Tonight was oddly frigid for October, with flickering streetlights and a moonless, dark void of a sky above. Jen was occupied with the end of a loose twist, twirling and untwirling it around her index finger again and again as she stood on the sidewalk in front of her home, her small frame beneath a heavy winter K-Way. Maybe she shivered because of the weather, or maybe she only shook and fidgeted this way because of the occasion, the thought of what was to come, the possibilities that may unfold–Jen simply couldn’t tell.
V was a friend of hers. Well, Jen couldn’t call him a friend anymore–that word had long left the description of their relationship, replaced with acquaintance, childhood friend, former classmate, and the like. Jen and V went way back, beyond the walls of their high school and the memories of their teenage selves; they had been thick as thieves in their childhoods, back when she thought hot pink tights under a denim miniskirt was the coolest outfit in the whole world, back when pigtails with beads clacking at the ends were all the rage, and back when she thought boys were yucky, sickening things, except for this one boy, this one little boy called Vijanda.
He’d gone by many monikers since then, but in her mind, he was Vijanda, a sweet and mild-mannered boy, viciously riding his shiny blue bicycle up their (and now, simply just her) street with the courage of a thousand armies but the sheer strength of a nine-year-old schoolboy. Years became a blur, their youth washing over them like saltwater over rock, smoothing them over until they’d emerged as new people. These two new people drifted slowly but surely apart, like stray litter riding the foamy ocean waves, finding a new home on some undiscovered beach far away.
Jen looked down the street and kept her eyes on the weak headlights moving closer and closer, and barely took a second to acknowledge the sheer absurdity before the rickety VW Golf parked in front of her and the dark passenger window lowered to reveal V. He smiled, his eyes creasing at the corners as he did, and reached over to open the door.
“Are you coming or what?” he said, dusting down the tattered passenger seat with his hand.
She got in and noted how toasty this little car was–the hot air was blowing steadily from the itty-bitty air-conditioner’s fans, whirring loudly as though the car was fighting for its life just to keep them warm. V made a three-point turn and descended back down the hill, the speakers softly playing an unfamiliar alt-rock tune.
The car ride bubbled with familiarity and warmth all at the same time. Jen knew this boy–she swore she did, but he existed somewhere deep in her past. Glancing at the man sitting beside her now, asking about Tuli, her little brother, and muttering a swift “Goddamn it, V” under his breath when he drove over a speed hump too quickly, she found herself at a loss of what to say, to feel. That little boy with a bleskop and thick, bushy eyebrows had grown into this man with shoulder-length locs and razor-cut brows. He donned silver rings on his index and middle fingers and held an alien inflexion in his voice when he spoke.
V was gazing at her with amusement. She realised she’d been staring and quickly looked away, embarrassed. “Uhm, where are you taking me?” she asked, trying and failing to play it off.
“Relax, I won’t steal you for long. It’s a nice place, you’ll see.”
She shuffled around and looked out the window, playing a game of counting the seconds between each streetlight to distract herself.
The place in question was hidden all the way behind a bustling restaurant perched on Independence Avenue, with some dark dungeon-like entrance and a tall, artsy guy standing at the door. She wondered if this gatekeeper was feeling the cold at all, clad in simple black jeans and an old band tee.
“Show’s already finished,” he said rather sternly.
“We’re just here to chill,” replied V.
The guy hopped to the side, and they walked up some short stairs in between walls covered in old-timey posters, emerging like fish to the water’s surface in a small café space above, well-lit with mild chatter from each corner. V guided her like a compass, walking straight to an empty table at the very end of the room.
Jen found herself gazing around the room, fascinated by the cafe’s patrons. In one corner, a group of boys and girls played Jenga, swinging back pints and hollering after each play, while beside them, a girl with blonde hair and equally blonde eyebrows seemed deep in conversation with another girl donning multi-coloured eyeshadow and a mini green bag. She furrowed her brows and thought: What do I call these people?
“The people here all look just like you”, Jen remarked, half humorously but half as seriously.
V raised a brow. “Care to elaborate?”
She took a sip of her drink, buying herself time to think up a quick-witted answer as she slurped the Arctic-cold strawberry daiquiri. “Well, they all look so–” she glanced around the room again and with furrowed brows, she pondered: What do I call these people?
“They’re all alternative and weird, I guess”, she said.
“Not that it’s a bad thing, V!”
He smiled, “No offence taken, Jenny”.
Her tummy tingled with that distantly familiar feeling. Nobody called her that name since V back when they were young, perhaps because she’d outgrown it or because she always felt that it belonged to him, to that time.
