On my first day I’m too nervous to eat.

During my interview two weeks prior I walk into an upscale boutique with an immaculate interior. Everything is beige and brittle. The chandeliers hang low, the lighting is gingery like a summer evening, and the women who soon after become my colleagues are svelte, impenetrable, with long straight hair pulled tight and slicked down, and porcelain skin impeccably made up. They look nothing like me or anyone I know back home.

When I am first introduced to them I’m greeted by disingenuous smiles and thinly veiled contempt. My hair grows up and out, and is never patted down. My bare face is an affront to hours spent every morning applying rosy cheeks, shimmery eyelids, luxuriously long lashes, and rouge lips.

On that day I also meet Alexa. She grabs my hand, pulls me into the back room, and shows me where to put my handbag. She’s gorgeous. There isn’t any way to describe her without sounding like a page from a storybook. Her eyes are dark and bottomless, her raven hair falls over her face like a waterfall, and she has an overbite that renders her perpetually pouty. She talks to me with a disarming familiarity and punctuates her sentences with a snorty giggle. She takes lunch two hours later than usual so we can have ours at the same time. We grab gelato—something we come to do every workday. Her favorite flavor is diabetic hazelnut, mine is pino pinguino. She asks about where I’m from, what I do, what I want to do. When she says my name it sounds like a melody. All of a sudden I’m not so nervous anymore.

Alexa becomes an ally in a world I’m completely unfamiliar with. I don’t own any makeup except for a tube of MAC Ruby Woo. I’m not fussy about what I wear, and I am more interested in the complimentary nougat the boutique offers its customers than the clothes themselves. Above all, I am visibly and deliberately black, the only one there who is. To be black in a space like this is to always be cautious and always be lonely. In Alexa I find a soft landing—someone who is nothing like me and everything like me. More athletic than snake-hipped, more carefree than tightly wound. She is the synapse between me and something like home. When we make our sales targets we play Carley Rae Jepsen for our happy hour. She and I are the only ones who dance. On Fridays she comes to my house to spend the night. Incense smokes our bodies while I sit in between her legs and she shows me how to use amla oil to make my hair darker and longer. I teach her how to tie a tignon. We argue about whose curry is better—hers a cape malay and mine a korma. With Alexa I feel the distance between me and home ebb.

Three months into my job a woman walks into the store. She looks more like me than the women who surround me every day. Her hair grows up and out. She could be my mother, aunt, grandmother. She clutches an old leather handbag under her left shoulder, and the corners of her mouth are turned down in a restrained frown. She walks up to our manager to lodge a complaint. She was at the store the day before and bought a dress. Coral, with a bardot neckline. It’s perfect for the colour of her skin, perfect for the colour of mine. Alexa packed her dress; except she packed the wrong size. A shadow falls over our manager’s face as she looks over at Alexa. A promise of what’s to come. She runs into the backroom, hysterical.

I follow her in to offer a hug or sweet words. Something to steel her heart and soften her face. I find her talking to a colleague, flailing her arms, choking on tears and words.

“This is why my mother says black people are awful.”

The words loop around me again and again, to seemingly no end. When Alexa turns around to find me standing there she says, “Not you. Never you.”

Never me, but everyone who looks like me—maybe my mother, aunt, grandmother. I don’t say anything back. My otherness crashes against me like ocean into rocky shore. But I am okay. There is nothing unfamiliar about this moment.

 

© Tigele Nlebesi
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Tigele’s interview]