Joy sits across from me staring at the cast on my leg, sipping her coffee.
“I saw your photograph in the paper. I wanted to see if you were alright, if you needed anything?” I gulp down my green tea, the liquid scorches my tongue.
“I’m doing alright. At least I have Larry here to take care of me.” Larry’s floating around in the kitchen, the chinks of pots and pans reminding Joy and I that we aren’t alone. “I was surprised to see you the other day in the street after so many years. Starting up your business again?”
She wraps her one leg around the other, straightening her spine. “Yes. Thabo and I are saving to move to Cape Town.”
“So that was him in the Volvo?”
“That was him.”
We sip our drinks with the banging of plates and cutlery still going on in the kitchen. Larry can never do anything quietly.
“I brought you this. It’s something I found lying at the bottom of a drawer. I think it’s the best one we took.”
She pulls out a photo from her purse and places it on the table. The colour in the photograph has faded a bit, the edges are frayed, but you can still make out the details: my scrawny hands sprawled across Joy’s stomach, the mounds of her breasts pushing into the frame from above. My hands barely touch her skin, looking strange and unsure of what to do.
“I never understood why this was your favorite.”
“I liked the shape of your hands.”
We had taken to Joy’s photoshoot idea. After she was done with clients for the day we’d pick a location and shoot shoot shoot. We’d take photos of us dangling from trees, swinging from traffic signs, popping out of windows. Once we even snuck into the yeast factory, taking photos of ourselves on the roof against the backdrop of the Army Flats and Biko Squatter Camp.
Every now and then (when Joy was in the mood) we took naked photos of each other.
“We can never take whole pictures of each other.” Joy said, cupping my penis in her hand, exposing it to the flash of her disposable camera.
“This way we won’t get in so much trouble if we get caught. We can say it’s just pictures of body parts, it’s not really us.”
We had amassed a collection of nudes in a month: her hands grabbing my buttocks, my lips hovering over her bellybutton, her tongue touching the tip of my nipple. I think Joy thought we were making art: taking pieces of ourselves, smashing them together and possibly stumbling onto something beautiful and timeless.
“Look at this one.” She held up a picture of our thighs side by side: my hair-poked legs blending into her eel-sleek skin.
“It looks like alien skin.”
“Maybe you and I are aliens; we’ve just forgotten.” I snorted at her, grabbing the camera and taking a photo of her cheeks, which were beginning to sprout pimples.
“I think I should go.” Joy says, uncurling her legs.
“No, stay a little longer.”
“You should rest.”
“Whether you stay or go, this foot is staying broken for a while.” I put the photo down on the table, placing my mug on top of it.
“Fine, for a little longer.” Her legs remain uncurled, a forgotten smell wanders into my nostrils. It’s sweet, delicate even, and makes me want to cry.
“I feel like I should apologize.”
“There’s no need.”
“Still…” The words dissolve into letters, then scribbles, twisting and breaking.
“You thought you were doing the right thing. Can I stand on your balcony?” The question juts out at me. I regain my composure quickly, nodding.
“You go ahead, the door’s open. It’ll take me a while to move with this thing on my foot.”
It was a Sunday afternoon and Joy’s parents were attending the funeral of a relative who had died in Natal. They’d left her alone, tasking her to look after the shack while they were gone. Business was a little slow that weekend so we busied ourselves with taking photos of each other. We soon realized that taking photos was a good way to track the changes in our bodies: the way crevices sprouted hairs and parts of us hardened, softened and swelled up; as if preparing for something unspeakable.
“I want us to do it.” I told Joy as she lay naked, propped up on a pillow, legs wide open.
“Just take the picture, Patrick.” Joy tossed her head up to the corrugated ceiling, waiting for the flash of the camera. I think she wanted the flash to penetrate her, to capture something I couldn’t see.
“When are we going to? You give yourself to these men every week while I keep watch outside. But when is my turn?” I said, throwing the camera onto the bed next to her. She dropped her head in a heavy, exhausted way.
