Let It Rain: Crushed Tea – Leaves in My Water
[Disclaimers: this story is not an endorsement of manipulative, abusive or dysfunctional behaviour. Suicide ideation disproportionately affects people who identify within the LGBTQIA+ gender and sexuality kaleidoscope. This story is not an indictment of people who struggle with ideation but rather an example of how ideation is sometimes weaponized by people who have trouble processing rejection and loss in constructive ways. Content and trigger warning: for intimate partner violence in the form of emotional abuse.]
Trigger warning*: self harm, emotional abuse.
“Give me hope, that help is coming, when I need it most.” – Tracy Chapman, ‘Let it Rain’ (2002)
February 14th, 2003
“Do you guys remember when this album dropped? We listened to it like two hundred times,” Laika rolled her head in my direction from her girlfriend’s lap. She was sitting cross-legged on the dirty beige carpet in my lounge and her girlfriend, Leroy, perched on the edge of my maroon, worn-down and holey corduroy sofa, plaited her hair. I was sitting next to Leroy, carefully rolling crushed marijuana in some thin rizzla. All around us the opening chords of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Let It Rain’ filled my untidy little lounge and transported us back to that afternoon in October, 2002 when we’d each bought a copy of the album and come back to my place to play it repeatedly on my cheap hi-fi system. It had been an uncharacteristically overcast day in spring and we’d been cooped up in this flat; smoking joints and munching on Simba chips while analyzing the lyrics and mood of each song on the record. Laika had stretched her long legs out on my carpet – she preferred sitting on the floor to crumpling her tall frame into chairs or sofas – with a 2l bottle of Stoney tucked between her strong, lean thighs nodding her head to the music with her big eyes closed.
She had opened her eyes when Tracy sang give me hope that help is coming, when I need it most and blinked away the tears that had gathered in them. “I think I love her,” she declared in a choked, husky voice.
Leroy had shaken her head and chuckled but she knew as well as I did that Laika wasn’t the only person in that room moved by Chapman’s earnest plea and lilting voice. Give me hope that help is coming, when I need it most. We hadn’t had to say out loud how deeply those words resonated with each of us. We simply repeated the song until Laika informed us that she was ready to move onto the next track on the record. We had sobered up after a while and sipped on hot cups of tea made with tea leaves and not bags; reflecting on the songs we each liked the most. Laika said her favourite song was Another Sun and Leroy laughed, stating that her girlfriend was too obsessed with death. I said my favourite song was In the Dark and Leroy said of course I loved the only explicitly sexual song on the album. Laika and I demanded to know what Lee’s favourite song was since she had so much to say about everyone else’s preferences.
She had walked over to where Laika was sitting on the floor and plopped down beside her, “That’s easy; You’re the One. Coz I really don’t care what anyone has to say about us being a couple, this is my baby,” she said before planting a big wet kiss on her baby’s cheek.
As we drifted off later on that evening, we sleepily recalled the line in the title track of ‘Let it Rain’ which had brought tears to Laika’s eyes; give me hope that help is coming, when I need it most and decided it the mst important lyric of the entire album.
In the present, Tracy was singing that line for the second last time in the song when I reached onto my coffee table –littered with books and cups with dried up tea bags stuck to the bottom- to retrieve my lighter. I lit the blunt and took a deep drag from it, settling back into the couch and looking at my friends out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t want them to see me watching them. They had been dating for almost three years and we had all been close friends for much longer. Since early high school. We were the only gay kids in our grade, possibly the entire school so we sort of gravitated towards each other as a result. Luckily, we had some shit in common; we played and enjoyed basketball, liked the same subjects, were tall and dark and we all had big, desperate crushes on Tracy Chapman. We had been out of high school for almost four years now but many of those things were still very true. We had also harbored secret inevitable crushes on one another, being the only proudly gay people any of us knew in inner city Johannesburg but Laika and Leroy had developed real life feelings for each other and begun dating when we’d started varsity. Looking at them now, I had the same thought I’d had about them in grade 8; feeling like a beloved third wheel, they were made for each other.
