The only reason Mandla agreed to go out, and to a strip club no less with Ayanda, was that it was close to home. That, and he needed to give Netflix a break so he wouldn’t exhaust all of his options and still have something to watch. But as the lights flashed, and the music blared around him he found himself having a good time, not that he’d ever admit it to Ayanda.
“Hey, check it out, I think one of those girls likes you,” Ayanda shouted above the music.
“Ah, you and your conspiracy theories.”
“No, seriously, look over there,” Ayanda nudged before pointing at the girls in question.
Mandla looked up and in traditional fashion, a group of girls huddled together over a table of liquor enjoying themselves, the music and the ladies in underwear shaking their money makers. And among them, throwing more than occasional glances at Mandla, was a woman that Ayanda had somehow seen among the plethora of people in the club. Her eyes angel wings fluttering above her glass as she took sips here and there in Mandla’s direction, a man who had no formal training when it came to flirting and just stared at her like a stalker from across the room, because that’s what he was at that point. Mandla wondered how Ayanda did it, how his friend could have a tongue made of grease, and yet he couldn’t even talk to his own reflection when it came to women. However, the one thing he had going in his favour was how alcohol opened him up. There was only one way to man up while his best friend was busy preoccupied with the body of some lady around a pole resembling a treble clef. At the bar, with a beer in hand, watching all the chaos happening from a distance, his reason for being there in the first place joined him with a refill of her own, paying for a cider.
“I can’t hear you and I’m not going to keep shouting. Here take my number,” she said.
Without hesitation, Mandla pulled out his phone and watched her write her number and save it. Thando. If it was that easy, he would have come to the bar a long time ago.
“Ah, that’s my jam,” and left Mandla to watch her dance back towards her table to her friends.
“How’d it go?” Ayanda asked once Mandla returned to their table. “You get her number?”
“My man,” Ayanda said, giving his friend a celebratory clink with his glass. “Let’s go home. I’m tired now.”
Mandla rolled his eyes and questioned his choice of friends. They paid their bill and went home, and that was the end of that. When Ayanda brought up the topic of Thando a few days after the fact, it was only then that Mandla realised that he’d asked out a woman. He knew that he’d potentially ruined his chances with a woman after what was, to use the word politely, a memorable amount of time, but he tried his luck. Thando was still keen to meet and so was he, and if their cell phone conversations were anything to go by, then they had strongly misled them, because their date was nothing but awkward and rigid.
But things seemed to click, Mandla was loving and Thando was ever the optimist, so much so it didn’t bother her that Mandla was younger than her, much, much younger than her. Traditionally, in any African home, their roles were strictly designated for Aunt and nephew and not friends, as Thando nonchalantly put it. What rubbed Thando’s family the wrong way about Mandla even further was the blurred line in distinguishing exactly what kind of so-called friendship they claimed to have.
“You can’t be with that boy, what will the neighbours think, imagine,” Nokuthula said, clapping her hands.
“But Ma, were you not the one who said I should follow my heart when Sbusiso wanted me to leave with him?”
“Yes Thando I was, and I also was the one who told you that looking for love when your lonely is like doing the groceries when you’re hungry. The chances of you bringing home junk keep growing and right now you’ve done groceries on an empty stomach, my dear.”
“So what, I mustn’t be happy?”
“Who said you mustn’t be happy? You must learn to stop being so negative. It’ll make you die faster. Just find happiness around your or Sbusiso’s age.”
“Ma, please, I’m a grown woman, you can’t tell me what to do anymore.” Thando snapped.
“In whose house? You and your brother forget that having you here is a favour. Everybody’s kids in the neighbourhood, even those younger than you have their own places. Mirriam’s youngest daughter got married not so long ago and I’m stuck here telling you, a grown woman who doesn’t want to be told what to do, to stay away from pre-scholars. Can you imagine? I’d be the laughing stock of the society.”
“But Ma I-”
“But nothing. Can you just listen for once?” Nokuthula sighed. “Now can you please make me some tea.”
“And I’m doing you a favour by keeping you alive?” Thando mumbled.
“What was that?”
“Why don’t you just kill me now. There’s sweetener next to the rooibos, I’m sure you’ll be able to manage from there.” Nokuthula corrected.
When it came to employment in Durban, there were only three industries. Transnet, Call Centres and Promotions. Mandla worked for none of them. As a petrochemical engineer, the title was fancy in conversation and family gatherings, but it was for a small independent company. While his peers financed and set them up to drown in debt for Golf GTI’s and A-Class AMG’s, with the same amount of money he could do the same in the second-hand car market and bring home a BMW X4. Choices like these were not only the reason he had somewhere to park his car at night but the reason Thando’s braided head lay on his chest, while a duvet covered the rest of her naked body and she drew crop circles around his nipples.
“So what happens now?”
“What do you mean?” Thando asked, lifting her head.
“Does this mean I get to meet the in-laws or are you still ashamed of me?”
“You know, I’ve never met someone who wants to meet somebody else’s parents so badly, there’s not one instance where a man is as eager as you. Not one, not even in the times where he’s supposed to meet them.”
“Well, I’m not most men.” Mandla shrugged.
“You do know that you’ve never actually been in that house but everybody knows you? My brother even calls you the Undertaker because your car matches with the night when you drop me off,” she laughed.
“Well, you really know how to ruin a mood,” she said getting out of bed, condom wrappers crunching underfoot as she prepared to go shower.
Mandla lay in his bed, perplexed on why she was so against the idea of him coming to see her family. Could it have been that another man was in the picture? Or that he was being strung along until one came along. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the better of him, the best thing to do was take a shower and take Thando home.
There was nothing Mandla hated more than that drive from Malvern to Umlazi, but what could he do, his relationship with Thando was taking shape, he wanted to be known while there was still a chance. So that in the event, God forbid, if there were anything were to happen between Thando and him, he’d always be recognised as the one that got away. As he pulled up next to the house, Mandla felt uneasy as Thando’s brother and what he assumed were his friends stared at him uncomfortably as they shared a cigarette. His dark scared face scowling while surrounded by a cloud of nicotine. Her sister’s kisses goodbye making the experience even more uncomfortable than it already was. As soon as Thando slammed the door closed, Mandla roared out of sight, his car swimming over speed bumps that littered the township road as though they didn’t exist.
It was a Sunday, and Nokuthula was humming church hymns, Thando and her brother exchanged confused looks but kept it between themselves as their mother made a request for tea in between singing. At some point, Thando would want to know why her mother was so happy if she wasn’t going to straight out and come out with it but she didn’t want to be the one to get yelled at for being nosy when it was the pot calling the kettle black.
“You won’t believe who I saw today?” Nokuthula said excitedly.
“Who?” Vusi asked.
“Sbusiso. He’s in town visiting his mother, such a beautiful thing he’s doing don’t you think?”
“He’s still working in Jo’burg?” Vusi asked.
“Maybe we should all go pay them a visit, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Joy,” she stared at Thando. “Maybe he can help you find a job,” she said, turning to Vusi.
That was the problem with that woman, always in need of help, picky on who and how she received it because of who would say what and never passed up an opportunity to belittle someone. It was something Thando couldn’t understand because the very same woman had always been the one to tell her to pursue happiness and never let anybody to impede what made her happy. She might have been uncertain of a lot of things in her life, but one thing she was certain of was that Sbusiso did not make her happy.