I am sitting right at the end of the bus and it is struggling up the hills of Mutare. It will be several hours before we get to Bulawayo. The bus conductor has just announced that there will be no stops for the next three hours as we are trying to get to Bulawayo in good time. The guy sitting next to me in a black, cropped leather jacket keeps stealing glances at me the way a naughty 3-year-old looks when stealing sugar under mommy’s nose. He has an unassuming allure to him. I am bored. And we are stuck in this hideous Shu-Shine bus for god-knows-how-long! Being the coy tiger that I am, I whip out the gigantic orange I bought from the vendor as we pulled out of the bus terminus. I start to peel it, stabbing the rind with my right index finger revealing the spongey, fleshy pith. I intentionally lean over to “jacket boy” and whisper, “Orange?”
He looks puzzled for a while, wearing that look you have in a packed concert when you can swear the lead-singer just winked at you.
‘Thanks.’ He says in a sheepish voice and reaches for the half-orange in my hand. While the transaction occurs he steals another quick glance at me, he would have caught my Monalisa smile if he hadn’t shrunk back at the touching of our hands.
I turn from him and gaze up ahead, still wearing my smile. Any minute now, any minute the conversation will start but before it does I will pleasure myself with the rolling sights of misty forest encroaching the road on either side as though meditating a coup. They stand yearning for each other like the folk tale of the Nyaminyami and her lover separated by the Kariba.
In a similar way, his words stand waiting to embrace mine and any minute now… any minute he will…
“Excuse me,” he begins with a teaspoon of confidence, “are you… Never mind.”
“I am whatever you said I am.” I say.
The tinny bus radio starts crackling and begins to play Fast Car by Tracy Chapman. I begin to hum and sing the part I am confident I know. Jacket boy scoots over slightly and holds his hand out. I notice a weak tremble. I don’t know if he wants me to hold it, shake it or kiss it.
“Peel?”, he whispers. I chuckle and pass on my rind. “So I am curious… who do you think I am?”. A smile ensues and he looks out of the bus window as though the howling wind outside has the perfect answer to impart.
You can tell from the music on his face that he is no longer among us; at least in time. His mind has deserted his form and spread its pinions over the vastness of a treasured memory that marked itself indelibly in his psyche and I cannot help thinking I am a part of it in no small way.
As the pleasure forced smiles from his face so detached from his mind; I cannot help but wonder what he sees wherever he has deserted this plague of an automobile to. Now it’s my turn to be gnawed by unknowing; but I must be patient.
His hand is still trembling, not violently but visible. At last he escapes his reverie and turns to me; not as shy as he has been with the words, “this is not your first time in the Eastern Highlands is it?”
It only flickers past my mind, the question ‘how does he know which direction I’m headed?’ and then it’s my turn to reminisce.
I begin to wade through the recesses of the quagmire that is my mind. I scroll through all the files. I see faces, smiles, hands, kisses, cropped jackets… Still no match. Who is this timid soul that knows something but won’t impart it?
I dare not outright ask him. I might come across as an idiot.
“No, it isn’t my first time in the Eastern Highlands. I spend a lot of time in the Nyanga Mountains an in Mutare”.
Silence. He leans forward and rummages through his duffel bag under the seat in front of him. He pulls out a plastic bag and throws the orange peels in it and zips up the bag. The sleeve of his stylish jacket pulls back, revealing a copper bracelet.
I freeze. A memory comes flooding in like light from a lighthouse.
Last summer I was in Sakubva. I went to a house party. I drank too much. Things happened. I am ashamed.
He must notice that I remember. I can remember the taste of his salty neck and the tight grip of his copper bracelet clad firm had. Nothing trembly or timid about him then. I can see that his face is now luminous. The same way it was when he took me into the empty pantry in that Sakubva home.
With that memory a thousand things come flashing back to me, there was that teacher, the man in tweed from St Augustine who said he taught Marechera mathematics; nothing to be proud of I remember thinking at the time, boredom searing through me juxtaposed with the lure of the copper bracelet behind him, calling me with the wearer’s nonchalance and preoccupation with the drink and nothing else about his immediate environment.
Strange I should recall the maths teacher now; maybe not so strange; I was talking to the teacher when I first laid eyes upon my ‘friend’. But there was a thing he said, the maths teacher; about the infinity between one and two. That’s what made me remember him, because right now, right here, I’m exploring the infinity between our proximity, touches and kisses, fumbling and stumbling, giggles and awkwardness, ecstasy and groans.
But we are on a finite trip. I am conflicted. Do I ask for his contact details? Do I want to stay in touch? Do I like him?
“Look… What’s your name?” There’s a grin. Then a lazy reply, “Marcus. My name is Marcus.”
“Look, Marcus. What happened at that party… I don’t do that with everyone. It was, in fact, my first time.”
A look of concern washes over his face. I continue, “We didn’t even use a condom.”
The bus hits a pothole, tossing us closer to each other. By reflex, I grab his arm for balance. I pull away quickly.
“Do you do that with everyone? Because I don’t and I want you to know that.”
Marcus chuckles. “No. I don’t do that with just anyone. Besides, You kept whispering ‘I’m clean. Just take my cherry’.”
“That can’t be true! I don’t even speak like that!” My face is burning. I want to change seats. But his allure and that damn cropped jacket keep me glued to my seat next to him. At this point I want him to stop calling up any memories and just give me a phone number or an email address.
Suddenly I realize all the power I had over him has vanished; my balls are in his fist…oh lack of a better imagination, I am taxed now. I want to be anywhere suddenly, anywhere but here smelling him again, recalling the ecstasy of the closet and shaken by how comfortable he is with the memory. Now I am shaking like he was earlier on. If only I could think.
Think of anything, anything but him, but that night, the sweetness of taboo, the aching for the unholy and forbidden; the becoming of… Me. I gave myself to him that night, I succumbed to temptation.
“Do you mind if we don’t talk the rest of the way?” I caught myself saying.
“Why?” He smirks, “you. Didn’t seem shy the last time we were together.” He howls in laughter and I’m worried other people are starting to pay attention to us.
“I was drunk, damn it!”, I snarl in something between a whisper and a sigh. Marcus is gorgeous when he laughs. It is annoying. All I want to do is grab him by the scruff of his dark chocolate neck and eat his face. But these Zimbos up in this bus will lynch us if we so much as put arms around each other in an “unmanly” manner.
I take out my phone and slide it into the palm of his hand. “Do the damn thing. Stop talking. Just punch in the damn digits. I want to see you again. Preferably away from a party, booze or a pantry.”
Another smirk from him, “Okay. you are quite aggressive Mr…”. I don’t want to leave the boy hanging, so I lean in, pressing the phone into the palm of his hand to prompt him to punch in his number, “My name is Thamsanqa.” “And I am anything but aggressive. You should know this, Mr Cherry-picker!”, I wink and punctuate it with a smile.
He hands me back my phone and leans in so that his lower lip nearly touches my earlobe. “I hate oranges. Next time make it a mango”. I roll my eyes.
Story by Frank Malaba in collaboration with Philani Amadeus Nyoni
Photography by Nick Turpin
Frank Malaba © 2018