Smoke & Mirrors
Written by Qaanitah Hunter and edited by Benazir Cassim
Finding a suitable place to stay in Joburg is like mining for diamonds. It’s rare and you have to sift through the mud to find the half-decent ones.
My plan is to rent a three-bedroom apartment that will be comfortable for me, my mother and my work. My budget is quite low because I don’t know what my income will be for the next few months.
Since Zayn’s death two months ago, Adil and I constantly butt heads over where I should stay. He insisted that I must either move in with them (imagine!) or stay in one of the apartments his company owns. It is not even an option! I explained to him that I don’t want to mix business with our friendship/relationship, and I prefer not to rent a place from him. It’s just awkward and I know he is just feeling bad for me. In his mind I am the girl who lost a friend, a home and a stepfather in one month.
Yes, there are days where I can barely get out of bed but I can’t continue this pity party. I need to find a place to stay and Adil can either help me or I will look for one on my own. It takes him a few days to get it but finally he has agreed to my plan.
My plan is to go look at three units today and decide on which one is most suitable to live in.
The first flat we look at is in a dodgy area with people drinking beers chilled on the pavement outside. I may have even seen a bong or two. Adil can’t hide the horrified look on his face.
The second place is a decent two-bedroom unit in a secure complex in Midrand, literally five minutes away from Adil’s house — just on the other side of Mall of Africa. It is a ground-floor unit, with a front garden, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small but neat kitchen and good cupboard space. A third bedroom would have been nice but the main bedroom is big enough for me to convert one area into my office and filming space. After he inspects the rooms, Adil nods his head in approval. The third unit is great too, but a lot more expensive.
As we are about to sign the lease, the estate agent asks if we’re newlyweds and Adil responds saying, “We’re just friends”.
Sigh. This ‘just friends thing’ is confusing but it’s a conversation for another day. Our relationship is really toxic, if I am being completely honest with myself. We have some weird emotional dependency on each other and I depend on him physically yet the parameters of our friendship are not really defined.
I can sit with his grandmother for hours, but I don’t know who his friends are. We never hang out socially with his friends and he doesn’t even bring it up.
I think what’s most toxic is how he feels obliged to handle my issues. At first, I thought it had to do with his personality type, but he doesn’t act this way with others. Sometimes when I am in the midst of a depressive bout, I romanticise it. How sweet, right? This guy just helps me out and has my back. He is also emotionally unavailable and we can’t even get to the discussion about what we are.
Like right now, he is helping me sign a lease, he certified my bank statements and worked out all my admin for me only for us to have that ‘this is what friends are for’ moment over and over again.
Four months in and I am bored of it. Irritated, actually.
Once we are done with the paperwork, Adil and I decide to go out for an early dinner at the mall nearby.
“I know you don’t want me to get involved in your house situation, but I really want to help,” he says.
“I’m sorry if I sound ungrateful, I just don’t want to use you.”
“I want to help Mar...”
“I know, and I appreciate it. But it’s weird.”
“You’re not getting me Adil. You don’t have to take care of me. You just have to be there for me. Normal people buy chocolates and roses for people they care about. They don’t arrange funerals for them and help them sign leases.”
“I just don’t understand why you can’t just take my help?”
“I don’t want to be beholden to you.”
“Do you think I am that person?”
“I don’t know who you are and what you want from me,” I spit out and immediately regret it.
“Can I be really honest with you?” I ask.
“Uh... I didn’t know there was a time we were lying to each other but go ahead,” Adil says as he picks on the straw in his coke.
“I’ve been through two relationships, one a marriage and the second one a friendship that left me stranded overnight. In both instances, I was fine afterward but that level of betrayal is crazy. I wish you were clearer with me.”
“What do you want me to say?” His irritation is visible now.
“That you see us going somewhere. That you care for me in a way that’s not platonic. That we have a future together.”
Wow. I immediately feel liberated and lighter. It is off my chest and it’s up to him to decide what to do with that.
He doesn’t respond. He asks for the bill instead.
“I will pay for this meal,” I say defensively.
