In the spacious store filled with pristine furnishings, you glide over the glimmering tiled floors without a sound. Babe walks ahead of you to the far end where the beds stand like puppies in a kennel waiting for adoption. His grip on your hand is tight, as if you’re a small child. It’s not unusual for him to expect you to match his long-legged strides with your lethargic steps. Any other day you would tolerate it, but today the contact reminds you of me.
You untangle your slender fingers from his, the thin layer of moisture on your palm evaporating from the cool current of air circulating through the store. With no conversation between the two of you, and a mind that’s prone to drift to the matter of my re-emergence, you obsess over the salespeople’s close distance.
Could it be a sign that they have no faith in your wallet?
You believe that’s the most likely reason. In their eyes, you are window shoppers—passengers who will soon disembark from the train.
You’re forced to leave the matter alone as you head into a nook closed off from the rest of the store. A metal rack stacked with kitchenware bathed in aquatic hues creates a fragile wall between you, Babe, and the other shoppers within the store. Beside it stands another shelf piled with the same reed diffusers littered around your flat, the fragrances are as unidentifiable to you as the flowers from which their oils are derived.
“This one?” Babe draws your attention to a queen-sized bed dressed for prom. It has the perfect dimensions for your bedroom, but its wooden headboard would require consistent buffing. The price isn’t sitting right with you either.
He waits for your approval. You can tell from the way he stands up taller that he’s set on his choice.
He likes new things. It’s as if he’s allergic to consistency. Every year he makes changes that trickle into your life, the latest being morning jogs together that do the opposite of energising you for the workday.
You hate change. That’s why you declined the opportunity of a lifetime: to do your master’s degree in Australia. Not because you didn’t want to subject your relationship to long-distance like you told Babe.
That’s one way the scales remain balanced in your relationship. You love your current bed, even though your former housekeeper butchered the fabric headboard with an iron and Babe remarks on it every night before you drift to sleep. Yet, here you are, changing your ways because it’s the one way you could remove yourself from the confines of your flat where you feared confronting the other version of me.
“A little beyond our budget, don’t you think?”
“We don’t have a budget.” He chuckles like it’s the most humorous word in the English language: budget. It wasn’t too long ago that you bought beddings and throw pillows from Mr Price Home. Now you both exist in a social class that demands extravagant expenditures like a bed from Coricraft that costs half your salary.
“Pass.” You move on without an explanation. He doesn’t argue with you.
Babe doesn’t worry about money any longer, but you do. Last weekend, when you were out with friends at Stellenbosch, he ordered a two-thousand dollar champagne, to the surprise of yourself and your waiter. When the bottle arrived he made a big song and dance while popping it and filling your flutes which ticked you off. His frivolous spending went against your mission to hoard your earnings. Later at home, you watched him sway around your bedroom and sing along to John Legend’s “Ordinary People” while you sat on the edge of your bed, peeling your pumps off your exhausted feet. He extended his arm towards you, an invitation to continue the party. You couldn’t share in his joy because the hefty bill from dinner was still gnawing at you.
“Are you mad?” Babe’s arm dropped to his side. He plopped down on the bed beside you, falling on his back.
“Why do you think I’m mad?”
“You won’t talk to me or look at me.”
You glanced down at him. “Happy now?”
He shook his head. “We were celebrating. How can you have a celebration without champagne?”
His justification failed to pacify you.
How could he understand, anyway? He grew up in a safe bubble created by a stable home and predictable caretakers. He couldn’t conceive what it was like to have me in the passenger seat, dictating whether you would be in comfort or scrambling for survival. Hardship didn’t beat an understanding into him of the value of every dollar in your shared bank account. You would have brought it up again, but you didn’t want to re-enact the age-old argument.
Babe smooths his palm over the neatly made bed standing between you before lowering onto it. He tests the turgor, bouncing up and down. He throws a smile over his shoulder. “This might be the one,” he says, making himself comfortable. Petting the space beside him, he invites you to join. The tag on the wall above the bed screams at you instead. You envision tens of thousands of dollars draining out of your bank account like smoke escaping through an open window.
