As soon as my phone brought news of where she was, I tore up my room looking for perfume and the cleanest of the clothes on the floor. I thought anything would be fine as long as I could cover it with this fine brocade coat that was hiding somewhere. In hindsight I don’t know why I bothered. I had known her for so long then that she knew how the crevices of my body drew in all fabrics, no matter how loosely draped. And how I smelt a little like alliums and sour milk when I attended early morning lectures without showering.
I slammed the door and jumped two at a time down the stairs. Behind me, my next-door neighbour shouted threats of filing a complaint. I wondered why loud noises bothered her in a way that my dealing never did. I ran, wind rushing in my ears, ricocheting off the clips in my hair. So fast, I didn’t even notice the girth of the moon. Only later I would realise how full, how round, how milky it was. And so close. It was at its perigee waiting to be plucked from that vast black cloth by someone brave. I avoided its pupil-less gaze, afraid of what I would see in its surface.
I got there quickly, my heavy breath arrived a step ahead of me. The bar was full of locals who didn’t bother look up when I walked in. They could smell I was harmless. I caught a glimpse of myself in the cracked mirror just before the pool tables. I looked uncharacteristically beautiful. Maybe it was the moonlight. My looks flickered on and off like a faulty lamp and I never knew when things were in my favour aesthetically. I took a second look in the mirror and saw a kind of mournful beauty like an old silent movie star, losing to the talkies. Losing. Losing. Losing.
I searched for her. Now that she had cut her hair it took double the time. Still that wasn’t very long. I had memorised her silhouette like a redemptive prayer. “Meryl. Meryl,”my heart murmured. I knew almost certainly she’d be in the outdoor bunker, under the fairy lights where you could smoke a joint with the owner’s blessing. I pushed the slow stickied door with an open palm and regretted it instantly. Should have used my sleeve. I put my clean hand on her sloping left shoulder. She looked up and smiled all the way to the curve of her eyelashes. That smile had the same effect on me every time. It stirred the pot and thickened the evening’s plot. My lips queasily formed the word, “Hi.”
“You look really bleak with life, friend,” Meryl said as I sat down opposite her in the bottle green booth. “I’m so glad you came. I was really worried about you.”
She reached over to clasp my hand. I felt the jab of one her pointy rings.
“Yeah. Well... unrequited love isn’t easy. It’s a fucking nightmare. It’s a lot like being a monk but there are no orange robes,” I said.
“Bummer. You look good in orange,” she joked. “But I don’t get it, monks? How? No sex?”
“You’re believing in something. Something... which most people don’t believe in. And honestly which can’t, with real incontrovertible proof, be said to truly exist.”
“Or a person. A person who doesn’t exist,” she said. “He can’t exist the way you want him to. You know that. He’s a bastard! I get it. I know what you see in him. You see everything that’s bad for you and that makes you want it more.”
“My moth tendencies...,” I offered weakly.
“He’s going to fuck you up!”
I ignored her. The pot calling the kettle harmful and all that.
Betty swaggered up to Meryl, the intrusion stopping wherever our conversation was going. All bound breasts and big lies she placed her hand firmly where mine had just been. It seemed to fit there better. It might as well have been a hot brand. Fuck, I hated her and her greasy confidence. She could make you feel like you were enough. “You were all and that was it,” her exes all testified. Betty had the pushiness of someone much older spiked with the hard-headedness of someone much younger. I’d never seen her sit down. Her grasping nature wouldn’t permit it. That and I’m sure one of her exes had a hit out on her. She used her ruthlessness to beat her way in the world and beat people out of it. She didn’t meet people so much as manhandle them. Sometimes I thought I could see the very cogs whirring behind her sharp temples.
This was who Meryl had chosen to be hurt by. But people can live off hurt. They can’t live off nothing. So they kept on.
There wasn’t a lot of motivation to stop. Life was boring and the winters here were harsh. I avoided Betty’s eyes like I would a growling bear. Her gaze withered me anyway. I felt increasingly dry and irrelevant so I left to get a drink. “Maker’s Mark. Neat. No rocks,” I must have said to the barwoman. I only realised what I’d asked for when it was resting, brown and quiet in a tumbler in front of me. It wasn’t my drink; it was his. He’d taken over. I didn’t know what to do with it. Bourbon was a plantation owner’s drink. Nothing to do with me. Or him either. He was ex-struggle. What was a small-town lecturer doing sucking down the oppressor's fuel?
