It is a Thursday night at Seamus’s* (and my brother’s) flat. (Seamus, to quickly give some background, is a good friend of mine. He and I share a taste for inappropriate jokes, a love for playing 30 Seconds, and a talent for somehow initiating the oddest and dodgiest of conversations. He is also, as one might gather, my brother’s housemate.) I, along with about ten others, have been invited to an unofficial housewarming at their place. Chairs and a very tatty old couch have been dragged outside, where some meat is being prepared on the fire; from inside music is playing (mostly stuff that reminds me of high school and earlier. You know, Blink and Live and the occasional Radiohead). It is almost midnight, the warm day has ceded to a rather cool night, and I am feeling cosy and tired and nostalgic in that way one feels at these kinds of parties. The yard is looking pretty catastrophic: overturned wine glasses (and some shards from earlier accidents), empty cigarette packets, cigarette butts that weren’t thrown in the fire, a discarded pair of sunglasses, chips packets, and an empty bottle of brandy.
Seamus, Jude (another friend) and I have been abandoned by my brother and the rest of the party – as was wont to happen, they decided to go dancing somewhere and we, being ever so slightly older, saw no reason to leave a perfectly nice house-party for that. So here we are, rather contentedly playing 30 Seconds, all three in various stages of inebriation: Seamus still getting progressively drunker, periodically refilling his brandy (though one wouldn’t easily notice it, he is the same when drunk as when sober), Jude done drinking and yawning more and more unsubtly, and I hovering somewhere between tipsy and sober as I alternate between Appletizer and white wine. The party is winding down.
But my phone keeps ringing. Apparently my brother was texting a friend from it, inviting him here, only to promptly forget all about it when the bright idea to go out came to him. The guy on the other side of the phone (a Desmond) is rather incoherent as he insists on joining “the party” (what party? Even the fire is out). I hand the phone to Seamus – they are colleagues. He can give directions if needs be.
“Desmond my man!” Seamus says, falling into an almost natural joviality, coupled with a suddenly heavily accented, simplified English, which indicates that he is talking to a black person. I can never understand why this accent is at all necessary, it sounds incredibly condescending, yet I catch myself using it too. Foreigners (especially Russians – try speaking normal English to people who sound like a bad 007 movie) get it from us too: we might be speaking perfectly normal if slightly accented English (neither Seamus nor I are first-language English speakers either), only to switch over to this kind of rolling ‘R’, overpronounced, and ungrammatical nonsense upon encountering a tourist, as if talking to a mentally impaired person.
Seamus is gesticulating wildly, now and then handing the phone over to Jude, as they try to explain to Desmond how to get here. Apparently not an easy task, because Desmond phones back at least ten times over the course of the next hour. Each time he is somewhere else – halfway out of town, or at some petrol station in a dodgy part of town, or at a nearby park (the complex where Seamus lives is called Prince Park. Apparently that led to some confusion). I am starting to feel very bad about all of this – this poor guy is moving heaven and earth to get here (not owning a car, he is being driven by some longsuffering friend), and here we are: three people, barely awake, mumblingly playing board games. “Tell him the rest have already gone away!” I mouth at Seamus, who is on the phone again. He ignores me. I light a cigarette and ignore him back.
Eventually, after my phone has died from lack of batteries and we are finishing up the game, the security guard comes to the door. “There is a man here for you,” he announces rather doubtfully.
“Desmond is going to hit on you,” Seamus warns as he gets up to fetch him. I laugh. I’m mostly the only girl whenever I hang out with my brother’s friends, they have all at some stage made a token pass at me. Being warned about it, however, puts me slightly on edge – being flirted with has never been worth a mention in the past. Maybe Desmond’s flirting is of a more harassing nature. I’m not very keen on this addition, I realise. We would need to give up on our game in favour of a real conversation; I would have to ask the mandatory “get to know you” questions instead of lounging about with people I already know. Above all I’m not very excited about seeing the poor guy’s reaction when he realises the party he was so excited about is long dead.
Uproarious laughter indicates Seamus and Desmond’s arrival. There are two other men with them too, I see, feeling even less enthusiastic. I like Desmond on first impulse – he has that level look and smile I associate with a good conversationalist, someone quick to jump to understanding and opinion alike. His friends I am less sure about. Jake, skinny and looking rather young, looks disinterested, we hardly exchange words throughout the night. The third guy, Titus, is the only one to be noticeably drunk (though they all are, I realise as Desmond pulls an almost empty bottle of brandy from a plastic bag. As are we, more or less, I guess). Titus is somewhat older than the rest, perhaps a bit more uncouth, to euphemise, though very friendly. He sits down next to me and I steel myself for an evening of wild nodding and gesticulating.
“Ah, man!” Desmond says. “We were all up and down in town, man! Why do you say “turn left” when you mean “turn right”?”
Everybody laughs, except for Jude who is by now almost completely asleep on the couch, emanating only a sleepy giggle every now and then.
“It’s not my fault you’re so bad at directions!” Seamus defends. “You were probably almost at Franschoek at one stage!”
“I was almost everywhere,” Desmond agrees. “And that park!” More laughter.
“You should have spoken to the driver,” Titus volunteers. He speaks incredibly loudly, causing me to look nervously at the sleepy houses next to us, slapping his knees for extra emphasis, prodding me on the knee too whenever I don’t participate enough.
“I know everything about this town, you know,” he tells me. “I was a builder here for ten years. I know every street.” Desmond and Jake nod in agreement. “He should have talked to me on the phone.” I make agreeing noises.
“Ask him to build anything, he can do it,” Desmond tells us. “Ask him to build these flats, he can do it.”
Titus’s gaze roams over the houses stacked against each other neatly, all identical, all silent. Perhaps he is looking at the paint on each, because when he talks again it’s on a wholly different topic.
