People say slut's a name that sticks, but I beg to differ. I've wriggled my way into and out of that one so many times it's gone threadbare at the thumbs, like an old jersey you just won't turf out, even when the cat's slept in it and it's stained under the arms. That's the thing about small towns: the people in them like to stick you with labels, even if the label peels off in the humidity and ends up under someone's shoe.
I don't mean inland dorp—home to three Chicken Licken's and vaalies and the sorrowful remains of colonial buildings—but the coastal village. It's an entirely different creature. You see, the dustbowl far-from-sea keeps things rational. Granted, there's darkness behind the low walls and rosebush fences, but at the sea? Anything is possible. Rusted doors fall off cars; there are shapes in the misted windows and the salt weeps right out the cellar. Between the warm currents and swiftly changing tides, the air ferments, pervading the days and dreams of everyone who breathes it. Your life—and the collective judgment of it—brews in this salty stew with a sting not unlike a bluebottle.
The sun, so erratic in March, retreats behind clouds of amethyst and silver. It chooses odd days to visit: the Tuesday the farmers pray for rain, the Sunday you skip mass to nurse a hangover. Yet over the rest of the week hangs the oppressive cloud cover of Lent; a sky so ominous surfers don't paddle out and fishermen tuck rods behind garage doors, cutting their losses before the downpour.
Today is spun from cloud and sea foam, the air so thick I bemoan hanging up the washing. I'm drinking Coke out a two-litre bottle, watching surfers drop in on each other with palpable glee. I may be young—just on 26—but I know things. How not to, when the wind whips us bare? There's no choice when you're close to the elements; spirits abound. Ghosts walk the avenues alongside us. It's been twelve years since our neighbor, Crazy Simone, put a bullet through her skull, and eleven years three-hundred-and-fifty-seven days since I caught her dead self watching the ships go by. The parameters are different: they stretch with the tides. Sometimes, they comfort a girl. Other times, they stifle her.
I like to stand in arm's reach of the breakers and feel the spray on my skin. Later, when I shower, I'll find the salt pooled in certain places—the base of my spine, my breasts, my cheek. Then I'll light a spliff on the roof and watch the bats flit through the sky.
An elderly couple walks past with their Scottish terrier. The man is tall, windbreaker zipped up and the hood over his head, his dog's leash wrapped around his wife's right hand. Practical shoes on both their feet. Their conversation is animated by papery gestures; gentle laughter injects life into their words, appreciative agreement seals their affection. I imagine they talk about grandchildren or how lovely their new lock-up-and-go is (so easy to see the kids now; Eunice can just feed the dogs and make sure the gardenias are watered). I envy their easy companionship. How they trust the other not to leave. They are grounded in one another, their own world. I long for that honesty.
A car guard is trying to light his ciggie. He cups a hand protectively around it, but the wind just won't let it light. Eventually, the match holds flame long enough, and he throws it to the gravel, inhaling smoke deep into his lungs. On the other side of the lot, a group of boys play cricket. A few adults—their parents and aunties and uncles—watch from beach chairs sat next to the open boot, cans of cool drink and KFC passed among them. The batsman hits a six, and he and his friend laugh and high five each other. I long to join the little group; to feel the lightness of boyhood; to laugh with the creatures they are before they're men.
I've been gone a week and he hasn't stopped texting. Come home, he begs. But I'm never going back. Seven nights ago I packed clothes into a small bag which I hid under my seat. I added naartjies and later, a steak knife, just in case. He'd been kicked off the building site a month back. A BEE thing, he told me. I assumed he was fired, like the last job. But he swore there was a package, we just had to hold tight. Maybe I could work extra shifts? Until then, he'd be out, drinking.
My phone beeps; another text. I delete the conversation without reading it. I'm reminded how damaged everyone is around here. I'm not the only one with secrets; we've all got our shit. Beyond hollow eyes and fidgeting fingers, there's this emptiness we share that draws us to the waves. Here, people want to swallow the sea whole. Besides which, I'm female in a small town: an ant under the microscope. Most of my life I spent ignoring the she-said-he-said rumor mill designed to cut me off at the crotch. I ducked under its swing and feigned ignorance with my chin held high. And when it stopped working—when it all got too realistic despite my innocence—I didn't cry to my mother or bemoan my "deserved" crucifixion as the town bicycle. No, I turned the other cheek and let the fists swing, because up until my fourteenth year, it had never been true.
