When the seriously-pierced British guy picked Margot up on the highway to take her to Coffee Bay, she asked him, “Do you remember another Brit with a buzzcut who came by here a few months ago?" The one with The Thousand and One Nights? she thought. "He told me to come here.”
Lee, the seriously-pierced British guy, looked her over: another American/European/Canadian girl on the run, probably from love or student loans. He furrowed his eyebrows. “The diver?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He wasn’t a diver.” Dave was a well-traveled English guy. He read good books and wore turtlenecks.
“Yeah,” Lee nodded. “Worked in Hong Kong. Had short hair, a goatee.”
It was Dave. A diver? They had been campfire confidantes for about a week. They had seen giraffe together! Rhino! Dung beetle! What else didn’t she know about him?
She stared at Lee, punk rock émigré: sick fascination with the deviant.
About Dave, she said, “Spend a week with someone and think you know him.”
About the clay on the Xhosa faces, he said, “It’s calamine lotion nowadays.”
“So, is it true that everyone smokes pot in the Transkei?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s true.” He peered over, holding onto the steering wheel. “You smoke?”
“Have you tried it?”
“For four years,” she lied. “Straight,” she added. She had no idea why she said this.
You approached outings with my foreign friends with dread—even if you liked them.
You liked Michelle and Don, two Americans from Jersey. They invited us to their Woodstock rental, and we ate humus, French bread, and grapes. It comforted me: the lack of meat, the presence of chickpeas, their accents. We told silly stories, like the time Michelle was in high school and she and her friends ditched class, dressed up someone’s senile grandmother like a cheerleader, put her in the middle of the front seat of the car, and drove to a drive-thru liquor store where they bought booze without IDs. No one carded them with the senile grandmother dressed up like a cheerleader in the front seat.
“That couldn’t have happened,” you later said.
“Sure, it could’ve.”
You were suspicious. “You guys always tell these crazy stories.”
“But, Ben, postal workers really do go bonkers and try to knock off entire small towns.” I looked at you. “What do South Africans talk about?”
“We shoot the shit.”
“Well, we do, too. That’s what we were doing.”
“In your world,” you said with a straight face, “nonsense happens.”
To get to the hostel, Margot and Lee needed to cross a running river on foot. Lee took her backpack, and a stoned guy in a sarong held her daypack.
They crossed the river, their legs wet: girl on hostel lawn holding puppy.
They entered the house, their arms full: guy at table rolling joint.
The Coffee Bay hostel looked like a frat house. The puppy had issues with that carpet. Another guy sat on the couch, staring at his lap, sucking on a joint.
Following the grand tour, which included a main house and several “cottages” in back, Margot went to the store, a ramshackle, dusty-shelved shop, where she bought bread, peanut butter, water, and fruit cocktail. She hated fruit cocktail.
Back at the hostel, she talked to a few people.
But she was scared; she wanted to be alone. If she left this town, she’d be the only white person within miles. If she stayed, she’d be the only one not stoned. Escaping into her dirty bedroom to write in her journal, she realized some things: she wasn’t adventurous like Diver Dave; she wanted Cape Town and the model crowd.
Even worse, it occurred to her that she was a hypocrite, a pretender, a poser: She liked the idea of being a free-spirited, tie-dye garbed, wild woman at home among indigenous peoples—but, in reality, she liked it when beautiful black men adorned her white world. The Transkei, with its bruised history, frightened her. Suddenly, despite her professed ideals, she yearned for the First or Second World in which people campaigned against drug abuse with pat-phrases like Just Say No.
“I want my MTV,” she wrote in her journal.
I’ve been in love with soulful men before, Ben. Men with whom conversation eventually ceases because they don’t feel like talking about the things of this world, relationships in which paying bills seems silly when questions like Is There A God? are still being asked. I’ve had this before, and you, you, with whom I almost fell in love, were not a soulful man.
You were so utterly grounded in this world—ready to jump down the throats of those around you in heated conversations about Apartheid, South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and paying taxes. You were so utterly grounded in this world, this world where schoolgirls eat meat pies and schoolboys wear socks pulled up to their knees.