Laika was soft-spoken and Leroy while loud and boisterous – the only real tomboy in the group- was a great listener and didn’t mind giving her girlfriend space to voice her thoughts and feelings. Laika hated cooking and Leroy loved making new and deliciously creative things in the kitchen. I knew that Leroy was tired of being with girls that assumed she wanted to do all the work in the bedroom just because she was a bit butch and Laika had often confessed to me that despite her lip-gloss and nail-polish she preferred to be dominant in bed. They balanced each other out tremendously. Laika was in her 3rd year of medicine and Leroy was doing her second last year in pharmacy. They also came from similar homes; they had strained and sometimes volatile relationships with their single mothers. I was the odd ball; graduating the following year with a Bachelor of Arts in English –so I could work as an editor after school- and loving parents who were still happily married.
There was also this unbelievable physical compatibility between them. They were the exact same height and the dark brown of their skin was of an identical hue. Laika’s cheek could have been an extension of the thigh it was pressed against. I often wondered what their naked bodies looked like together when they made love. I thought about the two of them making love a lot. I thought about the things they did to each other –which they sometimes shared with me in confidence; Laika liked when Leroy gave her head and Leroy said she appreciated that Laika kept her nails clipped short- sometimes laying wide awake conjuring vivid visions of them in the act. I sometimes wasn’t sure which of them I was in love with more; but I was certain and grateful that they were both mine to love. I passed the already half-smoked joint to Laika but she didn’t seem to mind that I’d hogged it. She took it from me quietly and drew from it.
When she held it up for Leroy to smoke, her girlfriend shook her head and waved it away.
“Are you not smoking, Lee?” I asked, leaning forward in the sofa and peering into my friend’s face.
“Not right now. I want to finish her hair,” Leroy said, not meeting my eye.
“What’s your favorite song on the album, Toya?” Laika asked suddenly.
“In the Dark,” I responded automatically. They both knew which song I loved best from the album.
“Ha! My friend, you really love sex! We should get you a girlfriend so you can get laid!” she exclaimed from the floor. There was something awkward and forced about her cheerfulness.
“You know I don’t have time for girlfriends, Laika. Besides I’m already an honorary member of your relationship, where will I find the time or energy to be with anyone else?” I joked.
I saw Leroy stiffen and heard Laika’s sharp intake of breath at the same time. I’d unknowingly touched a nerve. I suddenly noticed that there had been a growing tension between the two of them. I knew better than to ask what the matter was because they never let me in on their arguments; at least not while the other was around.
I turned to Leroy. “Is your favorite song on the album still You’re the One?” I teased, nudging her in the side. Her reaction made me wish I’d kept my mouth shut.
She sniffled and wiped the back of her hand across her top lip. I saw tears well up in her eyes. Her hands stopped the pulling and twisting of Laika’s hair. Instead of protesting Laika cast her eyes downward, avoiding eye contact with both Leroy and me. There was no way I could avoid asking what the problem was at this point.
“Is everything alright, you guys?” I enquired as gently as possible.
Leroy started sobbing then, out of nowhere. I sat there in shock, just staring at her. I’d never seen her cry that way before. Not even when her mother had kicked her out of the house after one of our high school teachers had outted her as a lesbian. Laika turned her torso around slightly and placed a hand on Leroy’s knee. To my shock and dismay Leroy roughly slapped Laika’s hand away and stood up from the sofa; storming out of the lounge.
“What the fuck is going on?” I demanded, looking first at Laika’s tearless but pained face and then in the direction Leroy had just stormed off in.
“I messed up, Toy,” Laika said softly.
“What do you mean, you messed up?”
She opened her mouth to speak but then seemed to decide against it and closed it again. I looked at her with my head cocked to the side; my I demand an answer stance. She shrugged sheepishly.
From my run-down hi-fi system, Tracy Chapman sang about how she ought to have been happy to be loved; happy to be with someone who knew and understood her. And all I could think was that these two had that, someone to make them happy; someone who left them unburdened by the thought that they could ever be lonely.
“I’ve been having an affair.” Laika whispered over Tracy’s barely audible every time you get close, I just run.
I felt like turning the music off and smacking Laika in the face but I felt rooted to my spot on the sofa and too shocked to move.
“How long?” I asked, after a long time.
