I was meant to go to a wedding in Cape Town today. I did not. It was a wedding I may or may not have helped paid for; I can’t be sure.
Yesterday I cancelled the flight. I don’t think I’ve ever cancelled a flight before. Moved out, been bumped off, missed, unable to fly because of a volcano in Icealand, cancelled because the CEO in the meeting was killed in a freak cycling accident – all of those things, yes, but not actually cancelling a flight for something personal.
There was a time when this visit would have been the happy ending to a Hallmark story about how an act of kindness led to something more. There was a pleasing narrative arc to it: in the beginning, a kind man helps a stranger having a meltdown over parking money; the stranger offers to help and the kind man takes her up on his offer. The stranger helps pay for a wedding and gets invited to attend. Two different worlds are brought together by a chance encounter that adds up to something more meaningful.
But real life seldom follows a script, and a week ago I did something I’ve done only once before: I blocked a number.
I had begun to dread the texts that would arrive from it. The good morning how are you’s that I began to suspect were only a lead up to what this person, the kind man’s wife, really wanted, which was more money. I am so stressed, she would tell me. I am so worried about the wedding I can’t tell you. We need a fridge for all the catering and new bedlinen for the wedding photos.
How much do you need? I’d ask, and pay the money over. Some R28,000 in the space of two months.
If I didn’t respond immediately, there would be frantic queries as to whether I got the message, or was “cross for” her. It got to the point where this was making me both miserable and – potentially – broke – and it had to stop. I find it very hard to say no to people who ask for help, but after paying the equivalent of my monthly income in such a short space of time and then being asked for money for food because people were going hungry, I began to wonder where all that cash was going.
Yes, there’s a context: R28,000 is a fortune for them, a month’s salary for me. But still, the pleasure at being able to help turned to resentment at being taken for granted, and it was downhill from there. She tried her luck once too often, and any emotional attachment I felt to her evaporated into anger.
I think we were addicted to one another, she and I. We texted each other every day, asked each other how we were. I knew about her blood pressure problems and hospital visits and how she suffered from depression. About watching TV on Saturdays and how the front gates were stolen and how her granddaughter loved chippies. She knew that I was busy at work, or spending time on the weekend with my family. I confided my own experiences with depression. Once, we spoke on the phone. “Oh Sarah,” she said, “I am so happy to hear your voice. I can’t wait to meet you.
I was addicted to the temporary high of being able make someone happy – I always gave more when I was depressed – and I suspect that she was addicted to the source of money that would arrive every time she asked for it. I felt less like a friend than a human ATM, as a Facebook comment described it. At some point it had to stop, and the only way to treat addiction is to cut off the source of that which enslaves you.
I did tell her that I was tired of being asked for money, that it sometimes felt that this was the only reason we had any contact. She knew she was taking a chance by pressing me for more. She was probably frantic when I didn’t respond that day, or the next, and the next. I hope she has accepted that I am gone from her life, and that the money was nice while it lasted, but that’s it.
I don’t know whether the kind man who helped the stranger knows about any of this. I am sorry it has ended this way. I was excited about the prospect of meeting him again in happier circumstances. I’d scripted it in my mind; there would be music and happiness and dancing and I’d get back on that plane, satisfied with the strange and wonderful turns that life can take.
I could write about class, and race, poverty and power, because she and I are in very different circumstances, and to ignore that would be to forget that I have options and she, probably, does not. Maybe some time I will. For the time being, though, this is a story about two people in different worlds who were brought together by chance, and parted by human fallibility.
I knew that attending the wedding and meeting the family would been doing the equivalent of mainlining a narcotic. This developed into a toxic co-dependent relationship remarkably quickly, and ending it was necessary for us both.
I expected to feel terribly sad about this. Instead, all I feel is I strangely relieved that our friendship is over.