“You’re very witty,” you said to me the first time I went back to your place. You put your hand on my thigh.
“So are you.” I looked at your hand. “Do I also radiate intelligence?”
You considered. “Not really.”
“Huh.” I twitched my nose. “Usually, I do.”
When I think about us apart from our politics and everything else, I still smile.
Waking at six a.m., Margot stumbled into the bathroom, wary of a Kermit-sized toad she had seen in the night. No frog appeared, but the backdoor glass had been broken and the kitchen garbage was strewn across the floor. She climbed a hill to watch the yellow sun lift over cold water, stretching its arms through theatrical white clouds. Soft green grass warmed under sunbeams. Ocean foam hit jagged black rocks below.
She contemplated her next move. She could somehow find a way back to Cape Town. She could go on—maybe getting to Port St. Johns, another Transkei town. That’s where the Central European woman had been headed.
The sunlight bathed an emerald coast. Hadn’t she proven she wasn’t a poser? Wasn’t it enough she went without showers, looked like hell, slept in dirty sheets, showered in basins that bred skin disease, ate from dishes that had simply passed under a flow of lukewarm water, carried a backpack across foreign terrain, and even had secrets with strangers who dared to keep vital information from her like their diving histories? Plus, she had practically gotten stoned on secondhand smoke.
Back at the hostel, Mavis, the maid, pushed garbage across a dry floor, her feet bare. Margot sat outside with the potheads, drinking coffee out of dirty cups and talking about pot (where to get it, if it was policed, how the drug dealers stood around like dealers in 1970’s movies, how one guy raked all day when stoned).
She didn’t want to be a person who only wanted beautiful black men punctuating a chic white world. “I’m going on to Port St. Johns today,” she announced to Lee when he came out of his cottage at eleven, stretching and yawning.
He didn’t even flinch. He didn’t ask her to stay or have some pot or anything. “Be ready to go at 12:30.” He was taking two kids into Umtata, a city with mini-taxi depots; he’d take her too. “You can pick up a Combi to Port St. Johns.”
Suddenly, there was a shout from the hostel. “Anyone wanting to go to the Hole in the Wall, come on!” someone shouted from the hostel.
The Hole in the Wall was a bizarre rock formation that sat in the ocean off the coast about a half-hour away from Coffee Bay. Shaped like a croquet wicket, it was the major tourist attraction in the area.
Margot grabbed her camera and jumped into the back of yet another pick-up truck.
It all happened within a matter of seconds.
They were white. And that was the only thing she knew about them.
The guy driving was about thirty, big and beefy. Next to him in the cab was his girlfriend. She wore blue jeans that tightly hugged a puffy abdomen. That abdomen depressed Margot.
A local guy sat with Margot in the back. He looked washed-up, like he’d done too many drugs and he wasn’t even an artist, like he found himself living in the Transkei not out of love for an oppressed people or a damaged country, but because no one bothered him too much when he was in the African backwaters.
The beefy guy kept throwing empty beer cans into the back with them. The grin on Margot’s face froze as she realized everyone was drunk. Beefy, intoxicated and red-faced, sped recklessly around blind turns, along dirt roads. A pair of flip-flops joined the beer-can toss; he had stepped in crap and he didn’t want the cab to stink.
At one point, he stopped the truck and blasted the radio. He called back to the Washed-Up Guy and Margot, “This is Afrikaner music.” It was some kind of techno, hip-hop, rap imitation club music with a distinctly 1980s sound.
It’s shit-for-music, Margot thought.
Then, on a beer run at the local shack/store, Beefy hopped out of the truck and did this arm-and-fist gesture commonly done by grown men at football games—the white boy jive to very bad Afrikaner techno.
“Nice,” Margot said. “It’s good,” she lied. She was becoming quite the liar.
Beefy stood by the vehicle and turned his back to her when Washed-Up Guy went to purchase beer. The girlfriend was still in the cab. Beefy unzipped his pants and proceeded to urinate on the side of the road.
Turning towards Margot again, he put his hand on her ankle and moved it slowly along her calf. “Do you shave all the way up?”