“Don’t you think we should wait a few months before buying anything new?” You think about the pre-owned VW you’re still paying off and the monthly rent for your two-bedroom flat. You fold your arms to avoid running your hand over the sheet. The thread count is unknown to you, but you envision it feels like sleeping on a cloud.
“I think we should do this now,” he says. “You never know what will come up.”
You wonder if he’s referring to the next phase of your relationship, the one that will require you to confess that you don’t have any family members you trust to not sprinkle their bad juju on your union.
“Plus,” he adds, “it’ll just be another lifelong investment.”
You tighten your hold on yourself, you are your own anchor; otherwise, you will drift away from the lightness blooming in your head. These are the words you’ve been waiting to hear since the morning you yanked yourself out of another nightmare involving your parents. You discovered the other me as Babe spoke into the phone in a whisper beside you. “Go ahead with the purchase. It’s a lifelong investment,” he said.
In came rushing all those other times those words escaped him came rushing in, and they materialised into a being that follows you around to this day.
When you first noticed me in my original form, it was a routine day for your family. You like to think it was earlier than this, but you’re mistaken.
Mami perused a statement from your school with her lips and brows puckered as if she had a bitter taste on her tongue. “This whole amount?” She held up the creased paper and jabbed a finger at the highest balance. You offered a meek nod across the table without understanding what that dollar amount meant and why it made her face twist in that way. At that age, your scale of cheap to expensive started with stokkie lekkers and ended with the chilli-red Cancer Project apples that appeared at school without warning, much like the cause they were supporting.
The secretary had handed you the bill at the end of the school day. Then, in a condescending tone that contradicted her sympathetic grin, she said, “We’ve sent the statement by post and email, but here’s a copy in case your parents haven’t received either. If the fees aren’t paid soon, there won’t be a place for you here any longer.” She spoke as if you being there was a mistake. The tinted glasses you walked around with slipped down your face, and you felt it for the first time: that fleshy wound of rejection your ancestors got good at hiding. On the bus ride home, the statement burned a hole through your flip file and sparked a marrow-deep shame in your bones that intravenously spread to your heart and elicited spontaneous palpitations. From then, a thing without a face and a soul took residence within you, wrestling the air in your lungs.
Tate announced his arrival from work with the plat-plat of his slippers. Mami made everyone wear slippers when they entered the house. You greeted him from the other end of the dining table, where Mami had helped you with your geography homework before the statement slipped out of your file and made her yell at you. When he made to plant a kiss on Mami’s cheek, she deflected, shifting slightly out of his reach.
“Tala.” She directed his attention to the statement with an outstretched paw. “ We have to pay it now. All of it. You said you would take care of it.”
He reached for the statement and scanned it, unphased. “Otandi—we will be able to cover it. I put some money down on a sure thing.” His nonchalance deepened the furrows in Mami’s brows. She sent you to your bedroom. With your textbooks and loose sheets of paper, you scampered away like a hunted mouse.
“Sure thing? Waa lo—”
You cut your mother’s rant short as you shouldered your bedroom door into place. It was dented, much like your house and your family.
Tate often used “sure thing” like the cherry on top of a coronary-inducing sundae. The realisation that those were more than his favourite words dawned on you in the semi-silence of your bedroom. You noticed my superiority and control over your father. You gave me a name—Sure Thing—and it made us one. From then on, you watched me creep into your lives like ink spreading through water. You knew at one point the ink would be all that existed, and no one would remember what the water looked like. I sat at your dining table, shared in your meals like an uninvited neighbour, and ate more than anyone else did. Tate nurtured me, would dote on me, and sing my praises. He left your house with me, and when he returned in the late hours of the night with empty hands, he never disparaged me.
