It’s easy to be who you are when no one knows your name. No, I didn’t make that up – it’s a lyric from a song I heard eight years ago, as a first-year student. This year, I figured out what the band was getting at – what it means to truly be anonymous.
Having moved to a new city a year ago, nowhere near any of my friends and family, I could never have imagined that it would give me the freedom I needed to be who I am.
I think its because when people don’t know you, they don’t place expectations on you and then you don’t feel compelled to behave in a certain way. So I found myself taking more risks this year, or rather, trying things I normally wouldn’t have. Like hiking with strangers as an example. And slowly, I guess my walls came down.
I was talking to one of my friends Mpho about it- who has been living in Cape Town a bit longer than I have and we realised that being in an unfamiliar place allows you that room for self-discovery.
I certainly tried different things this year. In fact, what started as lazy afternoon at the beach one Sunday escalated into a “try-something-courageous” situation.
‘Shawn Mendes’ walks onto a beach
Five of us made our way to one of the Clifton beaches. We laid out our towels, basked in the sun, took a dip in the water, paged through reading material and stared at everyone else at the beach – as one does.
Mpho asked a question, which probably set the course for the remainder of the afternoon: Do you think someone would buy a stranger an ice-cream at the beach, like how someone would buy a stranger a drink at a bar?
“No, but that would be nice,” I responded.
A few more conversations later, some people leave the beach, a couple decides to plant themselves right in front of us and block our view of the ocean (but we get over it, eventually).
And then I spot a Shawn Mendes lookalike, strutting with a book in his hand, his backpack slung over one of his shoulders. His all about sun protection because he’s wearing a cap, a white t-shirt and basketball shorts.
At this point- words come out my mouth which makes everyone curious and they want to know which way to look.
“9 o’clock” I tell them – naturally they all look at once. So its obvious we’re all staring at him and his friends.
Mpho says something along the lines that he’s my type because he’s reading.
We joke about going over there and talking to him. Maxine says I should walk across, drop my cap and pretend the wind did it.
There’s way too much physics involved for that to happen. But I am determined to say something to him before we leave this beach.
Mpho’s face lights up: “This is the best Sunday at the beach this year!”
By the book
We do some walking, on our way back to our spot we have to pass Shawn Mendes. Mpho reckons I should say something about the book. I say there’s no way that’s going to happen because it’s too random. She says we should at least be talking about something smart when we pass by him. I suggest we talk about Michelle Obama’s new book, but she hasn’t started reading it yet. At this point we’re too close to him to decide what we should be discussing, so we walk past him in silence.
James gets in on the coaching. He is actually reading Michelle Obama’s new book.
“This is what you do. You say: ‘Hey what book are you reading?’ and then you sit down next to him and let the conversation flow.”
I tell James it’s not that easy, he insists I practice with him.
But I have to act it out so I walk up to James, and say: “Hey that seems to be a very interesting book you’re rea….” I fumble, because the couple in front of us, just looked up at me and they’re intrigued by this South African remake of My Fair Lady.
James thinks it’s way simpler than I’m making it out to be. I tell James he needs to go over there for me, because he is actually reading a book. “You got to do this for me – you got to wingman the crap out of this for me!” I plead. But James won’t budge.
So, I settle for buying Shawn Mendes an ice-cream.
When to do it, when not to do it
“So what happens when I buy him an ice-cream?… Like what do you do when a someone buys you a drink, what happens next?” I ask.
It’s Maxine’s turn to educate me: “Well, you can accept it or not. Usually the waiter will say who it’s from. When you see who it is you smile and then that person walks over and talks to you.”
I don’t want that to happen – I just want to buy him the ice cream when he leaves so I don’t actually have to talk to him. But no one sees the point in that.
Shawn Mendes is sitting alone, engrossed in his book. His friends are taking pictures in the water. Maxine thinks this is the right moment to get the ice-cream because his friends aren’t around. But that’s way too confrontational for me.
We’re all still staring at him. He looks up at us.
Mpho states the obvious: “Do you think he can feel our eyes burning on him?”
In unison everyone says yes. But I don’t have shades, and I don’t want to look anywhere else either.
Eventually his friends return and they’re packing up to leave.
This is the moment. I scramble for my purse. “I’m doing it.”
And perfect timing, an ice-cream guy walks by, selling them for R20.
I tell him I need to buy ice-cream but I need him to give the ice cream to someone for me, to which he agrees.
We’re going through the choices, all the while James, Mpho and Maxine are “whisper yelling” that he’s leaving and I need to hurry.
I’ve paid the ice-cream guy but now I need to tell him who it is. “You need to gi… you need to… James tell him which guy it is,” I say. I simply can’t find the words and all of a sudden I realise this must be so hard for guys to do – how the heck do they do this?
James says I should give him the ice-cream, but I can’t because I can’t string a sentence together and I’m covered in sand.
“How do I look?” I ask.
James says I look “amazing”.
Mpho who isn’t afraid to hurt my feelings says: “I think you should let down your hair.”
Shawn Mendes is looking at us right now, and so is the couple in front of us.
It’s meant for you
I go and sit down – actually cower behind James.
So we’re all trying to tell the ice cream guy who to give the ice-cream to.
I hear James tell him to go to the guy with the grey towel, and I pipe up – “the guy in the white shirt” (but hear it the way Kate Winslet blew the whistle to get the attention of the rescuers in Titanic – just after she let Leonardo DiCaprio freeze to death).
The ice-cream guy is off. I can’t look anywhere.
Maxine is giving Mpho a blow-by-blow account of what’s happening because she can’t watch either.
“Oh no he’s giving it to the wrong guy,” says Maxine.
Mpho is canning herself.
I am not.
By the looks of it, they’re saying they didn’t buy the ice-cream.
The ice-cream guy is about to point at us. Shawn Mendes looks at us. I yell in the most croaky voice ever and point at him – “It’s meant for you.”
He is gracious and says: “Thank you so much.”
And that’s how we learn that he is British because he sounded like one of those guys from One Direction.
I give him a thumbs up and nod my head because I’ve never done this before and this is the only way I can respond.
Nothing to lose
He leaves. James is offended because he doesn’t come over and talk to me.
I tell James it’s okay because I had very low expectations in the first place. I am just happy I did it – because it was an exercise to overcome my fears.
The ice-cream guy returns, “Why didn’t you tell him you like him?,” he asks.
I explain that there was just power in the gesture.
James is still deeply offended and upset by this guy. I explain this is something I just had to do. We have now become acquainted with the couple who had been sitting in front of us this whole time , turns out they’re from Chicago. They ask if this is the first stranger I ever bought ice-cream for, and by the way they ask it, makes it sound like this happens all the time.
I’m telling myself I made this guy’s day… or creeped him out so terribly from ever coming back to any of SA’s beaches. I’m choosing to believe the former.
Mpho and Maxine hi-5 me.
“I’m proud of you,” Mpho says.
I am too – “I can’t believe I did it. I had nothing to lose.”
Mpho agrees: “No you didn’t… except R20.”
“Actually, R25. I tipped the ice-cream guy.”