I am startled awake. The landline ringing shrilly through the apartment. On my first viewing of the place, I was charmed by the exposed brick wall interior and the life of independence I had hoped to lead in it; now it felt outdated and odd against the newer furnishings in the room, against the old clothes lying about on the floor and the books overflowing on the counter. The ringing continues. The landline came with the apartment. Sometimes, lost lovers or relatives of the apartment’s former occupants will call. Like ships searching for the beam of a familiar light. I would answer the phone just in time to catch their breathy anticipation and then the inevitable disappointment. A kind of unmet hunger.
I stumble out of bed, hesitantly walk over, take the receiver and put it to my ear.
“M have you heard? I can barely believe it myself. I am so sorry M.”
My skin pickles. The line is silent for a drawn second.
I hang up the phone.
The first time I meet James, he tells me he doesn’t know how to dance. A pair of large earnest eyes glazed over by drink. I am immediately smitten. Over the thumping music, I paused to take in his features, his crooked glasses. He looked like the type of man you raised soft, complicated children with. This is how I fall, mostly by accident, always without my permission.
The first time was at seventeen, with Ferdinand who was visibly in his twenties. A high school dropout who sold weed to his friends in the neighbourhood park. The same park he played soccer every Sunday afternoon in. Until the sun dipped low and sweat ran slick down his bare chest. I passed this very park every afternoon on my walk home from school. Ferdinand leafed through me the way children do newspapers, dismayed by the lack of pretty pictures, having no interest in the headlines. First, he watched me walk home. Then he walked me home for a week, before putting his hand up my school shirt behind the park toilets. Ferdinand didn’t know who his father was, and his mother worked all day for below minimum wage as a domestic worker. He would violently pull the tie from my preppy private school uniform. At night, half submerged in bath water, I would finger the sidelong bruises on the right side of my neck. When my mother found out, she made me promise I was still a virgin, before God on bended knees. I didn’t want to lie, not before God, frankly I felt guilty enough about the whole thing.
On an absolutely normal Monday afternoon, in a busy mall, I saw Ferdinand sitting across from a girl. He held my gaze for far too long. Longer than either of us should have allowed. For weeks after, I had fever dreams of his yellow skin and olive-green eyes. It made me think that maybe he’d put a hex on me. The very same one the circle said the young girl at the kuka shop put on Aunty Siddy’s husband that made him leave his family. The circle, a coven of middle-aged women who met every midweek to read scripture and drink tea while they’d tut and gossip. Occasionally, they prayed for the worst sinners, lawless husbands who never left the shebeens, and the worst of them all, barren women. Eager to rid myself of Ferdinand’s hex, I made a misguided vow to never follow a man to the end of the world like Aunty Siddy. I believed God heard me.
James and I only go on one real date. I was so nervous the whole time, I sweated stains into the underarms of my best dress. James was an artist. Traces of paint under his fingernails and turpentine stains on the sleeves of his rolled up, button down plaid shirts. I worried he would realise he was far too cool for the likes of me.
When we met again in his apartment, he offered me books and tea that was too sweet. It was the very start of winter. He let me go home in his sweater; didn’t kiss me goodbye on my way out that day or the two after. Left me with mixed signals and a belly full of butterflies.
Whenever I think of my father, I picture the back of his sleek black work shoes, the soles lifting ever so slightly as I’d take in his retreating figure; pacing like a caged animal waiting for my mother to fix her makeup; the sound of his heavy footfalls heading up the stairs. His scent filled every corner of the house with hints of Brandy and musky cologne. Had we not shared the same address, I wouldn’t have thought he was ours to keep.
It is no surprise, then, that I tolerated when I texted James, I’d get three responses, maybe four, then silence. That I’d skip days in between contacting him, so I wouldn’t seem needy. That he only asked to see me past seven on weekends, when nothing else came through for him. I was always waiting. In person, he was vaguely forthcoming and warm. Like rays of red, speckled sunlight behind closed eyelids.
He told me about his complicated relationship with his father. How he’d only been in love once, and the colour of his childhood bedroom back in Eswatini. He said I was really good at listening, that he felt he could tell me anything. I didn’t tell him my father was dead.
My mother spends a lot of time praying for me. With her eyes closed in earnest supplication, she is almost serene. Her waking hours are terrifying. Although academically gifted, I was a disappointing child in the looks department. I was too slender, a dark burgundy tone. I was so dark and red when the nurses handed me to her, my mother thought I was still covered in blood. Despite my lack of childbearing hips, somewhere in the cracks of my psyche, I had hopes—a little boy’s name for a first child, tucked away—just in case, just in case.
Our phone calls go like this, my mother and I:
“Sister Grace, from church, her daughter is on her second child, a boy.”
“Didn’t she only get married last year?”
“It happens like that all the time in happy homes.”
Then I sigh, this is the point in the conversation where she switches tactics from shaming to pleading.
“I only want the best for you, Marci.” Her voice is surgery sweet. Perhaps a normal person would have felt warmed by such words.
“I know, Ma.”
“I have been praying for a good husband for you, the circle has joined my petitions. A breakthrough is near.” She hesitates, switching back to shaming. “You’re such a beautiful girl, but not a young girl anymore.”
“Marriage doesn’t happen for everyone, Ma.” It probably won’t for me, I mutter, under my breath.
“No one wants to die alone.”
I imagine my mother fixing her wrapper more tightly around her slender waist. Frown lines forming on her weather-worn face. Above her head in the living room, a portrait of my late father, still head of the house even in his absence.
“Grace’s husband cheats anyway, Ma.”
There is a long drawn out silence on the other end. I’d gone too far.
“I do not know what I have done to you, Marciwele.”
She uses my full name when she’s reached the end of her patience for my ways. I know what she’s thinking. I have no father, at least let me have a husband.
James’ art was beautiful, vibrant but false, made for the western eye. Black boys running in fields, their skin blue-black, decidedly darker than his. He liked that I spoke a second language and went to private schools. He used that knowledge like Ferdinand had, as an excuse to mischaracterise me. Where Ferdinand had taken the tie off, James wanted it on. An indulgence in snobbery. I bristled when he wore his otherness like a cape, made light of his parents’ obvious wealth. The tales of the mixed and white girls who understood him better when they stayed abroad. I thought of my mother slow cooking tripe late on Sunday afternoons, all the windows open so the smell wouldn’t catch. I’d wondered what James would’ve thought of my love for a mouthful of entrails?
When we eventually did have sex, James was unbearably gentle. Not entirely mine then either, I was mortified by how much that made me want to cry. That’s when I knew I was already in love; I was ashamed at my immediate and unbecoming surrender of power.
Perhaps I’d been too young to witness when my parents had been in love. I can only imagine that at some point they must have been. There were no kisses in my home. When my father got back from work, he thundered upstairs to his room. Meals were ready every evening at 8pm. We ate dutifully together, then waded off to our own corners of the house. Of course, back then I had not known any other household to be different. The three of us performed an intricate dance around each other: my father avoiding my mother, myself avoiding them both, in a room only when the others were not. I would listen for them to leave before I opened my bedroom door. Only the faint remnants of their scent, or their personal artefacts scattered around the house, were proof that we all existed in the same time and space. Each actor careful not to upset the balance.
So, when I spend all my time managing James’ feelings, waving off the disappointment of cancelled dates, shrugging when he didn’t invite me to his art openings, hiding the congratulatory flowers I’d bought, so as not to cause him the slightest feeling of guilt or awkwardness around the whole thing, it felt like second nature. Besides, we fell asleep with our fingers intertwined, noses pressed against each other, his breath my own, mine his, our glasses placed gently side by side. I told myself, how could that not be love?
At twenty-six, I moved out. Unmarried women didn’t leave home without reason, my mother said. She knew I’d lost my faith. Arms folded, she watched me pack things away. A single box on my bedroom floor filled with books and a wedding picture of my parents. In the photo, my mother is nineteen and a devout Christian. I felt cruel and divisive leaving her, but I was more terrified of staying another year at home. The night before I left, she prayed outside my door all night.
James uses the end of summer to end us. After which I was eager to be perpetually away from myself. I pulled together whatever money I had in my savings and took a cab to wherever alcohol, bodies, and men were. Usually, musty clubs drinking flat beers. First, I steadied my resolve with shots of something strong and clear. My outfits were ridiculously tight, cheap stringy things, and my feet hurt from wearing impractical heels. But I was convincingly charming, with inhibitions lowered. I learned to step entirely out of my own body. I had been doing it with such ease that some nights I wouldn’t be able to recognise myself. I could not recall the type of girl the men who called the next morning were looking for. I had all these new insecurities like sharpened knives. I didn’t know where to put them all. Mostly I had burrowed them firmly into myself.
My mother has a talent for saying the wrong things. An offhand comment about how I should have been a boy, as I tried on prom dresses. Or how it was good that my father had passed two days after my matriculant exams, otherwise I wouldn’t have come in second in my class.
“That boy, the Ambassador’s son. He has passed away. Have you seen it?”
I have barely even opened the door. The two of us do not embrace as a grieving daughter and concerned mother should. Rather, we stand awkwardly on opposite sides of the room, taking the other in. Her hair is greying at the temples and has thinned considerably from when I was a child, but she is still delicately beautiful like a porcelain doll.
I don’t cry the whole time. I think about how Aunty Siddy silently doubled over at my father’s funeral. He was her only sibling. The boy their mother had eaten the healer’s herbs for. Her large body had folded in half. I wish she had wailed instead, thrown herself on the ground screaming and thrashing. That would have been better. That would have been easier than carrying that kind of anguish silently.
God knew I would have waited my whole life for James to love me back. I suppose this way, I keep my vow. A new way to break generational curses.
About the Author:
Kina Indongo is a Communications professional. Her first poems were published by her alma mater, the University of Namibia, in a poetry anthology titled “My Heart in Your Hands Poems from Namibia.” In 2022 she was part of the Doek Literary Magazine fellowship under Narrating Namibia Narrating Africa. Kina is a contributing writer at RDJ Publishing, where she writes about women and youth in Africa. IG – i_am_kina_
*Featured image by Tobias Frick from Pixabay