Menzi Masuku was on his side of the bed with the lights turned off. It had been weeks since he slept in his bedroom. Though the sun hadn’t risen yet, he knew it was morning. The body clock he had spent over fifteen years of his life perfecting had never failed him.
Even at thirty-eight, far from the young boy who learned early he could not sleep in if he wanted to appear useful, he still knew day break. His blood knew five o’clock in the same way he’d trained his heart to let go of things that no longer served him.
It was five and he hadn’t been in his bed longer than two hours. The first time he got into bed was the previous evening. He’d tumbled backwards onto a well-made hotel bed with a woman called Zee pushing him. He needed the tenderness she’d shown him but he could never bring himself to receive it and be with her as she said his name on the bed on which he now lay.
It was hard enough for him to make the decision that maybe a mouth instead of his hand was something he wanted, let alone trespass on this holy place with another. The bed on which he now lay, freshly showered and the scent of the beautiful woman who calls herself Zee almost faded from his skin, was sacred ground.
“She would want you to be happy,” he imagined all the people in his life saying.
“She would be happy seeing you laugh as you are,” they would add.
Neither of these points stopped him feeling a dark self-loathing each time he found himself even remotely happy now. In the beginning, he didn’t care. He had survived her and he spent the first year living as he pleased. Doing what he wanted. Desecrating that bed and burning her clothes.
As he neared the sixteen-month mark, something in him changed. It began to feel to him like happiness was no longer a choice or pursuit in which he’d willingly indulge, but a shameful lapse in judgement. Happiness was now a betrayal of the woman he loved with everything that was good and light in him. An excuse he hid behind was that the betrayal of his happiness always snuck up on him.
It took over his laugh muscles and soothed his heart, all without him being aware of it. But he truly had no business being happy and, where possible, he had begun to make sure he wasn’t. This was the cross he had to bear, the singe and bad taste of stolen and undeserved joy. Whenever he heard someone say, “He lost his wife,” careful to keep their voice low–though they never were quiet enough–he began hearing his mind tell him that she wasn’t lost.
She was dead. Today marked a second year since that terrible day.
He wouldn’t get out of bed until he saw the sun gaining strength and shinning at full power through his bedroom’s windows. As much power as a winter’s sun could muster, anyway. He flew through his morning routine and made his way to the university where he was paid to break young minds and fashion them into new, dull things the world would accept.
In the beginning Nozizwe, his late wife, called him cynical whenever he expressed how soul-crushing he found the process of teaching and marking and shaping thoughts.
“You do that when you write a new book or take a photograph and show it to others. Art is also a way of shaping views and is frequently done with the intention to modify others’ perception, my love.” She said the first time he came home from class, exhausted.
“I don’t agree with that,” he argued. “When I share the things I make I only invite people to witness. I don’t hand out report cards afterwards.”
“This new job is a trial. You can always leave.”
She always did that. From the very first time they met in the smoking section of a small hotel in Hillbrow when he was eighteen years old–he would ask her if she wanted to be his girlfriend when he was twenty and she was twenty-three–she had always reminded him of what mattered and that all things were impermanent.
“It’s a prestigious school. I would be playing if I left before spending sufficient time there to bolster my status as a black man making art. You know I’ve mostly been viewed as a quaint sight. Now that I’ve been invited to influence the minds of little white girls and boys and those three black boys and the two Indian and coloured girls…”
“I’m still amazed by how nobody really cares that there are hardly any kids who aren’t white in many of the courses,” Nozizwe said, cutting him off. And because he’d known her as intimately and as long as he had, he would not be surprised when she brought the subject up at their first dinner party at the university Vice Chancellor’s house.
“So, you agree that I shouldn’t leave yet.”
It was a statement. To date, he’d been teaching for close to six years. In that time, he hadn’t made any new art but there were plans in the back of his mind. With the school on his CV, he travelled and spoke more than he had when he was showing and publishing new work.
After his wife’s death, the school was the first place to which he had turned to forget. “Why don’t I come over to your place and make you my famous samosas? I’ve been telling you for three years that my family invented the best samosa recipe. You’ll love them,” said Nadia.
She was his assistant, which made him feel somewhat proud as he’d taught her most of what she knew. Well, whittled out all the bad habits of artists out of her. Habits he still clung to himself, as safety blanket really. This country was so fucked up that brilliant people like Nadia were going to waste, pushing papers, answering emails and sitting in on the rare lecture for people like him: Former Brilliant People.
Her interest in him had always been flattering. He was almost 20 years her senior and half as clever, but she looked at him like he wasn’t a small fish in her big waters. She challenged him and didn’t let him get away with things because he was an older, male artist.
