The language of bougainvillea

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“I want to show you something. It’s down there.”

“But, it’s dark down there. I can’t see anything.”

“There’s a light switch somewhere here. I’m always fumbling for it. Look at my butter fingers.”

“Can’t we go to the beach? I wanted to go to the beach, walk on the sand.”

“Maybe later. This is my man cave. No women allowed.” The man with the blue eyes laughed. He smiled at Jakes, showing his teeth, but it wasn’t a very nice smile.

“Can’t my mother come with us?”

“No, no. I’m afraid she can’t. It’s our little secret. Just keep it between us men. The fishing rods are down there.”

“You’re a lovely little boy.”

“You were right, Leo; he is a handsome little boy. A pretty little boy. Come with us. I just want to show you something in this magazine.” The other man ran his fingers through his sandy hair.

”Beautiful boy with such sad eyes. Who gave you those sad eyes?”

“Kiss me. Have you ever kissed a man on the lips? You’re not doing anything wrong if you kiss me. Go on. Put your tongue in my ear.”

“No,” came Jakes’s voice from far away. “I want my mother.”

“Well, your mother said you must be a good boy for Leo, and if you’re a very good boy, you’ll get to go fishing. Don’t you want to make your mother happy?”

“You’ll make me very happy if you kiss me, pretty boy. You know what the ladies call Leo? Playboy.”

“Playboy is my middle name. One day, the ladies will call you Playboy, too.”

“We’ll all go fishing after this. Little boys do this all the time with their uncles.”

“Do you want to be your mother’s little angel? Then, simply do everything we tell you to do. You make Leo happy, you make Christopher happy, and Leo makes your mother happy, giving in to her every command. Leo will shower mummy with gifts. She says you want piano lessons. Piano lessons cost good money. You’re not doing anything wrong. We’re not going to hurt you.”

“Her man, Lucinda’s man, had a house. In those kinds of films, the Americans call it a basement. He would take me there. Down the stairs.”

“I’m half asleep, Jakes. Did you say something?”

“No, nothing. Go back to sleep.”

She decided that when she was finished with exams, she would leave him. After his mood swings, she felt kaput. She remembered his mother’s house. How thin and fey she was. The flowery scarf with the blue flowers around her neck, her white hair regal, the rotting dishes and smells of cabbage and damp coming from the kitchen, the cats that seemed to multiply out of thin air. The house was cold, eddies of dust everywhere, but it was also a magical place. Antoinette sighed. She should never have come. Lucinda hated her on sight. Spoke only to Jakes. Ignored her. Left her alone.

This was the house where her lover had grown up. She could sense that Lucinda and Jakes had lived with both despair and hardship. All the curtains were drawn in the rooms when they arrived. The food was cold. When it arrived at the table – the cold chicken, cold potatoes and the wine – Antoinette hen-picked at it. At the table, she knew she was being observed as she ate.

But, slowly, Antoinette became more aware of Lucinda’s loveliness when younger. It was there to see in the photographs on the wall, in the albums pressed into her willing hands by Jakes. Jakes lit his mother’s cigarette. Minutes later, Lucinda could be heard banging pots in the kitchen. Antoinette looked around the room. There was no television. Only her consciousness of Lucinda’s expression when they met, and then her expressionless face when smoking.

“This one is gorgeous, Jakes.” Lucinda spoke as if Antoinette weren’t in their presence. “What does she do? Tragedy before triumph is what I always tell you. This one looks like a real gooseberry. What do you want me to say, my naughty boy? I don’t see the connection between her bright future and your literary work.”

“She wants to become a writer, Lucinda. She’s talented and very, very bright. She’ll go far.” Jakes ate the dry chicken, spearing a bite of potato with his fork with enthusiasm.

“I made your favourite, Jakes. Are you enjoying it? She’s not enjoying it.”

“Oh, Antoinette – she eats bird food and spaghetti, mostly.”

“Is she Italian or vegan, Jakes? Open that bottle for your mother; be a dear. I know you, my boy. My naughty boy. Don’t forget, before you leave, to cut back the bougainvillea.”

“Yes, of course, Lucinda. I forgot about the wine we brought with.”

“They all want to be writers or poets. How is your writing going, my son? My naughty boy who thinks his old mother is deaf. You’re such a complicated man, Jakes. My son, so complex, right?”

“I’m thinking of taking a sabbatical in the winter, Lucinda.”

Antoinette remembered the stolen kiss in Jakes’s childhood bedroom. Looking at the posters on the wall, his collection of comic books, when he was inside of her. She liked seeing him like this. Vulnerable. In front of the class, he could come off as being arrogant, jaded. But here, he was more himself. He pulled her close again, but she kept thinking of the expression on his mother Lucinda’s face.

