It was Florence who taught Sofia how to clean house. Wash windows. Scrub floors. Florence who lived in the township of Soweto.
Sofia, my daughter, I want her to say. I never wanted you to have abandonment issues. I never wanted you to talk about our relationship to a psychotherapist or write about how I never wanted you. All I want her to say is three words ‘I love you’ not even ‘I love you most of all’ or ‘I love you best’ just three simple words. ‘I love you’. And two more words. ‘You’re mine’ and five more words ‘I have always wanted you’, and three more for the darkness of this open road called life. ‘You were wanted’. I called that country ‘Childhood’. The chords of the seashore were a waterfall and the blue clouds of the day the confetti of life and sweetness. I have no use for tears. My mother is beautiful. Elegant. A class act. Having a beautiful mother, growing up and then not being beautiful in that way gave me courage.
I know that the day’s spirit is made of autumn chill and rain. The change in the environment comes with their own small inheritance (small change in a purse). Daylight’s geography is a blood knot. I am lost then found again in the tired sea of that difficult, empty country. Once I knew what love was, what to call that personal velocity, that speed but now I am at the end of the world. I am left digging to find you in memory. I didn’t feel the cold even when winter was supreme. I imagined that winter was the summertime. Acres of bold sweating weather. Those were the days when Trevor Niven wore suits to the office. A dark navy blazer the first time I saw him again. Listen to me. I am digging to find you again in memory Sussex-educated Trevor Niven. Stars in my eyes, cut-to-the bone grief are all that I have left of you.
City people wear leather jackets all the time but in my heartland men mowed the lawn at the weekend. Here women sunbathed on the lawn in white bikinis with thin spaghetti straps just like a movie star (see Marilyn Monroe). Children rode their bikes in the neighbourhood. Swum in paddling pools. Men drank more at the weekend. Women smoked menthol cigarettes. Boys emulated their fathers. Girls inherited their mother’s tired sadness and beauty. They looked up to their father. Knowing innately that they would marry a man just like him one day. Their mother’s hair would smell of perfume. Boys would constantly watch their mother smoke and sunbathe. Their shoulders getting brown in the afternoon sun. They watched their father make their mother a fruity cocktail drink. I am digging to find you in therapy now Trevor. Grasping at every little thing.
Grasping at nothing. Remembering the first love of my life. Trevor Niven. Remembering the illusion (the origins of smoke and mirrors, the heat of waves of crime and death meeting my lips, the blue journey of my walk-through Park Station in Braamfontein to Newtown). Johannesburg was a dream. City skyline above. Volcanic rock below found underground like gravity. Sofia thought of Nan in New Zealand. She met Nan on social media and they had clicked right away. Nan was a retired social worker. They spoke about illness, medicine and disability, death and aging. Depressing subjects but they bonded somehow and exchanged telephone numbers. All her life Sofia had carried around with her a complex heart, an ice lung and a bitter lung. Thought to herself that grief was just a form of a special psychology. She often had compulsions of racing unpredictability when it came to relationships.
I make the telephone call even though I don’t really want to. I search for cool words, the right language. I’m searching for you but you’re difficult to find, Nan. You’re not on any map and every road is covered in darkness. I imagine you (the golden breakthrough of you). The golden light of you that is only found in a museum. You’re a woman. No longer a girl. Of all of you that is so necessary to me for me to live and think of while I live and work in another city. This is what I want to say. You’re so beautiful, Nan. Yours is a rock face. Twin flesh making me giddy. You make me weak. There’s a music school inside my head when you’re in my head. I think of you sitting down or washing the dishes. Eating a simple meal never understanding how much I love you. How much I need you in my life. Your voice is tender and sweet on the other end of the line. Nan, your flame is bright.
Sofia’s hair was curly and damp from the shower that she took beforehand. She brushed tangles out of her hair humming ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ under her breathe. Sofia liked to picture the death of her father. That he nodded off. That he just fell asleep and the undertaker discovered a ghostly (terror) night of tomorrow in the supernatural surface found underground beneath the chilled earth after a burial. The funeral would play itself out like this. People gathering around saying nothing of their own grief and loss. Instead they eat creamy potato salad until they are sated. Nibble at noodles. Drink tea. The roots of grief, loss, emptiness, carelessness marking the eternity of a sleeping tree in the cemetery. Marking the sunlight-glow of the natural wonders of the day. Everyone walking around with serious faces with a buzzing in the air. She walked and walked in circles. Talking to herself in her head.
What evidence is this? Am I going crazy! Crazy, right to even think that! I thought to myself that this too shall pass. My father fell asleep at his desk. My father passed away in his sleep. My father died in an accident. My father is alive and well. My father is growing weaker in a hospital. Perhaps he should be put in a frail aged home. I thought soon we would have to make preparations for his funeral. I thought he wasn’t going to come home. This spring blossoms fell from my hands as I prayed for a miracle. As I prayed for my father to come home. Restored to health and vitality. When I was loved by you dad I had a self-concept. Father, you’re an expert at your ‘craft’. Mother, you were always a dynamo in the kitchen sewing-sewing a-way in my childhood. You shaped your daughters to follow men. You’re worried now about wrinkles and grey hair.
Growing old and infirm in your own way. Falling to the river in your dreams. My father looks at me as if to say goodbye forever. I don’t want to lose him but his eyes seem to say that he is ready to meet with eternity. In reality, I thought to myself, I am afraid of men because of you, dad. Men who do not love me. Men who do not consider me beautiful in my own way. Men who do not consider me an artist. I am afraid of women. Women who do not love me. Women who do not consider me beautiful in my own way. Women who do not consider me to be an artist. So, it is with quiet courage that I write these words. I write these words for all women who are artists. I write them too for the end of regret. I write these words in memory of my first love. The ‘ghostly’ charmer Trevor. This is the autobiography of a poetess. The autobiography of a mood disorder set in the stone, flesh and bone, and the images of bipolar falling into place like the ground beneath my feet.
Grief made her neat. Compulsive. Obsessive with life. Sofia knew what it was meant to be actively disliked by males and females. There were days when Sofia watched the world through a blur of tears. Her psychiatrist suggested a support group. There was one held every Wednesday evening in the hall at the Catholic church up the road from where she lived now with her parents. Sofia found it easy to speak in front of a group of strangers. She opened up. She grew teary-eyed. She brought banana bread. There was always coffee. Afterwards they’d break up into cliques. At the end of the evening she would collect her plate. Wash it in the kitchen. Wash it in circles. Dry it carefully. Say her goodbyes. Tell them that she wished them well for the rest of the week. That it was okay to cry. Miss the deceased. She helped to pack away the chairs. Walked to her car, breathed in the chilly night air, looked up at the stars, sang an old Whitney Houston number under her breath.
I never went to my aunt’s funeral. Although I loved her very much. I couldn’t cope with the grief of losing her. The loss and emptiness I would feel in my life now. I couldn’t cope with the thought of never seeing her again. All I have is our conversations in the dark. Her fragile life. Her life, her life, her life. Nothing ordinary about her. Her standing in the kitchen barefoot. I think of writing her name in the sand every time I go to the beach. It will mean something to me. Like the word ‘spirit’. It will take away the waves of regret I sometimes feel of not going. Of not saying goodbye properly. She’s river, salt, and light. The key to her soul a sword in the same way the pen that I feel in my hand is to me.
There were days when Sofia found herself in the local swimming pool. Swimming for her life. Swimming towards emptiness on a bright summer day. Wanting the lifesaver on duty to save her. The unforeseen visitor emptiness, like blood can be graceful and intelligent. Poured into the human body it can be useful. You can gather it in your arms, call it, all the cells and platelets, ‘harvest’. But be careful because ‘it’ can come with the mechanism of wild gestures. It will remind you that you need your rest after a lover has left. It will make you shake it off like a fish. You will find yourself swimming towards it on a bright summer day without a care in the world. The mansion of the sky on fire. Life tired of the heat and dust. Emptiness will be on your tongue. It will be your mother tongue until a replacement comes along.
Sofia listened to Miriam, a librarian one evening talking about how another kind of migration can and will (if you surrender, let it) take place after the denial process. How it can take you to brighter places after grief. During the recovery period, even afterwards. You will fall in love again. You will learn to live again. It will happen when you least expect it though. When your ‘country’ is tired of being broken by waves and vertigo. Of being cold or tired. Of being called ‘meat country’. Or ‘the exit’. The water, swimming, holding her breath underwater made Sofia feel vital. It reminded her of birth. Her soul was fresh and her spirit renewed. Rejuvenated. Grief will wound you but you can recover. It can leave you damaged but there’s a part of you that is still whole. There will always be signs of courage, desire. Signs of hope, falling in love for the rest of your life.
For days Sofia, could still hear Miriam’s voice in her head. At her workplace (she made pizzas and toasted sandwiches in and out of the way coffee shop downtown in one of the side streets). At the swimming pool Sofia, could picture herself vanishing into the thin air like a comet or a black hole. Becoming part of the horizon, then part of the sunset. Part of a cloud, then the rain falling into the world, her eyes, the soil, earth. It was as if she was becoming part of the river, then part of the sea and inside of her head she could hear voices and afterwards listen to them as she made her way to the changing rooms. She would take a cold shower, wash her hair, apply a conditioner that smelled fruity and towel dry her hair. Afterwards there was always the release of stress that had been building up within her the whole day from nothing and everything.
She could hear soft-spoken Miriam’s voice when she reached the opposite end of the swimming pool. It had enchanted her at first. Looking at Miriam’s clothes, shoes, her fashionably cut hair. Miriam looked old enough to be her mother and she was beautiful in the same way her mother was. Sofia didn’t understand the attraction at first. Knew that she would never be able to confess this to anymore ‘in’ her life, ‘out’ of her life (school friends, girlhood friends who were married by now, had children of her own). Miriam had cried on Wednesday night. Afterwards Sofia had asked she wanted some tea. For some reason, Miriam had been sitting on her own after the group separated into cliques. Miriam smiled, said ‘thank you’.
Sofia smiled back. Heat rising to her cheeks, she checked herself in time but the flame was lit.