by Jennifer Spiegelwords words words books
There’s something about the bar that reminds me of Texas.
We arrive in Graskop, a quaint town in the Eastern Transvaal. Little shops and a place to get pancakes are the main attractions. We look at art galleries during the day and go to a bar at night.
Inside the bar, everyone’s Afrikaans. ‘They look like rednecks.’ Dylan claims a pool table while she looks around. There’s an abundance of denim, reddish complexions, and cigarette packs sticking out of back pockets.
‘What are you thinking, roomie?’ Nick comes up behind me with two pool sticks.
I take a stick. ‘I’m thinking we haven’t been in the company of others in days.’ I grab chalk to rub on the end. ‘It’s strange to be among other people. It’s strange to see everyone else among other people.’
‘If you forgot what to do, watch me.’ Nick moves to the other side of the table.
That’s exactly what I do. I watch women look at him. I watch him look at women. I watch him play pool. When I see others reacting to his presence, I want him. Tonight.
Nick comes over, carrying his pool stick. ‘You’re up. Your turn.’ He winks and stands close to me. He wants me too.
We play pool and it’s silly. It’s like a step backwards, like going back to the preliminaries of flirtation after profundities have been exchanged. We play act and it’s thrilling. I shoot pool not to win, but to bend over’to reveal cleavage like a waitress at Hooters. We pass each other and mouth the words to songs that play loudly over the radio and we watch each other through the eyes of others. It’s like seeing one another anew. I move hair out of my face when he’s looking. He pays attention to where I stand in the room. When it’s his turn, I give him my full attention.
An hour later, we’re both called over to the corner. Ingrid, Catherine, and Dylan are drunk. Dylan says, ‘Jillian, this is your kind of conversation. What do you find physically attractive in a man?’
Nick hangs his pool stick on a rack. ‘Personally, I like shoulder blades,’ he interjects.
I feel confident tonight, like what I think is mine will surely be mine. I’m one big shoulder blade.
‘A hairy chest.’ I pick up the chalk. ‘You think I can take this home?’
Elmer drives us to our Graskop campsite and Dylan, Nick, Ingrid, and I sit on the edge of a ravine, passing around a bottle of Cape Velvet, the South African version of Bailey’s Irish Cr’me.
We talk about sex. Casual sex.
‘I’m through with it.’ I’m lying. I’ve never had it.
‘The best sex I ever had was casual.’ I think Dylan lies, too. She’s not very convincing’only drunk.
Nick takes a sip of the Cape Velvet and passes it around. ‘I’d prefer if it wasn’t casual, but beggars can’t be choosers.’ We laugh nervously, shyly.
‘I guess I’d just like something a little more certain.’ The chocolate liquor coats the inside of my mouth. My tongue is sweet. ‘I hate uncertainty.”
Nick looks over at me, yawns, stretches. ‘I’m going to bed.’
‘I am, too.’ I fake a yawn.
He grabs the bottle of Cape Velvet and takes it with him.
* * *
no muse spoke
‘I feel a little drunk,’ I say when we get inside our tent. But I don’t. I know what I’m doing.
‘Cape Velvet is lovely.’ I hear Nick move around. I can’t see him, but I hear him rustling through his things. He gets into his sleeping bag. I’m standing over him, towering over him.
‘I’m undressing.’ I float above his body in the dark. ‘My clothes are coming off.’ I kick the legs of my jeans away. ‘There go my jeans.’
‘Wait, wait’you’re going too fast.’ He laughs aloud.
They’re already off, though. I’m standing in the dark in bra and underwear and I can tell he’s on his back, listening. ‘Here. I’ll do it again. This time, slower.’ I don’t re-dress. Instead, I take the zipper of my fly and run it up and down. ‘Do you hear that?”
‘Did you put your pants back on?’ he asks.
Nick laughs. ‘You’re a bit of a nut.’
I dangle the legs of my pants over his face, creating a breeze over the bridge of his nose. ‘They’re off again.’ I move around the tent and nearly step on his leg. I almost fall, but don’t. ‘Whoops.’
He grabs my ankle. His hand takes hold of my body. ‘You are a different one.’
‘What do you mean?’ I’m flirtatious. It feels like I’ve never done this before.
‘You’re’I don’t know.’ He releases my ankle, mumbles something. ‘Perhaps it’s better if some things remain unsaid.’
