He stands naked, staring at his blurry reflection in the small mirror above the sparsely populated sink in the bathroom of his two-bedroom flat. He lives on the edge of Witkoppen Road in Johannesburg’s Northriding suburb. There is nothing exceptional about Northriding. As far as the eye can see, the housing complexes with duplicate roofs have mushroomed over the last decade, providing a home of sorts for starter families of all hues. It is but one of many parts of this city built on dreams––dreams deferred, dreams broken, dreams fulfilled, dreams yet to be dreamt.
His face stares back at him. Its parts reflect back clearer as the steam from the shower he’s just had, dissipates. His right cheek. His chin. The other cheek. His forehead. Last, as if by design, his eyes.
Music from the other room floats in––Tricky’s gorgeous monotone, semi-whispered over a hypnotising beat. There’s something about Tricky’s music that sinks him deeper into himself. Although he never remembers the names of songs, each seems to voice the voices in his head. This one is called The Only Way. Usually, he plays his own playlists, curating songs that form a part of the soundtrack to his life. Lately, he’s been too lazy to create playlists, even though he has nothing but time, so he opts for an artist-inspired “station”; this morning’s is algorithmically curated from Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus, from the album Heligoland, but also the theme song for Luther, the British crime thriller starring Idris Elba.
Still, he stares at himself in the mirror. A melancholy lingers beyond the edges of his pupils, streams under Luther, the music, the apartment, him.
His face opens its mouth, asks, “When does comfort in solitude become loneliness?”
He sits alone on the small balcony of his apartment, looking out onto the main road that borders his side of the complex. He does this daily. Every evening, he sits in the same spot, looking at the same view—the lights, the cars, the people waiting to catch taxis to go home after a long day. The questions usually come when he is bored of everything he does typically to entertain or perhaps occupy himself so he doesn’t have to think. There is always a book to be read, something to be coloured in, work to be done, a series to be watched, but, on days like this, he doesn’t feel like doing any of those things, so he simply wonders.
He hears someone ask, in his voice: When does comfort in solitude become loneliness?
It is morning.
He has just woken up from a dream. A dream he dreams a couple of times a week. It lingers long after he has climbed out of bed, well into the day. In the dream, he sits in a spacious, warm house at a dinner table. There is a woman. There are children, two boys and a girl. There is the chattering of voices, the tinkle of forks, knives and spoons on plates. There is music in the background. There is laughter. There is love. And then there is the sound of metal smashing against metal. It is the cacophony that always forces him up.
He lies in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He slowly turns his head to his right, away from the window and the dull sunlight trying to push through the curtains. On the dresser, across from the window, are an array of pictures—a grief shrine of sorts. His father. His mother. The woman and the children from the dream that is more than a dream. It is also a memory.
When he was a child, they say he took a while to speak. He navigated the world soundlessly and used his voice sparingly, even when speech came to him. His father would recite the alphabet to him from birth and would often say proudly that this was why he took to reading from a young age.
By the time he was four, he had grown impatient with his parents reading bedtime stories and started to read to himself, exploring other worlds and getting lost in other lives. He could spend hours lying on his back, heading hanging off the bed, book held above him. He read any and everything he could get his hands on, from Dr Seuss and the Brothers Grimm to Aesop’s tales and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. As he grew older, he explored the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series and authors like Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Louis L’Amour, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright, and.
In school, he kept to himself, although he had a small group of close friends he did the educational gauntlet with, staying together from kindergarten right till they finished high school. When he was older, he explained it by saying, “At least I could be myself and wasn’t pressured to be anything other than myself, warts and all.”
He had a habit of saying things that offended others, even when it wasn’t his intention. It made deliberately offending others difficult because the assumption was always that he didn’t mean it, not really. This is why it was simpler to keep his circle small.
It also helped that he wasn’t just a bookworm but also slightly above average when dribbling a basketball or aiming for the net in football. He was never picked first for pick-up games, but never last either.
He is one of those people who, while seemingly present, have an air of partial detachment. He often has a slightly glazed look in his eyes. He does not do this intentionally. If he could control it, he would. But he can’t. For years, it bothered him. He wondered whether there was something wrong with him. He wondered whether this inability to be outwardly exuberant was a sign of something worse—a psychosis.
He had known her since high school.
Well, he’d seen her throughout the small high school they attended in Maseru—three double-storey red brick buildings with a small sports field to the right of the classrooms. In maths class, he would daydream, looking out onto the field at her class, but never really noticed her. They hung out in the same circles but never really talked. She was pretty in her own way, but her friends drew all the boys’ attention, including him. He had brief flings with her best friend to pass the time, but it wouldn’t be anything serious because of him, not her. He struggled with the effort that came with being a boyfriend.
Years later, he was invited to a house party in Johannesburg, where he had settled after doing a digital arts degree at the University of Witwatersrand. He was decent at drawing and had a computer in his room from a young age, which, coupled with a love for anime, led him to said degree.
At the time of said party, he was working part-time for a television production company doing graphics for shows while developing his own animated series—he hoped it would put him on the map, any map, really. He spent his days in his apartment, staring at multiple screens. The colours, the motion, the pictures, reflecting off his glasses. Music in the background. A cigarette always resting on the edge of a saucer cum ashtray, burning out after a couple of drags because he always forgot it, and was then forced to light another.
He watched her make her way to him in the corner that he had found. A corner that enabled him to be a part of the gathering while apart from the gathering.
She said, “Hello.”
“Hello,” he said.
She turned and stood beside him, seeing the room the way he saw the room. Everything from that point was a blur.
Thinking back, he can never remember the conversation, although he remembers that they ended up talking the whole night, in the corner, with the room open before them. He remembers walking to her car at three in the morning, three hours past the time he had allocated to being sociable, to being at the party. He remembers hugging her and, as the cliché goes, not wanting to let go. He remembers taking her number and the daily telephone conversations that followed.
She made him feel better about himself. She forced him to come out of his shell just a bit. They went for dinner. They explored the city, going to places he had often driven by, wondering what type of people went to those kinds of places. Museums. Galleries. Neighbourhood pubs. Out-of-the-way restaurants. Parks. Suddenly, he was one of those people who went to those kinds of places.
She said, “Yes”.
They got married at the magistrate’s court with his ex-girlfriend, her best friend, and the friend that had the party that started it all as witnesses. Their families—his father, her mother—weren’t pleased about being denied the opportunity to turn the occasion into a spectacle but they got over it. She was a psychologist building a private practice. A European production company had bought his animated show, and he was now doing regular work for them.
They bought a house with space for an office for him—he never had to leave the house, an entertainment area for her—she always had people in the house, and enough room for the children they’d have—the children they eventually had. They epitomised the saying, “A man can own a house, but a woman makes it a home.” They, independently of each other, often marvelled at how he’d survived before her.
He sits alone on the sofa, smack bang in the centre of it. He stares at his reflection on the television, which he had planned to put on when he sat down. There was no intention beyond putting the TV on, but somehow he hadn’t got round to it, despite the remote still being nestled in the palm of his right hand.
That day plays out on the inside of his eyelids.
He had work to do. She decided to go out for breakfast with the kids. They say it was a drunk driver coming back from whatever place it is that those who live from night to morning go.
The phone call asking him to come to the hospital.
His irritation at being interrupted.
The bustle of a Johannesburg casualty unit on a Sunday morning.
People going about the business of life and death.
The sound of his sobbing when they coldly pulled back the white sheets, each one more painful than the next.
Somehow he made it through it all.
The selection of coffins. The tombstones. The funeral. Selling the house, finding an apartment, moving, working, pretending to live.
It’s been five years.
Sometimes, he feels like he’s simply biding his time.
He sits alone on the sofa. It is Sunday, just before midnight. Sundays are when he feels their absence most. The city is as silent as city silence can be.
He looks at the gun on the table in front of him.
Of Ghanaian and German heritage, raised in Lesotho, Kojo is a Johannesburg-based writer, content strategist, author, podcast host and sometime poet.