Her hair came undone somehow in the water. And how it spread out. It was a flame. It was something significant fanning, framing her beautiful, wonderful face blue because of the cold. Yes, it was that time of the year. It was if a lotus flower had bloomed but with no roots tapping into the chilled earth, no stem sprouting from beneath the ground. There would be no myriads of green feasts of leaves either. From my perspective nothing escaped Woolf’s passionate all-seeing, all-knowing eyes.
She had her liberties, and her meditations on nature calmed her nerves. Her platelets, mitochondria and bilateral symmetry no more.
Only the grit, the brick walls, the mysterious interiors of the mansions of her work remained. Left behind. Granite. Diaries left behind for apprentices. Her intuition, breath and vitality has left this damned for an eternity to hell corpse. What does she have to do with the parenting skills of my distant manic-depressive father and my elegant and cold mother? My suicidal illness that needed the rooms of a mansion. No daughters and sons had Woolf. Only significant others with whom she journeyed inwards extraordinarily.
River Ouse captivated me. Woolf’s love letters to Vita. The love story of Woolf and Sackville-West. I am a woman who writes. Virginia Woolf was a woman who was a wife, a lover and woman who wrote. My ordinary madness became a thing of beauty to me. Me an empty vessel who found bright stars in women, in their husbands and children, in flowers in a vase, in the fabric of the universe at night. I am Orlando. I am Lady Lazarus. I have lived vicariously through Hiroshima, Jean Rhys the demimonde and artist’s model and the feminist Sylvia Plath’s cutting-edged authentic words signalling warning, communicating threads of wisdom, and protest poetry.
I needed to understand the London scene, Ted Hughes, Assia Wevill, and the child from that union, Shura. I’m afraid of fabricating the truth.
I’m afraid of modernism because it’s not modernism that is taking over the world. It’s writing. It’s female writing. The interpretations of an inner life, innerness, marriage, creativity and madness. Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf sitting in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g.
One woman says to the other woman, ‘Don’t ‘look’ at me. Look ‘at’ me’.
The other woman turns to face her companion and says to her, ‘Our intimacy is something special. Your skin is a fabric I could drown in.
I can do without religion but I cannot do without you. You have given me the highest form of art, and that is inspiration. How can I ever repay you?’
Perhaps what follows is some of what Virginia Woolf wrote in a love letter to her Vita Sackville-West.
Come to me you elegant creature with all of the hopes that you have for yourself. Your goals have become mine. Your dreams my own.
Beautiful, elegant Vita. My Orlando. When I read your work, I am filled with a clarity of vision, astute perfection, and I feel as if I am your sole possession to have, to have, to have. Can I borrow some of your inhibitory nature, your anticipatory nostalgia, your poetic descriptions, your sky, and the sky in your eyes, your flowers, the flowers that you meditate upon in your garden, your compass that navigates you across the passages of London and Europe?
And I want to share something else with you if you will let me. I have come to care very deeply about you. Understand this. Understand that I don’t want to own you, claim you for my own as I am sure others have wanted to do in the past, and I do not want to possess you, and enter your world as a lover and leave as an interloper. When we are together like this, you reading my words (because there are parts of me that want to be completely honest with you about how safe I feel with the charming and seductive you). When we sit together there is still a veil of privacy, an idea of privacy on my part.
I am sure the same goes for you too. When I’m with you I’m oblivious to everything around me. When we are apart all I can think of is Vita.
What is Vita doing? Planting, gardening, writing, letter-writing (is she composing one to me), planning her day ahead, is Vita making lists, running errands, opening a letter (from me, from me). Is Vita smiling, is Vita laughing, and who is making my Vita smile, my Vita laugh? If it is not me, my duty to make you smile I feel a slight hysteria, overcome with emotion and I feel like an empty biblical vessel.
I feel useless because how can I be of use to anyone if I, the authentic me is not sincerely, utterly devoted to my Vita. It is all about significant you. There is no one else above you. I am utterly devoted to you. You have the key to my heart. Once opened you will find a Pandora’s Box but I must have secrets. Don’t all female writers allow themselves that latitude at least? I must keep something for myself. Something that I can go to when I begin to become afraid that you will be spirited away from me, of our love waning, you withering Vita and passing into indifference, being erased, never returning to the story of us?
