You’re probably thinking how much of the world I get to see from 35,000 feet. Well, you’re wrong. Most of these humongous flights Sid takes us on are overnight flights. Most of what I get to see is how inky black much of the world is at night. A few lights, maybe, here and there, and otherwise just darkness. Pitch blackness. I wonder how the pilots find their way and don’t get lost in the void. And I get to see the insides of more airplanes than I ever want to see. And the insides of my own eyelids. Lots of time to see those. There are more lights, lots more, flashing there in all sorts of colors than outside the windows, down on the ground. Real frigging exciting, huh?
Well, we get to Joburg in the morning. The last part of the flight was in daylight, and I did get to see a lot of southern Africa, when it wasn’t cloudy, the red and tan earth, the scattered lakes and rivers, an occasional settlement or town or city big enough to see from the air.
I’ve always imagined myself coming out of the African earth. I didn’t tell you that, did I? How I see myself as a descendant of the mantis, which the bushmen believe was a god who planted the first seed in the earth, and the earth gave birth to a woman, a mate for the man. Me and Aunt Carol, that’s us, descendants of the mantis.
I think I also forgot to mention to you that I was actually born in Africa. My parents, back when they still had some ideals and were still in love, came to South Africa to protest against Apartheid, and while they were there my mother had me in a Johannesburg hospital. So I really am African, and I have dual citizenship, so I can live in either country and be at home. Though, I’m not sure why, it probably has to do with that bushmen legend and the mantis, somehow South Africa feels more like home to me than America. And now, I don’t know where home is any more. Maybe Paris? I doubt it. For the moment, it’s the inside of airplanes and hotel rooms and my own head.
My Aunt Carol’s story is different from mine. She was born in America but also came to South Africa to protest Apartheid, like my parents, like her brother, my father. She wound up meeting and falling in love with a South African, a black man, and staying in South Africa with him. Something that didn’t exactly endear her to the authorities here or many people, for that matter, back then, a white woman, a foreigner no less, with a black man. I’ve always admired her bravery, what she put up with just to live as she felt she had the right to. What she suffered in the name of love. And it was love. How different it was from what I suffer in the name of whatever it is I suffer for. Love? Do I love Sid? That would be a major stretch. Obsession is more like it. Or maybe now it’s habit.
Anyway, Tata – that’s what Michelle and I called Aunt Carol’s man, who was more like a grandfather to me than my own grandfathers – wound up dying of cancer, but not before he got to see the Apartheid system brought down, and some sort of racial equality finally come to his native country. At least that. And Aunt Carol has been on her own since then, just with Michelle and some friends, white and black and mixed race, who stood by her through all that. And with me, for what that’s been worth these past four years. More heartache and deceit than comfort or closeness. Do you think I feel good about that? I feel like shit about it, but like Aunt Carol I did what I had to do. We have that in common, too. So maybe she understands.
Well, I’m about to find out what she does or doesn’t understand. I’m all butterflies in my stomach, butterflies like the big white August butterflies that I’d sing to as a child in Aunt Carol’s backyard. I can still remember that, and how Aunt Carol would call me gogga, a South African word for insect, one of her pet names for me because of how I’d sing to the butterflies and how I’d save little bugs in the bath. Her own little gogga. I must have been a strange child. Still am.
I see Johannesburg out the window of the airplane as we make our descent – I always get the window seat – and I can hardly believe we’re here, that I’m back here, back to the city of my birth, four years since I was last here. I feel like a different girl now than I was then, even more different than I was when I was here as a child. I wonder how it will be.
I wonder if I’ll still be gogga to my aunt, too, if she’ll even recognize me. Not me, physically. I’m sure she’ll recognize the outside me. I’m thinking more the part of me that doesn’t show on the outside. The parts inside me. So much of that inner me I can’t talk to her about, I have to keep secret from her. But I know my aunt well enough, and she me, that she’ll see into those hidden places, she’ll put the pieces of the puzzle together, find the clues that lead her into the shadows, and maybe she won’t be able to define it exactly, she won’t know Sid’s name or the drugs I carry from country to country, continent to continent, but she’ll know I’m a girl still on the run, still running from something or to something, even I don’t know what, but she’ll know that much, that I’m a girl, her niece, on the run. And I shudder a little on the inside, give those butterflies a good shake, when the thought comes to me.