“I don’t understand why we say ‘white people’,” he says to us. I perk up. Now this is the kind of conversation I don’t mind having. “Have you ever seen a white person?” he asks, pointing at my arm.
“No,” I laugh.
“No! Exactly! These houses are white. People are not white! Nobody is white.”
“Seamus might be very close to white,” I joke. My attempt is lost on him as he carries on. “And black! I am not black. Do I look black to you?”
I shake my head. “Your hat is black. You’re not really black at all,” I contribute. What a banal thing to say, I think. I try again. “I think the reason why we use these distinctions is because we haven’t found an alternative that works yet.”
“You look very fucking black to me, my brother,” Seamus volunteers. Everybody laughs again.
“What colour would you say you are?” I ask.
“My ancestors were light brown.”
“But you? What colour are you, then?”
“I am medium brown,” he says, inspecting his arm. This time general hilarity ensues. Even compared to Desmond and Jake, his fellow Zimbabweans, Titus is very dark. Someone makes a joke about not being able to distinguish him from the background. I ask: “Okay, but if you are medium brown, what am I? Light orange?” Or dark beige? I imagine a world where we are all given our own colour title, like Dulux paint cards. I would be “faded turmeric”. Seamus would be “mild pink”, Titus perhaps “kingwood cocoa”.
“The government is stupid. So we have to tick these boxes, ‘what colour are you’, but they are so lazy, they only use five-letter words. “Black”. “White”. What about Indians and Chines and Coloured?” Titus adds.
There are boxes for them too, I want to say, but I haven’t got the energy to try and make myself heard over the general confusion of conversations taking place all at once by now. Desmond is telling a story about how they use Seamus to pick up girls – apparently black girls like white guys – (also, Desmond hasn’t hit on me at all so far), Jake is trying to play a hip-hop tune on the guitar, Titus is telling anyone who wants to listen about the government. Seamus is talking about where to possibly buy more brandy at this time of night. I allow myself to drift in and out of conversations, wishing I were in bed.
When I excuse myself to go to the bathroom I stand looking in the mirror unnecessarily long, wondering why I am so intensely bored. There is an air of good humour to the night, yet conversations seem to die out after a few sentences, the same topics are being flogged to death over and over again, everyone laughs too loudly. Am I being racist? Would I have participated more had they been white? This is what I do, what I always do: I question my actions and the assumptions underlying them unendingly, always ending up feeling dissatisfied and frustrated from all the uselessly forced self-monitoring.
I go back, trying even harder, constantly running into my self-made race-consciousness, constantly running into my own awkwardness. Somewhere there is a division – our frames of references, even our English, is so different that attempting a conversation feels hardly worth the effort. Perhaps I’m not racist, perhaps I’m classist, I wonder. After all, I have no problem conversing endlessly with the verbose black students who populate campus. Or do I?
A guard calls Seamus away (by now we have been warned about the noise levels twice). He has to verify something at the gate. Before leaving he asks me, in Afrikaans: “Are you okay? I don’t want to leave you alone.”
I nod emphatically, feeling guilty for probably looking as glum as I feel. “I’m fine,” I say. “Just a bit sleepy. I’ll wake up now, and hold the fort.”
“I’ll be close by, you can just shout if you need me. I don’t think they’ll try anything,” he reassures me. I am flabbergasted. I meant I was tired of talking, Seamus meant that he doesn’t trust them alone with me. Yet I have been poked and prodded at numerous times by a variety of drunk white boys in his presence, to little concern of his, while these three are sitting calmly, taking swigs from the brandy and talking, now, about cellphone batteries and Titus’s wife who is looking for him. “Don’t be silly,” I scoff, and try extra hard to participate in the conversation while Seamus is gone. At the end of the night I give each a handshake, fumbling over the signature gripping back and forth and thumb clapping I can never manage with ease.
Later that night I tell Seamus I hadn’t really enjoyed Desmond and his friend’s visit, I had been too tired to really hold a conversation. I want to confide in him my worries, to ask him whether he thinks it’s harder to have a meaningful conversation with a black person, and why that could be.
“Me neither,” he adds conspiratorially, before I can talk, though. “I thought it would only be Desmond coming. It felt weird, I was rather worried, especially when I left you alone. You never know what could happen.”
I don’t even bother bringing up my thoughts on the subject, then. We are miscommunicating as totally as Titus and I had earlier. So much for calling them “brother” and “my man”, I think. So much for good-natured jokes, for back-slapping and getting drunk together. There is a gulf between us, perhaps between black and white, perhaps between perceived higher and lower classes, perhaps between a combination of these, that I do not completely understand and cannot even attempt to overcome by myself, not even with the best of intentions. I feel naïve and hopelessly condescending in my attempts.
Seamus is friends with black people. Were I to accuse him of racism he would scoff at me. He is only being careful, he would say. Probably he is. Yet what I feel is that he only wants them in small quantified doses. So do I, I realise. Never too much, too loud, too different. Give me a black person who thinks like me, talks like me, reasons like me. Put me somewhere I am at ease and I can comfortably pretend that I am colour blind. Yet, confronted with what is different, unquantified, unknown, I clam up in bewildered fashion, angry at my own inability to move past myself and yet powerless to know how to overcome it. I am completely and blissfully ensconced in my tiny world and my friendships with people more or less like me and my books and my left-wing arguments untried by reality.
* For the sake of privacy I have changed the names of those involved in the conversations mentioned.
** Please comment on my previous post (here) if you have a blog you think I might like. I am looking for new blogs to follow and posted about it, to little reaction, however. If it’s easier, just ‘like’ the previous post and I will go check out your site. Thank you!