I hated her because she asked me my name and inquired about my health, my state of mind, my circumstances. I had to hate her because she looked me in the eye. Like there was nothing that set us apart except our God-given skins. She would walk down that street on her way home, see me, and ask me how I was doing that day or if I had a peaceful weekend. I couldn’t truly hate her – hate her enough to demand what she had or make her believe it was her fault that I lacked. I couldn’t truly hate her for anything, and that’s why I hated her more. The way she asked me my name and looked me in the eye, God help me, it made me sick.

When I ask people for money – entlik, I demand it – they push their finger-wrapped notes in my direction like a bribe, wishing me away from their happy, manicured suburbs. Hush-hush, so I won’t come back, but still obvious so that their friends pat them on the back for their mercy, their charity. Right there, I can manipulate them, ask for more the next day, and play on that guilt that makes them look away impatiently. They owe me, of course, with those cars that could pay five families’ rent. Their shining sunglasses, the upturned noses that wrinkle when I come close. I don’t wash myself for that reason, one of the reasons. The more I disgust them and the more pathetic I look, the more they hate themselves for ignoring me. What else can I do? Of course I want money. And they’re mad at themselves, I’m sure, because I remind them of their privilege, their luck, their excess. For sure, some of them know that the tables could be turned, so they look away, guilty and angry, sometimes afraid of their own heartlessness. Then I come closer, I’ve got a solution. I’ll purge the guilt for a fee; whatever you have is fine. Just remember, bhoza yami, the more pity you sow, the more self-satisfaction you’ll reap. Just a give-and-take, you see? Simple!

But this one, she looked me in the eye and gave me a sincere smile. She called me by my name like there’s somewhere I come from and somewhere I’m going, and I just hated that. Every day, she waved to me from across the street to say, “Sawubona, bhuti. Unjani?” I would see her, and I just couldn’t be entitled to what she owed me, what everyone owes me. She knew something that no one else should know. She knew that money doesn’t solve everything, not all the time. She threw smiles and small talk at me like they were the only currency that mattered. And she said “bhuti” like I could be her kin, but we just didn’t know it yet. All of that made me sick to my stomach whenever I tried to ask her for anything, and still – as if what she did wasn’t enough! – she would still give me, truly, whatever she had! The way she stopped dead on the street on her way home like talking to me was never inconvenient. The way her flat black pumps would shift to make her whole body face me, her shoulders high and squared, her eyes befriending mine. I swear, it made me ashamed, weighed down with anger, for what I couldn’t demand from her.

In less than two months, she trusted me. This trust was the only way I could change things and free myself – free her of her burden, too, of course. It had to be a burden for her to dig so deep into herself until she found things that made us the same. She never saw much of a difference between us; that’s what her eyes kept telling me. She looked at me like my standing in that street – honestly begging for an honest way out, as God is my witness, and demanding my share of their riches – was a perfectly ordinary career choice. So, she trusted me, me! An honest and humble hustler with no backstory. I’m sure she believed that I was purely a victim of circumstance, the same way that trees are victims of the weather. So, she trusted me enough to let me hold her plastic bags while she searched for a R20 note in her purse. She trusted me enough to feel comfortable holding my attention even when I wouldn’t get anything from her that day. Obvious, she would be trusting enough to not look over her shoulder to check if I was following her.

She didn’t look back, not even once, the whole way, imagine! Surely this was the sign of a woman who trusted not just me but the entire excuse of the world she lived in. No one would follow her; no one wanted to hurt her; she was safe wherever she was. Well, she wasn’t safe. She was dangerously vulnerable in her delusion. This made her a threat to me, to all of us. The world runs on an unequal system of give and take, motivated by anger and disgust, power and distrust. She threatened all of that. The way she looked me in the eye, the way she dropped pity for empathy, indifference for familiarity.

It’s really a pity, for her sake, that she would never come across her own lifeless body on the side of a quiet street in those suburbs and see that she can’t just go around finding familiarity in the world, looking beggars in the eye, and asking about their wellbeing. When I closed my hands around her throat, God will forgive me, I saw those trusting eyes swell with fear. It was not what I wanted to see, not the lesson I wanted her to learn, but it was better than nothing. Better than that ridiculous, carefree smile. She didn’t struggle too long. It was like she understood very quickly what I was trying to teach her, accepting my corrections without challenging me. She struggled weakly, with respect, even as I betrayed her. It was as if she didn’t want to make me feel like I wasn’t worthy of touching her. The way she looked at me, I knew that strangling her was not how she would remember me; it was not who I was in her eyes. I squeezed even tighter until she was nothing to think about anymore.

Finally, she was truly safe, and I was free. Leaving her limp body there on the side of the street in those suburbs, I walked back to the robots, back to my corner, to get my money from the scum that never dares to look me in the eye.















Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash