‘People Like Us’

by Matshediso Radebe

First Place

2022 SHORT STORY WRITING COMPETITION

July. Whenever I see a truck in the rear-view mirror, I fantasise about opening the car door. I know it would crush me and I’d become nothing but a memory in an instant. I also know that the road is wet and slippery and that can make driving tricky; that’s how I almost got us killed last year when I was driving back from Eric’s parents’ thirtieth anniversary party while he was passed out on the passenger seat, drooling, with bottles of Hansa rattling at his feet.

With the rain burbling on the car roof like cooking oil and competing with the Billy Joel song, I trace two droplets down the window, watching one get bigger and faster while the other falls behind. Eric’s jacket almost swallows and disfigures me, making me look limbless; it’s warm and smells like him, like English Blazer and cannabis.

While drumbeating the steering wheel to the radio, in between drags of his cigarette, Eric tells me how proud he is, as if checking into a treatment centre is such a fucking achievement. You sit in the backseat, spitting the occasional, mindless ‘yeah, true, totally’ like you’re adlibbing a trap song, probably swiping away on Tinder. Ever since Ma’s funeral last month you’ve kept a revolving door of guys and I’m worried about you. When I recommended therapy, you paused and then said, ‘Sorry, but you lose a say in your sister’s life when you have meltdowns over the calories in PB & J sandwiches.’ You apologised the next day, but still … .

At the reception, I’m signed in by a blondie with skin as smooth as crinkled white paper. Though she smells like cheap spirits and has dead curls where her bangs should be, with that jawline and those collar bones I’d still put her on my Pinterest vision board. She flashes a yellowish smile before giving me papers to fill out. Before you guys leave, Eric kisses my forehead and reminds me that he’s proud again while you stand by the door, tapping your wrist because you’re late for something.

 

December. In varsity, Eric and I used to skip parties to stay in and watch pirated K-dramas and eat instant noodles on the peeling leather couch his father gave him. He’d stockpile 24-pack sugar-free Red Bulls for me, study the scattered tattoos on my arms like they were one of his cartography assignments, ask about their backstories while tracing the underlying scar tissue with the scratchy tip of his finger.

‘I got them to cover up my mother’s cigarette burns,’ I said once.

He said they reminded him of cute bumper stickers of pins, ducklings, stars, hearts. When we slept, his body would shadow me and make me feel small in the same way the lemon tree in our backyard did, the tree you used to say looked like an emaciated girl with yellow pins in her afro, the one we used to retreat to on cruel summer days. Remember?

After graduation Eric and I both scored decent-paying internships. Me at a nice accounting firm and Eric at his uncle’s mining firm, collecting samples and making coffee. Neither of us wanted to move back home so we invested in an apartment cinched into western Cape Town. The toilet got blocked every second week, the ceiling leaked when it rained, and the walls were an ugly teal colour we promised to repaint but never got around to. Regularly, we’d get stoned on the balcony and he’d read my short stories and call me brilliant.

‘I’d buy your anthology if you ever had the balls to publish one,’ he’d say.

The geyser only keeps water hot for about an hour, so we shower together often. Some Saturdays we play dominoes and watch K-dramas. The house has two bedrooms, but most times we fall asleep on his bed and wake up holding hands like otters, breaths synced into a single cadence. I only sleep in my bed when he brings girls over. The walls are paper thin, the girls are always loud, and Eric always forgets to buy me earplugs.

You think Eric and I are in love but afraid to admit it, which is expected because all your lovers started out friends and you think ‘queerplatonic’ is a friendship between two gays. I introduced you two three weeks after we moved in, a week after my 22nd birthday. You called our place cute; ‘it’s giving … minimalist chic’, you said.

You were in town for a photography gig and thought it would be good to stop by and meet the topic of our tri-yearly conversations. You wore maroon lipstick and a black miniskirt. I wore a yellow crop top and blue jeans. Eric said we looked like sororal twins, like alternative versions of the same person from different dimensions in a sci-fi about time travel.

We settled into his couch, talking and laughing while rotating bottles of Smirnoff until the light outside died and we were too sloshed to walk. We played a stupid game where we tried to tell each other apart by feeling each other’s faces in the dark. Eric felt nesh with the occasional prickliness of a beard in its infancy. His lips felt supple and pink, like a tulip. You felt like Ma – canine jaw, bumpered skin, semi-chapped lips. Eric brought up how crazy it was how just yesterday we could all fall asleep and trust that there’d be an adult to carry us from the couch to the bed, but now we were the adults.

‘Did Ma ever carry us to bed?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ you said. ‘How else would she have known we needed to go on all those diets?’ We laughed.

