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[3 of 5] Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Part II, Chapters 9-14, by Trevor Noah (2019)

Author: Trevor Noah

“Part 2, Chapters 9 - 14.” Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah, Spiegel & Grau, 2019.


When Dutch colonists landed at the southern tip of Africa over three hundred years ago, they encountered an indigenous people known as the Khoisan. The Khoisan are the Native Americans of South Africa, a lost tribe of bushmen, nomadic hunter-gatherers distinct from the darker, Bantu-speaking peoples who later migrated south to become the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho tribes of modern South Africa. While settling in Cape Town and the surrounding frontier, the white colonists had their way with the Khoisan women, and the first mixed people of South Africa were born.

To work the colonists’ farms, slaves were soon imported from different corners of the Dutch empire, from West Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies. The slaves and the Khoisan intermarried, and the white colonists continued to dip in and take their liberties, and over time the Khoisan all but disappeared from South Africa. While most were killed off through disease, famine, and war, the rest of their bloodline was bred out of existence, mixed in with the descendants of whites and slaves to form an entirely new race of people: coloreds. Colored people are a hybrid, a complete mix. Some are light and some are dark. Some have Asian features, some have white features, some have black features. It’s not uncommon for a colored man and a colored woman to have a child that looks nothing like either parent.

The curse that colored people carry is having no clearly defined heritage to go back to. If they trace their lineage back far enough, at a certain point it splits into white and native and a tangled web of “other.” Since their native mothers are gone, their strongest affinity has always been with their white fathers, the Afrikaners. Most colored people don’t speak African languages. They speak Afrikaans. Their religion, their institutions, all of the things that shaped their culture came from Afrikaners.

The history of colored people in South Africa is, in this respect, worse than the history of black people in South Africa. For all that black people have suffered, they know who they are. Colored people don’t.


At the end of our street in Eden Park, right in a bend at the top of the road, stood a giant mulberry tree growing out of someone’s front yard. Every year when it bore fruit the neighborhood kids would go and pick berries from it, eating as many as they could and filling up bags to take home. They would all play under the tree together. I had to play under the tree by myself. I didn’t have any friends in Eden Park.

I was the anomaly wherever we lived. In Hillbrow, we lived in a white area, and nobody looked like me. In Soweto, we lived in a black area, and nobody looked like me. Eden Park was a colored area. In Eden Park, everyone looked like me, but we couldn’t have been more different. It was the biggest mindfuck I’ve ever experienced.

The animosity I felt from the colored people I encountered growing up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It taught me that it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider. If a white guy chooses to immerse himself in hip-hop culture and only hang out with black people, black people will say, “Cool, white guy. Do what you need to do.” If a black guy chooses to button up his blackness to live among white people and play lots of golf, white people will say, “Fine. I like Brian. He’s safe.” But try being a black person who immerses himself in white culture while still living in the black community. Try being a white person who adopts the trappings of black culture while still living in the white community. You will face more hate and ridicule and ostracism than you can even begin to fathom. People are willing to accept you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive. That is what happened to me in Eden Park.

When apartheid came, colored people defied easy categorization, so the system used them—quite brilliantly—to sow confusion, hatred, and mistrust. For the purposes of the state, colored people became the almost-whites. They were second-class citizens, denied the rights of white people but given special privileges that black people didn’t have, just to keep them holding out for more. Afrikaners used to call them amperbaas: “the almost-boss.” The almost-master. “You’re almost there. You’re so close. You’re this close to being white. Pity your grandfather couldn’t keep his hands off the chocolate, eh? But it’s not your fault you’re colored, so keep trying. Because if you work hard enough you can erase this taint from your bloodline. Keep on marrying lighter and whiter and don’t touch the chocolate and maybe, maybe, someday, if you’re lucky, you can become white.”

Which seems ridiculous, but it would happen. Every year under apartheid, some colored people would get promoted to white. It wasn’t a myth; it was real. People could submit applications to the government. Your hair might become straight enough, your skin might become light enough, your accent might become polished enough—and you’d be reclassified as white. All you had to do was denounce your people, denounce your history, and leave your darker-skinned friends and family behind.

The legal definition of a white person under apartheid was “one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person.” It was completely arbitrary, in other words. That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekbones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed.

And colored people didn’t just get promoted to white. Sometimes colored people became Indian. Sometimes Indian people became colored. Sometimes blacks were promoted to colored, and sometimes coloreds were demoted to black. And of course whites could be demoted to colored as well. That was key. Those mixed bloodlines were always lurking, waiting to peek out, and fear of losing their status kept white people in line. If two white parents had a child and the government decided that child was too dark, even if both parents produced documentation proving they were white, the child could be classified as colored, and the family had to make a decision. Do they give up their white status to go and live as colored people in a colored area? Or would they split up, the mother taking the colored child to live in the ghetto while the father stayed white to make a living to support them?

Many colored people lived in this limbo, a true purgatory, always yearning for the white fathers who disowned them, and they could be horribly racist to one another as a result. The most common colored slur was boesman. “Bushman.” “Bushie.” Because it called out their blackness, their primitiveness. The worst way to insult a colored person was to infer that they were in some way black. One of

the most sinister things about apartheid was that it taught colored people that it was black people who were holding them back. Apartheid said that the only reason colored people couldn’t have first-class status was because black people might use coloredness to sneak past the gates to enjoy the benefits of whiteness.

That’s what apartheid did: It convinced every group that it was because of the other race that they didn’t get into the club. It’s basically the bouncer at the door telling you, “We can’t let you in because of your friend Darren and his ugly shoes.” So you look at Darren and say, “Screw you, Black Darren. You’re holding me back.” Then when Darren goes up, the bouncer says, “No, it’s actually your friend Sizwe and his weird hair.” So Darren says, “Screw you, Sizwe,” and now everyone hates everyone. But the truth is that none of you were ever getting into that club.

Colored people had it rough. Imagine: You’ve been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. You’ve spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think you’re closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Don’t swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden it’s Planet of the Apes, and the monkeys have taken over.

So you can imagine how weird it was for me. I was mixed but not colored—colored by complexion but not by culture. Because of that I was seen as a colored person who didn’t want to be colored.

In Eden Park, I encountered two types of colored people. Some colored people hated me because of my blackness. My hair was curly and I was proud of my Afro. I spoke African languages and loved speaking them. People would hear me speaking Xhosa or Zulu and they’d say, “Wat is jy? ’n Boesman?” “What are you, a Bushman?” Why are you trying to be black? Why do you speak that click-click language? Look at your light skin. You’re almost there and you’re throwing it away.

Other colored people hated me because of my whiteness. Even though I identified as being black, I had a white father. I went to an English private school. I’d learned to get along with white people at church. I could speak perfect English, and I barely spoke Afrikaans, the language colored people were supposed to speak. So colored people thought that I thought I was better than them. They would mock my accent, like I was putting on airs. “Dink jy, jy is grênd?” “You think you’re high class?”—uppity, people would say in America.

Even when I thought I was liked, I wasn’t. One year I got a brand-new bike during the summer holidays. My cousin Mlungisi and I were taking turns riding around the block. I was riding up our street when this cute colored girl came out to the road and stopped me. She smiled and waved to me sweetly. “Hey,” she said, “can I ride your bike?”

I was completely shocked. Oh, wow, I thought, I made a friend. “Yeah, of course,” I said.

I got off and she got on and rode about twenty or thirty feet. Some random older kid came running up to the street, she stopped and got off, and he climbed on and rode away. I was so happy that a girl had spoken to me that it didn’t fully sink in that they’d stolen my bicycle. I ran back home, smiling and skipping along. My cousin asked where the bicycle was. I told him.

“Trevor, you’ve been robbed,” he said. “Why didn’t you chase them?” “I thought they were being nice. I thought I’d made a friend.”

Mlungisi was older, my protector. He ran off and found the kids, and thirty minutes later he came back with my bike.

Things like that happened a lot. I was bullied all the time. The incident at the mulberry tree was probably the worst of them. Late one afternoon I was playing by myself like I always did, running around the neighborhood. This group of five or six colored boys was up the street picking berries off the mulberry tree and eating them. I went over and started picking some to take home for myself. The boys were a few years older than me, around twelve or thirteen. They didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. They were speaking to one another in Afrikaans, and I could understand what they were saying. Then one of them, this kid who was the ringleader of the group, walked over. “Mag ek jou moerbeie sien?” “Can I see your mulberries?” My first thought, again, was, Oh, cool. I made a friend. I held up my hand and showed him my mulberries. Then he knocked them out of my hand and smushed them into the ground. The other kids started laughing. I stood there and looked at him a moment. By that point I’d developed thick skin. I was used to being bullied. I shrugged it off and went back to picking berries.

Clearly not getting the reaction he wanted, this kid started cursing me out. “Fok weg, jou onnosele Boesman!” “Get the fuck out of here! Go away, you stupid Bushie! Bushman!” I ignored him and went on about my business. Then I felt a splat! on the back of my head. He’d hit me with a mulberry. It wasn’t painful, just startling. I turned to look at him and, splat!, he hit me again, right in my face.

Then, in a split second, before I could even react, all of these kids started pelting me with berries, pelting the shit out of me. Some of the berries weren’t ripe, and they stung like rocks. I tried to cover my face with my hands, but there was a barrage coming at me from all sides. They were laughing and pelting me and calling me names. “Bushie! Bushman!” I was terrified. Just the suddenness of it, I didn’t know what to do. I started crying, and I ran. I ran for my life, all the way back down the road to our house.

When I ran inside I looked like I’d been beaten to a pulp because I was bawling my eyes out and was covered in red-purple berry juice. My mother looked at me, horrified.

“What happened?”

