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Too Close for Comfort

By Blessing Musariri (Zimbabwe)

 

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Author Notes: I am a thirty-two year old Zimbabwean woman who has decided that it's  worth it to give up most luxuries to pursue a career in writing.  I gave up working full time in the year 2000 and the struggle continues.  I have  been published by Longman Zimbabwe and went on to win two national awards for the children's story entitled "Rufaro's Day."  I am working hard to raise the hopes and profiles of other Zimbabwean writers who have felt for a long time that they are alone in their struggle.  I call myself a literary activist when I am not wearing my writer's hat.

All rights reserved. No part of this manuscript may be

reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,, or transmitted

in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,

photocopying, recording or otherwise,

without the prior permission of the author.

Blessing Musariri 2004

 

Sisi Peggy had perfected the art of defecting without appearing to do so. On the many occasions that I had witnessed this act, I had never thought that one day I would play audience to it. I watched, enthralled, as familiar expressions paraded in turn across the smooth mahogany stage, framed by copper toned curtains – one hundred and fifteen thousand dollars at Beverley’s Weaves and More. The next time the trapdoor opened, I knew I would fall in, caught, not unaware, but standing amazed.

Soft cool skin covered my own. Crimson acrylic talons scraped lightly across my wrist – a precursor of the treachery that was about to occur. The wound would be deep, but not a single drop of blood would fall.

Scene one, act one. "Listen my dear, this could get ugly. You know you can’t fight him. Take what he is willing to give you and walk away."

The stiletto sharp thrust of money owed, not ready to be paid back. Sisi Peggy, for all her claiming kinship, was protecting her own interests; looking out for numero uno. Number One, the star of her One-Woman No-Solidarity Show. The bill announcing the performance bore a bold statement plastered across the art work - eyebrows worried into near extinction, hazel eyes painted and framed, cheeks bronzed and blushing; teeth capped and flashing gleaming enamel with each parting of their crimson seal – SOLD OUT.

The one-woman-no-solidarity show had sold out. Generous Firi had bought all the tickets and reserved only one seat - where I sat right now, wanting to get up and walk out, but remained transfixed, desperately hoping for a twist in the plot would herald a happy ending.

* * *

The kiss had marked the beginning of the battle. Only, caught up in the sudden clarity that had washed over my senses, I failed to hear the sharp crack of the opening salvo. My body was awakened from its grey slumber by the sweet, wet insistence of long forgotten ardour. It was fresh, new. It felt like love. A love I had begun to lose sight of with the first discovery of protection in his pockets. I was pregnant at the time. I knew then, but I deliberately opened the door to Denial and welcomed her in with open arms. Mi casa es su casa, as they say, as I said then. She stayed for a long time, watching in silent approval as I continuously swept inexplicable pieces of paper under my proverbial rug; bills, receipts, nameless appointment slots, endless business trips, traces of foreign scents. Firi, the man who had stood up of his own free will, in front of our families and friends, in front of God, and pledged himself into commitment. To me. ME. Forsaking all others, giving them up completely, abandoning them. How could I have known then that Firi’s knowledge of words beginning with F did not extend beyond fornication, forget, fabrication, foible, folly and fling. And for my own part, flame, fireworks – the kiss – flashback.

"This is my friend Crispen."

She had introduced him with such glee. With such anticipation of praise for having undeniably excellent taste in people. He was beautiful.

"I know it was supposed to be a girl’s lunch, but what could I do? He was stood up."

"Really Peggy, you have no tact," he admonished. "How can you strip me bare in front of the one person in this room with whom I could have saved face."

He smiled and his whole face lit up; a gleaming feast of bittersweet chocolate with a soft centre. I saw in his eyes what must have flashed in mine – connection. Recognition. In that brief moment something leapt up from its cold wilderness of neglect and cried out, "Allelieua!" I was saved.

I was being led by my Judas to my crucifixion.

* * *

There’s no point in talking about how I met Firi. It was so long ago and in view of what followed in the wake of this meeting, the consequences far exceed the details of this event in re-tale value. We met, we married, then things began to fall apart.

Philip Gumunyu, otherwise known as Firi – the letter ‘l’ disdains the Shona alphabet and defies pronunciation in the shortening of names. Philp and Angela – myself. We rose quickly to social prominence by the grace of the rise and rise of the middlemen. Philip, possessed of diabolically impressive interpersonal skills, had a honed knowledge of the who’s who in the upper echelons, a keen sense of smell for money waiting to be made and a knack of making the greasing of palms look like a benediction. He was the man about town.

