She studied her face, looking for any change. A bad person. A cheat. A lesbian. A cheating, barren lesbian.
Marlene Dumas, Naomi, 1995, oil on canvas, © Marlene Dumas, photo: Peter Cox, image provided by: The Stedelijk Museum.
This is how she imagined they would find her body: in a black winter coat and short boots. They would shake their heads as they pulled her out of the shallow murky water. So young, the rescue officers would say to one another. They would look at her face—placid with gray undertones to her dark brown skin—and notice the mole slightly to the right of her lower lip. As they lay her on a stretcher they would note her long braids framing a wide forehead that sloped gently to meet an unassuming nose. Her eyebrows were expertly arched, her eyes close-set. They were closed as though in sleep. After a preliminary exam, they would put her body in a black bag. This one was going straight to the pathology lab. They would drive slowly. No fanfare and sirens for a dead woman. They would place her on a steel-surfaced table under a glaring light, pull off her boots, and put a tag on one of her big toes. They would struggle to pull off her coat and would just cut the damn thing off, then they would stand there mesmerized by her black and red teddy and red panties, which they would discover were a thong when they rolled her over to look for signs of trauma. They would examine her head for bullet holes or broken skull. No, they would say, shaking their heads. Definitely a high-class call girl, probably ran afoul of one of her clients or her pimp. They would prod and poke, comb her pubes for foreign hair. They would clip her fingernails, noting specks of blood that had not been washed away in the water, and the lacerations on her arms. They would collect these for DNA tests. They would try to draw blood from where it was not frozen to test for drugs that might have sent her careening off Waterloo Bridge to her death. They would eventually conclude that indeed she had done herself in, and they would wonder what had pushed such a gorgeous lass over the edge. After all their tests they would cover her in a white shroud.
Rati walked into the apartment and found Thato sitting on the couch. On the side table next to him was an assortment of empty soft drink cans, a signal to Rati that he had been sitting there all day. He had not bothered to open the blinds so the room was depressingly dim. He looked up from the magazine on his lap and smiled at his wife. The TV emitted the oceanic sounds of spectators in a soccer stadium.
Hey darling, she called out, her smile giving way to a frown. Sweetie, you have not been writing.
She headed to the kitchen where she set her Marks and Spencer shopping bags on the table. She shrugged off her coat and hung it in the hallway. She hated that she sounded reproachful, but coming home day after day to Thato parked on the couch, surrounded by empty cans and junk food wrappers, did not stir warm feelings.
She walked into the living room and placed her bag and phone on the side table next to the couch. She sat down, sighing with relief as she leaned against the backrest.
I can’t write for shit. Nothing is coming.
Well, maybe if you sat at your computer long enough things will start to flow?
She thought that Thato looked glum and disheveled. His unkempt hair was peppered with gray and rogue tentacles from his mustache teased his upper lip.
I should just give this crap up, grow up, and get a real job so you don’t have to work so hard.
Writing is a real job and we’re doing OK. Besides, you would be miserable doing anything else.
Well, I’m miserable as a writer.
Rati leaned over and stroked his cheek, noticing with sadness how his chiseled facial features were softened by a layer of fat and his belly protruded visibly under his checkered shirt.
What we really ought to be doing is getting out more, just to live a little, you know? Maybe you’ll get some inspiration.
Thato pulled away from her hand.
The soccer fans exploded into a frenzied chant. A goal had been scored. Thato’s face lit up and he was transfixed, buttocks raised off the couch, ready to jump.
Rati inhaled, feeling her neck muscles tense. She stood up and walked past Thato toward the kitchen.
A childless marriage is like an empty storage barn, the womb a desecrated tomb.
She hummed quietly as she placed the fresh loaf of brown bread into the breadbox, deciding that the call from Thato’s mother would not ruin her mood. The pasta went into the cupboard along with the jar of Waitrose’s Hot Cocoa Mix, Thato’s favorite. Rati felt something akin to contentment as she piled the paper towel rolls into the cupboard under the sink. It was a tepid sort of happiness, the kind that one concocts out of the accumulated fragments that might have been joy in the relationship. She was never really sure whether these fragments were real or whether she had simply conjured them up and infused them with hope so that she could get out of bed each day. Whatever it was, Rati guarded this happiness as she might have protected a child. If she had one.
A childless marriage is like an empty storage barn, the womb a desecrated tomb. Ten years of marriage and no issue. Rati loaded the yogurt into the side compartments of the fridge, flicking her long braids out of the way. At thirty-seven, she knew she looked good and took care of herself. She hummed, feeling thankful that Thato had not abandoned their union despite the pressures from home for a child, and without the smallest sign of a possible pregnancy. Nothing. A dry womb, they diagnosed, that needed fattening up along with her thighs and the rest of the body.
Rati stopped humming momentarily, savoring her longing for a child. Like an itch on a phantom limb, there was nothing she could do about it or the randomness with which it crept up on her. She wondered, as she placed bags of potato chips into the snack drawer, if her desire for a child was all hers or whether some of it was the wishes of everyone else who thought she needed one.
Everyone had an opinion on the issue of her childlessness. Spoiled eggs, they concluded, what with all those men that had passed through her like trains passing through a station. Poor Thato was the unfortunate train that had stopped. They shook their heads and clicked their tongues in wonderment. Powerful juju and her looks were what she had used to trap him, they whispered behind cupped hands.
Thato had stood by her when his family questioned his choice of spouse. She knew he tried to spare her the taunts and the callous comments from his sisters in particular. In the early years their passion for each other had been enough to shut out the extraneous noise, but with time, the pressure had started to take a toll. Emotional blackmail was deployed to the fullest extent and the demand for grandchildren was often accompanied by copious tears and threats that they would be cut off from the family. Offers of visits to ngangas, anointed men of God, and prophetesses of the Njuzu Spirit, and even offers of special herbs one chewed to awaken a dead womb, were made from across the seas.
Rati and Thato had both undergone all manner of fertility tests and enrolled in all kinds of studies, and both of them had been declared physically capable of having children.
You both need to relax, her doctor told her time and time again.
Rati smiled as she ripped open a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and bit into it. Her doctor was a kind, elderly woman who insisted that the baby would only come once she was relaxed enough for her womb to get ready to receive it.
It will happen when you least expect it.
But Dr. Silverman, how does one not expect something one has waited so long for?
You simply forget that you are trying to get pregnant.
That was easier said than done, Rati thought, as she licked her fingers and placed the chocolate on the table. Especially when so many people were eager to remind you of the ticking biological clock.
She felt slightly irritated. Many of her friends were popping babies out and she was tired of the WhatsApp group messages with pictures of cherubic newborns or birthday parties of older kids. Her colleagues at the bank had pictures of their young, all gummy smiles and painted faces, on their desks, like good-luck charms. She sighed, feeling a little sad for herself but more so for Thato.
Over the years she had come to realize that she was very lucky. Some of her friends had less than supportive husbands and many were philandering goats prepped to mount anything that remotely resembled a woman. Siphiwe, her friend in Birmingham, was a caricature of her former self. She had gained over a hundred pounds since she’d married Emeka. She had misguidedly decided to marry a Nigerian, believing that the clamor of culture would be less of an issue than if she had gone with a Zimbabwean. Her mother-in-law had come to stay nine months after their festive nuptials. Six years later she was still with them, listening in at their bedroom door to ensure that the activities that would yield fruit of the womb were being carried out judiciously. Siphiwe was a depressed mess, eating her way through each day. Emeka had taken to drinking, which, in the amounts he imbibed, was not conducive to procreation activities.
Rati slipped out of her boots and pushed her feet into her pink slippers. She padded over to the fridge and pulled out a tuna casserole. They would have leftovers for dinner.
Thato was nothing like those others. He had not heeded the family’s bleating for children to carry on the name and secretly gone back home to marry a second wife who could give him an heir. Simba, Munya, and Darlington all had “small houses” in Zimbabwe. Thato had stopped buying his mother an annual ticket from Harare to London to visit them after a huge quarrel about a second wife. Rati knew that Thato had come to accept that he was no longer close with his family because of her. However, she also knew that this saddened him deeply and his sadness affected their relationship. They no longer nurtured their bond with rich conversations and affection. They hardly did things together. She tried, but Thato was not able to shake off whatever it was that paralyzed him. From the outside, he seemed content, but she knew that his body padded itself with layers of fat to keep unhappiness in and the world out. Attempts to talk about what was bothering him were met with silence, or he would leave the room. If she pushed him they would argue, cruel things would be said, and invariably she would end up in tears. So to avoid this they exchanged only small talk and day-to-day banalities.
It had been six months since Mbuya passed away. Rati picked up the picture and willed Mbuya to speak.
Rati turned on the small CD player on the windowsill and glanced at the photograph of Mbuya, her maternal grandmother. The haunting voice of Simpiwe Dana drowned out the soccer fans. Melancholy settled on her shoulders, a shawl that swaddled her in the pain of her loss. It had been six months since Mbuya passed away. Rati picked up the picture and willed Mbuya to speak. She gazed at her face, a parchment of wrinkles and furrows. Her mouth was unsmiling and the mole on the right, next to her lower lip, was visible. Kind brown eyes looked back at her and she felt tears welling up in her own. On her head Mbuya wore a red scarf wrapped simply. A saxophone wailed her sorrow and Rati touched her fingers to Mbuya’s face. She sensed that Mbuya’s death had changed her in ways that terrified her, though she had no idea what those changes were or what they signaled. She wished she could share this with her husband.
Thato had flown with her to Zimbabwe for the funeral. He had been her rock, there for her in her time of sorrow. But soon after they got back to London he retreated into his shell, leaving her to grapple with her loss alone.
All the groceries in their rightful place, casserole in the oven, Rati lowered the music. She placed Mbuya’s picture back and walked to the fridge.
Want a drink, babe?
She closed the fridge slowly and walked midway between the kitchen and the living room. From where she was she could see the back of Thato’s head resting on the seat. He sat so still she thought he might have dozed off. Then she heard the sound of her own voice mutated, a sultry tone with breathy phrases and whispered questions.
You like what you see, sugar? Come on, baby, you know you want it.
Rati’s stomach growled as the contents scurried frantically in search of an exit. Thato did not flinch. She did not need to see her iPhone 5 screen to know what he was watching.
A tall, slender woman with a huge afro in a long red gypsy skirt and black tank top smiled at Rati. She was standing in the living room among a group of women chatting incessantly as they waited for the book club meeting to begin. Rati shrugged off her damp coat and hung it up in the hallway. She made her way down a short stairway into the parlor to join the others. A chorus of greetings went up as Rati exchanged pleasantries with everyone.
Rati, darling, how are you?
Manana came through from the kitchen carrying a tray of drinks.
You look fabulous, as usual!
Rati kissed Manana on both cheeks.
Rubbish! Not as fabulous as you, skinny thing. Love the braids.
Rati laughed, glad that she had decided to come.
Hi there. The woman with the huge afro sauntered up to Manana, eyes on Rati.
Oh, let me introduce you two.
Manana adjusted the tray of drinks so she could free one hand.
Xoliwe, meet Rati, who was a classmate for all of primary school in Zim. Rati, Xoliwe is a solicitor at our law firm.
Xoliwe nodded, eyes sparkling and red lips framing even, white teeth.
Rati smiled back and took her outstretched hand.
Nice to meet you, she mumbled, drowning in Xoliwe’s unwavering gaze.
Xoliwe spoke softly. Thank you. Likewise.
Rati’s voice quivered slightly and she retracted her hand nervously from Xoliwe’s.
I detect an accent, where are you from?
Xoliwe threw her head back and laughed, a rich sound that made Rati’s skin break out in goosebumps.
You sound so English! I bet if I tell you I’m from London, you’ll say: No, I mean, where are you from originally?
Rati laughed, mock horror on her face.
Please, may I never become like that!
Both women laughed.