“She reminds me of you, my love.” He’d told his wife towards the end of his first semester of teaching Nadia.
“She’s whip-smart, tells you when you are wrong frequently–but still wants your body anyway?” They had laughed and laughed.
He would not let himself become the “Academic Beds Young Genius and Sucks Away her Life Force” cliché. He was better than that. Despite everything. Which is why when she renewed her interest in him months ago, he turned her down firmly.
“I can’t let you do that, Nadia. You know it’s unprofessional,” he said, beginning to pack away his desk.
The look of disappointment on her face made him warm. It was always a nice feeling to be wanted, better even when they thought they would never have you. The times he’d seen the look on disappointed women as they were made aware, by other disappointed women who wanted to share the misery, that the most dazzling woman in the room had gotten there first always left him feeling warm.
He’d more often than not spent the evening walking around with the beginnings of a hard-on. That’s what his wife did for him: she defined him and made him more interesting. With her he became more of a prize in the eyes of other people, himself included. Until she stopped.
Attention and devotion are intoxicating. Later, in bed–after one of many of these nights where women would huddle and whisper and take turns stealing glances of him, and then of Nozizwe, (not always in that order)–whether joined at the pelvis or sitting on his side, watching her do her nightly routine he’d listen to a casual recollection of the evening: which friend is simply jealous of her research, which colleague found him very charming and therefore harboured a thinly veiled jealousy that he was with her.
“’He’s just the best’ I told them,” she’d always say.
The best. He didn’t really believe in the possibility of being a special person or important talent until he had met her. Her scrutinising gaze and critical, arched eyebrow. Her animated laugh. The ability she had to make even the smallest person feel special; that they mattered and the world was theirs too. These are the things he hadn’t known growing up. He didn’t think he was raised. He simply grew up and survived and endured, never raised. When they met, he immediately made a home out of this quality, her best.
His own devotion to her was quiet. He did things and plotted to make all the world’s paths smoother for her to better stomp. For twelve, perfect years his bedtime ritual included placing a jug of water on her bedside table. After sixteen months without her, the months when the questions he now lived with and when his heart began to feel impossibly heavy, unsure if his devotion had ever been loud enough he began to question his just do mantra.
He sat on her side of the bed wondering if the jug had said the things he sometimes neglected to say because a full heart had tricked him into thinking that time was infinite. That she was forever. On the long days where they barely spoke had the jug told her that he was in it forever? He now wondered if she even knew the extent his love and devotion stretched. He wondered if the jug symbolised good to her on the last night.
Friends maintained that she would want him to be happy. For a long time, he had felt the same about her. Her happiness had been like breaths to him. For almost as long as he’d cared about her happiness, he thought he wanted it for her in whatever shape it took. Believed he wanted it above all else. It became easy to forget his nature, the monstrous humanity and the little glitches in his brain.
With her, he was renewed: He was loved and his past and the fact that his mother died giving him life on some filthy floor was no longer a stain on him. His mother must have known a woman as incredible as his wife was out the in the world and that it would all balance out in the end. That his father was a boy without a future (or a distant cousin of his mother’s, if one paid mind to family histories once the Zulu beer got flowing) didn’t matter.
With her he wasn’t the family-less boy cobbling identity, hope and worth from the fleeting affections and attention and punishment from distant relatives. With her he was home. So comfortable, in fact, he believed the selfish monsters that clawed under his ribs had drowned in his happiness and died. He was a man. His only focus: her happiness and joy. That she keeps shining her light on him.
“I need a divorce,” Nozizwe said.
At first he laughed, her humour was one of the things he loved about her. But after five minutes he noticed she hadn’t moved or given him her best mocking smile–his third favourite thing. His face fell, and it must have been a gory sight. She was leaving him.
“That you’re at all surprised by this is exactly why it is happening,” she said.
She left the room or desert or hole in the ozone layer he now found himself in, unable to understand. Spinning. They had never struggled to get each other in all their time together. Not once. And here he was unable to decipher the sad, hideous twist of her perfect mouth. This couldn’t be happening. The daggers she hurled at him, perfectly calm, could not be language.
From the very first moment of knowing that she was leaving him, he felt like he was in a sleep paralysis. The horror played out in how she made a pot of coffee for him along with her morning tea and in how she put his keys and glasses in the same place still. The care she put into doing all these little things was like a weight pinning him down.
He wanted to read declarations into the actions but he knew it was purely habit on her side. Just like how he still made his way to their bedroom every night before remembering his head’s home was now in the study. Time tricked him. Seven days felt like eternal hell.
