“What?” I exclaimed, pacing across the undersized living room floor. “You’ve got to be joking, James! Right?”
“Karen, I’m serious. Sit down.”
“Oh I bet you are, but I’m spitting mad right now. How dare you?” I yelled.
“Darling, calm down.”
“Calm down?” I whirled back to him, “Calm down! Not likely! Who do you think you are?”
I stormed from the living room, slamming the door behind me. I crammed into the tiny bedroom I had been sharing on and off with James for four months. Plopping on the double bed, with its ridiculous quilt some doting relative had made, I stared at the stark white ceiling, which was identical to the stark white walls. Think, Karen, think. Was he lying?
I rolled over, messing up James’ regulation style bed, and gazed out the window. Cars honking on the busy four-lane road that was only a parking lot away from my College Dorm momentarily distracted me. Through the wall, I could hear the faint sound of music, with its distinctive drumbeat, “Scatterlings of Africa” by Johnny Clegg. It seemed appropriate somehow.
My eyes glazed over as I tried to concentrate. How do I work this out? What do I do now? Through the blue and yellow striped window curtain, I caught sight of the college I called home on the other side of the road. The buildings stood hemmed in by acres of high, barbed wire fences. “Put here for your own safety,” according to Pretoria College Of Education officials.
Turning back over, my elbow knocked down the photo standing on James’ nightstand. The tinkle of glass told the story.
“Great!” I rolled over onto my stomach to inspect the damage. The glass had shattered, but the frame and the picture lay intact on the cherry coloured wooden floor. I carefully picked up the photo, shaking off the shards of glass.
I glared at the snapshot of James and I nestled next to each other in a restaurant, heads together, goofy smiles plastered on our faces, clowning for the camera. Michelle, the one who had initially introduced us, had taken it.
“Hey Karen. Kevin and I are going out to dinner tonight. His buddy James is tagging along. I think the two of you would be great together. Wanna come?” Michelle came bounding into our room, and perched herself on the edge of my desk, where I sat.
I looked up from my notes. “No, thanks. I have some stuff to catch up on, and I have to work tomorrow — I need an early night.”
Michelle nudged my shoulder none too gently, and gave me her “look”. “I’m not taking ‘No’ for an answer! Come on.” I’d been her roommate for three years, so I knew better than to try and resist this blonde dynamo when she gave that look.
“OK.” I mock sighed. “But I have to get back early. I really need to get this paper done for English Lit. or I’ll have Dr. Hurry breathing down my neck.”
“I promise. We’ll have you back by ten.”
“All right then, but I’ll hold you to it.”
Half an hour later, Kevin pulled up, and Michelle lightly leapt into the front seat, long flaxen hair cascading behind her. The seat swallowed her as she settled in. I opened the back door to the Nissan as my heart pounded. But I shrugged it off. What the heck, I’m out to have a good time, not find a soul mate!
Since the light was poor, I fumbled with my seat belt
“Man, I hate these things.” I mumbled to myself.
“So do I.” A deep voice chuckled.
“Hi, I’m Karen.”
“James. Pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise.” I glanced across the seat and caught a hint of a smile. As we got underway, I gave him surreptitious peeks as we reached each streetlight, trying to get a good look at this man with the melodious voice.
The restaurant was around the block; therefore the car came to a quick halt. As I bounced out, I bumped into James’ stomach. I looked up in wonderment. “What’s the weather like up there?”
With no perceptible rancor, he replied, “I get that a lot. In fact, when I walk through airports I wear a t-shirt emblazoned, ‘I am not a basketball player!’”
I laughed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be personal.”
“Quite OK. Ready to eat?”
He grabbed my hand engulfing it with his gargantuan one, and ducked his head automatically as we walked through the restaurant door.
“Where do you live?” I asked as we waited for our order of rare steaks.
“Right across from the college.”
“Really?” I took a sip of my drink, flirting gently with him. Wow, is he ever handsome! Bet he doesn’t go for me though! Guys seldom did.
I ran my fingers thought my cropped red hair, wondering if he preferred long hair. But being a runner, I deliberately kept it short. Placing a napkin on my lap, I glanced down at my figure — most people considered me athletic — almost boyish looking.
