My parents' bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother's little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother's silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.
In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he's installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up-an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.
We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we've made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father's voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn't even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.
My father tells me that he's been organizing at work, now that he's the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.
I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I've only seen in pictures.
"How have you been, Dad?" I say as we sit at the table.
The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.
My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.
"And I'm starting a petition to hire another black professor," he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven't seen in him in years.
He asks about Peter.
"I'm glad you've found someone you like," he says.
"Love, Dad," I say. "We're in love."
He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork.
"Why aren't you eating?" he asks.
I stare at the food in front of me. It's the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.
"Are you all right?"
All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.
I was born as apartheid was dying. In South Africa, fervent national pride and multiculturalism were taking hold as the new national policy. I was born in America, my mother was born in Johannesburg, and my father in New York.
My mother's entire family still lives within twenty minutes of each other. They are middle- to upper-class coloureds-mixed race, not black. Although my mom involved herself in some of the political unrest (she proudly saved a newspaper clipping from 1970 that has a photograph prominently featuring a handwritten sign she made), my family was quiet and generally avoided the brunt of the conflict.
My father was raised in New York and went to college in Philadelphia. In the year after his graduation, he went on a trip volunteering in Botswana. My mother was there, partying with some of her militant friends. Ostensibly, they were there collecting literature to distribute back home.
"Your mother was inescapable," my father told me. Not that she was ravishing, or enchanting, but that he simply couldn't get away from her. "When I went back to Philadelphia, she called me. And she called me again. When I called her back, she asked if she could come to America to live with me."
My mother befriended people aggressively. She was extremely opinionated and often abrasive. I sometimes hated the rough manner in which she dealt with people. Her favorite words were four-lettered, and she liked to yell at waiters in restaurants and people in line at stores.
My mother's roots were deep and strong. Her relationships with others were resilient; she had friendships that persisted over decades, oceans, breakups. Her best friends were all former boyfriends.
Most of her friends (and she had many) spoke of her offending them shortly after they met. One story my mother told often was when one of her best friends threatened to commit suicide after her boyfriend left her. She went to my mother for comfort, and my mother slapped her across the face, as hard as she could. Her friend's face was bruised for a week. My mother used this story as an illustration of how to be a good friend.
She had close bonds with the other black nurses at her job, with whom she could affect a West Philly accent to match the best of them. And she had a coterie of South African expats from our area, as well as some from Washington, D.C., and Boston, whom she sometimes invited to our house for dinner or to watch a soccer game. They called our house at all hours and begged my mother for medical advice in Afrikaans or Zulu. Their child had a fever, or their mother-in-law was acting crazy again-was it dementia, or just moods? Many of them lacked green cards and insurance. My mother was the reliable center of their ad hoc community.
My father was a mathematics professor for many years before he was promoted to the head of the department at the college. He was flown around the country to give talks and make inflated speeches about their research. My mother migrated upward from nursing assistant to head nurse at the university hospital.
I have never personally been a victim of violence in South Africa. I remember a neighbor who was stabbed when I was little-the neighbor knocking on my grandmother's door late at night; the enamel bowl, with water turned pink and hazy, that my grandmother used to wash his wounds. My mother was the victim of a smash-and-grab in the hills around our vacation home. The assailant broke the car window and snatched her purse from her lap. She never drove alone again.
But most of what I experience is secondhand, from my family and the news. Together, the stories and pictures constitute a vision of death and carnage that is overwhelming, incongruous to the plainspoken beauty of the country. I see no evidence of the horror, which is what makes it terrifying to me.
This is the secret I have long held from my family: South Africa terrifies me. It always has. When I am there, I am often kept awake in bed at night, imagining which combination of failed locks, security doors, and alarms will allow a burglar inside, inviting disaster. I fear that we will be involved in one of the atrocities we learn of daily.
After apartheid, crime in South Africa has been insidious and seemingly limitless. Citizens live behind locked doors, security gates, electric fencing. The more money a family has, the more advanced the methods of protection. I have seen the progression of defense methods in the years I have been visiting. When I was younger, every house, if it was large enough, had a crown of barbed wire atop its high security wall. Since then, the barbed wire has been exchanged for electric fencing. Single fortifications for each property are no longer enough; now many streets and neighborhoods are blocked off with turnstiles and patrolled twenty-four hours a day by hired guards.
The security of my hometown in Pennsylvania was way past anything my South African family could imagine. The town was populated by stately old colonial mansions, most of them worth millions of dollars. When family members visited from South Africa, they would ask, where are the security fences? Our neighbor, an old widow with a stubborn streak, slept with the front door wide open through the night. Is she mad? my aunts and uncles would ask. She may have been, but in that town it barely raised an eyebrow.
