The Exit Plan

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Chapter ten

“Aaron, what a pleasant surprise,” my mum said as she answered the door next morning. “Come in. We were getting the French toast ready. I suppose you’d be driving Will to school today.”

“Yes, Mrs. Marais,” he said before stuffing a wad of spearmint gum in his mouth. If Aaron had one annoying quality that pissed my parents off, it was that he had an ability to talk in complete gibberish while he chewed.

“Dud yuh jest make ow wit Antel?” he said as he struggled to close his mouth. I figured out what he said but decided to ignore it. Especially since my mum was there. Let’s just say my parents weren’t Chantel’s biggest fans.

“What happened to your hand?” I remembered my dad asking when the fourteen-year-old Chantel first walked into my modest two-bedroom home.

“Uh…dad I think mum wanted your help with the honey biscuits she is baking,” I said, hoping they would spare Chantel the interrogation they gave all of my friends when they arrived at our home. Aaron and Cassandra, both being the good-kid type, were favourites with my parents.

Sure, Chantel was still a stranger to alcoholic bliss when she visited. She wasn’t even old enough to drive and break traffic rules yet. But she was still Chantel. She still used words, which many kids used, but my parents thought were too ‘mature’ for our age. Mr. McCarthy caught her sneaking a cigarette just to piss off the teacher’s pet, Natalie, who in the eighth grade had a tendency to rat on Chantel. Besides, cuts littered her arms. My parents always thought self-harmers were either attention-seeking crybabies or psychopaths.

My dad, however, didn’t take the bait.

“People at the church tell me you’ve got talent for getting into trouble,” he said staring at her with his brown eyes. “Do you think that’s true?”

“I doubt there isn’t anything that isn’t considered trouble to people who live by a conduct book,” Chantel said as she threw a disgusted glance at the heavy King James bible on our coffee table. My parents threw the same glance at her with equal aversion.

Since then Chantel has never been ashamed of walking into my house without a middle finger at my parents backs and they have never been ashamed of treating her with nothing less than disgust.

“I’m sorry Aaron,” my mum said as she straightened the black and white tablemats that I had thrown on the table. “I didn’t quite get what you said.”

By this time Aaron had spat out his gum and could talk like a normal human being. “Oh, nothing Mrs. Marais, I was just talking about the project we were doing on the racism.”

“Racism?” I asked. Did Aaron decide to follow Chantel’s example and drown himself in wine before class? Maybe it was his way of coping with all the drama.

“Yes, you remember the racism problem, don’t you?” he said. “The one where, in the past, people were divided according to their races; White, Black, Indian and coloured, which was some term for bi-racial they used back in the day. Anyway, you know that the coloured were considered to the product of an illicit relationship and no one was supposed to have relationships with them.”

“Oh, the apartheid was a horrible time,” my dad said as he glanced up from his phone. “Our sports teams were not allowed to play because of international pressure. They began sanctioning us and there were riots from the ANC almost every day. Imagine going to work with shattered glass all over the roads.”

I paid no attention to my dad. My mind was on the very words that Aaron said. When did we ever have to deal with a project regarding racism at school? Then it hit me.

“Is it the problem that Tristan had to work on?” I said. “The one he’s been worried on?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Only Tristan and his project partner aren’t really committed so see this project through. He is still struggling to take a side in this problem and she has her eye on another project. And we both know what that project is.”

“So, she’s really not in this project?” I asked feeling my heart swell.

“Well, I spoke to her yesterday,” Aaron said. “She said that one of the projects is something she’s passionate about and the other is something that she knows will be good for her. It’s hard to explain over breakfast.”

“I think this girl sounds like one of the stupidest people Westwood ever admitted,” my mum said as she shook her head. “Nobody cares about what she is passionate on. Why can’t this kid do what her own judgement believes is best for her? This girl by isn’t Chantel, is it?”

“No,” we both lied.

“Good,” she said, pouring milk into her tea.

