I still miss what we had. Not the man himself so much, but the essence of what we had, the us-ness. I know it was more than sex, though we spent more time in bed than anywhere. He was my passion, still I find our thing so hard to describe, hard to talk about. In its most basic it was easy to understand though. We were both alone in a foreign culture, and not really sure, in the end, why we stayed. Oh, I had come for a Master's in savanna ecology with some hopes of making a new career and a new future. But I also came to Johannesburg because the world of my rural New York office had become far too small-feeling, and I knew there was a vastness, a wildness beyond, which had been denied me. I had always loved the natural world; I wanted to live in it and preserve it. But why had Davies come, many months--or maybe years-- ahead of me? And why did he stay? To this day, the real answers elude me because Davies did not tell everything. But what he did reveal was legion and, for my sanity, nearly lethal.
We met at a kind of hostel; a rooming house to which the University had referred me. It was the only definite referral they had, so I took it. I had little idea of what to expect, my imagination concocting a far less well-developed and lawful town than I found many thousands of miles from home. Even the rooming house was adequate and familiar in its typicalness. The main social room was lined with drab seating on its two long walls, leaving only a narrow passageway for the steady trickle of people moving in and out. Dormitory bedrooms jutted off from this entry. I, no longer needing to trade off housing money for beer money, opted for a private room with bath which turned out to have its own entrance in the back of the house. It looked out on a small concrete swimming pool which, it happened, I was one of the few to use. Not being accustomed to dry South African heat, I was grateful for the pool and walked around much of my time at home (and since I arrived several weeks before the university term began, I was at home a lot) in a bathing suit. I felt insulated by my age, considerably older than the average hosteler. (Aging does have its benefits to a woman used to being hit on and objectified). Despite my conservative one piece maillot, white with bright red flowers and green leaves, and my aforementioned age, the young men at the house did seem to take notice. Davies, however, was not young, yet I was sure I caught a few of his glances too, but I didn't pay much attention because he slouched to be unobtrusive, and he seemed always slouching when I was in his visual field. I did, though, sometimes hear him speak. He'd get into long raps with the Irishman, Sean. The two of them would go at it, Sean with his Galway lilt and Davies in his verging-on-cockney. I loved the accent.
It turns out that it was Sean who kept daring Davies to get next to me. Gradually I began to notice that we'd meet in the common kitchen, preparing our dinners at roughly the same time. Conversation started over "pass the pepper" and "can I borrow an onion?" Pretty soon it occurred to us that we might as well prepare the same dish together or take turns making dinner for one another. Davies really liked to cook. In fact, he liked everything about food--shopping for it (very carefully), talking about it, and dreaming about it too. But he was long and thin, well-built actually, not underdeveloped. I think he kept his weight down because he was poor and often skipped meals (though not our dinners, which I suspect were mostly on me since Davies made no bones about his money troubles). See, Davies had lots of problems.
Now this is one place where it gets hard for me to talk about Davies, and me and Davies, because so much of our relationship was wound up in Davies' dilemma which I was never able to accept as he presented it. I often felt double-talked or snowed by what I was sure was evasiveness on his part. He said that he had originally come to South Africa to visit friends, a husband and wife, Mervyn and Sheila, he knew from England who had settled in Johannesburg where they set up business dealing heavy machinery (like auto engines, tractors and industrial sewing units, Davies said). It was a thriving business which soon employed Davies even though he claims not to have had the proper papers for a resident alien. But it gets worse. Davies goes and falls in love with Sheila, and, the way he tells it, she with him. (He tells me none of this scandalous stuff right away, of course). Mervyn naturally gets wind of it after several months and throws Sheila out, though with a more than comfortable stipend. Davies cozily moves in, enjoying Sheila's largesse, courtesy of her cuckolded spouse. Things seem to be going well for the new couple, and Davies, now jobless, (also having been dumped by Mervyn as one might have expected) forgets to renew his visitor's visa. (Eventually he tells me that so much time had elapsed that he felt if he had showed up at the proper government agency they probably would have forced him to leave South Africa then and there). He's scared and does not want to jeopardize the comfortable love nest he has built with Sheila. So he does nothing, which winds up causing arguments because Sheila is tiring of supporting Davies with no end in sight. He tells me that he understands Sheila, but nonetheless feels trapped, emasculated and helpless. This does not bode well for happiness. To top it off, in one of their arguments Sheila throws up to Davies that he is not the first man she has been unfaithful with. He begins to understand that Sheila has a thing for well-hung black men she meets casually and fucks hard. In the age of AIDS, Davies is terrified.
