Before the Jacaranda Trees Bloom

 

 

Sequoia Nagamatsu, Fiction

 

 

The steady stream of stale air coming from a malfunctioning nozzle above Atsuko’s head makes her eyes dry and reddish during her first plane ride across the Atlantic. She thumbs through a guidebook of South Africa while picking at her girlfriend Hallie’s uneaten peach cobbler. Atsuko can hardly believe that she is on this plane. At Berkeley, just a few months ago, such plans would have been unimaginable. But here she is and the small monitor on the seat in front of her indicates they will be landing at Tambo International Airport soon. The cabin is dark, most everyone sleeping or trying to, though one by one slowly stirring as the pressure builds up in their ears. People crack window shades, letting in beams of light, and peer at the earth below. She is surprised by the similarities between the skyline of Johannesburg and any large city in Japan or America—crystalline financial centers surrounded by cement apartment complexes. But as Atsuko lifts her window shade higher, the endless expanse of shadows that she had mistaken for geographical features transforms into thousands of corrugated, rusted tin roofs of the shantytowns enveloping the outskirts of the city. Low flames and smoke rise from some of the townships. Many passengers are peering at familiar territory, the rest at a strange, uncertain world they would soon find themselves in. Hallie squeezes Atsuko’s hand and rests her chin on her shoulder.

“Welcome to South Africa,” Hallie whispers.  

 

Paved roads give way to clouds of dirt swept up by cars and the footsteps of running children as Atsuko and Hallie make their way to Mamelodi, a busy township outside Pretoria. Hallie’s father, a doctor at Pretoria University, has secured them a summer job at the Mamelodi hospice, where Hallie and Atsuko will also be staying.

It is surprisingly cool outside, with regular gusts of wind planting the smell of ancient soil in the air. Atsuko studies Hallie’s blonde curls, blown by the wind. They almost seem to do a frantic dance to the music on the radio like the ones they would do themselves at Berkeley to one-hit wonders of the eighties until they both fell into bed laughing, kissing. Atsuko can see that Hallie is in good spirits from the expression on her face. Atsuko calls it the “O face” and there are several levels of it. Hallie swears that she has only reached her full “O face” with Atsuko. The music on the radio is suddenly interrupted by a woman who reports another man has been beaten to death outside of Johannesburg. Atsuko’s face grows hot and her eyes begin to dart like frightened houseflies.

“Is it the same where we’re going?” Atsuko asks.

“Pretoria is different. There are rarely incidents like that in Mamelodi. But this isn’t Berkeley you know.” Hallie squeezes Atsuko’s leg. “Don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Atsuko tries to remain open to the experience but now that she is here, she is unsure whether she made the right decision to follow Hallie home after graduation. “One final hurrah,” Hallie had said, “before our big good-bye.” But even though it seems her breakup with Hallie is inevitable, the last words of her parents still rattle inside her mind like tin pans during an earthquake. When she returned home to Tokyo for her last spring break, she confessed to her parents that she and Hallie were in love. She had grown tired of lying to them. “Dishonor” is the English translation for the word her mother spoke although this is still the wrong word for a generation that values the status quo above all else. Dinner was silent except for the sounds of wet soba noodles smacking against lips and the occasional ringing of cicadas in the garden. No other words were spoken that week to Atsuko although her mother still did laundry and cooked for three instead of two. Atsuko’s father even dropped her off at the airport and reached into his wallet to give her some money for snacks, but there were no embraces, no kisses or tears as with other families and lovers huddled on the curbside.

Atsuko remembers how her mother had always given her a tray of sweet mochi to silently tell her that she was forgiven whenever she misbehaved as a child, and even when she had not majored in economics like they had wanted. She wonders if there is a tray of mochi waiting for her now in Japan but can only imagine an empty table. The part of Atsuko that makes her face warm and uncomfortable, that makes her chest tighten, tells her that this time will be different, that she will have to walk a certain path in order to return home.

