Four Blocks Away
My left eye was twitching nonstop. I’d been taught that this was a good sign. It meant that I was going to see something big. That is what my mother always used to say to me whenever my left eye went into spasm. Just like when the palm of my left hand was itchy. That was supposed to mean that I was going to come into a huge sum of money. Unless I scratched it—in which case my fortune would disappear.
Looking back, I have to say that my itchy palm never led to me receiving any money, but my twitchy eye often preceded pornographic horrors. I used to share a bedroom with my cousin Spice in Chi, Soweto, and on several occasions after my eye had been giving me trouble I woke up in the middle of the night to witness him naked on top of a woman he had snuck into our shared bedroom from the nearest shebeen.
So this is why, at the mature age of thirty-three, I still believed that my twitchy eye meant that I was going to see something big. However, I never figured on it happening while I was so far away from home. In the Hilton Hotel in Washington DC, to be exact.
That Saturday the twitch was almost unbearable and my mind was filled with the things I might see. Part of me was hoping to bump into the various big shot South Africans who I’d heard had flown in to congratulate the newly elected president, Barack Obama.
I’d been in the US for about six months on a cultural exchange programme, teaching gumboot dancing to kids at the various schools around Iowa City. So, the fact that our visit to D.C., which was only for three days, had coincided with the inauguration of the first African-American president was extraordinary and wonderful.
Everyone from the programme was in DC, including my two friends: Kuri, from Mutare in Zimbabwe, who taught mbira, and Bakala, from Bamako in Mali, who taught tabale. Kuri was in his mid-twenties, very thin and very tall. He looked like he didn’t eat enough, which confirmed the idea that most people had about Zimbos around that time: that Mugabe was starving them to death. Bakala was older, in his early fifties, and almost always wore traditional dress. The three of us had stayed in the same house in Lynn Street back in Iowa City. Despite our different ages and backgrounds we had developed a close friendship and used to go shopping together at Coralville Mall.
We were all in DC to thank our generous sponsor, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, for the unique opportunity they had provided us with, but that Saturday morning was our own time and we had decided to use it to explore DC At about nine we met in the lobby of the Hilton. Outside, the grey sky hung so low I felt I could reach out and touch it. It looked like it was going to rain.
My eye was still giving me trouble, so I decided to tell Kuri what my mother had always said when it started to twitch. Immediately, he suggested that we should give the White House a miss. ‘That twitching of yours means trouble, man,’ he teased. ‘The Ku Klux Klan is probably planning to bomb the new president!’
Just after three o’clock that afternoon Kuri, Bakala and I arrived back at the hotel. We were tired of walking around and had given up before seeing the Korean and Vietnam War memorials. We had, however, managed to see the White House, or as my high school history teacher used to call it: ‘The house where God resides.’The three of us were scheduled to give a talk and a performance at Howard University at five o’clock. My topic was The gumboot dance and the South African migrant labour system.
My eye was still twitching and I could not properly set my mind to the talk at the university. After scanning USA Today and the Washington Post in the lobby, I decided to go to my room, which I shared with Bakala, and lie down and close my eyes, in the hope that this would help.
At five o’clock we found ourselves in one of Howard University’s lecture theatres. It was there that my mother’s wisdom was confirmed. Beautiful, large eyes. Auburn hair, shading to brown in colour, that hung down to her shoulders like mielie tassels. She had spotted me from the crowd and was waving wildly. Her name was Siri.
I had met Siri in George’s Bar in Iowa City on the night the election results had been announced. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and was drowning her sorrows. The following day she invited me to the cottage she was renting on the banks of the Iowa River. She cooked us pasta while telling me how the river had burst its banks back in June—her cottage had been flooded and it still smelt of damp.
Siri was from Philadelphia, studying towards a degree in literature at the University of Iowa. From the day of the dinner up until I left for DC. we spent a great deal of time together. We were overtly physically affectionate towards one another—I would take her forearm and kiss it and in return she would hold my hand when we were sitting together—but each time I wanted to be more romantic her answer was always the same: ‘I have had enough of men. Please, give me some time.’ Those were her exact words.