Xoliwe winked at Rati and sauntered toward the living room where everyone was taking a seat. Rati waited a few moments, thrilled but confused, then followed her into the cozy room with brown leather settees arranged in a semicircle. A log fire blazed in the ornate fireplace. Rati took a spot between Manana and Nneka, a regular at the meetings.
They were discussing Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, but Rati was totally distracted by Xoliwe’s afro-haloed face. She sat across from her. Rati could not take her eyes off Xoliwe’s mouth, which gave her glimpses of a tongue piercing. She was mesmerized by the silver stud Xoliwe held between her teeth every so often and swept across her teeth as she spoke.
Xoliwe’s presence dominated the small living room, her aura so radiant it made the other eight women in the group seem like fireflies beating their wings frantically to stay alight. Xoliwe seemed unaware of her beauty as she argued good-naturedly with the others.
Xoliwe looked directly at her, quizzical brown eyes probing. Then she smiled knowingly. Rati looked away and swiftly turned the pages of the book in her lap, frowning with fake intent.
The writing is accessible and I like the insights into Dominican culture, Manana quipped, taking a sip from her glass.
It doesn’t seem much different from many African cultures, especially the heterosexual relationships.
Rati looked up surreptitiously to find Xoliwe still looking at her. The heat of her arousal was so intense she gasped. This had not happened to her in years and never with a woman.
Xoliwe’s gap was a sexy sliver between her two front teeth and Rati wondered what it might be like to caress it with her tongue.
Sex with Thato had long ceased to be the joyful, spontaneous act of mutual pleasure that it once was. It was a bodily function that seemed necessary for him, but for Rati, it was a chore she executed dispassionately, with the requisite moans at the appropriate moments.
Rati noticed a tiny stud on Xoliwe’s nose and her eyes lingered. Xoliwe grinned at her, red painted lips peeling back to reveal the beautiful teeth. She did not hide the fact that she was staring openly or care that Xoliwe was laughing at her. Shakespeare’s sensuous gap-toothed woman was Rati’s first thought. Xoliwe’s gap was a sexy sliver between her two front teeth and Rati wondered what it might be like to caress it with her tongue.
See you around, Rati.
Everyone was packing up to leave and Rati busied herself collecting empty glasses and placing them on the tray. She purposely kept her head down. Xoliwe was already in her coat, hands buried deep in the pockets.
It was nice meeting you.
Xoliwe did not move or respond for what felt like minutes to Rati.
Here, let me take your number. Maybe we can get together for drinks or something?
Rati looked up into those magnetic eyes.
Rati recited her cell number, lifting the tray of glasses.
Take care, Rati.
Xoliwe adjusted the purse on her shoulder, already on her way to the door.
Xoliwe called one Saturday morning in June.
Rati, hi. It’s Xoliwe. I just called to ask if you would like to come over for cocktails this afternoon?
Rati hesitated just long enough to convince herself that she was meeting a new friend for drinks and nothing more. This is what she told Thato, who nodded distractedly, eyes fixed on the soccer match on TV. As she stepped out into the bright sunshine she felt a little uneasy, but the thought of spending another Saturday afternoon in the apartment with Thato and all the unspoken things wedged between them strengthened her resolve to venture out.
For six months, Xoliwe lit up her body to the soft crooning of Nina Simone, Anita Baker, and Sade. Always there was music to rock and vibrate with on those afternoons. They hardly called or texted. Rati would leave work and simply show up almost every day around three in the afternoon. Xoliwe frequently had some new lingerie for her to wear; pink bras and panties were her favorite. Rati liked teddies and thongs. Xoliwe wore slight variations of shorty panties and a bustier with boots.
Their time together was spent in exploration and experience, playing at the border between pleasure and pain. She forgot about spoiled eggs and sepulcher-like uteruses. In-laws and the cacophony of cultural expectations were barred from entry into this sanctuary of her bliss. Her marriage was the heavy coat she took off at the door, when she entered into a place where no questions were asked, nothing was demanded or expected, and then reluctantly put back on as she headed home to Thato.
