I treated his four days away as nothing when he came back. The last thing I was going to start off with in our relationship was a thrust that would stir up any phobias about personal restrictions, notifications, freedom of movement. I couldn’t help feeling that in his retreat there had been an intent to test me, to see if I was truly up for such an abruptly and highly mobile character as himself. Also I suppose I was thinking that if we did ever move in together and were going to avoid the inevitable claustral feelings that being confined within socializing on one koppie would entail, then he would-and maybe even I would-need to have recourse to overnights away from the hotbed of interactions Tsau obviously was. He told me that he usually stayed away at most three days on these personal retreats, but this one had been prolonged by being combined with a little fieldwork on an ostrich-ranching project he had in mind.
We had advanced to the point of his coming to dinner at Mma Isang’s. For the first couple of times Mma Isang was included, but thereafter although for appearance’s sake we would convene in her place, she would take her food and go off into my rondavel to eat. She insisted. She was part of the sector of women whose sentiment was that he and I should get together. I had a straightforward interpretation of this sentiment at the time: I assumed these were people who wanted Denoon to stay as long as possible in Tsau and who saw that ultimately his intimate status-if this was the truth about his status, which I was resisting accepting-his celibacy, not to put too fine a point on it, would drive him to leave town. After all, it was now generally known that he was on the point of being genuinely divorced. So change was in the air. Intellectually I could see why celibacy for Denoon was a plausible choice. Any liaison with a woman of Tsau would have meant compromising his role as above the battle, would have meant choosing a person from one tribe over all the others, would have complicated both his status and the status of the woman he chose. Also, Tswana women want children and they want them now. To all of which had to be added the question of his professional image as someone who tries to set up and then depart from self-sufficient politico-economic entities not tied to the coffers of the West and certainly not tied to the charisma of one man and a white man at that. Nor in the case of Tsau, where the point was female equality and dignity if it was anything, would it be very palatable to take a wife of convenience, a town wife so to speak, and then either leave her behind insultingly or take her with him when he left, thereby demonstrating to all her sisters that the real bingo in life was to escape to the metropolitan West in the arms of an icon. I could see that from some standpoints I would be perfect for him, if it could be assumed that I genuinely liked Tsau, as I seemed to, and was in no hurry to decamp, and that I was who I seemed to be.
There was one embarrassing dinner. I inferred that Nelson was feeling carnal by the way he was trying to keep abreast of Mma Isang’s movements and when she might be returning. Patently he was trying to find out, without asking directly, if Mma and I had worked out a specific time when she might be expected back. I was unhelpful. I was teasing, partly because during our moonlight walk he had been so unforward, partly because of his four-day absence. So there was a mild revenge comedy in progress.
No question, teasing is regressive. I rarely do it, but when I do I justify it with the conceit that there’s some allowable quota per woman I’ve never come close to.
Denoon was dressed up, for him. He was wearing his ludicrous billowing drawstring pants, a clean blue tunic, and he had shaved just before coming over and so looked rather gleaming.
The entrÃ«e was a baked carrots and groats dish I’d thought up. This was an all-solar production, which he was bound to love if only for that.
In my travels around Tsau I had heard that Nelson had drifted into the primary school and noticed that in a child’s drawing of a horse tacked up in a display there was a cloud where the animal’s penis should have been. The original outline of the penis was still dimly discernible under the erasure cloud. So Nelson had then established that puritanically a teacher had told the artist that the picture wouldn’t be put up unless the horse was altered. And Nelson had taken the matter up heatedly with the schooling committee.
Is this really the issue level you want to be identified with? I asked him.
He said Are you saying I was ultra vires? which was the moment-we later agreed-we discovered we both had studied Latin. Later this was a bond. We both loved Latin.
I said Hardly, since I have no idea what your limits are institutionally, or rather juridically, around here. You seem to be ex officio on most of the committees I know anything about, or at least you turn up whenever you want and nobody asks what you’re doing there. Also since this place is your idea, you presumably derive some rather indefinable kinds of powers from that. I do have the impression you’re becoming slightly more emeritus, but that’s just my impression. It’s cloudy to me, is all.
