“How many really know what love is? Millions never will,” – Alicia Keys, ‘Like You’ll Never See Me Again’ (2007)
February 9th, 2018
“Mama there are broken snails on my windowsill!”
I was languishing on the now warm toilet seat in the bathroom adjacent to my bedroom upstairs but Ntokozo’s shrill voice pierced through the distance between us. I wiped myself, flushed and washed my hands.
Motherhood was difficult. I hadn’t known many moments of peace and quiet in the five years since I’d had my daughters, Thembi (a pensive five-year old) and Ntokozo (a precocious three-year old). Between them, my private practice and my marriage to Dr. Radebe; my hands were overflowing. It was a rare day off and I’d called the girls’ pre-school to inform them that they wouldn’t be coming today because I wanted to spend some quality time with them. Walking down towards Nto’s room I was already regretting my decision. I found her standing in front of the low window frame in her bedroom, big head and grubby little hands pressed against the glass. I headed over to the window to see what she was making such a big fuss about. There were two snails with their shells cracked, lying on the red bricks of the windowsill outside my daughter’s bedroom. Nto was always finding wounded creatures and soliciting the help of whatever adult was at her disposal to ‘fix’ them for her. Her older sister hated this little game of Nto’s. She, like me, was terribly frightened of bugs and animals of any size or blood temperature. It was a point of constant contention between the two of them that our household was bereft of any pets. Dr. Radebe said Nto was just trying to be a healer like her two doctor parents. I was inclined to agree with him. He was always pleased to hear stories about her little patients. I was too, most of the time.
Today I was annoyed.
“Baby, there’s nothing we can do to help them. I’m pretty sure they’re dead now,” I said, feeling an unnecessary tug in my chest as I spoke.
“Are you sure, mama? Can’t we put a plaster on them and make them better?” her big eyes were clouded with concern and she didn’t remove them from the wounded snails even as she spoke to me.
“No, baby; a plaster won’t help the snails. They are beyond help now,” I murmured, ready to head to another part of the house for some alone time. Thembi was still sound-asleep in her bed. I didn’t understand why her younger sister was up this early in the morning, worrying about some damn snails on her windowsill. I didn’t dare try suggest she go back to sleep. I was not in the mood for the screaming tantrum that would ensue from that suggestion, so I stood next to her, looking with a not-entirely fake sadness at the helpless snails.
“Mama what does dead mean?”
I took a deep breath and lowered myself onto the floor beside her. She instantly shuffled over and dropped herself into my crossed legs.
“Dead means the snails can never move or breathe or eat or do anything ever again,” I explained quietly, stroking her fluffy, curly hair. She stuck one of her thumbs into her small mouth and looked up at me. I could see her carefully weighing my words and trying to properly understand them.
“Can human beings also get dead, mama?”
“Yes, they can, baby.”
“Why do things get dead mama? Why do they stop breathing and eating and doing anything ever again?”
I gently removed her thumb from her mouth and wiped it dry against the front of my cotton pajama top. “I don’t really know why, baby. I just know that it happens to everything.”
“How do you know when something is dead and not just hurt, mama?”
“There’s different ways to tell with different things. Like the snails over there, I can tell they are dead by the way their shells are broken. They are crushed. Which means the soft body on the inside is too hurt for them to still be alive.”
“How can you tell when people get dead?”
I involuntarily looked up at the snails again; the delicate shells irreparably shattered over the now dried soft bodies within. Their fragility brought tears to my eyes. I blinked them away in surprise, suddenly remembering and instantly wishing not to. In my lap, my daughter squirmed to get my attention but my mind was already traveling down a path I hadn’t visited in many, many years.
“What are you guys doing?”
I was grateful to turn and see Thembi’s groggy form leaning against the doorframe of Nto’s bedroom. Her younger sister instantly jumped up from my lap and rushed towards her on barely stable chubby little legs. She threw her arms around her sister’s stomach and hugged her tightly. Nto was the most affectionate member of our little family. The warmth she exuded made me momentarily lose track of the memory that had just threatened to send me into a depressive tailspin.
“Morning baby,” Nto murmured, gently picking out the sleep in her sisters eyes and planting tiny kisses on her big cheeks. Thembi allowed her baby sister to fuss over her without protest. She was accustomed to Nto’s fussing and affection. It used to annoy her but now she was patient with her younger sibling’s attention.
