A S H O R T S T O R Y
T A A H I R K A M A L C H A G A N
Dedicated to Prince, one of my creative heroes, who, strangely and eerily for me, passed away on the same day Bumped and Broken was first published in another publication. That was just over three years after the story had been written with my ‘Best of Prince’ playlist blaring loudly through my headphones, on repeat, as I looked for inspiration from the master craftsman himself. Prince was one of the rare few: a true artist. And his genius will influence various spheres of art and life for generations to come. May his beautiful soul rest in infinite peace.
P A R T O N E
At 13:59, on a warm Saturday afternoon in the City of Gold, there was a knock on Kevin’s door. It opened to a short, beautiful brunette of about twenty five, with skin the colour of caramel, and eyes the colour of the ocean. She wore a stunning summer dress which looked like an abstract painting. The woman entered and took a seat on one of the couches; gracefully lit a long, thin cigarette, and then she began to scan the interior of the modern apartment. The apartment, in one of the newly re-developed buildings in Braamfontein, was on the 17th Floor, having a good view of the inner city.
Kevin clicked a button, and a song by Herbie Hancock called Watermelon Man began to play. He asked the woman her name: Sweetie Pie, she said, still smoking contentedly. When she was done, she walked over to the bed, put her bag down, and told him to take off his clothes.
‘I’m not that easy’ he said jokingly ‘At least take me to dinner first’. To this she rolled her eyes, and then she told him in a very business-like manner that the clock was ticking. Kevin was slightly annoyed at her non-existent sense of humour.
He was average in height, but next to Sweetie Pie he looked like an NBA star. He wasn’t wearing anything elaborate: track pants and a t-shirt, both black. He was a slight shade darker than her, and well-built.
When they were in bed, Sweetie Pie reminded him in a serious tone: ‘no kissing, company policy’.
Rule #3: Never let the customer kiss you.
Rule #2: Never indulge the customer’s romantic fantasies.
Rule #1: Never, ever, tell the customer your real name.
– Excerpt taken from ‘The Handbook’ published by the company Sweetie Pie worked for.
Kevin wasn’t happy about that, but he soon found out that she was a talented little thing who knew so many other wicked ways to keep him entertained. Sweetie Pie reminded him of those beautiful Taiwanese girls, who could perform all kinds of amazing tricks with their little bodies. Although, those weren’t professionals, he never paid for them, and he could kiss them, whenever, and wherever he wanted to. Afterward, Sweetie Pie hastened to get dressed, offered a half-hearted ‘take care’, and then she was gone.
Intro, a song by The XX, began to fill the room; the sweet, electronic music mingling with the smoky air.
This time, she wore a dress that was blue with splashes of purple, brown leather heels and a matching hat. The sex was good the first time, but they were still feeling each other out then. Now, in their second week of relations, they had learnt how to play each other like stringed instruments. Hers was not the kind of profession that one could do without feeling anything; when the right strings were plucked, her body had to respond.
They began to talk. Kevin spoke about his work history: he told her that he used to work in finance, then, after his second marriage ended at age 28, he decided to try something new and teach English abroad. He secured a job teaching in Kaohsiung, a port city in the south of Taiwan. ‘It changed my life’ he said. He learned that teaching was much more fun than finance, so, after travelling through most of the region, he came back, completed a course and began to teach, ‘I’m just trying to make up for all that lost time slaving away in an office’. Sweetie Pie listened intently. They spoke a bit about marriage, debating the relevance of the institution, and Kevin sprinkled his arguments with a variety of spices from his own experiences.
Sweetie Pie realised then and there that everyone needs someone to listen to them from time to time. She wondered – with a tinge of sadness welling up inside her – who would listen to her hopes and dreams, her fears and insecurities, her mistakes and her triumphs – and when, if ever, such a time would come.
‘Now, tell me about you’ he said, startling her from her thoughts. But Sweetie Pie was so used to closing people off that she responded instinctively with: ‘I have to go’, jumping out of bed. She got dressed, took her cheque and left. A few minutes went by and Kevin was still lying in bed while the sun was creeping back under the thick blanket of clouds, and it looked like there would be no more sunshine that day. He was about to go stand on the balcony and contemplate the city, when he heard a woman’s scream from just down the hallway.
It sounded like Sweetie Pie.
P A R T T W O
At the bottom of the stairwell, Sweetie Pie lay on the cold concrete floor. One of her heels had broken, and she tripped, fell, and rolled down the stairway, all the way to the bottom. Her ankle was sprained. Kevin carried her up the stairs to his room; putting her down on the bed and removing the heel, gently. Then he called her a cab. When it arrived he carried her downstairs and placed her in the backseat of the taxi. Just then, it began to rain.
At that point, they had no idea how intertwined their lives were about to become.
