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کتاب: جرم متولد شده / فصل 8

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LOOPHOLES

My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return—and then I gave birth to the most selfish piece of shit on earth and all it ever did was cry and eat and shit and say, ‘Me, me, me, me me.’ ” My mom thought having a child was going to be like having a partner, but every child is born the center of its own universe, incapable of understanding the world beyond its own wants and needs, and I was no different. I was a voracious kid. I consumed boxes of books and wanted more, more, more. I ate like a pig. The way I ate I should have been obese. At a certain point the family thought I had worms. Whenever I went to my cousins’ house for the holidays, my mom would drop me off with a bag of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes and a large sack of cornmeal. That was her way of preempting any complaints about my visit. At my gran’s house I always got seconds, which none of the other kids got. My grandmother would give me the pot and say, “Finish it.” If you didn’t want to wash the dishes, you called Trevor. They called me the rubbish bin of the family. I ate and ate and ate.

I was hyperactive, too. I craved constant stimulation and activity. When I walked down the sidewalk as a toddler, if you didn’t have my arm in a death grip, I was off, running full-speed toward the traffic. I loved to be chased. I thought it was a game. The old grannies my mom hired to look after me while she was at work? I would leave them in tears. My mom would come home and they’d be crying. “I quit. I can’t do this. Your son is a tyrant.” It was the same with my schoolteachers, with Sunday school teachers. If you weren’t engaging me, you were in trouble. I wasn’t a shit to people. I wasn’t whiny and spoiled. I had good manners. I was just high-energy and knew what I wanted to do.

My mom used to take me to the park so she could run me to death to burn off the energy. She’d take a Frisbee and throw it, and I’d run and catch it and bring it back. Over and over and over. Sometimes she’d throw a tennis ball. Black people’s dogs don’t play fetch; you don’t throw anything to a black person’s dog unless it’s food. So it was only when I started spending time in parks with white people and their pets that I realized my mom was training me like a dog.

Anytime my extra energy wasn’t burned off, it would find its way into general naughtiness and misbehavior. I prided myself on being the ultimate prankster. Every teacher at school used overhead projectors to put their notes up on the wall during class. One day I went around and took the magnifying glass out of every projector in every classroom. Another time I emptied a fire extinguisher into the school piano, because I knew we were going to have a performance at assembly the next day. The pianist sat down and played the first note and, foomp!, all this foam exploded out of the piano.

The two things I loved most were fire and knives. I was endlessly fascinated by them. Knives were just cool. I collected them from pawnshops and garage sales: flick knives, butterfly knives, the Rambo knife, the Crocodile Dundee knife. Fire was the ultimate, though. I loved fire and I especially loved fireworks. We celebrated Guy Fawkes Day in November, and every year my mom would buy us a ton of fireworks, like a mini-arsenal. I realized that I could take the gunpowder out of all the fireworks and create one massive firework of my own. One afternoon I was doing precisely that, goofing around with my cousin and filling an empty plant pot with a huge pile of gunpowder, when I got distracted by some Black Cat firecrackers. The cool thing you could do with a Black Cat was, instead of lighting it to make it explode, you could break it in half and light it and it would turn into a mini-flamethrower. I stopped midway through building my gunpowder pile to play with the Black Cats and somehow dropped a match into the pile. The whole thing exploded, throwing a massive ball of flame up in my face. Mlungisi screamed, and my mom came running into the yard in a panic.

“What happened?!”

I played it cool, even though I could still feel the heat of the fireball on my face. “Oh, nothing. Nothing happened.”

“Were you playing with fire?!”

“No.”

She shook her head. “You know what? I would beat you, but Jesus has already exposed your lies.”

“Huh?”

“Go to the bathroom and look at yourself.”

I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. My eyebrows were gone and the front inch or so of my hair was completely burned off.

From an adult’s point of view, I was destructive and out of control, but as a child I didn’t think of it that way. I never wanted to destroy. I wanted to create. I wasn’t burning my eyebrows. I was creating fire. I wasn’t breaking overhead projectors. I was creating chaos, to see how people reacted.