“So James — what do you do?”
“I’m in the Army.” He sat up straighter as he clenched his steak knife.
Michelle glanced over, giving me her look of “don’t go there, Karen.” I took the hint and changed the subject.
“Were you born here?” I asked. This should be safe territory.
“Nope, in London.”
“No kidding, me too!”
The rest of the night we nattered about being Brits in a South African world, our forays into speaking Afrikaans, at which we were both fluent. The topic of work never came up again. There was plenty more to talk about.
Sighing, I laid the photo down. Now work had come up and in a most unexpected way! I rose from the bed, opened the door softly and padded my way back into the living room. James hadn’t moved. He cradled a glass, glossy black hair falling into his face.
Why didn’t I see it before? He said he was “Army” but he never wore a uniform, or wore his hair “regulation-style”. Things were falling into place now.
“James?” Softly, I slid my arm around his waist, and balanced myself on the edge of his easy chair, resting my head on his shoulder. He reached up, and gently kissed my hair. I caught a faint whiff of his favourite cologne; the one I’d bought a month ago for his birthday.
“Let’s talk.” In one fluid motion, I stood up and strode over to the only other chair in the room, turning it to face him.
He placed his now-empty glass on the side table, and sat forward in his seat. “Karen, you know I love you right?”
“Well, I sure hope so. I’ve been sharing your bed for the last few months!” I laughed bitterly.
“I’m serious, I love you. But, we have some major decisions to make.”
“No kidding. It’s just our future at stake! Tell me from the beginning what’s going on.”
He leaned forward, his frame barely contained in the chair made for someone half his size. His arms dangled free, and he used his long, sensitive fingers to trace patterns on the parquet floor, all the while his eyes were fixed on me.
“This afternoon as I was leaving work, Major van der Merwe called me into his office. He said he had some questions regarding my girlfriend — you.”
“He wanted to know about your high school days, who your friends are, who you have contact with on a daily basis, and how serious a relationship this is. I had to tell him I know little about you, other than you’re in Teachers Training College, you’re an athlete, and you work as a waitress. That’s when he told me you were a security risk!”
“Me, a security risk! What a joke! I’m 21 years old and a student! What threat do I pose?”
James cleared his throat. “Well, I asked the same thing! But he has quite a file on you.”
I shifted uneasily in the easy chair. “The government has files on everybody, that’s no secret. Ever since Pik Botha bullied his way into the presidency, life has become bad for all of us! Do you recall he abolished the Mixed Marriages Act, but the Land Act is still in effect? Now you can marry someone of a different race, but you can’t live together! Remember how he decided all people, no matter their race had to carry passbooks; or face the possibility of getting arrested? What a joke. I know all that. What’s the big deal?”
“I don’t mean the usual stuff. I’m talking photos, and taped conversations.”
I leapt up from the black, leather chair, grabbing up the scatter cushion. I paced back and forth.
“What? Photos of what? What conversations, when, with whom?” My tone raised an octave, seemingly with no control.
“Karen, get a grip, sit down and listen to me!”
“This is MY life, mine. Get it! What’s happening here?”
“What’s happening is the government has a full dossier of your life, from the second you stepped foot on Woodmead School’s property line. Why didn’t you tell me you went to Woodmead?”
“It never came up! It’s merely a private school in the middle of the country.”
“Ah, but it’s not just any old school is it? It’s the only multi-racial, non religious, international school in the country.”
“So?” I clenched my fists together, ready to pummel anything, even James.
During our heated argument the tape had stopped. It was noticeable now in the sudden silence of the room. Moving over to the cabinet that housed the tape deck, I opened the cassette player and turned the tape over. “Johnny Clegg and Savuka” filled the air with their distinctive sound.
I instinctively tapped my finger against my chin, something I only did when puzzled. “James, how do your superiors know we’re seeing one another anyway?”
So quickly did he dart from his chair, it barely registered. In two short steps, he towered over me. He grasped me by the arms, which were wrapped around the cushion. I looked up at his large, dark brown eyes.
“Tell me.” I stomped my shoe, narrowly missing his bare foot.
