“Can you try not to ogle?” my friend Jack muttered.
The woman I was ogling sat by herself at the next table, reading a book while she dragged her finger slowly along the rim of her wine glass.
“She’s nice,” Jack wheezed as he struggled to wedge himself into his seat. “I get it.”
While he grunted and heaved, I marvelled at the contrasts of this woman. Her fingers and wrists were delicate, like those of someone who played the piano, but her body was poised with the endurance of a hiker or a climber. She wore outdoor gear and looked a little flushed. There was a small tattoo in the notch of her throat. She wasn’t just nice. She was beautiful in that singular way that only women can be who don’t know it.
“And you don’t have to smile at her,” Jack resumed under his breath, “or start a fucking conversation.”
“I’m not,” I said and gestured at the window. “I won’t. She sits between me and the window, and beyond the window is the mountain.”
I couldn’t quite make out what book she was reading.
“Whatever you do,” Jack went on, “please don’t talk about her. She’ll hear.”
Our waiter arrived and introduced himself as Richard.
“What does this mean, Richard?” Jack growled without a pause and pointed at an item he’d discovered on the menu. “Spanish ham. Which Spanish ham?”
“I’ll find out for you,” Richard gushed in a way that wasn’t going to do him any good. “I mean,” he said and swallowed when Jack just stared at him, “the chef will know.”
Richard’s name tag said dick. The nickname was embossed onto a copper plate in lettering of singular silliness. The chummy use of lower-case throughout made the tag look like a schoolyard prank.
“I’m sort of new,” Richard added.
In my physics class at university there had been a stunning girl named Vanessa. Vanessa was sort of new too, having transferred from another university mid-term. It didn’t take us long to figure out that she was as sharp as a razor, but it took a lot longer to realise that she was also as blunt as a barmaid. On weekends, it turned out, she danced as a stripper at a joint on route 62 where they called her Dusty. Richard could be another Vanessa.
“Ask the chef,” Jack said, “and tell him to be specific.”
“It’s a she,” Richard whimpered. “Uh, the chef. She’s—”
“Good,” Jack cut him short. “Tell her then.”
While Richard shivered in the gathering dusk of Jack’s disapproval, I tried to imagine him as a male stripper. Like Vanessa, I decided, he led a double life. What had started out as salsa classes with his girlfriend had become, years after she was gone, something else altogether. Now he danced at all-girls parties in Clifton and Camps Bay on Saturday nights. It didn’t pay as much as he thought it should but the sensation of being so vulnerable as to disappear never quite lost its novelty, and so he continued to do it. Like Vanessa, he used a different name when he danced, but probably not dick.
“I’ll ask her,” Richard said and sniffed.
Perhaps it was Duane. On Sunday mornings he showered twice before he left his small apartment in Mowbray. Then he drove along the gentle scallops of the mountain to this restaurant, set like a gem in the grassy slopes of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Here he waited on tables for the rest of the week to finance his studies at UCT. A major in botany would be too predictable, I thought.
“But it’s definitely Spanish ham,” the pinkly scrubbed Richard insisted and shot me a searching glance. “Can I tell you about our specials?”
“No,” Jack sighed and dragged his finger to another entry on the menu. “What’s this?”
I smiled at the woman and the mountain behind her. There was no stopping Jack when he got like this. No matter what one said or did, he always managed to turn a meal into a culinary inquisition. Once, in another restaurant, I had made the claim that he did not care about the actual food but cared instead about what other people called it. Names made things invisible, I said. I had hoped that he would see it my way, that he would stop, but instead he became so angry that he knocked over our bottle of wine and broke two glasses.
“What does authentic paella mean?” Jack now asked.
“Well—” Richard began.
“I mean, is there another kind?”
The problem was not that Jack ate too much and had become a walrus. The problem was that he preferred foreign food. It annoyed me that he always wanted something you couldn’t pronounce or couldn’t afford. I was sure that he did this because foreign food was a substitute for travel and invited the same urge to label experience. If a menu read Habas con Jamón, like it had now, Jack was baffled and outraged. Which of the Spanish hams was it? Was it just any Serrano? Or was it Bellota? Or Pata Negra? He couldn’t enjoy it if he didn’t know its name.
“It’s a Spanish paella,” I said on a whim. “Who cares?”
Richard didn’t even look my way. Whatever courses he was taking included a primer in psychology.
“I care,” Jack said with some restraint.
“I’m paying,” I countered.
“And this?” Jack asked again and returned to the next entry on the menu.
I’ll call her Jane. She had looked up once or twice while we talked with Richard, almost as though to check on us. I could picture her as an orderly in a clinic where Jack and I were under observation. Jack had been committed by concerned friends because he knew the names of all the words. I had come of my own when I noticed that the only real things I knew of were all imagined. Jane had seen these obsessions before and so they did not interest her. In the afternoons she came from the cubicle at the front of the ward to do her rounds—
“And to drink?” Richard asked, having clearly forgotten about me.
“Let’s find out about that ham first,” Jack said, “shall we? And the paella.”
“I’ll have the scallops and the calamari,” I tried. “Just starters.”
“I’m sorry,” Richard stammered.
“I forgot about starters,” Jack mumbled and turned over his menu.
