Before Amir and Luke, there is Luke and myself and we are leaning against the wall of an apartment block in the middle of the city and it is midnight and we are tearing ourselves apart from each other, gently, politely, with words.
Tonight was different – we hugged before the movie but he wasn’t close while we watched it; when our arms touched, he shifted his arm away: not bitchily – it was almost subconscious.
My heart stammered when I felt this, but it’s a relief, too, to see him so accepting. This us – which we never defined, which I was too scared to (he wasn’t scared – just polite) – whatever it was, now it is over.
Words. He says he hates them sometimes – they’re so inadequate, only stabs at meaning, they can’t always convey – articulate – especially this sort of thing. Goodness knows I’ve tried – and he, the wordsmith, has tried to help me.
But our words, fragile and elusive as they are, have served their purpose: the next time we meet there’ll be no kissing, no night spent in the same bed. We’ll just be friends. It’s what I want; it’s what I told him on the phone last night.
And it’s what he accepts.
He had dived into this – into us? – in a way I couldn’t. His clarity scared me. I almost envied it. Because the more time we spent together, the murkier I felt – what did I want? I wasn’t in love with him. I felt something, but it wasn’t enough. And surely we both deserve something more than that?
When we hug goodbye, I hold onto him until he wriggles away and grins. Maybe there’s a flash when I want to hold him longer, when I want to kiss him.
But we don’t kiss.
Instead he returns to his apartment and I climb into my car.
In 2009, Luke was still a journalist. That’s how he met Amir. He was writing about the growth of the official opposition, for Timemagazine. Amir had just been elected a Member of Parliament in the general elections, shunning the ruling party (his uncle had served in Mandela’s cabinet). The article referred to Amir’s Rhodes scholarship and his work drafting the official opposition’s economics policy. It also mentioned he was gay.
“You outed him?” I said to Luke when I saw the story.
“It’s what he wanted.”
“But his parents – you say they’re really devout.”
Luke just nodded.
The wedding invitation arrived in the post a week ago. There’s no mention of parents. When I meet Luke for a drink after work, I ask him how they’re doing.
“OK,” he says. “We went up to see them last month. They love Amir.”
“It’s like they’re pretend he’s just a work colleague I’ve brought home.”
“At least they’ve met him.”
I’ve never been able to imagine bringing home a boy. My parents would’ve kicked us both out.
But then Amir Khan is not a boy. He’s a thirty-five-year-old MP with a glow-in-the-dark smile. That surely counts for something.
“Are they coming to the wedding?”
“Course not. We didn’t invite them.”
“My mom burst into tears when I told her I was engaged. At first she thought I’d suddenly fallen in love with a girl. And then when I explained I was marrying Amir, she just carried on sobbing, pleading, saying it was a sin.”
Amir’s parents aren’t at the wedding either, of course. The ceremony is on Noordhoek beach as the sun sets. There are about fifty people. Apparently Top Billingwanted to film it and Huisgenootmagazine offered fifty grand to take pictures. The golden couple refused.
The reception is at a guesthouse on a horse farm near the beach. There’s a fire crackling and a string quartet and a white cake topped excruciatingly with two toy men in tuxedos.
I drank too much that night. Everyone did. But when you’re single and at a wedding it’s the only way.
There are speeches. Luke’s brother is his best man. He tells the gathering about the hiding he gave Luke when he caught him wearing his sister’s ballet tutu.
“I was pissed off, ‘cause secretly I wanted to wear it.”
Amir and Luke sit in the centre of the top table, their smiles wider than watermelon slices. They hold hands; light from the lamps overhead glints off their rings.
Later, when some of the guests have gone and people are chatting in the sitting room with cups of coffee and brandy glasses, I head for the toilet. On my way out, I hear a sniffling – it’s coming from behind a partly closed door. I push it open.
It’s a library – old leather-bound books stacked on shelves up to the ceiling. At a desk, an anglepoise provides the only light. And leaning forwards, on the sofa, is Luke.
“What’s up?” I ask.