He looked down at the floor, suddenly uncharacteristically silent. Quietly, “They…they monitor us.”
“They what?” I pulled away from him, aghast. I threw the cushion against the wall, a splash of rich, riotous color against the white paint.
“Hey, do you think I’m thrilled about it? I didn’t even know until today!”
“So, James — the agency you work for monitors you? Who monitors them? How ironic! How stupid! I’ve been saying for years we’re moving more and more towards a police state, towards totalitarianism and you’ve proved it to me! How dare they? Can’t you see the paradox? If they can’t trust you, who can they trust?”
James nodded his head vehemently, “I agree and I let the Major hear about it too. I’m on your side, not theirs. They’ve been watching both of us. They’ve invaded my privacy too!”
I exhaled, and slumped back into the safety of his arms. I was so thoroughly worked up about how this impacted me and my little world. That’s right — is he in trouble too?
I moved away from him again, and sat in the same chair. When I reached out for him, he smiled and plopped down on the intricately designed Oriental rug. I leant back in my seat, gazing out of the window into the velvet black night, not trusting myself to look at him. The word “Woodmead” thrust me into another world, one completely different from the one I now inhabited. Words tumbled from my mouth as I recalled the days of high school, and my radical friends.
“I don’t know where to begin. All I know is my parents weren’t happy with the education I was getting from the all-girls high school and they decided to remove me.”
“Why not send you to a parochial school?”
“Well, they’re single sex, plus my parents are atheists. You knew that right?”
“I remember you mentioning it.” James looked at me quizzically. “But why Woodmead? There’s plenty of public co-ed schools.”
Rubbing my temples with frigid hands, I replied, “Not sure, it probably had something to do with exposure to different cultures. I never asked. I was ecstatic to get out of the other school! I hated every day I wore the uniform with the beret. I detested the girls who were all physically well developed and had boyfriends. They were the typical bitchy, giggly girls who could care less about what was happening around them.”
“What do you mean?” James took my petite, narrow hands in his large, tanned ones, and began to massage them.
“I gave a speech once in English about the injustices of apartheid. I was shouted down by a group of rich snots in the back. They claimed their ‘kaffir maids’ were looked after and well fed, who was I to say otherwise. They haven’t a clue what actually goes on. As long as someone is at their beck and call, they could care less. Disgusting, really awful.” My tone lowered as I remembered the event.
I removed my hands from his, giving him a grateful smile. Rubbing my hands was his way of taking in everything. His right hand trailed patterns on my jeans as I continued.
“For all their faults, my parents hate racial injustice and I guess they thought Woodmead was a step in the right direction for this country.”
“And is it?”
“I think so. Anyway, I took the tests, but I still think the headmaster simply pasted photos of prospective students to the dart board, blindfolded himself and took a stab in the dark!” I trailed off as I recalled the phone call we received saying I had been accepted.
With a sudden desire for a drink, I removed James’ hand from my lap. “Wanna another cold one?” Without waiting for his reply, I moved across to the antique drinks cabinet he’d inherited.
“Um, oh yes, thanks.”
With the dexterity born of being a waitress I poured us both cokes, added ice to his, and silently handed James his glass. With an appreciative nod, he accepted it and took a long, shuddering gulp. I sipped the coke, savouring the sweetness of the fizz. In reality, Pepsi was my favourite, but it was long gone because of the sanctions against the country.
“You know, it used to be a holiday resort?” I blurted out.
“Uh, huh. Some wealthy guy decided to build this resort right on the banks of the Jukskei River, a couple of miles from the Lion Park. Well, it went belly up and Mr. Krige, the original head of the school saw a great opportunity to fulfill his dream of a racially integrated school.”
“Yep, you know something else? Bruce Fordyce, the Comrades Marathon winner was one of the first students there! See, it can’t be all bad!” I took another sip of coke, bracing myself for the flood of cold fizz that suffused my body.
James laughed but quickly grew serious. “Funny, but it doesn’t help me. Tell me more.”
“I was a boarder; and my room was right on the river. James, it was lovely. I shared a room with Matilda Maloi, a Swazi Princess. What a sweet girl. Down to earth, but she sure carried herself like a princess.”
“Who else did you know there?”
