Waking Under the Southern Cross
Do I have to? Can’t I visit Cape Town without seeing her?
My inner tantrum gave way to James inviting me to lunch. Why didn’t Amy invite me herself? Why did she want to see me at all? Last year, hands in front of her chest like a squirrel holding a nut, she’d seemed to plead for something she couldn’t ask for.
Eight years ago, in Cambridge, with James a post-doc at MIT, she shone in my art class. I loved her drawings – a man on crutches, a woman carrying a fat tote of groceries on her head, a gardener spiffy in his church uniform’s peaked cap, all implied affection and humor. I saw her on the threshold of recognition. In South Africa, she’d had some provincial success, and I thought she could have a breakthrough. She used to teach high school, now she could work with concentration. That’s all it needed. I urged her on, but some trembling dread barred her way. She would not take the step across. By the end of the year, I stopped deceiving myself that her ruined fragments of talent still held promise.
Home again, she clung to my outworn praise. as though nothing good had happened in the eight years since Cambridge.
“She’s got Parkinsons,” James sounded flat. Parkinsons. Like my slow moving neighbor in Cambridge. Amy must be in her fifties, if that. She’d outlivedd my patience but James was sticking with her. I wondered how many men would have stood with her? James had never said a word about her financial fecklessness or the chaos in their house. When it comes to love and sex, I don’t dare guess what’s going on.
The impending lunch heavy in my chest, I prepared for sleep and went out onto the balcony to look at Orion’s belt and the Southern Cross, constellations that shone on my childhood. I breathed deep, sniffed February vegetation in the garden below, and locked the balcony door. I rarely see bright stars in Massachusetts.
Come morning, I unlocked the balcony to admit bouncing sunshine while I dressed, took my new heart pills, boiled water in the electric kettle, drank rooibos, and read news on my laptop – another blizzard in Boston, a celebrity murder in Cape Town – closed my laptop, locked doors to the balcony and my room, descended the nineteenth century oak stairs sliding my palm along the smooth length of the banister, locked the front door and set off through the Gardens.
Walking now, I imagined how Amy might draw what I saw, shadow and weight, light and poise in one move – dark oak leaves and crusty bark, iron fence and rose garden behind. Metal, flesh and delights of the flesh, base of all other delights. Amy, part color-blind, would shun those pinks and golds though she might evoke the erotic shade beyond where lovers used to meet at a secluded tearoom. In the bad days, people found it a safe place for different races. I passed scuffed men sleeping on wooden benches facing the Houses of Parliament. Amy shied away from social commentary. A shoulder turned away, a heavy eyelid. How did she make them speak fellow feeling? I don’t know. Only that I envied her gift.
The Gardens avenue ended at a library where I used to spend undergraduate hours studying European masters. Two peddlers offered beaded bracelets, AIDS pins, wire and bead lions and lambs. A river of metal glittered in the street. I turned left and skirted a sandwich board at the Cathedral that invited people to an exhibition in the crypt. Glancing in, I saw movable walls of photographs – streets bobbing with people’s heads, banners, Archbishop Tutu. Oh! That march! The night I heard about it, I called friends in New York, “Are you drinking champagne?”
“Good Cape wine.”
“No one fired, no one killed… I’m scared of premature hope.”
“We think it’s real… We’re talking about going home.”
“Isn’t here home yet?”
“Can here ever be home?”
Four months later, my New York friends flew to Johannesburg.
When I came to Cape Town for my mother’s funeral two years ago, Ben invited me to teach a workshop.
“Ja-nee, if that’s when you like.”
At the Cathedral crypt I accepted a pamphlet from a man about my age. “We have to keep the history alive.” Hands freckled like giraffe skin.
I made my way to Long Street’s clutter of tourists, beggars, and prostitutes. At each stretch of parked cars, a man wearing a luminous vest implied official status for his sliver of work, guarding cars. Other men, without even phantom employment, hung round the stores. In Long Street, restaurants advertised crocodile steaks, kudu, hippo, zebra, snake. I promised myself time in the used-book and antique stores. The small shops, roofed sidewalk, slender pillars, and iron lace recalled a childhood excursion with my mother. She gave me a book that revealed pictures when you ran a pencil over its blank pages. The beginning of my career?
I had been walking where I could not see the mountain. Now I crossed to the other side of the street, and glimpsed clefts and crevasses. Above the highest cliffs, near the cable station, a bright cloud combed the blue.