Every few days after that night in George’s Bar, I would find myself at Siri’s place. We would sit by the Iowa River as the sun went down, smoke Egyptian tobacco mixed with weed from her hubbly bubbly and talk about the euphoria around Obama.
We code-named smoking weed ‘reading poetry’, and after each ‘poetry session’ I would piggyback Siri for a short distance. We both loved it and would laugh all the way to her cottage, where I would leave her by the door.
Now Siri was standing in front of me in a lecture theatre in DC. What did she want? I asked myself as I felt the palms of both my hands growing moist.
‘Hey, beautiful,’ I said as I hugged her and planted a kiss on her forehead. ‘You look absolutely gorgeous. Beyond words.’
‘Hi, handsome,’ she replied.
‘What a pleasant surprise. How are you here? Are you stalking me?’
‘Yes, I am. I called one of the girls who is responsible for your itinerary and asked her where you were. She told me that you had a talk here.’ She paused. ‘So here I am.’
‘That is so lovely.’ I struggled to keep my gaze steady. ‘Thanks for coming.’
‘I drove all the way from Philly to see you.’
‘How far is that?’
‘About four hours.’
‘Wow! You drove that far to see me? To what do I owe this honour?’
She didn’t answer. Instead, she slapped me lightly on the shoulder and went to sit down in the front row of the lecture theatre.
Time and again, throughout the talk, my eyes drifted towards her.
After the talk, Siri clapped loudly, as if I had uttered the most profound words that she had ever heard.
When we were all done, Siri suggested that we go to ChurchKey in McPherson Square. ‘They normally have a happy hour at seven,’ she said.
Kuri and Bakala joined us and we all climbed into Siri’s brown Ford sedan and headed off to 14th NW and Rhode Island.
ChurchKey was across the street from the Ghana Café. Siri parked along 14th NW and led us into the joint and to a booth with long yellow vintage couches. Three black ladies and two guys were in the booth opposite us, chatting and laughing. Siri ordered a prosciutto and fig flatbread, something I had never heard of before. The rest of us settled on chicken wings. A few minutes later, the waiter came with the Beer Bible. It had over five hundred international beers listed in it.
I don’t recall how many different beers I drank that evening, but I still remember some of the names: Sierra Nevada, Schneider Weisse, Kipling Pale, Prima Pils, Christmas Ale, Hefeweizen and Mad Elf. I enjoyed them all and, after knocking back a few bottles, my heart was aflame when I looked at Siri. The blue of her eyes reminded me of the colour of the ocean at Zanzibar’s Mercury Beach where I had once performed.
‘So, I think I must come with you to the motherland,’ Siri said to me. ‘You made it sound amazing.’
The sound of those words coming from her lips was so sweet that I had difficulty controlling my emotions.
‘I know why you don’t want to come with me to Mali,’ said Bakala, acting as if he was jealous. ‘It’s because of that girl who asked all those stupid questions during my talk about tabale.”You mean the one who asked you whether you have roads in Mali?’
‘Exactly that one,’ he said, taking a swig of beer. ‘I think she discouraged you.’
There was laughter. At the same time, a crowd of young people swarmed in and sat in one of the empty booths not far from us. When I looked at the time, I realised it was already half past seven. Thirty minutes into Happy Hour.
‘But I liked your answer,’ Siri said. ‘And people believed you when you said that there aren’t any roads and that the US ambassador to Mali travels around the country by swinging from tree to tree. They were not at all surprised.’
A rupture of laughter followed. It was the loud laughter of the drunks. Siri drained her glass and the waiter came with another, different beer and a new glass that matched the beer.
