I heard someone on the radio say that that the more you recall a memory, the more you change it. So if you ask me what I was wearing last Christmas Eve I might say jeans and a green shirt. But I might be wrong.
I know I wore jeans the Christmas Eve I was nineteen because I was groped. It’s easy to grope a woman in jeans in a crowd. You put your hand deep down her right front pocket. While she tries to pull it out, you put your other hand into her left pocket and remove her cash. It happened to me in Israel. I had joined hundreds of tourists in the square outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. We were watching the Latin mass on a screen. I remember bodies pressing into me from behind and quick hard stick fingers wriggling down, burrowing in. It was over before I had time to scream. I remember feeling winded with surprise. I swung around and confronted a row of young faces all looking at me blankly.
Four years later I was groped as a crowd pushed its way into a Port Elizabeth reggae concert. A crush of people surging through the door. I was probably wearing jeans because I remember the hand sliding in. It felt the same as the Bethlehem hand, as if the hand was following me. The same hard thin fingers. The same wriggling. I had the same instinct to fight; felt the same confusion afterwards.
I only had a bit of money in my pocket on both occasions. Not a big loss. Not a big violation. And on the El Al flight back to South Africa an old man came up to me. Maybe now I wouldn’t think he was that old. I was in economy on the aisle with just enough space to place my camel leather bag between my hiking boots. The old man came up to me and said there was a free seat in first class. I have a hazy memory of his face when he said it. He seemed open, matter-of-fact, passing on information. And I thought, why not? I had heard about the extra space, the better food. I stood up in my jeans and white T-shirt and followed him through the dividing curtain and he showed me a spare seat next to his. I don’t remember having a conversation with him, just that first class seemed hushed, my seat felt bigger. Then he slid his hand under my thigh and I went back to economy.
Another incident. Another flight. I was about twenty-six and had just returned to Johannesburg after visiting my family. I was probably wearing the pixie shoes I liked then: black, pointy lace-ups with bits of red and yellow leather sewn in at the sides. And green jeans and a purple jersey. Or black jeans and an emerald jersey. What can I say, it was the Eighties.
I drove myself home to Yeoville from the airport, parked in the street outside my block of flats and carried my grey holdall into the unlocked foyer. There was a guy around my age. We were in the foyer together. He was wearing a jersey with a diamond pattern. He was near the lift. I was going to take the lift, but then I thought I’d rather take the stairs because I didn’t want that awkward being in the lift with one other person thing. I used to take two steps at a time. I was on the way up the stairs, which were covered in beige speckled tiles with a few lines cut into the edges to provide traction. I was wearing jeans. I was wearing my pixie shoes with thin soles. I tap-tapped my way up the steps with my grey bag slung over my shoulder. I was halfway up the second flight when suddenly these fingers burrowed into me from behind. Big fingers pushing the seam of my jeans. Rough. I fell to my knees. A sound came out of my lungs: a breathless primal shriek I had never made before, and he ran away. I turned and caught a flash of his grey jersey as he disappeared around the corner.
I thought I saw the same man at a gallery opening a few months later. I was probably wearing my favourite party clothes: black and white striped leggings and a long black t-shirt. The man was in a patterned jersey. He caught me staring at him and looked away. He was gazing at another woman. She wore a leather bomber jacket and faded jeans which fell straight from her narrow hips. Her thighs didn’t announce themselves like mine did. I told my friend I thought the guy in the grey jersey had groped me. But I couldn’t be sure. Lots of people wore those jerseys.
So that was all that happened to me. Nothing to write home about. Nothing to write about. I haven’t been in therapy or studied psychology but the voice on the radio made sense: the more you remember something, the more you change the memory. So if I tell you I wore a multi-coloured dress last Christmas Eve I can see myself in it.
I can’t say what I wore the Christmas Eve I spent in Bloemfontein when I was twenty-three. I remember I wore a hessian jacket and a tie to work once and the news editor asked, Who is this young man? I still wanted to dress like a student then and on the weekends I wore denim dungarees with a yellow vest.
I invited the news editor and his partner for supper when I moved into an old block of flats on the edge of town. My bachelor flat was long and thin, with a mattress on the floor at one end and a kitchenette under a window at the other. I made a vegetarian dish with zucchini and yoghurt in a slow-cooker. The next day the news editor told me he’d had diarrhoea and blamed my cooking. I laughed and didn’t believe him because I was fine.
I only stayed in that flat for a month or two. I only met one other resident, a university lecturer. We had some mutual friends and I went around to his flat a few times, probably after I’d been working night duty. His flat was larger than mine with a separate bedroom and a lounge with leather chairs and a coffee table and shelves overflowing with books. The lecturer had long dark hair which fell into his eyes. He wore jeans and tweed jackets. He gave me a drink and asked if I wanted to go for a walk and we strode around the empty city centre until midnight.
The lecturer spoke about his lover who was married with children and wanted to end their affair. He played music I didn’t know and we drank wine and smoked grass. The last time I visited him must have been just before I left for Port Elizabeth. I remember sitting on the floor next to his coffee table, books and papers strewn around. He showed me photographs of his lover, large glossy black and white photographs of them together. She had long slim legs, long blond hair cut in the shaggy way that was fashionable and a face to match.
I remember I was sitting on the carpet beside the coffee table and feeling a bit drunk and stoned and lumpy compared to his movie star lover. And he was sitting in a chair and he held up a pill and said I got this from someone, I don’t know what it does but if you like we can share it. And I said sure or okay or why not or something. And I remember waking up in his lounge the next morning and he wasn’t in the room, and walking home and going back to sleep. Sleeping all day.
Then I remember waking up next to his coffee table and noticing that my dungaree strap has come undone and feeling embarrassed about that. The memory comes back clearly and I can see myself waking up when it is already morning, and quickly hooking the clasp back over the metal button of my dungarees. And I can see myself, still woozy, looking around the empty room and opening the unlocked door.
And then I have this feeling that I was embarrassed. Embarrassed about falling asleep and embarrassed about something else.
The more I think about it the more I remember feeling uncomfortable in another way. Walking back home and feeling something wasn’t right. Sitting on the toilet with my dungarees bunched around my knees and feeling sore. Feeling groggy and going to sleep for the whole day and whole night and feeling fine again.
Or am I imagining it?
But I can feel myself waking up, disorientated, dried spit at the side of my mouth, embarrassed that my dungarees have come undone, embarrassed that I have passed out in his flat, a sore scratchy feeling I’m not used to as I stumble the short way home. I can see myself sitting on the toilet, the dungarees in a heap around my feet. I don’t know what shoes I was wearing, maybe leather sandals?
But I know I was wearing a black dress with a diamond pattern last Christmas Eve; my sister-in-law sent me a photograph.
Jo-Ann Bekker received her MA in Creative Writing from the university currently known as Rhodes in March 2016. Her stories have been published in New Contrast, Itch and Volume 1 Brooklyn. Before writing fiction she worked as a newspaper reporter. She lives in Knysna with her husband, the artist Guy Thesen. They have two adult sons.