Ben was waiting, his hair bright as that cloud, his shirt meticulous, a benign expression on his face. Two grandchildren now. A happy man. He started his art school again five years ago. During apartheid, he had made his school a center for artists and writers, ambassadors, scholars, philanthropists, producers and musicians, then his wife died in a car crash and he lost heart. No one was pruning the roses or mowing the lawn. He sold the sprawling Victorian mansion that housed classes and studios and went to England. Next time I saw him in Cape Town, he showed me what he had painted his first year back – twenty canvases taller than himself, each yellow, holding a yellow circle the full width of canvas, joyful, indomitable, abundant. A paean to the sun. I didn’t have to tell Ben about winters in New England.
He married again and his second grandchild drew breath two months ago.
On the table at his chair I saw a catalog and a plastic supermarket bag. He kept his phone and wallet in the bag so they wouln’t “look worth stealing.”
I was carrying my smartphone in my jacket’s inner pocket and in the canny way of these devices, it rang the same moment he stood to greet me. James. “Can I call you back?” I put the phone on the table, hugged Ben, and sat.
“Let’s see,” he reached for it, “This is pretty.”
“Greedy beast, it needs constant recharging. And the phone company here prescribes a diet of gold dust.”
“Ja-nee, you rich people always complain about what things cost. If you lived on rands, you wouldn’t whine about what it cost.”
“Mea culpa.” Converting dollars into rands, I did feel rich.
“What! You’re going back to Latin!”
“And Vatican sex? You think I’m mad?”
“You said you’d show me your new grandsons’ pictures.”
He slipped his phone out of its plastic camouflage and showed me the infant calm on his mother’s breast, the older boy smiling at both.
“Very nice. Mazeltov. His name?”
“Tim. They say it works in Norwegian as well as English. Like Erik.”
“That’ll be convenient. Both good names. When do you go to Oslo to see them?”
“Ag, man! When will the rand improve?”
One of six waiters detached himself from the clump behind the counter. Six waiters serving two people! Too few jobs. We ordered coffee, and I picked up the catalog. The school in another Victorian mansion, its studios, gallery, store and stock. The catalog targeted a prosperous customer who liked Scandinavian modern design forty years ago, a shrinking group. Ben hoped I’d develop a market in America for his students’ and faculty work.
“I don’t see any rugs from Henning’s Kloof.”
“They closed. Too dangerous.”
“And the missionaries?”
“Went back to Germany.”
“And the weavers?”
“Ja-nee, back in their villages.”
“They did beautiful work.”
“I bought a few carpets. Nothing’s left.”
At the time of that march in Cape Town the arts were bursting out of old forms, painting, sculpture, collages, posters, plastic bags and recycled trash never before exhibited in galleries, beads, stolen telephone wires. Resolute and defying apartheid laws, Ben founded his first art school before that flowering, but when his wife died and the exhilaration of freedom evaporated into crime and corruption, he retired. Now he was painting again and opening another school. He still hoped.
I handed him the pamphlet I’d picked up at the crypt, “I passed an exhibition at the Cathedral.”
“My girlfriend put flowers in soldiers’ guns that week.”
“So long ago.”
“Ja-nee. The cynics and racists feared right. Corruption’s killing us now.” His yes-no seemed apt for his opposed feelings.
Last year, he had sounded angry at a media story about a politician eating sushi off a woman’s naked belly. This year, he sounded resigned. Before I first left for America, we talked about non-violent resistance. He had practiced it. I, safe and distant, approved.
A breeze fingered my cotton shirt. Our restaurant’s window opened to the sidewalk. A golden forearm and slim wrist slipped through it, grabbed my smartphone and vanished.
No point in rushing out to search. How do you chase an arm? “Ag, man! How’m I going to get through today today? My calendar! My address book!”
A tangle of waiters gathered to sympathize. Better not feel sorry for myself. I was too rich here living so close to poor people we breathed each others’ bodies.
The knot of waiters unraveled and dispersed.
“I’ll take you to the phone shop. You can’t live here without one.”
“Thank you, Ben. Should I tell the police?”
“Don’t bother. They won’t help. What’s your next appointment?”
“Lunch with James and Amy.” Could I use this theft to cancel?
Ben’s features closed. “Ja-nee. You know she’s got Parkinson’s.”
“James told me. The three of us are having lunch.”
“I’ll give you a ride there.”
“No need. We’re meeting in Kloof Street.”