Of course I can’t relate any of this to Sid, who’s paranoid enough about me seeing Aunt Carol. He really thought long and hard about letting me out of his sight, but finally he agreed to let me see her. I guess what did it in the end is when I told him I could have told my aunt about him and me any time, if I wanted to, but I never did. How I kept things secret from my aunt for four years, and why would I break that secret now?
“Yeah, I guess that’s true. I heard some of those stories you told her, and I thought you’re a crazy little bitch to think she’d even believe them. But I could tell you were doing it to stay with me and not be found out, for whatever reasons you had.”
“Exactly, Sid. You know the last thing I wanted was to be found and sent back to my parents. Or worse, if it’s possible for anything to be worse. And I still feel that way. Maybe it’s screwed-up, but my life is what it is and I want to keep it that way, you know?”
I don’t add the words I did with Chantal, “for now,” but I’m not much of a fortune teller and I’m not about to become one at this moment. This is no time for nuance or subtlety or gray areas. Sid doesn’t do well with them, anyway, and I can see my chance to visit with my aunt suddenly evaporating in front of me.
I’ve got the X in my luggage again, a new suitcase Sid bought in Amsterdam to replace the one with the Thai smack in it. The pills are stashed away in an assortment of smaller bags in shoes and underwear and bottles of stuff and who knows what. The idea is to trick any X-rays – pardon the play on words, really I didn’t mean it, no, really I didn’t – the luggage might go through. And once more we get away with it and I’m reunited with my bag in Joburg and it and Sid’s bag and both of us and this carry-on Sid also got for me in Amsterdam are headed to the hotel in a taxi, after Sid’s exchanged some dollars for rands at a money exchange in the terminal.
Sid got me the carry-on so I can just have enough of my stuff for a three-day visit with Aunt Carol and it’ll be nice and clean and neat, and he can pass on my suitcase to his contacts with the drugs inside. If you think all this gets confusing, you’re right. Even to me.
“What are you going to do while I’m with my aunt?”
It’s risky for me to ask anything at this point, but I do, mostly out of idle curiosity and nervousness, when we’re in our room at the hotel, another of those faceless international chain hotels, Joburg’s CBD spread out glinting in the morning sun beyond our window.
“What do you care what I do? It’s none of your fucking business. One less thing you can spill to your aunt.”
“I know. I was just curious. Do what you want. You will anyway.”
“You’re right, I will. Anyway, I have people to see I haven’t seen in a long time. You’re not the only one who’s been away from Joburg. Happy now?”
No, no, I’m not planning these plays on words. I’m not. Really, I’m not!
“I bet. Let’s call room service and get some breakfast and screw some, and then you can go. That breakfast on the plane didn’t do it for me. And at this point, I think we both need to get laid.”
So that’s what we do, no arguments on any of it, the sex actually helps calm my nerves some, and then I shower and put on some clean clothes, just jeans and a light pink cotton blouse and a quilted jacket over it since it’s a bit nippy out and sensible shoes, and I go down with my new carry-on to the lobby and have the doorman get me a cab. And off I go to my Aunt Carol’s place, which is a bit of a drive out in the farmland south of the city.
On the way I make as little conversation with the driver as I can get away with, making like I’m one of those foreigners who sits in the back and doesn’t talk much to the driver, acting like I don’t understand his accent, and I guess I pull it off pretty well since we don’t do a lot of talking once we get clear of the city. Of course, I have to direct him to my aunt’s road, telling him I remember the way since I had been there once years ago as a kid. Well, part of that is true.
The whole time those butterflies definitely are running amok, or whatever it is butterflies do, in my little tummy. By the time we get to my aunt’s house, it’s a miracle I haven’t asked the driver to pull over so I can throw up.