Authors: Trevor Noah
Half an hour later, Abel showed up. At that point Abel was still my mom’s boyfriend. He wasn’t trying to be my father or even a stepfather, really. He was more like a big brother than anything. He’d joke around with me, have fun. I didn’t know him that well, but one thing I did know about him was that he had a temper. Very charming when he wanted to be, incredibly funny, but fuck he could be mean. He’d grown up in the homelands, where you had to fight to survive. Abel was big, too, around six-foot-three, long and lean. He hadn’t hit my mom yet. He hadn’t hit me yet, either. But I knew he was dangerous. I’d seen it. Someone would cut us off in traffic. Abel would yell out the window. The other guy would honk and yell back. In a flash Abel would be out of our car, over to theirs, grabbing the guy through the driver’s-side window, screaming in his face, raising a fist. You’d see the other guy panic. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
When Abel walked in that night, he sat down on the couch and saw that I’d been crying.
“What happened?” he said.
I started to explain. My mother cut me off. “Don’t tell him,” she said. She knew what would happen. She knew better than me.
“Don’t tell me what?” Abel said.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“It’s not nothing,” I said.
She glared at me. “Don’t tell him.”
Abel was getting frustrated. “What? Don’t tell me what?”
He’d been drinking; he never came home from work sober, and the drinking always made his temper worse. It was strange, but in that moment I realized that if I said the right things I could get him to step in and do something. We were almost family, and I knew if I made him feel like his family had been insulted, he’d help me get back at the boys. I knew he had a demon inside him, and I hated that; it terrified me how violent and dangerous he was when he snapped. But in that moment I knew exactly what I had to say to get the monster on my side.
I told him the story, the names they called me, the way they attacked me. My mother kept laughing it off, telling me to get over it, that it was kids being kids, no big deal. She was trying to defuse the situation, but I couldn’t see that. I was just mad at her. “You think it’s a joke, but it’s not funny! It’s not
Abel wasn’t laughing. As I told him what the bullies had done, I could see the anger building up inside him. With Abel’s anger, there was no ranting and raving, no clenched fists. He sat there on the couch listening to me, not saying a word. Then, very calm and deliberate, he stood up.
“Take me to these boys,” he said.
this is it. Big brother is going to get my revenge for me
We got into his car and drove up the road, stopping a few houses down from the tree. It was dark now except for the light from the streetlamps, but we could see the boys were still there, playing under the tree. I pointed to the ringleader. “That one. He was the main one.” Abel slammed his foot on the gas and shot up onto the grass and straight toward the bottom of the tree. He jumped out. I jumped out. As soon as the kids saw me they knew exactly what was happening. They scattered and ran like hell.
Abel was quick. Good Lord, he was fast. The ringleader had made a dash for it and was trying to climb over a wall. Abel grabbed him, pulled him down, and dragged him back. Then he stripped a branch off the tree, a switch, and started whipping him. He whipped the
out of him, and I loved it. I have never enjoyed anything as much as I enjoyed that moment. Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst.
Then there was the strangest moment where it flipped. I caught a glimpse of the look of terror in the boy’s face, and I realized that Abel had gone past getting revenge for me. He wasn’t doing this to teach the kid a lesson. He was just beating him. He was a grown man venting his rage on a twelve-year-old boy. In an instant I went from
Yes, I got my revenge
No, no, no. Too much. Too much. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Dear God, what have I done?
Once this kid was beat to shit, Abel dragged him over to the car and held him up in front of me. “Say you’re sorry.” The kid was whimpering, trembling. He looked me in the eye, and I had never seen fear in someone’s eyes like I saw in his. He’d been beaten by a stranger in a way I don’t think he’d ever been beaten before. He said he was sorry, but it was like his apology wasn’t for what he’d done to me. It was like he was sorry for every bad thing he’d ever done in his life, because he didn’t know there could be a punishment like this.
Looking in that boy’s eyes, I realized how much he and I had in common. He was a kid. I was a kid. He was crying. I was crying. He was a colored boy in South Africa, taught how to hate and how to hate himself. Who had bullied him that he needed to bully me? He’d made me feel fear, and to get my revenge I’d unleashed my own hell on his world. But I knew I’d done a terrible thing.
Once the kid apologized, Abel shoved him away and kicked him. “Go.” The kid ran off, and we drove back to the house in silence. At home Abel and my mom got in a huge fight. She was always on him about his temper. “You can’t go around hitting other people’s children! You’re not the law! This anger, this is no way to live!”