Being a sheltered, somewhat nave young woman from the middle class suburbs in the Eastern Highlands, I played the dutiful wife. My most demanding but satisfying role was that of main breadwinner for the first three years of Firi’s infancy in the uncertain, un-nurturing embrace of wheeling and dealing.

When the money came, it brought with it the buzzing of flies following bullshit and the humming of bees around a honeycomb. Flies could be swatted or lured away by the promise of brighter light, but bees were more difficult to entice away from the sticky sweetness. There was always the threat of being stung. I avoided confrontation. I delayed confirmation – indefinitely and I made a concentrated effort to fill in cracks before they became irreparable. I talked above silences. I brushed aside his indifference. I gave birth to links in a chain that would bind us forever and desperately tried to keep them strong. I saved cold uneaten suppers – to throw them away would be acknowledging the unacceptable – they would be eaten later. I shot down little birds that dared to flutter their busy bodies too near my ear, their twittering irritated me when I was trying to stay focused. I trimmed, I tweezed, I buffed. I smiled and cajoled until something wore out and died inside me. I burned out, switched onto automatic and went through the motions in a dim grey light. It was easier. The white-yellow light had been blinding me with its determined brightness.

Sisi Peggy told me that she and Firi were not really blood relatives.

"Our mothers were best friends. We grew up together, thinking we were cousins because we called each other’s mothers auntie."

"You can still call me tete if you want, I might as well be his sister."

She was a fountain of information and advice, sometimes unwanted, but offered with such sincerity that it was difficult to remain resentful. She was cool in the face of rising conflict and counselled me into subsidence.

"It’s nothing. Firi’s always been like that, but it amounts to nothing. He’s all talk and no action."
"I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s just enjoying the attention. You know how men are."

Little pockets of air. I knew how other men could be, but I also knew Firi. His secrets sneaked out of his pockets in the wash and crept through the gaps of doors closed on low-voiced phone calls. I knew how men could be. I knew Firi. I knew his secrets. They refused to remain hidden. They filtered through the breeze from whispered conversations when my back was turned and seeped into my subconscious, to be pieced together when even Denial had turned her back on me.

Crispen turned up most places Peggy and I went, until one day, he turned up and Peggy did not. I thought nothing of it. Crispen Felipe was a CEO of a holding company based in South Africa. He travelled between Harare and Jo’burg often, but more often now that they were increasingly active in Zimbabwe. In fact, he was looking for a house. Would I like to accompany him to look at a couple of houses? What could be the harm? Unwisely, I allowed the current of my dissatisfaction and disillusionment to guide me – unchecked. My unspoken defiance.

By the time we returned to his hotel the die was cast. I was captivated. What a man! So charming, so focused, so in tune with himself. He was so unlike Firi whose many secrets continued to accumulate inside me even as he became a stranger. If there was ever a time when Firi looked at me with such unadulterated passion in his eyes, with such anticipation running through his body, I cannot remember it. We were too far-gone from the beginning.

Crispen was enlivened by my words. He was vibrant in my presence. We talked, about everything and he seemed to be listening to me with his whole being. We laughed and laughed, and when he looked at me, I lost my gravity. I fell into a warm succulent breeze and it was the most exquisite feeling. These were the heights I could reach when my spirit was in flight. What a dazzling escape! What unparalleled freedom. The heavy numbness of my everyday was out of sight. I would feed off this moment until there was nothing left to nourish the great hunger that had awakened in me. I longed to be touched, not as a duty, not out of habit and most of all, not simply because I was there.

The kiss – the beginning of the battle. I was deaf to the sharp crackling of the opening salvo. I was enthralled. So caught up in bliss that for a moment I forgot we were in a parked car in front of a busy hotel. When he came round and opened my door I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t think.

It was the longest walk through the foyer and through the corridor. It was the shortest. I couldn’t say which one for sure; a delicious summer breeze carried me through. When he finally put his arms around me and opened his mouth on mine, my legs gave way in an absurdly abrupt release of sensations overlooked for so long. I was faint with feeling. The light was on inside me and everything was humming to life again. Resuscitation. I felt like crying, like laughing but I could only let out the air that threatened to burst my lungs, in the longest deepest sigh. My Judas had fired the opening salvo without laying a finger on a gun. A few well-placed words go a long way to telling an unutterable tale.

 

I was trembling as I stood toe to toe Firi. I had not expected him to be home. The energy from his body crackled static that made the hairs on my arms stand on end. He bent his head into my body and breathed in my scent. My blood was still singing, my skin still basking in the memory of Crispen. How could he fail to sense it? He took as step back and suddenly I was sprawled across the bed, my face on fire.

