A man, my father, is coming down the Arrivals escalator in a trench coat. He’s smiling cautiously. His teeth are discolored and sharp as he says Hello, or Hi. As he hugs me, I smell cigarette smoke on his clothes and our mutual fear in his blood.
I’m wearing gooseberry lipstick from a magazine– the kind of lipstick that makes men ask if I smeared my mouth in coal before I left the house. My hair in a bob that hides the ringworm I contracted from a stray kitten, I’m woefully unprepared to forget my childhood. But maybe I will.
I didn’t cry until South African Airways landed on an island to refuel. I hid my face and puffed cigarettes in the Smoking Section of the plane, hoping none would ask about my age, or my capacity to understand this decision to move to Albuquerque at fifteen– which was a grain of salt. When my mother asked if I was sure, I said I was sure.
In my father’s car, driving from the airport though the flat flameless basin, my eyes grope the dark, roam a foreign desertscape. We are passing Quarters Liquor Store, passing boys in low trousers, scanning wide empty roads and I am thrilled.
My father lights a cigarette, plays music I don’t like and I admit I’ve smoked once or twice. He says he knows. His car seats smell like me being six-years-old in Brixton, playing rhyming games with him, winning every round. His seat is wearing a stretched out T-shirt of a Muppet he painted on himself, when I was young, after the first separation.
We drive into a parking lot. He’s breathing in and out—a mouth breather fogging up the glass. He hasn’t yet asked what I would like to do on my first night. This restaurant is famous, he says. We park. I follow his cues as we get out of the car, into the cold.
We enter through the back door of The Frontier restaurant, where the waiters all wear white hats, and the milkshakes taste suspect and where maybe I will leave a packet of Basic cigarettes on the table and pray my friend Diego Romero doesn’t say to whom they belong.
So far, the people are not the Beverly Hills in-crowd I was hoping to meet. They are mostly Southwestern. Quintessentially American.
That woman over there sports a blonde, sculpted mass of hair and her jeans are cut too close to her body. That man has slick dark features, elbows on the table and rice in his mouth. Maybe I will kiss features like his when I turn sixteen.
At eighteen, maybe I will marry features like his and move to Texas and feel a vestige of light corrode inside me. Maybe my chest will flatten against features like his and my legs will open wide and fold into parts. Maybe his hair will be saturated with helicopter fuel, trousers too high, tapping his army boots in time to the music while I take unexpected trips in his car. Maybe I will speed over the ruined shells of Armadillos after arguments, then I will turn around and drive back to our brown apartment where we’ll kiss and make-up, where we’ll wrestle in the swimming pool, where he’ll shout in supermarkets: I’m not your father! Where we’ll bide our time.
What do you think of this place? The people are fucking weird, he says. He likes strangeness for strangeness sake and he’s found plenty of it in this town. He orders a Frontier Roll to share. I bet you have never had one of these? He smiles in a way I will forget. And there are signs of life. A real person’s life, a heavy-bodied life, heart like a plum. It’s delicious, I say. Don’t eat it all, he says.
Some of the girls have 6-inch hair, he explains, because they use a can of hairspray each, and teachers measure it at high school to make sure you’re not affiliated with a gang. I had not wanted him to look so much older.
He finds the cruising cars on Central Avenue worth watching and the people eating around us endearing, and the tone of his voice when he’s addressing me is on the edge of mocking. This tone is familiar. So your mother says you’re Gothic now. He’s smiling like a peer. I correct him, because No, I’m Alternative, which gives me more freedom in my choice of dress.
He gets up, goes to the bathroom and I see his back. I learn the downward slope of him and see he hasn’t brushed his hair, I taste the signature of smoke on him and sense his blood may still be combustible, thinned by booze, and other secret forms of ruination. He is tall, weathered also—around his hands—swathed in versions of himself that
seek to cloak us all in loss. His bone-silver teeth I will see before sleep. Maybe they will replace my mother’s smile.
They live in the Valley, my father and his new wife. The roof of their house is flat. Cats roam the living rooms, wide-eyed. Maybe they will all of them breed until each one is killed by a car, or an unknown disease. The house has clever photography on the walls, it has succulent plants on every surface, it has Mexican objects placed about
strategically that make me want to draw skeleton figures, glitter their eyes and put them on display. Their house is not South African.
Maybe this will be the home of a periphery child. His wife greets us at the door, late at night. She is curly-haired and smiling. She asks about the flight, she laughs that one of the cats is brain damaged, she brings out vanilla bean speck ice cream and I’m shown where I’ll sleep. I don’t take off my coat or boots. I eat out of the carton while she watches and he fixes a light bulb. I want to eat all their strange food and tonight; they want me to have what I like. Everything in the house smells dank somehow, but as they briefly discuss practicalities and food stamps, every unfolding idea of myself is infused with a new name, a new lie I might tell on the first day of school. Yes, we do ride lions in Johannesburg. Yes, there is blood in the streets.
I pet the dog when he wanders in and sits at my feet, I ask questions that amuse my father and his wife because naiveté is always a pleasant quality in foreigners. I see our reflections in the large windows, which are spectacular, and I marvel at their blue door pane. Maybe I will fall flat on the cement outside their blue door pane after I swallow a tab of acid. It will feel so good to fall. Maybe I will miss my mother so much it will feel like removing my insides and replacing them with floor cleaner. Take all of my organs, I’ll say, because I don’t know how my body works. Maybe I will look up at the door pane and laugh and Diego will stand there, mutely, while a distant cousin calls him a spick.
Maybe I will think my spilled Frontier milkshake is blood, surrounded by ants, and I will feel enormously happy on the ground.
Don’t you want to go to your room?
Leave her alone. She just got here, he says, smoking an American Spirit.
I know, she says.
His wife makes coffee for them, she is chatty and young, and I am aware of her nice clothes because I will borrow them, and lie about it, and she will say I ruined their lives.
Sarah-Jane de Brito Martin is a Zimbabwean-born writer and teacher with an MFA in Fiction from Columbia. She has done many arty things in many different places and currently resides in New York.