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A YOUNG MAN’S LONG, AWKWARD, OCCASIONALLY TRAGIC, AND FREQUENTLY HUMILIATING EDUCATION IN AFFAIRS OF THE HEART, PART II: THE CRUSH

In high school, the attention of girls was not an affliction I suffered from. I wasn’t the hot guy in class. I wasn’t even the cute guy in class. I was ugly. Puberty was not kind to me. My acne was so bad that people used to ask what was wrong with me, like I’d had an allergic reaction to something. It was the kind of acne that qualifies as a medical condition. Acne vulgaris, the doctor called it. We’re not talking about pimples, kids. We’re talking pustules—big, pus-filled blackheads and whiteheads. They started on my forehead, spread down the sides of my face, and covered my cheeks and neck and ravaged me everywhere.

Being poor didn’t help. Not only could I not afford a decent haircut, leaving me with a huge, unruly Afro, but my mother also used to get angry at the fact that I grew out of my school uniforms too fast, so to save money she started buying my clothes three sizes too big. My blazer was too long and my pants were too baggy and my shoes flopped around. I was a clown. And of course, Murphy’s Law, the year my mom started buying my clothes too big was the year that I stopped growing. So now I was never going to grow into my clown clothes and I was stuck being a clown. The only thing I had going for me was the fact that I was tall, but even there I was gangly and awkward-looking. Duck feet. High ass. Nothing worked.

After suffering my Valentine’s Day heartbreak at the hands of Maylene and the handsome, charming Lorenzo, I learned a valuable lesson about dating. What I learned was that cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls. I was not a cool guy; therefore I did not have girls. I understood that formula very quickly and I knew my place. I didn’t ask girls out. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t even try.

For me to try to get a girl would have upset the natural order of things. Part of my success as the tuck-shop guy was that I was welcome everywhere, and I was welcome everywhere because I was nobody. I was the acne-ridden clown with duck feet in floppy shoes. I wasn’t a threat to the guys. I wasn’t a threat to the girls. The minute I became somebody, I risked no longer being welcomed as nobody. The pretty girls were already spoken for. The popular guys had staked their claim. They would say, “I like Zuleika,” and you knew that meant if you tried anything with Zuleika there’d be a fight. In the interest of survival, the smart move was to stay on the fringe, stay out of trouble.

At Sandringham, the only time girls in class looked at me was when they wanted me to pass a letter to the hot guy in class. But there was one girl I knew named Johanna. Johanna and I had been at the same school intermittently our whole lives. We were in preschool at Maryvale together. Then she left and went to another school. Then we were in primary school at H. A. Jack together. Then she left and went to another school. Then finally we were at Sandringham together. Because of that we became friends.

Johanna was one of the popular girls. Her best friend was Zaheera. Johanna was beautiful. Zaheera was stunning. Zaheera was colored, Cape Malay. She looked like Salma Hayek. Johanna was out and about and kissing boys, so the guys were all into her. Zaheera, as beautiful as she was, was extremely shy, so there weren’t as many guys after her.

Johanna and Zaheera were always together. They were one grade below me, but in terms of popularity they were three grades above me. Still I got to hang out with them because I knew Johanna and we had this thing from being in different schools together. Dating girls may have been out of the question for me, but talking to them was not, because I could make them laugh. Human beings like to laugh, and lucky for me pretty girls are human beings. So I could relate to them in that way, but never in the other way. I knew this because whenever they stopped laughing at my jokes and stories they’d say, “So how do you think I can get Daniel to ask me out?” I always had a clear idea of where I stood.

Outwardly, I had carefully cultivated my status as the funny, nonthreatening guy, but secretly I had the hugest crush on Zaheera. She was so pretty and so funny. We’d hang out and have great conversations. I thought about her constantly, but for the life of me I never considered myself worthy of dating her. I told myself, I’m going to have a crush on her forever, and that’s all that’s ever going to happen.

At a certain point I decided to map out a strategy. I decided I’d be best friends with Zaheera and stay friends with her long enough to ask her to the matric dance, what we call our senior prom. Mind you, we were in grade nine at this point. The matric dance was three years away. But I decided to play the long game. I was like, Yep, just gonna take my time. Because that’s what happens in the movies, right? I’d seen my American high school movies. You hang around long enough as the friendly good guy and the girl dates a bunch of handsome jerks, and then one day she turns around and goes, “Oh, it’s you. It was always you. You’re the guy I was supposed to be with all along.” That was my plan. It was foolproof.

I hung out with Zaheera every chance I got. We’d talk about boys, which ones she liked and which ones liked her. I’d give her advice. At one point she got set up with this guy Gary. They started dating. Gary was in the popular group but kind of shy and Zaheera was in the popular group but kind of shy, so his friends and her friends set them up together, like an arranged marriage. But Zaheera didn’t like Gary at all. She told me. We talked about everything.