"Hure!" he spat at me. Whore!

I was stunned. Eyes wide I stared dumbly back at him, filling his chest with huge gusts of air and pumping it out again like bellows. He was barely coping – rocking back and forth in indecision, fists clenched and unclenching.

"You thought I wouldn’t find out. Next time don’t cheat on me with one of my friends."

He read the flicker of surprise on my face.

"Of course he’s my friend. You don’t know all my friends!" What a nonsensical statement following such precipitation.

Something hit me, cracking smartly against my skull. Something picked up from the dressing table and hurled with the force of his denouncement.

"Hure!" Objects assaulted me without discrimination.

It was not me who left the bed in that one fluid motion, so charged with energy it knocked Firi against the wall.

"Hure? Hure? Hure?"

My voice escalated with each utterance. I could not stop saying the word as I slapped him again and again.

"You are the whore, peddling your pathetic little penis about town."

I was unstoppable. I don’t know if I actually formed the words or if they just left my lips in the guttural scream that was crowding out my ears. I kicked, I bit, I scratched, I punched, I slapped. I rained my rage upon him, battering like malignant hail. I was a Fury; incandescent with distilled bile refined to its purest form by years of suppression.

"How. Many. Times. Have. You. Infected. Me. With .Your. Girlfriends’. Poisons?" A blow for each word wherever I could land it. His secrets came tumbling out of me. I wanted to kill him. I was filled with such hatred I couldn’t breathe. I was about to go up in flames.

Firi finally recovered enough to defend himself adequately, but I had worn myself out. I returned to me. I was gasping for air, my face was wet and my hands were burning. I was keening, slumped to the floor, no strength remaining. I was depleted. Firi’s body slid down along the wall until he was sitting down. Stunned. He looked like a small child whose mother had unexpectedly turned on him. Tears streamed down his face in thick trails and his body was shaking.

I lay there, staring at him, and he sat there staring at nothing – trying to return to the present but failing to find safe footing. He was drowning without resistance, in his disbelief, incapable of movement. Here we were, two wrongs not making a right. Here was the problem: a man and a woman leave point A for point B at the same time. The man takes a longer route at a steady pace. The woman takes a more direct route at a sprint, but she runs out of steam halfway there and stops to take a rest. Who gets to point B first?

* * *

Sisi Peggy thinks so highly of her ability to gives good advice that she has not stopped giving it, even to take a bite of her sandwich. She has only deigned to interrupt her steady flow of accumulated wisdom to take a sip of her gin and tonic. She is talking about things in the past that have led us to where we are in the present and that will subsequently take us to what might be. She is telling me what she would do if she were me. But she is not me and I think it’s time I told her this. The One-Woman No-Solidarity Show is about to come to an unscheduled halt. It’s only Scene One, Act Three, but I’ve had enough. Enough! I say:

"I know Peggy."

I look her dead in the eye. She falters. This is a monologue her mind is saying. She is puzzled, this doesn’t normally happen.

"I know," I say again.

There is particular intent in my eyes. Panic rushes across the stage and stumbles in the sudden darkness as the lights go off. The emergency curtain comes down. There is no need to elaborate, but I continue. Pretense is what has brought us this far, it’s too late for anything else. There’s no point. I continue.

"I know, this is difficult for you. I know you have gone out of your way to help me, but Firi is your brother at the end of the day." She senses the inverted commas I have placed around the word brother. I can see it in the brief wariness that has escaped the shutters that have come down on her show.

"Thank you for everything you have done for me."

Does she sense my irony? She is giving nothing away now, but I know that of all the things she is not, first and foremost, she is not stupid.

"I must fight my own battles now."

I place money on the table and arise from my chair as I am speaking. I do not want my departure to be delayed by her inevitable protestations.

"Thanks so much sisi Peggy, but I must go now."

I don’t want to talk anymore. I have caught her by surprise and words are not quick enough to come to her rescue. Exit Angela, left stage.

I am almost running, but she doesn’t follow. After all these years, guilt has finally made her hear something I’ve said. Denial has abandoned all of us. She won’t pursue me. She’s just realised that she doesn’t know me. All these years, she’s been a constant voice in my head, steering me, guiding my course, manipulating the situation in her favour. I shouldn’t have allowed it, but I was weak and afraid. I know now, that of all the things she is not, second of all, she is not my friend. The show is over, but this, by no means, is the end.

