She looked at her phone as it lit up, slowly inhaling the cigarette in her hand. It was the only light in the dark room. She was sitting at the edge of the bed, her feet hanging on the side. There was an ashtray next to her and every few seconds she would tap the cigarette on it. She lit a second one with the dying embers of the first and inhaled deeply still looking at the phone. There caller ID had only one letter:
J is calling.
The call disconnected and then started again a few seconds later. It has been like this the whole evening. Back to back calls for about five minutes punctuated with about fifteen minute silences. After the first hour she turned down her ringer and it was now just vibrating. In total her screen showed 50 missed calls.
She finished the cigarette and threw it into the ashtray. A thread of smoke snaked slowly upwards as it went off. She stood up and picked a mug full of cooling tea that was on a table by the side of the bed. She sipped the tea slowly and paced towards the door at the end of the room and back again to her bed. She did this several times then stood and silently continued contemplating her phone as it lit up again, the tea mug forgotten in her hands.
She knew what she was supposed to do. She knew that the best thing for her is to ignore the call until he got tired and stopped calling. But already her skin was feeling tight from anticipation. Her back arched involuntarily with remembering. Her heartbeat quickened every time there was a pause, one part of her wishing he would give up, the other going into panic that he would. She had smoked through one pack of cigarettes since his first call. There were many reasons why answering would be a very bad idea and she thought about the most recent reason some months ago.
They were coming back from a weekend out of town, driving down the Nairobi-Naivasha highway. It was early evening and there was a slight drizzle as it had been most of that July. They were both in good spirits. They had left Nairobi around 10am saturday morning and taken a leisurely drive to the cabin by the lake. There was an easiness between them, easiness built in the five years they’ve known each other. They had long diverse conversations but could also sit comfortably in silence. They also laughed hard and often. They made several stops on their way there, taking many pictures together with the expansive Rift Valley as their backdrop. They posed for each other, making funny faces. Anyone watching would see a happy, carefree couple deeply in love with each other. In a way that’s what they were.
They spent most of the weekend in their room, barely clothed, coming out to eat and sit by the lake watching the sun setting in the evening. By the end of the two days they were feeling good about each other, constantly finding excuses to touch each other; hands, face, back, shoulder, thigh. It had been two months since they reconnected and for the first time she was feeling hopeful enough to let her guard down. Maybe this time it’s different.
When they got to the city they decided to buy food and then go to her house to complete their weekend, watching a movie or two before starting the new week. As they were leaving the restaurant he received a text message. To an outsider, the change in him was barely visible. It was more a change in energy rather than any physical action. She felt herself tense instinctually in response and her heart plummeted. After reading the message he put his phone away but didn’t say anything to her. She pretended she hadn’t noticed anything and they continued on their way.
He turned to her with a smile and cracked a joke and the tension that had started to build dissipated. She sighed with relief and tucked the uneasiness to the back of her mind.
As they got closer to her house, he received a phone call and before he picked up she saw a picture of the caller. It was her. She had never met this woman in person but had spent six months obsessively going through all her social media platforms monitoring her every move, connecting them with his. She knew how she looked like when she smiled, or laughed, what her politics were, what kind of work she did.
Everything she could find.
She went very still and listened to his side of the conversation as if it was coming from a great distance.
“Oh, was that tonight?”
“You’re already there? Oh shit”
“I’m so sorry, just coming back but I’m stuck in really bad traffic, don’t know how long I’m gonna be.”
“Maybe an hour. “
“Ok, will try.”
He hung up the phone and after a few minutes told her he wouldn’t be staying at her house after all, he had just remembered he had to take care of something. For the first time since the weekend started the car was filled with a heavy silence.
“Who was that?” she finally broke the silence.
“What?” He asked even though she knew he had heard her.
“Who was that?” She asked again, this time louder, her voice coming from tightly clenched teeth.
“Oh who was that? Just Robert, he needed some stuff from me for that presentation we have with the bosses tomorrow.”
The lie cut through the fog she had been in since he came back and settled in her heart. She suddenly felt breathless and took a huge gulp of air. She could feel her anxiety creeping under her skin and took a couple more deep breaths to calm herself. She turned slowly and looked at his face, examining it. Her expression was deceptively calm, one of mild interest, as if she was looking at mating insects and not a man who was increasingly pissing her off. She had never asked him questions before. Since they started seeing each other, she took whatever he offered and watched silently every time he told her he had to leave. Her pain and tears had been for herself in the privacy of her house. The last time they stopped seeing each other, it was because he had met this girl. And when he called her a month ago, as per usual whenever he came back to her, they picked up from where they’d left off. He moved back into her bed and they pretended to be a couple again.
This had been going on for five years. But there was an unspoken rule that she had never asked him to lie to her, had never given him any reason to. She accepted whatever he gave her with no expectations but gave him everything of her.
“You lying asshole” she spat out at him, the words coming out thick and slow.
“You fucking cheating lying asshole”
“Listen…” he started.
“Don’t, don’t say anything. I can’t believe you would lie to me. Me?? After everything I have given to you. After everything I have done to you? YOU FUCKING DARE TO LIE TO ME??” the last words came out in a scream.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, I’m not lying. It was Robert. Do you want to see my phone?” He threw his phone at her and she threw it back at him.
“I don’t want to see your stupid phone. I SAW HER PICTURE. I thought you were done with her!! Did you make plans to see her while you were with me??” She looked at him incredulously.
“And she calls you and all of a sudden you can’t wait to get away from me? After this weekend, after everything you told me? What kind of idiot do you think I am? Oh my God, you actually do think I’m an idiot don’t you?”
By the end of that conversation he had turned the tables in a way he only knew how and threatened that he would never see her again. She had started crying; weeping in panic both at the thought of never seeing him again and for herself and the black hole she had managed to put herself in. She begged and pleaded with him not to leave her, to please choose her, to let her love him. At some point they had to stop the car because she had to throw up cos of how much she was crying.
In the end he angrily dropped her at the gate of her apartment, and refused to get out of the car to even hug her goodbye. At this point she didn’t even care about the girl anymore, all she thought was ‘”Omg I’ve lost him, I’ve lost him, I’ve lost him, what did I do, what did I do, please God don’t let me lose him” She stood outside the car, refused to move, her face wet and puffy until he finally reluctantly got out and gave her a halfhearted hug- no kiss- and drove off. She slowly dragged herself into her house and spent the night alternating between crying and sending him pleading messages until she fell asleep.
When she woke up the next morning, she felt like she was at the bottom of a garbage bin. She couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror; she was so ashamed of herself. In that moment of self-loathing she was able to make a decision to never see him again. It took her slow painful months to get rise from the rock bottom she had sunk to that night.
And now here he was calling her again.
She got off the bed and switched on the light. She looked around her room as if seeing it for the first time. She had changed it up since the last time she saw him trying to remove traces of him from it. She liked how it looked now; during the day the light came in giving it a feeling of cheerful airiness. She had spent a lot of time in there in the last few months writing and working on her many projects. There had even been a man or two. She was relatively happy, as happy as you can be when your heart had been put through a shredder and now functioned only at half capacity. At the very least, she was much better than she had been when he had been in her life.
She looked at her phone again and picked it up her finger hovering over the answer button. She looked at the letter J, remembering why she had saved it that way when they had first met. He was supposed to be temporary, so she hadn’t seen the need save him using his full name. A one-night tryst (one night stands) that she allowed herself at a time when she was feeling reckless. But he had managed to fix himself into her life and heart and they had started their game of revolving doors. He came into her life whenever he pleased and she always left the door open. But this time she convinced herself the door was firmly shut behind him. This time she thought she had fortified herself to never allow him in again.
She slid her finger across the phone screen and listened to his voice saying “Hello” on the other side for a few moments. It was a low and deep, a sound she had become accustomed to as much as she was to her own. A sound that sometimes came to her in her dreams. She finally put the phone on her ear and whispered into it,
She picked up her bag and slowly walked out of the room shutting the door firmly behind her.