I looked left down the bar hoping he would appear at my side. I waited to feel his hand cinch my waist. It would have been a good time to be distracted by a long story about where he’d picked up the Maker’s habit. No one was there. I heaved myself onto the barstool for something to do. As I did I felt something pop out of place inside of me. It was like this sometimes. I felt dizzy and not just from all the joints I’d smoked that evening. From time to time a part of me broke off and then I felt watery. Like my legs were ill-fitting prostheses and after years of chafing, were about to give out.
I looked back at the two of them, through the smudged glass window. Meryl looked at Betty; she looked at her, in love. Her small pudgy hands were weighted with the rings she never took off and they glinted as she stroked Betty’s hair. They whispered soft as feathers to each other. Betty bit her ear playfully. They shared the same whisky and water passing it between each other like a chalice. Priest and sinner? Who was who? No matter. They kissed. Pulling tenderly at each others’ lips. Then Betty moved up and whispered something into her girlfriend’s hairline. When she curled her arm round Meryl’s neck it looked like a chokehold. All hell broke loose. Meryl slapped her. Betty blushed all the way to her dirty blonde roots and ran off to the pool table, forgetting her usual swagger, to lick her wounds. Or make some nice boy lick them for her while she schemed revenge. She put on being straight like an old hat. Even boys who knew the truth let themselves be fooled. They thought the lesbian thing was a cool little quirk. It meant someday they might get to watch. Meryl looked at me through the window. I couldn’t tell if it was her or the window clouding over.
I rushed across the room like a silent ambulance. She lay her head on my breast and shuddered. Not quite crying but not quite dry-eyed either. She’d been there before. But I might never get this close again. I mumbled things I can’t remember now and laced my fingers with hers. We sat like this for some time then she pulled her hand away to fumble blindly for a tissue or a lighter or something else in the black hole of her bag. I traced letters in the water left by her glass while stamping out a smile. How glad I was near to be her and how sure I was that I was right.
Prof liked to be right too. It was his job. He was a scavenger of dead languages and reveled in his colleagues thinking what he did was useless. It meant they never bothered him; they never read his sprawling papers or reprimanded him for having a sleeper couch in his office. He was an agile speaker. Not content with wild gesticulating, he paced, and rocked back and forth, and bounced from one leg to the other. Which was a small feat since one of his legs was slightly shorter than the other. The book in his hand was a formality. He knew stretches of those ancient poems by heart, those he performed to us. We listened rapt to his rollicking voice that shook each character from centuries of sleep. We circled and underlined and translated and analysed the remains of Greco-Roman mythic incest.
Betrayal, love and rape, all running and feeding and borrowing from each other. Sin and glory. Zombie poetry. Pages and pages of old words that we knew to be dead though they felt so alive.
Maybe he picked me out from early on. Set me aside for some alternate purpose. I was never top of any classes apart from his. He groomed me with recommendations from his personal library. We tea-d and talked every afternoon. I tried to pry him open like a pistachio. He was polite enough to let me think I had. Lying on his office couch, I offered myself up to him, if he was willing. So much of nothing happened and it all meant the world to me. I tried to infuse my every touch with all of my mixed-up emotions about him. And just when I thought we were something I’d just made up he’d let something small and potent drop into conversation. He’d take a rare and peculiar interest in a kink in my wire. A flaw in my thigh. A dent in my back. Instinctively, he knew the rotting disused trail to my heart - how to tend all those bushes I’d cultivated alone.
It was too much, to think of you and him in such quick succession. In such close orbit. My hand started to shake as I tried to keep stroking your shoulder. I was perverse. I was wet. I recoiled at the thought of having wet myself in a fit of nervousness. In public. Near you. At my age.
“I’ve just got to-,” I said. She was too distraught to care.
I walked to the bathroom trying too hard to look normal. I ducked my forehead into a stall. When, by the tail of my skirt, I was yanked into a dark place.
Fear chilled me. My ankles itched and the backs of my arms prickled. I tried to break away. The stranger’s descending hand was about to become nastily damp. I waited for rejection. My cheeks warmed up for anger and shame. Instead, a sultry calm blossomed below. Pleasure unfurled in my hips. It, this tremendous feeling, spread out all over me and gripped the nape of my neck. I was wet. I was deliciously wet. He pushed me into his chest and I fumbled with his hair. Those tight curls - it was Prof! He silenced me with a torrent of kisses. His head disappeared between my legs. I lost myself in him and melted. Melted into someone I didn’t know. When I came, he left. He left me half-clothed.
