I was in a guesthouse in Johannesburg, South Africa that had its own high white walls and electric sliding gate with four dogs, they barked at anything and everything within 30 feet, I thought that was excessive — two weeks in someone jumped over our wall to nab a laptop from the house next door while the owner was gone, so we got medieval spikes that took about a week to paint white, to match the walls.
Living in this city felt like war. I had no reason to feel that way. I would drive a tiny rented car around a corner and feel like I might see a bomb blare through the road’s center, orange lapping flames … I didn’t want to roll my window down while driving.
A gated estate manager named Sid told me I’d be fine over ten weeks, but if I stayed a few years, “Your time will come.” Left me thinking, what if my time comes in just ten weeks?
Johannesburg is flooded with more capital and BMWs and sky-high buildings than the rest of Africa. It was founded in a scramble for a sprawling gold mine and there’s still that feeling of a frantic hunt for quick money at any cost. Wealth that soars in towers next to devastating third-world hunger means there are suburban streets at night without a single car outside, also these patient fences with electric wires ten feet high.
But I was inside my head. The seething city and my isolation shoved me back inside myself, and then the city’s violence and its fear of violence made me think that I should stay that way, holed up in my own brain with paranoia.
I wanted to think my paranoia was weighed down with meaning for the nation, as if it were part of the debate as to whether South Africa would find its way as a democracy after apartheid’s crumble 18 years ago. But that’s not what happened: I was just American and silly and really alone out there.
South Africa is extremely south, by world standards. That seems obvious and yet the feeling affected everything I did. As the American it felt like I could shout and no one I know or understand would hear for roughly 8,000 miles. Which is how far Yale’s campus was, if I could have launched myself across the leagues of black ice water in a perfect line.
Who am I to complain about the lack of safety? At least 1.6 million are living this reality, many of them their whole lives — felt angry I had never known that a huge portion of the world lives just like this, all the time. But I forced myself to learn something that still seems halfway valuable from sleeping in a house with barred windows and two separate doors I locked before I went to sleep.
Like I better figure out what I can do with my whole life inside this cage, like I should be searching out exactly what I want and not apologize to anyone who expects something different, since there aren’t nearly enough minutes or seconds for me to feel embarrassed when my twisting American brain is telling me my life was on the line, everyone’s time feels destined to come, here in this city, that time seems like it comes fast.
This is how the lesson started teaching itself: I was an intern at a newspaper, and when I stopped showing up with two weeks left, no one noticed. (I had come there for nine weeks, thinking this would be a new experience it — was.) I stopped showing up once I felt like I was in the wrong city as a reporter, I was the wrong type of reporter, maybe in the wrong profession. All I knew was that my sense of propulsion in the opposite direction from the newspaper and the city was strong.
I spent most of the remaining time inside my rented guesthouse with the pair of barred-in doors both locked, even in daylight. (Seven weeks in, weren’t the odds turning against me?) The place came with enormous rats that would explore the inner depths inside the walls at all hours — the woman I leased it from told me politely that it was their mating season — and I would not have minded, but their scratching sounded just like someone was picking the front door lock. Now I faced a cage that was my home, no cell phone that could be taken seriously, few friends and no compelling reason to still be here and 8,000 miles from Yale’s campus. I figured my flight time couldn’t change.
The all-out retreat into my head was now in full effect. I started to pace the tiny walled-in driveway back and forth while the sun was shining down, and I was crunching on what could be called British biscotti, “rusks,” consuming a cereal-sized box of these things, watching the crumbs drift out onto the patio from my narrow raised platform that split up the driveway and a tiny garden, as if one could ruminate while walking the plank and one of the four dogs is a German Shepherd named Gracie, who stared at me while poised in sympathy; all she had to do was bark when someone got remotely near the gate and walls. The walls newly equipped with matching spikes.
War, war … I was in no active danger yet I’d let myself spin this far down, and there was no wavering in life direction in a war, especially one I made up …
I wanted to write something much weirder, larger than a story for a paper, I started to work on writing that still felt like reporting, why I came here in the first place, but now I was following the facts I had haphazardly collected so the story’s end, unlike in the papers, seemed so far from clear.
I was writing with a blue Bic pen and blank white printer paper matching every painted surface of the guesthouse — walls and ceiling were solid white with no adornments, white matching even and especially the bars across the windows. I fell hard into that vacuum with no one to call or be called by, I fell almost too far inside myself once I’d turned my laptop off and tucked it under the bed so I’d forget about it. I was all but hearing voices down in there, odd songs that got louder since everything slowed to pen and paper speed. It got really, really quiet, each word a muted thudding down.
This felt like all I had, and everything was suddenly in forward motion. During a war I mostly imagined, I found a way to write that felt like home for long enough to make staying inside the city’s cage worth it.
Two weeks later I was visiting a street in Manhattan’s West Village, bombed out with wealth and numbingly quiet. I was checking over both my shoulders every 30 seconds, thinking, Is it safe to be on foot? I knew I had changed. I thought I’d better welcome myself to real life, I’d better make sure I was walking the right street at the right time with my head down slightly and a damn good cosmic reason to be walking anywhere at all.