Thank God, Washed-Up Guy returned just then.
In the car, Beefy pretended he was going to hit Xhosa kids walking along the road, dodging them at the last minute. The children fled, scattering like spooked animals. He threw a beer can at them and laughed wildly when they chased after it.
You’re a pig, Margot thought.
They raced up and down hills, and Margot hung onto the truck, beer cans rolling around next to shitty thongs. She prayed he wouldn’t kill any kids.
Meanwhile, Washed-Up Guy said, “The Xhosa are a lousy tribe, unlike the Zulus. The Xhosa don’t want to work; they’re lazy.”
Finally, they made it. Beefy attempted to park perpendicular to a hill; Margot fully expected the truck to tip, tumbling into the sea. They would surely perish on the rocks below.
She jumped out of the truck the first chance she got.
“What’s wrong with you?” Beefy asked.
“I want to live,” she answered.
After he managed to park, they marched down the path to the obviously overrated Hole in the Wall.
Margot trailed behind with the girlfriend. “We met in Namaqualand eight months ago,” the girlfriend explained. Namaqualand was in the Northern Cape Province. Though blanketed in blooming purple, orange, and yellow wildflowers in the spring, at the end of summer it was brown desert. She continued, “At a meat festival.”
A meat festival?
“This is the first time we’ve seen each other since,” she said. “I live in Port Elizabeth; he lives in Cape Town.”
A meat festival must be equivalent to those odd American events at which big trucks roll over little trucks within coliseums containing men with beer bellies and women wearing tank tops sans bras.
Finally, the Hole in the Wall. A rock formation!
“Damn!” exclaimed the girlfriend. “I forgot my camera in the truck.”
She left to retrieve her camera. Washed-Up Guy wandered off. Margot was alone with Beefy.
“So you shave all the way up?” he said.
Margot pretended not to hear.
“You’re crazy for going to Port St. Johns alone, unless you’re into getting raped,” he said.
“Look, I’m dropping her off in Port Elizabeth. I can take you back to Cape Town.”
She pretended to think about it. “Probably not.” She changed the subject. “Your girlfriend tells me you met at a meat festival?”
“Yeah.” He became very excited. “This one night, I got so drunk I passed out in the back of my truck. When I woke up the next morning, there was a body next to me. I reached over to see if there were breasts. There weren’t. I reached down and this guy was harder than me. I shouted, ‘Get the fuck out of my truck!’”
I’m in danger, she thought.
“You should see the crayfish in Mozambique. If you were to lay one on top of your breasts, its tail would curl up between your legs.”
Margot desperately needed to return to Coffee Bay for her ride out of there. After the girlfriend showed up with her camera and took pictures as if she were a National Geographic photographer, Beefy suggested a drink for the road.
By the time they were in the truck, it was noon. This time, she sat in the cab with them. A madman, Beefy whipped through the Transkei, spinning tires and raising dust. Washed-Up Guy stood in the rear and held onto a bar on the roof as if he were surfing, as if he were a dog with the wind blowing back floppy ears.
Beefy, looking over at a frightened Margot, said, “What’s the matter? You a virgin?”
What do you say to a guy like this? Margot thought that, perhaps, if she engaged him in conversation, he’d slow down. “So, are you two in love?”
The poor girlfriend stiffened.
“Just dating right now.” He was shaken.
Margot turned to her. “Well, this oughta make you think.”
With the desired effect, Beefy drove on in silence.
They arrived, alive.
You and Tess didn’t like each other. She found you to be a redneck, a little too “Dutch.” Similarly, you found her obnoxious and American. She couldn’t believe I was dating you, an Afrikaner. You couldn’t believe we were even friends.
Remember when we went to a movie together—Tess, some guy she liked, and the two of us? You insisted we take separate cars.
We went for drinks first: lines were invisibly drawn—girls and boys, foreigners and South Africans, Afrikaners and English. You drank beer; the English South African guy drank wine. You wore a pullover sweater; he wore a dress shirt.
As the theater filled, a friend of theirs met us. He was a black man, and this was another difference—they had black friends.
