by Stan Galloway
He wasn’t sure what had led him here. He knew only that he had to get away from Cape Town, from the campus, from the Aquarium, from the flat, from everything that reminded him of her: Ingrid. He had driven the old Citroen mechanically, turning on whims, and hours later sat on the rocky beach looking south where he knew Antarctica lay 7,000 kilometers away, in its safe stability of ice. A stability he coveted just now.
“I’m going back to Musina,” she had said. Her words had been soft and normal, as if one said that sort of thing every day. But they cracked like a tectonic fault through Fritz’s abdomen, like a melon bursting open on impact with the earth.
She was at the sink, her back to him, washing her breakfast things, and he watched her buttocks flex and unflex while he finished his rusk and tea. They were both naked. They always were, inside the flat. That was one of the things that had made moving in together so comfortable, the body confidence they had with each other, never preening and posing nor covering and hiding, just being.
“But you hate it there,” Fritz managed to say, calmer than he expected, in the echo of his internal shouting. To her, she had told him once, it was his irritating way of asking her why, without a question.
She set her teacup in the drainer to dry and turned to face him. She ran her hands along the countertop to each side and leaned back slightly beside the sink. He could see her hands were red and chapped, and for the first time he saw her eyes were red as well.
“I do,” she said, without anger. “But at least I know what to expect.”
“But not here.”
“No, Fritz. No. One day you are roses and sunshine, and the next I find thorns in a dark well. It’s like Jekyll and Hyde, except you don’t imagine anything has changed. I need to go before one day, one of us wakes up beside a corpse.”
“My God, Ingrid! You don’t mean that.”
She averted her eyes from him to the small kitchen window. “I do.” The words were hardly audible but Fritz saw her lips and knew the words with scarce a sound.
“I know I’ve been” – he stumbled, editing the more condemnatory words that first came to mind – “inattentive during exams, but they’re over now. We’ve got a month, just ourselves.”
“It’s not the exams. It’s you.” She knotted her hands over her abdomen. “When you are good, you’re very good. But other times, it’s like I’m no more to you than a cat, or worse, the litter box.”
“I have loved you,” he began.
“You have. I’m not denying that. But your love is like this spigot,” she continued, tapping the sink, “on or off, with me never knowing which it will be.”
“I can do better.”
“Maybe you can, but I’m not the one for you to experiment on. I can’t take the emotional toutrek any longer. When you go to the Aquarium, I’ll get my things together. There’s a bus at 3, so I’ll be gone when you get home. I thought it better that I told you, instead of you coming home to some hasty note propped on the table.”
Fritz just stared, and Ingrid shrugged and walked to the bedroom. Fritz followed her and stood in the doorway.
“You’ve told your parents you’re coming.”
“No. I’ll cross that barbed wire when I have to. It will be all right, though. I know where to hold on and where not to.”
“With them but not with me.”
“I shouldn’t have to with you. Lovers and barbed wire don’t go together.”
She had already begun pushing things into bags. Fritz watched her bending and stuffing, and he couldn’t speak, like his car’s gearshift jammed in neutral, rev all he could inside, no words would move. He pulled on some board shorts and a tee shirt, grabbed sneakers and carried them to the car.
He hadn’t gone to the aquarium for his volunteer shift. Someone else could give his tours. He’d just started the car and let it lead him . . . here.
The water was soothing in its way, tension being released every ten seconds by the shush and slump of waves. He watched a knot of driftwood tangled in a fragment of torn net riding on the surface about twenty meters from him, down and up, seeming to make no progress, content to stay in the same place, as if unable to reach the currents below. Fritz watched it for a quarter of an hour, going nowhere.
For a tourist spot, there weren’t many people. Another kilometer or two would put him at the southernmost tip of the continent. The car looked safe enough where it was, so Fritz began to walk along the water’s edge, carrying his shoes. This was a welcome change from the bustle of downtown, or even the clots of people on campus where he tutored and took classes in physics and biology. The only chatter was seabirds and the only jostle was the wind.
After a short ways the sand gave way to rocks. The exposed quartzite lay, and stood, cross-bedding in tortured twists, the way his stomach had felt from the moment Ingrid had delivered her news. He sat on an outcrop and looked over the water again. A black oystercatcher sailed overhead and eyed him, safe but wary. He, Fritz, was the interloper, didn’t belong here, not the way the bird did, and he knew it. Something in the bird’s look reminded him of the way Ingrid had looked at him the night before. It wasn’t fear or even curiosity.
They had gone to dinner to celebrate the end of exams. Then at home they had made love, at least to Fritz it had been making love. He wondered now about Ingrid, what it had been to her. When she had gone to pee afterward, he had noticed her standing in the doorway looking at him. Through the post-coital haze, Fritz had thought nothing of it other than the security of being loved. He strained his vision to see her face again, inside his head. Yes, in the doorway looking toward him, she had a wariness, unidentified until now. She was not afraid of him at that moment, but she was on guard in case he changed. In case he changed. She had been looking for it.