She took the last sip of her cocktail, all the questions she’d always wanted to ask him filling her mind like saltwater flowing into tide pools at dawn. The daiquiri had shaved off a layer of fear she had before. “What’s been going on with you, Vijanda? How are things?”
He held a finger up, put his glass on the table and stood up. She watched him walk over to a shelf, carefully flip through a box of vinyls, and lift one out. He turned back to her and held it up for her to see. She looked back, puzzled at the choice, and he tilted his head to the side, eyebrows raised, daring her to tell him no. She raised no qualms, only her palms up as though they were white flags of surrender, and he walked over to the record player, swapping out the Bob Marley vinyl and placing the needle on the new one. A few seconds passed, then a restrained guitar strummed, and Adele began to sing shortly after.
There’s a fire starting in my heart,
Reaching a fever pitch,
And it’s bringing me out the dark.
Her favourite album.
Well, not quite hers, but young Jenny’s favourite, the one her mom had gifted her for her twelfth birthday, that she’d made Vijanda listen to incessantly until he knew the words as well as she did. Jen closed her eyes and tried to remember twelve, but tried to summon only the good times, only the laughs, the late-afternoon sun-dipped Saturdays at the park, but every memory she traced over wasn’t smooth. They were all tainted with some dark, miserable foreboding, a thin, gooey, black slime of foreshadowing laying the path down into the depths of the ocean. Twelve was the last year they’d been friends before his life fell apart, shattering like a delicate seashell into fragmented pieces.
She couldn’t venture farther than this before she opened her eyes and watched him lip-sync to her from the stage, mouthing every high note back at her. A warmth rose from the pit of her stomach, and before she knew it, she was laughing and singing right back to him. In this brief moment, they had run away from it all–the years of distance between their younger and older selves, the shattered memories–and they were just teenagers singing an old favourite song to each other, somewhere between former and current best friends.
Some time passed by; Jen couldn’t be sure how much, but she’d already finished her third drink and felt white-hot, her jacket on the bench beside her and her phone on the table, face down, long forgotten. “I’ll Be Waiting” was on, and its euphoric trumpets and throwback swing were pumping the air with a lightness, a coolness, some other-worldly, mystical feel. There was a sweet romance to the scene before her: an old friend, laughing at her tipsy remarks like he’d always been her friend, a room half-full of revellers, giggling and chatting away, enjoying their Tuesday night as much as she. Jen dared to ask him a question.
“I still don’t quite understand what we’re doing, honestly. I want to know why you called.”
“What do you mean? I wanted to see you”, V giggled.
Time against us, miles between us––
Adele sang in the spaces between, like a backing choir injecting emotion into each moment;
“Yeah, but c’mon, we haven’t spoken in years.”
“So? Who says we can’t speak after years of silence?”
“Vijanda, it’s just so out-of-the-blue. One minute, we’re simply strangers; the next, you’re calling me like we’ve known each other our whole lives, trying to make plans?” A twinge of guilt settled in her gut as soon as the words were out.
“We’ve known each other our whole lives, no?” His smile was melting from his face.
She quizzically stared back. “No, we haven’t–I knew you then, but I don’t know you now.”
V’s face contorted into a look of pure hurt. He sat back, holding his hand to his chin, and looked away entirely. The guilt, once a small droplet in a vast clear ocean, now swirled like a hurricane in Jen’s tummy. Her mouth opened to speak, but her throat felt clogged.
Did I ruin it? Jen wondered. The guilt rose into her chest, smearing the edge of the metaphorical knife she was convinced she’d just plunged into V.
He was no longer smiling, or making a funny face, or even keeping a serious face for comedic effect. He stared blankly at her and said, “Damn it, Jenny, we were having so much fun. What’s all this now?” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and averted his gaze again. Suddenly, she felt cold again as she clamoured to speak. “I just…I want to know–” She was speechless, her tongue clamped shut in her jaw.
He looked down at his clasped hands on the table, then glanced at his watch. “Maybe it’s time I drove you back home, Jenny,” he muttered.
There was the Vijanda she knew–the boy who would grow cold and distant when he felt someone had struck him where it hurt most. Right now, she was the spear-fisher, and he was a measly little yellowtail swimming too slowly to escape.
V stood, walked across the room to settle their tab and waited at the bar, motioning with his head for her to walk out with him. She understood, stood up and followed him out, trailing behind him like she’d always done when they were young.
Outside, the cold air sliced right through them, and they both walked briskly to the car, distant but unified in this short mission to be enveloped in the car’s oven-toasted warmth again. V fumbled for his keys, unlocked his door, got in and opened for her from the inside. When she sat down and closed the door, he started up the car and sat motionless for a while.
“Did you forget something inside?” she asked him.
