Monthly Archives: July 2018

Final Tableau

Bitu! Bitumba!” Mwanza is back.

He tries to pull me up, but I roll away from his hands. I can smell tobacco on him. He has made himself into a vanilla cigarette.

“Don’t touch me,” I say tiredly. “Go away again. You tried to hurt me.”

“You hurt me first!” There’s a squeaking sound, and I feel a puff of air at my back.  Is this man kicking at me now? Amazed, I propel my torso off of the floor, sitting up to stare at him.

“Damn it, Bitu.” He slides to the ground. Mwanza is art. The way he moves is graceful, fast; even his violence seems choreographed. Now he just lets one foot slip out over the floor, allowing his body to follow, keeping the other foot anchored while bending that knee.

“You know, I’ve said sorry,” he says.

“No, you haven’t.”

“Well, whatever. Sorry! But you didn’t apologize for anything, either.”

Me apologize. I didn’t do anything!”

“Exactly! You don’t do anything with me anymore. I saw you at the club. You danced with everyone. And the way you looked? Happy. The love of my life doesn’t care what I do. She’s happier with others than she is with me!”

Maybe I was wrong about being wrong.

“Did you just call me the love of your life, right after you fucked some other girl in my vicinity?”

“Why do you think I did it? You didn’t even notice! You don’t see me anymore. It’s like you’ve forgotten who we are, Bitu. We’re the lovers who came from different parts of the world to be together. I set you up here; this country has the two of us in its seams now. You’re pulling away, I don’t know why – why? And it’s tearing the seams and it’s hurting us!”

“What do you think love is, Mwanza?”

“It’s pushing through white-hot pain, withstanding all, because you know you’re supposed to be together.”

“Do you really think that?’

“I know it.”

“I don’t want that.”

“You don’t want anything, but you don’t say what you do want, either! You being so damn impossible to please, but I’m wrong, because, ‘Oh, I pushed you; I threatened to hit you; I fucked some other girl.’

“Do you admit that you did all those things?”

“It doesn’t matter!” he yells. “What do you want?”

I don’t know,” I whisper. I’m overwhelmed and exhausted. Tears drip slowly out of my eyes. Mwanza grabs my inner thighs and pulls me across to him.

“You want this,” he says urgently. “Us. This!” He tries to kiss me, and I try to bend, but we’re too close to the floor and he pulls me in through the small of my back. He tries to kiss me again, and I turn my head. Again he tries, and again, and again, until I don’t care about stopping him anymore. I let him kiss me, and I let him pull me to bed, and as much as he’s claimed to be hurt by it, Mwanza doesn’t seem to care when I go into my head.

 

*                               *                                    *                                    *

A few hours later, Mwanza is snoring, and I’m back at the windowsill. Below me is the faceless writer, buried in their journal. Clearly, this person does not need to lean against a window. They can go out, filter the world through loose leaf, and then – create Anywhere, instead of wishing for Elsewhere. I want to slip through the window and dive into their pages. Maybe they could write me away.

The person glances up, and my breath catches. This is it. I prepare myself to finally see their face, lock eyes, and they turn to look over their shoulder. Someone else walks out to sit across from them, and the world as I have previously imagined it dissolves a bit. There are two writers on the stoop now. I watch them smile shyly at each other, then write together. Sometimes, they stop and share with each other. At one point, my writer – although they clearly aren’t mine, now are they? – uses their pen to mark something in the other’s journal. It’s intimate, and makes my stomach hurt in an entirely different way than the vanilla did.

Vanilla. I look over at Mwanza. He still smells of vanilla and cigarettes. Some of it even rubbed off of him and on to me. I feel so sick, and disgusted with the two of us.  

Leaving the window early, I head to the shower. I scrub the stink from my skin, putting the water just below scalding, purifying myself. This will be Mwanza in an hour, I know. He’ll scrub away  last night’s stench and spray Eros all over his clean slate. Just like he’ll try to do with us: fuck and shove away his bad feelings, then pull me in close, grasping on to our “love”. I don’t want him to do this. Don’t want to get stuck in a cycle. What do you want, Bitumba? Good question, Mwanza. A change. I could give a damn about familiarity. Knowing something does not necessarily make it safe.