‘Man, I get these stereotypes about Africa a lot. Remember the guy I was sitting next to at the back of the bus on our way to Coralville Mall the other day?’ Bakala paused and looked around the table. ‘The whole trip he was telling me about his friend from Gabon, called Pete. Even after I had told him several times that I was from Mali, and it was a different country, he still asked if I knew his friend.’ He took a swig from his glass before putting it down. ‘So, in the end, to shut him up, I told him that I did know Pete. And you know what he did? He gave me his number to give to Pete, so that Pete could call him.’
‘The other day, as I came out of Penn Station in New York, I tossed a dollar into one of the homeless people’s hats,’ Kuri said. ‘I think he heard me speaking with my brother in Shona. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him I was from Zim, he returned my dollar, saying that Africa probably needed the money more than he did. I was shocked.’
There was laughter. I knew everyone was now exaggerating their experiences, but we were having a great time. Siri was giggling as if she had inhaled laughing gas. I still didn’t know what her plans were for that night. I thought that she would probably drive back to Philadelphia. In any case, I was sharing my hotel room with Bakala. He was way older than me and in my culture it is unthinkable to ask an older guy to give up his room so that a younger person can have some privacy with a girl. Kuri was also sharing—with Dede from Brazzaville—which meant that my only option was to pay for another room in the Hilton Hotel. Unfortunately, I had exhausted most of my stipend on beer and the money I was left with wasn’t going to be enough.
An opportunity to discuss all of this came when Siri went to the bathroom. In conspiratorial tones, Kuri and Bakala asked me what I wanted to do about sleeping arrangements. With the help of the alcohol in my brain, I explained to them that I couldn’t ask Bakala to vacate our room.
Bakala laughed. ‘Well, it is unthinkable in my culture that a man would not give up his bed if his brother had something like that to chew on.’
Bakala then told Kuri that he was coming to sleep in his room if Siri decided to come back to the hotel with me. He also told me not to worry about Dede—he would explain everything.
A few minutes later Siri came out of the bathroom and the four of us wobbled drunkenly out of the ChurchKey. A light rain had started.
Driving back, we passed Thomas Circle Park. Our hotel was just a few metres away and, after paying for the underground parking, Kuri and Bakala left Siri and me in the parking lot. We smoked a joint and, feeling a bit high, went straight to my room on the eleventh floor.
Inside the room Siri ignored the two chairs and sat on the floor at the foot of my bed. I grabbed a couple of beers from the mini-bar and sat down next to her. It was just like our Iowa days. The only difference was that she didn’t resist when I kissed her.
I don’t know whether it was because of the dope and the alcohol, but when Siri decided to take a shower, she stood up and took her clothes off right there, in front of me. Walking lazily to the bathroom, she invited me to follow with a wave of her hand. I obliged, taking off my clothes as my hunger for her lithe body began to overwhelm me.
‘Do you have a condom?’ she asked, dishing me a smile from inside the shower.
For a moment, as I watched her under the water, I was speechless. ‘No, I don’t,’ I finally whispered.
‘No glove, no love,’ she said, pointing her finger at me and smiling. ‘I suggest you go down to the lobby and ask them.’
‘I’ll do that.’
‘Most hotels sell them,’ she said, her eyes large and coquettish. ‘And don’t be late.’
‘I’ll never be late for your love, baby.’
I hurriedly put on my boxers and hotel gown. No shoes—I was just going to the lobby and back. No big deal.
In the lobby, the doorman smiled at me and then told me that they had run out of condoms.
‘Where is the nearest place I can get them?’ I asked, obviously disappointed. ‘Do you have a garage nearby that is still open?’
‘What’s a garage?’
‘Just tell me where I can buy condoms,’ I said.
‘Okay, try the CVS,’ he replied, a wobbly smile on his face.
‘Where is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s four blocks from here. As you walk out of the door, turn right. You’ll see a shop across the street with CVS Pharmacy written on the windows.’
‘Do you think they’re still open?’
‘It’s twenty-four hours.’