“Uh. Let’s see; Kathleen.” I giggled. Ah Kathleen! She was a piece of work! “She was always completely stoned! I’d never met anyone who smoked dope before. I was very naïve at first.”
“OK, moving on…” James interjected my reverie with a faint hint of impatience.
Instead of sitting back in the chair, I joined him on the expensive Oriental rug, balancing the glass carefully on my knee. He looked apprehensively at it.
“Well, I dunno — it wasn’t a big school, there were only 300 students in total. I knew them all.”
“Does the name Muhammad mean anything to you?”
“Which one? There were several.”
“The Major mentioned Muhammad Sinjay. He pulled a photo out of your dossier with you and this guy standing together. He said it was taken while you were hanging around the hockey field. Ring any bells?”
“Oh yes, big chap. Only 16 but looked 25! I talked to him a few times, but he totally intimidated me. Sometimes he didn’t come to school for days, but nothing was said when he came in, and he never had to catch up on the work he missed; which really irked me because he was given…” I halted as my memory kicked into high gear.
“Mr. Sinjay, I’m glad you decided to join us!” Mr. Laubscher was being his usual sarcastic self.
“Sorry.” Muhammad didn’t sound a bit repentant. I watched him stand in the doorway, seemingly unconcerned that he’d missed at least a week of classes. He glanced around at all of us; gave a high sign to Ajay and Rajeet, his buddies, and moved across the front of the class to Mr. Laubscher’s desk. The two conversed quietly together, then Muhammad handed him an envelope.
James broke into my daydream. “Hello! I’m over here. Karen, talk to me. What are you thinking?”
I came back to the present with a laugh, and shared what I remembered. “You know, I admired Muhammad because his father was Nelson Mandela’s attorney.”
“He was what?”
“Nelson Mandela’s attorney. It was common knowledge that Muhammad traveled to Cape Town with his father. I don’t think he was ever allowed to see Mandela himself, but he met a lot of the ANC underground members.”
“Are you serious?”
“A lot of the kids who went to Woodmead had politically motivated parents and many of them were ANC. We knew it, they knew it, we just couldn’t say anything out loud. You know the ANC is illegal.”
I leant back against him, pulling my jean-clad legs under me, sitting in my ‘cat-like’ pose, as James described it. “You know, that same afternoon Muhammad was arrested!” Nodding, the events suddenly fit together.
“I was a boarder, but I used to walk one of my friends, Camilla, to the bus. Remember I told you the school is located on the river?”
James nodded his assent. His eyes had not left my face in the entire time I reminisced.
“Well, we were in the middle of the sticks, nothing around us, except farms. Buses took the day students home. Anyway, Muhammad got on the same bus as Camilla. As soon as it pulled out onto the road, three police cars appeared out of nowhere. They surrounded the bus, and made all the students get out. I ran over, but the police stopped us from getting too close. The headmaster came barreling out from his office. It was quite a sight! The police lined all the kids up along the fence.”
James sat up straighter. “The police? Why?”
“We knew they patrolled the perimeter. They couldn’t touch us while we were behind the fence, but once outside, we were fair game.”
“How do you mean?”
I sighed heavily. “Think about it James, the school was considered illegal. You said it yourself. The only reason Pik Botha and his megalomaniac cohorts couldn’t close it down, even though they hated it, was because of overseas investors. Ever since the 70’s, American companies have placed sanctions against South Africa, and we’re feeling the pinch now. But, some companies have put the government between a rock and a hard place. They invest in a school like Woodmead, and do some business with the government. The government closes the school and WHAM; all the money goes with the company. It’s not good for the economy.”
“They couldn’t touch us while we were on the school property. If we left, we were fair game, although they couldn’t get us for just anything, they had to have reasonable evidence that we, as underage citizens were doing something illegal.”
“You’re kidding right?”
“Now who’s being naïve?” I asked smiling. “James, it’s a whole different world out there, and it’s not a Brave New World either! Because the ‘Yellow Peril’ was always parked near the playing fields, we nicknamed the regulars. June 16th, the anniversary of the Soweto Riots, was always the worst. There’d be about 10 cars circling the school. I don’t know what they thought would happen. Maybe a re-enactment of the Riots? It was a joke! We knew they couldn’t touch us inside the school grounds, so we made life miserable for them.” I shifted my legs in an effort to get comfortable as I recalled some of the harmless, but illegal, antics we pulled.
“When I first went to the school, the Mixed Marriages Act was still enacted. ‘By the strongest penalty of the law, someone of white descent is not allowed to have physical contact, intimate relations, or marry someone of another race.’” I mimicked the essence of the law, making James laugh at the incongruity of it.
“Well, of course we couldn’t let that one go! We would stand at the gates, right near the ‘Yellow Peril’ cars and kiss. It didn’t matter who we kissed, as long as they were of a different race! It totally pissed the police off, but they couldn’t do a thing about it!”
James laughed. “Some things never change do they? You’re still as stubborn and willing to walk a thin line when it comes to the law.”
“Hey, I’m willing to obey the law! But, James, this is immoral! Apartheid is immoral, oppression is immoral. OK, kissing a boy who’s black is not the way to change things. But, against the law, come on — be real! You can’t help it if you fall in love with someone who’s a different colour from you!”
Clutching my coke glass, I stood up. James looked up at me, steadying me with his hands. Striding over to the cabinet I was about to pour myself another cola, but stopped with the bottle poised in mid-air. I wasn’t thirsty — it was merely a stall tactic. I couldn’t avoid the conversation, and the emotions it re-triggered. I put the glass on the coaster, slowly stretched my body to its full height relieving some of the tension, and moved over to the chair, distancing myself.
“Anyway they arrested Muhammad right then. Mr. Oosthuizen, the principal, asked why they were detaining him. The police said they had evidence that he carried sensitive material regarding the ANC, he was an enemy of the state, and therefore was being taken into custody. They searched him right there, but of course they didn’t find anything on him. I’m sure Muhammad gave it to the teacher earlier in the day. And the police weren’t allowed into the school. Mr. Oosthuizen made them very aware of their limits. They hauled Muhammad off before allowing the other students back in the bus.
“Muhammad was gone for a long time, several weeks, I think. That happened often to the Indian and black kids. They left us white kids pretty much alone, but some of the black kids would disappear for days, sometimes weeks. There was no telling whether they would ever return. I helped in the office after school almost every day and I often heard Mr. Oosthuizen on the phone asking for details on the kids who were missing. Those were scary days, James.”
“The police arrested a teacher once too! Called him a traitor! Wanna know why?”
Without waiting for his answer, I ploughed on. “He applied for a travel visa for one of the black kitchen workers to the United States. And he was arrested and held for treason! I was in the library when Mr. Oosthuizen heard about it. I think the entire school was in on that phone conversation. Mr. Purkey was detained for a couple of days. I guess the government had to look like they were in control. But Mr. Oosthuizen made thinly veiled threats about phone calls to some American sponsors, and they released Mr. Purkey. Oh, and the worker got her visa.”
“This really all happened?” James’ voice carried more than a hint of disbelief.
“Well, I’m not making it up! Of course it did. The only hassle is most of us whites have our heads in the sand, and think because we live in our rarified cities everything is all right. But it’s not. Injustices go on under our noses every single day, only we’re too comfortable to realize it! I’m guilty too. Since I left Woodmead and came to my Whites-Only College, I’ve put a lot of that behind me.”
I felt caged sitting in the chair, like a wild animal. My arms tingled, maybe a manifestation of my helpless rage. I hugged myself tightly. Had I forgotten all of these things? Am I any better than the high school girls I’d condemned? How much had I allowed my “whiteness” to influence my decisions since leaving Woodmead?
James’ voice interjected itself over my thoughts. “I can see why the government considers you a security risk. How do they know who you do and don’t have contact with?”
I shot up out of the chair, and crouched over him, ready to fight. “I knew it! You’re on their side! Just a puppet in the hands of the state! I should have known!”
“That’s unfair and you know it.” James’ voice remained calm, very unlike mine, which had risen in almost uncontrollable temper.