Pointedly, I thought, he declined the opportunity to enlighten me in this area. He went on eating appreciatively, even murmuring that he wanted my recipe. So I just repeated my opinion that it was beneath him to be agitated over whether a teacher tries to keep a child from drawing a horse with a large penis. I in face was aware that the penis in question had been of caricature dimensions in the original drawing, and also that the artist was King James, no less.
He said Isn’t censorship an issue we should be concerned with?
It is if you’re the Botswana Civil Liberties Union. Are you? Or are you more like an inspector general? This led to more silence.
I got frightened. This was close to nagging and he was uncomfortable. I klang-associated for something light to say and came up with Do you know how the Batswana describe a henpecked man? He didn’t. I said They say he’s a man who eats his overcoat. People laugh when they say this and I even laugh myself, but they can’t explain why this is funny and neither can I.
I had stumbled on to something that interested him a lot-Tswana humor. Did I know any other Tswana jokes?
I was relieved that I did. I knew one other joke, exactly one. I do, I said. And then I realized what the joke was, too late.
It isn’t a joke, I said, it’s a riddle. It’s not a joke, actually, at all.
He wanted to hear it. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I even tried to instantly make up a joke or riddle to replace the one I was going to have to produce otherwise. My faculties were frozen. He was waiting.
Well, the riddle is Do you know why the penis always lands up in trouble? You don’t know, and the answer is that it’s because the penis has only one eye.
He laughed, and nondutifully. But I was mortified. So far everything I was saying hinged on the penis in one way or another. I am such a fool. But I was gratified at his lovely laugh.
Brilliantly then I conceived that what I should do to defuse my apparent fixation on this item was show how little the subject meant to me, despite what he might think, by going even more for the jocular. I was trying to show insouciance.
So I said Along these lines, this might amuse you: when I was in high school and in a timeframe when the first names of my three best girlfriends all ended in the letter i, we used to ask one another if a particular boy we had been, say, necking with, had been sincere. Sincere standing for having an erection, naturally.
He thought it was funny, genuinely. This is new, he said. This is news.
How alone are we? he asked. But just then Mma Isang showed up. I maneuvered to let her know she should stay. I felt like a fool and a coquette, but this is where I wanted the evening to come to rest.
Causing active ongoing pleasure in your mate is something people tend to restrict to the sexual realm or getting attractive food on the table on time, but keeping permanent intimate comedy going is more important than any other one thing. Naturally it was living with Denoon that gave me this notion in its developed form as opposed to the bare inkling I got during the evening in question. I’m not talking about having a sense of humor you apply to the ups and downs of living together. I’m talking about being comedically proactive. Ultimately I was better at this than Denoon was. I don’t know why being funny for someone was such a new idea for me. It had never occurred to me in connection with any other male I had been serious about. Denoon had early on made it clear I was free to include him and his foibles as ingredients and props in my routine if I felt like it, by not objecting when I did. So he was different. Or was it just that I was dealing for the first time in my life with an actual mature male, a concept which up until then I had considered an essentially literary construct and a way of not asking the question of whether or not in fact the real world reduced to a layer cake of differing grades of hysteria, with the hysteria of the ruling sex being simply more suppressed and expressing itself in ritualized forms like preparedness or memorizing lifetime batting averages that no one associates with hysteria. I was surprised at how pleased I felt to get such deep, easy, thorough laughter out of him.
Nelson was extremely nice when we discussed my penis gaffe fest much later. The way he comforted me was interesting and involved a conceit we used in later connections. He wanted me to know that the penis sequence had been sub-rosaly titillating, particularly so because it had been clearly so accidental. You never tease, he said. He said There is a school of thought, a heresy from the madhouse of heresies in the ninth century, that says God is good and is in control of every individual thing that happens, every event, but that unfortunately the devil is in control of timing. Hence, gaffes. Hence the actually existing world. Between us we could facetiously make use of this conceit, and laugh. Of course a conceit is different from something solid like the Stoic Maxim, Of all things in existence some things are in our power and some not, which is with me forever, also something I got from Denoon and made him defend as different from the pop variant of it in use in Alcoholics Anonymous groups.