In the afternoon we sat together on the couch, waiting to move again. Including hotels, it would be the fifth and hopefully final move in two months. We fanned ourselves in an amicable silence.
We don’t always analyze our fights anymore, at least not right away. Before Spencer, we performed constant maintenance. Ours was a relationship in pristine condition.
I had internalized the maxims of good love: never go to bed angry, be generous, communicate all the time, don’t throw things.
If we had fought, we would sit on our chilly little balcony in Luxembourg with two bottles of wine and two packs of cigarettes, and rationally analyze our differing points of view until we were on exactly the same page and bottle. When I read that 80% of relationships suffer after a child, I scoffed. Not us.
If relationships were video games, I thought as we sat there on the couch, having a kid was like being thrown into the boss battle. I un-scoffed.
We couldn’t just recalibrate when we needed to. With Spencer, there is always something that needs to happen, always an emotion to interpret and respond to. Everything is complicated and everything is urgent, so David and I spoke in necessities during the day, each of us alone in our heads.
Separately and silently we performed the rites of reinforcing a deliberate belief in the infinity of our partnership, watching for signs that the other person needed help, needed space, was hungry. We each kept mental notes of repairs needed at the next way station, whenever that would be. In the meantime we forgave each other without discussion, enjoying the moment of rest before we would load up again.
As if he had been Solomon holding the sword above our heads until we reconciled, Spenny had finally given in and was sleeping.
I called the housekeeper of the Green Point apartment and asked him about our stroller. He was hard to understand over the phone. He has an unsettling habit of saying “Yeah” a lot when you’re not sure if he actually comprehends you. He said the stroller was there, and David and I laughed nervously, thinking of the explosive tirade I’d been ready to launch at the rental car agency.
In the afternoon we would move to a huge old Victorian house with a pool and garden. It would be twice of the size of the Green Point apartment, with sitting rooms as big as the Vredehoek apartment. Hallelujah, our company says, let us join hands in the communion of mistakes rectified. Relax and enjoy, they say. Sip a cold drink.
When David talked to an agent over the phone he managed to get another month of accommodation paid for due to their error, instead of the two weeks they had originally offered. I felt exhausted anticipating another move, and spoiled that we were moving into a mansion. The two waves of feeling approached one another, their amplitudes cancelling out.
But when the jaunty Jeep man brought us to the new house, we saw that it was perfect. I caught myself grinning like an idiot.
The house’s 14’ ceilings and tiled fireplaces made us feel like children as we traipsed through the rooms exploring. The house had been filled over decades with massive Turkish carpets, four poster beds, ancient wooden trunks, expansive oak tables, rusted vintage gasoline advertisements, vases in jade and colored glass, sturdy wooden cabinets, gilded mirrors, painted ceramic ashtrays.
On the bottom floor, there were two sitting rooms that seemed to be seldom used but were filled with bulky furniture and antiques. The kitchen and a lounge were tucked cozily into the back of the house, and the three upstairs bedrooms were large and airy. Our master had an en suite bathroom and a balcony with a view to the city below and the bay beyond it.
Staying in so many different places in so many different parts of town was showing us what was behind all of the game show doors. Behind every door was a movie set. We crossed each threshold and became actors in a possible life, where seemingly minor props colored the tone of our lives. This was the happy suburban family set, the best door. As we settled in over the next few days, Spencer’s giggles echoed down the hallway floorboards. His bath times were in claw foot bathtubs as evening birds called in the rosy light outside. David and I spent the evenings sunken in faded leather couches in the lamp-lit lounge, or out on the cool veranda, talking.
The shaded, verdant neighborhood was always quiet, always dusky, and infested with mosquitoes. After two days I had 22 bites. Luckily, Spencer’s crib was protected by a mosquito net, which helped when we could get him to fall asleep in it. He had started refusing to fall asleep unless I lay next to him so he could toss back and forth until he found a comfortable way to snuggle in, with one of his hands on my face and the other on my neck.
Slowly, we settled into a borrowed normalcy. We bought our car from a charismatic, fast-talking Jordanian man who was moving back to Jordan. It was one of those beastly, swaying, gas guzzling SUVs I’d once sworn I’d never buy, but it was the only vehicle we would all be able to fit in once my parents came to visit in February, and picturing my parents in the seats made them feel closer.
On the day we were to pick up the car, we met at Imad’s modest house in the northern suburbs where he worked from home. He served us juice and introduced us to his hauntingly beautiful little daughter who was also named Sarah. He told her to say hello to Auntie Sarah, which she did in the soft shy way little girls do, and then he and a gang of his Jordanian friends took us to his local Department of Transport to switch the registration. David joked about the possibility of their taking our money and beating us up, but trailed off when he looked over at me.
The experience was characteristic of our other experiences with South African government and business so far. We couldn’t complete the registration that day because there was a preliminary driving registration certificate we needed to complete first, but the official told us not to bother filling out the whole form. When we came back to the office with our passport photos, someone would instruct us to fill out what we could, and they would take care of the rest. We drove off with our car anyway. We could do it later, they assured us.
Getting something done is often a lengthy process, but you can fudge things along the way. Many things are negotiable. Unlike in Europe and the states, there are either no universally accepted standard operating procedures, or no one bothers with following them too strictly. If you stumble through a trial-and-error process of hunting around, you eventually find a fairly convenient version of the service you want.
As the days went by I found that my thoughts were joining up more evenly. I would take off my bracelet and think, I need to put this in my pocket and then, later, in the drawer upstairs because that’s where it belongs. I would think, it’s a commitment to water all of these plants every day. I should ask the landlord for clearer directions, or they’ll die.
Every time this carousel blurs my sense of purpose, of a deliberate existence, after weeks or usually months I eventually find clarity. It’s reassuring. Still, no matter how many times this happens, my disjointed thinking begins to feel like the reality. I forget what it was like to feel direction, to find the right words for things. I’m only 27 but for the first time there’s a sliver of gray on the horizon. Over the years, it will grow to become a sea. I wonder if I’m devolving. I’m never sure whether I’ll come out of it or not.
When we went to pick up the stroller from the Green Point apartment, it wasn’t there. Matthew really had been saying “Yeah” when he didn’t understand me. He thought I had been referring to a little high chair we had borrowed from the neighbors.
David and I drove to the rental agency. We were spoiling for a fight. After all of this, someone actually had stolen our stroller. I was prepared to embarrass us both by yelling until I got my stroller back, or was compensated by the company, even though I knew deep down that it was all my own fault and that the company was liable for nothing.
As we pulled up, they were rolling down their doors to close for the day. A man who looked like a manager must have seen the intent on my face because approached me slowly, the way you’d approach a feral cat.
“We’re here to pick up our stroller.” I found myself smiling politely.
There’s one last chance, I thought. Just be nice. They had said that the stroller wasn’t here, but just hope that the universe will forgive your absentmindedness, your evil intentions, and the hours you spent cursing thieves.
“Oh yes,” he said, “It’s right over here.”
We couldn’t believe our ears, that he knew what we were talking about, and that he actually had it. David rushed over to the little room the man had pointed to, and peered into its window. A look of panic passed over his face as he saw a stroller that wasn’t ours. Then, sheer relief as he saw our own stroller.
As we were waiting to sign it out, a woman walked by and said, “Oh, you found your pram!” She was the woman I’d spoken to rudely on the phone, but she betrayed not a hint of animosity.
The world was whole, the stroller was the body and the blood. David and I held hands in marital bliss as we walked back to the car, having received the benediction of forgiveness courtesy of Avis Car Rentals.