Author’s Note: These poems are excerpted from a book-length sequence of poems set in Cape Town, South Africa, written while I was working for a humanitarian organization there. DMW
All the best models never fully close their lips, just in case someone has a camera. They are high stepping hungry giraffes we ordinary girls hate and wish we could be at the same time. We were both alone at the fashion show and turned to one another instinctively — as animals out of survival hunt in packs to look less out of place among the audience of narrow, long-haired Cape Town wives who had known each other since school days. The designs were Northern Hemisphere castoffs from last season but the ladies didn’t know. Her name was Jules and her breath smelled of mothballs. She fluffed her lightweight words as if plumping a pillow for sleep. She wore her jean jacket with the collar upturned. She was trying too hard, and because she was, I instantly liked her, the way I had chosen my puppy because he was the runt of the litter and also the neediest.
It was convenient to be friends with her. She had a car. I didn’t, and it was unsafe to walk. My evenings were usually spent reading in bed, distracted by the feeling that all the best parties were happening and I wasn’t invited. I was reading away the last of my dewy looks when I should have been out in great pink lipstick, chin-chinning with ordinary people trying to be fancy and fancy people trying to be ordinary. She’d collect me from my apartment at the top of the hill, then drop me off once I was drunk as a Sufi novice. In turn I listened to her describe her recent divorce, turning each shard of that little death over and over — as if at a certain angle the point of it all would become clear. It was the kind of thing girlfriends did and had always done, processing and re-processing, like women in Mali memorize and recite their history, invoking the power of nyama that sculpts the universe, repeating and repeating, settling back comfortably into the repeating of it all, and at the end crying Ka nyama bo! — dispersing the puzzling power of men into their own weaker chests.
They’d met working at the Lost City, the theme park and casino in the high bush. She was an Event Planner’s Assistant and his position was Head Ice Cream Scooper at the Ice Palace. He loved watching the customers’ faces go childlike happy when he handed them their cones over the counter. He didn’t have money, but his last name was Italian, Angelo — as sleek as a well-designed leather satchel from Milan, the kind celebrities put their names on a waiting list to have custom stitched, one per customer in time for spring. They got married in the hotel chapel, then didn’t leave the Lost City for another five years. If they’d bred children in that place — a boy and a girl — they might have grown up assuming this was all there was: the sweet lullaby of the slot machines, the ladies in sequin sheaths with necks like long-stemmed white roses, tucking their arms into their husband’s elbows contentedly, the sad Bushmen colonized on stage dancing with their spears, the tourists’ zoom lenses, large blinking eyes, the dishwashing mamas with their beautiful skin scrubbed porcelain thin from lye soap, squatting on milk crates exhaling great shew’s in the bare dirt alleyways behind the buffet style restaurant where there was always too much food. There were hundreds of Lost City children who had been born there, raised eating pap with their right hands there, and who were now working there as adults, never once having passed through the golden gateway into Gauteng Province. She and Angelo could have kept on that way forever, working together, sleeping together like fish underwater in winter with dull half-conscious eyes.
Except, her father died suddenly. They had to move back to Cape Town to care for her elderly mother, and then she woke up to the sameness of it all in her mother’s flat, every chair arm draped in a white lace doily, where proper colonial English was required at all times. All through her childhood whenever she had done anything wrong, her mother had asked, “you don’t want anyone to think you are just some uneducated Colored girl, do you?” It was the apartheid of childhood — the White children couldn’t play with a Colored girl and she hadn’t been allowed to play with the other Colored children, as if their screechy bird accents and darker skin might somehow remind her that she was actually one of them and spoil her chances.
Angelo sat on the sofa in his pilling sweats watching Formula 1 with a cider in his hand. They had run out of things to talk about. The house was a crypt. Being Catholic and forbidden to divorce, she could do nothing but live as though she were dead, her mother broiling lamb chops and over-steaming broccoli florets in oblivious delight at having a married daughter, looking blindly ahead to the announcement of grandchildren. She lay awake in her childhood bed, the sheets tightly tucked — now she was sleeping in a sealed envelope containing the finished letter that described the rest of her life. She had been tricked about marriage by all the other married women, who were equally miserable but pretended things were right, because that is how it had always been and how it would always be. They were all great actresses, going through the motions of contentment, false advertising happiness. The only thing that helped was shopping. Very often she would buy a pair of pumps. They would nest unworn in tissue on the floor of her closet. It was the grownup version of a little girl’s sticker collection carefully lusted after, bought, and displayed but never used. Only her sister understood, and her sister was married too. She told him she wanted a divorce and that very afternoon he put down the remote and left without a word, taking just his ice cream scoop. Then she was all alone with Sneaky Flo the cat and her mother praying to Jesus for forgiveness on wobbly knees, the bedroom door wide open and all the candles lit, the holy icons tisking down at the three of them from brass frames, self-righteously.
