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SEVEN MONTHS EARLIERNOVEMBER 5, 2008SOUTH AFRICA
April Forrest’s eyes widened. “Ten . . . what happened to your face?”
In the bosom of beauty, ugly comes as a shock. The swelling and bruises across my face made me look like I’d just been attacked by a prison gang. Might as well have been—although it was just one man. In the swamp.
When April left Los Angeles to teach in South Africa for six months, she’d left me, too. We had passed the one-year milestone right before she changed her mind about us, and an ocean and ten thousand miles had suddenly seemed like a small toll to see her again. I wanted to know what had scared her off—but maybe it was written all over my face.
“Long story,” I said. “I tried, but I couldn’t find flowers this late. May I come in?”
Apparently, long story wasn’t enough to get the door open any wider. April was lithe and fine, with skin the color of ginger.
She was living in a tiny cinder-block house on a street of modest but well-kept homes in a middle-class section of Soweto, outside Johannesburg. In the bright light from the porch, I saw her jaw shift with uncertainty. Her delicate chin and gently swaying braids, adorned with regal white beads at the ends, reminded me of why some men could be driven to beg.
Two or three loose dogs I’d seen outside the gate were barking at me from the unlighted street. Two yipped harmlessly, but one sounded like thunder. A week before, I’d killed a German shepherd in the Florida swamp. The memory of the dog’s last yelp, and his master’s last labored breath, still iced my blood.
“You look like you almost got murdered, Ten. What happened?”
“The T. D. Jackson case.” My investigation into the death of football star T. D. Jackson had taken me places that were hard to put into words. Dad had told me that an LAPD officer who had been through my ordeal might have been considered like an OIS, Officer Involved Shooting, and sent to counseling. “Like I said, April . . . long story.”
April’s look told me that I was failing my first test since our breakup. In her place, I might close the door on me. Dying hope flashed hot in my chest. I knew it then: I shouldn’t have come to see April without calling her first, like my father and Chela told me before I left.
“Ten, I can’t . . . I’m not alone.”
She’s already with somebody else? A foreign rage tightened the back of my neck. I didn’t know if I was more pissed at her for moving on, or at myself for flying across the world to witness her new life up close.
When an older woman appeared behind April in the doorway, I wanted to hug her. April was boarding, so she was living with her hostess! The woman looked about fifty-five, but her skin was so smooth that she might have been ten or fifteen years older. Bright silver hair framed her forehead beneath her colorful head scarf. The slope of her nose and sharp cheekbones reminded me of Alice. Beauty, timeless. Another woman. A different time. Despite the severity of her frown, the stranger’s face forced me to stare.
“I’m sorry it’s so late, Mrs. Kunene,” April apologized. A faint living-room light was on, but the woman might have been asleep. It was ten P.M. in Johannesburg, late for an unannounced visitor. I hadn’t thought about the hour when I jumped into the taxi at the airport and told the driver to go to the address April had given me. A lot had changed since the last time I was in South Africa.
The streets were so dark, I had no idea how the driver found his way.
“This is my friend Tennyson. From the U.S.”
April said friend as if it was the whole story. I could barely smile for her hostess—not that a smile would have helped my face. Mrs. Kunene looked like she was trying to decide if she should call the police right then, or wait for me to look at her the wrong way.
After a twenty-two-hour flight via Amsterdam, I couldn’t fake pleasantries with a hostile stranger. “Come away with me for a long weekend,” I said into April’s ear, not quite a whisper. I’d planned a more elegant approach, but the sight of April’s face had drained my memory. My palms were damp, like my virgin friends used to say in high school.
April touched her ear, coaxing away a strand of hair. “Ten . . . slow down . . .”
A broad-shouldered man with snowy white hair appeared next, wearing only his slacks, roused from bed. Mr. Kunene might be my father’s age, but his motion was agile and his face was as smooth as his wife’s.
“April, this man is your friend?” he said. “He looks like a tsotsi!”
I admired his lyrical accent despite the insult: He’d just said I looked like a gangster.
April planted her foot in the doorway to keep the door from slamming in my face. Her foot was as firm as her voice was gentle: “Yes, yes, he’s a good friend. It’s all right.”
“Is he drunk?” Mrs. Kunene called, stepping back. The rolled r’s in the woman’s accent were music. She made drunk sound like a state to aspire to.
“Sir and madam, I am not drunk,” I said. “Please accept my apologies for stopping by so late. I have to talk to April right away.” When they heard my reasonableness, and my American accent, some of the alarm left their eyes.
I pointed out the gate, where the tattered taxi that had brought me waited, a dingy gray VW Citi Golf that had once been white. One of the back taillights was missing, and the other glowed dimly. The driver sat inside, awaiting my verdict. The yipping dogs still barked, but the larger one had moved on. April saw the taxi and realized delays were costing me.
“I’ll be right here on the porch,” April said to her hosts, and slipped outside before they could object. The white curtains fluttered at the window as they watched us.
On the porch, I had an impulse to pull April close—but I followed her lead and kept a two-foot distance. If I tried to touch her and she flinched away, no words would rescue us.
“Sorry, but she’s a minister,” April explained, hushed. “They’re strict with boarders.”
Good. I hoped they ran the house like a damn nunnery. “I need a face-to-face conversation with you,” I said.
April’s eyes fell away, and my throat burned. A month ago, April would have fussed over my bruises, planting her soft lips on mine.
“Let me take you somewhere beautiful,” I said. “Don’t we deserve time, April?”
“Yes, but . . . I’m working until Saturday.”
“Make up an excuse.”
“Lying comes easier to some people, Ten.” No irony or malice, just a fact. And she was right. If I’m not careful, lying is my nature.
“Then meet me for coffee tomorrow.” The exhaustion shredding my voice must have sounded like desperation, but I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a week. “Tell me when you have a break, and I’ll come pick you up.”
Silence again. I’d envisioned myself staying with April—yeah, right—so I didn’t have a reservation at a hotel. Another hassle waited, and the day was already ending on a sour note.
My driver, Sipho, was watching me through his open driver’s-side window, eager to see me give him our signal: a thumbs-up if he could drive away, a thumbs-down if he should wait.
When I gave Sipho the thumbs-down, I heard him click his teeth with disgust. “Eish! No woman wants the nice guy!” he called from his window, repeating his mantra from our ride.
When I’d told Sipho the story of how April left the States to teach and then broke up with me by telephone, he’d let out a shout, as if she’d shot me. A rich man like you, treated this way by a woman! Maybe he was merely angling for a tip, but he was my only friend that night.
I was getting mad, and so far anger had nothing to do with April and me. I hoped I wouldn’t have to scorch April in those flames. Neither of us would salvage anything from that.
“April, if you’re through with me, help me wrap my head around it.”
April touched my forehead, just above a bruise, and her touch extinguished my anger. “Where would we go?” she said. “If I get the days off.”
I stepped toward April and cradled her cheeks with my palms. Her chin sank against the heels of my hands. For a precious few seconds, she trusted me to hold her up.
I did not try to kiss her. Holding her face was enough.
“I know the perfect place,” I said.
Cape Town might be our last chance.
© 2010 Trabajando,