In between sobs I told her the story. “These kids…the mulberry tree…they threw berries at me…” When I finished, she burst out laughing. “It’s not funny!” I said.

“No, no, Trevor,” she said. “I’m not laughing because it’s funny. I’m laughing out of relief. I thought you’d been beaten up. I thought this was blood. I’m laughing because it’s only berry juice.”

My mom thought everything was funny. There was no subject too dark or too painful for her to tackle with humor. “Look on the bright side,” she said, laughing and pointing to the half of me covered in dark berry juice. “Now you really are half black and half white.”

“It’s not funny!”

“Trevor, you’re okay,” she said. “Go and wash up. You’re not hurt. You’re hurt emotionally. But you’re not hurt.”

Half an hour later, Abel showed up. At that point Abel was still my mom’s boyfriend. He wasn’t trying to be my father or even a stepfather, really. He was more like a big brother than anything. He’d joke around with me, have fun. I didn’t know him that well, but one thing I did know about him was that he had a temper. Very charming when he wanted to be, incredibly funny, but fuck he could be mean. He’d grown up in the homelands, where you had to fight to survive. Abel was big, too, around six-foot-three, long and lean. He hadn’t hit my mom yet. He hadn’t hit me yet, either. But I knew he was dangerous. I’d seen it. Someone would cut us off in traffic. Abel would yell out the window. The other guy would honk and yell back. In a flash Abel would be out of our car, over to theirs, grabbing the guy through the driver’s-side window, screaming in his face, raising a fist. You’d see the other guy panic. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

When Abel walked in that night, he sat down on the couch and saw that I’d been crying.

“What happened?” he said.

I started to explain. My mother cut me off. “Don’t tell him,” she said. She knew what would happen. She knew better than me.

“Don’t tell me what?” Abel said. “It’s nothing,” she said.

“It’s not nothing,” I said.

She glared at me. “Don’t tell him.”

Abel was getting frustrated. “What? Don’t tell me what?”

He’d been drinking; he never came home from work sober, and the drinking always made his temper worse. It was strange, but in that moment I realized that if I said the right things I could get him to step in and do something. We were almost family, and I knew if I made him feel like his family had been insulted, he’d help me get back at the boys. I knew he had a demon inside him, and I hated that; it terrified me how violent and dangerous he was when he snapped. But in that moment I knew exactly what I had to say to get the monster on my side.

I told him the story, the names they called me, the way they attacked me. My mother kept laughing it off, telling me to get over it, that it was kids being kids, no big deal. She was trying to defuse the situation, but I couldn’t see that. I was just mad at her. “You think it’s a joke, but it’s not funny! It’s not funny!”

Abel wasn’t laughing. As I told him what the bullies had done, I could see the anger building up inside him. With Abel’s anger, there was no ranting and raving, no clenched fists. He sat there on the couch listening to me, not saying a word. Then, very calm and deliberate, he stood up.

“Take me to these boys,” he said.

Yes, I thought, this is it. Big brother is going to get my revenge for me.

We got into his car and drove up the road, stopping a few houses down from the tree. It was dark now except for the light from the streetlamps, but we could see the boys were still there, playing under the tree. I pointed to the ringleader. “That one. He was the main one.” Abel slammed his foot on the gas and shot up onto the grass and straight toward the bottom of the tree. He jumped out. I jumped out. As soon as the kids saw me they knew exactly what was happening. They scattered and ran like hell.

Abel was quick. Good Lord, he was fast. The ringleader had made a dash for it and was trying to climb over a wall. Abel grabbed him, pulled him down, and dragged him back. Then he stripped a branch off the tree, a switch, and started whipping him. He whipped the shit out of him, and I loved it. I have never enjoyed anything as much as I enjoyed that moment. Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst.

Then there was the strangest moment where it flipped. I caught a glimpse of the look of terror in the boy’s face, and I realized that Abel had gone past getting revenge for me. He wasn’t doing this to teach the kid a lesson. He was just beating him. He was a grown man venting his rage on a twelve-year-old boy. In an instant I went from Yes, I got my revenge to No, no, no. Too much. Too much. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Dear God, what have I done?

Once this kid was beat to shit, Abel dragged him over to the car and held him up in front of me. “Say you’re sorry.” The kid was whimpering, trembling. He looked me in the eye, and I had never seen fear in someone’s eyes like I saw in his. He’d been beaten by a stranger in a way I don’t think he’d ever been beaten before. He said he was sorry, but it was like his apology wasn’t for what he’d done to me.

It was like he was sorry for every bad thing he’d ever done in his life, because he didn’t know there could be a punishment like this.

Looking in that boy’s eyes, I realized how much he and I had in common. He was a kid. I was a kid. He was crying. I was crying. He was a colored boy in South Africa, taught how to hate and how to hate himself. Who had bullied him that he needed to bully me? He’d made me feel fear, and to get my revenge I’d unleashed my own hell on his world. But I knew I’d done a terrible thing.

Once the kid apologized, Abel shoved him away and kicked him. “Go.” The kid ran off, and we drove back to the house in silence. At home Abel and my mom got in a huge fight. She was always on him about his temper. “You can’t go around hitting other people’s children! You’re not the law! This anger, this is no way to live!”

A couple of hours later this kid’s dad drove over to our house to confront Abel. Abel went out to the gate, and I watched from inside the house. By that point Abel was truly drunk. This kid’s dad had no idea what he was walking into. He was some mild-mannered, middle-aged guy. I don’t remember much about him, because I was watching Abel the whole time. I never took my eyes off him. I knew that’s where the danger was.

Abel didn’t have a gun yet; he bought that later. But Abel didn’t need a gun to put the fear of God in you. I watched as he got right in this guy’s face. I couldn’t hear what the other man was saying, but I heard Abel. “Don’t fuck with me. I will kill you.” The guy turned quickly and got back in his car and drove away. He thought he was coming to defend the honor of his family. He left happy to escape with his life.

When I was growing up, my mom spent a lot of time trying to teach me about women. She was always giving me lessons, little talks, pieces of advice. It was never a full-blown, sit-down lecture about relationships. It was more like tidbits along the way. And I never understood why, because I was a kid. The only women in my life were my mom and my grandmother and my aunt and my cousin. I had no love interest whatsoever, yet my mom insisted. She would go off on a whole range of things.

“Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.”

“Trevor, make sure your woman is the woman in your life. Don’t be one of these men who makes his wife compete with his mother. A man with a wife cannot be beholden to his mother.”

The smallest thing could prompt her. I’d walk through the house on the way to my room and say, “Hey, Mom” without glancing up. She’d say, “No, Trevor! You look at me. You acknowledge me. Show me that I exist to you, because the way you treat me is the way you will treat your woman. Women like to be noticed. Come and acknowledge me and let me know that you see me. Don’t just see me when you need something.”

These little lessons were always about grown-up relationships, funnily enough. She was so preoccupied with teaching me how to be a man that she never taught me how to be a boy. How to talk to a girl or pass a girl a note in class—there was none of that. She only told me about adult things. She would even lecture me about sex. As I was a kid, that would get very awkward.

“Trevor, don’t forget: You’re having sex with a woman in her mind before you’re having sex with her in her vagina.”

“Trevor, foreplay begins during the day. It doesn’t begin in the bedroom.” I’d be like, “What? What is foreplay? What does that even mean?”


It was my first year at H. A. Jack, the primary school I transferred to after leaving Maryvale. Valentine’s Day was approaching fast. I was twelve years old, and I’d never done Valentine’s Day before. We didn’t celebrate it in Catholic school. I understood Valentine’s Day, as a concept. The naked baby shoots you with an arrow and you fall in love. I got that part. But this was my first time being introduced to it as an activity. At H. A. Jack, Valentine’s Day was used as a fundraiser. Pupils were going around selling flowers and cards, and I had to go ask a friend what was happening.

“What is this?” I said. “What are we doing?”

“Oh, you know,” she said, “it’s Valentine’s Day. You pick a special person and you tell them that you love them, and they love you back.”

Wow, I thought, that seems intense. But I hadn’t been shot by Cupid’s arrow, and I didn’t know of anyone getting shot on my behalf. I had no clue what was going on. All week, the girls in school kept saying, “Who’s your valentine? Who’s your valentine?” I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Finally one of the girls, a white girl, said, “You should ask Maylene.” The other kids agreed. “Yes, Maylene. You should definitely ask Maylene. You have to ask Maylene. You guys are perfect for each other.”

Maylene was a girl I used to walk home from school with. We lived in the city now, me, my mom and Abel, who was now my stepfather, and my new baby brother, Andrew. We’d sold our house in Eden Park to invest in Abel’s new garage. Then that fell apart, and we ended up moving to a neighborhood called Highlands North, a thirty-minute walk from H. A. Jack. A group of us would leave school together every afternoon, each kid peeling off and going their separate way when we reached their house. Maylene and I lived the farthest, so we’d always be the last two. We’d walk together until we got where we needed to go, and then we’d part ways.

Maylene was cool. She was good at tennis, smart, cute. I liked her. I didn’t have a crush on her; I wasn’t even thinking about girls that way yet. I just liked hanging out with her. Maylene was also the only colored girl in school. I was the only mixed kid in school. We were the only two people who looked like each other.

The white girls were insistent about me asking Maylene to be my valentine. They were like, “Trevor, you have to ask her. You’re the only two. It’s your responsibility.” It was like our species was going to die out if we didn’t mate and carry on. Which I’ve learned in life is something that white people do without even realizing it. “You two look the same, therefore we must arrange for you to have sex.”

I honestly hadn’t thought of asking Maylene, but when the girls brought it up, that thing happened where someone plants the idea in your head and it changes your perception.

“Maylene’s totally got a thing for you.” Does she?”

“Yeah, you guys are great together!” Are we?”


