The Sweetest Ache
Remi struggled to sit up straight in her chair in the coffee shop. The heat and jetlag made it impossible for her to keep her eyes open. She was more hungry than tired, and irritable from no food or sleep for the last few hours. Her flight to Zimbabwe had been sketchy, to say the least. The dubious pilot had insisted on flying through a minor storm and landing in lush green fields just outside Harare. She’d had to endure a hot taxi ride into the city, as well as a delay with checking in to the hotel she’d booked the week before. As a hard-working activist and reporter, this wasn’t the first time Remi wondered whether taking her mother’s advice – to get a ‘real’ degree – would have been a better idea than ‘following her heart’.
As the trendy and obviously popular little cafe started to fill up with more tourists and local patrons, Remi gave herself a few slaps to the cheeks, blinked several times, and used her dirty boots to pull her luggage closer underneath the table. Her legs were stiff and moving her left prosthetic made the stump just under her knee tingle. She suppressed the urge to stretch the leg and lift up her pants to give it air.
‘Weell you be ordering anything ma’am?’ The voice was surprisingly raspy for a girl with such a sweet face.
Remi looked up with interest at the young waitress standing beside her table. She was a dark and tall girl, with the kind of striking features any modelling agency worth their salt would lap up. Wide almond-shaped eyes; a small rounded nose and plump lips a shade or two darker than the rest of her face. She didn’t seem to have any airs and pretences about her though; rare for a conventionally beautiful girl. Her face was kind; the tap of her pen against her notepad was more habit than impatience or boredom.
Remi ordered the club special: a burger with fries. She knew she wouldn’t touch the meal but it bought her more time with the beautiful waitress, even if it was in this hellhole. Lord knew when she’d be cleared to finally go to her hotel room. At least in this place, she could sit for long periods of time and not seem weird. She ran a hand through her matted black curls and pressed the back of the other on her soaking forehead. How the hell did anyone survive this heat? Her eyelids fluttered slightly as the heat began to make her dizzy. She didn’t know how long she’d last in there, but she had no intention of going anywhere any time soon.
It was only when she heard, rather than saw, the sound of the glass being placed on her table that she realised she’d allowed her eyes to close, dozing off. The waitress was back and she’d put a glass of ice cold beer that she hadn’t ordered on the table in front of her. Remi tried to mumble a protest, but it was lost in the parched gulp in her throat as she eyed the sweating glass of cool bliss. The waitress winked at her and quickly turned to serve a table adjacent to Remi’s.
Remi couldn’t remember the last time she’d hit on a woman, let alone allowed herself to flirt with her. She felt rusty and wasn’t sure she could still read any of the signs. She looked around for the beautiful waitress and noticed that no one else seemed to have received any complimentary beers from her. A moment more of this speculation and Remi would pass out from overthinking, exhaustion and starvation. She grabbed at the glass on the table and tipped her head back, taking huge gulps of the heavenly, impossibly cold beverage. A few rivulets of beer streamed out the sides of her mouth and down her chin, catching the attention of a group of Germans sitting at the next table.
Again she was surprised by the waitress’ hands, gently brushing the offending liquid from her chin. The gesture was so subtle that Remi wondered if she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Walking away once again, the waitress turned around and shared a secret smile with the hot and bothered activist. Remi felt her hard, aggressive face spread into a grin in spite of itself, felt warmth rise into her cheeks and an involuntary brightness seep into her eyes.
She had no idea what was going on here but she liked the feeling of being carried along on something so golden and warm. Eventually everyone else in the café faded into nothingness and there was no one else left but Remi and the enchanting waitress. She watched the girl flirt and smile at customers wearilessly. She watched her deftly handle drunk and disorderly patrons with a stern but patient smile. She made them feel like she remained their friend, even when they were in trouble. Remi could understand why this girl was made to work so many tables. She had the kind of personality that would keep people coming back to a place – on the off chance that she’d send a glance their way.
Remi was so enthralled by this woman that she didn’t even notice that the meal she’d ordered still hadn’t been delivered to her table. Her beer glass was long since emptied, but her thirst was secondary to her admiration and study of this beautiful woman who had so obviously singled her out in a café filled with attractive people, from all over the world. She couldn’t help but notice the very feminine structure of the waitress’s body beneath her flattering uniform.
Her body seemed like that of a goddess underneath the plain black shirt dress she, and all the other waitresses wore to serve everyone. Her legs radiated a rich dark brown goodness and seemed to go on for an eternity. Her breasts pressed against the buttons of her shirt dress and her clavicles stood guard against the longest and most graceful neck Remi had ever seen. Remi watched the girl’s hands and wondered what it would feel like to study them up close, to taste them. She wondered what it would feel like to have that tall, perfect body pressed against her own big imperfections. Hard, sturdy arms, experienced, veined hands, a large belly softened by years of beer-jugging, hardened by bad travel food and occasional beatings from police officers and homophobic thugs.
