I am in the back seat of my uncle’s BMW in Constantia Kloof, a wealthy enclave in the hills to the west of Johannesburg. We are idling in front of the gate to the development my cousin lives in. It is hot; the kind of dry, baking heat that reminds you that you are in Africa. In Johannesburg you are never outside; there are sidewalks and parks, but the sidewalks are empty of people, and abutted everywhere with tall security gates and spikes that make you feel like you are walking a prison yard. The parks are where the criminals live. So you are in your car, always, and you are sweating.
The front gate to the development is huge and wrought-iron, enclosed by a long stucco wall with the requisite electric wiring at the top (“It is the new thing,” my aunt told us), and lined by stunted-looking palm trees. On the wall are the words The Malibu, scrolled in more wrought iron.
I have been to Los Angeles twice to visit family, where I drove quickly through the place this development is named after. We knew no one there, and sped along the Pacific Coast Highway, craning in our seats, trying to catch glimpses of beach mansions above fences and hedges. One of them, my brother said, must be where Michael Jackson lives. This must be how a stranger feels standing at the front gate to this place.
At the end of the gate a uniformed security guard sits inside a windowed booth. He pauses only long enough—I think—to catch our skin color, then smiles, waves, and lets us in quickly. There is a mechanical buzz and the gate rumbles sideways with much clanging. I wonder what happens when (now, increasingly) the faces in fancy cars are black.
Inside the gate, the road turns from asphalt to pink stones. There are houses clustered tightly on either side of the road; mostly tan stucco, and sharing security walls. Some of the triangular roofs slope into each other. I feel that I have entered a fortress, with the luxury houses as defense walls.
The road tapers in front of us, winding way up the hill to rooftops and blue sky crowning the summit. At the top we can see a gray house—blocky and modern, sprawling, compared to the other, already-gigantic mansions.
My aunt and uncle drive us back from the airport. They look the same—round, smiling, my aunt in muumuu and matching sandals. As always, they seem inordinately happy to see me; when we hug for the first time there are tears in their eyes. I do not speak to them regularly. When I called to tell them I was coming, my aunt was startled. "Dotty, is that you?" She yelled in Afrikaans. Dotty is my mother’s name.
This is my first visit to South Africa in many years. The last time was for my Grandmother’s funeral, a trip that blossomed from that ceremony to three weeks, and as many away from my junior year of college. My classmates missed me more than they ever had before, and the mystery of what I did on that continent grew, so that I was suddenly popular when I returned. It was revealed that people had read up on the news. "How was the election?" They asked me. "Some real shit Mbeki’s gotten you into now." They said.
I’m sure I look different from when I was nineteen. I have not grown physically, but tempered down. My clothes fit and mostly do not sport names of rock bands on the front. I think that they sigh with relief when they see me.
My aunt and uncle live in a sprawling ranch house just down the hill. They fled there from the colored enclave my family was raised in as soon as they began to call themselves millionaires. In front, there is a plaster fountain, swimming pool, tennis court, and collection of German luxury cars—BMWs, Volkswagens, Audis; all the ones most popular with South Africans—visible from the street. They made their money from a chain grocery store, where my uncle started as a bag boy, my aunt as a cashier, and now they own three stores in Johannesburg.
They fill me in on the extended family during the drive back. We have grown predictably in the past years. My aunts and uncles are unchanged; all are alive, as is my grandfather. But my cousins have sprouted lives of their own—new friends, boyfriends, apartments, degrees, and their daughter the first with a husband. Of her recent life I have heard elements piecemeal from others over the phone, or in sparse, unaccustomed emails.
Natasha’s wedding was in October. Richard bought her a house in Constantia. And a Mini Cooper. She smashed the Toyota. Don’t tell anyone no one knows yet.
How’s the boyfriend?
And the devastating news came from Stacey, my most adventurous cousin living in Arizona. She was the one who told me about the miscarriage.
“But you didn’t hear it from me.” She said.
“Is the wedding still on?” I said. “I mean, now that everyone knows.”
“Of course.” She said. “Because everyone knows.”