Luckily the rain had slowed to a drizzle, but the pavement was still wet and the wind was icy on my back. I was not deterred, however. I was still buzzing with the warmth of the dozen beers I had drunk and the joint I had smoked in the parking lot with Siri. As I walked along the road, the image of Siri naked in the shower kept flashing into my brain and very soon my boxer shorts became far too small for my erection that projected ahead of me like a stolen rhino horn.
I crossed the street and passed Thomas Circle Park. There was a huge statue of a man sitting with a rifle in his hands in the park. Next to the rifle man’s statue was another of a standing woman. I had passed through the park during the day and had read the name on the statue: John Barry. There had been a few homeless people in the park and I had been surprised by this—I had always thought that there were no homeless people in America—but now the rain seemed to have chased them away.
I stopped at a street and waited for the robot to turn green for me. The sign on the other side of the street had K STR NW 1300 stamped on it. Looking around, I could see a post office but no pharmacy. This didn’t worry me. In my head four blocks sounded like just around the corner.
Back home in Soweto, four blocks would mean that I started counting from my neighbour’s house, and the fourth house would be my destination. Anyway, the doorman had said that I could walk. And I didn’t want to go back to the room without condoms, lest Siri change her mind about entertaining my excited rhino horn. That’s what I thought as the robot turned green for me and I stepped out onto the rough tar. ‘Four blocks! No glove, no love!
Four blocks! No glove, no love!’ my addled brain was singing over and over again.
Passing the Hamilton Hotel, I saw some homeless people sheltering under a building ahead. Some were smoking and others drinking something. A taxi stopped in front of me, but I kept walking. ‘I am just going four blocks,’ I told the driver, who looked Ethiopian. Ahead of me, I could see the name of the next street: L STR NW.
To my relief, just after crossing the street I saw the CVS Pharmacy on my right. I walked until I got to the Balance Gym, where I waited for a break in the traffic so that I could cross the street.Before I could cross the road, I heard a loud police siren. It was followed by the flashing of a blue light beside me. When I looked, I saw a white sedan with the word POLICE emblazoned across it in huge letters. It had stopped just a few metres in front of me.
As I crossed the road, I noticed what looked like a homeless man playing a mouth organ outside the pharmacy. He had his hat on the ground in front of him with a few coins in it.
Entering the shop, I walked towards the till. While I was asking one of the women there where I could find the condoms, two policemen entered the shop. Maybe they are coming to buy doughnuts, I thought to myself. I knew from the movies that American policemen loved doughnuts. But, instead, the police interrupted my conversation with the lady behind the till.
‘You’re not allowed to walk around dressed like that, sir,’ said one of them in a bellicose voice. He had huge shoulders and a small head.
‘Why not, officer?’ I asked.
‘It’s the law here in America, sir,’ he said, looking at me like a god admonishing a sinner. ‘It’s the moral code. You need to dress properly, with shoes on. Plain and simple.’
His enunciation of the word sir was loaded with sarcasm. It was as if he wanted to indicate exactly how unwelcome I was in Washington DC.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know, officer,’ I said, looking at my gown and my bare feet. ‘All I want are condoms.’
‘You are not allowed to buy anything dressed like that, sir,’ the second policeman said, taking hold of the collar of my gown.’But I just came to buy condoms, officer,’ I said, trying to suppress the feeling of irritation that rose up inside me as the policemen escorted me firmly out of the pharmacy. ‘I didn’t know it’s not allowed.’
Outside the pharmacy the homeless man stopped playing his mouth organ as the policemen walked me a few paces from the door.
‘Okay, I understand, officers,’ I said as soon as they let me go. ‘Let’s make a deal. How about I give one of you guys ten dollars to buy me condoms? The lady said they are in aisle eleven. You can buy me the brand of your choice and keep the change. And then everyone will be happy. What do you say, officers?’
The second policeman’s eyes flashed fire and brimstone, his nostrils flared. Oh no, here comes trouble! I thought to myself when I saw him balling his hands into fists. This is America. Black people are sent to jail over nothing.
‘Where are you from?’ the policeman asked angrily.
‘Where the hell is that?’
‘Africa. South Africa,’ I said.