What would I do if you weren’t in my world anymore? You, my most rare paradise, my heaven. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, stockinged feet in your slippers, your hair wild, loose, unkempt in my hands, in my hands and that is when I feel at my most magical. The real and the imagined becomes a twisted union, tantalising revolution and although it fades away in the morning it is still there in memory and all I can think about is when we will be able to meet here again. I watch you put your bathrobe on, as you brush the tangles out of your fashionably cut hair my darling, and you turn around watching me watching you and you smile.
My hand caresses the warmth that the physical you left behind on the sheets. I inhale your expensive perfume. And I come to the slow realisation that society will be the death of us. They will never accept us. You make me forget. I like that. You make me forget about Vanessa’s progeny. I like that. You make me forget about my secrets. I like that. You make me forget about my childhood. I like that. You make me forget about being molested by my two half-brothers when I was a child Vita. I like that most of all. You are so right for me woman.
Vita, you’re my gravity, my aorta, and I love how you acknowledge complicated me, my self-punishment, self-imposed exile, and childlike innocence. I love you and Leonard equally and if I were to lose you both, and not live up to both of your expectations then that would be the death of me. You’re an event. When the silence, in my room becomes unquiet, too much for me to endure, and I become self-conscious of it, self-conscious of a writer’s rituals, aware of self-pity I must continue to write. You’ve become my obsession and I can think of no one else’s company that I want to be in. As crazy as it sounds when I’m with you I can feel electricity humming in my bones.
Our connection is an infinite one. I find your poetry, your humility, your abandonment, your inhibitory current stunning, Vita. You are the second love of my life. You are all the dimensions of my world. I find you clever, so artistic, your work is electric, so electrifying, so imaginative, and so artful and you’ve tamed drowning me, Vita. I’ve always been curious of married life. I thought I would be surround by the walls of a prison if I ever found someone to propose to me, and then I married, became a wife but did not have those children and I discovered how far from the truth that was.
Marriage frees you in a sense in so many wonderful and illuminating ways. I wanted Leonard. I wanted love but not necessarily a husband because I didn’t think that love came with having a husband. Love comes with having a likeminded companion. You, Vita, are that likeminded companion. You come with measures of love, with passion, intelligence, you machine. Observe the adjustments in my personality carefully whenever I am with you, study, and evaluate my dying in your arms. Learn my half-truths and white lies as I do yours Vita. I only have to hear your voice and I thrive. I achieve a new intelligence, a new acting, a new materialism, and a new language in that dry season.
It should be as obvious to you now as it is to me that I am utterly besotted, smitten by you. I am in love with you. Let’s set up house together. Get away together if that’s impossible. And when I am without you I am a winter guest in an ice storm. I must brave the cold somehow, mustn’t I dearest? Well, I’ll put on a coat, a hat, and a scarf and my walking shoes, that’s brought a smile to my face. I tell myself that soon we will be together again like this.
I want to tell you that there is something luxurious and soothing about your skin. My Vita. I am at your mercy. Your perfume fills my head. And when I begin to live vicariously through you, self-consciously, or consciously my sadness has a complex wavelength.
Brutal accomplishments threading my humanity. I have longed for them my whole life. The gratitude I have for you being a part of my life has become educational.
And so Virginia returned to the book she was dedicating to the woman in her life who had made her feel extraordinarily loved, and blessed.
They did not think of the extraordinary consequences of the gift of their relationship. They did not think. Period. They lived for love like other women did for being regarded as sex objects, parties, men, the London scene and flowers. Instead they are transformed. The lovers whisper to themselves. They don’t want to part. The grass was a dream.
And they were both brides blushing, as if they were both rushing to the get to the end of adolescence, the English summer weather, its immediacy of sustaining both women’s ideas of silence in the complexity of detachment.
Here in the countryside, shielded by multitudes of simplistic chores, sharing the routine of waking up to their literary work, neither woman could untangle herself from their ‘marriage’. These elegant English heroines, English novelists whose writings were hypnotic were oblivious to reality, the outside world, and men were rendered insignificant, invisible. Men became others and humanity, the female of the species existed in a time and space that became known as the unknown, as the future of which was nearly upon them but not quite there yet.
