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

It was my first year at H. A. Jack, the primary school I transferred to after leaving Maryvale. Valentine’s Day was approaching fast. I was twelve years old, and I’d never done Valentine’s Day before. We didn’t celebrate it in Catholic school. I understood Valentine’s Day, as a concept. The naked baby shoots you with an arrow and you fall in love. I got that part. But this was my first time being introduced to it as an activity. At H. A. Jack, Valentine’s Day was used as a fundraiser. Pupils were going around selling flowers and cards, and I had to go ask a friend what was happening.

“What is this?” I said. “What are we doing?”

“Oh, you know,” she said, “it’s Valentine’s Day. You pick a special person and you tell them that you love them, and they love you back.”

Wow, I thought, that seems intense. But I hadn’t been shot by Cupid’s arrow, and I didn’t know of anyone getting shot on my behalf. I had no clue what was going on. All week, the girls in school kept saying, “Who’s your valentine? Who’s your valentine?” I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Finally one of the girls, a white girl, said, “You should ask Maylene.” The other kids agreed. “Yes, Maylene. You should definitely ask Maylene. You have to ask Maylene. You guys are perfect for each other.” Maylene was a girl I used to walk home from school with. We lived in the city now, me, my mom and Abel, who was now my stepfather, and my new baby brother, Andrew. We’d sold our house in Eden Park to invest in Abel’s new garage. Then that fell apart, and we ended up moving to a neighborhood called Highlands North, a thirty-minute walk from H. A. Jack. A group of us would leave school together every afternoon, each kid peeling off and going their separate way when we reached their house. Maylene and I lived the farthest, so we’d always be the last two. We’d walk together until we got where we needed to go, and then we’d part ways.

Maylene was cool. She was good at tennis, smart, cute. I liked her. I didn’t have a crush on her; I wasn’t even thinking about girls that way yet. I just liked hanging out with her. Maylene was also the only colored girl in school. I was the only mixed kid in school. We were the only two people who looked like each other. The white girls were insistent about me asking Maylene to be my valentine. They were like, “Trevor, you have to ask her. You’re the only two. It’s your responsibility.” It was like our species was going to die out if we didn’t mate and carry on. Which I’ve learned in life is something that white people do without even realizing it. “You two look the same, therefore we must arrange for you to have sex.” I honestly hadn’t thought of asking Maylene, but when the girls brought it up, that thing happened where someone plants the idea in your head and it changes your perception.

“Maylene’s totally got a thing for you.”

“Does she?”

“Yeah, you guys are great together!”

“Are we?”

“Totally.”

“Well, okay. If you say so.”

I liked Maylene as much as I liked anyone, I suppose. Mostly I think I liked the idea of being liked. I decided I’d ask her to be my valentine, but I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t know the first thing about having a girlfriend. I had to be taught the whole love bureaucracy of the school. There was the thing where you don’t actually talk straight to the person. You have your group of friends and she has her group of friends, and your group of friends has to go to her group of friends and say, “Okay, Trevor likes Maylene. He wants her to be his valentine. We’re in favor. We’re ready to sign off with your approval.” Her friends say, “Okay. Sounds good. We have to run it by Maylene.” They go to Maylene. They consult. They tell her what they think. “Trevor says he likes you. We’re in favor. We think you’d be good together. What do you say?” Maylene says, “I like Trevor.” They say, “Okay. Let’s move forward.” They come back to us. “Maylene says she approves and she’s waiting for Trevor’s Valentine’s Day advance.” The girls told me this process was what needed to happen. I said, “Cool. Let’s do it.” The friends sorted it out, Maylene got on board, and I was all set.

The week before Valentine’s, Maylene and I were walking home together, and I was trying to get up the courage to ask her. I was so nervous. I’d never done anything like it. I already knew the answer; her friends had told me she’d say yes. It’s like being in Congress. You know you have the votes before you go to the floor, but it’s still difficult because anything could happen. I didn’t know how to do it, all I knew was I wanted it to be perfect, so I waited until we were standing outside McDonald’s. Then I mustered up all of my courage and turned to her.

