Winter is threatening. It’s April and it’s Saturday and we are hurrying against the weather, the three of us, Laura and Brian and me, and the wind is blowing through our rain jackets and rain is curling into our necks via our faces. Our plan is to go to a farmers’ market in Woodstock, a few miles away from where we live. We wait at the street corner near our res for a minibus, the large haphazard van that passes for public transportation in Cape Town. One pulls up to the curb. It contains the shouter, a man who advertises the taxi’s destination by shouting to passersby; the driver; and two people we assume are fellow passengers, a man and a woman who sit quietly and separately, looking serenely out the fogged window at the cold rain.
We clamber on, and pay the requisite five rand (fifty cents) for a ride to Woodstock. The air is steamy with our breath since the windows are shut against the winter, and I wipe the window nearest me with the sleeve of my rain jacket so that I can watch the world go by. I can barely see out even once I’ve squeaked an opening on the glass because the rain has made shivering beads of cold liquid on the window.
More people climb clumsily onto the minibus, and a man with a brown leather jacket and a large backpack sits next to me. His backpack digs into my hip, and I hunch against the ceiling, which collides with my head, feeling trapped and wishing I could disembark.
We pass Woodstock, and turn onto the N5 for center city Cape Town. The minibus stops at a taxi depot, and Laura, Brian and I confer and decide to get off here with the rest of the passengers before moving to some Plan B. Laura moves to disembark, but the shouter blocks her way. “You needed to go to Woodstock? We’ll take you to Woodstock.” He grins. The four original people, including the woman, remain on the taxi, so we relax.
If there’s a woman it’s okay.
The minibus turns around and moves toward the main road, on the way to Woodstock. I move to a seat nearer Laura and Brian; before, too many people had squeezed me into a high back corner. The driver swings the minibus into a petrol station; the shouter hops off and sprints into the store. Shortly he returns clutching loose cigarettes and a package of hot food. We are off.
The other man turns to us, and lights a cigarette. He has a cap and a face that looks like he could be someone’s cousin, someone’s little brother, thick-lipped and clownish and young, with mischievous eyes. “You smoke?” We shake our heads no.
“Where are we going?” Brian asks. We have passed the sign for Woodstock and turned off the main road onto the highway, the N2.
The shouter laughs. “Just taking you around directly to the market.”
The woman stays silent in the front seat. We say nothing. What can we do?
The shouter has a baseball cap and long eyelashes. I remember that, long girlish lashes and a mustache. He lights a cigarette. The two men are relaxed now, sprawled over the seats, eating and smoking and laughing. He asks us where we’re from.
He laughs. “The U.S.! I’m an original American gangster. Look, I’ll show you, I have–” and he gestures across his chest and pulls at his shirt to show us a tattoo, then seems to change his mind. He sobers and takes a puff of his cigarette. “I’ll never go there, though. Money.”
“Maybe someday,” Brian reassures him optimistically.
We’re passing UCT. Long Lashes asks Brian for his name, and they shake hands. He makes a vague gesture toward Laura and me, and says, “I won’t ask, they might be your wives.” He throws his hands up and shrugs as though to say, don’t want to touch another man’s girl(s). Then they laugh, Long Lashes and the other, hard, as though this is the funniest thing they have heard in hours. Brian manages a splutter, and Laura and I smile with tight lips.
Where are we going?
The other, not Long Lashes, suddenly lunges up and squeezes between Laura and me. I can’t decide what I’m avoiding more, his intentions or the hot lit end of his cigarette, which almost brushes my arm and then my jaw. He has something metal and round in his hand, and it’s not until he pushes to the seat behind us and pulls the blade on Brian that I realize it is half a pair of scissors.
He presses the sharp end into Brian’s neck, and pats down his pockets. “Hey, hey!” Brian says, and I process that Brian can’t decide between throwing up his hands and pulling out his wallet, and he does both in succession, opening his wallet to show Scissors that he has no cash.
Long Lashes takes my purse from me with resignation, as though this was expected, as though there was no other way for this to turn out. I remove my camera from it, placing the soft white case in my jacket pocket, before giving him my purse. He doesn’t see and pads through my purse, finding the wallet with one thousand rand (about a hundred dollars).
Scissors is asking Brian for his PIN number, and Laura’s, and I whisper to Laura, “Are you giving him your real one?”
“Yes,” she whispers back, “they’re stopping at ATMs.”
So Long Lashes finds the pen in my purse and passes it to Scissors, who scrawls each of our PIN numbers on his palm.
