I’d started smoking cigarettes again. My teeth were yellowing. My breath stank. I was having more sex, doing more coke, running faster on the treadmill, and making more money than ever before. In short, I was depressed and doing well.
Sibo, the other woman I loved, was done with me. She told me I had snatched her from the world, changed her, held her up for seven months, and tried to give her back. I told her she had changed me too, made me different, made me shiny under the grime. She couldn’t see it. She started dating a divorced banker who wanted a mother for his daughter. It was a waste of her time. I knew she wouldn’t love him because she wasn’t done loving me. And I knew how she loved, black and white, with both feet in, her mind, her soul, her body, all of it reserved for that one person. More than that, I knew who she loved: boys like me, erratic and needy, like her daddy whose hand she had held on his deathbed when she was twelve. Still, I barely slept.
I got Sibo on the phone one night after two months of calling.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” was the first thing she said.
“Why pick up then?”
“I wanted to hear your voice,” she admitted.
“Let’s have lunch, out in the open. I booked a place in Melrose Arch. Let’s talk,” I said.
“I’m bitter,” she said. “You’ve made me really bitter. It’ll be a long time before I trust you, before I can stand being in the same room with you.”
“How long? I’m willing to wait.”
She said, “It might be weeks, it might be months, I can’t give you a date.”
A little girl’s whiny voice filtered into the phone. It was nine o’clock. “Who do you have over there?” I asked.
“None of your business,” she said.
“Where are you?” I felt my face getting hot.
“None of your business, okay?”
I threw the phone across the room. It was one of those smartphones with the glass touchscreen. It smashed into the wall and bits of glass bounced across the floor.
Neli, the woman I loved, was sitting at the kitchen counter studying. She was wearing one of her see-through shirts with no bra on. Her eyes were on me. I felt ashamed. Neli put down her flashcards, grabbed a broom from the storeroom, and swept up the broken pieces. Then she sat next to me on the couch.
“Tell me, why do you love her?” Her voice was ethereal.
“We love who we love,” I said, my eyes closed.
“We love what’s in front of us,” Neli said.
I opened my eyes and saw that she had tears in her eyes, and I understood the universe in each teardrop, vast, black, and rooting for us to get free.
“You know why I love you?” Neli said. “You’re honest.”
We sat in silence.
Neli made me feel. She thought Sibo spent too much time boxing in, turning over, and picking life apart. “You don’t need a name for something to know what it is,” she said to me one time. Neli’s world was anchored in a time before language was created. She preferred us wasted on the dance floor, crying at the theatre, or wrestling in bed, because these places forced us to be quiet. “You feel more when your mouth is shut.” But I felt safer talking. Sibo was a talker.
Sibo and I broke up because she walked in on me, penis in hand, looking at pictures of Neli on my computer. Pictures of Neli drinking milk, Neli in a kitchen apron, Neli perched on the floor like a cat, and so on. Sibo printed and hung up hundreds of grayscale copies of these pictures in the bathroom. She did this on a Sunday night while I was asleep.
I took my morning piss gawking at a shot of Neli climbing a ladder. I had taken the picture from the top looking down at her smiling face. Neli did have a fantastic face, and an equally fantastic body, though it was the autonomy of her spirit that held me.
The bathroom door banged shut. I sprayed piss all over the toilet seat. “Christ,” I said to myself. I zipped, wiped the seat, flushed, and tried the door handle. It was locked. The key was missing from the keyhole. How prudent of her, I thought.
“Baby,” I called out to Sibo, “let me out.” I could hear eggs sizzling on the cooker. “I know you’re upset,” I said. “We’ll talk about it, okay?” I banged the door. “You’re going to make me late for my 9AM.” I banged, boom, boom, boom, until my fists hurt.
“I’m glad you’re angry too,” Sibo said, clacking about the living room in her office heels.
“For fuck’s sakes,” I screamed, “I’m sorry!”
“You’re sorry I caught you jerking off.”
“Look, I wasn’t jerking off,” I said.
“You had your dick out!”
“So what? I have it out half the time.” I rammed my shoulder into the door, boom, it didn’t budge.
“What were you doing with it?” She asked me.
“I’ll leave you in there all day,” she said. I rammed the door with my other shoulder, boom, it buckled and held. “So this what we do now, we lie to each other?” Sibo said.
“I’m not lying,” I said between my teeth.
I sat on the toilet lid. My shoulders hurt. On the back of the door was a picture of Neli pouring hot tea. She was wearing a pink lotus flower crown. I got up, walked to the bathroom door, and pushed my palms hard into the door, spread my fingers out on it. I hung my head between my arms.
“Please let me out.” I said to Sibo, choosing my words. “I need to get in early today.”