When darkness descends, you can always find more. He found himself under a bridge – his small car’s engine switched off. Waiting. It had been a week since she’d thrown small surgical weapons at him, unstitching the very fabric of him. One week and she had remained civil.
On the first night, she made up the sofa bed in the study for him. She put clean, ironed sheets on the surface and fluffed his pillow as if nothing had changed. Not once, in that week, did she patronise him with promises like, “I will always love you, I just need to get out right now.” She didn’t even try to soothe his ego by saying there was nobody else.
The reassurance that he would always be the one for her–that she just couldn’t stand him any longer–was the one thing he needed to hear most. Probably as much as he needed to wake up from the nightmare his life had become in the span of a week.
As he waited, on the seventh day, for the man he’d heard about from someone who knew someone. All he could think about was that she no longer wanted to be with him even though she didn’t seem to suddenly hate him. He had driven away from the section that housed stall upon stall of izinyanga and straight towards the dank bridge. Well, under it.
This was not the time for idliso, he thought, tapping the steering wheel impatiently. Nozizwe’s mind was made up. She had to have been feeling that way for a while. Just thinking of that cast a shadow on their life. How long had she known? No matter. She was leaving him and so be it.
He didn’t want her if she didn’t want to stay with him. But he couldn’t quite survive knowing she was out there in the world living a life–regardless of whether it was a happy life or not–without him. A life he would know nothing about and maybe, God forbid, they would eventually run into each other some place and she’d be just as he knew and loved her: glowing, dangerous and happy. He would not survive that first run-in. He had to spare himself.
They were good friends before he had the courage to ask her to be his girlfriend. She posed for photographs on a discarded car seat. She read stories and crossed out entire sections. Just a couple of months after meeting him in that dark hotel, she gave him a place to sleep–where her coffee table was during the day–a place to keep his possessions; in the sports bag with multiple pockets he used to take to soccer practice, next to her dressing table, which was next to her bedroom door. She gave him a place to make his art–her kitchen table whenever there wasn’t a meal or conversation on it.
She didn’t understand why his only surviving relative would throw him out on the streets. How he could have been bounced from home to home. First his mother’s favourite cousin and her husband took him in when he was ten days old. When he was three years old they had their first child. Children are expensive. He was bused and taken to live with an aunt, he still wasn’t sure where exactly she fell on the tree. Until he was about five years old, his things were kept in a Paddington nappy bag a nurse had hustled for him at the hospital. Boys whose mothers die while giving them life are bound to have baggage, that unnamed nurse was the first person to think he probably would need a place to keep his.
“No bag in the world will ever be enough to hold all of your issues,” Nozizwe said when he told her the story.
“Don’t let yourself become a pointless existence, an artist breaking at the seams.”
When he was seven years old, and he moved to live with his mother’s brother, his too-small shirts and the pair of school shoes that doubled as church shoes (and sometimes, when he was naughty, as soccer boots,) and the too-short trousers were bundled into a black bin bag. This last stop was the harshest. It was where he learned just how much he feared drowning and being powerless.
It was where he saw his mother’s many faces (in photographs and his uncle’s stories) and not once did he wish she had survived. He told Nozizwe that last information as they sat in her small flat’s living room with the lights turned off and the windows open. Her hand found his in the darkness and cradled it as if in understanding. In the end neither of them should have been surprised by his decision to kill her.
There was someone he knew who knew someone who knew a guy who sold a number of questionable substances who told him to carry the three and a half thousand in a clear zip lock bag. He told him not to make the guy nervous.
“Don’t be clever or he’ll take your money and not give you anything. He’ll even divert all your calls. Leave the cleverness in Norwood, sbali,” the someone thrice removed had said.
Sitting under the bridge on the seventh day, he saw a bulky figure in an ankle-length coat and a Basotho hat move from behind one of the pillars towards his car. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, unless you were a telepath who could tell that a moderately-respected man was sitting under a Johannesburg bridge in broad daylight awaiting a concoction to help him murder the love of his life.
This country is so fucked up that brilliant minds like The Guy ended up as executioners. “Imagine the deranged men who couldn’t take rejection who sought these executioners out,” Menzi Masuku thought to himself. But his situation was different.
The rule was that he wouldn’t get out of his car. That he would open his window and hand over the money. All of which he did. Barely a heartbeat passed and the man was dropping a five rand-sized knot tied in a piece of black plastic. Menzi Masuku squeezed it in his right hand three times.
“Dissolve it in liquid. Water works best.” The Guy’s eyes met Menzi Masuku’s and he turned away and walked towards the pillar from behind which he had materialised not even five minutes prior. He dropped the small knot into the inner pocket of his own leather jacket and drove away. It sat right over his heart as he taught his classes for the day; when he ate lunch with a mutual friend who spent the whole meal saying how she was sure they could work it out.