Then he pushes us down. We lie on the seats awkwardly, and Long Lashes sprawls across my knees, still smoking, and he talks to us. “I was shot when I was nine,” he says conversationally. The smoke curls blue and opaque out his face as he talks, and I can’t decide which would be more offensive, lit tobacco in this closed vehicle or an open window with cold hard winter rain on my face. “You see why I have to do this.” He rolls his head, hard and round, across my left knee to look at Brian. “I have no choice.”
“Out of circumstance,” Brian agrees.
Laura and I say nothing. Simultaneously we grip one another’s hands, hard. I can’t see her or Brian.
This is what I can see:
The gray vinyl ceiling, overlaid with black metal bars.
Long Lashes and his offensive smoke.
The blue beaded seahorse swinging from the rearview mirror.
They won’t rape us, I conjecture. Bizarrely, I feel safer in that respect with Scissors and Long Lashes than I do with some guys in clubs. But what if they do?
I try to calculate how long it would take me to regain a healthy view toward sexuality if these three men gang-raped me. I wonder distantly how it would affect my psyche, if I would become withdrawn or overly gregarious. And then I allow the thought to trail off as this knowledge is so foreign to my experience, and also because something new has occurred to me.
I think about HIV.
I think about how much it would cost to be on ARVs for the rest of my life, and what that would prevent me from doing. I would be poorer and I would take tests and know the inside of a hospital better than I ever ever wanted to. I can see potential jobs and potential lovers and maybe potential friends melting into nonexistence when faced with the stigma.
I haven’t even gotten to pregnancy, it hasn’t even popped into my dazed and distant mind, when we stop presumably for an ATM trip and Scissors tosses at us, “I have a .45. Don’t move.”
“Don’t shoot them,” Long Lashes slurs lazily. “They’re human too, white and American and all.”
Scissors has half a pair of scissors in lieu of a knife. How can this man have a gun?
Laura squeezes my hand, and I grip hers hard, and feel the first real fear balloon in my gut. He can’t have a gun. I haven’t seen a gun. If he had a gun he would show us.
I have to get the license plate number, I think.
This is my mantra.
I wonder vaguely what Nancy Drew would do. I wonder a lot of things: where we are going, how long we will be in this minibus, how long I can stand being this powerless.
What it’ll be like after.
Or if there won’t be an after.
I half-heartedly pray to God and the gray vinyl ceiling, but mostly I try to break into my career in telepathy by messaging Quinton, the director of our study abroad program.
Quinton would know what to do.
And then, after thirty minutes or seven hours, Long Lashes leaps off my knees and throws open the door and I don’t move because I’m still wary of that fictional gun and scissors, and he thrusts forty rand (four dollars) into Brian’s hand–“for the taxi back.” And, tossing his head, “Get out.” I catapult myself onto the pavement, suddenly aware that my knee is twisted painfully from his weight, and I turn to watch Laura stumble out, the van is speeding up, oh God, will Brian make it? And he breaks free of the minibus with a missed step, and trots to a stop, and Laura hugs me hard, and Brian hugs us both, and I throw my arms around them, and we are here and we are safe and we are alive and here we are we can breathe.
And then we laugh, that is what we do, we laugh, because we forgot to get the license plate number.
Where are we?
A wide deserted road; one side is bush, the other has nice condos. We cross to the condo side and walk, and walk, and come upon a Mr. Video (like a Blockbuster), and go in, blinking.
“We’ve been robbed!” Brian announces. “Can we use your phone?”
The woman grins at us uncertainly, and shoves a telephone in our direction. A man who had been perusing the movie selection looks up and assures us he will call for us, do we know a number?
No. We don’t. Not a single one.
He ushers us into the bar next door, which it turns out he owns, and sits us down. “Something for the nerves? Want a beer?”
“Water,” we answer. I gulp mine as though there is no time, and there isn’t, but there is all the time.
A woman working there listens and tells the bartender, “I will take them. Where do you live?”
“Mowbray,” we answer.
“Want a ride?”
We look at one another, and we laugh, and I laugh hard on the inside, I have been laughing hard since this began because you can laugh or you can cry and laughing’s easier, we’re finished taking rides from strangers but where are we, by the way?
A town forty-five minutes south of Cape Town. We laugh harder because how can we get back home for forty rand? That wouldn’t even take us a quarter of the way.
Yes, we tell the woman/angel. We want a ride.
On the long ride home I stare out the fogged window and wish things I can’t put into words, and I am not aware anyone had been talking at all until Laura nudges me and tells the woman, “Geography.”
“Geography,” I repeat. “Sorry. I’m a geography major.”
“I studied advertising myself,” she tells us. Where? I ask. Advertising Institute of South Africa, or College of Advertising in the Western Cape, or University of the People Who Are Good. Is that in Cape Town?