“I’ll walk with you. The phone shop’s right there.”
“I don’t like to take your time, Ben.”
We talked about a course I might teach next February and set out, crossing at the light, facing the mountain, a busy stretch with sidewalk tables and pots planted with greenery. A resolute man facing us swung his arms in diagonal sweeps across his diaphragm, two students from the vocational college nearby engrossed each other. Here too, men in luminous vests guarded cars. “Most are immigrants. Some were lawyers, professors.”
Ben would not leave until he had my new number.
New phone in hand, I shooed him off, “Now leave.”
He kissed my cheek and held my shoulders, “Phone me tonight, O.K.?”
I wondered at his tone, then looked for the number I’d written when James called last night.
“Amy’ll come first, I’ll join you later.”
“Fine. Take my number. This phone is new. Someone just stole the other.”
I’d expected something like James canceling so Amy could have time alone with me and sensed James again guessing my reluctance to meet Amy, procuring me for her, our submerged complicity like swimming in warm and cold river currents.
Waiting in the arcade, protected by passersby at a narrow coffee shop between the windows of a dress shop and a balustrade over a lower sidewalk, I stood where Amy would see me examining buttons on the new phone. The coffee shop customers, students and women sporting plastic bags from the dress shop, ignored me. Across the street, a restaurant featured its mozzarella. Amy came on me from deeper in the arcade, stooping, face lifted up, uncertain, her Tshirt loose, her expression apologetic, hair unkempt. Again, her posture admitted she’d let me down.
My heart shrank. How could she look so bent? Too young to be this crone.
They had chosen a restaurant further up Kloof Street, “With a garden. We remembered Cambridge in February.” She started to lead the way on the brick sidewalk and passed children’s voices at a school, jacaranda trees and a metal jungle gym.
I followed, and she slowed at a steep corner with a deep gutter and stone curb, taking one step at a time. I recalled a convent behind the whitewashed wall. Amy shuffled further, then stopped, “Can we eat here?” giving up on the restaurant with the garden. Too far away, the path too strait, the slope too steep, the gutters too deep.
Deceptively innocuous plants shielded tables from intruders. Amy plumped for a table near the entrance. We sat and she called James and spoke in a low voice.
I had not foreseen her shocking hunch and apologetic squirrel gesture. I believed she knew what Parkinson’s implied. She would never realize her promise. She would die. Remorse stabbed my heart. “When did you know?”
“About a year ago.” Had she guessed or feared something like this last year? Had I seen the beginning without guessing what it meant?
“What took you to a doctor?”
“I tried to put my foot down but it didn’t land where I thought. I didn’t have a leg to stand on.”
I summoned a smile.
“What did the doctor say?”
“I saw three. They agree but I’m not… not sure. I read an article, lack of magnesium. So I bought magnesium pills. For ten days, I felt on top of the world. The eleventh day, a newborn giraffe, legs all over.” Still smiling, her sad face squeezed pain through my chest. Too late for hope. I felt my tactless face reflecting her sadness.
She reached for a menu in a metal holder and handed it to me. The page trembled. “What’ll you have?”
“What about you?”
“I used to come here for breakfast after a run. Scrambled eggs, bacon, ostrich sausage, tomato, toast, ten rand.”
“A bargain at twice the price.”
This place too seemed stuffed with more waiters than customers. Amy nodded, summoning one with a round face. “Is Dave still here?”
Dave was gone. We ordered coffee, I chose a salad and Amy a burger. Nothing to cut or balance on a fork, just pick up the bun and bite.
Our waiter brought fresh napkins, knives, forks.
“I wanted to do a book, breakfast round the world. ‘Breakfast Anywhere’ like breakfast anytime.” Mumbling, “You know the joke, ‘Breakfast all day… I haven’t got the time.’” She had talked about an album of songs, a compendium of local proverbs, a collection of fishermen’s portraits. At the angle she was holding her head I saw the light on her sad cheeks downy like a teenage boy’s. Before meeting James, she had worked in a country store, gossiping with customers about the wine harvest, selling sweaters and men’s safari suits, pickled fish and homemade jams, flirting with the men, going to their dances, laughing at their jokes.
“Breakfasts are a great idea.” I played the old game of encouraging her.
“I could’ve traveled round the world with breakfast sketches.” Her lost opportunities in the past tense.
