JOE AND LINDI
by Malini Mohana
My name is Joe. I am many things – a lover, a friend, a fuckup. Tomorrow you will forget who I am, my 15 minutes will be up, and I will be just another pair of unexceptional footprints that lasted a moment before my mark was erased. Everything that has transpired, that has been perceived and understood, is perpetually unwinding for me, thread by thread until the entire fabric no longer holds much shape or constitution. Everyday my memories fight my present in a back and forth firing of indescribable noise that eventually leaves my psyche ablated, bruised. But my one constant is my feelings for that one person. A life that created sense in a lump of mismatched strings and filled the noise with moments of silence until it all eventually became music. I am not my truth, she is my truth. This is our story. And it is important.
Joe and Lindi strolled up the pathway holding hands. For five-year olds, it was a gesture that held no deep meaning. Nothing held deep meaning to them, because things were just what they were- cool, or nice, or mean, or fun. Friendship wasn’t a loaded word, neither was love. And they loved each other a lot. Their universe was insulated by innocence, and in place of silences there were stories and secrets, in place of loneliness there were trees with souls. In place of scars there were warriors and wizards; brought to life solely by the warmth of each other’s hands. They were gods here, until the day they would believe otherwise.
My name is Joe. I am a nobody, sitting on a train to nowhere, watching it all pass. Colours clung to the horizon like a washed out mural, holding up the dusty residue of a million lives lost in an infected country. I held against my chest a pencil sketch that I had drawn years ago as I look around me. I love watching people on the train early in the morning – a man with a tablet, young woman with beads in her hair, auntie doing her makeup. They shared nothing in common but the identical tired expression of a Thursday morning. A young coloured man sat with his head in his hands – he could have been sleeping, or in crying, or in pain. We chose to believe he was sleeping. His clothes were tattered and he kept scratching at his dirty beanie. He caught my eye as he looked up. The man drew himself up in an attempt to look more threatening and I realised I had probably him off guard, so I did my best to appear uninterested. But I couldn’t help but look into his face again. I don’t know why. Perhaps a part of me did want to bait him, to cause a reaction, create some drama. Or perhaps I just wanted the satisfaction of seeing someone far worse off than myself. As the tunnel through Newlands broke the light, our eyes met and I saw his broken nose, the cuts on his cheeks, a small crusted mouth. I saw the desperately defiant look of someone who had long forgotten what he had lost. I held my picture tighter.
A group of young school girls entered the train – all wearing short grey uniforms, one with a drum around her neck. As they started their ritual dance on the train for the passengers I saw a red haired women take out her iPhone and snap a photo. The girls’ anklets jingled to the drums, and their rhythmic movements bring up dust that settles in brown patches on their school uniform. The iPhone-woman turns to her friend and starts talking excitedly – German accent. “So much culture in this city”, she says.
That’s not culture, lady. That’s poverty.
I go back to looking out the window. My thoughts drift back and all I can wonder is if she’ll be there.
Soft watery sunlight streamed in through the window, carrying with it the smell of cherry blossoms and spring. This year’s school play was based on Lindi’s favourite Disney film; The Little Mermaid. Auditions had taken place the previous week and all the girls (including one or two disappointed boys) tried out for the role of Ariel. To everyone’s expectation, the role went to the long haired redheaded girl who had all the talent of a first round idols contestant.
“I think you would’ve been a better Ariel anyways. Dona talks like a robot”, said Joe, when Lindi fell quiet after the roles where revealed.
“Yea”, laughed Lindi, “She kind of does”
It was two months into rehearsal and Joe had fully experienced the honour of being one of the hundred singing fish that provided the chorus to every song. Each rehearsal was slightly less exciting than the previous, until the rehearsals reached a level of non-excitement that felt close to punishment.
The directing prowess of the teachers usually didn’t extend further than “ Say your line slowly and LOUDLY! Kobus, slowly! If you say ‘butarielyoucan’tgotothesurfacetoseetheseagullit’sdangerous’, nobody will know what you’re saying!”. This instruction was repeated, verbatim, everyday at least fifteen times a day. Today’s rehearsal was getting slightly rowdy so Joe took the opportunity to slip down next to Lindi; she was a singing frog, and some sort of segregation was enforced upon the fish and frogs.
