On New Year’s Eve, David was in the middle of his nightly relaxation routine, putting a rack of ribs on the barbeque, when we got a call from the rental agency woman.
“I just wanted to make sure you found accommodations for tomorrow,” she said. “I wouldn’t want you to be homeless!”
We were supposed to have two more weeks in that apartment. David had double-checked our contract earlier in the week when the housekeeper mentioned ‘the new guests on New Year’s,’ but, no, our contract said Jan 14, and we had assured the housekeeper that he was mistaken.
The rental agency woman explained that her contract clearly listed our check-out date as the 1st. They had a prior booking for ages, she said, so she never would have rented it to us through the 14th.
As the sun disappeared beneath the sea David tried to contact our own relocation agents but they were all on vacation for the holiday. He finally got someone on a cell phone, and spoke to her in rapid fire staccato, the calming effect of the barbeque smoke having long worn off. We would have to move all of our things and our baby to who knows where, with no notice and no car, but I felt strangely numb. I sipped my wine.
I had been spending my days making grocery lists. You see, the process of decay is sped up in South Africa. You must watch suspiciously lest your milk go sour, your fruit rot and tempt the flies, your subversive pool water harbor mosquito eggs. You feel things falling apart, so you schedule your housekeeper to come twice a week, your pool robot to switch on daily, and your shopping trips every other day. I have a sneaking fear that this decay has its root in me rather than in the heat and humidity, but I don’t have the energy to dig deeper.
I wrote out my grocery lists and sat in traffic to get to the only store I knew of with off-street parking so I didn’t have to confront the needy who beg change to watch over your car. I bought things like chili peppers and flax seed in a vague desire to rebuild my pantry, or apricots that went uneaten because they didn’t look as good at home as they did in the store.
Some days I sat on my bed distractedly switching from one task to another on the computer without accomplishing anything. I subscribed to a VPN service so that we could watch U.S. television, but never received the setup information and forgot to contact them again. I tried to cancel our electricity for the old Luxembourg apartment, but forgot that you need the meter reading, so I left that for later. I saved grocery receipts to start a budget, but they ended up gathering in small mounds around the house, only to skitter and reform new mounds when the wind blew in from the ocean. I achieved small things, like sending a postcard to our old neighbors. I bought a phone, but I’m not used to prepaying and I keep running out of minutes. I tried to get Spencer his vaccinations, but I waited for three hours and left without being seen. I filled out grocery store member card forms.
If I built up any momentum, every day there was an appointment to break it up. Most appointments were for house viewings.
The agent would drive me in her intrepid Land Rover up the sides of hills, across the lanes of the N1 and the N2, deep into tree-lined avenues until I was lost.
As I peered out the car window to watch a neighborhood morph into the next neighborhood, the agent spoke in a soft unbroken monologue, dissecting each neighborhood and comparing it to other neighborhoods in terms of home prices, architectural style, safety, schools, shops, proximity to points of interest, and the intangible intricacies of “vibe.” Then, she delivered me to the real estate agent who took over for the agent, conducting a swiftly moving tour of each house in terms of bedrooms, hallways, living spaces, and how these could all be struck down, rearranged, and recreated anew if one had the vision of possibility. I pretended to ask pertinent questions in this new language of double volumes, en suites, BICs, geysers, well points, updates, but I didn’t know if I was fooling them.
When I returned home from these trips, it seemed as if there were no house we could afford that didn’t have a mold problem, a shoddily built addition, a thirty year old kitchen, or simply an utter absence of light in its warren of rooms and hallways.
When David had a day off and the nanny was at home with Spencer, he and I would run errands, driving from one end of town to the other in the bright white heat. We went to three different branches of ABSA before the third one, by chance or negligence, accepted our temporary rental lease as proof of residence and let us open an account. We went to a strip of dusty storefronts in an industrial part of town where the tiny shipping company who had floated our container of furniture across the ocean had a one room office in the back of one of the buildings. The woman asked us how much our belongings were worth for her paperwork, and when we told her, she said it was best just to say a few thousand Rand. When we asked why, she was flummoxed.
“It’s just what people normally do, you know… customs won’t check that way.”
“Put whatever you want,” her boss called to us from behind his computer.
While Cape Town partied through holidays, blasting dance music in their cars and seething on the beaches, we drove through candidate neighborhoods, watching for people standing around doing nothing, litter, signs of unfitness.
It was supposedly Christmas season. I don’t even know how they manage to continue celebrating it year after year, with their braais, and their wine by the pool. Giant metal cones covered in green pipe cleaners and red bows towered over the sunburnt crowds in the mall. I wondered how anyone could be happy in this gaudy carnival.
I was aware of the irony of being unhappy when I had relatively little to worry about, when I had just quit my job, when I was shopping for a home in a place so breathtaking that it appears on lists of the best places to visit over and over. The sands of their beaches had gotten into my brain though, where they had the tendency to blithely erode.
By the time the sky was fully dark for the last time in 2013 and the neighborhood parties in full swing, David collapsed into a chair. He had finished the marathon of calling and emailing that revealed the root of our temporary housing problem.
We knew that David’s company usually outsources a relocation package to another company, but we didn’t know that in our case this other company had outsourced our relocation to another company, who had outsourced it to a local real estate agency, who had liaised with a rental agency for our property. One of the horde of bubbly, fast-talking agents had, unbeknownst to us, signed a rental contract on our behalf, while we had signed a different contract with different dates with our own company.
We would have to move the next day, New Year’s, to a small apartment in Oranjezicht. Baby and baby paraphernalia in tow, we would move again on the following day, a marble’s roll around the city bowl to a house in Vredehoek, where we would stay for a few weeks before moving again to a monthly rental around the tip of the cape in Hout Bay. We went to bed too tired to start packing, but I couldn’t fall asleep. Spencer had just started to settle in our little Green Point apartment. Now, he wouldn’t sleep for weeks.
I used to think that I could will my mind into a science fictionesque warp drive that allowed me to navigate turbulent moments. The warp drive identifies, analyzes, and responds efficiently to obstacles. Lately though, I can’t. Maybe I drink too much. At midnight, the fireworks exploded over the bay and drunken people shouted happily in neighboring yards. My thoughts, winged insects, beat uselessly against the wall of my skull.