And I couldn’t help it. There’s a condition kids suffer from, a compulsive disorder that makes them do things they themselves don’t understand. You can tell a child, “Whatever you do, don’t draw on the wall. You can draw on this paper. You can draw in this book. You can draw on any surface you want. But do not draw or write or color on the wall.” The child will look you dead in the eye and say, “Got it.” Ten minutes later the child is drawing on the wall. You start screaming. “Why the hell are you drawing on the wall?!” The child looks at you, and he genuinely has no idea why he drew on the wall. As a kid, I remember having that feeling all the time. Every time I got punished, as my mom was whooping my ass, I’d be thinking, Why did I just do that? I knew not to do that. She told me not to do that. Then once the hiding was over I’d say to myself, I’m going to be so good from here on. I’m never ever going to do a bad thing in my life ever ever ever ever ever—and to remember not to do anything bad, let me write something on the wall to remind myself…and then I would pick up a crayon and get straight back into it, and I never understood why.

My relationship with my mom was like the relationship between a cop and a criminal in the movies—the relentless detective and the devious mastermind she’s determined to catch. They’re bitter rivals, but, damn, they respect the hell out of each other, and somehow they even grow to like each other. Sometimes my mom would catch me, but she was usually one step behind, and she was always giving me the eye. Someday, kid. Someday I’m going to catch you and put you away for the rest of your life. Then I would give her a nod in return. Have a good evening, Officer. That was my whole childhood.

My mom was forever trying to rein me in. Over the years, her tactics grew more and more sophisticated. Where I had youth and energy on my side, she had cunning, and she figured out different ways to keep me in line. One Sunday we were at the shops and there was a big display of toffee apples. I loved toffee apples, and I kept nagging her the whole way through the shop. “Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple?” Finally, once we had our groceries and my mom was heading to the front to pay, I succeeded in wearing her down. “Fine,” she said. “Go and get a toffee apple.” I ran, got a toffee apple, came back, and put it on the counter at the checkout.

“Add this toffee apple, please,” I said.

The cashier looked at me skeptically. “Wait your turn, boy. I’m still helping this lady.”

“No,” I said. “She’s buying it for me.”

My mother turned to me. “Who’s buying it for you?”

“You’re buying it for me.”

“No, no. Why doesn’t your mother buy it for you?”

“What? My mother? You are my mother.”

“I’m your mother? No, I’m not your mother. Where’s your mother?”

I was so confused. “You’re my mother.”

The cashier looked at her, looked back at me, looked at her again. She shrugged, like, I have no idea what that kid’s talking about. Then she looked at me like she’d never seen me before in her life.

“Are you lost, little boy? Where’s your mother?”

“Yeah,” the cashier said. “Where’s your mother?”

I pointed at my mother. “She’s my mother.”

“What? She can’t be your mother, boy. She’s black. Can’t you see?”

My mom shook her head. “Poor little colored boy lost his mother. What a shame.”

I panicked. Was I crazy? Is she not my mother? I started bawling. “You’re my mother. You’re my mother. She’s my mother. She’s my mother.”

She shrugged again. “So sad. I hope he finds his mother.”

The cashier nodded. She paid him, took our groceries, and walked out of the shop. I dropped the toffee apple, ran out behind her in tears, and caught up to her at the car. She turned around, laughing hysterically, like she’d really got me good.

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Because you said you weren’t my mother. Why did you say you weren’t my mother?”

“Because you wouldn’t shut up about the toffee apple. Now get in the car. Let’s go.”

By the time I was seven or eight, I was too smart to be tricked, so she changed tactics. Our life turned into a courtroom drama with two lawyers constantly debating over loopholes and technicalities. My mom was smart and had a sharp tongue, but I was quicker in an argument. She’d get flustered because she couldn’t keep up. So she started writing me letters. That way she could make her points and there could be no verbal sparring back and forth. If I had chores to do, I’d come home to find an envelope slipped under the door, like from the landlord.

Dear Trevor,

“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”

—Colossians 3:20

There are certain things I expect from you as my child and as a young man. You need to clean your room. You need to keep the house clean. You need to look after your school uniform. Please, my child, I ask you. Respect my rules so that I may also respect you. I ask you now, please go and do the dishes and do the weeds in the garden.

Yours sincerely,

Mom

I would do my chores, and if I had anything to say I would write back. Because my mom was a secretary and I spent hours at her office every day after school, I’d learned a great deal about business correspondence. I was extremely proud of my letter-writing abilities.