“For about four months. It’s this girl I met at school. She’s really amazing. I wanted to tell Lee sooner but…” Laika’s voice trailed off. We both knew what the rest of that sentence entailed. Lee wasn’t an easy person to leave. She often joked that neither of us were allowed to leave her because she wouldn’t be able to survive in the world without us.
“So, do you love this other girl?” I said the word ‘other’ in a way that made it clear that I felt every bit as betrayed by Laika as Lee did. Whatever abandonment issues Leroy had, cheating was no way to treat someone you supposedly loved.
“I do. She –she makes me happy.” Laika said softly. Some can feel the grace of love, and walk away in disbelief. Tracy wasn’t helping the situation.
I shook my head sadly. I wanted Laika to be happy. I wanted them both to be happy. Even if, that meant them no longer being together. I put a hand on one of Laika’s bare shoulders. She looked up at me and there were tears she refused to shed flooding her large eyes. We both seemed to realize at the same time that Lee had been gone for a long time and was eerily quiet in the kitchen.
“Let me go check on her,” I said, with a gentle squeeze to Laika’s shoulder.
Perhaps it was the weed; but I was oddly unaffected by the sight of Lee slouched against my white kitchen tiles with blood dripping from a cut in her upturned left arm and one of my knives hanging limply from her right hand. I was dry-eyed and only slightly dizzy when I announced what I had seen to Laika and informed her that I would call an ambulance. Laika’s eyes widened and she rushed into the kitchen with a strangled scream. I heard her slip a bit as she dashed into the kitchen and I think she must have fallen because I heard a loud thud before soft whimpering became the only sound coming from the kitchen. It was this whimpering and Tracy singing the opening lines to Goodbye I heard as I relayed that my friend had tried to kill herself in my kitchen to the operator on the other end of the line.
May 20th, 2003
We were sitting in an obscure white and turquoise campus café having tea with tea leaves, nibbling on some scones and biscuits and avoiding deep conversation. Laika looked tired and barely smiled. She was thinner than I had ever seen her and her face was stretched taut in an unspoken agony. Leroy seemed high-strung and her cheerfulness was just as forced as Laika’s had been on Valentine’s Day, months before. Every time her neat rows of straight white teeth flashed in a smile I thought about how the white of my kitchen tiles was forever stained pink on the spot where she had hurt herself. I couldn’t help but look at the tiny scar running horizontally across her left wrist from that day. We never spoke about the scar or that day and as far as I knew Laika had broken up with the mysterious other woman she had claimed made her happy.
Leroy and Laika were still dating. But something had changed between them since that fateful day. Aside from the fact that they rarely suggested that we hang out in my apartment anymore or that we never spoke about Tracy’s music; the two of them seemed very different from the tailor-made couple I’d coveted for years. Where you once would have been hard-pressed not to find their long limbs draped affectionately around each other regardless of where they were; they barely touched each other now. In fact, every time Leroy made an effort to try and make physical contact with Laika I saw my friend recoil from her lover’s touch as though she feared her. Laika used to laugh at any and all of Leroy’s ridiculous jokes but she bristled in annoyance whenever Lee tried to make her laugh now. It was painful to see them this way. It hurt to think of the fragile state of their relationship.
“Are we ever going to talk about what happened?” I asked quietly, my eyes firmly placed on the vast distance between the two of them despite ours being a tiny table which forced closeness.
“There are crushed leaves in my water,” Leroy observed in a strained voice. I noticed that she had her left arm placed upwards on the table between her cup and Laika so that every time the other woman looked towards that cup she would see the light brown silky scar running across her lover’s wrist. Laika looked everywhere else but in Leroy’s direction.
“Jesus, Leroy. You tried to kill yourself, in my kitchen,” I whispered fiercely, leaning across the table and glaring at her.
“I guess you guys don’t find my jokes funny anymore.” She muttered, stubbornly avoiding the topic. But she’d retrieved her arm from the top of the table and slipped it onto her lap when I’d spoken.
I saw tears traveling down Laika’s cheeks. Her head was turned away from Leroy and she avoided making eye contact with me.
“Can’t you see that you’re hurting her?” I demanded of Leroy.
“What about me?” Leroy shot back, her chin trembling now. “Do you think I like knowing she doesn’t love me anymore?”
