poetry

that rainy day i want to write poetry feeling

oh dear, here’s that rainy day
i want to write poetry feeling,
curdled sweet melancholy
like bruised after sex and he’s gone, gone,

far, the birds call through the trees, the ocean
whispers, drops spatter the sand
not hell, not at all, but slightly flailing,
floating in question marks, the rising tide

overflowing and emptied
that not knowing, not seeing, just feeling feeling
there is work to be done — articles to write, emails to answer
but instead — i’m dithering on evernote

for the first time in months, yes, that rainy day
i want to write poetry feeling, i want to write about
the ache of remembered movie cuddles and sleepy kissing,
the long shadow a goodbye can cast

 

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poetry

New York

I could never live there but today I miss the Micheladas I had at brunch in Brooklyn and food truck grilled cheese and Katz’s choc chip pancakes and watching Broad City in bed while rain muffled the traffic I miss Crosby’s cobbles and cherry blossoms and the books and silence in Poets House and the NYPL and McNally Jackson and the dirty hot subway bustle and the glittering necklace of Manhattan across the water from the Wythe and the Flat Iron singeing an electric sky I miss holding hands under the table at Gemma and walking shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk and the speakeasy with its wanky bacon infused bourbon I still dream of that Old Fashioned and the tulips in Tompkins Square knowing that the Beats had long gone but there was still the rhythm of change this island magnet still pulling people cradling ideas and dreams yes I miss this Babel of accents the people their hustle their arrogance insecurity urgency I miss you

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prose

From Joburg

Let’s rather not give this club a name. The one where he’s standing now. Does it matter? Tomorrow he will wish it doesn’t exist but even nameless it still does, and what happened here happened.

30 minutes ago he was downstairs, waiting with Gideon to draw money. There is a queue of people, as drunk – or maybe drunker – than they are.

“But listen buddy, explain why you won’t make a move,” he’s saying. When his friend doesn’t reply, he pats him lightly on his bearded cheek – as if this will force out an answer.

“Steve, I hate it when people do that.”

He drops his hand immediately. “I’m sorry, bro. Didn’t mean to… I just can’t understand why you didn’t make a move – when you like her.”

The money is drawn. To get to the stairs, do you have to enter the pub on the ground floor, passing the bar, and its glassy-eyed drinkers? Perhaps. These are details, surely unnecessary, surely lost on Steven (and for that matter Gideon too).

At the top. A cover charge? Probably R20, administered by a tattooed girl sitting on a stool, chewing gum – of course. Inside it’s busy but not cramped. There’s a screen, a video animation looking like it was made in Microsoft Paint (can you make videos in Paint?). The music is loud and sexy, beats slamming, fucking, and forcing themselves apart.

Steven goes to the bar – doesn’t ask what Gideon wants; it doesn’t occur to him. There’s a sign on the wall – R22 for a double and a mixer – you can choose from brandy, vodka or cane. No whisky.

He gets a brandy and coke because it’s the closest thing to whisky and he doesn’t know how much a double Bell’s will cost.

The notes, coins, disappear. He looks around, sips, sees Jane and Phil dancing. In 20 minutes from now, when this is all over and he and Gideon are outside, they will have disappeared without saying goodbye. But now they dance, dance like it’s Friday, almost midnight, like they’re young and beautiful and this night is forever.

Steven dances too. Kind of. His body has relaxed now – he is drunk enough to let the rhythm swim through him and ripple out into the room. There is movement but it is not articulate or intentional. Just movement.

He is horny – perhaps it’s the booze and the couples and the frisson of sex which charges the air like a whiff of ganja.

He looks. His eyes meet another pair.

The man is stocky, swarthy, in a fitting tee and loud jeans. Maybe he has a chain. He’s Lebanese or Italian or Greek or something.

Steven smiles and the man smiles back and somehow they drift towards each other.

“How’s it going?”

The man’s reply is a mystery to be teased over tomorrow – it sounds like “Good, but I’m having a hard time finding a threebie.” Perhaps he said freebie. Perhaps he said something completely different.

Whatever he said, Steven thinks he wants a threesome, and this disgusts him. He wonders if it’s with a woman. But he’s not sure. What he is soon certain of, though, is that the guy wants him.

