Delela Ndlela


Here I am, at the beginning, where I always seem to be, and I don’t know what to say. Mrs _ says of introductions that they are to the piece as the body is to sex – where your attention is won or lost, where we begin and end – and I take the advice to heart. I make of each first sentence a poem, spend hours chiselling form from the great white page. Eco says of each work that it begins with a seminal image – semis, literally seed – and I find myself thinking of us wrapped up in your sweat-slicked sheets, the hardness of my chin against the hardness of your shoulder, the softness of my stomach against your strong lower back, the stink of your cum wrapped up in a toilet paper thrown in a bin across the room. You want an image? Here’s one – me waking up in the middle of the night, listening to the quiet purr of your breathing, and wondering if anyone should be allowed to be so close to me, to make me feel so wonderful.

I often think of what it means to essay – what it means for me to essay, I mean. Am I to be Bacon or de Montaigne? Am I to argue, to convince, or simply to speak? To let you trace the curve of my words as they float through the air to your ears, to trace the way my torso concaves as it falls toward my thighs? Or am I to give you a taxonomy of my thoughts about you and the thoughts I suppose are your thoughts about me?

I write this at my red desk, after a dream, and therefore after a dream. We were at N’s house, like we were just two weeks ago, and I was talking to you, really talking, in the darkness of his back garden, letting the broken glass spike-rich weeds cut the parts of my sock where my tarsals stick out. And I felt naked then, properly naked, but this was always the case; I never knew how not to be naked with you, and I admit it. So here are my fragments, bared. 

And so here we are. Without thinking about it, we’ve started, without noticing that starting could only mean ending. I want to tell you the truth, and I don’t know how to begin, but it’s too late, I have already begun.


I’ve told the world about us two and Francis Bacon, about the violence of tenderness, and I thought that was the story, but how could that be the story? The story wasn’t me wanting you to fuck me sore in your rented bedroom, the one you kept almost obsessively clean, obsessively white. The story was how I left that bedroom and decided that it was a shrine, and that I was an atheist, that I would never go back there because that was where you lived. The story was how I came to believe this of myself – that each time I feel tenderness, I have to leave. The truth has to start at the point where my eyes opened for the very first time. 


I was born inauspiciously. It was the year when the world was supposed to end but didn’t, it was the beginning of winter, it was the year my grandfather retired, it was the end of my parents’ relationship. I was told my grandfather came to the hospital with custard and yoghurt because he believed that all children crave is sweetness, softness. And he was right, in a way, but I’ll explain that later. I was told that my father wasn’t in the birthing room, or the waiting room, or the hospital. In fact, he might have been nowhere at all. After all, if we can’t tell where a man is, he might as well be nowhere, be no-one. My mother brought me back to my grandparent’s house with a name that sat, shivering and uncertain, next to my father’s name. Then my grandfather, a man with cunning and without superstitions, had a vision from beyond; he saw that I should take his own father’s name, the name of all his forefathers before him.

When god gave Adam the earth, he let him name all things and so make them. What does it mean when Adam’s word is turned back, the page stamped out of the hospital ledger?

The page was stamped out, a new one made, a new name given to me.

But first names stick, and the thing they name continues to breathe, to scream with longing for a place in the sun. This was the first war, my first fragmentation. 


My therapist, quoting me to myself, said that I was a fragmented thing, incapable of linking the person I was yesterday to the person I am today. So, when I tell you I love you, I’m telling you the truth, for now, so I won’t tell you I love you because I am looking for something that doesn’t die with the sunset or sunrise, as was the case with so many others. But when I tell you that the memory of you holding me down by my arms on the bed while I writhed like a thing chasing freedom runs like a thread through my days, burns my cheeks, I am telling you something that was true then, is true now, will be true tomorrow morning when I go to the job I don’t like to talk to the people I have no interest in so I can buy the things I don’t need and the books I’ll never read. I hope it doesn’t scare you, this continuity, because it terrifies me. 


The first memory I have of my father is my waiting for him. I was sitting on the front steps of my grandmother’s house, the sun and sand beating against my naked legs, and I was careful to keep my face, my shirt, my shoes, my patterned pants clean so that when I heard the rumble of his car in the driveway I would be ready to spring up, to say goodbye, to lash the belt of the front passenger seat against my small ribs and smile, smile, smile all the way to wherever it was he was taking me. “Whither thou goest, I will go.” There’s a quote I wouldn’t have been capable of explaining back then, but even then, I knew that that was how I intended to love, how I wanted to be loved. 