And now I add my own voice again to the story. It is not Woolf’s voice. It is not Sackville-West’s voice.
After the dust, the cunning sexual disclosure, the impulsivity of the lesbian love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West no sentence could shame the both of them, their writing process, their divine prowess. Woolf gave Sackville-West authority over her physical body, and in return Sackville-West did the same. Gaps, flashbacks, embarrassing regret should come with the territory of an affair that comes to an end. The silence is textured with what is not being said, the acute longing, and the despair of loneliness, of a seductive theory identifying the beginning of this lifelong romance, the mutual admiration committee between these two gifted English women.
I know what it is to suffer. To live with the face of enduring love shining upon my frozen countenance, love realigning my psychological frame, my sexual pace. Your power stifles me, a thing. And a woman alone. At first it’s a glance framing reality, a sensual anticipation and so the landscape’s feast becomes symbolic of what will come after this inconvenient love. Photographs survive. Historical events, knowledge, actors but not manic depressives, the mentally ill, people who have an absence of order in their lives.
Already she had a plan while writing in her diary Virginia, ‘I know I’ll never love this way again.’ And then the River Ouse was upon her like a lake. And there it was. She wanted to die. She wanted to waste away. Find a wilderness of her own making. She wanted to beg to the gods. The unwritten freedom which had been her church, and like a religion to her had left her angelic perspective. The dead end the shortcut to a hellish parade, the seducer. The hook of injustice was in her heart. She lived (a half-life that was but a pale gesture) but in death she lives extraordinarily.
Elijah, you are a beautiful book. Just an imprint burned on my brain like a ghost. I miss you more than most on some days, just thinking of the very thought of you. I think of the anatomy of my health.
I think of Elijah who had literally moved abroad. Well, he had always wanted to travel. He had prospects. I was a non-event in his life. He had always wanted to go to Prague. Milan Kundera was his hero. When he asked me who my heroine was, and I told him, Virginia Woolf, he had looked at me sadly, then looked away again. But she killed herself, Imogen, she literally drowned herself. Just think about that. Her work triumphedin the end, I told him, but he didn’t want to hear it from that perspective. He had looked at me one last time tired-happy before he walked out my front door for the last time. He said he couldn’t love someone who was so insecure, so unlovable, who didn’t like herself. He was a beautiful stranger, soon to be estranged from me, and I, well, was just strange. Caught up in a set of circumstances beyond my control. The mornings flooded my brain.
There was so much to do. It was the weekend. Even my Saturday mornings were spent in the library, away from Elijah after another physical altercation, that had ended with me in tears, him drinking. I’d love to look at children in those days, their focus, and concentration, their giftedness, confidence, wisdom, and maturity beyond their years. The mothers would be selfless, and giving. The fathers were tall men in blue jeans, dictating to their wives, on the whole distracted, sometimes sneaking a smoke. Saturday afternoon, it poured spitting rain. I thought of birdsong, the most beautiful sound that a bird could make. And my clothes were like another planet, and 8felt like the sea. I was soaked through. The rain didn’t last long. By the time I reached the flat the downpour was over, and felt myself falling into Elijah’s arms. He didn’t see the tears in my eyes. I was a woman on a mission. All I wanted to do was sit.
The previous night he had disappeared, returning in the early hours of the morning with a girl called Susan on his arm. I slept on the couch. The morning faded away. Winter wasn’t far off, the center of winter, and it snowed, and I dressed n layers, drinking tea to warm me up from the soles of my feet, to the top of my head. Elijah kissed my forehead, and then my nose playfully. It was rare that he was like this in the mornings. Usually he slept off his binge-drinking from the night before. We walked arm-in-arm to a café for doughnuts. He called it, ‘the nest doughnuts on campus’. It was a pizza place too, but usually in the evenings. They served it with red wine in champagne flutes. Elijah would drink anything. I would sip mineral water. Once upon a time on the way home, he put his tongue in my ear.
I felt like a specimen, an experimental science project. He waited for my reaction.
