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Climbing- A Letter from San Francisco

By Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko

Loss is life’s only language. Moving from mask to face to soul, the journey we share.

Anyway, got this job online after going broke for a week and not eating for something like four days straight. I hate fishing for food from the garbage waiting on my next pay stub, so I took any job I could even though at the time I felt a little weak.

“Your ad says you’re looking for somebody?”

“Found someone already, sorry.” He sounded young, I’d say no more than 25, maybe 27 tops but you can’t know for sure without a face-to-face.

“You sure? ’Cause I can do just about anything.”

He said he’d call back if something came up. Fat chance, I thought, so I was searching online for something else when the phone rang suddenly.

“How soon can you get to my place? Berkeley Hills.”

I lied, told him an hour knowing if I got there sooner it would make a good impression and maybe he’d offer me something extra, or at least make a referral – you never know with people, especially Berkeley types.

Soon as I got downtown, I texted him. He called me right back, asked me to catch a bus to his place so I lied again, told him the next one wouldn’t show for another hour, knowing he wouldn’t check his phone for the schedule because I could tell he was under a lot of pressure and, in all honesty, buses rarely run regularly in places like Berkeley Hills where the rich own two, three cars so they don’t use public transportation as much as everyone else does.

“I’ll pick you up in about…” he paused, “eight minutes maybe? Black BMW going down Shattuck Avenue. Wave when you see me.”

I got into the backseat because he said the front wasn’t working right, something to do with the little thingy that rotates so the seat couldn’t move into place easy or stick once it got in place. Anyway, I got inside and once I made myself comfortable, I took a good, hard look at him. No more than 22, not tall, slightly chubby but not fat. His face was wide. In my language we call it “panua”, which speaks to its breadth –  “expansiveness” might be closest in translation. But it also implies a certain amount of generosity that comes with a full face, nothing stingy or pinched the way white people think of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, his features were bird-like, small and sharp, but not pinched, making the shape of his face all the more generous.

I tried my best to imagine him as an African – he was from India, I think – but failed again and again to box him into a tribe so I settled on the very unlikely mix of Luo and Kikuyu, mostly for my own amusement. Just when I was assigning roles, wondering who would be from the Luo tribe, his mother or father, he said something. And there is no other way to put this without sounding gay, by which I mean freeing my feminine and hopefully freeing yours too – his voice was beautiful. Gorgeous. It wasn’t male or female or androgynous or trans or gendered. It didn’t have anything in it, no want, no demand. It wasn’t tied to an accent, dancing around a culture. It was pure, his voice, as if it carried something so promisingly precious it couldn’t be touched.

The usual questions came up to make sure he hadn’t hired an online serial killer, the kind who shows up, cleans his house, slits his throat with a kitchen knife then takes an hour-long nap on the sofa next to his bloody corpse. One hour later the serial killer wakes up starving, guts the refrigerator for food, mostly red meats topped with huge, red (blood-like) globs of ketchup, chewing like a madman.

“Where do you work?” (I lied.) “What do you do at work?” (Lied.) “Where do you come from?” (Truth mixed with some lies to make myself more exotic. The West Coast adores interracial, so I mix it up whenever I can for bonus points.) “Do you like California?” (Lied.) “Have you been to Berkeley Hills?” (Lied.)

Then he asked me what I wanted to be and I told him the truth, but I don’t know why I told him. Maybe it was his voice, its seductive dream-power, maybe that’s what made me tell the whole truth. Or maybe I was tired of lying. Or maybe it’s because no matter how much I lied everything felt okay, like I wasn’t being judged for who I am or anything like that. Or maybe I wanted my dream to match his voice quality, but I don’t know for sure what made me tell him the truth, my full truth.

“I’d like to be a writer. I’ve written three books. But nobody reads them,” I laughed. He didn’t. He looked straight ahead at the road and so did I.

“Did you do any schooling for it?” he asked.

By now we’d driven past the flatter parts of downtown Berkeley. Big houses sat on hills surrounded by flora coloured red, purple. Stranger still was the way the road snaked towards nowhere.