The wind shifted and Fritz rubbed at his exposed arms. The car was no longer in sight but farther down the beach there was a small building. He walked that direction, slipping his shoes back on. As he drew near, he saw it was a coffee shop and decided to warm up before returning to the Citroen.
The woman at the counter greeted him warmly but impersonally. She was a white woman in her fifties, he guessed, once-dark hair streaked with grey. She was a large woman with a smile that smelled of habit. The place was otherwise empty.
She brought him his coffee. “Here on a getaway?”
Fritz looked at her and wondered why that word. Holiday, he expected, or, less likely, vacation. There was something cosmically deliberate, and sharp, in the word.
“You aren’t Cassandra, are you?”
“Nee. Don’t know Cassandra. People round here call me Tannie Lyndall.”
He looked at the cup and felt its heat radiating from the ceramic. He realized he was holding his breath and let the air out slowly.
“Truthfully, I don’t know why I’m here.” He wondered why he had said it, but now that it was in the air, he admitted his floundering. It wasn’t like him to just blow off everything, to run away, to get away.
The woman looked at him quizzically. And after a moment, she said, “At least you’re honest.”
“I know plenty of people who would deny that.” He thought of Ingrid. She hadn’t said it in so many words, but it was the same. And it hurt. “Bitch,” he said. Then looking at the woman, corrected it to Afrikaans, “Teef!”
He drained his coffee down, scalding his throat, threw 30 rand on the counter, and stalked out the door.
The Citroen was in sight before he realized that Tannie Lyndall had no way of knowing he wasn’t talking to her, about her. He drove back to the coffee shop and went in. The woman smiled again with her mouth, but her eyes were much darker toward him. There were still no other customers.
“Will you accept my apology – verskoning?” he began. “I wasn’t referring to you. My girlfriend – damesvriend – told me this morning she was leaving.”
“I speak English fine. You don’t need translation,” replied Tannie Lyndall. “I understand. That is too bad.”
Fritz sat down again. He found something comfortable in the clipped way she spoke to him. “I didn’t intend on going anywhere, just got in the car and drove.”
“Cape Town. I’m a student there.”
“And you go back tonight? Find her there. Find her gone.”
“I can’t. She’ll be gone for sure, and I can’t endure the empty place where she was.”
“Then you want a room? I know all the places here.”
For the first time, Fritz thought how ill-prepared he was. He had some money but not enough to live the tourist life. “I don’t think I can afford a room. I didn’t think this through.”
“You go back. You stay here. You go somewhere else. Only opsies.”
Fritz looked at her. For the simplicity of her statements, she had a very good grasp on human nature. “Yes, those are the only options.”
“If you were robber or murderer, would you tell me?”
Fritz’s eyes grew wide. “I’m neither,” he said.
“Your tongue, I don’t know. Your eyes tell me true. One night, you stay here. I have a bed for break room, but my helper gone two weeks now. You stay here. Tomorrow you decide what to do.”
“I couldn’t,” Fritz said weakly, but his heart thought a night away from the place of Ingrid’s desertion would do him good.
“Again, your tongue and your eyes don’t talk to each other. You stay. I take all the money with me when I go. You eat and drink what you need, but you clean up for yourself. I open 5 a.m. for the fishermen. Time for me to close now.”
She led him to a small room and then showed him the toilet.
“Prove me right,” she said, as she opened the door to leave him. It had gotten dark. She turned off the front lights, leaving Fritz questioning the bizarre turn of events. Ingrid who had lived with him for seven months didn’t trust him, but this woman who knew him only twenty minutes did.
He had some tea and biscuits. The choice of items was small, but it was acceptable for one evening. He didn’t feel like eating much.
In the morning, Tannie Lyndall offered him a second night in return for watching the shop while she ran some errands. The third day she gave him a half-shift – four hours – and directions to a one-room fisherman’s hut about 4 kilometers away. She had arranged it for him in lieu of pay. She gave him a set of sheets for the single bed. There were no other furnishings. It was not a long-term solution, but it gave him time to hide or search, as he chose. He had mornings to himself. Tannie Lyndall seemed to thrive on pre-dawn jawing with the regulars. He worked 11-3, when the largest crowds were on hand. There were a few sandwich items along with the baked goods. Fritz didn’t know where she got them, doubted she made them herself, but each day there was new stock and usually not the same thing.
The first night in the hut he slept poorly, learning the sounds, the smells, even the ancient salt taste in the air, different than the air at the Harbour. Sometime after the sun rose, he opened his eyes to face a gecko, mid-floor, staring back: he, Fritz, the tresspasser, again.
“Good morning,” Fritz said, without moving his body.
The gecko blinked, but held its ground.
“Bibron’s gecko,” Fritz said, after a moment studying the little beast, “named for French herpetologist Gabriel Bibron.” He could see the words in his mind from something he had read. The species was common in South Africa. “Can I call you Gabe?”
In answer, the gecko moved a step to the side but maintained its gaze.
“Gabe it is.”
Fritz sat up on the bed and Gabe scurried to the far wall, perching two-thirds up. Fritz pulled from the floor the shirt he’d worn for three days now. He’d need another, at least to wear in the coffee shop. This one was beginning to smell. He remembered a little souvenir shop farther on, in L’Agulhas, and decided to walk there and get a shirt before work. He knew it would be an overpriced tourist tee, but what it lacked in style, it made up for in convenience. He would wear it only for work and do without on his own time.
Fritz spent the mornings on the beach, exploring one direction or the other, timing his wanderings to be at the coffee shop for his shift, then he would wander back after, carrying away a sandwich or something for his supper. This saved his petrol as well.
Day Six was when it happened. After his shift, he hung his work shirt in the break room and went to the rocks to watch the water. An old black man joined him, Pap, whom he had talked with a couple of times over his coffee.
“She beautiful,” Pap said, “but dangerous. Never know her. Always watch.”
Fritz knew he was talking about the ocean. He had visited a wreck one day on his beach-combing, and had read stories of other ships that had trusted too much. A ship called the Joanna and another, Our Lady of Miracles, were two of them. The prow of the Meisho Maru 38 had been forlorn in the surf where he watched it serve as a bird shitting pedestal. He imagined it was named Ingrid, other times he imagined it named Fritz, or sometimes both. For the petrels, gulls, and cormorants, names didn’t matter.
“You see water?” Pap pointed. “One side darker.”
Fritz looked and saw a distinct line. It could have been a shadow from a cloud, but the sky was clear. He nodded.
“Deep underneath. Two oceans.” He rotated his hands in a buffing motion. “Always fighting. Pushing today here, tomorrow, other side of Struisbaai, next, no one can guess.”
Fritz nodded, half listening. What he heard was Ingrid’s voice.
“Last week, whales.” Pap pointed left, middle, and right. “Mating done now. Too late.”
Pap walked on down the beach, until apparition-like, he disappeared.
Jekyll and Hyde, she’d called him, two natures inside one man. He recalled his outburst the day he’d first met Tannie Lyndall. His mind drifted.
“You said you’d bring home some Chicken Licken,” Ingrid said, slipping off the maid’s uniform she despised. Undressing the moment the flat door closed was a comfortable habit for both of them.
“How can you forget? It’s right on your route home.”
“I was thinking about my exam tomorrow.”
“If you had let me know,” she said, holding up her phone, “I could have done it. Now one of us will have to go back out.”
“We can just have something here,” Fritz said, barely glancing up from his textbook.
Ingrid stood beside him and took one hand in hers. “Hey,” she said softly, rubbing his hand against her skin to get his attention. “There is nothing here. We had the last ramen yesterday.”
“I don’t have time to eat,” Fritz said, pulling his hand back, his voice louder than he realized. “You want to eat, go get it.”
She had said nothing. Just dressed and left. Fritz didn’t know how long she was out. He was still studying when she returned, but they didn’t talk. She’d just gone to bed without a word, and he, later, fell asleep at the desk.
Fritz had known she was upset but he needed to focus. His need, her need, roiling against each other. And he had done nothing, as well as everything.
At the hut, just about sundown, Fritz sat on the bed and looked at Gabe gawking at him from near the thatch. “You think I’m the wild one, don’t you?” he said. “Maybe I am.” He began to recall dozens of insensitivities and supposed for every one that he could remember there had likely been ten others. He thought about driving back to Cape Town in the night. The flat was still there, and the rent was due in a few days. His tutoring check should be in the mail. And then he wondered if Ingrid needed him to forward her last paycheck, or how she had made arrangements to quit her work at the hotel. He thought about how both of them had assumed others would create order from their irresponsibilities. He wouldn’t abandon Tannie Lyndall, though. He’d talk to her, make an exit plan rather than leave her guessing.
He drove to the coffee shop the next morning, taking the sheets with him.
“Early,” Tannie Lyndall said as he entered. She saw the sheets in his arms. “You need washing?”
“Yes, Tannie Lyndall. I also need to go back to Cape Town.”
Her face wrinkled in a way that he couldn’t interpret. “You last three days more than I think. You leave me now?”
“I’ll work my shift today if you need me to. I know you expected me to be here.”
“Expect. Get. Often not the same.”
“Sheets in the break room. Take your shirt.” She was smiling, not to be rid of Fritz, he could tell, but because she believed he’d found his answer, or at least the next step toward it.
As he started the drive north, a movement caught his eye out to sea – the breach of a whale breaking up from beneath the surface, going his direction. Fritz raised his arm toward it, pointing in kinship. He called out the passenger window: “Godspeed.”
Stan Galloway teaches writing and literature at Bridgewater College in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where he hosts the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. He has also written a book of literary criticism, The Teenage Tarzan, and a book of poetry, Just Married.