A gust of torrid, warm air blasted my cheeks as I took those first steps off the airplane. After three years of absence from this once familiar terrain, my body had not forgotten its warm, July embrace. I hobbled rather awkwardly down the metal steps and watched in apprehension as our youngest clutched to the arm of her tired father and the eldest launched herself forward, almost willing to fly towards the awaiting buses, all the while excitedly repeating a question I could not hear very well anymore. My ears were still blocked slightly, slowly giving way to a high whistling sound.
‘Someone must be thinking of me…’ I mused to myself as we all finally boarded the bus. Of course people were thinking of me, and of us. One set of important people were waiting anxiously at the other end of the bus and checkpoint and another set were missing us already from across three thousand kilometres, in the land of fries, beer and rain…
Going forward into an incomplete future is difficult. Going backwards into space and time is oftentimes harder. As a typical, modern, human possessing both resources and know-how, one makes plans…many of them, most of them depending heavily on financial investments and emotional ties. As a scholar of science in equal amounts to metaphysics, I have often run Utopian as well as dystopian scenarios, always hoping for the latter to never materialise. Around the month of October 2019, the dystopian whispers grew louder, harbingers of an East wind, brewing my fear of what was to happen, all of which had happened before.
Barely a few months later, the culmination of years of metamorphosis of my philosophy of life stared at me, pointing its rugged, old finger: “You shouldn’t have waited! Why did you wait?”
‘I wasn’t ready!’ I had shouted back at it in my mind. ‘I’m not a magician!’
The bus carried us to the entrance of the airport for the last part of our journey.
“Remember to let me do the talking if necessary.” I mumbled to my husband.
“Yes Okay…” He answered wearily. We were both tired. Two and a half hours of flight with our faces covered and two excited children had taken its toll in that moment.
Flashbacks of events further back in time, belonging to a distant past clouded my mind for brief moments as we walked in single file towards the last checkpoint of documents and medical papers. ‘Dystopia’ I muttered in silence. Thirty years ago, in that same place, almost the same age as my eldest daughter, I had been clutching fearfully at my mother’s arm, looking up at the soldier, not comprehending why he would not let us pass. “Don’t say anything! Let me do the talking!” Had been her raspy instruction before we’d boarded the bus en route to the airport. She’d been afraid I’d tell the truth about my father.
“Irina!” He broke through my cloud of thought. “My identity document!” He continued. “Here, you asked for it?”
“Yes, sorry…” I answered as I took it from his hand and added it to the bunch of papers I was trying to keep together in one hand.
I remembered I’d started crying, desperately…and the rest…just blanks…moments erased from consciousness, until the instant I’d finally embraced my father on the other side…
It’s difficult to imagine small, simple scenarios amplifying to such an extent that they begin to breathe a life of their own, completely outside of one’s control and so far beyond any simulate horizon.
I embraced my father warmly, despite my anger and resentment at having had to push so far for the right to do something so simple…family reunification!
Our eldest daughter remembered him and her last visit. She was prepared to show her feelings and never hesitated for a moment. Our youngest only had a vague recollection and remained at my side, dependent on my judgment, pleading for me not to push her further than she was prepared to go.
Another memory suddenly pierced through me, from a closer past, fourteen years ago: my fifteen year-old sister sticking to my side as I cried out of frustration and anger. How could they deny us reentry! A tiny detail, on a small piece of paper…no compassion, no deviation from the cold law. Justice is blind, but people shouldn’t be! I had thought to myself then. I had waited almost seventeen years to touch the soil of my birthplace once more…the country I’d left behind as a child, in a cloud of fear, on a river of tears.
Squeezed in between our two daughters, my father driving the car and exercising his broken English to communicate the basics to my husband, I watched as the barren scenery changed to a more lush one, and then again to the endless rows of tall, uniform, post-communist blocks. Most of them weren’t grey and lifeless anymore. Many no longer had the broken balconies, rusted window frames and garbage bags at the bottom. They were painted in clean or vibrant colours, air-conditioning equipment at the windows and the streets were clean, newly paved, youngsters riding on the designated cycling paths. There were still the small corner shops visible on the ground floor of many apartment blocks. It pleased me to see so many of the best things about the mother city, unchanged.
By the time we arrived at the quaint four-floor apartment block, the children had become restless and tired. My mother had materialised as if by voodoo, right in front of the car to greet us as we made our way slowly to the building. The outside looked fresh and clean…the vegetation around the block was lush and tall. The gardens around the blocks provided plenty of shade from the midday heat. It was…pretty. I mused how much better it looked the last couple of years compared to the very first time I had arrived back, jet-lagged, angry, and sad.
