My attitude towards the world changed the day I realised that my father was a Catholic priest. He was a man of the collar, fully ordained under all the sacraments ancient men devised in Rome. Before this epiphany, I used to find him intimidating with his white goatee in his white robe. I think the robe was white because they say white symbolises purity. Who ever came up with that idea must have not considered the fact that white may as well mean empty – devoid of colour and sentiment – a void. My father had dark and shiny skin, the colour of melting tar. He was tall and bald, which made his presence a commandment. He spoke slowly and never looked you in the eye as if he was hiding something in his soul. I was never really close to him because all the while I was made to believe he was my uncle.
I live in a close-knit community that can neither be described as a town nor a village. You see, the way they define those places in the West does not really correspond to our lifestyles here. My thinking is; whether you live in a town or in a village is a matter of history and economics. They tell us that this place used to be hot back in the day when our forefathers used to go to Johannesburg to work in the mines. The country was a pool for cheap labour and our people benefitted from this exploitation, bringing back with them Sotho wives and expensive liquor in heavy caskets. There is a drinking joint here named Deep Root South 1667 because the first proprietor boasted of having worked in that mine when he was in Johannesburg. They say big men and stout maidens used to flock to this place since it stocked expensive whiskey and bottled beer. That’s history. Now the joint is a place where people beat each other up and curse at the setting sun. It’s the hub of kachasu, the cheapest local brew, and other miscellaneous spirits popularly know as ‘kill me fast’. Now that’s economics.
The biggest problem with small communities is definitions and attention. But isn’t this the problem with the whole world? It seems like there are others who think they know better than some. Those people who think that the few years they are allowed on this earth are tickets for them to define, to discipline, to punish. They will tell you what is allowed and what is not. They will tell you what you ought to do as if your soul is a part of their life. That’s why I don’t like being around a lot of people here. I don’t like to subject my life to constant surveillance as if I am in a reality TV show. I wonder why people will never be satisfied with just minding their own business.
When I declared that I was no longer comfortable with going to the Christian church, eyebrows were raised, voices squeaked, and tension engulfed the air. It was as if the people had just heard that I met the devil himself. Most of them prayed for me because they said that the white man’s education, which carries the devil between pages of books, corrupted my mind. They said University taught me the wrong things. They said I communed with the wrong people and the community had to pray to bring me back to my senses – to save me. But I wonder why these people condemned the white man’s education in defending his religion. To me that was a paradox. But the beauty with people is that they don’t usually see their own contradictions. They don’t realise that life itself is a contradiction. We nurture this life, protect and nourish it, only to prepare it for an inevitable end. What does it matter whether life ends in infancy or is brutally curtailed in old age? For me any death is timely.
People wondered why I renounced Christianity when my uncle was a full Catholic priest. They were talking from the outside looking in. They would have understood the situation better had they known what I knew. When my father, who to them was my uncle, became grounded with depression, people in our location whispered that it was my demons at work. They said I was slowly killing the old man. They held vigils at his place to ask the Holy Spirit to intervene. They claimed that the hospital did not find any ailment tormenting the old man. For my people, depression doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as mental health or any such nonsense. For us, diseases have to be found in the blood stream or in other similar bodily fluids. If somebody goes nuts and runs naked in the streets, they say he is either cursed or is on dagga.
So when my mother and other family members summoned me to urge me to join them in praying for the old man, I told them the truth. My mother was always convincing when she spoke.
“Son, you have never known your father. The priest, your uncle, is the only father you know… would you please do this one simple thing for him?”
“I already told you I don’t believe in god”
And my uncles looked to the sky, praying for me. The oldest of them stood up to make his point before things got out of hand.
“What has education done to you? You used to be a good boy… we thought we could count on you…”
“My faith or lack thereof has nothing to do with education. It’s a choice, the same way you choose to believe in what you don’t see. Why don’t you people realise that we are different? If we have different varieties of mangoes, different species of trees, inanimate things like soil and rocks come in different shapes, sizes, and chemical compositions, why then would you expect people to be uniform? To uphold the same ideas and love the same things and in the same way?”
The man did not reply and I did not expect him to. My question was loaded. Behind it were ideas, beliefs, puzzles, and even more threatening secrets about my life that these people did not wish to know. They did not know that the difference that they saw in me was just a tip of an iceberg; an iceberg that if tampered with would rock the whole boat of tradition and the much purported social order. In their silence I was meditating and delving deep into thought. I felt it was about time that I opened up and told them everything. I wanted to tell them what they did not want to hear when my mother suddenly interrupted my cogitation.
“The doctors haven’t found anything wrong with the priest. So you tell us, since you are the one who thinks you went to a bigger school… you tell us what he is suffering from!”
She was shaking. Her voice was unstable, a sign of anger or desperation. I held her gaze in my eyes and saw traces of tears forming from a distance. It was in that distant place where her tears were coming from where she hid all her secrets and regrets. Her life was full of secrets like mine was. She must have been tormented by dreams and wishful thinking. Maybe she dreamed that she had a happy home on a mountain top where she lived with her secret lover and her son in harmony. She dreamed of paradise – where one would love another without inviting social prejudice or the condemnation of some ‘god fearing people’. Maybe my mother wished the world had known the father of her child and that the sign of promiscuity they labelled on her identity would be erased. I looked her deep in her eyes and felt sorry for the only woman I ever loved. But that was not enough to stop me from saying the truth.
