I watched her pause our conversation as she pulled each corner of her duvet into perfect points at either end and she swiped one hand on the bed, feeling for bumps of imperfection.
I sat crammed in the corner of her room on a small stool near her hot pink laptop. I looked at the dazzling colour and her cloud theme and smiled. It was made for her.
When I entered her room that day after three years, I gravitated away from her pristine made up double bed and sat on that tiny stool, because I knew her and I knew myself.
I knew I’d turn her calm bed into a storm of twisted sheets and scattered pillows and with the storm I would also give her mind an annoying twitch ache.
I expected things to be awkward. Years had passed and with it so had a lifetime of events. She still had the same beautiful face and childlike outer shell. Her insides were still mysterious, yet familiar and laced in emotions.
It felt like coming home after a long journey. She told me her stories, some happy, some sad and I wished I could turn back the clock to the day I walked away so that I could change my mind and change hers…so that I could have been a part of the story and not just a bystander after the fact.
‘You see, Aaqeelah…’
The words that came before she tried to explain herself. It always started with her forehead in creases and then her eyes would light up once she felt understood. It warmed my heart, that I could erase the creases once again.
As I left that day, she hugged me and it felt like nothing had changed, because I knew her. We laughed and her familiar dimples danced on her face. Years had passed, but we knew, nothing had and could ever change us.
As I tied my soil coloured apron tightly around my waist, I glanced up and saw a girl enter the stuffy locker room sectioned off in the corner of the kitchen and I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, as she walked towards me to put her bag down.
My best friend at the time and head waitress Amina motioned to the new girl, as she ushered her to the lockers.
‘Aaqeelah, this is Fatimah the new waitress. Could you please show her how to fill the salt and pepper and the sugar bowls when you’re done changing?’
I nodded my head as I hugged my friend good morning and shook Fatimah’s hand in greeting, still trying to wrack my brain as to where I’d seen this girl before. As Amina left the room I smiled at Fatimah, trying to hide my confusion and shy disposition.
I took in the familiar tan skin, neat nose, silky dark hair tied into a bun, and slender frame of Fatimah as I worked up the courage to speak.
‘It’s nice to meet you, Fatimah…When you’re ready, I’ll show you how to do morning prep. ‘
Fatimah smiled at me and spoke for the first time. ‘It’s nice to meet you too, Aaqeelah. OK, I’m just struggling a bit with this apron, could you help me please?’
She laughed softly and as I helped her to finish gearing up in our terrible signature uniform of yellow, brown and green, I realised that the girl standing in front of me was my primary school best friend.
Shocked that I could’ve forgotten the girl I used to share sandwiches and secrets with during intervals at school, I showed her through the door, to the main section of the coffee shop. As we filled the sugar bowls together and wiped down the tables I looked at her and wondered why she didn’t seem to remember me.
It made sense that I didn’t immediately remember her as I’d changed schools several times and had lived on two different continents…but how could she not remember me at all? Was I really that forgettable? Feeling curious, I finally gave in to mm usual suffocating thoughts and I walked over to Fatimah who was perfecting her sugar sachets into a circle.
‘Fatimah, did you attend Muhammadeyah primary school perhaps?’
Fatimah smiled at me before responding. ‘Yes, I did. Only grade one to grade 5 though.’
No recognition flickered in her eyes yet, so I went on.
‘Do you remember me? I know it was a long time ago, but I remember we were close friends…we used to hate maths so much that we always spoke about bunking. And we used to eat chips under the table during class and write notes to each other?’
Fatimah continued to fill her sugar bowl before responding nonchalantly, clearly uninterested in my memory lane journey.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember.’
Feeling gutted and embarrassed at her response to my animated story about our childhood selves, I nodded and told her she could fetch a menu so that I could start training her.
Days went by and Fatimah and I clearly had a connection as we slowly became friends. For me it was becoming friends again, but to her it was completely knew and although I told myself I couldn’t be wrong about those memories and our friendship, there was nothing I could do because my childhood friend had forgotten me.
