She asked her clients to call her Angel. The truth was that she preferred it that way. It made it easier somehow. It gave her a level of confidence and of discretion. It was important to her. It gave her a deep and innate sense of freedom and a sense of control. In her line of work she believed that behind everything lies the power of desire. What men really desired was fantasy and a world in which they believed that they had an absolute and total sense of control. Out of the picture she created for herself she hid behind a portrait of herself created in smoke and mirrors; another grown up fantasy; a fairytale.
Her real name was Cynthia. She had a happy childhood growing up in New Brighton. It was a location on the outskirts of the city of Port Elizabeth. Her parents always loved her unconditionally although they didn’t have much money. They more than made up with the love and peace and joy that reigned in the poverty stricken childhood but it was love that taught her how to lie. It was her parent’s love.
She liked to go to the cinema. Sometimes she would go with a girlfriend at the weekend.
It allowed her to escape from the problems that she had, the addictions she faced, the cruelty and the pain and the sadness from the booze that surfaced from time to time that she had no control or say over. She would buy herself a coca cola and a box of warm, buttery popcorn and treat herself. She imagined leading the life of a film star, being famous, wanted and adored. Being rich and being accountable for nothing. The lives portrayed on the screen that confronted her mesmerised her to the point that she experienced an impenetrable sadness. Bollywood enchanted her.
She wished her weekends were uneventful. Not so predictable. Not so boring even sometimes when cars didn’t stop. When nobody looked her way with so much as a glance in her direction or paid her any attention. She had a sister but they were not close. She could scarcely remember the last time they had spoken a decent or kind word to each other. When they were together they tolerated each other. They had a quiet respect for each other when she was still living at home terrified to leave, to be on her own and to leave her child behind so that her parents could raise him. Her sister, Nisi’s independence frightened her. She didn’t want or need a man to get what she wanted. She was educated. She had a degree and a posh accent and an English name.
Her first thought for the New Year was, “If it feels so wrong then why am I still doing it?” She got drunk, went looking for a fix, got high and let someone feel her up in a dark alley outside of a rowdy nightclub in Central. She knew in the morning she did not get paid and was very angry with herself. She did not look forward to meeting with Sammy, her sleek pimp later that day for his share of the deal. She couldn’t remember anything. It was a blur, a drug-induced haze. There were often nights when she had those but she was pretty so she could always make a quick buck if she needed to on the side.
When she was little she wanted to reinvent the world. She thought the world around was amazing and magnificent. She lived in a snow white cocoon. She wanted to become the world’s first female president. She wanted to visit the Amazon jungle but society didn’t want smart, clever or intelligent, classy or sophisticated women, what they really wanted was pretty, sexy, beautiful women, sensual lips with sex appeal, snaking, generous hips in clubs and bars. Even the working world wanted women who knew when to be quiet. It was useless she realised this pathetic, nagging feeling that she always got at the beginning of the year. The start of prosperous new beginnings. What a joke! What a laugh! The only thing it was good for was a laugh she decided.
When she was little life was so simple. When she was afraid she could hide behind her mother’s skirt. When she was afraid and lonely, when she had been teased and her feelings were hurt, tears, spit and snot streaming down her face she knew she could count on her parents to comfort her but as she matured it became more difficult to turn to them for help and guidance. She thought that they were too old-fashioned although they were very loving and that they didn’t know anything about modern society.
How she became a prostitute in Central in Port Elizabeth nobody knew. She was a drug addict. She had a pimp and a clique of girlfriends. At the weekends they would do their hair at the beauty salon. They would primp or curl or relax or braid their hair. During the week she would raid the malls for beautiful, tight and sexy clothes to wear and lure men. She never saw her parents anymore. They thought she was studying economics and they were looking after her two year old son Selby. She sent money home regularly.
What she feels is non-existent in the interior of her mind. What her soul sees is another matter. She always wanted to live in a world where she felt she belonged and a world in which she felt she was inferior to no one. She rather wanted to be a fake somebody than a real nobody. In a myriad of patterns, just like a kaleidoscope death always seemed to venture near her life. She realized when she was ready; she would walk through that door that led to a safer path, a more relevant and unique journey to amazing new possibilities, amazed at her confidence.
