It was then that I awakened to the fact that Sabina wouldn’t put up with my “poor attitude”.’
‘Right, as you pointed out just now,’ says Anna.
‘Ja, as if everything in the universe came down to two categories, positive and negative, with nothing in-between. Look, I was happy to swim in the lake of love … I mean, who isn’t? But does that mean you can’t ever tread water? I like to do that, look around a bit before choosing a direction … before moving on. Why not? But when some of the work stuff came home with us, my water-treading began to drive Sabina out of her mind—’
‘Give me an example?’
‘OK , let me think … well, once we were talking about a TV game-show we were designing for a series of linked luxury brands. Viewers could make a “grab” for the goods being advertised by SMS-ing their product names, plus a special code, after a signal was given … the idea was to raise brand awareness on a big scale. But I expressed my doubts a bit too much … wasn’t it a little vulgar? Did we want our image to be linked with this kind of “grab” mentality?
‘I thought I was saying something that was quite critical … critical in the good sense, you know, part of a debate. But no. Sorry. Not the case. I quickly saw, as I felt the burn of Sabina’s blowtorch glare … God, those eyes … I saw she didn’t find this “advice” nearly as welcome as I thought she might. Maybe it was the pressure of being C EO . She had to make decisions and push on with them. She couldn’t forever be debating their merits. This game-show had already been decided. So, really, all this “wondering” about “commodity fetishism” in our branding style struck her as picky and “academic”—’
‘Yes, you do have an “academic” side sometimes, I must admit,’ Anna says, smiling.
‘It’s my conditioning, Anna. I studied hard. I got more than one degree. First I was rough and then I got smooth. I still hang around Wits seminars sometimes, at the back, like I secretly want to become a professor … but then I go home quickly before they all start saying hello and bye-bye to each other, right at the end. The rough side of me is there, under the surface. But I know a little about “sexual politics” too. I also read up sometimes about gender and so on. All that academic theory’s on the Internet, nowadays. I read. And I feel. Strongly—’
‘And it was at moments like this, when Sabina would cut the argument with a breezy “that’s it, then” … it was at times like this that I began to see how, over the past few months, I’d been checkmated, yes, checkmated … by a move called the ideology of bliss. Ha! How’s that for academic! I mean, she could boss me around at work, that was OK … but now I began to feel I was also being bossed at home. And this was harder to swallow—’
‘… I began to see, amid this … this welter of love, sex, food, drink, cigars, gifts! … I realised that this ever-so-sweet homebossing was allowed … yes, allowed … not by me, but by the new gender deal out there. Women were taking the whip-hand wherever they could. Why not? Just at that time, there was an empowerment company run by black women called Wiphold – that’s not accidental, Anna!
‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying social redress is suspect. I support equity. I agree with empowerment. In all forms. But my good PC attitudes would only push me further into the trap. She had every right to hold the whip-hand. Redress of previous wrongs! Eina! Take it like a man, boetie!
‘In the clear light of day, now, I can see I’d allowed myself to become a “kept man” – and there I was, thinking I’d made the conquest of a lifetime! Ha! A kept man who needed to toe the line … or reconsider his options. And the options, outside of Sabina’s charmed circle, didn’t look nearly so glamorous as the sumptuous life I’d been leading up on the ridge … especially now that I’d moved out of my own rented house in a lowerlying Joburg suburb—’
‘So,’ Anna rejoins, ‘you saw that you had a lot to lose if you refused to “toe the line”. What was it about this whole set-up that hooked you so deep in the first place?’
‘Jeez, it was a sweet joint, I tell you. Let me try to explain a bit, Anna. It was like a bounty. Mutiny on the Bounty! I mean, when you put love in a setting like this, everything starts to glow, like treasure. And you let go of your doubts … especially when there’s a gleam of gold – sex, connection – in the new order, this beauty you’re buying into.
‘Also, what you’re buying into, letting yourself be sold on, is a place that is suspended. Mid-air living. Here, it says, you can rest. It’s like a hammock. Here, you don’t have to make the rules (or, in this case, the money). The rules are already established, and look how solid is the castle they hold up. Look how beautiful it all is, like Sabina’s house, its layered gardens, its terraces with competing styles … thick fern growth here, clipped lines of Iceberg roses there. Phalanxes of herbs. Clumps of real bushveld. A cliff-top infinity pool—’
‘Shoo!’ exclaims Anna.
‘Shoo-wow, Anna! But there’s more: the house’s overflowing art collection marched out, almost, from a teeming interior, onto the house-wide veranda … this was a covered place of deep, cream couches … a kind of forever sundowner space.’
Anna blinks and then nods.