“Why were you in Nto’s room, ma?” Thembi asked, walking deeper into the room towards me. I held my arms out for her and squeezed her sleep-warmed little body against me before kissing her forehead.
“Your sister found some dead snails on her windowsill,” I explained. She groaned and rolled her eyes with her head turned away from her younger sister so the little one wouldn’t catch her exasperation.
“I thought they were just broken and we could fix them but mama told me they were dead. Mama told me that sometimes people can get dead too. Do you know what dead means, Thembi?” Thembi walked over to the low windowsill and pressed her nose and hands against the glass to look at the snails.
“No, Nto, tell me?”
“I’m going to go make us some breakfast,” I said, standing up. I was grateful to have an excuse to leave them alone for a moment.
“Mama said it’s when things are so broken they can’t be fixed anymore. And they stop eating and breathing and doing anything,” I heard my youngest child explain to my oldest as I walked into the kitchen.
All this talk about death was tugging at me; pulling me into a sadness I couldn’t afford to sink into with my daughters in the house with me. I wished I had allowed them to go to pre-school as usual. But they were here and I had to snap out of my funk before it became a fully-fledged depressive episode.
After a big breakfast of scrambled eggs and fish fingers and slices of toast and orange juice; I gave them a bath and slipped some educational cartoon DVDs into the DVD-player for them to watch, so I could go upstairs and get myself cleaned up.
I opted for a shower over a bath, even though I was desperately craving the soft caress of warm bath water wrapped around my tired body. A shower would be faster and would mean I didn’t leave the girls alone for too long.
As the steamy water cascaded down my body from the large shower head I kept picturing the broken snails on Nto’s windowsill. I wondered what had broken them, if they had died swiftly and painlessly; or if they had been aware of their demise, drying out torturously slowly.
After a while the shower water mixed with the tears that had threatened to fall earlier and I sighed in resignation. The sadness had returned. And with it all of the memories I had never successfully buried. Seeing those snails and thinking about their fragility, wondering what had broken them; made me think about what had broken me.
I felt as though my shell was shattered too, but on the inside.
The face of my ex girlfriend, Leroy, suddenly appeared behind my closed eyes. My chest tightened. I thought I was over this. I thought I had forgiven her. She had returned to my life about three years prior. When I had seen her, standing tall, handsome and familiar in the waiting area of my practice; I had felt a very confusing mixture of feelings. Longing, anger, nostalgia and fear. She had not stopped making me feel everything very deeply. We had been soft-spoken and cautious with each other. I hadn’t even hugged her that first day. Then we’d had polite conversations over brief lunches for a while and I’d found myself growing increasingly comfortable with her again. I’d even introduced her to my husband and then she’d met the girls.
She was so different. She looked happy and healthy and seemed to be a lot calmer than the years we’d been best friends and then lovers. She told me she’d been doing therapy and was committed to being a better person. She told me that she’d worked through the bulk of her issues and that every day was another day to fight the good fight. She spoke like a recovering substance abuser. At first, I was ecstatic that she had changed in all the ways she had. I was happy that she had healed.
When we were reunited with Toya in a mall last year it felt like the good old days. We started hanging out together again. Toya was warm with Lee but I sometimes caught her looking at her as though she was waiting for her to do something ridiculous again. I didn’t think Leroy was going to repeat any of her antics from the past, but having her in my life again was complicated.
I was still somewhat in love with her and I resented my heart for being weak in that way. I was also secretly upset that she was so well-adjusted and healed but I was still grappling with the effects of what she had done to me while we were in a relationship.
I still second-third-fifth guessed myself about everything. I often had to check in with the people around me to make sure the things I thought I was experiencing were real and not just in my head. I had skimmed through articles about emotional abuse and gaslighting and I understood that that was what she had done to me. And that it had long-lasting after-effects on victims of it.
I would often become desperately sad, out of nowhere and for no reason whatsoever. I would find myself crying in my office at work, between patients, my heart aching as though it was literally breaking. I wasn’t always fully convinced that my husband loved me as deeply as he seemed to. I didn’t feel worthy of his love. Or that of my daughters, for that matter.
I guess it was unfair to blame Leroy for my insecurities and failure at absolute happiness, but I couldn’t think of anything else that had happened to me that had eroded my sense of self and grasp on joy the way her treatment of me had.
