FICTION: Stars

BY NICK MULGREW

I

He was shouting at me for the first time since I’d met him.

“You fucked me over, Nandi. For fuck’s sake.”

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

“No, you don’t,” he said. “You haven’t got a fucking clue what you’ve done.”

“I know what I’ve done,” I said – and I think it was fair to say that because it was something that I had, in fact, done. And I had regretted it. It’s why I had come back to Durban. It’s why I was here, in a bar by the docks, at three in the morning.

“OK,” he said, leaning into me. “Seeing as you know me so well, tell me, how the fuck do you expect me to come back from that?”

To be honest, I was hoping he would have figured that out for himself during all the hours he had spent crying into his phone, with me silent on the other end of the line. I had no plan here. I thought if I came here things would fit back into place like he said they would.

I heard they played jazz here, but there was no jazz, just white boys playing chillwave off a laptop. When I walked in I saw him dancing with another woman, an Indian girl in shorts, and at once I just wanted to go back to your flat to eat rotis and binge-watch cartoons. But I stuck around, drinking vodka and ice, biding time. Now there were Thai sailors coming in, in starched-white uniforms, taking positions at the bar, ordering shots of cane, flipping through the pages of a karaoke menu. There were men with hotpants and imiqhele playing old Mandoza songs in the booth in the corner. A woman in blonde topknots danced alone, with her wide-eyed spaniel sitting leashed to a pole in front of her.

And yet with all this, even with all this around me, the thing that surprised me most was him, and this coming out of everything that had built up inside of him, unseen, seemingly unprocessed over the months. Here was this different person. All this begging, all his simpering suddenly evaporated. He had his finger in my chest. “You daft fucking bitch. You fucking think you can come here for one night – one fucking night, Nandi – and try to talk me back into bed with you? You think you can undo things just like that?”

“Don’t call me a bitch,” I said, wiping his spittle from my cheek. “When did you even begin to talk like that? That’s not like you.”

He shook his head, staring red-eyed and unmoving. “Not like me? Bitch, you don’t know me.” In retrospect, he was right about that.

“Please don’t call me a bitch.”

“I’ll stop calling you a bitch once you stop being a bitch, Nan. What do you even want from me?” I felt I had no answer for him, because suddenly felt I didn’t know what the answer should be, or what it even could be. I felt all the spaces in my head depressurise, as if I was in a plane descending; and I stood there for a moment, not hollow, not empty, but reshaped and solid and ringing, like a bell, resonant. I felt it would be a good time to go. I felt that I should speak. And so I opened my mouth.

But what came out weren’t words, but sounds, and there was a shift, and there was broken glass, and there was a man shouting, grasping his elbow, rushing for the door behind me. And I found a hand at my back, and my breath taken from me, and my face suddenly against a chest, my mouth open, sucking in sweat from a well-known shirt. And I felt a pushing, and his hand on my breast for the first time in months, but in the form of a fist instead of a caress.

I heard the slamming of a door as my body jarred against the parquet. Men cheered; my dress had ridden up. When I found my feet again, I saw him walk back across the dance floor, toward music coming from another room.

One of the Thai men walked up to me, and tried to caress my hip. “Hey baby,” he said. “Hey baby, you know I’ll treat you right.” His nose was thick with pimples.

I looked for the Black Label I had left by my feet. I found it knocked over, foaming out.

II

I found you outside in the mist, speaking to a car guard in French, with your scarf tied around your head like a Bedouin’s. A man stood hunched over between the two of you. You had one of your hands on his shoulder. You lit a joint rolled in coconut paper with the other.

“God damn it,” I said, rubbing my hip. “Some guy just pushed me in there.”

You met my eyes and shrugged. “Oh, swak,” you said, pushing tendrils of smoke out your mouth.

Swak?” I could have spat on you. You nodded your head downward towards the hunched man. There was blood on the tarmac, dripping from between his fingers and off the back of his arm.

“Oh shit,” I said, recoiling. “Shame, did he fall?”

“Nah,” you said, smirking. “A hooker bit him.”

“A hooker?”

“Ja.”

“Why?”

You shrugged. The car guard motioned you to pass him the joint. The man pulled his hand away from the elbow, to check if the bleeding would abate. All of the skin covering his right elbow had been ripped away. A knob of bone stuck out of the flesh.

“Must’ve been an angry hooker,” I said.

“He’ll probably need a shot,” the car guard laughed, taking a pull. “He doesn’t want tetanus.” He said tetanus like tet-ah-nos, like a French man would, I suppose. You laughed and coughed a throatful of phlegm into your mouth.

I bent down to the man. He smelt of milk and wore zirconia earrings and cargo pants. His gut poked from underneath his shirt.

“Hey man,” I said, “what happened?”

He looked up at me and I recognised him: it was the man who had pushed me inside. “Hey!” I said, grabbing him by the shoulder. “You’re the poes who pushed me. You got me punched in there.”