* * *
I met her twice before she met me. Her right ear jutted out of her hair. She later intimated that she always caught a tan first on the very tips of her body - the knobbles of her knee, her nipples, her snub nose. In the winter she was sallow and in summer she was olive. I would have re-focused myself on Prof’s lecture in the following seconds but then she laughed. It was so mirthful that the tickling genesis of a laugh bubbled in my own stomach. Like a magnet, Meryl’s laugh drew all the world’s happiness into the room. She was laughing at Prof. By then he’d already burnt himself into me. He made me want things I’d never known I’d wanted. But he never made me do anything I didn’t want. At least anything I’d admit to
I met her again by way of her left ear. I was waiting uneasily for a march to start. A feeling of powerlessness pressed down on me. I knew the protest would be heralded as a success even though its effects would be short and concentrated, then dissipate without a trace like the modest crowd after half an hour. But in the diaries and CVs of the leaders it was the best they could do and their best was good enough. I was meant to be listening to Prof’s self-proclaimed bold attempts to ‘speak truth to power’. There was a constant ruffle as power had instructed someone underpaid to sweep away dropped flyers for recycling during the proceedings. Then his part was over and someone privileged recited their suffering cred for the crowd of bleeding hearts in matching T-shirts. She turned around abruptly and smiled cautiously. One half of her face at a time. Meryl always smiled like a broken puppet. Disjointedly, like half of her didn’t want to.
She grabbed my hand and said, “We’re power. No one likes us. We should go.”
And so we did. We ran and ran and ran. I looked at her, blurred a little in motion. She looked at me. We whipped our heads back to see. It was only our own hair and legs. We started slowing down, disappointed no one was following us.
We broke into the vault of the old library together. It had fallen to the new world-class library erected on top of it. We would sit between the stacks of bound theses and set-works for discontinued gods and courses. She cross-legged, and me, struggling to copy her with my bigger thighs that went dead too quickly then tingled sharply back to life when I moved. We wondered to each other whether we’d written down essay questions correctly. Usually our hearsay and half-listening came close to a whole assignment. More often than not we lit a joint and got extra-curricular. We rose higher and our voices swelled in the book cellar. We rose higher and our voices. They echoed off the walls forming parallel lives of their own and imbuing the trivialities we spoke of with a booming gravitas.
It was perfect lying on our tummies, our eyes half-closed, reading a piece from a randomly selected book off the shelf. Cinematic Review 1934. Ornithorhynchus anatinus : A Webbed Life.
“The unusual appearance of this egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal baffled European naturalists when they first encountered it, with some considering it an elaborate hoax”
Dust motes coasted lazily on the air. Once a piece of hot ash fell on her sheer creamy blouse while she was lying on her side. She brushed it away but not quickly enough. We were in a world of our own and time had gone gooey for us. It melted a small hole in her top revealing her nipple. I swooped in and kissed it gently. It was brown and hot like a penny warm from the sun. I felt her hand tighten on my arm. She moaned in pleasure while I nibbled and sucked.
I underestimated the joy of not knowing. I basked in her company and the light in her eyes. We were so close I could see into her heart and know things she didn’t want me to. We had sex when we were lonely. We didn’t discuss it. I didn’t know too much about my feelings for her then. For years they were just an abstract nebula of warmth and wonder in my breast. Later I knew it to be love. And love hurt. Before love it was a blessed time. It was before enthusiasm for our studies got extinguished by debt and cynicism.
We ate badly, that is to say we ate too well and didn’t exercise beyond laughing. We drank too much but it was without menace.
It was just part of our culture - youth culture.
“But there’s no such thing as youth culture,” she said.
We were on my balcony trying to light up. It was just at the start of winter when everyone was still denying it was here. So were we. We squinted in the wind. She was trying to rub the goosepimples out of her flesh while I was trying to keep a joint going.
“There isn’t. We’re unenchantingly normal. We’re just like grown-ups but no one believes us,” she said.
“No. We’re not like our parents at all,” I insisted. “They were of a people. They stayed and knew a place just so they could know it well and take comfort in it.”
