He used to be her man.
She dusts her house again. It doesn’t really need dusting, not after the thorough cleaning she has given it, but you never know. There might be dust lurking somewhere.
He used to carry her with such ease, she just couldn’t believe such easy, graceful strength. He once carried her across a ditch in town, and didn’t care who saw. He selected songs from different albums, compiled them into a ‘Dedication’ for her. Sometimes he sang along; they both knew he couldn’t carry a tune, but that was not the kind of thing you said to your man.
Lekeni hasn’t seen him in 17 years.
When they started dating, they were both 23. He was taller, bigger. She was petite. They dated for two stormy years.
Two years in which she would look at this man, especially when he stretched out on her sofa, and just wonder what she had done to deserve such a catch. Two years in which all he had to do was smile that beautiful smile, and she would forgive him anything. Anything.
She loves beauty, with the fervent love of those who have become aware, over time, that while they may be attractive, while they may have that inner beauty, they do not have THAT element which makes people stop and stare. She accepts that.
Even her house is a reflection of how she respects and admires beauty. Nothing flashy, but tasteful pieces that will make you stop and stare. The painting of an aloe vera in bloom, with the succulent, thorny leaves in competitive contrast with the soft pink sprouting buds. The suggestion of dew on both buds and leaves.
Her curtains; simple, silk and green. On the shelf, a small sculpture of a dancing woman, her hands lifted in mid-air.
Taking pride of place, her coffee table, carved from mahogany, with the top of the table covered in glass. Both the mahogany and the glass have such intricate designs; you would have to be crazy to put your coffee on that coffee table. She knows that, and when her nieces and nephews come over for the holidays, they know that too. Look, but don’t touch, unless it is to gently wipe the table.
Dingane, the man who used to be her man, wasn’t just handsome, he was beautiful. He was living art; a smooth brown skin, arched eyebrows, high cheekbones, straight, white teeth, and all that without appearing effeminate. And then he was tall, so tall she looked up to him in every sense of the world.
She would forgive him anything. Anything. The tantrums, the silent treatments. Even the pranks. Like the time he had broken up with her for no particular reason, and then told her that he hadn’t meant it, surely she could take a joke? Why must she take everything so seriously?
When he leaned his head like that, looking at her pleadingly, how could she not forgive? She learnt to stay one step ahead, to anticipate the moods, the sulks, the amazing, beautiful smiles. After all, it was not as if he beat her or shoved her. Beautiful people were allowed to be temperamental; that was their flaw. All he had to do was say, “Lek,”the short form that he had coined of her name, the short form no-one else had ever thought of, and she would forgive, and ask herself why she was being so petty.
He used to be her man. But by the time she was 25, she was tired of apologising, of not pointing out when she was annoyed, when she was not happy. She was tired of being understanding. She could not understand any more.
So the next time he came over, she questioned him. Why had he said he was coming on Tuesday, only to come four days later? Because he had been busy, surely she knew that his job as an IT specialist demanded a lot from him. Why did she always seem to phone more than he did? Again, he was busy. Why did he always expect her to drop everything when he called, and yet he didn’t seem to do the same when she called? Oh, now she was keeping tabs, was she?
But she wouldn’t stop, not even when she saw those fine eyebrows narrowing. Why? Why? Why?
In the end he walked away, accusing her of having become a nagging woman overnight. He walked away, taking his beauty with him.
They avoided seeing each other, even though they had quite a few friends in common. From them, she learnt that he had changed jobs, was with another firm. She learnt about the move from Blantyre to Lilongwe. A year later, she learnt about the new girlfriend.
She moved on too, fell in love again. Her heart got broken again, and again. And every time it didn’t work out with someone, she would think of that beautiful man, in the days when her biggest concerns had been irregular telephone calls. She thought about the beautiful man when she broke up with Peter, who thought beating her up was okay. She thought of the beautiful man when Carl broke off their engagement, claiming that he had just realised that their tribes were too different. She thought of the beautiful man when another engagement was called off, on the actual day of the engagement, because her fiancé had ‘forgotten’ to tell her that he had a wife and two children, and they had decided to attend the ceremony.