“Well, okay. If you say so.”

I liked Maylene as much as I liked anyone, I suppose. Mostly I think I liked the idea of being liked. I decided I’d ask her to be my valentine, but I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t know the first thing about having a girlfriend. I had to be taught the whole love bureaucracy of the school. There was the thing where you don’t actually talk straight to the person. You have your group of friends and she has her group of friends, and your group of friends has to go to her group of friends and say, “Okay, Trevor likes Maylene. He wants her to be his valentine. We’re in favor. We’re ready to sign off with your approval.” Her friends say, “Okay. Sounds good. We have to run it by Maylene.” They go to Maylene. They consult. They tell her what they think. “Trevor says he likes you. We’re in favor. We think you’d be good together. What do you say?” Maylene says, “I like Trevor.” They say, “Okay. Let’s move forward.” They come back to us. “Maylene says she approves and she’s waiting for Trevor’s Valentine’s Day advance.”

The girls told me this process was what needed to happen. I said, “Cool. Let’s do it.” The friends sorted it out, Maylene got on board, and I was all set.

The week before Valentine’s, Maylene and I were walking home together, and I was trying to get up the courage to ask her. I was so nervous. I’d never done anything like it. I already knew the answer; her friends had told me she’d say yes. It’s like being in Congress. You know you have the votes before you go to the floor, but it’s still difficult because anything could happen. I didn’t know how to do it, all I knew was I wanted it to be perfect, so I waited until we were standing outside McDonald’s. Then I mustered up all of my courage and turned to her.

“Hey, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I was wondering, would you be my valentine?”

“Yes. I’ll be your valentine.”

And then, under the golden arches, we kissed. It was my first time ever kissing a girl. It was just a peck, our lips touched for only a few seconds, but it set off explosions in my head. Yes! Oh, yes. This. I don’t know what this is, but I like it. Something had awakened. And it was right outside McDonald’s, so it was extra special.

Now I was truly excited. I had a valentine. I had a girlfriend. I spent the whole week thinking about Maylene, wanting to make her Valentine’s Day as memorable as I could. I saved up my pocket money and bought her flowers and a teddy bear and a card. I wrote a poem with her name in the card, which was really hard because there aren’t many good words that rhyme with Maylene. (Machine? Ravine? Sardine?) Then the big day came. I got my Valentine’s card and the flowers and the teddy bear and got them ready and took them to school. I was the happiest boy on earth.

The teachers had set aside a period before recess for everyone to exchange valentines. There was a corridor outside our classrooms where I knew Maylene would be, and I waited for her there. All around me, love was in bloom. Boys and girls exchanging cards and gifts, laughing and giggling and stealing kisses. I waited and waited. Finally Maylene showed up and walked over to me. I was about to say “Happy Valentine’s Day!” when she stopped me and said, “Oh, hi, Trevor. Um, listen, I can’t be your girlfriend anymore. Lorenzo asked me to be his valentine and I can’t have two valentines, so I’m his girlfriend now and not yours.”

She said it so matter-of-factly that I had no idea how to process it. This was my first time having a girlfriend, so at first I thought, Huh, maybe this is just how it goes.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well, um…happy Valentine’s Day.”

I held out the card and the flowers and the teddy bear. She took them and said thanks, and she was gone.

I felt like someone had taken a gun and shot holes in every part of me. But at the same time some part of me said, “Well, this makes sense.” Lorenzo was everything I wasn’t. He was popular. He was white. He’d upset the balance of everything by asking out the only colored girl in school. Girls loved him, and he was dumb as rocks. A nice guy, but kind of a bad boy. Girls did his homework for him; he was that guy. He was really good-looking, too. It was like when he was creating his character he traded in all his intelligence points for beauty points. I stood no chance.

As devastated as I was, I understood why Maylene made the choice that she did. I would have picked Lorenzo over me, too. All the other kids were running up and down the corridors and out on the playground, laughing and smiling with their red and pink cards and flowers, and I went back to the classroom and sat by myself and waited for the bell to ring.

Petrol for the car, like food, was an expense we could not avoid, but my mom could get more mileage out of a tank of petrol than any human who has ever been on a road in the history of automobiles. She knew every trick. Driving around Johannesburg in our rusty old Volkswagen, every time she stopped in traffic, she’d turn off the car. Then the traffic would start and she’d turn the car on again. That stop-start technology that they use in hybrid cars now? That was my mom. She was a hybrid car before hybrid cars came out. She was the master of coasting. She knew every downhill between work and school, between school and home. She knew exactly where the gradient shifted to put it into neutral. She could time the traffic lights so we could coast through intersections without using the brakes or losing momentum.

There were times when we would be in traffic and we had so little money for petrol that I would have to push the car. If we were stuck in gridlock, my mom would turn the car off and it was my job to get out and push it forward six inches at a time. People would pitch up and offer to help.

“Are you stuck?” “Nope. We’re fine.” “You sure?” “Yep.”

“Can we help you?” “Nope.”

“Do you need a tow?”

And what do you say? The truth? “Thanks, but we’re just so poor my mom makes her kid push the car”?

That was some of the most embarrassing shit in my life, pushing the car to school like the fucking Flintstones. Because the other kids were coming in on that same road to go to school. I’d take my blazer off so that no one could tell what school I went to, and I would bury my head and push the car, hoping no one would recognize me.


After finishing primary school at H. A. Jack, I started grade eight at Sandringham High School. Even after apartheid, most black people still lived in the townships and the areas formerly designated as homelands, where the only available government schools were the broken remnants of the Bantu system. Wealthy white kids—along with the few black people and colored people and Indians who had money or could get scholarships—were holed up in private schools, which were super-expensive but virtually guaranteed entry into university. Sandringham was what we call a Model C school, which meant it was a mix of government and private, similar to charter schools in America. The place was huge, a thousand kids on sprawling grounds with tennis courts, sports fields, and a swimming pool.

Being a Model C school and not a government school, Sandringham drew kids from all over, making it a near-perfect microcosm of post-apartheid South Africa as a whole—a perfect example of what South Africa has the potential to be. We had rich white kids, a bunch of middle-class white kids, and some working-class white kids. We had black kids who were newly rich, black kids who were middle-class, and black kids from the townships. We had colored kids and Indian kids, and even a handful of Chinese kids, too. The pupils were as integrated as they could be given that apartheid had just ended. At H. A. Jack, race was broken up into blocks. Sandringham was more like a spectrum.

South African schools don’t have cafeterias. At Sandringham we’d buy our lunch at what we call the tuck shop, a little canteen, and then have free rein to go wherever we wanted on the school grounds to eat—the quad, the courtyard, the playground, wherever. Kids would break off and cluster into their cliques and groups. People were still grouped by color in most cases, but you could see how they all blended and shaded into one another. The kids who played soccer were mostly black. The kids who played tennis were mostly white. The kids who played cricket were a mix. The Chinese kids would hang out next to the prefab buildings. The matrics, what South Africans call seniors, would hang out on the quad. The popular, pretty girls would hang out over here, and computer geeks would hang out over there. To the extent that the groupings were racial, it was because of the ways race overlapped class and geography out in the real world. Suburban kids hung out with suburban kids. Township kids hung out with township kids.

At break, as the only mixed kid out of a thousand, I faced the same predicament I had on the playground at H. A. Jack: Where was I supposed to go? Even with so many different groups to choose from, I wasn’t a natural constituent of any particular one. I obviously wasn’t Indian or Chinese. The colored kids would shit on me all the time for being too black. So I wasn’t welcome there. As always, I was adept enough with white kids not to get bullied by them, but the white kids were always going shopping, going to the movies, going on trips— things that required money. We didn’t have any money, so I was out of the mix there, too. The group I felt the most affinity for was the poor black kids. I hung out with them and got along with them, but most of them took minibuses to school from way out in the townships, from Soweto, from Tembisa, from Alexandra. They rode to school as friends and went home as friends. They had their own groups. Weekends and school holidays, they were hanging out with one another and I couldn’t visit. Soweto was a forty-minute drive from my house. We didn’t have money for petrol. After school I was on my own. Weekends I was on my own. Ever the outsider, I created my own strange little world. I did it out of necessity. I needed a way to fit in. I also needed money, a way to buy the same snacks and do the things that the other kids were doing. Which is how I became the tuck-shop guy.

Thanks to my long walk to school, I was late every single day. I’d have to stop off in the prefect’s office to write my name down for detention. I was the patron saint of detention. Already late, I’d run to join my morning classes—math, English, biology, whatever. The last period before break was assembly. The pupils would come together in the assembly hall, each grade seated row by row, and the teachers and the prefects would get up onstage and go over the business of what was happening in the school—announcements, awards, that sort of thing. The names of the kids with detention were announced at every assembly, and I was always one of them. Always. Every single day. It was a running joke. The prefect would say, “Detentions for today…” and I would stand up automatically. It was like the Oscars and I was Meryl Streep. There was one time I stood up and then the prefect named the five people and I wasn’t one of them. Everyone burst out laughing. Somebody yelled out, “Where’s Trevor?!” The prefect looked at the paper and shook his head. “Nope.” The entire hall erupted with cheers and applause. “Yay!!!!”

Then, immediately after assembly, there would be a race to the tuck shop because the queue to buy food was so long. Every minute you spent in the queue was working against your break time. The sooner you got your food, the longer you had to eat, play a game of soccer, or hang out. Also, if you got there late, the best food was gone.