Kingsley, my boyfriend, is seated beside me on the backseat. I grab his hand and place my palm on top of his. The underside of his bicep peeks out from the sleeve of his t-shirt, so pale that it almost reflects the sun. I think of my cousin Chad—how his shoulders twist into the muscles of his neck, big as the ropes they use on boats—who started on the rugby team in university, and sleeps with a pistol under his pillow. I smile at Kingsley.
“Hi, babe,” he says.
We live together in New York, even though we are not married, and we are twenty-eight, the cause of much whispering among relatives and headaches for my mother.
"The white part—does not matter as much." My mother had told me. "Of course, it would help them if you would marry."
Kingsley is British, hence the name. We met at college in New England, and like me, he only calls himself a New Yorker.
Being British, he knew some of what he was getting into coming here.
I warned him: in America, crime is a matter of vulnerability—an open window, an unlocked door,
or if you are a single woman living alone; if you are elderly, small. In South Africa, victimhood is as much offense as defense. I told him to be ready. He only smiled, perplexed, unable to imagine such a thing.
I reminded him that he is only second-most hated—Afrikaaners are first. And we are colored, not black.
"Only second-most resentful," I said, and we laughed.
My uncle shuts off the car at the top of the hill. We are in a cul-de-sac in front of the monster grey house and two other Spanish styles. We take our bags out of the trunk. Kingsley and I look at each other before my aunt leads us up the driveway to the grey house.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” My aunt is full of pride.
My uncle struggles with the large suitcase, while Kingsley and I wheel our carry-ons up easily.
“It should be. Cost me a bloody fortune. And a wedding? How much they charge for flowers!”
“Oh, calm yourself.”
Kingsley tries to offer a hand.
“Don’t be silly!” My uncle snaps.
Natasha opens the door for us. She is thinner than I remember; her hair is slicker and darker, and she has a blunt set of black bangs framing her lashes.
"Leonie!" She rushes to embrace me, but her hug is just her fingers barely tracing my shoulder
"I missed you," I say, and she bats her lashes in reply.
“This is Kingsley,” I say.
“Pleased to meet you.”
She extends her hand, brushing the fringe shyly away from her eyes. Her face is the same as it was at seventeen, her skin pale olive and delicate, it is almost translucent; preserved as a limb wrapped in gauze The same face drew stares and whispers before we even knew what they meant.
She was the one that was supposed to have a wild life, full of men and adventure. Instead she has
a Life, of the kind more familiar to our parents—one of pain and love cloistered in wealth and family.
“Daniel will be home soon.” She pinches my arm. “I’m so excited for you to meet him.”
At the end of the foyer is the open space of the great room. The space is two stories high and walled in windows. It has a painted tile floor that leads to a patio, where there is an infinity pool and dramatic views of the Constantia Hills, and Johannesburg, cradled in the valley below.
“Spectacular.” We all stare at Kingsley, who appears genuinely transfixed.
“We only moved in October, so there’s not much furniture,” Natasha offers apologetically. It is then I notice that the room is incongruously decorated. There is a large flat-screen television, and a patio set is the only furniture. The table is set up in the dining area, and half the chairs surround the television.
We hear the front door open. There are footsteps in the foyer, and Daniel appears in the great room.
“Hello!” He is only a head taller than Natasha—less than six feet. A good bit smaller than Kingsley, but heftier. Not muscular, but strong. Not like Kingsley.
He notices him immediately.
“And who are you?” Daniel strides over to Kingsley, swaggering, cocky. He’s stifling a laugh. I
want to run outside and down the hill. Instead I squeeze my boyfriend’s hand.
“I—I” It comes out Oy-oy, echoing all through the big, empty room. His freckles flush, and his lips flutter. There might as well be a lighted arrow flashing over his head.
“Kingsley,” I say, “my boyfriend.” I slip my left arm around Kingsley’s and extend my right to Daniel. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
“You as well,” Daniel smiles sweetly at me, I think he is impressed by my calm, even voice, and one or two other things about me. I know the stories my family tells about me, the pictures they show. They emphasize my intelligence, my quirkiness, but I am more woman than they present me as.
