Gabriel

 

 

I’D HOPED Y2K would bring about the apocalypse, but here we are limping into the twenty-first century. I thought the new millennium would at least feel different. It’s been two months since the nines became zeroes, and nothing has changed. At least, not for me. Not even turning eighteen made a scrap of difference.

“…and in sports news, with two matches drawn and two in the bag, the Proteas are looking good for a test series victory when South Africa plays England at….” The radio drones on, but I tune out. We’re coming up to my corner, and my palms are sweating. It’s the same every school morning as my father makes this turn, a moment where I think If I open the door and hurl myself out onto the road, maybe the days won’t bleed into that ineluctable gray sameness. Every day I clutch the door handle, pop open the lock, and wait for that perfect moment when the inertia of the bakkie will send me hurtling across the tarmac. I imagine the pain of shredding skin and snapping bones. I imagine waking up in the hospital surrounded by concerned faces: Mom alive and at my bedside, my brother bringing me a get-well card the way he’s never bothered with a birthday card, and my father…. I imagine him apologizing. For everything.

He focuses on cricket scores and dodging potholes, not even aware of me. He changes gear, and the bakkie splutters up the hill—my moment lost. I lock the door, fiddle with my tie, and resign myself to the fact that I lack the courage to change my life.

“Please, God,” I whisper. “Please let today be different.”

 

 

Treasa

 

AS IF the fact that I love brussels sprouts isn’t evidence enough of my being an alien, there’s also the fact that no circuit board in the physics classroom works in my presence.

“Could just be the batteries,” Jordan says. She scribbles a few lines on her exam pad, finishing the circuit diagram.

“All ten of them?”

Jordan cocks her head to the right and chews on the end of her braid. “Point. Maybe there’s a problem with the crocodile clips.”

Or I’m an alien, and my intergalactic force field is messing up the current. Is there another explanation for why living in this body makes me feel so claustrophobic? My gaze strays from the struggling lightbulb on our desk to the clock on the wall. Another forty-two seconds, and the bell will ring.

“Well, it’s not rocket science, right? Connect the cells, connect the wires, and ta-dah, the bulb lights up.” Jordan finishes the diagram, writes our names across the top, and passes it forward to the teacher’s desk.

I dismantle the umpteenth circuit board that plain refuses to work if I’m within three meters of a component. The bell shrills, and we join the stampede headed for lockers in our homeroom. It takes seven minutes to pack away textbooks, sweep homework into our bags, and navigate the clogged corridor past the statue of the Virgin Mary before we escape the confines of the building. Freedom and a blast of summer heat. We’ve got twenty-three minutes to kill before choir practice, so we colonize a patch of playground shade beneath the twisted branches of a syringa tree, far away from the vicious tongues and judgmental eyes of our classmates.

“If a lourie craps on me, we’re swapping shirts.” Jordan squints in disgust at the noisy chorus in the branches and collapses in a pretzel of limbs on the grass anyway.

“That’s the tenth time we’ve had a circuit board fail.”

“Clearly, you’re an alien or a poltergeist,” she says in a conspiratorial tone.

“I think I’m a little too corporeal to be a poltergeist.”

She shrugs and stares off into the near distance in contemplation.

The day is sweltering. While the best thing about my school uniform is definitely the maroon tie, after 2:00 p.m. in the heat of late January, it feels more like a noose than an accessory. I loosen it up a little and break a rule by undoing the top button of my blouse. A breeze stirs through the grass, air-conditioning the backs of my knees. I hate having to wear a skirt, though it does make the fact that I wear boy’s boxers a little less conspicuous.

“Let’s make a list,” Jordan says. “Ten Reasons Why Treasa’s an Alien.” She scrawls across a clean page in her exam pad.

“I’m adopted with no record of my birth parents.” Which means no record of who I really am, where I’m really from. It’s so messed up that I could have siblings or cousins, that I could pass them in a shopping mall and not even know we’re related.

“You think those files getting lost in an office move was a conspiracy to cover up your extraterrestrial origins?” Jordan waggles thin brows at me.

“I’m serious, you know.”

“Okay, so, the adoption. Reason number two?” Jordan humors me.

“Those circuit boards never work when I’m around.”

“Faulty components.”

“Or I’m an alien.” Which is the real reason I battle to relate to my peers. Telling the guidance counselor I think I’m an alien would only add to my problems.

“Yes, that’s the more obvious and logical conclusion,” Jordan says.

“What about what happened last year?”

“I’m pretty sure that nurse didn’t mean anything by it.” She sighs.

“She said thirty-seven degrees was normal for a human being. She must’ve been implying something.”

“Ree, you had meningitis. I don’t think your brain was working properly.”

“Maybe, but I do like brussels sprouts.”

“And I like asparagus.” Jordan rummages through her backpack and fishes out a can of deodorant. She douses both of us in Citrus Bliss before she jumps to her feet and brushes the grass off her skirt, which is two centimeters too short to pass inspection. It’s a long, hot trek past the tennis courts to the music block.

“So maybe we’re both aliens,” I say.

Jordan spins on her heel, irritation flashing across her face. “Enough with the alien stuff, okay? So we don’t fit in, but would you really want to fit in with this lot?” She waves a hand above her head.