He looks at me through his tears.
I sit down next to him.
“I miss my mom and dad. I wish they were here.” When we kiss, only our lips touch. Luke pushes me away immediately and says, “James.” He grips my arm. “I’m married now. What you doing?”
“You were crying. I’m sorry. I’m –”
I don’t finish. He lets go of my arm and I shift further away.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be crying. At least my folks still talk to me.” He turns to me. “You know Amir’s mom hasn’t said a word to him since that article?”
I’m surprised I remember all this as I lie back. Thabo’s arm is resting on my chest. He snorts a little, like someone’s tickling his nose with a feather. I feel dirty. The romantic – the one waiting for the One – getting a blow job from Amir’s chief-of-staff. Nice one.
He’s awake, up on his haunches, grinning: “Hi.”
I lean forward and kiss him; he tastes of last night’s whisky and stale smoke. I let go as his hand comes down under the bed and finds me.
He lets go.
In the shower, I try to piece together the shards of memory – Thabo in the corner, an iPod in a docking station, people dancing sheepishly, him starting to leave, the way I pulled him by his tie. We kissed outside first. It was drizzling; frogs croaked: hidden observers.
Amir and Luke kayaked on Lake Malawi for their honeymoon. They stopped in Joburg on the way up but didn’t visit Luke’s parents.
“How’s married life?” I ask Amir when I bump into him a month after they’ve got back. We’re at the same architecture symposium in Durban. It’s after dinner at the Oyster Box Hotel. I come outside and find him smoking.
He smiles. “Blissful as hell.”
“Should’ve caught him while you had the chance, James. Not that I’m complaining.” He takes a sip of whisky, leans forward to light my cigarette; the flame lights his face, makes his brown eyes glow.
“Does Luke know you smoke?”
Amir inhales again deeply.
“What do you think?”
Afterwards, he leans back against the pillows. He has found the cigarette box; he pulls one out and lights it, blowing smoke into the air.
His whisky is on the floor; he put it down there before we started kissing. I take a sip of it now – it tastes harsh, the ice has melted – there is nothing to soften its fierce coursing.
“I bunked the afternoon session today.”
His fingers absently fiddle with my pubic hair.
“I visited my parents in Maritzburg.”
I gently disentangle his hand.
“I thought they didn’t talk to you.”
He stabs the tip against a saucer. It’s a wonder the smoke alarm hasn’t gone off. He leans forward, grabs the whisky from me, gulps it all down.
“I sat in the car outside the house for an hour. I saw my mom come out and drive away.” He’s biting his lip. “She still looks the same.”
I push myself up, lean against the bedstead. “Why did you agree to it? The article, I mean.”
He doesn’t answer. I wonder if he’s ignoring me. Or maybe I only thought the question. But then he takes my hand, squeezes it.
“I couldn’t hide anymore. I had to be me.”
About a year after the wedding Amir and Luke get dogs – a pair of Alsatian puppies.
I’m invited round to their house, just below the freeway slicing between suburb and the forest, and I’m told to come early – we’re going to take the dogs for a walk.
When I arrived Luke hugged me, showed me Jack and Jill play fighting in the kitchen. A ragged slipper lay on a sheepskin mat. The live-in domestic came through, smiling wearily.
“Am?” called Luke. There was no answer so he walked through the dining room to the back of the house. He returned frowning. “He’s working,” he sighed. “Says we should go without him.”
He crouched down in front of the oven, peered in at the joint slowly roasting.
We’re standing in a clearing, the pines packed densely behind us. As the day bleeds away from the sky, the city’s lights brighten below.
“How are things going with Amir?” I ask.
“Well, I guess. Work’s keeping us both busy. I just got back from Nigeria; we’re building a new refinery there.”
“Saro-Wiwa must be spinning in his grave.”
He punches me lightly. “Everyone’s much better behaved there now.”
The dogs are racing down the gravel track which leads towards the Block House.
