“Did you know that 29 percent of millennials don’t have any friends?” I said.
“Is that your excuse?” Said Lebo
“It’s no excuse. What do you mean anyway, an excuse?”
“You don’t have any friend do you. So what, are you following a trend?”
“I am not following…what? Following a trend, that’s funny, I didn’t know you still had a sense of humour. No. I don’t like people very much anymore, or people don’t like me, I don’t remember which one it is. After a few years living like this it really doesn’t matter.”
“It matters. It may be the only thing that matters in this world, your relationship with other people.”
“What about you? How many friends do you have?”
“It doesn’t matter how many friends I have, or if I have any at all.”
“I thought you said your relationships with other people is the most important thing there is.”
“It is, while you’re still alive, but I’m dead now, remember.”
Sometimes I forget. It feels like my dreams have infiltrated my waking reality, and sometimes I can’t tell the difference. Sometimes I think that I need to wake up. It feels like I have been in a dream for so long. I think that maybe I fell asleep somewhere, maybe I am lying in a hospital bed deep in a coma.
Remember that one time when I was in grade nine, so many years ago now. Years that seem both so far yet so close, like an event that happened yesterday. It was a Saturday afternoon, the sun was just setting, a reddish tinge enveloped the day, giving me a strange nostalgia, like I was already old, even though I was only fourteen. I was sitting on a rock, outside Lebo’s house, waiting. I don’t remember what I was waiting for but I know that it was extremely important. At least until it wasn’t anymore, because I got tired of waiting. And decided to take a walk, with no destination in mind. The important thing now was for me to move, to get away from there. Sometimes there is no difference between being called, or being pushed away. Both actions are touched by the hand of destiny, with a force you cannot control. I had some money in my pocket, lunch money for the remaining two weeks of the month. But I was not thinking about whether I would have something to eat at school, besides, the school gave free lunch if you were not too embarrassed to be seen eating food meant for the poor kids. I was a poor kid. My money was not enough to buy me lunch everyday. My money was really meant for snacks, to have something to eat after my free meal. But I often saved it so that once or twice I could be able to buy a proper meal. And by proper meal I mean a quarter loaf of bread with cheese, polony, chips and lots of oil. Pleasure is something that must be put off, and then savoured once attained. So it was highly unlikely that I would be spending my money on a weekend. Yet I found myself walking into a petrol station store. Looking at the bars of chocolate stacked neatly on the shelf, going through to the cold drinks section, smelling the pie being warmed up by this odd looking woman next to the oven. When I came out I had bought nothing. It was already dark outside. A man was standing on the door, his eyes scanning the ground. I passed him without much thought. Then I saw him again as I was about to pass through the park. Except that he was not a man this time but a teenager, two or three years older than me. He came up to me and started a conversation as if he knew me. And before long he was asking me for money.
“So I came all the way from Zola to see this friend of mine, he says he lives somewhere nearby, in sechele street, but I can’t find it, and now it’s getting late and I don’t have money for transport.”
“I know that street, it’s not so far away from here, about two streets away from here actually.” I said.
“Really, so maybe you can show me then.” He said
“Yeah we can walk together, I’ll show you where you need to go.”
“I appreciate that. But, what if I don’t find him, you know, I’ll still have to go back home, so I don’t have anything. So maybe you can spare five Rands for me?”
“Please my friend, I don’t want to sleep on the streets tonight.”
I held the money on my hands, and I could not really tell him that I did not have it. He too knew that, his eyes never left the hand that held the money. Such piercing and searching eyes, as if he could see the exact amount that I had. There was a part of me that wanted to shove the money in my pocket and make my apologies, but another part felt sorry for him, I don’t know why. There was something about him that made me want to trust him, that made me want to help him even though I knew nothing about him. I was still young, still willing to believe the good that was inherent in the hearts of men, and I imagined that if it was me in the same predicament he would not hesitate to help me. I took a ten Rand note and gave it to him. His face lit up, and for a moment he seemed younger than he was, younger than I was, transformed into a picture of innocence and gratitude.
“You are a good guy, I could tell right away, a pretty good guy. Not many people would do as you have done. I tell you what, you must tell me where you live, the next time I am here I must pay you a visit, I will not only pay you back, but I will give you even more than this.” He said.
“No it’s okay, don’t worry about it.”
“No seriously, I insist. You must tell me where you live.”
“Well if you want.”
The street he was looking for was two streets away after passing the park. My street was towards the south, not too far away from where he was going. I planned to walk with him and leave him at the corner, maybe he would find who he was looking for by asking people who passed by.