“It’s not my fault that someone else punched you, sisi.”

“Wait, Nathi,” you interjected, your voice rough with mucus. “Who the fuck punched you?”

“T punched me.”

“Why?”

“Because this poes pushed me into him!”

“I didn’t mean to, sisi!” the man said. “I had to run. I got bit.”

“Ja, ja, by a prostitute – I know.” Behind us the car guard laughed like a hyena. “Why did she bite you, though?”

“I don’t know,” the man whimpered. He shielded his face under his popped collar.

“I don’t believe that.”

“I just tried… ugh.” He hacked phlegm from his throat. I prepared for the worst. “I tried… I tried to eat her chips.” He let out a deep sigh and started to sob.

“What?”

“I was hungry, sisi.”

I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t sure what. Somewhere behind me I could hear you laugh, then hock, then spit onto the pavement.

III

“Nathi,” you said. “I feel like I’m failing you. You’re my sister. I need to protect you from these men.”

You’d stolen a six-pack of tallboys from the bar. You said I shouldn’t worry about it. We resolved to split them, three each, on our walk back to your flat on Victoria Embankment.

“You don’t have to protect me.”

“Yes I do,” you said, cracking a can open as punctuation. “You make bad decisions.” You slurped at your beer.

“You know what,” I said, pulling a ring tab, “I don’t even care. I’ve made some bad decisions in my life, but, you know, it’s just life, you know. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re 22. Move cities, thrift shop, party too much, hang out in dangerous parts of town.”

You said nothing. I looked at you. “Right?”

You slugged back from your can. Your scarf was re-tied around your neck, where it should have always been on a night as cold as this. You grunted.

“Come on,” you said. “Sometimes I wish you would just screw your head on right and stop caring about shit like this. Oh dear, I dated an asshole for a long time but it doesn’t matter” ­– you strained your voice and waved your arms in the air, as if that was how I spoke – “but God damn it. T punched you. You spent a lot of money coming down here, to chase after this guy, when you could have saved up and done something more productive with it.”

I stared at you, keeping strides, sipping from my can. The beer was warm, somehow, and tasted of grass. The road was wet with old rain. The park glowed orange and empty from the other side of the light railway.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I offered, “when you’ve never been in a relationship. Me, I thrive on them. Can’t live without someone in my arms.” I dodged a puddle in the sidewalk. “And I just feel so adrift now. I feel like the past two years have been a lie, loving someone I didn’t really know.”

You studied me, slurping. “I– I just don’t know what to do with myself.” I felt water welling up inside me.

“You need to watch less Girls,” you snapped. “I swear. All you want is meaning from your life. Direction. You think that making mistakes will make you stronger in the end. Your life and your feelings aren’t any more significant or different to anyone else’s, you know.”

“But I don’t think I’m different,” I said.

“Oh, but you fucking do. You think every relationship is some epic. You kiss a boy and you go all fucking Wuthering Heights on him.”

“I’ve never even read–”

“You know what I’m trying to say, sis.” I turned away from you, looking at the boats lulling at their moors. A breeze carried the sound of alarms from somewhere near the wharf. “Look, sis,” you said, “to be fair to you, everyone thinks they’re special in some way – and, you know what, they probably are. Someone probably has one, very specific, very specialised thing that they’re probably the best at the world at.”

“Like what?” I threw the can into the gutter and pulled my second from my handbag.

“Like, I don’t know. Like whistling a certain song, or judging the traffic of a certain part of road at a certain kind of day, so you can get home the quickest way. Or, like, cooking an egg just right for someone with very particular tastes.”

“But that’s depressing.”

“But it fucking isn’t.” You were raising your voice. “That isn’t a reason to get depressed. Not figuring out the reason that you’re on earth isn’t a reason to be depressed. Not being able to fucking align yourself by your relationships isn’t reason to be depressed. Because even if you found that damn reason, even if you managed to, like, align yourself by other people, it’s probably not the fucking reason or the fucking way all the dumb TV shows you watch with your girl friends made you expect it to be.”

“What has gotten into you, Seb?”

“I’m trying to be your brother. To guide you.”

“OK, great guide, then what the fuck is depressing to you? Or is it all war and politics for you?”

“Nah,” you said, crumpling your can in your hands. “More like chemical imbalances.”

I wanted to disagree with you, somehow, to tell you how wrong you were about everything – but I couldn’t think of any reasons then, although they are obvious to me now.

“You know,” I said, “I also came to see you. Not just him.” I was breathing heavily, too drunk to be expending this much energy. I sat down in the forecourt of the Engen on the corner of Hermitage. We were almost at your flat. I expected you to shout at me, to pull me up, to stop being lazy; but you only left me there, wordlessly, and fetched chips and Fanta from the shop. The old attendants eyed us from behind the glass of their office. We sat on the curb mute, trading gestures for words, silence for argument.

