At 7:25 Trevor went down to the dining room to wait for the dinner partner he had known only a matter of hours. He was an architect supervising a construction job in Kinshasa who had come to South Africa for a change of scene. That afternoon he had flown to Cape Town from Johannesburg. Serendipity had placed him in a seat next to a friendly beauty. After they’d gotten to chatting, she asked him to test her on her lines. It turned out she was an actress, Tina Windsor, coming to the Cape to shoot an industrial film about South African wines. She really wanted to chat, not study lines, and they talked virtually the entire flight. She offered him a ride into town in her rented convertible and took him to the Mount Nelson Hotel where she was staying as part of her contract. He engaged a room there as well and they planned to meet for dinner.
They had agreed for 7:30, but Trevor expected she would exercise the actress’s prerogative to be late. As he waited for her, he wondered if she were an actress he should recognize. Doubtful. He assumed that, if she possessed notable credits, she would have dropped them into their conversation on the plane. He wondered how old she was; probably a bit younger than him, into her mid-thirties. At five of 8:00 she appeared.
“You look quite amazingly gorgeous,” Trevor told her, partly because it was true and partly because he knew she wanted to hear it. Her dress was basic black and displayed her figure well. It accentuated her vitality, her beauty.
“I hung out all my clothes,” she told him as they followed the maitre d’ to a table. “And took a nap. I had every intention of studying my lines—“ She shrugged.
“Quite naughty of you not to,” he chided. “But lovely women deserve a little indulgence.”
“If I pretend your compliments embarrass me,” Tina said, “you’ll see how really bad an actress I am.” She smiled, pleased that they both understood their parts, and asked, “What shall we have for dinner?”
Once they had ordered – light on both food and wine – Trevor said, “Tell me how you became an actress.” Since what he assumed might happen after their dinner never went pleasurably for him on a full stomach, he would eat sparingly. “Being an actress: isn’t that what every young girl wants to do? It must be quite difficult to succeed.”
“I suppose I was lucky,” she said.
“I’m sure you thought acting would help make the world a better place.”
This idea charmed her. “Heavens, no! I just wanted to show off and meet beautiful people and go to their parties.” She studied him, amused. “Don’t tell me you think you make the world a better place through architecture.”
“Of course, I think that!” he replied. “Architecture doesn’t just clutter the landscape, you know.” He did his best to charm her, hoping that she would not find an evening with an architect too boring.
“Oh, goodness,” she said, dropping her voice an octave. “Idealists make the world a very difficult place to live.”
He laughed, pleased that she was charming him. “You said you were lucky,” he reminded her.
“I was pretty, too. But, of course, everyone seriously trying to do it was pretty. And I was so very young! On top of that a virgin! Which is quite unusual for that game.”
“I can’t imagine you stayed a virgin for long.”
“You think I have no self-control?”
“I think men must have been baying after you like hounds on a hunt. And some of them must have been quite attractive.”
“In fact, it didn’t take me long to offer one of them the gift of me. I was eighteen. I’m sure I thought it a much greater gift than he did.”
Trevor smiled to show her how delectable he found her.
She told him about her life, a topic that obviously enthralled her. She had been born and raised in Kenya, the first child of an ex-British Army officer cashiered for eloping with his commanding officer’s under-age daughter. Disgraced, they had fled to Kenya where he had become a very successful grocer. “Isn’t that a howl?” Tina laughed. “My father the grocer! – with his passion for polo.“ She had grown up going to the colony’s best school for girls, hanging around the Muthaiga Club. “I presented a bouquet to an international film star there, German, Wolf Something. I danced with him. He asked me to come to his room and I almost did. But I was only fifteen.” Her lips formed a pout.
Trevor laughed. Watching her, rather enchanted, he felt that she was disrobing for him. A curious thought. For, if anything, she was clothing herself in exotic tales. If she took him to her room after dinner – which is where he expected them to go – then she truly would disrobe for him, shed her clothes with an actress’s skill, and he would see if her figure was as lovely as he assumed it was.
