by Mercy Dhliwayo
The smell of the over boiled chaumolia carried a nauseating stench of anger: an instant appetite killer. With their green boiled out, the roughly chopped and browned vegetables, served with an intimidating mountain of maize meal took class out of Mother’s expensive china. The one’s she received at a relative’s funeral during the distribution of the deceased’s belongings. The ones she kept in our glass display cabinet and only used when we had visitors. We did not have visitors, but because Njube, like many other places in Bulawayo had not had water in almost two weeks and we had exhausted all the clean dishes and had little water left for just cooking, Mother had no option but to use her special plates, even in the foul mood that she was in.
Mother was angry at Father and this was testament in her cooking. Father had bought me a new pair of shoes from Edgars using his overtime pay. In his defence, Father said that I had worked very hard at school and he felt that I at least deserved something new for our form four farewell party. Mother, on the other hand, found it extravagant for Father to have bought me shoes when we had mounting unpaid bills. What aggravated her more was where the shoes had been bought when there were other cheaper options like Chinese shops. Because I understood Mother’s reasoning, I felt guilty about the shoes and more especially about the fact that I loved them and was unprepared to let them go.
I glared at my food, feeling hungry, but lacking the appetite. I had not eaten since morning and now wished that I had volunteered to cook even if it was mother’s duty. I had, however, been too preoccupied with thoughts of the night ahead for me to be bothered about cooking. This was the night that I had been waiting for for weeks. Our farewell party and more especially my date with James. A night that I had fantasized about for ages. If my prayers were answered, by the end of the night I would be having a boyfriend and will be bidding farewell to all the years of invisibility.
Not wanting to aggravate Mother, who sat next to me seemingly struggling to digest her own food, I dug into my plate and scooped a lump of maize mealand a bit of the vegetables and pushed the combination into my mouth. I, on impulse, instantly spat out the food as a strong bitter taste of a granule of coarse salt that I had chewed stung my tongue. Mother was insulted. ‘My husband has never spat out my food. I guess those rich friends of yours have made you too good for my food.’ she said. I thought of apologising and explaining my actions but Mother had already worn her victim-face and knowing her, any word I would have said would have been countered by a stream of guilt provoking silence. A sudden knock at the door, rescued me from the lurking awkwardness. I immediately abandoned my plate and attended to the door.
‘Mandy.’ My heart pounded rapidly at the sight of the lean and beautiful figure that stood at our door step. ‘I’m coming just now,’ I said before slamming the door in Mandy’s face. Mother thought it rude. I did not. What was she doing at my doorstep when our arrangement was to meet in town?
I ran to my parent’s bedroom, where we kept our clothes and changed into the clothes I had put aside for the night. A brown leather skirt that I had found in an old trunk in which my parents kept old clothes from their younger days. I wore it with a black string top and my new shoes. Having dressed up, I knelt down to inspect my hair in the little triangular surviving potion of our dressing table mirror. Inspired by an image of Mother in an old photograph stuck on the dressing table, of her sitting on a high stool with Father standing behind her staring into her eyes, I had combed my hair into an afro and had worn a black elastic hair band above my forehead just as she had. I however did not look as beautiful as she did. Her face was clear and did not have a sign of a pimple. I on the other hand had a manifestation of pimples that never disappeared no matter how much I squashed them. They had a revolting character of their own. It was as if the pimples had a face as opposed to my face having pimples. The pimples made it difficult for boys to notice me. I really did not desire all the boys’ attention. All I desired was James’ attention, but he too never seemed to notice me, until Mandy and I became friends.
When I returned from the bedroom, to my astonishment, Mother had let Mandy inside the house. I was angry at her but angrier at Mandy for disregarding our arrangement and coming to collect me from home. Who did she think she was? And who had told her that I needed to be collected. Now she sat on Father’s sofa. The one that only Father sat on. Mother said nothing. Maybe it was her who had told her to sit there since she was angry at Father. Father’s sofa was the better sofa in the house after all. As much as I prayed that Father would not walk in and find her sitting there, I was glad that Mandy had not sat on the other two sofas. The worn out sofas that we had stuffed with old clothes, would have sucked her into their hollowness. Or worse, she would have heard the rattling movement of the fearsome rats that came out of their hiding and ran about the sitting room even climbing on the sofas as we slept. Noticing Mandy’s eyes zoom from my plate of food to the cracking plaster peeling off the wall of the interior of our house, I quickly announced to Mother that we were leaving and hurriedly walked out of the house with Mandy following me behind.
