I want you to meet Sarah. She’s got a face that you wouldn’t mind being distracted by, and a smile that takes up half of her face. I wouldn’t say it lights up a room but it is sweet enough to disarm you. Sarah’s considered short among her friends. A slim but curvy build with tattoos of her own design etched all around her beautifully soft skin. She isn’t the life of the party and doesn’t talk all too much but the men in her life seem to provide good enough company.
Sarah, like any woman, has her flaws; insecurities and self-hate are at the roots of most of them. She’s experienced heartbreak and loss, her fears are irrational, and her anxiety levels often pump a paralysing poison into her veins, but I’ve yet to see her without that smile. I consider myself pretty lucky that she’s made this time for me.
“Sarah?” she turned her head to face me as her thoughts returned to the present.
“Are you good?”
“Yeah, I’m all good,” bearing her smile while she took a sip of her wine, looking out over the railing.
“What are you thinking of eating?”
She wasn’t looking at me. She had her lips on the rim of her wine glass, parted, as she stared into the distance. I always wondered where her thoughts would take her. She’s always been someone that I’ve found difficult to read; that only seemed to pique my curiosity.
As if sensing my gaze, she turned to look at me while gently placing her glass on the table. A hint of confusion flashed across her subtle features just before her smile. I repeated myself and she chuckled as she realised that she hadn’t so much as peeped at the menu yet.
“How did you find this place?” she asked me with genuine interest. I enjoyed her voice, it always seemed to carry a somewhat optimistic and non-provoking tone. It felt like she invited me to listen. I once asked her if she could sing and she responded with a sigh. She went on to explain how her commitment to cigarettes and hookah pipes had eroded her range. There was a sombreness to her; an almost longing.
“I was introduced to this place by a good friend of mine. He used to live there, in Greenside, but moved overseas for work a while back.”
She seemed to hang on to every word, even acknowledged my friend’s success. Once the initial awkwardness had fallen, the conversation took on a more fluid nature. It ebbed and flowed like it had already carved its way through a mountain. Sarah’s authenticity and open-mindedness were hard to miss. If my argument was valid, it wasn’t difficult to get her to adapt it into her standard. Everyone else just seems to thinks they’re better than each other.
“It’s the biggest game of who can be the better narcissist.” This would’ve been a crude statement had it come from someone else. It confused me. She obviously noticed.
“You said everyone else thinks they’re better than each other.” I didn’t realise I had said that out loud. Although, it was a habit that I recently picked up.
Something I noted during our lunch is that she tends to avoid talking about herself. If she felt I was prying even a little, she was quick to change the subject. It wasn’t the first time I had met someone so guarded but hers was particularly frustrating for some reason. How she expected to get close to anyone in that way was beyond me. Her loneliness seemed habitual.
“I’m still surprised you showed up to lunch after cancelling so many times…”
“Really? Well honestly, I was half-expecting you to stand me up in revenge, or abandon me with the bill or something,”
I chuckled at her; it was something other men might have thought of doing, but I could never bring myself to do it. I felt some sort of loyalty towards her. Thinking about hurting her felt almost sinful.
The rest of our lunch went off rather peacefully, minor conversation to keep it comfortable. I had expected her to order dessert but she insisted that she was full and couldn’t eat another bite.
“How do you recommend we end our afternoon?”
She revealed a face-splitting grin and insisted that we take a walk, throwing her hands up in strange excitement for a seemingly mundane activity. The route was just as simple, a walk around the block; I didn’t expect it to be as scenic as it was. Being the peak of summer, the large trees that lined the sidewalk provided the perfect shade, and after every few tiles, there were shrubs and flower bushes.
The breeze carried an uncomfortable warmth with it, but it was bearable.
“Why a walk?” My curiosity got the best of me. She could’ve chosen something more, more entertaining.
In my years of socialising, I had come to understand that the biggest smiles were often built on top of the most pain. I found it almost paradoxical how people that exude so much innocence were sterling members of the sullied. Their grip on their façades almost seems selfish at first. Their smiles, like death masks, protect their decomposition. But when you look deeper, you see that their exposure to pain has made them hypersensitive to the pain of others.
I could see it in her eyes as she smiled. She just wanted to be the person she felt she needed when she went through the fire. Every little quirk of hers reminded me that life was a zero-sum game and that happiness walked hand in hand with pain.
Refilwe Sarah Bopape & Jason Nqobani Moyo