Content warning: racial slur
“Love has no exit interviews,” I say. “Closure is the poor man’s time travelling.”
My voice is cold over the phone. I tell myself the situation calls for it; I’m speaking to my ex-girlfriend, after all.
She’s not any ex-girlfriend. She lingers on my skin like an old tattoo, still visible on my persona. I explain her to everyone I meet because she’s the first person they see on me despite my best efforts to keep her up my sleeve. Even now, about a year later, I’m in danger of being pulled back to the promises of our better days and the betrayals of the worst. Her voice has the familiar curiosity that pokes and pries beneath the flaps of my being, trying to lift them and see what lies beneath.
I was certain she’d never call again. But she did.
Before this call was the text message from an unknown number I nearly blocked, before she clarified it was her after. The shock put me on the flats of my feet. I should’ve known better; around the year mark is when sentimentality hits the hardest: the anniversary of all the could-haves, would-haves, and should-haves. I played for time, my fingers made small talk about smaller things: Teaching is going okay. Yeah, I’m writing a bit at the moment; can’t say what though. My dad is fine and my brother remains the best of us.
—He always was.
—Don’t act like you didn’t know it.
I deflected her questions this way and that. Serena, yo-yo-ing Sharapova at an open, would’ve been proud of me.
She asked if she could call.
—Unless you don’t want to talk.
I wondered if this was a sneaky Kasparov manoeuvre: move a phone call to G7 to checkmate my emotional stability. This was my signature move back in the day: Spirit Bomb-calling on all the misplaced heartbreaks to Kamehameha some poor girl into taking me back. But I realised it wasn’t me I was talking to. It was her.
That, I guess, is why we dated, why we worked (until, of course, we didn’t). I figured if she’d wanted to gut-punch me, she’d have done it earlier, when I was reeling from the strangeness of being alone.
—Sure, no problem. You can call.
I let the phone vibrate in my hands for a while.
Brrr! Brrrrrrr! Brrr! Brrrrrrr! Brrr! Brrrrrrr!
So this is what power felt like.
“Hallo,” she said.
“That’s my line.”
I flinched, glad she wasn’t around to see me. We talked about inconsequential things: the heat and the mosquitoes thugging at ten o’clock in the morning (“Crazy!”), her work (“Cool!”), how her sister’s abstract expressionist painting was going (“Uh-huh, mmm, of course … ”), the endless drought and the deepening recession (“Damn!”), and her recent trips to Thailand and Costa Rica.
“How’d you know about those?” she asked.
“You still follow me?”
“Standard breakup procedure: stay tuned in to the ex’s social media feeds to see if they lost the breakup.”
“How do you know if you’re winning?”
“The ex usually gets a dumb tattoo.” She laughed a little. I could still make her laugh. “But the giveaway is when they start quoting Rupi Kaur.” An intake of breath on her end. I could still make her cry, too. I asked about her travels again.
The beaches and the sundowners, the food and the ruins harbouring history and memories, the people, the miles, the take-offs and landings, and too many parties. “Just what I needed at the time,” she said. After a pause: “The distance.”
“I’m glad you went. And now you’re back.”
I asked the obvious question: “Why’d you call?”
“Talk about what?”
“There is no us.” (A fact, true, but I don’t know why I said this.)
“Was.” Another unscripted response rubbed against the moment’s grain. I looked for shelter in the unknown but secretly felt. “Seriously, why’re you calling?”
A camel caravan of silence ambled by, heading towards some secret desert oasis.
“Clarity,” she said.
“Ah.” I went to the kitchen and sat on a bar stool, tenting my elbows on the counter. “The closure talk.”
“If you don’t want to talk, just say so.”
“After all this time, how’d anything I have to say help you?”
“I don’t know. I’m hoping it will.”
I told her what was in my diary, what the homies called ‘the coldest shit ever written’: love has no exit interviews; closure is the poor man’s time travelling.
I’m no Spandau Ballet, but I know this much is true: a woman should never phone her nigga exes. Former high school crushes are cool – they’re harmless (the validation of the call will make their week, possibly their year). Even the ex-fiancé is worth a ring or two. But nigga exes are a hard no: they’re an unending cycle of underpaid optimism and predators of patience. Any woman calling up their nigga ex should know the facts as Charles Darwin found them on the Galapagos Islands: after a breakup, instead of going on a journey to the centre of their hurt, they’ll go around the world in eighty baes, avenging themselves upon everyone like they’re the wounded counts of Monte Christo. They’re a losing stock not worth betting on – sell them cheap, sell them fast. The market will always recover. But any sane woman should know she might not.
The hush from her end makes my eardrums pulse. I press the phone harder against my ear. For some reason, I stupidly hope she can feel it.
When she talks, her voice is strong. She says she’s sorry she phoned.
I’m about to say something to keep her on the line. I stop. I’ve been here before, with her emotions in front of me like a Normandy beach, my Allied and Lying Nigga Forces prepared to storm it, dreaming of all the womanly gifts lying behind enemy lines willing to give it up for a bar of chocolate, some cigarettes, and that most precious and poisonous thing: hope.
I keep quiet.
She says, “I liked you a lot.”
“I liked you too.” My throat tightens. “But that was a long time ago.”
“It’s been less than a year.”
I sense it on the other end of the line, the reaching, like God’s finger stretching out to Adam on that faded picture at the taxi rank, a few inches between them, contact capable of creating life. The static pulses of a new relationship vibrate between us, calling for a return to innocence. They are low but strong.
I cough and tell her we’ve been down this road before. There’s a muffled sound from her end. I think she’s stifling a cry. When she speaks up again, she says she understands. She asks if I have something special planned for my birthday. I’m going to be thirty soon.
Maybe that’s why she phoned. Perhaps she hoped I’d be a little wiser, a smidge kinder. That I’d managed to carve myself out of my character clichés and learned to keep the darkness of my grief and depression at bay. I often wonder if I have. And I worry far more often that I haven’t. I fear I’m still as predictable as the dawn, weaker than a newborn fawn. Perhaps there’s no cure for the nigga junkie chasing the rush of his own folly.
I don’t have any birthday plans. “Just dinner with my father and brother.”
“Send them my regards.”
“I won’t. We aren’t those people for each other anymore. My father will ask too many questions. My brother will be too happy, too hopeful. I would’ve appreciated it back when we were still together” – my throat catches – “back when it was love.”
She asks if it really was.
How we met. How we wound up dating. How we walked unshod of deception around each other. How it was me who brought doubt to our paradise.
I admit it now, the gall rising in my throat, the reels of romance rewinding and reminding me how things could have ended in another place, another time: maybe marriage, maybe family; maybe foundations, burrowing to new depths to withstand the winds of a fleeting world; or pinions and new altitudes for life on the wing.
Another Place – I wonder where it is and how to get there.
Another Time – I yearn for its clock and the hours that could be ours.
“Melanie, sweet Melamine,” I say, using her royal title, the one I bestowed upon her back when she called me Teaspoon, the only man who could stir her the right way. “We could’ve ruled this universe together.”
She cries and hangs up.
I start typing her number. I still remember it. There’s a cache of memories connected to her that I can’t delete despite changing grocery stores, my gym, and frequenting the other bookshop in town even though it’s not as good. What was the purpose of the distance, the time, and the silence if I could still dance a decent jig when habit pulled a phantom string?
Is this a sign? Do I want it to be?
I stop myself before pressing the call button.
I breathe in deeply. Exhale. Breathe in again. I go to the bathroom and wash my face, pad it dry, and look in the mirror. My skin scratches against me, like some scaly thing that doesn’t quite fit anymore. I pull a piece off my cheek and look at the man beneath: soft, vulnerable. I move to put back the missing chink in the armour but stop.
I lied and I’m sorry: I know how to get to Another Place. I’ve felt the seconds and minutes of Another Time.
My mother told me how.
She told me about my name’s secret meaning.
I cringed. “Hope? Hope is for the unprepared.”
I couldn’t understand how much that flippant comment hurt her. The way it burrowed deep into her, touching every well of resolve she’d kept deep within herself as our family changed houses, trying to scrape enough money together to stay in one place longer than a couple months. Walls with photographs or tables with vases – these were luxuries we couldn’t afford. We moved too much to pamper ourselves with the trappings of a permanent life. Once, in his kindergarten class, my younger brother said his family lived in a house made of boxes. Our parents had to explain to the concerned teacher he didn’t mean it literally. But it was common to have brown moving boxes in every room. I took special pride in being the chief biter of sellotape when it was time to change houses. My mother cloaked herself in high spirits then, saying we were descended from a nomadic and hopeful people.
“But where are you going if you don’t have hope?” My mother appeared untouched by my retort. Only now, years later, do I sense the hurt she concealed in her question, scared her parenting had been found wanting, or that our migration was, in some way, her fault. After all, if hope was for the makers of bad plans, then my parents must have been the only dreamers or fools who couldn’t read the signs of trouble back in the Small Country.
We were in my mother’s herb garden at the new house, the final one. A fresh salvo of rain had barraged the city, and glass beads of moisture clung to the basil, chives, and parsley – ambitious plants considering the New Country, shouldered between two ancient deserts, wasn’t conducive to growing anything at all. It was dry, brown, perennially hard, perpetually tough to survive in. My mother ploughed, fertilised, and watered as best as she could. Then she hoped her hard work would be repaid.
“How,” my mother queried, reaching down to inspect a leaf, “will you know your way?” She poked her finger in the soil, pinched a clod of dirt, and rubbed her hand on her stained overalls. She smiled at me. “You can prepare as much as you want, as best as you can, and things will still go wrong. Your father and I had big dreams, grand plans – in another place, another time – we prepared as much as we could. Things still went wrong.”
I crossed my elbows, defiantly warding off her wisdom. “I know, that’s why we’re here.”
“We are not where we are because we didn’t have plans, but because we pushed on when they failed. Even when things were hard, we worked and hoped things would change for us. Things are not the way we thought they would be. They are different. Sometimes different is all you have.”
I said the New Country was more than different. It was difficult, too.
“So was home. You only yearn for the best bits we told you about. The bad parts we kept for ourselves.” She looked around her green and tenacious garden, with my teenage beanpole standing in its middle, defiant and eager to tell her about the workings of the world. “And if you really think about it, this is where you brought us.” She looked at me slyly.
“This is Another Place, Another Time. We could not have reached it without hope. Without you.”
My mother laughed as I walked away, angry that she’d managed to pivot and flank my indignation.
I look in the mirror.
Sometimes different is all you have.
I tear off a little more of the old hide and feel the brush of possibility against my skin.
Hope takes you to other places.
I start pulling it off in chunks, exposing my neck and my arms to the harsh world. When I reach my chest, I hesitate. I feel the lure of the coward’s path, the nigga’s hamster wheel.
Hope takes you to other times.
I tear off the rest of the old me. I have the power to restart the world.
I go back to the kitchen and reach for my phone.