 

The roads of Mamelodi are lined with cement houses, tin shacks, and for the lucky, government-built or church-built homes with hot, running water and their own kitchens. It has been an hour since Atsuko and Hallie left the airport and only minutes since they passed the Pretoria city center on the highway, but they now seem worlds away. Every surface is coated with the color of the earth. The hospice itself seems like an oasis, a Spanish monastery with a brightly colored, blood-orange roof, nestled between the town’s administrative district at one end and a Ford Motor factory at the other.

Hallie tells her that Effie, a Zimbabwean woman who has lived in Mamelodi for years, is waiting for them outside the hospice. Effie is one of the caseworkers and Hallie has known her since Hallie was a teenager. 

“Her husband died a few years ago. AIDS. He was from here, in Hattfield,” Hallie continues. “When he found out he was positive, he tried to get treatment but outside pharmaceuticals were banned back then. The government wanted to find an African solution. There were some clinics near the border still treating under the table. Effie worked at one of them. That’s how they met. He died a couple of years after he returned with her but she decided to stay and make a life here.”

“Is she positive?” Atsuko asks hesitantly.

“Yes.”

Atsuko’s eyelids feel as if they are twitching as she looks at Effie’s tall, too slender body, a vestige of her Japanese upbringing of keeping your thoughts to yourself but not really. How she wishes that Hallie never told her about Effie’s history, as she touches her eyelids with her fingers to make sure they are still. She was taught in Japan that HIV is the problem of other countries, other kinds of people. Such things were not spoken of and although Atsuko knows better, a part of her cannot help feeling that she will be tainted somehow.

Maskati, Maswera-sei!” Effie says, embracing Hallie. Atsuko stands aside, waiting for an introduction in English, which Hallie assured her all children learn in school.

Taswera,” Hallie replies. “Effie, this is the friend I told you about.”

“Nice to meet you. You have come a long way. How are you finding our town?” Effie asks Atsuko. Her words come out full and rich, as if every word were coated with honey.

“I’m still finding myself here,” Atsuko replies, unsure of what to say, having just arrived from the airport and suddenly very aware of her small stature, flanked by Effie and Hallie.   

For the rest of the afternoon, Effie tells Atsuko and Hallie about the family that has been assigned to them—outpatients who require regular visits. She says that they have been her case for some time but that some people no longer like the idea of a Zimbabwean woman helping them. Effie seems to say this matter-of-factly but Atsuko can see the lump going down Effie’s throat as she says the words. Effie hands Atsuko and Hallie a couple of files and introduces them to the photos clipped inside. There is Nohle, a young mother losing a battle with AIDS; her son, Zenzele, an active, HIV-positive six-year-old boy, who has been treated since birth and remains healthy. And then after pausing for a moment, Effie goes on. There is Thabiso, Zenzele’s uncle. “He is the reason why I cannot go there anymore,” Effie explains. “It is people like him who have been attacking Zimbabweans, blaming us for their poor circumstances. You must be careful of him.”

“Do you think he would hurt us?” Hallie asks.

Atsuko adjusts herself in her seat and digs her fingers into the undersides of her thighs.

“No, I don’t think so. But he will try to scare you off. He takes Nohle’s money that she needs for her son and spends it on alcohol and women. He thinks he can live off their suffering.”

When they are finished, Effie shows Atsuko and Hallie to their quarters—a small makeshift suite behind one of the offices. At their parting, Effie reminds them, “There is never nothing to do even in what looks like a hopeless situation. Sitting and holding their hand is more than many have here. It is something.”

 

That night, after making sure the last staff person has left, Atsuko and Hallie curl up in bed together and talk about the day ahead of them. Atsuko holds the picture of the little boy, Zenzele, in her hand, staring at his wide eyes, robbed of innocence at such an early age. Atsuko knows that Hallie still has trouble understanding why she is uncomfortable with such matters, why she simply cannot view things as Hallie does.

“I didn’t grow up like you did. We never heard these words when I was a child,” Atsuko says. “The idea of this boy growing up with HIV is unreal to me.”

“But we had friends with HIV back at Berkeley. It’s not like you don’t know about it.”

“That’s different.” Atsuko breathes in deeply, wanting to tell Hallie that those people were never her own friends but always Hallie’s from her gay and lesbian student groups and volunteering activities. They always made Atsuko uncomfortable and they always happened to be wealthy and white, a far cry from what she would be seeing soon.

Atsuko can barely sleep. She thinks about what it will be like when she meets Zenzele and his mother in just a few hours and she feels sorry for Effie and her situation. A part of Atsuko wants to believe she can feel her pain, not being accepted at home herself, but at the same time she knows that she can never really know what Effie feels, or anybody here for that matter. Atsuko begins to question how well she and her parents really know each other and if the decisions people make in life are clouded by masks tied onto their faces by loved ones. She feels Hallie’s hands slowly traveling down her body and the increasing warmth of her face as Hallie’s kisses become deeper. Countless voices and shadows swirl through her mind as her eyes slip in and out of focus, gazing at the imperfections of the stucco ceiling, and creating abstract silhouettes that vaguely look like people she used to know, her house in Japan. She slowly falls into a dreamlike bliss as the images keep coming—stranger, chaotic, and more beautiful than her waking eyes could imagine.

 

The house that Nohle and Zenzele live in looks like a typical townhouse one might find in any lower-middle-class neighborhood in America—simple but not entirely devoid of effort. It was built by Haven, a local Christian organization, and had been given to Nohle a year earlier. Before this house, they lived in a plain wooden shed that still sits in the front yard next to a rusted water pump. When Atsuko and Hallie arrive, they find Nohle laying in bed. Zenzele is still at school.

Ek het dors,” Nohle cries out weakly.

“She needs water,” Hallie says. Atsuko searches for a clean glass in the kitchen, fumbling through cabinets while her heart pounds against the walls of her chest. She returns with a child’s cup, handing it to Nohle, Hallie’s hands guiding her frail fingers. “Praat u Engels?

“Yes,” Nohle whispers, barely above the sound of a thought.

“When will your son be home?”

“Soon.”

“Are you okay right now?”

“Okay―dankie.”

Atsuko stands in the corner of the musty room, watching over Hallie and Nohle. Last night, she had imagined countless scenarios in preparing for this moment. But looking over Nohle’s emaciated body, more delicate than a carton of hollow eggshells, Atsuko is overwhelmed.

“Why don’t you wait out front for Zenzele. Nohle needs to rest. I’ll stay with her,” Hallie says, turning around.

Atsuko waits in the front yard, looking out into the dusty neighborhood. The thought of a boy having to come home to a dying mother every day saddens her deeply. Streams of children walk past, and she starts to look for Zenzele. Finally, she sees him. His clothes, no doubt donated or handed down, look wrong on him—too large, too mature or too childish, not belonging to him any more than Atsuko belongs in his front yard. He has an inquisitive face, his eyes getting wider as he approaches Atsuko, his lips parting just slightly. They stand there for a moment not saying a word, studying each other. Atsuko smiles at Zenzele and he smiles back.

 

In the weeks to follow, Zenzele is always at Atsuko’s side. Somehow, in letting this little boy into her life, Atsuko also comes closer to Hallie in a way she never thought possible. She now understands a little more what drove Hallie to devote herself to those whose lives were made uncertain.

One day during one of their walks to the school swings, Atsuko waves a folding fan with pictures of cranes on it and Zenzele asks, “What’s that?”

“It’s something to keep you cool,” Atsuko says, handing the fan to Zenzele.

“Where do you live?”

“I live with Hallie at the hospice.”

“No, tell me where you live, live.”

Atsuko thinks for a moment. “I live in Japan,” she says. “Remember, it’s a group of islands very far from here.”

“Can you take me there one day?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you like football?”

“I don’t know much about it.”

“Mama used to take me to watch the older kids play before she got sick again. Effie said she would take me to a Sundowns game but then she went away.”

“Do you miss doing things with your mother?”

“Yes.”

“Where is your father?”

“Mama said he ran away before I was born.”

Atsuko bites her lip. “What about your uncle?”

“He made Effie go away,” Zenzele says angrily. “He makes Mama cry.”

“Where does your uncle live?”

“I don’t know. He just comes.” Zenzele climbs onto one of the swings and tries to push himself off, barely getting off the ground. Atsuko stands behind him and gently pushes him higher and higher as he kicks his legs back and forth. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure.”

“You promise not to tell.”

“Promise.”

“I have a hidden treasure chest. Uncle Thabiso doesn’t know. It’s just for Mama and me. I bury it.”

“What’s inside?”

Zenzele is silent. He shakes his head. “You won’t leave if my uncle comes?”

“No, I won’t leave,” Atsuko says, not really sure.

 

On their days off, Hallie takes Atsuko sightseeing. Atsuko loves taking strolls in the zoo, admiring the well-kept gardens and the Jacaranda trees lining the pathways. Hallie tells her they bloom into an ocean of purple in the spring. Atsuko cannot help but think of home as she walks among these trees, imagining the cherry blossoms that bloom at her parents’ house. She wonders what her parents are gazing upon at this moment and if they truly know how far she has traveled. She wonders if they have embarked on their own kind of journey and if she is as much in their thoughts as they are in hers. She knows that this trip is a temporary solution but hopes that something will come of it to guide her. The uncertainties and disagreements in Atsuko’s mind and life make her wonder if this is what being a grown-up really is, and if change is possible if you really want it.

“Maybe you can come visit me in Japan after all of this,” Atsuko says, one day as she and Hallie have their weekly sushi at Kung-Fu Kitchen. Hallie mixes wasabi into her tiny tray of soy sauce and sprinkles ginger slices onto her sashimi.

“Maybe.” Hallie takes a bite of her tuna roll. “But I thought we agreed that this would be it, you know?”

“We can’t keep in touch, visit each other once in a while?”

“No, but―” Hallie’s eyes focus on the table. “It’s difficult. It’ll make things difficult. I mean, where do you see us going?”

Atsuko’s eyes begin to burn.

“We have different lives,” Hallie says. “We will have different lives. Can’t we just enjoy our time here?”

Atsuko nods. “If that’s what you want.”

Hallie reaches for Atsuko’s hand across the table and the two girls finish their meal in silence.

 

Keeping Effie’s promise, Atsuko and Hallie take Zenzele to a Mamelodi Sundowns game. Zenzele cannot stay still in his seat and jumps up and down whenever a goal is made, regardless of the team. During slow parts of the game, Atsuko takes him for a walk through the stadium and he gives high fives to nearly everyone they pass. Atsuko smiles, seeing him in such high spirits. When Atsuko and Zenzele return to their seats, Hallie is waiting with a Sundowns jersey for him―several sizes too large. Zenzele swims in it, feeling its new, shiny material as he watches the rest of the game, his eyes glistening with the dream of what it would be like to be one of the players. Hallie holds on tight to Atsuko’s hand and the two look at each other, knowing this will be one of those moments that they will always remember.

 

On every first Monday of the month, the hospice gives Zenzele an envelope with the grant money that helps pay for medicine and living expenses. He always puts the money in a pot in his mother’s bedroom, where she can easily get to it. It doesn’t surprise Atsuko how Zenzele has had to grow up so fast at the age of six, taking on responsibilities most adults would find burdensome. But one day, Atsuko notices Zenzele digging in back of the house, uncovering a large Winnie the Pooh mesh bag which appears to be full of money. She wonders if this is the treasure chest that Zenzele mentioned and if Nohle knows what her son is doing. When she tells Hallie about it, they decide not to say anything. After all, Hallie points out, it is money that Thabiso cannot touch.

Over the following weeks, Nohle’s condition worsens. Atsuko takes Zenzele for longer walks while Hallie and the medical staff from the hospice try to feed her and do anything they can for her pain. The money in the pot has disappeared. All believe that Thabiso must have snuck into the house when Nohle was sleeping and taken it. Atsuko and Hallie begin camping in the front yard of the house so that Zenzele will not be alone with his sick mother at night and to make sure Thabiso doesn’t cause more trouble. At odd hours, Zenzele often climbs into the tent with them, sandwiched between Hallie and Atsuko, his two honorary sisters as he sometimes calls them. Atsuko rests her chin on Zenzele’s gentle swirl of hair and finds comfort in his breathing—at first fast and uneven then gradually tapering to slow, calming movements.

As the three emerge from the tent one morning, they find Effie standing near the front door. Zenzele dashes towards her with open arms. Atsuko and Hallie notice the tears welling up in Effie’s eyes. Without a word spoken, Atsuko and Hallie know that Effie is returning to Zimbabwe. Effie kneels and embraces Zenzele, her movements slow and uneasy as if she has just woken from a terrible dream and whispers something in his ear.

“I cannot stay here anymore,” Effie says, as if her throat were filled with dirt. “These men, they have destroyed my house, everything I have.” Hallie offers to take Effie into her parents’ home but Effie will not have it. “I don’t want to create trouble for your family. Anywhere I go here, I am not safe,” she says, looking down again on Zenzele.

Hallie drives Effie down the road, past the hospice and as far north as she will allow her, letting Effie out in once barren wastelands now dotted with thousands of refugees forced to return to their motherland or points beyond. Atsuko comforts Zenzele. He is upset that Effie is going but does not understand that he may never see her again. They watch as neighbors and friends walk past the township limits, in the direction Effie had told Hallie to drive, and one by one see their silhouettes disappear on the horizon.

 

Nohle is soon transported to the Pretoria University hospital with the aid of Hallie’s father, and Atsuko and Hallie move from the front yard into Nohle’s room. The once dark and quiet nights have transformed into a deafening cacophony showered by an orange haze from the burning homes outside. The nights become sleepless, marked by long periods of lying in bed, trying to fight images of those things newspapers never write about. Zenzele’s eyes grow heavy and his spirit begins to fade, only showing itself for a brief moment when his sisters take him to see his mother. Atsuko knows that anything she tries to do will be of little comfort to Zenzele at this time. She can no longer tell Zenzele that Effie will be all right and that his mother will come home soon. The stark reality of his childhood has managed to touch his once innocent heart. Atsuko tries not to think about what will become of Zenzele in this shattered world and once again feels helpless and lost.

 

Zenzele’s screams startle the girls late one night. In the darkness, they rush to his room and see the silhouette of a man, his hands gripped tightly around Zenzele’s shoulders. Zenzele is now silent with fear, tears streaming down his face like spider silk. The man turns around and steps closer toward Hallie and Atsuko, the smell of cheap whiskey following him.

“Where is it?” he says, his voice growling deep like a truck engine.

Atsuko’s stomach jumps.

“Who are you?” Hallie says. “What do you want?”

“I am his uncle. Where is it?”

“We don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hallie says with a slight trembling as Atsuko takes Zenzele into her arms. Thabiso’s wide, white eyes glare at them in the darkness, almost seeming to glow like an animal’s.

“My money. I know this little thief has been hiding it somewhere.” He pulls a small tin flask from his front pocket and takes a sip.

“The money is for Nohle and Zenzele.”

“It is for family. I am family am I not?” He looks at Zenzele, peeking from behind Atsuko. “Who will care for him when his mother dies?” Atsuko shudders at the thought and covers Zenzele’s ears. “Who will feed him, make sure he goes to school?” Atsuko cannot bring herself to look at Thabiso directly but feels his eyes gazing on her, so close she can smell the sweat on his shirt. Suddenly, Thabiso makes way for the door stopping to shake Zenzele by the shoulders. “Wait until your mama dies,” he says, now holding Zenzele’s mouth with one hand like a piece of wood in a vise. “Then maybe you will talk to your uncle.” Thabiso turns around before he disappears in the shadowy street. “This is a dangerous place for a young, white woman and her Asian friend to be heroes.” As soon as they are sure he is gone, Hallie drives Atsuko and Zenzele to the hospice, Zenzele finally falling asleep from exhaustion during the short car ride.

Hallie glances back at Atsuko and Zenzele in the rearview mirror every now and then, barely saying a word. Atsuko can see guilt in Hallie’s eyes and the uncertainty that she can no longer protect her from the dangers of the world she grew up in.

“Maybe you should think about looking at flights to Japan,” Hallie says with a dry throat. Atsuko doesn’t respond, not really hearing Hallie’s words, trapped in the moment of holding Zenzele on the darkened road. After Atsuko tucks Zenzele in bed, she turns to see Hallie waiting for her in the hall.     

