BY MEGAN ROSS
“A colour that is seen on a white ground after looking for some time at a bright object such as the sun. The accidental colour of red is bluish-green, that of orange is dark blue, that of violet is yellow, and vice versa.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 17th Edition, 2007.
It’s a damp underarm kinda day and sweaty tears run down my chest, soaking my bra. My shirt collar is a limp lettuce and my school socks have grown slimy around my feet. It’s a free period, so Ali and I kick off our Tuffeez and lower ourselves into the icy school pool, gymslip and all. We’re at the deep end, behind the mulberry bushes so nobody can spot us from the prefabs next door. After a minute in the mini-Olympic size investment, the pride and joy of the Father’s Club, we hoist ourselves up and out, leaning on our elbows while our dresses suction to our skin. Unrolling our socks, we put on shoes and leave the pool area to wander around the school, leaving a watery trail behind us.
We stop at the music block. Concrete pillars line its perimeter and we slide down against one, warming our goose bump skins in the morning sun, the hiss and split of a new alto reaching our ears while a pigeon descends upon a curious mixture of tar and crumbs. Socks are pushed around our ankles to tan our shins; they need to be the deep caramel of our thighs by November, at least. Collapsed on the ground with school bags still on our backs, we burrow down into the sticky blackness. Shutting my eyes, I see orange swarm around red like dye in a puddle, when the fetid smell of rotting fruit burns my nostrils. I look to the left and see the corner of Ali’s bag soaking up the sticky remains of someone’s lunch; a trampled peach.
Following my gaze – her eyes snapped open the second mine did – she jumps up, wriggling her shoulders and shaking her arms until she’s free of the bag, throwing it away with her left hand. A loud guffaw escapes me; she would have done the same.
“That is so disgusting, oh my God,” moans Ali.
“Dude, your mom is going to kill you. Isn’t that bag new?”
“Shut up man, I know. Ah! And I was going to get a better one if I didn’t mess this one up.”
“No chances, dude, that bag is so siff.”
The bell rings, a bubble bursting in our ears.
“What do you wanna do now? I am not going to Maths.” What she’s really asking is what we’ll do while be bunk the next class. A cigarette behind the science block, tanning on the netball court. She doesn’t really care what I think, just that I’ll agree with her. Lilac swims across my eyes, washing my vision of her in a purple stain.
“We could walk down to Nahoon?” I shrug. I shouldn’t. I’m failing standard grade maths and it’s not because I’m stupid.
“Ja, I won’t lie, that’s a good idea.” We hurl our blazers over the fence, feet crashing on to concrete as our fingers loosen school ties and pull our ponytails free. I feel asleep to all of it. Only when we stop at Erik’s for Cokes and chips do I realise that I’m not where I should be. Another lapse in consciousness. Time has slipped away again into the blueness of the sky.
The burning cool drink at the back of my throat throws me back into the present. A rusty Mazda dissipates into the heat amidst snarls and whistles. Next to me, Ali feigns disgust, but I see the measured strand of hair she tucks daintily behind her pierced ear.
I imagine her running after the car, throwing herself on to the bonnet. A cloud rolls over us, casting a temporary shadow across the street. Summer does this to me every year; blurring the distinction between reality and dreams. Before you know it, the evening is a glorious magenta sunset, when a month back it was just a black sky. Like blood from a wound, I feel myself growing thinner, stretched over the inevitable three months of sunburn and sand and stale chip rolls for every meal.
* * *
From its first set of robots to that last hill before the sea, the suburb of Nahoon is split in two by its serpentine main road. Towards the affluent drives of Plymouth and Harewood and Logan, Beach Road curves into a question mark, where at its fishing hook-end surfers traipse through veld to reach the Indian Ocean.
My shoelace is undone. I bend down to retie it the way my dad taught me when I was four years old. One loop, a tie around, knot and pull. Ali carries on walking; the clip clop clip clop of her heels grows faint. I have to run to keep up, my bag snagging the metal bits of bra through my uniform.
When I catch up to her it’s like she didn’t notice I’d fallen behind. We step off the pavement to avoid trampling over the legs of several municipal workers who are resting in the sun. Their weed-eaters and lawnmowers, leaning against a brick wall as if they too need a break, are red and amber and green; stop, caution, go.
* * *
Ali is making a verbal note of all the guys she’s been with. Her voice dips and glides, she’s trying to remember them in alphabetical order, which proves difficult when she forgets Chad Williams and has to begin from C all over again. At the back of her homework diary is a written list of conquests, and a column of scratched initials on the inside of her cupboard door at home. She thinks her mom has no idea, but I’ve seen her wince when she packs away Ali’s laundry. When we were in grade six, Ali tore two foolscap pages out of her Afrikaans book and made me write down the names of boys I want to make out with. I had to list them from one to ten, even though I couldn’t remember even three boys I’d ever thought about.