My parents always used full-fat milk in our kitchen despite the fact that I my stomach had expanded outwards. “Because I fear that girl has the ability to destroy herself and those around her too. Thank God she’s dating someone who is as impetuous as she is. I was worried that Will would get end up with her and her emotions. You boys will be careful of her emotions, won’t you?”

“Of course,” we said.

Aaron and I giggled over our breakfast. Despite our best efforts not to mention Chantel, my mum hated the very ideas that she believed in. Joy reigned in our hearts. Yet, it didn’t last long. After Aaron and I arrived in school and bought our first cup of coffee (cappuccino for him, hazelnut latte for me), I sat down in Physics as my mind replayed the speech I had prepared since Aaron came for breakfast.

“Hey Aaron?” I whispered to him as he hunched over his particle reaction problems a few hours later. “Do you think I should just ask Chantel if I could steal her for a second or just go ahead and tell her how I feel? You know, right in front of the goddamned corridor.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Tell her later, I guess.”

“Wait, don’t you think Tristan would be there?” I asked as I pictured the revolting thought of Tristan standing beside Chantel with his arm around her shoulders. I didn’t think I had seen a more troubling image.

“I don’t know Will. I think they have Art in first period together,” Aaron whispered back.

“You are sure that they aren’t in a committed relationship yet, right?”

“Uh…Will, are you okay?” Natalie said as she swished her long, black braid towards me. “You haven’t done a single one of your sums.”

“Oh,” I said, noticing that my worksheet lay untouched by a single drop of ink. “I’ll get to it.”

But the truth was, I couldn’t get to it. I wanted more than this ordinary schoolroom with this ordinary worksheet in front of me. I wanted to feel the wind whip through my hair as Chantel drove. I wanted to be the man she flashed that pearly white smile the moment she stepped into Westwood International. I wanted to be the one she loved.

“You’re a little too late for that,” Aaron said as he nudged me. He was right. Mr. Smith had begun collecting all the worksheets for grading.

“Will?” he said, looking at my untouched sheet of paper. “Didn’t you understand any of the questions?”

“I did,” I said in a surprising act of truthfulness.

“And you didn’t answer them….why?” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was a bit preoccupied.”

“Hmm,” he said, staring at me with curious green eyes. “Stay after class please.”

As soon as the students began to file out, some even stopping to give me an odd look or two, Mr Smith began to speak.

“What’s distracting you Will?” he said, offering me a marmalade tart. It looked freshly baked and delicious but I just shook my head. I wasn’t in the mood for food. I wasn’t in the mood for anything other than seeing her face the first thing in the morning.

“Nothing,” I lied.

“Well, something is distracting you,” he said as his gaze shifted to my waistline. “You’ve never refused food before.”

“Trust me, I’m not hungry.”

“I understand that you’ve developed some new friendships in school,” he said. “One of them, I suspect, is starting to seem like a little more than friendship to me.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling my cheeks go pink. “I didn’t think you’d notice.”

“Of course, what would I know about love? I’m just a divorced forty-five-year-old Science teacher with a bald patch, right?” he said.

“No, I just didn’t think you’d pay attention to something as petty as the personal lives of students,” I answered as I looked at him.

Mr. Smith was a man with too many frown lines. Those dull green eyes couldn’t even compete with the brilliance of Tristan’s emerald ones and his bald spot was an ever expanding island surrounded by thinning chestnut hair. He looked like my dad.

Yet, he couldn’t have always have been like that. The thing with Chantel is that she never really stopped to consider that Mr. Smith along with everyone else she labeled as a geriatric were once students too. They had their dreams chased and their hearts broken inside the walls of a school too. She never even thought that we would soon be like Mr. Smith, wrinkled and middle-aged. At least the rest of the student body would be. Chantel was in the minds of everybody, cloaked in an idea of eternal youth.

“I’m not as emotionally drained as your friend Chantel would think,” he laughed. “Although compared to her I’d be a good match for some North Korean dictator.”