It was a warm evening. The stars were out, twinkling away next to a bright half-moon. When Sweetie Pie arrived, she emerged a different person: The frostiness was gone, as if she’d been thawed out by a microwave – defrosted. Prior to this encounter, her smiles were always of the toothless variety, which Kevin thought was cute, but she looked so much more radiant when she smiled for real. She wore a beautiful dress as always, this one was fiery red, with orange stars and yellow moons.
Naked in bed, Kevin poured two glasses of wine, red, and then he lit two cigarettes, handing Sweetie Pie one. Victory Is Won by Carlos Santana was playing softly in the background. She took a sip of her drink, sighed deeply, smiled and said: ‘I have a boy’. Kevin listened intently, blowing the occasional smoke ring toward the ceiling. She spoke a bit about her boy: He was six years old, and the boy’s father moved to Europe a few months after the boy was born. He is a big football fan, but his one true love is astronomy: ‘He spends most of his time reading up on the stars, galaxies, planets, black holes, and his favourite place in the world is the local planetarium’.
Once Sweetie Pie began talking, the dam walls collapsed; words flowed out of her in an endless stream, and it was then when Kevin realised that the two of them were just two lonely souls, two lonely hearts, dying to grab hold of any little drops of affection they could find, wherever they could find it.
Kevin was surprised to hear that Sweetie Pie had a degree in philosophy, and chose to do her current job because it paid well for little work. That, she said, gave her time for more important stuff. She spoke about painting, her favourite thing in the world, and that, in fact, the designs on her dresses come from her paintings: ‘I paint them, and then I take them to my dressmaker to be made’. Kevin was impressed.
Cream by Prince came on. ‘Come’ Kevin said, getting up, taking her by the hand, and leading her to the balcony. Part of her resisted, but there was another part – stronger and more persuasive – which felt differently. And so, they put Cream on repeat, and danced naked under the twinkling stars.
Do your dance
Why should you wait any longer?
Take your chance
It could only make you stronger
When they were outside, sipping red wine and contemplating the lights of the city, they kissed for a brief moment, and that was when the energy between them shifted. They stared into each other’s eyes; and it was then that it became clear that this was no longer a business relationship. They had waded into unchartered territory, and, floating in those unfamiliar seas, the safety of the shore was far out of sight.
As Sweetie Pie made for the door when she was leaving – and just to add the last fuck you to the establishment – she turned around and said the following words: ‘By the way…I’m Marcia’.
Kevin was dressed for the occasion: Grey suit, navy shirt, black shoes, no tie.
The school hall was decorated, and organised into a very efficient-looking system for the parents to reach all their children’s teachers.
The evening was coming to a close, when Kevin spotted one of his favourite students, Tumelo – one of the smaller and shorter boys in his class. He always wore his broad toothy grin, and his blue eyes always had an optimistic twinkle in them. Kevin greeted him enthusiastically. They were in the middle of a friendly debate about which team was going to win the football game in the upcoming Champions League final, when Kevin looked up and saw a very beautiful woman.
Colourful dress, denim jacket, purple scarf, heels.
He stopped in mid-speech as it dawned on him. When she noticed Kevin, she froze. Marcia was Tumelo’s mother!
For Tumelo’s sake, they greeted each other as if for the first time. Kevin showed Marcia her son’s report card. ‘An excellent student’ he said, smiling at the boy ‘my class captain’. He continued to talk about Tumelo’s flawless academic performance in his various subjects. ‘But there is a worry’ Kevin said to Marcia, toward the end of his explanation, with a concerned look on his face. Tumelo was shocked, and his mother too. Kevin continued, mocking disappointment: ‘he has bad taste in choosing his football teams’. Everyone laughed, and the little boy breathed a sigh of relief. The laughter seemed to relieve some of the unspoken tension between the lovers.
As they were about to leave, Tumelo saw one of his friends and went over to chat with him, leaving Marcia alone with Kevin. There was an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds as both of them watched Tumelo talking with his friend. ‘So…’ was all Kevin could muster. Marcia was avoiding eye contact. After a silence that seemed to last forever, she sighed, met Kevin’s eyes and said:
‘We can’t see each other again’.
It had an air of finality about it, and it was said with so much conviction that he knew better than to argue with her. ‘It’s too complicated now’ she continued ‘My son is too important to me… Take care’ and with that, she stood up to leave and disappeared into the crowd.
P A R T T H R E E
I’m in my studio, a little cottage in my garden, painting. It’s raining outside, and there are no stars in the sky, only a half moon peaks out from behind a bunch of grey clouds.
When I’m painting, I’m possessed. Nothing else exists. But, on occasion, my mind does drift, and this is one of those occasions. I’m thinking about how he always treated me with respect, so uncommon in my profession, I’m thinking about how much my son likes him, and I’m thinking about how I broke the three most important rules of the escort business for him, the bastard.