“Your parents have been calling since you got here. They’ve been leaving messages with my folks,” Hallie confesses. “I’m not ready to say goodbye yet. I want you here. But maybe with everything going on like tonight and with your parents, you shouldn’t be.”

Atsuko remains silent for a moment and looks at Hallie and she sees someone there standing against the wall whom she loves but who she knows, with all the truths of their respective lives, she cannot.

“He’s our family now. I want to stay a little while longer,” Atsuko says, brushing a finger over Zenzele’s forehead.

 

Atsuko and Hallie return to the house to gather Zenzele’s and his mother’s belongings a few days later. The locks on the front door are broken and they don’t need to push it open to know that Thabiso has turned over every piece of furniture and emptied every drawer looking for the money. As Atsuko steps over broken chairs and shattered glass, she sees Thabiso across the street staring at her through the kitchen window. She and Hallie quickly gather everything they think Zenzele and Nohle might want and put them into large garbage bags and leave. As Hallie pulls away from the house, Atsuko sees Thabiso running in the side view mirror every time she glances back, keeping his distance but somehow keeping up. It isn’t far from the house to the hospice, but the road seems endless this day. At times, Atsuko wants to cry out for help but her already quiet voice is silent in Africa, where she knows nothing. She believes no one would help even if she screamed. How badly Atsuko wants her parents at this moment to protect her from the world.

Arriving at the hospice, Atsuko looks back again to see that Thabiso has disappeared. One of the staff is waiting by his jeep, his expression telling the girls that something has happened that they do not want to hear. Hallie speaks to him in Afrikaans as Atsuko waits, looking into her eyes, seeing that it is taking everything that Hallie has to keep from collapsing. Hallie turns back to Atsuko and just stands there for a moment and begins to sob.

“It happened an hour ago,” Hallie says. “Zenzele was at the hospital.”

Atsuko embraces Hallie tightly and nestles her now damp eyes into the folds of Hallie’s blouse. “What’s going to happen to Zenzele? Are we going to pick him up?”

“No, he’s gone,” Hallie cries. Atsuko can barely understand her.

“What do you mean he’s gone?”

“After seeing his mother’s body, he ran away.”

The entire hospital is searched, every closet and cabinet where he could have hidden. Some of the hospital staff, Hallie, her parents, and Atsuko drive the streets of Pretoria until it is dark and they cannot see past their headlights. They search again the next day and the day after that, walking through even the narrowest of alleyways in all the surrounding townships with a picture of Zenzele. But there is no sign of the boy that Atsuko and Hallie have come to call their brother. The two girls, now under the watchful eyes of two of the male hospice staff, sleep at Zenzele’s house, believing he might return. But after two weeks of waiting, of worrying, there is no sign he is coming back. There is only a hole in the backyard where Atsuko saw Zenzele burying a bag of money. Atsuko hopes that it was Zenzele who took it and not his uncle. But there is little comfort picturing a lone boy in Africa, carrying so much money.

 

In the week before the Jacaranda trees usually bloom, nearly a month after Zenzele’s disappearance, Hallie drives Atsuko to the airport. The turmoil of the country has become too dangerous for her. But Atsuko does not have to witness the sea of purple flowers to know that Africa is capable of beauty as well. Atsuko holds onto a picture of Zenzele in her purse and wonders where he is at this moment, hoping that he is all right but knowing at the same time that he isn’t and will never be. A secret part of her will remain in Africa forever, she knows. It is this secret part, which she believes all people carry their entire lives, that make them who they are despite the paths they have chosen. It is the part that people look back on to remember what really matters. Atsuko and Hallie kiss goodbye and promise to keep in touch. Both of them know that in time this promise will be broken as their countries and their lives―the life their parents want for each of them―come between them.

As her plane begins its descent into Tokyo, Atsuko looks at the picture of Zenzele again, and holds his face to her heart. She looks out the window into her life, past the neon lights and the millions of people in their suits, and breathes in deeply as the plane touches down on the runway.