I told my sister about the first time the squirrel kissed me. It happened after my shift at Cibar, where a tall sweaty man had used his stomach to press me against the wall. I clutched the card machine in one hand, his bill in another, while my eyes scrambled around the darkened room for help. Drink had made the man unsteady on his feet, which was how I was able to slip away, my legs trembling. I deposited my apron behind the bar, and quit.
That night the squirrel had seen me crying in the pantry. It was a narrow space, lit up by a single fluorescent bulb. I bent over the fridge door with my name on it, and hid my face behind the humming cold. He touched my lower back, and when I turned around, he kissed me. He had been perfect in his salmon polo shirt, the collar popped, the buttons undone. When his stubble brushed my cheek, I shivered.
I waited for my sister to gasp or squeal, but the line was silent. “Isn’t that sweet?”
“What, that you were shook from sexual harassment and he tried to make it better by further accosting you?”
“You don’t get it.”
“No, I don’t, but maybe you can help me understand.” Her voice was pleading. “Please don’t hang up.”
I hung up.
My sister didn’t see that the jogging, the studying, the campaigning, the skipped breakfasts, had all paid off. He had kissed me, and now the sucking, sinking need in my chest could calm down. Everything would be alright.
I sat with my back against my bedroom door, a plastic yellow lighter in my hand.
I flicked the lighter on and a bright orange flame shot up.
I lifted my wrist to the heat. It was a too-thin wrist, according to my sister. She said she was worried about the photos I posted, worried about my silence, and about things she had no natural way of knowing. My thinness was a recent development, one I had worked hard on. That’s what she didn’t understand. How proud I was of what I had achieved.
Still, the thought of her was a niggling, tugging question: Are you okay? I flicked the lighter off again.
I was on the floor because I couldn’t ignore the tightness in my chest, not while it stretched my skin into a drum over my bones. So I had switched off the noodles I was boiling and hurried out of the communal kitchen.
The next time we spoke, my sister pretended to be happy for me. Then, as soon as she could, she changed the subject.
“When are you coming home? We miss you.”
“We’ll see,” I planned to stay on campus over the term break to see more of him.
The squirrel was not just any boy. He was an angel. When I first saw him, he was kneeling at the altar of the chapel, and the light had hit his hair in such a way that I thought my heart would break. I loved him with the gravitational force of a small planet. I watched him bite into his cheese and tomato sandwiches with the savour of someone enjoying the finest fillet. I heard him laugh as if the wind would carry his voice to other countries.
I met him during hot-girl summer in Cape Town, when campus teemed with cropped shorts and tank tops. Darkened lecture theatres revealed silhouettes of carefully messed top-buns and oversized glasses. I wore the clothes I could afford, not quite casual, not quite ripped right, and I wooed him with my enthusiasm. I joined his pro-life association, even though I told myself 1 would get an abortion the instant I needed one. When I became president, he watched me, wide eyed, as if an animal had started speaking in complete English sentences. 1 secretly called him the squirrel, because of the way he moved his head, darting and curious.
It was the chaplain’s turn to harass me about my eating. He was harder to evade because his office was in the same building as the kitchen. He had sat with me on too many nights to count and listened as my jagged wails reduced to silence. I squeezed my knees together and focused on the wall of books behind him.
“Can I bring you to a different psychologist? I know someone who might be helpful,” I shook my head. I resented the calmness with which he smoothed down his shirt. “Everything’s fine, and I don’t need you telling me what to do.”
I had never been that rude to an adult before, except in middle school, when a man had stared at my breasts from between the shelves of a supermarket. I had stared back, fascinated, until he had reached out his hand to touch me. I had stuck up my middle finger and run away.
One week later, I found the squirrel with another woman. She was sitting on the kitchen counter, her long legs stretched to the floor. His hands moved from where they had been resting on either side of her waist. I stumbled out of the room. He didn’t follow me.
I ran. It kept my arms and legs moving, kept my lungs tight enough that my head didn’t have time to think of anything but air. When I could not run anymore, I walked down the hill to the
coffee shop on Main so that I wouldn’t be alone. The squirrel pulled up next to me in his Toyota Taz, and asked me to get in.
“You could have at least tried to hide what you were doing,” I said. “But it wasn’t cheating.” His eyelashes were wet with tears. “You’re right, you and I weren’t technically together.”
“I’m miserable about this,” he murmured.
I let him hold me because it was easier to comfort him than to deal with the broiling in my belly. But later, when I was staring at the lighter in my room, I got mad.
Anger has always had a home in my body. I was a kicking fetus, then a raging baby. Before I could walk, I learned to bang my head against the sofa for hours, in a concentrated personal exorcism. I had inherited my rage from my father. When I was eight years old, he would watch the news, and 1 would sit on the floor in front of the television, just to be near him. He would grumble and seethe, his frown pronouncing itself into a darkness over his forehead. 1 got good at current affairs, excellent even, so that I would have something to say to him. As we watched the news together, I saw buildings crashing, children losing parents, ancient turtles wrapped in plastic, sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Each morning I woke up from dreams of these images. Each night I cried myself to sleep. Eventually I stopped watching the news, and my father and I stopped talking.
