Between life and death, I choose life. A straight forward choice, you might think, if you are talking about your own life. But there may be times, say when talking about someone else’s life, when you would choose death instead. Perhaps when a spouse has changed over the years from a hero to a tormentor or when the person in front of you is driving slow in the fast lane. What of a loyal dog that has seen you mature but has over the same time aged to the point of constant and crippling pain? And then, coming back to your sweet self, there might very well be times when you want to die a little, now, so that you may live better, later.
“You know, the problem with her is she chooses death.” I said to Laurence once to describe a friend of ours who took work seriously and thought highly of herself.
He didn’t seem to me all that impressed with the idea and he was always quick to brush off my comment on the choices between life and death as just another inappropriate remark. I wouldn’t be surprised if, the first time he heard me classify someone this way, his assessment of me, for he had known me long enough then to judge, was that I had always scored much better at the living than at the dying. Furthermore, since Laurence has a great capacity for insight, he could also see that I thought that he was scoring far too well on the dying and was so scant on the living as to be pronounced dead (Years later a doctor would beg him to take a break from work to allow the ulcer in his oesophagus to heal).
When we were undergraduates Laurence seemed to me like someone who showed potential to be a great friend if he wasn’t so often sick or busy or, more often than not, both. He was a scarce creature on the campus who had a surfeit of courses on his plate, from Economics to Greek Philosophy, and, when you did cross paths with him, could pull out a display of funny and clever despite the sniffling, from allergies and hypochondria, and the fact that he had two exams on that very afternoon. Later, over a summer in Switzerland, after the friendship potential had come to fruition, he would walk to the flat from the tram swinging his briefcase in the late European dusk after spending many hours toiling away towards a venerable distant goal it would take him hours more still to help me understand. In London Laurence spent so much time at the office over the week and the weekend I had began to think of it as deliberate abrogation of the friendship. But then Timira, who had moved into the house with us, had a greater claim to insult since it was with him she shared a bed, but only in the sense that she was asleep in it when he came home and when he left in the morning.
But I never said to his face that he had chosen death. It would have been an unfair thing to say since in many ways Laurence embraced life, and perhaps too readily so. On a night when he pulled himself away from the office earlier than he would have liked, risking, in his mind, his job with the firm, he would throw himself at the clubs of the West End with admirable debauchery. Every attractive woman had their fair share of his opening line until he met someone who would respond to his daredevil disregard for his own shame and, to my utter astonishment, come good once in a while with a girl he had never met before. Though to be honest, black educated girls got more than their fair share of his attention to the extent that in one club, crowded with what must have been every black South African girl in a ten kilometre radius of Stratford, on one of the few times I had the temerity to respond to a pair of eye balls being tossed in my direction, I found that she was already acquainted with Laurence. No indeed Laurence lived alright, he lived in an urgent hurry as if to try and make up for the great stretches of death he covered from one week to the next.
In the end, the contrast between my living and Laurence’s dying became more than I could bare. I had become envious of his death and quite ashamed of my living. Besides, Timira had finally landed on her feet and no longer spent the evening sitting around with me waiting for Laurence to come home. I returned to South Africa and found, after a few months of mixing and matching, myself with a woman who wanted nothing more than for me to live with me even though, out her own need to do some well spent dying, she lives on the other side of the country and only sees me once a month.
