Other Words for Home
By Abigail George
I wish you all the best in life. I wish you a long life. I wish that you would always have poetry.
Sexuality is wired into the brain the same way mood is. Those wires are both romantic and playful yet precarious. When I came home to Port Elizabeth, it seemed that all I needed was a change of scenery. A change of suffering. The greatest tragedy of the relationship between the older male and the girl is that the scene when it comes is that lovers will never embrace each other in the same way again although the fabric of stars will continue to shine. The identity of the girl will eventually find a space to crawl into and it will decay. The negative will stay that way if that is what is meant by continuity and something ending.
I am left trembling in the heat in the garden of a post-apartheid South Africa. Home. This is home. A village of people standing in my way. I love you but I cannot explain away this love. This pale love for pale you. You are a leaf. You are a wave. I looked at you and I gathered love in my heart. As if, I would never let it go. Initially I thought crowds would not please me now they do all the time. I thought that they would never please me, as the rain did, like the pleasure of eating ripe fruit, or realising how bittersweet life was. Cups of lukewarm tea would please me. I study nature, the environment around me, love-sickness, and I am in awe of the dark, the anguished feelings that my Johannesburg relatives keep in their sick and twisted minds. I know I made the right decision now. Loving you and then leaving you. I know it and I am sticking by it.
Now that is what I call cantankerous and evil. All they want to live with is nostalgia not the mental throes of someone who is in two minds. I need you to imagine that the pages are still blank. They are waiting for your attention. It was fate was it not. Our ghost story. I invented you. You invented me. I try to remember certain moments in my life. The first time I came across the words Sussex University. My father’s London experience. The first time I saw an autistic child, when I worked with mentally handicapped and physically disabled young adults. Not thinking of my own happiness. Listen to me. I do not wish that I could be part of a smart pair smashed together. I just want a man’s blessing. Then rain came down and washed everything clean. My mother no longer in mourning for her virginal mental faculties when it came to love.
I just want to hear how beautiful and awesome a man finds me. I know that everything decays at the end of the day in sunlight and even the sunlight decays. I love soft music and I will go hunting for the man who loves it as well. Pain is not the monster under the bed. It is not the skeleton in the closet. It rather there when you achieve. When you set the pace. When you accomplish. The monster stares at you. Stares you down. Beware. They are not the ones clapping. At least that is what I have discovered. Once I was a nymphet in a garden sunbathing on my beach towel. Now, overnight it seems as if I have been released from a cage designed by the hands of man. The audience I have now is so small.
Overnight it seems I have grown old. People have grown colder and the relationship I have with my own mother more remote. The weather is comic dark rooms. I know it is time that we begin to listen into the algorithms of our behaviour. The lonely female poet is always spiritual. Whether she wants to be or not. The world has grown dim. The world still gives me a certain kind of satisfaction. Overnight stifled by deprivation what has become of me. It seems as if there is a concert or a kind of symphony in the garden. I carry this symphony wherever I go. My immortality is filled with pollution. I am left thinking of crocodiles and nightingales. They both exist. They both hunger for some kind of flesh. One wants to breathe a kind of peace into your world with birdsong. The other has awful teeth, awful breath and exists only to swallow you whole. You were gentle and provided me with a sense of spiritual ecstasy that was beautiful while it lasted. I love you.
This landscape has changed now. This landscape has changed me. Swaziland. Johannesburg. Port Elizabeth. My childhood home. Death will not come as a surprise to me. Instead, it is the most haunting women who surprise me. You fantastic madman let me alone. Leave me alone. You know when I cry I remember everything about my past. I forget that once I thought of the future as being my only passion. You know when I cry I feel the tingles. I feel the tingles all over. At the end of the day, a writer is a scientist. Love like literature is a long journey. All I have wished for my entire life is to be drunk on the literary world and wisdom and so I am left to reconstruct my life.
If you are a man then the pages are waiting for your masculine attention. If you are a woman then the pages are waiting for your feminine attention. To understand the differences between the genders you only have to exist. You do not have to exist madly or with purpose. You do not have to exist like the birds too. Fly like them on the shine of angel wings. Your shadow is my flesh. Your mirror is my ash. Your cigarettes are my garden. Gather a fruit like a pomegranate to your heart as if I gathered you to my heart. Absorb its red brightness. It is howling therapy. It is a kind of healing that cuts through to the very heart of you. So here we stand. If only I can kill clarity of thought and the visions that I have with some kind of initiation, cook up some kind of proverbial soup with maternal warmth and instinct.
One stands in solitude and the other in the crowd. Do not try to be angry with me just look at the golden circle of the sun. Stop your fidgeting. Stop your loving for a little while. Look at me. You are a footnote. There is never a happy ending. If you want, a happy ending read a fairy tale or attend a wedding. I do not need you to translate melancholia for me. I do not need you to translate the word lovemaking for me. I do not need you to trouble your sweet soul about me because I no longer belong to you and you no longer belong to me. The little love, adoration and affection that I have is just that. A little, not a lot. I know what I have to inherit. I have to inherit the blunt, proud world that is not my home. I have to inherit loss.
Give me something that is unique and authentic. He gave me tenderness and kindness and in return, I adored him for that. He knew I was crazy. In my bones, I knew I was crazy too and I knew that it cut me off from humankind. He moves in the world like a pale fire. Inside of me, he moved like slow motion. I loved that alien feeling of silence in my bedroom filling me up. Even this man’s dust was majestic. He caged me or I caged myself and for some time I felt ethereal. He frightened me. The way he moved in the world. All I wanted was for my mother to meet him. I wanted to introduce this Sussex man to her. I wanted her to give me her blessing. I wanted the Sussex man, ‘the man’, and us in my life to sit down together to a Sunday meal that my mother had prepared. Her roast in her oven. For all of my life, she had always been superior to me.
This is how I wanted memory to operate. Memory informs me. It is not a stranger to my dark shores. I am always vigilant to memory. When I lost my love or rather my life to this man who was no longer a stranger to me, I knew that I would be forever changed. I have experienced the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have cried ‘wolf, wolf’. I know that I have put that experience behind me now. I have felt wooden like I could never be that wave on that beach. Nothing about you has completely withered away. You are what is real like this pencil in my hand. I am on my knees. Happiness frightens me with its hospital corners. It is too neat for me. When I wear my slacks, I imagine I am Marilyn. I imagine that I have that Monroe persona. People will break your heart all the time if you let them.
If you give them permission to, trust me they will. I was a girl-child who wore a crown of thorns. An autistic child will live like any other. She will grow into a woman but she can never be loved as a real woman. She switches that part of her psyche and mental faculties off. The part of her that could have obtained a degree. A positive accomplishment for some. I think of the mother who would have wanted her daughter to be exactly like her in every way. I guess that is what my own mother wanted. I guess that is why I had to give up men. I wondered at the choices they made. Why in the end they did not choose me? There was a time when even my personality was attractive but in the end, it was not enough. There is no place in this world for an autistic child to learn about love, to take those marriage vows and perhaps although they make for good case studies they will make good daughters in the land of forever for caregivers even though wifedom is not for them.
I never called my parents dinosaurs. Maybe I should have. Perhaps I would not have so much guilt and so much self-hate. It becomes nauseating after a while and sometimes in the extreme cases, you have to take a pill for it. Yes, oh joy a pill. They will call it with some unease but the words will spill effortlessly off their tongue that you have a chemical imbalance. Nothing so wrong with that. They will also tell you at least it is not cancer. Who are these people? Greedy, powerful insomniacs. Stupid, stupid people who probably do not take their own advice. What they do not tell you is that this pill or pills will not help you cheat death. I long suspected that my mother had tenderness within her. She never showed it all the time around me. Perhaps others were luckier. They had bones like the autistic children in my care for a few hours. Their eyes were the window to some of the most beautiful souls I have ever met. Perhaps my mother only saw darkness in mine. When she looked in my eyes instead of her own reflection gazing back at her, she saw an indigenous twig whose branches were adorned with absolutely nothing.
‘You dinosaur. You ancient who think that you are so wise. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you for not loving me. For not saying those words at all when I needed to hear it the most. Why did you not love me more? Why did you not say it constantly? Why did you not hug me, hold me close to you so I could smell your aftershave when I cried? Why did you pick me up late from the rehearsal? Why were you there for him and her but not for me, you who pretended that I was an interloper and not a child in need of love? You prayed for me yet still that never washed my sins away. You preached about blasphemy but why could you never lecture me about love for my fellow man. I can see that you hate me now. For the first time in my life, I realise that perhaps you have always despised me because all I have ever made you feel is frustrated. You, dinosaur who have nothing to say, I love you. Yes, I love you. I love you anyway.’
Never for one moment thought that their scarcity of love would become my own. Smoke in my eyes, I never looked down upon my own mother’s sensuality. Nor undermined her. Never thought that there was a chance she would outlive me. Never thought others or another woman would think that I was my father’s wife. That my own mother getting on in her years would be mistaken for my sister. I guess I really let myself down. Did not take enough or better care of myself. Mum I think of your personal history. I think of my personal history and that in the forgetting there is a surrender that we cannot turn back to. You were once my future emergency, my breath, an illusion, something that I projected onto my skin.
Dad. I say those words repeatedly until it begins to sound like a child’s rhyme or a silly song. I love you. I love you. I love you. Dad you have never changed. I have changed. Yes, I am the one who has changed over the years. Sometimes it is the death in the family. It comes. It comes. It comes like cheap society. It can change you like the death of my second mother that overtook me. Romance is like that. Winter. Fragments, anthropological discoveries of dinosaurs at the end of the world. I cannot forget me at nineteen. Dragged to see a psychiatrist who had studied in Vienna. I did not want to let go of my mother’s hand in the darkened hallway. This I know for sure. I will not be making any babies and neither will the mentally handicapped and physically disabled young adults in my care. They will always be children no matter how much their faces deceive you.
Their faces will always be made out of bone and when you touch their almost frail limbs, it will feel as if you are touching fragments. Sometimes it felt as if I mistook the fragments of bone for a wife or a husband. This will happen in their curious world. A world made up of curiosities (is their love a waste of energy or is it my own soul that I am thinking of) and bread. I love you Magdalene but all I am left with and all that I remember now is the silence that fills her presence. My second mother. Gone, forgiven but not forgotten. She shut my whining down. I knew in the ‘ongoingness’ what it meant to describe death. To meet it head on, with my chin and my socks pulled up. Scars are my one regret. We are things. We are material possessions. All I want is sky. Blue is enough for me but I say this and I do not believe it. I think that you can hear it yourself in my words. I thought of all the perfect words I wanted to say to him. I thought of the first words he said to me. ‘You are beautiful.’ I wanted to believe him but he made me feel small in his empiric world.