Such is the complexity of being alive, I relished my salad – varied, textured, seasoned and dressed with olive oil – and the living outdoor air. Without the structure of teaching to shape our conversation, I felt stuck. “Do you and James have help?”
“A woman cooks and cleans twice a week and sometimes she stays a few hours while James’s at work.”
Her half-eaten hamburger open, she excused herself to go to the toilet and I looked round. The mountain, high as heaven, blocked out all else in boulders with sharp lines right up to the blue clear as a Q.E.D., imposing as law. Time would not forgive, tolling ‘Late, late.’ The train track empty, the store dark, the ringing phone unanswered. I had failed her. I should have been more patient. Instead, I had judged her.
My own life seeped in, a quicksand of remorse.
She shambled back, her T-shirt partly caught in her jeans and striped panties. Did she need help dressing?
She held the back of her chair, maneuvered onto her seat and settled in it, “I met an American tourist last month.”
Our waiter cleared the hamburger remains and brought more coffee. Amy dipped a spoon into the sugar bowl, spilled some into her cup and stirred.
“She went on safari. Namibia and the west coast. She’s got an incurable cancer and wanted to see African lions and elephants before it’s too late.” Amy paused, her sadness seared me, “She showed me videos she took, buck, lion, zebra, elephant, crocodile, herds, couples, singles, babies, patriarchs. The stripes, the light – beautiful. A spiritual experience. Animals hunting and killing, day after day. Nothing cruel. Just the way things are. She said she can die in peace now.”
“You found that moving?”
“I used to dismiss Americans on safari.”
“I thought they see only what they knew before.”
Our eyes met in a desert. No herds of buck and zebra, no beetles or scorpions, no thorny plants or ferocious succulents. Nothing. A preview of Earth consumed, the end of time. No easy consolation or shimmering mirage. Time would not hear her regret. Or mine. Would she be alive when I came next year?
Amy and James attended a Methodist church and I longed to ask how they understood their suffering but found no language, only intrusive clichés. I did not poke into mysteries greater than marriage.
James arrived – tall, straight, healthy, handsome – and held out a hand, “How you doing there?”
“Glad to see you again.”
“I’ll say the same.”
Amy said, “Breakfast all day.” The rest of the joke hovered among us like a ghost.
“You finished lunch?”
“Not yet.” To give him permission, I ordered apple pie. Amy ordered coffee and James ostrich steak. We talked about the weather and the murder making this morning’s headlines. I believed James aware of the layers of my affection and impatience, my onion heart simple to peel away layer by layer till nothing’s left.
Amy mentioned the restaurant near the arcade boasting its mozzarella. “They’ve got a water-buffalo in the back yard.” Her humor had always been gentle.
James talked about his heated meeting, standards for science examinations. Contributing to what the country needed. And I?
When we were done, James offered to drive me to my guest house, “…minutes from my office.” I had planned an ocean swim but now felt spent.
On my way up the stairs I held the banister and paused for my heart to steady. In my room, elbows on the table, I held my head on my left hand. What was I doing here?
I lay down and woke to light slipping from the afternoon, my eyelids glued with dried tears. Like that man in Purgatorio with his eyelids sewed closed. If only my blindness could give way to sight. I washed my face and called Ben, “I didn’t expect her to be so far gone.”
“I thought you’d be shocked. It’s been quick.”
“Heartbreaking.” I walked out onto the balcony “I’ve been feeling she let me down. Now I feel I let her down.” Too late now to do what she might have needed. I would fly back to the luxury of exile and would leave the country again to other people meeting the dangers that remained. They would outface the tedium and despair I had shirked. In the years ahead, refugees would make new lives and replace the narrow vision of people who know only their present lives. They would muster the bitter courage to begin again under the Southern Cross.
An image was coming clear like that picture my childhood pencil brought to the surface – the aghast sinner in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Why did I feel so stricken and culpable? Had I, like Amy, missed my every last chance?
“Ja-nee. I wondered… I’m coming to get you.”
“Oh Ben, that’d be so good.”
We walked the esplanade from Our Lady of Good Hope to the lighthouse at Mouille Point where Ben keeps a surf suit and board. The sun sank into the sea and by the time we stopped, day had died, light from Venus pricked through the evening sky and I felt cold, hungry and glad to escape the sensuous delights of being alive. Walking to Ben’s car, I stepped into the road. He grabbed my nape. “We drive on the left here.”
“I forget where I am in this world.”
He laughed, “Don’t rush to the next, please. I want you at my school next year.”