One morning in the locker rooms, Fatimah and I sat eating muffins and drinking coffee as it was still a while before our shift and she turned to me and put her mug down.
‘Aaqeelah…I was in a car accident when I was sixteen-years-old and because of that, I have no memory of my childhood. I had to go for therapy to properly remember my own family…’
Tears slid down her cheeks and seeped into her shirt and I handed her a napkin as she went on.
‘I’m sorry I don’t remember you and I really wish that I did.’
I sunk into my seat and looked at my childhood best friend, shocked at the realisation of what she was saying. I thought about how we just forget people or brush them off lightly and here was someone who didn’t have the choice. Sometimes the memories are all that you have, especially if you take it for granted that the people in your life will always be around.
I attempted to pull my tight skirt over my thighs, which were clad in thick tights, but still, the cold of the wind bit through my thin clothes as I teetered on my platform heels on a sidewalk in the party hub in Longstreet, Cape Town. I looked around for the perfect place to stand and wondered if it mattered on which corner I stood for a man to know that I was ‘on offer’.
I’d never done this before, so I stood looking as sultry as I could while wondering if I should hold my thumb out until I finally saw a decent looking guy driving slowly up to the pavement I was standing on. Once his car pulled up I leaned close to his open window and said, “Looking for some fun,” hoping that this was the correct code in the situation.
He said nothing but opened the door for me and I climbed in, not knowing that I would definitely regret doing this, even though it would be the first and the last time and not for the reasons that I thought.
The cuffs were cold and tight around my wrists and I attempted to wriggle my arms behind my back to try and loosen the hold. I followed closely behind the policeman I had just tried to sell my body to. After filling in paperwork, being asked questions while answering truthfully, while having no one, believe me, I was then led to a very bleak looking holding cell.
“At least I get to be alone with my sulky thoughts for the night”, I thought to myself as I tried not to trip over my heels which were now digging into my sore soles. Of course my night became worse, though, when I saw another woman, dressed similarly to me, but who was probably the ‘real deal’, slouching against the grey walls of the holding cell I would be banished to in the next minute.
I’m not the type of person that talks a lot, but I am the type of person who hates uncomfortable silence- whether I’m the only one who feels uncomfortable or not. I looked down from the double bunk I was sitting on and decided that perhaps the floor was cleaner after observing the many dodgy looking stains on the mattress, so I hopped off and joined the ‘ real deal’ on the concrete floor.
Her face was very stereotypical of a prostitute. Her face was caked with makeup, her hair was tangled and unruly, yet attractive and her clothes left no room for the imagination. Her skin was a beautiful deep brown though and her eyes could only be described at soulful. My stomach turned knowing that tonight wasn’t her ‘first and last’, like mine was.
I thought of my own usual clean looking, scrubbed pale skin, which was now powdered in colour with lips smeared in crimson guilt and my legs which were usually in jeans -which I had put on display tonight, as I continued to stare at her, imagining what I might have gotten myself into.
“What are you looking at?”, she asked me defensively in Afrikaans slang, while her eyes pulled into tight slits as I sat across from her. I often heard about people being stabbed or killed in jail and I really didn’t want to be a statistic- since I had a test the following day, so I shrugged and looked away.
I heard her laughing suddenly and she raised an eyebrow at me, then eventually, with breathe smelling heavily of alcohol she said, “It’s fine, look at me, I have nothing to hide. So…what’s your story? What are you in for?”
I figured I’d never see her again, so I began to tell her what happened. “I wanted to try out a one-night stand with someone…I figured it would be easiest if I pretended to be a prostitute because I would need money to get home too. I left my friends at a club in Longstreet and I waited for someone to pick me up and it was just my luck when it was a policeman…” I ended off bitterly. Why did nothing ever go my way? She clicked her tongue at me with disgust, making me feel like the ‘real deal’ instead.