She got a job as Facilities Manager at a consulting firm supervising the receptionist at the switchboard and the janitors unfolding, hanging, lowering and re-folding the national flag and replacing halogen lights overhead, the brutal ones that never flatter anyone’s pores or fine lines but seem to be in every department store changing room anyway. She loved having the word Manager in her title and the Blackberry the company provided. It made her feel important to take business calls during meals. She enrolled in evening French courses at the Alliance Francaise, practiced rolling her r’s like a wild dog protecting its young. She played Paris bistro music in her car. I was embarrassed when we went to dinner and she would speak only French to the waiter, even if the waiter did not understand. Divorced in Cape Town, she did nothing but work, study French with no particular goal in mind, and power walk in that ugly pink visor along the sea past all the smug married women pushing baby carriages down the promenade.
At the time I was sleeping with an older Afrikaans businessman, only on Sundays — and everything about him was sleek and modernly packaged. He had long legs like a grasshopper and there was a subtle cruelty to his face that excited me. He was a property developer. All the expensive men in South Africa are property developers. Really, what this means is they have family money invested in paying some honest Muslim guy from Bo Kaap to renovate an art deco building in town which has been overrun by Nigerian drug dealers. This justifies the property developers reading the newspaper at Café Mozart during the day looking sharp-sharp with a little Moleskin notebook and a pen for recording ideas. It is bad manners — very bad manners — to ask such a man to explain his work in any greater detail. He doesn’t want to talk shop with you. You are there to flatter and relax him. American women are bad at all of the above! We want to know things. We ask too many personal questions too soon. We are open windows that let all the city noises in while the property developers are trying hard to sleep.
I got all sorts of attractive invitations from businessmen who befriended me on A Small World, the by-invitation-only social networking site for global citizens. I began introducing Jules to the men I didn’t have time to meet, Foreigners mostly: a Macedonian ski instructor, a baby-faced Dominican official, the Namibian with his MBA in Luxury Management from the University of Monaco, etc. Mentally she couldn’t handle the pressure of having to charm them. She would phone me five times a day for advice. Her breathing on the phone was like snow flurries. The situation started to irritate me, because all our conversations now revolved around these fellows and their everyman habits and interests which she seemed to find fascinating: golf, motivational management books, and vintage whiskey tastings. She was already thirty-eight and wanted children, so there was a desperate urgency to the matter which she masked in bright eagerness. But the men were looking for Ivy League educated girls from old money with great black underwear and fine jobs, ten years or more their junior. All she got was free meals at the best restaurants, a goodnight kiss, and a pat on the bottom as she hopped out of their Mercedes.
I was fifteen minutes late (popular girls are always fifteen minutes late) and found her in a corner looking bashful like the last six year old to be picked up from school, like I was her mother and had forgotten her there because I was having a three hour boozy lunch at the country club. My other friends were seated already, munching peri peri nuts and sipping gin and tonics on the terrace — an Eastern Cape insurance executive with discreet dreads and some European corporate men with their pregnant wives who, when they were not at book club or tanning on Clifton Beach #4, volunteered with AIDS orphans in the township. The husbands, it turned out, worked at Jules’ consulting firm. She poured their cold water all day long in the meeting room and reminded the entire office of their birthdays so that everyone could be summoned to the company cafeteria for sick-sweet cake and made to sing like a bunch of captives. That was what office culture did to you, how it deformed your spirit. The men raised their eyebrows and asked us how we knew each other. I felt protective of her then. She excused herself from joining us for dinner, and over that meal I proceeded to advertise her to them, listing all her neatest qualities like I was making a sales pitch to potential shareholders.
Danna Molly Weiss has most recently been published in New Contrast (South Africa), From the Depths, and Steel Toe Review. She believes that poetry should be accessible to everyone, and for that reason writes about the peculiarities of everyday life. She is presently completing two poetry collections, one of which is Cannibalism Among Girls. In her other life she is a humanitarian development expert and has lived and worked all over the world, including South Africa and Jordan.