The pain was actually not that terrible to handle.
With the help of my mother and father, I healed in spectacular fashion and was at optimum function in no time.
The itching, was another matter. I knew I shouldn’t scratch it, so I would cover it up with a cloth and smack my arm – which made me look like an absolute lunatic.
Sometimes, I’d even ice it.
And then it was all over and all was well.
The kids at school would ask and ask what happened and I was surprised that Miss Patel hadn’t told them anything. Theories were wild and ranging from rowdy knife fights to muggings because Joburg was apparently notorious for its danger and violence.
I ignored all of this and never said a word to anyone but my best friend Imogen.
“He must have been rich,” Imogen was saying.
She was talking about the guy who had taken me to the Campus Clinic that day. As it turned out, I had taken his sweater by mistake when I had gone to the hospital and of course, I had no way of returning it to him. I had laundered the item but the damage was done and the blood was set. My mother had tried to convince me to toss it but I couldn’t do it.
“The material alone… this is cashmere!” she exclaimed.
Imogen was my best and closest friend and it had been so for over a decade now. We had been thrust into each other’s company when we were in the first grade and even though I couldn’t actually remember most of those earlier years, I chose to believe that we were great friends even then.
She was somewhat shorter than me with skin the colour of caramel and eyes the colour of sand. She was slender in my eyes, but she thought herself fat, something that I would never understand seeing as I could easily squash her to jelly if I sat on her by mistake. She wore her hair natural in various styles that she always managed to pull off.
She enjoyed the arts as much as I did, but unlike me, she had a plan for her life; something to bring her income while she worked on her painting. I just wanted to write.
But that wouldn’t guarantee me rent or food on the table right off the bat.
I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life come graduation.
“Describe him again.”
Over the months that passed, I remembered small things about the stranger, bit by bit, piecing him together. Close to a year later and he was still an enigma!
“He had dark skin like mine… Hazel eyes and dark curly hair. He was tall with big arms and big hands… I never heard him speak at all. He never let go of my arm, ever. He kept looking at me and I kept looking at him.”
“He should have left his damn number!”
I laughed at that, wishing the same thing.
“Maybe it’s in your file at WITS.”
That was something I’d considered but I just didn’t have the confidence to follow it up. So I changed the topic back to school matters.
“They say we’ll be applying out next week,” she was saying. “Coz they’re gona ask us for our Grade 11 results.”
“Well that’s ass.”
“Why? You’re good “
“Good for what?!” I exclaimed. “I can’t get what I want out of this. Which is just plain shit if you ask me. I mean – you should be able to live your dreams and pull a salary from it.”
“This is the real world,” she grumbled. “And in it, you don’t always get what you want.”
She sighed heavily.
“You’re gona be a doctor, aren’t you?” I asked.
I knew what she was talking about, of course, but it was hard enough for her to bring it up in the first place, so I didn’t interrupt her. This had its risks because Imo didn’t like talking about her family to begin with, so sometimes, she would silence herself on that account and turn the topic to other matters.
Like she was doing now.
“I bet the boys have scholarships already.”
And by the boys, she meant those three intelligent boys in our grade who made up the top three in the student rankings –
“Benjy will go that way –”
“No,” I said, jumping to my feet as the memory hit. “One of the books he was reading. On the table. It said About Financial Accounting.”
I looked at Imo then. “Accounting, right?”
“He’s an Accountant!” she squealed in delight.
The rest of the day was taken up with homework and discussions on Him of No Name and it was excellent.
Imo had gone so far as trying to find the book itself so that she could figure out what year he was in.
I loved my best friend.
Exactly twelve weeks later, the first of the envelopes came in the mail.
They were big white ones filled with varsity brochures.
Some of us were overjoyed and others not so much. It was here that I realized that it wasn’t standard practice for one to move swiftly from high school to university.
Some people had no interest in studying further at all, while others were shooting for the stars.
I put my package in my bag and simply sat there at my desk, watching everyone buzz about the classroom, sharing their news with each other.
I could hear the same commotion in the class next door, where Imo was.
I wondered if she had received anything.
“What are you gona do? Doctor like your dad?”
“Not even,” I said, looking up at Benjy. He straightened his specs, a wry smile on his face.
“Am I gona see a book with your name on it on the shelves one day?” he asked.
“Are you gona read it?” I challenged him.
Benjy was not a reader. I could never begrudge him that.
He was too good of a person.
“I’ll send you a signed copy, just for control,” I said with a smile. “And you? Numbers?”
“I think so. I like it.”
“Good,” I said. “Then you can manage my accounts.”
He laughed at that, a genuine sound.
I had always believed that he sounded like Barry White.