What is a novel? It is a brief life or contains brief lives. A novel, it only has a temporary existence. It has a voice or many voices. It sounds like a Beatles song, cicadas, love like a sonnet, so much from my past mistakes. Who made up all the rules and then watched how we followed them like fools. The truth is I had a bad time of it. The truth is I had a bad past. My attempt at a novel will have a brief life or contain brief lives. My attempt at a novel will have a temporary existence and when I let go of that world all is gold. Gone are the passages of modern society, the pages that are numbered that visited you fleetingly and that remind you that you can never go back to yesterday. Some will say that you have to self-medicate with rich food and alcohol. That it is the best way to live that if you do not surrender to that you will surrender to chaos. Instead, I leave you with these words Sussex man. I love you. For all of my life I kept those words in my heart.
Kept them to myself. Instead of giving them wings to fly away before cosmic women had wings.
Mum, dad and me in our golden circle. I soon realised we are the idle rich. Side by side with the Muslims that gave spices, poppadums’ and pasta sauce that looked like soup to the poverty-stricken who knocked on their doors. If you had cancer, I would want to annihilate it with more than chemotherapy and radiation. I would want to eat its stain out of your tissue with shark teeth, mouthful for mouthful filled with blood and flesh, leaving a gaping wound where once the cancer had been before. I would thread neat little dark stitches through your skin. In the end, I would have to prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. That I too would be plugged into tubes with my blood wasting away in it away from me because my kidneys just could not do it anymore. Just because they just did not have it in them anymore. Nobody loves you when you are sick. You are just a troublemaker.
You just have trouble staying alive you say. You are not looking for attention but still it seems that all eyes are on you. Every day I wake up and realise that yes, I am a woman (with or without depending on whom is asking that question I am a woman who still has that youth on her side). That we are all here on earth for a little while longer and while I am here, I must be glorious and look glorious flirting at the expense of my soul all at the same time. Nobody ever spoke to me about the acceptance of your own self. To thine own self be true. My mother surely never did. You were a dream, then reality, then a goal. After that, you no longer existed for me and I no longer existed for you. Do not look at me but most especially do not say that you love me. I will not believe you particularly. I was a latecomer. The latecomer who was a late bloomer. Are there still such things? The black sheep of the family who cried ‘wolf, wolf’. The Christian feminist if there ever was such a thing.
In my mind, I do not see the battle, the struggle of my parents’ separation I only see the softness of their togetherness as if their hearts were connected by a long piece of string or a death in the family. Is it forced, is conversation forced when it comes to the end of the relationship. I ask myself pointedly if there is any tension there. There is a world of love but a world of love does not exist for me. It is not for me. I know there must have romanticism at one time in their lives or they might have experienced it with different people but there is a break in the string now. Everything is bitter. Once my mother’s hands were kind and clever. Once she had elegant and graceful fingers that prepared family meals with care. Now all she does is plant rose bushes with those same fingers.
Your world is my world. Your death is my death. Your vision is my vision and so as you weave your story in the universe mine becomes entangled with yours. The surface tension in the chords. The lines that are there on your face, on your world, on your Sussex, on your birthday. I touch your face through the mirror. I have dreamed of us, a perfect union, our residence, our children the way I have dreamt about the permanence of an American woman in the world. A man running. A woman running. Their athleticism. The athlete running. In your pocket, you have keys and a wallet. A wallet filled with crisp notes, which affords me a kind of status that I was never used to as a child. I never believed a man could make a woman happy until the day I met you.
Oh, I have thread for that. Unintended taproots and the discontent that comes with shock called trauma. All I need are pins, a needle and thread for that in a street filled with birds, raging bulls and snapping crocodiles. You are my special voyage into dark, a romantic, a person that swims back to me repeatedly. I am used to these blurred lines. I am used to this image of you. You are the person I have no words for only a heart filled with love and with roses. You put me in a trance the way the stars do. Self-sabotage comes with a sharp destruction. As a world turns into sparks, embers of a fire, a lake of fire turns into shoring, digging away, turning up old resentments. You remind me of the fact that love, all love comes with an inheritance. The difference between you and me is that you are rich and I am poor while I am still in love with you. The thing is that I am talking about a kind of spiritual poverty. Can you understand that or are all your veins made out of ice.
I know now that there will never be enough time in this world to read all the books that were ever written. Romantics and the female writer. We are all filled with something. We all left wanting to be filled with something. A kind of hunger. The only place where flesh lingers is memory. The only place where hurt lingers is when events come to mind. Give me the metamorphosis of parachutes turning into winter light. Give me letters of hope and suffering. A woman turns into a mother every second in South Africa. God, I never will. I look at men who have turned into husbands and all I can see is the weekend. Their stubby chins and hairy potbellies. All I can see is how ancient they have become. You are eternally young. You are the best thing I ever made out of make believe. Make believe is by far the best play dough. So make believe man did you ever love me?
You know for a man to touch a woman it is no easy thing. First, he has to have her consent. She will give this to him on one condition. Only if she knows in that moment that he is in love with her. He does not have to come out and say it. Words do not carry very much weight. To believe it there must be eye contact and for a few moments, she must be brave and not look away. You can only love so much. It can only take you so far to the ends of the earth. It can remind you of your first love. It only takes you a few minutes. I dare you to look into my eyes and find what you are looking for. Look into the windows of my soul. All women speak and write in code. They can do both magnificently. Marilyn Monroe, James Byron Dean, Kubrick, Hitchcock and the one I love best Nabokov. Romantics everyone. They were always so invested in what they were doing. Whether they were a filmmaker or scaring people to death. People always think of the physical. Do not stop thinking of the physical in your relationship because soon that will be the cause of the death of it.
You are so in love so at some point in the relationship with who this other person (you) thinks you are. You go out of your way to please him and to make sure that he understands that if they treat you well there is not anything that you will not do for them. At some point, my unhappiness must meet your happiness. In some ways it is your happiness that is nurturing my unhappiness. I know it does not make sense. It does not have to make sense. I am a woman and half the time the things we say and think are bizarre and strange. We house collections of every kind. Some are splendid and some of their routes in melancholia. Some we are the master of and when we are secretive, we are usually hiding a very good half-lie. There is a reason that we do not want you to know anything about the reality of the situation. Do not look. In time, I should have said I would have got round to telling you all about it and then perhaps you would not have looked at me with self-pity in your eyes, you would have thought me brave. I love you. I know I do not need to say it all the time but I want to.
I like to acknowledge you in this way. I have seen things get nasty in other relationships so I know what love looks like on the surface but I also know what it looks like in that other world when you are protecting other people from the people who supposedly love them. Words do not mean a thing if you do not have the granite to back you up. I guess in the end that they do not know what is wrong with me or they do not care to know what the words mental hospital mean, bipolar or a madness life. All I want from them, no the world is to be loved. I do not want a celebration to be held in my honour as if I was at a child’s birthday party again. I want to know if you will be with me when a new president is elected in this democratic country of ours. If you will watch the rain, the seasons change, eat my roasted chicken feast or butterflied lamb that I have prepared for you. Share your life with me. I want to know if you are prepared for any eventuality. I want to welcome you home in the evenings. I want you to know it is always you. I am always leaving you but then again I am always finding you in the most unexpected places.
You see I have never forgotten the titan that you were. I made you out to be more dream than reality nevertheless you exist. I know I have loved. I know I have the capacity to love, for love, to surrender to you but always in your arms it is someone else I am searching for or is it something. Perhaps empires were enough for you. I could never understand men playing at building empires, kingdoms. Here is some free advice. Do not fall in love with your best friend especially if he already belongs to another. At the end of the day, you will be the one left hurt. It is best not to understand a man at all, how he negotiates his route in the world. What he reacts, responds to. I know that there is something about the female psyche that leaves him cold. I am sorry that I never told you how beautiful I thought you were so I am telling you now. Better late than never I guess. My mother never taught me the value of love. All my life I have loved men from afar, from the distant shore and I have been kept waiting, which is not such an easy thing to do if you have been impatient since birth for the world to admire you.
I love you but in the end that did not matter. Writing the love story is all I have now. Keep me close. Do not hurt me. Above all else, do not betray me. I never said any of those words when you loved me. If you find a man on your destination let him come to you and not the other way round, darling. Let him worship you. Let him put you on a pedestal and not the other way round. It was fate that we had to meet the way we did. It was fate that we had to part the way we did. All loved up with no place left to go but my childhood home. Back to mum and dad wise and sad. A pioneer with great ideas. An impulsive pioneer with grandiose ideas. What I know of love is this. I do not want anything to do with it. If it comes my way, again surely I will give it up. I feed people now. Instead of loving you, which is the sole responsibility of the wife in your life, I feed people. Hungry people grow on me like trees. I spread out my rainy arms to meet them. The lost boys. I call them. Is that not what we have in common? The fact that we are all lost.
I have come home and they are searching for a home in time and space that they will never find. Poverty. They will always live in poverty. People do not understand what the word ‘touch’ really means. ‘Touched by fire’. That is what I feel when I feed the neediest, hungriest people I have ever come across in my life. I see the spiritual poverty in their eyes mirror my own and I think to myself that I have finally found love, a connection, a catalyst to fill all my days and nights. I will tell love. I will tell it not to waste its energies or its time, its electricity, its hottest state, its glorious history on me. I will give it up to the world from whence it came with all of its splendid awe. History has not made visionaries of women like the men who are dead poets. Love haunts me like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Is there enough love in the world for a woman like me? Love is a perversion of the truth. Love leaves me empty, jealous and cold. A tyrant. I feel it coming up on me sometimes but I am afraid that as soon as it begins to cloud my judgement I begin to withdraw and shut down my intuition.
Give me a reason or do not give me one in the end. I will still have my sanity. Love is not for anyone unless they are thinking of settling down and that is the furthest thing from my mind having never had children. This is my life now. A life filled with those neat hospital corners that house cleaners in hotels make leaving a mint chocolate on your pillow. I have finally begun to believe in myself again. Nothing about you is truthful. Most of what I know of you I have imagined. I belong to mummy. Daddy figures somewhere in the equation of life. It is like a forest. Dawn is. I go through mum’s wardrobe searching for treasure. Something not quite lost but already half-found. I love you is different from saying I love you mummy. The figurative means a love divine. I love everything about you and absolutely nothing all at once. I came from a generation of women who did all the giving and the men who did all the taking. The beauty of the dark swarm in your hair overcomes me. Are you as overcome by that romantic line as I am? Sweet Jesus, romantic lines will be the death of me.
Sometimes I leave the poems as they are. I do not retouch them, censor or edit them in anyway. Sometimes I long to and some days I do not. Sometimes I tenderly reconstruct them when my heart is in it and I can stand the James Byron Dean kind of pain. I let the autumn winds blow into my writing, along with the mustard seed and indigenous flora. Sometimes I let the poetry automatically turn into prose all by its lonesome self. Sometimes I think to myself, oh what give it a go, live a little and write about the solidity of love. How it anchors you when you have to weather storms but sometimes in other words (worlds) I call that territory as I see it. A wallflower. When I see my literary work through the eyes of a staggering drunk then something about it pleases me at the same time when I am filled with gross self-hate.
I never told myself that perhaps one day I would wake up a famous reckless fool, a beautiful famous personality, attractive with pleasing features and talent, that kind of famous or that I would become a kind of celebrity writer. It just was not that important to me. People in my hometown knew my father. People in my hometown knew he was a writer. He did not care about them in a way. He did not let their opinions about him get to him but when I think about people’s opinions of me, about how I have lived my life, not married, not had those kids at thirty, even at thirty-five then I started to worry. Then I started wondering whatever was the matter with me that set me out on this course. Life is not about killing time, wasting it or using it as a crutch.
Life, it is about discovering yourself. Going out there on pilgrimages. Having adventures. What I have learned from my own life experience. I have been my own teacher. People do not just live in their own world. They live in their own reality. Everybody has to be miserable, sad and suffer in their own way that all lovers do before reaching the nirvana of happiness. In that way, people can find their own solace too. I think that you can only imagine loneliness. People do not really want to accept it, that perhaps loneliness is only a state of mind. You might disagree with me but I am okay with it but I just thought that I would leave you with that thought. There is so much within me of intrinsic value but also not enough to keep on loving the non-existent, preternaturally youthful looking you.
Right now, you are George Orwell of all people.
I am reading Why I Write. All he talks about is politics. Politics this and politics that. I am deathly afraid of having to reread Animal Farm which I thought was a kind of a fairy tale the first time I read it, I thought it was so funny and hilarious. Animals talking to each other. I thought that was such a brilliant idea and asked myself why I had not thought about it before. I thought that was a brilliant name for a children’s book. Animal Farm and then there is his 1984 that I have to wade through as if swimming through bone and history. Some days you are a woman. Some days you are a man. Some days you are Orlando. Some days you are Hemingway. Some days I have to nurse you back to health. Pretend this is normal. For me this is normal. In my daydream, you are Jeanette Winterson. You have her hands.
They feel like magic. Although when it feels like rain, you can sometimes feel like Jerome David Salinger, David Foster Wallace, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, Haruki Murakami, Paulo Coelho, NoViolet Bulawayo, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ruth Ozeki. Sometimes you are parts of all my favourite writers and poets. Sometimes you besiege me. I have to say this. I am ‘normal’ again whatever normal means. I have to tell you I am not a little girl anymore. I do not like that word normal. After all this time, you still make me feel safe as houses, as warm as a hollow chocolate Easter egg in the hands of a child and happy like a cuckoo clock.
I will follow you anywhere. Cities and countries. I will swim for you. Come up for air for you. Dance for you, Smile for you. Laugh for you. Whether you are, I will call that home. Up the Nile, through the Suez Canal, Argentina, Chile, Paris, Texas, Paris, France, abroad, down cobblestone streets, bridges, village life in the towns of London, across Africa, Ghana, Kenya. Frida Kahlo’s Mexico City. Where Vincent van Gogh spent the last years of his life before he shot himself. Key West. Hawaii. Jamaica. Budapest. Prague. The former Yugoslavia. Minnesota. Prairies and plains found in the Midwest. Los Angeles. Bosnia. You, my blood tie.
My gravity, my spectator bird, my Sabbath, June and fire.
There are writers that I am only beginning to discover after my nervous breakdown. Perhaps these words do not mean anything to you at all. I do not mind. I love you so I will forgive you for thinking, after all this time is she still crazy. It is just that everything important that has ever happened to me has always involved me having a relationship with an older man. I will even forgive you for using the word ‘crazy’. Which one is better do you think? Crazy or insane but it is the stigma I hate. I mean it is not as if you felt the same way about me. Colours are brighter when you are hypomanic.
If I cannot have you. If I cannot be with you, be by your side, have your children, live with you, if I can never grow old with you in sickness and in health, if I can never take those vows with you since you are already in a relationship. Instead, let us live side by side, as ghosts do. Then I will go out into this world the way God made me, intended for me and I will feed the hungry. I will feed the starving masses. I will talk to strangers. I will give a little. Take the weight of the world upon my shoulders. You who have inspired volumes of poetry and prose. The Sussex man who has no name. Being an apprentice only gives you something to build on.
You can build either with agony or with ecstasy. Every apprentice writer builds with both. The silence of the apparitions all around me in my environment seeps into my pores. There is a history there. Except what to do with the apparitions inside my head. How to behead them all. How to get away from them. Even they are all romantics. They sit down with me at breakfast, lunch and dinner. When I eat a peach, they want one too. Self-medication is the answer. I always know when I can get a story out of it. I quietly wait on them like rabbits to sell me their kingdoms for a dollar.
You, the Sussex man, taught me that.
It feels as if my bones have been put into a box for safekeeping until I am sane again.
Until all the madness in my life has left me. This makes me happy, elated but I am also left sad. I am surrounded by water. I know when winter comes then I will not be able to stand the water. It will be too cold to swim. There were days when the insanity was like having a sweet tooth. There lies a blazing a trail. There lies isolation in front of me, behind me. The fall, Lazarus, berg falling slowly, and what we keep when our world shifts and family and early life. You are gone. My second mother and the love of my life. The bonds that mothers and their daughters have are like veins. I never anticipated this moment of nostalgia for one second. How much I would miss her and the conversations that we used to have.
So, what if I searched for intimacy in the wrong places? Everybody else was doing it so why could I not do the same thing. I knew that it was not an experience of love or respect. This temporary feeling. I lost someone. The lighthouse was no longer beaming down at me. All men could do was scheme. At first, I was oblivious to that. To their movement in the world. I wanted to survive on the little affection that they gave me. I wanted them to scribble affection, written on my body I thought that would make me complete somehow. I think of loss and of how this had affected me. In every moment, I anticipate you. I think and I dream. I have goals. I try building a foundation that will lead me back again to the lovers but all I can think about is my aunt who died of breast cancer. Of how I was never there. Never present.
I think of my mother’s job. Teaching Afrikaans, accounting and needlework to high school kids. I think of the lovers I had and the lovers I will never have. I think of my father’s dissatisfaction inside of his own skin. I think of my sister and how I can make her less golden. I think to myself how beautiful she is. Gorgeous. What can I do about it except crush it into smithereens? This jealousy. This streak of envy. I am the only person who knows about the sorrows of my suffering. They exist as constellations beyond the trees, secret lives that are lost in love, a chronic city. I think to myself about how I can bury the cities of the past, our intimacy, and the pain of my mind. How can I wake up tomorrow fresh and happy? I think of my voyage into dark. I think of the waves. I think of my room. Silence filling up the algorithms of my bedroom.
I make an omelette all the while thinking of gender betrayal. I have the tickets for that. Later on, I find myself in an aisle in the supermarket perusing the state of melons. Constructing sympathy for each melon with a landmark exhilaration. Light beckons now as I make my way to my car and with the light comes awareness, a vitality, and energy. I put the radio on as I drive home. A female writer is being interviewed on the radio. It is time for female writers to begin to listen to each other she says and to begin to see each other as feminists in their own right. At home, I pack out all groceries. I make myself a packet of pasta. Dinner can wait. I have a book by Jean Rhys waiting for me. After leaving her Mr Mackenzie, I wonder what happened to her. I wonder did the woman inside of her just go to sleep. I know what loneliness is. I know what a primitive kind of thirst this is.
It is enough for me to surround myself with novels and classical music. I am a latecomer. I am a late bloomer. I will never have those children. I am a child myself. I am a grown up child living in my mother and father’s house. Sometimes the books I read fill me up with a kind of Norwegian magic. I say Norwegian because that word has always had an almost magical quality for me. Anything from the countries that make up Scandinavia. Psychoanalysis had a frail beauty. Both relentless and reckless. It was always like a discovery of treasure after treasure in a rural countryside. Plunging symbolically into childbirth. I am a novelist and to me writing a book is like childbirth. I feel the pangs. The Darwinian experience. Childbirth is an experience like no other.
Raising the book up, up, up is like an experiment of sorts. You engage with your characters as if they are real people made with a kind of substance. There are echoes in the books that you write of the unknown destinations that you have traveled yourself in life until finally one day when you realise that you are finished you call the problems that you have with the symbolism in the book heritage. For some people pain is a solitary experience. They do not want to share it with the rest of the world. For others all they want to do is to talk about their pains, their woundedness and the pathetic frustration that they feel. They want to put it all on you. They want to blame someone so they blame you because you are the only one nearest to them in their proximity.
Sometimes daydreaming returns like the memory of your first love. When it does, it can either do one of two things. Shatter you completely or remind you that you did the impossible. You experienced love. You might not again or you might and this will give you an achievable hope. I do not know much when the darkness embraces me. Only this. That I am slowly losing my mind. It is not an inconvenience for a writer to be depressed. Your allies will call you. They will ask you how you are sincerely. They will be the ones who will visit. On the other hand, your depression will thrill your enemies. They will be the first ones to call you an insane failure. It is degrading. It might take away your dignity but at least you will know the difference between whom you can trust.
You know who is the most loyal towards you. You will also realise people will always disappoint you and that to begin with you did not really need friends all that much. You were enough. You were good enough. There is a sensual anticipation when I open the book, before I begin to read. I lick my lips as if I am eating a chocolate filled croissant, drinking coffee at a café and this is how my day begins somehow, somewhere in a post-apartheid South Africa that either screams revolution one day and a love for all the next. Struggle one day and a psychoanalytic era the next. I miss the smell of his skin. I miss the fabric of the tapestry of his flesh. Most of all I miss his mouth. I miss the whiteness of my skin against his. Yes, I miss love that much.