Daniel takes my hand and draws me in for a hug, and we embrace for an uncomfortable amount of time. When he has me in, he gives an extra squeeze. I recoil away, but manage to disguise the look on my face.
My aunt is beaming from the corner.
“It’s so nice,” she exclaims, “that you are all here. Such lovely young people, and all in love!”
“Yes, mom.” Daniel has a shit-bearing grin. He pulls Natasha to him, and gives Kingsley another up-and-down. He reaches one arm around her shoulder and strokes her arm with the tips of his fingers, like a delicate prize.
When she finally tells me herself, we are driving to the mall. We have left Kingsley behind to swim laps in the pool, with the tv remote control, and the phone number to the security booth out front. We are whizzing along a road that runs parallel to a railroad track that is rimmed with red dirt and yellowing foliage.
She says it in the same coy way that she begins every other conversation. She puts her hand on the stick shift, curls the edges of her mouth up, and sings her reply sweetly.
“There were two of them,” she says. “The first, we went to the hospital. We thought that was it.”
“Twins,” I say.
The mouth turns down a bit.
Outside, workers in blue overalls are toiling on the railroads. A few of their companions are reclining in the sun, smartly.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t think I should say anything. I wasn’t supposed to know.”
She takes her eyes off the road and looks down at the wheel for a second, then shifts again and her head picks back up.
“It was difficult,” she says. Her smile returns. “But all is okay now. I love Daniel.”
“You’re happy?” I ask. “He seems…” We have only seen Daniel when he’s come home from work after ten, taken off his shoes at the door, and curled up in his socks in one of the lawn chairs in front of the television. At that point I’ve adjourned to the guest bedroom with a book and Kingsley to the pool. I think of my first embrace with him, sourness setting in around me, before I remember myself. I pick a word like an apple from a stand of rotten produce.
“He seems good.” I say.
“Yes,” she is smiling full now, her eyes totally glossed. She has not noticed my silence. “I am so happy.”
On Thursday, we go out. Daniel returns from work early, so that when we come in from shopping with Natasha he is not in his usual place in front of the tv, but standing over the kitchen island.
“You need to see the sights!” He is smiling; he smacks the granite counter with exclamation, then strides over to the staircase and up to the master bedroom. As we begin to puzzle over him, we hear the door shut and the tap cut on.
Four showers are taken in the two bathrooms, outfits are consulted (both mine and Natasha and Daniel and Kingsley), and makeup is borrowed. The second floor is moist and fragrant with shower steam and perfumes. When we are ready, Natasha and I assemble in the living room for the approval of our partners.
“Good,” Daniel says.
“Very nice. Beautiful.” Kingsley says.
“I wish,” Natasha says, fingering the white cotton of my dress. It is a plain floral thing, with a sweetheart top. “I wish I could wear something like this.” Her hands flutter to her abdomen, where there is the slightest hint of pooch showing under her striped halter top. She smiles at me, then adjusts the straps of her halter and moves on.
“We’ll take the Golf,” Daniel says, grabbing the keys from the island.
Natasha and I clamber into the white compact with bare feet, high heels in hand; I in the passenger’s seat and Natasha in the back with Kingsley. There is no leather in here, only worn gray fabric covering hard seating. I see Natasha gaze longingly over at the shining Mini.
“Why aren’t we taking the Mini Cooper?” I ask the side of Daniel’s head. He faces the back
window, one hand on the wheel, steering us down the hill.
“It’s just better for where we’re going,” he says. I realize we don’t know where we’re going.
“It’s a surprise.” He winks at Natasha, who smiles back.
We are driving down the highway in the direction away from the mall and the downtown Hilton where we drank in the hotel bar. There are no streetlights or manicured islands dividing traffic.
There are no wastebaskets, no expensive cars on the road. The road is black, and it is edged by wood and metal gating. There is a highway sign, telling us where we are going. Sowetot; it screeches in reflective type, with an arrow beckoning us forward. House music thumps on the stereo, but the car is silent, and I know that Kingsley saw it also.
I look over to Daniel, and he is smiling.
“We didn’t want to tell you.” He is looking in the rearview mirror when he says this: “We knew you’d be bang.” Frightened.
“Don’t say that!” I nudge Daniel’s shoulder. I look back at Kingsley, “He doesn’t mean it, honey.” I reach out a hand and touch his knee.
Kingsley smiles, but the look on his face is a mixture of embarrassment, and, yes, fear.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. He stares back at the mirror. “I hear you can get a great beer here. A real one, not like the water you get in the hotels.” He looks out his window. “Dark, like you fished it out of a toilet. And cheap.”
The place we arrive at is a storefront on the first level of an apartment complex. The building is tall and made of concrete, probably built in the eighties. This looks much more like places we have been before around town. There is a colorful painted sign above the door, and the windows are open wide, without screens, and music and laughter spill out to greet us on the sidewalk.
Mama’s, the sign says. We walk inside.
There is a single fan going overhead, the blades half-missing, the ceiling around it waterlogged and looking like it might fall in. There are people at plywood tables around the floor; loud, calling out to others and at the television over the bar, where a rugby game is on. They are mostly young people, and many of them are white. The only difference is that all of the people behind the bar are black—the bartender, a busser wiping the bar, and an important-looking man in a tie surveying the rest.
“Not what you thought it would be, ay?” Daniel calls over the noise, “It’s a lot of young people in Soweto now. It’s the hip place to be. Tourists, even.”
He moves his eyebrows in the direction of a young white man in a striped polo shirt, sitting uncomfortably straight in his chair, sipping a beer daintily, while a bunch of muscular, sunburned men—clearly Afrikaaners—jeer around him. One of them slams his fist on the table, narrowly missing the lone waitress walking by. She is wearing a faded black t-shirt with no bra underneath, so her breasts jiggle as she works across the floor toward us, avoiding beer caps and slicks on the ground and balancing a stack of dirty pint glasses in each hand. She points with her chin to a table near the window with four stools around the outside.
“You know,” Kingsley speaks directly into Daniel’s ear, “Where we live in America, Brooklyn? It’s where all the rappers are from. You know, Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G.?” He stresses the last syllables, so it sounds like Bee-Oy-Gee. “Not so different from here. I’m used to it.”
Daniel raises his eyebrows—maybe. Sure.
At the table the waitress brings us four pints of Castle, the same water we drank at the Hilton, and at the house earlier that week. Kingsley sips it meekly.
“Kingsley…” Daniel announces after some time of near-silence. He is loose after his first beer; he shakes his head and he laughs, “Aish, what a name, hey?”
“I guess so,” Kingsley dismisses, he gazes into his beer. “I’ve never thought much about it.”
I know where this is going, because in college, I witnessed it go there many times. The worst time ended with Kingsley pinned under a scrum of brothers at a fraternity party. I know what kind of man Daniel is; have known since I first saw him. I pray only that we don’t have to change our tickets home.
“What did they call you in school, ay?” Daniel leans forward and Natasha lifts a hand to her mouth, suppressing a giggle. “Did they call you King of the schoolyard? King of Britain? Or when you scored a goal in soccer, did your mates lift you on their shoulders and yell, long live the King!” Daniel pumps his fists in the air at that last part. Then he leans over the table; quieter, he says, “Made you feel big, hey? I bet you liked that, didn’t you?”
“I bet you never had anyone call you King,” Kingsley says cheerily. He sets his glass down and smiles. He looks at his hands. For a moment I think we may escape from this, but then he seems to think twice. He loosens his lips, still considering his knuckles. Then he looks at me with unmistakable apology on his face. He nods in Natasha’s direction, and says softly, under his breath, “Not her at least.”
“What was that?”
“Daniel.” Natasha is saying the same prayer I did, but too late.
Thwack! Daniel slams the table. Natasha jumps. I shriek. Daniel’s glass teeters to the ground, spilling liquid and foam and finally clattering on the soiled linoleum. Daniel is shooting daggers at Kingsley.
“He didn’t mean it.” I grab Kingsley’s shoulder and it is shaking, as are his pupils.
His hair is slightly wild from him raking it through nervously with his fingers. With his sunburn and the alcohol, he is red as a tomato. Kingsley holds his gaze still, his glass still in tact, he raises it to his lips again.
The waitress comes over and collects the glass off the floor. The men don’t look at her.
“He’s sorry.” Natasha leans across the table, staying Kingsley with a soft touch.
The waitress returns, wordlessly, and sets a fresh beer in front of Daniel. The bar doesn’t notice our mini drama. The whole time, the din has continued without interruption.
The men sip the rest of their beers in silence, pretending to be rapt by the rugby game, and staring, with increasing sullenness, at the diminishing foam in their glasses.
The ride back is silent—over the dark highway, up the street. We don’t greet the security guard with our normal small talk and smiles. Daniel climbs the car up the hill and we unload silently, our heels again in our hands.
In bed, Kingsley pulls me across the sheets and into his arms.
“God,” he speaks into my hair, half-asleep. “Do you think he could let her out of his sight for one second?”
“Is that all you’re going to say?”
“I’m sorry.” He pulls me closer. There is a breeze coming through the curtains and we can hear the water lapping in the infinity pool outside.
“It’s just,” he sighs. “He looks at her like a ham, ready to eat her up.”
“But you didn’t have to provoke him like that.”
“Oh, come on.” He puts his face into my hair, and then I feel his teeth on my scalp.
“Ow!” I yell, and shove him away.
“Shhhhh!” He laughs, grabbing my back and rubbing the spot on my head. “You’re going to wake them. That is if they’ve gone to bed yet. He’s probably up trying to prove me wrong!”
He raises his shoulders and we both shake with laughter. I slide my hands up his shirt and take his shoulders in my hands. I climb on top of him and we make love; giddy and free, like children.
Later, after we’ve finished, I rise from bed. Our clothes are lost in blankets and suitcases and plastic bags. I wrap the sheet and try to twist it off of Kingsley without him noticing but before I am off the bed he grumbles.
I feel for the door, and in the hallway the uncurtained window throws a rectangle of light, illuminating the bathroom door. When I come out, I notice the small triangle of blackness before I notice the eyes, before I recognize the breathing that I could mistake for Kingsley snoring in the other room. The door to the master suite is open, and Daniel stands halfway inside the room, halfway out, unashamed as a newborn, his eyes drinking in my naked body.
Saturday is dinner at my aunt and uncle’s. Kingsley spends all day swimming, and Daniel spends the day in front of the television, loud enough so that he doesn’t hear Kingsley’s splashing.
We made the climb down the hill this time in the Mini Cooper, Natasha with a collapsed chocolate cake in her hand that she spent all day tending to, chopping pieces off to test, and gluing back together with icing.
“It is delicious,” Daniel declares with a mouthful of cake, and then kisses her cheek.
I’ve tried to tell her about Daniel for the past two days.
“You have to,” Kingsley was alarmed, “The man’s a fucking danger. We can all see that.”
But when I try with Natasha, when I say his name, her eyes just unfocus and she changes the subject.
“Just stay away from him, please,” Kingsley says. “Just don’t be in the same place with him alone.
And definitely not with no clothes on.”
Dinner is curry—chicken and lamb, with rice, samosas to start, and a tiny bit of mayo-drenched salad.
“Just for you,” my aunt says, setting the bowl down in front of the two visitors. The rest of their plates are piled with brown, Natasha’s with a lone drumstick and some grains of rice.
“You’re not eating again,” my uncle says, after watching her push it around for minutes. She leans her head on her right hand, sighs, and then smiles.
After dinner, we are having tea and biscuits in the lounge when the lights cut off.
“Dammit!,” my uncle curses.
"Sorry, love.” He looks directly at my and Kingsley’s direction, addresses us like schoolchildren,
“You know, these Blacks aren’t worth a damn. Can’t even keep the lights on.”
We have heard complaints of the blackouts since we arrived. They are the result of an increased population—refugees from Zimbabwe and Mozambique—and an increasingly powerless government. Blacks. I am glad it is dark, so I don’t have to see Kingsley’s expression.
After an hour of searching, Daniel and my uncle finally emerge with floodlights and candles.
“He knows this place better than you,” my aunt says to my uncle.
“He’s my boy, that’s why.” He beams at his son-in-law.
But by now it is ten-o’clock, and they are only in time to light the path down the driveway to the car. We can hear the storm in the distance that cut out the power, and we need to make it home before it turns to rain.
We load into the car. My uncle has to wheel the gate open by hand and close it behind us.
“Are you sure you don’t need help?” Kingsley offers out the car window.
“Nonsense,” my uncle says, “I must do this all the time. The damn Blacks.”
I am the first to see him. We roll toward the intersection, where the traffic light is out. Lightning flashes, and I see him in snatches—a head peeking from the grass. The body springing toward us, object in hand.
“Wha—“ I gasp, unsure of what I am seeing. But then he is rushing towards us.
Natasha shrieks and grabs the wheel, and the car darts into the center lane and accelerates. We are not quick enough, though, and the brick hits Natasha’s window and cracks the glass. Through the splintered glass, I see a fractured figure darting away.
“Hold on!” Daniel darts the car in a circle, and into the grass where the man stood a second ago.
“Dan!” Natasha cries, her hands covering her face.
What the fuck are you doing??” Kingsley grabs Daniel’s headrest and shakes it. I pull him away.
The car screeches to a stop.
“Dan,” Natasha reaches around his shoulders and pulls his head into her arms. He collapses into her arms and his body heaves, sobbing.
We decide not to go to the police.
“All the fuckers’ll do is waste our bloody time.” Daniel is nursing a beer, staring bitterly at the pool outside. “Better to just forget it.”
Natasha is sitting on the edge of the pool with her feet in the water. The city beneath is glittery. The pool is dark, reflecting the moonlight.
She pushes me into the pool, and between the water swishing around me I can her her giggle, then another splash. I gain my footing, push off the bottom and float to the surface. Natasha is inches from me.
"The water is lekker, hey?" she says.
"You should’ve seen your fucking face." Daniel is at the edge of the pool with his legs in now. His shirt is off, and there are more clothes strewn all around him. Natasha's.
"He's bathing," he says. He sets his beer down. "Fucking faggot."
"Let's play a game." Natasha's eyes are wide, glistening, like the water, like the valley.
"I need to catch my breath." I look at Daniel. "She scared me."
"This is how the game goes," Natasha steadies herself on my shoulder.
“I close my eyes and count to three, and then I find you.” Before I can answer Natasha dives back
under the water and surfaces on the other side of the pool. “Simple enough? I’ll even go first.”
Daniel smirks at us.
“Ok,” I say tentatively.
“Dan are you going to play?” Natasha asks.
“No,” he says flatly, “I’ll just watch.”
Natasha swims to the stairs at the far end of the pool and hovers there. It’s not hard to hear her movements, which I guess is the point of this game—to be the quietest. I am exhausted and want to go inside, but I know it will be easier to play along than to protest. I keep my hands over my eyes, to show them that I’m not cheating.
When it is my turn I am tired from my clothes weighing me down. I paddle, quietly as I can, over to the shallow end, where I edge myself as close to the corner as I can, my face to the wall. I hold my breath and dunk my head.
After some seconds I feel a hand on my shoulder and I push up to the surface and turn around. It is Daniel.
“Caught.” He is smiling. His look is intense, hungry. I remember it.
“Caught.” Natasha’s hand, smaller, smooth, on my other shoulder. I turn around.
“Where is Kingsley? Ki—“
“We told you,” Daniel kneads my shoulder with his fingers. “He’s in the bath.” The fingers spread
to my collarbone.
“Shhh.” Natasha brings two fingers to my lips, and I can feel her breath on me. Even in those
innocent times when we were children, she has never been this close to me. “He’ll come out when he’s ready. And then we’ll have fun.”
“Kingsley!” I scream, but there is no response, just the sound of water. The rush of pipes upstairs, and the water falling from one ledge of the pool to the other.
Then I feel a touch just below my abdomen, south of the waistband on my shorts. Something brushes the skin just there. It is fleeting. How can something so light be so sinister? It could just be a current from a jet, or my t-shirt billowing in the water. But I look in her eyes and I am sure.
For the first time since I arrived, she looks sure.