Mid-July, summertime city return…perfectly jammed into a fleeting green label directive of brief respite from that original East wind that had since become a gale force wind of justified oppression.
The cool air and darkness of the hallway enveloped us for a few seconds before the lights came on. ‘The same stairs’; The same railing where I’d once fallen and chipped my front tooth as a little girl; ‘those things will never change…’ I whispered to my mind. Our daughters laughed at the echoes of their own voices, oblivious to the past that this building had lived and those, almost forgotten, old faces that no longer peered from the curtains of their kitchen windows or propped their thinning bodies through the nooks of their furtively opened doors. ‘Who’s there?’ I repeated their words in my mother tongue. ‘Oh, it’s you little Irina…’ They’d answer their own question.
“Yes it’s me.” I replied to the ghosts of my past. “I’m still here…”
“What did you say?” Asked my husband, turning suddenly towards me as we approached the door to my childhood apartment.
“Nothing.” I smiled. “Just nothing…”
The girls ran inside the apartment as if they’d always lived there. They’d surely only been gone a day or so…everything was just as they’d left it: their bedroom, their toys, their beds and the grandfather clock still swinging its pendulum to the rhythm of their childish ticktock game.
Late afternoon in the city…having left the children to rekindle with their grandparents, I took him by the hand to show him what we’d never had the time to see when the girls were just babies.
‘I’m not waiting for next time!’ I pointed back at that rugged finger.
“Let me show you what you need to see from this place!” I exclaimed.
The best thing about this city, is the life within it…the constant buzzing of people, young and old, mothers with prams, mothers with children, fathers, youngsters, pets, electric scooters, cars, buses, trams. We took the subway to the center and strolled hand in hand through the park. The weather was so hot, it felt like we were on our own tropical island with the fountains spraying their cool mist on our backs as we sat on the edge taking our vanity selfies and laughing at the fact that we couldn’t anyway see a thing of what we were trying to capture so perfectly. Perfection! It’s something we as humans strive towards all our lives: whether it’s the perfect love, the perfect work, the perfect house or the perfect capture of a singular, perfect moment in time, regardless of the social rhetoric or our own replay of it under the guise of an untainted inner monologue, it’s what most of us desire.
“I want to show you what friendship really looks like!” I stated, looking into the water at the beautiful mosaic tiles below. The sun was lower on the horizon and a kind of soft twilight was setting its veil upon the city. “She’s a little late and we can’t meet up all at once…but one by one, you’ll have a chance to meet them all.”
I’d already lived ten years in my new home, the birthplace of our children, and apart from him, could call no other as my friend.
“When did you see her last?” He asked, breaking my focus.
“Ten years ago.” I answered with a smile. “Like yesterday…” I added, taking his hand to go.
We’d met somehow…through someone who knew someone, at a pub or bar…or some place alternative…metal or goth…I couldn’t remember anymore: Her, a professional musician; me, an amateur writer. I’d followed her life’s path and she’d silently followed mine: marriage, divorce, immigration…and now, return.
‘Like yesterday.’ I spoke in silence as I observed her masterfully switching languages to accommodate another man, one she’d never met before, relevant only by proxy. ‘Why can’t they do that everywhere?’ I wondered. The East wind had brought to the West the perfect excuse to make the space wider; between the self, and the other. One and a half meters of separation: a vast expanse of barren isolation. The wind blows the tumbleweed of individual sorrows across the social desert of a country.
It was past nine when we set back for our home away from home.
“A city that never sleeps.” I said to him as we walked deliberately slowly.
The warmth of the summer night breeze followed us gracefully. I remembered those suffocating nights of the past where open bedroom windows let in the sounds of the city as I fell asleep: cars, ambulances, police sirens, chatters, laughter and children playing…each set of noises dying down one by one, leaving only the sound of the crickets and a distant rumbling of random things.
“What about your closest friend?” He asked as we approached the block.
“She’ll come too!” I answered happily, “When we go up country.”
“Are you sure?” He asked doubtfully.
“She’ll come.” I replied dreamily. ‘These people always find a way..’ I thought to myself, but he already knew that, because he knew me.
Before reentry into the dark hallway, he embraced me tightly and pressed his lips against mine.
“Thank you.” He whispered.
“I love you.” I whispered back.
When one returns to where everything began, there is some kind of rebirth, if only for a moment. The past, the present and the future, are a trinity orbiting in a closed circle around the self. What seems unchanged has in fact changed at the same time as the self has changed.
The dark hallway seems the same, as long as it stays in the dark. Once you turn on the light, new faces light it up: his face, the faces of our children…and the older faces of my parents who also have ended up where they began.
By: Irina du Plessis