In winter, the houses were adorned by twinkling Christmas lights. My relatives asked if they could take pictures on our neighbors' lawns. We spent hours driving around to find the brightest displays, in neighborhoods miles away from ours. They would never have done this at home, my relatives said, because people would steal the lights. Robbers would climb up on the fences and the roofs and cut them down, then sell them on the black market for the copper wiring.
In South Africa, there was little rhyme or reason to the tragedies of daily life, but there was social order of an old-world type and magnitude. I didn't respect her, my mother would often say, because I didn't speak to her like a child should. But I wasn't any ruder than my school friends, who treated their parents as older companions or siblings. This type of equality was at the root of my mother's feelings of insecurity. In South Africa, elders were treated with extreme dignity that, in my eyes, bordered on the comical. My cousins never addressed their parents with pronouns face-to-face. Instead, even my middle-aged aunts and uncles with grown children of their own referred to my grandfather as "Da" or "Daddy" instead of "you." Thus, a casual request turned into an awkward and foreign-sounding statement, as they were forced to say, "Can Daddy please pass the salt?" I could never imagine such a sentence falling from my American lips.
One of my school friends called both her parents by their first names. My mother found her so novel and strange that she actually liked her. She called this friend her favorite, with heavy sarcasm. Whenever I spoke my friend's name, my mother would chuckle and shake her head, as if delighted at the thought that this girl actually existed.
Fear of flying is most often an indirect combination of one or more other phobias related to air travel, such as claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (a fear of heights), or agoraphobia (especially the type that has to do with having a panic attack in a place you can't escape from). Flight anxiety can also be linked to one's feelings about the destination. It is a symptom rather than a disease, and different causes may spur anxiety in different individuals.
There are many Web sites offering courses or information that treat flight anxiety, many written by pilots or ex-air transportation professionals. One of the sites, promising a meditation-based approach to aerophobia, lists an example of destination-associated flight anxiety.
A woman in Maryland is in a long-distance relationship with a man in California. The relationship has recently turned bad, and the woman decides that on the next planned visit she is going to break up with the man. She has preexisting flight anxiety, but the anticipation of the breakup compounds her symptoms. She is unable to sleep for weeks before the trip, and dreams of the plane she is on falling out of the sky and crashing into the Rocky Mountains. Her anxiety is so severe that she almost decides she isn't well enough to make the flight, but on further consideration, she decides that the relationship needs to end. Breaking up wouldn't be right over the phone. So she takes the flight and is nervous the whole time, even though she takes a Xanax just before liftoff, as prescribed by her psychiatrist. She breaks up with the man, which turns out to be difficult but necessary, and notices that her anxiety is much less severe on the returning plane ride.
We were on our way to Johannesburg from Cape Town, where we had just switched planes for the two-hour flight. It was twilight. A rainstorm had been going for the past few hours and thunder was just beginning to rumble far off in the distance. We left the earth moments ago; the plane finished its ascent and was beginning to level off. We were starting to relax in our seats, ready for the flight attendants to return to the aisles with their drink carts. All of a sudden, the plane jumped into the air, as if an invisible hand had pushed us higher. We rocketed upward, our bodies whipped against our seat belts. People screamed. Two people fell into the aisle. One lay there groaning; the other, a young woman of about twenty, screamed, "Mama, Mama!"
Outside the windows, bright light flashed, and inside, the cabin was whitewashed for an instant.
My parents, sitting on either side of me, each grabbed one of my arms. I heard my mother start to pray.
Then the plane righted itself. The passengers around me slowly relaxed, first shakily fixing their hair, tightening their belts, murmuring. Then their voices returned to normal and, smiling at each other, they began pressing the buttons for the flight attendants. "Close call," I heard someone near me say with a sigh.
The pilot came on the loudspeaker to tell us we had been hit by lightning. Despite our fright, no damage had been done to the plane. The rest of the passengers, including my parents, all seemed to forget the incident after this, but I was frozen in my seat, terrified. My mother noticed and called for an attendant to bring me a glass of red wine. The alcohol soothed the circling thoughts of danger and fear, and soon I fell asleep, though something of this moment never left me.
Most of my family lives in or around Sandton, known as the richest square kilometer in Africa. It is a suburb of Johannesburg, home to luxury malls and complexes of mansions so heavily guarded you can't even see their street signs unless you're granted access. Sandton lies a forty-minute drive from some of the poorest townships in the country, where many of the gardeners, housekeepers, and security guards who tend these opulent homes and businesses live. This situation-the close proximity and daily interaction of the ever-stratifying classes-has led to the country's new postapartheid violence.
Copyright © 2018 by Zinzi Clemmons. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.