I thought about my mother who had just died. I thought about how she died. I thought about how she lived. I thought about how someone can live like they’re dead. I thought about legends, people who never ever die. I thought about my grief and not eating and sleeping for days. I thought about the amount of energy, the mental fortitude it took every day, each fucken day to open my eyes. I thought about feeling weak and dizzy and how I’d have to get ready, buck up to psyche myself for the job about to start in a few minutes and how I couldn’t let myself give in no matter what I was feeling. I thought about how Africans are not allowed to feel depressed or emotionally exhausted because when you’re in America, you must be better off, and if you’re not a success it’s because you’re a loser.

I thought about not having enough money for a plane ticket to fly across the country to care for my mother in her last days. How I begged and borrowed. I went online to beg friends, strangers on Twitter, Facebook, begging anyone, everyone. Doing the same stupid thing, begging and borrowing money to pay off her funeral to meet her last wish. I thought about being humiliated. I thought about teaching myself to stay humiliated because somewhere, somehow I conflated shame with humility.

I thought about my clothes, how I pick them off the street then put them on, sometimes not allowing myself to stop short of picking food from the garbage: me, an educated African in a BMW in one of the richest parts of America. Then I thought about the choices I’ve made and can’t unmake: my gender, my sexuality. And choices I did not make: my race. Then I thought about the strange beauty in pure integrity, the painful riches that come with not compromising to live life whole. Then I thought about my entire life up to that point: how one thing, one unexpected thing can change your whole world forever and how there’s never a way back and might not be a way out or way ahead no matter how hard you try. Doesn’t matter if that one thing is a surprise or not because nothing prepares you for a world where any and everything you do has zero impact, and only consequences.

I thought about being confused and lost and alone and tired and ashamed and terrified. Of nothingness and emptiness and carrying a heavy void. But mostly, I thought about my mother, her looking from wherever she is now, what would she make of my life? Then I replied.

“I’m cleaning houses and doing all sorts of odd jobs because they don’t tell you in school that a degree in writing won’t make you any money. In fact, they don’t tell you that most people, including your parents and even yourself, will think you’re a loser. It’s true. I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror, stare, and I don’t see myself. Then I wonder, where did I go? Will ever I come back? How?” I took a deep breath.

“I went to the same Ivy League school for undergraduate and graduate studies. Now I’m a maid. Before you or anyone says so, I’ll say it first: I’m a loser. Disgrace to my family, community, tribe, I know it. But my search,” I paused, “is for stories that come from some place deep. Some place only life can touch. Many times, so many times when you read stories from famous writers who are rich, their stories have no life in them. Because…” I paused, “they’re terrified to look at life. With good reason, life is scary. But fear helps no one. So I’d rather live like this, searching for real life by confronting my fear, then committing what I find to paper. See?”

He stopped his black BMW. We were on an incline driving towards the summit of a steep hill when he stopped his car smack in the middle of the road. He spoke with his back turned so I couldn’t see his face. But I could hear his voice: cold, distant.

“I can’t let you clean my house.”

I understood immediately. I’d been in California long enough to know how things worked. This place was free when it came to some people, but not others. Not black people, especially not poor black people going up to Berkeley Hills where they get ticked off for jack. I’d talked too much. Made myself too much of a presence. Gone into dangerous, personal territory too quick, too deep and personal for it to work on a professional level. I bet he thought, once we got to his place, that I’d steal from him. I tried my best to breathe evenly, thinking there would definitely be a better job online when I got back to my computer.

Then he turned. He was crying. “Sorry. I cannot let you clean my house.”

His beautiful, pure voice shaking with emotion: “In these few minutes, you’ve changed my life. You’ve made me see the world differently. I have so much respect for what you’re doing. I cannot let you clean my house. You cannot clean my house.”

He went on crying, and I let him. I didn’t say a word. I just sat there, stunned. For a long time, neither of us said anything, not one word. We just sat there, stuck – moving from mask to face to soul.

When I finally gathered my thoughts, all I could think about was my mother, of her looking from wherever she was – seeing that car stuck on a slope in the middle of the road up a hill, him crying and me sitting there speechless. We were nowhere. We were everywhere. Within reality. Inside eternity. Embracing mystery. Inching towards infinity. Moving fast towards endless endlessness.

“Mom, are you still dead? Unreachable forever? Do you know how hard I’ve tried to die? Not eating, not sleeping, making myself absolutely nothing. Because I want to be with you. Because I don’t know if I can go on, not without you.”

I closed my eyes, never wanting them to open again, pushing each thought towards freedom, places we humans are not allowed to reach.


chronic cover rsized

This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop, or get copies from your nearest dealer.

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