If I were to describe him, a giant teddy bear would be the first words that came to mind. He was tall and chubby and had big, warm brown eyes, compounded by his spectacles, which had thick lenses. And he always looked pristine in uniform.
“Who wants you?”
“The usual people,” he said. I knew he was being modest. Everybody would want him on their team.
“I’m just gona go where my dad went.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He knows the place, he knows the people, I won’t be completely alone there.”
Benjy rose to his feet, a bright smile on his face. “Guess I’ll see you there, writer.”
It took me a moment to understand what he meant and when I did, I laughed out loud. He was still smiling at the door when he looked back at me.
After school, I walked with the absence of my earlier enthusiasm back to my home. I still had no idea what to put in my application form.
I would see what they had and put that down.
And hope that my parents wouldn’t be too disappointed.
I dumped my bag on my bed and changed out of my uniform and placed it all in the washing machine in the kitchen.
I knew that my sister was around here somewhere but I didn’t look for her with any real interest in knowing if she had spent her day well. My parents were still at work, obviously, so this would allow me some time with my thoughts.
I returned to the bedroom that I shared with my sister and sat up against the bed board, the brochures in my hands. I almost wanted to hurl them across the room in my frustration, but instead dumped them on the bed, watching them glide and scatter.
I stared at them like they would spell the answers out for me.
What was I supposed to study?
It was an apt question because that’s what I had done all these years with the subjects I had been assessed on. I had studied them because that’s what I had been told to do.
I was all about the arts – books, music and visual arts. My school did not offer these things at the scale that I would have liked to study them.
I thought that was why my parents didn’t believe me when I told them that I was not a science student. At one point, I had told my father that I wasn’t smart and he had gotten so angry. I supposed he didn’t understand my words – there were many ways in which people could be considered smart and not all of those ways involved having any kind of degree or formal studies in the sciences.
I was not smart like the science nerds, I was smart like the art nerds – or I believed that I could be. But there was nothing here that my parents would fund that would accommodate my dream of becoming an accomplished and published author –
I snapped my head up when the door swung open and my sister appeared.
You know that scene in a movie where the two main characters that hate each other circle each other with their eyes narrowed and unmoving? This was that.
She looked at me like she wanted to slap me and I wished she would so that I could slap her right back.
That was what we’d become.
Years ago, my sister had been through her lowest point and she had stayed there. Some said that she was pretending so that she could abandon her obligation to take on responsibilities and others thought maybe it was one of those things that happened when a person was called in by the ancestors.
I didn’t know what to think.
I was not mature or graceful enough to accept that she was not doing this for her own fun and amusement. My parents had long since accepted that she was not malingering.
I just wanted to know what I would have to do if ever I found myself on the receiving end of her behaviour.
Was I allowed to retaliate? Would I be justified if I got her hurt? Even if she hurt me first?
That was why they paid next to no attention to me.
I looked like I was fine. I passed through my bullying phase and sat through all my years of study without falling apart. I had seen the effects of peer pressure and thus, I only had one friend who was almost like me even through all of our differences.
I was resilient – that’s what the school guidance counselor had told me.
My sister was not.
I looked down at the brochures again and made a show of flipping through them. It was disgusting and petty but I did it all the same – I had no grace and I was not mature.
I hoped in that moment that she would see how I was moving on with my life in spite of her and her drama.
I would never let her see me shake.
Even if I barely had a choice in the matter.
There were only two ways that I could go – Nursing or Medicine.
So I put those two down and I put Psychology in the middle.
I put all the applications into their respective envelopes and I set them down on the dresser as my sister sat down on her bed after spending countless minutes gazing at her reflection in the mirror.
And then I wondered what would happen if The University of The Witwatersrand took me.
Was he still there?
I closed my eyes and saw his eyes and felt his fingers curled around my arm. His arms were heavy and I could almost remember the weight of them on me.
I opened my eyes and pulled my journal out from the shelf beside my bed and sat there for a moment, trying to bring myself back to the exact moment that I realized that he was there.
Not just physically there, but there in the moment with me, like he cared what happened to me. It could have been sooner, but I was sure that it happened when I tried to take my arm back from him. It was there that he squeezed a little tighter.
I found my hand hovering over the page, the pen poised, waiting to put down the depth of my thoughts, but the words would not come.
The poem was as unfinished and faltering as my understanding of him.
He seemed to stare back at me from a dark place, his eyes almost glowing in their ethereal quality. Were they even hazel to begin with? Or had I been completely out of my mind?
I closed my journal and put it on the shelf and stretched out on my bed, staring at the wall.
Why did it matter whether I knew him or not?
I would never see him again anyway…