All I want to do sometimes is to hold onto it and not let it go. All I wanted to have was a religious experience and when I fulfilled all the requirements of having that experience, I let it go. All I wanted was love. All I wanted was to be in love and give it a name. All I wanted was to call out his name, hear his voice, look at him and when I lived through that experience, I let it go. I always knew I wanted children. Not having them broke my heart a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold. I would watch other mothers with their progeny. Yes, I would wish it were me but there was another part of me that was also glad that events turned out the way it did. I have always felt a hunger for you. After all these years, still this hunger for you has not gone away. I knew why men hated me so.
I knew why women hated me so. All I wanted was for him to make love to me. All I ever wanted was for his eyes to meet mine. I never wanted to let go of him. There was always this longing. Now I call this longing distance. There was always this sense of happiness whenever he was near or faraway in another city traveling for business. There was his touch and that became my reason for living. There was his tenderness, his kindness, his apology that I wished I could capture in a photograph with the glare in his eyes all lit up, his sweetness and the image that I had of him that he was a good man. I knew what it would have been like to be touched by him for an entire lifetime. There was always this illusion that now I was part of a tribe, always this code of trees in his fingertips, but there was a future that I was innocent of in all regards.
A future that included him but that I was never going to be a part of no matter what. He was my survival kit in the history wilderness. He was my therapist, psychoanalyst, psychiatric nurse and psychiatrist. For a long time, when I could not sleep there was simply the unawareness that already I had been loved. I would walk up streets and down streets in Johannesburg. In the hospital, there was always this antiseptic smell. The nurses would walk pass you without smiling at you. I am back. I have come back the whole way. Instead, people have moved on. The people that I have loved have moved on with their lives. Forward. Forward. Onward. I have lost much. I have lost every one of them but I know my survival to outwit them all I must brace myself.
I must be brave. Now to torture myself I tell myself that love does not exist. There is no family. No sedan with wheels to take you places to where you want to go. Normality is an experience. Reality is like a milkshake. I have figured out that there is a God, there is an exit route, there is an escape hatch and it is folly to be wise. All this time I have been waiting to be saved. For someone to come along and save me. Never knowing, never acknowledging that I had it within me all along. I have lived inside of a mirror for the whole of my life. What I have projected onto other people is this. A country of ice cream. My confidence melts away in the presence of beauty, in the presence of beautiful and intelligent men. Now they simply magnify my acute spells of depression.
Now they leave me alone with my strange notions. Once, I was thin and attractive and I could hardly wait for them to express themselves, open themselves up to time and to me. I urged them to go ahead and give me a glimpse into what made them vulnerable and what made them feel insecure. I was filled with prospects. Now those moments are rare. From my perspective, you can never fix a man who does not want your love. If he says it, if his body language expresses this to you do not even go there. Why would you want that kind of angst and hurt anyway? There was always this country of waves inside my head. An arrangement of electricity. The doctors would call it chemistry. I would know better. I would know now it was the time of the river animal.
There was always this feeling of never wanting to be alone. I always wanted to be in his midst or near him. I always wanted to feel him even though there was a distance between us. He was important to me because it was a significant part of my life. I called it ‘love’. He called it something else. For me it was like ‘withdrawing into introspection’. There was another version of myself that I was now responsible for. He never gave me any instructions. If he could do this to me then I realised that I would be able to weather any storm. Instead of friendship he gave me grief and I did not realise then what I realised now. That I would be forever writing about this elegant grief until eternity.
Sometimes I would close my eyes, feel contentment, open them and then when I realised he was no longer there I would begin to cry. There was always this fear that the relationships I had with men and women would begin to repeat themselves. I would confide in a man or a woman and then they would leave me. Even stories have knots. Extrapolated personalities. Cemented intellectual lives. Phenomenology. I am a female writer. I am a poet. My intimate world shifts as the ocean-sea shifts. I do not believe in mermaids. A child can and will believe in mermaids. They cannot separate nature from make believe. You can define me in my fragments.
You can define me in the meals that I prepare. I am like any case study that has been guided to light, a semi-finalist who is blinded by her tears, a daughter who weeps for a lack of mother love and a sister in a bay of decay. I am trying to occur. I am trying to live without sadness, despair, or even hardship. It seems though that those three things are the hardest to let go of or perhaps they do not want to let go of me. You crocodile, you cruel world with your shark teeth, you frost, you weeping woman, you man strutting about town confidence in his swagger we are not so different. There is an integrity there in your embryo, in the yolk of your embryo. You haunt me with your intensity, with your identity. For every future artist there must be a death. Even if it means a death of the same artist’s childhood.
The words come shaking up her nerves.
Reminding her that there is an asylum, a dalliance with the past, invasion and a lack of control. She has to live with all. That is the law of sickness, of madness, of her own madness. She covers herself up by what is real. She looks at the differences between men and women. Who is the most violent? Who is the most depressive? She tries not to think about the chronic illness that she lives with daily. There is a repetition of several things that she finds order, routine and control in and if she did not have these things, she knew she would be lost. At night, when she falls asleep a blindfold blooms over her eyes and she begins to remember that there was a matchbox for the incense. Lavender wine. He unhooked her brassiere. Lifted her dress over her head.
‘It is okay. I am not going to hurt you. I promise. Gosh, you are beautiful.’ It is hard to understand his heavy accent. She nods her head. She believes him as she believes that the origins of the Khoi came from the Eastern Cape. ‘Do you believe me?’ She acquiesces.
‘The ballad of sex just never happened for me. Sex is the stuff of fairy tales. It cannot last forever.’ She can hear her voice say in the group sessions at the hospital. That is how she speaks about it. She calls it a ballad. Everything beautiful that ever happened to her in her life was a ballad, a wonderland of traffic going up streets and going down streets. Her smile revealed nothing. She was still composed, calm. Nothing shattered her nerves.
‘I wish this weekend would just get a bloody move on. I have strange dreams at night. A man unhooking my brassiere. Lifting my dress over my head.’ Elise says to her analyst that she is secretly in love with.
‘Your body is like a writing sample. The other woman’s ephemera. Wintering in a sleeping forest. News that frightens me to death. A manifesto of a nervous breakdown. A scrapbook of haiku songs. A Buddha mantra on canvas. Fireworks. Neruda. You are my survival kit out in the wilderness history.’ She says nothing. Knows that nothing that she says will impress him. Is this what intimacy feels like, a grandmother’s closure closing in, breaking her down, and hovering around her spirit? There is one face that is a blank slate, and the other face a face wearing desire. Women are all parts of the same machine. Do they all have the same dreams at nights?
A man cupping her face in his hands. A butcher’s hands. He smelled like a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker this foreigner.
Just do not stop. Put your hands everywhere. On the nape of my neck, my glorious shoulder blades, my small breasts, and my thighs. Touch me. I am all yours. She wants to say. She very coolly opens the faith of her legs, the icehouse of her pale thighs. Write Elise, write. That is your voice. Variations of Keats, of romanticism, of global patters written on Nebuchadnezzar’s wall. You are Elijah. This is the start of self-esteem, of believing in yourself. After that, she will take a bath while he sleeps. She will leave while she sleeps. She wishes she had flawless skin. She has flawless skin but she wants a man to tell her that she has flawless skin. She wants a man to buy her perfume, gifts, a flat. Even the lifeless page is not so lifeless after all.
‘Your eyes are the colour of the surface of a blue sky that river dust pours itself into. She does not say that. He will not understand how much wounded she is and who is responsible for that. Of how the sea of her hometown sings a ballad to her and mocks her at the same time. She is the drowned visitor. She is the drowned girl, the drowned woman. She cannot forget that colour of blue in his eyes shining like a halo.
‘Does it matter that I am Portuguese?’
‘No.’ she says very quietly. It matters to her as metaphysics matters to her.
‘Does it matter that I am poor?’ he asks her.
‘No.’ she says very quietly again.
‘Does it matter that I cannot really speak English all that well?’
‘No, no, of course it does not matter to me at all.’ All she wants is for him to kiss her so she could feel dirty, saintly and pretty.
‘Your mother will not like me. Your father will not approve. Good thing they are far away not to see us making love.’ She thinks of the origins of the Khoi in her hometown. The dirt under his fingernails. She thinks of ikebana. She thinks of origami. She thinks of the pigeons on the roof of her childhood home turning into swans in the duck pond at the park while she watches on a park bench sitting next to a sleeping vagrant.
‘Does it bother you that I am not educated? I have wife. I have children. No education. One day I will bring them to this country. What you not home for Christmas for? Why you stay alone in a flat? Not safe. Not safe for girl like you. Pretty girl like you. Pretty eyes. Sexy girl like you. You want me to feed you.’
‘No I want you to put your hands here.’ She stares into his blue eyes.
‘Tell me why you came here. No, don’t stop just tell me why you came here.’
‘For a better life. For a better life for my children.’
It was the year of literature for me. It was the year of picking out books that would make me feel glorious and unique for being a female writing in an age of iron still dominated by males. It was the year of missing people from childhood, from high school, an aunt who was so far away from me who died from cancer, another family member who I regarded as my second mother who passed on after a short illness. It was the year I first spoke those words. She did not have to go, I said. Her death was untimely, I said. These days I am catching up on my reading. Reading all those books, I should have read in high school and university. I am reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf. Have yet to finish Mrs Dalloway. Have yet to start on The Voyage Out and her essays and lectures. Am feeling gloriously in tune with stream of consciousness writing. Am positively glowing with it.
I write best in that niche but was told to explore other avenues as well. The year is ending but a writer and a poet’s work is never done. I am more tired in the evenings now. The more I think of the ‘ballad of Sylvia and Ted’, the more I think of the ballad of my own parents, of my own failing health problems. How they do not fit anymore into that otherworldly wheel of perfectly matched individuals who get married fit into. How my father is not a repair type of person or a repairperson. I think of waves. Woolf’s waves. From childhood to growing, becoming more and more set in your ways, becoming elderly. I think of the waves breaking against Sylvia Plath’s shore. My Hiroshima. The Hiroshima of my parents own making. When you write you have to get used to the solitude. It almost pains me to say this. You take all your wounds, all your walking woundedness, all your scar tissue, all your shouty emotions.