“I can’t believe this. I haven’t seen Muhammad since I graduated three years ago! The only contact I still have with the school is the librarian, and some white friends. You know how hard it is to keep multi-racial friendships going…no you wouldn’t know. Take it from me, it’s hard. You can’t meet anywhere because you can’t sit together. And most of them went to Wits when they graduated. You know, the international multi-racial university in Johannesburg?
“Look, James, when we graduated, we all had big dreams of changing the world, all right? But I live here, in Pretoria, the whitest city on the face of the planet; with the government breathing down my neck, now more than ever before!” My voice cracked, as reality overwhelmed me. I had indeed lost any scrap of privacy I might once have had.
“The only illegal thing I ever did was date an Indian guy, and kiss the occasional black kid to tick the police off. I am not now, or ever have been, a security risk! What did they think I was going to do? Get you stoned or drunk, and hope that your sweet pillow talk included state secrets! I don’t even know what you do, for God’s sake!”
James stood up, and placed his glass on the window-ledge. Once again, I was taken with his sheer height, and the way the light caught the blue-black highlights in his hair. “No, I’m not of Indian descent,” I remembered him telling me once.
“I tried to tell the Major all this today, but he wasn’t having any of it. He knows I signed a non-disclosure form, he knows I leave my work at work, but I believe he’s under pressure from somebody over him. I think he’s only the messenger boy.”
Wearily, I leant my arms against the windowsill, pressing my forehead against the glass, hoping to find some relief from the throbbing in my temples. James pressed up behind me, rubbing his hands across my shoulders, massaging my neck. I sighed heavily and wiggled my back to get more comfortable.
“What are the options?” I asked after a minute of silence.
I turned around to look at him when there was no answer. He had stopped kneading, and his arms hung by his sides, still now. He stared blindly out of the window, not focusing on any one thing. A tear trickled down his cheek, past the strong, aquiline nose to drop with a splat on his chest.
“James?” Now, it was my turn to put my arms around him. My head only reached his chest, and my arms could barely contain his girth, but I felt him relax against me.
“James. What’s the matter? I already told you what I know, which is I have no contact with anybody from Woodmead, no one of consequence anyway. I am no threat to the government, to Mr. Pik Botha and his precious laws. I’m not about to sic the ANC on him!”
“That’s not it. Major van der Merwe gave me an ultimatum today.”
I pulled away enough to look up at him. “Oh yeah? What? Bring my head in on a platter?”
“Not funny, Karen.”
“OK, OK. Do I have to sign a disclaimer saying I promise never to reveal state secrets to anyone and especially not to Muhammad Sinjay? How about signed and sealed in blood, huh?”
“No. Nothing like that.” James paused. His demeanour changed, and I sobered up.
“Major van der Merwe reminded me that you and I are not native South Africans. We were both born in Britain and we’re naturalized citizens.” He stopped, as if waiting for some interjection. But, I was hanging on his every word, with some premonition of where he was headed.
“So, he said, ‘James, if you and your girlfriend choose to pursue a relationship you will be swiftly deported. If you ever have contact with her again, if she is ever seen near your flat, if we even get a hint that the two of you might be seeing each other on the sly, you will be summarily deported to England’” James finished up with a rush of words.
I stared incredulously at him. This has to be a joke? This can’t be real; they can’t do that! Of course they can! They could detain us, and how many detained people die under mysterious circumstances? It’s amazing how slippery those prison showers are! There’s a list as long as my arm of all the people who have had ‘fatal accidents’ while under detention with the state. All this flashed through my mind. I opened my mouth to speak, closed it, and then opened it again.
“They have no right, James, no right. That’s blackmail!”
“I know, darling. But I don’t think it was an idle threat. Like I said, I think the Major is under duress from superiors.”
“What are we to do?”
“What can we do?”
“I don’t know, but there has to be something! We can’t take this lying down. Aren’t you willing to fight for this? For us?”
“Karen, I don’t know that we can. The army has the law on their side. We would be deported without even an explanation of why. We wouldn’t even have a choice of fighting this in court.”
I groaned. We had no recourse, we couldn’t appeal to the state for help; they were the ones giving us the ultimatum. James’ despairing look told the whole story.