Luke whistles and for a moment the dogs stop and turn round, before running on. He chases them. “Jack, Jill!” He turns to me, snaps: “Come on, they’re only babies.”
We jog down the hill to where the road curves upwards. They’ve stopped; they’re sniffing at wet leaves.
He clips a lead on Jack; I do the same with Jill
“Bad pups!” He stands up. “Let’s go; we’re going to lose the light.”
The air whispers in the trees; there’s a soft pat-pat-pat as rain starts to fall. Luke walks even faster.
“Amir wants to start a family,” he says, as we near the forestry station’s helipad.
“Is this what the dogs are about?”
“They were my idea. A compromise. I’m not ready yet. Fuck it, I’m only twenty-eight.”
“That’s not that young.”
“There’s so much I want to do still. And I’m in a really good space with my folks at the moment – kids would just fuck that up. Can you imagine what my mom would say?”
“She might be thrilled.”
“When the lesbian neighbours adopted a baby she said she felt sorry for the child.”
“Maybe she’s changed her mind since then.”
“That was just last month. I went up there for Kirsten’s baby’s christening.”
“You and Amir?”
“He was too busy.”
We’ve reached the car park now. Only two cars remain.
As we walk under the highway, the fluorescent panels flash in the subway like disco lights. I suddenly remember that night in Durban – the last time I’d seem Amir. I think of him sitting in his car outside the house he’d spent his childhood in. He had wept, he told me.
Luke tugs Jack away from a mound of shit at the subway’s mouth. Cars sweep along behind us, tyres fizzing on the wetness. Luke tugs Jack again.
“Amir’s not ready to be a dad anyway. I don’t think he’s bothered to feed the dogs once. It’s always me or Victoria.”
“Slow down,” my dad grunts.
We’ve just left home, swinging over the bridge near Mowbray station. His wheelchair blocks the rear-view mirror’s view; he sits alongside me, hands clenching the sides of the seat, stump jiggling.
My head aches. I hate myself:
But I remember it all now.
“What time’s the appointment?”
I want to shake him and say you know that.
His lower lip quivers.
“It’s going to be fine. Just a check-up.”
He nods, takes the dusty peak cap off his head, flips it over and over in his hands, runs his fingers over the stitched logo. Why does he still wear it – does he need yet another reminder of what happened, what working for that company did to him?
They say they did all the checks; there was some fault in the straps that snapped and let a concrete block come crushing down on his leg. In other words, they meant, it wasn’t their fault.
I’ve told Jeff I’ll be late for work – but he doesn’t really care. I was worried he’d be weird about it since we stopped fucking, since I discovered I wasn’t the only boy he was sleeping with. But no, this week he’s been all smiles and fatherly pats on my shoulder – so nice I want to scream and say don’t be kind you fucking idiot, just be faithful.
But I can’t. Of course I have no claim to expect fidelity – not since Durban, not since last night.
We drive round and round the parking lot and eventually find a bay far from the hospital’s entrance. I pull the chair out; Dad’s opened the door by the time I’ve come round to the passenger side. He clutches it as he rises out of the seat, pivoting with his remaining foot, sinking down into the wheelchair, his face red from the effort.
Dr Smythson is in a practice adjoining the hospital – in a Victorian house painted peppermint, its windows tinted silver. I almost expect Dad to make a comment about this. In the past, especially while I was studying, we’d always discuss buildings – the things we so obviously had in common.
But his hands are in his lap now, his cap back on his head, and he just lets me push him.
The doctor is running late. An old woman does Su Doku; her daughter knits next to her. Somewhere, down a corridor, a baby cries. I try to read Popular Mechanicsbut I can’t concentrate.
By the time dinner was over and Amir was stacking plates, I was already pissed. The kettle was boiling; Victoria had gone to bed. He was leaning into the dishwasher. I brought my hand over, seemingly distended in the kitchen’s brightness. Touched his arse.
He straightened up slowly, turned round so that our chests were almost touching
“You won’t ever do that again.”
I followed him back into the dining room.
