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 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 realised he was something of a legend on that campus. He hung out with a posse of impossibly beautiful black girls. Rich, skinny girls with flawless skin and expensive sneakers and straight, white teeth. I’d watch him with them – the easy way they touched him like he wasn’t Jesus, 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 an 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.
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 notebooks 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 under his breath.
Everything was happening, 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 made 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 of the car 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.