This is about you taking a mouthful of tea and spitting it out – you realise you have mistaken the sugar for the salt and ruined the drink; about you smiling ruefully – salt in the cappuccino – no, you are not even surprised.
On an August morning in Johannesburg you wake up on a futon in a friend’s ground-floor flat. It’s slightly earlier than you’d like. You went to theatre last night. You are not used to being in a flat and you’ve been awakened by the unaccustomed noises of other people in the building. Above, you can hear the footsteps of a woman going back and forth across the ceiling. You can hear faint voices, and cars driving out of the gates.
You are sleeping in the lounge of your friend’s place. You are sleeping there because you now live in Pretoria, but still work in Johannesburg, and it is easier to sleep over than to drive an hour back to Pretoria, late, and then come back in the morning. On the few occasions that you have done so it leaves you exhausted. In fact, everything leaves you exhausted these days, but the constant driving more so.
You had moved to Pretoria the previous November because that is where your partner bought a house and because you wanted to live together. You had been seeing each other for two-and-a-bit years before you moved, spending alternate weekends at each other’s homes and occasionally evenings in the week. So you moved: because you knew you wanted to be together; because spending the weeks apart was too painful; and because you loved each other. You moved to Pretoria because she wouldn’t move to Johannesburg, you’d have had to find a place to share together, your own home is small and because she’d just bought a home there, on a golf estate, that was big enough for the two of you, that was near her brother and sister-in-law and new baby nephew. And because when you had both considered living in Midrand – halfway between your two cities – you had both somehow agreed that you both didn’t want to live there. It felt like the middle of nowhere, you had said. You moved because this was what both of you had wanted.
And there was the Gautrain – the new, super train between the cities. You would have time to read on the commute, you both agreed. And yes, going to plays, most of which were performed in Johannesburg, was important to you, and you could still go with friends in the week, and a few friends had spare rooms or a futon in the lounge and were happy for you to sleep over.
You were sanguine about this plan. You did not try out a week of living in Pretoria and catching the train to see what it would be like; you did not really consider that sleeping at friends would leave you feeling unsettled and strange, or that, really, your job, interests, life, friends, your mother were all in Johannesburg and you were uprooting your life in a drastic way. When these thoughts, and doubts, came up, you thought instead that it would be okay and besides, you had wanted to go freelance at some point, work from home, and concentrate on your writing.
But now it is August and the commuting has taken its toll on you, and your relationship. You do it only three days a week, working at the Pretoria office on a Monday and working from home in Pretoria on a Friday. But the three days are hell, between driving to the train station, catching the train and then a connecting bus from the station to your office in town. The journey, one way, takes an hour and a half to two hours, and then you repeat it in the afternoon. Altogether, every day you spend up to four hours travelling.
You didn’t know this was how it would be.
And you didn’t know the toll this would take on you, combined with the effects of moving, adapting to a new life and city, and to living with someone. You may have known each other two years and some, but you only really get to know someone when you live together, when you test the relationship.
And the wheels have come off.
It’s August and you and your partner have broken up. It happened on a cold night, the third of July, but you had both known it was coming, and had even spoken of it before and vaguely sort of done it and then tried being together again. You are still living there, though: your own home is rented out, you have asked the tenants to move early, breaking the lease, and they have agreed. They have been looking for a place and it seems you will be able to move back soon.
In the meantime, you still live in Pretoria with your partner and your two cats. You sleep in separate rooms: you have the main room; she is sleeping on the camper bed in her study. It is all so unbelievably sad and shocking. And yet, strangely, you are still friendly with each other. There are no slammed doors. There are suppers together, you have even gone to movies together since you broke up. You still tell her about the copious amount of books you are reading.
What drew you together in the first place is still there – and isn’t. The bonds are broken. You are both broken by the anger, the hurts and resentments; by the sense of betrayal in realising that the one is not what the other hoped they would be. You have been done in. Both of you.
But this isn’t about the failure of a relationship. They happen all the time. That fact is almost a cliché. This is about what happens when you rise from the futon, this is what happens when you move and attempt to make a new life for yourself, this is about you stumbling to your friend’s kitchen on that August morning.
Salt in the cappuccino
She is still dozing in her bedroom and you are making yourself a rooibos cappuccino from a sachet you brought. You boil the kettle, pour the powder into a mug.
This is about putting a spoonful of sugar into the mug and carrying it to the lounge where you have placed your overnight bag. This is about you taking a mouthful of tea and spitting it out – you realise you have mistaken the sugar for the salt and ruined the drink. This is about you smiling ruefully – salt in the cappuccino – no, you are not even surprised.
Your life has been turned upside down, and it is no surprise that you are sitting on a cold August morning, alone, in a friend’s home, feeling sad and displaced while your partner is in Pretoria and there is no good morning message from her – because you don’t do that anymore.
This is about what happens next.
How you get from there, to here. This is about the journey you take – a new one for you.
But, you realise months later, you were woefully unprepared.
You thought it would be easier than it is.
Instead, you realise you metaphorically packed for a winter in Siberia by taking the sort of light summer T-shirts you’d wear for a beach holiday. And this is the journey you take from a breakup night in July, to moving out one day in September, to a time, later.
Let’s start with that September morning you move out. You’ve had less than three weeks to prepare and pack
There was no going back. Your partner is adamant that it’s not working, won’t work, you are not making each other happy, she says. And the death knell: ‘This hasn’t been a relationship for some time.’
You are too shocked at the time to ask what she means by this. That your intimacy died in the worry and stress of the year you were planning to move in together? That there hasn’t been any of that in all the time you have lived together. That she asked once if your love for her had eroded and you denied it? But resentment has a way of cutting away at feelings for each other. Months later you’d like to ask – but it is too late. Instead there is the memory of that baldly stated fact.
And so, after trying to find a way back to her, and her declaration that it is no use, despite the deep feelings you have for each other, you accept that there is no way now but forward, no way but back on the highway, back to your home in Johannesburg. You have taken the Gautrain to Sandton City some Saturdays to price furniture. You sold everything when you moved to Pretoria. You need a couch, a bed, a TV, a TV stand, a fridge, a washing machine, and so it goes. You have bought boxes to pack your papers into, your twenty boxes of books have remained stacked in her garage all these months. In June, you went to look at bookcases for your study so you could finally unpack your books. But you didn’t buy bookcases then; you looked at beds and other things you’d need if you were to move out, as though you already knew you’d need these more than bookcases.
So, there wasn’t much packing to be done, and on this rainy September morning in Pretoria you have packed everything you need and you are waiting for the removals truck, whose driver is lost and late and calling you on your cellphone to get directions. You can barely give them; your partner takes the phone from you and tries to direct them.
The sky weeps. Your cats are howling in the bathroom.
You both wait, and while you wait, you’re talking to each other, seeing where you both went wrong, how you could have done things differently. And she is wrapping your white leather study chair for you in protective green plastic, wrapping and wrapping and wrapping it to make sure it doesn’t get dirty in the move, ‘Remember me,’ she says, ‘when you come to unwrap it, that this is what I was like,’ … and you’re talking, and yet it is the end.
When the truck has finally come, and your cats are loaded in the car in their baskets, it is time to say goodbye.
‘So, it’s come to this,’ her face is strained, teary, resigned.
She looks into your eyes, her eyes searching. She kisses you on the cheek – for the first time in two months since you broke up and the months since you moved, you feel her passion again, her love for you. It has been gone for so long, and this farewell kiss brings it all back achingly back. How has it come to this?
You kiss her back on the cheek, ‘I’m not leaving,’ you say, but of course you will.
You will get into the car, she will stand at the passenger door saying goodbye to you and to your two cats yowling in the back. You will get in your car and back out of the driveway. Her last words to you are, ‘Take care!’ The last image you have is of her standing outside her house, at the garage, in her jeans and white softshell jacket as the drizzle falls gently.
Her face is still strained and haunted.
For the last time, you make your way to the gates of the estate, you put your tears away because you have a drive of an hour ahead of you. You put your thumb against the keypad to open the security boom to let you out, and turn onto Solomon Mahlangu Drive, which takes you to the highway. You signal right, then left, then you are on the highway, following the familiar signs back to Johannesburg.
And so it begins.
- This is an extract from a forthcoming collection of non-fiction of travel writing, personal essays and diary excerpts by Arja Salafranca to be published in 2022 by Modjaji Books.