by Jennifer Spiegel
moss malaria butterscotch Ndbele
I wake to the sound of roosters crowing.
Outside, chickens peck the ground’jerking their chicken bodies here and there. I’m under a mothy blanket that makes my hair itch. When I reach for my toiletries, my flashlight falls noisily to the floor and I cringe with the clamor. No one stirs. Quietly, I sneak out and head over to the Shaka bathroom to shower. By six a.m., I’m writing letters in the Coconut Bar. I can’t write in my journal. I can’t string words together in my own journal.
Dylan joins me, diary in hand.
‘Will you read it later?’ I put down my letters. It’s a quiet morning in Africa and we whisper. I’m fascinated by her lack of commitment to geography and her commitment of words by writing down her adventures in a permanent record.
‘Doubt it. It’s for posterity.’ Dylan looks at the letters in my lap. ‘Don’t you keep a journal, Jillian?’
‘I’m having trouble writing one. I don’t know why. I have one with me, though.’
‘Let me see it.’ Dylan unwraps a butterscotch candy and sticks it in her mouth. I pull my journal out of my daypack. She takes it from my hands, turns it over, studies the cover. ‘Am I allowed to look inside?’ I twist around in my Coconut Bar chair. Dylan notices. ‘You don’t want me to?’
‘It isn’t that.’ My palms are wet. ‘I haven’t written anything. I don’t know what to write.’
Dylan looks at me like I’m crazy. ‘I think you’re taking this a bit too seriously.’ She hands the book to me. ‘It’s a journal.’
‘I used to direct my journals to my husband, but now he’s my ex-husband. I need a new audience.’
‘I don’t write for anyone,’ Dylan declares.
‘But you said you doubt you’ll read it and it’s for posterity. Why bother if no one’s gonna read it?’
‘It’s like it doesn’t happen until it’s written down.’ Dylan has her legs crossed and she bounces her ankle up and down. She’s very blas’. ‘What would you write to your ex-husband?’
‘I’d tell him everything.’ I pause. ‘Filtering it through him seemed to make it meaningful.’ I wrote things down to make them meaningful.
Dylan looks at me quizzically. ‘Forget the filter, then.’ She stands up and puts her backpack on. ‘Nick’s an English teacher too. You knew that?’
‘I heard him say something about it.’
‘I think he frets about verb-subject agreement and tense in his journal. That’s what I heard him say. You two should talk.’
‘I forgot my camera,’ she says.
The moment she leaves, Nick arrives.
He sits next to me. ‘We both teach English.’ Before now, everything we spoke about was only relevant to the moment. We have no pasts, only presents. Booklists are the only eyes to our souls and we are too well-read for lists to be enlightening.
‘That’s what I heard.’
‘Isn’t it the spring semester?’ Nick raises his eyebrows.
‘Community college. Unpaid leave of absence.’
‘Me, too.’ He bobs his head up and down. ‘Unexplained termination.’
I stir my coffee and look at him. Again, I see he’s male. ‘When do you teach?’
‘In my spare time.’ He points to the sky, points to the sun rising. It’s orange and round and it creeps gently over lush green mountains. It feels like we’re in central Africa, in Rwanda or Burundi. Birds call out in jarring shrieks. ‘It’s the perfect moment.’ His index finger seems to touch the edge of the sun. ‘Hold your breath until it passes.’ He holds his breath and turns to me as the sun rises over the horizon. When it passes, he asks, ‘Why are you in Africa?’
I’m not sure what to say. I’m not sure why I’m here. ‘I got divorced this year. I came to Africa.’
He smiles at me, twists his thumb ring. Speaks in an English accent. I’m attracted to him. ‘Funny, I came to get married.’
‘What happened?’ We smile despite the subject matter.
‘I came here to track down an ex-girlfriend and marry her. She lives in Stellanbosch.’ He’s very casual about this piece of information.
‘You found her?’
‘Married to someone else.’
‘Yeah.’ He still smiles. ‘I was eavesdropping when you said you taught English.’ Changing the subject.
‘Are you devastated?’ I reach for his cup to refill our coffees.
‘It happened six months ago’I’ve been here for awhile.’ He runs his hands over his hair. ‘This is my last hoorah before I go back to London.’ I hand him his cup. ‘Cheers.’ He toasts the air in my direction. ‘It’s only a dull ache now. Are you devastated?’
‘No,’ I lie.
‘What’s your area of expertise?’
‘In English.’ Nick smiles a big flirtatious smile.
‘Oh.’ My mouth makes a huge O-shape. ‘South African and American lit. I was working on my dissertation. Apocalyptic literature of South Africa and America.’ I watch for a reaction. ‘How each literature conceptualizes the end.’
‘Very . . . eschatological.’ He nods, looking serious. ‘Mine’s postcolonial theory.’ It feels like we’re in a bar pointing out astrological signs. We are in a bar’the Coconut Bar. ‘But I can’t seem to hold down a teaching position for longer than a year and a half.’ He pauses. ‘Well, two years, maybe.’
‘It’s a very romantic subject’the whole aftermath of imperialism,’ I say.