Meanwhile, the years have rolled on and on. A decade has passed. She has heard from friends about what has been going on in his life as well; a marriage, a divorce, a long-term relationship. But their lives have taken different paths, and that is all there is to it.
At least, that’s what she thought, until some months ago, when she met him at Shoprite. It was a brief meeting, between the aisles. He hasn’t changed at all, he’s still beautiful, she thought to herself. How could any woman walk away from that?
It was a brief meeting, less than five minutes. But five minutes are enough to turn someone into a convert. He saw her first, and when he called across the aisle, “Lek” she just knew, just knew it was him. In less than five minutes, she had become a worshipper again ;adoring, gazing, marvelling at the beauty before her. And when, in those five minutes, he asked her for her number, it is a wonder she gave him the correct one, it was that difficult to concentrate.
She felt silly, really. She was forty, and yet here she was, hoping he would call, glancing at her phone in the manner of a 16 year old.
He has been calling at least twice every week. He has sent her poems, jokes via texts, via WhatsApp. He has told her about his work, she told him about hers, about the patients she meets. He has told her about the good days, and the bad days.
She doesn’t want to jinx it, and she remembers how he does not like being crowded. She doesn’t know what he is looking for, and the years have taught her never to make assumptions. So even though the attention he is giving her takes her back to another time, more than a decade ago, she tells herself to get a grip.
She gives herself advice in the calm, firm manner that she reserves for reluctant patients, those who refuse to take their medicine. Don’t rush this, Lekeni, she says. He’s just being friendly. Enjoy that. Don’t read too much into it.
It is such discipline that has made her a fine nurse over the years.
She is trying to follow it, but it is getting to be more and more difficult. The phone conversations become longer. He has been going through a rough patch at work; he was passed over for a promotion that he really wanted, and he feels like a failure. She talks him through it, although, again, she feels like she is talking to a patient.
They talk some more over the weeks. And then he tells her how much he misses her. And he goes into ‘Do you remember’ lane. It is amazing the things he remembers; things she had filed away and kept in a tightly shut box at the back of her mind. He remembers carrying her over the ditch. He asks her what happened to the album he compiled. She can’t remember. He sings to her over the phone, a song from the ‘album.’ They both start laughing and he cannot finish the song.
He texts her, tells her again how much he misses her. It should have been her. It has taken him years, but whenever he looks back, he knows it should have been her. Does he have a chance now? Would she consider taking him back?
She texts him back. We can’t talk about this through texts. We would need a lengthy talk. It’s been a long time.
He tells her he will drive to Blantyre to see her. He will come over the weekend, on Saturday.
….. ……. ……. …..
She has been up since dawn, cleaning her already clean house. It is now around eight a.m. He will be arriving in two hours, arriving from the capital. She’s given him directions to Chitawira; he used to live in Blantyre before, he’ll have no problems getting to her place.
She needs, really needs, for the discussion to go well. There have been more texts over the phone, he calls her ‘my love’, calls her his ‘reason for living.’ He tells her when he’s knocked off from work, when he stops at a bar for a drink. A pattern is developing. They review their day at the end of every day. There are also times when the texts are flirtatious; when he tells her he would love to get a special massage from her. She tries to make light of it all by saying he’s better off going to a masseuse, her hands are good at giving injections, not giving massages. He talks about how there is always a first time. Sometimes she has felt like it’s going a bit fast, too fast, but she has been out of the dating game for over ten years; probably the rules changed at the same time that technology evolved. For her, you just can’t just be too friendly over the phone; you’ve got to meet and talk. But that’s not to say she’s not enjoying the attention, or that she hasn’t thought about how good it would be if they could sort everything out, be together again.
She chooses her dress with care; it’s a dark blue shift dress. Her sister Joanna had bought it for her a year ago, telling her, “This dress is perfect for you. It’s the kind of dress that says I-am-not-desperate-but-I-take-good-care-of-myself.’
That’s quite a lot for a dress to say, but she needs that confidence today. She stares into the mirror, neatens her braids with a pin.
You’re alright, Lekeni, you don’t look bad, she tells herself. Neat braids, clear eyes, a trim figure. You’re alright.
And then, he’s there, at her door. She lets him in, gives him a hug, he smells so good, he feels so good.
She offers him a glass of orange juice, he accepts. Oh, heaven help her, the man hasn’t lost it. She looks at his high cheekbones, his arched eyebrows, his smooth face, his full sensuous lips, and she wonders what was wrong with his ex-wife. What kind of woman would leave THAT?
They talk, but not about what they had planned to talk about. They talk about work, about the cities, about politics. Over lunch, he talks about the importance of a good diet, compliments her on the grilled fish. She offers him chocolate cake; bought for the occasion. He takes a small piece, explains that he watches what he eats. She watches him as he talks, watches that mouth moving. If he was to say, “To hell with the serious talk we are supposed to have. Let’s just kiss for a long, long time and make up,’’ she wonders if she would protest.
But she knows it is important that they talk. After lunch, they sit in silence.
“Hmm, I’ll have to be going soon,” he says.
She feels a slight flutter of panic. “We’re supposed to talk, aren’t we?”
He nods, grins. “Sure. Go ahead.”
She is puzzled. Where to start from? She has no idea.
After another awkward silence, or what seems to be an awkward silence to her, he starts talking again. Easily, naturally. But he’s not talking about them, he’s talking about a holiday he took to Mangochi last year. He’s talking about the forex that the country loses out annually by not investing in tourism. He talks about the new allotment of computers that his company recently bought from the States.
It is not the garbled talk of someone who is nervous. He is confident, the talk is measured, paced, relaxed. He is at ease in his surroundings. So relaxed is he that he puts his feet up….on Lekeni’s glass table. This time, she doesn’t notice his long legs, but focuses on his feet. He has removed his shoes by now, so she can see his feet, in grey socks, on her table. She winces. You can forgive him anything. He shifts back his weight on the sofa.
Within an hour he’ll be gone.
He keeps talking. About colleagues, about how he will run for MP one day, about the declining standards of education, about computer technology and how it’s the future. He is smiling, clearly happy with how the afternoon is progressing. As he speaks, he gestures with his beautiful hands to make a point.
Thirty minutes to go, and his feet are still on the table.
It is now or never. She takes deep breath.
“Dingane, I’m glad you’re here. It’s been a long time, and I’m happy that you made this trip. There were some things that we’ve been talking about over the phone.”
He waits, patiently. Doesn’t help her out.
“I just need to know. Were you serious?”
He nods. “Yes. At the time I said them.”
At the time I said them. The words echo in her living room.
“You see, the idea of getting back together did cross my mind, but then I realised I haven’t healed properly from my divorce. Yes, it was two years ago, but I still need to heal, plus the relationship I had after my divorce didn’t work out either. So I decided no, no relationship at the present time.”
No vacancies at present, but we will keep your application in our files.
Time has trained her well. So has her profession, which has taught her that if the prognosis is bad, you should not get emotional in front of the patient.
So she gives the briefest of smiles, and says to him, “Thank you for being honest.”
He beams, looking relieved. “Oh, I’m always honest.”
And this time, the longest twenty-five minutes of her life, she sustains, and even initiates conversation. She talks about the health sector, about overnight allowances for nurses, about how so many nurses leave the country and go to Britain. She talks about how frustrating it is to dole out Panadol to patients when they are suffering from something that needs stronger medication. She talks, filling in the time. She talks, and he nods encouragingly, giving his comments, talking about his friends in the Ministry of Health. He talks, occasionally rhythmically tapping his feet on the coffee table. Relaxed.
Four o’clock. He gets up, and thanks her for a wonderful afternoon. She thanks him for having come to see her, and wishes him a safe trip back.
Her whole body feels heavy. She walks slowly to the kitchen, picks a cloth, dampens it, and goes back to the living room. She takes a look at her coffee table. A really close look. There are some minute marks on the table from the rhythm it was made to sustain. Is that, is that a hairline crack? Look closer. It is. Really tiny. You wouldn’t see it if you didn’t look close enough, but it’s there. She wipes her table, gently. Her precious coffee table. Her heart is full, and she would like that fullness to leave her body, through tears. But her nurse’s voice stops her.
Don’t shed tears. She’ll buy a vase and put it on the table. That way the crack will be hidden. She’ll put a lace cloth over it. She’ll…
She catches herself short. She’ll do nothing of the sort. Let the table remain where it is, right there, with its fine hairline crack.