He will be up in less than thirty minutes, now. I step out of the shower and quickly towel off, then quietly get dressed. I look around me. A minute’s contemplation reveals that most of the things I have here are not things I actually care about. I grab my laptop and some clothes, neatly placing them into my roller bag. I look at the beautiful, fine-fine, still sleeping Mwanza. I remember the feel of his hands pulling me in through the small of my back, then the feel of them shoving me down through my shoulders. I think of his voice, whispering soft and sweet; then yelling coarse and rough. I wonder if I’d be able to do this, were he to wake up now and look at me. Or if he’d just pull me back and convince me that ambivalence about Elsewhere is enough reason to stay anchored to toxicity. I don’t want my feelings pushed down, sprayed over.

Once the door is opened and my things are outside I reenter the room and pick up the second bottle of Eros. I hold it carefully, slowly extending my arm until it is in front of me, like an offering. Then, I slam it down onto the floor. It shatters, and I’m gone before that smell can hit me.

Fourth Tableau

When my friends and I get to the club, Mwanza does not seem to notice. All his energy is concentrated on a girl with bantu knots and a septum piercing. As we pass by the two of them, I can smell her perfume: vanilla, strong enough to make you feel a little sick to your stomach. I say hi and he barely glances at me; his hello is distracted.

That was disrespectful,” my friend Lungi states, before I can work out what I think about it. We are both apparently watching a man ignore his girlfriend for another woman. If I were Lungi, I might be feeling the same sense of loyal indignation and outrage. As the actual girlfriend, my primary feeling is one of detached curiosity. What’s the endgame? This must be part of Mwanza’s “club god” idea. It’s possible that will involve him flirting with other women around me all night.

Lipuo, one of Mwanza’s friends, is standing by the bar, so we sidle over to him. He greets me properly. After the third cheek kiss, I nod in Mwanza’s direction.

“How long has that been going on?” I ask.

“Ah,” his eyes shift away from mine. “Barely happening. Like, right before, um, you got here.”

“For some reason,” I say slowly, “I don’t believe you.”

“Bitu, relax hein,” Lipuo says. “You know us. That’s nothing.”

“Bull shit,” Lungi cuts in. “That is wrong, Bitumba,”

She’s right, and wrong. It’s disrespectful, but only bothers me in the sense that I don’t like being brushed off. The cause of it, though? Another girl? I don’t care about it. That bothers me. I know that I should probably feel some sort of jealousy, or hurt by his inattention. The only thing hurt is my pride, and I can fix that by following instructions and “doing my thing”.

 

This is how I find myself in someone else’s arms later, realizing the simplicity of spinning a person fast, then holding them close. We’re just dancing. I’ve been dancing with everyone, remembering how good it feels to get physically close to people. Dancing flirtation is an art, a joy because it doesn’t mean anything. Or so I think, until he brings his face closer to mine, to – what? Kiss me? I turn my head, so he only kisses my cheek, and we smile at each other. Then he leans in again.

“Let me tell you a secret,” he says, and I almost fall for it. But as he tries to pull me in, I see his lips in time to bend away. He kisses the air.

“You won’t let me?” he asks, puzzled.

“No,” I tell him.

“What! Why not?” he demands now.

“I – ” I begin, and then stop for two reasons. I don’t know how much of an explanation this guy deserves. Shouldn’t a “no” be sufficient? Besides that, though, I was going to say I have a boyfriend, but I don’t know if I want Mwanza to be my excuse. It doesn’t matter, though, because this guy is not listening to me. Even if I hadn’t stopped talking, he would have cut me off.

“Oh, fine, whatever,” he’s been saying, letting go of me. Then he adds,

“Fucking tease.”

“What – ” I start to say, but this time, Mwanza cuts me off, coming out of nowhere with his fist. It connects with this guy’s jaw, and Mwanza’s head follows after as he efficiently butts the guy to the floor. As he pulls me out of the club, it occurs to me that he may have been paying more attention than I originally thought.

I allow myself to be taken – dragged – the few blocks home. Again, part of me thinks abstractly that this is disrespectful. Ignore me at the place you decided we’d go, and then take it upon yourself to decide when we leave? That’s not okay, but again, I also don’t care. Why not? My stomach hurts.

 

When we get back to the apartment, I head for the fridge. I’m pulling out a stir-fry when Mwanza slaps it from my hands.

“You’re not eating,” he says.

