The nights when those penetrable walls whispered to me, everything became hyperreal, like the moment after the seventh cup of coffee when the heart misses its rhythm by a nanosecond and the only thought possible is about one’s mortality. Those thin walls, between the loud lovemaking in the other room and the quiet regret in mine, were mocking me, reminding me that this was a nightmare of my own making. A year prior, when my father, who hadn’t spoken to me in years, sent a text that my youngest brother, who also hadn’t spoken to me in years, just had a daughter, it felt like a lifeline had been thrown at me. I thought that maybe if I gave him a grandchild like the rest of my siblings, the family might speak to me again, and maybe Tshepo would no longer get random, threatening calls from strangers. That the girls my aunt sends from my village now and again to help with the laundry would stop trying to sleep with me. That was how the deception began. The daytime tiptoeing with the random women I found on tinder. I’ll never know if Tshepo ever found out, but when all those clandestine liaisons left me defeated and flaccid, I had no other option but to include him in my plans to have a child.
I put on my headphones to block out the lovemaking sounds from the other side of the wall. The guest bedroom window faced the streetlamp, and the filtered light through the lace curtains painted the room with a soft amber glow. It took a while for my eyes accustomed to the blank darkness of our bedroom to stay shut, and for the waves crashing in my ears to bring me the sleep the noises from the other room were keeping from me.
For the past three Saturdays, Tshepo drove her back before I awoke. But that day, she stayed for breakfast. She had similar facial features to the ones who came before her–the ones who left while I could still remember to lower the register of my voice when I spoke–skin the color of earth after a summer storm, a square jaw, thick hair that makes it hard to tell where the hairline ends and the brows begin, features that have marked my father’s kin for generations.
Once again, Tshepo introduced me as his cousin. When she spoke, I noticed how young she was compared to the others. Barely out of her teens, she exuded that youthful false sense of maturity, that belief that adulthood was hers to conquer. It was going to be easier to convince her to defer parenthood to us when the time came. After all, she still had her whole life ahead of her to think about. Her name was Ntebo. She was studying Fitting and Turning at a local college and waitressing part-time. She mindlessly rubbed Tshepo’s knee in a tender circular motion when she spoke, and her head leaned on his shoulder when she laughed. Her presence seemed to arouse a calm in Tshepo’s demeanor; it was as though she had chiseled and sanded down all his neurotic edges. Each time he turned to her to speak, a smile would color his face; his voice and the words out his mouth were slow and smooth like honey on winter mornings. He was always so rigid with the ones that came before. I stared and wondered if all this was a terrible idea. When my eyes met his, he averted his gaze.
The arrangement went by seamlessly for months until a series of events revealed the extent to which Ntebo’s presence had poisoned all the contours of our home. It began when hundreds of pipes supplied by Tshepo’s company to a construction site were found to have an extensive number of defects on their external coating and had to be returned for rework. The backlash was heavy. Tshepo’s team had to account for the oversight. The two who had signed the clearance forms for the pipes were suspended without pay. He and the remainder of his team were to oversee the reworks. The hours were long, relentless. They would sometimes work ten days straight without an off day. He would come home late, long after I had finished eating, finding me on the couch watching TV, and he would sit on the other side of the room and not next to me like usual. I would watch his sullen face feast on the meal I had cooked, and each time I tried to make conversation, he would reply with closed monosyllabic answers.
One night when I asked him if he was okay, he stormed out. But not before shouting Stop fussing over me like I’m a little child, and staining the carpet and couch with red atchar grease droplets that bounced off the half-eaten plate he had tossed on the floor. I guess the workload piled on after that, for he would, from then on, only come home long past my bedtime. Some days it was the ding of the microwave oven as he warmed up his food that would wake me up. Other days, it was the TV. Most days, it was the nightly phone conversations he had with her. The passion and rage in it, as he described the frustrations he had with his superiors, and the fantasies he had of the violence he wished to unleash on them. The vulnerability in it, as he spoke about the fear engulfing the production line and how he and everyone else felt less secure about their jobs. The gentleness and intimacy in it, as he spoke about his longing for her and his impatience for her weekend visits. The calls would sometimes go on till way after I had found my way back to slumber. On the nights that they didn’t, he remained statue-like when my hands took slow sails along his body, aimlessly searching for a desire that no longer existed. We had become two celestial bodies orbiting around a common axis, kept apart by forces far greater than ourselves, destined never to collide.