You got to your feet, scooted over, and beckoned me to move.
“What are you doing?” I asked, slightly dense.
This is what you said: “Making room for the brother.”
Later, I told Tess what you said. She nearly spit her drink out of her mouth, repeating those words,“The brother!”
The truth of the matter was this: despite the archaic language, you were the first one to get up and make sure there were enough seats for the black man to sit with us.
I noticed this. Ben, don’t think I didn’t notice.
Margot journeyed to Umtata and made it to Port St. Johns, named after another shipwreck. She talked to world travelers and Xhosa holy men, read a Tom Robbins paperback in a hammock, and walked on trails through sub-tropical jungles.
When she thought about Beefy, she was ashamed for having jumped into his truck only because he was white.
At the week’s end, she hopped a Greyhound bus in Umtata to return to Cape Town, staggering from Africa.
They stopped at 4:45 a.m. in Swellendam, where she had to switch to a new bus. Margot had been to the town before, and it reminded her—in daylight—of Switzerland. The mountain ranges were towering, luxuriant, and shrouded in thick green vegetation; the architecture was quaint and starkly white. The town looked like a grid of Puritan main streets with a continental tinge. Rising above the sweetness of the streets, South African Alps hovered. The place was so clean it nearly glowed. The townships weren’t even visible, concealed within cliffs; they were put away, like secrets; everything was sterile. This was a Dutch Disneyland, an English shire.
Now, 4:45 a.m., she waited for the transfer to Cape Town. Feeling a little chilly, she sat on a bench outside a hotel on a desolate street. She was nervous and alone, except for a young black woman sitting nearby. This woman, too, had gotten off the Greyhound, probably waiting for a ride or a transfer as well. Together, they had watched the bus drive away, its lights gradually fading.
The streets were empty. In towns this small, no one was out before dawn. The two women looked shyly at each other. They looked at their hands. They looked at the ground. There were a few stark streetlights that hit them like spotlights, and they both seemed to be pretending they weren’t scared.
But it was scary. No one was around. No cars passed. Swellendam was dead. Already, Margot loathed this town for its whiteness, its barrenness before daybreak. She felt for this woman, black the same way Margot had been white in the Transkei.
Margot pulled out a package of lemon cookies she had bought on the road. She looked at the young woman, an outsider in this Swiss South African town. She began to unwrap the cookies, the plastic wrap making disruptive crackling noises in the early morning. Finally, the wafers free, their yellow icing was revealed. Margot looked at the cookies in her hands. She pulled the wrap back and took one in her fingers.
Then she held the package out to the black woman. “Do you want some? Do you want some cookies?” She pushed them into the other woman’s palm.
The black woman accepted them. She nodded kindly at Margot.
Without a word, they ate lemon cookies together before dawn.
Sometimes, I tell anecdotes which reflect poorly on you, on your country.
I don’t know how to talk about the times you drove Patience back to Khayelitsha yourself; I don’t know how to tell people what that meant.
I talk about how beautiful Cape Town is. I say there’s a price to pay for that beauty: internal dissonance, an uneasiness of the soul.
I never asked you if you felt that dissonance, that chaos. Maybe I was afraid to hear what you’d say.
I feel guilty too.
For my assumptions, my labeling, for a lot of things.
This is my confession: you are a South African man and I judged you—judge you. But internal dissonance and uneasiness of the soul are not spots on any map. It’s easy to point a finger at a place on the globe; it’s easy to condemn a regime. But dissonance can be packed, rolled up tightly, stored in a sleeping bag. You can take it with you wherever you go.
Ben, I had it in my backpack the whole time. Like my passport, I never let it out of my sight.
The End of the Rainbow
Great Afro-Americans in History
Excerpts from the Daily Rumpus
Pee Bar(dom) and Bailie
Garin Cycholl William Allegrezza
Before I Was a Savage
Life in Necropolis: Four Letters
Market Is Stumbling but You Don't Have To
The Choice Between Someone & Somebody
The Other Side
Girl in a Suitcase
If It Hasn't Already
Dancing Pink Roses
Feeding the Animals