“You don’t know that Chantel is taken,” Aaron said a few days after Chantel’s meeting with Tristan as he put a soft hand on my shoulder. His other hand had a firm grasp on the wheel. Yet, the last thing it did was comfort me. The only thing that can comfort me is the Chantel’s warm, thin body curled up in mine. I thought of the carnations and the wine and every other scent that clung onto her skin. I thought of her chocolate coated eyes and the anarchic waves of her hair. No, I didn’t want to be the man she curled up to. I wanted to be the man she loved.
“Did you see them kiss that night during that art exhibition? Have you seen their violent displays of affection in front of Mr. McCarthy’s office? ” I asked feeling pain invade me. “Or do we need to stop at an optician’s office before school?
“Shut up,” he said. “I’ve seen their attempts to enrage the person they refer to as a ‘fossil’. I have eagle eyes. Well, except for the moments when I have to decode Mr. Kotze’s tiny handwriting. But I figured eagles can’t read, so yeah, eagle eyes.”
“How good are you at spotting a mouse a hundred feet away?” I asked. “Not very good, aren’t you? We need to go to the opticians.”
We arrived a few minutes later with a pair of contacts, since Aaron said he had no intention of looking like I did, and a few hundred pamphlets on eye care. He was lucky since contacts make crying difficult. Or so I’ve read. Not that Aaron was likely to cry anytime soon. He had his girl. He had his grades and his car. He had the ordinary reasons to make his ordinary heart beat. I had nothing.
“Are we going to talk about Chantel?” he asked as his light eyes met mine. They usually had a look of warmth in them; a look that communicated trust and respect. Now, his eyes didn’t gaze upon me as an equal. His eyes gazed upon me as an inferior. An inferior whose had bulges in all the wrong places. An inferior without the girl who would banish the word 'survival' from living.
“What’s there to talk about?” I said, no longer trying to stop the tears that were cascading down my face. Those tears sprung from my eyes and fell past the stubble I got from shaving that morning. My glasses no longer knew its place. They plummeted to the floor.
“Will,” Aaron said as he shook me. “Chantel loves you, you now she does.”
“She-she thinks I don’t matter,” I said as I tried to win the battle against my feelings. The problem was there were too many of them to count. “Why would I matter? She’s sensitive and brave and….”
“Leaning off a side of a train doesn’t make a person brave, Will,” Aaron said to me. “Although I do admit Chantel has guts to do look death in the eye and flip it off.”
“Exactly,” I sobbed. “Why would she have anything to do with me? I’m a saint and she’s a sinner and a sinner would never spare a glance at someone like me.”
“Yeah, true,” Aaron shrugged. “But sinners can love saints too.”
We drove to school in relative silence. Aaron tried to talk me into eating some oatmeal but I backed away. Oatmeal wasn't going to fill up the void in my soul. I bit into my fourth burger with the fear that the void was far too large. Sleep too had become a stranger to me too and my pillow had only served as the recipient of my endless tears.
I expected to see the cars of the school’s band members who arrive every day at the break of dawn so they can play the same notes every single day. What I didn’t expect was Chantel’s Mustang. But here it was, greeting us like a beacon as we stepped onto the parking lot gravel.
“Chantel?” Aaron said. “What is she doing here this early? She’s – she’s on time.” I glanced at my phone. It was a quarter past seven. She had shown up a fifteen minutes early. I smiled, impressed at the change. Another car had parked – if taking up three parking slots constituted parking – beside hers. It was a sapphire blue Mercedes.
“Hey, Tristan,” Aaron yelled as he threw his hands up in frustration. “The rest of us need parking spaces too. Especially those of us who are in desperate need of an early morning bathroom visit.”
“Sorry,” Tristan said as he parked his car only slightly less crooked than he did before.
“Impressive,” Aaron laughed after he ran to the nearest bathroom. “What’s Chantel doing here so early? Did you guys spend the night in school? If you did, I am not letting you go till you tell me every little detail.”