“I will tell you what he is suffering from,” I said. There was movement in the army of four before me but I could not tell who or what moved.
“He suffers from love denied… the old man is haunted by the secrets and the regrets that you have forced him to hide all these years.”
That was the fatal blow to my mother’s fortress of resilience. I witnessed her tremble with passion as she leapt from her seat to confront the nothingness before her.
“What are you talking about? He’s mad! He’s mad! My son has lost is mind!”
“I’m not mad, but it’s your lover in that bedroom who may lose his mind if you don’t do something about it. That priest is depressed,” and she slapped me.
My uncles did not say anything. They sat there silently as if their buttocks were hitched to the wooden seats. It was only my mother who was in delirium. I felt the heat sinking into my left cheek where she had landed her trembling hand. As that heat was slowly fading like the sound of distant church bells calling people to mass, my mother started laughing uncontrollably as if she was suddenly possessed by the spirit of laughter. It was her hysteric laughter that reminded me that laughter was what was missing in our family. It was all seriousness and no laughter that made the priest, my father, succumb to depression. In another life, they could have just laughed at the ignoble fact that a priest impregnated a woman and they have a son. They could have lived. But in this life you don’t just laugh at anything or with anyone. Even laughter is defined. They will tell you where, when, and what to laugh at. You can never laugh when the priest is preaching. You don’t dare to laugh at a funeral even if the priest loses control of his sphincter muscles and emits a loud fart amidst total silence.
My relatives did not ask me where I had heard the secret that the priest was my father. They did not waste time to implore who had whispered this bad wind into my unknowing ear. Come to think of it, my relatives never asked me anything. They did not ask me why I was never mentioning any wedding plans when my peers were way in their third or fourth years of marriage. They did not ask why they had never seen me with any girl or, in the least, heard rumours that I was seen somewhere with a girl at an ungodly hour. In my mind I concluded that they knew quite well that I was different but they did not want to admit it. They understood that I was not like most people but they did not confront me because that was not a laughing matter. Laughter is defined.
The only person I felt at ease laughing with was Jacob. This man was an angel down the street and he transformed my life in ways you can never comprehend. I have had crushes before. I know infatuation – that childish ticklish sensation that makes you lose sleep over nothing. But with him it was different. The first time I saw him waiting tables at Chong’s Wine & Meat, a Chinese bistro three blocks from my work place, something moved in me. I felt a burning sensation pulling at the hitches of my heart; a strange sensation intense and soothing at the same time. I have never liked Chinese food but I eventually made that joint my place.
I loved that Jacob gave me something to look forward to all the time. He always gave me a reason to smile or laugh. On weekends, I would usually board a bus to the city centre where he lived alone in a one bedroom apartment which he told me he could barely afford to pay for. Jacob said I was lucky because my family accepted me for whom and what I was. He said he regretted that his family had a one-track mind. They could not stand the simple fact that he was gay and they made him run away. I never told him that I kept my sexual orientation a secret. I did not tell him that the most important things in my life were secrets. My father’s identity was a secret, my sexuality was a secret, and even he was a secret. I wondered why the world forced us to tread in dark corridors when there was light in abundance.
Jacob’s apartment did not look much like a home. He had two wooden stools, a stove and a huge mattress where we used to spend most of our time. For me, he was the home I had been longing for my entire life. I believe that home is not a physical place; a town, a village, or a house defined by history and economics. Home is a feeling, a human heart, a beautiful personality. If you will ever find someone with whom you can share everything, someone you can tell anything and around whom you can do anything; if you ever find that someone you can laugh with in the rain until the sun comes up to scorch you dry, then, my friend, you have a home. That was Jacob to me.
The last time that I saw Jacob, we had a fight. He had been grilling me on why I never wanted to take him home to see my family. He asked me if I was ashamed of him and I had no answer to that question. The truth was that I was not ashamed of him but I was rather ashamed of what I was because the world did not accept me as such. The day the neighbourhood drunk told me that the priest was my father opened my eyes to a few things in this world. I realised that people were not usually what they made you believe they were. I realised that in this world there is more of darkness than light and that even the human being is all dark inside; only the eyes give out or take in light. But that moment of realisation did not kill the cowardice in me. I was a coward – afraid of shaking hands with my true self.
Upon realising this, I jumped out of my office and ran out to catch the next minibus at the bus stop. I did not care what the boss would say because it did not matter. Jacob was on my mind. I wanted to apologise to him. I wanted to tell him everything. My acquaintance with Jacob opened me up to myself and I finally accepted to live out my true self no matter what others would say. I rushed into Chong’s Wine & Meat and pushed my way to the counter where I met the Chinese owner.
“Excuse me sir, sorry for the disturbance… er… I wanted to meet Jacob.”
The man looked at me as if I had just risen from a sealed tomb.
“Have you been away?” he asked me puzzled.
“Not really… er… you see… er… it’s a long story, can I just see him, please.”
“Jacob died young man.”
The message came like a whisper in a bad dream.
“Car accident… I’m sorry… were you related?”
My ears could not catch the rest of his questions or explanations. I felt alone in a bistro full of hungry people craving Chinese food. It was as if their hunger was eating on me, trying to squeeze me down to skin and bones. I only heard echoes in my silence and as I walked out of that door the greatest regret of my life hit me in my face; I had loved, I had laughed, I had found a home but I never told anyone about it. Why did I let the world mislead me with its definitions and unknowing eyes? What did human beings know about life and love? I laughed.