Two things were true about me at that age. One, I was still the fastest kid in school. And two, I had no pride. The second we were dismissed from assembly I would run like a bat out of hell to the tuck shop so I could be the first one there. I was always first in line. I became notorious for being that guy, so much so that people started coming up to me in line. “Hey, can you buy this for me?” Which would piss off the kids behind me because it was basically cutting the line. So people started approaching me during assembly. They’d say, “Hey, I’ve got ten rand. If you buy my food for me, I’ll give you two.” That’s when I learned: time is money. I realized people would pay me to buy their food because I was willing to run for it. I started telling everyone at assembly, “Place your orders. Give me a list of what you want, give me a percentage of what you’re going to spend, and I’ll buy your food for you.”

I was an overnight success. Fat guys were my number-one customers. They loved food, but couldn’t run. I had all these rich, fat white kids who were like, “This is fantastic! My parents spoil me, I’ve got money, and now I’ve got a way I can get food without having to work for it—and I still get my break.” I had so many customers I was turning kids away. I had a rule: I would take five orders a day, high bidders only. I’d make so much that I could buy my lunch using other kids’ money and keep the lunch money my mom gave me for pocket cash. Then I could afford to catch a bus home instead of walking or save up to buy whatever. Every day I’d take orders, assembly would end, and I’d make my mad dash and buy everybody’s hot dogs and Cokes and muffins. If you paid me extra you could even tell me where you’d be and I’d deliver it to you.

I’d found my niche. Since I belonged to no group I learned to move seamlessly between groups. I floated. I was a chameleon, still, a cultural chameleon. I learned how to blend. I could play sports with the jocks. I could talk computers with the nerds. I could jump in the circle and dance with the township kids. I popped around to everyone, working, chatting, telling jokes, making deliveries.

I was like a weed dealer, but of food. The weed guy is always welcome at the party. He’s not a part of the circle, but he’s invited into the circle temporarily because of what he can offer. That’s who I was. Always an outsider. As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible. Or you can go the other way. You protect yourself by opening up. You don’t ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that you’re willing to share. For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing. I’d drop in, pass out the snacks, tell a few jokes. I’d perform for them. I’d catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.

I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.


In high school, the attention of girls was not an affliction I suffered from. I wasn’t the hot guy in class. I wasn’t even the cute guy in class. I was ugly. Puberty was not kind to me. My acne was so bad that people used to ask what was wrong with me, like I’d had an allergic reaction to something. It was the kind of acne that qualifies as a medical condition. Acne vulgaris, the doctor called it. We’re not talking about pimples, kids. We’re talking pustules—big, pus-filled blackheads and whiteheads. They started on my forehead, spread down the sides of my face, and covered my cheeks and neck and ravaged me everywhere.

Being poor didn’t help. Not only could I not afford a decent haircut, leaving me with a huge, unruly Afro, but my mother also used to get angry at the fact that I grew out of my school uniforms too fast, so to save money she started buying my clothes three sizes too big. My blazer was too long and my pants were too baggy and my shoes flopped around. I was a clown. And of course, Murphy’s Law, the year my mom started buying my clothes too big was the year that I stopped growing. So now I was never going to grow into my clown clothes and I was stuck being a clown. The only thing I had going for me was the fact that I was tall, but even there I was gangly and awkward-looking. Duck feet. High ass. Nothing worked.

After suffering my Valentine’s Day heartbreak at the hands of Maylene and the handsome, charming Lorenzo, I learned a valuable lesson about dating. What I learned was that cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls. I was not a cool guy; therefore I did not have girls. I understood that formula very quickly and I knew my place. I didn’t ask girls out. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t even try.

For me to try to get a girl would have upset the natural order of things. Part of my success as the tuck-shop guy was that I was welcome everywhere, and I was welcome everywhere because I was nobody. I was the acne-ridden clown with duck feet in floppy shoes. I wasn’t a threat to the guys. I wasn’t a threat to the girls. The minute I became somebody, I risked no longer being welcomed as nobody. The pretty girls were already spoken for. The popular guys had staked their claim. They would say, “I like Zuleika,” and you knew that meant if you tried anything with Zuleika there’d be a fight. In the interest of survival, the smart move was to stay on the fringe, stay out of trouble.

At Sandringham, the only time girls in class looked at me was when they wanted me to pass a letter to the hot guy in class. But there was one girl I knew named Johanna. Johanna and I had been at the same school intermittently our whole lives. We were in preschool at Maryvale together. Then she left and went to another school. Then we were in primary school at H. A. Jack together. Then she left and went to another school. Then finally we were at Sandringham together. Because of that we became friends.

Johanna was one of the popular girls. Her best friend was Zaheera. Johanna was beautiful. Zaheera was stunning. Zaheera was colored, Cape Malay. She looked like Salma Hayek. Johanna was out and about and kissing boys, so the guys were all into her. Zaheera, as beautiful as she was, was extremely shy, so there weren’t as many guys after her.

Johanna and Zaheera were always together. They were one grade below me, but in terms of popularity they were three grades above me. Still I got to hang out with them because I knew Johanna and we had this thing from being in different schools together. Dating girls may have been out of the question for me, but talking to them was not, because I could make them laugh. Human beings like to laugh, and lucky for me pretty girls are human beings. So I could relate to them in that way, but never in the other way. I knew this because whenever they stopped laughing at my jokes and stories they’d say, “So how do you think I can get Daniel to ask me out?” I always had a clear idea of where I stood.

Outwardly, I had carefully cultivated my status as the funny, nonthreatening guy, but secretly I had the hugest crush on Zaheera. She was so pretty and so funny. We’d hang out and have great conversations. I thought about her constantly, but for the life of me I never considered myself worthy of dating her. I told myself, I’m going to have a crush on her forever, and that’s all that’s ever going to happen.

At a certain point I decided to map out a strategy. I decided I’d be best friends with Zaheera and stay friends with her long enough to ask her to the matric dance, what we call our senior prom. Mind you, we were in grade nine at this point. The matric dance was three years away. But I decided to play the long game. I was like, Yep, just gonna take my time. Because that’s what happens in the movies, right? I’d seen my American high school movies. You hang around long enough as the friendly good guy and the girl dates a bunch of handsome jerks, and then one day she turns around and goes, “Oh, it’s you. It was always you. You’re the guy I was supposed to be with all along.”

That was my plan. It was foolproof.

I hung out with Zaheera every chance I got. We’d talk about boys, which ones she liked and which ones liked her. I’d give her advice. At one point she got set up with this guy Gary. They started dating. Gary was in the popular group but kind of shy and Zaheera was in the popular group but kind of shy, so his friends and her friends set them up together, like an arranged marriage. But Zaheera didn’t like Gary at all. She told me. We talked about everything.

One day, I don’t know how, but I plucked up the courage to ask Zaheera for her phone number, which was a big deal back then because it wasn’t like cellphone numbers where everybody has everyone’s number for texting and everything. This was the landline. To her house. Where her parents might answer. We were talking one afternoon at school and I asked, “Can I get your phone number? Maybe I can call you and we can talk at home sometime.” She said yes, and my mind exploded.

What???!!!! A girl is giving me her phone number???!!! This is insane!!! What do I do??!! I was so nervous. I’ll never forget her telling me the digits one by one as I wrote them down, trying to keep my hand from shaking. We said goodbye and went our separate ways to class, and I was like, Okay, Trevor. Play it cool. Don’t call her right away. I called her that night. At seven. She’d given me her number at two. That was me being cool. Dude, don’t call her at five. That’s too obvious. Call her at seven.

I phoned her house that night. Her mom answered. I said, “May I speak to Zaheera, please?” Her mom called her, and she came to the phone and we talked. For like an hour. After that we started talking more, at school, on the phone. I never told her how I felt. Never made a move. Nothing. I was always too scared.

Zaheera and Gary broke up. Then they got back together. Then they broke up. Then they got back together. They kissed once, but she didn’t like it, so they never kissed again. Then they broke up for real. I bided my time through it all. I watched Popular Gary go down in flames, and I was still the good friend. Yep, the plan is working. Matric dance, here we come. Only two and a half years to go…

Then we had the mid-year school holidays. The day we came back, Zaheera wasn’t at school. Then she wasn’t at school the next day. Then she wasn’t at school the day after that. Eventually I went and tracked down Johanna on the quad.

“Hey, where’s Zaheera?” I said. “She hasn’t been around for a while. Is she sick?”

“No,” she said. “Didn’t anyone tell you? She left the school. She doesn’t go here anymore.”

“What?” “Yeah, she left.”

My first thought was, Wow, okay. That’s news. I should give her a call to catch up.

“What school did she move to?” I asked.

“She didn’t. Her dad got a job in America. During the break they moved there. They’ve emigrated.”


“Yeah. She’s gone. She was such a good friend, too. I’m really sad. Are you as sad as I am?”

“Uh…yeah,” I said, still trying to process everything. “I liked Zaheera. She was really cool.”

“Yeah, she was super sad, too, because she had such a huge crush on you. She was always waiting for you to ask her out. Okay, I gotta go to class! Bye!”

She ran off and left me standing there, stunned. She’d hit me with so much information at once, first that Zaheera was gone, then that she had left for America, and then that she’d liked me all along. It was like I’d been hit by three successive waves of heartbreak, each one bigger than the last. My mind raced through all the hours we’d spent talking on the quad, on the phone, all the times I could have said, “Hey, Zaheera, I like you. Will you be my girlfriend?” Ten words that might have changed my life if I’d had the courage to say them. But I hadn’t, and now she was gone.

In every nice neighborhood there’s one white family that Does Not Give a Fuck. You know the

family I’m talking about. They don’t do their lawn, don’t paint the fence, don’t fix the roof. Their house is shit. My mom found that house and bought it, which is how she snuck a black family into a place as white as Highlands North.