She’s the more adventurous one, but not by choice. I’m just a lot quieter, plus I don’t have her long hair or full breasts. Once Ali kissed a guy with a tongue ring, a story she likes to retell when she’s drunk. She always goes on and on about his piercing, says the little bead made her dizzy. It happened outside Mugg & Bean while a security guard looked on, laughing and whistling. After the first time she told me I could not stop wondering what it must have been like. I imagined burying my arms in his jacket as he pushed his tongue inside my mouth.
We’re walking in the road now, kicking stones across the intersection that takes you down to the Baptist and Catholic churches, scuffing our school shoes. “Have you ever kissed a black guy?” Ali asks, quite out of the blue, a sly smile on her lips.
“Nah, never.” I reply, “My dad would kill me. He went to the army dude! But like ja, I’ve just never thought about it.” In truth I hadn’t thought about kissing many boys, let alone ones who would get me into hot water.
“So did mine,” she says. “But I don’t care. He would never know.”
“True. But like, can you just imagine everyone at school? Remember Rebecca? People went off about that whole thing!”
Rebecca Smith, a stunning girl who won the maths prize every year, went out with Isaac Bala when we were in grade eight. Nobody said anything until the school gala, when a bunch of white rugby jocks threw paint at them from the grandstands. I remember our school colour running down their faces, scarlet tears that made Rebecca change schools and prompted a disciplinary hearing from the obliged Governing Body. I think of the way those same boys lost their places in the first team but still spat out hate in every class they could, growling in science and maths about slutty girls and people who don’t know their places, while Isaac defended himself against their blows, which turned physical on weekends.
“No way bra, no way I’m tapping that!” My stomach flip-flops when I think about their misdirected revulsion. But then again, it’s not like I went out of my way to defend or befriend either Rebecca or Isaac. I tend to hide in the corner of conversations, around the periphery of confrontation and chatter. This abstract quality of not-involvement lends itself well to playing the role of confidante. A role I take seriously, especially when it came to Ali. God, that girl’s got some heavy shit.
* * *
Guys I recognise from Gonubie ramp the speed bump in a white Datsun. The body is so badly rusted you can see the chassis. It’s worn and salty, like its dreadlocked occupants, frothing for the swell that’s rolled in with the west wind. A grommet sits on the back of the bakkie, holding the boards. It’s almost high summer but the days aren’t yet long. The sun falls out of the sky soon after we’ve got home from the beach. We barely wash the sand off our feet before the night is ushered in by the moon.
Ali shouts out at the white bakkie and it does a U-turn, revving up the hill towards us.
“Shit bro, did you bring any deo?” she asks me. I shrug. The laaitie in the back throws his arms over the boards. The passenger door opens and without a word we clamber over a guy who was in my catechism class. I feel the warmth of his body rise through my dress but he says nothing. I’m choked between the dashboard and the window. Ali shoots a glance my way, making sure I don’t say anything stupid. An upside down CD casts a rainbow across her face; she truly is gorgeous, a regular high school hottie.
I shift up and on to the torn interior. It scratches my legs but I prefer it to bouncing on his knee. Ali hugs her sticky bag like a child. My palms are damp. I’m not sure why. I’m not scared of guys and I’m not shy, I just don’t trust them, especially these ones with their worn skin and ankle ties and salty-smelling skin.
The driver breaks in the car park and reverses between the lines. Ali unlocks the door with two fingers, swivels on the seat so that her legs stick out the car and puts her bag on her back. As she stands up I’m suddenly aware of blood on the seat, a spurious diamond soaking the interior. Our eyes meet and the driver looks down.
“Oh wow, what the fuck is that? Are one of you guys hurt?” Ali’s searching for words, mouth moving like a ventriloquist doll but the sounds come out of me.
“It’s nothing, um, uh, I think I cut myself,” I hear myself say, stupidly.
I grab Ali’s hand and tear across the tarmac, blackened blood like burnt insides running down her legs. We stop on the sand, catch our breath and run all the way up the beach towards the reef.
Shouts behind us disappear into a rush of air; I feel Ali’s shame burn through cheeks and into the space around me. Hot, charged. I’m trying not to think about it. I feel nauseous as I run, imagining it was me. The worst thing that could ever happen has happened but Ali’s sobs have turned to laughter and she begins to shake hysterically as she reaches for the bottom of my skirt, panting.
“Wait, wait.” She’s choking on her spit, laughing so hard she has to squeeze her legs together so she doesn’t pee. I’m confused and tired. I plop down on the ground and take off my shoes. She does the same. We stuff our rolled socks into my bag and climb up the dune toward the shrubbery.