“She doesn’t think like that,” I lied as I clasped my hands together. Lying was really getting easy these days. Before Tristan invaded our lives, lying used to take a bit of my soul. I rarely did it. Well other than answering my mother’s enquiries as to why I never looked at anyone the way I looked at Chantel. Now, lying didn’t hurt so much. Perhaps the pieces of my broken soul were now irreparable.

“Oh, well she seems like the type,” he said. “Anyway, when I first married I thought I was blessed. I was just out of school, just a year older than you and your friends. Evelyn was beautiful and honest and as sweet as a person could get.”

“Then what happened?” I asked, trying to channel the ghost of the young Mr. Smith who once loved. “What went wrong?”

“I married her and she remained the same sweet girl she was before marriage,” he said. “But she flung the sheet on the ground without bothering to make her bed; she lost her temper as I played country music too loud.”

“So she pissed you off?” I asked, feeling a jolt of surprise. “And you divorced her? I’m sorry because it feels so stupid.”

“It is stupid,” he said. “And I felt stupid when I realized that the woman I loved was not my wife. She was a figment of my own imagination.”

I nodded but I didn’t know what he was getting at. Could you really fall out of love with someone just because they were too lazy to make their own bed and hated country music, which to be honest no one other than Chantel had any appreciation for? It wasn’t rational.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it make sense, but I didn’t love her. I didn’t even know her. And that’s what I want to tell you today. Don’t think you’re in love with someone unless you love every inch of their soul. I know she’s beautiful and sensitive and the most talented artist Cape Town has ever seen. But do you know her demons? And do you love them?”

“I do,” I answered, trembling at the thought of Chantel’s rages. “I honestly do.”

“Then I wish you good luck,” he said. “But just remember teenage angst is not an excuse for undone coursework, is that understood?

“Yes,” I said before thanking Mr Smith and walking out.

As I walked past the light blue lockers, past the waterless garden some eighth graders put up as part of their science project my mind began to whisper. ‘Imagine graduating from this place in a year and maybe finishing university too,’ it said. ‘Imagine getting down on one knee holding a blue diamond ring.’

I did imagine it alright. I thought of the day the blue diamond ring (Chantel always said a clear diamond ring in a platinum band was too cliché) slid onto her finger as she said yes. I imagined her walking down the aisle in an ivory dress with a carnation bouquet. She’d look beautiful. As beautiful as she looked wearing the light blue pleated dress that our school had for the girls’ uniform. She sat beside Tristan in the twelfth-grade empty common room, her legs intertwined with his.

“You think your Mustang can beat my car, a Mercedes?” Tristan said as he raised his eyebrows at Chantel.

“Obviously,” she replied. “Why you got a problem with that?”

“Oh, yeah, I have a problem with that,” he smirked, lifting his green eyes to Chantel. “Hey Aaron, do you think she can beat me in a race?”

“Well she beat you in a race on the first day of school, didn’t she?” Aaron answered before getting back to reviewing his arguments for debate class. “Will did you go through the points for the total secularization of the state?”

I didn’t acknowledge him. My mind only buzzed around the single dimple that flashed whenever Chantel smiled. It was a smile so beautiful that it shouldn’t be legal. Now that would a great topic for debate; please debate on whether perfection should be able to exist. I could hear Ms. Maredi; our debate teacher, give us this topic with a giant picture of Chantel hanging on our blackboard.

“Uh…Will, I know your some sort of bible freak but we really need to argue for secularization or we get extra homework so could you please pay attention,” Aaron snapped.

I couldn’t pay attention. Everybody in the entire world knew I couldn’t when God’s most brilliant creation slumped in front of me. I pictured myself saying the three words that I wanted to say to her all along. At least until some other words flooded my memory.

“Don’t think you’re in love with someone unless you love every inch of their soul.”

It was Mr. Smith’s words. It rang like the ever persistent school bell that wanted everyone in their next classes. It simply did not give up.

I didn’t want to give up either. As I cleared my throat to ask her the question that bogged my mind down, Chantel turned to Tristan and asked him to race her to the beach.

“Chantel, Tristan, we have class in a few minutes,” Natalie said, trying to grab Chantel’s arm. “You can’t go now.”