When Firi told me to pack my things and leave ‘his’ house, I knew that I must leave while there was something left of myself to salvage, before I died without having really lived. My children were on holiday in Botswana with my sister. She would keep them for as long as I needed. Things were going to be difficult. I left my car. The Mercedes Kompressor that had elevated me to social visibility and announced my presence among those who had "arrived" before me. Firi confiscated all the keys – he forgets that as far as we have come into this marriage, we both began with nothing. I have a million dollars I’ve been secreting away at the bottom of my suitcase but it won’t take me far – a loaf of bread is a thousand dollars. I am staying with my aunt – a blood relative, but she has no car to lend me. I’ve been there a week and a half and all she has talked about since I arrived is the cost of food nowadays. A few well-chosen words spoken constantly, will take you directly to their meaning.

As I walk into the supermarket I see Esther and Tendai from my church. They quickly duck behind an aisle. They think I haven’t seen them. By the time I find myself on the other side of the same aisle, they are deep in their scandal-mongering.

"…hanzi even now she doesn’t know."

"Ha! That one! She is fast asleep – usiku chaiwo."

They laugh briefly, clasping hands. I don’t have to see it happening to know. It is the type of conversation, the brand of social intrigue that invokes the physical act of confirming a common source of amusement.

"Hanzi pachi French they are called the nouveau riche – the new rich," one of them announced with pride and surprisingly correct pronunciation. I believe this to be Esther, she thinks she is so worldly.

"Hmm! Iwe Esther! Better to be ordinary people like us. It seems kuti the more money you have, the more trouble you can buy."

"Ah!" Esther clearly does not agree, "Better to be able to afford trouble. Give me a hundred million dollars any day because shamwari, when trouble comes for free, it will leave you in debt for sure. Better not to be too close to the bottom of the hole."

Again they laugh, clasp hands – this time, I hear the sharp clapping of palms connecting. In this there is more shared conviction than in the previous show of distant commiseration.

It’s an ambush.

"Hello ladies." I smiled brightly, filled with the exhilaration and daring of my breaking free of Peggy’s shackles. They almost fell to the floor in horror. I could smell the guilt that rolled off their bodies in the sudden beads of sweat that pricked their skin. The gossip-mongers worst nightmare – being pounced upon by the devil of whom she is speaking.

They stammer and stutter until finally they regain equilibrium. I delay them with idle chatter and without warning, I am angry. I turn to Esther who is the more vicious of the two.

"Tell Pius I said hello. I saw him at the weekend, did he tell you?"

Pius, was not what his name implied and he definitely would not have said anything to his wife about his weekend where-abouts.

I see a vision of myself in the look that crosses Esther’s face and I am sorry for my mean-spiritedness. Whatever face she chooses to show to the world, we are coming from the same unlit greyness.

"I’m sorry," I say and walk away. I had sabotaged my bubble of temporary happiness and now I walked in the sticky residue of its premature deflation. We cannot help ourselves. We break out of the cycle, only to break in again. We are creatures of bad habit.

I have to return to my aunt’s place by communter omnibus – combi. I cannot justify the cost of travelling by taxi. I have to take a combi into town and from there, another one to Malbereign. I am beyond the embarrassment of being seen by someone I know, with my face pressed against the window of a lowly combi when I have until now been the envy of many of my peers.

There is one seat left and I take it. What it is to regret an action after it is too late to reverse it. When I say seat, I am exaggerating, it is really just a space. In a battered mini-bus that seats sixteen at the back and four in the front, it is optimistic to speak of a seat. As the door closes, I find the conductor’s crotch nestled in my lap as he is balancing himself in what standing room there is left available. His arm is stretched past my ear, holding onto the backrest of my seat and my face is inches away from his neck. I try not to breathe in his musty scent but there is not help for it. I can only imagine that if he gets it in his head to turn around and kiss me, there will be nothing I could do to stop him. A giggle rises up in me and absurdly, I smile. Kisses! They will be the death of me. A girl is talking on her cell phone. The whole bus cannot help but eavesdrop. We are literally absorbing each other’s DNA welded side by sweaty side as we are. How she has managed to manouvre her arm to put a phone to her ear is beyond me.

"Latest ipi?" Which latest? She asks without bothering to be discreet with her volume.

"Eeee! I heard sha! Just imagine … I don’t know what I would do shaz from Kompressor to combi. Ha! Some of us are used, but when you’ve been in your own luxury, shamwari it’s tough. Anyway girlfriend, ndirimucommuter right now. I’ll buzz you when I get back to work and we can discuss."