He noticed some changes. When he mounted her, she was moist heat, pliable and accommodating. The contours of her body molded themselves softly to his angular frame. He was perturbed when she asked him not to turn off the lights, gently pushed him onto his back, and straddled him, or when she guided his hand between her legs so he could feel her pulsating. He was perturbed but cautiously responsive. He was still sullen and emotionally distant. Rati would retreat into her thoughts of Xoliwe. She felt guilty sometimes but knowing that Thato was oblivious eased her conscience somewhat.
She was confused by the deep nostalgia that thoughts of Xoliwe evoked, because nostalgia by definition was longing, based on memory.
It had never occurred to Rati that she would ever find herself attracted to a woman, the same way it had never occurred to her that she would not be able to have children. Until, of course, she found herself in a place where she wanted them and they did not come. She longed for Xoliwe in the way someone longs for something that they know or have experienced. She was confused by the deep nostalgia that thoughts of Xoliwe evoked, because nostalgia by definition was longing, based on memory.
Mbuya would know what all this means. Mbuya was the one person Rati was not afraid to tell anything to. She told her about the first boy she slept with, about the pranks that would have had her expelled from school had she been found out. She even told Mbuya about her first job in London, the one that had provided money for her to go to school. Mbuya had never judged her.
It was Xoliwe and she in Xoliwe’s bohemian-styled studio apartment.
Florid curtains and bedroom décor in varying shades of pink and purple. It was an airy and welcoming place whose walls seemed to hold only the sounds of laughter and lovemaking. Xoliwe cooed like a contented pigeon.
I love that shocking pink thong and bra, babe. Just twirl those hips for mama.
Rati made a desperate move toward the couch.
Don’t move! Thato’s voice was ice as it penetrated her panic.
That’s right, baby, spread those cheeks for me. Yeah, you’re a natural.
What the fuck? Thato exploded.
Rati cringed. The sound of their voices from the video was a dirty intrusion.
Thato’s voice shredded the air. Rati, why would you do this?
He was looking at the video, shaking his head. Rati crumpled to the floor, gasping for air. She willed herself to pass out and to never wake up.
She gagged and swallowed hard to stop her stomach from spewing its contents onto the floor. Her nose dripped as she sat there, rocking back and forth. She wrung her hands, crying. She had cried many times in this apartment, but even the walls contracted with unease at the frightening and unfamiliar sounds she emitted. Thato did not move. He continued to watch.
Finding her voice, finally, Rati choked.
Thato, I don’t know how it all happened. Please listen to me. I am so sorry. I am confused—all I want is to make you happy, have kids, be a family—
Shut up. Just shut up! Thato screamed, ire propelling him off the couch.
Rati, now on her knees, continued ranting as though she had not heard him. Thato, please give me a chance, I will go to church. I will give you my paycheck and I am so sorry I don’t wear a dhuku on my head in front of your parents and I will kneel when I serve your food and give you water to wash your hands and even go for Clomid injections so they can harvest eggs for our babies and my womb won’t shame you anymore please forgive me Thato remember everything we’ve been through together we can get through this please.
Rati wiped a trail of slime from beneath her nostrils, her breathing shallow.
Thato paced back and forth, dwarfing the space with his rage-filled body.
Rati looked on, pleading. But he did not seem to hear her. The aroma of tuna casserole drifted in from the kitchen. She whimpered, feeling defeated, as her tongue lay limp and heavy in her mouth. Suddenly she retched and vomited onto the floor.
If time is simply an idea, then the present is eternity. For Rati it was the worst kind of hell. Thato threw her phone on the floor. She watched him as he turned to look at her, His face a contorted mask, his lips folded into a sneer. Years of pain, regret, and contempt spilled out of his eyes and usurped the air in the apartment. Rati felt faint and she cowered away from him. She could smell the rancid vomit on the front of her blouse and feel its on her skin. She looked at the gray hair at his temples and longed to stroke it and soothe him. But the flaring of his nostrils made her shrink back.
You’re cheating on me. With a woman.
She felt shame at the disgust in his voice and she shook her head, vigorously refuting the condemnation in his eyes.