“Why does he keep saying ‘Franklymydear’. It’s supposed to be ‘Frankly, my dear’ said Joe, emphasising the pause. “Her name isn’t Frankly.”
Lindi grinned, “I don’t think Kobus knows that. How much time until home time?”
“Two whole hours…”, whined Joe, looking imploringly at her watch. Not long after, when Joe laughed loudly at Lindi doing an impression of Kobus’s improved ‘slow and loud’ lines [“You-weeent-toooo-the-suuuurf-aaace!”], Miss Rawlins glared at her complete disregard for the ordained apartheid of sea creatures. She promptly hopped back onto his bench with her fellow frogs, sulking.
Summer was on its way and all the mountains surrounding the Drakensberg were set ablaze so that new grass could make its way through. Joe continued to eye the rehearsal in between watching particles of ash float around in a beam of sunlight. No one was convincing in their makeshift bedazzled costumes. The stage had a few strands of crepe paper and pink tissues signifying corals and seaweed. It had three levels; each one housed cardboard props and varyingly bored children. ‘Ariel’ commenced her first little monologue - they cut the song as the redhead’s singing was enough to crack the faces of the even most composed teacher. She took a deep breath and started her lines, and then took another breath three words in, practically yelling her speech. Her eyes glazed over and she looked like an asthmatic televangelist. Joe looked down at Lindi and snorted.
“Lindiwe. Joanne. Both of you. Detention!”
My name is Joe. My name is Joe, I remind myself as I walk through a field. There is a burnt stretch of land on the way to the shebeen. It reminds me of my childhood home; every autumn, before the threat of emerging spring, fields and mountains around our house would be burnt in a glorious night of liquid orange and carbon dioxide. By December the mountains will have grown green through the black, thicker and lusher than what we remembered. When I was six those mountains used to embody my mother’s reference to ‘good things’ rising from ‘bad things’, when I was fourteen I referenced it to Tyler Durden’s idea of self-destruction, when I was 22 I realised that Tyler Durden was a prick. Now, as I look around I’m quite sure that nothing will come of this cremation, except an audaciously blackened field. I pulled my jacket closer as a sharp wind whips across my face. In the distance I spot the building I am walking toward. The need turns into an obsessive compulsion and rises in me a painful ache. I walk faster.
“What’s wrong?”, Joe asked. She took a bite out of her peanut butter sandwich on brown bread.
Lindi was quiet today and Joe couldn’t figure out why. Once in a while, she would become silent or easily irritated. There were days when she would simply not come to school. It was quite annoying.
“Wanna play catches?”, she asked.
“Fine, I’m going to play. You can stay here”, just as she finished saying the words, Lindi started crying.
“Why’re you crying?”, she looked around, startled. She moved closer to Lindi and put an awkward arm around her. They sat like that for the whole of break time. Joe shared her sandwiches and they talked about movies. She got Lindi some toilet paper to wipe her nose and gave her a quick sidelong hug.
“It’s my uncle”, she whispered.
“Does he smack you?”, asked Joe. Lindi was silent.
“Do you want to sleep over at my house on Friday? My mom is making cupcakes this weekend”, she asked softly.
“I’m not allowed”, Lindi sniffed.
“Okay, I’ll bring you some on Monday okay?”, she said.
The old shebeen appeared in the distance. Its familiarity was enough to make the walk tolerable. I knew who would be waiting for me, and it was enough to make me want to smile just a little bit. The world was still grey, but lighter. I could almost see pearliness in the sky against the blackened grass, and the silver shimmering in the trees. It reminds me of something. It reminds me the way the smell of old books remind me of the reality in imagined stories.
“Two more months until we’re done with school. So what’s the plan? What amazing thing are you gonna do?” Lindi asked, as she looked across at her. The silver trees moved gently above them.
Joe laughed. Lindi’s smile was just hot enough to temper her insides, just cool enough to shatter them. “The problem is that I’d want to be too many things. I couldn’t just be a brilliant scientist, or a brilliant artist, or a brilliant musician. I’d want to be all of it. And if something else came up, I’d want to be that as well. I think that’s what the problem is.”