I pushed him away from me, walked ahead of him, stuffed my hands in my pockets. That night his kisses felt like pebbles on my tongue, but his lips was warm, and he whispered sweet nothings in my ear. I forgot about feeling like a specimen, like a genome, and his breath was sour, his body was like a dry riverbed, and what was lost in translation was like driftwood, was like a clown handing you a birthday balloon, and the moonlight was pearled on his skin, but I let him take me anyway into his arms. And I remembered how detached I felt as he lit a joint, but I didn’t want a hit of marijuana, I didn’t feel like it, and he caressed the softness of my inner thigh, and he sighed when I said that I wasn’t in the mood anymore. It was dark out. So dark, but the clouds were like cream, and the wind was like a gunshot going off. I brushed my bed hair in the bathroom in the moonlight, drank some water.
“I’ll come and see you,” he said, “wherever you live, I’ll come.” Elijah had promised in the beginning of our relationship. But for the first time in my life I ran away that day, but every day I look back I was afraid. I told myself I didn’t have anybody to love me, to want me. I told myself I didn’t need anyone. I didn’t have anyone who cared, to hold me, didn’t have anyone to declare that they loved me. Running away came easy. I moved to a different city, or a different part of town. Inside I would feel so empty, remember Charlie’s breath against my cheek, or his finger would stroke my bottom lip, emptying out my heart with negativity. I thought of the city as my country. I thought of me as always being sad, never smiling. I thought of my own despair, and hardship, my own suffering, and pain. The waves, the waves, the waves, eating sushi with forks with Elijah.
Stuffing ourselves gloriously to the hilt with trifle with sherry for pudding, with lamb curry, fish cutlets, and the glow of yellow rice with sultanas on a Sunday afternoon jaunt to his aunt’s house for lunch in Gelvandale. Afterwards, we’d go to the beach. If the weather was warm, we’d go swimming, wade into rock pools, and explore in my white tennis shoes, his boots. Elijah did hit me, but if it that was domestic violence, I certainly didn’t know it, felt I deserved it, even thought he did it out of love. Men did hit women out of love, didn’t they? He held my hand. I didn’t want to hold his hand, feel his fingers tangled up in mine. We bought ice cream. I looked at the mansions, he looked at the girls. I remembered Susan. How he said that the three of us were going to play a game, and I could smell the earth on her, she was cold, she complained, but I didn’t care. Her mouth tasted like cigarettes.
Out of the sea comes driftwood like champagne, like a supernova. You gave me a fright. I think sometimes to myself that I must be a bit of a joke to them, and I have to let go, surrender this feeling. I take a long walk, pass the children’s park, my estranged aunt’s house who called me ‘a mental patient’, and for the first time I realized I was at peace with being the black sheep of the family. I loved her, truly I did, and she was a survivor like me, having worked thankless hours in a factory for most of her life, without earning a pension, putting her two brothers through the Bush University. The University of the Western Cape. The last time Charlie was in my bed he didn’t want to make love. He wanted to read.All I wanted hm to do was touch me, stroke my hair while lying in his arms. He was lost in Andre Brink. Forget this place of weeping, this succession of death, think of the gathering rain instead.
All I felt was sadness when he looked at me, mouthed that he loved me, I felt a wretched sadness that only Radiohead could solve. So, the karma police came marching in, the memory police gave their marching orders. Fragile. I was fragile. Elijah was fragile, just like all my other university boyfriends. I thought of his mental state, my own mental state. Salvage, and reap, reap, and salvage, that is the key to survival, to the art of my own survival.I did feel scared that I would always be on my own, not amounting to anything much. Sometimes I wished I was dead. In Elijah’s arms I felt numb to the world, jaded, unaccomplished, and the surface tension d not want to seem to lift. Sometimes I thought he found life with me impossible. I didn’t understand how we had made it thus far as a couple. I want to scream, I want to shout, but I know that deep down he won’t respond to any of that.
God, he doesn’t want me, not like I want him. It’s over. It’s over. It’s over. My life moved towards my postgraduate studies once again, my research, my thesis. I was writing a travel column for a national magazine, about the European countries I visited in my gap year after matric. The kettle is boiling. I eat the noodles straight from the pot, not really caring about my unbrushed hair. They don’t taste like beef, which is what the packaging promises. Everything tastes like chicken. And when Elijah is gone, the bedwetting starts again. It’s the sleeping pills, and the tranquilizers I take at night. I need to sleep. The sheets are wet, my pajama pants are wet, sometimes I cry. I cry at the unfairness of it all, of Elijah leaving me. I cry. And then I get up, take a shower, change my clothes, change the bedding, do the laundry, chores around the flat that Elijah, and I used to share. I become promiscuous again.