Luke was crouched at the record player. “Aretha,” he said grinning. He came up to Amir, kissed him. “You OK?”
Amir kissed him back, his frown softening.
“Just tired. I’m going to head to bed if you don’t mind.”
Luke leaned up, touching both his greying temples. He kissed him again – on the forehead.
Amir didn’t say goodbye to me.
Luke and I went into the sitting room. I wondered if his family’s lounge in Illovo was like this – chintz couches, a ticking antique clock, neat rows of books.
We sat on the carpet in front of the fire, both of us drinking whisky.
I get lunch at Pangea Fisheries round the corner from the office. Calamari and chips. Fish stare helplessly up at me, beached on ice below the glass.
They’ve run out of blank sheets so the meal is wrapped up in newspaper. I go outside, find a bench, unwrap it. It’s the Cape Timesfrom last Thursday, page four – pictures from the opening of Parliament. As I eat the chips the image emerges – Amir and Luke, in suits, beaming. I glance away, and back at the image.
I haven’t spoke to either of them since that night. Still, the memory is too close, the way I leaned over and tried to kiss Luke. He pushed me away so that my whisky spilled.
“You just don’t get it. I love Amir. I’m married to him. Why are you doing this?”
He didn’t wait for a reply. “You had your chance. You know damn well you had your chance.”
He frowned. “I love Amir. I’m never going to cheat on him.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I love him, James. He makes me feel safe. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be barebacked by someone and not feel fucking terrified afterwards?”
I took a sip of whisky. Coughed.
“Luke.” I coughed again. “Amir and I slept together. In Durban last year.”
Luke stared at me. “I don’t believe you. You’re drunk. I’m calling you a taxi.”
I heard his voice from the phone in the hallway, deep and unhurried like he was reading TV news.
We waited in silence for the cab to arrive. Ten minutes later, as the sound of the engine breached the outside wall, he got up; I followed him to the door. I tried to hug him, but he stepped back: “Don’t.”
My fish and chips are finished. I stare down at the splotchy image. They’re beautiful. Together. What was I fucking thinking?
A few weeks after that dinner I wrote Luke a letter. We were no longer Facebook friends (he’d blocked me) and an email to his work address seemed too impersonal. I’m not sure what I said. Like a bad dream, I don’t want to face it.
But I know I said sorry.
There was no reply.
Amir’s face is everywhere – on posters and billboards, in brochures left in the letterbox, on page three of Business Day. He’s smiling, his eyes wrinkling slightly, hair a bit greyer – young, yet dignified. A leader.
“Our nation, our future,” is the party’s slogan. The deputy leader of the party, Noni Sisulu, sits next to him in the photos – straight-backed, bulbous, gleaming. There’s no sign of the party’s leader in all of this, but there are rumours that she’s going to resign straight after the election.
“Two more months,” I say to my dad.
He nods vaguely – perhaps he’s not sure what I’m referring to – and resumes staring out at the street.
He nods again.
We drive along Newlands Avenue, branches folding over us, a lush tunnel. Into Fernwood, past ministerial homes hidden beyond long drives, and then up to Kirstenbosch.
I find a bay for the disabled.
“Your mother should’ve come with us,” he says.
“She had a lot do this morning. I think she was going to Pick n Pay.”
“She shouldn’t be shopping on the Lord’s Day. What on earth does she need to buy?”
I don’t answer.
“Are we going to be long?”
He yawns as I push him up the ramp, waits while I buy tickets to the gardens.
“So many Germans. Busloads,” he says when I join him. “You’d think we’re at the gates of Stalingrad.”
We have tea first. Children run around on the lawn in front of the café, shrieking. I remember coming here with my parents when I was a kid; I used to get sherbet and liquorice if I was well behaved.
And later: when Damian and I were doing a biology project in our second last year of high school, when we kissed at Lady Anne Barnard’s pool. “Is yours also stale?” asks Dad, tapping his scone with a teaspoon.
“Mine’s just fine.”
He raises his hand to call over the waitress but in the busyness she doesn’t see him. The hand sinks back down.