And then Mike arrived. I had just hopped off the bus onto the university campus, on my daily route to the office, with my carefully chosen playlist in my ears, when I found Mike casually talking to a young physicist who was so dedicated to his discipline he hardly noticed me when I washed up on the fringes of their conversation. Mike had come to do a two month visit to the Physics department, as he has done for a number of years now, working on, well, something to do with static states and energy. The career physicist aside, it was a bit of an awkward reunion. Mike and I, although we have known each other for years, always had an interlocutor between us; a little dark hairy girl who, to escape the myopia of her family and the surrounding ghetto, had travelled to various parts of western Eurasia and settled on a Scottish lilt to add to her Durban-Indian model C school accent. An opinionated girl, who could not stand to hear other people state their opinions, she had always found safety in Mike’s unassuming ways and marijuana chilled past times more often that she had been entertained by my endless string of gaffes in the crowds of clever people I deliberately collected around me as if I was determined to prove that I was completely immune to public embarrassment, although really she knew me well enough to know that I was naive enough to not fully grasp the depth of my worldly ignorance. After developing a natural revulsion for her supervisor and work colleagues the girl with cabbage patch toes left for the land of free opinions, to live with her long time partner and long time classmate who she had avoided showing public affection since the beginning of their relationship. Without the usual buffer between us, Mike and I were exposed to each other’s company to an unprecedented degree, and had to learn each other anew as I included Mike in the weekly activities of midweek drinks, Friday drinks and weekend braai’s.
With another spring sweeping across the peninsula and the students showing a renewed interest in their courses for the final year exams, Mike, who had minimal teaching duties, and even less research commitments, since he was still in the honeymoon period of post PhD bliss, phoned me up for coffee or lunch every day of the week. It was not that I was busy, for indeed I too had relatively few teaching commitments then, but rather that Mike had even less regard for his responsibilities in the office than I did. Being the youngest person in my office, working part time and being an amorphous outlandish creature that makes no claims on the direction of his career and future, I had been compelled to cultivate an image of myself as someone with boundless enthusiasm and innovation to reform or transform past any obstacle in the hope that I may be viewed by the unit, at some time in the future, as indispensible and eventually absorbed as a genuine member of the team. This did not square so well with a long lunch that Mike insisted on that and stretched from noon until well into the afternoon. Neither did spending money on campus fast food when I ought to be saving for the pending unemployment that will sweep my way when my student status in the country expires and the Home Affairs office continues to bungle my work permit application so that, as a temp employee, the university will be obliged to not renew my contract. But Mike, sensitive and generous as he is, insisted on paying for every cup of coffee and boerewors roll, so that it was only after a brief scuffle that I could put my money ahead of his and pay for the odd meal against his will. But every time the phone rang and I answered to Mike’s German inflected English pronounce comically one well enunciated word, “lunch”, I worried about the degree of my paunch and how much less enthusiastically my patron and lover would grope my naked body on her monthly visits to our house.
On the first warm day of summer, after I had I walked the length of my somnambulist suburb, to the penumbra of its shade and watered lawns, to take a look at the towns most insignificant people walk twenty five kilometres along the north-south axis road of the city, and cheer on my near obese friends who had briefly taken a break from their cars in Johannesburg for a spurt of exercise, Mike phoned me up and asked if I would like to go to the beach. In truth it was a perfect day. Adventure was an unnecessary whim that would only mar its promise of blissful sunny nothingness, with the wind relatively mild and the weeds beautiful with their colourful flowers poking out from the cracks in the pavement. There would have been nothing wrong with saying “Mike, I appreciate your offer to drive me about the town and buy me ice cream, but not today thanks.” But then it seemed to me at that point that all my life’s worth of dying had been a largely forgettable investment that had come to less than naught and would be all the more regrettable if I didn’t take my ever dwindling opportunities at living.
When Mike caught up with me, after the fat city slickers had pulled me along with them up the main road by half a dozen kilometres and deposited me in a portion of the urban landscape that is halfway between roman villas and ugly city flats, conveniently close to a garden supermarket, where I was shopping for the genitalia that connect pipes and hosepipes, he had with him a freckled Spaniard driving a cream middle eighties era large Mercedes Benz, the standard issue for European tourists. On the way to the obscure beach I had never heard of before, we had stopped for petrol and water, neither of which I paid for, though I did contribute to the trip by pulling my foot off the clutch just when the German, Spaniard and the petrol attendant had huffed their best pushing at the rear. The beach was beyond the urban sprawl, round many corners of mountain slope and ocean view, in a hoek so brief you would miss it if you didn’t notice the cars conspicuously parked alongside the bushes. The natural inhabitants of this sandy idyll were all so dreadfully beautiful, judging from the ripples of the muscle down their front and the well portioned fat on their bums, that the two foreigners and the one African knew not to take off their t-shirts until it was absolutely necessary. The waves, speckled with dark spots of paddling and intrepid surfers, were gorgeously large and crashed with an almighty boom that ought to have been the soundtrack to the pending doom if wasn’t for the distraction of God’s most carefully crafted creatures and their determination to act cool in the face of their riotous display of sexual talent.