The men - her clients showed her a world that she could not understand - a world that meant detachment from meaningless encounters. She played with darkness, talk of intimacy hinting at trouble looming like a giant war machine ahead. She wanted to live, she wanted to survive yet she was a stranger to good news, to small indulgences like happiness and beauty. She often asked herself why did she live, why did she survive by all means possible.
She was a girl when she met the world head on. She was prickly, jaded and abusive. The world saw someone who was tense in the eye of the storm and connected to something greater than herself. She felt there was nothing good in the world except examples of good men who had by default become described as being bad men who did nothing to make up for their reckless behavior.
The world through darkness on her strengths illuminated her vanities and shone a light on her innocence that scratched through all her sensibilities and cracked the veneer of her surfaces. Of course she decided to free her mind of all her inhibitions once she had reached the big city and once she had found a suitable candidate - a suitable boyfriend. Talent will always persist; that is the remarkable beauty of giftedness but not youth and beauty and she was eager to lose her virginity - she was eager to become a woman. She wanted to be wanted, accepted and cherished but instead she thought she was asking for too much.
Once upon a time she had an office job doing administrative work when she was younger. She sought out female friendships for the first time. Instead she was loathed, gossiped about, humiliated, hated and had to work out for herself that she had to ingratiate herself with the older male in the office than the females and leave the women be. They would neither befriend not mentor her but she decided she was wiser for it in the long run. She vowed she would never let any man intimidate her, fluster her or frustrate her. But old-fashioned values got the better of her in the end.
She wanted to be respected, remembered, not for love affairs best left forgotten and taken seriously. But she was still a romantic at heart. She leaned back into the sofa and closed her eyes. She had so many wonderful memories of Johannesburg. Positive ones as well as negative which she tried to shut out as much as she could. She blurred the features, the motions, the handsome faces, the leering faces, the screaming mouths, the enchanting chanting lips, the green plants in full sun or shade and the sunshine that felt like powder against her cheek. It felt soft and forgiving and ticklish.
Remember me for the girl I once was, she tried saying to herself in the empty room. Her depression was like a big, terrible shadow over her that threatened to overwhelm her with its strength. It shut out the light but kept the darkness within - the enemy within. The invasion of the depression instructed her writing in her journal. It informed her of her every move and half the time she lived in fear of it. She lived in fear of the day when it would no longer sustain her and then what would she do?
Today she had a thousand things going through her mind. She dreamed that something special and wonderful would happen to her. Life was not made up of multiple choices; instead it is made up of infinite choices that we have to risk common sense and a cure for life for. She breathed a sigh of relief. She was no longer married to searching for a cure for the unexpected penalties of life and the wretched failures of missed opportunities. Traces of sadness lingered across her face. Was it unhappiness, or was she ultimately searching for tenderness in relationships that were fleeting. Social issues were still relevant and important to her.
When she walked the streets at night chilled to the bone waiting for warning signs of the showdown with police again she reminisced about the time she grew up in New Brighton. When she was happy and wanted for nothing. But even when she was a little girl she wanted the bright lights of the big city that she watched from afar. For now her son was completely out of the picture even though a day did not go by when she did not miss him; think about him; long to put her arms around him.
She sometimes imagined what she would say if she was being secretly interviewed by a local journalist on why she became a prostitute. She imagined what she would say, what she would be wearing, what she would be thinking, what she would pray not to reveal about her heartache and most of all what her parents would feel about the choices she made as an adult.
Intrepid journalist: Why did you become a prostitute?
Angel: I didn’t choose this profession, it choose me. (These words rang inside her head.)
Intrepid journalist: That is a very pessimistic view of the world around you.
Angel: But it’s the truth and you must know here in no man’s land the truth, honesty is the best policy is complete bullshit. It varies from day to day. Just like one’s circumstances.
Intrepid journalist: How does society benefit from prostitutes?
Angel: We render a service.
Intrepid journalist: What do you prefer to be called as?
Angel: Laverne. That’s my real name. I prefer my real name. Angel lives in a surreal world. That is not my reality. In my daily life I prefer Cynthia. That’s what my friends call me. That’s what my father named me.
Intrepid journalist: Do you regret this life that you’ve chosen to lead?
Angel: That is like asking me if I regret being born. How can I say that when I brought a beautiful child into this world? I gave birth to him but he doesn’t belong to me. He belongs as Khalil Gibran says to the world.