But I was now nineteen. Instead of head-butting and bad dreams, I took a bus to Claremont and got my first tattoo, which I made sure to show the squirrel by wearing low rise jeans and crop tops. I got drunk, properly drunk, and vomited all over my bed. I was slickly satisfied when I woke up in it. This mess was my fault, and mine to control.
When I told my sister what the squirrel had done, she told me all the things she really thought about him. Things about his not being worth it, and nothing being worth losing myself.
When we were in primary school, I threw my sister off a tire swing. I don’t know why I did it, just that a searing heat had travelled up my spine into my brain, and compelled me. I was sorry as soon as it was done. I said it was an accident, and she had pretended to believe me. Now she had a home and a husband, and she pretended to respect me.
I wanted the squirrel to fail, the way I was failing. My supervisor had sent me an email, then called me into his office for a chat. When I arrived, his eyes flicked over me. This particular heartbreak had gifted me with the body of an 11 year old boy. Sure, my periods were gone, but I didn’t want them anyway. Later, when I was married and my husband wanted children, we would visit fertility clinics and try supplements, and everyone would scratch their heads in puzzlement, including me. I would never show my relief, or tell them how, when I was nineteen, I had wished I could take a blade to my uterus and cauterise my organs with a plastic yellow lighter.
“You’re better than the C grade I’m being forced to give you, you know that. What’s wrong?” “I’m fine,” I fixed a smile on my face and waited to be excused. “Thanks for your concern.”
My sister was pregnant, but she only wanted to talk about me. She asked thinly veiled, anxiety-fuelled questions over the phone, and I did my best to pretend I wasn’t offended.
“And what did you have for breakfast?” she asked.
Same old nothing.
She talked on, fast. “I had an omelette with cheese – it was delicious. Maybe you should come and visit me, I miss cooking for you.”
“I have lab work. Maybe next month.”
I lay on my bed and practised my breathing. It was a trick one of my old therapists had taught me, and occasionally it worked. But it was not so easy to breathe today. My cheek was stuck to the pillow and my neck was turned so that a slow, steady ache grew between my shoulders and jaw. The bottom row of my teeth hurt, so that I imagined them cracking and breaking off, slipping down into my throat, choking me.
When did the sadness arrive? When had all the afternoons become like this one, lost to wilting bed sheets, and prickling-stale sweat?
The phone rang and rang and rang. It was my sister. I ignored her, and told myself she didn’t need me. When I got up to use the toilet, I accidentally saw one of her text messages. My sister was in labour.
For the first time in months, I didn’t think about the squirrel. I threw my clothes into a duffel bag and booked the one hour flight to Durban. As I packed, I remembered when my sister was eight, and she loved to play soccer. She had spent hours in the garden, kicking the ball between two slippers. Every few minutes, she would call up to my window for me to come and play. I remembered my sister wrapping her arms around me after I had a nightmare in which glass shards fell from the louvres in my room, slicing me open. I remembered her holding my hand and walking me to the toilet at night, when I was too scared to go alone.
My eyes skimmed the room for anything I might have forgotten to pack. I caught sight of the lighter at the same time as I heard it — all the reproach my sister had withheld, all the neglect she had forgiven. I picked up the lighter from the floor, and threw it in the bin.
I arrived at the hospital to find my sister asleep. The room was large, meant for two patients, but only she and her husband occupied it. She seemed so small on the hospital bed. Her breath seemed too shallow. When he saw me, her husband stopped stroking her hair to greet me. He whispered that the baby was in another room.
“Would you like to meet your niece?” he asked.
“What’s that needle in her arm?” I said, pointing at my sister. “She’ll be okay, it’s just sugar water.”
“Then why is she breathing like that?” “She’s tired. Don’t raise your voice, please.”
While my love for the squirrel was an insatiable, extracting thing, my love for my sister was like breathing. It came so easily that I took it for granted, and now, as I sat on a plastic chair in the hospital reception, waiting to be allowed back in, I couldn’t breathe.
I pulled out my journal from my duffel and found myself writing something between grief and rage. But the writing did nothing to release the latch in my throat.
In. Out. In, out. Exhale with purpose, because otherwise, your lungs cling to stale air. Your lungs do not trust the coming of another breath.
It was evening when I stepped back into my sister’s room. She was still as I held her swollen cheeks between my hands and whispered the only prayer I could think of.
The chaplain had given it to me. He had said the name of God was a breath, and to say it was to inhale: Yah, exhale: Weh.
Yah-Weh, I’m sorry.
Yah-Weh, I love you.
Her husband joined me next to her, and at some point I drifted into sleep. When I woke up, my sister’s eyes were open. She beamed at me as the baby suckled crookedly in her arms.
“Here, come and hold her.” “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” My sister was firm.
I held the baby gingerly. The child was a cloud-eyed thing with tiny fingers and a face pointed toward heaven. I watched as air lifted her tiny chest up and then sunk it down. I watched her close her eyes in utter trust, with my too-thin wrists locked firmly beneath her, and I found that I was strong enough to hold her.