The Things That Happened Here

The morning light dances across his face, celebrating as if just discovering itself in the corners of his sleepy morning smile. Naome strokes the scruff of his beard, turning his head towards her, but his eyes are fixed on the azure of the ocean. He points to a speck of white in the distance. “Look at that—wonder what that is?” he asks, avoiding the wedge between them.

“A ship. A bird. A yacht.” Naome replies hastily, pressing her lips against his. He kisses her tentatively but squeezes her hand tautly. She pulls him closer, but his mouth will not move and so she yields, entangled painfully in his arms, in the mire of a million things she wishes she had said and done instead of waiting for the right moment or the right feeling, whatever that means now.

Her thoughts trail to the first night they were introduced in the icy corridors of the University’s administration building; surrounded by the pulse of heaving, sweaty bodies and flailing, embracing arms enamoured by the sameness of suffering. “Black pain,” they would later call it. The two sat in a quiet corner, grand paintings of old white men brooding over them, cautioning that love is not allowed in the place where numbers are calculated, plans are formulated and reason is never up for debate. She was decidedly reserved and he decidedly self-assured, leaning close to her as they spoke about where they were born, joking about how they would be killed if the police ever came. Hours passed and their pasts, sprawling the years between them, the continents and countries they could have met but never did, mingled in a way that seemed impossible, almost like fate.

But now, sitting across from the ocean and saying goodbye, reality sinks like feet in swampy grass too quickly overgrown. They had too quickly overgrown.

“I landed myself a wild one,” he whispers. Naome throws her head back and laughs furiously—happy that he thinks of her as his, that he spoke in the present tense, but enraged that she had left it up to him to decide who she is to him. She unhooks her fingers from his and parts her lips to speak but the train-like hiss of waves leaves her breathless. Her eyes widen in terror, and she squeezes her stomach, unsettled by the thought of leaving everything behind.

“Hey,” he says sheepishly. The same way he had said they could still be “something.” Somewhere in-between they had agreed they would be friends. She had announced he could come to her for anything, to call her if he had any problems, with women, with himself, with men, she had said teasingly. She liked the idea of herself as a friend; of never having to face that she could and should have been more, of how wrong it all was. She liked the idea of knowing that she could and still did care for him even if it would never be enough. It was easy for her, liking from a distance, loving from a distance. Secretly, it was what she had wanted all along. That when his phone rang and he never answered she felt relieved, or when he made promises and plans he could not keep she felt unburdened, and even when he announced her name—the woman whose easiness and relaxer-advert hair had both consumed and eluded her thoughts—she was overcome with a manic, rapturous pleasure. But now she lurched in what it all meant, really meant.

Bodies trickle onto the platform, skin melting in the near-midday heat and old, limp coats peeling away sadly. It is supposed to be winter in Cape Town but the city, with all its history and lack of memory, is notorious for its vacillating winds and indecisive sun. Naome smiles as she watches a little girl tug her mother’s arms, singing and dancing, refusing to let go. Children, they would have children and be married. Her smile fills with sorrow. Was there anything that was not going to remind her of this? Would she look at what had been accomplished one day and feel only the solemnness of this goodbye? Could she celebrate knowing what happened here? Maybe she would come to love him from afar, and see that in a time of suffering love meant sacrifice. In a time of suffering love was true love.

“This is it,” he says. The metro-train stutters and coughs to a halt. He walks her to the yellow line, and pulls the doors open, his back bulging under the weight of letting her go; of all the things he wanted to do but could not, had done but had never wanted to. They lean towards each other for one final, uncertain kiss. She says bye and not goodbye for she is filled with regret. “Okay, cheers, and bye!” he agrees sharply. He is happy for her to go—even worse, indifferent. Still she hopes that he, like her, is avoiding the dull bite of repentance with a shallow, painless goodbye. She sits in the train and considers nothing and everything. She wonders—selfishly, carelessly, sweetly—if what happened here could be undone, could happen again, or if it might be the start of something new.

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