The downpour starts as I emerge from the subway. I open up my umbrella into the thick, starchy air. Across the street steam belches from a pipe poking above the brewery’s hulking vats. An overalled man dashes out from the station. He trips, hands slipping into a puddle. He gets up, runs past. Inside, caught in the fluorescence of the strip lighting, slick footprints crisscross the grubby tiles. My fingers, stiff from the cold, fumble in my jeans pocket; I pull out my crumpled ticket, show it to the man sitting on the stool. He peers at it, tugs his beanie and waves me through.
The tarred platform shines in the lamplight, flecks of rain scything the silver puddles in shimmering constancy. Icy gusts blow spatters onto my face as I edge against the wall. An old lady in a pink trench coat is primly knitting. On the bench next to her, a businessman clutches his newspaper, tapping a tattoo with the tip of the umbrella in his other hand.
The rain eases; the drumming softens; the blue-grey gloom lightens above the bare billboard and the willow trees curtaining the icecream-scoop smoothness of the cricket stadium.
The green light flashes. Through the wet darkness, the approaching train’s light floats above the gleaming rails in an onward arc. The horn chokes. And as usual I feel the urge to dive off the platform as if I were on a springboard, as if I were starting a race. A race to what? Eternity?
The carriages begin to slide past me; they hiss, rattle, squirm and at last come to a juddered halt. I walk along the yellow line to the third, which is a little less full. I grab the handle and yank the stubborn doors open, entering the sweaty fug with my head down, watching the assortment of feet, searching for space. My sneakers, smudged blue from the ragged ends of my too-long jeans, stick on the floor. I squeeze past coated blobs; a few faces, bored, look up before returning to tabloid tales of incest and murder.
The doors shudder shut and with a jolt the train begins to move. I uncoil my earphones and plug them in. They are snug, cool in my ears. I finger the iPod’s play button in the pocket of my army jacket. The drum-set crackles. The piano tinkles. The saxophone soars above the gurgled gossip. Dianne Reeves sings:
Oh, you’re driving me crazy!
And so you are. It’s a week since I last saw you; since that last noncommittal wave, before you melted into the crowds and I turned away. We weren’t together for very long – we just had a quick coffee in that horrid student haunt. You were bored – I know you were. I could see it in the way you scanned the Cape Times, then set about rearranging the fridge magnet letters on the wall next to you into the naughtiest words you could think of. And when that failed to amuse you, you stole my phone on the pretext of checking what my sunglasses looked like on you. You smiled cheekily as you read my text messages instead – an attempt, you claimed, to find out more about me.
It’s been a week of purgatory – a strange, shifting purgatory: moments of faint, pulsing desolation; moments of sweet ordinariness; moments of aching longing. I soldier on. Sometimes I wish time would speed up – it’s the quiet minutes of empty aloneness that haunt me, that make me think of you or, more specifically, of not being with you. I envy your nonchalance, the impassive silence – a mask, I know, but hiding what?
The train slows. Outside, the bushes tremble and a fence flickers past. A man about your age gets on. I saw him yesterday; he was in the same carriage. Preppy and clean-shaven, he must be on his way to work. He grips the overhead rail, the bulk of his arm folding into an L-shaped salute. I gaze hungrily but today there’s no interest – he looks the other way. I squint through the misted windows, pretending I don’t care. And this works: when I casually glance back at him, our eyes meet for a furtive, delicious second. There’s a twinge of guilt – I’m being rather disloyal, aren’t I? Not that you would care – or would you?
I don’t know. I just don’t know. Will we always be trapped in this no man’s land, this limbo of lingering uncertainty, of hope edged with hopelessness? What am I? Just a friend? A tentative one at that, I suppose. You don’t believe in love, do you? All you need is the occasional drunken night and a gratuitous, forgettable fuck with a stranger. Fireside cuddles and candlelit dinners just aren’t your style. You don’t need love, or don’t want to need it – you’ll push it away, if someone comes too close. If I come too close.