It was sunset when the call came, and I went to bed heartbroken, crying myself to sleep, sopping my grandmother’s frilled sheets. 

What happens when your first love feels like waiting for something that will never come? 


At the asylum, where I met an old friend of yours, I made peace with a life without sexual desire. Only once did I feel my hand, my soft and knowing right hand, crawl down my stomach to the places you’ve kissed, licked, sucked, fingered. And even then, my body felt like a dead arm, inert, tingling, uncomfortable. I stopped and turned over, threw a few stolen pills into my mouth, and drifted (I say drifted, but I never felt the drift, only the first tide then the sudden crash) into sleep.

“So, it isn’t your body anymore,” said the dreams I had lost in the long night of my sadness, “It’s your mind and your heart and all the parts of you that don’t forget things,” and I was afraid.


But now it’s my mother’s turn. And how do I remember her? I remember never calling her mother because she said the word aged her. I remember the gifts, the constant gifts, the beautiful shirts, the shoes, the too-tight jeans. They were always trying to outdo each other, those two, and I was always making them work for it. One Christmas, I got 24 Hot Wheels, Ferrero Rocher, a Spiderman swimming costume. Another Christmas, I got a Harry Potter chess set. Minor things now, trivial, but back then, a king’s bounty. Yet there was always the fact, the sheer heavy fact, that when I was seven years old, without an explanation, without my permission, I simply no longer lived with my mother.

What does it mean when to be loved means to be left? It means that to love means to leave. 


I’m in my grandfather’s house, in the room that used to be the study but is now my bedroom. I have so many books around me, and on the low days, I touch them, feel their heft, guess at their provenance. I took a university course in “tangible things” so I could learn how to love them better, thinking it would bring me happiness. Isn’t that what a person is supposed to be these days, an assemblage of objects? Preferably images – preferably images broadcasted to the world in drip drip drips of well-curated montages. I told you once that I hated Instagram because it encouraged the culture of spectacle – that the world had indeed become a stage, that the photograph was no longer the record of life but life the stage set for photographs, and you nodded meekly while I rubbed your back. But let’s stick with the idea for a moment. Wasn’t it Debord who said, “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes images”? And after all, aren’t we all capital? Didn’t you feel like capital in the job you hated working yet worked because it let you buy the car, rent the house, drink the whiskey you wouldn’t let me touch because I had no taste for whiskey at the time? Let’s consider a reality in which life’s peaks and troughs, its daily mundanities, are all possible icons for what it means to live. For what it might mean to live? For what it would mean to live (if it was possible to live any longer)? But now the idea escapes me, and all that remains is the sheer fact that I feel alive when you’re around. Yes, that’s right. The night I took too many pills and drank too much, I knew I hadn’t taken enough pills, wasn’t drunk enough, to die because if I had that would mean I would never see you again. At the end of the day, I want to see you again, and I want to tell you the truth so you can see me for the first time. “We’re not strangers,” you say, and I laugh because I am a stranger to even myself; you haven’t even begun to know me.


As soon as you start, you’re doomed to finish. This is a fact. And so when I start telling you the truth, I know I have to tell the thing from start to end. What I feel for you needs that symmetry, that absoluteness. “We are storied creatures,” says my therapist (a man of quotables), and I agree completely. There’s a beginning, a middle, an end, and if there isn’t – we make it. And so here I am, charting the beginnings, the fragments of the beginnings, the fragments of the beginnings that seem to stream through the days of my life like thread, like water, like blood. And we are in the middle of this life. Each day I spend is the middle of my life, each second a climax, a denouement. But I can’t seem to find an end, a neat conclusion, and that is mostly because you, the source of this story, are so far from me. And I know now that until we reach our ends, everything I write will be a letter, and every letter is a love letter, and every love letter is to you – at least mine are. I have told you only some of the truth, because I look at the white page, and I am trying to imagine your eyes there, and they appear, but where are your lips? Where is your sly smile? If I had those, maybe I’d have no need to write the stories. I could, I think, commit myself to living.

What a joy that would be, to have begun and therefore never have to begin again. Which are you, a god or a muse?

Delela Ndlela is an essayist in Johannesburg.

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