I'd just started wearing a bra—the flattest girl in grade eight—and I remember this because its breath-halting squish permeates close to all my memories of that time. The whole of 2000 took on this pinched quality so visceral I still have trouble breathing when I think of it. I was walking from Black Rock to the point, hoping for a better wave. Surfboard under my arm, wax sticking to my skin, I stalked through the grassy verge along ocean way. I slipped down to the rocks when it became too narrow.
A bakkie passed, a gray double cab with a back-fender so skew I'm surprised it drove straight. I'd hopped back up to the road, barefoot feet skipping over the tar, and was just about to round the corner into the parking lot when I heard whistling. Looking to my left, I saw two middle-aged men leaning out the car, making no qualms about checking me out.
"Hey, jailbait!" they yelled, making wanking gestures with their hands. I stood stock still, heart pounding.
"Come sit on Daddy's lap man, we won't bite." I could almost smell the beer on their breath, and though I was steps away from other people, I was suddenly terrified. The eldest one opened the car door and my insides dropped to my nether regions. His rugby shorts were pulled low beneath the gargantuan beer boep and he kept one hand on his steering wheel. The other was reaching into his shorts, his eyes feasting on my body. I was either going to faint or wet myself. Run…run I thought, but my leaden legs refused to carry me any faster than a slow trot. He must have seen I was scared, because he jumped forward as if to pretend he was going to chase me. I bolted, jumping over the toposcope in the direction of the parking lot.
"Ja, you little slut, run, voetsek!" I turned to see him hop back up to the driver's seat and rev his engine, but another car was now behind them, and they had to move. He slammed the door shut, still staring at me, but I whipped my head forward and began to run in earnest. I heard the bakkie stall over the speed bump and then kick into gear, the tractor-chug of the diesel engine slowly fading. Too faint to notice I'd dropped my board, I stumbled over to the rocks. I pulled my towel around me even though it was thirty degrees, and cried for my mom.
The big city couldn't keep me out my denim cut-offs and surf store slops. It was acceptable along the southern peninsula and I survived the city of cool in a state of semi-acceptance. Cape Town contained me to some degree: it housed me in anonymity I soon embraced. For once, I didn't know everybody, and not everybody knew me. My past was tucked inside myself, one thousand kilometres away.
The body, however, has different ideas. Despite our resistance, it reacts to injury, flooding blood to broken tissue, coloring a wound in loud, ugly, obvious cries. It's why they hit you in the ribs, or across the sternum, the bone that protects your heart. Only he sees the swelling, and then the tears start and you bend double to protect him. Not the same with pain, though; it won't stay in and it can't be forgotten. That kind of darkness follows you wherever you go, leaving your body and engulfing you, a shadow so black it can't be fought, no matter the shape it takes. The key is to breathe it in and return it to its source. I always knew as much. But how many of us want to do this? I don't now, and I definitely didn't then. In fact, moments after the incident with the bakkie, while I sobbed into my towel with mingled shame and relief, the platelets of my O negative collected like a slap, crystallizing in the six-foot, board-wielding body of a white-boy, demi-god.
He was golden, white hair curled behind neat ears, sun burnt smirk set below golden eyes. There was nothing cultivated about his build, either. Just long, lean muscles defined by the sea. I tried to be nonchalant but my nose was running and I couldn't breathe without the snot honking to the back of my throat. He walked towards me. I sneezed.
"Urgh, sorry," I said, wiping my nose on the towel. "Chilled oke," was his reply, but the way he looked at me—eyes roaming my chest and stomach—told me there'd be more. And there was. I got a lift home with him in his green Tazz—my father always told me green cars are bad luck—but not before we stopped at the lifesaver's shack so he could fetch his suit and I could drop to my knees to say thank you. It was my first blowjob: hot, rough and probably the most unpleasant thing I'd ever done.
