Nyambura is walking towards the moment she has been planning for months. She feels light. She walks through a world coloured with hope. The bright smiles of strangers bring her a secret and tender joy. She knows that soon she will be there. With him. And so she smiles back.
When she arrives she finds the door shut. The windows are open and the curtains flap chaotically. The radio is on. Deep bass and the perpetually self-aggrandising voice of Rick Ross assault her ears. Nyambura thinks of music as a smooth and calming tapestry of sound, filling her soul with gentleness. She considers this music noise, nothing but superficial excitement. She often says that her soul is fit only for deep experience, and music must plumb its depths to meet that expectation. But she knows that her thoughts are self-righteous and romanticized by the terrible love poems she writes with him in mind. For a moment she is ashamed to identify with a verse, an endless drunken repetition in the rapper’s voice: she might let me fuck, she might let me fuck. Most nights, alone in the dark, she imagines his face, with her fingers groping her breasts, finding their way slowly down between her legs to the feel of warm wetness.
She should be knocking the door. Not standing there, imagining…
Imagining that he is in there with another woman, that they’ve locked the door behind them, and are drowning out the sounds of reckless lovemaking with the noise of the radio. Her hand clenches into a fist but she hesitates to knock. She peeps through the keyhole but can see nothing. She pulls the living-room curtain from the open window aside and struggles to examine the house. The living room is a mess, books lie on the couch, on the floor, and a visible layer of dust covers the TV screen.
The bedroom door is closed, so Nyambura cannot see him or his other woman, but she imagines that he is raising his hand and touching her hair, her face, her thighs.
She knocks the door. Hard.
There is no response. She knocks again, this time harder even as the music on the radio becomes a more disgusting local rap, a string of abuse. Maybe, she tells herself, maybe he is asleep. But how, in this awful noise?
Nyambura reaches into her handbag and searches beneath the umbrella, lipstick, the second pair of shoes, beneath the countless things she carries but rarely uses. She finds her Nokia Asha. She dials his number but on the second ring she hangs up the phone, suddenly afraid. She types out a message.
Open the damn doooor.
She reads the text after she has sent it. It’s misspelled. She quickly edits and re-sends.
In the second text the word “damn” is missing, the word “door” does not have four Os, at the beginning there is a “pliz”, and at the end there is a “dear”.
He does not reply immediately. She returns to the window and opens it farther, watches the bedroom door for any sign of movement. None. Her little, pedicured fingers type out another text. Just as she is about to send it her phone buzzes. She saves the draft and reads the incoming text.
I’m at Sams Shop, coming in a min.
Nyambura smiles at the text and straightens her short skirt. She bought it at Gikomba Market, washed and ironed it yesterday. Early this morning, she showered and wore the cologne he once said was “oh-so-beautiful.” In the eight months since they last saw each other, she has called him every two days. He has called once, when he wanted a favor. When she calls, he speaks to her on the phone late into the night, sometimes, and she imagines his hand inside his boxers, rubbing himself as she fondles her breasts. Often, he does not pick up the phone. She imagines him ignoring her call, texting that bitch who she knows has never loved him.
Now she hears his footsteps coming up the stairs. He appears from round the corner of the corridor and smiles at her. She walks towards him, hands outstretched, reaching to touch him, to feel his aura around her, to know that she is finally here, beside him.
“Hi Kamau,” she says, inhaling the smell of his shoulders.
“Welcome,” he says, patting her back.
She holds on till he gently pushes her away.
She sees that in his left hand he is holding a paper bag in which he carries sukuma wiki and a half kilo of meat. In his right are the keys. He looks at both items and then back at her, an awkward smile on his face. She remembers the moment she first saw him—those were the days when she looked at him and saw a prince; he would say how beautiful her hair was, how pretty her dress was.
She was just eleven the first time, an innocent child dreaming about the future and starting to notice a lovely difference in the boys. And here came this much older, much more mature teenage boy who picked her out of the crowd of girls at children’s camp. She walked with him as her friends watched, and she felt more special than anyone. At the end of the week he gave her a card. “Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has not opposite in fear”, signed off as E.E. Cummings. She read it as a declaration of his enduring dedication.
She kept that card for seven years, carrying it everywhere she went. Late into the night, in her all-girls secondary school, she read that little message over and over, and whenever there was a chance she would sneak to call him on the phone. Theirs were conversations about her schooling, about her dreams, and her struggle through the boring days away from everything she loved, away from him. He told her she must forget about him, told her little about himself, and for four years she called again and again and all he had to say was “work hard.” He told her he would be there waiting for her if she brought home the best results. So she got all As, and he was the first person to whom she forwarded the Examination Council message. Now, she thought, he would love her more. She had become his intellectual match.
In the eight months since joining medical school she has called him every other day but he has never invited her over. Now she has invited herself to see him, read his stories, and hear his voice say those things he used to tell her when she was that little girl.
She swallows hard. Has he even noticed the cleavage? The way her body has blossomed?
He says nothing as he opens the door and ushers her in.
“Siku mob sijuakuona,” he says, leaving her in the living room and walking into the kitchen.
“I’ve been ok,” she says. “Wewe umekuaje?”
There is a clatter of plates and sufurias. Maybe he has not heard her. She sits and thinks of the man she spoke to just yesterday on the phone, a man defined by memories of tender words and his sweet smile when he kissed her, a man who looked deep into her eyes and made her body tremble, her knees wobble. This man looks clumsy. He has long, uncombed hair. He moves around his house haphazardly.
When he returns to the living room he takes the computer and logs into his email.
“Damn,” he says. “I have to respond to this email now. There’s something I need to proofread and send to my editor.”
“Must be interesting.”
“You want to read it?” He looks up, and sees her smile.
She skims through, even skipping entire pages. His sentences are crude and his descriptions are too much. He piles words upon words as though building a brick house. Needing some sort of explanation, she tries to convince herself that this is an earlier work, or something he perhaps wrote while ill. Anything to show her that this is not his work.
Kamau is in the kitchen cleaning, making noise with everything he touches. She wonders whether, knowing that he has written crap on those pages, he wants to distract her. The cacophony rises like an invisible battle, intensified by her disappointment. Her universe is in chaos. Everything is foul now.
She joins him in the kitchen, hoping for some singular word to restore his godlike image in her mind, to make him again that man for whom she would do anything.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“Yes please,” he says and turns to walk away.
“I said ‘help’,” she says taking his hand, “not do it for you.”
“Could you please, please just be a good girl and make the damn lunch?”
“I am being good. I am helping you cook.”
“What’s such a big deal? You’re a girl and should do this shit without even being asked.”
“I am your visitor,” she says, raising her voice.
“So now you can’t cook for me?”
“For God’s sake, I am not your fucking wife!”
He walks out into the living room without saying anything. She is afraid he is ceasing to be all that he has always been to her. She needs to do something to hold on. She prepares his meal, paying special attention to detail so as to make it sweet. She has the feeling that now is the time and, after all, Mama did say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Perhaps it will make him talk, say some truths to her, help her understand.
He is watching Breaking Bad when she finishes making lunch. She sets the small table and welcomes him to his meal. There’s that smile again, and as he eats he says nothing. The only sound is that of his chewing which is so loud she feels like she could vomit. Still, she finds it amusing, something she could use to begin a conversation. Maybe some awkward story about how her mother used to cane her brother because he was such a noisy eater. But she worries for his ego. She wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings.
After they have eaten, saying very little to each other, he calls her to him. She thinks this will be the moment of intimacy, when he will open his heart and speak to her out of its depths. She stands and walks over to him. She sits on his lap and he circles an arm around her back.
Nyambura looks into his eyes, ignoring his breath which wafts a little bit of rottenness. She needs him to speak. To tell her that he loves her too. To tell her what he feels for her. When he touches her hair, she does not resist. His hand move to rest on her breast. He presses it again and again, as though exercising his fingers with a soft ball.
She forgets the story, tells herself it takes a while to arrive at one’s true voice, to write that masterpiece. Now is the moment for love perfected in weakness.
“Can I ask you a question?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he whispers, looking at her with eyes melting with desire.
“What do you want?”
“You really want to know?”
He lifts her up and carries her to the bedroom. He places her on the bed and begins pulling off her skirt. She sits up and holds his face with both hands.
“Look at me, Kamau, look at me.
“Let’s talk,” she says.
“Talk about what? I want you. What else do you want me to say?”
She does not take her eyes off his. “Tell me that you love and desire me as much as I do you.”
He goes to sit by the study table close to the window, and picks up a book.
“Make your decision,” he says after a while. “Say whether or not you want me.”
“But you know that I love you.”
“Then let me.”
For a long time he reads through his book while she sits on his bed. Nyambura leans her head on her knees, and remains motionless. When she finally looks up, her eyes are red. No tears flow, but there is a sudden and settled crimson in them. She goes to him, holds his head and places it on her breast.
“I want to surrender myself to you, my dear. But I need to know that you love me.”
“I don’t want to lie to you,” he says.
For a long time they stay there in silence. He picks up his computer and says he needs to send the story back, so he will not see her out. Wondering whether he does not want to be seen with her, she watches as he attaches the story to his mail.
“But you have not worked on the edits,” she says.
She does not reply. He is what he is, she realizes, and this is his work. Maybe his best. Holding back her tears, she picks up her bag and heads towards the door.
When she gets home, she does not dial his number and she does not type a text which to send him. She thinks about him, how much she loves him, but she does not cry. She feels maybe she should. She thinks of his lips on hers, their incredible tenderness. She thinks of the way her body ached when his hand reached between her legs, his laboured breath over her as he attempted to tear off her skirt. She knows she will never again go that far. With him or anybody else. Her body will be her own. Her dreams will be her own. Her life will be her own.
She retires early.
Moses Kilolo (@moseskilolo) is the Managing Editor of Jalada, a pan-African writers’ collective. He lives and works in Nairobi, from where he also runs the affairs of the collective. His fiction and poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in Kwani?, Story Moja and Poetry Portion, among others.