Afterwards, I push him slowly along the paths. The sun slinks through clouds, light shifting like someone’s playing with a celestial dimmer switch.
The path curves smoothly round the ordered beds, past grass enclaves. I stop in front of a bed of clivias in bloom, glowing orange, their leaves glossy.
I look up. Amir and Luke have just emerged on the path from where it bends behind a bamboo thicket.
Amir is pushing a pram. They step closer to us. I stand behind my father, holding the handles of the chair tightly. I look in the pram, at the smiling baby.
“Hello.” I cough. “Dad, this is Luke and Amir. This is my father.”
Amir comes closer. He shakes my father’s limp hand with his politician’s firm grip.
We are finishing lunch at home when I get a text message. “Come over at five,” it says. When I arrive, the bell unleashes a duet of barks from inside the house. The door opens; Luke comes outside, followed by the dogs.
“Gosh, they’re huge,” I say, crouching down to pat them.
“They’re nearly two years old,” he says. He opens his arms, hugs me.
“I’ve missed you. Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
He leaves me outside while he fetches the leads.
“Where’s Sibongile?” I ask as we set off.
“Patience is looking after her.”
Near the forestry station a few families are heading into the forest or returning – with bikes and push chairs and dogs. A toddler sits on his father’s shoulders, clinging, and squeals as the man runs down the hill.
“I’m sorry about my dad.”
Luke shrugs. “At least he didn’t stone us,” he says wryly. “He hasn’t figured it out about you yet, has he?”
“I was going to tell him. I was going to move out and everything and then the foot thing happened. And I couldn’t.”
Luke looks at me. Says quietly: “Why did you do it?”
I know what he’s talking about. I don’t know what to say. And then there are words; I hear them coming from my mouth: at first “because”, another stumbling “because” and then – “I wanted him, I wanted you, I wanted what you both had. God, Luke. I was drunk. I’m sorry. I really am.”
“But.” He doesn’t say anything more. Instead he walks faster.
The path narrows, becomes knotted with roots, drops down to a stream. Jack and Jill bounce down ahead of us – black-brown blurs. They stop at the water, drinking urgently.
“Sibongile’s adorable. I’m sure she’s won your parents over.”
“Sort of. My mom asked if she has Aids.”
He glares at me. “Not you too.”
“Dude, I’m just joking.”
We carry on, and reach the clearing we walked to the last time.
“Do you remember this?”
“Yes,” he answers.
“Things change quickly, don’t they?”
“Some things stay the same.”
It is not the opposition leader who resigns. Amir does – one month after the election. A statement says the usual – he wants to spend more time with his family.
In the British Airways lounge at Cape Town airport, I’m pouring myself coffee when I see him; he’s on a couch, flipping through a magazine.
He looks at me, tired eyes, greets me with almost a sigh.
“May I join you?”
His eyebrows float up slightly. “Feel free.”
I sit down. “Where you headed?”
“Durban. My father’s dying.”
He puts the magazine down, hunching forward, shielding his eyes with a hand. He sniffs, pulls his hand away. His eyes are glassy.
I put my hand on his knee. He shakes it off.
“Sorry,” he says.
He picks up a glass of water and swallows until it is empty.
‘HOMOPHOBIC’ FAMILY BARS KHAN FROM DAD’S FUNERAL say the Cape Argus posters on the lampposts as I drive past Rondebosch Common on the way to work.
That afternoon it is announced that the firm is designing a new hotel in Doha. It’s Friday too – so Jeff suggested we all celebrate, celebrate the Albert, De Jager & Khumalo way. An intern behind the bar poured Graham Beck Brut glinting like bullion as we sipped and clinked. Someone put music on – a band I hadn’t heard before. A cocktail shaker came out; Jeff himself was shaking, straining, handing out martinis likes it was season three of Mad Men.
It was too cold to go out on the deck but I walked out anyway and lit a cigarette, watching the sun wash over the glass of the towers, picking out a rig in the distant harbour.