Intrepid journalist: Can you share an extract of what you wrote to your child in your journal?
Angel: Why is my body telling me to have a child, this child? I won’t have it. Only until I am able to feed it, nurture it, clothe it, educate it and care for it. I didn’t know the sex of the baby but I guessed. I knew it in my bones like a machine knows its settings, functions, gauges and buttons. One day your smell, your skin, your tousled hair will be unfamiliar to me but not to another ‘mother’. You will call someone else mama. But I prefer it that way to remain nameless and invisible because I know that we will never be able to repair our relationship.
Intrepid journalist: You have been honest and straightforward with me. Now let me be honest and straightforward with you. I am sick of hearing your tired, lame, pathetic excuses and your stories. You can change.
Angel: Now I am sad. I was a temp once. Can you believe it? I worked in an office and answered phones but I thought I was talented. I could do something else. Now can you guess at the intensity behind my words, the radiance of my smile? I take each day as it comes. It is filled with disturbing surprises, accidents and fires that I can’t put out and incidents that fill me momentarily with unease and shame that leave me ill, black and blue. When I crash and burn it is chemically-induced. I just take a pill and tell the world to leave me alone. I want to be alone. Loneliness doesn’t scare me anymore but the end of the road does. The street is littered, no, scattered with bodies that are unlovable, unlikable. At night a body farm. Creatures of a dark underworld where there is no escape from. They seek the comfort and the stroke and caress of strangers who twirl their hair in their fingers, who tell time with their fingers. The body is a temple of delight for them.
Intrepid journalist: What does self-help mean to you?
Angel: Getting my next fix and sleeping until noon the next day.
Intrepid journalist: What do you regret the most?
Angel: I won’t see Selby’s boyhood, childhood and youth. I won’t watch him grow up into a man. I won’t counsel him, give him advice, listen to his prayers at night or hear him say, “Mommy, I love you.” or “Help me with this. I can’t seem to get it right.”
Intrepid journalist: What do you think people who knew you when you were little would say now to you when they see you and what you’ve done with your life so far?
Angel: People would give me the cold shoulder in my old neighbourhood if they knew what I did now to put food on my table and clothes on my back. Perhaps they would find it interesting, curious. I don’t know why but the word envious is also on my tongue. I am free to do what I want although there are boundaries there that are drawn by me, for me by other bystanders, other people and congested crowds but there is a secret I want to tell you. Nobody really knows what I do for a living just by looking at my face. It is a well of loneliness.
Intrepid journalist: What is the most favourite part of your body?
Angel: My eyes because the eyes are the windows to your soul. You’re smiling but it’s true.
Intrepid journalist: Do you sleep with married men?
Angel: Of course I sleep with married men. Some take their rings off. Some lie and say they’re divorced or separated. Who do you think frequents the bars and clubs I go to? Mostly well-off, middle-class? The tourists are stinking rich. There is no class struggle in my line of work.
Intrepid journalist: Do you believe in soul mates?
Angel: As hard as it may be for you to realise, yes I do. I believe in God too. Does that surprise you?
Intrepid journalist: It’s just because I don’t understand. You’ve made certain choices in you life.
Angel: God doesn’t judge me or what I do for a living, people do. People are cruel and intolerant.
Intrepid journalist: What does a girl like you do for fun?
Angel: I escape. When my face is pale and wan I put some lipstick on, some rouge. Hope I don’t look as old as I feel and go to out to a club and dance with my friends. We celebrate life in our own way. After a while this feels normal when you’re wired or buzzed out of your mind. When it gets really bad I do mix some pills with the booze to take off the edge. It’s hard. Life is tough for everyone. Every person in this world has their own problems to deal with. Sometimes I just put a CD on or listen to the radio, chill, lie on my bed and think about rubbish. It makes me sad sometimes. Life, the noise on the streets, all that loud banging, screaming, the music that comes out of the clubs over the weekend, the girls and their pimps and the drugs, the substance abuse, the missionaries that try and get us out of this mess and come to church and pray for us.
She writes in a journal about what she thinks and feels but most of all when she feels sad and alone. When she feels she can no longer cope with the deception and lies she has told her parents. She wanted freedom and liberation from her daily life of creating a fake identity and persona.
