I suppose we’re all here for pretty much the same reason, so I won’t waste my time or yours on long introductions. I will however say for the benefit of anyone who might not know me, my name is Senzo and I’m 34 years old. Actually I’m turning 35 on the 4th of October. Go Libras!
It was stepping on a piece of Lego that pushed me over the edge. The pain that made its way from the ridge of my foot and took a shortcut before stopping just beneath my heart, shifted the tectonic plates of my life so far off course that they’ve since refused to be lodged back into place. I didn’t even realise that I’d been thinking about it for hours, that little nub a few inches from my heel. It wasn’t even like it was the first time I’d experienced it too. I’d been stepping on Lego since I was a kid when my mom stole some from the family she worked for as a cleaner and brought it back home. We’d since had dinner, washed the dishes and I’d caught up on the latest undercards in the boxing league. Milly “The Bruiser” Gazankulu had an upcoming bout and despite him being 5 for 3 I still had hope that he was a future world Champion. I had hope about a lot of things back then. When Jackie came back from the bathroom after her night routine which included rubbing something she called a serum on her face before dabbing it with baby wipes and lemon, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“I don’t wanna have another kid,” I said.
She first looked at me as if I’d said something in a language with which she was unfamiliar with before bursting out into a nervous laugh and continuing to pat her forehead with whatever was left of the citrus on her hands.
“You think you’ve got jokes,” she responded as she got into bed next to me.
“I’m not joking Jackie, I don’t want to have another kid. One is enough. More than enough really.”
“You’ve always said you wanted four kids.”
“Yes, but now I’ve changed my mind.”
“Why now all of a sudden?” she asked, and I remember only then realising for the first time that the night routine was making absolutely no tangible difference. She turned to face me directly. Perhaps to do a temperature check and see if I was delirious. Jackie still looked the same as when I met her. But maybe that was the purpose of the routine, preserving what was, rather than improving what was already there. The brown skin, same shade as the inside of a shoe box, the eyebags under her face which seemed to suggest not so much that she was tired but that she was normal and the dimple on her left cheek which she could make appear and disappear at will.
“It’s not sudden,” I responded. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life stepping on Lego.”
“Is that what this is about, you’re whining about stepping on a toy?”
“I’m not whining,” I said, noticing how I sounded exactly like someone who was whining. Before she spoke again her eyes responded by dislodging slightly from their sockets, clearly what I was saying was ridiculous and she was about to inform me just how much.
“What would you call it then?”
“I don’t want to live like this,” I said.
“Oh so now we’re not good enough for you?” I hadn’t heard a woman ask that since I was seven and my mother said it to my father who was packing his clothes to start a new life with what was then his mistress.
The words seemed old fashioned, and I didn’t think I’d hear them from Jackie five years removed from saying I do. I’d been hoping to have a rational conversation but since that was no longer available to me, I tried to make myself as clear as possible but all I could say was:
“We don’t need anymore, we already have Mndeni.”
“Exactly,” she said, and, “He’s almost four and needs someone to play with.”
“But he has friends at day care.”
“It’s not the same,” she argued. I wasn’t sure how. I mean, I’d never had any brothers and sisters and I’d turned out fine, right?
In the days that followed the eruption of the volcano I felt free from a prison I didn’t even realise I was in. I could finally pour all the love I could muster into my son. Now light from the burden of having to preserve my energy for phantom babies that were still on their way, I found time to buy him a bike and began teaching him how to ride. I invested in a good set of pastel crayons. If we were going to make a mess in the living room we were at least going to do it in style.
I bought toys for Mndeni, a baby goat, hot wheels, a boat with an action figure, and I even invested in more Lego. Yes I didn’t want to stub my feet on them but there was a reassurance in that since this was the only time I would get to experience this, I might as well enjoy the circus.
“You’re spoiling him,” Jackie would say every time she came home from work and was confronted with a newly open box or a plastic bag that I bought home.
“What’s wrong, he’s my only child.”