You spread it all out in front of you, and then you begin to put everything in mental boxes. Make arrangements out of them and label them all with ‘Pandora’. Only if you feel like it. Remember, these are also treasures so treasure them. Treasure your thoughts because they are precious. As precious as ephemera, the miracles of glaciers and Rwandan butterflies. Tonight the sky was as empty as a drum. Fresh pipes are wasted as something blurred. A foot, an eye, written on the body a scrape of September from my knee. Examine my teeth. They are beautiful. A lover stalks a lover. In the end, they become husband and wife. The moonlight is too intent for me. What happened before my birth? Do my parents remember burning away? That there were aloes from Bethelsdorp. There were embers that were flying. Hair a field stopping for nothing. Bones were anchors. A marriage.
They knew children would come eventually. He puts his hands on her hips and they dance. They do not have children yet. My father knows everything there is to know about the works of Milton. My mother’s skin tastes of salt, a paralysed river poured into a machine. How he loves the canvas of her skin. How he wishes that their lovemaking could go on forever and ever. Before the children come. She is the butcher’s wife. She dreams of scrolls. Are you there God Listening? Are you having conversations with a prophet? My mother has a garden state of mind. Flowers bloomed in her hair there that tasted like chrysanthemums, the air that you found after going up the mountain. My aunt is dying of cancer. She is dying of breast cancer. She will not make it to another birthday. Another Christmas. I write imaginary letters to a brother in rehab. I found Ouma’s kitchen in the fellowship of the wild.
I was a teenage runaway. Does God answer prayer? When the children do come. Suddenly now there is a distance. A separation that was not there before. The children are strong. They have to be. Their parents’ soon realise that vows well they were not enough. Buying furniture, a house. My mother’s hands feel like fire. She is braiding my hair. She wants me to look as beautiful and as elegant as she does. I will never look as beautiful and elegant as she does. I will never look as skinny-thin as she does. Boys will never like me or call me slut. They will rather call me Glasses. I am just a silhouette. I am just a shadow of her. Blue. I have fallen in love with aviaries. Gush and gush and a gush of glut. Memory is bleak, a pageant of sorts. I pull my nightgown over my head. I remember when boys stalked my flesh. Those days are long gone.My thighs have their own narrative.
My voice is golden as it falls to decay. Listen to the cat. The dog howls in the distance. I have the loneliness of scars. I was happy in the light. In the darkness flux too. I opened my eyes, remembered childhood. When my parents’ gave each other the silent treatment. They are not lovers anymore. Have not been for years. They were happy once. Their unhappiness has filtered down to us. Children made of evenings and tennis. Children who are competitive at the swings. Children who have now become lovers too. Children whose lives have become so filled with dread. Children who are afraid they will end up like their parents. A boy is different. A boy fumbles. A boy brings a bottle of his father’s single malt whiskey with him. The boy was popular, had his eye on her but she knows it will not be the same way as it is with the Portuguese man, the foreigner. The boy lights a cigarette. He stares too much. They are on top of the world.
They can see the city lights from where they are sitting on the hood of his car. She knows soon, soon he will make his move. She will have to submit like all girls her age if she wants to be popular. If she wants to be seen as, the neon lit ‘it’ girl. If she wants to be seen as the girl on his arm. When he asked her out, he made sure it was in front of her friends, so she grew in status. She was powerful. Suddenly she was a commodity. Property. He made certain his entourage saw the girl he picked. Quiet. A little forlorn around the edges perhaps. She was the kind of girl, the one who just got out of that hospital. Thin but the right kind of thin. Beautiful legs. She was the kind of girl who beautiful but who did not know it. She would grow up and realise too late, what she had missed in life. She would never be a wife or a divorcee. They called her abnormal, easy on the eye, ‘insane in the brain’ but she had said yes anyway.
‘If you drink it does not mean you are an alcoholic.’ The boy says.
‘I know.’ She says.
She could see the lights of the psychiatric hospital from where they were sitting.
‘Sometimes I wish I was not sick.’
‘What do you mean? Do you have cancer or something?’
‘Bipolar. Personal velocity. Melancholia. A sadness swept inside my brain driving me slowly, sweetly insane.’’
‘We are all just human bodies.’ The boy says. ‘My family is not a perfect family. We are all flawed. We have a house by a lake, pretty houses, and swimming pools.’ The perfect boy says.
‘Are you a woman yet?’ the perfect boy says.
‘What is that supposed to mean ‘yet’?’ The girl says.
‘Are you a virgin?’ the perfect boy says.
‘I tried to kill myself last summer.
‘Sweet Jesus! Why?’
‘I did not feel like living anymore, reading self-help books. I was unhappy.’
‘I have never met a girl like you before you know.’ The popular boy said. ‘You just say what is on your mind. What is your favourite word?’
‘Silence. If I had wings, a visa and a plane ticket, I would fly home. American boys do not understand South African girls.’
‘I like the word archipelago. Do you have a psychoanalyst?’
‘I had a boyfriend once. He had yellow hair. I loved the way he used to hold me as if he was not going to let me go. The way I held you back. Later all the letters I wrote to him, all my secret letters I wished were either returned or burned.’
‘If we were boyfriend and girlfriend would you write me letters?’
She said nothing.
As he reached for me, I could taste his cigarette mouth.
‘I also had a psychoanalyst for a while. After my parents’ divorce.’
She will never see this boy again. He will make sure of that. If they pass each other in the school halls, they will ignore each other. Her friends would ask her, ‘Tell us, what happened.’
She would answer, ‘Nothing happened. I just was not in the mood to get drunk.’ His friends would ask him, ‘How was she? Was she easy? Was she a virgin? She did not even want to smoke a cigarette with you!’ All his friends crestfallen would shake their heads. ‘She was just a badly drawn girl. Did she tell you about her voices? Did she want to talk for hours?’
She is forty-two now. Older. Wiser. She writes now. Much more than she ever did when she was in her mid-thirties. She is no Joan Didion. More Anita Brookner. Cigarette in hand she asks the photographer from the newspaper can she smoke. She pretends she heard him and lights the tip of the cigarette. She is not fat. Her people would be flabbergasted. People, writers go all digital on her now but here she is doing her thing again. Being interviewed by a newspaper. Newsweek will not be coming out in print any longer. To even think of such a thing. After leaving Mr Muirhead, after leaving that dream world that lasted months she felt she owed it to herself to leave some kind of legacy. Here it is. A some kind of book. Okay, call it a novel. Her working title was Hiroshima. Then she changed it to Auschwitz but she thought she should not take a man breaking her heart all so seriously. Really, comparing it to the holocaust. Comparing it to a ghost story, stories and murder.
Living vicariously through Jean Rhys. That was her people. Jean Rhys. Ingrid Jonker. Virginia Woolf. Love, the details of love, yes there was catastrophic circumstances sometimes, heated discussions, enraged debates, scenes and scenarios but who was looking so intensely young and at the same time inexperienced. This book was a tribute to him. A man who was to all intents and purposes ‘dead’ to her. Did not exist. He was the non-entity and not the girl. The girl was not the non-entity. She did not behave disgracefully. All the others said she did. The other women. But they did not know anything about anything really. She feasted on those rare private moments that she spent in the man’s domain for hours smoking cigarette after cigarette. A man like that would make it difficult for sanity to remain (she had her spells of depression, he returned to his wife, a small child, an empire), to return to a normal world (but she became harder to please) filled with intuition and sensibilities. Her appetite returned vociferously in her twenties.
She did not swim anymore. She never smiled. Never said please or thank you on her return to her childhood home. Family life was never the same again for her and she never returned to Johannesburg. She fell ill. She relapsed. She recovered. Repeatedly and again, because you see with a man like that you will always feel trapped. He will make you wild with jealousy. He will turn you into a savage; make you angry, enraged even. He will exploit you to the ends of the earth or at least at the end of the day that is what you will call it. He will make you read poetry. Lolita. Nabokov. Nabokov. Lolita. You will memorise sonnets. You will write haiku. You will do anything to be near him. Smell him. Touch him. Feel the tenderness in his eyes (of course you were in love so she thought to herself this is what tenderness is, when he takes me by the hand, when he takes me to his bed, when he takes me to the backseat of his car).
She remembers how the warmth of his shirt felt. How she brushed her hair that morning. The morning of the end of the relationship. That she remembers. Kohl-rimmed eyes. Mascara running down her tear-streaked face. You will still remember twenty years later and it will make you ill. You will walk around until two o’ clock in the afternoon in your pyjamas smoking a cigarette, drinking lukewarm filter coffee remembering how he made you cry. How sometimes you still cried over the fact that he was the man in whose arms you became a woman. Trapped. Yes, you were trapped all this time like a bear in hibernation. The book. You tell the interviewer the name of the book is Johannesburg Memories. It is a book about a badly drawn girl at a college in Johannesburg and her love affairs. It is really a horror book but Bram Stoker got there first you say candidly, you say with a hint of a smile and then you laugh. It is a story about love, finding love, searching for love. No mother should ever read a book about their daughter’s matters of the heart because every mother wants her daughter to be happy.
‘Elise, do you love me? If you love me you will put that book down.’ Stoker stood in front of Elise in his underwear.
‘You are plotting grief for no reason at all. I am with you. I believe in your dreams.’ Said Elise turning the page.
‘You did not say ‘our dreams’. You are acting indifferent towards me. You are acting as if that book is more important to you than I am. That is different. I want you to say those three words because it is important to me.’
‘I do love you. I love you in a paranoiac sort of way. I love you so much that it hurts. What do you have to say to that? You are a painting. I am the curator of the art gallery. You are a landscape. I am the photographer. You are a book. I am the librarian. You are a confessional poet. I am one of the other poets in the workshop. If you are thirsty then I am your drink of water.’
‘That is kind of a swell thing to say to a guy. I feel like Bogart did in Casablanca.’
‘What I am trying to say is that it does not matter whether or not I tell you or say those words, it takes tough guts to say those words. What matters is the here and now and the here and now is that we are together. When I am with you it feels though as if I am visiting the museum at night and everything comes to life except I cannot move. I am the self-portrait. I am the statuesque still life. You are different baby the Tyrannosaurus Rex says to me. That is what I have inside of my head all the time. You are different. I have grown up like that. With those words. I told you the stories about my mother. The love stories about my father. My sibling rivalry. How our competitive nature began at the swings. The Holiday Inn, eating hotdogs, swimming pool, the trampoline, the stage and how even a drama rehearsal set the course for our life. You have so much to give and you expect so much, you demand so much but it seems as if my love is not enough. It is not enough for me to say I need you.’
‘We are in the desert now because I do not have any idea what you are talking about. Imagine if the two of us were married and I was not a homosexual.’
‘When I was growing up people automatically assumed I was strange, that I was a funny girl with skinny legs and glasses. In some ways they were right to think that way.’ Elise flummoxed finally put the book down next to her on the bed.
