The door to my new apartment needed a little nudge, but eventually it gave way opening onto a new, dark space—deserted and quiet. Nina would have commented on the smell first I think—a vague citrus I presumed the realtor sprayed a few hours ago to freshen up the place. Parts of me laid in boxes on the floor, organized round the few things I had that made up a kitchen, lounge, bathroom and bedroom. Dust piled itself on every surface—it always amazed me how it did that, getting onto everything despite our best efforts.
Tonight would be the first night I sleep alone in five years and I couldn’t help but wonder where Nina was sleeping. But at the same time I didn’t want to know. On the bed, covered in two blankets and eating nachos, I watched reruns of Will and Grace until I fell asleep.
The next morning I hauled myself up, deciding to take a walk through Kilarney Park. A tiny, itchy feeling had settled at the back of my throat during the night and I knew that meant I might be coming down with something if I didn’t nip it in the bud quick. But that was a concern for later, right now all I wanted was to sit under a tree and try not to think about Nina for at least an hour.
If thoughts are a flowing river then Nina was my whirlpool: everything spiralled round and back to her; which was strange given the email I sent declaring her systematic removal from my life. They say that’s one of the things that define the human condition: an ability to believe in two or more contradictory things. I always harboured the suspicion that Nina wasn’t fully human though. She saw things differently, did things differently and somehow managed to shrunk everyone round her to mere mortal size in the process.
One evening she came home with two capsules of MDMA. I got them from Eric, she said, glinting at me.
“He says it’s a real magic experience to share it with someone you love.”
“So you love me then?”
“I thought that much was obvious.”
“You’ve never said it.”
“Well that’s because saying it is so cliché. I thought we had moved past clichés.”
“Clichés are nice from time to time. The odd bouquet of flowers wouldn’t kill you.”
We laughed, even though I knew there was some truth behind what I’d said. Later, we took the pills and ended up in the complex’s pool, naked—Nina’s fingers conducting a symphony from out my body.
Kilarney Park is a small stretch of green amongst the blocks of apartments that congregate around it. Each apartment has its own style to it. There’s the white-walled Mediterranean-style building opposite mine, and the Italian Villa-style building that overlooks the park. Then there’s my building which has more of an industrial feel to it. But all in all when you’re in Kilarney it generally feels like you’re in your own perfect white bubble. Sure, there’re are black people who walk through on their way to work, blacks who walk their boss’s dogs in the park and certainly blacks who live in some of the apartments. But mostly it’s a white neighbourhood. One can tell that from the cleanliness of the area and the pillars of silence that file into the air when the commotion of cars fades away. Perhaps, I’m being stereotypical; perhaps heartbreak rids one of any devotion to political correctness.
Everyone here seems to look as if they know you’re new to the area. They try and catch your eye when you walk past—black and white alike—and I hesitate as to whether I should greet them or not. It would seem like the polite thing to do, but sometimes politeness is tiresome; sometimes you just want to sit in a park and not be bothered by anyone or anything.
How do you manage to be polite and mean simultaneously? I asked Nina at the counter of a CNA as we were returning faulty ink cartridges. She was working on a new art installation that reflected on the possibilities of creativity in the everyday technological devices that surrounded us. She was smart like that: always on the cusp, pushing the boundaries in her field.
“Well I think you can say mean things in a nice way. You know, like the Victorians used to do. Insult through euphemism: a lost art form if you ask me.” She squeezed my hand and cradled her head in the nape of my neck, making the man at the counter ogle at us before getting embarrassed and returning his eyes to the monitor in front of him.
I’ve always had a problem with eyes. Their unpredictability unnerves me: being still and reticent for a lasting moment they can, suddenly, jut out in any direction, catching you in their gaze. It’s that sense of being caught by someone else, knowing they’re thinking something about you, but you have no idea what. Sure, eyes are useful in their spinning 360 degree kind of way, condensing the world to guide you through it. But I can’t help but wonder if they condense the world too much, if they block us from moving in different directions.