One day she decides to go to the sea to reflect upon the changes she can make in her life. She is ambivalent. Does she make the right choices, the right decisions that could ultimately lead to her happiness or does she stay in limbo? She stares at the foam between her exotic, polished toes, the waves and the seagulls flying overhead and thinks about all the mistakes she made in her life. The things she said or felt when she was younger that she can never take back. What legacy would she leave behind for her small child?
The street life, the street beat, the rhythm and the lights taught her how to exist on a busy planet no matter how lonely she was. She defined love in glowing, refined terms and multiples; with couples with shining faces, families and incurable romantics. She was convinced that looks lie too. The look that she wore on her face that said she chose this life - to burden herself with the vulnerability of all men - their black, deceptive thoughts. She thought that nobody chooses a life of deceit, where company was merely a diversion, they are forced into it.
The sea reminded her that all life was temporary. She shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked out across at the horizon. She had made so many promises to her parents, her sister, to herself that she did not keep. The water was choppy but she felt strangely moved and comforted by it as if they were in the same boat together. She felt flummoxed by her circumstances. It wasn’t the first time.
She was articulate. She sometimes wrote poetry alongside her entries in her journal. She wrote long letters to the child that she was not teaching to read, teaching his letters or his alphabet. She tried to explain through tears why she decided to do what she did. That leaving him with the only two people who she loved and trusted the most in the world was done with the best of intentions.
Saturday nights are wild. Foreigners are fabulous. They tip well generously. They are gracious and charming when they haven’t had a drink in them. Sometimes they will even go as far to buy her food but going home to an empty, dirty flat marks the end of the midnight fling. It leaves her sad. They sometimes murmur about the tracks on her arm or smoke a joint with her.
There are some amongst the locals who just want someone to listen to them about their boring, depressing or stressful lives, their fat, sexually unresponsive wives and their bratty children who always need attention. So she folds her arms, puts her feet up on the bed, pretends to look at her expensive fashion magazines when they go to the bathroom to pee and listens to them and imagines the strange highways with bewitching streetlamps that brought them together on that particular night. It leaves her with pangs of love and in turmoil, depressed, restless and ready to do something awfully reckless that she will later regret in the morning.
She found the words in books soothing, zooming with a buzz and a life all of their own. The flow incessant, moving and revealing of who she was born to be. It gave presence to what was missing in her life. They were slow to burn and were not filled with the riddles, conspiracy theories, codes of everyday life that she had to fulfill.
Her fingertips ran over the sentences of Paulo Coelho’s ‘Eleven minutes’ seeking solace like the blind reading Braille.
She tried to memorise the words in the poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Ingrid Jonker, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Nortje and the books of Virginia Woolf, J. D. Salinger and William Styron. Words, metaphors she didn’t understand. All of her life she watched her sister chase her dreams and seemingly fulfill all of them easily.
She lived in constant fear of silence, rejection and isolation. Some nights when the depression seemed like she was sliding into a private hell she wondered what the rules and the strategies were of this game called life. She was tired of taking chances and sick of her life. She was tired of the bed sheets stained with urine and of her rooms smelling of vomit in the morning; the black dirt and blood she drew under her fingernails. Books, writing and reading were the only things that kept her alive and kept her sane. She knew she had more in common with the hobo sleeping on the grass outside the mosque than she really wanted to believe. Her life was slowly ebbing away and there was nothing she could do about it.
In her dreams she was always near water. It was never out of her reach. Be it a white, moonlit beach, a princely blue swimming pool, the ocean, a black river, a silver bay. She was always drowning, fighting to come up for air, she could feel the pressure of something or someone pushing her, holding her down, refusing her solace and grace above the water. But before she could succumb to the water below she woke up drenched in sweat, coughing reaching for a glass of water that she kept in a glass on her bedside table.
It was a pale September when she returned to her parents’ home in New Brighton. Selby, her son had grown. He son is now ready to go to school; he is six years old. Her sister greeted her with open arms; with a warm embrace that she did not expect. Her sister who worked as a receptionist in town got her job as one as well. The after-effects of her previous life still lingered long after like the fierce trauma of a war zone but she was no longer the outsider, the black sheep of a so-called ‘normal’ family. She no longer felt trapped when she fell asleep at night. Daily she felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Her strength and her will to live was now renewed.
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