The following is an excerpt from The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga's debut novel forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in May/June 2016. The story takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, during a time when anti-retroviral medications were not widely available. Ntshanga is the winner of a PEN International New Voices Award and a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. With The Reactive, he has created an immersive and powerful portrait of drug use, community, and health issues by exploring what it was like to be young, black, South African, and HIV positive in the early aughts.
Sometime during the night, I think of my late brother. There were summers I'd take Luthando down the block in my old neighborhood, eMthatha, to a big white stippled house at the corner of Orchid and Aloe Streets, where an Afrikaans family from Bloemfontein had moved in. Their son, Werner, who was older than us by a few years, had taken control of his family's pool house; a flat at least twice the size of my room. Werner liked to make us watch him while he squeezed a tube of Dirkie condensed milk down his throat; and sometimes he'd command my brother and I to laugh with open mouths through his fart jokes, after which he'd collapse into a castle made from his bright plush toys. We always met Werner at the window of his room. He was an only child and coddled by both of his parents. Since moving into the neighborhood, his parents had banned him from leaving his yard; and LT and I had to jump their fence to register his presence. I suppose he was spoilt, in retrospect, almost to the point of seeming soft in the head. As a teen, his teeth had started to decay, turning brown in the center of his lower jaw, but he was also big-boned and well-stocked, and would often bribe us over to his home with ice lollies and video games. I had my own video games by then, but not as many as Werner. My mother was still new at her government job and I couldn't show off in the way I wanted to about living in town. Lately, Luthando had started thinking he was better off than me. My brother had grown a patch of pubic hair the previous summer, and I wanted to remind him that he still ate sandwiches with pig fat at his house, and that one evening in Ngangelizwe, his mother had served us cups of samp water for supper.
Still, we hid together that day.
Like always, Werner told us his parents didn't allow Africans into their house. He called us blacks, to which we nodded, and then he threw the controllers through his burglar bars like bones on a leash. My brother and I scuttled after them on our bare and calloused feet. If Werner didn't win a game, he'd switch the console off and turn into an image of his father, barking us back onto the tar like a disgruntled meneer at the store, his face twisting as fierce as a boar's, fanning out a spray of saliva. When he did win, when Werner felt he'd won enough, he'd say his parents were due home in the next few minutes. Then he'd hoist the controllers back up and wipe them down with a wad of toilet paper. It was the same toilet paper he used to wipe semen off his plush toys, Luthando would later say to me.
He's a pig, your bhulu friend, he'd say, I've seen tissues of it all over his bedspread.
That day, Werner's parents came home early for a long weekend and he hid us behind a sparse rosebush growing against their newly built fence. The day was gray, like most of them that summer, but the bricks in the wall were still warm. My brother and I were caught not 30 seconds later. Maybe Werner wanted us to be caught. The maid watched us with a blank mask from the kitchen sink while Werner's mother lost the blood in her face and his father, a large, balding architect with sleek black hair around a hard, shimmering pate, came after us with a roar, waving his belt over his head and shouting, Uit! Uit! Uit!
We were only 12 years old, so we ran.
Later, back home, Luthando found me in the kitchen and squeezed my nose between his thumbs from behind. We hadn't spoken since our escape from Werner's house, and I'd been making us coffee, watching as two of the neighborhood mutts mated lazily in the yard across from ours. My brother led me to a mirror and mashed my face into the cold pane. Luthando was in a rage, and he asked me if I liked looking that way—with my nose pinched—and nearly broke the glass with my forehead. I struggled and elbowed him and we both fell to the floor and fought. When he tired of pressing my face against the bathroom tile, and with my saliva pooling against my cheek on the floor, I asked him why he was hurting me, even though I knew the reason. Luthando said everything else about me was white, so why would I mind having a pinched nose on my face. Then he heeled my cheek again, and I thought it was to spite him that I smiled at what he'd said, but I knew even then a part of me was charmed by it. Eventually, when he got up and started to walk away, I tried to spit on his heels, and then I called him poor for the first time in our lives. This was me and my brother Luthando.
Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award, as well as a Finalist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. He was born in East London in 1986. His novel, The Reactive, will be published in May/June 2016 by Two Dollar Radio.
Thumbnail courtesy of Two Dollar Radio