Remi found herself taking inventory of her body. This battlefield of exhaustion and dried-up excitement. This graveyard of broken hearts and shattered loves, this broken down machine rusty from lack of use, slow and cranky from too much use. She wondered if the waitress would ever be able to accept her. Could she accept the hard arms and broad shoulders, the big belly and thickening thighs, the landscape of tattoos collected from traumatic and beautiful travels across the globe? The leg – which wasn’t really a part of her but was very much a part of her. The result of a freak accident in a place she once called home.
She thought of her face, covered in holes from when the night’s nerves and heartache drove her to dig her nails into her flesh, digging out craters until she resembled the moon. She thought of her hair − looking like the bad aftermath of a good haircut. The thick black curls, locks of which hung low over her hooded brown eyes and large nose. She thought of her complexion, once a caramel yellow but now a golden bronze thanks so very much to the African sun. You’ll have to take me as I am baby, I’ve lived, she found herself muttering as her eyelids once again began a speedy descent onto her cheeks.
This time, she awoke from a deep sleep. Someone was sitting across from her and there was silence all around them. Remi started and sat right up, instantly alert. Her eyes met the eyes of the waitress, and they were swimming with kind mirth.
‘You’ve been asleep for a long time now. I even finished cleaning up the kitchen and putting up all the chairs.’
Remi thought she could listen to the complicated music of her voice forever. A rough smoker’s voice, yet laden with a breaking timbre, as though it was arguing with itself about which octave to settle on. She looked at her face and felt a surprisingly immediate endearment towards her; too many years of heartbreak had made Remi wary of falling too quickly. The waitress looked a lot older up close and in the fluorescent lighting of the now closed and virtually empty cafe. Her eyes were a light honey brown and the laughing lines underneath them didn’t take away from the stark beauty of the large almond-shaped eyes, in any way. Her complexion reminded Remi of late evening skies in countries whose names she couldn’t remember. A wealth of dark brown and midnight black magic.
The waitress had a head covered in the neatest cornrows Remi had ever seen. She smelled of a sweet citrusy perfume and strawberry cupcakes. Remi felt something deep inside of her begin to stir; she felt an urgency right beneath her belly for this lovely woman before her. She wanted nothing more than to take this woman away and make love to her. Preposterous, given that she didn’t exactly have a place to stay herself. And yet she could barely resist the feeling being with this woman created in her.
The sweetest ache.
The waitress seemed to read the look in Remi’s eyes clearly. She dropped her own eyes and smiled a smile so sad it instantly broke Remi’s emerging heart. A heart that had been hidden for the longest time, buried and protected under callousness, holding an inability to be moved. The inability to give any fucks. Well, that heart was beginning to thaw under the shy gaze of this stranger who felt so much like home. Remi allowed her own black eyes to show the miraculous opening happening inside of her. She wanted to show the waitress that she wasn’t alone in her vulnerability, that whatever she had to offer would be matched eagerly. Remi was willing to rise to the highest crescents with her, and descend to the darkest depths. She didn’t even care if they never resurfaced.
Neither woman had ever known a pull this irresistible. The waitress had no idea why she had withheld Remi’s food from her like that. She had known only that she hungered for this tough woman’s attention, that even if all she received was anger and indignation, something deep inside of her would finally breathe. Remi couldn’t imagine ever feeling anything for this woman but adoration.
She leaned across the table and whispered, ‘What is your name?’
‘Vi — Vi,’ the waitress began, but her voice trailed off and she choked slightly. Remi stood up instantly, placing a hand on the other woman’s shoulders, noticing how large her hands were, how tall she actually was. The waitress gasped at the point of contact and looked up at Remi, imploringly. The activist understood that look immediately.
They walked swiftly in the humid Harare night air. The streets were well-lit near the café and along the way, they passed many party-goers and clubbers, people who generally seemed a lot happier than either woman could imagine. The happiness of all these strangers buoyed their own giddiness about the mad thing they were about to do together.
They reached Vi’s apartment in under ten minutes. She threw Remi’s bags onto the floor of her living room, which was cast in darkness. Vi didn’t wait to turn the lights on, but instead reached out for Remi’s hand. Remi latched onto the hand held out to her and entered the apartment after its beautiful owner.
They closed the door behind them hurriedly and instantly began to remove their clothing. In the dark, Remi was certain the waitress wouldn’t be able to make out that one of her legs wasn’t made of flesh. Under the cloak of night, Vi knew Remi would have no way of seeing her entire body in one go. Each woman had her secrets and both hoped that this leap of faith would yield something special for them. Safety. Acceptance. The promise of fulfilment. They both understood that love was an ache – one that two people allowed themselves to feel for each other because of the sweetness hidden inside that ache. The sweetness of whispered words and trembling orgasms. The sweetness of completion and unison.
They kissed. Softly at first, then desperately. Things fell all around them, loudly. It sounded as though a few things broke as well. Neither of them could ignore their need for long enough to care, or to check the extent of the damage they were causing. Remi couldn’t remember the last time she was so completely present with another woman. She was so absorbed by her and into her and so oblivious to anything else but her body, her sounds and her smell.
The waitress struggled to contain herself. She felt her dick growing lush and wanted nothing more than to press it against Remi’s thighs. The feel of Remi’s arms around her back and hands holding onto her thighs was driving the middle-aged waitress absolutely insane. She had not known such sweetness could be found in the arms of another woman. Remi was hard and soft all at once. She was tough and vulnerable, rough and gentle, all at the same time. It drove Vi wild with desire. Eventually, Remi felt as though she would burst – she needed to release the pent up urgency they’d built up between themselves. Feeling herself being pushed against a wall, she reached out for Vi’s underwear, between her legs, clutching, pulling.
There was a pause as Remi gasped. The fullness of the waitress’s cock inside of her was wonderfully shocking. Remi knew she loved the lushness of the waitress and allowed it to fill her up and carry her on waves of ecstasy. The waitress held Remi’s large pale thighs up on either side of her rock hard hips, pushing all of her goodness deep into this strong, beautifully broken woman, she’d picked up in a coffee shop. Remi’s moans blended with her own until neither woman knew which sounds emanated from whose throat.
They rose together, tears of relief spilling down each of their cheeks, pleasure radiating from them with the sweetest ache. Remi started to feel the pressure build up in her pelvis. It spread in delicious contractions to her belly and then shortness of breath in her chest. She cried out as the first orgasm rippled through her body and warm light exploded behind her closed eyes. Vicky slowed her thrusts to allow Remi time to recuperate from cumming. When she was sure the other woman could take it she reverted to her previous speed; felt her own body start to tighten in preparation for her orgasm. Her dick swelled inside Remi and the other woman’s vaginal walls clamped around it. She clutched Remi’s solid thighs as she flooded the inside of the condom; as her body froze and then trembled in climax. Remi’s second orgasm followed a few seconds later and her thighs tightened around Vicky’s waist when she came. They clung to each other, sinking to the floor in a crumpled heap.
Remi’s leg stuck out at an odd angle, because she hadn’t been able to adjust it to bend the right way ’round on her way down. The waitress untangled one of her own beautiful legs from Remi’s and gently moved the prosthetic leg into a position that she instinctively knew would be most comfortable for her. Remi took a hold of one of her hands and brought it up close to her face. The light spilled over them in slivers where they lay, through the blinds in the kitchen window. I get to study these hands up close, to taste them, Remi thought.
But to her sweet waitress she only said, ‘I’m starving.’
The other woman laughed long, deep and hard, until tears streamed down her face and a bemused Remi shook her head, smiling wryly at the woman with whom she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her days.
Mercy Thokozane Minah, who also goes by the moniker X; is a Swati, queer and non-binary multi-disciplinary artist developing skills in theatre and performance, music and literature. They live in South Africa.
MAGGIE OLUWASEUN AYOMIDE
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA, 1991
I wake with a start to the sound of adult voices in the corridor of our little flat. My father’s familiar bass voice and my mother’s defiant responses reverberate through the thin walls. A third voice, my mother’s friend from next door, Chonta, is pleading with my father. The commotion cannot be ignored. I remember where I am, and a heavy, sinking feeling opens in my heart, like an anchor dropping through deep water, farther and farther, until it plops at the bottom of a murky floor.
I have not seen my father since we left London, and that was a long time ago. I was still in grade one. After a long ride in a black cab behind red lights that blurred into snaky lines and a foggy smokescreen from exhaust pipes, mum and I burst through the airport’s doors and winded our way through the luminous jungle of Heathrow.
It was the middle of the night, and it seemed we ran and ran for miles. We were the last ones to get on the plane after mum shouted at the red faced man who had hair plastered to his forehead. She shouted, and then she cried, and then she begged, and finally they opened the gate for us. I dropped my soft doll Eleanor because we had to hurry, and I’ve never seen her again.
I’m now in grade three, and I’ve almost forgotten the rhythmic thump-thump of dad’s heartbeat through his freshly pressed button-down shirts and the croon of his voice as he read to me before bedtime. His chin was always prickly after a shave, and I’d push my finger into the dimple at its centre when he came back from the barber.
I float out of my room, still hoping that this is an extension of my dream, that I will wake again to realise it’s not happening. The hem of my floral nightdress shakes violently. I stand still, trembling, unable to take in what I see. Our once perfect world is upside down.
My mother stands at an angle, her neck in the forceful crook of my father’s left arm, like the innocent person in the movies whose body is being used as a bullet shield. My father holds a knife to her neck. To be more accurate, a sand knife, the one Ba Mailesi uses to prepare thickly buttered bread in the mornings, to cut through chicken thighs and backs as she makes us stew, nshima, and impwa. The sand knife which she so carefully rubs against the dry rock outside the kitchen door to ensure it is sharp enough to slice through bone. Its tip now pierces the soft skin of my mother’s neck, drawing a thin line of blood.
Father is crying; mother is crying. Chonta, the neighbour is pleading, her voice shaky but steady – one moment she is begging, the next chastising. Finally, she settles on a convincing tone, the kind you use on a child when you want them to do something for you but are not sure what the power of their own volition will ultimately reveal.
My father is not listening. ‘Stella, you are still my wife. Maggie is our only child. You will do as I say and come with me to Nigeria!’ His eyes are wild with fury, and without his spectacles, they look unhinged from their sockets. His once smooth chin is a knotted mass of curls. He smells different, like a man who will do anything in this moment. He reeks of desperation.
‘Oh, so today I’m your wife? Where have you been, Abs? It’s been over a year since we last saw you. Look around; we’ve moved on! We’ve survived without you! Kill me if you must! The only person going to Nigeria is you!’ my mother spits through clenched teeth.
‘Please, Mr Abisola, put the knife down,’ Chonta says.
The scene carries on like this for what feels like many hours, but it is probably over in five minutes. Warm lines of urine slide down my thighs, and my nightdress clings to my legs. My eyes tear. My nose burns, and it is moist. I say nothing. I stand there.
Finally, he sinks to his knees. My father releases his weapon, and it clinks on the floor tile. He cries softly into his palms. ‘Let’s go home, Stella. We are a family.’
Weeks in darkness ensue. My existence dwindles to endless days that turn into nights, to faraway voices and whispering shadows. I am being kept ‘safe’ at homes of family friends. The custody case is in court. Every time they say it, in muted tones, it sounds like a bad disease. Custody. They look at me like I’m the man in my little Bible who Jesus healed from leprosy. Custody doesn’t sound so bad to me – in fact, it makes me smile.
I imagine mum and dad in a courtroom full of yummy custard, the pair of them before a judge explaining what happened. In my imagination, dad is leaning back in a chair with his hands steepled while he adjusts his round spectacles with his forefingers. I imagine he is wearing a tie, even though he loathes them and has never owned one. Mum must be perched upright. Her face, brown, and bony, cold and composed like the wooden carving in our living room. Her hands, one over the other, resting against the colourful stripes of her chitenge skirt.
I picture the judge with the face of my Zambian grandfather – Grandpa Charles – big, dark, and round. I have only seen him in photographs and history textbooks.
The judge of my imagination has a curly, white wig like the ones everyone wears in ‘My Book of Nursery Rhymes’. He listens to them while he scoops gooey yellow custard out of a large wooden bowl. He wipes his brow because the air is hot. I know he will understand that grownups fight sometimes, and then he will give them sage advice. He will let them go, and then they can both come and get me. Maybe we can go back to London. Or maybe mum will say yes, and we can all go to Nigeria. Or maybe daddy will nod his head and join us here in Lusaka.
Mummy finally comes to pick me up one day in a gleaming white Cressida. She comes right in between the day and the night, when the sky is a mix of watermelon and tangerine, when the sun is about to give way to the moon, when the birds flock and flap their way to their nests.
She’s smiling and happy. She glows bright, and I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t seen her in a long time, but she looks golden, like she’s been scrubbed and polished and scrubbed again. She looks like an Egyptian goddess. Like an angel. She puts my bag in the back of her new car, and she thanks the people I have been staying with. She says to me, ‘Let’s go home’.
I agree, even though I don’t know any more what that is.
Home is fleeting, beautiful, and fragile. It flutters away like the orange and black butterflies in the garden that I try to catch with my open palms.
After that, I do not see daddy again. Not for many, many years. My parents’ lives continue, each of them finding new lovers and new lives, fresh starts – playing the game of divide and multiply, leaving me in no man’s land. A remnant of dreams gone wrong, of pain and despair. A family that will never again be. Or was it ever? Maybe it is all in my imagination.
This I do know, though: it is the beginning, even though it feels like the end.