Rati’s voice was raspy.
She saw me. I wanted to be seen.
Thato looked at her, uncomprehending.
I wanted to be desired.
So you had to go and do it with a woman.
She’s a human being! Rati wailed. I just craved another human being.
Oh, so you fuck every human being you crave?
No, it’s just—
Who are you, Rati? Who the fuck are you?
I am still the same person, the same Rati. Your Rati.
I can’t compete with a woman, Rati.
I don’t love her the way I love you, Thato.
She can have you, Thato said quietly.
Thato, don’t say that—
Rati reached out to touch his leg and Thato stepped out of her reach. He spat and a frothy white spot landed on her cheek. Rati snapped and she began to scratch, excoriating her arms with her fingernails. The ferrous smell of blood filled her nostrils. Thato’s face receded. The pain in Rati’s chest was suffocating her. No tears came. She let go of the last thread of hope that tethered her to him. Her body slumped over.
Rati imagined a scenario where the following would happen when Thato got the call from the police: He would have come home to an empty apartment. The smell of burnt tuna casserole would greet him as he opened the door. He would rush to the kitchen, switch off the oven, and crack open a window. He would walk through to their bedroom, and he would look at the rack of shoes neatly stacked, their bed made with the gray and black comforter and decorative pillows. He would look into their closet and Rati’s clothes and bags would be sitting in companionable silence next to his ties, belts, shirts, and pants. He would pick up the faint aroma of egusi soup, almost imperceptible. His cell phone would ring, vibrating against his thigh, and he would pull it out of his pocket gingerly, expecting to hear her voice. Yes, he was Thato Ngwenya. No, his wife was not home. Yes, he would come and identify the body.
In her mind, Rati saw him make his way to his favorite couch in the living room and sit, carrying his heavy head in his hands. He would be dizzy from a mix of confusion, anger, lack of sleep, and shots of single-malt whiskey taken on an empty stomach. He would take his emotions out and struggle to unravel the jumble that threatened his sanity.
Rati imagined he would eventually get up and drive his red Fiat to the police station. The thought of her dead would, at last, bring tears to his eyes. He would regret spitting at her as she sat on the floor covered in vomit. He would wish he had not gone into her phone. Then he would not have seen the video clip that had turned his life inside out, exposing parts that had no business being in the open. He would haggle with his ancestors; he would be an attentive husband. He would cook for her sometimes or surprise her with a warm bath as she walked in from work. He would take her out dancing and much more, if they brought Rati back to him.
At the police station, he would walk into the cold formaldehyde-drenched room in which one wall was lined with white body bags on stainless-steel trolleys. He would be ushered to a trolley in the center upon which a body lay covered in a white shroud. He would will the body not to be that of Rati even as he recognized the familiar rise of her breasts, her narrow waist and full hips outlined against the white sheet. He would catch his breath as the officer pulled back the fabric. He would see Rati in a black and red teddy and red panties, wisps of clothing made of delicate lace that he had never seen.
He would caress the memory of her total devotion to him, the perfectly laundered and ironed shirts, lightly starched.
He would gingerly touch her cold cheek, made puffy by having been in the water. He would trace the bridge of her nose with shaking fingers and touch her lips, stiff like wax. That’s enough, the attendant would say officiously. He would nod to the attendant to cover her up, and as he did so, Thato would catch a sparkle from the diamond-encrusted wedding band on her left hand that lay neatly folded over the right hand on her chest. He would sign some papers and answer a few questions from the police. Sorrow would rip at his being as he recalled how scant the times they had not fought were.
He would remember arguments over issues outside of themselves, which had no bearing on the life they were building together far from the self-appointed custodians of culture. He would curl his mind around those few moments of harmony, humor, and tenderness, and stretch them out until they became all that there had ever been. He would caress the memory of her total devotion to him, the perfectly laundered and ironed shirts, lightly starched.