‘Yours isn’t.’ He stretches his arms above his head, letting out a groan.
‘South Africa was romantic when I started.’ I put on my sunglasses. ‘Working out the details after the revolution isn’t so exciting.’
‘But the apocalypse is never romantic.’ He tightens the laces on his hiking boots. ‘It’s rarely beautiful. Everything is reduced to the mechanical or the technological. Always doomsday. Our visions of the future are inevitably devoid of beauty.’
‘I wouldn’t spend my days reading about it if I didn’t expect it to be beautiful.’ I take on an aura of dramatic perplexity. ‘Of course, I expect beauty.’
‘Then, you are the lone romantic apocalyptic literature fanatic.’ His eyes are bright, brash, seductive. ‘Do you want breakfast? A Danish?’
‘Sure.’ I stand up. ‘I could go for a Danish.’
‘Orwell was no romantic.’ Nick begins walking towards the food, muttering to himself. ‘Vonnegut? H.G. Wells? What kind of romantic are you?’
I point to the sun, feeling poetic though I am no poet, feeling giddy though I am no silly girl, feeling young though I am usually old. ‘Look at that.’ I point to the yellow ball in the sky. ‘I’m the kind of romantic who waits for perfect moments and isn’t satisfied with anything less.’
‘Lovely.’ He touches my arm gently.
Khayelitsha Mapumalanga Xhosa click
‘Send this to your grandma.’ Nick gives me a postcard. On it, a group of Zulus are lined up, bare-breasted and wearing traditional attire. ‘Happy Zulu People,’ it says.
“I’m buying it.” We’re in a gift shop in the center of Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, a game park just north of Shakaland.
“There’s time for capturing your thoughts later, professors.” Dylan approaches Nick and I. “Lunch is being served outside the mini-van.”
Before leaving for a game park drive, we eat cheese sandwiches and drink pink lemonade. I approach Elmer. “This is the best damn cheese sandwich I’ve ever eaten, Elmer. Because of this, I’ll always associate South Africa with cheese sandwiches.”
“This is how you’ll remember South Africa?’ Nick approaches us. ‘Not by the Zulu and Xhosa tribes, but by a sandwich? I mean, it’s a good sandwich, but that seems a bit much.’
Dylan pours more lemonade. ‘Jillian’s just a little obsessed. Ask about her journal.’ She walks away.
We spend the day inside the mini-van driving around Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, stopping by watering holes and watching zebra. We’re never allowed to leave the confines of the vehicle: there are lions out there, after all.
‘He’s sooo cute.’ I see every creature, and it’s my first response.
The Brits die laughing. ‘You really sound like an American.’ A British declaration. Americans, apparently, have a tendency to state the obvious.
‘My God, those are cute.’ I watch a group of warthogs.
‘When they run, their tails go straight up in the air.’ Elmer, like other South Africans, is gifted at maneuvering the vehicle around in order to optimize the viewing of wildlife.
‘They’re funky.’ Dylan leans over me, trying to see better. The warthogs trot alongside the road. Little prehistoric pigs, snouts to the ground and babies in tow. ‘They’re like the bohemians of the wild.’
‘Aawwhh.’ I let out my American sigh as the warthogs pick up speed and the babies lift their tails to run. Nick crawls out the window and on top of the vehicle. The others snap pictures and press against windows for better views.
‘That’s a great name for a rock band: The Bohemian Warthogs.’ Dylan prods me. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘They’re so cute.’ It’s a reflexive response. I can’t help myself. Everyone laughs.
‘You are such the American.’ Every time Catherine, a Brit, speaks, I expect tea and scones to be served.
‘Now, what’s the sexiest animal?’ Dylan has the concerns of someone on the road.
Elmer moves the vehicle forward, trailing after the warthogs from a safe distance.
‘The buffalo seems like a big stud to me.’ I grab one of the many safari guides in the car. Everyone has a safari guide. After reading them, we know whether or not we’re having fun. ‘Big, bullish. Excellent horns.’ The Brits crack up. In America, I’m never so well-received.
‘And, Nick, what animal do you think is the sexiest?’ Dylan raises her eyebrows. Nick is our standard bearer for the male species. The German is too quiet and Elmer already serves the same purpose for Afrikaners.
Nick thinks about it. ‘Definitely the impala.’ He nods his head decisively. The impala looks like Bambi. ‘That little tail . . .’ He moans like he’s either about to eat venison or make love to it.
‘The way she puts her little ass in the air.’ He speaks seductively. ‘Her delicate ways. Those soft eyes. That is an animal.’
‘Impala me,’ I add. Impale me.
Shrieks from the mini-van.
I sit with the Leah to my Rachel. Or am I Leah?
When we meet, we instinctively hug as if we’re in this together. I want to say, He’s all mine. Don’t kid yourself. He is forever mine.
That much is certain.
Me and my certainties.
She sits in front of me at a Denny’s and she holds her cup between her hands. She’s a tall woman with long, thick brown hair, and eyes that turn down at the temples. Her face isn’t pretty, but it isn’t vacant either and I was hoping for vacancy. She’s big-boned, hippy’but not fat. I wanted vacancy and obesity.