“You thought you’d try out being a prostitute? Baby, it’s not a game. Selling your body is not a game.”
I felt annoyed at her. How dare she judge me? “I’m not even a real prostitute, but you are, so how can you sit there and preach to me?” I lifted my legs up and pulled them close to me with my arms as I leaned against the cold wall.
I stared at her defiantly and continued my rant, “I’m not like you, I’m a college student, I have my whole life ahead of me, even if I had gone through with it, I have my whole life to look forward too. Anyway…a one-night stand wouldn’t have been such a big deal; I’m not a virgin in any case.” As my words rolled from my privileged tongue, I decided to shut up as her eyes shot open dangerously.
“Little girl…”, she began, “Prostitution in South Africa isn’t like in that movie Taken, where her father searches the world to find her, here in the real world, if you’re poor, you find yourself a sugar daddy to pay the bills, and once your thighs dimple and your skin sags and he doesn’t want you anymore, you stand on a corner in the cold, hoping someone desperate enough wants to use you, so that you can feed your kids.”
She spat on the ground next to her defiantly and I felt disgusted with myself.
The silence I had hated for the first hour in the holding cell took over again as we both licked our wounds when finally she caught my eye and began to speak again. “Why would you give up a warm bed after partying with your friends for something that would ruin your life?”
Ruin my life? I hadn’t thought of being a pretend prostitute for a night as ruining my life, I thought of it as finally doing something reckless, being rebellious, instead of put-together like my whole life was. “I guess I just wanted to lose control to feel like I have control -if that makes any sense…I feel like my whole life is mapped out for me and I just wanted to unbalance it a little.”
She snickered and shook her head at me before responding, “You people have everything and then you want to throw it away when life gets hard or uninteresting – or at least when you think it’s hard. You don’t know anything about real life. I see selling my body as making a living and you see it as a something to do because you’re bored.”
I thought of defending myself, but then I thought of the many times I did drugs for fun with my friends, knowing that there were kids dying of overdoses, or the many times, I blew cash on mindless crap while little kids shook their cups at me, while I walked in town. I was part of the ‘you people’ and was embarrassed to admit it to myself.
I finally found myself asking, “Why not just beg on the streets or get a government stipend? Isn’t that more respectable?”
She laughed throatily, while running her crimson nails through the knots in her hair and looked at me amused. “More respectable you say? How is begging people, who don’t really care, for a few coins, or asking help from a government who couldn’t care less about the people at the bottom of the food chain, more respectable than using what I have to make ends meet?”
As a journalism student, I always had to be on my toes where knowledge and arguments about the world were concerned, but listening to the woman who sat across from me in this holding cell was teaching me more than scanning News 24 ever did and I had no argument forming for once. The voice of this woman’s pure unadulterated bitterness, was perhaps what I needed to truly wake up.
Considering everything she had said, I decided that in the end, we all still had a choice. “Not all of us are the same, you know, I know how bad it must be for you guys, but you do have a choice and in the end it is you who chose this path. You’re a prostitute and you chose that.”
She stood up and stretched her legs, which were probably sore from the cement floor we were sitting on. She continued, “Listen, what’s your name?”
“Maya. ‘”, I responded quietly.
“Ok, Maya, I’m Nicole. Look here, I’m not just a woman that stands on a corner for money. That’s the problem with the world, we box everyone we come across and then because we assume we aren’t all part of the same box, we leave everyone to suffocate in their own boxes.”
Nicole looked at me, waiting for a response and when I said nothing she said, “I could really use a cigarette.”
“Me too, I whispered.”, and she smiled before responding, “At least we have something in common then- besides our make-up artists.”
I laughed for the first time that night, really hard and imagined how ridiculous I actually looked and how ridiculously insane this situation was. Eventually, the laughter died down and I felt the familiar sensation of hot tears sliding down my cheeks.
Finally, I looked her in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry, from all of us.”
