Tess gave two black boys French fries in the Cape Town airport parking lot.

She paid them with Wimpy’s chips to watch the company van.  On that first balmy sub-Saharan night in 1998, she looked exactly like Margot remembered her from their years together at Northwestern—except for the tan.  Same long hair, same long legs—but amazing bronze skin.  “Guess which car is mine,” Tess said.  She worked for an AIDS nonprofit that did a lot of grassroots work in the townships.  Her boss was a gay ex-Anglican priest from a groovy part of England. 

Two kids ate fries by a Combi with a bumper sticker on it that said, “Condoman says, Use Condoms!”

“Um, that one?” Margot said, pointing to the van.

This would be Margot’s first memory of South Africa:  children guarding a Combi, fried potatoes for currency, “chips” instead of “fries,” Tess with a tan. 

Dear Ben,

I’m somewhere over the Atlantic; I’ll be in Miami by dawn, Vancouver by dusk. 

Ben, this is for you.  I tread lightly over the details.  I do so for you, you burly Afrikaner ex.  We ended badly; we ended well.  I tread delicately, desiring no vengeance, harboring no hatred.  Ben, old friend, I never gave you anything except that carved wooden chess set I bought for your birthday on Greenmarket Square at St. George’s, the same place I bought that cheap beaded necklace I wore every day for a year and Zulu Fire Sauce for my dad.  You didn’t even like it—you didn’t even like the chess set; you only wanted to return to the humdrum, you-win comforts of your beloved backgammon.  No, I never gave you anything. 

Both of us were aware of clashing sensibilities, aware we never felt strongly enough about one another to overcome contradictory convictions, aware that—when it came down to it—we were better patriots than lovers.  Even then, both “patriot” and “lover” struck strange chords in my internal organs.  The former suggested a sentiment I scorn; the latter, an arrangement I despise.

Inevitably, we would leave each other. 

Just the same, this is for you.


Things happened quickly.  Margot was not exactly a backpacker, nor was she a squatter—though she traveled with a backpack and without money.  On the cusp of turning thirty, she came to South Africa to live, for a while at least.  She liked when people called her an expatriate, but she wouldn’t call herself that.  It sounded pretentious, though conjuring up images of Hemingway pouring back red wine from wineskins was perfectly desirable.

In no time at all, she moved out of Tess’s Camps Bay bungalow and into a small home in Rondebosch with her new Afrikaner boyfriend, Ben.  Tess, doing her own expat divinations, pushed her out the door with a quiet warning.  “Even though no one truly knows the real you in this country, there’s only so much escaping you can do.”  With that, Tess turned Margot over to Margot’s new flame. 

Margot had been dismissive of the counsel, waving her hand and snapping her tongue against the roof of her mouth.  Later, when Tess’s role in Margot’s life had diminished considerably, she’d remember her college friend’s words.  She’d regard them as among the most memorable she had heard.

Ben was, he said, “A New South African.”  In other words, knowing that Apartheid had to go, he touted democracy.     

Like most whites, however, he had a maid.  So, really, Margot had a maid, too.

Once, she lost an earring, a little dangly thing with a blue gem hanging by a silver wire.  Ben, wearing a bikini swimsuit, entered the living room from the backyard.  “I can’t find one of my earrings—did you happen to see it?” she said to him.

Ben, still dripping from the pool, took on this stern, composed, bulldog look.  “Let’s go into the bedroom.”

“I’m sure I just misplaced it—it’s probably in my purse.”  Margot trailed after him.  “For God’s sake, put some clothes on.” 

Ben led the way down the hall.  Passing the kitchen, he said to the maid, “Patience, follow us.”  A half-naked Afrikaner, a Canadian woman, and a young Xhosa woman in an apron paraded down the hall in single file.  Many maids had names like Patience, Justice, Joy.

Margot knew next to nothing about Patience.  She didn’t know if Patience were married, if she had children, what she did on weekends.  Patience was a black woman, maybe around Margot’s age, rather pretty.  They moved by one another like apparitions.  Margot lifted her legs if she sat on the couch when Patience vacuumed.  In the kitchen, if Patience chopped while Margot sliced, Margot thought about talking to the maid.  Then, figuring herself white, and thinking that Patience might view her disruptive attempts at discourse as feeble, false, and impossible, Margot stopped.  She said nothing.  Margot sliced while Patience chopped.

Ben walked directly to Margot’s jewelry box on the dresser. “It was here last?”  He fingered pearls, some trinkets.

“Yeah.  I can’t find it,” Margot answered.  Ben stood before the two women.  He was the opposite of Margot’s usual romantic fare.  No lanky body, no wire-rimmed glasses, no boyish charm, no political agendas.  Ben was solid, cocky, tough, and he seemed like he’d be good at keeping one warm around a campfire.  He could definitely build the fire himself.  Where Margot was from, the boys had heard one could start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but, thankfully, everyone had a lighter.   

