gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews

Foreigner

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I wrote this story a long time ago – and the inspiration is from my student days when I worked in a bar. The couple who inspired me had better luck than the couple in this story!

Lifka hated brandy and coke, yet here she was, drinking one. The sweetness clung to her tongue as she swallowed, reminding her with every sip of her inadequacy. She wanted a glass of dry white wine, but that was too difficult. She knew that the two soft English “w” sounds would defeat her. And drinking the wrong drink was better than having the spotty barman look at her like she was retarded.

After the first time she ventured into her neighbourhood bar and found herself too tongue tied to order, she asked her English teacher to make her a list of drinks that the bar would serve. Together, they read the names, her teacher patiently repeating the strange syllables. Her teacher tried to convince her that she could master the pronunciation of any drink that she wanted. But Lifka knew better.

Lifka glanced around the room, cradling her unwanted drink in her hands. This small table in a darkened corner was becoming her regular spot, and if she carried on coming to the bar she’d soon be spared the humiliation of having to voice her order at all. Tonight, she thought she detected a shimmer of recognition in the barman’s habitually dead eyes.

She had a clear view of most of the bar from where she sat, but she knew that few people would notice the broad-faced blonde woman. Lifka loved feeling anonymous in her new country, but it rarely happened. She was bigger than most of the South African women that she saw. Her bones alone seemed to set her aside as a foreigner, and she knew that they regarded her with curiosity as she towered above them.

Her hair too was wrong. The wispy flyaway blonde that made her one of the most striking girls at her school at home looked out of place here. Yesterday, on the bus, a black woman reached out and touched Lifka’s hair, propelled by her need to feel its foreign texture. The woman’s embarrassment on realising what she had done was matched only by Lifka’s embarrassment that such irresistibly strange hair had the nerve to be growing out of her head.

Her complexion was another problem. In Lifka’s village her pale, clear skin was much admired, along with her modest disposition. When she read about South Africa before she arrived, she was relieved to realise that there would be other white people in her new country. But the white people here were nothing like her. They all had a healthy bronze glow to their faces. Lifka’s one attempt at sun tanning left her fire engine red, which had only the advantage of disguising her constant blush.

That telltale blush. Just thinking about it made the colour flood Lifka’s skin. What was perceived as a becoming humility at home backfired in the cutthroat world of Johannesburg high finance. Lifka only felt confident when left alone with the numbers that won her the coveted job in an international Merchant Bank. But her clients and colleagues turned her tongue to marshmallow in her mouth, and her carefully rehearsed English phrases would refuse to emerge.

The first time she wondered into the bar down the road from her unpretentious flat had been an act of desperation.
“If I sit at home contemplating the wall or trying to read a stupid English novel, I am going to end up slitting my wrists,” she told herself.

The bar had become her one outlet. Here, despite ample evidence to the contrary, she could pretend that she was just another woman having a drink on her own. Watching the people. And waiting for that one special man to walk in.

Every time she saw him, he was surrounded by friends. The thing that she noticed first was his confident laugh. That laugh had sailed towards her across the bar like a promise. She picked up the scent and followed it to its source.
The laughing man was dark and wiry. His body, compact and muscled, called to something deep inside Lifka. She cringed when she dared to imagine herself with him. To him, she would seem like a vast blonde giant, overpowering and daunting. Yet she responded to his body with a lust that was frightening and new.

It wasn’t just his body that mesmerised her. His dark hair was curly. Girlish, her mother would have said, disparaging. She imagined running her hands through those curls, and felt herself redden at how erotic the thought was. Surely, she thought, it is unnatural to find a man’s hair arousing?

Once, she met his eyes across the room. Dark, warm and chocolate. For a moment she felt she was drowning. He lifted his eyebrows, and she felt like a fool. What must this man think of her staring at him like some display in a shop? She dropped her head, humiliated. Yet still she watched him from her table in the corner. Sometimes, in bed, she relived the look that they exchanged and allowed herself to imagine that he was looking at her with the same admiration she felt for him. But in the bright light of the Johannesburg day, she knew that this was a fantasy.

Lifka limited her visits to the bar. To go there every night would be a self-indulgence that her Puritan upbringing would not allow. But every time she went to the bar the laughing man was there with his friends.

At first this made Lifka wonder if perhaps he had a drinking problem. She watched him carefully, and saw that he never drank more than two beers, unless it was Saturday night. No matter how drunk his friends got around him, he seemed to maintain the same level of easy friendliness. It was like he didn’t need alcohol to feel brave and confident. If anyone had a drinking problem, Lifka reflected wryly, it was her. Drinking a drink that she hated, simply to feel a glow of belonging so slight that it was pathetic.

Lifka knew in her heart that it wasn’t alcohol that was her demon, it was the visits to the bar itself. It was the fantasy that she allowed herself that one night a cool, confident Lifka would stroll across the bar and speak flawless English to the brown-eyed Adonis who haunted her dreams.