“What, that we want it all?”
“No. That we want none of it really. It’s easy not to pursue any of it because it’s easier to wish for the impossible than it is to take action for any one thing”
Lindi fell quiet.
“What about you?”, Joe asked suddenly, turning onto her elbow and looking directly at her. “Without the restrictions of reality though. Who would you be?”
“Anyone else”, she half smiled. Joe didn’t know what to say. What does one say in a situation underlined with egg shells. So she didn’t say anything.
The rest of that evening swayed past in the ebb and flow of ashen dust and leaves. They both lay back and watched the tree above them ripple in and out of greyscale focus. They took acid, they tripped in silent separate worlds in their silent separate lives, and as they came to the leaves were swaying just as they had been before. As though time had stood still and waited for them. As though nothing had been lost. Joe looked over at Lindi; her chin raised to the sky, chest rising softly.
“How’re you doing?”, her voice sounds gentle against the rustling trees.
“Sad”, she whispered.
“Come live with me”, Joe said, slowly.
“We’ve been through this.”
“Lindi. We can get the police involved. I have extra rooms at my mom’s new place. You can stay with me the whole time, please. I’ll make her understand”
Lindi just looked at her. Closed her eyes and lay back down.
“We’ve been through this”
“Jesus Lindi, I don’t understand!”
“What’s going to happen to my brothers if I up and move in with my ‘Constantia friend’? What’s going to happen to my mother? I have a scholarship, I have UCT. I’m the first one in my family to go to university. Did you know that?”
“This isn’t about UCT. If that perv –“
“He’s going to leave for Joburg next year. Please let me put it behind me. Please.”
Joe stood up and walked away.
I walked into the beaten down shebeen in Grassy Park. Lindi’s old house was just around the corner. I can smell her already – a combination of coco butter and vanilla. I paid cash, waited for my server to leave and lit up a cigarette. Looking around, I remembered how it had always fascinated me - the differences between our worlds. Post-apartheid casualties in a war long considered over. At least, she was. I was blissfully ignorant in my mommy Farrell’s picketed fence. Yet somehow, I also ended up here. I waited impatiently for people to leave before I walked to the adjoining room and called out to her through the sound of bludgeoning rain.
"Are you ok?”
“I uh. I brought you a book ”, Joe said softly.
“Are you ok?”, she looked directly at her.
They sat in Joe’s room together, doing this scarcely practiced social dance. Joe knew what she wanted to ask, what she wanted to hear. Lindi knew what she wanted to know, but they both knew that the trick to would be to do this correctly.
Joe started picking up books and placing them systematically on the table and the bookshelf. Her genuinely paternal countenance had always amused Lindi. But now she barely noticed and just looked up at the room, almost as if seeing it for the first time.
“When did he come back? How long have you kept it from me?”
“I want to talk to you”, Joe said.
She felt her chest constricting. “How should I talk to you?”
“However you want to.”
“Please just stop.”
“Will you hold my hand?”
Eggshells cracked ever so slightly. She didn’t move.
Her eyes moved slowly over Joe’s face. As if for the first time.
“I want you to sit here. I want you to pick up my hand.” Lindi took time in finding her words. “Things aren’t ok, I know, but you and I are. Please just- just sit with me.” The words quivered frailly in the air.
“Okay,” was all she could find to say. She obeyed and the bed softly gave way to her as she sat down. But she didn’t stop thinking and neither did Lindi. Such is the inoculating power of human interaction. There is some solace attained by the simple act of believing another has listened. Even if you know that they probably haven’t.
I put out my cigarette on the floor and sit down next to it. The scent of coco butter laces the edges of my thoughts as I pull the belt tighter around my arm. The needle rips a hole; an old forgiving friend. I inhale peace. Looking up, I catch a glimpse of myself in a broken window – eyes half closed, lined mouth, slackened skin. It’s as if I had been screaming all this time, and I hadn’t noticed until now – until the moment I had stopped. The sky weighed down, grey and heavy. I suppose the world is never bright on a day you choose to sell a piece of yourself.