Once again, she shook her head at me, “I am also part of ‘all of us’, there’s nothing to apologise for. Just keep your eyes open my girl and don’t stand on corners anymore, OK.”
I nodded at her and we both looked up as we heard a key turning in the gate of the holding cell. A stout guard beckoned me closer and I stood up and I grabbed my heels which were lying at my feet. Before I walked out the gate into freedom, I turned around and looked at Nicole.
“Are you going to be OK?”
She lay back against the cold wall and smiled at me, “Are any of us ever OK, Maya? “
I nodded my head at her to say goodbye and as I approached my friend at the exit, I asked him to pay her bail before we left- it was the least I could do after she had just taught me one of life’s secrets- we were all in the same box in the end and the flaps were sealed tightly unless we all opened it.
“How do you really know when a man is interested in you and that he’s being completely genuine?” My friend looked up from her cappuccino, her eyes pleading for the answer that all girls wanted, but couldn’t really get, unless they had a glimpse in the mind of a man. It surprised me how quickly the answer fell from my lips though, “If he makes an effort to show you that it’s true – then you know it’s real, and then you’ll know he’s being genuine.”
I’ve always been terrible when it comes to understanding the opposite sex and mind you, it’s even more difficult dealing with the opposite sex when you aren’t supposed to be dealing with them – at all. As a young Muslim woman I’ve been trained to cover up and only dream of sweet, almond shaped- fruit dates.
Living in a Western society though and being raised by strict but modernised Muslim parents, I have male friends and I have come across many encounters with males, but for the life of me, I still find it difficult to figure out when they ‘like like me’ and when I ‘like like them’.
When my friend asked me that question, my mind re-winded to about three years ago, when I was a waitress and when I met the muffin man. He wasn’t the men who lived on Drury Lane…but close enough. Post December holidays, the breakfast house that I worked at experienced a dry spell, so whenever a customer set foot in the store we would knock each other over, being that desperate for something to do, other than filling salt shakers.
One morning, I was wiping down the front counters, with great care of course, because I was extremely bored and a young man walked in and smiled at me. He had curly brown hair, skin the colour of coffee and an awkward persona. He wore a blazer that looked about two sizes too big for him, but what really made this ordinary man special were his eyes. I had no idea what soulful eyes meant , until that moment.
Soulful eyes or not, we all scrambled to serve our first customer for the day and lucky me, he walked straight up to the counter that I was wiping down so meticulously. On cue, my voice rang with a chipper customer service tone and I straightened my stylish, mud-coloured apron.
“Good morning, sir. How may I help you? ”
His eyes scanned my face, then briefly, the menu board above my head.
“Everything is so expensive; could you recommend something that won’t empty my wallet?” He laughed, awkwardly of course, but he was right, our menu and the prices were ridiculous.
“How about a muffin? They’re quite huge and the cheapest item on the menu. “He nodded his head and told me to pick my favourite flavour. While I heated the muffin we chatted . I found out that he was a lecturers’ assistant at the computer classes offered in the mall and he asked about my job. When I handed him the muffin and greeted those soulful eyes with a smile, I thought I’d never see him again , because honestly our muffins were often stale as well as over- priced.
He surprised me though, by buying a muffin every single day for a month. I found it interesting that someone could love partially stale muffins so much. We spoke everyday while I heated his muffin, in attempt to hide the fact that it was stale of course.
One day I saw him walking determinedly towards the shop after I just sold him a muffin and I wondered whether he finally realised that our muffins were terrible-took him long enough. He walked straight up to me, shaking like a leaf while I rehearsed an apology about the many stale muffins.
Snapping me out of my thoughts he blurted, “I hate muffins, but I’ve been coming here every single day hoping that I could work up the courage to ask for your phone number…”
My mouth gaped open and he stood before me looking like he was preparing to take up fainting as a profession. Wordlessly and knowing well that my manager and fellow waitrons were watching and gossiping , I scribbled my number on a napkin and handed it to him.