The only reason that she had not done this so far, she justified, was because his friends were too scary for even the fantasy Lifka. All she needed to do was wait for a night that he arrived at the bar alone. Then she would take her gamble. In the meantime, she sat in her corner and watched. Maybe tonight would be the night.

Lifka glanced at her watch. Nearly ten o’clock. It looked like, for once, he wasn’t going to visit the bar. She sighed, imagining him on a date with a small dark model that could simper up to him, exposing a deep tanned cleavage. The image seemed so vivid that Lifka felt it had to be true.

To distract herself, she thought of the letter she was struggling to write to her mother. Over the last few months her mother had been dropping several hints in her letters. At first it was a casual mention of “that handsome Hanz is back in town.” In the next letter she let slip that “that dear Hanz, so tragically single and eligible.” This made Lifka ask what was so tragic about Hanz’s single state. Was he widowed perhaps? Her mother’s answer arrived by return mail. It would seem that the tragedy lay in the fact that such a wonderful man was single at all. Now that Lifka had asked a question, her mother began to pepper her letters with phrases like “I know you’d want me to keep you informed about Hanz . . .”

Lifka originally felt nothing more than mild amusement at her mother’s desperate attempt at long distance match making. The woman lived in another time. Then she received the letter that alerted her to the fact that perhaps her mother was not alone in her plots. That letter had not referred to Hanz at all until the second last line. “It would appear that Hanz believes in the old ways,” her mother had written. “He has indicated that he is not opposed to arranged marriage.”

Lifka phoned her mother when she received that letter. “Let me make it absolutely clear,” she had ranted across the miles, “I will not be arranged into a marriage.” She slammed the phone down before her mother could answer her, and had allowed herself a second brandy and coke at the bar that night.
Apparently her anger had no effect on the tireless matchmaking of her home village. The letter she received today was simple. No greeting. One line carefully placed in the centre of the rose-edged writing paper that her mother favoured, “Just think about it.”

Lifka felt faint with anger when she read it. Did her mother really think that she would consider an arranged marriage when she was on the brink of a whole new life?
Yes, she occasionally felt homesick for the soft comfort of her own language, and for talk of a place that she alone in this city knew. But none of that warranted a mail order village husband.
She took another sip of the cloying drink in her hand. She could handle her loneliness, she told herself. Soon, she would know enough English to start making friends. The only barrier was her awkward tongue, because at home she had been the most sociable of the girls she knew.
It’s just that I can’t bear to sound like a brainless fool, she thought. I am so scared that they’ll think that I’m retarded or something. If I were at home I would have made my move on the man with the curly hair ages ago, friends or no friends surrounding him.

As if propelled by Lifka’s thoughts, a shadow fell across the entrance of the bar, monetarily blocking Lifka’s light. He was here.
Lifka waited for the compulsory gaggle of friends to follow him in, but only a chilly breeze slunk through the door. Tonight was the night she had waited for. He was alone.

Without thinking, Lifka downed her drink. She needed courage. And she needed an excuse to stroll over to the bar.
Fuelled by the drink, Lifka made a promise to herself. “If I loose courage,” she muttered in the language that only she understood, “Then I will accept this ridiculous arrangement of my mother’s. I will marry this Hanz.”
She took a deep breath and walked over to the bar, where her man stood alone. Again and again in later years she would replay that moment in her head. The moment that changed her future. The day she showed her true colours.

Her letter to her mother that night was brief, and within the month she was married to Hanz.

Lifka looked around the hall with curiosity. It seemed unbelievable that so many people from her country lived in Johannesburg, yet here they were. Hanz smiled proudly at her side. He loved community events like this one, and he was always the life of the party. Lifka knew the other girls envied her this burly blonde giant, with his cheerful ways. And she had to admit that he was a catch.

At first, choosing Hanz made her feel like a loser. She could not believe that she was the victim of an arranged marriage, and she fought against loving Hanz. But he was a good man. A good husband. And after all this time she could honestly say that she loved him. Not with a passion, but with a slow, steady glow. “Which is better than some teenage infatuation,” she often told herself.

She strolled over to the table of food and drinks, and took a wineglass. Helping herself to white wine, she thought back to the days in the bar and smiled. Those awful brandy and cokes. At least that was a thing of the past. For a moment her mind tried to remind her of the other things that she left behind, but she resisted.

“Lifka my love,” announced Hanz, behind her, in the ever-welcome language that they shared. “I’ve met up with a friend from home. A man from our own town, can you believe it.”

Lifka turned around, a smile ready on her lips.
The wineglass slipped out of her hand and shattered as she saw Hanz’s companion. This had to be a nasty trick of her mind, punishing her for thinking of the past.
Before her stood the dark man from the bar.
And this time she knew that the pain in his eyes mirrored her own.
He broke the silence first. In her mother tongue.
“You’re not South African.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Neither are you.” She felt her eyes fill up with tears that could never be shed.
“I never realised,” he said, his voice broken.
“Neither did I.”
Hanz interrupted, tired of this unintelligible talk.
“Didn’t I tell you I had a beautiful wife,” he beamed at his new friend, “Isn’t she wonderful, this woman of mine?”
**

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