“Did you play – the piano, I mean – when you were growing up?” Annie asked him while he looked for his shoes.

“Not for long. The lessons were expensive. There were many things I had to go without as a child.”

“You were luckier than me, Annie. You had a loving family. You had a mother and a father who adored you. My mother doesn’t play the piano. She had a lover who played the cello, once. He tried to teach me. Let’s just say he failed.” There came that same self-deprecating laugh again.

“Weren’t there other instruments?”

“No.”

“Lover, what do you write in that journal of yours; do you write about me, about us, or am I just always the protagonist of all your future tomorrows? Do you want to smoke a joint with me?”

“You’re corrupting me, Professor. Jakes, you’re pouring your spirit into me as if I were something divine or sacred. After all, you’re the teacher.”

“Annie, it’s good for you to live and to experience new things. Don’t you want life to follow you all your days? Just be confident. Show commitment when it comes to your writing. Inside of me, there’s damaged blood. Something preyed upon. You engulf me. In the cellar, there’s the noise of wailing. Of ghosts.”

“I understand, Jakes – more than you think. Don’t all poets, male or female, have this damaged blood within them?”

“Do you really understand, or are you just saying that to placate me? It’s like I’m holding a cross. I feel so exposed. You have the key to the cellar. It’s completely nightmarish down there.”

“What are you saying, Jakes? Do you want me to hold you until your view of the world changes?”

“Don’t disappear on me now, Annie. Don’t disappear.”

“I’m here. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere, Jakes.”

“I’m the alpha male. Prime rib. I’m the alpha and omega. Say it, Annie. Say I am the alpha and the omega.”

“Yes, lover. Yes. You make me bigger and bigger.”

“Jakes, I want you inside of me.”

“You’re so small. I want you open. Open for me. Spread your legs beneath me. Are you coming? Tell me I’m your fantasy, lover.”

He loved to show her newspaper clippings of his mother. Would tell her how proud his mother was of him that he had turned out a halfway-decent poet. That he had been published. A book here, a few poems there. A window was opened when his eyes were half-closed, hair unkempt; he would tell her about the men who would come to see his mother and who would leave in the morning.

Her voice was sweet. He took off his clothes, then. He still had it. He loved his muscles. His athleticism. The sound of his own voice. The groupies in his class who couldn’t take their eyes off him as he spoke about JM Coetzee. The first time he hit her was a Sunday afternoon. They had just made love furiously in the bathroom after coming back from the shops buying groceries.

“You can’t hit me, Jakes,” Antoinette said, blinking back the tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Do you forgive me; please, say you forgive me?”

“I don’t understand. Did I do or say something wrong?”

“I don’t understand, either. I just have this in me. I don’t know what to say. What do you want me to do?”

“Are you sorry? Say you’re sorry. Apologise. Be a man and apologise.”

“I’m sorry. You’d understand me better if you met my mother. Come with me next weekend. She’s directing something.”

“Please, I’m sorry. It was an accident. I won’t do it again. Are you still mad at me?”

“Come to church with me. I’ll stay with you tonight if you say you’ll come with me, and neither of us will speak of this again.”

“Do you still love me?”

“Of course I love you, Jakes. I adore you. I worship you.”

“And, you still think I’m a good poet who could be great, as opposed to being second-rate? This matters to me. Your answer matters to me.”

“Why does this matter to you so much? All of your students worship you. The guys want to be you. They hero-worship you.”

“I understand what the purities of love are, now. Respect, admiration. Having a self-concept.”

“Jakes, when I read your work, I want to understand you. I want to understand what it means to fall in love, and be in love – feel wanted, and needed, and desired.”

“I’m a failure, Annie. I’m a failure. Why do you stay with me, desire me?”

“No, no, you’re not a failure. You’re making me understand something else. My own struggles to become a writer. I must suffer for my art. I want to teach like you, Jakes, and write novels.”

“Annie, the onset of the dark days is upon me again. Your Jakes is going underground again to reunite with loneliness, belonging and longing to belong to a world that just doesn’t understand him.”

“Your writing. Your work as a poet is deeply psychological, Jakes.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t do that. Don’t be nice. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.”

“It’s therapeutic for you. The poetry. Must have been traumatic for you, not growing up with a dad.”

“I’m just an old womaniser, drinking too much for his own good.”

“Well, I think that you’re a beautiful man. Your endurance in anything strikes me as that little boy desperate for his mother’s love, through her addictions to men, her alcoholism, her own affairs with married men, and her affair with the stage. She’ll always be graceful and beautiful to you. You will always worship her. She gave you what she could. She gave you the only life she knew how to give.”

“You don’t think that I’m a coward? That my framework for writing is that it is mostly wishful thinking on my part? You’ve only seen me sober. I write when I’m sober.”