“Of course not, Lee. No one expected you to be happy that she wanted to leave you. But this,” I pointed at the arm that had resurfaced on the table, “this is some abusive shit, dog. You’re holding it over her head that if she tries to leave you, you’ll try to kill yourself again. That’s not fair.”
“Whose side are you on Latoya?” Leroy demanded, her eyes flashing angrily at me. I had flashbacks of her temper from back in high school and grew fearful about what Laika had been going through the past few months. Possibly longer. It was difficult to look at Leroy, a woman I had known and loved for years and think about how she may actually have been a person capable of hurting someone she claimed to love. It was difficult to look into her angry eyes now and see that she was also hurt by the accusation in my stare.
“I’m not on your side if you’re going to use your love as a weapon Leroy. You know that Malaika and I love you more than life itself. But that doesn’t mean we belong to you. Nor does it mean you can’t survive without our relationships with one another remaining exactly the same.” I said, trying to keep my voice gentle while still being firm with her.
She glared at me as tears shot down her cheeks. Then she did something that made me decide there and then that I would have to learn to love her from a distance. She grabbed her tea cup and threw it onto the floor. Then reached down and grabbed one of the shards of broken porcelain and used it to slice into her wrist above the slightly older scar, her eyes boring into mine the entire time. Laika flinched at the sound of the breaking cup and turned at last to look at Leroy. She began shaking when she saw the crimson blood rise up and fall from the cut Leroy had made into her dark brown flesh. She covered her mouth with her hands and started crying in earnest. One of the café’s staff cautiously approached our table with a napkin and first aid kit. She was a girl who didn’t look much older than any of us. Her eyes were gentle and carried more concern than judgment as she carefully removed the bloody shard of porcelain from Lee’s hands and held the napkin against the wound.
Lee blinked several times before relenting and allowing the kind waitress to take care of her self-inflicted injury.
I looked at Leroy in disgust before getting up from that table. I paused for a moment, waiting to catch Laika’s eye. But Laika was cooing in concern over Leroy’s drama, soothing her by rubbing her hands between her shoulder blades and lower back. I walked out of the café without another word to either of them. When I was all the way out of campus I made the decision to contact my landlady and tell her that I would be moving soon and to call my parents to let them know that I wanted to leave Johannesburg for a little while. At least for as long as it took to forget what Leroy and Laika had taught me about the ugly turns love could sometimes take.
February 14th, 2017
I heard their voices before I saw them. And when I looked up to locate the source of those familiar voices I wasn’t surprised to see a pair of tall, handsome and dark skinned women browsing through the children’s section of Mr. Price. I was surprised to notice the way they leaned into each other; comfortable and intimate. Malaika’s head was covered in thick dreadlocks that snaked their way down her back which was almost completely visible from the backless maxi-dress she wore. Leroy’s hair was still in the same neatly cut fade and high-top she’d favored since our varsity days; her body was still lean and strong in the white t-shirt and maroon chinos she had casually dressed in. I was wearing the white shirt my wife had pressed and picked out for me earlier that morning and a pair of straight cut jeans. My own hair was a short salt-n-pepper afro because I couldn’t be bothered to cut my hair all the time or try and maintain a mane of dreadlocks. I didn’t look as tall as I actually was anymore because almost twenty years of my large breasts pulling on my back and shoulder muscles had given me an unintentional slouch and taken a few inches from my stature.
Leroy and Laika were just as statuesque as ever.
I watched them for a moment longer and was about to turn to leave when the sound system in the store played a song my 10 year old daughter adored. She had been close to the entrance of the store, looking at multi-colored pairs of jeans. She tugged on my sleeve now and wiggled her hips to the song, trying to get me to dance along but I waved my hand at her dismissively, laughing all the same.
“I thought it was you!” a voice behind me said.
I turned to face Leroy wearily. She looked almost completely the same as the last time I’d seen her almost 14 years ago. Except her face was a little fuller and her eyes were less sad.
“How are you, Lee?” I asked, keeping my voice level.
“I’m well, Toy. How are you?” she seemed to be searching my eyes for something.
“I’m well, too. I see the two of you are still out here causing trouble,” I smiled, looking in Laika’s direction.