I fall to my knees and crawl into my sleeping bag, without zipping it up. ‘No secrets between us. No pretense, either. Let’s say what we mean.’
‘You’re” He pauses, thinks about it for a second. ‘Spicy.’
I giggle like an innocent. ‘Where’s the Cape Velvet?’
‘Over here.’ In the dark, he hands it to me. We feel our way. I grasp the bottle, feel his hands, climb over them with my fingers, hold onto the bottle, take it, and then drink from it. He takes a sip too.
‘You’re full of contradictions, Jillian.’
He sounds like Zachary. I roll towards him. He rolls towards me. ‘You hate uncertainty, yet you married it’knowingly.’
‘I thought I’d change it’I thought the permanence of my love would attest”
‘You hate to trivialize sex and yet you’ll sleep with me tonight”
‘You shouldn’t say it.’
‘Thank you.’ My eyes are open and I feel his face next to mine.
‘I can’t see where your face is to kiss you.’ He draws close to me.
I show him. It’s graceful; it’s without awkwardness. We taste of chocolate. We kiss and it’s a very good kiss.
* * *
in whisper shout metaphor simile
There’s something silly about it. The things I say to the stranger, the things he says to me. His voice, jarring. I want silence’I don’t want to hear him speak because then I remember I don’t know him. When he says my name when I touch him, shortened on his lips, I’m thrown. ‘Jill.’ He doesn’t know that no one calls me Jill.
I’ve never allowed for differences in this.
When I hear him whisper my name, I know I’ll never find that tribal tattoo etched onto the small of his back.
We smell of mosquito repellent, chocolate, liquor. Our clothes are in piles and our sleeping bags are turned inside out. Everything about the way he feels is different. I tremble from the difference. In the midst of it, he says, ‘No one would ever call this casual.’
No one would ever call this casual. It’s a sense of matched intensity, a coordination of movements, the elimination of freak accidents and false starts. It is, though, only casual.
‘That was intense.’ He rolls away from me.
I think, Was it?
‘I like it that way.’ He speaks to the tent walls.
I think, It’s not us together’I’m just that way.
‘I do too,’ I say.
At three in the morning, I make my way through the darkness to the bathroom. I stare at myself in the mirror, feeling sort of tainted, feeling something sad, feeling the sadness go away.
‘No weirdness in the morning, okay?’ I crawl back in on hands and knees.
Nick is already in his own sleeping bag. ‘We’ll see what happens.’ An honest answer.
I think to myself, I could put my arms around him’I could do that. As the moonlight creeps through our tent door, now open, now peeled back and thrown up over the walls, I know I can’t’I can’t put my arms around him.
I miss Zachary in the morning.
* * *
of these sordid sad sappy things
I wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole.
I didn’t mean it. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to shake him, wake him, twist him around, bend his neck back, knock him against the wall. I only said it to hurt him. Now, if Zachary were here, if he were standing before me on this sad African morning’if he were here, not like an apparition or a feeling of absence, I would touch him. I would lift my hands to his face, run my fingers through his hair, touch him till he knew about certainties, till he was convinced of truths. I’d touch him and touch him and touch him. . . .
And it would be so true.
* * *
I waited day and night
There is no weirdness in the morning or on any of the mornings after that.
I like him.
We never tell anyone. It’s a secret, a delicious secret. Every day is electric from then on and when our tent is sealed at night, it’s ours. It’s mine.
On the last night, everyone stays at the Rockey Street Backpackers in Johannesburg. In beds, in rooms for girls and rooms for boys. We eat African food at a tiny restaurant down the street.
The group splits sun-dried mopani worms and crocodile spare ribs. ‘I wish they had lion paw or lion tail on the menu.’ Ingrid focuses on the menu’s appetizers.
I eat ostrich. ‘I devour art, I eat beauty,’ I say, thinking of Toulouse-Lautrec.
Nick eats impala. ‘I eat women.’
‘There are boy impalas too.’ Dylan unfolds her napkin.
‘Not the one I’m eating. All girl.’ Nick’s eyes sparkle.
We exchange addresses and promises and glances and I know it’s magical but temporary and part of its magic is this exchange, these promises, these glances.
‘I’ll send you doubles.’ Dylan re-loads her camera, speaking to me.
I doubt I’ll ever see any of these people or their photographs again, and it’s not because I don’t like them.