He seemed pleased but my hands shook all the way home, a steady hum growing louder in my ears. I'd avoided the guys in the bakkie, but at what cost? My mouth felt foreign; there was nothing sexy about this. He parked on my unmown pavement and left the engine running while I hurriedly took down my board from the roof racks and stuck my head back in his window to say thanks for the lift.
"Sure," he said, eyes fixed on his dashboard. I walked back down my garden path. He never spoke to me again.
He did, however, speak to someone else, because by next Monday it was common knowledge I'd blown Scott du Plessis at the beach. Nobody spoke to me directly until break time, and by then, I'd overheard enough conversations to expect this reaction. Hard was avoiding myself as topic of conversation. Worse, was realizing I was no longer the same, and even though it was under my own doing, I felt helpless and acted upon. I carried on as I should. I listened in class; I finished my homework before the start of second break. I suppose this is why people got so angry: there should have been shame, and the shame should have been mine. I'd done this to myself had no choice but to accept my punishment.
It was in the last period of school that I had to use the bathroom during class. I walked downstairs to the senior girls'—I wasn't allowed but it was closer—and shut myself in a stall. It was only once I'd flushed and reached for the handle that I saw the back of the door. And there, fresh as wall paint, the crafty work of scissors split wide open, were the words: Evelyn Heard is a whore.
Being insulted didn't hurt. I didn't care for those people nor their opinions of me. I was smart and I thought this made me better than them. Until then, it had. But words are not easily forgotten, especially when one is so young. More damaging than their ugliness is their capacity for damnation. Language like that holds a reductive power so potent it breaks the recipient into fragments. These words, like language itself, are spineless without a mouth to be spat from, or a bathroom door to be carved into. But we are all willing to manipulate language for our own means and this label suckered on to me like barnacle to rock. I was damned and cursed, branded by the tongues that forked and slithered over the scar they left.
Fast forward a few years, and I'd slid down into the lowered expectations of everyone around me. A reputation is hardly everything, but I let it consume the rest of my adolescence. I stayed the smart girl, but only just. Shaking off a label is harder than it looks; in this town, anyway. I was no longer talented or set to go far: there was the deviance of my sexual past that crept around like my shadow, pining at the door when I longed to read my set works. One afternoon, after my waitressing shift finished, I drove along the beachfront, stopping to park and admire the view. It was Spring high, the tidal abnormality that brings ferocious swell and flooding of the roads that run the periphery of the sea. People had stopped to watch the waves: so rough, so hungry, so relentless. I got out my car and sat on the bonnet, enjoying the frenzied sea-smell in the air. I saw one or two middle-aged people stare at me—all parents remember the sluts in their children's grades—and felt the shame of all I'd done.
I stewed in self-pity for a minute longer, and then I felt a gaze not altogether unfamiliar. She sat down next to me, and I saw the gaping hole where the top of her head once was.
"They will crucify you, if you let them," she said. Or at least I thought she did: I heard her voice even though her lips never moved. The sea was furious, so loud I struggled to hear the next bit.
"You should get out of here. You're better than the whole lot. Get out while you can."
I didn't get far, but I made a life for myself there. There, up-country to another ocean, one that didn't know the sins of my past. But pain is tidal, and with that ebb and flow comes the reappearance of all hurt that is not transmuted. One who escapes will always find herself escaping.
I met my aunt for breakfast before I left. There was reason for escape, of course. It wasn't just another leap from ocean to ocean. But I wasn't about to tell her it now.
"You've got to watch it," she instructed, bemoaning the curse of that city. "One minute you're warm, embraced. You enjoy knowing everyone. Feeling welcome. But you're suckling on the serpent's teat, doll, cause straight after that? The squeeze. Next thing you know…"
A waiter interrupted, bringing her eggs benedict. I couldn't eat.
"Like I was saying, next thing you know, you can't breathe. Your face turns blue and the oxygen's off evacuating your veins. Slummies is a vampire, Evelyn; it's a fucking boa constrictor. And you've got to be aware of that." She was emphatic, driving her index finger into the table. I'm surprised it didn't break.
