Shirley left. I don’t exactly know why. First it was her family needing her, then it was her boyfriend. We’d shared a dom for almost nine months and I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. I knew of the different “people” in her life. But it was no surprise, the only thing we had in common was the dom we shared and the clothes we later borrowed each other. She was my navigator through the city and how to survive life in varsity and now she was gone.
Our friendship or bond or whatever ship started when I shared my 10kg mealie meal, 5kg rice, mixed portions, cans of tin food and a tin of jam when she had spent all her money on take always. She was all about fancy things. One night after eating the last bit of pap I had saved for the next day and using my toiletries, sanitary towels included, she went out, came back the following evening with a brand new foot spa, receipt and all. She bought everything except necessities.
The best my parents could do was a two minutes phone call to come home and collect avocados, mangoes, mealies etc. depending on the season and R500.00. I probably got it 4 times a year or less and the rest of the times I had to make a plan. I made a plan yes, and it led me to other plans.
Six months later things were getting rough. I ran short of everything. The allowance of R800 from my uncle had decreased by R400.00, some months I never got it. Shirley came through for me here and there but it was never enough. She helped me look for a job in retail with no luck, until one of her “friends” hosted an event and he was looking for waiters.
That’s where I met him. I served him 3 times and he gave me a tip of R300.00. This right here was God! I made sure to put the money in my bra. He got so drunk he even tipped me for passing his direction. I had taken good take care of him, he added when he gave me his business card while explaining how his wife had a restaurant and she needed waitresses. This was an answered prayer. I hardly saw Shirley that evening as she was too busy “marketing.”
She got back the following evening, with a coffee machine this time and a pair of shoes. She threw herself on the bed and had no interest in my fat tip until I mentioned the business card. She sat up, “He could help you out,” her eyes widened. “He said he would help me out.” His way of helping me did not interest her. So she did what she normally did after returning with a present or package. She put on her headphones and curled under her blankets.
Came Monday and I called him. His PA answered. Her voice was black and white like the suit I was so sure she was wearing. I told her this long speech about how we met and how he said would help me out, she assured she would pass on the message. For a week I called in and he never got back to me, he never even replied to my emails.
Shirley laughed when I told her about it. “You need some serious schooling,” she put me in one of her wigs and special dresses. I wiggled in her heels as she moved her bed away from the good side of the wall. She was so excited. “Blow out some air…No, not like that… Yes, Yes! Hold it hold it. Leave the hair…” This went on for a good fifteen minutes and while she chose the good pics and edited them I wrote the email. She attached the pictures and SEND! I was only supposed to call and email. Was all this necessary? Slowly I found myself infected by Shirley’s excitement. The adrenalin, especially after seeing what I looked like, I looked sizzling, she took more pictures. Three hours later he replied and in two days times we’d meet up over coffee to discuss my waitressing job at his wife’s restaurant. My stomach felt tight. “Learn from Shirley baby,” she high fived me.
Came the second day, my white shirt and pencil skirt was not good enough. “Image is everything,” added Shirley as she zipped me up in her jumpsuit. This made me nervous. I only wanted a waitressing job and I didn’t need any of this. “You’ll thank me later for this, trust me,” she said as she styled the wig and did the final touches on my make-up. I was going to one of those top places, even I felt I had to look the part. For smart people opportunity bred other opportunities. That part of Shirley’s speech made sense. I liked what I looked like after she was done, in fact, I loved it. I felt like a better me, all except for the itchy wig.
The little voice in my head asked what was I doing as I approached the bar. All this for a waitressing job… I felt too good to give it any thought. The private bar was mostly packed with suit and tie men and my killer outfit was sure slaying. Before I could look around there was already a someone asking if he could help me, “I am here to…”. There he was, he signalled his index finger at me. There’s something I didn’t like about that. I walked over to the table and I wasn’t sure how to greet him, Mr Ndula or Tebogo. Luckily he greeted me first. He gestured me to sit, while he unbuttoned his suit, checked his watch then sat down. He ordered an Espresso and I had an Iced Tea. “Let’s keep this brief, I have another meeting to attend in twenty minutes.” I didn’t know where to start, he already knew why I was there. Waitressing job… He looked so serious and sounded exactly like his PA, black and white. “So Philisiwe,” he sat back. “It’s Philile,” I quickly corrected him. “Oh yes Philile, I’m bad with people’s names. What are you studying?” I told him Media Studies. There’s so much he said about it and it’s importance especially in business. As far as I could remember that was the only question he asked me about myself, everything else was about business. Oh except when he also asked where I was from but he never got to hear the answer as he spoke to almost every man that walked in the bar. I kept waiting to tell him where I was from but he was either on the phone or talking to other men. Before I knew it he was checking his watch and I knew what it meant. “Thank you for your time, I’ll await your call,” I got up. “No,No I’ll walk out with you.”
“You seem like a bright girl, I’ll look into something better for you,” he said as we walked out. I was chuffed. Suddenly he remembered it was his wife’s birthday, he grabbed my hand and asked that I help him pick a gift for her. His hand on mine, the heat… There are people you’re not meant to come in contact with, and he was one of them. It feels like they suddenly know a part of you don’t want to share no matter how small it may be. To him it was no big deal. Blank thoughts raced through my mind, he crossed a boundary you don’t speak about but you know it’s there. Like the one I also crossed when I sent him my picture. I suggested a perfume. He did not argue. When we got to the counter he said to pick something for myself. It was such a good shocking uncomfortable feeling, especially with the smirk and question marks from the cashier’s eyes. Trying to save time, I picked the cheapest and closest thing I could find. I picked a scarf, a R650.00 scarf.
He said he was going to go past the university so he offered me a lift. He brought up general topics and when I got excited he shut me down, subtly. He pulled over on one of the gates when we got to varsity, took out his wallet and pulled out three R200.00 notes. They were for the transport I used and to buy anything I needed, he said. How generous of this man. I sincerely thanked him, even placed my hands on my chest.It was so genuine. He never even showed signs of lust over me like the other men in the bar. I knew the whole sugar daddy thing but I thought I was different, he was different, he was just being nice from the goodness of his heart.
Shirley was so excited. “See it wasn’t so hard,” she paraded in my scarf. I knew we’d share it but I still expected her to show some respect for other people’s things. I instinctively knew that that’s how it started but I was just hoping he’d hook me up with his wife and I’d do my waitressing job.
Two days passed, he called and asked jokingly why I’d forgotten about him. I blushed. Apparently his PA was off sick and he needed someone to come with him to a meeting urgently. I stopped everything I was doing. This man helped me and I was going to do the same for him. But I wasn’t so sure about it. It’s called networking girl, the voice in my head echoed as I picked an outfit, mostly from Shirley’s wardrobe. As his car approached I felt like I could get used to this. There’s a high that came over me from dressing up and being picked up in a fancy car. He was on the phone all the way to the meeting talking figures, stock… “I just need you to be my PA…” he said as we walked in the conference room. I didn’t know what to do as his PA. I typed everything but I lost focus and began doodling trees. After the meeting I had no one to talk to, I took a few of those finger sandwiches and glued myself on the iPad trying to look like I was busy at work like the other PA’s. None of them ate, they were still taking notes of the meeting I guess. Most of them looked like plain Janes and I was the only Christmas tree.
On the way home I brought up all the things I could remember, which were only three, that were discussed in the meeting. He said we’d talk about it later and he was extra friendly on that day. He asked me about school and how I was paying for my studies as they were expensive. I used that opportunity to remind him about how I needed that waitressing job. “You’re a bright young woman, I’ll look into something better for you,” he assured, for the second time. The heavens had opened up for me, I thought. When we got to varsity he took off his seat belt, “I want to help you,” he moved closer and kissed me. I froze. How did we get here? For a good long moment I didn’t know how to react. I’d imagined him as my boyfriend in the meeting when I stared at him but it was just a joke. A joke I knew I never wanted to be real. I looked at him then looked down. He sighed and leaned back. “I’m sorry about that… I… you’re just so beautiful,” he said sincerely and touched his eyes. I didn’t know what to say. As if he forgot something, he pulled out his wallet, R2500.0 for my services as his PA and R2500.00 to buy myself whatever I needed, “Life as a student can be hard,” he added.
