves us.
We look bashfully at each other. It’s only been three hours. We barely know one another. We reach for peanuts at the same time like synchronized swimmers.
Before the Coconut Bar, we had our Shaka Experience which included a clip of the Shaka Zulu movie in the Gilligan Cineplex, where the matinee is always the same. ‘Did you notice that Shaka’s mom wore black mascara?’ I turn to one of the English girls.
‘Pure cheese.’ Her name is Dylan. She’s traveling from the Cape to Cairo, which has always been a British dream, though she’s no imperialist. Dylan’s adventures are free-spirited, unruly, uncertain. ‘Does anyone else feel uncomfortable or is it just me?’
Just then, the Zulu woman walks by our table and Nick pulls her over, kindly.
There are a lot of people on this safari. They merge and blend and become distinct only later. Now, they only have high-pitched voices or London accents.
‘May I ask you a question?’ Nick holds onto the arm of the Zulu woman.
All of us look at Nick, who doesn’t blend. He doesn’t blend because he’s male and we’re female and he’s pretty to look at and we’re traveling, which means all kinds of things you don’t tell your mother about.
I stare at Nick. He’s one of those twenty-something backpackers you meet with love beads tied around his ankle and stories to tell about the Mozambicans he met on the beach and the incredible experiences he had with the Xhosa in the Transkei. He uses words like dodgy and lovely and cheers. He wears thumb rings and a goatee and he has a tattoo of the sun on his upper arm. He’s not a boy, but he reminds me of an era when boys prevailed. It’s the goatee and the thongs with Velcro and the tattoo. He’s so P.C., so in touch with Mother Earth. He’s graying a bit and the two of us are the oldest. He’s twenty-nine and I’m twenty-eight. We’re old! In the mini-van, driving through the sugarcane, we discussed Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon, and Sartre. Comparing reading lists is like batting eyelashes. Touch me here, I could say, opening a volume and splaying it across my chest.
When he grabs the Zulu woman by the arm, a most delicate touch, she’s warmed by his peace-loving smile. I’m giggling inside. She comes over to us looking like she’s swept a thousand floors in her amalgam of western clothes picked up from charities and wealthy white women cleaning out their attics. Nick looks into her eyes. ‘How do you feel about people like us coming here?’ He still holds her arm. One person touching another. It’s uncommon for a woman like her to be touched by a man like him.
She smiles at Nick, smiles at the group, looks at us. Her words are genuine. ‘Oh, we like that you come here. We like white people.’
When she leaves, we are silent. They are frightful, lovely words. When she is asked how she feels about us, she automatically translates it into white people. Nick smiles in his love-Mother-Earth way. Dylan looks at me, free to hit the road. The others eat more peanuts.
The significance of small words. We like white people.
* * *
moist wet hake curry
‘Isn’t Charo on this boat?’ Dylan leans back from her position in the food line to call out to me. I’m five people behind her, scooping spinach into my plate.
Dinner is served in the same fashion as the Love Boat buffet. The rest of the world knows us by our prime-time TV shows. Mealie, cabbage, and curry replace fruit and caviar.
After dinner, a group of young Zulu men (sleek and hard-bodied), scantily clothed and armed with spears, charge joyously into the dining room (shocking the hell out of Captain Stubing) and beckon the delighted white tourists (we’re joined by a group of elderly French) to a big, round hut for a night of dancing. We skip after the Zulu men like it’s the Electric Parade at Disneyland.
‘This is killing me.’ Dylan pops her evening malaria pill into her mouth.
We take our seats on wooden bleachers in the Zulu hut. The dancing begins. It’s frenzied, hypnotic, rhythmic. The men always dance first and the women dance in response, like a heated debate. Bodies convulse and glow from sweat.
The French cower when the Zulu men stomp their feet and rush over wielding spears. The sight of the elderly French backing away fills me with shame. The ten of us try not to recoil when the Zulus charge. We try to appear as if we are at ease with the delirious dancing. This is primitive, I think, and I’m ashamed. This is primal, this is wild. It’s irrational in its relentless chaos. The beating of the drums, the pounding of feet, the repetition, the seductive movements. I don’t know how to make sense of it. I want to digest it, analyze it, package it in a neat little box. I want to say, Okay, when they freak out this way, their minds must be working like this . . .
When the dancing is over, I walk back to our hut with Nick. He jumps around when he speaks’hyper like a teen-age boy.
‘I spent the night with Xhosa witchdoctors in the Transkei in April.’ He walks backwards in front of me. ‘They did trance-dancing. Like this but spontaneous. This was a bit contrived.’
‘A bit? How did you manage to see trance-dancing?’
‘They dance every night.’ He smiles at me.
‘What goes on in their minds during the trance-dancing?’ I stare at the gray at his temples. I contemplate him as a male. It’s an unfamiliar endeavor. I’m asking questions typical of me, but my scrutiny is foreign. I haven’t contemplated maleness in years.
‘They don’t think anything. It isn’t a thinking thing.’ He looks down at his feet as he speaks, looking at his Velcro thongs. He’s been to the beach, I bet. Camping on the beach. I imagine a scenario in which he sits by a fire on the coast of the Indian Ocean eating crayfish and drinking wine with other kids. He’s still the oldest. ‘It’s an act apart from the mind.’
‘How can that be? How can they think nothing?’
‘It’s intoxicating’the movements, the rhythm. Plus, they’re smoking a lot of dope. That helps.’
I’m really staring at him now. Male. Wow.
‘It’s like transcendental meditation.’ He stops walking, and we stand together under the moonlight. ‘But better’because you’re dancing.’
I grin at him and we begin to walk together again. We get to our hut, where we will sleep on bunk beds. We laugh about being in Shakaland, about sleeping in grass huts, about smelling shit, about watching out for chickens.