“I believe in you, Jakes. Don’t turn away from me. Let’s just forget that you hit me. Let’s press the rewind button.”

“Jakes, the walls here are mute. I’m going to take a bath. Wash my back, won’t you?”

“Don’t believe in me, lover. Love me. Worship me, but don’t believe in me.”

“Make love to me. That’s the secret to anything in life. To pretend to make it go away is to be happy, Jakes.”

“No, not like this, Annie.”

“I’m used to darkness, too.”

“Not like me. I was molested by one of the men my mother slept with. She didn’t believe me. That cellar door. You give me the key to the cellar door, and the nightmares. They’re there. Behind the door. I want to forget. Make me forget, Annie.”

“If I hit you again, then you must go, if that is what you want. Will you leave me?”

“No, Jakes. I understand you like nobody else. I’ll never leave you, Jakes. You saved me once; you’ll save me again.”

“I need to write. Stay. I want you to read what I write. I want to grow as an artist. I don’t feel I’m growing as an artist, unless someone reads my work and believes in me, Annie.”

“Share your heart with me, Jakes, for as long as you want. I’ll stay with you for as long as you want. You just need to find a balance.”

“Annie, you share your life with Christ. You have a personal relationship with God; what does that feel like? It helps you find a balance.”

It was late afternoon, and Annie’s thoughts were far away, swirling like a nimbus. Her coffee was getting cold. She was thinking of her father’s funeral. How he had died of throat cancer. How Jakes had supported her. She was also thinking that he had hit her – for the last time. She was thinking of leaving Gaborone.

Or, perhaps, teaching English overseas in Prague. She had friends who were making a success of it there. She wanted to do it right. Play open cards. She wanted to understand Jakes, the man. It was summer. Her phone was ringing. She knew it would be him. Jakes. He could mess her mind up. Make her think she was the one to blame, the one at fault. She was wearing that dress. It lit Jakes up. Made him wild.

Inside the restaurant, escaping from the heat of the day, she thought of her sad laughter as she had spoken to her mother on the telephone. Her family thought that Jakes was an upright guy, and that he was some kind of genius because he was a poet. Jakes had made her father laugh. Jakes always told her beautiful and still elegant mother that she looked like a vision. When Antoinette told Jakes she was still a virgin, he told her he would wait until she was ready. When she was ready, he was everything that she had ever wanted.

Jakes, the professor and poet. Her teacher, her lover. She was asking him a question in class. Then, there were her eyes. “Yes, Domingo.” The interaction felt metaphysical. He was attracted to her, but was she just as much attracted to him? His charm? He thought of his inner man, her sensuality, her sensual mouth, his self and ego restrained on the page. The sexuality of his female students was never lost on him.

He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was wearing leggings with ankle boots. A T-shirt. He went shopping that afternoon during his lunch period, looking for the perfect dress that would touch her ankles – button-up. After lifting the dress over her head, he would make expert love to her. He knew instinctively that he would be her first.

Cupping her small breasts in his hands. That was all he could think about for days, as he watched her walk into his class and sashay out in those red ankle boots. She was a solution taking shape. He swallowed his lust slowly. This lust seemed almost fragile to him, for the most part – vague and vain and pitiless. He had erotic dreams about her. How he would penetrate her with his mouth, his tongue, his fingers.

Antoinette Domingo was swanlike, more or less like the elegant words on his heart. Jakes, you’re the scavenger, his stage-actress mother called him. You’re never going to get married, are you, Playboy? You’re never going to give me grandchildren. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand you. Was there some traumatic incident in your childhood that I just don’t know about?

It’s maddening, the direction you’re taking with your life. These tawdry love affairs – there’s nothing romantic about them. They don’t feed you. They don’t feed your work. They feed your desires, your hunt for the beautiful. All women, all women are beautiful. I should have got a decent father for you.

Poetry, his mother had said, was like science to him. But these relationships, she never blessed them. She cooked for them. Drank the wine he brought to her table when these water nymphs came with him. You have absolutely no cognition when it comes to the female sex, Jakes. You’re a hunter. He woke up hungry after dreaming about her, his Antoinette. Dreaming that she had refused him. Refused to sleep with him, and that she had refused his advances towards her. It was always the same dream with each of his girls.

He lied to them. Told them they were the first woman ever to understand him and forgive his moods. His mother didn’t understand his attraction to them. None of them was marriage material. They were babies. How could babies have babies, edit his poems? Read them back to him with understanding? Understanding the energy behind them, the energy of the man who wrote them?

Jakes had a reputation among the staff. Watch out for him, the females would whisper. We’re too old for him, with our nude turkey necks and breasts sagging to our knees. Our wrinkles, crow’s feet, smile lines. He wants youth. No, the females would hiss, he wants his own youth back. He is a Dorian. He wants his age, which is catching up with him now, to vanish into thin air like his cigarette smoke.

“It feels as if there’s a giant hole between us. There you go. Do you feel comfortable, now? Why don’t you sit closer to me? Inch towards me, if that’s all you can do for now.”

That was the first time that Jakes had kissed Antoinette in his office. Later on, he would invite her to listen to music at his house, not far from the university. He had singled her out. She was bright, but not when it came to boys and men. Not too bright when it came to sex or making love, understanding the difference. She was the slow tortoise; he was the upper-handish hare.

And that was exactly how Jakes liked his women.

“I think that you’re very, very sexy, Antoinette. Have you ever watched porn before? Everybody watches porn. Doesn’t matter what they tell you. Do you believe me?” Antoinette nodded her head. He got the required reaction. She blushed.

“Does this mean you’re my boyfriend?”

“I guess. Does this mean you’re my girlfriend? Let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel.” Jakes stroked her fingers with his free hand. Antoinette said nothing to this. She reached for the radio’s remote and put Mahler louder, put her hand down her white panties like the brunette girl had on the film they had watched the previous Saturday. Jakes had said he wanted to go for a swim.

“Well, I don’t have a swimsuit,” Antoinette had said shyly.

“Well, we don’t need them, do we? We can just go skinny-dipping.” He stroked her arm. “Come. Don’t make me beg, Annie. Or, let’s take a shower together. You’ll feel braver.”

“Let’s stay here, Jakes. Make love to me, Jakes.”

“Are you ready? I don’t want you to say I raped you.”

“Why would I do that, Jakes? I love you.”

“Yes, I suppose you do think that you love me. Love must count for something. Love heals; isn’t that why you’re in my life?”

“I’m in love with you, Jakes.”

“Where are you?” Antoinette tried to remain composed at the sound of his voice. “Lover, you’re my cocaine.”

“Lover?” she repeated. “Lover, where are you? Lover, you’re my cocaine? Where do you think I am? I needed to think, Jakes. I just needed to get away from the situation. I needed space.”

“I’ll come and get you. Just tell me where you are, and I’ll come and get you. We need to talk about this. Talk it out.”

“And then what, Jakes, and then what? Then, you’ll grow vertebra, a spine, a brain that has a spark of life,” she thought to herself.

“Give me a chance to explain.”

“This is a parental relationship. I am tired of this.”

“Don’t, Annie.”

“Please understand what you’re putting me through.”

“Don’t. Please, don’t beg. It’s beneath you, Jakes. I don’t have the time for this. I’m worn out with the energy it takes to live with you. Can you understand that? Do you know what you’re asking of me? Do you know what you’re asking me to do? You’re a parenthesis. “I saved you.”

“No, no, no. You didn’t save me, Jakes.”

“You were lost until I found you. I gave you a life. I gave you a life to live. I gave you the best of me.”

“The best of you hurts me, Jakes.”

“Annie, your looks can only take you so far.”

“God, you’re really going to go there.”

“You’re pushing me. Do you want to push me over the edge? You know what happens when you do that.”

His car was parked at the curb when she walked out of the restaurant they had often come to together in happier times. Antoinette got in. They drove to the sea. Jakes said nothing. The Scandinavian music group A-ha was playing in the background. She looked out the window, staring at billboards advertising Budweiser, butter and a revival meeting at Victory Ministries. There was a happy couple gazing adoringly at each other, eating supper with their children. That could be me, Antoinette thought to herself.

“Show. Show me. That’s right, like that. Come on. Make me come, Annie. You’re a beautiful girl. Head down. On your knees. That’s it. That’s it. Nice and easy. Nice and slow. You know how to make me come on strong. You know how to make me come gentle. Gosh, you’re beautiful. You’re my girl. You’re my girl. That’s it. That was nice, Annie. You’re my good girl. You inspire me.”

“You’re a mind-bender, Annie. I don’t know you. Can’t understand you, but I know that you’re my girl. You’re my life, now. You must meet my mother. My mother will fall in love with you. You’re kind of voluptuous, like her. Like she was back in the day. Her heyday. She was a real Lady Macbeth, if you want to know. For the longest time in my youth, she was kind of my best friend. Do you think that’s strange? An adolescent boy in love with his mother. Best friends with his mother.”

She remembered the woman’s loopy handwriting, the scratchy bougainvillea, Lucinda kissing Jakes, holding onto him as if she would never let him go, waving goodbye. Walking around his mother’s house, which smelled of cat pee. Seeing glimpses of Jakes as a boy. Hating seeing him like that. He was so invisible, unsmiling in the photographs, his eyes large and vacant.

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