That Day on the Beach
by Abigail George
That day on the beach: instinct, clouds in my coffee, looking for a husband, the origins of the X-men, smoke and mirrors, and the progress of the rain. It felt so real. The rain, the leaves, the lovemaking; but was there any passion, or was it just perfunctory? I did not feel any pleasure. It felt like I was twenty-two again, living amongst xenophobic South Africans and Johannesburg people, I sensed winter coming on acutely.
And then there was the kiss. Something inside of me died. Well, I always felt a succession of deaths after writing, and I went cold. Yet there was something there that was still absent. I woke up then. How could I put it into the words? There are no consequences on the astral plane. You lose everything if you think of desire as being simplistic. Oh no, it is much, much more complicated than that. So complex that scientists in North America are studying it.
My dreaming of late left me depressive. The illness was returning. There were signs. A homosexual man with beautiful eyes, and sensitive hands passed me on the street. I wanted to find that confidence that I saw in his swagger on the page. I thought if I could do that it would explain everything, especially what I had been dreaming about. I needed to know why romance to me was like a lighthouse. I was always swimming away from it, backing away, getting shipwrecked. Left wondering why I was never anchored.
It was scary. I couldn’t define the moment or the place. Where was I? It did feel as if I had been spirited away to another dimension. Perhaps dreaming vividly can do that do you. This man in my dream reminded me of someone I had met a long time ago. A lecturer I had fallen in love with. Madly in love with. Since I was naïve and sexually inexperienced, he became my world for nearly two years. He was an investment. He was an assignment. He would turn out later to be the love of my life.
But with dreaming came a terror. The dreams were not real, and in the dreams I was happy. I was oblivious to the hidden dangers that I experienced when I was awake, when I was experiencing reality. When I say “happy,” I mean I felt no fear of anything real or imagined. No fear of hypomanic psychosis or the anxiety, the physical tremors that came with hallucinatory images. There was no darkness. In my dreams there was no longer any experience of suffering or depression or the rigid pull of madness, and the mercy of the flight from it in high care, being on suicide watch. There was no night-land. There were only ordinary people. Ordinary people falling in love, making love, talking, and having conversations about love.
I would dream about all of these things. What was my subconscious trying to tell the self-conscious actor in me? That I should discriminate? That I should do something else with my life other than write? That I should put aside my writing rituals, use cooking as therapy, and go out into the world, find a husband, have those children, walk down that yellow brick road, that sunny road, and accept that happiness took too much commitment, too much energy, time, but just do it anyway. Do it brilliantly. Do it excellently. Do it wisely. Do it effortlessly.
If I could bake a chocolate chiffon cake effortlessly, could it not be effortless to bring up children the same way? If I could make a lasagne, or bolognaise excellently by following my sister’s neatly handwritten instructions, could I not make an excellent wife for someone? But that would mean I would have to come clean. That would mean I would have to submit to questioning, to interrogation, of how my mother had “touched” me as a child. But so what if my mother had touched me indiscriminately? So what if she had touched me physically?
In the end I would have to answer questions about the baths we took together. She would always leave the door open. Call me while my father lay sleeping after working on his thesis for hours. And she would ask me to wash her back. I don’t want to remember. I feel a terror whenever anyone touches me intimately now.
Don’t let’s go there. I don’t want to think about it. Please. Please. I’m asking you nicely. But she didn’t understand. Educated. Cultured. Highly favoured. Thought highly of. How on earth could she be expected to understand the physical aberration of sexual abuse? The damaged psyche, and mind of the vulnerable child raised in an abusive environment, day after day slowly becoming programmed to live complicity with both denial and grief. That explicit violation, that graphic violence, when she could not glimpse into my world. The world of abandonment and neglect.
I thought my father knew. I thought he did. That’s why there were barriers in my childhood world. I thought that we were being protected, shielded from children who were rough. In retrospect I became wiser. Instead I wanted to be like my mum when I grew up, but I was never as elegant and beautiful as she was. Never. I had failed her. I had failed both of my parents in that regard.
Skin against skin like fabric, like sleep, like water in wild places. I don’t need you to show me that you love me, I need you to tell me. I need it like breath, like self-pity, like fractured air, like remembering my Ouma’s hands wizened by arthritis, but know this, dearest lover: I know we won’t be together forever.
There is a part of me that is terrified of the letting go of you, seeing you gone from the world of the living to the world of the dead. The world of the dead filled to the utmost of biblical proportions. Realise this: I’m a failure. As a woman I’m a failure, because I would be a failure in raising your children, or dancing with you under the moonlight, or being innocent as you enter me, my hair framing my face. Know this: you do not know anything about me, although I might toy with you, or give you my physical body, sate you, leave your body glistening with sweat and, lying beside you in the dark, watch you sleep. Watching over until the early hours of the morning. I know you will leave me, lover. I don’t blame you. Your children. Show me pictures of them. Show me pictures of your angels. Show me a picture of your soft love light. You know my terms by now.
Call me up if you want to talk or have a good time. I’ll listen to all your troubles. I will love you like that. I will make you my world for one night. Your wife, I imagine, is nothing like me. Is she anything like my mother, I wonder to myself. Women who are anything like my mother always have this need to be worshiped.
Women who are anything like my mother terrify me still. I am nothing like that beautiful, elegant woman that you have your arm around in the photograph. Does she truly make you happy? If she does, then I am happy for you. I will not miss you. You don’t want to know anything about me, believe me. You don’t want to hear stories about my childhood, my competitive streak, how successful we have all become at not being successful at marriage though we’ve passed through life with flying colours with everything against us.
We’ve accomplished, my siblings and I, through thick and thin, our flimsy dreams, those goals our parents had for us excellently, though not as excellently as I would have liked for my own life. No elixir of a sunny road for me and my sister. Have a heart and don’t wake up yet.
The only place where I don’t feel a fool, where I feel safe, is here in your arms, lover. Here I forget about Dante’s hell, genocide, and the Holocaust. Let me forget about Rwanda and Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Let me forget about that day on the beach. Tracing the Caesarean scar, fingering it as if all the stitches would collapse into thin air, and I wouldn’t exist in this world. I would be gone without a trace.
Help me to understand the lack of mother-love. Win. Win. Win. My teen-age heart would chant as my name would be read out. I would make my way to the stage and the principal would hand me something beautiful. A certificate. Intelligence was never enough. A vague kind of prettiness, an attractive personality was just never quite enough. Please, please, don’t let’s go there, of all places, to a time I’m through navigating. My own personal hell was what invisible people called childhood. I am Alice. I have a Cheshire cat. I live in my own wonderland, and I’m sure as hell not going to let anyone take that away from me. I don’t want to remember the lack of mother-love. The quiet, that open door leading to the passage of promiscuity.
The hair was always damp at the nape of her neck, curling slightly because of the steam. With the scent of soap on my hands, I would wash her back in circles. I remember her hunched shoulders. When she hunched her shoulders, was she hiding her breasts? Was she insecure? Or was she just tired of her highly-sexed, manic-depressive husband?
After dressing, she would show her Caesarean scar. Tell me how the doctor had taken me from out of her, like Jonah and the whale. Now grown up, I have more of her personality than my father’s. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Don’t look at my face. It will have to be in the dark if you want to really make love to me. Why do you desire me in the first place? Are you anticipating my permission? What are the terms of love, of being boyfriend and girlfriend, of the mother who says she is tired, cannot read my essay?
I am not a child of Buddha. I am a child of something lesser. Self-actualise that. First I’ll go down on you. In front of you on my hands and knees, I will beg you to humiliate me. I will, I promise. A psychologist doesn’t come with multiple-choice questions where you have to color the blank dot in next to the correct answer.
To tell you the truth, I have no desire to become a wife in real life. I don’t find it appealing in any way. It’s not attractive to me. Like the way the words “Los Angeles” moves me. Its waves gives me the feeling of good vibrations. It seems married life would mean I would have to give up the writing life. I would have to put on a pretty face in photographs and smile.
And what if he drinks? And what if he smokes? How many children does he want to have? Does he like red meat? Does he like exotic dishes like couscous? Will I have to become adept at trying out new recipes, or will he like to eat out, and try fancy restaurants, eat dinner there every night, or is he a steak and a potatoes man like my grandfather once was?
He had two children by another woman. My grandmother persevered. She was a strong woman. I could not be that strong if my husband looked for love with another woman and took her to bed. My mother has taught me nothing extraordinary and everything about women. How the seed of manipulation is planted inside the man’s eye. How different a woman’s personality is from a man’s. Her sensuality. The second sex’s femininity and sexuality.
How man must be forgiven for thinking only of his own aura, his identity, his psyche, his ego, the frailty of his mother, and how much more delicate she becomes now that she has grown older. Now that a man’s mother has become elderly, ended up in a home, the best his salary can buy, he becomes aware of his own mortality.
All people should be encouraged to grow something. To plant something. To nurture something on a patch of land. Plant a tree, or forest. My mother did. She would spend hours hard at work in her garden. We had a perfumed, moneyed garden in apartheid South Africa and post-apartheid South Africa. That was mum’s triumph. She had no close female relationships. To me, that made her exotic.
As an adult I have no close female relationships. I should have seen it coming. Instead of marking it as a milestone. Why didn’t you love me, Mum? That day on the beach, I called out your name. Why didn’t you turn around and wait for me to catch up to you? You made me hate you. But you couldn’t hear me. And I felt like a child in time waiting for you again. Like the day you forgot to pick me up from my extra lesson, my rehearsal.
The day we didn’t have enough money to pay for our groceries was a Sunday. You were wearing your church heels. You looked impeccable as always. I was wearing white stockings. How you never smudged your creamy pink lipstick that found its way into the creases of your lips was always a small wonder to me. You, you, you left me standing next to our trolley filled with bags of food that would last us for the four weeks of the month. Went home which was twenty minutes away from the shopping mall to get Dad’s credit card, because you did not have enough money on your own or salary had not been paid into yours yet.
Vincent, my cousin who was staying with us because he was doing a bridging course at the local college and who was older than I, more mature than I, turned his head and walked away from me. He ignored my plaintive stare. And I wish he had waited with me. That would have been kind of him. But Vincent was never kind to me. Only until he found the sunny road of having a spouse, raising two kids of his own. Did he buy his Indian wife flowers, expensive perfume?
Did his son and his daughter know that at night he found himself engrossed by erotica, downloading it off the Internet, that and violent pornography too? I guess that’s what every man does: find women electric. When do they first become aware of that? That desire?
Like the desire I feel not when I’m their company but in my dreams. Of course I remember everything. The heat of the day. Dust. That Sunday morning. I remember the cashier smiled a crooked little smile, and I looked away. I remember the young man not much older than my cousin, who had put the groceries in the trolley. He did not meet his eyes. Men grow cold as girls grow old, right?
Copyright © 2020 by Abigail George