We settle in a bowl at the top, just before the bush begins. It’s dry and quiet, hollowed out by wind and rain. Ali strips off to her panties and bra; I push my gym up around my hips in retaliation. We trace cursive wishes in the sand, swearwords that disappear; swallowed up by the sand rivers our moving fingers make. Grains of sand dance in a diagonal Congo line down the dune.
“Shit,” Ali says, looking between her legs, horror on her face. “Do you have a tampon for me?”
I straighten up, craning my neck to see the reddy-brown shadow. I don’t.
“Nah dude, I’m sorry,” I reply.
Her eyes fill up.
“It’s a lot,” she says, voice cracking. I feel useless. My period barely lasts two days. It’s not even enough for a tampon.
“I knew it was going to be a lot, I just didn’t expect it to come so quickly.” I look at her. Something is up.
“I took the morning-after pill okay?” she says, and before I can reply, “I had to, and last time I took it there was a lot of blood, I think it means you were actually pregnant or something.” I’m shocked and impressed: I didn’t even know she’d had sex.
“I didn’t,” she says after a while, reading my mind. She pushes her arms through her gym and leans on her knees to do up the side zip. “Well I did but only for like, a minute. And he pulled out but you know, my mom is so fertile and that shit runs in the family so there’s no way I was risking it.” She’s right; her mom’s got four kids. She couldn’t possibly risk it.
We pull at the vegetation that clings to the sand, like children tearing up the sports field on athletics day, lost in the awkwardness of the moment. Balbonella, sour fig, the beginnings of a coral tree, silver oak. I envy their nursery, high above the white stretch of sand. Carved away by time and tides, ungoverned by bells and periods and four-walled classrooms, this bleached sand, their home.
“Who bought it for you?”
“He did. The guy. The first time anyway. The second time I asked my maid’s daughter.”
“Did it hurt?”
Silence. I don’t have words and neither does she. The sets are growing. A perfect left curls into a liquid tunnel. I imagine being inside its cool walls, the deafening roar in my ears; an architecture of water. I’d hear nothing; the beauty would surely translate into a bright quiet until it birthed me out its end.
Ali looks at me with that expression I know means she thinks I’m useless. I stand up and pick up our bags. The sun has made me dizzy.
“Come, I think we can get some toilet paper from the shack, can you walk that far?”
She looks relieved. Standing up, she sticks her head down to her knees to check how soaked her underwear is.
“All right. Look. Take this tissue” – I fumble for a tuck shop serviette in my breast pocket – “and fold it in half. Stuff it in your panties until we get to the loo.”
We stomp down the dune, socks around our necks. Ali looks behind us every few steps, careful to erase any trace of her with sand.
* * *
In the bathroom where only one toilet flushes and the cistern carries the corpses of cigarettes and condoms and ice cream sticks, next to the lifesaver’s shack that’s held together by good luck, I hold my nose, waiting for Ali. The concrete floor is splattered with the fragments of sunsets and sunrises – glass, gum and a pair of sunglasses with a missing lens – and the window is so filthy you can’t see through it.
She’s in the stall, cleaning herself up. I hear the angry shreds of toilet paper being stuffed into her underwear. Our schoolbags are on the counter, doubled in the mirror that’s cracked in three places and rusting around the edges, salt swallowing vanity in hungry mouthfuls. I’m guarding the door since the stalls don’t lock and she can’t do everything she needs to with one hand pressed against it.
“Done,” she announces, walking to the mirror and adjusting her fringe, pushing it to the side and flattening it on to her forehead. She cut it with her scissors the one day in Home Ec. We were supposed to be studying different cuts of meat, but Ali gets bored easily and just hacked at it, snip snip snip. The wind has made my own hair knotty; I’m going to break my hairbrush if I try untangling it without conditioner.
We leave the bathroom and walk towards the parking lot without a word, away from the beach. We have to get back to school soon but I’m not sure how Ali’s going to manage with her period and all. She hasn’t said anything more about taking the morning-after pill. I don’t know much about it, except that it’s kinda like an abortion but hurts less. My confirmation teacher said it’s a sin.
I imagine a giant magnifying glass in the sky; feel its concentrated light on my forehead as I slip into another daydream. This heat makes me faint, I feel like a wobbling galaxy of cells. An echo of something more. A dead slice of time, fragmented by the accidental colour that slices through me.
I make a mental note to Google the morning-after pill that night, right after I’ve washed and conditioned my hair and buried my face in aqueous cream and plucked my eyebrows and shaved my legs. I’m going to have sun burnt cheeks — they’re raw and hot and scratchy already. I look to my left and see the exhaustion on my best friend’s face. Grabbing her hand, we trudge up the hill together. No boys, no cars, no lifts. Just Ali and I. Step by step we walk, purpose rising up inside of me.