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from the June 2021 issue

In the Shadows

A trans woman’s view from her window resurfaces pleasant and painful memories in this excerpt from Olivia M. Coetzee’s novel Innie Shadows.

Where is Carl?

It’s a dark and cloudy Tuesday morning. Veronique Plaatjies, or Nique, as she’s known to her family and friends, is sitting at her makeshift desk. She starts every morning the same way. A steaming cup of black coffee, curtains pulled back and windows slightly pushed open, a perfect frame to watch the world go by. She opens the journal Balla bought her to celebrate their seventh year together.

Winter is here, she writes. Her head is cluttered with worries. Gershwin and his constant troubles with his mother, and Carl, who she hasn’t seen for a few weeks. Sometimes Nique wishes that she could go and pack Gershwin’s bags herself, but she knows life doesn’t work like that. She scribbles across the page. Toxic relationships last because people stay. People will do what they think they must do, even if it means staying in places where they’re not wanted. But she's never understood straight people’s obsession with trying to fix those who are not like them. What is there to fix? And Gershwin’s mother seems to be the captain of that club. If she only knew that her son is secretly dating her crush, Pastor Richards. But Nique would rather deal with Gershwin’s demons than the dragon devouring Carl. She accepts that Carl is a lost cause. Meth is an illness with no cure, and no one can be blamed for his choices. Auntie Merle always said, we make choices, and those choices pave the way for us.

A few old magazines are stacked on one corner of Nique’s makeshift desk. Receipts and bills lie scattered next to an empty handbag. She tucks one end of the towel wrapped around her body back in its place. She leans back into the chair and reaches for the coffee mug. Her eyes jump over the potted plants and the small herb garden that she started in the corner of her yard. She never thought she would have a house to call her own, let alone a garden. But there are many things she never thought she would accomplish.

Nique’s focus swings back to the street. Most mornings she makes up stories about the people, but today, she just sits and watches them pass by. She’s struggling to calm the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. The rhythmic flow of people moving in and out of her window frame has become part of her early-morning release. Her own little real-life movie. Little kids, dressed in oversized hand-me-downs and backpacks too big for their bodies, chasing after their older brothers or sisters rushing to catch either a bus or train to school. A few groups of women, all walking with sling bags tucked under their arms, shouldering through the wind. All of them rushing to board a crowded bus that will take them into the city, to one of the last remaining clothing factories. Nique chuckles as she sees a few of her customers walking by, because never mind how many times she goes to do their hair over the weekend, come Monday, their curls will be tucked away under their colorful headscarves. The women burst out in laughter as they exit Nique’s window frame. Next a group of young men enter, dressed in paint-stained blue overalls, listening to loud music playing over a boombox hidden from sight.  

The rhythmic flow of Shadow Heights was something she often missed and longed for while she was in Joburg. She missed the comforting sameness of every day. Nique’s eye zooms in on her neighbors, two elderly sisters, as they shuffle through their front gate, waving down a minibus taxi coming up the street.

Her hand rubs over the big red letters on the mug she’s holding. “Besties,” it reads. She remembers the day she got it. The five of them—Gershwin, Sara, Lee, Carl, and Nique—went out to celebrate Carl’s birthday. They’d been inseparable since primary school, and their bond only grew stronger as they got older. “The Terrible Five,” Auntie Merle always called them. Nique wanted the necklaces, but Sara reminded her of the time she was walking around with a green neck from the cheap necklace she had bought at the outside market at the Grand Parade that pops up every Wednesday and Saturday in front of City Hall. That was the last year they really knew Carl, before he started hanging with the wrong crowd, drinking and drugging. No one saw it coming, and no one could have imagined that Carl would be the one to get lost in the shadows.

Nique takes a sip of the coffee, which has lost its heat and sweetness. She sighs happily, because that’s how she likes her coffee, cold, bitter, and with no cream. Her friends could never understand her love for cold coffee. They could also never understand her taste in men. The men were either ugly, dark-skinned, or fat, or in Balla’s case all three. But she found comfort in Balla, and what others saw as ugly and unattractive she saw as support and love. The fact that he was the biggest gangster in Shadow Heights didn’t matter to her, nor did his wife or kids. It was love at first sight, and he never once disrespected Nique for the way her body was before her operations.