When we got to your flat, three floors up, overlooking the docklands – I lay on the blow-up mattress in your living room and tried to ignore your rustling in the kitchen. I had told you to make me a sandwich, but after five minutes you came through and handed me a cup of cold Ricoffy instead. You motioned for me to gulp it down.

“Get up,” you said. “We’re going swimming.”

IV

I’m not sure why you decided to drive to Virginia, when there were half a dozen beaches more within the reach of a drunk driver in an old Saab. You were driving up back roads, avoiding roadblocks, with your last tallboy between your thighs and your shirt discarded on the back seat.

The streets were tungsten and tangerine along the Embankment, past the restaurants and hotels, past their tablecloths and beds, their old deals and consummations. The canopies of Berea and Morningside towered over us. You mounted a curb on Essenwood, swearing, checking your blind spot for police. Relieved, you laughed and ran an amber, racing to the M4. I chewed on a mint I found swimming among the change in my pocket.

I remember how empty the roads were. You were playing Debussy on the tape deck, the treble distorting from a subwoofer in your boot. I rediscovered how you lifted your little finger when you changed a gear.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked, my eyes drooping, fixed outside the windows, following the curves of the stadium’s arch as we passed. This seemed like a bad decision.

“I feel like swimming.” You took a swig of beer. “You need to chill out, sis. Be more spontaneous. Night swimming is just the thing.”

We passed the country club, and the vleis and the uMngeni, the lagoon dancing yellow, cityscapes inverted on the stillest of waters; the checkerboard windows of the apartment blocks and the asphalt lakes of the hypermarkets. We overtook trucks of roadworkers, in yellow outfits, setting up crosses of blinking lights and bee-stripe warnings on wooden poles. We waved. They didn’t wave back.

I remember how I searched for even a shred of moonlight above us, through the open sunroof, through the clouds. I remember there were no stars.

V

This was to wash off what had happened that night, what had happened this life.

I hadn’t seen you naked since we were children – and even then I found it unbearable. Then at least you were shameless and sinuous and beautiful. Now, here, you were all untextured flesh, all baby fat at 31.

The wind blew from the south. I wrapped your scarf around my face and sat on the sand in the half-light. I watched you charge into the silver waves, yelping like a dog, squeegeeing the water off your face with every breaker you broke.

You yelled for me to come in.

I looked up and down the shore. I saw the Bluff’s curving crescent, the skyscrapers; an audience of ships waiting silent. I peeled off my jacket and my dress, and flicked my shoes away. My feet sunk into the sand. My ears were full of air, my heart full of blood. I followed you, to join you in this, whatever it was. And we were there, in water, impenetrably black and light-spangled, like in movies and on TV, in places where people can wash away their problems, in rebaptism, in the ocean, with lovers, with friends; where people feel the wash of youth and the great expanse of the universe opening up in symmetry before them, with all possibility, all past before them, the light and hope and beauty becoming apparent to them again; all these things that they lost track of, but things so easily re-graspable, so easily knocked back into perspective by the rush of water and air; all goals and timelines re-aligned and possible yet again.

But all I felt was the cold, and all I heard was your yelling.

The breakers were pulling and the salt was stinging. I stumbled from the waves, shivering and sopping, scraping the water from me as fast as I could. I felt I could faint. I lay on the sand, laying my clothes on top of me like tiny blankets. I tried to grip the ground, clumping the sand through my fists, with the lights spinning, the firmament seemingly knocked to the earth, orbiting elliptical and ceaseless.

You shouted and I raised my neck. You were running out the water toward me, with this look in your eyes, this crazed look I knew too well from you. I closed my eyes, preparing to shriek, to tell you to get off me, to wrestle you, to feel your awful body on me as you laughed and grabbed at my limbs.

But you fell to your knees instead, your body lolling and protracted and shimmering. You began to throw up onto the sand. You retched and retched and spasmed and made unholy noises. I shouldn’t have opened my eyes but I did, and saw all of you, of all this supposed strength and wisdom and age, half-prostrate on the dunes, the city glowing around you.

When you were done you looked at me, and I allowed myself to look back at you, at your damp lips, at your watering eyes. I grabbed your boxers and motioned you to put them on. You apologized. I said nothing.

The black of the sky began to split from the sea, slivering silver and sudden over the crests of the waves. My thoughts were endless and empty. The ships reclaimed their shapes from the horizon. A plane took off from the airport behind us, heading north into a leaden sky. Further down the shore, fishermen arrived, setting up their bait boxes, lodging their rods in the sand, casting into the restless grey. To them, today was a new day.

I could hear you snoring over the static of the wind and the water. “Hey,” I said, shaking your shoulder. “Wake up. I have a plane to catch.” You grunted and shifted and raised your head close to mine. Sand had crusted around your mouth and nostrils. I turned my head to escape the bile on your breath. Chuckling, you stood and gathered your clothes, and trudged back to the car. I followed, tracking sand and esters and fragments of things to say.

I drove you back home as the rain began to fall.

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