"Hmm! Hmm! Kompressor to combi," the conductor sneered, "this is the only Kompressor you’ll ever know."

The girl kisses her teeth loudly, giving him a killing look, then turns to look out of the window. She is not about to start a fight before she gets to her destination. And me, knowing full well that I was the subject of the conversation, I could only wish the conductor had not chosen to speak, his mouth and my nose were too close for comfort.

In a town like Harare, it was unavoidable. My life had become this week’s news, this month’s scandal. An inexhaustible packet of gum to be shared out and chewed and chewed until the flavour ran out. Some people could chew the same piece of gum all day, and while others eventually spat theirs out and put it in the bin, some carelessly spat theirs out onto to pavements or stuck it underneath pieces of furniture for unsuspecting feet and fingers to find.

When I had walked into the hair-dressers two days ago, there had been a sudden silence, broken only by the sound of the receptionist’s voice.

"Hanzi she’s a regular here. Comes to have her hair and nails done. Ehe sha! But how did the husband find …" Somebody pinched her into silence and Nellie, my hairdresser called out in greeting. The general babbling of voices resumed, but this time without the palpable air of scintillation that had been bouncing off the walls when I had first stood unnoticed at the door. The receptionist was new and so caught up in the piece by piece analysis of ‘the latest,’ she had not realised that the weather had changed from hot and steamy to sudden frost melting almost instantaneously into cool and breezy.

"Sorry to hear about your problems muningina." So many not-blood sisters floating about the place.

How was I so unfortunate to have collected so many ‘well-meaning’ ‘relatives’?

"I’ll be with you in two minutes," Nellie continued as she marched over to the reception area, no doubt to take out their collective embarrassment on the unsuspecting girl who had unwittingly put herself forward as a scapegoat.

What a life! Momentous infamy had a way of showing up perceived friends for over familiar acquaintances. I knew so many people but in the cold light that lately infused my days, I realised that I had no friends. This is the beginning of the end.

*

The day before I was to meet Peggy, I had a visit from Firi’s sister. His blood sister – Tete Plaxides. We had never really moved in the same circles, but while reserved, Tete Plakie had always been pleasant to me. It was her job to be involved, but she generally kept her own counsel until consulted, so I was surprised to find her waiting for me that afternoon. She wasn’t one for small talk. After the greetings were over, refreshments offered and served, she came right to the point.

"I will help you but Firi must never know. He is my brother after all, but what he has done, what he is doing is wrong and I have told him so. I won’t judge you by what I have heard, I couldn’t even begin to put myself in your shoes."

For this I was grateful.

"What I’m about to tell you must remain between you and me."

I nodded my assent.

"Peggy and Firi had an affair in the second year of her marriage. She fell pregnant with Chipo. Her husband found out about the affair and left her. Neither he nor Firi would accept paternity, but because of the relationship between our families, Firi has helped her out from time to time."

"These words did not come from my lips, but take heed when I tell you that you cannot trust Peggy to mean well by you."

I laughed wryly and shook my head, caught up in my disbelief of how blind I had been. Something clicked into place. I suddenly realised with alarming clarity of hind-sight that while I had been training Peggy’s words to walk quickly and quietly through my head to the other side and out through my ear, I had retained part of her narration that didn’t conform with the rest of the drivel she was spouting over the phone. That voice! Forever in my head, as clear now as it has always been.

"… I was with you most of the time but of course I couldn’t vouch for the times you were alone together … " What times?

"I didn’t want to tell him …" Tell him what?

For the first time in days I was thinking clearly. I couldn’t believe what the words in my head were telling me. If all it had taken was a slight shaking of the head to come to this understanding, why hadn’t I shaken it sooner? I had been so filled with the guilt of my own actions that I had not questioned how Firi had known.

"I see we are on the same page," tete Plakie said with satisfaction.

She gave me the number of a friend of hers.

"She’s an excellent lawyer. Formidable in cases like yours, she’ll make sure Firi doesn’t cheat you – on this at least," she added wryly. Sisters like tete Plakie are rare in this town, blood or not-blood.

In this life of ours, to get from point A to point B, it is necessary to walk the distance. Neither Kompressor nor combi can take you there. Crispen has called, but I don’t want to talk to him. Not yet. I’m still raw. He says he understands. Even if he doesn’t I don’t care. There is no answer, only this problem: a man and a woman leave point A for point B at the same time. The man walks faster but makes several short stops. The woman stops only once and lingers a while. Who gets to point B first?

 

The End. Blessing Musariri.

 

 

 

  Blessing Musariri.

 

 

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