“Not yet,” I reply. “Give it back. I need to heat that up.”

“You don’t get this, do you? I said you’re not eating.”

“You cannot be serious,” I laugh. “You’re drunk! Do you think you’re my parent? Am I on restrictions? We dieting?”

“It’s not a joke! What happened back there? I have to fight some guy off of you, you ruin our night, and now you’re going for noodles like nothing’s wrong. What the fuck, Bitumba!”

“What the fuck, me?” I am incredulous. “I ruined our night? First of all, we didn’t have a night together to begin with.”

“And whose fault is that?” He moves toward me, and my stomach starts to feel weird again. “You barely went near me all night. You wouldn’t have noticed if I left!”

“Mwanza, are you kidding? I was following your plan. Which was disgusting, by the way! But we did what you wanted.” We always do.

“What I wanted. You think I wanted to watch you flirt with other guys? Dance with them? I was supposed to leave with the girl no one could get. Not the skank everyone touched! A guy thought he could kiss you!”

“But he couldn’t, and I showed him that!” So much nonsense has just flown at my face; I don’t know how to respond, so I settle for a low blow.

“Are you really mad that a guy tried to kiss me? Or are you jealous that your knot-headed friend didn’t want to kiss you?” He’s staggering closer to me, and my stomach hurts more, but I can’t stop talking, can’t stop dripping derision from my lips.

“Poor Mwanza, let down by all his women!”

 

He shoves me then, hard. One second, my feet are under me, and the next, they’re gone. My arms flail out in a stupid attempt to grab a stabilizer, but there’s nothing to hold on to. I’m crumpled against the fridge, and Mwanza is inches from my face, breathing heavily. I see his chest heaving, and our eyes widen together as I inhale – and get hit with a wave of understanding. Every part of him, his face, neck, arms – I grab his hands to check them, too – smells of vanilla.

 

“When you said I wouldn’t have noticed if you left,” I say slowly, “That wasn’t a hypothetical.”

His fist clenches. Unclenches.

“What did you do?”

Silence.

“Does your dick smell like vanilla, too?”

His hand slaps the side of the refrigerator, so hard that magnets fall down. A couple of them bounce off of his head. It’s funny.

“Be grateful that wasn’t your face,” he says. “Women who are disrespectful can still get slapped.”

That’s so ridiculous, I can’t hold in the laugh. It comes barking out, before I wipe my face into severity.

“If you slap me,” I say to him, “I will kill you.”

 

He kicks the fridge, and tears out of the apartment, banging the door shut behind him. I slide until I’m lying straight on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

It never occurred to me that Mwanza might be lying about the love, too. I close my eyes. This whole time, at the window and in my head, I’ve taken his love for granted, berated myself for not meeting him in what I thought he felt. This new knowledge, the understanding that he’s cheated, is a revelation. I was wrong. We don’t love each other. If we don’t want each other, this can end. I almost smile. I would be happier about it if the message hadn’t been delivered so violently.

Third Tableau

I chose this.

Twenty-three months later we tell each other we’re in love every morning, and reaffirm it each night before bed. I work as a nanny during the day for a wealthy couple in Pretoria, and write freelance articles coming home on the Gautrain. My parents visited Johannesburg once. They like Mwanza, and approve of our life here. It makes my mom sad to have me so far from her, but my dad is less bothered. Moving away is probably one of the more Congolese things I’ve done.

Everyone can see our relationship progressing far into the future.

“You always said you wanted to marry a Congolese man,” one of my friends from home remarks over the phone. “Well, now’s your chance, girl!”

 

At the window, I sometimes wish the glass would give way – not break, but just change form so that I could slip through it like water and fly freely through the space outside.

Of course, the flying would really be falling. The first time I realize this, my eyes travel down, following my body’s imaginary flight. Something distracts them, though, and instead of landing below my window, my eyes stop at the bottom of the building across the street.

There’s a figure sitting on the stoop, hunched over. I can’t tell if they’re male or female. But does that really matter? Whoever they are, they’re bent over a book, a journal, writing furiously and then thoughtfully. Their head is kept fastidiously buried in the pages, so their face is obscured. Forgetting about the personas in the other apartments, I watch them write for a long time, so long that I almost miss my cue from the sun.

For the first time, I don’t worry about love. Instead, as Mwanza sprays on Eros my thoughts are flooded with questions about the writer. How long have they been coming outside? For how long do they stay out? How have I never noticed them before?

