To be a woman in a movement for self-transformation and change

“Are you happy with your life daddy? Are you listening to me?” came a voice from deep within me.

“I am in ways that you can never imagine, and I wish, how I wish it could be different for you.”

In a dream I am on a path that has countless forks in the road. I am armed with a map and a moral compass. I turn into a wolf and then I wake up.

It’s not yet light outside but already I can hear my mother in the kitchen making coffee I am guessing. The kettle is boiling, and in another room, the bedroom down the hall, my father clears his throat. I can hear him. My brother is already teaching his students from Indonesia and China. He is in his study. He has even had students from Brazil. He used to be an accountant. The work, the teaching job, does not pay very much but it keeps him out of trouble and gives him something to do. Most importantly he is employed. He has a family and does not have any other choice.

It doesn’t matter anymore that I am not loved. That I was not wanted by my mother in the same way that my sister was wanted. That I was not beautiful in the same way that my sister was beautiful, in the same way that my brother’s girlfriend is.

My father talks to me about cupping. He takes the mug off the table and places it upside down on his inner thigh. He presses down hard on the mug and winces as if he is in pain. I place the cellphone in front of me on the table and get up.

“Coffee? Would you like some?”

“Yes, I’ll have a mug. Here’s my cup.”

I enter the messy kitchen and stare pensively at the dirty dishes piled high in the sink. I made spaghetti the previous evening. What was left of it looked pitiful. The sauce didn’t really taste like anything. I made it with a packet of cream of mushroom soup, some milk and two ice cubes that had coriander leaves embedded in it and chicken broth. I half heartedly threw cheese over two plates, handed one to my father at the kitchen table the previous evening and we tucked into an early supper. I put coffee into mugs, sugar, milk and threw boiling water into the mugs and walked back into the sitting room carefully holding the two hot mugs of coffee in my hands.

“I just don’t know what to do with myself today. I think of all the things I could be doing if I was married, if I had a child. For example, I could have been a soccer mom.” My father ignores me.

He closes his eyes and squeezes them in the next instant. I can hear our neighbours. A woman is talking loudly. A man laughs as if she has just said something funny. They put a radio on, and music fills the air. They are having a barbecue. That’s what we did the previous evening. We had steak, sausage and baked beans. My father ate as he usually eats these days, greedily.

“That’s just an example. It’s to remove toxins you see.”

“But does it work daddy?”

I think of my underwear lying on my bedroom floor then, the towel from my bath from last night still wet on the floor next to my socks and my pajamas. I think of the sadness in the light, the emptiness of the day, I think of my solitude and how end-less I find the days. It is evening and my father is still reading. I sit in the chair opposite him. Hours have passed. We inhabit the same room. Once he was strong and handsome. He still has a handsome face, but he walks with difficulty.

I think of the mess in my bedroom, and then I think of the mess in the kitchen. I think of the loo roll that is lying on the bathroom floor, the smoke and ash from the incense stick and then I think of the man who was briefly in my life before lockdown brought the world to a standstill and how he isn’t in my life anymore. I think then of all the men in the world who do not want to be saddled to someone who is mentally ill when they have their choice of stable women in the world to choose from. I think of my status as an outsider and how there was a time when I thought that there was power in that.

“Maybe. It sounds as if it can work.”

“I am getting older.”

I think of a memory from high school. When a boy standing in front of me brought his arms out at the sides of his body and I got smacked in the face as I walked past. He apologized profusely when he saw my face. I remember how it seemed that he couldn’t stop apologizing. I think of the sweetness of that day. I remember it still to this day. I remember my loneliness then. How I wasn’t embarrassed by loneliness yet. How I thought to myself I was going to live forever.

“So am I.” my father says. “I find it insane that you’re not happy with your life.”

“I think I should be more ahead of the game. There are things that I haven’t achieved. I haven’t lived at all. Look at Erica, she has travelled. She lives in Europe.”

I think of how bold my nephew is. I am not bold. I find it difficult these days to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes in the middle of the night I find myself crying and I don’t know why I am crying. I think of all the things that I have done right and that I have done wrong, then there’s the matter of what I could have done differently. I used to be confident but that was when I was a gangly teenager. I wear my hair differently these days. It’s shorter.

“There’s nothing wrong with South Africa.”

“Oh, daddy. I wonder what Portuguese food tastes like. What would it be like to be Erica?”

My sister and mother have always been beautiful. I wonder what that feels like. To be admired in that way. To be loved. Perhaps it is rather a shallow existence but what would it be like to be liked for prettiness sake, to be adored because you are popular and not a shrinking violet. I think of the conversations I have in the evenings with my father. He wants to write again. He feels inspired to write but he tells me he has it all in his head. I recorded him on the cellphone. When I type it all out it is only half a typed page.

“Why is that important? Why do you want to know that, because it is Erica’s life? Don’t speak about her. It makes you sad.”

The image of my father placing the mug on his inner thigh is a disconcerting one. It makes me feel strange. The daylight is lonely. It plays in the corners of the room, on the table, in the folds of the curtain. I am lonely. I have been with so many men. They become branches in my hands, growing out of me. These branches touch my hair, scratch my face. I am close to breaking point.

