Smoke & Mirrors
Written by Qaanitah Hunter and edited by Benazir Cassim
I have two looks: slay queen with false lashes and contour sharp enough it can stab you, or untidy pony and trackpants when I am at home. There is no in-between for me — I literally go big or stay home. Most of the time I am at home, I am in an oversized hoodie with unbrushed hair.
I don’t know how some influencers slay all day every day. Maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s just an illusion because people think I am put together every day. People who follow me on social media think my face is beaten to perfection every day. It’s really not true.
But that’s what the 'Gram Life is really — just smoke and mirrors. Or selfies and mirrors. Whatever.
I have to get done for this meeting with Adil, the guy I met on Friday evening and who slid into my DMs. Let me repeat that. I am going out with a guy I met a day ago. I mean, what do I have to lose? I already married a guy who was in love with someone else. Well, at least that’s what I am trying to convince myself. I am freaking out inside just deciding what to wear. What do you wear to a non-date with someone you just met?
If this was a blogger thing, I would wear a cute dress with some wedge heels and do my hair and makeup. I don’t want to go there with my face made up to perfection and he rocks up in something casual.
Worse, imagine if I go there with jeans and a t-shirt and he rocks up in something formal. But it is after all a Sunday lunch pizza non-date. Let me try Google...
Okay. Breathe, girl, breathe.
I think I want to look cute but in an ‘I woke up like this’ way. I take out my new pair of sneakers, a pair of jeans I got from a collab I did last year and a dressy top I bought from Zara the other day. I decided to tie my hair in a purposely untidy pony and do a no-makeup makeup look. Gosh, it’s hard to look like you are not trying. Did you know there are false lashes specifically aimed at making it seem like you’re not wearing fake lashes? The beauty industry gives me a headache. I love it.
After that awkward message last night, Adil didn’t message again.
It’s five minutes to 1pm and I haven’t heard from him on Instagram. For a moment, my heart sinks at the possibility that he isn’t going to show up. Maybe he forgot my address. Maybe he was just kidding? What if it is one of those ‘we must hang out’ type of dates where you say you would like to meet but have no real intention of ever doing that? This is probably karma for me doing that a bazillion times to other influencers I run into. My go-to line is: “We must totally hang!” In other words: I will literally choose Netflix over you.
In the middle of this internal turmoil, the Audi from Friday night pulls up and our gate bell rings five minutes later. Possible psycho stalker? Possible husband? Okay, I don’t know if I will ever get married again but you get the point.
I open the gate and Adil walks in. I watch from the window and he is casual and chilled. He doesn’t look as serious as he did on Friday evening, but I don’t have much to reference as this is the second time I am seeing him in my entire life.
“Hey!” I say, more enthusiastically than I planned to.
“Hey! You ready?”
“Yeah. Let me get my bag.”
Adil is so much more upbeat than he was on Friday evening. Granted, he probably finished work at midnight and was exhausted.
If the car ride from Rosebank to Illovo is anything to go by, he is not a psycho stalker. Although I did watch a thriller once where the guy waited until the woman was in love with him before he planned to kill her and bury her in a shallow grave. What if this is a long game for him and he is waiting to get to know me before he kills me?
Note to self: Stop watching so many thrillers.
I don’t know about you but kindness is very attractive to me. If someone is kind to ‘nobodies’ like waiters or car guards, it says a lot about their character. I can’t help but notice how friendly Adil was to the waiters who remembered him from Friday night.
My ex, and my only reference, was always moody when we went out. Later, I realised that every time he went out with me, he probably wanted to be with his girlfriend. Sometimes when I look back on my marriage, I feel like it was a movie. I don’t understand how I just lived for two years in complete naivety. Maybe ignorance is bliss. IDK!
Adil orders two large pizzas for the two of us and I know he is going to force me to eat an entire pizza by myself.
“So, are you ready for a carb overload?” he asks.
“So ready!” I say lamely as I try to come up with something punchier to say. Conversations are not like captions. You don’t have time to google a punny line.
“Firdaus couldn’t stop talking about how nice you are.”
“She’s the sweetest!”
“I would do anything for her when she’s down from Cape Town. She is by far my favourite cousin.”
“Your sister is lovely too.”
“She’s not bad. Although I am the nicer of my parents’ two kids.”
What are we doing here? I HAVE NO IDEA.
“What did you have planned today?”
“To just Netflix and chill.”
Adil starts laughing.
“No. I mean, to literally watch Netflix and chill”.
“I hope I didn’t interrupt anything,” he jibes.
“Get out of here!”
“I am sure you are quite busy during the week”.
“Yeah... and most weekends I am working. It’s nice to have a weekend off.”
“So how does it work? Do you go to every event you are invited to?”
“No, not really. It’s impossible to attend everything. I have become quite selective. There are some events I am paid to attend — not many but there are a few. Then some brands I work quite closely with. Other events are just nice from a content point of view. Sometimes brands take influencers for spa dates or brunches. I am selective in the fact that I don’t go to parties by alcohol companies or things that my followers are not really into, like Botox or whatever.”
