One Friday, when I was seven years old, Mama brought home single packets of cheese. They came packed together like little, yellow slices of love. Growing up, I didn’t often see cheese packets among the household groceries. We couldn’t always afford them, but I was always aware of them. They were in fairy-tale branded lunchboxes at school, across the table from me when I ate with my friends. They were in specific aisles at the Shoprite grocery store into which we rarely ventured. Most frequently, though, I saw them on TV, in strategically placed ads during my favourite shows. I lived with the cheese. It haunted and eluded me.
When Mama brought these cheese slices home, I figured there must have been some special occasion. There was none, she told me, she just thought it would be nice to have once in a while. She gave each of us – Buti, my elder brother, Ami, my elder sister, and me – a little, yellow slice of love. They ate theirs immediately, the amateurs. A treat like that was to be savoured, forgotten until such time that its memory delighted you more than it had previously. I practiced delayed gratification daily. I was never allowed to swallow toothpaste, so after every brush, I would squeeze another dollop of toothpaste onto my brush and place it on the windowsill to dry. Then, after school, before everyone else got home, I could enjoy a piece of sweet, minty toothpaste candy. So, no, I would not eat my cheese right away. I would save it. I took my cheese slice, wrung it thoroughly between my fingers – the wringing did for the cheese what the sun drying did for the toothpaste, added a bit more pizzazz – and placed it in the fridge to eat the next morning. The wait would be long, even if only overnight.
In the morning, I awoke blissfully oblivious to my hidden treat, only reminded when another strategic ad came on TV during one of my shows. And then delight came. I made my way into the kitchen and approached the fridge. The light came on as I opened it, but the mystery of it did not distract me. That day, it would not be a magic bulb operated by a tiny, invisible wizard. It would be, instead, a halo effect that illuminated my cheese. I stood on my tiptoes and reached for the compartment in which I’d deposited it just before bed. Nothing. I rummaged about, turning over the frozen peas, the sauces, opening the deceptive ice cream tub that contained rice, and even poked the old, lone tomato in the corner of one compartment, too squishy and stale to be touched by anyone. My cheese was gone. My little, yellow slice of love had been stolen from me. Who could have done it? An icy feeling rose inside me, and it wasn’t just the cold front from the still open fridge door, about to set off its tiny alarm to inform me the wizard needed a break.
I left the kitchen with my mind racing, singling out family members and analysing possible motives. It couldn’t have been Papa. He only went to the kitchen to make his way out back to the kraal, to tend the sheep. And it couldn’t possibly have been Mama. She knew almost everything that went on in the house and she would have known that it was my cheese. Mama wouldn’t have done that to me. That left me with two probable culprits; Buti, whom I excused because we spent enough time together that I knew he was fair and truthful, and my sister. She and I were always at odds. If she took my cheese, I doubted she’d be honest about it. She wouldn’t help me make the case for Mama to give me another slice of cheese. She probably knew that when she did it. She probably enjoyed it, knowing it would taunt me.
Ami sat in our room, staring dispassionately at her phone. I stood near the doorway and thought about how the confrontation would go, recounting to myself how previous ones had gone. She’d deny it. She’d say I was imagining things. It was meant to be a delightful morning, and I was not prepared for that kind of frustration. I turned reluctantly and went back to the kitchen. There was nothing to do but accept that my cheese was gone. I would have to wait until Mama decided to give us more. More… there was more cheese in the house! And… I knew where it was. Mama always let me help her put groceries away. It was because she trusted me. She knew I was disciplined and wouldn’t take things without permission. Buti and Ami hardly ever helped. I suppose Mama didn’t trust them like she trusted me. But was I about to break that trust? I hadn’t gotten my slice of cheese. Was I not entitled to my slice?
Mama was outside doing laundry. I couldn’t ask her or explain what happened. I knew how it would look – like I was lying and just wanted more cheese. No, I couldn’t ask, so I had to take another slice and pass it off as mine. It wouldn’t be difficult because I was small, I was fast and I could be really quiet. But what would I say when someone saw me eating cheese? At least one person would know it wasn’t mine. So I needed a witness, someone to corroborate my story without being implicated in the lie, and I knew exactly who to trust. After taking the cheese and wringing it hurriedly, I walked to the living room where Buti had changed the channel to his favourite basketball show, Slam Dunk.
I sat beside him and held up the cheese. “Buti, this is my cheese from yesterday. I just took it out of the fridge.”
“No, it’s not,” he chuckled. “I ate your cheese from yesterday. That’s a new slice you just stole.”
In all my years, I had never felt such a strange swirl of embarrassment, confusion, and betrayal. I sat there dumbstruck, thinking ‘Next time, I’ll eat my cheese right away!’