Most black people integrating into white suburbs were moving to places like Bramley and Lombardy East. But for some reason my mom chose Highlands North. It was a suburban area, lots of shopping. Working people, mostly. Not wealthy but stable and middle-class. Older houses, but still a nice place to live. In Soweto I was the only white kid in the black township. In Eden Park I was the only mixed kid in the colored area. In Highlands North I was the only black kid in the white suburb—and by “only” I mean only. In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down. Since the white people around us weren’t leaving, there weren’t a lot of families like ours moving in behind us.

I didn’t make any friends in Highlands North for the longest time. I had an easier time making friends in Eden Park, to be honest. In the suburbs, everyone lived behind walls. The white neighborhoods of Johannesburg were built on white fear—fear of black crime, fear of black uprisings and reprisals—and as a result virtually every house sits behind a six-foot wall, and on top of that wall is electric wire. Everyone lives in a plush, fancy maximum-security prison. There is no sitting on the front porch, no saying hi to the neighbors, no kids running back and forth between houses. I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood for hours without seeing a single kid. I’d hear them, though. They were all meeting up behind brick walls for playdates I wasn’t invited to. I’d hear people laughing and playing and I’d get off my bike and creep up and peek over the wall and see a bunch of white kids splashing around in someone’s swimming pool. I was like a Peeping Tom, but for friendship.

It was only after a year or so that I figured out the key to making black friends in the suburbs: the children of domestics. Many domestic workers in South Africa, when they get pregnant they get fired. Or, if they’re lucky, the family they work for lets them stay on and they can have the baby, but then the baby goes to live with relatives in the homelands. Then the black mother raises the white children, seeing her own child only once a year at the holidays. But a handful of families would let their domestics keep their children with them, living in little maids’ quarters or flatlets in the backyard.

For a long time, those kids were my only friends.


At Sandringham I got to know this one kid, Teddy. Funny guy, charming as hell. My mom used to call him Bugs Bunny; he had a cheeky smile with two big teeth that stuck out the front of his mouth. Teddy and I got along like a house on fire, one of those friends where you start hanging out and from that day forward you’re never apart. We were both naughty as shit, too. With Teddy, I’d finally met someone who made me feel normal. I was the terror in my family. He was the terror in his family. When you put us together it was mayhem. Walking home from school we’d throw rocks through windows, just to see them shatter, and then we’d run away. We got detention together all the time. The teachers, the pupils, the principal, everyone at school knew: Teddy and Trevor, thick as thieves.

Teddy’s mom worked as a domestic for a family in Linksfield, a wealthy suburb near school. Linksfield was a long walk from my house, nearly forty minutes, but still doable. Walking around was pretty much all I did back then, anyway. I couldn’t afford to do anything else, and I couldn’t afford to get around any other way. If you liked walking, you were my friend. Teddy and I walked all over Johannesburg together. I’d walk to Teddy’s house and we’d hang out there. Then we’d walk back to my house and hang out there. We’d walk from my house down to the city center, which was like a three-hour hike, just to hang out, and then we’d walk all the way back.

Friday and Saturday nights we’d walk to the mall and hang out. The Balfour Park Shopping Mall was a few blocks from my house. It’s not a big mall, but it has everything—an arcade, a cinema, restaurants, South Africa’s version of Target, South Africa’s version of the Gap. Then, once we were at the mall, since we never had any money to shop or watch movies or buy food, we’d just wander around inside.

One night we were at the mall and most of the shops were closed, but the cinema was still showing movies so the building was still open. There was this stationery shop that sold greeting cards and magazines, and it didn’t have a door, so when it closed at night there was only a metal gate, like a trellis, that was pulled across the entrance and padlocked. Walking past this shop, Teddy and I realized that if we put our arms through the trellis we could reach this rack of chocolates just inside. And these weren’t just any chocolates—they were alcohol-filled chocolates. I loved alcohol. Loved loved loved it. My whole life I’d steal sips of grown-ups’ drinks whenever I could.

We reached in, grabbed a few, drank the liquor inside, and then gobbled down the chocolates. We’d hit the jackpot. We started going back again and again to steal more. We’d wait for the shops to start to close, then we’d go and sit against the gate, acting like we were just hanging out. We’d check to make sure the coast was clear, and then one of us would reach in, grab a chocolate, and drink the whiskey. Reach in, grab a chocolate, drink the rum. Reach in, grab a chocolate, drink the brandy. We did this every weekend for at least a month, having the best time. Then we pushed our luck too far.

It was a Saturday night. We were hanging out at the entrance to the stationery shop, leaning up against the gate. I reached in to grab a chocolate, and at that exact moment a mall cop came around the corner and saw me with my arm in up to my shoulder. I brought my hand out with a bunch of chocolates in it. It was almost like a movie. I saw him. He saw me. His eyes went wide. I tried to walk away, acting natural. Then he shouted out, “Hey! Stop!

And the chase was on. We bolted, heading for the doors. I knew if a guard cut us off at the exit we’d be trapped, so we were hauling ass as fast as we could. We cleared the exit. The second we hit the parking lot, mall cops were coming at us from every direction, a dozen of them at least. I was running with my head down. These guards knew me. I was in that mall all the time. The guards knew my mom, too. She did her banking at that mall. If they even caught a glimpse of who I was, I was dead.

We ran straight across the parking lot, ducking and weaving between parked cars, the guards right behind us, yelling. We made it to the petrol station out at the road, ran through there, and hooked left up the main road. They chased and chased and we ran and ran, and it was awesome. The risk of getting caught was half the fun of being naughty, and now the chase was on. I was loving it. I was shitting myself, but also loving it. This was my turf. This was my neighborhood. You couldn’t catch me in my neighborhood. I knew every alley and every street, every back wall to climb over, every fence with a gap big enough to slip through. I knew every shortcut you could possibly imagine. As a kid, wherever I went, whatever building I was in, I was always plotting my escape. You know, in case shit went down. In reality I was a nerdy kid with almost no friends, but in my mind I was an important and dangerous man who needed to know where every camera was and where all the exit points were.

I knew we couldn’t run forever. We needed a plan. As Teddy and I booked past the fire station there was a road off to the left, a dead end that ran into a metal fence. I knew that there was a hole in the fence to squeeze through and on the far side was an empty field behind the mall that took you back to the main road and back to my house. A grown-up couldn’t fit through the hole, but a kid could. All my years of imagining the life of a secret agent for myself finally paid off. Now that I needed an escape, I had one.

“Teddy, this way!” I yelled. “No, it’s a dead end!”

“We can get through! Follow me!”

He didn’t. I turned and ran into the dead end. Teddy broke the other way. Half the mall cops followed him, half followed me. I got to the fence and knew exactly how to squirm through. Head, then shoulder, one leg, then twist, then the other leg—done. I was through. The guards hit the fence behind me and couldn’t follow. I ran across the field to a fence on the far side, popped through there, and then I was right on the road, three blocks from my house. I slipped my hands into my pockets and casually walked home, another harmless pedestrian out for a stroll.

Once I got back to my house I waited for Teddy. He didn’t show up. I waited thirty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. No Teddy.


I ran to Teddy’s house in Linksfield. No Teddy. Monday morning I went to school. Still no Teddy.


Now I was worried. After school I went home and checked at my house again, nothing. Teddy’s house again, nothing. Then I ran back home.

An hour later Teddy’s parents showed up. My mom greeted them at the door. “Teddy’s been arrested for shoplifting,” they said.


I eavesdropped on their whole conversation from the other room. From the start my mom was certain I was involved.

“Well, where was Trevor?” she asked. “Teddy said he wasn’t with Trevor,” they said.

My mom was skeptical. “Hmm. Are you sure Trevor wasn’t involved?” “No, apparently not. The cops said there was another kid, but he got away.” “So it was Trevor.”

“No, we asked Teddy, and he said it wasn’t Trevor. He said it was some other kid.”

“Huh…okay.” My mom called me in. “Do you know about this thing?” “What thing?”

“Teddy was caught shoplifting.”

“Whhaaat?” I played dumb. “Noooo. That’s crazy. I can’t believe it. Teddy?


“Where were you?” my mom asked. “I was at home.”

“But you’re always with Teddy.”

I shrugged. “Not on this occasion, I suppose.”

For a moment my mom thought she’d caught me red-handed, but Teddy’d given me a solid alibi. I went back to my room, thinking I was in the clear.

The next day I was in class and my name was called over the PA system. “Trevor Noah, report to the principal’s office.” All the kids were like, “Ooooohhh.” The announcements could be heard in every classroom, so now, collectively, the whole school knew I was in trouble. I got up and walked to the office and waited anxiously on an uncomfortable wooden bench outside the door.

Finally the principal, Mr. Friedman, walked out. “Trevor, come in.” Waiting inside his office was the head of mall security, two uniformed police officers, and my and Teddy’s homeroom teacher, Mrs. Vorster. A roomful of silent, stone-faced white authority figures stood over me, the guilty young black man. My heart was pounding. I took a seat.

“Trevor, I don’t know if you know this,” Mr. Friedman said, “but Teddy was arrested the other day.”

“What?” I played the whole thing again. “Teddy? Oh, no. What for?”

“For shoplifting. He’s been expelled, and he won’t be coming back to school. We know there was another boy involved, and these officers are going around to the schools in the area to investigate. We called you here because Mrs. Vorster tells us you’re Teddy’s best friend, and we want to know: Do you know anything about this?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t know anything.” “Do you know who Teddy was with?”


“Okay.” He stood up and walked over to a television in the corner of the room. “Trevor, the police have video footage of the whole thing. We’d like you to take a look at it.”


My heart was pounding in my chest. Well, life, it’s been fun, I thought. I’m going to get expelled. I’m going to go to jail. This is it.