“No, you will not!” he almost shouts.
“Maariah,” he says sternly, almost saying, “Hey, watch it!” but I don’t give up.
“Why are you doing this?” he tries again.
“I really just want clarity on what this is. That’s it.”
“Can we have this discussion at home?”
I prepare for a comeback but I relent. It is humiliating to force a man to tell you he has feelings for you. It should have been natural, since we spend so much time together.
Sometimes at night I stare at the ceiling and wonder whether it’s me who’s the problem. Maybe I am incapable of accepting love. It can’t be that my only two relationships were not romantic and affectionate.
You know, the usual kind things like texting sweet messages or complimenting me or just taking a slow walk with me.
The shitty part of all of this is that I don’t know how I will manage if he leaves my life. Because if he goes, Ayesha goes and if Ayesha goes Ma goes — and probably Firdaus too.
That’s my entire support structure gone. Dammit. I wish I never met him that night in his car. I wish I never agreed to his bizarre idea of gyming together. Who the hell agrees to gym with a stranger after two meetings?
The moment we get into his car, he gets a call from one of his employees and from what I can hear, they need him to check on work they have been doing at the orphanage he has been assisting and what we used the sale donation for.
He looks at me then he looks away. A moment later, his head turns towards me again with a sense of confusion in his eyes.
“Do you want to come with me to the orphanage?” he asks me, waiting for me to lash out at him as I’ve been doing all week.
I nod in silence.
As the kids see Adil’s car pull up at the orphanage, they run out and start ululating and cheering. Soon, we are totally encircled by excited kids who start singing in Xhosa until the housemother comes out and breaks up the circle. It seems Adil has decided to do renovations to the place and got his guys to do the ceilings and some carpentry.
Adil introduces me to the foreman, Thomas.
“Mr Adil, we finished with the paint and ceilings. Now we are busy doing the kitchen and bathrooms,” one of Adil’s workers says to him.
He still hasn’t said a word to me.
What’s going on with the bathrooms?” he asks.
“We broke the walls down to redesign the whole area to make separate male and female bathrooms. We did measurements and I think we can fit four shower stalls in each section and about five toilet units. We will have a central changing area.”
“What about people who don’t want to change in front of others? Can we not make separate toilet, shower and changing area stalls?”
“It will cost more sir.”
“How much more?”
“With the partitions and tiling, you are looking at about R20K more, Mr Adil.”
“Okay, I’ll check with the top guys if they approve but I think we can spend a little bit more,” he says.
“I think that will be better,” I butt in and turn to face Adil, but I get stone-cold silence in response.
Gosh, that hurts! Point taken, Adil. Point taken. I am sorry! Although there’s no way I am going to apologise out loud.
“Okay so have you made a note of other things that need to be fixed?” he says to the workers.
“In the living quarters, we fumigated and changed all the lightbulbs. We are just trying to find a solution for the children to do homework, sir.”
“What is the situation currently?”
“They do homework in the main classroom on the floor”.
“How about if we do study desks along the four walls, section each little unit off with chairs and then in the centre, we put double-sided desks?” I deliberately assert myself.
“Let’s go do measurements of that, Thomas, to see how many we can fit,” Adil tells his foreman.
It turns out my idea is genius, and cheap. But mounting desks onto the walls, and creating small partitions, they can fit about 40 working stations around the classrooms and 12 stations in the centre. I also suggest storage space for supplies and a place for a printer and computer. The housemother says they would prefer if the printer is in a cage mounted onto the wall so no one can steal it.
“Okay. So, once we are done with the kitchen, get the carpentry guys to start with this while you get the other team to start on the bathrooms. We don’t have much time. Our contract with L&L starts next month so we must finish this up soon,” he says to Thomas who nods and greets us goodbye.
As we leave, the kids abandon their activities and cheer us again. One little girl named Lwandile tells us she is happy there are no more goggas that bite her at night.
This breaks my heart. Imagine the privilege we have. I am throwing a tantrum and seeking Adil’s attention and here the kids are so grateful that there are no mosquitoes and bed bugs biting them at night.