‘Well I think you are a beautiful girl. Sometimes I think you are too unhappy for your own good but it turns out well for your novels since the protagonists are usually unhappy themselves. Now as an adult you share your bed with a homosexual.’
‘I think you have a complex. I do hate it when you start to talk about yourself that way.’
‘Of course I am insecure. Currently, I am still in the closet and I live with my best friend who people think is my attractive girlfriend. We go to weddings together. We go to shows. I help you dress. You listen to me while I talk to you about my love affairs or rather my non-existent love affairs.’
‘You are so into Giovanni’s Room right now. Vicariously living through the characters. You are who you are. You are different. I am different it does not mean because I am not paying you attention for a hundred percent of the time that I am indifferent to you. I love you, you fool. Come hell or high water I love you Stoker.’
‘He kissed me.’
‘What do you mean he kissed you?’
‘At the party I mean he kissed me.’
‘On the mouth?’
‘You know he is with someone.’
‘Yes, Elise, I know. You do not have to remind me of that fact.’
‘He also could have been drunk out of his mind.’
‘I noticed something else besides the wife that hovered. I think he was wearing makeup.’
‘Stoker. Be serious.’
‘Peacock blue eyeshadow and you were not the only person he was flirting with. Stoker you are good-looking and charismatic. People are naturally drawn to your personality.’
‘I hate myself. I should be happy I know it but I hate myself. If only I could find a partner, settle down and be happy Elise.’
‘If only that could happen to both of us.’
‘A little suffering never did any harm to any artist. A little suffering is like a puddle in a meadowland. Men sleeping with men. Women sleeping with women. Men sleeping with women. This is the world we live in now.’ Stoker sighed and climbed onto the bed next to Elise. ‘Elise when are you going to write a novel and dedicate it to me?’
‘Never Stoker. Never Stoker. A woman cannot reveal everything about herself.’
‘So does this mean you are still in love with me then?’
For a long time Elise said nothing but put her head on Stoker’s chest. He put his arm around her. ‘Elise.’
‘Yes?’ she asked quietly without lifting her head.
‘I am sorry. I am sorry that I cannot love you in the way you want me too but I would if could if you were my kind of girl. I would cook and you would clean. We would run the perfect household. Our children would be beautiful, kind and clever and good at trig.’
‘My spaghetti would be famous.’
‘Yes, Elise your spaghetti would be famous.’ Stoker stroked her hair away from her face. ‘Dreams are good. They are as close to perfection as we will ever come. Let me make you some tea. It is getting cold out. Autumn’s birthday. I love you Elise.’
‘I love you Stoker.’
‘It is just that there is so much hate and not enough sun. Not enough energy. Just a wasteland. Not enough love to go around. There are plenty of couples. There are plenty of married couples but those are rich folks. It is a kind of crazy out there. I am thinking of your depression Elise. When you would not leave this apartment for days one end. All you would eat is soup and tuna fish out of a can.’
‘Have you spoken to your mother this week?’ Elise asked Stoker.
‘As a matter of fact I have. She called during the week. We spoke about many things. Swapped recipes. She asked me what I was going to make for dinner. She asked me was I going to run a marathon at the weekend. Have I met anyone new yet? How was Elise doing, she asked. Still cannot believe her luck at landing her such a swell person like my son. My mother is fine. She still has that heart thing but she manages running my brother’s house like clockwork. I love her. Elise, I love her so I cannot break her heart.’
‘There should be a law against that. People breaking other people’s hearts.’
‘Are you blue Elise?’
‘I am feeling blue. Must be the weather. You are lying on my arm. It’s asleep.’ Elise shook her limp arm in the air until it finally came to life again.
‘Sometimes I tell myself. Stoker, there are millions of people out there loving each other with nothing to distract them except the afternoon. Poetry, husbands, wives.’
Grief is waving at me. The animals with their gobbledegook. Geese with their social cohesion.
Master of love what has become of you now that years have made us much more remote from each other. We are through with playing games of love. All that is left is pain after giving up and trying to keep the love alive. All that is left is for me to swim in the street of crocodiles. Beauties and foes everyone. They live and die in the same way that I live and die for you. I have words. I steal them like an apprentice thief. My misanthrope, my fundamentalist I hope that you will read this and weep. You were always my kind of man, my kind of highway. I was always your kind of soul, your kind of woman. I never wanted to be alone but for now, I am. I think struggle always comes with poverty, any kind of poverty. You fill my every waking thought and hour. You are all that I want, need and desire. You that belong to another.
It seemed from a Khoi perspective as if each wall had a bright force in the rooms of the house. Each wall had a brightening force. Maybe they all thought that our family life was enchanting. We were on holiday. Love did not rule. It just provided an experience. I did not think of making love. I did not think of love affairs. I only felt disembodied. I could not write. What happens to writers when they cannot write? Despair and hardship. Depression and suffering. A hidden sadness becomes exploratory history, sensuousness, waves most intense, and of course loneliness. The colours were brighter. The sunlight, the afternoon light was brighter. My heart was a poem. Literature. My heart was an elegant mathematical equation. Science. It was factual. It was a narrative. It had the sensation of a novella. Golden. Illuminating. Clean neon and luminous like all the night spots in Paris, France. My heart was created in nature.
In a winter environment distinguished by bedtime, by the goals of dreaming, by the roaring-violent sea, and by Virginia Woolf’s Jinny, Rhoda and Susan. I am a young bird compared to my sister who belongs to the elite. I long to be good. I do not want to compete anymore. There is no longer any sibling rivalry. You name it and we have every kind of addiction in this family. The sun is hot. The air is even hotter. The air is an egg. The air is world-shaped. The air is a hot air balloon. This is supposed to be a holiday. It feels more as if we are in the wards of Dante’s hell scraping silence and watching it peel off the flaming walls. Trees have no flaws only gowns. Madness has picked a location. It has picked me. It has mapped me out ingloriously. Nothing resembles the two if us anymore. She will have sons and daughters. Infertility and I will be inseparable.
In the middle of the night, my father makes his way down the stairs when the whole beach house is asleep. He makes a beeline for the dark kitchen and feels his way for the light switch against the wall. He makes me hate him. He makes me hate his hairy potbelly. My father eats the thinly sliced ham with his fingers. Not gingerly. The spotlight of the refrigerator shines a light on his sin. Does Christianity fill the void of family life? My sister has more of a maternal instinct than me as it turns out. My sister decided that instead of Tsitsikamma we would go to Plettenberg Bay again. It was a cool evening when they made the fire. The air smelled like rain but it did not rain that night. Dad drinking beer. Son looking after fire. Brother swallowing pharmaceutical. Daughter sweeping. Daughter making salad. Daughter making cold bean salad.
Daughter making creamy potato salad, preparing parsley and garlic bread to be roasted on the coals. In my head, my mother is smoking a cigarette (I used to smoke menthol cigarettes when I was an adolescent. Two a day just for the hell of it because my lungs were not filled with water yet). In my head, my mother is passing the cigarette from one daughter to the next. Father is eating crisps. Seymour is slurping his juice. Is this what is meant by aura cleansing? My mother is a free spirit. My sister is a free spirit. My sister make wild gestures with her hands when she talks. Swims in the sea with makeup on. I feel too fat to make much of an effort to do anything. I lie on the beach like a corpse. Son takes his shirt off. Mother looks after Seymour. Feeds him mashed banana. Seymour eats sand. My sister’s arms are toned. She is healthy.
I guess money can do that to you. They talk about the medium but I pretend not to take any notice. They talk loudly so that I cannot remain completely indifferent to them. All I see is the blue of the sky meeting the blue of the ocean. The plastic flowers in a vase meeting us on arrival. The pictures on the wall. Paintings of whales, stones that look like peanuts floating in air, Picasso’s fish and an abstract collect the dots. All I see is the rules about arrival and departure times. The words ‘Tree Haven’. They said nothing about monkeys or load shedding. They said nothing about cleaning house or that people, strangers would be viewing the property while we would be staying there.
Frangipani met us on arrival in a small vase. Scenic views of the sea and mansions. Horses and cows. Boats. Trees. The restaurant menu has names like chick-o-naise, capsicum heat, cheese mecca, sweet chilli chicken, and chick dew. On the bookshelf, I find myself staring at one book in particular. The pages are yellow with age. Has it been that long since I read Memoirs of a Geisha? Did I read it in high school? At St Thomas or Collegiate High School for Girls. When my sister was mother hen. It was too hot to swim we discovered when we first arrived in Plettenberg Bay but it was not too hot to eat. To binge eat my way through hummus, snoek pate, and cold cuts. My hair was pulled back from my face into a greasy ponytail. I had put coconut oil on my hair. I was a female writer impersonating, living vicariously through David Foster Wallace. I wore my hair differently. I became a different person.
The beach is for a younger generation. For younger people with a joie de vivre for life and laissez faire. I think of my sister eating a monster burger and that makes me reach for my second packet of biscuits that I am stealing from Seymour, my nephew. I open the bag of crisps my brother has been saving for his films coming on later that evening. It is futile to curb my enthusiasm. Waiting for inspiration to hit and not curbing it. My sister henpecked everyone to death. It does not matter where you are, you are still the same person with or without the cigarette dangling from your slender fingertips, the pearl earrings at the lobes of your ears, hanging there as if for dear life but that belonged to another. Another life. Days went by and then it really started to feel as if we were on holiday. I watched a sunrise. I watched a sunset.
My father and I sat outside in with our bare feet on the cool cement surrounded by hedges, mint, enchanting flowers, the wind, the sun speaking about every topic under the sun. Speaking about the family holiday. The solar system of Atlantis, which was code for family life. The Ambronese George Project. Yes, the family had become something of a project like Seymour. The baby would sleep intermittently. He would explore. Stick his sticky fingers into wall sockets and rejoice when we scolded him. Cried aloud when I hit his hand. All I wanted was to protect him. He was not my own.