“You love each other. I know Nozi hasn’t forgotten that. Stay strong and let her have this since she clearly needs it.”
The knot was between them as they hugged goodbye. He drove home with the windows down in the late evening’s cold. Halfway on his journey, he pressed play on the CD in the stereo. A birthday gift from his wife from the year 2007. Nina Simone’s beautiful voice started crooning Don’t let me be misunderstood. He smiled to himself.
She was sitting on her favourite chair by the fire. Her book was on her lap and her reading glasses in her right hand, she was staring at a wall when he walked into the house. His heart did a few bumps against the small knot in his jacket’s inside pocket.
“How was lunch?” She asked after his greeting drew her attention away from the space on the wall.
“It was fine. You know Grace,” he said, taking his hat off.
She smiled briefly, put her glasses back on and made a note in her book. He stared at her for a while, committing the sight of her to his memory. He filed this Nozizwe next to the one he had woken up next to for the best years of his life. The one who held him. Before she made her decision and conjured this night.
He should have wanted her to be happy regardless. But the unwanted boy in him never went away. Claustrophobic boys who live a life of unpredictability never do well with drowning. He should have known this. He should have known that given the chance, he would get the oxygen mask on himself and forget about everyone else on the plane with him. He should have known he’d sooner watch her fade away than drown in what could have been. He is the boy who clawed his way out of a half-dead woman’s body after all. Survival at all costs was his first instinct from the very first time he felt himself choking.
They ate a veggie curry and rice at the kitchen table, their first meal together in what felt to him like a million years. She loved his curries. She had always marvelled at his poor boy ability to make the most with minimum ingredients in the kitchen.
“Are you heading out again?” She asked, plating the basmati.
“Namhlanje. You still have that jacket on,” she said.
He looked down at himself, the sleeves pulled up to his elbows with an apron protecting his front.
“I was a little cold.”
“Oh. You could have said. The fire is very low, I would have brought it up for you.”
She was now wiping down the counters. He wasn’t very good at cleaning as he went. The Someone who knew someone who knew The Guy said there would be no cleaning up for him to do. It was untraceable.
At 21:30 he put a glass jug with water on the counter. He reached for the knot in his pocket and held it in his palm, it felt as if it had mutated into a mini-heart. It felt warm and alive. His thumb twitched. He laid it on the counter next to the glass jug, untied and unwrapped the knot, the contents looked like ash.
He momentarily worried the water would look murky; that the ashy substance would sit in the bottom of the jug or float to the top. But The Guy would have told him. The substance looked like it would fill a small teaspoon and he wondered if the dose would be enough. He held the plastic in his fingers and dumped the substance into the jug. It dissolved almost immediately.
He stood looking at it for a moment. Part of him had expected a grand impact, a fizzing at least. He brought his face close to the jug praying he wouldn’t detect an odour. Satisfied that it looked like water and didn’t smell like much, he walked over to the living room and tossed the plastic in the dying fire, the ambers sparked feebly as they melted the plastic. He removed his leather jacket and hung it on the hook by the entrance. A weight melting off his shoulders.
His wife was in the walk-in picking out the next day’s outfit when he entered their bedroom. He put the jug with a white lid and a glass on her side table. He decided to look in on her and popped his head into the walk-in, clearing his throat to alert her to his presence.
“I brought you your water,” he said.
Her hair was wrapped and she had a silk blouse in each hand. She looked over her shoulder at him, smiling but clearly pre-occupied with her activity.
“Ngiyabonga,” she said smiling his favourite smile. She turned back to her quest.
Menzi Masuku walked away. He paused just inside the threshold of their bedroom.
“Sleep well, s’thandwa sami,” he said.
“You too!” She said from the small room with the shelves and shoes.
That night he slept his most peaceful sleep in memory. For two weeks, in the academic and art circles, there would be news of a gorgeous woman who was a talented thinker with a kind heart who just died suddenly. A brilliant light snuffed out of nowhere, and far too soon.
Their friends, like Grace, would hold him close and monitor him for months and say how she would have changed her mind about leaving him. How she probably instinctively knew she was dying so she just set him go, freeing him for the remainder of his life. That she would want him to be happy. He wouldn’t despise himself until the second year. But even then not for too long. He could never let himself live gasping.
Nomali Minenhle Cele (b. 1992) is currently casting spells in Soweto. She writes stories about black girls and dreams of hearing about every piece in Bongekile Simelane’s Ivy Park collection from the woman herself. One time, Yvonne Chaka Chaka called her beautiful. She founded a zine called Uju.
A pan-African writers' collective and publisher