By Lerato Mensah-Aborampah, Lesotho
“Calculate the mass of potassium hydroxide that needs to be used to prepare 500 cubic centimetres of 2 mole cubic decimetres solution of water-”
“Wait, wait Rapelang! Let me read it myself please!” Palesa interrupts my reading from the Physical Science Chemistry text book. She furrows her brows and reads her own text book in silence.
“Fine,” I raise my hands. I lean against the wall and smile quietly looking at her.
We are in the library for our Monday afternoon session, which is about as big as my mother and my sister’s bedrooms combined. It is not a big library, basically. There are two or three other students in the cubicles near the entrance. We can hear faint music from our librarian’s headphones, Miss P. She is always wearing her headphones and buried behind her big desk filled with millions of half read books.
“So, how is it?” I ask.
She looks up at me, with frustrated eyes and shakes her head.
“No, Palesa, it is not difficult, try it again,” I shift my chair closer to her.
“Rapelang, what’s easy for you isn’t necessarily easy for me,” she mumbles rolling her eyes.
“I wasn’t saying that Palesa,” I put my hand gently on her shoulder, “come on dude, you can do this.”
She looks at my hand suspiciously on her shoulder and I quickly remove it. She looks back at the book.
“Okay, remember what Mr. Phooko always says- the first thing to do before solving any stoichiometric problem,” I clear my throat and look at her.
“Always find the moles first,” she says, looking away from my eye contact. She sighs and drops her forehead onto her textbook.
“Rapelang,” she laughs faintly, “okay, I am really not good at Chemistry. It frustrates me- it does. School, in general frustrates me but that is not the point right now.”
She lifts her head from the table and looks at me with a child-like sulky expression, which makes me laugh at her.
“Ska ntšeha!” she chuckles, “don’t laugh at me!”
“You should see your face right now,” I say, “it’s really cute- okay, fine, let’s take a break from the exercises for a while.”
She nods and leans her head against the book shelf that forms the cubicle with the wall on my side. I think it is strange how little I know about her. Even, in all our conversations this far, she reveals little about herself. I can tell that it is an intentional selection. She decides what I should know. She loves reading. She can be funny and witty. She is not very fond of school. But these are the kind of details that most people would probably be willing to share. How silly of me though, to expect that she should just start telling me about the things that bother her – personal things.
I picture her as a wall- a red-bricked wall that houses a Palesa Tefo that she alone probably knows. But the wall has gaps. The gaps have allowed me only a peek into other aspects of her-which I may never fully know about. She prefers it that way, this is clear. But I have noted once or twice the look of distaste when she mentioned her father. And I am now aware of a persistent sadness that her eyes tend to betray. And I really wish I could understand that story that she let me into, on the bench-on how being the popular girl did not work out for her.
Why is it so important to me to understand her? So the gaps in her wall have allowed me a peek. But what is peek, really? I could be wrong about every little crump of information I gather about her. Besides, how could you ever fully know whether the thing you caught only a glimpse of is even a thing at all?
“So,” I say, leaning my head against the wall on my side, facing her, “we can be smart about this break, so we still use it to review some concepts that you should be familiar with,”
“Let me guess, those scientific analogies you told me about last week,” she laughs.
“Except this time, you give it a try,” I urge warmly.
“Jo! I would rather listen to your strange analogies, I really would,”
“Ah! Come on Palesa. Indulge me- besides, you are reader, aren’t you? I bet your mind is full of all things symbolic and figurative!”
She gives me a doubtful look and her lips curl into a half-smile.
She takes a deep breath.
“Fine,” she smiles, rolling her eyes, “you give me a concept though,”
I rub my hands together mischievously and I think.
“Boyle’s Law,” I say, “explain it first and then grace me with your analogy,”
“Gas Laws! Seriously dude? You are so annoying, you know I hate gas laws!”
“You hate all Chemistry, Palesa!” I add jokingly.
“Hai, let me think!” waving me away.
She furrows her brows as I have learnt she does when thinking seriously about something. We sit in silence, with me watching her intently. She looks away from my gaze. She leans back on her chair and looks up. I laugh and busy myself with sketching in my notebook- a large rectangle that I fill in with smaller ones aligned like the bricks in a wall.
Five minutes or so later, she leans forward and turns to look at me. I draw in the last little rectangles and look at her.
“Ready?” I smile.
“I don’t have a choice, now do I?” she laughs, rather weakly. I wonder if she knows that I can recognise when she is no longer herself. Something seems to be bothering her now. She furrows her brows for a moment.
“Boyle’s Law,” she starts quietly, occasionally casting nervous glances at me, “Boyle’s Law, states that at constant pressure-no, I mean, at constant temperature, the volume of a given mass of gas is inversely proportional to pressure, yes?” she asks looking at me.
“Yes,” I nod encouragingly, “very correct! So basically, this Boyle dude did experiments from which he deduced that when pressure was increased-volume decreased.”
“I’m on my way to passing chemistry, oa bona?” she laughs. Then she sighs lightly, “My analogy is simple really – sometimes when the pressure around us increases-you know like social pressure, parents, Mr. Phooko with his Chemistry tests –“
We laugh a little.
“Ke hore, when pressure increases around us, you know-when it just gets too much, sometimes, our capacity to take it all in decreases. Like maybe we each have fixed volumes- specific capacities and we can only take in as much as we can.” She looks away to her hand, and runs her thumb across the palm of her other hand.
“It is almost like-”she says, almost reluctantly. But then stops abruptly.
“Almost like what?” I ask quietly.
She raises her head and looks intently into my eyes, as if deciding, from looking at me, whether or not she should finish her sentence.
“Almost like me,” she finally says, “the pressure got too much for me. I thought I could take it but there is a limit right? My volume of sanity decreased- as in my capacity to handle pressure was stretched. Now the law also means that when volume itself decreases, pressure decreases, right? You push the piston of the bicycle pump-so you squash the air particles into a smaller volume-they hit the walls of the pump more frequently-”
“And thus increase in pressure,” I conclude slowly.
Palesa Tefo presses her lips together and gives a little shrug. We remain quiet for a while.
She spoke. Even if just a little bit.
“Will you forget Boyle’s Law?” I say, managing a laughter that breaks the silence.
“I better not,” she says, closing her books.
Miss P will close the library soon. I reach for my books too and just when I am about to close my notebook, I come across that drawing I made on the veranda- an image of the girl made from fabric with loose threads. I glance at Palesa as she orders some question papers into her large purple file. I quickly make an inscription just below the picture, in my blue pen:
I don’t know much about fabrics and sewing.
But I hope you will be gentle with yourself during the stitching process.
And that you don’t have to do it alone.
I finish writing it and carefully tear of the paper from the notebook. I know it is rather corny inscription but I think I mean every word. I suddenly think of something else. I might as well. I write my WhatsApp number at the corner of the paper and add in brackets:
(In case you have questions on Stoich. Lol)
I fold the paper quickly.
“Done?” I ask. She nods and we take our books and head out.
“Bye Miss P,” I say to our librarian, as we pack our books into our bags which have to stay near the door. She flashes an absentminded smile and keeps nodding to the music in her headphones. I just smile at her and we go out.
We walk silently, side by side, our arms occasionally bumping lightly against each other.
I notice that her eyes seem distant.
“U sharp? Right now, I mean, are you okay? I find myself having asked, “It is easy to see when you are not okay,” I say carefully.
“Is it?” is all she says in response.
“You are not yourself when you are sad,” I reply, though immediately finding that I do not completely believe this statement. Which other Palesa do I think I know?
“That is the misconception, you know,” she looks at me, as we near the school gate, “that we are not ourselves when we are sad. When I am sad, I am myself- a sad self,”
“But sadness is not one of those emotions that should characterise you,” I say, almost desperately.
“Yes but Rapelang, I cannot detach myself from it, otherwise I don’t deal with it. I do feel it don’t I?”
I have nothing to say in response so I remain quiet. We make our way into the bus. Just when we are about to enter the bus, I reach for her hand beside me and slip the folded paper into her palm, and I close her hand firmly with mine. She looks up at me, shocked, and then looks at her hand. I squeeze her hand gently before letting it go.
She looks at me with her beautiful eyes and I wish, now more than ever, that I would know what lies behind them.