“For now,” she’d insist before clearing up the trash bags as if attempting to hide the evidence of the crime I’d just committed.
One Tuesday, and I only remember that it was a Tuesday because prior to this conversation, Tuesdays were my favourite day of the week, Jackie asked why I hated her.
“Why are you punishing me like this? What have I done to you?”
Up until then I’d convinced myself that Jackie would warm up to the idea of putting a blockade on any further conceptions and that with the free years ahead of her she could pursue some of the interests she’d had but never followed through on. Like taking up fencing or modelling for stock photos. Unfortunately she didn’t see it that way.
“Is it because you don’t love me anymore, is that it? You don’t want a family?”
If anything more ridiculous had been said I might have thought I was on one of those prank TV shows.
“Of course not, I still love you.” My words of gentle affirmation fell on deaf ears.
“Then why don’t you want a family anymore?”
“I have a family. You and Mndeni are my family.”
“But you’ve always said you wanted four kids. Always.”
She wasn’t wrong, I wanted a son, twin girls and another son to cap off.
“Is it because I’m a bad mother, is that it? He obviously likes you more than me.”
It was true Mndeni preferred me and that wasn’t something we said out loud but we both knew it was true. I was the fun parent. Initially when I first noticed it, I thought it was post-partum depression. I’d read up online about how some mothers struggled to bond with their babies. For instance I could soothe him to sleep effortlessly while she would struggle for hours when Mndeni was an infant. Initially Jackie was grateful for this, happy she could get some sleep while I put him down, but eventually she resented me for it until she exiled herself from his bedtime routine completely.
“You’ve got it covered,” she’d say as if cheering me on but actually just pointing out how I’d stolen one more thing from her. I was the ocean pulling her away from the shore that was closeness to the one person in the world she wanted to shower with love the most.
But it wasn’t post-partum depression, it was something more innocuous, my wife and my toddler son just didn’t vibe. I can understand why you’d think that’s funny, but let me tell you, I lived it and it wasn’t.
I knew that Jackie didn’t just want another kid – she wanted a kid that liked her. A child to call her own. She’d hoped the second time around she might manage to get it right; attain the kind of bond that I had with Mndeni. The ease with which it came as opposed to the heavy lifting she had to do to even get a side eye from him. She had hoped that a connection, a real connection, would be her reward for having carried them for nine months. For the 18 hours in labour, the morning sickness and cravings which included, but were not limited to, fish paste and peanut butter sandwiches.
Once I’d found her on the bathroom floor when I came back from work, she’d been puking her guts out. “We should take you to a doctor,” I said, trying not to alarm her. To which she responded, “Blessed be the fucking fruit.” That was the woman I’d fallen in love with. The first year architect student who had convinced her faculty board to include a course on anti-homeless architecture after she’d seen the municipality put up spikes on the side of its offices to chase away vagrants. Where was that woman now, because I didn’t recognise the stranger in front of me insisting that having another child would be in our best interests?
“My sister already has two kids,” she’d say.
“But you can’t just say you don’t care Senzo.”
“What do you mean they’re my family and not your problem.”
“Okay what about the people out there who can’t have kids?”
“Of course they won’t be there to look after our kids but don’t you think you owe it to them?”
“Can you be serious for one second. Of course I’m not saying have kids as tribute to the childless, but you have to admit that what you’re doing is a little selfish.”
It would go on like this for hours until one of us got tired or had something more important to do.
Jackie and I hadn’t even been planned when we’d have our second child. We had never talked about it with any kind of seriousness. But in the wake of my confession it seemed to her that conception was as urgent as ever. She’d call me from our landline in the middle of my workday to read me some article she’d read about the benefits of having children.
“According to the study, children with siblings have better mental health and more rounded social skills,” she’d say.
