The Irish Girlfriend
About halfway through my recent trip to Cape Town to visit my friend Simone I found myself out for drinks at a swanky old hotel’s outdoor club/lounge. We had snuck into the hotel’s pool earlier that day, and the vibe there had been, to my tourist’s eyes at least, thrillingly and “characteristically” white colonial, but the nightclub’s vibe was all-white in a trashier and less interesting way.
It was still early, but I was already wiped out from the day’s activities, as I was virtually every night I spent in the city. As a result, I wasn’t particularly in the mood to dip into Simone’s social waters, as virtually every person I had met through her was astonishingly well-traveled and multilingual and cosmopolitan, or cosmopolitan-seeming. And they all possessed that cosmopolitan’s attendant urban provincialism, whereby most of their conversation consists of speaking with a deep and intimidating knowledge of the city they live in: where to eat, what to do, who’s who, etc. (Certain hip and sophisticated Los Angelenos possess this mixture too, and even here at home I tend to regard it with both genuine admiration and gut-twisting envy.) Which culture was thrilling enough to immerse myself in, and a rare benefit of having Simone, instead of say Lonely Planet, as my guide to the city. But I anticipated yet another conversation in which the people I was with spoke glitteringly for hours about national politics or local happenings and then asked me what I thought of Cape Town, to which I would respond yet again with a screechingly lame…”Well I climbed Table Mountain today…it was so pretty!”
Outside at the lounge we met Simone’s sister’s partner Joe and a couple of his art school buddies, who were already deep in conversation: a widely-known South African photographer, his friend and also an artist (let’s call him Bruce), and Bruce’s Irish girlfriend, in town from Dublin to visit Bruce. It took a while for me to warm up and enter the dialogue, for all of the aforementioned reasons and a handful of others, not least the South African photographer’s intimidatingly good looks and powerful physical presence. (We spent a good twenty minutes discussing his boxing injuries.) But after a drink or two I started to enjoy myself. Not for the first time during my trip, conversation gradually tipped to the wonders and addictiveness of American television. (BTW: Anecdotal evidence suggests that white, educated South Africans like the same television as white, educated Americans.) On this topic, The Irish Girlfriend had the most to say, though it didn’t seem all that pleasing to Bruce or the South African photographer: as she seized the reins, the tenor of the dialogue shifted perceptibly from a dispassionate and critical discussion to something more fangirlish, a rattling off of great shows.
Well, I shared her favorites, and what she said gave me an opportunity to vamp professionally, to speak as an (so newly-minted, so fraudulent) Authority on How Television Gets Made. The group appeared reasonably fascinated, and I got to check “Holding Forth to a Group of Inebriated South Africans About the Business of American Television” off my list of Cape Town to-dos. My stock at the table rose as I noticed (or maybe this is just retroactive projection, based on what I learned later) The Irish Girlfriend’s stock dip…I felt a bit guilty, like I’d used her as a lever to the group’s higher esteem, as our dialogue allowed me to (subconsciously! I swear!) position myself as “A Producer”, relative to her “The Consumer.”
Satisfied that I had come off as at least reasonably cool, I was ready for bed. Me, Simone, and Joe split off from the group as they headed off to their next destination. My trip continued on, and continued to be amazing in too many ways to describe here.
I saw The Irish Girlfriend again, on the last night of my trip. I was reading at the airport gate for the first leg of my flight back home when she crossed in front of me, digging through her bag. We made brief eye contact as she approached a vending kiosk for prepaid phone cards. For a moment it felt like we were going to look away from each other, but there was enough crisscrossing eye contact that we both realized it would be weird if we didn’t speak.
But I couldn’t remember her name.
“We met…” she said.
“Yes!” I said, trying to recall her name. I had genuinely liked her and enjoyed her company. Seizing on the one piece of biography I had at my disposal, I said: “You’re dating Bruce.”
She nodded. Before I could clock the sudden downturn of her mouth, I said: “He seems really great!”
My heart sank as I realized what her look was probably about. Worse still, by adding that last comment, I had pressed the point, forcing her to clarify.
“Actually we’re not. Anymore.” A wry half-laugh escaped her lips as she looked all over the terminal: anywhere, anywhere but at me. Her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“Yeah well,” she said, “I’m sure I’ll see you on the flight!” Prepaid card in her hand, she wheeled her carry-on to the other end of the terminal, perhaps to go call Bruce, perhaps to have one last teary “Why Bruce? Why are you dumping me Bruce?” conversation before boarding our flight.
My cheeks burned red as I contemplated my faux pas. Poor girl, I thought, instantly, selfishly grateful that my trip—which I really can’t stress how great a trip it was—had nothing to do with sex or romance or the expectations and perils of a long-distance relationship: my boyfriend was back home, waiting for me. It was about experience and fun and nature and wildlife and seeing Simone and running through my touristy to-do.
But it—like that night at the hotel’s nightclub, like so much else of my life in general—had also been about avoiding seeming uncool. And I had made it the whole vacation, through countless hangouts and meals and drinks and hikes, without putting my foot in my mouth once, without saying anything deeply uncool or gauche or embarrassing (at least not that I noticed)! I had almost made it!
But there at the airport, in literally my last fifteen minutes in South Africa, I had managed to make an ass of myself, all while twisting the knife in the heart of an already heartbroken girl.
And she wasn’t even a South African.