Sandile Ntuli recently attended LitNet and the Jakes Gerwel Foundation’s Kommadagga writing workshop in Somerset East. He wrote this short story after the residency.
My son, Jace, and I are always the first to arrive here at the salon; today is no different. Jace closes the door behind him, and I head to the small kitchen to make some coffee as the clock strikes 8:35. He grabs himself some mango juice from the fridge, and then unpacks his school bag. Out come his laptop and a small but loudspeaker that will keep my clients entertained.
I take a sip of my coffee as the laptop swallows up the CD I’ve chosen, and Jace connects the speaker to the laptop just before the music starts. “I’m coming out” by Diana Ross is how we’re starting the workday. Throwback Thursday is the theme for today’s music playlist.
Today’s the day that Jace is going to do it – I can feel it.
My salon is not a big place. In the corner, Rodney is ready to do any hairstyle which requires hair clippers: German cut, brush cut, chiskop, wave, he can do it. He always says, “If you can believed it, I can did it!” Believe all you like, but no amount of faith can help Rodney to help you if you need someone to “crochet” your hair or treat your dreadlocks. Sommer wave your locks goodbye, one by one.
“Môre, Mahalia! How are you?” asks Rodney as he walks in, firing a thumbs up Jace’s way.
“I’m good, and you?” I lie to the man with the magic hands.
“I’m good, thanks,” he responds before he starts to fold and pack away clean towels.
I hate being asked how I am. People aren’t really interested. One time, I responded to someone by saying, “I’m not doing well. Mondli left me.” The idiot then said, “I’m good, too, thanks.”
Jace has his tablet and his school books out on the reception desk, as he has a school assignment to do, even though it’s school holidays. He flips through a maths textbook as the march of time continues.
Rodney has made quick work of packing away the towels, and he switches the kettle on for coffee.
Last on the rollcall at ten to nine is our resident weave queen, Golden. You want it, she can do it. If the price is right, she can even work at night. That’s good news for me.
“Guten Morgen, bitches!” groet sy vriendelik. She playfully smacks my bum. I don’t protest; Golden will always be Golden. Jace has his earphones on, and he merely returns the hand wave she throws his way. Looks like she had a good night out with her German girlfriend. I don’t want to know the details, so I dash out to the pavement to catch up with my bestie, Peter Stuyvesant. Rodney sponsors the communal lighter that’s always placed next to his Bible on the kitchen counter. “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth” is what “Bible” actually stands for, he claims.
I take a drag on the cigarette, while inside the salon, Tannie Anita’s singing “Giving you the best that I got”. My mother loved Anita Baker so much. Almost as much as she loved her Bible.
“The only time a woman should be on her knees is to scrub and polish the floor, Mahalia,” Ma used to say. “Any other reason is the devil’s bidding!” Oh, how I don’t miss that woman.
I kill the gwaai on the face brick next to the entrance and head back inside. Jace hates that I smoke. For him, my bestie is “the stick of death”.
It’s very different to the stick of death my mother used on Mondli and me after I broke the news that I was expecting Jace. I knew Ma wouldn’t be happy about yet another teenage pregnancy in her household. I thought she would scream a bit and then get over it. I had even anticipated that she’d tell me how much of a disappointment I was, opening my legs “vir elke swart seun in Overline”. That Ma said, and more. She said I was evil Queen Jezebel’s long-lost daughter and an abomination to the proud Louw familie, blah, blah, blah.
“It’s not like it’s Jezebel’s daughter’s fault that she fell in love with a Swati Jamie Foxx,” I spat. Ma grabbed her stick of death (a wooden walking stick liberated somewhere somehow) and got to work. Mondli shielded me in our hiding place under the kitchen table, and he took most of the beating that day. Thank God. No, thank Mondli.
It’s just gone 12:30. It was very busy this morning: Golden’s been coining it, Rodney is hot on her heels and I’m not far behind. My nail appointment for 11:00 was good; the lady promised to send her rich friends my way so that I can also do their nails. Elton John is serenading us now, but that’ll change very soon because Brenda Fassie is also standing in the queue for some action.
I focus my gaze on Jace for a bit and catch a glimpse of those dimples, which were the first gift I gave him. He’s paging ferociously through the maths textbook on the reception desk. He looks up only to type on his tablet or to write something down in his exercise book. The textbook is a doorstopper, but it’s not the same one I found those nude pictures in. Ma would call them dirty; I call them art. But why those specific ones were in Jace’s business studies textbook, I’ll never know. Or maybe I will when we talk later. Why two men posing in such an intimate way were in my boy’s textbook, though ….
Jace’s phone rings. He looks away just as my eyes eye his, to take the call.
“Sure, I can get away. See you soon,” is all I can make out from the phone conversation. He ends the call as I look away at my feet to avoid him noticing that I’ve been staring at him. These boots of mine are past their expiry date now, I think, as he approaches me. His school bag is on his back.
“Mummy, is it okay if I just go out to see Clinton? We’re just going to work on the assignment together at the library, and then we’ll sommer grab some lunch.” My nod indicates my consent. After all, how am I going to say no to a 15-year-old taller than me?
“It’s fine, just as long as you get back before closing time,” I say.
Jace makes his way to the door.
“Wait, don’t you need some money?” He can’t get away fast enough.
“Don’t worry about it, Mummy, I’m sorted,” he says, his walk becoming a sprint to the library. It’s within walking distance. Jace doesn’t say no to me when money is concerned, but when it comes to that friend of his, Clinton, I might as well not exist.
It’s five past four. I check my WhatsApp messages. Jace’s last message, sent an hour ago, was short, “Still with Clinton. Back soon.” I look at his WhatsApp profile picture. He’s doing ballet. He fell in love with it at age ten, and then quickly baking and cooking fell in love with him.
A client draws my attention. He’s looking for Rodney, who’s just gone to the Shoprite around the corner. I direct him to a chair, and, quicker than someone can fart, Rodney’s back.
The R Kelly track “I wish” is playing now from a USB that Rodney has put into the laptop. Trust him to have a USB that doubles up as a bottle opener.
I wish the time could slow down. I know I need to talk to Jace later, but I’m not looking forward to it. I don’t even know how I’m going to start our convo. I’m not sure whether I should just come out and ask, or …
The dark places people let their phones go would make a porn star feel like a saint. Secrets hide in work bags and in the comfort of laptops. Really, people are just walking-talking black bags full of secrets. Like R Kelly, who was arrested for sex crimes and human trafficking. Or that crazy woman overseas who thought she was smart and got her boyfriend to cut off her hand so they could trick the insurance people for a big payout. Ai! She apparently didn’t have a hand in the scam.
“Genoeg van R Kelly, asseblief, Rodney!” I yell, louder than I thought I would. “Please take us to Soweto in the ’70s,” I plead in a much softer tone.
Rodney obliges and takes us to Soweto, courtesy of the soundtrack of the movie Sarafina.
It’s a good thing I didn’t bring that chicken bredie from last night; I don’t have much of an appetite. Thankfully, Jace cooked, as we’d both be in the hospital emergency room if I had. I knew early on I’d end up working in a salon, a mechanic’s workshop or a gym.
Jace is thinking of doing one of those vocational cooking courses at the college next year instead of doing grade ten. I don’t think it’s such a good idea, though; he’s very smart. Hy is nie een van daai nyaope kinders nie, getting high on hopelessness while the future slips further and further away in smoke. He loves working with numbers. Maybe he must study accounting at Tuks after matric. It’s just an hour’s drive from here, so he can still stay at home.
Dis nou amper chaila tyd. It’s 2020, but because Rodney loves Coolio’s “Gangsta’s paradise”, we’re stuck in 1995 in the streets of the projects. It’s good to make a few hundred rand, I think, as Rodney hands over what’s due to me after a long day’s work. He licks his right thumb as he counts each note. He’s done for the day.
Golden, meanwhile, is giving an old lady a weave. A weave knows no age restriction, and Gogo’s got to give her man a reason to stay with her. His friends, like him, are university students, and they want him for themselves, Gogo tells us. Golden says that her weaves are hoochie mama-proof, so no homewreckers formed against Gogo will have success. She gives Golden a tip and leaves to test out this theory.
“I’ve sorted out Gogo, now hopefully you’ll let me help you with, you know,” Golden gives my afro a tap as she dumps a hairbrush into her handbag.
“Nee, wag. I’m not trying to keep any man, so it would be wasted on me,” I say.
“Hhawu, Mahalia, just because you think you’re a dinosaur, doesn’t mean you are. I would give you some tender loving care, but too bad I’m off the market,” she laughs, grabbing her boobs firmly.
“Yoh, maar jy is ’n vuilpop, Golden!” is the only response that comes to mind, just as someone walks in through the door.
“Hhayi, suka! Jy’s die vuilpop, and the other vuilpop just walked in,” Golden teases one more time as she sashays to the door.
The other so-called vuilpop, Jace, looks at me anxiously. His school bag is on his back, but not for long. He slowly puts it on the reception desk as if it’s made of glass, as I try to find my words for a conversation that would be hard for any parent.
So daar staan ons: twee vuilpoppe, volgens Golden.
Jace breaks the silence, “Clinton says hi, Mummy.”
“How is he?” I ask, as Clinton and his S-curl pop up in my head.
“He’s good. We were able to make some progress with the assignment.”
“That’s good,” I respond. “Sit.”
He doesn’t waste any time.
“Ek maak vir ons sommer tee, en dan gesels ons ’n bietjie oor –”
“Mummy, we have to talk.”
“Yes, we must.” I pull a chair closer to Jace’s. “There’s something I need to ask you. It’s something I wish I didn’t have to, but –”
He stirs in his chair, then he moves forward. I don’t know what to make of the action; is he just getting comfortable, or is he uncomfortable?
“When you were small, I used to love how you were so, so organised. How you’d help me clean the house, how you really put a lot of effort into how your hair looked, and keeping your clothes clean, and –”
“Please stop! The answer is no, Mummy.”
“No what, Jace?” I ask.
“No, I’m not gay, Mummy. But you are.”
The words I hear, but I struggle to understand what this boy is saying. He can tell.
“I am your son, and we are alike in so many ways. Yes, I like boys, but only to play with. But girls, girls I love. Only girls.”
I don’t know what to say, maar ek kan mos nie daar soos Kiepie met ’n mond vol tande sit nie.
“But what about the pictures of those naked men posing, that I found in your textbook, my boy?”
“Something told me you’d found that textbook. It was a library book, and the person who used the textbook before me must’ve left them there.”
I take a deep breath before I say another word.
“So what you’re saying to me is that you’re not gay, Jace?”
He nods affirmation.
“Mummy, I know that it is you who are gay, and I want you to know that it’s okay. It doesn’t change how much I love you. You must live your truth, and I’ll live mine.”
No matter how many times I watch Magic Mike, the truth has always been that Channing Tatum never really did it for me. But Halle Berry in that Catwoman suit, though. Today, my son didn’t come out to me. He made me come out to myself.
Just as the streetlights come on, I stand barefoot in the kitchen of our little flat making coffee, the last bit of condensed milk coming out slowly from its hiding place in the bottom of the tin. Then, it hits me: my bestie isn’t actually Peter Stuyvesant; my son is.