I was staring off into the distance in the park, thinking about eyes and Nina, when a man walked into my field of vision. He wore dark blue overalls, thick black boots and carried a shovel over his shoulder. I assumed he was the landscaper of the park. He was bulky, but not in an obese kind of way; it suited his frame and he carried himself like he was balancing a bowel of water on his head.
As the man walked past me he suddenly turned to face me and, catching my eye, he smiled and said hello. It was so white—his teeth I mean—and its whiteness overshadowed anything I felt at that moment. I felt lighter for that brief moment, caught in his glimpse and able to reach out and greet back.
“You’re new to the area?” He asked, resting his shovel in the earth near the tree I was sitting under.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Saw you directing guys with boxes yesterday. Well welcome, I’m sure you’ll like it here.”
“Thanks, I’m sure I will.” I said, tightening my lips into a forced smile. “What’s your name?”
I wanted to say more; there was a gleam from his face that warmed me. I felt like I needed a friendly face, but I couldn’t shake this hollow feeling of being transplanted in a body I wished so much to be part of but that felt populated with another human being who made it clear that I wasn’t enough for them.
I spent the rest of the day unpacking and cleaning, naming and claiming the different spaces in the apartment. This was where I’d hang my keys, here was where I’d toss the mail, and over there was where I’d hang my favourite painting—one that Nina made for me. The painting was called Scabbing and was part of her Worlds and Wounds exhibition at the Wits Arts Museum. The background was a coffee brown, the same tone as my skin. It spiralled in a circular motion, opening into these dark maroons, fresh reds and light brushstrokes of pink. This she began to cover with clotted blobs of black, brown and some fine touches of white between the black and brown blobs of paint. This was, as Nina later related to me, to give the impression of a wound scabbing, drying out, healing.
“That’s all we ever do in this life anyway. Bleed and Scab”. Nina said when we got home from the opening night of Worlds and Wounds. She never spoke about her work while she made it, choosing to discuss it with me only after it opened to the public.
“So what makes you bleed babe?” I pressed her up against the doorframe of our flat, red wine on my breath, kissing her neck, tasting perfume mixed with notes of perspiration.
“Being a woman I bleed monthly.” She nudged me off of her and went out onto the balcony to smoke.
“You’re doing that a lot these day.”
“Avoiding my questions. Avoiding really speaking to me about yourself.”
“That’s not what I’m doing.”
“Then what is it?” Nina blew an arrow-like puff of smoke into the air as I watched her from the threshold of the balcony.
“I don’t think this is working for me anymore.” She turned to face me with those dark eyes of hers; eyes that were the depths of ecstasy in which I drowned myself, willingly. But now those deep, dark eyes were just two cigarette burns pressed into the place where our love for each other wove a tapestry of safety.
Mounds of indiscriminate dust were gathered and scooped up, five buckets of dirty water were poured down the drain, mirrors were wiped translucent and clear and the smell of lavender-scented Mr Min now wafted off every wooden surface. I succeeded in ridding this new apartment of mine from its decayed history and, sitting down on the couch, I knock back an entire bottle of Chardonnay. I’m not sure why but I decided to place Scabbing in the lounge where I could stare at it while drunk and listening to FKA Twigs simmer on the airwaves.
I didn’t make her feel enough, she said. Didn’t reach right into the mess of her and truly get her. But did she ever really get me? Sure, I was just a marketing consultant, nothing as sophisticated as a rising star in the art world like she was, but I tried to understand her work, and who she when she was working. Nina always treated me like I was part of the public, like I was an audience for her brilliance.
“Enough!” I shout into the deserted apartment. “No more mellowing, no more simmering. She’s gone okay! Deal with it.” I tell myself, pouring the last bit of wine and slipping into bed.
The next morning my head is throbbing but I don’t let that stop me from putting on my running shorts and shoes and heading out for a morning run before work. I’m getting use to the sights of the morning here in Kilarney: the men who rummage through garbage, the scuttling of the carts that carry recyclable plastic and bottles. The snoozing cars warming up at the traffic lights, the security guards who stare at you with sleep in their eyes. For a moment I begin to think that this area will begin to accept me as I accept me in it.
I run past Kilarney Park and see Sfiso sitting on a bench eating a sandwich.
“What’s for breakfast?” I ask, brushing hair out my face.
“Just some peanut butter.” He smiles. I can see he is unsure of what to say next.
“So I know this is really strange but you’re the only person I’ve been introduced to here and I’d rather not spend another night alone with an entire bottle of wine. So would you like to come over and have dinner with me?”
He’s taken aback by my question. He looks embarrassed. He’s probably not use to woman asking him to dinner, I think. Maybe in his culture that’s a man’s job?
“I live in Soweto and if I don’t catch the evening taxis home I have no way to get home.”
“Oh, I can take you home if that’s a problem.”
“You sure?” His question seems to mean ‘you sure you’re not scared of driving through Soweto at night?’
“Yes, I’m sure.” I reply, trying to signal to him through my confidence that I’m quite comfortable being in Soweto at any time of day, thanks to Nina.
“Well okay. What time?”
“Come at 7. Devon Place. 405.”
“I’ll be there he.” He says, wolfing down the last of his sandwich and drinking from a bottle of water. I nod and head off in the direction of my apartment, thinking about what I can make tonight.
Nina and I once got lost in Soweto at night. We were coming from one of her artsy friend’s place. It was 10pm and I was getting worried about our safety in the area
“Would you please relax!” She said, rolling her eyes at me.
“Relax? We’re stranded at night in Soweto of all places. What are a coloured and a white women supposed to do here, sticking out like sore thumbs.”She sighed and got out the car. I got out with her to make sure she was okay.
“The night sky looks different here. You notice that?” She said.
“What do you mean?”
“I guess it seems closer in a weird way.”
“It looks the same Nina.”
Her lips pressed together and drooped when I said that. I think that was the moment she realized she was going to break up with me.
“Wait here.” She bolted off the road toward the nearest house that had its light on. I stood by the car, shivering, and watched as she knocked on a stranger’s house, told them our situation and called me over.
That was the night we met the Ndlovu’s—a welcoming family whose flamboyant son was clearly gay but whose family was not ready to see it, let alone accept it. They put us up in their back room for the night, saying we’d only manage to get someone to come to this area in the morning. We accepted their generosity—Nina doing most of the talking—and later settled into the bed in the backroom, with our backs facing each other.
It was 7pm. The pasta was steaming, the chicken was grilled and the vegetables were hot. Sfiso walked through the door at five past seven, wearing a fresh buttoned-up black shirt and jeans. I didn’t expect him to have changed from out of his work clothes, and this expectation that I had of him unsettled me somewhat.
We ate and drank white wine on the balcony overlooking the pool.
“My dad was a gardener and his dad too. It’s always been in my family. I just decided to take on a fancier name for it.” He sipped slowly on his wine; I found myself watching the way his lips gripped the brim of the crystal.
“Landscaping is an art form I think. It takes a real eye for space, shape and colour to bring together different plants and make them work together.”
“My family just think I do gardening for Joburg Parks.” We laughed as I refilled our glasses.
“So you work at other parks all over the city I’m assuming? Must be busy job right?”
“It can be. It’s pretty physical too. But I enjoy sinking my hands into the earth, feeling it fall through my fingers. There’s nothing like it. What about you? What’s your story?”
I take a gulp of wine before I answer. “Well, I’m a marketing consultant. Basically, I help companies design campaigns and advertising strategies for products.”
“And what made you decide to move here?”
“I just got out a relationship with my girlfriend, and I needed a change of scenery.”
“Girlfriend huh.” He says, and I can almost hear the gears in his mind working overtime. So I decide to put him at ease.
“I’m bisexual in case you were wondering.”
“Oh, that means you…” He doesn’t finish his sentence, instead choosing to perform a wagging gesture with his index finger.
“Yes, it means either women or men. It doesn’t matter.”
“Wow okay. I don’t mean to offend you but I always thought people like you were lying. I mean liking both men and women. That must be a headache. So many options to choose from.”
“You’d think so huh.” I giggle, sitting back in my seat and feeling all the times I’ve had to explain my sexuality throb in the back of my head.
“I hope I didn’t offend you.”
“Oh no, you didn’t. I get it a lot. You know it’s really not so much about what the person has down there. Sure, it plays a role in what happens in the bedroom. But if you think about it, every time two bodies come together in that way—two men, two women, man and woman—a unique dance takes place. And what my girlfriend, or I should say ex-girlfriend, always said is that the dance depends on the shape. ‘It’s all shapes darling,’ is what she use to say, ‘and the sounds you can make when you bang hollow parts against solid surfaces.’”
“I never thought of it like that. You’re a smart woman.”
“That’s my ex talking.”
“No it’s not. I don’t see your ex sitting next to me. That’s you.”
He reached out to hold my hand and I could feel callouses on the ridge of his palms. Without thinking, my nails began to scratch at them.
“I’m sorry. My hands are kinda rough.”
“I don’t mind.”
I started massaging his palms, feeling the tightness of his muscle between his thumb and forefinger.
“That feels really good and really painful.” He sighed, putting his head down on the table as I rubbed his palms. Norah Jones started playing in the background as I watched his body contort the tension out of itself. Seeing Sfiso like that, so vulnerable in my hands, I slipped out from underneath my thoughts, observing the tight muscle in his palms make space for blood to flow again.
The next time my thoughts regained their rigid shape I was facing the bathroom mirror, naked, with candlelight draped across my body. From out the steamy darkness the outline of Sfiso’s body emerged, the white of his teeth just showing from behind his lips. I noticed the many scars on his body just as I’m sure he noticed the many stretch marks on mine. His scars laid on my stretch marks, his thick arms, like ropes, knotting us together—our skins fusing into a velour fabric that gave texture to the darkness.
When I dropped him off outside his house later that night, he thanked me for the evening and the deep tissue massage. We giggled like two naughty teenagers, our eyes shifting to different parts of one another, trying to steal as many glimpses as time would allow.
“It was…new to me.” He said, showing a hint of embarrassment that I understood.
“If it makes you feel any better, it was new to me too. I didn’t really expect…”
“Well I hope I see you again. And even if I don’t…”
“I’m sure I’ll see you again. You know where to find me.”
He got out the car and waved, his dark eyes catching the orange streetlight overhead. It made me look up past the streetlight, towards the stars. Nina was right, the sky was different here. But it had nothing to do with the place.
When I got home I tidied up the lounge area, the place where Sfiso laid me down and entered me: softly, sweetly, slowly. We had sex right underneath Scabbing—the mixtures of brown, red, maroon, black and pink reaching out as if wanting to devour us. After tidying up I traced my finger across Nina’s painting, feeling the intention behind each brushstroke of hers move in unison with the intention behind each thrust of his. Each black blob became the place where Sfiso and I held each other, breathed, and carried on. And at the center of the painting, the place where dark maroon met baby pink, I felt my finger slip inside Sfiso’s bum again, hearing him yelp and exhale—his body transfixed and exultant at the place where I penetrated him, too.
Jarred Thompson’s poetry has been published in Typecast Literary Magazine, Type House Literary Magazine, Outcast Magazine, the Esthetic Apostle, Sky Island Journal, Cosmographia Books (forthcoming 2019), Best New African Poets Anthology of 2016, New Contrast Literary Journal, Alegarse Journal and one of his poems was longlisted for The Sol Plaatje Award and Anthology of Poetry in 2017. His chapbook Universes and Paradoxes was shortlisted for the Kingdom in the Wild Poetry Prize. His fiction publications include Typecast Literary Magazine, New Contrast Literary Journal (forthcoming 2019), The Rainy Day Literary Magazine, ImageOutWrite, the Johannesburg Review of Books and The 2018 Writivism Mentoring Anthology Transcending the Flame. Additionally, his short story Changing I’s was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and his works “Bench Presses and Erectile Dysfunctions” and “Between Rock and Water” was shortlisted for the Geraald Kraak Award and Anthology (forthcoming 2019).
This entry appeared in The Limits Issue