A couple of hours later this kid’s dad drove over to our house to confront Abel. Abel went out to the gate, and I watched from inside the house. By that point Abel was truly drunk. This kid’s dad had no idea what he was walking into. He was some mild-mannered, middle-aged guy. I don’t remember much about him, because I was watching Abel the whole time. I never took my eyes off him. I knew that’s where the danger was.
Abel didn’t have a gun yet; he bought that later. But Abel didn’t need a gun to put the fear of God in you. I watched as he got right in this guy’s face. I couldn’t hear what the other man was saying, but I heard Abel. “Don’t fuck with me. I will kill you.” The guy turned quickly and got back in his car and drove away. He thought he was coming to defend the honor of his family. He left happy to escape with his life.
hen I was growing up, my mom spent a lot of time trying to teach me about women. She was always giving me lessons, little talks, pieces of advice. It was never a full-blown, sit-down lecture about relationships. It was more like tidbits along the way. And I never understood why, because I was a kid. The only women in my life were my mom and my grandmother and my aunt and my cousin. I had no love interest whatsoever, yet my mom insisted. She would go off on a whole range of things.
“Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.”
“Trevor, make sure your woman is the woman in your life. Don’t be one of these men who makes his wife compete with his mother. A man with a wife cannot be beholden to his mother.”
The smallest thing could prompt her. I’d walk through the house on the way to my room and say, “Hey, Mom” without glancing up. She’d say, “No, Trevor! You look at me. You acknowledge me. Show me that I exist to you, because the way you treat me is the way you will treat your woman. Women like to be noticed. Come and acknowledge me and let me know that you see me. Don’t just see me when you need something.”
These little lessons were always about grown-up relationships, funnily enough. She was so preoccupied with teaching me how to be a man that she never taught me how to be a boy. How to talk to a girl or pass a girl a note in class—there was none of that. She only told me about adult things. She would even lecture me about sex. As I was a kid, that would get very awkward.
“Trevor, don’t forget: You’re having sex with a woman in her mind before you’re having sex with her in her vagina.”
“Trevor, foreplay begins during the day. It doesn’t begin in the bedroom.”
I’d be like, “What? What is foreplay? What does that even mean?”
It was my first year at H. A. Jack, the primary school I transferred to after leaving Maryvale. Valentine’s Day was approaching fast. I was twelve years old, and I’d never done Valentine’s Day before. We didn’t celebrate it in Catholic school. I understood Valentine’s Day, as a concept. The naked baby shoots you with an arrow and you fall in love. I got that part. But this was my first time being introduced to it as an activity. At H. A. Jack, Valentine’s Day was used as a fundraiser. Pupils were going around selling flowers and cards, and I had to go ask a friend what was happening.
“What is this?” I said. “What are we doing?”
“Oh, you know,” she said, “it’s Valentine’s Day. You pick a special person and you tell them that you love them, and they love you back.”
that seems intense
. But I hadn’t been shot by Cupid’s arrow, and I didn’t know of anyone getting shot on my behalf. I had no clue what was going on. All week, the girls in school kept saying, “Who’s your valentine? Who’s your valentine?” I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Finally one of the girls, a white girl, said, “You should ask Maylene.” The other kids agreed. “Yes, Maylene. You should definitely ask Maylene. You have to ask Maylene. You guys are
for each other.”
Maylene was a girl I used to walk home from school with. We lived in the city now, me, my mom and Abel, who was now my stepfather, and my new baby brother, Andrew. We’d sold our house in Eden Park to invest in Abel’s new garage. Then that fell apart, and we ended up moving to a neighborhood called Highlands North, a thirty-minute walk from H. A. Jack. A group of us would leave school together every afternoon, each kid peeling off and going their separate way when we reached their house. Maylene and I lived the farthest, so we’d always be the last two. We’d walk together until we got where we needed to go, and then we’d part ways.
Maylene was cool. She was good at tennis, smart, cute. I liked her. I didn’t have a crush on her; I wasn’t even thinking about girls that way yet. I just liked hanging out with her. Maylene was also the only colored girl in school. I was the only mixed kid in school. We were the only two people who looked like each other. The white girls were insistent about me asking Maylene to be my valentine. They were like, “Trevor, you
to ask her. You’re the
. It’s your
.” It was like our species was going to die out if we didn’t mate and carry on. Which I’ve learned in life is something that white people do without even realizing it. “You two look the same, therefore we must arrange for you to have sex.”