There’s another strange man in my bed night after night. The lovemaking is all machine-like, I’m like a robot going through all the motions, the sex is hurried movements, and under the covers. I stop taking the sleeping pills, and the tranquilizers. I’m transformed into an educated, selfless wifey, making breakfast, making coffee, making half-burnt toast in the mornings for these men. I’m empowered, I tell myself. I’m in control. This revolution is done, or rather I’m evolving.I think of the branches after midnight moving outside my window. And not for the first time I think of being raped, and murdered in my own bed. I think of the poet Susan Lewis, the writer Pat Spencer. I think of hibernating in my bed, lying in the fetal position, and sobbing, mostly because Elijah left me, and not the other way around. The river seems to mask everything. It is observer of my anxiety, and fear.
I buy a color television. It is my first solo electronic purchase since Elijah has left. Men look at me now. They give me the once-over. They stare. They glance my way. This makes me feel attractive, but not for long. I can end up with anyone in my bed, I tell myself. I still wet the bed when I’m on my own. The men don’t eat the breakfast I make them. Some smile at all of this, others take a quick shower, a few make up the bed, eat cereal, watch cartoons on my television, or they want me. Sometimes I feel as f they are predators, what am I doing here, giving in repeatedly to sate their desires. The branches after midnight sing their song. Elijah could be tender sometimes, he meditated, and fasted, and baked croissants of all things, that I would eat obediently at the coffee table in the family room of the flatlet. And when Elijah was filled with tenderness, I became survivor, not victim.
I, a disciple of Louise Hay, and Marianne Williamson, was filled up, up with love for him, and a quiet kind of bone season desperation. And I remembered that last night, Elijah was sleeping, and it felt as if there was a continent between us, a narrow space between our bodies, and the bed was like the sea. All men inspire the skill, and expertise of lovemaking, and controversy, and shame, in their women. And I thought of the missionary position, Elijah inside of me for the last time, and I felt as if I was Homer. I knew I would miss him, his eyes would be tender for another soon, soon, and saw, I swear this. I saw my future self, lying in an empty bed, the university days, the ex-boyfriends, the Susan, the lovers like a vanished community. Their gestures all innocent, and I craved them like I had craved them once before, like rain, and starlight, like insight, like meat drained of taste.
And I knew that life would be a gathering for me, always a gathering.The men would be the hunters, the women, the females their victims. That night I dreamed again of Patagonia, and this island there. I felt safe there. I was older, in my forties, with no man on my arm. I was still a goddess. All women, whatever their age is a goddess. Flight, and adrenaline had erased my insatiable hunger.
Whether they are abandoned, or not. Whether they become creatures of habit, set in their ways, or not. I felt empty inside. In my dream I felt empty, because I could no longer remember Elijah’s sensitive hands, his artistic hands, and his interesting face. The island was masculine. Elijah was still a book, instead with time he had become a novel. I thought of Bessie Head then, a lit cigarette in her mouth.
Things of the past, things of the future
There are so many things going through Gail’s head at this point in time. By the sea, part natural, part supernatural, it spits driftwood out in the shape of a log, so much life, so much life, so much life.
The river runs through it, asking for the taking. Gail falls, blue, she sleeps the sleep of the dead. The dead do not struggle against all the odds, on their terms to live, they sanction the most beautiful part of their lives, and what was not celebrated in life, was celebrated in death, and in the water, Gail is like a fish. Her father is not a tall man, a cheating man with women on the side, a man’s man, he is fading away into autumn, branches are growing out of him, his fingers are an offering to God, sucking up all the clay, and the rain. All Gail wants to do is drain the paradise of the morning, she thinks she’s in love, but he’s older than she is. Her father, he does not smoke anymore. There’s a sadness to the day. Gail swims laps bravely. In her thirties, she swims laps bravely, and when she gets out of the pool, her father towel-dries her hair. The smell of the rain covers her like a wedding veil, and the earth is like a shroud.