I had never seen anything as beautiful as the view of the sea. Gorgeous. Blooming with people. The nights would bloom with confessions and laughter. My brother’s confessions. My mother drinking with us. Her three children. I found a book on verse the second day of the holiday. I loved the paintings. I would stare at them. Picture myself in them flying. A bird with wings. A bird with a mythical Chinese encyclopaedia between my ears. This holiday was really Ambronese’s rapid-fire journey into hell. Noah did not have a rapid-fire journey into hell. I really am doubtful about that. The trees looked different in the morning. Everything around me did. The environment. The mushrooms growing outside my window. The air felt different here. We had brought a baby, Seymour, with us on the journey, my nephew, my brother’s son. In the evenings with the television turned down low, everyone falling asleep, my brother smoking his last cigarette on the patio I would wonder as I watched my father inhaling and exhaling in the bed beside my own what the wind was like on Atlantis. What was the sun like on Atlantis? Did people drink and covet watering holes on Atlantis? What kind if any of alcoholics were they on Atlantis? I am already dreading the trip back home. Restaurant here have names like ‘The Skaf’ Tin’ but we did not go out to restaurants.
I wondered to myself who would have a chip on their shoulder. Who will give whom the cold shoulder? I shudder at the dreams I have been having. How real they have become. Taryn crying. Percy pushing me aside to protect his wife. What kind of a girl am I who will choose not to go to the beach but stay here and babysit my parents who sleep in separate rooms and write in her journal. All I can eat now is two hard-boiled eggs and tuna. Sliced tomatoes and cold lettuce. All I can eat now is healthy. Is the solar system of Atlantis anything like the renal unit at the Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth? Out of this world with scary nurses that wear shrouds, masks, and staff the halls with them on? Nurses that will shout. I sit and wait my turn.
The clinic will only open at eleven o’clock. The doctors are as handsome as Deepak Chopra is. They will listen to you but you know that you will have to assure them that they know more than you do about what is wrong with you. Am I dying? The doctor tells me I have water in my lungs but not to worry I can still go home and chew calcium carbonate pills in the morning but am I dying. Nobody can tell me anything for sure since my previous doctor did not send the ultrasound scan with his doctor’s letter. The doctor that is as handsome as Deepak Chopra is cannot make out anything that the doctor has written. He even makes a joke out of not writing neatly himself. Inside the passage stands a deformed child. Every time they jab the needle into his arm he makes a face. I do not make a face. I do not think that this makes me brave. I am ready for war. I am ready for anything at this point really. I am so hungry that my hidden sadness has also seemed to take a family holiday.
‘Do you have a vein?’ the nurse that shouts asks me.
‘Yes, of course. Anything for you. I always have a vein.’ The sun has disappeared behind a cloud as she takes the bloodstained tissue taped to the counter off and puts her disposable gloves on ready for war.
There is no time here. No lizard’s master here. So I think of paintings instead and of how I want to escape and hide in the Hamptons or in the painting of that naked fat lady in the main bedroom of our rented beach house when we went on holiday in Plettenberg Bay.
‘That man must like fat ladies.’ My mother guffaws. Not very woman-like.
All I can think about is the jab. How many times a day in a week, in a month the nurse that shouts must do it. The trail of blood that the needle leaves on the tissue paper, on the arm of the person. In two months’ time, I think to myself will there still be a vein. Not to worry there has always been a vein. I can only drink a litre of water now. I still drink too much. I drink water like there’s no tomorrow. Like I am living vicariously through a living Tennessee Williams. Instead of alcohol, whisky, the single malt kind, water is my drink of choice. Drug of choice. I am sick. I am dying but for now, I am okay whatever that means. Nobody seems to be too overly concerned over my welfare. I am scared doctor man, watermelon man, nurse whose body is built like a whale’s carcass, who has a voice like a wolf’s howl and I want somebody to hold my hand and tell me that everything is going to be okay and not pandemonium.
For now, I think I will pray. For now, I think I will meditate a little. For now, I think I will look into the eyes of the other outpatients at the renal unit waiting to be seen by the doctors, piss in a cup, waiting for their blood to be taken. For now, we are in this struggle together. We are comrades. My mother leaves me here. My father, my father is an old man. My mother has to fetch my toiletries, my pyjamas and fetch my pharmaceuticals for my bipolar. Is it not enough that I have a mental illness and a host of other illnesses caused by the bipolar?
No, God said it was not enough.
Home. I killed for my brother. I killed for pleasure. My brother would gather virgins around him. The gathering of virgins I would call it or them. At the end of the day, they would leave our house without a stitch of makeup on although they would arrive with creamy lipstick on. When they would leave, their clothes would be ruffled. They would have missed a button on their shirt. Every one of them a diva in their own country. Some would talk a lot. Others would say nothing at all. Do not look at me, I would think to myself. Do not talk to me, I would think to myself. They would be announced. My brother would open the door and introduce so and so to all of us. I would forget them or at least try too. Can you ever forget sirens in youth? They were winners on the surface of things but I knew that like my brother they were dreamers. When I was a child, I knew what love was.
I looked at her not for her day in and day out. Love was mother. Nothing about the reality that young lovers lived in was real. There was always conflict. In our house, there was always conflict. I imagined there was conflict in the girls’ homes too. They satisfied my brother in ways that were unimaginable to me. These mermaids had mansions and I think if my brother held them close enough to his chest, if he held them in his arms then he could hear the ocean. Taste the salt in the air. Feel the breeze in his hair. What people could never understand was what I was really writing about? Was it my family or the men that I had loved, something that I dreamed about the previous night locked down in my subconscious or something that I had imagined? Was it pain, was it laughter, and was it fear, vulnerability? Oh, do not trouble yourself with thinking so hard. It is and always will be all of those things.
A mother’s love will keep on feeding you, nurturing you, be your caretaker. She will see you through all the days of your life when you are selfless, cold and composed. Sleep is the elegant answer for everything. It lets you forget and in the forgetting there is both a surrendering and a letting go. What is death? It means we finally meet our destination. We finally meet our ancestors, our people that have passed on to the hereafter. We finally meet our tribe of people. We finally meet God. The future haunts me. Ongoing lighthouses. I am in love with lighthouses and what they represent. To me they represent life and hope. The proof of both which is sometimes unreachable. The loneliness of the lighthouse keeper. Longing that is the future of life. Of our survival. We can call it many things but it goes for the most part by the name of ‘humanity’.
I do not mind the stars out. Out of the frozen wilderness came my mother and father experts of the bare bones of my childhood. Mum is all the shades of a lighthouse. Dad is the ship with a dumbed down crew whose bellies are filled with wine that passes in the night. Loneliness flowers and I become like driftwood. They are still there and all the time. They are ghosts. Ghosts. I can never, just never get over that and I do not want to be bitter. God, I do not ever want to be bitter. An amazing triumph. I have not come to that yet in my life. Have not experienced that yet to say. As I write this, I am lying on my bed. I love this room. What was my itinerary today? God, what would it be like not to be me? It was exciting when I felt the first stirrings of it. Desire. Desire was a man’s world. It was different, much more difficult to understand the word ‘intellectual’, even harder to understand ‘existential phenomenologist’.
I love words. Even ‘perverse’. Can an intense love be perverse and misconstrued? I always find you in war movies all dressed up in camouflage. The husband and wife. Protector and mother. This union shall remain forever like a winter’s tale or the arrival of winter guests or the history of a suicide. The more things change, (the more they stay the same) you will mature like birches and willows, the grit of granite, the codes that trees keep to themselves. The girl in me remains a perfectionist for the rest of her life. Her sister will never telephone from Johannesburg to speak to her. The one with the gorgeous dance. The flaming halo of golden hair. The one who is praised when she is standing near the mouth of the river’s edge with her pose or the shoreline with the breeze blowing through her posture. I cannot understand the attention that she gets. I cannot understand her glitter.
I remember the humiliation. I was brave. I was strong. I did not cry. Not then but now, things are different. I have become much more fragile. Illness has made me fragile. You will always remember being humiliated by someone you have loved with your whole heart. That energy that filled the hours that you thought about him was never wasted. Mum said when you came home; give your heart peace of mind. Even at high speed, not everything is lost. The sparks will make you shiver. While I am the drowning visitor, my sister thrives. People thrive all the time why should I be any different. Instead, I feel it acutely. This lesson on constellations. Why one star shines brighter than the next? My sister is the tiger’s possession. My sister is lying down in the playing fields of green pastures. All I can think of asking her is how does she endure this planet when I cannot. She lives. She lives. She lives.
I know she means to harm me. There is a sugar coated moonlight, wasteland, a wilderness history of daughters and mothers in my storytelling. I remember the sweetness of childhood. How I long for those days again. To experience that kind of ongoing joy. Never thinking of the distance that would rule my poetry and my stories between my mother and me in adulthood. I am living a lie. I can tell you I am happy. Perhaps you will believe me. Perhaps you will not. I can smile but you will not see my pain. I can laugh but I can tell you that my life is a torment. I do not know cannot recall when I first realised this but I was very young. A child. I wrote it in my diary and then I burnt it until it was a black and charred mess. Something inside of me too was scorched, and I thought of Lord Kitchener’s scorched earth policy. I can feel the stillness of the earth and everything is beautiful. My life is unfinished.
I know that I am living in a world of artists, writers and poets who are interlopers where everything that is anything to do them, with futility, loneliness and solitude is a great source of inspiration and even the smallest thing, a speck is a wonder. Mothers and daughters do not love each other all the time. Sometimes they are rivals. All beautiful women are rivals. All beautiful women are insecure at some stage in their development of their formative years. Every woman is a romantic. Love when it comes there is always a barrier. You cannot always go in head low or high, chin up gracefully. You see you are always at the mercy of something. The man is a mirror. The woman projects herself onto him. What she sees in his eyes is what she will become in the end. Lover or wife. Mother of his children or mistress of his house until the early hours of the morning.
A woman will always be left with the questions of how will he empower her, uplift her, lift the veil and sometimes, just sometimes a woman will be a child in an all-powerful man’s eyes. I see men from a great distance. Almost as if I am anticipating showers of rain or if I am going to weather a storm. As if, two halves make up the whole of my identity. The half of me flowers, blooms multiply very quickly out of my heart, my lungs and then you know the rest of my body comes of age and matures very quickly. The other half worries me though. It has so much insight. Sometimes I think it has too much insight. It tells me I am already shot to hell in this relationship. I cannot stop loving him I tell this part of my identity. I just cannot. I wanted to grow tomatoes I said to the living. Give me a perimeter, the chilled earth of this planet, yellow gloves to plant haywire and haphazardly.
Instead, this identity said to me, if you want to grow something grow courage because in the end when this relationship stops working and starts hurting you are going to need it I am afraid for you. Do you want the seeds of joy, and then go home. Therefore, you will stand at the burning portal of love saying repeatedly to someone who is no longer there. Who has already left, who has already left you, you will say this repeatedly. I love you. I love you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. All that is left for you are replicas of the perfect man standing, waiting for you in a succession of lines. You will soon discover that this is not enough. You will not be hurt, wounded, caused pain, humiliated in the same way no matter how very much you will want to be. There are stars. There will always be stars. You can count on that but love I am not so sure of that.
I cannot make you any promises about love appearing in your life again. He resided in a dream world. He still resides there. He makes it a point to take girls to bed. You tell yourself with this key information that nothing can hurt you anymore meaning he cannot hurt you anymore but you know that you are telling yourself a lie. You know you are both a coward and a fool. Love is an offering. The night is meant for anointing. For pleasure and pain. Considerable suspicions, existing to discover treasure after treasure, and what of ignorance? How could that ever harm me? I am immune to light and to the discovery of that noble light. The power of missing the war in the fire of human relationships, dancing around the bear of that dynamic, seeing the distance in the eyes, the gaze of the lover with the arms and the skinny legs of a gazelle. I knew I would and could never enter his astonishingly white world.
The same way I knew he could never enter my astonishingly coloured world. So I tell people all the time, do not feel compelled to love me. I will never love you back. You are never going to be good enough for me because all my life people have said that to my face. You are never going to be good enough. Now it is my turn. Just because I can. Men can do that to you. Men tall in their office space. Radiating wives, children, bread and milk. Men who love fast cars. Men who love the word ‘sexy’. I no longer have any illusions about love or men. I know where I stand now. On the shoreline is where I want to be. In the foetal position under the duvet. Men have hurt me. You have guessed right. Have they loved me? No. What Camelot and what they have done is damaged my soul, the memory that I have of it and destroyed my spirit.
It has withered away into cloud people. The sky is nothing but a repetition of blue. They have destroyed that too. The grass is a marathon of green river underfoot. They have destroyed that too. The flowers in my mother’s garden is a progression of little souls. They have destroyed that too. Possessions. My own material possessions, branches with their songs, the cigarette with its own suffering, impoverished assignments of a female writer, insects in a hinterland of their own making they have destroyed that too. I keep my distance now. I know my place. Next to my father’s side. In the beginning, you would think that suffering would be brief. Well, I have news for you. It is not. It can sometimes last a lifetime, the only way you can get it out of your system is to go the Goethe, Hemingway and the Rilke way, and that is to write it out of your system.
I watched my brother. I watched his virgin suicides. Every single one a game. I am pain. You, only you will know the kind of game that I am talking about. Girlhood, the pain of being torn apart, torn from your beloved mother’s apron strings, finding closure in a stranger’s arms, films about war, cold men in camouflage. Anita Brookner became Anita. She became the protagonist of a novel. A novelist in the novel of someone else, a young woman who admired her a great deal and who admired her writing a great deal more also. You will be all you want. I wanted to tell the girls who disappeared with my brother behind his closed bedroom door. Just believe and you will be all you want. Read plenty of books even the ones you do not really want to read all that much and you will discover who you really are. That you are beautifully wise and talented even though your mother might not think you will not amount to much.
If you do not marry the right kind of man, which means a religious man or a man who is older than you are so he can mould you into the perfect wife. ‘Anita’, you are not as flawed or limited in your thinking as you think you are. You are important to the survival of the species, to your future children, to this envious planet, to your own self. Self-doubt, selfishness, frustration, unreason will kill you. Be happy ‘Anita’. You have this one unspoilt chance at life so be happy. I called all these girls ‘Anita’. Not one of them stood a real chance with my brother. I mean a long-term chance. ‘The Anita waltz’ when they went away and I never saw them again. ‘The Anita phenomenon’ when they left messages for him that were never returned. Anita, I want to say. An older sister to a younger sister, do what I did at your age. Improvise happy if it so damn hard for you to be lucky at it.
You, Anita of all people are not arbitrary. You, Anita of all people are not lonely. Anita you are lovely. Anita becomes the voice inside my head. I saw a silence branching out of my head. Gosh, it was beautiful. Beautiful and extraordinary at the same time. I know that one day like all of these divas that expand their loveliness as soon as they enter our house and sirens with gloss on their lips shatters something inside of me. I know that one day my skin will wrinkle and sag. I will grow old. I will no longer be golden but for now, they are lovers. Youth is still on their side. I am in shock because I love him, my brother so much. This fisherman with his love-sickness, this ugliness that pours out of his soul, this dark space of this dark horse like my cramped sentences, and I hear the voice. It says quite calmly, it is my nerves that are on edge but was not your man like this.
Johannesburg. I like you. God, I like you. I like everything about you. Your hair, your eyes but my ancestors say that we are not made for each other. In life, in terms of that great human commitment called marriage, I resemble nothing of it at thirty-five and I was not made for the artificial life. For everything that is fake. Life did not go around saying I was doomed. It showed me what living inside a work of art meant. In my case a self-portrait. It taught me many, many things and I soon turned from girl to woman. At the end of that journey then those words came, you were doomed from the start. Sorry I am only telling you now but I did not want to hurt you or else you would not have realised it far too soon. There is intellect. It is beautiful. Something is missing. I am missing. Intellect has perspective. Intellect has splendour.
Intellect has depth on its side leaving you to ask was that enough? Am I enough? I said I could not love you. I said I could not go the whole way through loving you. I knew what I was up against. Watch me. Watch this. Watch this transformation from a girl into a woman. I led you up the warpath with your sweet tooth. I want to live. You are too much for me. I am too much for you. You are too intense. Shine your sun on a girl who needs her personality to be rubbed off on the people around her. On her world that needs to illuminate the people around her. I am not that quiet girl anymore. I am a woman demanding to be taken seriously. Stepping into a room. Your girl has a lotus blossoms for hair. Your new girl no longer needs the bare bones of childhood to hold her up. I am all wrong for you. Elegantly and gracefully so.
Accept the fact that I must exit now. I want to be reminded of love, of having experienced it but I do not want to necessarily be reminded of you. The seeds of crocodiles and nightingales that you planted inside me, its harvest, its repeated harvest. Well, go ahead then and call it poetry if you so wish. Just do not be dramatic about it about the longing and the loss. I will take my cue from you. You are a unicorn, which is what you are so accept it. If you want, take it and accept it as my parting gift. I am sad when the light is sad. When I think of Hemingway’s Paris. Hemingway driving ambulances during the war. I cannot love you anymore. I just do not have it in me anymore to love someone who is not capable of loving me in return the way I want to be loved. I do not with moonlight and roses. Not with pizza and red wine for two.
Love someone else. Love someone else quickly. Let her be the lucky one. I have seen girls come and go. I always knew he had a voracious appetite for pretty girls. All of them were pretty. All of them had perfumed hair. They had trust written on their faces for the whole world to see. When they left, I could almost see them blinking back their tears. Stunned as if someone had slapped them in the face. All I could do was feel sorry for them as I imagined that I was felt sorry for when I left Johannesburg. You want love to be more than the rub of intimacy. Sunlight was a performance of a sonnet. Birdsong was a refrain. You walked all over me to get to me and get at me, to me you did in the end Lothario. I am appalled at your skill. You are an island. All men are islands and all women are birds. Life can be lonely that is why we need each other. Why men and women need each other.
Writing is wonderful. Writing is fabulous when all I feel is pain, sorrow and suffering. Man, you are in the wrong country if you ever, ever fall in love with me. I am alone here with my map. My map is your mouth and that is all I need. Words come out for your mouth. Poured out of you like weather and rain. That is when I fell for you even when you were saying nothing. Laughter and prayer is wonderful but only if you are in the right mood. There are mansions in the diagrams of poetry. You are a wolf. I am the sheep’s clothing. How can a person limit all the poverty in the world? With your mind, dear. Only with your mind, I am afraid. Behold memory. She is a gift just as much as the words tranquility and sanctuary is. Books are like white picket fences. Are you happy? Are you happy? The voice says. I go inward. I am numb. I am frozen.
I am a wild iris. There is nothing but blackness all around us. It consumed me for a while. The trouble with this all-consuming blackness is that it brought with it poetry. I loved the face of this poetry. Trapped its every collective. I wish I could see you Paris, I asked once but now I see Paris wherever I go. Hemingway’s Paris. This kind of poetry has spheres that ask me to travel with it all over the world, across the ocean-sea. Lust has its own engineered oxygen here. It hurts when it goes away. It lives and it dies with its own regrets. With its own failures and velocity. I saw its smile for the first time. When poetry smiles at you it is like the first cry of a newborn when you bring them home, the cry of a broken heart. It is a miracle and a half. Do you know what perfectionism is? You do not want to know the half of it.
You push yourself to perform, to win at all costs, whatever the cost, the next day you wake up, and you do it all over again. I forgive you. That costs me nothing but I will never forget. That will cost me my heart, the personal velocity of everything that I believe in I am afraid. I hope you will have a better time at forgiving me. You wrote me a story every day I spent time in your company. Stories interwoven with losing a beloved, regret, remote cities, distant lands, countries, Transylvanian ghost stories that enchanted me, left me feeling elated, a devil in a blue dress, and then desire woke up inside of me and I did not know what to do with it so I gave it back to you. I am sorry. In the end, this is all I can say (it is not easy for me, all I can tell you that I am sorry I did not love you. I am sorry I did not return your love because I was ill prepared for the repercussions.
What do wild irises do when it comes to planting season? I dream about them at night when I lay in the dark in my bedroom. The garden is dark. I breathe in the dark. These kinds of nights seem to have a dawn of their own making. Winter, is only like some kind of predetermined destination that I thirst over. I imagine it as a neural pathway or a scientific theory. I love it best like any guru and his enlightened search for self-help on that predetermined destination. I love winter best as if the scientist loves their algorithms and equations. Give me winter over you any day. I promise you I will never love you. I seemed to have started out at the ruins not the castle for some reason. The forecast said it would rain so I took an umbrella. Although I am no longer half-alive sometimes when I breathe, I think of the way you looked at me once and how the floodgates of my heart just opened up.
A man will never know how to love a wild iris. A man with swagger does not want to hunt for a wild iris in the dark. He wants to forget about the wild iris in his youth because the wild iris is the one who never loved him back.
Abigail George is a feminist, poet and short story writer. She is the recipient of two South African National Arts Council Writing Grants, one from the Centre for the Book and the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council. She was born and raised in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape of South Africa, educated there and in Swaziland and Johannesburg. She has written a novella, books of poetry, and collections of short stories. She is busy with her brother putting the final additions to a biography on her father’s life. Her work has recently been anthologised in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology IV. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film.