The next day they’re back, and the next, and the next. I take to waking earlier, so that I can watch them emerge from the building. Every morning they walk onto the stoop, look furtively across the street in their line of vision, and then sink into writing. They don’t look up once the notebook opens. All I ever see is its cover, shooting out at me, blocking both visage and contents. I want to see their face. I want to read their words.

 

It’s a Friday morning when Mwanza looks into my eyes and our routine falters. He’s coming in to kiss me, but pauses above my lips.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, and I’m so thrown by the change that I almost tell him the whole truth.

“I feel…off,” I say. “Restless. Do you ever feel like you want to jump out of your skin and go somewhere?”

“I love my skin,” he replies. “But if you want to go somewhere, let’s just go out.”

“I don’t think out will cut it.”

“No, no, you don’t do enough. All you ever do is see that kid and send off articles. When’s the last time you danced?” Mwanza rolls out of bed now.

“We went out, like, two weeks ago,” I remind him. He shakes his head flippantly, putting toothpaste on his toothbrush.

“Well, this time will be different. We’ll make it an adventure, like you always want. Look hot – hot, Bitu. Go with your girls. I’ll be with my boys. We’ll each do our own thing like we don’t know each other.”

“Why?” I ask as he begins to brush his teeth.

“Because,” he moves the brush around in his mouth a bit before continuing, then speaking through the toothpaste. “When you try to look hot, you look good. When you look good, other guys hit on you. And when I leave with the girl all the other guys struck out on?” He finishes brushing. Spits.

“I’ll be the club god.”

He flashes his Wolf Smile.

Second Tableau

Nothing was, technically. Of course, I thought he was handsome. He still is. Six foot three and muscular, with skin so dark that his eyes always sparkle and his teeth shine white. Everyone who meets him is enamored.

“That’s a fine-fine man you got,” a woman told me on the street of Rose Bank one day, as we walked by. Mwanza laughed as we continued to walk, and I let him pull me into his chest before I could tell her that he was not my man, just a friend and current host.

I knew, too, that he thought I was beautiful. He found ways to bring it up each day, either when greeting me in the morning, or as a substitute for my name. “Get that, beautiful,” he’d request, or “Let’s go, beautiful,” he’d say, when it was time to go out. Every time, I would tell him that I did not like having the word as an identifier. Every time, he would laugh indulgently and  continue to use the adjective in place of my name. This bothered me, but overall I enjoyed being with him. I think we were both grateful that Arthur had been away.

 

My last night found the two of us sitting somewhat melancholy on his porch, cracking jokes and exchanging mild insults to distract ourselves from my upcoming departure. Finally, the time came to get up and go inside. One second we were bumping shoulders playfully – the next he had grabbed me, spun me somehow, and locked me in his arms, facing him. I was surprised to find myself melting into his arms. This was new, and different. For once, Mwanza’s eyes looked more scared than excited.

“Don’t look at me,” he told me immediately.

“There’s nowhere else for me to look,” I replied.

“Well, still. Close your eyes. I got you a goodbye present, did you know? I have to get it, but if I look at you, I won’t be able to leave you.”

“So, don’t give me a present.”

“Just – ” he was exasperated. He removed one hand from my back, and used two fingers to gently close my eyes.

“Don’t be an asshole,” he said softly, almost whispering. “There. Now, hang on.”

 

I remember noticing that instead of completely letting go of me and leaving, both hands were again clasping me, pulling me in through the small of my back. There was the sound of a gulp. Mwanza gulped, and I wondered if he was going to kiss me. He did, before I could consider whether or not that was something I wanted.

 

“Don’t leave,” he whispered when I opened my eyes.

“My plane is tomorrow morning. I don’t have a choice.”

“That’s stupid,” he said, instinctively tightening his grip as I bristled. “Everyone has a choice, always. You could go back to the States with your ticket. Or, you could choose to stay with me.”

“This isn’t my home.”

“Mine, either. But you’re American. You can make anywhere your home, with your magic passport.”

“What about my parents?”

“How often do you see them, anyway? Listen. You have no job; you have no responsibilities. You rent an apartment full of things you don’t care about. Sell them. Stay with me. I own my place. Your room and board are covered!”

“You aren’t serious,” was all I could say.