Mother also came out of the house and went to speak to Mandy’s mother who was in her car waiting for Mandy and I. Since I was to return home later at night, way after my usual six o’clock curfew, Mother had expressed her desire to speak to Mandy’s mother who had undertaken to bring me back home after the party. While I had foreseen then speaking to each other telephonically, I had not foreseen them talking face to face. There was Mandy’s mother. Having gotten out of her twin cab, you could see the Daniel Hechter floral dress that set well on her body and her neat matching court shoes. From afar, one could imagine how she smelt: like rich scented roses. And then there was Mother, wearing an old pink morning gown, that had not only grown khakish from over washing, and smelling a combination of sweat from a hard day’s work at the factory and soot from the fire on which we cooked from on those days when there were power cuts.
While I was still recovering from the trauma of Mandy having been in our house, Mandy requested to use the bathroom. Our bathroom was located outside the house. It consisted of a blare toilet and a shower. The room was dark as we hardly replaced the bulb and it maintained its stench no matter how much I cleaned or disinfected it. I thought of someone like Mandy inside our toilet and I wanted to die.
‘I think there is someone inside,’ I lied.
‘I don’t think so, the door is not closed.’ Mandy knocked on the bathroom door and proceeded to get in without waiting for a response. Despite always having desired to be her friend, I, at that moment hated Mandy. She was invading on my privacy just as she had when she set foot in our house. Although I had been at Mandy’s place countless times, I had been there on her invite and besides, unlike me, she was from a rich family and really had nothing to worry about. I therefore cursed the day that she got to know where I lived. I had just walked out of our gate on my way to school when our neighbour, maSibanda, from across our house, bellowed a greeting to me. When I looked back to respond, I was shocked to see Mandy walking out of maSibanda’s shabeen. I wondered what she was doing in my neighbourhood and with a person like maSibanda around seven o’clock in the morning. That, however, was the least of my concerns. Mandy had seen where I lived. No one from school knew where I lived; not even my closest friend, Shami. While I could live with being the invisible girl at school, I was terrified by the thought of people from school about the kind of house I lived in.
I was not embarrassed about where I came from. I was just not proud of living in the rented crammed space that we lived in; a two and a half roomed house which consisted of my parent’s bedroom, the sitting room where my younger brother and I slept on separate sofas and a tiny kitchen. Contrary to my fears, Mandy did not tell anyone about where I lived. She had instead requested me not to tell anyone about our encounter when we met in class after two days of her being absent. I found the request awkward but did not think much of it. I was rather overwhelmed by the thought of Mandy talking to me and her friendliness since she hardly spoke to me in class.
I did not need much convincing to keep our encounter a secret. In addition to being rich, Mandy was the most popular girl at school. Everyone wanted to be friends with her and her small clique of friends. Being friends with them enhanced one’s chances of being someone and even of getting a boyfriend. Thus, my sole purpose at Prestige College, apart from maintaining high grades to keep my bursary, had been winning Mandy’s friendship. Disregarding her request would have killed my chances of achieving this. My chances were already slim thanks to the unnecessarily numerous casual days and school functions that tended to reveal my poor background. Since my parents only bought us new clothes once a year towards Christmas, I often had to wear clothes that I had already previously worn at school and second hand clothes passed down on me by relatives while everyone else always wore something new and trendy. This made it difficult to be noticeable to Mandy and even the boys at school. Being maSibanda’s neighbour however seemed to have changed my fortune.
Mandy began to speak to me more often after her awkward request. I soon found myself hanging around her and her friends at lunch time and it was not long that I began to visit her house. I helped her with her school work and allowed her to copy my assignments sometimes. It was through our acquaintance that James began greeting me at school. The cherry on top was Mandy arranging for James to be my date at the farewell party when she realised how much I liked him. Before going to the party, we passed by Mandy’s house because Mandy had insisted that there was no way that I was going to the party dressed the way that I was dressed. This despite her mother having told me that I looked beautiful and unique. I however did not disagree with Mandy.