Mr. Friedman pressed Play on the VCR. The tape started. It was grainy, black-and-white security-camera footage, but you could see what was happening plain as day. They even had it from multiple angles: Me and Teddy reaching through the gate. Me and Teddy racing for the door. They had the whole thing. After a few seconds, Mr. Friedman reached up and paused it with me, from a few meters out, freeze-framed in the middle of the screen. In my mind, this was when he was going to turn to me and say, “Now would you like to confess?” He didn’t.

“Trevor,” he said, “do you know of any white kids that Teddy hangs out with?” I nearly shat myself. “What?!”

I looked at the screen and I realized: Teddy was dark. I am light; I have olive skin. But the camera can’t expose for light and dark at the same time. So when you put me on a black-and-white screen next to a black person, the camera doesn’t know what to do. If the camera has to pick, it picks me as white. My color gets blown out. In this video, there was a black person and a white person. But still: It was me. The picture wasn’t great, and my facial features were a bit blurry, but if you looked closely: It was me. I was Teddy’s best friend. I was Teddy’s only friend. I was the single most likely accomplice. You had to at least suspect that it was me. They didn’t. They grilled me for a good ten minutes, but only because they were so sure that I had to know who this white kid was.

“Trevor, you’re Teddy’s best friend. Tell us the truth. Who is this kid?” “I don’t know.”

“You don’t recognize him at all?” “No.”

“Teddy never mentioned him to you?” “Never.”

At a certain point Mrs. Vorster just started running through a list of all the white kids she thought it could be.

“Is it David?” “No.” “Rian?” “No.” “Frederik?” “No.”

I kept waiting for it to be a trick, for them to turn and say, “It’s you!” They didn’t. At a certain point, I felt so invisible I almost wanted to take credit. I wanted to jump up and point at the TV and say, “Are you people blind?! That’s me! Can you not see that that’s me?!” But of course I didn’t. And they couldn’t. These people had been so fucked by their own construct of race that they could not see that the white person they were looking for was sitting right in front of them.

Eventually they sent me back to class. I spent the rest of the day and the next couple of weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for my mom to get the call. “We’ve got him! We figured it out!” But the call never came.

South Africa has eleven official languages. After democracy came, people said, “Okay, how do we create order without having different groups feel like they’ve been left out of power again?” English is the international language and the language of money and of the media, so we had to keep that. Most people were forced to learn at least some Afrikaans, so it’s useful to keep that, too. Plus we didn’t want the white minority to feel ostracized in the new South Africa, or else they’d take all their money and leave.

Of the African languages, Zulu has the largest number of native speakers, but we couldn’t keep that without also having Xhosa and Tswana and Ndebele. Then there’s Swazi, Tsonga, Venda, Sotho, and Pedi. We tried to keep all the major groups happy, so the next thing we knew we’d made eleven languages official languages. And those are just the languages big enough to demand recognition; there are dozens more.

It’s the Tower of Babel in South Africa. Every single day. Every day you see people completely lost, trying to have conversations and having no idea what the other person is saying. Zulu and Tswana are fairly common. Tsonga and Pedi are pretty fringe. The more common your tongue, the less likely you are to learn others. The more fringe, the more likely you are to pick up two or three. In the cities most people speak at least some English and usually a bit of Afrikaans, enough to get around. You’ll be at a party with a dozen people where bits of conversation are flying by in two or three different languages. You’ll miss part of it, someone might translate on the fly to give you the gist, you pick up the rest from the context, and you just figure it out. The crazy thing is that, somehow, it works. Society functions. Except when it doesn’t.


By the end of high school I’d become a mogul. My tuck-shop business had evolved into a mini-empire that included selling pirated CDs I made at home. I’d convinced my mother, as frugal as she was, that I needed a computer for school. I didn’t. I wanted it so I could surf the Internet and play Leisure Suit Larry. But I was very convincing, and she broke down and got it for me. Thanks to the computer, the Internet, and the fortunate gift of a CD writer from a friend, I was in business.

I had carved out my niche, and was having a great time; life was so good as an outsider that I didn’t even think about dating. The only girls in my life were the naked ones on my computer. While I downloaded music and messed around in chat rooms, I’d dabble in porn sites here and there. No video, of course, only pictures. With online porn today you just drop straight into the madness, but with dial-up it took so long for the images to load. It was almost gentlemanly compared to now. You’d spend a good five minutes looking at her face, getting to know her as a person. Then a few minutes later you’d get some boobs. By the time you got to her vagina, you’d spent a lot of quality time together.

In September of grade twelve, the matric dance was coming up. Senior prom. This was the big one. I was again faced with the dilemma of Valentine’s Day, confronting another strange ritual I did not understand. All I knew about prom was that, according to my American movies, prom is where it happens. You lose your virginity. You go and you ride in the limousine, and then you and the girl do the thing. That was literally my only reference. But I knew the rule: Cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls. So I’d assumed I wouldn’t be going, or if I did go it wouldn’t be with a date.

I had two middlemen working for me in my CD business, Bongani and Tom. They sold the CDs that I copied in exchange for a cut. I met Tom at the arcade at the Balfour Park mall. Like Teddy, he lived nearby because his mom was a domestic worker. Tom was in my grade but went to a government school, Northview, a proper ghetto school. Tom handled my CD sales over there.

Tom was a chatterbox, hyperactive and go-go-go. He was a real hustler, too, always trying to cut a deal, work an angle. He could get people to do anything. A great guy, but fucking crazy and a complete liar as well. I went with him once to Hammanskraal, a settlement that was like a homeland, but not really. Hammanskraal, as its Afrikaans name suggests, was the kraal of Hamman, what used to be a white man’s farm. The proper homelands, Venda and Gazankulu and Transkei, were places where black people actually lived, and the government drew a border around them and said, “Stay there.” Hammanskraal and settlements like it were empty places on the map where deported black people had been relocated. That’s what the government did. They would find some patch of arid, dusty, useless land, and dig row after row of holes in the ground—a thousand latrines to serve four thousand families. Then they’d forcibly remove people from illegally occupying some white area and drop them off in the middle of nowhere with some pallets of plywood and corrugated iron. “Here. This is your new home. Build some houses. Good luck.” We’d watch it on the news. It was like some heartless, survival-based reality TV show, only nobody won any money.

One afternoon in Hammanskraal, Tom told me we were going to see a talent show. At the time, I had a pair of Timberland boots I’d bought. They were the only decent piece of clothing I owned. Back then, almost no one in South Africa had Timberlands. They were impossible to get, but everyone wanted them because American rappers wore them. I’d scrimped and saved my tuck-shop money and my CD money to buy them. As we were leaving, Tom told me, “Be sure to wear your Timberlands.”

The talent show was in this little community hall attached to nothing in the middle of nowhere. When we got there, Tom was going around, shaking hands, chatting with everybody. There was singing, dancing, some poetry. Then the host got up onstage and said, “Re na le modiragatsi yo o kgethegileng. Ka kopo amogelang…Spliff Star!” “We’ve got a special performer, a rapper all the way from America. Please welcome…Spliff Star!”

Spliff Star was Busta Rhymes’s hype man at the time. I sat there, confused.

What? Spliff Star? In Hammanskraal? Then everyone in the room turned and looked at me. Tom walked over and whispered in my ear.

“Dude, come up onstage.” “What?”

“Come onstage.”

“Dude, what are you talking about?”

“Dude, please, you’re gonna get me in so much shit. They’ve already paid me the money.”

Money? What money?”

Of course, what Tom had failed to tell me was that he’d told these people he was bringing a famous rapper from America to come and rap in their talent show. He had demanded to be paid up front for doing so, and I, in my Timberlands, was that famous American rapper.

“Screw you,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Please, dude, I’m begging you. Please do me this favor. Please. There’s this girl here, and I wanna get with her, and I told her I know all these rappers…Please. I’m begging you.”

“Dude, I’m not Spliff Star. What am I gonna do?!” “Just rap Busta Rhymes songs.”

“But I don’t know any of the lyrics.”

“It doesn’t matter. These people don’t speak English.” “Aw, fuck.”

I got up onstage and Tom did some terrible beat-boxing—“Bff ba-dff, bff bff ba-dff”—while I stumbled through some Busta Rhymes lyrics that I made up as I went along. The audience erupted with cheers and applause. An American rapper had come to Hammanskraal, and it was the most epic thing they had ever seen.

So that’s Tom.

One afternoon Tom came by my house and we started talking about the dance. I told him I didn’t have a date, couldn’t get a date, and wasn’t going to get a date.

“I can get you a girl to go with you to the dance,” he said. “No, you can’t.”

“Yes, I can. Let’s make a deal.”

“I don’t want one of your deals, Tom.”

“No, listen, here’s the deal. If you give me a better cut on the CDs I’m selling, plus a bunch of free music for myself, I’ll come back with the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen in your life, and she’ll be your date for the dance.”

“Okay, I’ll take that deal because it’s never going to happen.” “Do we have a deal?”

“We have a deal, but it’s not going to happen.” “But do we have a deal?”

“It’s a deal.”

“Okay, I’m going to find you a date. She’s going to be the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen, and you’re going to take her to the matric dance and you’re going to be a superstar.”

The dance was still two months away. I promptly forgot about Tom and his ridiculous deal. Then he came over to my house one afternoon and popped his head into my room. “I found the girl.” “Really?”

“Yeah. You have to come and meet her.”

I knew Tom was full of shit, but the thing that makes a con man successful is that he never gives you nothing. He delivers just enough to keep you believing. Tom had introduced me to many beautiful women. He was never dating them, but he talked a good game, and was always around them. So when he said he had a girl, I didn’t doubt him. The two of us jumped on a bus and headed into the city.

The girl lived in a run-down block of flats downtown. We found her building, and a girl leaned over the balcony and waved us inside. That was the girl’s sister Lerato, Tom said. Come to find out, he’d been trying to get with Lerato, and setting me up with the sister was his way in—of course, Tom was working an angle.