To Whom It May Concern:

Dear Mom,

I have received your correspondence earlier. I am delighted to say that I am ahead of schedule on the dishes and I will continue to wash them in an hour or so. Please note that the garden is wet and so I cannot do the weeds at this time, but please be assured this task will be completed by the end of the weekend. Also, I completely agree with what you are saying with regard to my respect levels and I will maintain my room to a satisfactory standard.

Yours sincerely,

Trevor

Those were the polite letters. If we were having a real, full-on argument or if I’d gotten in trouble at school, I’d find more accusatory missives waiting for me when I got home.

Dear Trevor,

“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.”

—Proverbs 22:15

Your school marks this term have been very disappointing, and your behavior in class continues to be disruptive and disrespectful. It is clear from your actions that you do not respect me. You do not respect your teachers. Learn to respect the women in your life. The way you treat me and the way you treat your teachers will be the way you treat other women in the world. Learn to buck that trend now and you will be a better man because of it. Because of your behavior I am grounding you for one week. There will be no television and no videogames.

Yours sincerely,

Mom

I, of course, would find this punishment completely unfair. I’d take the letter and confront her.

“Can I speak to you about this?”

“No. If you want to reply, you have to write a letter.”

I’d go to my room, get out my pen and paper, sit at my little desk, and go after her arguments one by one.

To Whom It May Concern:

Dear Mom,

First of all, this has been a particularly tough time in school, and for you to say that my marks are bad is extremely unfair, especially considering the fact that you yourself were not very good in school and I am, after all, a product of yours, and so in part you are to blame because if you were not good in school, why would I be good in school because genetically we are the same. Gran always talks about how naughty you were, so obviously my naughtiness comes from you, so I don’t think it is right or just for you to say any of this.

Yours sincerely,

Trevor

I’d bring her the letter and stand there while she read it. Invariably she’d tear it up and throw it in the dustbin. “Rubbish! This is rubbish!” Then she’d start to launch into me and I’d say, “Ah-ah-ah. No. You have to write a letter.” Then I’d go to my room and wait for her reply. This sometimes went back and forth for days.

The letter writing was for minor disputes. For major infractions, my mom went with the ass-whooping. Like most black South African parents, when it came to discipline my mom was old school. If I pushed her too far, she’d go for the belt or switch. That’s just how it was in those days. Pretty much all of my friends had it the same.

My mom would have given me proper sit-down hidings if I’d given her the opportunity, but she could never catch me. My gran called me “Springbok,” after the second-fastest land mammal on earth, the deer that the cheetah hunts. My mom had to become a guerrilla fighter. She got her licks in where she could, her belt or maybe a shoe, administered on the fly.

One thing I respected about my mom was that she never left me in any doubt as to why I was receiving the hiding. It wasn’t rage or anger. It was discipline from a place of love. My mom was on her own with a crazy child. I destroyed pianos. I shat on floors. I would screw up, she’d beat the shit out of me and give me time to cry, and then she’d pop back into my room with a big smile and go, “Are you ready for dinner? We need to hurry and eat if we want to watch Rescue 911. Are you coming?” “What? What kind of psychopath are you? You just beat me!”

“Yes. Because you did something wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you anymore.”

“What?”

“Look, did you or did you not do something wrong?”

“I did.”

“And then? I hit you. And now that’s over. So why sit there and cry? It’s time for Rescue 911. William Shatner is waiting. Are you coming or not?”

When it came to discipline, Catholic school was no joke. Whenever I got into trouble with the nuns at Maryvale they’d rap me on the knuckles with the edge of a metal ruler. For cursing they’d wash my mouth out with soap. For serious offenses I’d get sent to the principal’s office. Only the principal could give you an official hiding. You’d have to bend over and he’d hit your ass with this flat rubber thing, like the sole of a shoe.

Whenever the principal would hit me, it was like he was afraid to do it too hard. One day I was getting a hiding and I thought, Man, if only my mom hit me like this, and I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. The principal was quite disturbed. “If you’re laughing while you’re getting beaten,” he said, “then something is definitely wrong with you.” That was the first of three times the school made my mom take me to a psychologist to be evaluated. Every psychologist who examined me came back and said, “There’s nothing wrong with this kid.” I wasn’t ADD. I wasn’t a sociopath. I was just creative and independent and full of energy. The therapists did give me a series of tests, and they came to the conclusion that I was either going to make an excellent criminal or be very good at catching criminals, because I could always find loopholes in the law. Whenever I thought a rule wasn’t logical, I’d find my way around it.