She had turned me into an irreparably shattered snail-shell, and I still harboured a heavy sense of resentment towards her for that. I forced my mind to shut down all thoughts of Leroy. I had mommy things to do.
When I was moisturized and snuggly dressed in my black and white cow onesie I walked downstairs to prepare a snack for the girls. They were napping in front of the TV; their tiny bodies slouched against each other on the couch. While they slept I went outside to where Nto’s room was located and brushed the dead snails onto the grass below. If she asked about them I would tell her that I had buried in the yard and explain that burial was a thing human beings did to lay their dead to rest.
I wished I could bury the part of me that was dead on the inside.
I was heading back to them when I heard the opening keys of Like You’ll Never See Me Again by Alicia Keys cut through the monotonous voice of the DVD playing for a sleeping audience. I rushed inside before the girls could be woken up by the sudden music. The caller ID on my Samsung cell phone informed me that Toya was calling.
“Lover,” I said, smiling with genuine gladness that she had called.
“Hey babe,” her low voice curled deliciously around my ear. I sometimes wondered how things would have turned out if I’d wound up dating Latoya and not Leroy. “I heard you’re home today?”
“I am. I’m with the girls,” I said, peeking into the lounge to check if they were still sleeping. They were. I walked over to the kitchen and used my free hand to collect the ingredients for their snacks, while holding the phone to my ear with the other hand.
“I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing a dinner soon? We could do a triple date, with you and your hubby, me and Portia and Lee and her girlfriend?”
My stomach lurched at the mention of Lindiwe, the woman Leroy was dating and seemed tremendously happy with.
“Oh I don’t know if the doc will be available any time soon. I have plenty free nights now that I’ve got another doctor in my place so I could come and ogle the other couples,” I forced my voice to sound cheerful, but my throat felt constricted and dry.
Toya’s laughter beamed through my dark mood. “Oh no, you’re going to be the way I was when you and Lee were together; third-wheeling like a fool.” She paused to check if she had spoken out of turn. Toya was always so considerate of others feelings. I chuckled convincingly and could have sworn I heard her sigh in relief.
“Okay, I’ll call you when I have confirmation from everyone else,” she said.
“Sure, babe. I look forward to it.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just a little tired. But I’m good. I assure you,” I lied.
“Okay. I love you, girl. Take care of yourself. I can’t wait to see you again.”
“I love you too, Toy. See you soon.”
I kept my phone on silent for the rest of the day and immersed myself in play and nap time with my girls. They were the perfect distraction. Mention of Leroy and her girlfriend made me feel tempted to go to their social media and see if they’d posted anything about each other, or worse, together. I felt ridiculous for still being hung up on Lee the way I was. A mild jealousy prickled in my chest when I thought about how this new woman got to experience the best parts of the new and improved Leroy. Despite being married to Dr. Radebe, a part of me was still wistful about what loving and being loved by a healed Lee would be like. I thought of Nto’s snails. I chastised myself with a stern reminder that in much the same way that their shells couldn’t be mended with a plaster, no good would come from Leroy and myself rekindling our dysfunctional romance.
March 20th, 2018
“So, let me get this straight, Laika, you called Lindiwe and warned her about Lee?” it was difficult to look at Toya. She was, rightfully, livid.
“I don’t know what came over me,” I said quietly. I had to bite my bottom lip to stop myself from crying.
“Jesus,” she breathed, shaking her head at me incredulously. “Who does that?”
“I do, I guess. God, I just, I don’t know – I just got so mad that she was happy with someone else. She seems so okay and I’m still suffering in so many ways,” a painful lump had formed in my throat and my eyes were burning with tears that were eager to fall. Leroy would be walking into this restaurant any moment now and the thought of seeing her again was making my palms sweat.
“How have you still been suffering, Laika? You and Lee haven’t been together for over 10 years?”
“That’s a good fucking question. I’d like to hear the answer to that.” Leroy looked dashing in all-black, her favorite color, still. Her skin was still dewy and she filled out her shirt and chinos healthily.
“Calm down and sit down,” Toya said dryly. She’d cut her afro shorter and had on a grey t-shirt and sweatpants.