Gail takes a warm bath when she gets home. Her father reads one of her fashion magazines looking at the women in lingerie, and bikini tops, and bottoms. She removes all the articles of clothing that she is wearing, lights up a cigarette, sits on the edge of the bath in the nude, and smokes her heart out. She puts her hand in to test the water. Lukewarm. Just right. She slips into the water, mapping her feet out, watching her pink toes. She forgot to put the bath oil in, and the Epsom salts for her sore muscles. She reads poetry in the bath. New Inscapes. She reads about Alan Paton’s reformatory boy, and cries, and cries. Her breasts are too small, she sometimes feels she’s too short, and all she wants to do is marry this older man, but he already has a wife, and a daughter, and a high-profile career. She thinks she can be the devoted mistress. Quiet, and unseen. Fit to be lover, physical body, dolphin belly, her psyche belonging to the married man, only to him. Gail is pink from her bath.
The feeling of the sexual impulse was so far removed from Gail. All she wanted was for the older man to take her into his arms. To have a child with him. For hm to make love to her, to go for long walks with her by the sea, her sea, the sea of her childhood. The sea inspires madness in her, something vast, something remote, something complicated like loneliness, and fear and anxiety. Gail feels the fear most days. She can’t get away from it. She paints her toenails red, listens to rock music blaring from her radio in the room, makes her hair all fluffy. In the eyes of her older man, she wonders if she is sexy. If she is sexy Lolita. She wonders at the gestures Betty Blue makes in that French film, wonders at her sadness. For it seems to Gail that all French women, although they are really beautiful, they are also sad creatures always meeting up with men, giving themselves body, soul, and spirt to them, and then, then the men just let them go.
The men just let them go mad, run around in bisexual relationships, make love to them in front of mirrors in the moonlight. The women end up in a hospital, or an asylum, and the children end up in an orphanage in the rural countryside somewhere, looked after by nuns. That’s all sex is, a fold in life, a reminder of a wave that transforms you, vibrations that test you, and gauge how you feel, sparking a kind of short-lived romance in you. There’s a hint of youth, of beauty in Gail’s face but instead of this making her happy, it makes her feel depressed. She knows she won’t have youth on her side forever, and beauty never lasts anyway. Women get cold, more cruel, aloof, and indifferent to the attentions of men, the sexual impulse. Women get old, older, and their beauty dies. There’s the aroma of lamb curry wafting out of the kitchen. Gail is reading Mikateko Mbambo’s poems now.A girl who goes to Pretoria University.
She’s from Zimbabwe, but this is nether here, nor there for Gail. The poems leave her breathless. The poems are like evening blossoms, blossoms of women in the daylight. Gail goes all quiet. The curry burns at the bottom of the pot. She is supposed to watching the curry, so that it doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pot. The poems are like the gathering of the elders, the matriarchs, and patriarchs of a village, and they’ve all come there for a feast. The sangoma is also there to bless the feast. In Mikateko’s poetry there’s a kind of undergrowth of memory there that exists with the children playing at this feast, becoming conscientized to the world of the adults around them, the kissing games of the older generation of kids, and the adults see the future (as Gail sees her future, and the future of these poems traveling across the world like sunlight, and nerves).They’re like amoeba-slime in the adrenaline of a male-world.
And years pass by Gail in minutes, and she thinks of the solitariness of the lone figure of the female sangoma at this feast, and there’s blessing too. Blessing in these poems. Afterwards, she washes her hair in the kitchen sink, shaves her legs. It feels as if she is getting her period. The poems are filled with longing, and belonging, the glory days of her youth, of no doubt, Mikateko’s youth too. Gail feels very much the innocent. Gail thinks that all poets have lived, and loved. Gail thinks she hasn’t lived at all. In her bedroom, she’s like a typhoon, in the mornings she wakes up, feels ugly because her older man, (that her father knows about), hasn’t called her. It feels as if he’s forgotten all about her. She checks her emails, but there’s no message from him, and it feels as if she’s on her way out of his life for good. She has poetry in her life, to save her from falling from grace, and the poems are like a gun going off.