Patience, wiping her hands on her apron (she wore a uniform straight out of American sit-com TV in the fifties), had to know what was coming next.  Suddenly, Margot did too. 

Ben turned to her.  “Patience, have you seen Margot’s earring?” 

Margot was paralyzed. 

Patience, full of poise, didn’t seem to notice Ben’s bikini.  The two women weren’t even looking at the same man.

“Miss Margot lost her earring?”  She always called Margot Miss.  “When?”

“I wore it yesterday.”  Margot couldn’t meet her eyes.

Patience did what she had to.  This tall, graceful Xhosa woman sunk to her knees, wearing her pink dress and white apron, and she ran her hands over the carpet.  “This it?”  She held up Margot’s earring.

“Yes.”  Margot reached for it.  For a second, the two women’s hands touched. 

“Thanks, Patience.”  Ben smiled, his hands on his hips.

Patience left, no doubt relieved she could still feed the babies, the husband, maybe an ailing mother. 

Ben walked over to the bed and sat down.  He pointed his finger at the doorway out of which Patience had just walked.  That girl doesn’t steal.” 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Margot said in a loud whisper.

“Do what?”

“Accuse her of stealing.”

“I didn’t.”  

Margot fiddled with hairbrushes, combs.  “You did.  And now you’re making it sound like it’s a lesson for me.”  Margot looked into the mirror over the dresser; she looked at herself.  That girl doesn’t steal.”  She caught his eye.  “Do you even care about Patience?”

Ben looked straight at her.  “Of course I do.  You don’t occupy the same space as someone without caring.”  Walking to the door, he asked, “Do you not care?”  Then, leaving the room, he said, “I care more about Patience than you, my sweet, ever will.” 

For the life of me, I can’t remember Patience ever using the bathroom. 

I suppose she must have.  I mean, she had to.

Ben, where did the black woman go to the bathroom?  Was she allowed to use our bathroom?

In the spring, Margot went on a jaunt alone, a safari-and-camping spree à la organized tour involving binoculars, big animals, and campsite showers.  Though she had a job as an admin assistant, she still took off at a moment’s notice.  Her responsibilities abroad, she knew, were minimal.  If she needed a little time off, she’d take it.

On the trip, she met an English guy who told her African travel tales which he wove together like The Thousand and One Nights with magical Xhosa equivalents to Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali-Baba.

“You should go to Coffee Bay in the Transkei,” he said.  He was refreshingly First World with his buzzcut and penchant for granola, raves, and alternative rock.  “It’s gorgeous:  rolling green hills, black people, red sunsets, the ocean.”  He wanted to kiss her, Margot could tell, but she felt committed, even if mildly, to another.  There were subtle things that made her less backpacker, more transplant:  she did hold down a job, she did have a monogamous relationship, she did live in a house.  This English storyteller was looking for backpacker experiences, romance on the road.  Margot considered, but found herself more interested in Coffee Bay. 

Coffee Bay was a seaside Transkei town along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape Province, largely populated by members of the Xhosa tribe.  Legend had it that a shipwreck littered the beach with coffee beans; hence, the name.  It was probably as true as The Thousand and One Nights, but the image of white sands bejeweled with coffee beans filled Margot with inexplicable longing. 

“It sounds like real Africa,” she said.  They were sitting together on a tour bus driving through Swaziland.  His eyes were wet and dewy.

“It is,” he said.

“Thanks for telling me.”

When Margot got home, she announced to Ben she was going to the Transkei next month.  “Alone.  I’ll hitchhike, take the bus, whatever.” 

“You don’t want to do that,” he said.  “You don’t want to go there—it’s not safe.”

“What do you mean?”  Perhaps this was the real Africa:  arguing with a white man about the rest of the continent.

“Car-jackings, murder.  White people only go there for one thing.”

“What would that be?”  She squinted at him.

“The pot.  Best in the world.”

“It’s supposed to be beautiful.” 

“It’s not safe for a white woman, Margot.”  He put his hands on her cheeks, pulled her over, and kissed her on the lips.

“I’d like to see real Africa.”

Ben, do you remember when I first arrived?  How we met at cafés downtown and I asked you one question after another?

I’d ask you anything.  Who are the women you’ve loved?  What do you think about Mandela?  Are you going to leave the country?  Where will you go?  Who do you love, Ben?  Have they loved you?  What can you tell me, Ben?  Tell me about love.

It amused you—I amused you.  Our relationship was built on the enchantment of difference.  We had no commonalities, none at all.  My wide-eyed, no-holds-barred questioning charmed you; I was enthralled by your blunt answers.  Never before had I encountered a man so willing to answer my silly questions, so willing to entertain my absurdities and eccentricities.  

