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What They Don’t Explain

I remember my first friend. She had clay-brown skin and straw-coloured hair coaxed into chunky plaits. Shalewa wore ribbons and her hands were clammy when we touched. Her eyes swimmy. I’m convinced she liked a white dress with grey horizontal stripes (or maybe they were vertical) and a thin red sash and, for whatever reason, many of my memories have her with her hands on her hips and her face in a smile. Playgroup but I don’t remember the group, I remember Shalewa. And the name remains one of my favourite. If I ever see fit to bear a child I’d be prepared to arm-wrestle whoever on the merits of this name.

I haven’t lost many friends. And none of those losses were to death. I admit this is a strange and moribund thing to notice (that none of your friends are dead yet) but, yes, I notice it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about what I notice but I know I can’t quite shake the weirdness of noticing such things; it’s normal to be thankful that the people you care about are still alive but it’s a bit freaky to be checking in the first place. Friends of friends have died. And once or twice removed friends (a kind of hey-hey friendship but nothing more) have died. A friend’s cousin died in a car accident on De Waal Drive. Resisting the appeal of the Grand-Prix like curves, Table Mountain egging me on and the smooth stretches, when I drive De Waal I slow down: may his death not be a waste to those of us he left living. A young boy in school took his own life, a little bird of a boy, I noticed when I saw his photograph in the school magazine commemorating him, publishing his short and cryptic (could it have been anything else?) poem.

               Of course people I’ve loved very dearly, people in my family, have passed on but that’s a different kind of loss. None of my friends have died, and I’m not dead either. Not yet anyway.

It’s a whole other scenario, though, when you lose a friend who remains living. I don’t mean that you’ve lost touch or you live far apart and so struggle to maintain the friendship and that sort of thing. I mean it really is as if you’re dead to one another (even if you live on the same street) except you are both still breathing.   There are certain things you get taught. Depending on where you live and perhaps on your various abilities, you get taught some way of communicating, maybe even several. This is important in life, that you be able to interact with others, express yourself, listen. You get numbers and letters. Things are more complex the older you become. There’s a whole world out there, stuff people did (mostly shitty stuff) and there’s apparently Geography. At some point the school takes pity on you and you’re shown a diagram of the female and male human body, with labels and scientific words you worry you might misspell if quizzed. It’s your own body with words which, if asked, you’d never have assigned to it. Things continue to get more complicated. You’re taught about the pursuit of beauty, the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of spiritual wealth.

Somewhere the world cracks open. After my first kiss I walked the streets rubbing my eyes. Everyone looked different.

Somewhere the world turns in on itself. The person (the one to whom all your love was determined to flow till death bade otherwise) is gone. Alive somewhere, just not with you.   Of all the things the most intelligent of intelligent people took the trouble to think it was important we learn, no one considered explaining about love. Sure we grazed against it in English Setwork but that is like relying on a pornographic magazine to teach you about making the beast with two backs. It is like watching a baker and thinking that sufficient to becoming one. Why would someone planning my education omit a lesson on what to do with heartache; how to know, before it’s too late, whether you’re compatible with another; how to tell the difference between love and abuse because as certain as you think you might be about it, those two masquerade each other in a turbulent and tragic dance. Maybe the makers of education rely on the guardians of the child, the parents, except they were taught the same things, they too entered adulthood unprepared and there was no global memorandum that went out saying: Okay people, we didn’t teach this in school but now going forward as you start having babies make sure you cover this stuff, here’s a working syllabus, edition 2 out soon.   None of that happened. I simply grew up and bumbled along like everyone else, like all of you, and now I’m 34. My mother was 33 when she gave birth to me, her third child. I figure I have a loving heart, I have good intentions, I am suitably kind and self-aware; my brothers as well and many many people I know. But so what? When it comes to interacting as hearts so much else seems required. So much more self-awareness, so much maturity. Opt for sex buddies, simpler than navigating intimacy. Except, my parents made it seem easy, were they just lucky? The right pattern in the sky, the right temperaments colliding. And there are countless stories of those that don’t get it right, are they just the unlucky? I don’t know. Some rely on their religion but whose version of which faith? It’s “life lessons” others say, you just have to sweat it out on the arena, no amount of preparation could make a real dent with stuff like this. It’s not, after all, like swatting for an Algebra test, it’s life, it’s the big stuff: love, compassion, generosity. And yet, a quick glance at statistics tells that the cost of learning on the job is high. I live in the world and violence is dripping from our fingertips, sweating the pavements, steaming the skies. And then tomorrow we go to school and learn the names of all the seas, the directions of the winds, the names of the planets. But no one has been charged to sit down for a double period and wonder about how to really love.

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