The child does not ask me if I want to attend his friend’s birthday party. It’s Saturday and the day is warm. Natural light fills the sitting room. My father is reading. He is a gentle giant. My mother leaves with the child in tow. My brother goes outside, and I watch him walk past the dogs to the other side of the house where he will be hidden from view. I know he will light up and smoke a joint. He is thin and doesn’t look healthy or well at all. I think of the last time he hit me. He knocked my spectacles off my face and when they hit the ground they broke. I put them back together with sellotape and had to go to the optometrist to have my eyes tested again and to have a new pair made.

They left. My mother left the house with my nephew walking with some determination in front of her. People were always leaving me, leaving me to ponder that thought. The parents were meeting beforehand and driving in a convoy to the party’s location which was a farm on the outskirts of the city. I wondered how the women would dress, if they would arrive in a dress, a jean or a capri pants and kaftan top and if the parents would flirt over hamburgers and milkshakes while their children played. I think of my life before I came home from Johannesburg and my relapse.

I think of the young woman who sleeps in my brother’s bed. I think of how I never answered her texts. How I never told my brother about her messages on the phone in the middle of the night. I had to wake him up and tell him that the girl was looking for him. I am lazy but I project this onto the young woman who does not make up their bed when she leaves in the morning. How lazy she is, I tell my mother. My mother refuses to listen to me. I tell my father, but he tells me that the young woman is my brother’s choice and that I should just stay out of it.

I think I would have made a bad mother. The young woman is not a bad mother. When the baby is teething, she makes cinnamon pancakes for her daughter. I used to bake before I went to Provincial Hospital, but I don’t anymore. The baby never cries with me the way the baby cries with her. I think of how she never cooks and never washes the dishes in our house. My brother does all the cooking. He leaves the cleaning up to my mother and the housekeeper.

I think of the young woman who sleeps in my brother’s bed. They have a child together. A daughter who is a few months old. She is beautiful (in a way that I am not). She is desired in ways that I have never been. She is accomplished beyond compare. She works hard at being a mother. She is happy. Not like me. Not like me. I am a deeply unhappy person. I don’t know if she is a spiritual person as much as anyone can be these days.

She finds joy in a myriad of things in a day. When she smiles there is a light in her deep brown eyes. When I smile it is hard and there are lines sunk into my face. Oh, life has been difficult. It has been a struggle most days, this year especially since I have been released from the mental hospital. They trust me with the baby.

I think of all the ways I am a woman, and I can think of only one outstanding feature and that is the length of my hair. I think of flowers growing in my soul. If I was a flower, I would be a dandelion planting dust everywhere.

These days I try to be kind to my mother even though she is not kind to me. I think of her young, I think of her being my age without the lines on her face. I think of her wearing her short skirts, her tennis legs, her flowing hair and glowing skin. I think of her smiling and laughing. I think of her playing a match and the umpire saying, “Game! Set! Match!” and I want to always remember her like this. As the girl she was before she had babies and turned into a mother. I think to myself what her dreams for me were.

I am finding it hard to put pen to paper. To write anything down. I find it hard to focus and to concentrate on the task at hand. I am always writing about trying to find myself. I keep finding myself in rooms inhabited by sardines hanging from chandeliers. They float like clouds. I keep bumping into them trying to find my way or the artist’s way because that is what I am. I tell myself that I am an artist.

I think of the leaf falling, falling, falling and how just like that leaf I fell in love with you, the shape of your pillow lips, the forest of your body, your purity, the light in your eyes. I became a vessel in your hands, and you poured yourself into me. Now I spend my evenings listening to Erik Satie and wondering where all the time went.

In the evenings, I sit on my bed in my room sipping a mug of herbal tea in the dark. Tonight, it is citrus ginger. I feel kind of deflated. I am not angry anymore. Oh, I used to be angry. I hurt people with what I said but that was then, and this is now. I have mellowed some would say. I think to myself about the moment you stopped loving me, how I placed all my hope in you, but you are not around anymore. I thought of all the ways I trusted you and how when you weren’t there how lost I felt without you, I wondered who you were confiding in as if it mattered but it didn’t.

I wrote to you and told you that you inspired me, that you encouraged me to build empires of gold. You deleted all the messages as if I never meant anything to you. I remembered when you first told me that you loved me. It was in a text message. I remember the first time you told me that I was beautiful. It was in the lounge of my house, and we were sitting next to each other, arm next to arm, knees touching. You’re gone now. You’ve moved on with your life. I wanted you to know I haven’t. I think about you all the time. I wonder if you’re happy. Of course, you are happy. You are no longer with the mentally ill woman anymore that needs to take medication twice a day and is so tired there are some mornings that she can’t get out of bed. I am not happy. I am deeply unhappy. Nothing’s changed.

I sip my tea and my tears begin to fall in the dark. Erik Satie is good to me in ways that you were not good to me. Erik Satie listens to me, he consoles me, he sits with me side by side in this dark room and we are both lonely together. We like classical music. We like sad music. I take my pills. I swallow it with a mouthful of cold tea. I find this ritual in the evenings a distraction and healing.

The tea tastes salty. My mother walks past my door and asks me why I am not sitting on a chair.

Abigail George
Abigail George
Abigail George is a researcher and historian. Follow her on Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @abigailgeorgepoet.