There were so many of us growing up in what was initially a three-bedroom house. Five kids, two parents and whatever cousin needed housing close to town for school or work.
When I got too big to share the master bedroom with our parents, your double bed and denim duvet were swapped for two three-quarter beds that wore my My Little Pony and Bratz Doll sheets. Your football boots, socks and shin guards had to make way for my doll house, arts and craft kits and my imaginary sold-out solo concerts.
I was nine and you were 12. For a good year, we had sparring matches until we found our footing around one another. I would make the beds if you agreed to keep the light on until I fell asleep. I would cover for you when you missed your curfew, but only if you gave me a good two hours to perfect my Mariah Carey notes after school.
When no one was looking we would talk about our crushes, swap MP3 players, build forts and play WWE wrestling. I would always win. You became my first best friend.
This worked for the three years until there was enough room in the house for us to have rooms of our own.
It’s been 17 years since we were roommates. You moved out of home a while ago and when I thought you had had enough of having me as a roomie, you randomly texted me.
“Dude, move in with me?”
“Enge? Why? What’s up?”
“I need a new roommate. You talk about needing your space and I have that space. Plus you’ll still be with fam.”
“Awe, o serious?”
It’s Monday, about 6am, and I’m starting to get ready for work when I have to let you into our apartment.
After a shower I wake you from your nap and iron my clothes.
Once you’re dressed, you prep the things for breakfast while I make the beds.
I open the blinds and windows while you boil the water and take out the mugs. Two coffees and two sugars for me. Two rooibos teabags and four sugars for you.
I watch the first half of Adventure Time and eat with you before leaving you to wash the dishes.
Each task is punctuated with me pressing to see if you are okay and where you spent the weekend.
You get the house keys, I pack the lunches and we leave before I get answers to your teary eyes and three-day absence and silence.
Still, we get on the same bus to the train station. You unnecessarily walk me to the Gautrain door and I turn to face you for the routine check.
“O tswere everything?”
“Ja. Lunch, purse, all my cards, notebooks. Everything.”
You shake your head, put your headset on before you komba for a local taxi to your workplace.
“Bro bro, o shapo mara? You weren’t your full self this morning. Please let me know dintsang. But only when you’re ready” is the text I sent to you while at work. The two ticks stayed blue.
“Me and my chick broke up, dude.”
I’m making a quick stir-fry and doing a barefoot two-step when you address my “what’s wrong” chorus.
“Well, she called it off with me. She said I’m not supportive. After five years, the support I gave her was fokol.”
With a handful of shock, an equal understanding of both sides and not wanting to hurt your bruised feelings, I struggle to respond with more than a half-assed “Askies. I’m really sorry bro bro. Wanna talk?”
You comply and I listen to your long outpouring about how things got to this point. Feelings were hurt, ultimatums were given and no one was bold enough to go back on their word.
We sit on the kitchen counter and I only stand up to get forks that we use to pick at the vegetables until they’re cold.
“Where do I go from here, Za?”
It’s hard to think of a world in which your good-boyfriend title is removed. I struggle to think of a world in which you’re just as unreasonable and apathetic as the men who have scared me out of the dating scene. And you are hurt. So I quietly wrestle with the label you have resentfully given women like me and your ex. You call us “Rupi Kaur’s daughters” or “bana ba Rupi”. You think the way the women think about relationships is based on Rupi’s poems and not their own views. I bite my tongue before I remind you of your fragile masculinity.
Has it always been like this? Women like me against men like you?
With no answer I nervously revert to thumb-sucking and patting your back with my free hand while we gather the courage to move this talk forward.
We slowly stroll through the rest of our conversation as if to avoid landmines. You tell me how women like me have hurt you. I tell you how men like you have scared me.
“I don’t know what all this means. I know that the two of you aren’t bad people even though you both claim to be hurt by the other,” I say to assure us both.
We quietly try to believe what I say. You usher me out of the feeling by reminding me that it’s Monday and I have a deadline. We get our laptops and sit cross-legged on the rug of what should be our living area. You quietly watch Rick and Morty while I finish writing my story. Once it’s sent, I offer you a simple prayer of strength that we seal with a high five before retreating to our respective rooms to marinate in the residue of the awkward talk.
I have experienced and witnessed too many break-ups not to know the Tinder hand motions. It’s the only app that requires you to swipe left, left, left, left, pause, and only then hesitantly swipe right. Every now and then you could fool other people into thinking you’re texting friends on WhatsApp but not me, so I caught you early.
“Wetsang mo Tinder?” I inquire and you ignore.
“Tlesa phone, I’m not letting you do that fam,” I laugh before grabbing your phone and uninstalling the app.
You’re irritated. But I assure you that you can get it back after we have a chat. You make coffee for me and tea for yourself. I get my bag and take out a journal with leather binding and a matching pen.
“This is the grave for your pain. Write it down, draw a comic, scribble until it makes a hole in the paper. I don’t care.”
You throw my gift aside and take your phone from my hands. We get loud arguing about how you think I think I have the answers to everything. I steadily remind you that, as much as I don’t have them, neither do you. No one backs down. We get louder. I cry, you walk away and we reinforce our tainted ideas about each other.
I leave the journal at your door with a note: “This fighting is kak. You’re my best friend and I want us to get better the right way. I don’t know how to do that, but I know it doesn’t involve planting our pain in other people. Promise to try the journal. If you do, I promise not to publicly trash any more apologies that I get from men.”
You knock on my door and enter with the journal in your hand.
“It’s not working, dude,” you mumble with a frustration that humours me.
“Let’s cry about it then,” I propose and you respond with a contesting face even though you sit.
I open several YouTube tabs and search for the following songs: Seven Seconds Away by Youssou N’Dour, Shape of my Heart by Sting, Leave Right Now by Will Young, 4:44 by Jay Z, Sambolera by Khadja Nin, Get Here if You Can by Oleta Adams, and I Can’t Write Left-handed by Bill Withers. These are songs I know get us both teary-eyed.
“Let’s make it a game. Think of something about this break-up that hurts, write it down and think about it while we play a song. I’ll play too. If tears come, let them. If you want to talk about what you wrote down, we do it once the song ends. We have seven songs,” I explain as I walk down the passage to get tissues.
We sit cross-legged on the floor and, before I press play, I ask you to consider a new way of looking at break-ups, something more sustainable. Maybe break-ups shouldn’t be about getting back at someone who no longer has the capacity to love you in the way you have become accustomed to. Just maybe you uprooting your pain doesn’t have to involve planting it in someone else’s heart.
About three songs in, I see you lift your wrist up to your face to wipe your eyes. I decide to give you some space to cry it all out and promise to be back after I defrost some chicken to make your favourite dish: chutney marinated chicken, yellow rice and chakalaka.
God, I love you.