The park was dark and empty at that time. There were light poles but no light. The large trees leaning over the paved path cast heavy shadows. My new friend walked slowly, his eyes searching as if he was looking for something. At times he would walk behind me as if he was scared of something that was ahead of us. At one time he even held my shoulder, and when I looked at him he seemed slightly panicked. I found his behaviour odd, but not alarming. I wonder why that was. At no point did I feel that this was a man I ought to be scared of. Until we had walked about half way the length of the park, and we had not come across anyone. There was no one behind us and there didn’t seem to be anyone ahead of us. When his pace slacked and he was behind me once again. Before I could look back at him he held my hands, the hands that held the money, and twisted it behind me. His other hand came across my throat. His voice came in a harsh whisper in my ear.
“Let go of the money and I will let you live.”
I tried to speak, but his hand was wound so tightly around my throat that any breath I took out was impossible to recover. The man was incredibly strong. But I was also incredibly stubborn, there was no way I was going to let him have my money. I pushed him back with all the force I could master, hoping to knock him off balance and give me a chance to breath. We came against the trunk of a nearby tree, and his hand tightened even harder around my throat, and with his other hand moved the hand he held at my back a bit higher. It felt like my shoulder was about to snap, that his intentions were to rip it off, the pain was unbelievable. I tried to elbow him with my free hand, to punch him, to claw at his eyes, and to remove his hand from my throat. Nothing seemed to work. He was just too strong, and immovable like the tree behind us. I wanted so badly to feel some air in my lungs, even a little bit. I slowly loosened my grip on my money, it fell to the ground, but he did not let go of me. He pushed my arm even further up, and tightened his arm around my throat.
I cannot recall the exact moment I lost consciousness. One moment my shoulder was burning with pain, the next moment I was lying on the ground, surrounded by darkness, and that man, my new friend, was knowhere to be seen. I could breath again, my clothes were damp from the wet grass, my shoulder still hurt a little, but I was not quite sure if I still lived. What does death look like anyway? Since then I have never recovered that sense of aliveness. I have lived like I had woken up only to find myself in a dream, in an alternate reality where everything has changed, and nothing is as it used to be. And everything that followed after that reinforced that feeling that this was no longer my life. For fifteen years I have lived like this, unsure of my own existence.
Perhaps when we look back we can identify the exact moment when life changed. But when you are in that moment, in that present, it is only the feeling that exists. something is no right. A monumental shift has occurred. It is never clear what that shift represents, what are the consequences which follow it. The gradual process of the dismantling of my mind, and of my life, was almost imperceptible. The plunge into the world of addiction at fifteen seemed as natural as breathing. The hedonism that had suddenly become my life became a noose around my neck, the object of my torture. Because after high school, the failed attempts at getting a tertiary education, the disastrous jobs which never lasted, and the long and painful stretches of unemployment, you finally have to face the man you have become, and the life you have plunged yourself into, and ask; what now?
Slowly the thought has crept into my mind that perhaps this was not my life. Over the years, a sense of the unreal has haunted me. I have felt like the universe is resisting all my effort, and thought that the this is like the resistance that comes from trying to wake from a deep sleep apnea, and I have felt like someone has been sitting on my chest and I can’t breath. And I have deeply come to believe that the only way in which I could wake up, the only way in which I can reclaim my life is through death. Death will be my escape and my salvation. To get away from the nightmare that has become my life. He who wants to regain his life must lose it, as the Bible verse says. It is the thing that scared me the most, and therefore is the one thing that must be done.
I am sitting in my room, a bottle of gin is half empty on top of my study desk. On top of my bed Lebo is reclining, using his hand as support. He is looking at me with an enigmatic smile, but his eyes look sad, dead; perhaps my perception is impaired, the alcohol could be fogging my brain. I think to myself, this is the moment before you wake up, when the dream becomes less clear, before it fades completely, plunging back into my life, into my true reality.
“What would you do..” says Lebo, his voice sounding distant, like it just emerged from an underground tunnel. “…if you wake up tomorrow morning and you find yourself in the same chair, still alive, in this reality? Or you wake up in a hospital, getting treatment for a drug overdose like I did, do you know that I spent a month in a hospital before I could finally die. A whole month, to entertain thoughts of regret, a whole month to look my mother in the eyes and fail to explain to her why I did it, a whole bloody month to see the smug look on the faces of those who revelled at my failure. Well in the end it wasn’t a failure was it? But everyday it felt like it, and I hated every moment of it.”
“You don’t get it,” I say “this is not a suicide. This is…I am…”
My door is locked, I think, no one will find me. If I do wake up tomorrow in this same chair no one will know. But that’s not going to happen though, because I won’t fail. Besides, this is but a dream, created by my own fear, and I have chosen to overcome that fear. It is only that which you fear which manifests itself, in one form or another. What you fear persists, but there is no reason for this to persist anymore.
“This is not a suicide, it’s just not! Because, you see, I don’t desire to die, I desire to know if I’m really alive…”
By this time everything has faded completely, my room, Lebo on my bed, his voice a distant silent echo. All is silence, all is darkness, and I can only feel my consciousness shrinking.
“Did you know that 29 percent of millennials don’t have any friends?” I said.