Mandy having been in our house, I, for the first time, felt embarrassed about being in Mandy’s house and in her room. The house was a lot neater than ours. Her room was much bigger than my parent’s bedroom and even bigger than our sitting room and kitchen combined.She had her own inbuilt closet, more spacious than my parents fully packed wooden wardrobe that had some shelves missing and the back board falling off no matter how many times Father hammered in new nails. She even had a proper dressing table with an intact mirror. The old dressing table that we had at home had uneven legs and therefore had to be supported by differently sized bricks strategically placed on the two shorter legs. Its mirror was broken and the wooden board that had been left exposed by the absence of the mirror had been covered with family photographs glued on to the board with chewing gum. The only surviving part of the mirror was a small rectangular portion at the bottom left of the dressing table board, that forced one to always kneel if they wanted to make use of the mirror which was only big enough to reflect ones face. I envied Mandy’s life and would have done anything to live in a house like hers and have as much clothes as she had.
From the clothes Mandy gave me to choose from, I picked a short green dress and matching pearls for the night. Mandy then produced a makeup kit and began working on my face without enquiring if I needed make up or not. I did not protest although my heart pounded at the thought of turning into one of those girls whom Shami and I often ridiculed because of their daily after school ritual of rushing to the bathrooms, as soon as the siren rang signalling the end of the last period, to secure a spot on the bathroom mirrors where they would smear their faces with vanishing cream or thick layers of cheap face powder that we called isibhuda.
Girls who would tweeze off their eyebrows only to replace them with thick eyeliner drawn where their eyelashes used to be. Although we often laughed at the effort these girls took to enhance their beauty, I saw nothing to laugh at when I glanced into the mirror and saw what Mandy had done to my face.
I was stunned by the reflection of myself. The makeup had concealed my pimples and I, for the first time, had a face of my own. A face I could own. I felt the beauty Mother said I possessed. I saw the beautiful eyes that Father said I inherited from Mother. I imagined James looking into my eyes the way Father looked in Mother’s eyes in that old photograph on our dressing table. Such a beautiful moment with James was possible for the young woman in the mirror as she was simply stunning. The green dress she wore looked lovely on her as though it were her own. Yet staring at her in that Cinderella moment, the initial embarrassment I felt when I saw Mandy in our house clung on to me like the foul breath of unbrushed teeth that overshadowed that fact that one had actually bathed. It was more than just shame. I felt some sort of guilt that was different from the guilt I felt earlier over my new shoes. I felt guilty of something that I could not identify. Something that seemed to be represented by the mirror glass that separated me from the reflection that gazed back at me. That something left a sour taste in my mouth that reminded of the real life that the stunning girl in mirror had to return to when the night was over.
On arrival at the party, Mandy and I, having met with our dates, immediately drew the crowd’s attention. I could sense what my association with the company that I was with would do for my popularity. James invited me for a dance. Mandy and her date were already dancing and I eagerly accepted James’ invite. While he danced around me in circles, I nervously moved my shoulders back and forth without moving much of my body. After our dance, James took me to the kiosk where he bought me a soft drink. He, on the other hand drank something that was in a yellow water bottle labelled “Power Sport”. We stood against the wall with our drinks. James moved closer to me and brought his face close to mine. My body shivered as I foresaw what was to be my first kiss. I was glad Mother had finally bought some tooth pasteafter almost a week of brushing our teeth with just a tooth brush and salty water. My lips grew itchy with anticipation but James’ lips did not reach mine. Instead, I felt their hotness against my ear and they grew erect in anticipation of a romantic whisper. My lips were ready to whisper “I love you too,” but were instead compelled to shout out my name to correct James who had just shouted ‘Erica’ into my ear.
‘Jerica?’ James laughed. ‘What kind of name is that?’
From his laugh, I foresaw James finding ridiculous my explanation of how I got my name from the combination of my parent’s names, Jerry and Monica. I therefore did not respond. I blushed shyly and waited for him to shout in my ear again. Although not as romantic as the whispers I had fantasised the two of us exchanging, I did not mind the shouting as it was the only way I could hear him in the noisy hall. Besides, I did not want to miss a single word from his mouth even if it was the ridiculing of my name.
‘Anyway Jerica,’ James continued. ‘Tell me something about your friend.’ These words prematurely melted my Cinderella moment. No girl liked to hear such words from a boy she had a love interest in. I however stayed calm and asked: ‘Which friend?’
‘Mandy. Is she dating that guy?’
I did not know whether Mandy was dating the form six guy that she had brought as her date . nonetheless confirmed that she was.
‘I need to talk to her. Can you arrange that for me?’
Although I knew what that meant, to save face, I smiled and nodded my head. I was both hurt and confused. It was Mandy who had set me up with James, yet James was now asking me to set him up with Mandy. The anger I felt towards Mandy earlier returned. I felt alone and out of place. I missed Shami. I had not seen her at the party and I was not sure if she had even attended. It would have been sad if she had not attended, I thought to myself. We had both eagerly anticipated the party since our first day of form four and often fantasized about what we would wear and what it would be like. We had also both shared the same desire of being Mandy’s friend. For some reason that did not happen for her and since Mandy and I became friends, Shami and I hardly spent time together as we previously did. I now needed her company more than ever. Had she been there, we would have found so much to talk and laugh about and I probably would not have had to spend the rest of the night watching James watching Mandy closely and waiting for an opportunity to be alone with her. It was particularly torturous how he would now and again send me to her to ask for a private moment with her. Unfortunately for James, Mandy’s date stuck on her like glue and I did not send any of his messages to Mandy. I merely reported back to him how she had no interest in speaking to him as she was at the party with someone else. It nonetheless made me feel inferior watching him watching her.
While I looked beautiful in the borrowed green dress, I was not good enough for James, or anyone else at the party for that matter. I did not spend the whole night with James as he now and again disappeared and reappeared later and in his moments of absence, none of the boys approached me for a dance or a simple chat. After his last disappearance, James returned later rigging of alcohol and invited me for another dance. Because of the loneliness I felt and the fact that he seemed to have forgotten about Mandy, I again, accepted the invite. He put his arms around my waist as we danced. Although everyone seemed to dancing with their arms around their partners, I did not feel comfortable. I however continued dancing. James moved closer to me and began fondling me.
Although I had always dreamt and fantasised about being in James’ arms, the manner in which his hungry hands sunk into my flesh, especially after witnessing his obsession over Mandy, made my body shiver with discomfort. He brought his face close to mine in an attempt to kiss me. I moved my face away from his as a strong stench of alcohol hit my nostrils.
‘Come on; just a kiss,’
‘No,’ I responded trying to tear myself apart from his grip.
‘Loosen up. It is only a kiss.’ With these words, James’ lips forcefully covered my lips with a repulsive wetness that made me want to throw up. His saliva wet my lips making them sticky with some unforgivable staleness.
‘I said no,’ I screamed angrily and tore away from him. This was not only a kiss. This was my first kiss and I had envisaged it to be romantic even if it was with him.
‘You crazy freak,” James yelled as he noticed the attention that my scream had drawn.
‘You think you are special, you and those borrowed clothes. Well you are nothing. There are a lot of girls out there, more beautiful than you.’
I hoped the music in the hall had been loud enough to swallow James’ hurtful words, but from the eyes that glared at me, I feared that everyone had heard him. Feeling naked and as stale as his kiss, I ran to the bathroom regretting having attended the party. Tears filled my eyes and I desired to just let them loose but when I reached the bathroom, Mandy was there, alone, shedding tears of her own.
Seeing Mandy in the bathroom was infuriating. She had everything and all I wanted was time alone to cry out my pain. Yet, even in a moment of pain, Mandy still had to have it all. Without noticing my pain or waiting for me to ask her what was wrong, Mandy sobbed: ‘Everyone knows.’
‘Knows what?’ I brushed away my own tears.
‘It was a secret. Only Catherine and Sammy knew. I thought they were my friends’.
I had no idea of what Mandy was moaning about but the thought of someone as infallible as her in tears was, in a way, intimidating, so I dared not ask.
‘You did not tell anyone did you?’
‘Tell them what?’
I glanced at Mandy through her reflection from the bathroom mirror trying to comprehend her question. Her face was soggy with tears and snorts were almost running down her nose. She wiped some tears off her face smudging makeup across her cheekbones.
‘You have no idea what I am talking about; do you?’ she sniffed. ‘You will soon find out anyway,’ Mandy added before confiding in me about an abortion she had had. This explained what she was doing at maSibanda’s house and her subsequent strange request for me not to tell anyone about seeing her with maSibanda. It made perfect sense especially in light of the rumours that I had once heard in my neighbourhood, about maSibanda assisting young girls and even married woman in removing unwanted pregnancies. I was not sure of how to respond to Mandy’s revelation, so I asked her the first thing that came to my mind, and that was whether her mother knew about it.
