We might have shared a number of classes in our high school career, but it wasn’t until we clashed in a debate in our Grade Ten History class that I first noticed ‘him’. He certainly knew me – everybody did. A far cry from the ninety-pound shrinking violet that I have been since my mid-twenties, I was an outspoken and voluptuous fifteen-year old pretty girl with body image issues. As a Black girl and top academic achiever in a historically White school in a conservative town on the East Rand ofGauteng, I was in the contradictory position of being both a celebrity and an outcast amongst Black and White students alike.
The topic of the debate was whether Black and White people could live together. The vast majority of our class (including ‘him’) was for segregation, leaving a handful of us political “romantics” to argue for a multicultural co-existence. Unfortunately my introduction of my religious beliefs into the debate weakened my argument and ‘he’ thrashed me. Boys very rarely challenged me. Furthermore, there were no boys at school who expressed any genuine romantic interest in me. While I was proud of my achievements, I had until then felt untouched and untouchable. That encounter shocked and upset me; but it also gave me a rush. On the one hand, the guy seemed to be a racist pig. On the other hand, ‘he’ spoke so eloquently that I felt that this was somebody I should get to know; somebody who could teach me a thing or two.
He was tall and big-boned, very much like the heavy-set guys he kept company with. His hair appeared to be a sandy brown colour, worn in spikes that contravened school regulations. Much later we would attend a school camp where a swim in a lake would wash out the copious amount of gel in his hair. I would discover that his hair was the colour of sun-bleached wheat, with the subtlest hint of curls. It had been easy not to look at him in the face because I am extremely short and rarely lift my gaze unless I have to. That debate literally forced us to confront each other face to face. It was on that day that I first took in the topaz blue hue of his eyes, which in that moment glittered with arrogance and contempt. Some days later, I pulled one of the girls I knew aside and asked, “Who is that guy?” It is astonishing that I had still failed to pay attention when the teacher registered class attendance.
“Oh, that is So-and-So.”
“He’s cute!” I hadn’t meant to say that aloud. My face feigned a nonchalance that was absent from my voice.
“Yes. Yes, he is.”
It took a couple more days before I actually went to talk to him. The occasion called for a friendly, laid-back approach. But it was beyond me to muster such a casual flair and I was decidedly overly diplomatic and formal. We shook hands as I congratulated him on the debate. My cool, papery palm pressed into his warm, fleshy one. I must have said something contrived, like, “Hey, that was a really good debate. You argue well.” I don’t really remember. I do remember what he replied.
“That means a lot, coming from you.”
We became friends in the very loose sense of the word, taking time to talk to each other apart from our respective friends from time to time. I also paid attention to what he said in some of our other shared classes and discovered that when he wasn’t being offensive, he actually made me laugh. We made each other laugh. I remember a handful of moments when he would say something and I would be the only one cracking up or when I would say something and the two of us would be giggling, our classmates eyeing us with suspicion or as if we were just two loons. I was always the last one to leave class and he would wait for me to pack my books or to finish consulting with the relevant educator so that we could walk to the next class together. We made for a funny pair: me with my oversized bag on my back, him with his long legs that gracefully constrained themselves to walk at my pace. By the time that I registered the frequency of this routine, I was already smitten. Noticing that ‘he’ always made a point of saying goodbye to me after school, my best friend innocently commented, “Hey, that boy likes you.” Once again reaching for my mask of nonchalance, I responded, “Ja, we get along.” It wasn’t like we were seeing each other outside of school activities or anything, even though we lived in the same neighbourhood.
Things came to a head in our matric year, when he formed a friendship with another girl. He and I were still close, although the number of awkward moments had increased: like the time he swooped down so close to my face I feared that he would kiss me right there on school property in full view of at least one observer; or the time he hugged me in front of a class of Grade Eights that I was supervising; or his tendency of lightly touching my forehead when he passed my desk or of touching my formidable bottom when we were just kidding around; or how his eyes lingered on my curves when he told me I looked good before looking away. And perhaps more significantly, there’d been a number of times when I’d seen him waiting for me and – too embarrassed to join him – had taken refuge in the company of girlfriends instead. Many people believe that teenagers are at the mercy of their hormones. It’s amazing the restraint you can muster when you think you have to; even as desire to touch the object of your lust seems to be lacerating your very sinews.
While he was certainly not the first boy I’d ever had feelings for, he was the first one I wanted to f…er…to know carnally. I felt threatened by this other girl and with good reason: she had already told some of us girls that she liked him and hoped that they would end up together. Believing that they were in the process of “hooking up”, I became involved with somebody else in our grade. I thought it was a move that would enable ‘us’ to maintain the platonic aspect of friendship, but it destroyed the friendship altogether. ‘He’ seemed to be angry with me and made inappropriate comments about what I did with my new boyfriend. For the remainder of the year, I was baffled by how we had drifted apart. I suspected that it was because of my new relationship (I dared not hope that ‘he’ was jealous), but I didn’t have the guts to broach the subject of ‘us’ with ‘him’. At the same time, I treated my boyfriend unfairly and eventually broke up with him as I admitted to the both of us that my heart wasn’t in it. Towards the end of that final year, I found out through a mutual acquaintance that he had never been romantically or sexually involved with the other girl.
We briefly rekindled our friendship after that revelation and even as it became clear that we had feelings for each other, it was also clear that race and the incumbent cultural differences were obstacles that we were not really prepared to overcome. Ten years, three degrees and three adult relationships later, I still feel conflicted about that relationship. I wonder whether my attraction to him was natural, or whether it was the result of my “colonised mind” responding to “Western concepts of beauty”. I sometimes feel a little saddened that he didn’t try harder to fight for me. Most of all, I am sometimes saddened by the fact that I wasn’t brave enough to speak my truth when it really counted, regardless of the potential consequences. I try not to lose sight of the fact that we were only children, after all; but the fact that we can’t even bring ourselves to talk when we bump into each other back in our hometown reminds me that the hurt and embarrassment of the past is still with us.