Nique‘s eye catches a seagull flying in the direction of Hoerikwaggo, fighting against the merciless winds beneath the dark skies. It pushes forward, then gets thrown back, then pushes forward again. The bird’s flight continues for a little while before it suddenly drops down, probably tired of struggling to get where it needs to go, landing somewhere outside of Nique’s view. She always wonders if other people also see Hoerikwaggo as a landmark to show where home is. If they see what she sees, that she’s home.

The alarm on her cell rings. She gets up to silence it and unplugs the cell from the charger. The faint smell of her perfume coming from the jersey she flung over the back of a chair standing next to her bed reminds her of her mother. Nique thinks back to the last few weeks before her mother passed. The house was full of people she didn’t know, work colleagues of her mother and well-meaning neighbors fussing around her mother’s bed. They all wanted to be there for Auntie Sandie but ignored Nique like she didn’t exist. Walked circles around her, some looking at the wall or a crack in the cement floor if they needed to ask her one thing or the other. Her mother refused to accept her son as a woman, and the well-meaning neighbors didn’t make it any easier.

Nique’s attention is brought back to her front gate, where a minibus taxi stops. Music blaring. She feels sorry for people having to get into taxis like that, music blaring no matter the time of day or night. She sees her neighbors shouting at the taxi’s sliding-door operator as it moves off without them. Two more women join them as they wait for the next taxi coming down the street, but this time Nique hears no music. They slip into the taxi, one after the other disappearing into it.

Her pen starts scribbling again across the page. Every day it’s the same story. The same people, with the same problems, walking in the footsteps of the day before. Shadow Heights, a TV drama of its own, she thinks. But she fell in love with its drama, small houses squashed in next to each other, with asbestos roofs that shimmer gold and green when the sun rises. Each one standing at attention before Hoerikwaggo. Sometimes she wishes she could win the lotto jackpot so she could help her people living in poverty. But never mind how bare people’s cupboards were, they always made it a point to paint their houses with bright colors and decorate the fronts with beautiful flowers and green shrubs. Like shining a light into the dark corners of their lives.

Nique shifts on the chair. She wonders about Carl and where he is. He would always show up when she asked him to. The last time she saw him was when she went on her weekly visit to Balla. It was the same Sunday night she saw Gershwin’s mother rushing out of the gambling room that Balla had added to his shebeen. Nique was shocked to see her, a deacon at the local church, storming out of a gambling room. Balla’s bouncers always had stories to tell about a Rose, but she never thought it could be the Rose she knew who went around cursing the sinners like her son and his gay friends. But Nique could always see the darkness that Rose carried around. Abusive behavior comes from being abused, she always told herself when Gershwin complained about his mother’s episodes.

Nique starts drawing little hearts in every corner of the page in front of her. Her tummy starts to moan. She picks up her cell and presses the button on the side. The screen switches on.

“10:00 a.m.,” she says out loud as her tummy moans again. “No wonder you’re putting on such a big show.” The cell vibrates, an email notification pops up.

The chair scrapes against the cement floor that Nique painted white after her mother’s passing. She walks over to her closet and pulls on its handles. The doors swing open with a slight squeak from the hinges. She moves the hangers from one side to the other as she decides on her outfit for the day. She catches her full-body reflection in the mirror hanging on the inside of one of the closet doors.

She moves closer as her hand moves over her perfectly plucked eyebrows. She never believed in putting on too much makeup but loves to paint her lips bright red when she visits Balla every Sunday. Nique lets the towel wrapped around her drop to her feet and stares at her perfect body. She is finally the woman she wanted to be all her life. She moves her hands over her firm breasts. Balla always wanted to know why she had to go for the operations when she was perfect to him the way she was. But he couldn’t keep his hands off her after her body healed. It didn’t matter to her that her friends didn’t understand when she chose to have her surgeries. She was mostly disappointed in Gershwin, thinking he would be the one who would understand. But he finally came to accept it. Veronique pulls on the bikini panties. Tight-fitting white track pants follow. She pushes her feet back into the pink morning slippers without putting on socks. She pulls on an oversized T-shirt without putting on a bra and rounds off the outfit with a bright yellow hoodie.

She returns to her makeshift desk and notices raindrops on the windowpanes. With coffee mug in hand, she walks into the kitchen opposite her bedroom. Sometimes she misses having other people in the house, but living alone comes with a lot of positives. The less people know what happens in your home the better.

From Innie Shadows. © Olivia M. Coetzee. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee. All rights reserved.

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