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. He’d roped me into coming to buy it with him the first time we met, expounding the ways the superior scent would positively impact his success “in all areas of life”. African men and name brands. The second time I visited, I brought him a bigger bottle. If I were to roll over now, I’d see the two Medusa heads guarding our room from the dresser, aided by Mandela’s eyes.
As Nelson’s portrait watches, I lie there and try to feel comfort in my confinement, tenderness in how tightly Mwanza chooses to wrap onto me. This consistently fails. Every morning, 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 in a place 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. Isn’t it better to stay in the familiar? This is the daily argument in my head, and when that becomes overwhelming, I settle for looking out the window and into other apartments, imagining the people inside. Are they happy? 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 are pushed against mine.
“I love you,” he says, before getting up to brush his teeth. I stay in bed. He must think of me as such a lazy riser. As he lightly reapplies the Eros – he has not even started the second 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.
What is love, anyway? It has to be more than a feeling. Butterflies – people always talk about butterflies. Or a rushing sensation. Do people really feel that all the time? Does he?
Maybe love is comfort: looking at someone and feeling you know each other and are content together. Could that work for me? Am I content with him?
Or maybe, love is a choice. Maybe you choose to stay in love with someone, make yourself content, force butterflies, and re-create rushes out of your memories. I could probably do that.
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 stay. Then I fell in love with Braamfontein and Rose Bank lifestyles. I met Congolese people my age, both connected to and removed from their home cultures, so that they tolerated the aspects of my character they did not understand, appreciated where I diverged form tradition, and otherwise pulled me in.
“You been saying you wanted to marry a Congolese man,” my friend said one night, over the phone. “You better find one now.”
Enter Mwanza. He was – is – fine. Six foot three and muscular, skin dark so that his eyes always sparkle and his teeth shine white. My second visit, I stay in his apartment for two weeks. I was supposed to be staying by my cousin, but his place got filled up the night before I arrived. The cousin made us off limits to each other, so I never worried about any of the feelings we developed.
Right moves, wrong person. I don’t know how he did it. My last night, one second we were bumping shoulders playfully – the next he had grabbed me, spun me somehow, and had me locked in his arms, facing him. It was a lot. I melted.
“Don’t look at me,” he told me.
“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.”
“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 didn’t know if it was true, but I said it.
“I want to kiss you again.”
He smiled, then. It wasn’t a completely nice 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.