"The moment you feel good and protected is the moment they've got you. Next thing, you're down in a vice grip, right on your knees. After that, there's no going back. You're theirs."
"And then what, Tannie?" I asked, ignoring the crude reference to my past.
"Then, well, then they turn you into one of them! And you carry on the cycle."
"Like zombies?" I couldn't help myself.
But her mind was a thousand kilometers away and she barely noticed. "Exactly," she quietly agreed, eyes out over the ocean. "Like zombies."
I remember driving home and arriving in Muizies to find Damian passed out on the couch. I panicked; if he was already wasted, he wouldn't go to the pub that afternoon. That meant leaving a day later. I washed his breakfast dishes and wiped down the counters, praying all the time. He stirred. I slipped out to the toilet and pretended to pee. Behind the door I prayed to every saint I knew. He called out from the kitchen, something about heading out. I almost collapsed with relief.
I had three hours until my departure; three hours until I escaped the boyfriend, once wonderful, now close with breath that scalded skin and an unlicensed gun. It had been the same every night for years but since he was retrenched, he'd decided it time I learn my lesson. And me, I grew up with that shit: fathers beating mothers, hockey-stick wounds in sticky scalps, cracked ribs on women who breastfed babies while tears ran down their cheeks. I didn't think I'd end up one of them, even while it was happening. I was smart, I got out, evading the clutches of the snappermouthed, tall-poppy haters. But there I was, on the wrong side of Muizenberg, with a lifeguard boyfriend untamed by beer or weed or the sedatives I slipped into his drinks. I could never work out what I'd done. But it didn't matter, because I was a too-big-for-my-boots Smart Alec. That—and a stupid bitch.
It's what everyone says, I know, but when he was good, things were really good. But a man who won't take his Zoloft won't go easy on the bottle. And he definitely won't come home and magically respect you. I learned this lesson, locked in my bathroom, almost peeing with fright, head bleeding into a beach towel.
I didn't tell my friends I was leaving. They all loved him, why wouldn't they? Charming as sin, that man. Fucking bastard. Our small flat—the one he promised to pay his half for, just as soon as money came in—was locked against that nasty Cape wind. And while he threw back his eighth brandy, I sped off into the night, stopping only to fill up and buy more garage coffee. I knew my route: straight along the N2. Backwards to the aloes and potholes and land-of-no-opportunity. Right back to where my heart still rests, carved into a bathroom door.
And here I am, back at the beach, watching but not watching the descendants of waves I once surfed. There's a tap at my window, and to all who see me, I open my passenger door for no reason and slam it shut again. Simone puts her hand on my leg, understanding in her eyes.
I hear her tell me I'm safe now, even though there is nothing but silence in the car. My hands still shake—a nervous habit I'll never lose—so I clutch the steering wheel like a small child, tears running down my cheeks. None of it matters, she tells me, as my mind harks back to Damian, and further, to that day twelve years ago.
We drive towards the point, window rolled down. The weed eaters snap away at the grass with their high pitched drone, municipal workers hacking away at municipal lawn, the blades whining like a yappy dog. The No Dogs Allowed sign has blown over, much to the chagrin of the dogs who shit there, owners hurrying past the slipway that smells like piss and fish insides, tiny carcasses of silvers and sardines rotting on the rocks. I'm so hungry that I stare through a coffee shop window, thinking not of the food, but of the glass jars and bottles lined up on the sideboard. I imagine spooning Mrs. Balls and All Gold apricot jam into my mouth, swallowing the lumpy fruit in delight. There was never money for luxuries, with Damian, not even for small things, like jam.
We stop at the point—Simone wants to walk from here—but I stay inside and sip my Coke. The wave starts as a bruise might, a slow, steady swell, growing in colour and size. It climaxes: the shoulder cresting over into a barrel, a deep blue shock blossoming into midnight. Blood returning to blood.
Let it go now, I hear Simone say, over and above the oceanic roar. Let them all go.
A car parks next to mine, its driver stopping with a jolt. I look at him through the misty glass, recognizing that sandy hair. That mouth. He turns my way, smiles. His eyes crease at the corners. I can't quite believe it's him.