Is this believable or are there deeper reasons Davies is not free to come and go as he pleases in South Africa? Other reasons he is not able to earn money? He lives in the hostel/rooming house now, apart from Sheila, and he is somehow managing to hold skin and bones together. He even finds me, and while I am on a rather tight budget, I can afford to soon rent a small house and entertain Davies in a bit of style. The house is on a large property with a majorly pitted tennis court and a bigger, better swimming pool than the one at the hostel. But I'm way ahead of how things unfolded, so back to the time of cooking together in the community kitchen.
One evening after a delicious spicy red-sauced spaghetti dinner cooked ensemble, Davies invites me out for drinks. I am surprised since his invoking his poor finances has already become a chant, but he invites me and I accept. He is charming, with that darling accent of his. He loves to talk, and he tells stories about people who have passed through the hostel, complete with funny impersonations, and about recent things that he has seen and done (no mention of his affair with Sheila yet though). He looks at me very straight on, deep into the eyes, passing his tongue over his lips in a slow, sensuous way. We laugh a lot. He leans over and tells me he loves my smell, the softness of my hand he is holding. I notice that I get that familiar oozy tingly feeling between my legs; that itch you can't scratch in public. But I know I want to scratch it, so to speak. I want to make love to Davies, and so he pays the check and we gaily walk the 6 blocks back to my little rear room. We know what we are there for, so we embrace and fall upon the bed. We are urgent but in no hurry. Davies is a terrific lover, from the very first. He is inventive, has a long, strong erection and a body that is subtle and elastic. I feel beautiful, very desirable to him, and give myself openly, though struggling to contain the deep moans passion coursing through me. The walls are thin at the hostel and we agree that we are not quite ready to be an item yet. But in the very early morning, when Davies sneaks out from my bed, I am ecstatic. I am already imagining the deliciousness of the next time.
But the next time does not come. I wait, tingling with anticipation, though unwilling to make the first move. Davies is definitely keeping his distance. He does not seek me out, and mysteriously disappears from the common room when I am there, unless I am busy in conversation with someone else. He does not enter the kitchen when I am there either. At first I think he doesn't want me to think he takes me for granted, or, similarly, doesn't want me to take him for granted. But after four days like this, I am antsy, and sickeningly curious.
Beyond what I have already speculated, I have no idea why Davies is distancing himself, and I have got to know! I toy with thoughts of pumping Sean, but I decide that is ridiculous because he'll go right back to Davies with whatever I say. I have no choice, I decide, but to somehow confront the man himself. Remember, at this point I still know nothing about Sheila.
And Sheila is the apparent reason for Davies' cad-like behavior toward me. He opens up when I corner him (I have to admit that's what I did), by saying she has reentered his life just within the last few days, that she in fact personally came to the hostel to lure him back. He says he still cares for her, though he knows she is a delicious poison for him. Davies, to his credit, tells me that he does not want an affair with me to end badly if he once again is devoured by feelings for Sheila. He lets me know that he has to back away from me totally in order to work these things out. My disappointment is keen, but I do not let on very much. I will not fight for him yet. He comes with too much baggage, and I still don't know what's inside the suitcases.
Gradually, our relationship takes on a new dynamic. Davies seeks me out occasionally to talk about Sheila and his crazy feelings. He lets drop a few things about their business relationship too. I gather he had been traveling back and forth for some time within Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, making machinery deals at Mervyn's behest. I do not delve much into this business because the affair between Davies and Sheila was, I thought, much juicier. This was pretty stupid of me, I now think. But anyway at first I am a good listener and helpful friend as Davies seeks my confidence. Gradually, though, I begin to resent being put in this role. I still wanted him, aware that my lust for Davies was shrouding the good sense I should have had as I put together the pieces of his story. I was a stranger in a strange land, terribly needy of the intimacy of our bodies huddled together, thumping in unison, crying out for orgasm and release. Because I wanted him, I did not want to hear about his wanting someone else, even if I did believe that he could easily still have a hard on for me. I was respecting his wishes, not leading him on, and, in the perverse way we women often have, I was enjoying the fact that he was not falling at my feet. Desire became the craving for what I couldn't, and probably shouldn't, have.
It didn't take long, a month at most, for Davies to come to his senses. Or maybe Sheila came to hers. How would I know? The last story I heard was that she revealed she was being tested for AIDS, because she was still involved with her on again, off again South African boyfriend, who, among other things, was a known drug user and pusher. The proper Brit inside Davies borrowed some rands from Sean and also got himself tested. When he found out he was clean, he vowed to say goodbye to Sheila, too scared, or perhaps too much of a gentleman to ask her what her test results were. Apparently, she carried on some, even vaguely threatened to cause him harm, but Davies would not tell me the details. Now I have the feeling that she had something on him, and that blackmail was what she had in mind (was it of the emotional kind or was there actual money involved?) Still, Davies was true, he made his break and only a bit sheepishly turned his attentions back to me. After I saw his AIDS results for myself, I was, I'm not ashamed to admit, more than eager; parched with thirst for him was the real deal.