The wind sighs outside mid-afternoon, Gail puts on a jersey. Her mother is a florist, and works all day until her fingers are numb to the bone, and she feels like death on her feet. She comes home after five in the afternoon, braving peak traffic in her family sedan. It is cold, getting colder still, the sun disappears in the sky, becoming a thing of the past, and a thing of the future. Gail makes tea, takes her gingko biloba, and feeds the tomcats. Inside, after that swim, her stomach muscles feel like a drum. She scrubs the sweet potatoes under the tap in the kitchen sink, until the water runs beautifully clear. Puts them in the oven, because that is the way her mother ate them ever since she was a little girl on the farm in Ladysmith. The earth is black after the rain. The sea is green after the rain, Gail remembers that. The sea is like the sun, old. Gail is quiet, and slow in the afternoon.She’s tired. The bath in the middle of the day had made her tired, but at the root of it all, she was a hungry reader.
She thinks she’ll find the way home in her lover’s arms, but she knows she won’t. She jumps a little too far, swears her love to him, she sees starlight, and wonder in his eyes, but that’s all there is. That’s all that she sees. She swears to her father, that her lover is attentive, and romantic, but it’s a half-truth. She feels low. The only thing that she trusts these days is the poetry, and Bessie Head’s Maru, Athol Fugard slipping into word-kill, and her heartbeat pulsates every time she reads The Road to Mecca, and she thinks of how handsome Gavin Hood was on the stage when he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. She dreams about Johannesburg, her winters there, her aunt’s house freezing even though they lit a fire in the fireplace. They’d roast marshmallows, Gail remembered her snobbish cousins. Too beautiful, too desirable for their own good. They married young, in their twenties.
They had their babies in their twenties. Gail had never been engaged, never had a serious boyfriend, never received wedding, or engagement, or promise ring. In the water, she was platypus. The poems were like brushstrokes to her, opened her up to vulnerability, and intimacy, and the shame of apartheid. The dreams young men had in those days, and the girlsthat wanted to become women, and wives that were deeply unloved, had men for husbands who sought female partners, not just a wife to be kept at home to cook, and clean, barefoot, and pregnant, mopping the kitchen floor. Gail didn’t really understand apartheid. She didn’t remember it. What was wrong anyway with interracial relationships, Gail felt that she had to apologise for it. As if apartheid had been all her fault. Zuma had spoken about social cohesion. But what did that mean anyway to black people who were the majority stakeholders in South Africa. It stung her. Apartheid shamed her.
It shamed her, how people in the location went without basic necessities, and lived in shacks with tin roofs, and Gail could feel her warm bed, and breakfast, and roasted marshmallows in a fireplace in Coronationville, Johannesburg, swimming towards her, black arms reaching out to her.
Rubbing one of the tomcat’s belly, she picked hm up, and kissed his ears, and cuddled him, but she knew that life for black people was filled with shocking despair, traumatic incident, after traumatic incident, and hardship. The pain they felt was like a fire in their belly, their mother tongue.
After all, they had been forced to speak English, to speak broken English at best, to learn English-proper like machines, factory workers, women working on an assembly line, and all she could see was their post-apartheid inferiority, and her earth, and sky, and sea’s superiority complex.
The talented scribe: Everybody has to grow up sometime
Whenever disaster strikes me in my world, I think of home (home as sanctuary, soft place to fall in flight, and adrenaline rush), or I go home. Welcomed by elderly parents, a happy dog licking my hand.
An old man forgets everything. Daughters though, have long memories.
Memories of their wasted potential, and their mother’s wasted potential, memories of the tender eyes of the first high school boy they kissed, memories of painful things, memories of regret, and desire, and of wasted pain. I always thought, I don’t really know why, of angels hiding in the dark ocean. Coming out into the light like volcano-lovers, or smoking, and drinking like Hemingway and Fitzgerald in France.
I thought of the poet Sharon Olds, and the writer Patricia Highsmith, oh, gosh, how much I wanted to be like them, how much I didn’t want to enjoy sex, being kissed, pulled in close, and held in a man’s arms.
But for most of my life, I was a blind oak, a sleeping woman, in pieces, in phenomena of constellations, found in galaxies of other worlds, dominated by the guy in quasi-relationships, and in the end, I forgave my father, what else could I do. He was in a wheelchair in the autumn of his years.