I honestly hadn’t thought of asking Maylene, but when the girls brought it up, that thing happened where someone plants the idea in your head and it changes your perception.
“Maylene’s totally got a thing for you.”
“Yeah, you guys are great together!”
“Well, okay. If you say so.”
I liked Maylene as much as I liked anyone, I suppose. Mostly I think I liked the idea of being liked. I decided I’d ask her to be my valentine, but I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t know the first thing about having a girlfriend. I had to be taught the whole love bureaucracy of the school. There was the thing where you don’t actually talk straight to the person. You have your group of friends and she has her group of friends, and your group of friends has to go to her group of friends and say, “Okay, Trevor likes Maylene. He wants her to be his valentine. We’re in favor. We’re ready to sign off with your approval.” Her friends say, “Okay. Sounds good. We have to run it by Maylene.” They go to Maylene. They consult. They tell her what they think. “Trevor says he likes you. We’re in favor. We think you’d be good together. What do you say?” Maylene says, “I like Trevor.” They say, “Okay. Let’s move forward.” They come back to us. “Maylene says she approves and she’s waiting for Trevor’s Valentine’s Day advance.”
The girls told me this process was what needed to happen. I said, “Cool. Let’s do it.” The friends sorted it out, Maylene got on board, and I was all set.
The week before Valentine’s, Maylene and I were walking home together, and I was trying to get up the courage to ask her. I was so nervous. I’d never done anything like it. I already knew the answer; her friends had told me she’d say yes. It’s like being in Congress. You know you have the votes before you go to the floor, but it’s still difficult because anything could happen. I didn’t know how to do it, all I knew was I wanted it to be perfect, so I waited until we were standing outside McDonald’s. Then I mustered up all of my courage and turned to her.
“Hey, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I was wondering, would you be my valentine?”
“Yes. I’ll be your valentine.”
And then, under the golden arches, we kissed. It was my first time ever kissing a girl. It was just a peck, our lips touched for only a few seconds, but it set off explosions in my head.
Oh, yes. This. I don’t know what this is, but I like it.
Something had awakened. And it was right outside McDonald’s, so it was extra special.
Now I was truly excited. I had a valentine. I had a girlfriend. I spent the whole week thinking about Maylene, wanting to make her Valentine’s Day as memorable as I could. I saved up my pocket money and bought her flowers and a teddy bear and a card. I wrote a poem with her name in the card, which was really hard because there aren’t many good words that rhyme with Maylene. (Machine? Ravine? Sardine?) Then the big day came. I got my Valentine’s card and the flowers and the teddy bear and got them ready and took them to school. I was the happiest boy on earth.
The teachers had set aside a period before recess for everyone to exchange valentines. There was a corridor outside our classrooms where I knew Maylene would be, and I waited for her there. All around me, love was in bloom. Boys and girls exchanging cards and gifts, laughing and giggling and stealing kisses. I waited and waited. Finally Maylene showed up and walked over to me. I was about to say “Happy Valentine’s Day!” when she stopped me and said, “Oh, hi, Trevor. Um, listen, I can’t be your girlfriend anymore. Lorenzo asked me to be his valentine and I can’t have two valentines, so I’m his girlfriend now and not yours.”
She said it so matter-of-factly that I had no idea how to process it. This was my first time having a girlfriend, so at first I thought,
maybe this is just how it goes
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well, um…happy Valentine’s Day.”
I held out the card and the flowers and the teddy bear. She took them and said thanks, and she was gone.
I felt like someone had taken a gun and shot holes in every part of me. But at the same time some part of me said, “Well, this makes sense.” Lorenzo was everything I wasn’t. He was popular. He was
. He’d upset the balance of everything by asking out the only colored girl in school. Girls loved him, and he was dumb as rocks. A nice guy, but kind of a bad boy. Girls did his homework for him; he was that guy. He was really good-looking, too. It was like when he was creating his character he traded in all his intelligence points for beauty points. I stood no chance.
As devastated as I was, I understood why Maylene made the choice that she did. I would have picked Lorenzo over me, too. All the other kids were running up and down the corridors and out on the playground, laughing and smiling with their red and pink cards and flowers, and I went back to the classroom and sat by myself and waited for the bell to ring.