The water was disarmingly cold once it went over your ankles, a cruel joke when it washed up against your testicles, but from then on a welcome joy. Mike and I, playing like children for once, without the need of a common friend to cross-relate us, took to diving under the big waves, or just being smacked head on by the force of it to our squeals of laughter and surprise at the indomitable force of a large body of water, while the freckled Spaniard held back with a caution that I guess had accumulated with age. After a short break, when we dehydrated over some very plain sandwiches, we returned for what was supposed to be one last, brief splash before we moved on to our afternoon beer at any odd pub by the bay. But once again, the pleasure of a simple game was so seductive and delicious that I could not help but laugh and laugh at the simple fun of it until salt water was in my lungs and my eyes stung. That was until the ground had mysteriously shifted from under me and I was no longer facing the waves from the security of two well planted feet but rather from the uncertain dog paddle that constitutes my act of swimming while the waves continued to crash over me. The panic that followed was as genuine as the danger I had just then perceived and the only thing I wanted at that moment was a hero to take me in one easy move to dry and steady safety. Mike, by proximity was the chosen hero, and one good look at my face was enough to wipe the smile off of his. He reached out to me with his hand, like in a painting by Michelangelo, and I returned the gesture as I continued to be drowned, one wave at a time. “Dive,” Mike said, as he coached me in the proceeding and final act of my first life, in the pause just before yet another wave swallowed us in a maelstrom that made all swimming impossible. The strength in me had been spent in the foolish game and then the panic, and no amount of diving, or flailing against a current that seemed to be pulling us out, was having any discernable effect. Perhaps a sliver of determination to live came into me when Mike, with his own look of death, said “help me,” and I realised that it was not just my own foolishness that was at hand but a more general form of malady threatening us both. We called for help to the other men playing with the waves, standing only at an incredible ten metres away from us, on their own feet, but they could not hear us drowning in the roar of crashing water. It felt like a very foolish way to die.
The thought came to mind then that all the dying I had put into harassing the Home Affairs office into paying attention to my neglected work permit application had been a colossal waste of life. And then the waves miraculously stopped. Mike and I ran onto the beach, hand in hand, paunch and all, in front of the beautiful people, intoxicated with the sweet joy life, breath by breath, and laughed again, but not until we were well out and onto the hot dry sand. The planned for beers were upgraded into a full scale sea food platter and I happily paid my share.
When the standard issue Mercedes dropped me off home that evening, and the first sunset of my second life was all about me in wonderful mixture of warm and cool colours, I went into the backyard to complete my hosepipe genital project from my previous life and was surprised to see a continuous stream of sea water pour out of my face onto the under kept lawn when I bent over. That put paid to any notion that Mike and I had exaggerated the gravity of that brief situation we were both in.
That night I phoned the woman of my house, in her Johannesburg apartment, and admitted that I had been somewhat careless with her investment in me, since like the sea water, some things are better out than in. At work the next day, all my colleagues were obliged to express relief at my escape, and some went on to point out that I was in fact at one of the city’s most notoriously dangerous beaches where friends of their own had perished. Mike and I told the story, that now connects us like an old sordid lover affair, to our Wednesday drinks, Friday drinks and weekend braai company and I even went so far as to inform the opinionated common friend in the USA. And yet, all too frequently, it still feels as if death has become my new imaginary friend, keeping a few paces behind me, just to make sure I’m ok. Maybe what I should do is ring Laurence’s mother for his number in New York and ask him how he is getting on.