“Hey, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I was wondering, would you be my valentine?”

“Yes. I’ll be your valentine.”

And then, under the golden arches, we kissed. It was my first time ever kissing a girl. It was just a peck, our lips touched for only a few seconds, but it set off explosions in my head. Yes! Oh, yes. This. I don’t know what this is, but I like it. Something had awakened. And it was right outside McDonald’s, so it was extra special.

Now I was truly excited. I had a valentine. I had a girlfriend. I spent the whole week thinking about Maylene, wanting to make her Valentine’s Day as memorable as I could. I saved up my pocket money and bought her flowers and a teddy bear and a card. I wrote a poem with her name in the card, which was really hard because there aren’t many good words that rhyme with Maylene. (Machine? Ravine? Sardine?) Then the big day came. I got my Valentine’s card and the flowers and the teddy bear and got them ready and took them to school. I was the happiest boy on earth.

The teachers had set aside a period before recess for everyone to exchange valentines. There was a corridor outside our classrooms where I knew Maylene would be, and I waited for her there. All around me, love was in bloom. Boys and girls exchanging cards and gifts, laughing and giggling and stealing kisses. I waited and waited. Finally Maylene showed up and walked over to me. I was about to say “Happy Valentine’s Day!” when she stopped me and said, “Oh, hi, Trevor. Um, listen, I can’t be your girlfriend anymore. Lorenzo asked me to be his valentine and I can’t have two valentines, so I’m his girlfriend now and not yours.” She said it so matter-of-factly that I had no idea how to process it. This was my first time having a girlfriend, so at first I thought, Huh, maybe this is just how it goes.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well, um…happy Valentine’s Day.”

I held out the card and the flowers and the teddy bear. She took them and said thanks, and she was gone.

I felt like someone had taken a gun and shot holes in every part of me. But at the same time some part of me said, “Well, this makes sense.” Lorenzo was everything I wasn’t. He was popular. He was white. He’d upset the balance of everything by asking out the only colored girl in school. Girls loved him, and he was dumb as rocks. A nice guy, but kind of a bad boy. Girls did his homework for him; he was that guy. He was really good-looking, too. It was like when he was creating his character he traded in all his intelligence points for beauty points. I stood no chance.

As devastated as I was, I understood why Maylene made the choice that she did. I would have picked Lorenzo over me, too. All the other kids were running up and down the corridors and out on the playground, laughing and smiling with their red and pink cards and flowers, and I went back to the classroom and sat by myself and waited for the bell to ring.

Petrol for the car, like food, was an expense we could not avoid, but my mom could get more mileage out of a tank of petrol than any human who has ever been on a road in the history of automobiles. She knew every trick. Driving around Johannesburg in our rusty old Volkswagen, every time she stopped in traffic, she’d turn off the car. Then the traffic would start and she’d turn the car on again. That stop-start technology that they use in hybrid cars now? That was my mom. She was a hybrid car before hybrid cars came out. She was the master of coasting. She knew every downhill between work and school, between school and home. She knew exactly where the gradient shifted to put it into neutral. She could time the traffic lights so we could coast through intersections without using the brakes or losing momentum.

There were times when we would be in traffic and we had so little money for petrol that I would have to push the car. If we were stuck in gridlock, my mom would turn the car off and it was my job to get out and push it forward six inches at a time. People would pitch up and offer to help.

“Are you stuck?”

“Nope. We’re fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

“Can we help you?”

“Nope.”

“Do you need a tow?”

And what do you say? The truth? “Thanks, but we’re just so poor my mom makes her kid push the car”?

That was some of the most embarrassing shit in my life, pushing the car to school like the fucking Flintstones. Because the other kids were coming in on that same road to go to school. I’d take my blazer off so that no one could tell what school I went to, and I would bury my head and push the car, hoping no one would recognize me.

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