But that feels like a millennia ago. Now we’re at a wedding reception, watching you walk down the aisle in Ma’s white beaded dress – the one you’ve altered into a more plunged v-neckline and cinched waist. That daisy wreath makes you look angelic. The slit revealing the red dragon tattoo veiling the scar courtesy of Ma’s flatiron makes you feel avant-garde. I never got the full story on why that happened. All I know is you screamed and begged Pa to take you to the hospital because you thought you were going to die, but he said something about social workers and forgiveness. Ma gave me your tunics and skirts and you spent your remaining high school weeks in baggy, grey slacks. Pa nursed you, apologised whenever he changed the dressing and you winced, put honey on the wound and assured us it would all be funny one day. He let you trace the soft, aged knife scar underlying the yin and yang tattoo under his ribcage.

‘This isn’t the first time your Ma has gone a bit overboard,’ he chuckled as if trying to turn it into a light-hearted joke. ‘When you turn 18, I’ll take you to Tbose myself. Best tattoo artist I know’.

You guys don’t talk anymore, but he asks about you all the time. When I told him about the wedding, he said he understood why you wouldn’t want him there, considering the fact that you didn’t even go to Ma’s funeral. He asked me to visit him on Christmas.

‘We don’t even have to eat, dear,’ he’d said in a voice as lived-in as a sweater.

You barely visited me while I was at the treatment centre, and Eric came with an excuse each time, each more unbelievable than the last. ‘She’s sick’, ‘She’s helping a charity’, and my personal favourite – ‘She’s at church’. I got to thinking about Pa and how he must feel knowing his two daughters just cut him off. Now I call him every day. Call it guilt; call it filial duty.

You’re marrying a guy named Jon. Jon has a round belly, skinny limbs, a yacht, and ‘good intentions’, as you put it when I tried to talk you out of this a week ago after I was discharged. You met Jon at a bar and really hit it off debating Margaret Atwood’s male gaze theory. Somewhere between coffee dates and late-night video calls it struck you that he acts like he was ‘written by a woman’ and you knew he was the one. He changes accents depending on who he’s talking to and calls himself ‘a man of culture’ because he knows three Amapiano songs and can speak semi-fluent Setswana. Eric hates him.

 

November. Eric and Sylvia are out on a date. They’ve been dating for three months and she doesn’t live here but she still keeps some of her clothes and toiletries here for sleepovers. I like Sylvia because she’s a quiet lover and doesn’t act weird about us bumping into each other in the kitchen the next morning. Once, I told her I was asexual and she said ‘Oh, cool’ and proceeded to write the grocery list.

‘Regular or diet coke?’ she’d asked, biting the butt of the pen. Playing with the loose thread of my turquoise sweater under the table, I realised that this was the first time someone had asked me if I even wanted regular coke in a long time.

‘Yeah, regular’s good,’ I’d said casually, hoping she couldn’t tell how much that meant to me. Loved ones hear ‘anorexic … restrictive’ and suddenly you don’t have a say in your food consumption.

You rest your arms against the cool steel rail outlooking the traffic below our balcony. You’re in a yellow bodycon dress that highlights your svelte figure, the kind of figure that attracts model scouts in malls. Your skin is polished mahogany; light catches your shoulders, forehead and cheekbones. You’re beautiful. I tell you about maybe visiting Pa sometime soon, how great Eric and Sylvia are, and how I know it won’t last because Sylvia has a whole Pinterest mood board with wedding dresses and Eric hates the idea of marriage.

You laugh and mention that Jon has an opening in a friend’s accounting firm.

‘Send me your CV,’ you say. I got fired at my last firm, the one I interned for after graduation. I was passing out in print rooms and missing important deadlines, and the bags under my eyes looked sickly and unnatural. I looked like I was battling a life-long heroin addiction. It wasn’t long until the big white man with a round belly and expensive cologne called me into his office and offered an ultimatum: drug rehab centre or getting fired. Somehow, leaving as a ‘heroin addict’ felt less humiliating than explaining that I was currently living on apples and sugar-free Red Bulls. When I got home and told Eric he wasn’t so much surprised as he was just pissed and sad. He promised to move out if I didn’t get help and booked me into a treatment centre the following week.

‘Why isn’t it out here?’ you nod at the Opuntia on the windowsill. The house-warming gift. It’s the ugliest thing I own. Whenever I look at it, I imagine you walking past budding lilies and orchids, seeing a hostile, parched, defensive ball of needles huddled in a corner and thinking ‘Yes … perfect for her’. It’s the subtext that bothers me.

‘That window’s fine,’ I say. ‘Plus, I read an article saying not to move them around too much.’

An article? You read one article?’ You cough an obscure giggle, settling into the white chair across from mine. ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to you. Just a thumbnail’s worth of info and you can concoct an entire human out of it.’

What a stupid analogy.

I offer you carrot cake while we watch the sun tuck itself behind the horizon, but you reject it. Cigarette gritted between your teeth, you grab the matchbox on the glass table between us and strike so hard, there’s a fierce sizzle.

‘Do you think Ma would be proud of us?’ I take a sip of my green tea.

Crushing your half-finished cigarette, you work your way through a new one like Ma always said … something about finishing a whole packet being unladylike.

‘Unfortunately, yes.’

An orchestra of road-raged honks and blaring sirens soundtracks our brief pause. We laugh.

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