“Sex ruins everything. It will ruin us.” She said, closing her legs and reaching for her clothes. I watched her get dressed, feeling stupid and used. Then, without saying a word, I walked out feeling a strange acid gurgling in my gut.
“I heard you’re married.” Joy’s weight presses up against the balcony railing, the sunset behind her burning lilac in the sky.
“She left me; took the kids. I wasn’t a very good husband.”
“We aren’t very good at anything are we? Whatever we try to do always comes out…we always seem to fail is what I mean.” She lifts a glass of water to her lips; I watch the subtle expansion of her throat.
“You think it’s because of how we grew up?” I finally sit down on the balcony, resting my cast on the stool in front of me.
“No.” She turns away from me and watches the commotion across the street. Police vans are parked outside the drug house. “They won’t find anything in there,” she continues, “Thabo told me how they’ve bribed so many policemen already. He wants to go into business with them. Start a direct line from Cape Town to Joburg.”
I wasn’t interested in the drug house or in her pimp. I wanted to know why, after so many years, she had decided to see me.
“Joy…” I start, trying to shape a question out of stale pain.
I remember the sound of his beating coming from inside the shack. I could hear the snapping of the leather belt in the air as it whipped, landing squarely on her fleshy parts.
“You’re a whore now huh? Is this what you do when your mother and I are not around? You little slut!”
My hands were shaking. I wanted to run away, to never set foot in the squatter camp again. I wanted to go back and stop myself from writing the letter to her parents. But it was for her good, I thought. I loved her. She had to see that this was me loving her. I didn’t want to protect her like that anymore. It was the first time I felt the strange substance that was love curdle into anger, then guilt.
The beating didn’t stop for a while. I stood outside listening to it, listening for Joy’s voice. But no squeals came from her. Just the sounds of snapping leather and whipped flesh.
“…why are you here?” She turns towards me; her face inexplicable.
“I thought you deserved to have that photo. Have at least some memory of a time when things were the closest to being pure.”
“You have to know that I didn’t know that your father would send you away. To the Eastern Cape of all places. All I wanted was for you to see me, to see the man I was becoming for you.”
“Men. You guys really have dick for brains huh?” She rolls her eyes, making a move to walk into the lounge again. “I should go, this was a mistake.”
“I became an alcoholic, you know. Aside from other drugs I tried. When you left, I wasn’t the same. Nothing felt the same, no matter who I met, no matter what drug I took.”
“You think I didn’t suffer too? You think it was easy living in Mhlangeni with relatives who knew you only as the slut of the family?”
“So we’ve both suffered. Isn’t that enough?”
“I don’t know.”
She walks into the lounge, picks up the photograph from the table and heads over to me, placing it on my lap. “I came here to give you this, a little reminder of the beauty we shared for a time.”
“Did you ever really love me, Joy? Or was I just some teenage toy for you?” I look down at the photograph, noticing a round mug stain on it.
“What does it matter?” She says, kissing me on the cheek and turning around to leave.
I don’t say goodbye to her nor do I look on as she walks toward the door. I hear Larry say goodbye, the lock on the door snapping in place behind her. The evening call to prayer echoes from the neighborhood mosque and I close my eyes wishing for the Imam’s chant to drown me completely; to allow me to forget. Or at least to remember differently.
“You guys should really do something about that dumping across the street.” I said to the receptionist as I checked in for my first job interview at the yeast factory.
“Yes, management is trying to get the council to do something about it. You know these filthy squatter camp people.” The receptionist replies, her lips parting slightly, sending whole albums of songs into my crotch.
“It looks like God cut a wound in the earth.” I said.
“And now the wound’s infected. And the cure doesn’t exist.” Her reply was surprisingly poetic, reminding me of someone I had chosen to forget.
“What’s your name?”
“Melissa.” She smiled, her dimples surfacing like dumplings in a pot.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Patrick.” Her face dug itself into my eyes and for a moment I felt the corpse of a naïve boy twitch and fart.
Image by Saulius Rozanas from Pixabay (modified)