It was dark in the lobby. The elevator was busted, so we walked up several flights. This girl Lerato brought us into the flat. In the living room was this giant, but I mean really, really enormous, fat woman. I was like, Oh, Tom. I see what you’ve done here. Nicely played. Tom was a big joker as well.

“Is this my date?” I asked.

“No, no, no,” he said. “This is not your date. This is her older sister. Your date is Babiki. Babiki has three older sisters, and Lerato is her younger sister. Babiki’s gone to the store to buy groceries. She’ll be back in a moment.”

We waited, chatted with the older sister. Ten minutes later the door opened and the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life walked in. She was…good Lord. Beautiful eyes, beautiful golden yellow-brown skin. It was like she glowed. No girl at my high school looked anything like her.

“Hi,” she said. “Hi,” I replied.

I was dumbfounded. I had no idea how to talk to a girl that beautiful. She was shy and didn’t speak much, either. There was a bit of an awkward pause. Luckily Tom’s a guy who just talks and talks. He jumped right in and smoothed everything over. “Trevor, this is Babiki. Babiki, Trevor.” He went on and on about how great I was, how much she was looking forward to the dance, when I would pick her up for the dance, all the details. We hung out for a few, and then Tom needed to get going so we headed out the door. Babiki turned and smiled at me and waved as we left.



We walked out of that building and I was the happiest man on earth. I couldn’t believe it. I was the guy at school who couldn’t get a date. I’d resigned myself to never getting a date, didn’t consider myself worthy of having a date. But now I was going to the matric dance with the most beautiful girl in the world.

Over the following weeks we went down to Hillbrow a few more times to hang out with Babiki and her sisters and her friends. Babiki’s family was Pedi, one of South Africa’s smaller tribes. I liked getting to know people of different backgrounds, so that was fun. Babiki and her friends were what we call amabhujua. They’re as poor as most other black people, but they try to act like they’re not. They dress fashionably and act rich. Amabhujua will put a shirt on layaway, one shirt, and spend seven months paying it off. They’ll live in shacks wearing Italian leather shoes that cost thousands. An interesting crowd.

Babiki and I never went on a date alone. It was always the two of us in a group. She was shy, and I was a nervous wreck most of the time, but we had fun. Tom kept everyone loose and having a good time. Whenever we’d say goodbye, Babiki would give me a hug, and once she even gave me a little kiss. I was in heaven. I was like, Yeah, I’ve got a girlfriend. Cool.

As the dance approached, I started getting nervous. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have any decent clothes. This was my first time taking out a beautiful girl, and I wanted it to be perfect.

We’d moved to Highlands North when my stepfather’s garage went out of business, and he moved his workshop to the house. We had a big yard and a garage in the back, and that became his new workshop, essentially. At any given time, we had at least ten or fifteen cars in the driveway, in the yard, and out on the street, clients’ cars being worked on and old junkers Abel kept around to tinker with. One afternoon Tom and I were at the house. Tom was telling Abel about my date, and Abel decided to be generous. He said I could take a car for the dance.

There was a red Mazda that we’d had for a while, a complete piece of shit but it worked well enough. I’d borrowed it before, but the car I really wanted was Abel’s BMW. It was old and beat-up like the Mazda, but a shit BMW is still a BMW. I begged him to let me take it.

“Please, please, can I use the BMW?” “Not a fucking chance.”

“Please. This is the greatest moment in my life. Please. I’m begging you.” “No.”


“No. You can take the Mazda.”

Tom, always the hustler and the dealmaker, stepped in.

“Bra Abie,” he said. “I don’t think you understand. If you saw the girl Trevor is taking to the dance, you would see why this is so important. Let’s make a deal. If we bring her here and she’s the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen in your life, you’ll let him take the BMW.”

Abel thought about it. “Okay. Deal.”

We went to Babiki’s flat, told her my parents wanted to meet her, and brought her back to my house. Then we brought her around to the garage in the back where Abel and his guys were working. Tom and I went over and introduced them.

“Abel, this is Babiki. Babiki, this is Abel.” Abel smiled big, was charming as always. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

They chatted for a few minutes. Tom and Babiki left. Abel turned to me. “Is that the girl?”


“You can take the BMW.”

Once I had the car, I desperately needed something to wear. I was taking out this girl who was really into fashion, and, except for my Timberlands, everything I owned was shit. I was limited in my wardrobe choices because I was stuck buying in the shops my mother let me go to, and my mother did not believe in spending money on clothes. She’d take me to some bargain clothing store and tell me what our budget was, and I’d have to find something to wear.

At the time I had no clue about clothes. My idea of fashion was a brand of clothing called Powerhouse. It was the kind of stuff weight lifters wear down in Miami or out at Venice Beach, baggy track pants with baggy sweatshirts. The logo was a cartoon of this giant bodybuilding bulldog wearing wraparound sunglasses and smoking a cigar and flexing his muscles. On the pants he was flexing all the way down your leg. On the shirt he was flexing across your chest. On the underwear, he was flexing on your crotch. I thought Powerhouse was the baddest thing in the world, I can’t even front. I had no friends, I loved dogs, and muscles were cool—that’s where I was working from. I had Powerhouse everything, the full range, five of the same outfit in five different colors. It was easy. The pants came with the top, so I knew how to make it work.

Bongani, the other middleman from my CD business, found out I had a date, and he made it his mission to give me a makeover. “You need to up your game,” he said. “You cannot go to the dance looking the way you look—for her sake, not yours. Let’s go shopping.”

I went to my mom and begged her to give me money to buy something to wear for the dance. She finally relented and gave me 2,000 rand, for one outfit. It was the most money she’d ever given me for anything in my life. I told Bongani how much I had to spend, and he said we’d make it work. The trick to looking rich, he told me, is to have one expensive item, and for the rest of the things you get basic, good-looking quality stuff. The nice item will draw everyone’s eye, and it’ll look like you’ve spent more than you have.

In my mind nothing was cooler than the leather coats everybody wore in The Matrix. The Matrix came out while I was in high school and it was my favorite movie at the time. I loved Neo. In my heart I knew: I am Neo. He’s a nerd. He’s useless at everything, but secretly he’s a badass superhero. All I needed was a bald, mysterious black man to come into my life and show me the way. Now I had Bongani, black, head shaved, telling me, “You can do it. You’re the one.” And I was like, “Yes. I knew it.”

I told Bongani I wanted a leather coat like Keanu Reeves wore, the ankle-length black one. Bongani shut that down. “No, that’s not practical. It’s cool, but you’ll never be able to wear it again.” He took me shopping and we bought a calf-length black leather jacket, which would look ridiculous today but at the time, thanks to Neo, was very cool. That alone cost 1,200 rand. Then we finished the outfit with a pair of simple black pants, suede square-toed shoes, and a cream-white knitted sweater.

Once we had the outfit, Bongani took a long look at my enormous Afro. I was forever trying to get the perfect 1970s Michael Jackson Afro. What I had was more Buckwheat: unruly and impossible to comb, like stabbing a pitchfork into a bed of crabgrass.

“We need to fix that fucking hair,” Bongani said. “What do you mean?” I said. “This is just my hair.” “No, we have to do something.”

Bongani lived in Alexandra. He dragged me there, and we went to talk to some girls from his street who were hanging out on the corner.

“What would you do with this guy’s hair?” he asked them. The girls looked me over.

“He has so much,” one of them said. “Why doesn’t he cornrow it?” “Shit, yeah,” they said. “That’s great!”

I said, “What? Cornrows? No!” “No, no,” they said. “Do it.”

Bongani dragged me to a hair salon down the street. We went in and sat down. The woman touched my hair, shook her head, and turned to Bongani.

“I can’t work with this sheep,” she said. “You have to do something about this.”

“What do we need to do?”

“You have to relax it. I don’t do that here.” “Okay.”

Bongani dragged me to a second salon. I sat down in the chair, and the woman took my hair and started painting this creamy white stuff in it. She was wearing rubber gloves to keep this chemical relaxer off her own skin, which should have been my first clue that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Once my hair was full of the relaxer, she told me, “You have to try to keep it in for as long as possible. It’s going to start burning. When it starts burning, tell me and we’ll rinse it out. But the longer you can handle it, the straighter your hair will become.”

I wanted to do it right, so I sat in the chair and waited and waited for as long as I could.

I waited too long.

She’d told me to tell her when it started burning. She should have told me to tell her when it started tingling, because by the time it was actually burning it had already taken off several layers of my scalp. I was well past tingling when I started to freak out. “It’s burning! It’s burning!” She rushed me over to the sink and started to rinse the relaxer out. What I didn’t know is that the chemical doesn’t really start to burn until it’s being rinsed out. I felt like someone was pouring liquid fire onto my head. When she was done I had patches of acid burns all over my scalp.

I was the only man in the salon; it was all women. It was a window into what women experience to look good on a regular basis. Why would they ever do this?, I thought. This is horrible. But it worked. My hair was completely straight. The woman combed it back, and I looked like a pimp, a pimp named Slickback.

Bongani then dragged me back to the first salon, and the woman agreed to cornrow my hair. She worked slowly. It took six hours. Finally she said, “Okay, you can look in the mirror.” She turned me around in the chair and I looked in the mirror and…I had never seen myself like that before. It was like the makeover scenes in my American movies, where they take the dorky guy or girl, fix the hair and change the clothes, and the ugly duckling becomes the swan. I’d been so convinced I’d never get a date that I never tried to look nice for a girl, so I didn’t know that I could. The hair was good. My skin wasn’t perfect, but it was getting better; the pustules had receded into regular pimples. I looked…not bad.

I went home, and my mom squealed when I walked in the door.

“Ooooooh! They turned my baby boy into a pretty little girl! I’ve got a little girl! You’re so pretty!”

