It all started on the 5th of June 2009 at Nomaganga Primary School, a school located in Hlabisa, in a place called Mpelenyane. There was a boy there named Sizwe. He was very shy. He did not have many friends at school, and he spent most of his time alone.
Sizwe was different from the other boys at school. He did not seem to have much interest in girls, until one day, when he met a girl called Silindile. She was very beautiful and intelligent. The majority of the boys at school liked her. Sizwe introduced himself to her, but she did not have any interest in him. Like any guy would, Sizwe started doing things to try and impress Silindile. He even begged his sister to talk to Silindile for him. Silindile was good friends with Nothando, Sizwe’s sister. Nothando tried to convince Silindile to love Sizwe, but unfortunately Silindile was not interested.
Sizwe did not give up. He realised that he had to tell Silindile how he felt about her for himself. He had to stop sending his sister to talk to her on his behalf. Silindile rejected him every time. She told him that she had a boyfriend who was much better than him. Sizwe did not believe this, and one day he asked Nothando about it, but she told him that it wasn’t true. Months went by. It was very hard for Sizwe to accept that Silindile had a boyfriend, until one day when he saw her kissing a guy who was a friend of Sizwe’s cousin.
From that day onwards, Sizwe was always upset. One day, Sizwe was very angry, and decided to pick a fight with the guy who he had seen kissing Silindile. Sizwe was being controlled by his emotions. He shouted at Nothando, because she had lied to him when he had asked her about Silindile. This created tension between Sizwe and Nothando. Sizwe felt betrayed and blamed Nothando for the situation he was in.
One day after school, Sizwe went to apologize to Nothando and Silindile. He then told Silindile how he felt about her, but her answer was still “no”. Sizwe’s friend tried to convince him to look for another girl. His friend told him that there were many girls at the school who would be interested in him. Sizwe told his friend that Silindile was the only girl he wanted, and that he would do anything to get her.
A group of boys at school started to laugh at Sizwe. He became the laughing stock of the school. From that time onwards, he was always involved in many fights at school, and had many enemies. He used to play soccer with some boys after school but because of the situation he was in he decided to stop playing soccer. His behaviour changed. He was always quiet in class. During break and lunch time he wouldn’t leave the classroom. If it happened that he decided to go outside he would buy something to eat, go back to the classroom and sit there alone.
At the time, Sizwe and Silindile were both in Grade 7, the final year of primary school. The year ended and they both passed Grade 7. In 2010, the following year, they had to go to high school. Silindile registered at a local high school called Shiyinkosi High School. Sizwe decided to go to another high school, because he thought that it would be easier to forget about Silindile if he was far away from her.
Sizwe registered at Mbopha High School, a school located in the town of Hlabisa. It was one of the best schools in Hlabisa. In the year that Sizwe did his Grade 8 he was very happy to be in high school. He did very well and passed Grade 8. After all the drama he had been through in the past year it seemed that he had finally accepted that Silindile did not love him. Being far from Silindile helped him to easily forget about her, but was this true or was he just pretending?
He seemed normal and happy. Even his friends had noticed a change in his behaviour. He was doing well at school, and it seemed that everything was OK. However, if someone happened to ask him about his past he would become very angry and would even cry sometimes. It was obvious that he hadn’t moved on.
One day after school, when Sizwe was going to town, he saw Silindile and talked to her. He told her how sorry he was about everything that had happened back in primary school. He asked if they could be friends, but she turned him down again. He asked for her cell phone number but she did not give it to him. Silindile told him to stay away from her. She told him that she did not want to talk to him again.
In 2011, Sizwe did Grade 9. There was a girl called Noxolo in his class. Sizwe and this girl got along very well. They were friends, and at the time they used to sit at the same desk in class. Sizwe started to like Noxolo. He told her that he loved her, but again he was turned down. Noxolo called Sizwe’s sister to tell her what had happened. Nothando was not happy to hear this. She shouted at Sizwe, and asked him why he was always after her friends. It looked like history was repeating itself.
After this, Sizwe promised himself to never again try to tell any girl that he loved her. Was this a good decision? To him it was, because he had accepted that no girl would ever love him. This was very painful. All of his friends had girlfriends. He was the only one who didn’t have a girlfriend. He was too young to experience all of this.
One day, Sizwe took his sister’s cell phone and copied Silindile’s cell number to his phone. He also sent himself a picture of Silindile. He used to look at that picture whenever he was alone.
In 2012, when Sizwe was in Grade 10, he met a girl named Nokwanda. He started to like her, but he remembered that he had made a promise to himself that he would never ever again in his life tell a girl that he loves her. He decided to be friends with this girl. He spent most of his time with her. He trusted her, and he even told her about his past, which was something he usually never told anyone about.
Sizwe passed Grade 10 and went on to do Grade 11 in 2013. Unfortunately, things did not go well for him in Grade 11. He failed and had to repeat this grade. Silindile also failed Grade 11 in the same year.
In 2014, when Sizwe was repeating Grade 11, he became friends with another girl whose name was Nomfundo. One day, in the middle of June, Nomfundo told Sizwe that she loved him. She even wrote a letter and put it in his school bag. The letter said: “Sizwe, I meant what I said to you yesterday. I really love you. Please think about this. I want an answer from you in two days.”
The next day, Nomfundo kissed Sizwe and said to him: “I am still waiting for your answer.” Sizwe told her that he loved another girl, so he could not be in love with her. On the same day, after lunch, Sizwe saw that everyone in the class was laughing at him when he entered the classroom. He asked them why they were laughing, but no one gave him an answer.
The next day, he discovered that Nomfundo had been recording all their conservations, and that everyone in the class had been listening to these recordings. Everyone in class laughed at him every day. Sizwe promised himself to never trust any girl again.
