I wrote 'The Sum of Her Mistakes' when I turned forty and was reflecting on all the things I had not done in my life, the person I had been and the person I now was.
The Sum of Her Mistakes
I run the palm of my hand over the page to wipe away a layer of dust that is not there. The plastic film covering the photograph has yellowed, discoloured with age like an habitual tea drinker's teeth. Or it is my eyes, the vitreous stewed to murk my vision? I peel back the film, relieved the deterioration of my sight has not sped up overnight, and stare at the fresh-faced girl.
From within the frame of a snapshot, she smiles at me across time; the jaunty upsweep of feathers in her hat accentuates the tilt of her lips. The look on her face - expectant, hopeful - surprises me, and I contemplate it a moment before counting the freckles on her pale arm. I try to remember what has become of the chunky silver rings that adorn each of her twig-like fingers and both thumbs. Smoothing the plastic back over the page, I glimpse my own hand, embellished only by a plain wedding band and the ravages of sun and time.
On another page, in another photograph, the same girl squats on a balcony like a child playing leapfrog. Again, that look, though this time bemused and without the smile. I flip further back through the album, admiring the girl’s smooth skin, not yet spoiled by years of cigarettes and late nights, her angular hips her toned belly, not yet covered up by the grease of too many restaurant dinners. I picture her standing here in front of me, scrutinizing my life as I scrutinize her portraits.
‘Why did you never live in New York?’ she asks, unable to keep a whine of disappointment from her voice. ‘You were supposed to climb Mt Kilimanjaro,’ she says, flicking her brown hair, an admonishing gesture I remember from when my hair was long. ‘I can’t believe the snow on the peak has melted. How did that happen?’
‘You should stop smoking,’ I tell her. ‘It’ll ruin your looks.’
‘Beauty fades,’ she replies with the arrogance of youth, ‘it’s a philosophical inevitability.’
‘Floss more, at the very least,’ I tell her.
‘I have great teeth,’ she says tapping a pearly white with her fingernail, ‘I’m twenty-one and I have no fillings.’
‘Yes,’ I agree, ‘but your gums will recede in your thirties if you don’t take better care. It’s a genetic inevitability.’
She raises an eyebrow, then points at the framed photograph on my desk.
‘Who are they?
‘My husband and daughter.’
‘You have a kid?’ She sounds surprised. ‘I’m never having kids. The world is overpopulated and totally morally bankrupt. Who’d want to bring another poor soul into this world?’ she says, ignoring the fact that I did.
She holds the photograph at arm’s length. ‘Your husband's a bit of a dweeb,’ she snorts, ‘not really the type I go for.’
‘No?’ I ask, bemused myself now. ‘What is your type?’
‘Doesn’t matter anymore,’ she tells me with a dreamy look in her eyes, ‘I’ve met my soul mate.’
I sigh. I want to tell her that he will break her heart and, when he does, she shouldn’t mope for two years because what they have is not real love. I want to tell her that there will be others, many more, but that she shouldn’t waste her time with them. I want tell her to pack her things and go to New York or Toronto or Santiago de Chile now while she’s still free and able. Before she wakes up and realizes that she is forty and half her life is done. Instead, I close the album on that faded hope, and return it to the shelf.
What am I, if not the sum of her mistakes?
Rachel Zadok escaped a career in advertising to write, which she has described as being a little like running away to join a circus without a safety net. She has written two novels: Gem Squash Tokoloshe – nominated for The Whitbread First Novel Award, The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and the IMPAC award – and Sister-sister nominated for the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, The University of Johannesburg Literary Prize, and The Sunday Times Fiction Award. She writes novels and short stories as a form of self-torment; and articles, blogs and advertising copy for money. She also runs Short Story Day Africa.
In 2015 Rachel was a Sylt Foundation Writer in Residence and the Rhine-South Africa Fellow. She lives in Cape Town