I swear , I’ve never seen someone fly away quite as fast as he did that day. Smugly, my friend told me, “I told you that the muffin man has it bad for you.” I realised then, that not only was I terrible at reading men, but I also fed him stale muffins for a month.
I didn’t hear from him for over a week and as inexperienced as I was, I thought that that rule only applied when you actually went out with the girl. I sulked about the muffin man for days after, but one evening, an hour before my shift was due to end, my phone vibrated with a text message from an unknown number.
‘Only one more hour till your shift ends. Happy Friday, from the muffin man. ‘I did a happy dance- on the inside of course. Even though the muffin man didn’t stick around for a second helping of muffins with a side of me, while he was around he made the effort to see me and get to know me, which is more than one can expect from men in general – no offense.
I will not measure every man according to the muffin man because they are all different , but in response to my friends’ question- he’ll show up, he’ll call, he’ll answer, he’ll text. They’ll literally sweep you off your feet to get your attention.
To everyone else out there, male or female, you’ll know when they make an effort, whether they buy stale muffins for a month or call just to try and make it through the most awkward, but wonderful phone call you’ve both had in a long time. That’s when you’ll know that you’ve hit the breakfast jackpot.
As per usual, I walked slowly to campus this morning, taking in the scene of a beautiful Spring day in Cape Town while Birdy’s beautiful voice belted out, ‘ Not about angels’ in my ears. I usually speed-walk and I look straight ahead, like I’m on a mission.
This morning though, as I was adjusting my bag strap I looked to my left and I saw an elderly homeless woman. She looked extremely frail and she hobbled along with a walking stick and a heavy-looking plastic bag. Looking at her was difficult because her struggle was real compared to petty day-to-day problems like blisters from wearing the wrong shoes.I continued to walk and soon I was walking away from this woman.
I kept looking back to see how far she had walked compared to my distance and every step that I took became heavier. Every time I looked back it was like she hadn’t moved an inch. Eventually I arrived at my destination but I couldn’t enter the building. I looked down the road to find that the old woman had not even made it half-way up the road yet and I found myself walking back to where she was.
When I stood in front of the woman it broke my heart. Her face told stories that I didn’t want to hear, but that I could clearly see hidden beneath the brown in her tired eyes and the creases in her ageing skin.
She was small in every possible way physically and the bag she was carrying seemed to tip her a little, so she had to lean all her weight on her good leg as she hobbled along. I suddenly felt disgusted with myself. Sure, I walked back, but I shouldn’t have walked back- I should’ve done what I was about to do in the first place. I should have done an act of kindness without a single thought.
” Good morning Ma’am…I was wondering if I could carry your bag for you? You seem to be walking in the same direction and I really don’t mind. I’d like to help.”
The woman looked at me like I was the strangest creature she’d ever laid eyes on but her mouth curved into a smile before she responded.
” Thank you…Thanks so much. I’ll be OK. Thank you.”
I had no words, I smiled and nodded my head and I walked away- shameful. The thoughts before I walked over to the old woman floated through my mind.
” Would it be deemed appropriate for me to carry her things?”
” What if she had no place to go with her belongings?”
” Should I stop?”
” No one else is stopping to help…should I?”
In the midst of my thought marathon and the usual hustle of town, this woman hobbled along, partly invisible because many of us chose not to see her. I felt that niggly feeling, that ‘ do the right thing’ feeling, but I continued to walk away. Her ‘Thank you’, will always make me feel guilty because I feel like it’s undeserved.
I know I’m not perfect and that no one is, all I know is that I wouldn’t want someone to turn a blind eye to me or walk over to me ( figuratively and literally)when it’s too late. Kindness is something that shouldn’t involve overthinking and I will always remember this day to remind myself. It’s not about being angels, it’s about being human. A reminder to myself first and foremost.
I just wanted to share this and the song I was listening to just before it happened.
‘ They will come, they will go, they will make us special.’