The sun shone bright, blindingly mocking. Joe sat at the end of a bench with a bouquet of flowers. White roses – Lindi’s favourite. She looked beautiful today – statuesque in a flowing white dress. It was officially the end of first year, and this was the first time she had seen Lindi wearing makeup. The angles of her face were perfectly contoured and she looked entirely at peace. She had never seen that face on her, never seen her in a dress before.
“If we can all stand up and bow our heads in silence”, said the minister.
As the mob closed their eyes, Joe moved closer to the casket. The bastards had turned her wrists down and made her wear gloves– lest the truth makes anyone here uncomfortable. She looked around at the 20 odd people bowing their heads. Why were they here? Where were they last week? Where were they for the last 14 years?
Today they will cry for her, wail and cause a scene and talk in hushed voices about how disturbed she was. And later, Joe’s mom would vocalise ignorance over dinner about the incestuous ways of people in the township. The anger welled up against a breaking bank.
As the rest procession closed their eyes to her life, Joe put her warm hand over Lindi’s ashen one. She picked a flower from the bunch– half bloomed and flawless – and placed it right next to her cheek. There were no tears as she walked out; her echoing footsteps simply disturbed a few of the determined mourners.
The needle lies idly on the floor and I can no longer remember what my name is... I look up at the broken window and it glimmers back at me. Silver trees borne of her hair were reflected onto it; the moon -her face, the stars- my hopes. Her smile lasted a second, an eternity; her face drawn the way the artist had intended, soft strokes, sharp lines. From the nightblue of the grass she plucked a white flower that rose softly, melded into the dark of her hair. Our hands joined and we walked forward onto memories, built like stairs betweens plateaus. Her white dress rippled like water in the wind, dust flew around her, pearly, emitting a familiar song. She weaved between the glow, the dust just short of touching her skin, the curve of her hip, the peak of her breast. Ashen trees raised naked limbs, to the sky, to her. Shavings of pencil flew off them, silver grey remnants of a world destroyed. In the dust I smelled lead, pieces of someone’s face, strokes of her arm on imagined destinies, and we were simply walking. We stood on the edge of impossibility, daring to dream. I saw myself, like an ashen tree, naked, limbs raised, to the sky, to her. Her neck, my refuge, as roses whipped in her hair. There was no I, there was no her. Our dreams revealed in the same light, our hopes roused from the same slumber. My pain, hers, poison of the same wine. Joy fell from heavenstars, I laughed a laugh only I could feel. Eons passed as we stood before the wanted sunshine. It leaked from my very chest, weaving a field of wheat and gold, the smell of earth and Lindi. The white petals fell through her hair, landed on my foot, and I saw heaven in a wildflower. A shift, a subtle chill, she looked up, looked around, then at me. “You’re going”, she said. The speckles of gold in her eyes, the arch of an eyebrow, the corner of a lip, as she moved away. I yelled. I saw nothing but the curve of a back, the hair tightening around my neck, her halo slipping down to choke me. Like water on a painting, her dress started bleeding, blues into golds into the hollows of my thoughts. There was cold; in me, around me, I heard them scream. The cold grew more terrible, more complete. I couldn’t breathe as I lay in puddles, screaming in a place where screams did not exist.
Lindi grinned, “How much time until hometime?”
I looked up at her and saw my face in the broken window, and remembered my name.
My time is now up, and I don’t have much to show for it. You will forget me tomorrow, just as they forgot her. But even if you refuse to see us, we are everywhere. We are the educated and the articulate. The inadequate, insecure, pointless imperfection. We are the self-inflicted neuroses, the volunteered loneliness, the worthless abortions of promises and pride. We are the searchers for a baseless meaning, for a witness to our existence. We walk quietly, we speak quietly. And when we speak loudly, it is because we hopelessly hope for a change that we do not fully understand. We hope to connect, to touch, to love each other. But we never could. We scratch despairingly at an idea of happiness, but graze only the mundane. We mist the earth like a meaningless dream, hoping to rise, at times waiting to fade. But we tried. We tried everyday. We once held hands and believed in magic and in change and in love. We once held hands and believed we were gods. We once held hands and believed in each other; until the day they told us otherwise.