When I slipped into Ma’s car, the smell of Nando’s greeted me and I instantly went on alert. This was, “Well done, my boy,” food. Like the year before the ‘rona hit when I scored honours at Eisteddfod on the trumpet. Nando’s is not, “How’zit son, did you enjoy your day at school,” food. Not once. Ever.
“Had a good morning at work?” I asked her as she pulled out into the traffic.
“Can’t complain,” she said.
Ja, well, no, this is not fine, I thought. Maybe I was in trouble. Mrs. Levendal had gotten fed up, ratted me out, and as punishment Ma was going to eat all that Nando’s goodness right in front of me while I ate dry toast with Marmite.
Which would be horrible. Because as any sane South African knows, Marmite is at the bottom of the colonizer food barrel. I can’t think of anything worse except Bovril, maybe. Yet my ma feeds it to me at the first whiff of illness. Listen, ‘rona can kiss my brown butt, but there was that brief moment it caused a Marmite shortage and I was grateful.
“What’s that?” Ma asked, as we turned onto our street.
“Nothing,” I said, and for once, my ma let it go.
Soon enough, I was sitting down at our circular dining table, with Nando’s deliciousness on my actual plate, but I hadn’t tucked in. Because Ma still wasn’t right. She was acting like she was acting like everything was normal, which means, of course, something is so not normal.
“You not hungry?” Ma asked.
Shakespeare once wrote, “To be, or not to be, that is the question,” and I was feeling those words right then and there. Did I just ask her what was up? Or keep playing along like this was normal? Which was worse?
My stomach growled, and that decided it. I couldn’t eat like this, and my stomach needed food. If I was going to eat, I needed to ask: “Ma, what’s going on?”
“That’s exactly what I was going to ask you,” she said. “Because while I’m not angry, I do want you to know that I know that trumpet hasn’t moved out of its case since the day your dad died.”
She cut me off with the raise of her hand. “Don’t say sorry, my boy. Just talk to me.”
I glanced at my food.
And for some reason, that’s what I did. I began to talk and eat. First only a little. Small words, small bites, but gradually both grew bigger, and what I was telling Ma grew deeper, from why I hadn’t touched the trumpet, to my obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race, and how it both comforted and inspired me. By the time my plate was empty, I felt as if I had exposed my entire soul.
Ma was quiet for a long time.
After what felt like forever, she plucked her serviette from the table, dabbed the corners of her mouth, then refolded the cloth, smoothing it on the table until its folds were crisp and sharp.
I stopped breathing.
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay, okay, let’s clean up this table and watch this Mama Ru and drag racers who can’t decide if they’re men or women.”
Ja, my ma is so not woke. But rather than try to educate her, all I said was, “Don’t you have work?”
“No, no, I took the afternoon off.” She gave me a soft smile. “I miss you, the son I had before your daddy died. But people change, I get it. And so I decided I needed to get to know who you are now.”
It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Ma had suddenly sounded a lot more…maybe not woke…but wise, at least.
Tell us: What do you think of Theo’s Ma?