The Metro Apartment Complex consisted of five blocks of flats. Each block of dull grey concrete was seven storeys tall and was creatively named after a letter of the alphabet. In apartment 3B, with windows looking outwards across the bare, undeveloped land that stretched between the complex and the highway that led from Johannesburg to Durban, there lived a twenty-four-year-old. His name was Fikani Stanley Oyama. He was tall. He was skinny. And he wore glasses with black, circular rims. He didn’t actually need glasses. He had 20/20 vision. But glasses were fashionable. And fashion was very important to Fikani Stanley Oyama, or Stan, as everyone called him.
Stan lived all by himself in apartment 3B with-the-windows-overlooking-the-bare-grassy-land, or veld. This was by design. You see, Stan actually enjoyed living alone (mostly). This was despite, or maybe because of, what he felt were the universe’s constant machinations against his much desired peace and quiet. This took the form of unwanted visitors who would take it upon themselves to ease his loneliness. Sometimes, his younger brother Walter would come and stay with him for a couple of weeks. His stay would end abruptly when the fridge had remained stubbornly bare for some days. Other times his best friend and work-mate Bongi would move in. Generally his incursions were quite brief - just enough to allow some situation with his landlord to blow over.
Most recently, his girlfriend, Elsie, had lived with him for some months on what was meant to be a permanent basis. That too had passed. It had been her idea, and Stan had done his best to resist it, but had eventually given in. He had quietly resolved not to give up though, and so when Elsie had moved out again the previous evening, it was with a sense of lightness that he watched her bustling down the stairs all in a huff, lugging her sports bag and his little travel suitcase, and refusing to accept any help from his no-good-unappreciative-self.
Stan wondered how she would manage the one kilometre trek back to her mother’s house. She lived with her mother and her two younger sisters and a younger brother, in the neighbouring Steynville township. That was also where his brother Walter lived with their grandmother. His best friend Bongi also lived there. In many ways, Stan was seen as the one that broke the mould because he moved a kilometre down the road from everyone else, into the hip and trendy Metro Apartments. According to the posters that lined several street poles on the road that led out of Steynville, past his apartment complex and onwards to the highway, Stan ought to have been enjoying high-speed internet, pay-TV and a gym. But he wasn’t. His salary was a meagre two thousand a month. Half of it went to rent and groceries, and the rest went to his grandmother.
Elsie had always stumped Stan. As his alarm went off that chilly April morning, he felt relieved to finally be able to turn his mind to something else. He had been up all night, going over the details of the previous evening’s break up. “Was it even a break-up?” he wondered. Maybe he could have handled it better. Maybe it was entirely his fault. Maybe she was crazy. All these thoughts churned in his mind as he stood in the shower. Even the lukewarm water flowing down his neck reminded him of her. She was the one that would always remember to turn on the geyser. By the time he would step into the shower, the water would be steaming hot. He’d grown accustomed to her handling these little details that made his uncomfortable flat a little more hospitable, a little more homely. Now, Elsie was gone, and he was back to taking lukewarm showers again. Less than twenty-four hours in and the bachelor lifestyle was starting to feel as tepid as the water trickling down his spine.
As he stepped into his tiny kitchen, he crinkled up his nose at the slight odour emanating from the sink, a far cry from the usual scent of warm toast and instant coffee that would greet him each morning. Elsie was an early bird, so she’d get breakfast going before he got up. And in the evenings, she’d cook and he’d wash the dishes. The previous night neither had happened. He’d just had some leftovers, chucked the plates into the sink without even rinsing them, and went straight to bed. He sighed as he plonked on the seat beside the counter and poured some cereal and milk into a bowl. He munched the crispy flakes slowly, his eyes staring off into the middle distance. Then an alarm on his phone went off. He picked it up casually and read the note: “Time to leave!!!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he muttered, shoving the phone into his pocket and slipping off the seat.
He was in no hurry to come face to face with Elsie that morning. He grabbed his backpack and left his apartment with a renewed understanding of the folly of office romances.
Now that it was late April, there was a bit of a nip in the morning air. He felt it as he bolted the top, middle and bottom locks on his apartment door and descended the three flights of stairs to the ground level. He didn’t enjoy winters at all and found himself remembering how Elsie would poke fun at him for putting on a sweater when she’d only be wearing a t-shirt. He’d say it was a fashion statement. She’d say he was just being a pansy. He wondered if winters would always remind him of her for the rest of his life. As he made his way past the houses and shops bordering the edge of Steynville, he barely noticed the cacophony of the minivan taxis hooting for passengers, or the droves of people walking towards the bus stops, or the shop owners unlatching the chains and padlocks that secured the little tuck shops outside their houses.
