A Moment

The first time I saw him he was standing on Jammie steps with his back to me, broad against the sunlight. He was dressed like Jim Morrisson, a rider on the storm, in a white pirate shirt and a series of leather necklaces. He laughed, and shook out his hair – lustrous long, brown curls that fell well past his angular shoulders. He was rangy in the way only 22-year-old men can be, and it took me some time before I realized he was something of a legend on that campus. He hung out with a posse of impossibly beautiful black girls. Skinny girls with flawless skin and ripped jeans and white teeth. I’d watch him with them – the easy way they touched him like he wasn’t Jesus at all. Just some guy studying anthropology.

I found out his name was Ben, and that he was foreign and a member of the Mountain club. And someone told me where he lived and after a while I got a vague sense of his routines so that I knew, more or less, when he’d come sauntering by in his faded jeans and 6 foot 2-ness. And then he’d be gone again, somewhere else, and I was not cool at all nor pretty enough to compensate for my lack of street cred and there was no reason in the world why a guy like him would ever even think of a girl like me. And I didn’t question the order of the world for a second. Even though it seemed like that same order was about to change in a big way. Because, all around us, things were starting to give. In the words of Chinua Achebe, the centre could no longer hold; things were beginning to fall apart.

Sitting in my psychology class one morning beside a rich Indian girl who wore a different pair of Levis every day (you couldn’t buy them in South Africa due to sanctions against us so you had to go to London or send a friend) and behind a black guy in his thirties who worked the night shift as a petrol attendant and came straight to class in the morning, still wearing his uniform, suddenly we heard a noise and loud voices coming closer. My lecturer stopped lecturing and listened, looking worried. Then, without saying a word, went over to the door of the lecture hall, closed it and locked it. The air went buzzy with anticipation.

We all sat very still. The noise increased – it was chanting, and things were being broken. It was the early nineties and the country, so long in apartheid’s stranglehold, was starting to break itself free. A crowd of people appeared. They held pangas and they danced. They smashed windows and kicked in doors. They set parked cars alight. We watched them out the window. Nobody spoke. The riot passed, and the noise died down. Still we waited. Silence. The door was unlocked, and we packed up our notes and left the building, the affected boredom we normally took such joy in practicing replaced by a sense of fearful anticipation. We walked past the rows of police vehicles, glancing nervously at the smouldering fires. A policeman waved us along, muttering ‘commie bastards’ under his breath.

Everything was happening, and yet nothing was happening. We sat up late at night writing overdue papers and lived on popcorn and toast. I struggled to pass Stats. I flew through my English exams. I lugged The Riverside Chaucer up and down steep hills, found out I was a feminist and used the word ‘existential’ as often as I could. It was Cape Town, it was summer and there were parties to go to. And then, one night, there he was. It was a social at the Baxter, and we arrived late after most people had already left. The guy I was with knew him, and before I could even gather myself, he was introducing us and Ben was shaking my hand and smiling and saying hello.

And then, as if on cue, the opening bars of one of my all-time favourite songs, Juluka’s December African Rain started playing. And even then it was an old song, but there is some kind of magic in that music – the drums and the deep voices that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself, and how this Jewish boy from Joburg loved Zulus so much he became one, and back in those days, that was quite a thing. And by doing that, making that stand, he freed us more than we understood at the time. It was almost like everything we had not been allowed to love about Africa was being given back to us. Through his music we became impis; we were warriors; we were children of the land, united against a system so barbaric it make us sick to our stomachs. We were the new generation, and freedom was on its way.

I smiled at him and he smiled at me and we started dancing, me, my friends, the beautiful black girls, and him. And then the party was over, so we left to go somewhere else. He got in the front seat and I sat in the back, behind him, my mind reeling at his proximity to me, that he was really right here in the flesh, so impossibly close. And then, as we sped through the dark city streets, young people looking to have fun, the impossible happened. I felt his hand reach behind the seat and look for mine, find it, and enclose it in his long, brown fingers.

And I was so young and naive and taken aback by this gesture, what did I do? I giggled and pulled my hand away. I pulled my hand away. And then I sat in the darkness of the car feeling the heat creep up into my face; thinking, you idiot! You idiot! What did you do that for? And I prayed to the god of stupid young girls that he would just give me second chance. Just reach for my hand again. This time, I promise I won’t pull away. Because I have been in love with you for three years and never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine you’d even give me the time of day. And I didn’t mean it, I didn’t! I was just taken by surprise. And as we drove on and the seconds ticked by, he sat very still, looking ahead of him – nobody else in the car even aware of this monumental thing that had just failed to happen. And with every streetlight we passed I knew with increasing certainly that I had missed my moment.

We never spoke again after that night. He’d give me a vague hello when we passed each other in the halls, and then I saw him less and less as he moved to another compass. His flat used to be on Rondebosch Main Road, just as you came off the freeway, its big windows facing the flyover. I drive past it once in a while when I’m going that way and I still think of him and that one night and how he’ll never know.