“I guess not.” It’s not a lie, exactly. It’s not that I want to fit in with the “in crowd” so much as I want to be comfortable in my own skin.

“Then suffice it to say we’re different. Don’t have to be from Mars for that.”

And with that, the conversation is over as Jordan changes the topic to her latest crush, Bryce Oberholzer of our fellow Catholic single-sex school, Cosmas College. I listen, smile, and nod when appropriate. Mostly I’ve tuned out, my thoughts on Project Blue Book. There’s another clue to my deep space origins. It’s got to be more than just coincidence that the main character of the TV show, who happens to be a very good-looking alien from the planet Kazar, has the same name as me. So it’s mostly just my family who calls me Resa, but still, I think the universe is trying to tell me something. I’ll ignore the fact that Resa the alien happens to be a boy.

“Did you watch last night’s episode?” I ask when Jordan runs out of ways to describe Bryce’s hotness. She’s the only other person I know who watches the series, and probably does only because of me.

“I reckon they need to give Liam St. Clare more time with his shirt off. He’s damn fine. Almost as good-looking as Bryce.”

“I’ve got new pictures to put up.” As if my room wasn’t already chockablock with pictures of Liam, aka Resa from the planet Kazar.

“You’re obsessed.”

“Totally.” There’s nothing I don’t love about Liam St. Clare, except the fact that he lives in California and is about as attainable as an A in physics, so not at all. He’s got brown hair that just reaches his eyes, a lightning-bright smile, emerald eyes, and a body so ripped—

“Urgh, just look at her.” Jordan interrupts my daydream by sticking a finger in her mouth, pretending to make herself sick. I follow her gaze to a gaggle of fellow grade tens loitering near the tuck shop. The “her” is Candyce. Not the ordinary Can-diss. No, she goes by Can-dees and woe betide anyone who dares diminish her Venus-like status by calling her Candy. She and her posse have their socks folded down past their ankles so as not to impair the tan on their freshly waxed legs stretched out beside their Wilson and Dunlop tennis rackets. Dad said he’d get me a Wilson racket if I made the team. Guess I’ll forever be the laughingstock at trials with my no-name-brand knockoff, since even the D team is reserved for those who know better than to try to catch the ball with their hands.

“Hey, Candle Sticks,” Jordan starts. “Looking good. Guess you must’ve puked up that samoosa I saw you eating at lunch.”

“Jordan, don’t,” I say under my breath. Why she has to antagonize the cool group, I don’t know. Candyce responds with her middle finger and a flick of her thick blond ponytail. Jordan and Candyce are sworn enemies, for reasons unfathomable. Apparently it has something to do with a certain boy at a grade seven social. All that happened before I joined the maroon-and-white-clad ranks at St. Bridget’s.

“Give anyone herpes today, Banana Split?” Hannah, one of Candyce’s groupies, shoots back at Jordan.

“Not yet.” Jordan smirks and saunters past them with me in tow. She never lets it show, but that everyone thinks she’s a slut does hurt her.

“They might stop calling you that if you didn’t wear black G-strings to school anymore.”

“I should be able to wear whatever the hell I want to. One time, Ree. The first and only time I slept with a boy, and now the whole school thinks I’m a walking STD.” She stomps along the pathway.

“I don’t.”

“That’s why I love you.” She loops her arm around my shoulders as we enter the choir room. We both reek of sweat and lemon deodorant. On a day when the mercury slips past thirty degrees Celsius, everyone’s going to stink by second break. The whirring ceiling fans and warm breeze wafting through the open windows do nothing to stem the flood free-flowing from every pore. When I grow up, I’m moving to Antarctica.

Jordan gives me a final squeeze before joining Sibo and the altos while I sit next to Lethi with the sopranos. Mrs. McArthur blows in with the force of a tie-dye hurricane, leaving a trail of sheet music in her wake. Grade eights scramble to catch the papers as our choir mistress takes roll call. I take the moment to ogle my choir file, plastered with magazine cutouts of Liam St. Clare, mostly as Resa, also from fashion shoots and roles in other films. The wait between episodes is physically painful. Maybe if I wrote a letter to M-Net, they’d consider airing Project Blue Book every night.

Mrs. McArthur secures her copious curls in a bun with two pencils and fans herself with music by Karl Jenkins.

“He’s late,” she says, as if we know what that means. He? The only he at St. Bridget’s is our doddery physics teacher, who is as baffled by my inability to understand vectors as I am by the effect I have on circuit boards.

Mrs. McArthur rearranges the multicolored tiers of taffeta draping her body and clucks in disapproval as the minute hand ticks past 2:30 p.m.

“Well, we’ll just have to start without him. A capella warm-ups are good for pitch control.”

She directs us through an ascending scale of “oohs” and “aahs.” As the notes spiral ever higher, the perpetual tension drains from my shoulders. When I’m singing, I’m not Treasa, I’m not a girl with braces or a freckle infestation, I’m not too short or too strange, I don’t feel trapped. I’m just a controlled diaphragm and vibrating vocal chords. And now I’m choking on the vowel sounds as Liam St. Clare walks into the music room. My heart stutters and sweat slicks my palms. Time slows down as my brain battles to process the sensory input from my eyes. I blink, but the vision remains as his long fingers brush his soft hair off a pimple-free face.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says in a voice richer and deeper than the SoCal celebrity. Still, same floppy brown hair tumbling into his eyes, same electric smile and piercing gaze. Only this boy’s wearing the charcoal pants and blue-striped tie of Stormhof High up the road. His blazer—hooked casually by one finger over his shoulder—bears the blue ribbing of academic colors, so he must be in Matric.

“Mr. du Preez, you are late.” Mrs. McArthur glares at him over her neon-pink spectacle frames.

“Sorry, ma’am. Won’t happen again,” he says with a glint in his eye.

“It surely won’t.” She gestures for him to take his seat at the piano.

“What happened to Mrs. Griswold?” Jordan asks.

“She’s not feeling very well, so while she convalesces, Gabriel du Preez has agreed to be our accompanist.”

“Why?” Jordan directs her question at Gabriel. “You trying to get out of detention?” The choir erupts in giggles.

“Actually, I’m hoping to do a teacher’s licentiate and thought this couldn’t hurt,” he says. Teacher’s licentiate—that’s bloody impressive for a guy in Matric, especially since Stormhof doesn’t even have its own music department. The giggles turn to flustered conversation, and Jordan catches my eye. She bites her bottom lip and twitches her head in Gabriel’s direction.

“Settle down, girls. He’s just a boy, you’ve seen them before, and we’ve got new repertoire to learn, so restrain yourselves, ladies.” Mrs. McArthur raps the music stand with another pencil, pulled from the stash she must keep somewhere in the folds of her skirts. Gabriel rolls up his shirtsleeves, pumps the pedal a few times, and skims the keys with a scale.

We continue with several warm-up exercises before moving on to repertoire. I can’t concentrate, can’t focus on anything but Gabriel’s fingers and the way they stroke the keys, the way the muscles in his forearms tense and shift beneath his skin, the way his shoulders bunch when he plays heavy chords.

“Treasa, less gawking at the accompanist, please,” Mrs. McArthur yells above the chorus. Lethi jabs me with her elbow, Gabriel grins, and I am mortified. There’s a conflagration of shame in both cheeks, spreading down my throat and up into my ears. The girls around me titter and stare as I try to disappear, willing a vortex of dark matter to swallow me whole.

 

 

AT 3:30, I make like a Kenyan and sprint out of the music room, hoping Mom won’t be late. I scan the parking lot for the familiar beige Toyota and see only Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs.

“You should try out for the athletics team.” Jordan strolls up behind me, tie hanging loose and shirt untucked. If a prefect sees her leaving the property like that, she’ll get detention. Again.

“I just needed some air.”

“I’m sure you did.” She grins. “Piano Boy is hot.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“Come on, Ree. You’ve got to be blind not to notice, and even a blind girl would feel the waves of hotness rolling off him.”

“You’re despicable.”

“At least I’m not in denial.” Jordan gives me a one-armed hug before traipsing toward the red convertible pulling up at the gate. “See you tomorrow.” She waves and disappears into the leather interior. Her mom gives me a brief smile before pulling off with a V8 roar.

“Treasa, right?”

Oh. My. God. He’s standing right behind me. Maybe I can pretend I didn’t hear him, pretend I’m not here. I’m such a freak.

“Treasa?” Now he’s facing me, and pretending I don’t see him would be weirder than anything else I’m likely to do. I keep my gaze on his tie. The stitching along the edge is loose, and the tie looks worn.

“Hi,” I manage to croak, praying I don’t have remnants of lunch trapped in my braces.

“Mrs. McArthur asked me to give you this.” Gabriel hands me my choir file. “You dropped it on your way out.”

With my face burning once again, I take the file and jam it into my satchel. I wonder if there’s a world in which he didn’t notice all the pictures of the celebrity who could be his twin glued onto my file.

“It’s not a bad series.”

“What?” I’m nothing if not eloquent as my gaze inches up his tie, lingering on the breadth of his shoulders.

Project Blue Book. I noticed you’re a fan.” He holds my gaze, and the intensity of his stare is unnerving. I search his face for signs of mockery and find nothing but a sly smile and bright green eyes.

“Yeah.” I can barely breathe, let alone hold a conversation with this guy.

“See you next week, Treasa.” He slips on his blazer and saunters into the parking lot to an ancient Beetle. Another guy sits in the driver’s seat, also dressed in Stormhof charcoal. Gabriel gets in, and they drive away while I’m left gawking, mortified, and wishing my alien powers were more like Resa’s. Then I’d be able to rewind time and have that conversation over, have an actual conversation and not act like I’d swallowed my tongue. Gabriel watches Project Blue Book—we could’ve talked about half a dozen things to do with the show, and I blew it, mushroom-cloud nuclear fallout blew it.

And now I’ve got an entire week to wallow in my misery, thinking about all the things I could’ve said. The French call it l’esprit d’escalier. It should be illegal to have such a beautiful name for something that makes me feel like such an idiot.