They stand facing each other in the middle of the spacious living area of his sprawling house in Selbourne Park. The late afternoon winter sun streams in and dapples the room with spots where the leaves of the giant marula tree whose branches grow past the windows, obstruct the sun. She looks up at his dark chocolate face and bites her quivering bottom lip as she waits for him to respond over the faint lilt of notes from Il Divo’s Caruso.
Her mind wanders to the first time he showed her his collection of vinyls. He called himself a ‘modern purist’ because none of the records were older than 24 years. She had laughed at his description and over the months that followed, devoted her time to finding him many vinyls by his favourite artists on her travels. To be honest, she secretly enjoyed loading the Audio-Technica that had a lid, just like her grandmother’s ancient record player had in her renovated home in Glencara, Nkulumane. As a child, she was never allowed to touch it and this was a revenge of sorts. He would watch her unwrap the records she had bought as gifts for him and feel the excitement on her face. He didn’t mind that she did that, even though he enjoyed unwrapping presents as much as she did, and they would dance to whatever she played as she regaled him with stories of her adventures.
Her thoughts are broken by his usually deep and clear baritone speaking with an odd huskiness.
“I can do better. I will do better”, he says.
She gently but firmly responds, “I believe that you believe that. But there’s a disconnect between what you say and what you don’t do. I can’t continue to live this way. To have to have a full blown fight in order for you to realise that what you’re doing isn’t enough or wrong or selfish? It’s exhausting. I’m tired. Actually, I learnt a new term the other day on Twitter. ‘Emotional Labour’. That’s what this is. I’m exhausted from being the one to do all the emotional labour”. Her accent changes as she speaks, the forced Ndebeleness she puts on to convince her peers that she was not corrupted by the British, giving way to a pronounced English accent, the result of the forced migration of many Zimbabweans.
She lifts one hand up to silence him as he prepares to interrupt. He immediately closes his mouth and stuffs his large man hands into the front pockets of his worn but still visibly expensive jeans. He starts rocking slightly, as his body translates his anxiety subconsciously. She stares at him from the middle of the room and as always, is hit by how his presence commands attention. Overwhelmingly so. His height is what initially attracted her to him the first time she saw him. At the European Winter Finance Summit in Austria, four years ago. The odds of two children of Mthwakazi meeting there made it that much more special. His laugh sealed the deal. He always laughs like he has just heard the funniest joke on earth, even when he laughs at her lame knock knock jokes or her weak limerick attempts. That, and his luscious afro.
But she must continue. She takes a steadying breath and does just that.
“I’ve worked too long and too hard to get to a place where my sanity is protected. I’ve dug myself out of ditches of self loathing and never ending heartbreak, for the sake of self-love. Between rehab, this bloody job and my mother, I cannot go back to a place where I no longer recognise myself. Not for anyone”.
Her princess cut, 4 carat emerald engagement ring catches the light as she waves her perfectly manicured hands around as she speaks, sometimes clapping silently, gaining momentum and forgetting her world-class public speaking training. ‘Do not gesticulate so much, it distracts your audience’. Mrs Mangoye’s annoying voice never ceased to grate her ears, but the woman did know her craft.
She continues, “least of all for the person I’d pegged as my ‘forever after’. This should be the last place I find fear and confusion. The last place I find uncertainty. So, I believe that you want do do better, but perhaps not for me. I shouldn’t have to beg for it, and it shouldn’t have to cause you so much agony.” She waves at his face and says “I can see how tortured you get at the thought of spilling all your secrets. So, you don’t want to be better for me, or try for me, and that’s okay”.
She paces across his dark brown Persian rug in her favourite travelling boots, oblivious to his annoyance at her breaking one of his many rules – ‘no shoes on the carpet’, which is usually followed by ‘uMaMpofu will kill me’. He lives in fear of his housekeeper. Everyone does.
She turns the volume down, so she can concentrate on her thoughts.
Another deep breath. “I just hope you can find it in yourself to do better for the right one. Because you deserve to be happy. Deliriously so. You’re an incredible soul, and you deserve to be loved unconditionally, for exactly who you are. I, unfortunately, have conditions and for a hot minute, I thought I could put them aside in the name of compromise”.
At this point, the tears are gushing from her eyes and the forearms of her blue and yellow sweater, emblazoned with her almer mater’s name, are damp from all the wiping. He takes a step forward and makes to hold her and she steps back quickly and shakes her head, her long, black box-braids move as she does.
“I’m not done”, her gravelly voice says. “Being in love with you has been the most challenging experience of my life. I’ve learnt things about myself I didn’t know. Things about the world. About cars and plants. About Thabani’s secret drug store and bottle top art. About Asian history and about the financial markets and Bitcoin – which I will never use ever again”.
She chuckles and sniffs twice in the most unladylike manner. He offers an awkward smile and rubs his chest, as if to ease a sudden tightness.
“But most importantly, I learnt that I cannot be an open book for someone who keeps their secrets under lock and key. It’s okay that you don’t want to talk about things. It’s just not okay for me. Begging for scraps. It’s been two and a half years and you know me better than anyone in the world yet I don’t know what it is that hurt you or why we can never talk about it. It’s easy when I’m off on assignment, to forget that there is more to us than missing each other or the sex or the comfort of feeling safe somewhere. I want to understand you and you won’t let me”.
He interrupts successfully on his second attempt. “What do you mean?? I’m going to marry you! Why would we get married if we didn’t know each other? You always do this. You get upset over into encane and blow it out of proportion, and come back usupholile. Let’s just skip to that part now”.
She surprises them both when her next words come out at normal volume.
“Why can’t I meet your sister? Who is Mthobi? How come Thabani gets to talk about your secrets with you and I don’t? What were you and your mother whispering about the day I found you two crying? Why don’t you want children? There’s a plethora of things I don’t know and I don’t understand why I can’t know them. You and your friends and family have this secret society and I’m like the stray dog you picked up on Masiyephambili and brought home. I can sit in the dining room but not on a chair. Ang’sakwanisi mina.”
He’s gone deathly quiet. Like he realises that she’s serious this time. These are questions she has never asked because he thought she understood never to ask them. But this time. She’s serious. She’s walked out on him exactly four times since they began their volcanic love affair – the volcano being her. Each time he has waited patiently for her to return from whatever far flung country she jets off to and crawl into his bed at an ugodly hour. Each time he hears her struggle with the locks on his door, curse until she gets it right, place a new vinyl for his (her) collection, on his antique oak side table, offload her luggage behind his bedroom door, strip and promptly fall asleep beside him. It was after the fourth time that he proposed. Mostly out of fear that she would leave forever. A ring would keep her around and so far it had worked.
Each time she wakes in his bed after a hiatus, they carry on as though she did not invoke her ancestors and all the plagues of Moses as she stormed out. And always over his reluctance to give her information she does not need. But this time, there is no yelling or violent packing of hair products and dangerous looking stilettos. There is only calm and steady speech. She is serious this time.
He clears his throat and the words come rushing out like a fountain that was stopped has suddenly been unstopped. He says, “I never want to talk about any of it because it’s about a dark time in my childhood and telling you will not change anything, but if it means so much to you I can… “
She shakes her head again, steps forward quietly and slowly covers his soft mouth with her left hand. Her other hands reaches around and buries itself in his mass of curls. She scrunches them for what is most likely the last time, the way he likes. His eyes close at the familiar tug and his stiff body relaxes. His lips pucker beneath her palm as he presses gentle kisses on it and they stand like that for what feels like an eternity. Her tears subside as his arms engulf her in her favourite hug. He always makes her feel small and fragile although she is anything but. Perhaps he is wrong and she will stay. She likes to tug at his afro before undressing him and taking what she wants. His softening is a Pavlovian response to their regular rhythm. She finally wriggles out of his hug and with one last deep breath, she commits his scent to memory. Sunshine, fresh air and 21 year old Glen Moray.
“It’s too late.”
It’s said so softly he’s almost unsure she’s even spoken. But as she pulls out her battered cellphone and swipes her fingers across its cracked surface a few times, taps it and slips it back into her pocket, it begins to sink in. The suitcase she never stowed in its spot behind his bedroom door. The way she kept her sweater on inside the heated house. The way she kept glancing at her wristwatch as she spoke. The way she hovered near the front door. She never intended to stay. She came all the way from the old flat she refused to sell in Famona, to say goodbye.
“Let me do this. Let me tell you. I can tell you” he says, panicked.
She answers in her new calm tone, “my taxi’s here. I’ve got to go. I’m catching the 8pm flight to Addis. Khonzani got me a press pass and a bunch of one on one interviews with some of the Summit delegates. It’s huge. And I get to bring my own crew along.” Her voice is barely audible as she mumbles the last sentence.
He’s dumbstruck as she reaches out her hand places her engagement ring on the cowhide ottoman near the door. She picks up her handbag and pushes her spectacles further up her nose as she fidgets, waiting for him to respond to the information she’s just dropped and the simple act of removing the only thing left tying her to him. His legs won’t move and his throat is dry. She fiddles with her hair as she waits for something. Anything. After a long moment, she turns and pulls the heavy door open.
She wheels out her suitcase and clumsily piles her belongings into the boot of her taxi. The scruffy driver peers curiously at her through the rear-view mirror as he chews on what is possibly a toothpick from last night’s supper. It takes everything to not turn around and see if he has followed her. To check if he is watching. The dull ache that started as she began her speech has matured and is now a splitting pain spreading rapidly from her heart to her head. She shakes her head and steels herself and all but collapses into the back seat of the car. The driver steals a glance at her, confirms her name and destination. She makes a jerking movement he assumes is a nod, turns the music up and drives away from the rest of her life.
He stares at the front door which stands ajar. She never closes it properly. He begins his wait for her return. He can’t wait to wake up to her warm body and cold feet in the middle of the night. He can’t wait to see what vinyl she finds for him in the music shops of Addis Ababa. He can’t wait for uMaMpofu to complain about umngane wakhe who doesn’t do the dishes. He wakes us every morning feeling the emptiness on his left.
She never returns.