“ Maybe you’re on to something. We’re not like that,” she said, “We mill and seethe.”
I thought uncomfortably of the place embossed on my passport. I couldn’t differentiate my country from a row of depressing statistics or dusty pictures on the news. My parents lived there. They had selfishly made it so much theirs that it could never be mine. I couldn’t see myself there. Or anywhere yet.
And maybe that was what derailed everything.The blank sweep of life stretching out in front of me was too much to bear. It demanded of me, silently and sternly. It’s very presence demanded a response. One it deemed worthy. It asked me to make myself up and I couldn’t. I was paralysed by the stark white space. Formless but palpable; a desert of expectations. It stopped me mid-thought, mid-sentence, mid-life. It trailed after me like a clubfoot and wouldn’t let me hide. When I was alone I could feel it forcing its way into every orifice. My ears, the space under my nails, my nostrils, my vagina, the gaps in my gritted teeth. Relentlessly past every little hair into each pore of my skin. Pushing, pushing and pushing. At first I could ignore it. It let me act normally. It let me see people. It let me work. And then it drowned everything and made me watch.
The nurses and therapists and psychiatrists made me cry myself back to life. I cried and cried and cried. The sad noises of my racking body rang out a small pathetic space for me in the world. I stopped to swallow pills and snot. My voice became hoarse with the stress of recovery and the talking of feelings. Such routine self-scrutiny only either kills you or makes you well. Gradually I got better. Or maybe just different. Every bad day felt predictable and every good day felt like a lie. I no longer cried. The tears no longer came. They blocked up my head and nasal passages. My body re-absorbed them. My head felt hot and swollen all the time, like rotten fruit engorged in the sun. And that’s why when I found them together, naked, on top of a Makana District Marriage Register from 1888, I couldn’t cry.
* * *
“2, 2, 4, 3, 5, 4, 4, 4.”, she announced. “This bar is full of fucking fours! What a bust.”
“Just let it go, Betts. Another night, okay?” Meryl said into her blue check collar.
I could have told her there was no use trying drag Betty away from the scent but I didn’t feel like being right any more for some reason. Betty said it would happen and it would happen tonight. He was here, they just hadn’t found him yet.
“Oh look, a 6,” she said, pointing.
She left the booth and wandered off for closer inspection. I followed her gaze - green and concentrated as a laser. She looked like she had half a mind to open his mouth and count his teeth like a slave trader. But with a simper and a flick of her hair that person was gone and someone else was asking him coquettishly for a cigarette, putting her right leg behind the other and stroking it.
I heard the scrape and burst of a lighter coming to life across from me. A smoke was born. Poppy-coloured lipstick stained the cigarette butts on the table scattered in front of her.
“You just don’t have any say in it. That’s the thing,” Meryl said apropos to nothing.
I took it from her and inhaled deeply in lieu of a response.
“I just don’t want to lose.” She sighed and motioned for me to give it back.
It seemed like just another one of those long nights of trailing admiration. I rolled and lit up until time glazed over it. I couldn’t sleep for fear of missing out. None of us wanted to miss out but on what we weren’t really sure. People sang about it, people wrote about it, people died for it even. But we didn’t. We sat around bars, kicked lamp posts and shuffled around dance floors waiting for something to happen. For someone to happen. I’d wake up at three the next aftermoon with cottonmouth, an aching heart and sore heels. I knew it had to stop but I’d go out and follow them again. Padding along behind and beside them. They didn’t mind.
I’d say we hung out as a group but our proximity was merely a coincidence of space and clinginess on my part rather than shared camaraderie.
I just didn’t want to miss the moment she was vulnerable again. Vulnerable enough to give herself up to me.
“You know I’ve always wanted you,” I said.
It escaped out of my lips. As easy as reckless things do. In the awkward silence afterwards my hands trembled on my knees and my insides crumpled and re-crumpled on themselves until I could barely breathe. Still nothing. She looked away. I looked down into my lap moving away and towards me. Away and towards me like a swing. The soundtrack of pool balls clacking against each other continued. Some men by the pool table cheered. Someone was losing.
“You don’t understand. It’s hard when you’re in a relationship to keep things alive and interesting. Y’know, you see each other all the time and when you don’t you hear rumours about each other. You fuck every day. The only way to stop it becoming boring is to bring someone new in. They don’t stay forever. They’re just visiting.”
“We’re all just visiting each other aren’t we?” I said. “No one gets to stay.”
Betty brought over her pick.
“Shuffle up,” she barked.
Meryl slammed her hands on the table and moved up. He slid into the booth, gripping a dictaphone in his mouth. I thought he was crazy and clenched my hands into fists, warily. His eyes glinted with lust as he explained it was an electric cigarette. I’d never seen one before. It had an orange electric flame that even stoked itself when he inhaled. I retaliated by smoking my Camel, harder. I didn’t get what men had to do with lesbians. They were unlikely saviours. He wasn’t my type. He’d live and die in this town. A boy in his dad’s shoes. He had on a beige shirt worn one day too long and a dusty navy blazer with the lapels fraying at the corners. He talked and talked but didn’t ever say what he meant. Worst of all his canned pheromones stung my nostrils. We said no names.
He was an adequate human being. Not adequate at anything in particular. Just adequate. No qualifiers. I doubted he knew he was making a foray into an imploding relationship, and that even if he had, he wouldn’t have been sorry about it.
I was resigned. Disappointment weighed down my throat. I retreated, into my usual posture of bitterness. Betty walked ahead of me, arguing with Meryl. Anger was their foreplay and I didn’t intervene. She pushed open the door to my own residence block and tramped up the stairs as if she knew where the communal government-issue condoms were kept. I hung back and let her arrogance tire itself out. Eventually she’d have to concede only I knew where they were and that I was good for something. They were in the phone box on second floor, affectionately called Slag Row for girls that lived there. I opened the box and there was one left. I briefly considered lying, saying that all the slags had gotten there first and the box was empty. But that wouldn’t have stopped anything. I picked it up, walked over and handed it to Meryl.
We walked through the hallway, down the main stairs and back to the car in silence. Someone shouted through their wall that we should “STOP BANGING THE FUCKING DOOR!” The night was calm and unusually bright. I hadn’t noticed it before but it could have been day. We stepped on to the avenue lined with trees, as sturdy and leafy as the admissions brochure had promised. Betty’s blue car was parked underneath them, Meryl and my doors still left open. The wind blew half-heartedly making the leaves above quiver.
Only then did I look up at the moon. This strange ghost fruit hanging in the night.
I felt like time and space had buckled under the weight of it and that was all this night was. I got a good look at it before it ducked out of view. Its power radiated anyway. Thick fingers of moonlight shot through the navy clouds and illuminated everything below. The clouds exited my gaze, stage left. A bit of the moon was revealed. Then another cloud swept over. Exit stage left.
I could sense something coming in the distance though I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the drama of the sky. The blood in my head drained to the back of my skull as I kept looking up for an answer to a question I hadn’t really asked. Something somewhere rustled. But maybe not. I brushed it off as a hallucination. My senses running wild and overstimulated. Set alight by drugs and the moon’s cool fire. My senses running sticks along my cage. But then I was sure I could feel it. That night I had felt it all and was sponge, saturated by the life bursting around me. I could feel it even though it was still far away. The freedom, the rush. The friction of bodies moving. The stick and release of damp skin on damp skin. Life bristling rebelliously in the night when all should be still. Sounds of screaming and laughing and jeering and whooping and slapping feet reached my ears. A crowd of boys approached. Unbridled and naked. Thundering towards us. Possessed by an unnameable desire. Swinging and running they came up the road like a pale white wave. Like a flock of white geese. Like I sign I couldn’t understand. They ran down the avenue, and glowed with lunar energy. All of a sudden I started laughing and laughing and laughing. Peals of laughter and tears. These boys. They were flying. These boys were flying.
Efemia Chela was born in Zambia in 1991, but grew up all over the world. She studied at Rhodes University, South Africa and Institut D’Etudes Politiques in Aix-En-Provence, France. When she grows up she would like to be a better writer and literary translator. She enjoys eating pizza, reading graphic novels and watching black and white films.
Her first published story, ‘Chicken’ was nominated for The 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing. Efemia’s subsequent stories and poems have been published in places like Brittle Paper, Jalada, Prufrock and PEN Passages: Africa. Efemia is currently a fellow of the inaugural Short Story Day Africa / Worldreader Editing Mentorship Programme and continues to write fiction whenever she can find a moment on the train and a working pen.