‘No,’ Mandy chuckled. ‘She wouldn’t have noticed even if I had kept the baby and maybe dumped it or given it away after giving birth.’
I thought of Mother and imagined hiding something that big from her. It was impossible. Mother could sniff a pregnancy from a neighbour’s child and living under her roof, she probably would know if I fell pregnant even before I myself knew.
When we left the bathroom Mandy wanted to go home. For obvious reasons, I too wanted to leave. Having failed to contact her mother, Mandy called a taxi that took us to her place, situated ten minutes away from our college. We entered the house through the kitchen and my attention was immediately drawn to the sound of smashing glass and Mandy’s mother quarrelling with someone in the house. “Not in this lifetime, Never,” she screamed. Ignoring the commotion, Mandy led me to her room. She switched on her music player and let the music play on high volume. She picked up a magazine and threw herself on the bed. I, without saying anything, removed the borrowed clothes and wore my own. Wishing to go home, I sat quietly before the dressing table and waited for my host to say something. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and noticed the makeup I had applied. I certainly could not go home with it, but the prevailing atmosphere made it difficult for me to freely go to the bathroom to wash it off, or to even ask for permission to use the bathroom. I therefore pulled the top part of the string-top I now wore and wet the inside part with my tongue before vigorously rubbing my face in a bid to remove the makeup.
Although the music was loud, the commotion from the other room could still be heard, but from a distance. However, as the song that had been playing faded away as the disc that had been playing came to an end, Mandy’s mother could be heard screaming aloud: “Kill me now. Kill me if you want”. I grew highly uncomfortable and immediately stopped rubbing my face. I resorted to chipping off my finger nails using my fingers. Mandy did not change the disc or do anything to resume the music. I suddenly felt like an intruder and Mandy’s silence and prolonged gaze at same page of the magazine that she had been gazing at for the past five minutes only reinforced the feeling. I wondered if Mandy hated me as I had hated her earlier when she was at our house. I wanted to go home and could not help but wonder what Mandy was thinking of and whether she had forgotten that I needed to go home. Without anticipating it, I felt Mandy’s abrupt movement from the bed and out of the room. A few seconds later I heard her scream: “Stop it. The two of you. I am tired of this. I wish you were not my parents. I hate you both.” After a few seconds, Mandy stormed back into the room, threw herself on the bed and buried her head under a pillow. She was shortly followed by a man who appeared startled to see me. I assumed the man was her father. His shirt was torn and had blood stains on it. While I was speechless and still deciding whether to great him, the man greeted me. ‘I did not know Mandy had a friend sleeping over tonight.’ He added.
‘I am not.’
‘Oh, I see. I will take you home then.’
These words were relieving. The man disappeared from Mandy’s room and returned a minute later wearing a clean t-shirt. He asked Mandy if she wanted to accompany me home but she did not respond. We walked out of the room and on the way out of the house, we walked past Mandy’s mother in the lounge. Her face had a fresh scar and she sat with a bottle of whisky and a half filled glass. I did not greet her. I did not know how to. I just rushed out of the house hiding behind Mandy’s father.
The ride home was quite uncomfortable. I was forced to engage in small talk when all I preferred was some silence to calm my nerves. Speaking to Mandy’s father was however inevitable since I had to give him directions to our house. I was relieved when I finally arrived home. It was just after eight o’clock; almost an hour earlier than the time I had been allowed to return home. My parents and brother were on the fireplace heating water for the evening tea. My brother sat on a log one side of the fire, arguing with Father about which team was likely to win the upcoming 2010 World Cup soccer tournament. My parents sat on the other side, with Mother squashed in Father’s arms, laughing at Father’s failure to counter my brother’s reasoning as to why an African team was unlikely to win the World Cup. Her earlier anger towards Father seemed to have disappeared. It was not surprising though. Mother never managed to stay angry at Father for long and I could not think of a time that I had ever seen Father angry at Mother.
I joined my family by the fire place. Everyone was delighted to see me and had millions of questions. In no time, the four of us were sharing some tea and the warmth of the fire place. A familiar warmth that surpassed the embarrassment that I felt over our house in Mandy’s presence. A warmth that replaced the hurt I had felt over what had happened with James. It was a warmth that I had known all my life. A warmth that I would not trade for anything in the world.