“There are some real advantages to being raised in a colony,” she told Trevor. “You are brought up with one set of rules, one set of expectations about behavior. And yet you’re living among people with an entirely different set of rules. Africans – at least the ones in Kenya – are so joyful and relaxed. The men generally have several wives and the wives take lovers and it all works out rather well.”
“Africans here don’t seem so—“
“That’s because of the Afrikaners! Impossible people!” Tina said. “So puritanical! Convinced of the rightness of all they do. At dinner parties here one cannot talk about sex. Now I ask you: If you can’t mention sex at a dinner party, what in the world do you talk about?”
She chatted on about herself. Colonial life was rather a bore. Fortunately, her parents sent her off to England to get educated. They had not expected that education to happen in the theatre. But she soon landed a part in a play and began having affairs with actors. It was a wonderfully exciting life, but after five or six years she could see that she would never be Meryl Streep.
That meant she needed to find someone to marry. She met Lee at a party. He was a South African, reading law at Oxford. He knew of her father by reputation for by then her father had been knighted by the queen for facilitating communication between whites and blacks in Kenya. They began to see each other. He was perhaps a bit stuffy, but very handsome and the family was well-connected. So they married.
“Here I am,” she said, “droning on about myself, and I’ve asked nothing about you. What makes you come here?”
“To meet women like you.” She smiled, charmed, and dropped her eyes. He said, “A man can get lonely in Kinshasa,”
“Has it been awful?” She looked at him seriously. “A failed state. Is it where we’re headed in another decade?” He reached across the table and took her hand. She stared at him. “It has been awful, hasn’t it?”
He shrugged. He did not want politics to derail the disrobing.
“Our politicians will undoubtedly misread the tea leaves,” Tina said. “Are we doomed?”
“Tell me more about your life,” he invited. “You married– Lee, was it?”
“Yes, Lee. Who was willing to take me on my terms, a little soiled.” She giggled. “A little lacking in self-control.”
“Really?” Trevor laughed. “What in the world does that mean?”
“I should simply let you be intrigued.” She smiled, playing the scene. “But I haven’t got the self-control to bring that off.”
“Tell me.” He almost challenged her: “Remove another veil.” But he had too much self-control for that.
“I was married in Nairobi,” she said. “The day before the wedding, an old family friend, a fellow I’d known for donkey’s years, confessed that he’d always dreamed of sleeping with me.”
“An unusual confession to make to a bride.”
“I was utterly charmed. I thought to myself: I can enslave this man. I can have this bloke thinking of me for the rest of his life. So I took him upstairs and made his dream come true.”
Trevor laughed as another veil flew off. “You were quite a generous bride.”
“I did confess to Lee that I’d done it. I swore it would never happen again. But, of course, it did. But not for a long time.”
She and Lee had settled into Johannesburg life and had four children. She lived a mostly conventional life, running the house, entertaining for her husband, faithfully attending school sporting events. She did occasional theatre, slept with two or three men outside her marriage, but did not confess her sins. Lee had an affair or two himself.
As she talked on about her life, Trevor felt his attention drifting. Undoubtedly reciting her story was a way of assessing herself before a mirror in her mind. He wondered: Did he really want to sleep with her? She was a little self-involved, but probably a very good fuck. He wasn’t bad himself. He would certainly enjoy holding her body. They could spend a pleasant night in each other’s arms.
“Of course, it drifted into an affair,” she said. She was talking about an actor, out from Britain, with whom she had co-directed a play. The passion she felt for the man was overpowering, she said. Robert made her realize she had never before known love. So she told Lee that she was in love with another man. She did not want to leave him; she loved him very much, she said. They had been married a dozen years and there were the children to consider. But she could not give up Robert. She suggested to Lee that he share her with Robert. The actor was a man of the world; he thought the arrangement workable and acknowledged Lee’s husbandly rights. But Lee, conventional Lee! He insisted that she choose. She chose Robert.
“You married Robert, I take it,” Trevor said. “I’m very aware of your ring.”
“Yes,” she replied. “I married him. He wangled me this role in the industrial film. The better to have me out of town.”
“Will you have coffee?” Trevor asked. They had finished their light entrees. “There seems to be a parlor where they serve it.”
