We fold into ourselves like flowers. Petals carefully concealing fragile hearts, always on guard.
Our manifesto is provided by Drake, a Canadian rapper. “No new friends,” he instructs us. We eat the 6ix God’s words as sustenance, swallowing them and internalising the message, until it masquerades as our own default setting.
Somehow, we would come to betray Aubrey Drake Graham.
It began with a Jo’burg motto: “We should do coffee.” Those four simple words contain meanings that are never entirely certain, even entirely contradictory: “I never want to see you”, sometimes. “I really like you, but don’t have the time to see you”, often.
“You’re lovely, and I want to see you more often”, every now and then. “Can we end this conversation, please?”, occasionally — and particularly if in a crowded room, while participating in the ritualistic big-city activity known as networking.
Glibly uttered in passing, and reinforced by WhatsApp, these words led us to the terrace of a forgettable restaurant. Peak-hour traffic on William Nicol provided a familiar, gritty soundtrack.
“Hi,” she says, bursting through the glass doors.
Warm. Open. An extended invitation. “Hi,” I respond my eagerness and emoji-like grin betraying my Drake-loaned swagger. Instructions appear: “Modify tone/ apply greater wariness/ Observe, first/ Gotta emote less,” he spits in my ear. (Ignore my weak imaginative bars and go with me here, beloveds). She sits down and watches me with the same caution.
The conversation begins in shallow territory, buoyant armbands attached to our arms: the weather, the beauty of baked goods, the week that has been. We are learning each other’s language. When I’m nervous, I morph into a comedian. When she’s nervous, she laughs. A perfect anxious combination: every joke appears to land. I feel like Tumi Morake. Her laughter unlocks doors. It’s caught somewhere between a gurgle and a giggle, deeper than her speaking voice, surprising given her smallness. I unspool and reel myself back in.
“There are no biscuits here,” I mock-wail, gazing at the menu. “You could have a muffin? They also have red-velvet cake,” she offers, her brows furrowing in the concerned look that I will come to know so well. A confession follows. “I don’t like cake,” I say, aware that this is sacrilegious in most parts.
“You don’t like cake?” she asks, eyes wide and disbelief echoing through her voice.
“Nope,” I sheepishly reply. “But I like every kind of biscuit,” I offer, hoping for some kind of amnesty.
“I’ll bake some for you,” she says. This is a flex. This is a pick-up line. This is a pointed persuasion. (Spoiler alert: I am still waiting for those biscuits).
We wade further into the water, abandoning our floating aids, our conversation deepens. Friendship carefully births from feminism, Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood and the realisation that we have the same home: Nerdland. Slowly, she starts feeling like a safer space. I am thrilled. I also feel a little sick. When I was 13, I longed for the kinds of friendship I saw depicted on my television.
I yearned for the types I read about in Sweet Valley High and observed in my older sister’s circle: shared halves of necklaces, endless sleepovers and secrets whispered in ears and intricately folded letters. When I was 13, I searched for this kinship hungrily, aware of the hierarchies of popularity and the kinds of things that prevented me from its apex: my body size, race and a visibly sensitive disposition, among other things.
When the in-crowd accepted me within their ranks, I never exhaled. Weekly, girls were culled from the group, a kind of necessary sacrifice for maintaining power in teenage kingdoms. A few weeks passed, I still held my breath.
When I was 13, I walked down the D Floor stairs to our familiar lunch spot. It was a seemingly ordinary afternoon. Met by laughter and a scattered group, I faced a sight I have never forgotten: my schoolbag in the bin. My bag in the place of my body —rejection delivered as metaphor.
So Drake tells me “no new friends”, and I attempt to inscribe it on my body — always guarding locked doors. Enter the house, see the kitchen, sit in the lounge, play on the patio, but go no further. She, too, has been shaped by her history. She, too, knows locked doors. Perhaps this knowledge, history and effect bonded our borders until they were no longer “yours” and “mine”, but ours.
It’s been hours since we arrived at Forgettable Restaurant That Has No Biscuits. It’s getting late and traffic has quietened to a low hum as the sun has made its exit. We leave the restaurant, and she offers me a lift home.
“Your car!” I exclaim, gazing at the blue, silver and black marvel before me.
“I know, my car is a spaceship,” she says, rolling her eyes at its size, half-annoyed by its luxury, adoring its entirety. Ease replaces wariness on the journey home, Troye blaring through the sound system of the spaceship. It should have taken 10 minutes. It took 30 — 20 of them spent stationary and stuffing as much we could into limited time before our next commitments. We give up our postures. They cannot hold.
It is over a year since “We should do coffee” left my lips. It has morphed into “Small tea?” texts — an in-joke that knowingly suggests hours of conversation and time spent together.
Locked doors became openings, possibilities and beginnings.
Became learning and failing and trying, still.
Became laughing and crying and many cups of tea.
Became intentional and honest and accountable.
Became romance and reticence and bravery.
It is becoming, daily, a journey and a relationship that asks and requires much of us. My new friend became my best friend. Somehow, we betrayed Drake and folded into each other instead.