“You guessed right,” Tristan smirked. A crooked smirk showed off every fine feature in his face. Why didn’t I have fine features? Why didn’t I have his high cheekbones, his emerald green eyes, or that bronzed skin which was almost as brown as Chantel’s? It was just my luck that I looked a blank piece of paper; pale and plain.
“You didn’t?” I asked as my jealousy gave way to a wave of relief. Maybe they had just kissed? Maybe they just locked lips like the way I wanted to lock lips with Chantel. It didn’t mean that they went further than that, did it?
“Oh yes we did you freak,” Tristan said, looking at me like a bull looks like a matador. I didn’t like that look. I didn’t like it any more than I liked him. “Chantel forgot some of her art and we went to get it and one thing led to another. Although, I must say I’m surprised your desk didn’t break under all that pressure. I guess a flimsy piece of wood is stronger than you are.”
He may have looked at me like a bull looks at a matador, but by now, I was a very angry matador. I felt the blood sizzle in my veins. My heart; a peaceful monk, roared as it turned into a beast I barely recognized. I wanted to rip him apart. My head, however, tamed the beast back to its place. Hurting Tristan would mean hurting Chantel. Beating him up would make Chantel’s heart shatter. No, I couldn’t hurt Chantel; I’d rather hurt myself.
“I hope that she was happy,” was all that I could say as I ignored the nasty gleam in his eyes. Clearly, I wasn’t the best at expressing my feelings, or anything else on my mind really. If I was, I would have told Chantel I love her a long time ago. If I did, maybe she would be mine.
“Huh,” Tristan scoffed. “You didn’t even have the guts to punch me. Maybe Chantel was right about you all along, you really are heartless.” He then turned his back and walked towards the girl whose eyes lit up at the sight of him.
Aaron and I grabbed Chantel as soon as the first period bell rang. We both managed to dodge Cassandra even though she gave flashed us giant smiles every time we saw her. I even glowered at her one time. She had the nerve to say that Chantel had an Art project when she was just seeing –and no doubt sleeping with- Tristan all along.
“Why are you ignoring that poor girl?” Chantel asked us scowling. “She adores you, especially you Aaron, go ask her to sit with us.
“No,” Aaron and I said.
I felt anger curl in my chest at the very sound of Cassandra’s name. Then the coiling beast died as soon as it was born. Cassandra was our friend. She, Aaron and I skinned our knees as we played soccer on Cassandra’s porch. I remembered how her sun burnt skin glowed in all those evenings during primary school camps when we used to bake dough at a campfire and flung mud at each other’s faces. Aaron let her win every mud fight and tried to convince me to do the same. This was before Chantel came into our lives.
“You stop ignoring her,” Chantel said. “Or –or I won’t tell you why Tristan and I showed up to school early.”
“No big loss,” Aaron said. “Your heroic act of punctuality was just so that you could just sleep with Tristan just before school started. Anything more to bribe us with?”
“Just sleep with him?” she scoffed, flicking tiny pieces of her assignment on to us. “You are one of the most vanilla guys I have ever met. Don’t you want to know every little detail? Or do you consider that as an insufficient bribe?”
“You don’t need to bribe us,” I said, feeling a shiver at the idea of her body entangled in Tristan’s. “Cassandra has been our friend since kindergarten, I’ll talk to her.”
“Thank you,” Chantel nodded. So Cassandra was allowed to sit with us again.
“You two have no idea what happened last night,” Chantel said as she ignored the stares of Mr De Villiers; our English teacher who just wanted to get us through ‘The Great Gatsby’ in peace.
“Trust me; we have a pretty good idea,” Aaron whispered back, “And for God’s sake text us if you want to talk. Mr De Villiers is watching us already.” And so he was. Our English teacher’s bushy eyebrows elevated as he looked at us.
“Is there a problem?” he said in his squeaky voice.