‘Let me describe this place a little more, so you can get a feel for what I was buying into, the seduction of it. Take, for example, the art that spills out of the house and onto the patio … a Penny Siopis or two, some Battiss, a Karel Nel, a Pierneef, a Marlene Dumas, Simon Stone, William Kentridge, Deborah Bell, you get the idea … as well as a whole lot of trendy black art, a sculpture by Lucas Sithole, even. And the interiors! The kitchen: an L-shaped space with recessed lighting and soft, peach-tinted colours. One of its walls had photographs of close-up food shots taken at a market in Dar es Salaam. On the adjacent side to this, floor-to-ceiling chicken-wire-and-plank cabinets loomed, in “distressed” style, with expensive snacks almost bulging out. And all of it was caressed, you might say, by surround-sound music filtering through, filling the air with harmony … reeling off New Age chants and meditational riffs … music that composes the soul for a higher order of life.’
‘Not bad,’ says Anna.
‘Not bad at all! For a boy from the lower suburbs, a bloody dream! And that’s not to mention her bedroom, built to create the feeling that it teeters on the edge of the ridge … creating a kind of only-just stabilised vertigo.
‘You don’t at first – especially at night – see the sloping garden before the “fall” … there’s an incline just outside the sliding glass doors, and a few metres of lawn before the edge of the hill. Then a steep drop. The feeling of being on the brink is complete. This is a bedroom in which the idea of losing yourself is all too real! I swear, there’s a full-wall mirror behind the bed. It creates a feeling, inside the room, that you’re suspended in mid-air … it’s like a mountain-top chamber from which you feel you could tumble over, in front and behind, into the speckled blackness of Joburg out there, just beyond … a falling and a falling from which you’re held back by the clench of guts and torso … the earth-magnetised hook of roaring blood and ferocious fucking, taking yourself to the literal limit, the edge, almost, of nothingness. Now that’s what I call living!’
‘OK !’ says Anna.
‘Here, here, in this place, suspended at this high point, on this bed in the middle of the semi-dark … with that golden Joburg smog-light at the edges … here your life gains weight and distinction. I mean, Anna, there you are, held in mid-air, in this bubble of luxury, on a vast white bed, anchored by your crotch. What could possibly be a better outcome for a self-improved runt from Mayfair? What more could Samuel L Baptista wish for?
‘For this environment, every detail arranged, right down to the little objets d’art that you don’t notice, they’re so artfully placed … garden nooks winking through old-fashioned window frames in the bathrooms … for this kind of class, and then, to top it all, for the promise of seduction at some point … an elevated, lifestyled kind of sexual encounter, including the promise of redeemed wildness, richly studded with power and luxury … for this, I confess, I sold my soul. To be fucked like this felt almost like being taken up by the gods—’
‘But there was a catch. Either I got reprimanded – gently, but reprimanded still – for being “negative” or “academic”, or I was expected to play the role of the white knight who unfailingly supported Sabina. I didn’t get to have bad moods because that would crack her mood. She took up all the mood space. My role, it soon became clear, was to be “there” for her, in mood-support, especially when she was troubled by work. Then my role was to listen and sympathise, to tut-tut and um and ah … give her the stage and be an attentive – a sympathetic – audience. She called this support “being there for me” … and she needed a lot of it.
‘Fine, she needed me to be there for her, and my God I was there for her a lot, almost all of the time, for God’s sake. But how was I supposed to live inside a M R . M IN can forever? Agreed, in business M R . M IN is the right guy, but there must be a time and a place for Handy Andy, too. It was beginning to feel to me like she wasn’t just saying “be positive”, or “be more practical”, or “get to the point, Sam”. No, she was actually saying, “be more like me”, “stop arguing with me”, “why must you always disagree with me?”
‘She didn’t want me to act in ways that rubbed up against her own way of doing things. This became clearer and clearer, in a hundred and one little ways: how we spent time together, the kind of things we talked about, the opinions we held on politics, people, business, art. What she was really saying was: “Why don’t you be just a little more like me, Sam? Just give an inch, for God’s sake, and then you’ll see, things will be much easier.” And she was right, things would be easier, much easier, ’cos we’d argue less, for fuck’s sake! And so, in this way, inch by inch, you start giving in, submitting to the criticism, the judgement, the disapproval. Because you need her. You need everything her approval gives you: the goodies, the nice goodies of all kinds … the feeling that you’re OK . That you’re not in the wrong. Again.’
‘Are you sure this was her agenda?’
‘Well, she wasn’t saying it in exactly these words, but that’s what it came down to, that’s exactly what it came down to … her whole attitude was saying it. That was the price of entry into her body. The price of sex.’
‘But surely it works both ways?’ Anna replies gently. ‘As you sit here, you’re talking about your own “core”, which you say Sabina was attacking, and which you didn’t want to give up, right?’
‘Yes, of course, Anna, it should work both ways. But she was the one calling the shots. I was in her house. I was little more than her guest. That’s the one thing. The other thing … the key thing … is the leverage of granting or not granting sex. Sexual love. The power and the glory. The happiness of having access to her. Access to her sweet, sexy power.
‘As you know, Anna, the world is no longer just a man’s game. Not by a long shot. The sex wars are very different from the way they played out in Mad Men on TV . A lot’s happened since the ’60 s. The Women’s Room happened. Feminism happened. “Postfeminism” happened. Opportunities for women have expanded, big time. A lot’s been written on this … the slow change in the balance of power. And I’ve read up on it, too. I’ve had reason to! Nowadays, they’re saying “gender” is a “performance” – and I agree, God, what a performance! Ja, that’s what the new “gender experts” say: everyone is performing like mad. Men and women, transvestites, queers, letties, bisexuals, the lot! And these experts, they don’t like what they call “universalising feminism” either. Or the idea of a “universal patriarchy” – in other words, that all men are bad by default because they belong to the wrong side. No. They’re saying this is an easy way out, blaming the men and feeling all self-righteous. It’s not that simple any more. But it seems like this newfangled gender theory hasn’t yet reached the hearts and minds of everyone … because there’s still a climate of opinion out there, among the educated classes, a feeling that men need to suffer a bit longer, just a little longer, for good measure—’
‘Yes, Anna! You see it everywhere! Women can call men bastards and get away with it. No one even bats an eyelid. It’s almost routine. But let a man publicly call women bitches, and see the flak he’ll pick up from the fairer sex – especially the educated class of woman …
‘In other words, Anna, I’m saying this: just like it’s more cool to reduce your carbon footprint, or to use water carefully, so it’s also more cool to say fuck you to patriarchy, and to be … how can I put it? … ever so slightly down on men. Ever so slightly, you see. That’s the hard part, for me, the “down on men” part. I support equity, but why should equity include a kick in the teeth? I vote for redress, but the problem is, who would believe me, a man, if I made that claim in public?
‘Do you see the problem, Anna? I’m a man. Who would believe me, anyway? It’s that feeling, that condition almost … you’ve lost your cred merely as a result of your so-called fucking gender. So when I was jousting with Sabina Fairbrother in our own little sex war, the war about whose table manners would win the day in whose kitchen, it wasn’t a matter of equal contenders and a neutral ref, like in boxing. Oh no. The ref – the climate of opinion out there – long ago began to fa vour women in general, as a class. I’m not talking about the hamburger-eating public here, Anna, I’m talking about the “cool” people, people with money and brains and culture, people who read the Mail & Guardian and Noseweek and the Daily Maverick—’
‘Sure, of course,’ Anna interjects.
‘But now we get to the real point, Anna. I have this determination … I will not be reformed. That’s my line. Read my lips. I
… will … not … be … reformed.’
‘What does it mean to be reformed?’ Anna asks.
‘It means to tame “inefficient” masculine energy to suit the organising will of the new woman. Animal Husbandry. Strangely, husbandry still happens … at least, it did to me … under the old courtly tradition. You serve the power of beauty. You buy flowers. You do romantic things. You get to serve beauty in the old way, but you also get to serve it in the new way. In both, the game can very easily be loaded in the woman’s favour. Basically, she gets to call the shots. Look, as a man, a partner in love, I try to be considerate, a good listener … I try to be good company. I wash the dishes, I cook, I try not to do selfish sex. I try. I talk, sympathise and share, but when it’s down to the wire, I insist: I will not be reformed.’
Facing me from her upright chair while I sit back on the sofa, exhausted now, Anna shifts the weight of her body from the one side to the other, and re-crosses her legs. ‘I want to go back a bit.
What did you feel when she told you she found your table manners, er, offensive?’
‘What did I feel? What did I feel? Jeez, Anna, that’s a big question. I was devastated. I felt like a little boy, all over again. Stripped bare. But I’d have to write a whole book to explain that feeling … hell, Anna … that’s no simple question; I don’t even know where to begin—’
‘Well, then,’ says Anna, ‘here’s what I suggest: start writing that book. You are a writer, after all.’
‘Copywriter. Couple of lines here and there … radio scripts … training manuals. Payoff lines.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Anna replies. ‘Just let it spew out. We won’t be judging it like a literary prize. The purpose is to speak your mind. Your guts. You’re good at that. No holding back. No seeking of approval, from any quarter at all … I want to see it part by part. Do you think you can do that? I am your audience. That’s the angle of your writing. Explain to me, Anna, how you came to feel what you felt at the moment she disapproved of your table manners, because clearly that was just a symptom of this disapproval thing … give me your ABC of disapproval. Make your explanation to me the centre-point of everything. Do you think you can do that?’