The Exit Plan

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Chapter five

Natalie Zuma wasn’t popular. People gifted her with insults all throughout her school hours, yet somehow I felt that Tristan’s recent act of acrimony hurt her the most. I had never seen tears flood her eyes before. Natalie never cried, smiled, or expressed any sort of emotion, which led people like Chantel to believe that she wasn’t worth talking to.

Still, I thought it worthwhile to mention the incidents of that afternoon to her as I stood on her balcony that evening. Cassandra and Aaron had vanished to make out in some remote corner of her house and we were alone among the dozen bottles of Pinotage that she was intent on finishing.

“It was like Tristan transformed into a whole different person as soon as you left the cafeteria,” I said as I gazed out at the hull of the Kakapo, an early twentieth-century steam liner that had run aground on Noordhoek beach.

The white sands of the beach glistened as the winter air blew across it and onto the Chantel’s balcony. “He insulted Natalie today like he thought she was a woman with no feelings and that was not okay. And before orientation he pushed me aside without a single apology.”

“Natalie doesn’t feel,” Chantel said as she opened another bottle of Pinotage. “She’s so cold and insensitive and Tristan probably would have made an observation of it, right?”

“No, wrong,” I said, shaking my head. “Tristan didn’t say anything about her lack of expression. He mocked her for being friendless.”

“Bullshit,” Chantel spat as her ebony tresses ran wild with the oncoming wind. “Tristan would never say something so unfeeling. He may have noticed that Natalie doesn’t really have a social life and said something. Maybe she took it in the wrong way.”

“Oh, believe me, he did,” I said. “He isn’t what you think Chantel. He made sure you had left before insulting Natalie.”

“That was because I left the moment she was hovering around our table,” she yelled. “Besides, that girl clearly has some issues.”

“That girl?” I asked. “I believe she has a name.”

“Okay, fine. She claims she lo-no likes you, but she lacks every emotion. Her eyes don’t light up as she sees you. She doesn’t talk, doesn’t laugh. And I had the privilege to take English in the second period with her all throughout my time at Westwood. When Mr. De Villiers asked her what her opinion on Heathcliff was, she just said that he was mentally disturbed. She went on about schizophrenic tendencies and personality disorders and how Heathcliff was in need of some serious help.”

“Well, some people might call wandering the moors a bit strange,” I laughed before realizing that Chantel liked walking and she’d love to walk the heather covered moors. She always preferred it to the tiled corridors of Westwood International.

“Shut up you asshole,” she said back. “I love to have moors painted with wildflowers and the cold wind clawing at my face. Maybe, I could feature that in my next painting.”

“You’d soon get lonely, Chantel,” I said. “I’ve heard your endless complains about how dead this beach gets in winter. Besides, we don’t even have wild moors in this country. We have the real wild with real wild animals who won’t hesitate to turn you into a snack if you ever wondered there.”

“I don’t mind spending some time alone,” she shrugged. “All I’d want is some watercolours, some blank slides and –and Tristan.”

“Really? After everything I’ve told you about Tristan, you still want him?” I said, keeping a solid grip over my temper. “He has no feelings Chantel. He’s only a lying little…”

“Don’t you dare finish that,” she said as she stood up to a towering height of five foot eleven. “You know what? You’re just like my relatives in Bloemfontein who think that I will never learn to have a proper relationship. You think that Tristan and I won’t be happy together, but we will.”

“His rudeness is staring you right in the face,” I said, staring at the girl who was so damned blind. “And what are you going to do about it? Are you just going to ignore it? Are you going to let it slide because he's tall and handsome and has sparkling green eyes that remind you of emeralds?”

“Because he has a heart,” she said as her highly arched brows edged close. “Because his heart beats for love and art and emotion. Because it beats for me.”

“How do you know that?” I asked her. “You’ve only known him for a day. A day isn’t long enough to judge someone.”

“I could tell you the same thing,” she cried. “You’re all set to hate Tristan for no obvious reason. It’s like you hated him the moment he set foot in school.”

“I don’t hate Tristan,” I said as my fingers felt my elbow.

“You’re lying,” Chantel said unable to stifle a laugh. “You always touch your elbow when you lie. I can tell.”

“No I don’t,” I gasped, taking my hand off my elbow.

“Oh yes, you do,” she said. “Remember when Natalie invited the both of us for her fourteenth birthday party in the eighth grade and you said that you and your family were out of town that weekend. Your fingers were flirting with your elbow back then too.”

I felt a flutter deep within my heart. I could not believe that the absent-minded, dreamy Chantel has been paying attention. She had paid attention to me.

“And your tell is…” I said, trying to remember any sort of sign that Chantel gave off when she wasn’t particularly truthful. When was she not particularly truthful? She strait up told Natalie that she could not come for her party. She didn’t bother making excuses.

“Well, you’re probably never sober enough to lie,” I said at last gazing at the now empty bottle of wine that stood in Chantel’s hand. How many bottles did she drink a day?

“That, my friend is true,” she said as she reached for my hand.

I felt the warmth of her fingers canopy me. When she first held my hand as a scrawny eighth-grader I thought that her touch was addictive. Now I knew it was not true. It wasn’t her touch or her smile or her endless emotions that made her human amphetamine. It was her very soul. It was a soul that was deep but damned, beautiful but so broken.

“So now that we’ve come to the conclusion that you’re a big, phony liar,” she said, flashing me her pearly-white smile. “Why do you hate Tristan?”

For a moment, I wanted to tell her. I wanted to pour my heart, to tell her that I loved her, that I always loved her and always will. But my courage left me. I never believed that she would give me the slightest thought because she was bold and I was boring.

So what if you told her? the little voice inside of me mocked. She wants Tristan. The Tristan who is sensitive and expressive and everything you are not. She’d never want you.

What if that voice was right? What if my dull job at the insurance agency, my love for math and my weekly trips to the church sent tremors down her spine? What if she laughed at me and the rest of the world joined her? I couldn’t bear it.

“I don’t hate Tristan,” I said, feeling the lie engulf my soul. “And I wish you all the best with him.”

Then, careful not to touch my elbow, I left Chantel and her villa feeling the familiar sting in my eyes.

Unlike Chantel, I was punctual. I guess I got it from my obsessive parents who considered punctuality along with good manners, a mandatory religion. But now, I lay on the beach letting the winter air fill the void in me. The dark sea was calm. There were no storms, no birds and no pounding of waves against the wreck. The pounding, instead, came from my heart. I felt Chantel slip away from me like every grain of sand on this beach. And what if I regret not telling her how I feel and it was too late? What if I had to watch her wrapped in the arms of another while I sunk myself in school and the millions of reports Mr. Modisi, my boss at the insurance firm, put in front of me?

This is stupid, I thought to myself as I hauled myself up from the beach. I’d rather lose my pride than lose her.

As I turned to head to the house, a navy-blue Mercedes had crept up the driveway parked near Chantel’s Mustang. It had arrived while I had been gazing at the unusually calm ocean. On the balcony above, I saw Chantel curled up in Tristan’s arms as they both sipped wine and looked at the ever-stretching horizon.

‘I have already lost her,’ I sighed as I felt a piece of wreckage slip from my pocket and walked to away towards BC Insurance.

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