The man introduces himself as Brad. He’s from Joburg. He looks like a cuntfucker, to be honest – he looks like the guy who brags to his friends about cherries and pussy and blonde-platinum expendability.

But no. Brad is gay and wants to either fuck or be fucked by Steven (he never manages to establish his preference).

Do they talk more? Perhaps. It is inconsequential. This is about two men, about sex. What are words? Not even foreplay.

Brad offers to buy Steven a drink. He declines with a polite smile.

“Come on,” says Brad.

And Steven, who is thrilled by the attention and by the opportunity to drink more (his cash has finished), accedes.

“Just a drink, though. Nothing more,” he says.

“Why’s that?”

He has to speak close, almost shouting, into Brad’s left ear: “Because. I’m old-fashioned.”

He doesn’t tell him that he’s scared. It’s not cool to be frightened of fucking men you meet in clubs. But surrounded by architects and art directors and packaging designers and videographers, he is destined to feel uncool. At least Brad is an accountant – and plays soccer on the weekend at the Hellenic Club (probably). He’s as much of an outsider as Steven is.

He smiles easily.

“No worries, bru. What do you want to drink?”

Steven asks for a gin and tonic. Brad hands it to him and they hug like they’ve just played a tennis championship: two fags adrift in straightness.

And does Steven put his head in the crook of Brad’s shoulder? Do his lips briefly gaze his neck as they embrace? Tomorrow he will wonder this and worry, and trace his tongue around the ulcer in his mouth he hadn’t noticed before.

Brad floats away. Steven is near Jane, near Gideon again. Dancing. But this is not over. He sees Brad, sees the other olive-skinned guy (kind of sexy) that he’s with. Wonders if they’re lovers or just friends.

Deliberately he dances near them, his arm brushing the other guy’s slightly once or twice.

“Dude, that’s my brother,” says Brad coming up to him.

The music interrupts, surges in between and around them.

Dancing.

“Get the fuck out of here,” yells Brad suddenly.

Steven looks at him, shocked. “What?”

“I said – get the fuck out of here. That’s my brother. You said you were old-fashioned but really you’re just –”

The music has swallowed up his words. What is he? Steven doesn’t care. Or does he?

“Don’t come here with your Joburg attitude. I can be here if I want.”

“What did you say?” asks Brad.

“I said don’t come here with your Joburg attitude.”

Gideon is suddenly by his side.

“Come Steve. Let’s go.”

He looks at him in shock. How can Gideon be capitulating like this? He had a right to be here. No matter what this fascist fucker says.

Tomorrow when Gideon and Steven are walking down to the waves on Clifton Second, Steven will thank him for pulling him out then. He will thank him for saying “Let’s go. Let’s get a cab.”

But right now his friend is just a coward, a traitor. How did Gideon know? What would have happened if he hadn’t appeared? Steven is a lawyer – careful, attentive, watchful. He wouldn’t have thrown the first punch, would he?

As he writes this now he can see two hands pushing, his own responding quickly with an even harsher shove, and the first swipe coming for his nose. He would’ve walked away then, right, as the blood trickled and sparks crawled across his eyes? Or would he have swept back, fingers scratching, a knee aimed at Brad’s crotch, intent on vanquishing? Vanquishing.

On the beach the others will see Steven dive into the waves, staying submerged in the glassy turquoise for five seconds, six. He will leap up wanting to scream, feeling not wholly purged.

But here he is, at 12.07, on the stairs, smiling at the ink snake writhing on the door-girl’s arm, tripping slightly.

Here he is, telling Gideon it’s fine – he can walk home.

Gideon shakes his head. A cab slides up to them and they climb in. The driver is Zimbabwean and Gideon is chattering away to him in Shona. Steven watches the city’s glowing geometry beyond the window – rows of yellow squares, the fallen triangles of open doors, a traffic light’s amber sun.

When he gets to his flat he thanks Gideon. Does he apologise? Maybe. The door slams shut; the taxi groans forward.

In the lobby the security guard is sleeping. Inside the lift Steven blinks and almost falls asleep himself. He tries to unlock the flat’s front door. The key won’t turn – his flatmate must have left his key in on the other side. He sinks down, snoring.

