When Naledi and Thabiso first meet, she is “vulnerable. Frustrated. A woman at the end of her rope” (Cole 2018, 46) who lacks emotional security and support. She is “tightly closed in on herself” and it is “tiring [...] to always be that way” (98). The “heart of the matter” is that Naledi is “alone” (17). Until she met Thabiso, the person to whom Naledi was closest was more of a burden than a support, since Naledi “couldn’t help but worry” about Portia, “and worrying had no concrete results in the real world except draining her much-needed energy” (10). With this as her most significant experience of emotional closeness, it is not surprising that in general she remains emotionally detached: “Being outwardly friendly while keeping people at a distance was second nature” (8). Naledi’s experiences have taught her that revealing her true feelings and asking for what she wants or needs is likely to have negative consequences: “challenging the people who held power over you made you undesirable, and undesirability meant gathering all of your things into a black plastic trash bag and being sent back to the group home” (6). Deprived of emotional support and security, the thought crosses her mind that she herself is like the trash, or at least, that if she “jump[ed] into the compactor chute” (14) she would not be missed except by Portia, who depends on her, and the “bill collectors” (14) who pursue her relentlessly, but not because they care about her as a person.
Naledi has goals and strong ideals: her desire is to become an epidemiologist because “When disease strikes, it’s always the most vulnerable populations that are hit hardest. I want to do research that helps make the world safer for them” (58). However, on a daily basis, and with regards to her personal life, she lacks the emotional uplift which comes with hope: she tries “not to get too excited […] because excitement was just another name for expectation, and expectations were the fastest route to disappointment” (14). Moreover, her hopes are all aimed towards a career because she believes that as a person
She was like a faulty piece of Velcro; people tried to stick to her, but there was something intrinsically wrong in her design. Twenty plus years of data, starting from that first foster family, supported that hypothesis. [...] Portia’s late-night drunk visits were worrisome, but Ledi was still shocked each time that her friend cared enough to stop by. (23)
The prince, at least in Cole’s novel, represents emotional security and caring and all that is the opposite of dealing with “opportunistic parasites, looking for their next resource to suck dry. [...] Someone always wanting something from you” (140).
That situation is the topic of a conversation Thabiso has with a taxi driver and, having established their shared experience of feeling exploited, the conversation moves on and the driver relates that
“[...] Every night when I get home from work, my Divya is waiting for me. We cook together, and I tell her about the people I’ve met during my shift and she tells me about the people she met during hers. And those moments make everything worth it.
“She’s also a driver?” Thabiso asked.
“A nurse,” the man said, the pride in his voice unmistakable. “She studied very hard for a very long time. Those loans will take forever to pay off, but she’s never been happier. So I’m happy too.”
They pulled up to a red light, and when the driver looked over his shoulder at Thabiso, the glower that had been in his eyes was gone, the creases smoothed from his forehead. His eyebrows rose as if he’d had a revelation.
“Actually, I need to change what I said. Everybody wants something from you, but sometimes there’s a person you want to give to. Sometimes what you give them makes you better for having given it. And it makes having to give to everyone else not so bad.” (141)
The “revelation” is one suitable for a faith based on love. It is a revelation about how giving is only resented when there is no love: in the driver’s relationship with his wife, they grow by working and talking together and giving to one another out of love. This love that sustains the couple as they share life’s burdens is the answer to the question Naledi had “tried not to ask herself too often”: “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone took care of me, instead?” (21) and it models the behaviour that Thabiso will later display to Naledi as he declares:
“[...] I’m here because I wanted to see you. I know you’re used to doing everything yourself, but I wanted to make sure you were okay [...]. Are you okay?”
Everything Ledi thought she’d known about her needs and wants slid away, leaving her open, exposed, and shocked by his gruff demand. She’d had support, she’d had friendship, but she’d never had a man standing before her looking so frustrated on her behalf. (177)
This is the prince as champion of his princess’s happiness: her emotional needs are his priority. However, since he is a prince, and not a taxi driver, he has the power not just to make her “feel like I’m already something” (184) but to make others see her as someone special too.