Nick follows me into the hostel bathroom when I get ready for bed. He wraps his arms around me as I bend over the sink. I push back against him, welcoming his embrace. I turn around and we close the door to the bathroom with us inside. I press my body against his, and our kisses are like exchanging addresses with people we’ll never write. It’s the removal of meaning from gesture, the dismissal of significance from action, the denial of truth. It’s like Zachary with his words, like commitment without certainty. I’ve tried it now. Arms thrown around strangers. Take me today only.
‘You can sneak into the girls’ room with me.’
‘No.’ He kisses my forehead. ‘I won’t get any sleep.’
This sort of existence isn’t sustainable, Ingrid had said.
I look into his eyes and smile. ‘You need rest before your long flight tomorrow.”
* * *
pen in hand
In the morning, everyone but Nick and I leaves. Everyone flies to Durban, Cape Town, even London and Berlin. Nick’s flight to Heathrow is at four and I’m scheduled to return to the Western Cape at the end of the week.
We wander down Rockey Street in the Yeoville section of Johannesburg, holding hands. We’ve never held hands before.
‘Maybe I’ll get a tattoo.’ I pull Nick forward as we wander in and out of used bookstores and record shops.
‘No, don’t do that.’
We stop at a cafe, have coffee, don’t talk about anything. We go to rave shops and tattoo parlors and places to buy trinkets.
‘You and Ingrid and Dylan were my favorites.’ I make him pose for a picture.
‘I don’t play favorites.’ He looks at me out of the corner of his eye and I try to hide my injury. A smile creeps up from the corners of his mouth and he puts his arm around my neck, pretending to wrestle me, laughing.
At two-thirty, we exchange notes’nice notes, devoid of pretense, full of affection, offering simple promises and no guarantees.
I stand with him in the front of Rockey Street Backpackers as he prepares to take a cab.
‘I liked you, Nick.’ He takes my hand and we face each other on the sidewalk, warm in the afternoon sun.
He kisses me and I kiss him and it’s still a nice kiss and, when he leaves, I’m happy for it’I’m happy for the beginning of it, the middle of it, and the end of it.
I don’t need for this moment to last. I only need to know that some moments do.
* * *
the words arrived alone
I’m still wearing my dirty camping clothes stained with moss and earth, insect repellent, saliva and other bodily fluids. I already miss that gossamer world, my tentative, short-lived sensations, those dreams of Namibia.
I sit on the couch at the hostel with postcards and journal in my lap. I hold the pen poised over the page. I waited on my muse for words of truth. My muse said, Nothing is certain. I cannot have a muse like that.
I flip over the postcard to the stranger, the one with the voice jarring in the night. ‘Happy Zulu People,’ it says. What I can do with the memory of Nick. I can send him a letter and invest my words with meaning’till we carefully measure the things we say. Then, we will have to consider the weight of words. Then, there will be resonance to our words.
I write down one word after another, in random order. Words I’ve reserved for the stranger. Nick’s only been gone for a few days, though, and already these words don’t carry the same weight they once did. Already they seem silly.
What if I say nothing? What if I resist linking one word to another? Renounce committing meaning to language, compose in haphazard fashion? Just write down a bunch of nothing. Then, anyone’anyone at all’can cut my words to pieces. They can take a razor blade to my paper and make delicate rips. They can separate the things I say, the words I have, and spread them out across the table. They can toss them around, say something new’make my poetry relative. Kill the certainty.
With that, nothing is exclusively mine.
With that, there is no truth.
I stare at the pen in my hand. I touch its tip to paper, thinking how this minute act bespeaks commitment, cries out the certainty of language, of meaning, of all things recorded, promised, and sung.
Any muse of mine must know about this.
I can write poems. I can write one today and another tomorrow.
I write a postcard for the stranger. He is but a stranger, and these words are not really for him. In my blank and untouched journal, I write the poem again.
I write without a muse.
nipples beads mealie pap
sarong Soweto sweet potato
rave shave torch bugs
bras braais fingers socks
moist wet hake curry
moss malaria butterscotch Ndbele
Khayelitsha Mapumalanga Xhosa click
shoulder blades sweatpants sunrise sunset
wildebeest warthog Zulu shithead
shag fuck Bourke’s Luck
hair beard tremble shiver
flick lick Sabie River
mosquito net chocolate Hluhluwe
Cape Town Kruger Shaka Mlilwane
pen paper words books
words words words books
no muse spoke
in whisper shout metaphor simile
of these sordid sad sappy things
I waited day and night
pen in hand
the words arrived alone.