Both Sizwe and Silindile passed Grade 11 and went on to do Grade 12 in 2015. Sizwe was so happy. In February 2015, Sizwe and Silindile started to become friends. Silindile used to call Sizwe and tell him that she was sorry for having treated him the way she did. She told him not to change, and that he should stay the way he was.
Sizwe did not understand. He asked Silindile why she was saying all these things, but she did not tell him. One day, Sizwe got a message from Silindile that said: “Please forgive me for all the bad things I said to you in the past. I was so young that I did not understand. I have now realised that you are the only boy who truly loved me. I wish I could turn back the clock, but I can’t. Please find it in your heart to forgive me. Don’t worry, one day you will find a girl who loves you.”
Sizwe did not understand any of this. He asked his sister about it, and she told him that Silindile was nine months pregnant. It was hard for Sizwe to believe it, but he finally did when he saw Silindile with his own eyes.
In March 2015, Silindile gave birth to a girl. From then on, Sizwe did not want to talk to her again, until August 2015. They started to get along again. Silindile apologized to Sizwe for all the pain he had gone through because of her. Sizwe forgave her and told her that he still loved her. Silindile told him that she also loved him, and that she wouldn’t allow anything to come between them. From that moment onwards they were both happy, and always spent their weekends together. However, their relationship did not last for long. Sizwe decided to end their relationship, because he found out that Silindile had not broken up with the father of her child.
This time, Sizwe vowed he would never again, love or trust another girl.
Tell us what you think: Do you think people who love like Sizwe still exist? Or do people just move on to the next love?
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Here’s a brief, sweet essay/memoir/story — an uncategorizable something, if you will — from my friend/former colleague/now Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea who has a knack for being able to extract meaning out of a glancing contact, the briefest of interactions. When he sent this to me, he was himself somewhat uncertain. Perhaps, after all, it was only an anecdote. But I read it and worried on it (like a dog with a bone — Sydney and I tend to talk about dogs when we meet) and then got excited about the way the text keeps surging. Some secret here, I thought, about the nature of good writing, how the text begins with a stranger barging, by mistake, into the wrong room, then quiets, then surges ahead with an even more unsettling invasion. The pattern keeps repeating. Now “the writer,” disturbed, can’t forget the interloper. Details emerge: a melancholy story, alcohol, waiting for a daughter. But again the text quiets; the tired writer returns home to his wife, falls asleep, dreams. And in his dream (the text surges again) he meets his daughter and finds a moment of immeasurable peace. The story works by obsession, image and transformation. The stranger is a mythic other, lost, befuddled Everyman insisting on trying to get into a room that is no longer his. At the end, in his dream, “the writer” metaphorically transforms into the stranger and finds his daughter, that image of love and bliss, and feels at peace. Something very beautiful in this sequence, reminiscent of Chekhov.
As the stranger pushed open his door at the Longhorn Motel, the writer noticed the befuddled grin. “Oh, this is the wrong…,” the man muttered, trailing off and backing out. The writer had long hours to wait before he flew back east from Denver, so, seated at the chipped formica table, he’d been trying to rough out a poem. He’d had small success, and so, as if it would help his efforts, he locked the door against further distraction, even benign as this petty mistake.
A few minutes later, though, the knob began to rattle. The writer slid the bolt. “What’s the matter?” he snapped when he saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-Oh-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other man didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, holding an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands. “Get the hell out of here!” barked the writer, as now the other started leaning against him. The interloper was younger than the writer, and he wasn’t small, but smaller than the man who belonged in the room, who put both forearms under the other fellow’s chin and shoved him hard enough that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy beige blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight in other circumstances. The writer relocked his door.
His poem continued to go nowhere at all, so in spite of the time gaping before him, he decided to repack his own clothes. He couldn’t make that little chore last very long, however, and soon he stepped out to grab a styro cup of bitter-end coffee from the office vending machine. Once more he spotted the other man. He was up on his feet now, at the very spot where he’d been knocked down, his odd bundle of garments regathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.
The one who’d shoved him asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story on that guy?”
“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I give him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 106.”
“My room,” the writer mused, stressing the obvious.
“I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, tossing his head and turning back to his affairs.
The writer left room 106 and went out for breakfast. He dawdled over his meal for more than an hour at a place called the Country Fare. When he returned to the Longhorn, he found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 106, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. He walked back to the motel office. “What became of our friend?” he asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 106 and not 124, the room he’d rented.
Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”
In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk called the police. The cops summoned the rescue squad. The author of poems doesn’t know what happened after that because he abruptly left for his flight, much earlier than he needed to. On the way toward the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne in the plane, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, he couldn’t help feeling rotten about how he’d heaved that poor trespasser onto his backside. He understood how guilt might bother him, and it did; but he couldn’t quite name the other things beyond guilt that he suffered. He tried to console himself, of course. How, after all, could he have known what ailed the other man? How could he know even now?
Yet even these weeks later, he senses the same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, his troubling state of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it will last him lifelong. Maybe at least he can write about it. Maybe he has always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.
He remembers arriving home that night dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with his wife, going up to bed; but there’s a more powerful memory, a dream he had some time toward dawn, in which that wife stood with him and the second of their three daughters next to a splendid bonfire. Someone had lit it at the end of their woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes: the one which passeth all understanding. For a moment, still mostly asleep, he arrived at a warming conclusion: that such peace might actually remain in the world even after he left it, and that somehow it might be available to any person in sufficient need of it. Awake, he felt desolate to dismiss the notion as fantasy.
There had been times when the writer needed it for himself, and there would be other times to come. He knew that.
He didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn just then, though later he saw that he might have.
SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was just published by the University of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in April 2013, his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).
He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.