One day, I don’t know how, but I plucked up the courage to ask Zaheera for her phone number, which was a big deal back then because it wasn’t like cellphone numbers where everybody has everyone’s number for texting and everything. This was the landline. To her house. Where her parents might answer. We were talking one afternoon at school and I asked, “Can I get your phone number? Maybe I can call you and we can talk at home sometime.” She said yes, and my mind exploded. What???!!!! A girl is giving me her phone number???!!! This is insane!!! What do I do??!! I was so nervous. I’ll never forget her telling me the digits one by one as I wrote them down, trying to keep my hand from shaking. We said goodbye and went our separate ways to class, and I was like, Okay, Trevor. Play it cool. Don’t call her right away. I called her that night. At seven. She’d given me her number at two. That was me being cool. Dude, don’t call her at five. That’s too obvious. Call her at seven.

I phoned her house that night. Her mom answered. I said, “May I speak to Zaheera, please?” Her mom called her, and she came to the phone and we talked. For like an hour. After that we started talking more, at school, on the phone. I never told her how I felt. Never made a move. Nothing. I was always too scared.

Zaheera and Gary broke up. Then they got back together. Then they broke up. Then they got back together. They kissed once, but she didn’t like it, so they never kissed again. Then they broke up for real. I bided my time through it all. I watched Popular Gary go down in flames, and I was still the good friend. Yep, the plan is working. Matric dance, here we come. Only two and a half years to go… Then we had the mid-year school holidays. The day we came back, Zaheera wasn’t at school. Then she wasn’t at school the next day. Then she wasn’t at school the day after that. Eventually I went and tracked down Johanna on the quad.

“Hey, where’s Zaheera?” I said. “She hasn’t been around for a while. Is she sick?”

“No,” she said. “Didn’t anyone tell you? She left the school. She doesn’t go here anymore.”

“What?”

“Yeah, she left.”

My first thought was, Wow, okay. That’s news. I should give her a call to catch up.

“What school did she move to?” I asked.

“She didn’t. Her dad got a job in America. During the break they moved there. They’ve emigrated.”

“What?”

“Yeah. She’s gone. She was such a good friend, too. I’m really sad. Are you as sad as I am?”

“Uh…yeah,” I said, still trying to process everything. “I liked Zaheera. She was really cool.”

“Yeah, she was super sad, too, because she had such a huge crush on you. She was always waiting for you to ask her out. Okay, I gotta go to class! Bye!”

She ran off and left me standing there, stunned. She’d hit me with so much information at once, first that Zaheera was gone, then that she had left for America, and then that she’d liked me all along. It was like I’d been hit by three successive waves of heartbreak, each one bigger than the last. My mind raced through all the hours we’d spent talking on the quad, on the phone, all the times I could have said, “Hey, Zaheera, I like you. Will you be my girlfriend?” Ten words that might have changed my life if I’d had the courage to say them. But I hadn’t, and now she was gone.

In every nice neighborhood there’s one white family that Does Not Give a Fuck. You know the family I’m talking about. They don’t do their lawn, don’t paint the fence, don’t fix the roof. Their house is shit. My mom found that house and bought it, which is how she snuck a black family into a place as white as Highlands North.

Most black people integrating into white suburbs were moving to places like Bramley and Lombardy East. But for some reason my mom chose Highlands North. It was a suburban area, lots of shopping. Working people, mostly. Not wealthy but stable and middle-class. Older houses, but still a nice place to live. In Soweto I was the only white kid in the black township. In Eden Park I was the only mixed kid in the colored area. In Highlands North I was the only black kid in the white suburb—and by “only” I mean only. In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down. Since the white people around us weren’t leaving, there weren’t a lot of families like ours moving in behind us.

I didn’t make any friends in Highlands North for the longest time. I had an easier time making friends in Eden Park, to be honest. In the suburbs, everyone lived behind walls. The white neighborhoods of Johannesburg were built on white fear—fear of black crime, fear of black uprisings and reprisals—and as a result virtually every house sits behind a six-foot wall, and on top of that wall is electric wire. Everyone lives in a plush, fancy maximum-security prison. There is no sitting on the front porch, no saying hi to the neighbors, no kids running back and forth between houses. I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood for hours without seeing a single kid. I’d hear them, though. They were all meeting up behind brick walls for playdates I wasn’t invited to. I’d hear people laughing and playing and I’d get off my bike and creep up and peek over the wall and see a bunch of white kids splashing around in someone’s swimming pool. I was like a Peeping Tom, but for friendship.

It was only after a year or so that I figured out the key to making black friends in the suburbs: the children of domestics. Many domestic workers in South Africa, when they get pregnant they get fired. Or, if they’re lucky, the family they work for lets them stay on and they can have the baby, but then the baby goes to live with relatives in the homelands. Then the black mother raises the white children, seeing her own child only once a year at the holidays. But a handful of families would let their domestics keep their children with them, living in little maids’ quarters or flatlets in the backyard.

For a long time, those kids were my only friends.

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