While Jack held Richard hostage as he vacillated between the goulash and the borscht, I looked again at Jane and the mountain. Despite her athletic looks, she had soft skin and full lips. She giggled as she read and now and then she repeated a line and mouthed it to herself, taking her time to savour the words. There was a fresh scratch down her one shin, from just below her knee to the tongue of her hiking shoe. She came here often, I decided, after climbing one of the ravines that led from these gardens up the Table Mountain massif. I liked that she was careless with herself.
“Wine?” Jack asked and loudly cleared his throat.
Jane glanced up from her book as I quickly pointed at the run of scree that scarred the mountainside in the distance behind her.
“Isn’t that just amazing?” I asked Jack.
“When we’re done here,” he growled, “I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”
“That must be two hundred meters long,” I said as Jane resumed her reading.
“Wine,” Jack asked again and visibly darkened. “You know, to drink, here, at this table.”
Richard had gone to consult with the chef before Jack could make his decisions. I wanted wine so that I’d have something to do when Jack resumed his interrogation, but choosing a wine near Jack was a mental root canal.
“Pick a red,” I hesitated.
In his twenties, Jack had given himself to wine like nuns give themselves to Jesus. His love and devotion apprenticed him to a holy order that forsook its ordained members. Now he no longer enjoyed wine. The wonder it originally inspired had been replaced by a habit of stoic disappointment.
“What kind of red?” he said through clenched teeth.
It was clear that he’d happily lunge across the table and strangle me if I provoked him any further. I glanced at Jane.
“Something that grew against a mountain,” I ventured. “Tokara?”
“Why Tokara?” he snorted.
“Well,” I sighed, “I like that they have all those different grapes growing in little rows at the entrance so you can see them.”
“Cultivars,” Jack hissed but pressed on. “And why do you like that?”
The truth was that I didn’t. I liked that those grapes existed, and I liked that there were people who knew what to make of them. But I didn’t have to inspect the grapes at the entrance to enjoy the wines they ended up in. In fact, I didn’t want to. I felt robbed the day I found out that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel. It was Jack who spoiled it for me, just like he had once spoiled a two-day hike in the Cedarberg by naming every flower we came across. I had seen them all as different. To me, each one was like Jane, alone, and unlike any other. But what had looked beautifully individual to me, Jack had collapsed into sameness. By the second day there were no longer flowers with names, but only names for flowers. As for the grapes, there was no way I could tell him any of this and escape alive.
“Well,” I tried, “I like that they don’t look nice to eat.”
“Jesus,” Jack shook his head and inspected the menu. “Which Tokara?”
While Jack continued to shake his head, I glanced at Jane. Perhaps, I thought, she was the only woman in a place of broken men. An all-male ward of weirdos would be so much more appropriate.
“They have only one Pinotage,” Jack announced grimly, “and it’s no good. I’m going to look for one from Thelema or Delaire.”
But she wasn’t the orderly. She was the psychiatrist. She was in complete control and tolerated our idiosyncrasies with casual indulgence. Yet, because we were men and she was beautiful, we didn’t mind. Her beauty was the kind one had to learn, the kind that was only revealed in movement and proximity, and it inspired in us an unreasonable sense of ownership. We noticed small things about her and felt convinced that we were the only ones to see them.
“How about Oldenburg?” Jack mused.
But some things were hard to miss. It was clear to us that the cartoon-like tattoo of a bee in the notch of her throat was not a teenage memory, but a mark of wildness. She was dangerous and feral despite an appearance of tameness, like a caged hawk no one dared to touch.
“It’s not Spanish,” Richard announced with a hint of triumph as he returned to our table, “it’s Portuguese.”
Jane looked up and flattened her book with her one hand.
“Portuguese?” Jack said as he carefully closed the wine list. “A Portuguese ham in a Habas con Jamón—”
“Jamón means ham,” Richard explained.
Jack tensed with tectonic slowness.
“—which is a Spanish dish,” he continued with some effort.
“It’s a dry ham,” Richard stipulated.
I dared not turn but I could tell that Jane was still looking our way. Jack rearranged his cutlery to compose himself.
“Is this ham a refugee?” he asked. “Has it escaped the injustice of Portugal, only to end up as a second-rate citizen among Spanish hams?”
Richard would soon wish to be where he was last night, I thought. Jack held his hands together in mock prayer and ploughed on. “Please tell me,” he said, “that this immigrant ham is a Presunto de Barrancos?”
Jack continued to torture Richard with more questions, and so I returned to Jane. But she had closed her book and was settling her bill. While Jack laid out a taxonomy of world hams and Jane gathered her things, it occurred to me that I had done the very thing I always accused Jack of doing—I had looked at her but had only seen myself. She was not the psychiatrist, I realised, but the girlfriend I had taken for granted. I watched her move toward us and the door beyond, and suppressed as sudden impulse to get up and leave with her. Later, while I sipped at a wine that Jack didn’t like, I tried to imagine my clearest memory of her, still painful many years after we’d broken up and gone our separate ways. It was a late Sunday afternoon in the early spring. We had hiked up Skeleton Gorge and now we returned through these gardens before the lengthening shadow of the mountain. We paused on the little wooden bridge across the pond and watched the ducks among the reeds below. I put my nose to the flushed skin near the base of her neck, to the warm dimple above her collar bone. Here was the steady tremor of her heart. Here she smelled of cinnamon, and of water, and of flowers I couldn’t name.