And thus began a steady diet of Davies--his food, his accent, sense of humor, and, above all, his virility. My work in the graduate program was intense. The program was very consolidated--6 months of course and fieldwork, plus additional examination time. I should have been poring over books and research articles at least three hours a night (considerably more if I actually wanted to understand and retain the information), but I would often rush through the reading, or prepare to hand in an undigested paper, in order to loll around in bed with Davies. He would not demand my time; he'd simply call and say he'd like to get together and I found I could never resist. I did not keep my room at the hostel very long after beginning in this way with my lover. It was too confining, too public. So I rented the little cottage I already mentioned. Though an alley away from the maid's quarters, and I was quite sure she too would hear us, my enthusiasm for Davies' body knew no bounds, and I set none for him. I loved our openness with one another. It started with the fullest, deepest exploration of our bodies, but it encompassed talking about everything that came up when we were together. There was loads of sex talk and fantasies, naming erotic preferences and vividly describing our most shameful kinky adventures. I even took to making up a mildly sadistic old boyfriend in order to perk up Davies' lust. Given the constraints of my daily academic life, this was liberating to my spirit too; without it I wonder if I could have struggled so hard to make it through the program considering the otherwise Spartan life I was leading in Joberg.
But don't get the idea that this was idyllic, because the undercurrent was Davies' sense of being trapped. Remember, he was an illegal in South Africa and, thus, afraid to be discovered. He did not want to be deported back to England, where he felt there was nothing for him, though his mother continued to live there. (I wonder still why England was such anathema to him.) He could not seek better caliber legitimate jobs for fear of exposure, so he was continually scavenging amongst his friends and acquaintances for under the table work. Always complaining about his lack of money, he voiced anguish at not being able to offer me anything, and I believed him, though I also considered that Davies used women, preying upon our sympathy as caretakers. Still, whatever doubts I had were not enough to keep me from hungering after the pleasures we shared in bed, that ran the full range from the softest, most lingering caresses that floated me above myself, to roughly ripping one another open like jungle beasts contesting for dominance, snarling in the ecstasy of the hunt and conquest. Strangely, I gave my passion fully to Davies, while holding back my respect and generosity. I imagined I was intellectually superior to him, (confusing education with intelligence), and though he made me laugh, gave me hours upon hours of pleasure and delight, I often wondered if I genuinely liked Davies. I saw him as making foolish choices, as one of life's losers. Little did I really know how much he had actually lost.
One day stands out very much in my mind. It must have been a weekend, a Saturday probably, because I had no classes and Davies and I woke up together. He told me he had once visited a military park and museum within walking distance of my cottage, and thought he'd like to take me there. I don't really know what possessed me to go, since I haven't the least interest in old weaponry or military history (though I am interested greatly in the politics of war). I guess I said yes because it was something different to do and it was free. Also, Davies seemed so earnest. Thus, after a lazy morning, with breakfast in my little green garden, we set off, walking arm in arm, holding on to the warmth still lingering from our lovemaking. I don't remember what we talked about, because already our conversations had become simple, uncomplicated here and now kinds of things. Davies didn't evidence a lot of interest in conservation or wildlife, and though he had met some of my fellow students, we did not talk about them either. The conversation on the walk over to the military park then was not memorable or important, but this certainly was not true of what we (mostly Davies) spoke of throughout the afternoon and on the slow walk home. I am still pondering its significance, these many years later.
But before I go further, I should speak about what was going on in my life separate from Davies--because the academic program was drawing to a close and I had decisions to make. Largely because I was being such a distracted student (and you know by what), I was troubled by not yet choosing an exciting research area; troubled by my inadequate background in African issues preventing me from making a good research choice. And, in all honesty, the vast veld drew me like a magnet, and I relished more fieldwork. My feelings for the land and the life on it competed vigorously with those I had for Davies. Soon I began to see that I had to make a choice between venturing out from Johannesburg, from South Africa itself, or remaining with Davies in the much smaller (but very cozy) world of my cottage and overused bed.
Every time Davies and I got to talking about the future, his futility about being able to leave the country was palpable. He was, however, unwilling to take any risk with his status, and hunkered down into the little security he had. I was pained and irritated by his situation, as he always made me feel there was nothing I could do to help him get free. But freedom was one of the great draws of Africa for me, and I was very afraid of getting trapped with Davies, whose circumstances confused me, rapidly becoming my obsession too. I needed to harden myself to Davies' plight, even as I remained powerless to resist the magnetism of his physical love. I tried to put these conflicts out of mind, to plod through all the academic work and to stave off decisions until absolutely necessary. Davies knew something was up. In his reserved English way, he took stabs at convincing me to stay and ride things out with him. I was firm in my desire to get out into the bush and to be in the Africa I had dreamed about, and I didn't want Davies to entertain ideas that I would give up my dreams. But that day spent at the military museum served to make him all the more fascinating to me, for as many of the wrong reasons as right. It made him become suddenly worldly, with an exciting secret life that he finally was giving me a glimpse of! What he didn't/wouldn't tell me I found myself inventing, summoning mental weapons to dig a trench between us at the very same time that I was forced to acknowledge Davies' incredible mental gifts which I had been denying him, plus his brand of courage that I had been blind to.
When we reached the museum adjacent to the zoo at Saxonwold, Davies behaved as if transformed. It started with the exhibits on the Boer War, where he launched into a recitation of the courageous battle the Boers fought, and won though vastly outnumbered, at the Tugela River. Davies knew about the observation balloons used, the Lee Metford rifles, the British automatic weapons mounted on special carriages and so forth. His military knowledge was not restricted to British campaigns in South Africa; he made many asides pertinent to British military history through to World War II. I suspected that Davies' knowledge was even more current, from some of his allusions, but I was less attentive to the facts than I was awed by the depth of Davies' interest and range. This was a side of him I had not seen before, one that just suddenly appeared as if a new person had walked into my life. I was so surprised that I had little to say, and Davies took my relative silence as permission to go on. And go on he did. His information was nothing less than impressive. He actually seemed to know the principles behind how many of the weapons and war strategies worked. Yes, I was in awe, but frightened as well, by this man and by my own failure to have plumbed his depths sooner. Yet this part of the day wildly paled when compared to Davies' conversation on the walk back from the museum to my place. Something had been unleashed in him, and he began to speak more personally.
"You know, doll," he began, "I found out that Mervyn was a gun-runner. Well, not simply guns. The bloke dealt in all manner of small arms, grenades, rocket launchers, maybe nuclear bits too. I didn't know it all the time I worked for him but I did know he used to ask my opinion of certain weapons cause he knew I had knowledge of 'em."
"Wow," I said, in genuine amazement, but also because I was completely out of my league here. I knew nothing about the world Davies was starting to show me, and I didn't think I wanted to know anything either. No words were safest.
"When he and Sheila split, she finally told me. All the time she knew and I didn't. The two of them really shagged me."
"What do you mean? What happened?"
"I can't tell you much. Sheila made me swear to keep it to m'self. She's scared of Mervyn. The bloke has a lot of powerful connections here in the RSA. But something big went down when I was in Iraq for their company. Something damn serious. The authorities there wouldn't let me out of their custody for over a week. They kept me under constant interrogation. "
"Just questions? Just interrogation?" I asked, surprising myself with how naive I sounded, naive but terrified to hear Davies' answer.
"Like I said, sorry Sweets, I can't tell you everything. But Mervyn stepped in, spread big money around and got me out of there. And that put an end to all the selling trips I had been making to the Middle East, and outside of South Africa altogether. I haven't left the country since."
That was the end of Davies' admission too. He shut up tight. I'm sure he thought he'd said far too much. He turned the subject to the evening's dinner, launching into excitement about making a proper British meal and how would I feel about heading toward the market to pick up the necessaries?
It was an excellent dinner that Davies prepared that night, and we savored it over our favorite local shiraz. A fuzzy buzz enveloped me, making my thinking indistinct and slippery. I tried to hold on to all that Davies had told me, and to make sense of it and how it was affecting him and our relationship now. I knew there had to be a connection--a strong one. Davies had fed me the punch line."I haven't left the country since." It was not a relatively simple matter of a lapsed visa, a failure of a green card. It was something much more sinister, something dirty I did not want to touch. And when Davies came to me to lead me into bed, it was the buzz that took over, allowing me to suspend judgment and let everything from my neck down take charge. His touch raised the small hairs of my soul.
That week, I had my final exams. I was struggling to understand genetics and DNA sequencing. I was trying hard to wrap my mind around the material and to push thoughts of any future plans out of it; thoughts of how things would end up with Davies too; thoughts of him thrashing around inside of me. As it turned out, the genetics professor was not going to be available to finish grading both our tests and final papers right away. With perhaps false confidence, I did not wait for that Pass or Fail. The week after exams, I boarded the train, alone, for Botswana. I can't say I never look back.
Copyright 2007, Freyda Zell. © This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.
Freyda Zell, a psychologist, wrote a novel by the time she was twelve, has had poems included in the anthology To Banbury Cross and Back, and published in Human Sexuality.