“I can,” Chantel answered shortly before flipping her hair on Natalie’s face.

“Chantel we have Math in a few minutes,” Cassandra said. “Surely this can wait till last period. You’ll get detention, or even a suspension.”

Aaron and I tried to persuade Chantel and Tristan to stay too. Aaron dreaded the possibility of Chantel facing suspension and I feared the seemingly unbreakable bond between Tristan and Chantel. It was a fortress and I was one hopeless little invader struggling to break in. But I might as well try to persuade dry rot. Chantel wouldn’t budge.

“Whatever,” she shrugged, taking Tristan by the hand and leading him out. Damn she was headstrong. And reckless. And absolutely rebellious. I asked myself did I love her demons. And back then, the truth was, I wasn’t sure.

As the days turned into weeks, my love for Chantel remained unexpressed. I watched as her ebony eyes lit up when she saw Tristan. I saw them fling paper slingshots at Mr. Reddy, the caretaker, who always growled at any student who dared to walk in with mud on their boots. They even worked on their favourite art pieces together.

“The quality of Chantel’s artwork really has declined now that Tristan helps with them,” I said to Cassandra one day.

“Oh, stop it Will,” she said. “You decided not to tell her how you felt. You decided that you couldn’t love the demons that lived in Chantel. Guess what, they live in all of us. Sometimes there are times when I could slap your damn face for being so oblivious. But I don’t.”

“Why?” I said, feeling my cheek. Cassandra was on the school’s karate team and was on her way to earning a black belt. You didn’t want to mess with her.

“Because I fear what people will think of me. I don’t want people to think I’m sort of psycho who lashes out whenever she feels like it. No. I want to be in control of myself, make my parents proud, and get into university someday. I’m scared of losing it all.”

“Oh,” I said not seeing how any of what she said applied to Chantel.

“Chantel’s brave,” she continued. “Its foolishness to be blind to the risks of following your emotions. But she isn’t foolish, you know she isn’t. She knows the risks and listens to her heart anyway.”

“So Chantel’s impulsiveness is bravery,” I said. “It’s some sort of rare heroism that is yet to touch the rest of us.”

“Exactly,” she said. “You should have been brave too. You should have taken your chance and told her how you feel. It’s too late now, she loves Tristan too much.”

Those words hit me like a fist. Did Chantel say those very words to Tristan? Did Tristan say it back? I shook my head as my heart refused to believe what I had heard.

“No,” I said. “There is no way Chantel loves Tristan. They’ve only known each other for a month and no one says ‘I love you’ to someone in a month.”

“Oh, yeah, they wait for years until their love interest reaches the twelfth-grade and acquires a new significant other,” she said in a sarcastic tone that I have never heard her use before. “You’ve let your shyness and your declining self-esteem get in the way of you being with Chantel. Besides, she’s called you heartless perhaps a million times. Only a truly masochistic person would consider going out with someone they consider heartless. She may have not even accepted you.”

I often wondered what if I didn’t let Tristan’s arrival stop me from telling her how I feel. Or what If I told her this long ago? Like in eighth grade. Would she have said yes and fallen into my arms like she fell into Tristan’s?

“She kissed me,” I said to her.

“What?” she screamed loud enough for the whole corridor to hear. “When? Are you serious?”

“She kissed me a few weeks ago,” I said in a hushed tone. “It wasn’t French or anything and our lips only touched for maybe a second, I swear. But it happened.”

“Does Tristan know?”

“I don’t know,” I said, praying he did not. “But I don’t think I’d like to have an in-depth chat about it with him. The guy seems to be in a mood lately.”

The fact was that it wasn’t just I who felt that way. Every student in Westwood International chatted about the way Tristan hung his head when Mr. De Villiers discussed the dilemma Daisy Buchanan faced between her steady and secure lifestyle and Gatsby’s more passionate one. He even refused to eat in the cafeteria even though Monday’s food menu featured the leftovers from the Science Society’s weekend braai.