“Fine,” Tina said, not caring what came next, feeling only that Trevor deserved an explanation. “My first child, my daughter, is now nineteen,” she said. She must be into her forties, he thought. He had not suspected she was so old. “If you knew Robert, which I’m glad you don’t!” – she smiled wickedly – “you’d see how panicky he is at the thought of turning fifty. So he’s in hot pursuit of Heather’s school chums. Which is terribly embarrassing to her and, as you can imagine, rather a bore for me.”
Trevor nodded and signaled for the bill.
They had coffee seated side by side on a couch in a parlor off the dining room.
“Do you ever act with Africans?” Trevor asked, refocusing on her.
A strange smile played for a moment across her face. Then she said, “I admit if I were our government, I’m not sure what I’d do. The trouble is we live among our Africans, but we really don’t know them.”
“You half-smiled just then,” Trevor challenged her. “Why? Have you acted with Africans?”
“I did a play—“ she said. “Oh, three or four years ago. There was a part for an African and we found a young lab assistant at the university. He was willing to help us out.”
“So things aren’t as separate here as we sometimes think.”
“I made it my business to get to know the chap.” Tina watched Trevor carefully. He nodded, approving. “After rehearsals we sometimes had tea together in my dressing room. Had wonderful conversations.” She scrutinized Trevor; he sensed what she was about to confess. “The truth is: We slept together.”
Trevor was amused. The lusty wench. Admitting that she had slept across the color bar was the ultimate way of undressing for him, of promising him pleasures to come. He nodded, smiling slightly, to acknowledge her meaning.
Tina laughed. “The poor chap! He was terrified.” Trevor smiled. Tina shrugged. “What we did frightened him. He ran off. We had to find another African actor.” She giggled. “I stayed away from that one lest I ruin the play.”
“I can’t imagine running away from you,” Trevor said. But, in fact, he was feeling a little impatient with her. She had every right, he thought to disrobe for any white man or Arab billionaire as she was now disrobing for him. They were her equals. But this adventure for her: tasting black. To invite an unequal, an African who was trying to help her to enter that menacing white pussy mouth that would undo him. That was not so pretty.
He withdrew his hand, picked up the bills, gave Tina hers and signed his. He asked, “Would you fancy a walk in the hotel garden?”
Tina did not reply. She studied him. “You think me a tramp, don’t you?” Her tone was accusatory. She was testing him now, reclothing herself, threatening to withdraw the invitation that had not yet been offered, but was clearly available to him if he played his cards right. He gazed at her quizzically.
“Don’t you?” she insisted. “A disreputable woman. Or some despicable liberal who supposes that having a fling with an African will make me knowledgeable about ‘native questions.’” She stared at him defiantly. “You see me as some cliché-spouting do-gooder who thinks that sleeping with an African will ameliorate the race problem.”
“You honestly want to know what I think?”
“You think I’m superficial.”
“I think you’re indescribably beautiful. I’m privileged to be with you.” He acted his role, letting his eyes play over her face, her neck, her shoulders and arms and return to her face. “And I think that African was incredibly lucky.”
She smiled. The seduction was back on track.
“Yes, a walk in the garden!” she cried, flirtatious again. “Please excuse me a moment. After all my talking I need to refresh my lipstick.” She rose. He stood to honor her and watched her move across the parlor off the dining room.
Taking a last swallow of coffee, he realized that her magnetism, the aura that had entranced him ever since meeting her, was gone. She had taken it with her to the ladies’ loo. A bit of a tramp, he thought, a little shopworn. Not a do-gooding liberal. Just a rather sad jade, older than he had thought at first, who was wondering what was in his pants. Somehow she had crossed the line.
It was one thing to seduce equals, the game they were playing. Her seducing a young African trying to help her. That was different, an unequal game. White privilege exploiting its advantage. He did not think of himself as crossing any line when he seduced African girls in Kinshasa. A man seducing a girl: that was just life. But she had crossed the line.
He withdrew his wallet, took out enough rands to tip the African waiter, and left them on the table. Standing, he signaled the waiter. “When the lady returns,” he said, “will you please tell her I’ve been called away?”