He would inhale deeply, remembering the aromas of her pan-African culinary delights—egusi soup, jollof rice, sadza and spicy beef stew, kpomo and fish stew with fresh yam, kenke and okra soup, homemade chicken pies, chin-chin, fried plantain, atyeke with fresh fish and sweet sorrel juice—and exhale the perfume of her body between crisp white sheets. As the tears blurred his vision he would shuffle like a sleepwalker to his car, onerous thoughts slowing his strides. He would have to make phone calls to family and start to make arrangements for her body to be flown home for burial. He would have to answer questions from friends and acquaintances. What, when, and how did it happen? Had she left a note? Were there any signs, a cry for help? Were they having problems?
Rati visualized him walking out into the insipid morning light. He would catch a glimpse of the headlines on several dailies. The Daily Telegraph: Woman Found Dead in the Thames, or the Daily Mail: Dead Call Girl in the Thames. And many others he would not bother to read. He would fold himself back into his car, collapse over the steering wheel like an empty parachute, and weep.
What Thato did not know was that after he left the apartment, banging the door with a force that turned the TV off, Rati scraped the pieces of herself off the floor with tear-soaked fingers. She calmly made a decision to end it. The loss of Mbuya was a terrible blow that had sent her to the edge. Death still lingered on the periphery of her consciousness, and now, lying on the floor, it had opened a portal through which Rati felt she could dive to escape the unbearable. She had lost Thato and this was unbearable. Now death asserted itself tenaciously as the only option.
She stripped in front of her dresser mirror. She pulled open the bottom drawer and reached underneath the neatly folded panties to pull out a black and red teddy and thong still wrapped in soft pink tissue from Victoria’s Secret. She thought of Xoliwe but quickly folded her and tucked her back into a corner in her mind. She started to get angry but she knew Xoliwe had nothing to do with her current situation. She had never coerced her into anything and she had never made her any promises. Xoliwe knew she was married and that was all she cared to know about her life. Rati had wanted to ask her if she had other lovers, but she knew she had no right to. Their relationship had been solely about the two of them. There was no point in calling Xoliwe. This new complication, her attraction to women, she thought as she fiddled with the pink tissue, was another reason to die, so she would not have to deal with the implications.
She put the lingerie on and then looked up at her reflection in the mirror. She studied her face, looking for any change. A bad person. A cheat. A lesbian. A cheating, barren lesbian. Hollow eyes stared back at her. She felt light-headed as thoughts of her father crowded her mind. She whimpered as she imagined the look of horror that would settle on his quietly authoritative face when Thato recounted what he had found on her cell phone. She thought of her mother, a supercilious woman, who carried her piety the way other women carried a Gucci or Fendi purse. Rati cringed, as she visualized her mother’s mouth puckered like an anus, her sharp eyes brimming with judgment. Her sister Mavis would understand. Who knows, she might even find it hilarious and admire her guts for doing such a thing.
Rati picked out a pair of ankle boots and slid her feet into them. She walked back into the living room and grabbed a piece of paper and pen from Thato’s desk. In red ink she wrote: Thato, I am sorry. Good-bye.
She rummaged through her purse for some money and stuffed a twenty-pound note into the pocket of her long winter coat, put it on, and stepped out into the cold. She hailed a taxi and gave her destination. As the streets of London flew past her like a film reel on fast-forward, Rati felt and thought nothing. The clock in the taxi read 9:30 as she paid the cab driver and got off at the corner of Redding Street and Cornwall Avenue. She marched past the pubs, laughing groups, and couples making out as they casually walked to the tube stations to head for Central London, where the nightlife was. Rati forced herself not to think of Thato, Xoliwe, or anyone else. Instead, she looked at the alcohol-flushed faces, the smiling mouths and sparkling eyes.
Bizarre as it seemed, here she was mourning her own demise.
She took the wool hat from her coat pocket and pulled it over her ears. Her teeth chattered, protesting the vicious cold. She strode up the incline on South Way toward the foot path to the Waterloo Bridge. It was congested with people and traffic, but she made her way to a quieter spot and stood there.