“But what about the mental health and social life of their parents,” I asked. “Do you really want our next decent dinner date to be when we’re 54?” These calls were fun at first because Jackie and I were often so busy that we never spoke during the day anymore. But when Tom Sizemore, head of Sizemore and Sons called to flag an error I’d made in his books, I knew something had to be done. Instead of inputting his income tax percentage I’d put up the percentage of elderly people who expressed how much they regretted not having more kids, 23%. I got off the phone with Tom, unplugged the landline, switched off my cellphone and began to check every income tax return I’d done one line item at a time.
It was during this time that I developed ‘phantom phone’. It’s when you hear the phone ringing even if it isn’t. I’m still not over it. As I worked I could hear Jackie curse me out every time she called and realised the line was off the hook and from that day the phone wasn’t the only thing that was disengaged in our house.
To everyone around me including my best friend Skizo, the reasons that I gave for not wanting anymore kids were at best weightless. It seemed, at least to them, plausible that there was another reason why I didn’t want to be a father again, other than that I didn’t want to be a father again.
“Is your head office not working or something?” Skizo asked me as we walked out onto the parking lot at work back to our cars.
“My dick works fine,” I replied perhaps more defensively than I should’ve.
“You know you can talk to me if you have a problem.” He tried to reassure me.
“No, really, I’m good and besides, if I can’t get it up I’ll consult a doctor thank you very much.”
“You know before I studied to be a realtor I finished a semester of medical school,” he reminded me.
“And they just so happened to cover erectile dysfunction that semester?” I asked him. He didn’t answer before laughing me off, shaking his head and getting into his Toyota Kwid; speeding off to go tell one of his floozies about me after he’d pounded her senseless. I’m sure it made him feel like such a big man to tell her how lucky she was she still had a man like him, virile, when his best friend didn’t want any more kids.
At times I began reciting the talking points I’d read on child free forums hoping they would make my wife, friends and family feel better. “The way my bank account is set up I can’t give any more kids a good life in this economy,” I’d say. Or “We need population control, global warming is getting out of hand.”
But what did I care that the ice caps were melting? I didn’t give a shit if my children or grandchildren saw the polar bears. I’d be dead by then anyway, reduced to oblivion and dust, so why would I waste time worrying about the rising temperatures?
It was when my mother called and without greeting asked, “You want to kill me, is that it?” that I realised nothing would help.
“I had you, didn’t I?” she offered.
“So now I must have more kids just because of that?”
“No, but you and Jackie make such wonderful babies, those eyes and cheek bones,” she said.
“I know what my son looks like ma.”
“Do you, do you really? Why don’t you want more then? You can’t deprive the world of that kind of beauty.”
“I’m not going to get into a lifelong commitment just to prove my genetic superiority ma.”
“Why won’t you give me anymore grandbabies, what did I do to make you hate me so much?” she winced before abruptly dropping the line.
I’d met Jackie at an aux party where I was someone’s plus one. Sometime in the course of the night my date, whose name for the life of me I can never recall ditched me, and by my estimate disappeared to go make out with someone more interesting. Not that I cared. I had next on the aux cord, and I was determined to show these first years what real music sounded like. The problem was that the guy making the list had promised Jackie the next spot too and so we found ourselves having a conversation about what each of us planned to play next. Her, Ashanti; I, Keyshia Cole.
I’d been so upset that she even suggested Ashanti was a better artist that I made her a playlist on the spot. What could Ashanti possibly have to say once Keyshia hit her high note on Last Night? We exchanged numbers and agreed to extend the conversation over lunch the next day. I saw her every day after that for the next three weeks until one Thursday we were sitting in her room at res and she asked me, “So what are we?”
To which I shrugged and said, “Boyfriend and girlfriend I guess.”
“Cool,” she said, nodding gently before continuing to draw lines on a piece of paper for what would become her graduation project three years later.
It wasn’t until this crisis that I realised that our very relationship had been built on a foundation of her trying to convince me of things. It hadn’t been the kind of love I’d always imagined for myself but a kind of hostile takeover which was only made more sinister by how gradual it all was.
But to Jackie’s credit all the women in my life had encouraged me to communicate openly only to shut down when I told them how I really felt. In high school, my mother had done the same thing when she found out I was watching gay porn. Urged me to be open and come out to her only to end up sending me to church when I explained that I was neither gay or bisexual, but I simply liked having gay porn in the background while I did my assignments. To her it was obviously the devil’s work that I was only able to better understand calculus and algebra when the equations were soundtracked by the moans of a man taking back shots. Yet I was passing and she enjoyed telling our neighbour MaKhumalo how I was the class dux award winner for a third year running, but after these revelations, at what cost?
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” she kept repeating.
Which was funny to me cause up until that point and apart from now I hadn’t told anyone.
In fact she’d only found out because she had heard about how Pokemon tazos were turning kids into Satanists, and checked my browser history to see if I was among the vulnerable, linking team Rocket with blood oaths and sacrifices. She now only wished that’s what she’d found. Satan and exorcisms she could understand. This was all too much.
I hadn’t been warned about the family meeting, if I had I wouldn’t have showed up. Jackie had tricked me by saying I needed to drop off some Tupperware she’d bought for my mother. When I showed up and found them sitting next to each other and my uncles and her father on the opposite end of the room, I didn’t have to ask what was on the agenda. Her father explained how I was not doing right by her daughter.
“A woman must be impregnated, end of story,” he said, “one just isn’t enough.” I watched my wife, who with a blanket over her shoulders, that was held together by three bobby pins, nodded. She’d disappeared fully into the role of jilted wife seeking justice from her husband by way of a family intervention.
“What I don’t understand is why you’re suddenly so dead set against having another child?” asked my uncle.
“I just don’t.”
“What about your family name,” protested her father. I couldn’t even look at him, knowing the edges of his mouth always dribbled with cobwebs of saliva. Instead I focused on his bald head as he spoke. “Surely you care about that right?”
“Not really. You know I don’t have a relationship with my father’s side of the family. It’s just a surname to me nothing more.”
“So now the truth comes out,” said my mother as she leapt to her feet. “You’re doing this because you’re angry at me. You think I kept you from your family?”
“Of course not, and besides, I already have a son and the Ngcobo surname will continue. Not that I care.”
“If you don’t care so much then why not have another child,” she asked. “Why are you punishing my daughter like this?
In that room was the first time I’d seen my mother and wife become one. She had never called her, her daughter, but in me they had found a common enemy. I would have rejoiced if their union wasn’t at my expense.
I spilled out of the house and looked up and down the street but barely recognised the place I grew up in. It was foggy. I was halfway to crossing the street when I heard Jackie’s voice.
“You’re a coward,” she screamed.
I turned back in slow motion I imagined, like in those action movies, and caught her face just in time as she doubled down.
“You’re a coward and you’re weak.”
“You heard me. What kind of a man does this? No man at all! I knew something was off about you when your mother told me about the gay porn. Sies”
“Oh, you thought I didn’t know.”
I wasn’t upset by what she was saying but I was pissed that my mother, who had sworn me to secrecy had decided to go and tell my wife about this.
“You will give me another child Senzo Ngcobo do you hear me. The bible says be fruitful and multiply.”
I wasn’t sure if it really said that. I’d off-ramped when I read about that one dude who got swallowed by fish. I’m all for fiction but sci-fi is just not my bag.
“Is this like a family thing; because your father didn’t want you, now you don’t want any more kids? Is that it, are you just going to up and leave Mndeni too?”
She only asked the question once, but it was like it echoed in my head, and before I knew it my lifelong effort to be anything but loud had come to an end, and once I started screaming I couldn’t stop. The gates of hell had cracked open, and the heartburn which I’d worked so hard to suppress with cute gestures and pictures on Facebook had risen through my chest and came pouring out my mouth.
“You’re too clingy.”
“You think motherhood is the only thing that will give your purpose.”
“Having another child won’t fill the void – you are the void.”