He threw me a cold look as if it was an unpardonable sin for a South African to be in the United States.
‘Are you here on holiday or business?’
‘Who are you visiting, and how long have you known the person you are visiting?’
‘Well, I don’t know the person because she is in the American government.’
‘Does your government friend have a job title and an address?’
‘Well, she is here somewhere, at the state department.’
‘Do you have family here in DC?’
‘No. I’m Sowetan.’
By this time a few passers-by had stopped to enjoy the drama. One large black lady had taken a front-line position as if she wanted to hear every word that was being exchanged between us. She gave me a broad smile that I could only translate to mean that she was on my side.
‘Are you here for a green card?’ asked the policeman with the small head through clenched teeth.
‘What’s a green card?’ I asked, deliberately sounding as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.
‘Are you interested in staying here permanently or what?’ he asked, his voice low with rage.
‘Hell no! I just want to buy some condoms.’
There was laughter.
‘I’m sorry, but, as I already said, we can’t allow you to buy anything dressed like that.’
‘Okay, I do understand, officers, but can’t one of you help me out? I’m begging you! This American lady is waiting eagerly for me back at the hotel.’
‘What’s wrong with these people?’ I heard a big sister say to the small crowd that had now gathered. ‘Just give brother Kunta the fucking condoms. He just wanna taste some American nookie.’
There was laughter again.
‘May I see your papers, please?’ said the second policeman, looking at me seriously. ‘How did you come to this country?’
‘May I see your papers.’ He spoke very slowly as if every word he said was costing him in American dollars.
‘Well, I obviously don’t have my papers with me. They are at the hotel.’
‘Where is your hotel?’
‘Four blocks away, the Hilton.’
‘What’s your name?’
The policemen looked amused at how my tongue clicked when I said my name and there and then a thought struck me.
‘I am Qhawe Mcwabe,’ I repeated. ‘I’m Khambule, Mzilankatha, inkatha kayingen’endlini, yangena kubola izinkaba zabantwana.’
The spectators started clapping. The policeman with the small head eyed me with a mixture of distrust and scepticism before shaking his head.’What did you come here to do?’
‘Well, I’m a mbongi and gumboot dancer. I have been sent by his majesty, our King back home, to come and congratulate President Obama on his election with some isiZulu praise poetry.’
‘You have to go back to your hotel and dress properly, sir.’
‘You are giving me no choice, officer. I will have to tell the audience during my praise poetry for President Obama that I was denied access to condoms. What is your name again, officer?’
There was laughter again. The policeman looked at me and I stared back at him.
‘That’s nonsense,’ the policeman finally said after a moment of uncertain silence.
‘Do you mean my culture, or the condoms?’
‘Okay, we’ll let you in. But on condition that you go straight to aisle eleven and buy only the condoms.’
‘Thank you, officer,’ I said, bowing my head with the palms of my hands together. ‘I will remember your kindness back at the hotel.’
‘Just go before we change our minds.’
The policemen’s eyes never left me as I went to aisle eleven. The sign above it said FAMILY PLANNING, INCONTINENCE, FEMININE HYGIENE. Having made my choice, I went up to the till with the condoms and paid. As I turned back towards the door I saw that they were still standing and watching me.
‘Enjoy, brother,’ said the big sister at the door as I made my way outside.
I smiled at her, savouring the thought of Siri naked back at the hotel. My senses were surging sweetly as I imagined her twenty-three-year-old body waiting to be devoured by my rhino horn.
By the time I got back to the hotel, Siri was sleeping. She was lying across the bed, snoring, her golden pubic hair glistening in the moonlight. I stared at her firm round breasts and the small butterfly tattoo on her hip while I tried to decide on the best way to wake her. Eventually, I opened the window and lit a joint. I thought that the smell might wake her. When it didn’t, I shook her gently several times. She did not respond.
- Niq Mhlongo is City Editor; his latest book is an anthology of short stories, Affluenza. Follow him on Twitter.