“I don’t understand it,” I heard a ninth-grader whisper to one of his bespectacled friends. “Isn’t Tristan supposed to be besotted with Chantel? Why does he act like he barely sees her?”

“Maybe, he has a girlfriend back in Johannesburg?” his friend said to him. “Maybe he finds her dull or hideous compared to Chantel and is trying to figure out the kindest way to dump her?”

I was impressed. I thought the eighth and ninth-graders were totally oblivious. Then again, no one could be oblivious when it came to Chantel De Carvalho. She was beautiful, generous, and ever so interesting. They couldn’t help but love her. However, everyone’s worries about Chantel and Tristan’s relationship proved to be groundless.

“That bitch,” Chantel said as she flung her copy of The Great Gatsby at Aaron’s face. “That horrible, heartless bitch.”

“Chill,” Aaron said, trying to laugh. “Did the vice-principal give you another one of her lectures about your crooked parking? If so calling her a bitch would be a little strong.”

“It’s not her,” Chantel said, rolling her eyes. “It’s that stupid Elizabeth Burnham. She tried to tell Mr. McCarthy that he ought to separate the two of us. The nerve.”

“And?” I asked. “What did he say?”

“He obviously he said what every school principal would say. He told her that there are rules about the type of physical conduct and hooking up on campus is against the rules,” she said. “But he also told her that we are legal adults and there is nothing he can do to stop our relationship.”

Cassandra’s face lit up.

“But Chantel that’s great,” she said. “There is no way that she can keep you apart. Maybe in time she’d realize how wrong she is and everything will be alright again.”

“No,” Chantel said. “Nothing will be alright again. She’s moving back to Johannesburg and she’s taking Tristan back with her. She wants him to finish the school year there instead.”

As she said those words, her eyes could no longer hold back and angry tears sprung from them.

“Is Tristan leaving?” Natalie asked as she got up to hug Chantel. “He wouldn’t leave you, Chantel, he loves you too much.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” a deep voice came behind us. Tristan walked over to us with his dark blue cloak hanging down his shoulders. His eyes were bloodshot.

“Are you okay?” Aaron asked Tristan. He merely nodded before turning to Chantel and looking into the depths of her eyes.

“You’re not?” she whispered, hanging on to him like she thought he would slip away from her that very second.

“I’m not going to leave you Chantel,” he said, taking her hand in his. “I never will.”

“Then what about Elizabeth?” she asked as a smile began to appear on her face. “Are you going to tell her to leave without you?”

“Something of that sort,” he shrugged. “Chantel, remember when you told me that you wanted to leave this place? Remember when you said that you wanted an exit plan from those conflicted emotions?”

“Yes,” she said as I hid a smirk behind a textbook. He didn’t know what conflicting emotions she was so desperate to run away from.

“Would you still want me in your life?” he asked.

“Of course, I do. I love you."

“I love you too, Chantel,” he said. “Meeting you has made my life nothing but easy. Your smiles and your giant heart have made it impossible for me to love anyone else.”

“What about Elizabeth?”

“Fuck Elizabeth,” he answered.

I saw tears stream out of Chantel’s eyes. Yet, they weren’t anything like the furious ones that she shed a few seconds ago. These tears were lit up with a magnificent smile on her face.

“I don’t want to lose you,” he continued. “I never do and if Elizabeth dares to break us apart then I think we’ll say a big fuck you to her face.”

“How are we going to do that?” Chantel asked still grinning. “Are we going to just ring her doorbell at the crack of dawn and point the finger at her?”

“Even better,” Tristan said as he knelt down on the corridor. “I don’t ever want to lose you Chantel. Not even to go to separate colleges or anything. I want to stay with you for the rest of my torrid life.”

“Oh my God,” Cassandra whispered as Tristan pulled out a tiny black box.

“Chantel will you marry me?” he said looking up at her through his curling lashes.

“Of course,” she said before pressing her freshly glossed lips to his. They kissed for quite a while and that was all I could remember for the rest of the day. I dropped my textbook on the hard plastic floor hoping that this was all some messed-up dream. But it wasn’t. This was all too real.

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