It’s strange, I’ve developed the habit of writing little notes in black ink on my cigarette boxes; I guess, it’s like my form of a personal notebook, a sort of a journal. It’s a good way to save paper too. Most of the notes I make pertain to errands I have to run, or little reminders to myself, but sometimes, like this particular evening, notes or questions pertaining to more important matters – such as those of the heart – can be seen scribbled on the boxes:
‘Am I in love?’
(I’ve included a drawing of a heart pierced by Cupids arrow here.)
‘The price we pay for being in this business is a loveless existence’
(I’ve Included a $ sign, with a heart around it.
This was when the tears started, and that’s why the sketch is a bit smudged.)
When I peeked in – there deep into the recesses of my consciousness – I found resentment for my son being born, and the limits I’ve had to impose on myself because of him. From a mother! Of course I love my son, in many ways he’s made my life so much richer: He’s taught me the value of unconditional love, how to enjoy the simple things in life, how to be more curious, but I find myself considering what it would be like if I hadn’t had him. Would I then be able to act on my hopeless romanticism?
Purple Rain by Prince begins to play. Perfect.
When I finish this particular piece – the painting mounted on my easel – I stop to examine it. The artwork is very clearly split in two. One side uses lighter, calmer colours and is bright, evoking feelings of harmony. The other side uses darker colours, and the patterns are more haphazard, giving it a grim effect.
It’s been three months since that unexpected encounter at my son’s school.
I’ve decided to write Kevin a letter, saying that I am sorry for the way I reacted, and that we should definitely pick up where we left off. Life is short. My son will understand one day, who knows, perhaps he will even be open to the idea.
It’s been five months since that evening at school, when I found out that the woman I was sleeping with, the young brunette, was the mother of one of my students. Can you believe it? Me neither.
The stars are out, twinkling away, and outside my large windows I can see the Mandela Bridge, lit up. There are two books on my coffee table: Lonely Planet guides to the Central Americas – The prospect of travel seems like the only thing worth living for right now. I have a vision of some uninhabited beach near Havana – cigar-smoking and cocktail-sipping and sun-tanning.
About two months ago, I arranged with the escort agency to send someone over once every fortnight. They sent Mandy, they sent Brandy, and they sent Sandy, but none of them had that special something I was looking for. I wanted more. In fact, while I was with these women – inside these women – I would think of Marcia.
I am pouring myself a whisky, and going out onto the balcony to contemplate the city lights and the many stars that hang in the sky. My two marriages came with baggage, it’s here to stay. Those things don’t just go away. It’s always there, lurking, just below the surface of consciousness – subtly influencing the way I live my life.
Do I need to heal first? Can we give love if we don’t have it?
Maybe, just maybe, for once in my damn life I should act differently and consider the inevitable ramifications that my actions will have. Given my track record in relationships, what makes me think I will not hurt this boy and his mother?
I will write her a letter, and give it to her at the next parent-teachers meeting. In it, I will tell her that I respect her boundaries; I’ll thank her for ending things when she did. I’ll conclude by telling her that everything on those pages comes from my head. I tell her that my heart has just informed me that it wants to jump out of my chest, climb up to the side of my head, cut it open – slowly, pull my brain out, apply some sophisticated techniques of torture, and then throw the remains over the balcony. My heart doesn’t carry out its threat, thank god. Instead, it just sits there and aches.
I think that’s how a heart cries. It sends these aches, like armed soldiers, all through your body. You try to fight the bastards off with whiskey, to no avail.
She was dressed in one of her dresses as usual. This one was her new favourite, she’d worked on the design for many months, and then she stood in front of the mirror, getting ready, for like a million hours this afternoon, that’s why we are so late – I could have travelled to Mars and back in that time. The sun has set, the stars are out – one, two, three, four.
Mom has been acting quite strange over the past few months.
She spends almost all her time in her studio. First she seemed depressed for months, and then, suddenly and without warning, she was the happiest person in the universe. She’d take me star-gazing at the planetarium almost every weekend. I’m not sure what’s going on with her. She seems better now – better than better, in fact.
I hope this meeting goes quickly; I have homework to do when we get back home. I am always a bit nervous about my report cards, even though my marks are usually good. At least I get to see my friends, who I’d rather see in person than over a computer screen, and also Mr. Kevin, my favourite teacher.
Mom and Mr. Kevin exchanged letters, and quickly pocketed them, which is a bit worrying.
There’s something going on with those two, there was tension in the air. I have a funny feeling that this may have something to do with what’s making mom so happy lately, and why she took so much care getting ready today. Imagine: mom and Mr. Kevin together – now that would be awesome!
When we got home I did my homework, watched some TV and then took a bath, with bubbles. I was off to bed when I noticed Mom in her studio.
I caught a glimpse of her through the window – bumped and broken, drinking whiskey from the bottle, and reading the letter in an ocean of her own tears.
First published in the creative journal, ITCH, on the 21st of April, in 2016.
Visuals by Fine Art America