He blinked at her. “The engine has to idle for a few.”
They sat without speaking for a while, some alt-rock tune playing from the radio. She exhaled and reached forward, picking up a CD cover and looking half-curiously at the pop art-looking artwork. A woman holding her hand up to her face, with words yelling from her mouth. “Franz Ferdinand,” she read to herself.
V broke the silence. “They’re my favourite band.”
“You never paid much attention to music back then”, she replied, scared to look at him as she said so.
“Hey,” he said, shifting in his beat-up car seat to face her as he did, “I’m still here.”
“I know. I can see you.”
“I mean, like, nothing’s changed. Nothing has to change.”
She turned to face him.
“Your parents just up and moved you across Windhoek like it was nothing at all.” Outside, some more people from the café were walking along the grassy park, making their way to the night’s next pit stop.
“It isn’t as simple as that, Jenny. You don’t know the half of it,” he told her, running a hand through his locs while the other rested on the gear.
“Tell me, then. Why did you want to see me so much? What’s been going on?”
He looked at her for a few seconds and then dove deep into the ocean of memories, retracing steps she’d taken in her own mind, assumptions she’d decided had to be truths, and showed her the way things had really gone down.
“My parents broke up because my dad found another woman. He chose her over us, and my mom just left it at that. My stepmom was already pregnant by the time Mama found out. Hurt like that drives someone crazy, you know?” He was looking straight ahead now, partly at the odd person walking past but mostly at nothing in particular. She lay silent and let him continue, but he had little else to say.
“Mama just decided to start over somewhere far from the memories. I guess I just did the same.”
“Did our friendship mean nothing to you, then?” A lump had already formed in her throat, and she tried as hard as she could to hold it perfectly in place like a pearl in an oyster, trying not to let any emotion spill over.
He glanced at her, then looked back at the park. “You know it meant everything to me. But I was a kid. You were, too. We don’t get many choices when we’re that young. Hell, I don’t have any more choices now than I did back then.” He looked back at her and kept his eyes glued to her briefly.
“She’s been coping by drinking a lot and passing out drunk, you know. She just can’t deal with it, never could.” He looked down at his hands and began picking at his fingernails. “I took a different approach. I see my dad every few weekends.”
“How’s that been?” Jen enquired, feeling like she was getting to know somebody new.
“It’s been okay. They had the kid and everything. She’s turning seven.”
Vijanda slumped back into his seat, letting the music from the radio fill the space. A dizzying mix of emotions washed over Jen; she was glad she’d accepted his invite, but she’d been wary all the same. That familiar tug from six years ago still lingered like some invisible string. Still, every time he did or said something that reminded her of Vijanda, he’d do something else that, she guessed, was classic V. Slumping back into his seat in silence was the Vijanda she knew. Still, she anticipated what he’d do after would be typical of the V she’d met tonight.
“How are the Kamwis?” he asked finally.
Six years ago, he’d regarded them as family. Now they were just the Kamwis.
“Same-same. They’re pressing me about university applications for next year like hell, but not much else has changed.”
She kept quiet, not wanting to speak further. A part of her wished her dad had also wrecked her family just so V wouldn’t feel alone in this moment, so the ocean between them wouldn’t feel so crushingly obvious. When she looked back at him, though, she wondered if she could have survived something thick-black like oil oozing into the cool blue ocean of her quaint family life the way he’d seemed to. She looked down at his hands, one hand pulling cuticles off another’s fingernails, and thought how interesting it was that life knew exactly which battles you’d be capable of surviving, which wars you’d live to tell the tale about, and which to pass on to somebody else.
V smiled. “I’m glad my parents are nagging you like always.” Scratch that–it was Vijanda smiling this time.
He put the car in reverse, backed out of the parking lot, and they set out into the night, V’s car tracing the winding roads and steep hills back to her house.
As they passed his old house on her street, she peered out the window and looked, trying to see how much had changed. “It’s like you never lived here at all,” she said out loud.
“Like I never even existed.”
“Like you were some fever dream I woke up from six years ago.” She looked at him, and he gave her that knowing look only Vijanda could give. I understand exactly what you mean, his dark brown eyes said, spoken in a language without words but full of even more meaning.
When he dropped her off, she waved him off and watched him drive back down the street, waiting until the rattling little car disappeared down the hill before she said out loud, to the night in case the breeze could send her message to him like water carrying a note inside a bottle: “It’s like I never stopped knowing you at all.”
Tjimamutja Pehape Katjiuongua is a student and writer from Windhoek, Namibia. His interests include books, music, and architecture. When not pursuing his studies, he writes short stories reflecting on life and longing through the lens of ordinary people.