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prose

Friday

You are not drunk but you must be. Red wine, and martinis (not dirty – they ran out of olives) and shots of tequila with orange slices. And now a whisky (or whiskey – it’s too noisy to know) in your hand. But the jumping about to the Black Eyed Peas, the shut bathroom door as Steve and Miranda and Adrian were in there, the writhing of Francesca on the dining room table, you joining her, your back on the wood, kicking legs up, chandelier shards grazing your eyeballs. That is all there, crisp and close. So is the walk down the hill, your cousin wheeling his bike, your yelp as he almost knocks a Range Rover. You don’t know then, of course, that outside the club you will see Rob for the first time in months; the last time was at Will’s birthday party. Rob the gangly redhead with scuffed boots and a puppy smile. Rob who is as pleased to see you as you are to see him. You don’t know that inside you will dance because you have drunk enough to dance and not care and that sometimes your bodies will touch and you will lean forward or he will as you say something – or he does – about the fat boy trying to grope Rob’s mate Ashley. You won’t care about the times you have declared your dislike of clubs, declared that you will never find a man in a club, because surely, surely, the kind of man you want doesn’t really go to clubs. You and Rob will go outside and leave your cousin holding his drink and nodding to the beat beat beat, not really wondering or caring because you know that although Rob may be curious about your cousin’s racing bike, he actually wants to be outside, alone, with you. This doesn’t bother you – and you don’t know if it should. You don’t know the rules of this, what, game, no, not a game: this is just the two of you walking to the door between dancers, walking to the balcony. You talked. About the bike, first; about varsity; about Rob’s band (he plays guitar). He asked you, didn’t he, about what you’ve been up to, and you know this question is asking something else. You said you’ve been busy; you didn’t tell him about Adam. And why should you tell anyone about Adam? He is a myth, a dream, a story you can’t tell the ending of. He is memories of lunches and coffee and a kiss on your cheek after the movie. He is silences, longer now: gaps he fills with work and maybe someone else and you just fill with wondering. He is the man you bump into at the coffee shop and at the gym and wonder when – if – he will suggest meeting up again because god knows you’ve dropped enough hints. You talked about work. You were close. Touching. And then you were leaning up – he is taller – because you knew you could and you wanted to and you were kissing. His mouth was smoky, neck too, and you told him this. It was the club, you were told; he was nonplussed, a non-smoker, and you shrugged because you didn’t mind the smoke, really, and because you wanted to carry on. You wrestled each other into the corner. You kissed him again, nuzzling the coppery fuzz, brushed a nipple, leant into him, felt the cotton of his underwear, the slight curve of his ass. On the other side of the glass: a stranger was knocking and waving. You looked at each other and laughed and kissed again and you touched the firmness under the t-shirt and accused him of going to gym. Your cousin was outside, unchaining his bike. Frowning. You sounded surprised when you asked him if he was leaving. You asked him if he would be OK. He nodded, waved, threading up the road and round the corner. You were worried but Rob reassured you. And you kissed again, and he asked if you had read Hollinghurst and you admit that yes, you’ve read all his books. Later, when you are in your bed and not thinking or feeling or dreaming, just somewhere between being awake and asleep, you will remember his sheepish request for your number and the way you laughed and thumbed his into your phone and called him. You will remember him telling you he has work the next morning (he is a barista), and how you kissed and nodded and told him that was cool – and it was. He drove you home even though you said it was close and you could walk; he insisted and you acquiesced because neither of you were quite ready to say goodbye. Before sleep takes you, you might remember the kissing as the car idled; the way you both started saying how nice it had been to bump into each other; both of you laughing and kissing again and then slowly letting go. You wake once to piss, to drink water. And as you settle back into bed you will smile and feel OK and not know why.

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poetry

Exorcism

At what cost, just watch the needle
pierce, oh sweet high of relief and
the glorious numb
forgetting (almost)
the bodies, broken like matchsticks
in the hut, and the spitting
of bullets through bush and
the screams, always the
screams that can’t be
silenced in the slumping curve so
take another, slowly, precise
as a winning dart,
peace – briefly – entering the hot stream

oh what cost those deeds which
stain themselves to eyeballs,
which echo like a fairground tune
against the walls of the present:

there is no separation, no escaping
the prison of the past

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prose

19:24

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.

Maybe….

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.

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