Out of routine, he turned into a winding footpath that cut across the veld and got him to the Institute faster than the main road would. A moment later, he regretted it. If he had taken the other route, he could have delayed getting to work a little longer. He knew that Elsie would already be there. She liked to get to the Institute early so she could already be ahead by the time the others got in. Unlike him, she was very disciplined. He hesitated, wondering whether he should go back to the main road. He decided against it. That would just be plain weird. He hated being so unsure of what to do. Elsie was always so sure. So deliberate. He really missed that about her.
For the umpteenth time that morning, he wondered whether he had made a mistake the evening before. It was true that from the beginning he was against living together. But he had never worked up the courage to tell her what he really wanted. Instead, as the weeks went by he became more reticent and aloof. It got to the stage where his answers to her questions were either terse and monosyllabic, or rude, irritated grunts. Whenever she wanted to talk, he would suddenly feel the urge to break out his favourite video games, inviting her to join in, of course, though he knew that she would say no because she hated playing them. When she would suggest that they go out, he would talk up the virtue of frugality and insist that they would just be wasting money. After a while, all that had attracted her to him, namely his spontaneous, intrepid and fun-loving side, was all but gone.
He groaned and kicked a pebble in his path. “No, but it wasn’t your fault,” he muttered. “She was asking for too much.”
Stan knew this was a lie, but it made him feel much better, and allowed him to avoid the real issue, which he knew was fear. The problem was that he had started getting attached to Lwazi, Elsie’s three year old daughter, and he knew that that was what Elsie was angling for. Lwazi was the cutest, most irresistible little girl he had ever seen. Even though she lived with her grandmother Tando in Steynville, he and Elsie would visit several times a week. When he found himself spontaneously buying her presents and arguing with Elsie about Elsie being too stern with “the baby”, he knew he had to apply the brakes. This whole falling-in-love-and-settling-down-and-starting-a-family thing was not what he wanted. At twenty four, he was way too young for that.
“Your parents got married at twenty-four,” his grandmother, Jemimah, had reminded him, when he opened up to her about his relationship with Elsie.
His grandmother was all for them settling down. The sooner the better, she’d said. She loved Elsie, and thought that Stan ought to be the one to rescue her from the “dogs out there.”
“So what if she already has a child?” Jemimah would ask. “Do you realise how brave it was for her to bring a child into this world?”
“Nope!” Stan said to himself, shaking his head as he wound his way through the brown, knee-high grass, “That’s totally crazy.”
But the closer he got to the Institute, the more his stomach churned. Who was he kidding? It was going to take a lot to get her back after how coldly he had treated her. He’d read in one of Elsie's self-help books that indifference was worse than hate. At the time he didn’t fully agree with that statement, and he tossed the book aside and turned back to the series he was watching on his laptop. But now, as the Institute gates loomed large in front of him, he had to admit that maybe there was some wisdom in in those words. He had killed their relationship with indifference.
The hooting of a car jarred him out of his thoughts. He sprinted to other side of the road he had been plodding across, as a white sedan swept past him.
“Man, you almost got run over!” Bongi was walking along the other side of the road, heading towards the Institute gates. He was wearing ripped jeans, and bright red and white sneakers. He slung his Institute branded hoodie carelessly across one arm, a tacit act of rebellion against the employer-imposed uniform.
“Are you okay?” he asked, shooting a look at Stan’s troubled face.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep too well last night.”
“What? Did you feel it too?”
“The tremor. There was a hectic tremor last night. It’s been all over the news. They say it’s a big deal because we’re not on a tectonic plate or anything.”
“You mean a fault line. Everything’s on a tectonic plate, genius.”
“Hey, you’re the one that studied rocks. And why the hell are you so mad, bro?”
They ambled past the gates of the Institute. Jerry, the security guard, was seated in the guard house nearby. He nodded at them in greeting. They nodded back.
“So, why did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” Bongi asked.
“Elsie moved out.”
Bongi stopped in his tracks. Stan kept walking. Bongi hurried to catch up with him.
“Are you serious? When?”
“Why? What happened?”
“It’s a long story, man,” he said, as they walked up the stairs and through the doors that led to the entrance hall of the Institute. “I thought everything was okay, you know, and the—.” The words died on his lips.
Elsie was standing at the reception, scrolling through her phone. She took one look at Stan, shoved her phone into her pocket, and hurried off.
Elsie was seated by herself having lunch at the cafeteria. She spotted Stan coming in, and quickly shoved her face into her phone, looking fully absorbed. Stan walked over and sat beside her.
“That seat’s taken,” she said, not looking up.
“We need to talk, Elsie.”
“That’s my line.”
“The way things ended was not the best.”
“Oh, you’re telling me?”
“Can we at least talk about it? You just up and left. That’s not what I wanted.”
“You said you wanted space. And now you have it,” she said, grabbing her pie and strutting off.
As he watched her disappear around the corner, a deep longing for her welled up inside.