“Mom! C’mon. Stop it.”

“Is this the way you’re telling me that you’re gay?” “What? No. Why would you say that?”

“You know it’s okay if you are.” “No, Mom. I’m not gay.”

Everyone in my family loved it. They all thought it looked great. My mom did tease the shit out of me, though.

“It’s very well done,” she said, “but it is way too pretty. You do look like a girl.”

The big night finally came. Tom came over to help me get ready. The hair, the clothes, everything came together perfectly. Once I was set, we went to Abel to get the keys to the BMW, and that was the moment the whole night started to go wrong.

It was a Saturday night, end of the week, which meant Abel was drinking with his workers. I walked out to his garage, and as soon as I saw his eyes I knew: He was wasted. Fuck. When Abel was drunk he was a completely different person.

“Ah, you look nice!” he said with a big smile, looking me over. “Where are you going?”

“Where am I—Abie, I’m going to the dance.” “Okay. Have fun.”

“Um…can I get the keys?” “The keys to what?”

“To the car.” “What car?”

“The BMW. You promised I could drive the BMW to the dance.” “First go buy me some beers,” he said.

He gave me his car keys; Tom and I drove to the liquor store. I bought Abel a few cases of beer, drove back, and unloaded it for him.

“Okay,” I said, “can I take the BMW now?” “No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?”

“I mean ‘no.’ I need my car tonight.”

“But you promised. You said I could take it.” “Yeah, but I need the car.”

I was crushed. I sat there with Tom and begged him for close to half an hour.





Finally we realized it wasn’t going to happen. We took the shitty Mazda and drove to Babiki’s house. I was an hour late picking her up. She was completely pissed off. Tom had to go in and convince her to come out, and eventually she did.

She was even more gorgeous than before, in an amazing red dress, but she was clearly not in a great mood. Inside I was quietly starting to panic, but I smiled and kept trying my gentlemanly best to be a good date, holding the door for her, telling her how beautiful she was. Tom and the sister gave us a send-off and we headed out.

Then I got lost. The dance was being held at some venue in a part of town I wasn’t familiar with, and at some point I got completely turned around and had no idea where I was. I drove around for an hour in the dark, going left, going right, doubling back. I was on my cellphone the whole time, desperately calling people, trying to figure out where I was, trying to get directions. Babiki sat next to me in stony silence the whole time, clearly not feeling me or this night at all. I was crashing hard. I was late. I didn’t know where I was going. I was the worst date she’d ever had in her life.

I finally figured out where I was and we made it to the dance, nearly two hours late. I parked, jumped out, and ran around to get her door. When I opened it, she just sat there.

“Are you ready?” I said. “Let’s go in.” “No.”

“No? What…what do you mean, ‘no’?” “No.”

“Okay…but why?” “No.”

“But we need to go inside. The dance is inside.” “No.”

I stood there for another twenty minutes, trying to convince her to come inside, but she kept saying “no.” She wouldn’t get out of the car.

Finally, I said, “Okay, I’ll be right back.” I ran inside and found Bongani. “Where have you been?” he said.

“I’m here! But my date’s in the car and she won’t come in.” “What do you mean she won’t come in?”

“I don’t know what’s going on. Please help me.”

We went back out to the parking lot. I took Bongani over to the car, and the second he saw her he lost it. “Jesus in Heaven! This is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You said she was beautiful, Trevor, but this is insane.” In an instant he completely forgot about helping me with Babiki. He turned and ran back inside and called to the guys. “Guys! You gotta come see this! Trevor got a date! And she’s beautiful! Guys! Come out here!”

Twenty guys came running out into the parking lot. They clustered around the car. “Yo, she’s so hot!” “Dude, this girl came with Trevor?” Guys were gawking at her like she was an animal at the zoo. They were asking to take pictures with her. They were calling back to more people inside. “This is insane! Look at Trevor’s date! No, no, no, you gotta come and see!”

I was mortified. I’d spent four years of high school carefully avoiding any kind of romantic humiliation whatsoever, and now, on the night of the matric dance, the night of all nights, my humiliation had turned into a circus bigger than the event itself: Trevor the undatable clown thought he was going to have the most beautiful girl at the dance, but he’s crashing and burning so let’s all go outside and watch.

Babiki sat in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead, refusing to budge. I was outside the car, pacing, stressed out. A friend of mine had a bottle of brandy that he’d smuggled into the dance. “Here,” he said, “have some of this.” Nothing mattered at that point, so I started drinking. I’d fucked up. The girl didn’t like me. The night was done.

Most of the guys eventually wandered back inside. I was sitting on the pavement, taking swigs from the brandy bottle, getting buzzed. At some point Bongani went back over to the car to try one last time to convince Babiki to come in. After a minute his head popped up over the car with this confused look.

“Yo, Trevor,” he said, “your date does not speak English.” “What?”

“Your date. She does not speak any English.” “That’s not possible.”

I got up and walked over to the car. I asked her a question in English and she gave me a blank stare.

Bongani looked at me.

“How did you not know that your date does not speak English?” “I…I don’t know.”

“Have you never spoken to her?” “Of course I have—or, wait…have I?”

I started flashing back through all the times I’d been with Babiki, meeting at her flat, hanging out with her friends, introducing her to Abel. Did I talk to her then? No. Did I talk to her then? No. It was like the scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton’s character flashes back and realizes he and Brad Pitt have never been in the same room with Helena Bonham Carter at the same time. He realizes he’s been punching himself the whole time. He’s Tyler Durden. In all the excitement of meeting Babiki, the times we were hanging out and getting to know each other, we were never actually speaking to each other. It was always through Tom.

Fucking Tom.

Tom had promised he’d get me a beautiful date for the dance, but he hadn’t made any promises about any of her other qualities. Whenever we were together, she was speaking Pedi to Tom, and Tom was speaking English to me. But she didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Pedi. Abel spoke Pedi. He’d learned several South African languages in order to deal with his customers, so he’d spoken with her fluently when they met. But in that moment I realized I’d never actually heard her say anything in English other than: “Yes.” “No.” “Hi.” “Bye.” That’s it: “Yes.” “No.” “Hi.” “Bye.”

Babiki was so shy that she didn’t talk much to begin with, and I was so inept with women that I didn’t know how to talk to her. I’d never had a girlfriend; I didn’t even know what “girlfriend” meant. Someone put a beautiful woman on my arm and said, “She’s your girlfriend.” I’d been mesmerized by her beauty and just the idea of her—I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to her. The naked women on my computer, I’d never had to talk to them, ask them their opinions, ask them about their feelings. And I was afraid I’d open my mouth and ruin the whole thing, so I just nodded and smiled along and let Tom do the talking.

All three of Babiki’s older sisters spoke English, and her younger sister Lerato spoke a little. So whenever we hung out with Babiki and her sisters and their friends, a lot of the conversation was in English. The rest of it was going right by me in Pedi or in Sotho, but that’s completely normal in South Africa so it never bothered me; I got enough of the gist of the conversation from everyone’s English to know what was going on. And the way my mind works with language, even when I’m hearing other languages, they get filtered into English as I’m hearing them. My mind stores them in English. When my grandmother and great-grandmother were hysterically praying to God to destroy the demon that had shit on their kitchen floor, all of that transpired in Xhosa, but it’s stored in English. I remember it as English. So whenever I lay in bed at night dreaming about Babiki and the moments we’d spent together, I felt like it had transpired in English because that’s how I remembered it. And Tom had never said anything about what language she spoke or didn’t speak, because why would he care? He just wanted to get his free CDs and get with the sister. Which is how I’d been dating a girl for over a month—the girl I very much believed was my first girlfriend—without ever having had a single conversation with her.

Now the whole night came rushing back and I saw it from her point of view, and it was perfectly obvious to me why she didn’t want to get out of the car. She probably hadn’t wanted to go to the dance with me in the first place; she probably owed Tom a favor, and Tom can talk anyone into anything. Then I’d left her sitting and waiting for me for an hour and she was pissed off. Then she got into the car and it was the first time we had ever been alone, and she realized I couldn’t even hold a conversation with her. I’d driven her around and gotten lost in the dark—a young girl alone in a car in the middle of nowhere with some strange guy, no idea where I was taking her. She was probably terrified. Then we got to the dance and she didn’t speak anyone’s language. She didn’t know anyone. She didn’t even know me.

Bongani and I stood outside the car, staring at each other. I didn’t know what to do. I tried talking to her in every language I knew. Nothing worked. She only spoke Pedi. I got so desperate that I started trying to talk to her using hand signals.

“Please. You. Me. Inside. Dance. Yes?” “No.”

“Inside. Dance. Please?” “No.”

I asked Bongani if he spoke Pedi. He didn’t. I ran inside to the dance and ran around looking for someone who spoke Pedi to help me to convince her to come in. “Do you speak Pedi? Do you speak Pedi? Do you speak Pedi?” Nobody spoke Pedi.

So I never got to go to my matric dance. Other than the three minutes I spent running through it looking for someone who spoke Pedi, I spent the whole night in the parking lot. When the dance ended, I climbed back into the shitty red Mazda and drove Babiki home. We sat in total awkward silence the whole way.

I pulled up in front of her block of flats in Hillbrow, stopped the car, and sat for a moment as I tried to figure out the polite and gentlemanly way to end the evening. Then, out of nowhere, she leaned over and gave me a kiss. Like, a real kiss, a proper kiss. The kind of kiss that made me forget that the whole disaster had just happened. I was so confused. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. She pulled back and I looked deep into her eyes and thought, I have no idea how girls work.

I got out of the car, walked around to her side, and opened her door. She gathered up her dress and stepped out and headed toward her flat, and as she turned to go I gave her one last little wave.



DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33