“I am. Besides, didn’t you say you were falling in love with me?”

“What I said was that if I stayed longer, I might.”

“So do it. What do you want?”

I thought of a line. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but I said it.

“I want to kiss you again.”

 

He smiled, then. It wasn’t a completely pleasant smile – it made me think he looked more triumphant than happy. The first of what I’d privately dub Mwanza’s Wolf Smiles. I didn’t like it, but I let him smile, let him kiss me, and I stayed.

First Tableau

Every morning, I go to the window. I wake before Mwanza, always. His arms are around me, and I lie tangled up with him, breathing in his scent. He always smells faintly of Eros cologne. Early on the first time we met, he coerced me into coming with him as he bought a bottle, expounding the ways the superior scent would positively impact his success “in all areas of life”. Congolese men and name brands. I later bought him a bigger bottle. If I were to roll over now, I’d see the two Medusa heads guarding our room from the dresser.

As they watch, I lie there and try to feel comfort in my confinement, tenderness in how tightly Mwanza chooses to wrap onto me. Eventually, I gently shrug off his arms and spend an extra moment lying still, just out of his reach. When his breathing slows and becomes heavy again, I balance on the balls of my feet, and then deftly step over his body and onto the windowsill.

It’s a balancing act. The sill is wide enough for me to fit if I turn my body sideways, hold my knees to my chest, and lean against the glass. I balance my body to stay in the space, and steal the time when Mwanza cannot consciously miss it. As he slumbers on, I press my forehead into the glass and dream of being Elsewhere.

There’s no actual place in mind. That is beside the point. I’m tired of being here, but I also know that I would tire of being Anywhere. Is it better to risk leaping off into the unknown, or to stay safe in the familiar? I go back and forth in my head, arguing with myself. When that becomes overwhelming, I settle for looking out the window and into other apartments, imagining the people inside. I create personas and plan futures for them until the sun’s rays hit our side of the street. That’s my cue to get up, softly step over the still-sleeping Mwanza, and roll back into his grasp.

 

A few minutes later, he’s awake. His arms squeeze me, and his lips push against mine.

“I love you,” he says, before getting up to shower and brush his teeth. I stay in bed. As he lightly reapplies the Eros – he has not opened my bottle yet – I lie where he left me, and try to convince myself that it isn’t a lie when I say I love him back.

 

Sometimes, in his arms, I find myself marveling at how I ended up here. I came to South Africa as a visitor; it had never been my intention to remain. I was supposed to be staying with a cousin for two weeks, but his business had called him out of the country the night before I arrived.

“What am I supposed to do now, Arthur?” I’d panicked into the phone. “Do I cancel my trip? I didn’t get insurance!”

“Relax, Bitu,” Arthur had said. “I’ll make a plan. Just come. Someone will have space for you.”

Enter Mwanza. Like most of the people in Arthur’s friend circle, he’d grown up in Congo before being sent to South Africa to study and start a business. He arrived at the airport with a smile and an enormous picture of my face.

“I told Arthur that he owed me for this favor,” Mwanza said, after kissing my cheek. “But now that I’m in your presence, beautiful Bitumba, I believe that I owe him. Did you know that the gorgeousness of your photo alone has already won me compliments?”

“Oh,” I said warily, “Another charming Congolese man.”

I allowed him to take my bags and whisk me out of the airport, driving into Braamfontein.

“Arthur will be away for at least a week,” Mwanza said on the drive, “Which sticks you with me. I’m on holiday anyway, so we can get into some activities. Have you ever bungee jumped?”

“Um, no.”

“Do you want to?” he asked excitedly, almost expectantly.

“Not really,” I said.

“Ah,” he said, his smile becoming teasing. “Another wimpy American woman!”

 

He made me bungee jump in Soweto that first week, and in turn I dared him through every thrill ride at Gold Reef City. We drove through Gauten’s Lion Park, and danced on the rooftop of Neighborgoods market. At the end of the week, Arthur called Mwanza. I heard his voice through the phone as he explained that he was so sorry, business required him to stay in Angola for several extra days, and would I please be allowed to impose for longer? Mwanza grinned at me and said that it would be no imposition, only a pleasure.

“Hey, be careful!” Arthur said then. “Bitu, don’t go testing this friendship.”

“Relax,” I told him. “Nothing is happening.”