Rati started as she heard herself wailing, an endless echo reverberating in a void deep inside her. She felt nothing. She was numb to the tormented woman in the abyss who held her hands behind her head as though she had received news of the worst calamity. That is how women back home cried when someone died. And bizarre as it seemed, here she was mourning her own demise.
She stared out onto the undulating blanket of water. From where she stood the river was an endless oily expanse laced with froth. The wind picked up. It ripped at her wool hat, inserting its cold December fingers under the fold. Her ears were covered but she could hear the hysterical howling, much like the desolate cry echoing inside her. In the distance, across the water, the city lights of South London blinked, as if waiting to bear witness to yet another life extinguished. At least that was what Rati thought as her abdominal muscles clenched against the cold seeping into her body.
Rati recalled her sister-in-law Viola, with her vicious tongue.
We will place a dead rat in your coffin if you die childless. That is what happens to barren women and witches.
Rati had been livid but had never given Viola the satisfaction of knowing how much she felt insulted and hurt. Viola challenged her.
Prove that you are not a witch and get pregnant.
Viola was forty, fat, and unmarried. Rati smirked at the irony. She let her eyes wander over the water, feeling exhausted.
She shivered and shoved her hands into her pockets. A barge squatted on the water like a fat woman relieving herself behind some bushes, bobbing up and down to shake off drips of piss from her ample bottom. Rati sniffed as a single silvery stream made its way from her nose. She wiped it off with the back of her hand, smearing it across her cheek. Her lips felt like sandpaper and they stung. She stood perfectly still, buffeted by the wind. As the night air became more frigid, she began to lose sensation in her fingers and her feet prickled with pins and needles as the blood started to cool. The crowds on the bridge had thinned out; only one or two people intermittently walked by. They looked through her.
This death by suicide is a lonely business, she said to herself, looking around. But what manner of death was not lonely? Mbuya’s death by cancer was lonely. I need sleep, she thought, feeling drowsy. I need Mbuya.
Mbuya. She mewed through vocal cords so tight with sudden grief that they were ready to snap. She hoisted herself onto the concrete ledge. It was damp and slippery. Rati found her balance and crouched, ready to spring. Her heart thudded against her rib cage. Mbuya, she wailed this time.
Rati turned her head toward the sound of a car. Headlights searched and found her. She panicked, frozen in the dancing glare. The vehicle came to an abrupt halt close to where she stood on the ledge. Mbuya was taking her off the ledge.
Mbuya pulled Rati into her arms and soothed her. Rati crumpled against her generous chest and took comfort in the smell of Mbuya—wood smoke and Irish Spring soap—a smell she had known since childhood. She felt the leathery skin of Mbuya’s arms around her and she closed her eyes, finally peaceful.
It’s all right. Everything will be all right. Mbuya bundled her into a car and sped toward the city. Rati was wheeled into the Royal Infirmary on a stretcher, covered in blankets so heavy, she felt as though someone was pushing her down into the metal of the trolley. She struggled to sit up, looking around wildly for Mbuya.
Calm down, dear, you will hurt yourself.
She could no longer see her grandmother. She was surrounded by nurses and doctors, all milling around her, their hands crawling over her body like ants. She hated ants. They held her down as she tried to get up. She felt a pinprick in the crook of her arm. She heard hypothermia and jump and other words as she thrashed her head from side to side, screaming for Mbuya. A needle punctured her arm, delivering a warm, soothing calmness that made her coo contentedly and giggle. Somewhere, through the haze and fluffiness that surrounded everything, she picked up the word pregnancy before she succumbed to the velvet darkness.
Barbara Mhangami–Ruwende is a scholar-practitioner in public health with a focus on minority women’s sexual and reproductive health, and founder/director of the Africa Research Foundation for the Safety of Women. She is originally from Zimbabwe. She has been anthologized in Where to Now? (AmaBooks), Still (Negative Press), The Journal of African Writing 2014, African Roar 2013, the Caine Prize Anthology 2014, The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories, and the journal Storytime. She was a 2014 Hedgebrook Writer in Residence and Caine Prize for African Writing workshop attendee. She is a mentor with the Writivism program at the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) and a member of Rotary International.