I thought that marriage could save you pain, but it only illuminated my mother’s. Sex was non-existent for her for years after my birth. I forgave my mother for staying with my father when I was an atheistic- teenager. I looked at her, and wanted to be her. In control without anti-depressants, and sleeping pills, sane, with a half-man, half-female, sane, without a man. There was something about her intuition that was divine, almost natural in the supernatural. Then there was her faith, her courage, the price she paid.
I was raised in the household of a strong woman, leaf falls to ground.
Belief defies religious belief, norm becomes opinion, girls have fun, let loose at university, but I did not. I lost myself in films, and art exhibitions. The rain always took on a pensive transformation for me, for the sea I would dress in skinny jeans, comfortable sandals, and t-shirt if it were warm outside. It was always important to me how I looked to men first, and women, girls second. All women were affectionate girls to me.
My father always had self-destructive patterns in his behaviour. He used to drink, was popular with men and women, and dreamed him up a bisexual persona that I had to live with; my mother had to live with.
There was always talk, Sunday mornings he was in church beside my mother, and my mother ever protective of me, her only child, her only daughter sheltered me from my father, the cheat. Told me to grow up to be a radical, politized feminist writer, and thinker. To be an intellectual. Nothing like her.
She was a homemaker, and sang in the church choir, sometimes taught Sunday school, the piano, and participated on the stage sometimes, acting a bit part here and there. Always a supporting role though. She was a dreamer, everybody said so. Then they looked at me and said that I was just like her. We had the same large brown eyes, same hair, and same dreams. I had to have goals, and plans, it made me forget about the time I found my father wearing pink lipstick, and peacock-blue eye-shadow sleeping it off.
Summers meant holidays, hiking, and in my own writing, it meant wilderness. Anything could be planted there, stemming harvest, and my history with boys in high school was always complicated, but not my writing-history. It made me feel complex, the writing one of my teachers said once, unfairly, was more quantity than quality. How I hated her for that, planned her death from a mugging, a gunshot wound to the head, and I even planned my own death from an elixir of sleeping pills, and neat whiskey.
There was always an emptiness in my life, even when I was with other people, a person, or my closest girlfriend, we would be laughing, talking, drinking, but there would still be this void inside of me.
The bullets would be heart-shaped, and I would be playing Russian roulette with a make-believe gun. Now, I think of my mother, of my own androgynous beauty, what had attracted her in the first place to my father, that first sexual impulse, the first time he touched her, that was the catalyst for my own writing, touch.
I remember my writing from childhood, and adolescence, how dark it was. The colour of the day, the stolen blue in the middle of it, a sea of wave after wave that belonged to the ocean of my youth. My ex-lover is at work. I wonder who he is attracted to now, if he’s fallen in love, who is the secret object of his beloved affection, and I wonder what her name is, what she tastes like, smells like, moves like on the dancefloor in a nightclub, sounds like in church, how she walks, how she talks on the exhale.
Books always tasted of sea light to me, the thrilling cadences, and rhythms of borders, and salt, and air. That strange hissing sound as meat touched grease in the pain that hit the air, a woman’s perfume like a risky adventure with an exciting, and tall, dark, and handsome stranger from an off-campus bar, sea air in my lungs, the vibrations of classical music reminding me of waves hitting the shoreline. Peak breaking, trough meeting trough, and light. The sea, like the kitchen table was always sacred to me.
I remembered Paul’s words, but what could words do anyhow. She, (he was talking about me), does not even know how to do sex, how to kiss even. That is not all she does not know how to do in bed. The people guffawed. The guys cheered him on him to tell them the whole story, the sob stories, the scenario in the bedroom. He said, she said, the talk got louder, the conversation boisterous. I turned inward. My identity cemented in this crowd of strangers.
What could intimacy between a person, and a girl possibly mean, he is infatuated with her looks, she is infatuated with the vision that he has of her. It is a lonely hunting-and-gathering game between the two parties. One searching for meaning, and respect, the other a sign of devotion, admiration.
Again, I turned inward, felt like an orphan from a country orphanage like Coco Chanel, self-pity rising up in me like an award for the role I was playing.
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