As we are about to leave, I ask the housemother if I can film the kids singing for us and she agrees as long as there aren’t any closeup pictures of the kids’ faces. But Adil shakes his head, clearly signalling that I should not do it.
“Poverty porn is not cool,” he says as we get into the car.
“Poor people have dignity. We like to share their pictures and stories to feel better about ourselves but they deserve some respect,” he says as he drives out of the orphanage and on the way home.
I disagree with him. I think sharing an act of kindness can inspire so many more people. But I don’t put up a fight.
Once my move is finalised, I am going to start distancing myself from him. I need to do it for my mental health.
It is a cycle of enjoying his company, pining for more, and then hating myself for taking help from someone who is clearly emotionally unavailable. I am done.
As we get home he turns to look at me.
“Mar, I care for you deeply,” he says, staring at me intently.
What in Shakespeare is ‘I care for you deeply’?
“I have never met anyone in my life who I have had such an immediate magnetism to. But I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t know, I am messed up.”
We are getting somewhere.
“I wish I could explain it. You are not like anyone else in my life. I feel this overwhelming sense of responsibility towards you. It makes no sense. And, I know it sounds cheesy, but you are not like other girls.”
“If you felt like this why didn’t you just say so? Why did you wait for me to put a gun to your head?”
“My life is messy, Mar.”
“Messy? You have the most functional life possible,” I hit back.
“There is a lot you don’t know about me. And a big part of me doesn’t want you to know that side of me.”
“Do you feel like I am being unfair by asking you where you see this going?”
“From the day I met you, I knew I wanted to marry you.”
I have never dug my nails so deep into a car seat ever in my life before. I may have even broken a nail.
“But...” he says.
There is always a but!
“But I think... it’s complicated. I have never felt like this for anyone. But I just... I am not making sense,” he says.
“Adil, let’s try a simpler version. Do you like me?”
“Do you want to be with me?”
“Yes. I want to be with you.”
“But life is complicated and I feel ashamed to draw you into my complicated life.”
“Okay, Adil. I am going to go in now,” I say, trying not to cry in front of him again.
He follows me out of the car and into my house.
I am getting flashbacks of the night my ex-husband said to me he was in love with another woman. I don’t think I can handle more rejection in my life.
“Adil…” I start.
“Maariah. Listen to what I am saying to you. I care for you Mar. I really, really care for you.”
“What does that even mean?” I say with a lump in my throat.
“It means that you mean a lot to me.”
“The neighbour’s cat means a lot to me,” I say with all the sarcasm I can muster.
“I think about you all day. I try to... preempt your needs. You are the last person I think about at night. I am grumpy when I don’t see you. I am happiest when I am with you. I love that my granny loves you. I like that you are so hardworking and not entitled. I would not give up our conversations for anything.”
“Let me finish. Mar, you know when I first went out with you, I thought, ‘my God, this girl is so beautiful.’ I know you get that all the time. But you are gorgeous. There have been times where I had to physically restrict myself. It still baffles me that you don’t have guys lining up for a chance. At first, I thought we could just have fun and we can date and see where it would lead to. But I promise you, after our first meeting, I knew there was something special about you. I can’t explain it. I felt like if I was serious about you, we shouldn’t date. Because if we did, I’d probably mess things up and any prospect of a future would go up in the air. Mar, when I look at you, you are the person I want to spend my life with. That is what you mean to me.”
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry!
“It’s messed up. I know. Mar, I am sorry.”
The lump in my throat is now a boulder.
“I mean it when I say I want to have a future with you.”
“What does that even mean?” I ask between tears. Am I being manipulative? Am I forcing him to say something he is not ready to say?
“It means I want to marry you. I want you to be my wife. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And my life is messy and crazy and complicated. I don’t want you to be part of all that chaos. But I also don’t want to lose you. You mean the world to me Mar. You really do.”
Those words seal the deal for me.
It’s what I needed to hear. Finally, I feel loved. And that’s all I really wanted.
This is fiction
No, really. It is fiction. All characters are made up.