“I was speaking to Firdaus yesterday when I was driving her to the airport... she said you handle the business side of your blog really well.”
“Well, so does she. She has a great following as a hijabi blogger.”
“So, what do you do for fun besides Netflix and chilling?” he asks with a smirk.
“Not much. I am an introvert of sorts”.
“I don’t think anyone of your 100 000 followers will believe that.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you see online. I actually don’t go out much besides influencer-related stuff.”
“It’s weird how social media creates these perceptions about people... What do you like doing?”
“I love working out I guess, but I haven’t been to the gym in like six months.”
“Do you go to the gym near your house?”
“I signed up... but I stopped because I have no one to gym with and I get bored by myself.”
“I go every morning. You should come with me.”
I just laugh.
“I am serious. I am not into any hectic bodybuilding. Just 45 minutes of cardio and light weights.”
He seems unrelenting.
“So enough about me. What do you do?” I ask him, nervous about whether people still ask this question anymore.
“I run our family property company. I joined three years ago. Before that, I worked as an auditor.”
“So you guys develop the property?” I sound so stupid.
“Yeah ... My dad is semi-retired. He stays between here and London where my mum is. Initially, he just had a few flats he had bought as an investment, but he slowly increased his portfolio. When he brought me in to manage the company, we started professionalising it. In the three years, his portfolio has really increased.”
“Do you buy buildings and rent them out?”
“At first that’s what we used to do. Now we’re buying land and developing it ourselves for rental. Basically, we expanded the business to insource everything. We have our own architects and engineers on board. It cuts the costs dramatically and we target the middle-income bracket.”
“I suppose you can’t compete with the big developers?”
“Not at all. Which is why we stay in our lane. On Friday, I was working on a pitch to a big developer for them to outsource some of their work to us.”
“Yeah, I hope it works out.”
“You seem like a workaholic though.”
“Well, me and you both.”
He is pretty funny. Not in a clownish way though. He almost has a wry sense of humour that’s refreshing.
All the jitters that overwhelmed me when leaving my house quickly disappear as we talk and eat our extra cheesy pizza.
For me, the only pizza I recognise is a plain margherita. Toppings just spoil it for me. Imagine what Italians living in Naples would think when they see what we’ve done to pizzas. I mean, people are shamelessly putting butter chicken on pizza. BUTTER CHICKEN!
And don’t get me started on putting fruit on pizza. This may be a politically loaded statement, but PINEAPPLE DOES NOT BELONG ON A PIZZA. It is blasphemy of the highest order. It should be a criminal offence.
“You seem deep in thought?” Adil says.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Uhm... that pineapple does not belong on pizza...”
Adil starts laughing so hard he snorts out the Coke he’s drinking.
Then I start laughing uncontrollably at the Coke running from his nostrils. For a good five minutes we are literally screaming with laughter and people around us are staring like we’ve gone crazy. It feels so good just to laugh and be silly with someone who doesn’t know my history or is not judging me.
But again, I DON’T KNOW WHAT WE ARE DOING HERE.
“I told you I can eat in the daytime!” I say as I take my fourth slice of pizza.
“You proved me wrong! The next pizza is on you,” he says.
Oh, so there will be a second date?
I don’t ask, but he can see the quizzical look on my face.
“If you want to have another pizza together,” he offers.
“Of course. Friday night pizza?”
“But we have to gym the entire week so we can earn the carbs.”
Oh crap. The gym.
“I will follow a workout routine at home.”
“You’re never going to do it. Join me tomorrow morning. It will be fun.”
This is escalating quite quickly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah... like I said, I am not into bodybuilding. I can fetch you at 6:30 and drop you off by 7:20. A solid 45-minute workout?”
“You are quite persuasive.”
“Yeah. My staff says they can never tell me no.”
“What is your staff compliment?” I ask, genuinely interested in his work.
“We have about 40 full-time people and then others are on a project by project basis.”
“Do you miss the corporate space?” I ask, unsure if this conversation is going well or not.
“Every day. My father ran his business like a spaza shop for very long. Growing a business and trying to professionalise it takes hard work. It doesn’t help that every time my father comes back from the UK, he tries to undo everything I spend months building.”
“So, do you go to London often?” I ask as I think about walking with our kids in Hyde Park in London Summer.
GET A GRIP, GIRL.
“Not very often... I don’t like it actually.”
“But then when do you see your mother?”
“I see her like once a quarter... Eids mostly...”
“Ah, it’s the same with my mom.”
“Where does your mum stay?”
“In Nelspruit... Mpumalanga”.
“That’s not far.”
I pick up a vibe that Adil doesn’t have a great relationship with his mother. It’s just a vibe, I don’t know for sure.
“And Ayesha? Does she work for your company?” I ask, trying to change the subject.
“No no, she works in corporate.”
“You know how brown people are. I’m the only son, how dare I not want to take over the family business.”