It was shitty yes but it felt good to say out loud in plain view of the sun. The truth just sounded different. I watched as the halo that had once been around her doek dimmed. The look on Jackie’s face as she sighed, fixed the Bobby pins on her blanket and walked back across the street was the same look I’d seen on my mother’s face all those years ago as she recited back my browser history to me. I had succeeded in my mission. I was finally unattainable.
For years I had talked himself out of it. Assured myself I, unlike my father, would not leave my family. I convinced myself that even tearing away would be something akin to opening a jackfruit. There would always be fibres attached to the peel. Mndeni was the fibre and even he was not enough to hold this marriage together.
A man must have a plan, said the girl on twitter. My plan was to get away from Jackie as quickly as possible. As I packed my boxes and let go of the fantasy of playing with multiples of kids on endless lawns, my body shuddered at the thought of having to change another diaper or mix another bottle of formula in exchange for a relationship. This isn’t happiness, I thought to myself as I loaded a neck pillow and my collection of 2002 Soccer World Cup trading cards in the boot of my car.
The night I left Jackie didn’t call. Nor the day that followed. I even started to think my phone was broken but realised it wasn’t when the texts from the service provider kept streaming at a steady pace. Now you can stay connected to your loved ones using our day and night data plan. If only it were that simple.
Skizo set me up with an apartment not too far from work on a three-month lease until I could figure out my next move. It was clear from her radio silence that Jackie was as done with me as I was with her. She was no longer in the business of trying to convince me what was right for me, for us. Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the way she cared even if it was for her own selfish reasons. I didn’t care for this version of her that was indifferent to my absence.
Without her contempt blocking my view I saw the world anew. Appreciated the small things; like the perfect symmetry of Zoe Modiga’s face, screaming at Man United at the top of my lungs or just sitting with my balls dangling on the couch. Being alone however did have its drawbacks. I couldn’t cook for anyone. I enjoyed the rituals of serving food much more than I cared to admit. Seeing the joy on someone’s face when they liked what I’d made. Complaining to myself about how I really needed to stop being so stingy with the salt or chastising Jackie for not eating while her meal was still hot.
“Hot food causes bad breath,” she’d say.
“A small price to pay for eating the enchilada while the cheese is still melted,” I’d retort.
In the weeks that followed, we sketched out a map for what a co-parenting setup would look like while we were separated. I’d get Mndeni on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I could come and spend time with him at the house over the weekend. She could be there but more often than not Jackie preferred being away. I guess my presence was a trigger, a reminder of the life we’d both failed to keep together. The promises that evaporated the night I told her that the version we’d agreed on for what was supposed to be our dream life needed some urgent revisions.
It was during one of these weekend visits that we backslid into old habits and did something we both thought would make us feel better. I finished and she didn’t. It wasn’t the first time. I peeled off the shame between my legs and threw it in the bin before heading to the sink to rinse myself off. I left. Nothing had changed. I loved her and she loved me but we were now on opposite ends of the street and neither of us was willing to cross to make it to the other side. I was safely snug in my bed at the apartment when I got the notification. I’d joined a message board of men like me who no longer wanted any kids. Cookieeater69 had posted an article on the forum about how a woman who worked at a hotel fertilised herself using sperm she’d found in a condom while cleaning and the man had decided to adopt the child when she passed away suddenly during labour. “Yikes, could never be me. LOL,” read cookieeater69’s caption. I thought about Jackie and her desperation. It wasn’t unlike the hotel cleaner’s, I imagined. However, I haven’t been able to sleep since.
Damn, look at the time, I think I better shut up now. Sorry I didn’t mean to take up so much time in tonight’s meeting. It’s just that this is the first time I’m talking about this and people are actually listening.
Sihle Mthembu is a journalist, filmmaker and author from South Africa. His book Born to Kwaito which reflects on the history of South African party music was longlisted for the Sunday Times literary award for best non-fiction book in 2019. His work has appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone SA, Vice, Mail and Guardian, The City Press, OkayAfrica, and many others. As a filmmaker, he works as a scriptwriter on several hit TV shows such as Gomora, Uzalo, The Queen and The Herd.
*Image by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash