Oh Leila

Half an hour to curfew. The streets are already silent.

People often ask me if I’m afraid to be out at night. To cycle at night. To walk at night, a woman alone in Durban.

It seems foolhardy but in six years no harm has come to me on two wheels. I have had my house ransacked. I have had been robbed at gunpoint on foot and in a car. But at my most fragile, moving at speed on two wheels empty as spiderwebs with nothing interposed between the hard road and my body, I feel invulnerable. And the rush of the wind is most entrancing when it’s cool and dark. The rush hour traffic is gone and the road is mine.

Then when I get home, there’s the dog waiting at the door, wagging so hard her hind feet tapdance. Selfish as I am, I feel terrible saying no to those big dark eyes like a baby seal’s. To prevent the explosion of canine madness while catching my breath I need to pretend to be resolutely callous, to plop myself on a chair and whip out the phone as if I plan to Facebook for an hour. The second I move toward the bedroom to peel off my sweaty jeans for running shorts, she knows what’s up. Her feet do not touch the floor.

The name she came with was Leila. I saw someone explain the reason why animals come with such awkward “shelter names” is that animal shelter workers have so many dogs and cats come through their doors that they don’t have time to pick good ones. Some might, but this dog does not have an ounce of romance in her lean, springy little body, all legs and a jet-turbine ribcage. This is not the Leila of Cheb Mami and Sting’s “Desert Rose”, or the “Layla” that got Eric Clapton down on his knees. I relabelled her.

I don’t dare to go all the way to the park after dark. Just past the school and to the corner with the Italian restaurant so she can eat some of the nice grass on a particular verge and back. I greet a security guard briefly. A few gangly young men in sports clothing are waiting outside the school gate, chatting. They eye me curiously as I pass, this strange boyish woman doing a crazy thing like walking her dog after dark. I wonder if they’re nervous that their parents will not come to fetch them in time.

The sodium-yellow lamps illuminate empty roads. The tops of the broken, twisted jacarandas toss lightly in the night breeze. I walk brisk but quiet on sandaled feet, accompanied by the click-click-click of Folly’s claws. The poor thing is neglected; I haven’t been walking her enough and her claws have grown long like a stupid little lapdog’s. When I’m indoors, I’m trapped by a thousand stupid excuses; by work, by poor time management, by internet addiction, by all the necessities of daily life we call “adulting”. But once we’re outside, the free air lifts me like a kite away from the ground.

This dog, if you let her run she would run to the ends of the earth. If the darkness lasted forever, I could walk to the ends of the earth too.

Ya Leila. Oh night.

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