A class photo and an us that never was

I can’t quite remember when the feeling hit, or who had initiated the first call. But those phone calls, often filled with pauses as we wavered on what the next subject would be, became the only thing lifting the gloom and regimentation of high school. I had known you since primary school. Your skin tone, about as black as your shoulder-length curls, made you radiate from afar. Though I wouldn’t quite call it attraction then, your quiet magnetism was undeniable.

As children growing up in an apartheid society, where colourism and racial categories were our only vocabulary, your very being stood in defiance of that. You flitted between worlds, race theory and aesthetics. Secretly, I had decided that you were the most beautiful being I had ever seen. Secret because you were considered among the ugliest in the school. An awkward kid with a lopsided gait, who was I to break ranks? You were the butt of jokes, but a constant image of perfection etched in my brain.

In the next two years, I’d be a junior in a boys’ school, neither gifted nor interested in rugby or cricket. When not heading out to the university to play basketball twice a week, our afternoons were the picture of idleness. There was endless small talk with acquaintances, discovering A Tribe Called Quest and DJ Quik, and regulated trips into town.

A friend, disillusioned with the near-preppiness of it all, decided he was going to skip the border and head over to an ANC camp in Angola. Only this was 1993, the ANC camps had been long closed, and Umkhonto weSizwe operatives were coming the other way. In any case, we held a night-time goodbye session for him and watched him hop over the gate in his uniform, duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

It was during this period that we started communicating more frequently. You would call on one of the two public phones at the boarding house, and I’d run down the spiralling stairs at the sound of the intercom. Each phone call, stilted as I figured out the art of small talk, drew me closer to your mystique. Your voice, neither faint nor dainty, carried with it the energy of your more interesting life. You spoke as you looked: untethered to any one identity but a part of all of them.

I looked at our primary school class photo, my only document of your existence, several times over the years. My eyes would always stop at my image, head to the side at the front of the picture. Then they would move on to you, on a higher plane in the back row, head held aloft, a shining beacon to melanin. That photo, kept among my mother’s heirlooms in a white box chair that sat in the middle of her dressing table, found space between her letters to my father and my baby pictures. Why we never amounted to anything more than the frisson generated by our phone calls is probably down to two things: my paralysing shyness and the boldness of your appearance.

One day in high school, probably two years into our phone relationship, the boys played a game of show and tell. We were all supposed to bring a picture of our girlfriends. It was a game I would not be participating in. First, you weren’t my girlfriend, and, second, because I knew exactly how that would go down. Besides, as a boarder, I wouldn’t have been able to go home to get my standard four picture, only to pretend that we were more than friends.

It was my former primary school classmate, miraculously in the same high school class with me, who outed my pointless, extended pining. I came from the toilet that day to find that the photo had become the subject of lunch-table buffoonery, each sucker craning to have a better view of your dark face. Where were you from, they wanted to know? Egypt? Djibouti? Sudan? Zanzibar?

In retrospect, you weren’t that “dark”, you were just the darkest in the class. Besides, your skin tone was even and without blemish. I should have said it plainly during that lunch break: she’s actually fucking beautiful, you numbnuts. Against five of the “summertime crew”, as our group called itself, I’d have been drowned out by the heckles. In the ensuing years, I’d get kicked out of the model C high school, with the principal “making an example of me”. I’d become a day scholar and would see you occasionally at the bus stop in the centre of town or from afar as we navigated pedestrian traffic.

Those quick encounters would always be a quicker version of our phone conversations; stilted, with more moving parts to consider. The strangest meeting of them all was when I saw you in my neighbourhood because you had come to see your lover, a policeman who had threatened to arrest me for smoking a spliff in an open field. You came as he held court, rounding us up near the old drive-in. He, hulking and almost reddish in complexion, and you, a matte sheen on your skin in your white jersey and matching pants. I watched your contrasting appearances in the slow motion clarity of a marijuana high. I stood pathetically, on the wrong side of the law, probably about to be arrested. How I wish I’d been that brusque cop, if only for that moment.

Twice more, I’d see you again in the presence of a lover, his complexion similar to the cop’s. This guy, though, looked much older than you. I greeted you, but on both occasions you had the stoicism of an obedient wife. In my jealousy, I ascribed your choice in partners to your self-esteem. But the more I think about it, there was a self-awareness that suggested an inner strength to you. For at the heart of revulsion and ridicule must lie something else for the joker. A void, perhaps. A lack of understanding. Or a knowledge deeper than the truth itself.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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