“I’m not ready to give up that easily!” I yelled, pushing myself away from the sanctuary of James’ arms. “I’m sick of the government taking this much control. Face it James, no one is safe from their tyranny! It’s easy to look the other way when bad things happen to other people, especially those on the other side of the colour bar, but now it’s happening to us — the whites! To you, the cream of the crop. James, think about it! You had to be carefully screened to get into whatever position you are in; now even you’re not safe!”
“I know,” he whispered. “But, I’m not sure I can fight this one, Karen. If we get deported, what kind of future do we have? At least now, Major van der Merwe promised me if we follow through on this, it would not go any further.”
“How do you know he will follow through? How can you trust anything that lackey says?”
James backed away from me, putting space between us, “Because he had me sign a form this afternoon before I left. It spelt out all the stipulations I just told you. In return, they promise to expunge this from my record.”
“I see your mind is already made up. Why even bother asking me all the questions?”
“Because I needed to know for myself.” James voice pleaded.
“Well, now you know. But it doesn’t change anything for you, does it?” Even as I was saying this, I knew we couldn’t contest this. I understood that. I could see the logic of James’ decision. He had a career. Could he really jeopardize it all because of me?
“Karen, I’m sorry. But I’m in a tenuous position.”
“No kidding! What about me? What guarantees do I have?” Tears threatened to engulf me. James made a move toward me, but I put my hand up. “No, James, not now.”
“They told me if we left each other alone, they would make sure you finished your schooling and could teach in the school of your choice.”
“Aw, gee thanks. How big of them!”
“Karen!” His tone was sharp. “The schools are run by the government, they could blackball you, make sure you couldn’t get hired anywhere once you earned your degree. Now at least they’re giving you a shot at normalcy.”
“Yeah, at the expense of my conscience and all I hold dear. At the expense of our relationship; and for what? I’m simply a white kid who went to school with some Indians and blacks! I know nothing; I have no secrets and I’m no security risk. You know what — NO! Stuff them! They think I’m a security risk, I’ll make myself one!”
I stormed out of the room for the second time that night; on into the bedroom. I crawled under the bed, hauled out my overnight bag, shoved open the chest of drawers and flung my clothes and personal junk into the case, with no regard for whether items broke or not. James followed me, but leant up against the door, silently watching me, not offering to help. I gave the small room one last lingering, look, making sure I had everything. “If you find anything of mine, chuck it. I don’t need it anyway.”
I picked the bag up, slung it over my shoulder, and shoved my way past James. He grabbed my arm. I tried to wriggle free, but he had me in a firm, vice-like grip. “Karen. I truly am sorry. I love you, but I don’t see an alternative.”
“Of course you don’t.” Angry tears blinded my eyes. I stood there, not making eye contact, tense as a horse watching a snake before it strikes. James let go when I didn’t respond.
I walked down the short passageway, past the dark, bachelor kitchen with its distinctive smell of greasy chips, to the front door. I opened the door, and stood in the threshold. “James, I know they have you by the short and curlies. I don’t blame you for selling yourself out; maybe I’d do the same thing if I were in your shoes. But it hurts too much right now. You take care, all right?”
Blinking the warm tears away, I closed the door softly. The sultry summer night embraced me as I shrugged the shoulder bag higher up on my arm as the swish of moving cars zoomed by. This late at night, there wasn’t much traffic on what was normally a busy street. Fishing in my handbag, I found a few 20-cent pieces. With those in hand, I set out across the street, back to the College, and my dorm room. Tears dripped from my cheeks. I wiped them with my shirtsleeve, regaining my composure.
By the front gate of the College was a working pay phone. Digging around in my handbag, I found and opened my little address book, with its attached pen, and dialed a number I hadn’t used in three years.
“Hello, Camilla. It’s Karen here…I know, it’s been a long time…I’m doing all right. How are you…Good…Look I’ll keep this short…do you still have contact with Muhammad and his buddies…you do…great…can I get his number…uh huh, yep, got it…thanks a lot…I’ll keep in touch, I promise. I think you’ll be seeing a lot more of me now…bye.”
I replaced the phone on its cradle, pocketed the spare change, and the blue address book. Picking up my shoulder bag, I made my way to the dorm room, under the canopy of the watchful stars.
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