“You were masturbating to her, weren’t you?” She sounded like she had egg in her mouth. Smack, smack, smack, I listened to her.
“I swear on my mother I wasn’t.”
“You were about to,” she said, smack, smack.
I said nothing.
Sibo opened the door. We stood nose to nose. “Did you sleep with her?” She asked, and then clarified, “Are you fucking her?”
I told her the truth.
She slammed the door in my face, locked it once more, called me a dog, twice, and accused me of not caring. I begged her not to put words in my mouth. I lectured her on how we fought when she made those kinds of assumptions.
“Are you going to stop seeing her?” She asked finally.
“I’ll have to pray about it,” I said.
“Oh. You think this is funny?” She yelled at me through the door.
“What’s funny about me praying?” I asked her.
“Answer my fucking question!”
“Don’t fucking swear at me!” I rammed the door, boom. “Why the fuck would I stop seeing her?” Boom. “If you didn’t act so crazy all the time I wouldn’t be drawn to normal girls.” Boom. “In fact, I’ll tell you what,” I paced the bathroom, thought about it, and decided on the spot. “I’m going to see a movie with Neli this evening!”
I stood facing the door, panting.
Sibo said nothing.
Months went by, my life went on. I had lost the world I shared with Sibo, but Neli and I never stopped going together. I was working more, fucking more, snorting, smoking, and shooting more. I was depressed and doing well.
One Sunday morning I woke up in the bathtub. Apparently, I had been in there overnight, passed out and filled with whiskey. The water was cold, my nostrils were raw, my mouth tasted like ash, and the glands on the sides of my jaw were swollen. I decided to go to church. I dried myself, put on a blue collared shirt, khaki trousers, and a pair of brown dress shoes. I wore my expensive watch, the one with the green-black leather strap and I put on my expensive belt, the one with the H-buckle.
In the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of water. A dull ache gnawed the walls of my stomach. My ears rang. I held my head. I ran to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet bowl. I took off my blue collared shirt and put on a clean one, same colour. I brushed my teeth, threw up in the sink. I gargled, threw up again, and gave up.
I drove in the slow lane.
Church was a wide hall that sat five hundred people. A red carpet ran down the flat steps in the middle and at the front was the stage. Behind the podium was the pastor who was leading a praise and worship song. Two hundred people, mostly families, middle-aged couples, older people, and young children, stood across the first few rows. They sang and clapped. I took a seat at the back of the hall. I left that seat and chose a new one halfway down. Then I spotted Sibo with mister divorced-banker and his little girl on the left side of the hall, in the second row. I settled on a chair on the right side, in the fourth row.
The sermon was about two brothers, Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob wore a goatskin shirt and tricked his blind dad into giving him Esau’s inheritance. It was a terrible thing to do, to steal an inheritance, especially from family. I stayed behind at the end of service and prayed for forgiveness. Then I prayed that anyone who was trying or would try to steal my inheritance be struck down by lightning.
I drove in the slow lane.
I tried Neli’s phone when I got home, but she didn’t pick up, so I did a few key bumps on my own and went to the gym. At the end of my workout the Afrikaans girl in the opposite squat rack said to me, “Great job on your deadlifts.”
I turned my head to watch her as she walked away and she turned, I suppose, to do the same, and we caught each other.
“Stop looking at my ass,” I said to her.
“You’re the one checking me out.”
“You are pretty fit,” I said. “It’s a shame I don’t like Afrikaner girls.” I heard her gasp. I walked away, down the stairs. She caught up to me.
“What’s wrong with Afrikaner girls?” She said.
“Too traditional,” I said.
“Well, I don’t like black guys!” She declared.
“I can tell,” I said. I strode through the main entrance and got into my car, closed the door. On my way out I rolled the car by her. She kept on walking. Our encounter had upset her. Perfect, I thought. I stuck my head out the car window.
“Wat is jou naam?” I said, smiling. It was the only Afrikaans I knew.
“Anriette,” she said, not smiling, not looking my way.
“Well, Anriette, I’ll tell you what. I’m going to get a pizza. And I think you should come get the pizza with me,” I said.
She stood, thought about it, and said, “Only if you take me home after.”
“I can’t make any promises.”
She hopped into the passenger seat. We drove off. The conversation between Anriette and I came easy. She told me about her horse-riding hobby, her new vegan diet, her squat routine, her childhood in The Free State… I found myself wondering what kept Neli from picking up the phone, wondering why Sibo couldn’t see she was settling for less, and wondering, most of all, what I was doing getting pizza with Anriette at 10PM on a Sunday night. I had a 9AM in the morning.
A.E. Nelson lives in Lagos, Nigeria. He graduated from University of Rochester in 2015. In everything he does he believes in inspiring excellence; he is passionate about Africa.