You started seeing me as an evil spirit that possessed Tate when payday came around; at Sunday school, you learned about the devil, and you saw similarities between it and me.
You release your hold on yourself and the blood rushes to your fingers. You want to ask Babe to repeat himself so you can make sure you didn’t mishear him. Instead, you clench your hands. Your acrylic nails dig into your palms.
After you overheard Babe’s phone call, you started looking for me again. You combed through your memories of his reassurances, the fear that I had existed in him longer than you could tell, leading you from one to another with a fervent desperation. When you thought back on it all, you saw how much harder it was to see me in him. Your love for him had a way of altering his words as they flowed into your ears, making anything disagreeable or upsetting a pleasant sound.
Babe is the only man in whom you didn’t detect my disguised form until then. Before I became Life-Long Investment, I was Just One Drink. This phrase lived in another you shared your time with as you worked to find your footing after graduation. He was the prologue to your dating adventures and everything you would avoid in a significant other.
Then there was One Of These Days. He was a big dreamer who didn’t do nearly as much as he should have to achieve his fantasies. It was me all along, and you figured it out after three unpleasant dates. Around them, you never fail to hear the echo of your father saying, “It’s a sure thing,” in his sonorous voice.
Now, you can hear it around Babe too.
“Business is doing better.” He sits up, grabs a small pillow and tests its elasticity. “And you’re doing well at work with the possibility of another promotion soon.”
“All these things aren’t certain. I could lose my job. Business could go sideways—we’re already in a recession.”
“We’ve been in one for the past five years.” He drops the pillow and levels you with a narrowed gaze. “What’s all this really about?”
You don’t want to say it. To venture into this topic now won’t be good for either of you. How did that saying go again? You give power to the words you speak aloud. That’s right. You don’t want to give me more power.
A familiar shallowness fills every empty pocket of your torso. You release a breath that tussles its way out of your lungs and through your throat. The same sticky breath overcame you at the statement’s arrival into your life. When you returned to school with Tate the next day, it had long been packed away as a side effect of your growing body until he spoke the same spell that assuaged Mami’s doubts to the bursar. He had promised to pay the fees, was on the brink of begging, and at the last moment, I appeared again. “It’s a sure thing.”
Later, at home, while having dinner with your family at the small square table with the worn plastic cover, Mami questioned Tate about the matter. A swift lie escaped him, “I paid it in full.” You bit your tongue because what he told you before you walked off to class wasn’t a suggestion but a warning. He had cast his shadow over you so you could not differentiate him from darkness. Do not tell your mother. When Mami glanced at you to back up what he said, you gave her a stiff nod and returned your attention to the porridge on your plate.
Now, you shake your head as if you can evict me from your mind. You catch your breath like it’s a balloon drifting to the heavens. Babe made no promises to you like your father did to your mother, but in this moment, you feel like he did. His were unspoken, but they were promises in their own right. He didn’t threaten you or attach you to his lies, yet you feel conned.
“Forget it. Let’s get this one,” you say and continue blabbering on about movers and the space it will occupy in your bedroom. A bubbly smile makes a fitting mask for all you are hiding from Babe. He is none the wiser as you add accessories for your bedroom to the cart.
You make the purchases and return to your car, filling the silences with directionless conversation.
By leaving Life-Long Investment untouched for weeks, it grows between you and Babe like a sinkhole. It consumes your trust, hope, and beliefs that he is a wise man—the opposite of your father.
It takes your sanity along with the ground between you. Every time you look in the mirror, you see your mother staring back at you. Sometimes she speaks, says things like, “I didn’t see it either until it was too late” and “We are strong until affection weakens us.”
You wonder where your mother is in these times, if she’s still living with chains clasped around her ankles, attached to your father while I direct their movements. As you see her face, as clear as if she’s standing before you, you can’t hear any other voice than that of your father telling her repeatedly that it’s a sure thing.
Emmerita Ambata is a Namibian freelance writer and novelist.