I knew what that kiss meant, he wanted me, and I also wanted him, to look for that better job he felt I deserved, if not the waitressing job. I thanked him and instead of going to class, I rushed to my room as if someone was going to rob me. I had five grand on me. I’d never touched or smelt that kind of money before. I knew I was set for text books. I’d never seen Shirley interested so much in what I had to say. She didn’t even mind seeing me in her clothes, unlike most days when her tone commanded me to take them off as soon as I got home. “He kissed me,” I covered my mouth hoping she would say something that would help me better understand how I felt. “What were you expecting? that he treats you like his friend?” she sipped on her coffee. “Wake up babe.” For the first time I accepted what this was and where it was heading but promised myself that I’d see him one last time and if he still hadn’t gotten me the better job or the waitressing one I’d cut all ties with him. I counted the money again, I was so sure that I was dreaming. I buried it in the mealie meal box. I trusted Shirley but money is… money.
“I can’t stop thinking about you,” my phone beeped that evening. It was him. My face heat up. I felt so special. I think he was around 56 years and thinking about it emptied me. As I read the sms again he called and said he was outside. I quickly put on a pair of shorts and a little top. It was so exciting. The uncertainty I felt, the money and the possibility of better things caused an adrenalin rush. It was the possibility of what he could do for me that thrilled me not him. I felt some sort of power over him knowing that he liked me and he couldn’t help himself. I got in the car, he looked like he was from playing golf. “I have something for you,” he handed me a thin box wrapped in a lacy ribbon and a box of chocolates. “Thanks but you didn’t have to…It’s just a gift… from a friend,”
“Thank you,” I ran my shiny nails over the boxes and thought to ask him about the job but I felt intimidated, wrong timing I thought. He unlocked the doors, “Enjoy,” he said as I closed the door behind me. “Nawenafuthi,” the security guard said as I walked in the building. I felt like he’d seen my nakedness before I did, but who the hell was he! I rushed to open the present. “Enjoy,” the little card read. I held the one piece of the lace to the air and laughed. Never had I felt such butterflies in my life before. This needed to be framed , that’s how exquisite it was. A week later he invited me to Cape Town as his PA. He preferred my company more that his PA’s. I knew what it also meant. My excuse for studying over that weekend was rejected with I’d have my own room, and my non existing waitressing job I’d be doing over the weekend was turned down with an apology and a promise to pay my fees if I agreed to come with him. I could not wait to get more money until next year, I had to write this year. I had to get out of this hole of poverty and my only ticket was education.
Later that night I could not sleep. I finally listened to the little voice in my head. I knew what this was. I’ve always known it was how Shirley survived, I’d judged her in my head so many times but now I understood. I could put up with the empty domineering conversations, the gifts, dinners, but I was starting to get sick of them. I was not sure about this next thing, to even think about it was such blasphemy. I begged myself to accept that I’d only do it once and close the chapter but I knew I’d never forget. But after reading one of the final notices about my fees, I knew it was the final final notice. And my only ticket at that time was that lacy two piece.
Came the weekend, my flight would leave in three hours and I had not packed. Shirley was not around to help me through this. I cried, I had glasses of wine, I packed and unpacked… I silenced all emotions, took a cab to the airport and prayed for a sign from God. A sign to stop me from doing what I was about to do. It was a battle between green pastures and myself and I needed both. I needed a sign. I looked so dolled up, the stares, proposals and attention, I didn’t want them to stop. In the midst of all the stares, attention and the proposals, I made my decision. I was going to Cape Town, and whatever happened there would stay there. But I was still praying for a sign. As I came out of the bathroom after doing the final touches on my make-up before I boarded the plane, I felt a hot sensation on my chest. It burnt. I dropped all my bags and screamed. This young man dropped the rest of his coffee and couldn’t stop apologizing. He ripped my shirt open to stop the burning, then froze at my skin peeping under that black lace. I screamed when I saw planes take off, thinking it was the pain I felt, he carried me in his arms and rushed me to the doctor.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo