“Yes?” Who’s there?” I said to the two taps on the door.
“It’s me,” she replied from the other side.
“Oh, come in. It’s open.”
Beenzu and I had been together a little over a year and a half, a relationship packed with very low lows interspaced with high highs. A couple of months earlier, her presence would have jolted me to my feet, would have sprung me to open the door and pull her in. But at that point, neither her presence nor absence made much difference. I was neither excited nor despondent to have her around. She made me no less happy nor sadder. Perhaps I had just gotten used to us, gotten used to her and her to me. The glint that lit up in her eyes whenever she saw me had died out ages ago, in it’s place sat a nonchalance. Perhaps that’s normal. Perhaps in love, the excitement dies with the novelty.
“Hi,” she said, her tone flat.
When something is bothering a woman, you just know. She reorders the ions in the air and makes it harder to breathe. When something is bothering the woman you love, it’s as though she takes the reins of your heart and turns it to a racehorse. So the air rolled up into pebbles, and my heart swelled up in my chest, until it felt as though it would leap out of my mouth.
“We should talk,” she continued.
I sat up on my bed and watched her sit gingerly on the other end. There was something unsure about her demeanor, something that wasn’t quite her about it. Her shoulders slouched forward and she kept her eyes to the floor, away from me, as though afraid that I would read in her eyes everything she intended to say. She looked timid, almost afraid, either of me or of what she was about to say. For the first time in the two years I had known her, the confidence that made her look bigger than she really was seemed lost and I noticed how tiny her frame had been all along. I wondered if this was a direct consequence of our relationship, a direct consequence of me so that she lost herself, lost her shine, lost… weight. I knew then that I would give her whatever it was she asking for, that I wouldn’t deny her.
“Yeah, sure. I’m all ears,” I said.
“Are you happy?”
I wanted to ask her if she was asking whether I was happy with her or happy with life in general, wanted to tell her that I was a lot of things- that I was lost. Confused. Afraid. Uncertain. Unconfident. Insecure. Broke. But happy was not one of them. I wanted to tell that it had nothing to do with her. That “happy” had always been a stretch for me. That I just thought that “happy” was temporary. That happy was not a constant state. That it was fleeting, just like any other state. There were good periods, really good times. Then those faded and bad periods, horrible periods settled in. And then there was a medium that felt like nothing, in which nothing was neither wrong nor right. That was life. Life was volatile. Happy fluctuated. I wanted to tell her I was in that medium. That I knew that she was asking whether or not I was happy with her, if “US” brought me joy, if she made me happy. I wanted to tell her that “We” only had me in that medium too, that “We” had me indifferent, that “WE” had very little impact on my state.
“I don’t think I am happy or sad. I am just there, just in the middle. Are you happy?” I said instead.
“What do you think?”
“Well, you haven’t told me otherwise.”
“I asked you what you think. Do I look happy?” she said, turning to face.
Our eyes met for the first time. When we first got together, I told her how bright her eyes were, how easily they lit up and brightened her entire being, how they carried this light into which one look was enough to loosen the hardest hearts, to lighten the gloomiest mood. But on that day, when her gaze caught mine, her eyes were vacant; there wasn’t really a darkness to them, but there wasn’t a light there either. It’s as though she was there but not, as though she just darted her eyes my way more than she was looking at me. The bags under her eyes sagged and her collar bone popped up between her drooping shoulders. She looked wearied, looked jaded; perhaps for the first time; perhaps she had been for a while unbeknownst to me; perhaps that was testament to how little attention I had been paying.
I then caught my reflection in the mirror that sat behind her, my own weariness bouncing into my eyes. The bags beneath my eyes bulged. My hair sat afloat my head, unkempt like a forsaken lawn. My clothes hang off my body the same way they dangled off a hanger; my body scrawny and limp, my lips dry and cracking.
“Look at us,” I exclaimed, pointing at the two strangers in the mirror. I scooted to the end of the bed closer to the mirror, dug my elbows into my thighs, sat my chin in the palm of my hands and eyeballed our reflections. She shifted to sit beside me, resting her head on my shoulder. For a second, in the midst of our lowest low was a speck of high. “Just look at us.”
When we first met, I was looking for love… or whatever it is that people look for to cure loneliness at 17. And she fell right into my lap. She sought after me more than I sought after her, something uncommon for guys like me, guys who were just “okay”. Perhaps that was a big part of it: being wanted, the feeling like I too could be wanted, how it mattered more in the moment than the many obvious signs that this was bound to go phut. Conversations were easy, as always is with all new people, while the novelty prevails. But it felt different with her at the time. In hindsight, maybe it never was; maybe I just wanted it to feel different. Texts all day. Late night calls. Her words slid off her tongue effortlessly and strum the cords of my heart whatever way she desired, had me right where she wanted me. She had a way of getting what and who she wanted, and it was more of a skill than it was manipulative. She got me. I bought into it, bought into her, bought into this fantasied idea of a relationship. I wanted it to be love. Willed it to be love. But love sought after for a purpose only survives as long as the need it is to fulfill persists, and it dies along with it. Besides, can it ever be love at 17?
It was evident from the beginning how different we were, how she hailed from one end of the spectrum and I from the other, how dissimilar our two worlds were. A part of me always knew she was bad for me, knew that I was not the type of lad who could handle her, that I was not a person who even wanted someone who felt the need to be handled. I valued peace, tried to be peaceful, while she had a stand-offish nature, felt the need to challenge things. But back then, I had a knack for following the things I knew were not meant for me, for convincing myself otherwise. Opposites do attract, for we are wired to be drawn to the things we lack, the things we do not have, the things we wished we had. But opposites do not stay together long. That is only valid for magnets.
“You know, we are sooo different,” I once said to her.
“Well, maybe that is what makes us work; that’s what brings us together,” I continued, her lips pressing on mine and swallowing the last few words. We did more of that than talking about things.
In truth, our differences were the problem. It always felt like trying to fit a hammer through a bolt. I never felt that I was enough for her, that I was what she wanted. And I could never say unequivocally that she was what I wanted. I am certain she felt the same way.
“You feel way too much,” she stated one time. And I began to resent that part of me, began to wish that I were different, began to suppress it… for her. I wanted her to like me, to love me. But the truth is I loved feeling as much as I did. I liked that I felt everything, that everything carried meaning to me, loved that it made me me. And I did not need to change it.
“Mweemba sells Herbalife products. She really is resourceful, you know?” I said to her ever so often about my best mate’s girlfriend.
“Well, I’m sorry that I can’t be more like Mweemba. I’m sorry that I can’t be as resourceful as she is, that I can’t start something up for myself. I promise, I will get there someday,” she retaliated on another day, teary-eyed.
My heart sunk to the pit in my stomach seeing her that way. I knew what I was doing, knew that I wished she were more like Mweemba, wished that she were different; I knew I was repeatedly comparing her to somebody else. But I did not wish to admit it to her, admit to myself.
So I said, “No. No, that isn’t what I meant at all. I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
“Well, it does feel that way. It doesn’t feel like I am what you want.”
“No, that isn’t the case at all. I’m sorry that I made you feel that way, made you think that. You are all I need and more,” I lied.
We had spent the entirety of our relationship wishing we were with other people, bending each other out of shape to try and make the other what they weren’t, make them what we wished they were. And this was the corollary of it all, starring at us in that mirror: two broken people. Some compromise is a requisite for every relationship. But compromise is not meant to change you, not meant to make you different. Compromising for her always felt like having to uproot the entirety of my personality, to change me. Perhaps it was for her too.
My monologues about how I thought things should be were to her useless lectures for which she did not care, and her inability to properly communicate her feelings was to me a lack of desire to do so. My life was too boring for her, hers was too wild for me. I came off too defensive to her while I felt unheard. Her bluntness, which was to me rudeness, was to her honesty. I felt too much for a man and she too little for a woman. How she dealt with issues was to me sweeping them under the rug; my way was to her unnecessary. My jokes were always subject to explanation, as were hers. She often felt that I villainized her and played victim, while I felt that she never did understand what I was really trying to say. If she wanted left, I usually wanted right.
I wondered, in hindsight, why neither of us left, why neither of us ever did walk out and find the people we truly desired to be with. And I realized that familiarity breeds a feebleness that persuades us to think that we can only ever be loved by that one person, that we could not be desired by anyone else. And even if we were, we could never again be wanted the way that one person does. And that in turn births fear- of being alone, of relearning to do life without the person with whom you have become so accustomed to doing it with, of losing. So, we, as people often do, opted to sit there and watch a once good thing turn to misery, and misery to resentment, too afraid to do anything else.
And so, on that day, as I saw in the mirror what we had done to each other, her head on my shoulder, I said, “No. No, you do not look happy. I know you aren’t happy. We haven’t been for a while now.”
“I don’t know you, Bee,” I continued.
“What does that mean?”
“See, I wanted to know you so bad that when I couldn’t, I memorized you. I memorized everything about you- from your favorite color, your weird family dynamics, your passions or lack thereof, all the way to your facial experiences, all your intonations and what they mean. But these are things that stay the same. I’m looking at you 2 years down the line and I don’t know you, don’t know who you are.”
“Wait, so you think I have changed?” she barked, pulling her head off my shoulder. “You are the one who’s all different, who’s nothing like what you were when we first started this.’
“But that’s the thing: we are supposed to change. We aren’t supposed to stay the same kids we was two years ago. We ought to be different, to grow up. We just… grew up separately, I guess, grew in different directions. We spent so much time telling each other who and what to be that we did not ever learn who the other person really was, who they would be in two years.”
I realized then how little we talked, how long it had been since we talked. We often said things to each other because that is what people do when in the company of others: say things reciprocally. We each gave responses when the other posed a question and passed vague comments when a statement was made. We made small talk about family, about friends, about the weather and food. We said things to each other, but we did not talk. We swept things under the carpet until it piled up, until we could not walk around without stepping on it. It had been long since we got round to creating our own conversational bubble in which only we existed, out of which the world was shut, in which we shared parts of ourselves with each other, parts of who we were becoming. It had been long since we listened, since I listened.
“Why are you so unhappy,” I put out.
“I’m just stressed, man. I’m stressed out by you, stressed out by us. We are always solving problems. Someone is always apologizing for something. I’m just tired,” she said.
There was times, such as these, when I envied how blunt and direct she was, how she could call it what it is without feeling the need to smear unnecessary pleasantries all over it, how she never felt the need to be liked, for she never thought being likable was a desirable trait. And she was right: our conversations had turned to peace-making negotiations, two parties always at loggerheads. I could not recall the last time I made her laugh, or at least smile. And vice-versa. I couldn’t remember the last time we just… talked, like normal couples did. How had we gotten there? How had we allowed ourselves to trial off like that?
I thought about how laborious it had become to do for her. My mother taught me to do for a woman, taught me that my actions were the loudest thing she would hear. But to do for her had become dreary. Everything felt more like a task than a will. Even the smallest things were too much, took too much. To be with her had become a job, a task I had to complete, one from which I’d be exhausted at the end of the day. And I often saw in her eyes that she felt the same way.
“And you? Why are you unhappy?” she continued, her eyes glossy.
When we first got together, she did not allow herself to cry as much as she ought to, did not allow herself to feel. But overtime, perhaps with my influence, tears rolled down her cheeks more often. On another day, it would be at this point, looking into her wet eyes, that I would choose to water down my own feelings, would choose to spare hers and sugar-coat what I needed to say.
But on that day, I said, “I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling misunderstood. It’s as though we speak different languages. I do not understand what you say the way you want me to, try as I may; and you cannot understand me either. I’m tired of never feeling enough for you. I’m just… tired.” The tears then gushed out of her eyes, her head slumping on my shoulder again.
“What will we do?” she responded, her voice wobbly.
I knew then why she had sat the way she did, why she looked the way she did when she walked in. She knew what had to be said, she what she had to be done. But she did not have the courage, did not have the strength to do it. She needed me to do it, needed me to see the necessity for it. It was what she wanted, and I purposed to oblige.
“Maybe it’s time to let this go, Bee.”
“Oh, God,” she murmured.
“I don’t know how to make you happy. I mean, look at us,” I continued, pointing at the mirror again, “Look at what we have done to each other. You are better than this, man. You deserve better. And quite frankly, so do I.”
“Yeah, I know. I know you do,” she sighed. “How did we get here?”
“It’s the lies we told.”
“Huh? The what?”
“The lies we told, the ones we mounted in place of the truth. It’s the times we moved on from things as though nothing happened, the times we did not speak and learn from it, the times we opted out of tough conversation. It’s the times we said it was okay when it wasn’t, the times we said we were doing fine when we weren’t. It’s the times we said that how different we were was okay, the times we said that was the glue that stuck us together. It’s the times we watered down our truths and tossed them out, the times we said this was fine, that it was normal. It’s the times we said “I love you and did not mean it. It’s the lies we told. That’s what brought us here.”
“This is the first time one of your lectures has made sense,” she mocked.
“They always do,” I replied, chuckling.
“We aren’t good for each other, are we?”
“No, we aren’t. It’s time to let this go.”
I was surprised on that day by how literal a “heartbreak” was. I had always assumed that it was a figure of speech. That it was not a real thing. That a heart could not “break”. That it was a concept born of the knack that humans had for exaggerating emotion until it become more relevant than it should have ever been. It always infuriated me, the patronizing manner in which people said, “You have never been heartbroken,” as though it were something to be aspired for, as though not having had one rendered me incomplete. It infuriated me even more to suggest that despondency, which we all suffer at some point, could be so severe as to dysfunction a whole organ. But on that day, I felt something disintegrate, followed by an ache, a throb in my chest. I felt pieces dash out into the air with every breath I took, felt them roll into my stomach and sit there until it was uncomfortable to be upright.
“Yeah, I suppose it’s time,” she replied. “Friends?”
“Always,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that I meant it. We had never been friends, had never gotten round to it. How then would we learn to be that, to be something we had never been. She got up to leave, and I got up with her. She wrapped her arms around my torso and sunk her head into my chest. I held her for what felt like an eternity, until I felt the sting of wetness on my shirt.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said with an honesty that surprised even me.
“I’ll miss you too,” she replied through sobs.
“You can’t come back, Bee.”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean you can’t come back again. This is it. We can’t try this again. There isn’t a point. I’m not good for you and neither are you for me. That won’t change. You can’t come back.”
“I promise,” she hesitated.
“Hey, uhm… I meant to love you right. I tried to,” I said after she stepped through the door I held open for her.
She looked back at me and stared for a while, as though afraid that it would be the last time she would see me, that she would forget me if she did not stare long enough.
“Bye,” I replied, and watched her walk into the distance, her head up, shoulders back- as though a load had been lifted off of her.
As a man, you don’t get many opportunities to cry. You do not get many reasons that are deemed valid enough for you to cry. So you store everything up like coins in a piggy bank. And when the right reason, a valid reason comes along, you crack it open and left all those coins out. So, that evening, I cried in a way only a man could cry. I cried from my head all the way to my feet, cried about all the things I was not allowed to cry about: from Manchester United games and the times I stabbed my toes… all the way to the throb I was feeling in my chest.
Today, I saw her in the grocery store, about down 3 aisles from where I was stood, a muscley arm wrapped around her, and she was laughing at something he said. She spotted me as she turned to pick something from a shelf. She then smiled and waved. I could she that the light in her eyes had returned, that her smile brightened again. She was happy. And I was glad that I let her go all those years ago, that I refused to wilt when the temptation to ask her back in arose, that she found her light again, somewhere far from me. I smiled and waved back.
“Got everything?” my wife said from behind me.
“Yes. Yes, I have.”
“Great. Let’s go.”
“Hey… I love you,” I said.
“Aww, I love you too. You know you don’t have to say that just to get me to sleep with you, right?”
“Really? I thought that was my ticket,” I joked.
“This,” pointing to her wedding ring, “is an all-access pass,” and we burst out laughing in the aisle, as we often did.
“Are you okay, though?” she continued.
“I am. I just felt the need to remind you… I love you.”
“Well, I love you too,” she said, looking her arm into my free one at the elbow. “Come on, let’s go.”