“No,” I said as I prayed that he wouldn’t ask any of us a question. I wasn’t particularly listening as he droned on about how Fitzgerald addressed the American Dream, which so many people were captivated by. I didn’t know about the dream. Frankly, I didn’t even want to know. I was going to live and die in Cape Town with Chantel by my side. We would graduate, I would get a job as some random manager of some random company and she would sell her artwork. We’d grow old together. Maybe, we might even have a couple of kids who looked as perfect as she did. And by then, Tristan would be a face she could barely recall. He would be gone. What was the American Dream compared to the dreams I had of her? It, like Tristan, would be nothing. Unfortunately, Mr. De Villiers didn’t share my sentiments.
“Well, Mr. Marais, since you seem to have no problem in class, why don’t you tell us what Fitzgerald seems to tell the reader of the American Dream?”
Huh? I thought of the parties, the money and the endless amount of booze with total disregard to the story’s setting in the prohibition era. I mean, wouldn’t any cop investigate such a large gathering to see if there was booze served? It just didn’t make sense. I looked at Aaron. The befuddled expression on his face told me he didn’t know what to say either.
“The American Dream was beautiful,” I said at last. “Every colour, every sound and action shows the extravagance and the innocence of the idea and of Gatsby himself.”
“That is the answer I get from Westwood’s brightest student,” Mr. De Villiers scoffed. “I’m surprised Mr. McCarthy wanted to move you a grade ahead. I’d shift you back to kindergarten if I were him.”
Before he could go on to a tirade of how the American Dream was a sham, Natalie raised her hand. The whole class gasped. It was a miracle if Natalie ever opened her mouth to speak, but here she was trying to answer a question.
“Yes Miss….” Mr. De Villiers stuttered as he tried to recall Natalie’s name.
“Yes Miss Zuma,” Mr. De Villiers said as his eyebrows elevated much more than they did on previous occasions.
“What Will meant was that although it certainly is glamorous, it’s made up of broken, twisted people with broken, twisted ideals. Gatsby has his naivety and his endless lies, Daisy has her vanity, Jordan is dishonest and as for Tom; the less said about him the better. Fitzgerald doesn’t just say that the dream is a fake, he says that it’s made up of fake people too.”
“Please,” Tristan scoffed. “Like that girl actually cares about reading the book. All she cares about is getting into Will’s pants.”
“That’s never going to happen,” Chantel whispered back as she raised her hand. “That girl is so dull she is incapable of getting into anybody’s pants.”
“Yes, Chantel,” Mr. De Villiers said as he flashed a wide smile. Chantel’s grades in English were only second to her grades in Art and every language teacher had a beaming smile ready to welcome her.
“The American dream was not a fake,” she said as she perfected an imitation of Mr. De Villiers squeaky voice. “The lights, music and parties were all to attract Daisy Buchanan into Gatsby’s life. He lived for Daisy and as he chooses to stay silent about how Daisy knocked down Myrtle that night, he died for her too. The American dream, or any dream, is made up on every single emotion of people. Gatsby didn’t just live for the American Dream, but he died for it too.”
“But what’s the point of the whole dream? Gatsby lost his life for it,” Natalie asked Chantel.
“He did, but his story lives on,” Chantel said as she switched her tone to one that resembled Natalie’s gruff voice and scratched her chin in a brutal imitation of Natalie. The whole class burst into laughter. “As Nick pens down every single word, Gatsby’s story and his ideals of the dream live on.”
“Excellent, Chantel,” Mr. De Villiers said as he beamed in approval. “You see this girl has true genius.”
Natalie’s gaze just dropped to the floor. I may have agreed with what Chantel on ‘The Great Gatsby’ but I definitely didn’t agree on how Mr. De Villiers treated Natalie. My heart warmed when she spoke up just to get me out of trouble. Sure, it wasn’t the inferno Chantel created whenever she looked at me. It wasn’t even a spark. But whatever it was, Natalie Zuma was my friend.