When I left the church, I also wanted to leave guilt behind. The what-what from the pulpit about original sin, and mounting spiritual debts. The stuff about turning the other check, and the needle’s eye, and blessed be the poor and the meek. No one can escape guilt, though; everyone has some portion, a slowly-amortizing, always-compounding debt.
Two days ago, ZESA struck, and the microgrid my building shares with the wholesale produce market and the egg and dairy shops collapsed. Twelve hours elapsed by the time I called the ‘fault line’ myself – no one had officially reported the outage. And crews were done for the day. And they hoped to get out next morning. Twenty-four hours elapsed, no power. No wifi. Dead laptop and phone, and the week’s shopping wilting in the warming fridge. The cleaners came through yesterday afternoon, and moved all of my vulnerable foods from my nonworking fridge to the fridge across the hall in the office portion of the building, to keep things from going off. The office half of the building has a deafening generator running at full blast, a few scattered office lights left on overnight last night, as if mocking my lamplit squinting.
But, the cleaners said, “How are you going to cook? Who is going to cook for you?”
I figured I’d get takeaway, hey?
“But you can’t eat takeaway, not after we have gotten you used to fresh food. It is not good for you.”
Eeeeeshh, I’ll survive. I mean, takeaway is basically all I eat at home.
“No, no, no. You can’t be eating chips and what-what. I have a sister,” Qubukile said. She already introduced me to her fetching youngest sister, who works for Schweppes, makers of Mazoe Orange Crush. She knows I like Mazoe. Her sister “just happened to be in the neighbourhood” last week, and came around, and met me on her lunch break. A beautiful woman, the same penetrating eyes as Qubukile; a crisp medium blue dress shirt with a flared collar and sensible skirt. I made awkward small talk whilst sitting in athletic shorts and a t-shirt hammering away at my computer. So that was one sister.
Qubukile broke in to my reverie, “This one is my second-youngest sister. I have 11 siblings, you know.”
Eleven siblings, potentially eleven separate matchmaking opportunities. Surely not twelve girls? Some must be married.
“She lives in town and has a car, and she will cook for you. I will call her.”
No, no, no – naw, that’s alright! I can make do for a night!
“Oh, no. She will like cooking for you. She will cook, and then bring it to you. I will give her the ingredients from the kitchen. She will make....spaghetti? With meat? And maybe mushrooms?”
She knows I like mushrooms.
“And then she will bring it over.”
I wanted to say – but she doesn’t work for me! And for that matter, you don’t have to, either! Qubu and Tia seem to relish cooking for me – it’s a day-ender after cleaning the offices across the hall. They come to my apartment, and sit in the chairs in the kitchen and bustle about, and half-shut the door and make animated conversation. On days I’m not around, they relish the satellite television that shows South African pictures on endless loops, one whole channel dedicated to those that feature magic – often the channel I find when I infrequently turn the set on. They cook for me, and it seems to be part of their job. The building manager sometimes ghosts into my apartment and hovers after they’ve left, asking anxiously, “You are enjoying their food? They cooked for you?” Oh, yes, yes, I say, it’s so lovely, but you know they don’t have to? I can manage. I’m used to managing on my own. I live alone! With a dog! To which he replies, “Oh, no, no, no, Doc. That is their job. They will take care of you.”
Confounded, I offered one more fumbling, feeble protest.
Ohhhh, but it’s such a hassle!
“It is no problem,” Qubukile said as she scrolled down her contacts list and walked out of the room.
A half hour elapsed as I continued to bang things out on my laptop, working quickly against the depleting battery. I looked up – and this happens a lot in my own home now – startled – and there is Qubukile, standing with a woman in a skirt-suit and glasses. “This is my sister,” she said, and I introduced myself with a thin smile.
Hellooo, I said, warbling a little. Uhhhh, sit down? –and gestured to the overstuffed dining room chairs on which there were stacks of books. They perched awkwardly, moving things around. Small talk ensued. “She works for Delta Beverages,” Qubukile explained, “And lives on this side.” “This side” could mean anything, as could “that side.” “This side,” in this context, seems to mean “in town.”
Beverages run in the family, Heh! Heh! I laughed awkwardly.
“Yes? Oh yes,” Qubukile politely laughed. “That was my youngest sister. This is my second-youngest sister. There are twelve of us. He is 36,” she pivoted abruptly, speaking to her sister. “He is a doctor, and he lives alone.”
I am 36! Heh. Heh. Heh. And yeah, just me and my dog. And in my family, it’s just me and my sister.
“That is niiiice,” Qubukile said, as there wasn’t much else to say, and no in-road for the sister. She pivoted again: “She is getting her MA in Accounting.”
Accounting! Well, that’s a good career. Everyone wants to know where the money goes.
“Yes,” the sister says, “at Midlands State University. I am almost finished. Next month.”
Oh, yeah. I went to Gweru two weeks ago. I pause. For the book festival? We all pause. It seemed nice, hey? I met some lovely professors from MSU there. Pause.
“Welllll, she is in the middle of work. She works until 5, and then she will cook for you, and come over at seven?” Qubukile glanced at her sister, who nodded equivocally.
I wrote down my number on a post-it note, and handed it to her sister. “I will call you when I am downstairs,” she said, making me feel all the more uncomfortable with this ‘arrangement.’
The evening continued, and shortly after they left, the electricity came back on. To celebrate, I answered all of my emails at once, binged on Facebook, and then turned on the television to a Step-Up movie, happy to veg out. Seven comes and goes, and Step-Up: Revolution continues (N.b. the Step-Up revolution is perpetual). I check my phone compulsively, painfully guilty that this whole thing is happening, and determined not to miss her phone call. Which I do, anyway, but only by a minute or two whilst puttering about the kitchen fixing hard boiled eggs for breakfast.
I call her back and flap down the stairs in my slops – flip-flops – and athletic shorts and novelty t-shirt, bedraggled and sleepy-eyed. I see her outside; she is standing in her car door. She smiles. Gone is the sensible but plain skirtsuit. Instead, a flirty white and black minidress, with flared skirt, slightly starched. She is wearing short heels, but white patent leather. She holds a white clutch adorned with gold studs. I stand awkwardly, smiling awkwardly, flapping my slops against my soles in place, awkwardly.
She holds out a pot of meats and vegetables, warm to the touch. I try to make small talk. How about that concert at city hall? I bet the traffic was pretty bad, immediately regretting it, worrying I made her feel uncomfortable for being late. She does feel uncomfortable about being an hour late and makes apologies. I realize idiotically that she was late not because work went late, but because she had clearly taken an immense amount of time making herself beautiful. It dawns on me that I might be expected to invite her to stay to eat, and of course I should, because she cooked for me, but I can’t, and panic is rising in my throat. The wind has cooled and whips jacaranda blossoms down around us. She shivers slightly in the breeze.
Heh! Heh! No problem, I say, trying for reassuring and kindly, but coming out pettishly. I am very grateful for you and your sister, and you having cooked for me. She grabs a neatly-tied bag with stacked Tupperware, and her clutch, and I walk us toward the building. Going up the stairs, I nervously accelerate, wanting distance between myself and this painfully awkward moment.
She pants theatrically for a second, “You are running!”
Oh, right, heh. Heh. I go to the gym, and ... uh... yeah, I move quickly these days.
We get to my apartment, and I unlock the three-part system. My living is a mess – scattered books, cigarette packets, pens, notebooks, laptop, tablet, more books. I steer her to the kitchen and place the still-warm pot on the counter. She sets things down next to it; she pauses, and sets her jaw, and then sets her clutch down before undoing the bag, and lifting out containers of steamed vegetables, creamed mushrooms, cooked spaghetti, enumerating each one, and at each one, I crow weakly. Oh, there’s more? Heh. Heh. How wonderful. “My sister made you coleslaw?” she queried, looking around.
She did, yes, and I’ve been snacking on it this evening, I said as she lifted the lid. The corners of her mouth tightened, “Yes, I am so sorry I was late.”
Oh no, no no no, it’s fine, I burbled, ready to repeat reassuring no’s for hours if need be. There are not enough hours for the no’s I feel compelled to say.
“Right, so, shall I serve you?”
Shall I serve you. Shall I serve you? There aren’t enough no’s for this, and there aren’t enough words to smooth over what is happening, that there is a beautiful woman in my kitchen who has been pressed into cooking for me, which is a definite courtship ritual no matter what society you belong to. I can’t, I just can’t, sit around my living room in silence making small talk with someone I have no intention of marrying, no matter how lovely and generous and gracious she is, and I’m in over my head, and these things happen, but there’s no knowing in advance how painfully awkward this will feel, and how this has never really happened to me, or at least I’ve never been aware of it happening. I have never been a “catch,” too neurotic and too finicky, and too oblivious and too aloof, too too too too.
No, no, no, no, of course not, I can serve myself, but oh, oh, thank you so much for cooking. You shouldn’t have, really, it’s too generous, I babbled. Your sister is so lovely, and I’m so lucky to have her around, and everyone in your family is clearly lovely and generous, I said. I moved ever so slightly towards the kitchen door, like by inches. She picked up her clutch and set her jaw. Right! I should, uh, show you out, as if the eight foot walk to the front door was a long trek after a long night and we were both exhausted and the door was somehow complicated.
She smiled woodenly as I fumbled with the three locks. Thank you, thank you so much, I said again. Really, it was so lovely. SO kind of you to do this, to which she replied with quiet reassurances, “Oh, yes, but takeaway is so bad, it was the least I could do.” I thought about giving her a kindly warning about the darkened stairwell, to be careful, but didn’t want to seem anything other than oblivious, and that seemed cruel, and there was also no way to do this without appearing to hustle her out anyway, and god, I thought, I hope she cooked something for herself, or held back some of the food just in case, and oh my god, she cooked for me, for us, and I am pushing her out the door, and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so bad as this.
Well, it was lovely meeting you, I said. But I don’t think this is going to work, I didn’t say. It’s me, not you, I didn’t say.
Nor did I say, And it’s so late. Or, And we have to work in the morning, after all.
I couldn’t bear to hear her descend the stairs in her modest heels, tapping hollowly. I couldn’t stand there and watch her pull her car out into the empty streets and drive the deserted blocks home. I couldn’t stand to think about the fact that she might now have to rustle up dinner for herself, take the pins out of her hair, loosen the heel on her shoe, slide out of her dress. I couldn’t stand to think how bad I was at all of this – at saying no, at not accepting generosity I can’t or don’t know how to return. There are things I can’t say, and silences I can’t explain, either.
I have a friend here who is utterly unabashed in her flirtation with me. She knows it won’t go anywhere, but also knows she doesn’t have any filter. “I need to get in the swing of things,” she said. “To get in the game again. I have honoured the ancestors by staying celibate for now, but I don’t need to do that anymore.”
She likes my red beard (“like a pirate!”), my dad bod (“but a sexy dad!”), my strawberry blonde hair (“you are so, so...white”). I tease her that she just has a taste for the exotic, which she gleefully admits. She recounts to me all of the pale redheaded men she’s known – three, I think, including me. A German she’s working on, but who has no butt. The Germans don’t have butts. She asks me how a white boy has so much butt. She teases me that the gym will ruin my physique. She introduces me, generously, to friends, but always with a long prologue in chiShona that ends with an admission to me that she has told them all about me, that she has a crush on me. Her friends invariably confirm this, and at least one was awesome enough to look at me appraisingly and say, “Ehhhhhh, he is not so great.” I know where to find that friend, and I look forward to spending more time with her.
This is not quite the end of my second month in Zimbabwe. There are eight months to go. The cleaner has eleven siblings. There are known variables, and unknown variables. Known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, unknown-unknowables. There is a ledger of generosity, given, returned, not returned, with blind double entries. I will leave this place indebted although I come here rich.
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.