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34 thoughts on “A Moment

  1. Incredible, intense, magical stuff. This is really fantastic writing Susan, wowsers! I know the road and the place where it connects to the highway, and I was in Cape Town in 93, 94, 95. That was an unforgettable period in the Mother City. I was often at Lloyds in Rondebosch on a Sunday night, dancing to Juluka and Evoid, incredible time to be alive :-)

  2. Was that Ben Dekker ? or another tall Ben with long hair .. Dekker was around more in the early seventies ..when I was at UCT .. Ben dropped out ..lives on the Wild Coast..the quintessential ( I use this like you use existential and have read all of Camus ..) hippy.. must be later ..there no beautiful black girls at UCT then

  3. Ben Dekker in his 40’s or 50’s in the early nineties. His generation allowed to be a little smellier than later generations, and also tended to make sexist assumptions about girls being available. Taking your mates ‘girlfriends hand through the car seats , while the mate is driving – quite an assumption , but ha ! Viva the risque viva!

  4. You write such amazing stuff. Love reading your blogs. Always goosebumps…… From me, now in the UK but ex Joburg and Pretoria.

  5. Funny how life goes sometimes. Who knows where it would have taken you had you not pulled your hand away? Possible the same route – with a little detour.

  6. I always think of that movie ‘sliding doors’ with Gweneth Paltrow…. Maybe there is a parallel universe out there… Depending on which path we take… Guess we will never know.

    Enjoy the memories!
    Keep writing- you are awesome :)

  7. AWESOME writing…as a male I know that moment so well…this is truly a sad and at the same time a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing and bring so many memories of Uni days flooding back.

  8. I thought about the poignancy of that hand-holding moment all night. Lived it again with you. Heart pounding in terrified anticipation and then the crushing moment of triumph, almost, as you let his go. Who knows why? Maybe the gods of silly girls everywhere looked down and decided to spare you the pain of a shattered heart. A shattered heart inevitable, as he would reach behind in the dark and his brown fingers would have curled around many other willing hands because that is what the enigmatic, unreachable Bens of this world were born for, just the chase, leaving your shattered heart that not even Tori Amos would have been able to help you mend. Your head is still high my friend, your heart is intact and you lived to love again! Thank you for a beautiful post. xxx

  9. Your post allowed me to relive all my missed moments as an insecure girl with no idea how to handle male attention. There are so many opportunities that pass us by because we are not yet ready. But without those missed moments we would probably not arrive at the opportunities we seize once we have grown up a little. I can’t help but feel those missed moments shape our reality. I love your posts- keep them coming!

  10. I loved your post. It was dreamy, beautiful and full of nostagia and energy. I had a ‘Ben’ at university too. He had handmade bellbottoms, rollerblades in his old fashioned fishing rucksack, he was always smiling and he was beautiful. I called him my golden boy with the sky in his eyes. I seized the ‘moment’ you wrote about about and it was first love heaven. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. But he was a charmer and it ended in heartbreak some time later, and I feel like he bewitched me for life. I am happily married but still dream about him fifteen years later. That said; we regret more the things we didn’t do than the things we did do. I’m glad you had that dance and brief moment of chemistry with your bohemian Ben <3 Thank you for sharing your musings. Love from a fan.

  11. And your post made me think of this quote that I loved from around the same time:
    ‘It was a dream, not a nightmare, a beautiful dream I could never imagine in a thousand nods. There was a girl next to me who wasn’t beautiful until she smiled and I felt that smile come at me in heat waves following, soaking through my body and out my finger tips in shafts of color and I knew somewhere in the world, somewhere, that there was love for me.’
    ― Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries

  12. i really love reading your blog – in fact it’s the only one i follow.
    sometimes it feels like you’re writing about my life, putting all those moments past and present into magical words.
    thank you, dankie, nkosi, and merci :-))

    1. Ah, friend! You get the awesome comment prize of the day, and it’s people like you who give me strength to face the tokoloshes when they appear with their mad ranting. Thank you for these words, you made my morning :-)

  13. Great storytelling! Can you tell me more about what December African Rain means? Who is he talking to when he says “And though I love you I somehow know this is going to be the end / I never knew whom I could love more — you or the land” etc… ? I am struggling with the context! Thank you!!!

  14. I also had a “Ben”, when I was in high school, in standard 6. A boy I had a huge crush on was waiting for me in our classroom after assembly one morning. We were alone and he tried to kiss me. His face came so close I could swear our noses touched, but I was so nervous that the other kids would come in and see us that I pulled away, whispering, “not now”.

    Not now. Not ever, as it turns out. I never got that moment back even though I tried to. Unlike you, I chucked my dignity out the window and practically stalked him until we matriculated. Unsurprisingly any feelings he may have had for me evaporated, but it was like I couldn’t stop myself.

    I’ve been happily married for more than 10 years but I still dream about him sometimes. Can’t seem to get him out of my system.

    1. “Ben’ yes I had one. The crush started at the end of primary school, he was Italian, with the looks that went with it and I stalked him surreptitiously into my early teens until my parents decided boarding school in Ireland would be safer than boarding school in Rhodesia (Southern). All the girls wanted to be his girlfriend. Anyway, I came home for one last Christmas – I was 16 (before my parents returned to Ireland themselves). My ‘best’ friend was meant to get me a ticket to the annual New Year’s Eve party at a local club where everyone hug out. Apparently she couldn’t get one for me as they were all ‘sold out’. this proved not to be the case and I acquired said ticket. On the night in question my ‘Ben’ was there and my best friend was making a play for him. I assumed that as I was skinny and lacking in any curves I didn’t stand a chance. Come midnight though to my astonishment he came looking for me. I could barely breathe when I realised he intended to kiss me. The world stopped, I was oblivious of anything else except that kiss – he was a very good kisser. That memory that goes back 38 years. I’m happily married too but I still remember him. He now lives in Australia with his second wife.

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