At the end of the day, when the sun is already hanging low in the sky, Themba comes to find me at my Aunt’s shack. I'm glad to hear his voice outside as he knocks, and then calls my name.
A lot has happened between me going to see Themba this morning, and him coming to see me this afternoon.
After I took Thandoza home I came back and did my chores, and then I lay on my bed with my eyes closed. Images of the last few days kept flashing inside my eyelids like a movie.
I keep thinking of Thandoza sweeping one of her little brother’s up into her arms and kissing his tummy when we arrived back at her shack. I’d had no idea she was trying to keep things going at home without any parents. And she’s still managed to get through Grade 10 this year. She’s kept up a good facade, but she's had it rough.
I meant what I said about standing by her. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and about life in the last few days. We all need good friends to love and support us. Or at least I know that I really do.
I sent Sisipho a Please Call Me this afternoon. And she did. We couldn't chat for long but I just wanted to tell her what an amazing friend she is to me. And that I miss her and can't wait for her to be back.
“Do you want to go for a walk Buhle?” Themba asks as I come to the door.
My aunt glares at him suspiciously as I accept, before sharply telling me that I need to be back before it’s dark.
We go back to the back of the spaza so that we have somewhere safe to sit and talk. Themba has left some crates out for us to sit on.
I tell him about my conversation with Thandoza. I love how he really listens, and how he watches me as I speak, as if everything that I say real matters.
I ask him about Thandoza again. I still have a niggle of fear that there may be something going on between them, but there's another feeling too. Like there's room for other feelings. And like I need to know what's been happening in Thandoza's life if I'm going to look out for her.
Themba tells me that he got to know Thandoza through the spaza, and worked out what was going on in her life.
“You find out a lot about people when you work in a spaza,” Themba tells me. “You see who they’re with, what they buy, what they can’t buy, who pays for their stuff…you get the picture.”
I summon up the courage to ask him the question he didn't answer earlier. And the one I couldn’t bring myself to ask Thandoza while she was crying.
“So…is there...is there something going on with you and Thandoza?”
Themba smiles at me. “Nothing romantic, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I feel relieved and guilty all at the same time.
Themba looks serious again. “But we do have a strong bond. I persuaded her she needed to get tested for HIV, and I went with her on the day, and also when she got the results. I’m the only person who knew she was positive until she told you today. But I wanted you two to talk. I couldn’t tell you about that and you two needed to clear the air. And I was hoping she would confide in you. You’re the kind of friend she really needs right now.”
I want to ask him if there’s anything going on with us. Him and I. Themba and Buhle. But I just can’t do it. I think I still have a hangover of doubt about whether he ever actually wanted to kiss me, or if I just didn’t give him a choice when I was so stupidly drunk.
I give him a look. You know what kind of look I mean. And then I sit there, still as can be, every nerve in my body hoping and praying that he'll say what I'm longing to hear. Or that he'll reach out and tell me with a touch.
My heart is wide open. And I know it's something about Themba that has opened that door. He's special.
“Buhle….there’s something I need to tell you upfront.”
My stomach clenches at the deep, intense tone of his voice.
“I’m just going to say it straight,” he says firmly. “I know what Thandoza’s going through right now. And why I know that is because I’ve also lived through being diagnosed as HIV positive.”
My eyes lock with Themba’s. Time stands still. The beat of my heart in my ears marks the passing of time.
Themba puts a hand out to take mine, and then changes his mind and puts it back on his lap.
His voice shakes a little as he says, “At the party you told me you’d always wanted to kiss someone. I’m so honoured I was the first. But before this goes any further I need to tell you about my status. You need to know…”
My heart squeezes hard inside my chest. But it doesn't close. It's sore, but it's still soft and open.
To my surprise, my mind is working perfectly clearly. If Themba is HIV positive, and him and I go any further, then I have a lot to think about. And Themba and I have so much to work out between us. A boyfriend with HIV... Can I cope with it? Do I want this?
I close my eyes. It helps me find my way inside myself. To see for myself what it is that I really want. I feel old beyond my years, wise like my mother.
And in this moment, safe in the darkness behind my eyelids, I know that I don't want to close Themba out. Not now. Not because of HIV. Not the way I feel about him now.
A feeling I’ve never known shudders through me, and I slide over on to Themba’s lap, put my arms around him, and bury my head into his shoulder. He holds me tight. And I hug him back, pulling him as close to me as I can, feeling his warmth and his strength.
“There’s a way Themba. I hardly know you, but I know what I feel about you right now. We’ve got a lot of talking and learning and working out to do, but we've got time. We can take 'us' really slow. You're strong and true, and I can trust you. I know that because you were brave and honest enough to tell me your status. And also... because I know that in my heart.”
We are so close as we speak that I can feel his breath on my cheek as we say the things that need to be said.
We pull apart a little as we hear a loud cough behind us.
The Minister of Finance is standing there with a stunned look on his face.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you two love birds,” he says in a gruff voice. “But I was just popping by and I happened to overhear you." The Minister shakes his head in wondrous disbelief. "I..I think I owe you both an apology. Ummm...and a thank you for lifting the scales from my eyes. I can see I may have been wrong about women and love... I’m not going to stay, but I just wanted to say that I think you should take the day off tomorrow Themba. We won’t open the spaza tomorrow. I can live with the loss of income. Spend the day with your girl. You both deserve it.”
Themba and I stare at the Minister in amazement.
The Minister walks over to the spaza chalkboard that is kept here at the back of the spaza after hours, but is always propped up in the front during business hours. He rubs out all the specials, takes a piece of chalk and writes: “Closed today. We’ve got that loving feeling. See you again tomorrow.”
“I’ll just put this out front so it's there for tomorrow,” he says, picking up the sign as he leaves with a gracious bow.
Themba and I look at each other, smiling and letting our eyes speak for us.
He brushes his cheek gently against mine.
“I can’t believe that someone like me has found someone like you,” I whisper.
"May I?" he asks softly with a shy smile.
I touch his cheek with my fingers, look deeply into his eyes and nod.
And then he leans in, and my heart soars as his lips touch mine.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Buhle is well aware that her and Themba "have a lot of talking and working out to do". And she's right. The saying goes that true love conquers all, but Themba and Buhle are still in the first flush of love, and in reality face some very serious issues, given that Themba is HIV positive. What do you think of Themba's honesty about his HIV status? And can you relate to Buhle's unvoiced thoughts about whether she can cope with a boyfriend with HIV, followed by both her choice to be honest about about what she feels for Themba "right now"? Given that health is the cornerstone of life, these two have a lot to face up to for two young teenagers in love...
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