She stares at me the same way I stare at her. I’m conscious of traces of gray in my hair, lines around my mouth, weight in my hips. We’re the same age and we can look young or old depending on the angle. The degree of beauty is so close that we will forever remain unsure of Zachary’s preference in these terms and this preference becomes, at times, all important. Who does he want? That’s all we really want to know.
‘I thought you should know.’ She peers over her tea, shyly. ‘He loves you.’
Don’t tell me he loves me.
‘When I told him I’d leave my husband for him, he said don’t.’
I take a sip of coffee and think to myself, What is it that really bothers me?
I know Zachary loves me.
‘I asked him to level with me when we said goodbye. I asked him to tell me just what it was that he was doing with the two of us.’
The two of us.
‘And what did he say?’ I stir my coffee, a welcomed prop.
She lives a parallel life to my own. My life is not my own.
That’s what bothers me: my life is not my own.
‘He said he wanted to give each of us what we wanted.’
‘I see.’ I’m stone-faced and thinking. I’m thinking of Zachary’s words to me on the phone once, as I lay in bed late at night, listening to his voice, listening to him tell me how much he missed me (three days apart, an academic conference on fictive endings) and how, he said, everyone else paled in comparison, how they were papier-m’ch’, and I wondered why he was telling me that because I would never have thought to ask for such a comparison if he hadn’t offered it up so eagerly.
She continues. She is so careful with her words, so careful for me and for her’ Zachary has never been so careful with his words. Language isn’t such a commitment for him. ‘He tried to be what each of us wanted him to be.’
We sit there scrutinizing each other’s bodies, pretending to save one another from indignities. As I walk out the door, I know we are each privately convinced of our own superior ranking and what bothers me is not that but this: his commitment to me is not certain and this means that nothing is ever exclusively mine. Nothing is mine.
I’m not so easily swayed by the words of other women. I know I am the Rachel to her Leah.
The others, Zachary had said, are papier-m’ch’.
That night I put my hands on his body. I asked him for certainties because I didn’t believe him anymore. I said: ‘Zachary, on what basis do you love me? Is your love certain? Prove it. Show me it’s true.’
Baffled, beside himself, philosophical about any claims of truth, he turned to me. ‘You have no right to ask that.’
shoulder blades sweatpants sunrise sunset
We spend the night on the border of South Africa and Swaziland. It’s beautiful. Deserted. Green. Lush. This time, the sun sets in orange.
Lena, hair flowing, body speaking, says something in German to her boyfriend and walks to the edge of the lodge pool we sit around, not looking at anyone’seemingly self-contained. ‘Lena’s a Botticelli.’ Catherine, who always has her sketchpad, puts down her pencil to watch her. Lena stands perfectly still. After a minute, she jumps gracefully into the water. Catherine is almost breathless. ‘Bravo!’
I don’t say anything. Lena is so self-possessed, so confident. I’ve never been like that.
All the women watch in silence as Nick peels off his shirt and dives into the deep end. Then, we look at each other.
Dylan’s eyes settle on a bicep. ‘Why do you have the tattoo of a sun on your arm?’
‘Sign of the Aquarius.’
‘Are you a follower of astrology?’
‘Just another possible reality. Sometimes, I’m into it.’
I feel like I’m in college and Zachary and I are about to put on the Smiths, Depeche Mode, the Cure. I feel retro. I feel like I’m with my ex-husband and he’s about to soliloquize on the subject of relativity and the lack of a fixed truth. I feel a surge of blood pump through my veins because I’m both wholly attracted and wholly repulsed by those who soliloquize on such subjects.
‘Ahh. . .’ Ingrid closes her eyes. ‘An existentialist?’ She is rosy-cheeked, wistful.
I’m back in the late eighties, the early nineties. Zachary’s carrying around copies of The Catcher in the Rye, The Stranger. I’m a traumatized coed, wondering, wondering, where he is. Getting ready to marry him.
‘I don’t know if I would go that far.’ Nick floats on his back. ‘I believe there are alternative truths’everyone arrives at his or her own.’
I wince internally. We are so On The Road, so serenely beatnik. I’m forever bewitched by the I’m Okay, You’re Okay crowd and I was the product of private schools, the daughter of Presbyterians, sleeping with one man only and I ran, by God, I ran to him. I was eighteen and he was the first thing I saw when I walked through the church gates and I’flushed and innocent’fell captive to one with a preoccupation with death and meaninglessness because I associated it with insight and intellect.
‘I would never assert there is one truth.’ Nick treads water.
Flower power, acid trips, friendship beads, thumb rings.
He pulls his upper body out of the water and balances on the edge of the pool. The water drips from his torso. The sun is about to disappear behind the mountains. Nick balances the weight of his body on his arms. I see the tattoo of the sun. Dusk approaches. ‘Jillian, look over there.’
He pulls his entire body out of the water, directs his gaze to the sunset. ‘You’re about to see another perfect moment.’