The rules about communion at Friday mass, for example, made absolutely no sense. We’d be in there for an hour of kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, and by the end of it I’d be starving, but I was never allowed to take communion, because I wasn’t Catholic. The other kids could eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, but I couldn’t. And Jesus’s blood was grape juice. I loved grape juice. Grape juice and crackers—what more could a kid want? And they wouldn’t let me have any. I’d argue with the nuns and the priest all the time.

“Only Catholics can eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, right?”

“Yes.”

“But Jesus wasn’t Catholic.”

“No.”

“Jesus was Jewish.”

“Well, yes.”

“So you’re telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus?”

“Well…uh…um…”

They never had a satisfactory reply.

One morning before mass I decided, I’m going to get me some Jesus blood and Jesus body. I snuck behind the altar and I drank the entire bottle of grape juice and I ate the entire bag of Eucharist to make up for all the other times that I couldn’t.

In my mind, I wasn’t breaking the rules, because the rules didn’t make any sense. And I got caught only because they broke their own rules. Another kid ratted me out in confession, and the priest turned me in.

“No, no,” I protested. “You’ve broken the rules. That’s confidential information. The priest isn’t supposed to repeat what you say in confession.”

They didn’t care. The school could break whatever rules it wanted. The principal laid into me.

“What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesus’s body and drink all of Jesus’s blood?”

“A hungry person.”

I got another hiding and a second trip to the psychologist for that one. The third visit to the shrink, and the last straw, came in grade six. A kid was bullying me. He said he was going to beat me up, and I brought one of my knives to school. I wasn’t going to use it; I just wanted to have it. The school didn’t care. That was the last straw for them. I wasn’t expelled, exactly. The principal sat me down and said, “Trevor, we can expel you. You need to think hard about whether you really want to be at Maryvale next year.” I think he thought he was giving me an ultimatum that would get me to shape up. But I felt like he was offering me an out, and I took it. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to be here.” And that was the end of Catholic school.

Funnily enough, I didn’t get into trouble with my mom when it happened. There was no ass-whooping waiting for me at home. She’d lost the bursary when she’d left her job at ICI, and paying for private school was becoming a burden. But more than that, she thought the school was overreacting. The truth is she probably took my side against Maryvale more often than not. She agreed with me 100 percent about the Eucharist thing. “Let me get this straight,” she told the principal. “You’re punishing a child because he wants Jesus’s body and Jesus’s blood? Why shouldn’t he have those things? Of course he should have them.” When they made me see a therapist for laughing while the principal hit me, she told the school that was ridiculous, too.

“Ms. Noah, your son was laughing while we were hitting him.”

“Well, clearly you don’t know how to hit a kid. That’s your problem, not mine. Trevor’s never laughed when I’ve hit him, I can tell you.”

That was the weird and kind of amazing thing about my mom. If she agreed with me that a rule was stupid, she wouldn’t punish me for breaking it. Both she and the psychologists agreed that the school was the one with the problem, not me. Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent.

Catholic school is similar to apartheid in that it’s ruthlessly authoritarian, and its authority rests on a bunch of rules that don’t make any sense. My mother grew up with these rules and she questioned them. When they didn’t hold up, she simply went around them. The only authority my mother recognized was God’s. God is love and the Bible is truth—everything else was up for debate. She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.

When I was seven years old, my mother had been dating her new boyfriend, Abel, for a year maybe, but at that point I was too young to know who they were to each other. It was just “Hey, that’s mom’s friend who’s around a lot.” I liked Abel; he was a really nice guy.

As a black person back then, if you wanted to live in the suburbs you’d have to find a white family renting out their servants’ quarters or sometimes their garage, which was what Abel had done. He lived in a neighborhood called Orange Grove in a white family’s garage, which he’d turned into a cottage-type thing with a hot plate and a bed. Sometimes he’d come and sleep at our house, and sometimes we’d go stay with him. Staying in a garage when we owned our own house wasn’t ideal, but Orange Grove was close to my school and my mom’s work so it had its benefits.