“Ah well. Yes. Laika’s doing some shopping for her kids and I’m helping her out because she knows nothing about baby dyke fashion.” I was taken aback by how easily Leroy still laughed. It brought laughter to my own throat. I remembered happier times. When I sobered up, I asked the question I assumed I already knew the answer to.
“You stayed together and had children?”
Leroy laughed again, but this time the sadness in her eyes remained intact.
“No. Laika has a wonderful husband with whom she has two wonderful daughters. One of them, Thembi, is definitely a baby dyke. The other one, Ntokozo, might be a dyke too, but she’s more femme than Thembi,” she explained.
“Okay enough with labelling my children,” Laika said, appearing at her side with a bunch of clothes and hangers clutched in her arms. She pushed past Lee and gave me a warm hug.
“You look lovely, Toy,” she said with a teary smile.
“So do you, darling. How are you?” I enquired, searching her eyes for the answers Leroy wasn’t giving me.
Lee saw the way Laika and I were looking at each other and sheepishly shuffled away and introduced herself to my daughter. Laika and I started strolling through the clothing stalls and speaking in hushed voices. I was taken aback by what Laika had to say.
“It took a long time for us to break up after you left, Toy. Things got really ugly. I know when you left she was bad. But I got bad too. We fought a lot and I cheated a lot and just did everything in my power to make her not love me anymore. Everything except leave. Everyone kept praising us as this perfect, golden couple. We found new circles of friends. Other gay people. Very few of them told us the truth the way you would have. But one day one of our friends did. He reminded me so much of you. He said, ‘the two of you are bad for each other. Leave each other before there’s nothing left to save,” the pain in Laika’s face seemed fleeting. The contentment I’d seen in her smile earlier returned shortly after she briefly let me see everything they had been through. “I got my degree and started my own private practice a few years after that. I lost contact with Lee. On purpose. Before I left I told her to get help. She promised that she would. And she let me go. When she came into my offices a few years ago I was already married with children but I realized I still loved her and had plenty of room for her in my life.”
“When I saw the two of you I thought you were back together again. You seemed so close,” I said, shocked at the envy that crept into my voice.
“We’re close, definitely. But not in the same ways we used to be.” She said, looking over at Leroy thoughtfully. I wondered if she was wondering whether they could rekindle the kind of closeness they had once shared. “You know, I think she would love to talk to you, Toya. She felt like she really let you down back then,” Laika said, interrupting my thoughts about rekindled intimacy between the two of them.
“I won’t lie. I was let down. I was also just scared. I didn’t know if what was wrong with her was also wrong with me you know?” I said; voicing thoughts I had never shared with anyone before. “I also got really scared that people would leave me. I also sometimes got tired of being alive. Lee made all of those things feel all too real.”
“I don’t think anyone goes through life not being afraid they’ll lose the people they love or even just feeling a little tired of living. Life is long. But Lee had a kak way of conveying those things. She was manipulative and controlling. She used her pain as an excuse to hurt me. And you. And when I was too broken to leave I started hurting her too. It was a vicious cycle. I’m glad you left when you did. Who knows where we would have wound up if we’d all driven each other crazy,” she laughed wryly.
I looked back at Lee and my daughter. They were laughing uproariously. My little one was getting to see the best side of one of the early loves of my life. It felt like a serendipitous moment. I walked over to them and slowly put my arms around Leroy. She hugged me back earnestly.
“I am so sorry, Toy,” she whispered.
“I know, my friend. I know,” I allowed the rest of my feelings to be conveyed in the way I held her. I was glad that she had changed; that she had healed. I was glad that she was alive and well; here to experience the future with Laika and her family, as well as my own. I was glad that we were here, on the other side of her most likely painful journey, to embrace her and love her, still. I was glad that we could love her in a way that wouldn’t enable her to hurt herself or anyone else no matter how afraid she became. I felt tears cascade down my cheeks as Tracy’s words came back to me. I said a silent prayer that we would always have hope that help would come when we needed it most. And love too.
And love too.
Mercy Thokozane Minah © The Letter X Publishing House, 2018. You can support my work using this tip service and buy me coffee.
This post was first published on the blog The Letter to X.
Read the entire series of these stories under #LetItRainSeries, published every Wednesday. For all the articles and pieces on #QueeringTheCloak (our series on abuse and violence in queer women communities) click here.
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