One Friday evening, when Tshepo had to work late again, Ntebo’s colleague drove her to our place at the end of their shift. They brought with them leftover chicken and chips from the restaurant and two large luggage bags. Ntebo’s belly had started to show, and her father had kicked her out. She had been staying at her sister’s place for a few weeks, and the commute to campus was long. Tshepo suggested that she move in with us, and I could not object without sounding evil. Her colleague introduced himself as Jabu. The fabric on his work pants struggled to contain his Greek-temple-column-like thighs, the size of a loosehead prop’s, and when he dragged the luggage to the living room, while Ntebo warmed up the food, his gait looked so heavy that each butt-cheek bounced and jiggled when his foot touched the ground.
On the TV screen, against a backdrop of yellow rice paddy fields, Kang-Ho Song’s shell-shocked face turned straight towards us and stared intensely, marking the end of the film. Jabu jokingly asked if reading subtitles was our idea of a fun Friday night. Ntebo, who had initially opted to wait for Tshepo to get home before she would eat, tried hard to keep the content in her mouth from spilling out as she laughed. It was almost midnight, and Tshepo still wasn’t home yet. Jabu was on his third glass of rum, and a tinge of red had started to appear on his nose and ears.
“There’s still time to redeem the night; let’s go to Castries!” he said. His face, mired in excitement like a child’s on a Christmas morning, wilted when Ntebo declined. He turned towards me, and I readily snatched up the chance at a night’s reprieve from the tormenting sound of my lover pouring out the passion he’s been denying me into someone who was only meant to be our surrogate passage to parenthood. We washed the dishes and left Ntebo lying on the couch under a fleece blanket, waiting for my man to come home.
At the club, the burly West African man patted us down and smeared our faces with blue paint before letting us in. We went down a long flight of a dark stairway illuminated by LED lights on its edges. Castries was a club repurposed from an underground parking lot. On the far left was a cocktail bar; a mezzanine with bright strobe lights that flashed on it in colorful psychedelic patterns was on the far right, where a DJ stood mixing his turntables, surrounded by a few scantily clad girls with incandescent hula hoops spinning around their waists. Between the two ends lay a sprawling dancefloor with a sea of dancing bodies; the neon paint on their faces glowed in the dark and made them look otherworldly. I followed Jabu closely behind as we squeezed ourselves between them, heading towards the bar. There, he ordered tequila shots. Four each. We swallowed them swiftly and greedily, like athletes during water breaks. Then he grabbed my hand and led me back to the dancefloor.
“I don’t know how to dance!” I shouted.
“Neither can I,” he lied.
The bass lingered in the air a few moments longer than it should’ve, and the hi-hat smashed sporadically in an arrhythmic pattern. The hollow offbeat kick-drum came at us sideways instead of straight through and the vocal samples of wild cats growling and men chanting dimoni dimoni weh! and dlala TLC! nestled in the spaces between. Jabu’s legs matched the disordered rhythm as they bent and twisted and shuffled at a speed and dexterity that betrayed their size; his hands would dab a random part of his upper body or stay in his crotch as he thrust his hips. He’d sometimes shuffle backward in a circle, pivoting around a bent, trembling leg. Soon enough, a crowd encircled him, and when he exited the circle to catch his breath, another skillful dancer took his place. This went on for hours, till the DJ started playing downtempo tracks, signaling the party’s imminent end, and we knew we had to join the first trickle of people exiting the club.
“Are you sure you can still drive?” I asked him as his car stalled for the third time while he was trying to reverse out of the parking lot.
“Don’t worry. I’m still fine. My clutch is just a little worn out, that’s all– Listen, you won’t mind if we rested at my place for a bit? I’ll drop you off at your place tomorrow morning?”
He lived in a cottage at the back of an old, decaying yellow house, in a neighborhood not far from the club, just on the outskirts of the city center. It was a frugal space with just a three-quarter bed, a two-plate stove on the floor, a small built-in closet, and a large plastic bowl where he put his pots, plates, and cutlery.
I sat on his bed and crouched down to untie my shoelaces. When I sat back up, there he stood, towering next to me. I was visibly startled when he tried to grab my shoulder.
“Sorry– I thought–”
“No, it’s okay. It’s just– I wasn’t expecting that–” I said, smiling. “How did you know?”
“That you’re gay… or that you and Tshepo are fucking?” “I mean, when Ntebo told me that her boyfriend, Tshepo, lives with his cousin, Nsovo, something didn’t add up. I know none of that matters in this city, but he’s from Kroonstad. And you; you don’t speak Sesotho like you’re from around here.”
“Oh, fuck! does she suspect anything?”
“Nah, relax. I don’t think she does.”
Then we fell asleep in each other’s naked embrace. Without any tormenting noise to disturb me, I drifted to slumber as easily as an unanchored board at sea. I felt like peace.