We sat next to each other at cafés, both of us very serious.  I asked, “Do you take advantage of the fact that Dutch, Danish, British, and American girls are coming to your country in droves now that Apartheid  is caput?” 

“Only four times,” you replied, seriously.

This amused me, Ben.  You amused me.

Once upon a time, South Africa had designated “homelands,” pockets of land “reserved” for blacks.  One needed a visa to get by border control.  Homelands were Third World sites within an industrialized, Second World country.  Often, black men would go into the cities for jobs, leaving behind wives and children for months and months—maybe years, lifetimes.  Back home, in rural wastelands, families would flounder under the weight of extreme poverty.

But despite its want, the Transkei, one such place, was supremely beautiful with endless lime-green hills and a blue sky ripe with billowy white clouds.  Kraals, pastel-colored circular huts, spotted the ground.  When the sun set, the world was golden, like an African Van Gogh.  Before Nelson Mandela became a Johannesburg African National Congress outlaw, before he became a political prisoner on Robben Island for twenty-six years, before he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and before he became the first democratically-elected president of post-Apartheid South Africa, he was a child in the Transkei.  Also called the Wild Coast and the Shipwreck Coast, the Indian Ocean flanked the geography and sharks lurked in dark waters.  The terrain was feral, lovely, simultaneously blessed and cursed. 

Margot went to Coffee Bay because she liked its name.

Getting off the Baz Bus, the backpacker mode of transportation that journeyed between Cape Town and Johannesburg, she was surprised.  Most people didn’t bother moving from their seats when the bus stopped.  Right in the middle of a country of wineries and resorts, a shocking African world spread out under an endless sky.  Everyone was black.  Their faces were painted with clay to stave off sunrays.  Women washed clothes on the roadside.  Some sold pineapples.  Many carried huge bundles on their heads.  Cows and sheep, bone- thin, wandered aimlessly.  Burned-out, rusted, and wrecked cars had been dumped everywhere, maybe casualties of carjacking.  

This was the Transkei; she was used to croissant sandwiches at Café Bardelli in Cape Town served by women about to launch modeling careers.

“The manager of Coffee Bay’s youth hostel will meet us here,” said the driver, also not moving from his seat.

“Here?” Margot asked.  “On the highway?”  She twisted around, looking out the windows.


Margot took a deep breath, preparing to exit the bus and look around.  Another woman, Central European, would be getting off to go to Port St. Johns a bit further north.  She hesitantly joined Margot in checking out the surroundings.  Together, they stepped onto the edge of the highway.

Xhosa children and an old woman immediately approached the two women, asking for money.  They didn’t understand the language, but a rampant clicking of tongues escaped Xhosa lips:  the sound of bottle tops popping off.  A click, click, ng, nd.  The old woman’s face was painted white.  Hands stretched out to the white women like they had something to offer.  A click, click, nt, ny.   

Margot looked at the Central European woman.  There was panic in the woman’s eyes.  “Is this what you expected?” Margot asked.

“No.”  The woman smiled weakly but bravely, too.

People had warned Margot about traveling alone.  She was a woman; she was white.  She hadn’t listened.  Turning her head, she looked off into the rolling green hills.

Once, when we were already relationship-enmeshed, when my life in Cape Town was more than a big vacation, you were in the backyard, minding the ubiquitous braai fire. 

Those crazy braais!  The BBQ times one hundred!  An impossible amount of red meat! 

In my case, the braai involved Afrikaners drinking beer and lapsing into Afrikaans. 

Your mom and sister were visiting, and I was helping them in the kitchen.  “What are you making?” I asked your mom.

Vetkoek.”  She was rolling dough before frying it.  “Do you know where the word vetkoek comes from?”

“Nope,” I admitted.

Vet is ‘fat’ and koek is ‘fanny’ or ‘cake,’” she explained.  “’Fat fanny’ or ‘fat cake.’”

Your sister handed me one:  bready, fried, good—something to eat at a state fair.

Imagine, a fat cake that causes a fat fanny!  “That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard,” I laughed.  The two women nervously giggled.

I went to find you, knowing you were getting excited about all the red meat you’d soon consume.  When I found you prodding the fire, I danced around breathlessly.  “I just heard the cutest word, Ben:  vetkoek.  Fat fanny.”  I slapped you on the butt.  “Watch your koek!”

You abruptly stopped playing with fire.  “That’s not your koek, Margot.   You pointed between my legs.  That’s your koek.”

Horror traipsed over my features.  “What does ‘fanny’ mean?”

You searched for the words, settling on some.  “Female genitalia.”
             I blushed.  “No!  You’re kidding!  It’s a cute word for
butt or bum back home.”  I was stung. “Your mom and sister didn’t tell me.”

"They probably didn't want to embarrass you."

None of us really understood each other.

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