…A club called Great Dane in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. It was midnight. We were standing in a stall in the women’s bathroom. She was giggling, and I was shushing her because it sounded like we were having sex, and every time she laughed she blew coke into the air.
“Girl,” I said to her, “you’re going to get everyone in here high as balls!” We burst out laughing.
Two sweaty sinners pressed close in a dirty bathroom, a bag of coke enough for four people between us. She leaned in, ran her tongue up my chin, into my ear. It was sloppy wet. My head shivered into my shoulders.
“It tickles, keep going,” I cried.
We’d just met that night, but I already knew we would ruin each other. We did some lines. I ran my fingers through her dreadlocks, tenderly. Her hair made me cry.
“How long have you had your locks?” I asked her.
“I’ve had them,” she said, “for as long as I can remember.”
We railed through the rest of it. She wiped the powder stuck to my nose. I kissed her forehead. She seemed amused—that is to say, she carried herself with a sort of amused mastery, like she knew my game and was agreeing to play along, but only to tease me. Her eyes were big and milky and dark golden like the yolk of a freshly hatched sun. I looked into them and thought I would like to crawl back into my mother’s womb and take her with me. It was a strange thought. I didn’t know what it meant. Her name twisted my tongue into knots.
“Say it again for me,” I begged her.
She laughed at me, not unkindly, and said I could call her Neli. She thought my name was funny. “Nigerians always have strange names,” she said to me.
Then she locked her fingers around the back of my neck and pulled herself up to kiss me. I kissed her back. She overwhelmed me with fear and attraction and passion all at once. “What’s wrong?” She asked, pulling back.
“The world is wrong,” I told her. It was a silly thing to say. Sometimes we say silly things when we want people to love us.
We kicked the door of the stall open, startling the girls checking their faces in the mirror. They looked at us like they knew all there was to know about who we were. Like they knew where we were coming from and where we were going to end up. People like them have always been terrified of people like us.
We held hands, strutted past, victorious.
The dance floor was packed with free spirits moving, grooving, shaking to dancehall sounds. Neli and I struggled to find our feet. We stumbled. We fell. We helped each other up, laughing at our own drunkenness, and fell again. We shook our shoulders in the faces of strangers who looked lonely until they turned wild with us. We made gunshot noises. We made out. We ordered too many shots of tequila from the bar and gave the extras out for free. In all of this Neli turned heads like a sandstorm. She made people drool. She made people roll their eyes. She made me sweat and weep and grit my teeth, my God, she was magical.
There was a girl in a wheelchair who’d turned twenty-one that night. She was very pale, maybe mixed, possibly albino. It might have even been that she was a white girl with braids. I couldn’t tell in the light. She said to Neli, “There’s a purple aura around you!” Neli straddled and hugged her.
The girl was there with a boy, who she introduced to us as her friend. It was obvious, however, that the boy was in love with her. We drank with them. Neli held the boy’s hands. She danced against his awkward body. The boy looked confused, unsure of himself. His expression reminded me of why one mustn’t be gifted too much too soon.
“Let her control you!” I yelled at him over the music, “Be easy!”
I lifted the girl out of her wheelchair and sat her on the bar countertop. She held my shoulders for balance. We danced, right there, she looked into my eyes, and I looked into hers. They were light grey and while they couldn’t hold weight next to Neli’s eyes, their metallic glow captivated me in a different way.
The girl said to me, “You make me feel…”
But I put my finger across her lips. “Just go with it,” I told her.
If you didn’t know us you might have thought we were lovers, and maybe we were, if only for that moment on the dance floor. We went on dancing, drinking, falling over and picking each other up, until our feet and knees spoke to us in the only language we understood—pain.
Neli and I went outside. The two of us sat on the pavement, exhausted and sick, but still full of life.
Some girl staggered over to us in her six-inch heels and said to Neli, “You and your boyfriend are really cute.” She stank of rum and vodka.
Neli looped her arm through mine. “Your dress is cute,” she said to the girl in the six-inch heels.
“Really?” The girl beamed, and then, as if pushed by some invisible hand, she toppled backwards in a spectacular arc.
The girl had been knocked out cold by her fall. People went on talking, walking, laughing, like it was nothing special. We watched her body lie facedown on the street, Neli and I, neither of us laughing, both of us more concerned than we let on. Two bouncers waved their arms telling people to make space. We could hear an ambulance coming. You see things when you party wild. People fall, bang their heads and that’s it, dead. I knew a boy who was set to go to medical school, for neurosurgery. He was rushing out of his fraternity house, tripped on his shoelace, smacked his head on the doorknob, and that was it, dead at nineteen. The ambulance pulled up and pulled away with the girl in the back of it.
Our taxi arrived. It took us to Neli’s apartment where we showered, separately. She didn’t hide her body from me. She didn’t flaunt it either. She let her towel drop to the floor, slipped into her underwear without so much as a glance my way.
“Come over here,” she said finally. “Help me get this on.”
She held her hair up to give me room to work the hook on the back of her bra. Part of me worried about staining her skin with my filthy hands. Her back was well toned. There were dimples just above where it curved out to meet her backside.
I took a cold shower. I tried to imagine who Neli was when she was sober. She struck me as a numbers girl, the kind to teach math in a high school, or work finance at a corporation, not because she loved it, but because it’s what she was good at, what made her parents proud. I stepped out of the shower and wiped myself off. I didn’t have any clean clothes to sleep in. Neli gave me one of her silk nightdresses. It had a round neckline and stopped halfway down my thighs.
“You look sexy,” she said to me from the bed.
I told her I felt sexy.
She tried to laugh. Her voice was broken from all we’d done that night. I crawled into bed next to her. Her body beside mine felt familiar. I thought, maybe in some distant time another me had ended up in another bed, which happened to belong to another her.
I thought, maybe the universe was making us happen all over again to see what we would do with a second chance.
The post image is an adapted version of an image by Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr.
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