“Don’t worry, I’m calm,” Lee didn’t hide the indignation in her voice as she sat on the seat on the other side of Latoya. “I just want answers; that’s all.”
I took a deep breath and looked at both of them through tear-blurred eyes. I was growing weary of the drama that seemed inevitable with the three of us.
“I’m sorry, okay? I was feeling jealous that you had a girlfriend who got to be with you when you were all healed and whole. I resented the fact that I had had to experience you while you were broken and hurt. I didn’t think it was fair. Of course I know I was completely unreasonable and selfish in my thinking but that’s just where I was at,” I said, growing increasingly indignant myself.
Lee’s brow furrowed in genuine confusion. “I don’t understand, Laika. I didn’t even think you still saw me in that way? I thought you were in love with your husband?”
“Dr. Radebe is a good and easy man to be with. But I’m not in love with him,” I said quietly. I saw both of them gasp. “Oh, spare me. He was safe to be with. Being with him meant my mother acknowledged my love life again. It meant I didn’t have to deal with the emotional complexity that being with women come with. No drama. Granted the sex has become insufferable, but our relationship is regular and predictable. There’s no passion in it, no real love. At least not from my side.”
“Laika, have you been to therapy at all since you and Lee broke up?” for the first time in our lives, Toya’s rationality annoyed me. I didn’t need good, sound advice on how to deal with my shit. I needed someone to empathize with the fact that I was in an unhappy marriage.
“I can’t do therapy, you know that, Toya. I don’t have the patience for it,” I muttered.
“I get that. I still think you need some kind of help though. It sounds like you’re still holding onto a lot of shit from the past. And a lot of incorrect ideas about love. Love doesn’t have to be all fireworks and drama to be real. Sometimes, boring and predictable is love,” she was saying, but I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t even paying attention to Leroy’s brooding silence beside her. A woman had just walked into the restaurant and the sight of her had caused the rest of the world to blur and her to be the only point of clarity.
“Oh my God,” I whispered.
“Are you alright?” Toya asked, concerned. Leroy remained silent but she moved forward in her chair to peer into my face.
“I – I apologize Leroy. I was out of turn for calling your girlfriend. If you’d like I can call her again and convince her to take you back?” I kept my eyes glued to the woman who was now following a waitress to one of the smaller tables on the far left of the restaurant. I saw Toya and Lee follow my gaze, but because neither of them knew Nomsa, their expressions remained merely mildly concerned and curious.
“Lindiwe and I have started talking again of our own accord, so no, I don’t need you to call her again. In fact, just don’t contact her independently at all, okay?”
“Yes, yes, okay,” I was trying not to sound dismissive but my attention was being pulled in Nomsa’s direction as though by a powerful magnet.
“Who is that?” Toya asked, turning to stare at her as well.
I tore my eyes away from the lone woman slowly leafing through her menu and turned to face Toya’s inquisitive glare. “Just somebody that I used to know,” I said with a thin smile.
Leroy turned to look at Nomsa as well and I saw a series of expressions pass across her face as she seemed to calculate exactly who she was. The look on her face when she turned to look at me was curious. It was almost as though she was about to smile but was holding back for some reason.
“Perhaps you should go speak to her,” she said softly.
I stared at her. I noticed Toya turn to do the same.
“So, wait, you know who that woman is?” she demanded of Lee.
“I think so. I’ve never officially met her, but the way Laika’s looking at her, I can hazard a pretty good guess who she is,” Leroy’s face still bore the same curious expression. Toya did the math on her own. She turned to me with an eyebrow raised.
“You’re not seriously going to go approach that poor woman are you?”
I met her gaze defiantly. “I think I will. Where’s the harm in it?” I said, my heart already beating rapidly and my stomach feeling hollowed as though I were being suspended in the air.
“We’re still talking about your messiness in Lee’s love life and you’re already trying to create another chapter of drama for yourself?”
“It’s not drama, Toya. She’s just saying hi,” this time it was impossible to miss the mischievous glint in Leroy’s eyes. I gave her a quick look of gratitude before carefully weaving my way through the tables leading to where Nomsa was seated.
Read the entire series of these stories under #LetItRainSeries, published every Wednesday. Look out for part II next week. For all the articles and pieces on #QueeringTheCloak (our series on abuse and violence in queer women communities) click here.
*leave a comment on the post, you can write it under a different name and your email will not be published.*