“You’re doing so well though!” I say in an unbaked attempt at flirting.
“I’ve learned to love it. I hated how unprofessional my dad was and the staff was like that too.”
“You are changing a culture... it takes time.”
“You sound like an organisational psychologist,” he jokes.
“I read so many books on how to manage people and business... I want to grow my brand in the future.”
“Like start a fashion line?” he asks, interested.
“Yes, but I don’t want to partner with a big brand. I want to produce amazing clothes and own the source of production.”
Adil nods his head. “So how do collaborations work?”
“I was in talks with Icon to come up with a casual wear range. They only offer a once-off design fee and like 2% of net profits. You don’t end up with much. Some collabs are great because it helps further your brand. But I really want to start my own business.”
“That’s amazing,” he says with a quick smile as he sips his bottled water.
You’re amazing, I almost say, but I hold myself back. I can’t be super eager when I don’t even know what we are doing here. I know I haven’t been on a proper date in my life, but this doesn’t feel like a date. It’s too casual.
“It is not as easy as people make it out to be,” I say about starting out my own business. “I know! Like when I started out, my dad had some properties he owned and would just ensure he collected the rent every month and took care of maintenance. It was him and about four other people who ran the place then. When I wanted to expand, he was so against it because he didn’t want the risk. But the reality is, a business can only successfully grow if you take calculated risks. My argument was you have tons of capital, buy one run-down apartment, renovate it and put it out to rent. And then do the next one and next one...”
“Then this way you don’t overcapitalise?” I ask, hoping I sound smart.
“Exactly. We fought for like a month then eventually he gave me R500K to buy a flat. You can’t do anything with 500K. Because the most rental you will get is about R4 000–R5 000. It took us about two months to find the right spot. There was a unit in a complex in Midrand on sale for R450K on auction because the owners defaulted, and the bank just wanted its money. They were so happy we had the cash to pay immediately.”
“What was the value of the flat?”
“Over R700 000.”
“Instead of using my father’s friends who used to do the renovations at a premium, I decided to hire my own people and supervise the whole project. It took us two weeks. I bought every tile and chose every detail.”
“How much did it cost?”
“About 50K, give or take.”
“So, for the R500 000 your dad gave you bought a flat and renovated it?”
“Yes. When we put it up for rent, we had offers for R11 000. Which, in four years, paid itself off. Now that just generates profit.”
“You were fortunate to have access to capital.”
“Absolutely. I mean my timer would have rather taken that money and gone on holiday but that showed him how calculated risks can pay off.”
“‘Calculated risks’ is going to be my new motto,” I say with a smile.
“Are you teasing me?”
“No, I am actually inspired.” It is true though. It’s the only way to grow a business.
“It was sweat and tears! After that unit was successfully rented out, I sold a house my dad had in the East Rand that was a dud and sold it to a group of foreigners who turned it into a business premises. I took that million and bought two units similar to the first one and did the same thing. And then I professionalised it where we had an agent who would deal with rentals and so we weren’t doing that archaic thing of calling people to remind them of paying rent.”
“This is all so fascinating.”
“You can tell me if you are bored. I don’t meet many people who care about these kinds of things”.
He means girls. He doesn’t meet many girls who are interested in his work. Meaning he meets lots of girls.
“When I look at my future... I think going into business is my next step. I don’t know where to start but that’s my intention,” I say.
“I will help you when you’re ready. Take your time to think about what you would want out of it.”
So he plans on being around for a while? This is all so confusing. I just smile and drink water. I can’t be thinking of starting a business when my bank account hits zero by the 20th of every month. Obviously, I don’t tell Adil that. It’s kind that he offered to help me even though I don’t really know if he means it.
“Shall we get going?” I ask.
“Sure. I don’t want to stand in the way of your Netflix and chilling,” he teases.
“This was nice. Thank you,” I say a bit formally.
Why am I so weird? Why can’t I be chilled and easy-going? I wish there was a Ted Talk on ‘How to be cool’. Maybe there is — I must check.
“You’re coming with me to the gym tomorrow morning, right?”
“Come on. I need someone to talk to while I exercise, and you need a gym buddy. Win, win.”
“So, you’re just using me then?” I jab.
“Kind of,” he laughs.
After my divorce, I would often think about what kind of guy I would end up with. But I could never narrow it down. I could never imagine myself with a certain type of person. Getting married at 18 and divorced two years later doesn’t bode well for your self-esteem. And, yes, my divorce wasn’t toxic or majorly dramatic, but it really made me believe that I was not worthy of being loved. It’s not an easy thing to overcome when the only person you loved in your life was in love with someone else the whole time.
I think that hurt stopped me from even considering a relationship or imagining my life with a partner. Do I get lonely? Of course, I do. But the reality is that I don’t spend enough time making and sustaining friendships.
Me: Siri, how do I make friends?
Siri: Ok, I found this on the web for, ‘How do I make friends?’
This is fiction
No, really. It is fiction. All characters are made up.