This white family also had a black maid who lived in the servants’ quarters in the backyard, and I’d play with her son whenever we stayed there. At that age my love of fire was in full bloom. One afternoon everyone was at work—my mom and Abel and both of the white parents—and the kid and I were playing together while his mom was inside the house cleaning. One thing I loved doing at the time was using a magnifying glass to burn my name into pieces of wood. You had to aim the lens and get the focus just right and then you got the flame and then you moved it slowly and you could burn shapes and letters and patterns. I was fascinated by it.

That afternoon I was teaching this kid how to do it. We were inside the servants’ quarters, which was really more of a toolshed added on to the back of the house, full of wooden ladders, buckets of old paint, turpentine. I had a box of matches with me, too—all my usual fire-making tools. We were sitting on an old mattress that they used to sleep on the floor, basically a sack stuffed with dried straw. The sun was beaming in through the window, and I was showing the kid how to burn his name into a piece of plywood.

At one point we took a break to go get a snack. I set the magnifying glass and the matches on the mattress and we left. When we came back a few minutes later we found the shed had one of those doors that self-locks from the inside. We couldn’t get back in without going to get his mother, so we decided to run around and play in the yard. After a while I noticed smoke coming out of the cracks in the window frame. I ran over and looked inside. A small fire was burning in the middle of the straw mattress where we’d left the matches and the magnifying glass. We ran and called the maid. She came, but she didn’t know what to do. The door was locked, and before we could figure out how to get into the shed the whole thing caught—the mattress, the ladders, the paint, the turpentine, everything.

The flames moved quickly. Soon the roof was on fire, and from there the blaze spread to the main house, and the whole thing burned and burned and burned. Smoke was billowing into the sky. A neighbor had called the fire brigade, and the sirens were on their way. Me and this kid and the maid, we ran out to the road and watched as the firemen tried to put it out, but by the time they did, it was too late. There was nothing left but a charred brick-and-mortar shell, roof gone, and gutted from the inside.

The white family came home and stood on the street, staring at the ruins of their house. They asked the maid what happened and she asked her son and the kid totally snitched. “Trevor had matches,” he said. The family said nothing to me. I don’t think they knew what to say. They were completely dumbfounded. They didn’t call the police, didn’t threaten to sue. What were they going to do, arrest a seven-year-old for arson? And we were so poor you couldn’t actually sue us for anything. Plus they had insurance, so that was the end of it.

They kicked Abel out of the garage, which I thought was hilarious because the garage, which was freestanding, was the only piece of the property left unscathed. I saw no reason for Abel to have to leave, but they made him. We packed up his stuff, put it into our car, and drove home to Eden Park; Abel basically lived with us from then on. He and my mom got into a huge fight. “Your son has burned down my life!” But there was no punishment for me that day. My mom was too much in shock. There’s naughty, and then there’s burning down a white person’s house. She didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, “Trevor burned down a house.” If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.” My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.

I grew up in a black family in a black neighborhood in a black country. I’ve traveled to other black cities in black countries all over the black continent. And in all of that time I’ve yet to find a place where black people like cats. One of the biggest reasons for that, as we know in South Africa, is that only witches have cats, and all cats are witches.

There was a famous incident during an Orlando Pirates soccer match a few years ago. A cat got into the stadium and ran through the crowd and out onto the pitch in the middle of the game. A security guard, seeing the cat, did what any sensible black person would do. He said to himself, “That cat is a witch.” He caught the cat and—live on TV—he kicked it and stomped it and beat it to death with a sjambok, a hard leather whip.

It was front-page news all over the country. White people lost their shit. Oh my word, it was insane. The security guard was arrested and put on trial and found guilty of animal abuse. He had to pay some enormous fine to avoid spending several months in jail. What was ironic to me was that white people had spent years seeing video of black people being beaten to death by other white people, but this one video of a black man kicking a cat, that’s what sent them over the edge. Black people were just confused. They didn’t see any problem with what the man did. They were like, “Obviously that cat was a witch. How else would a cat know how to get out onto a soccer pitch? Somebody sent it to jinx one of the teams. That man had to kill the cat. He was protecting the players.” In South Africa, black people have dogs.

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