Inside there are arms raised, facing Jeff: glass-holding hands saluting the führer. I drank the martini quickly, almost choking. Fuck them all.
The city. Cars. A seagull fighting the gusts, tracing the mountain’s silhouette. The Adhanmoaned from a mosque in the Bo-Kaap, whipped by the wind, punctured by hooting and shouts from the street.
I turned as the sliding door opened, clicked shut. Zanele walked over. She shivered, put an arm around me, nestled her head on my shoulder.
I shrugged, offering her my box of cigarettes.
She smiled, shook her head.
We went back inside. The music and voices seemed louder, the sky outside darker. I wanted to leave. I went down the steps. In the studio comets flared across black computer screens. I went inside the men’s bathroom, drank from the tap, slapped water onto my face. I had to drive home. But I was a slightly drunk. And rush hour was in full flow.
Four hours later. I press the button. It is dark; this street is narrow. Laughter burbles from down near a quasi-village plaza where plush boutiques border pricey cafés. It is quiet here, though – there is not even a car guard.
I check my phone’s messages again. I shouldn’t be here, but I am, and there is an inescapable buzzing as the door unlocks and I push it. I enter darkness; the door has clicked shut before I can retreat out of it. I climb stairs, steep, narrow. Red glow, a little room. A woman behind the counter – blonde hair icily swept back, pursed pink lips.
I give her the one-hundred rand she asks for; she tells me where the change rooms are. They’re empty. I leave my briefs on, wrap the white towel tight around me. A swing door; a small pool beyond it. Below the surface, light shines from its opposite end; the water wobbles like green jelly as a man, balding, pot-bellied, naked, backstrokes across it. My flip-flops squeak on the tiles. A man in a dressing gown sits at a small round table, watching, his tongue curling up onto his lip
On a flat screen above me, two shirtless cowboys sink down onto a hay bale. One tugs at the other’s zipped jeans. I look away.
There is another door, a small corridor. Puddles like mercury below a light strip. Four steps, five, a wooden door with a square glass window. I pull it open and the dry warmth hits me. The eucalyptus burns my nostrils.
He is sitting on the top step, his back almost touching the wall, knees drawn to his chest.
“You took your time.” He looks at me, I look at his eyes, the long lashes, and away to the wet dark hair, the skin-sheen.
I sit down on the bottom step; one step separates us.
“You’re so far away.”
“You need to go home.”
He swings his legs, leaps down to me like a cat.
“I need you.”
He’s about to kiss me; my hand hits his cheek and he falls onto his bum. I look at the hard-on poking against the towel.
“This isn’t some C-grade porno, Amir.”
“Then why the hell did you come?”
“You said you needed me.”
In the bar on the top floor, I order myself a Coke while I wait for a taxi. The barman is a straight boy in Calvin Kleins, moving stiffly as he pours the drink.
The door slams. Amir is there, thankfully dressed.
“I’m not as drunk as you think I am.”
“You’re fucking pissed.”
“Get me a drink. I’ll pay. You probably can’t afford it.” He hands me a two-hundred rand note: “Keep the change, slut.”
I order him a whisky. What harm can one more do, when clearly he’s had so many?
I feel his breath on my ear as I order. His hand is on my arse.
“Let me fuck you,” he whispers.
I push him backwards to the wingback chair in the corner.
The bravura evaporates soon enough. In the taxi he huddles against the seat. When I pat him on the shoulder he flinches.
“Where’s Luke? Why isn’t he here with me?”
Can’t he remember? I don’t reply. I don’t tell him what his message two hours ago said – that Luke has taken Sibongile to visit his parents in Joburg.
I open my eyes. Brightness battles through the curtain. He is hunched up, facing the bedside table. Sobbing.
He looks at me.
“Thank goodness we didn’t. Did we?
I shake my head.
He sinks back onto the pillow and closes his eyes.
Entropy appeared in Adults Only (Mercury), the 2014 National Arts Festival Short.Sharp.Stories competition’s anthology.