“What was this place, Kaku?”
Where a mighty oak once stood, only the stump remained. Two teenage black girls flickered in my mind unsteadily, like a reflection on a stream. How time had passed and made fools out of us. I couldn’t even remember her name. Zena? Zeka?
“Kaku?” Grandma. A reminder of the many decades between me now and my South African innocence.
I patted the trunk. Ah. “This place was a shelter.”
“Where people who have no homes live? Does it belong to someone, then?”
“No,” I answered truthfully. “This belongs to no one.”
Zola waved at me excitedly the second I walked into class.
“Kai, angisakwazi,” she joked as I slid in to her right. “Long time no see.” It was a new semester, but I’d seen her all summer long. “Why the lateness again?”
“My aunt was being her usual self.”
She shook her head in sympathy and then offered, “Come shopping with me tomorrow; I’ve accumulated too much winter fat for my current wardrobe.”
I almost wished she knew how I saw her. Last year, when I’d sat behind her in homeroom, I would stare at her meticulously styled baby fro and drift down the nape of her neck, dreaming of how soft it’d be under my fingertips.
But if she knew how I saw her, she would never look at me the same again.
“Kai! How slow are you?”
I mumbled something like sorry and hurried to the kitchen for the dog bowls. Ma’s voice became distant, still ranting about my incompetency. Part of me could never blame her. My father had thrown me on her when he’d left to go overseas, while she’d had three daughters of her own. The trip was only meant to be six months. Tomorrow, it would be seven years.
“Wait,” Ma’s large frame blocked my way out. I tried to think of anything I’d missed— I’d washed the dishes, put the laundry in, fed the dogs, took the chicken out to de-freeze.
“There is something you should know.” She spoke with a familiar annoyance.
I nodded, wary of any response that could set her off. Once, I’d gotten in trouble for forgetting to wish her bon appétit.
“Your Papa got his papers,” she forced the words. “By this time next week, you’ll be in America.”
you were never real
i’d never follow you
outside a daydream
“As always, I’m astounded by your writing,” Mr. Moodley began in his usual excited tone. “The poem’s structure is creative and complex; however, I’m quite perplexed by the last stanza. I fail to see its importance against the unequivocal—”
“I don’t know what that means,” I lied.
Mr. Moodley sighed, his mustache trembling slightly. It worked though. He began a tangent, re-explaining his points and somewhere along, he forgot the original question.
It’s not like I expected him to have understood anyway. The poem was a love poem he failed to understand because I was a girl, and I’d written it to another girl.
Zola laughed ugly, all wheezing and snorting like a strangled animal. She was the only person who shared my humor.
“Let’s finish the game,” I chuckled, noticing the setting sun through the woods. “We’re at a draw.”
Zola took the two marbles behind her to play the game we’d invented. In the game, one person would hide two marbles and then the other would guess what was hidden: Mine, Yours, or Ours.
Zola’s hand swiftly slammed down, as if I would be able to see through her clenched fist. I noticed then, just how close her face was to mine. I could taste her breath, the leftover dinner her mom had cooked for us. Her gaze was unreadable, but I thought she’d leaned in.
“Mine,” I breathed almost a whisper. I wasn’t talking about the marble anymore.
I’m not exactly sure why I kissed her. Her lips felt cold and tasted dry. But I stayed, mindless moving, giving, needing. I’d loved her ever since I’d moved here to South Africa, and was shunned because of my broken English; when she’d sat next to me and asked me stories of Zaire. That’s not why I kissed her though. All I knew is that when her lips didn’t pull away, I pressed for more.
Perhaps in another universe, we stayed there for good. A pair of queer bodies drunk in each other’s endlessness. Maybe there is a parallel universe where we didn’t move.
But in this life, she shivered because the wind was too cold and I was leaving for the U.S. in two days. She also had a boyfriend, and I didn’t know what to do except sit and love her. When we pulled away, I just stared, awkwardly trying to memorize her features and pocket them.
“I love you,” I whispered hesitantly, unsure. Zola smiled, but didn’t answer. She gave me a quick peck before falling back to sitting more comfortably.
Later that night, I realized that neither of us had chosen to hide Ours inside our palms.
In honor of Mr. Moodley, on the airplane, I try to rewrite the last stanza of my poem. I fail because she never showed up to say goodbye and I’m not sure whether this is closure or erasure.
This place is a shelter.
That’s what I think, drunk on the teenage notion of forever. I felt Zola’s chocolate eyes burn my back as I continued to carve onto the aged oak.
“It’s done.” I gave my art a once-over and then stood. Zola’s smaller frame rose next to me, casually slinging a hand around my waist. Like this was normal. Like she had no boyfriend.
“It looks… like modern art,” Zola mocked—her way of saying it was shit. “Couldn’t you have just done the regular heart and initials?”
But we weren’t a regular couple—not even a couple. All I said instead was, “This tree is ours.”
“Memories of Nobody” by Gracia Mwamba appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Gracia Mwamba is a poet, visual artist, and activist currently based in the Bay Area. Gracia, co-author of In Another Life, No Bodies Home, makes art focused on mental health, blackness, and dysphoria.