That’s what I’m afraid of; that’s why I hide. As much as I want to, I can’t just tell you that I love you. I fear not only rejection’s humiliation, but also the cold, absolute finality of us not being together. Of there not being an “us”. I would rather be delusional, rather pretend that there’s hope – hanging on to silly, sentimental dreams, dreams that one day you’ll pick me up and we’ll ride off into the sunset together. Sometimes I think there may be a chance. Sometimes there’s an instinctive, warm inevitability about a coupling, our coupling. But that feeling soon fades back into the hard static of reality – the awful wrenching as we end our coffee sessions, as you walk away or drop me off at home and I am left alone, left with a void, a void I so desperately wish you could fill. Do you know this? Do you know you are a beacon, brightening the darkness of my world? Or are you (as I suspect) oblivious – wrapped up in yourself, held hostage in an invisible prison?
The train stops at Rosebank. A few students get out – girls swaddled in kaffiyehs and ruffled skirts who steel themselves for the trudge up to their ivy-coated campus on the cloud-clothed slopes of Devil’s Peak. Are you there yet? Perhaps you are, tapping away at a computer in the library, hard at work on an overdue assignment.
Flatland, a hodgepodge of bulging towers and angular Art Deco blocks, disappears as we clatter onto the bridge. I see the bloody rivulets of taillights on the highway curving up around the hospital’s sprawling ramparts. Victorian cottages huddle on the edge of the line, their bright walls – pink, purple, orange, blue – splashing past like a stick of candy.
After Observatory, the asbestos and facebrick of warehouses begin: a chain-linked montage framed by barbed wire. Somewhere behind these rusting wrecks is the Old Biscuit Mill, the market where yuppies come to shop for speciality cheeses and organic olives. Where I met you.
I remember watching you on the phone at the entrance to the vast shed as you talked to my sister, trying to find us, your hoody, luminous like a life-jacket, adrift in the sea of coats.
‘There he is,’ I told her. I hadn’t seen you before – I just knew it was you; I knew this was the boy she always talked about; the boy at university she had become friends with on the day English classes began; the tortured moffie who scratched FAGGOT into his arms with a biro so that the flesh reddened into angry welts and blood prickled. Punishment.
I had been curious, listening to her stories, her anecdotes about you, nodding wryly when she said we should meet. ‘He’s like you; he likes to write. The two of you will get on like a house on fire.’
I relented, and came shopping for fresh tuna and ciabatta – and to meet you. You awkwardly shook my hand. I smiled as my heart thudded in excitement – a sensation, as uncontrollable as it was unexpected, that has recurred each time we’ve met in the ensuing weeks.
Beautiful, brooding, you hid behind gruff grunts. ‘Don’t worry – he’s just shy,’ my sister told me as you threw our empty coffee cups into the recycle bin. I didn’t mind – I was already entranced, intrigued.
You came home for lunch. I watched you as we sat round the table: uncomfortable, alien, my mother’s kindly interrogations teasing out your Afrikaans-accented answers into the boisterous Anglophone babble. You didn’t seem to mind so much, though. Perhaps you even enjoyed the jumbled familial conversation – it surely must have been preferable to an empty flat.
I wondered what you thought of me – you had said so little. He doesn’t like me, I decided. But I was wrong: the next week’s barrage of emails – even if they were short, aimless exchanges – proved it.
At Woodstock station someone tugs open a window and the fishy drizzle leaks in. Veering between soggy embankments, the train sways; I grab the greasy rail to steady myself. Outside, other trains snake past us like shongololos on a tree trunk. The cranes claw the clouds; an oilrig squats beyond the freeway wrapping round the edge of the business district, the line of lampposts standing sentry against the sea.
On the left, the City Hall hovers like a mirage. The night of the concert, the one I miraculously cajoled you into attending with my sister and me, its golden stone had glowed. When I saw you arrive at the pillared entrance my heart leapt; I wanted to hug you but there were people – and, of course, I didn’t know how you would react.
I was touched by how you had scrabbled round the day before for smart clothes despite my protestations that you could wear what you wanted – it was only a concert, after all. During the performance I sneaked glances at you, always worrying – worrying you weren’t enjoying it, that you were bored. I wasn’t sure – you were giving nothing away as you gazed up at the front row of the orchestra, lumpish things wielding their violins at us as if they were machine guns.
When it had finished, when we walked back to your car, I wanted to reach out and touch you, hold you, kiss you. No one would see, not in the iridescent shadows, the restless silence of the street. We joked, we talked – and for a moment, the moment when I grabbed your arm to point something out, I felt you wouldn’t mind if I… if something happened. But I let go. I was too scared.
Afterwards, when we had drinks at the Mount Nelson’s bar, you were quiet, stifled, perhaps, by the hushed gentility, a suffocating snobbery, that cloaked the room. My sister and I bantered, filling up the silences. In the car park you kissed her goodnight and looked at me: something shadowed your face, a half-formed thought or feeling. Was it dismay? Was it hope? Did you want me to come out with you – out into the throbbing oblivion, the cramped chaos of queer town?
I couldn’t tell. I just reluctantly mumbled a farewell and climbed into my sister’s car.
The long platforms rush by and the train slows, coming to a sighing stop. The doors open and a tide of commuters surges towards the ticket check; we trickle through the turnstiles into the seething concourse.
A ululating mob is marching past with a banner that says STOP THE EVICTIONS held aloft, above clenched fists. Schoolchildren weave between weary shop assistants. The trench-coated knitter totters by; like me, incongruously pale. Above her, a pigeon is flapping frantically about the Omo washing powder advert. It flutters down, skimming the icecream kiosks and then up again, nearly colliding with the mosaic walls. The bird gives up on its escape bid, settling down to spy from the schedule board hanging in the centre where, instead of words, dots squiggle haphazardly like a colony of red ants.
A wave of nausea threatens to break as I walk past the tavern, its beery wafts mingling with the chicken pies being heated at the tuckshop and the rubbish waiting to be collected out on the flagstoned court. Hawkers are setting out their wares – chocolates, counterfeit Levi’s, umbrellas, watches, fresh fruit. Belts hang limply next to pyjamas and skirts in front of the hair-braiding salon, Bob Sunny’s Shoe Repairs and the arcade game hall, deserted and ghostly beyond grimy glass.
It has stopped raining. A sheet of cloud floats above the office buildings towering over the strip of lawn. I reach the entrance to the subterranean shopping mall under Adderley Street. A beggar sits slumped, her stumps wrapped in polythene bags. The president smiles balefully from the faded yellow of her t-shirt. She looks up, face scrunched like a bruised prune, shaking her styrofoam cup at me.
I run down the steps flanking the motionless escalators. Above me is the broken clock showing, as it always does, 19:24. I can’t help smiling at this accidental memorial to my age and yours. The two of us – separated (or is it connected?) by a colon.
I take out my phone, flipping through the folder of photos to the two you took of yourself that day. There you are – grinning sweetly. Impishly. There’s a glint in your face, and I can’t work it out. What are you trying to tell me? Or trying not to tell me, as is more likely the case?
My thumb hovers on the delete button. I could let go of you – just like that. Or at least try to: I could try to forget about you.
I put the phone back inside my backpack. Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe you’re as scared as I am – of rejection, of the brush off.
I smile. A strange sense of calm, of resolution, seeps in as I start walking. I won’t ever know what you really feel if I don’t bother to find out. It’s a risk, a gamble. But someone has to break this stalemate – this unacknowledged impasse. I frown. It’s not going to be you, is it?
We could carry on like this forever: meeting sporadically, dancing this dance, this encircling of the felt, the spectral – too afraid to approach or embrace it. But what is the point of that? Pride, I suppose. Neither of us want our egos to be bruised, to be exposed, our naked feelings on display, ashamed and vulnerable to mockery.
But the prospect of that seems less terrifying now. If I humiliate myself, if you laugh at my fumbled attempts to reach you, it won’t last forever – the embarrassment will ebb away soon enough.
My hand burrows into the camouflage and takes out the phone again. I scroll down to your name and start dialling.