He had been cheating on her. He had been doing it for over a year. She had always known. But they had never talked about it. Neither of them dared bring it up. Him, for reasons she could only guess at. Her, because she could not bring herself to believe it. She could not confront that reality, so she dismissed the thought every time it occurred to her.
She was living on borrowed time, inside a bubble. And she knew it. Because it is impossible to dismiss thoughts of this kind. They always found their way back into her consciousness. A thousand times a day, she was reminded of his ongoing infidelity. Every time he texted her to say good morning. And every time she typed back the greeting from under her comforter.
They came back every time she kissed him when they met for a date. And every time she embraced him as he dropped her off at home. Even when she laughed at one of the jokes his easy humour served up, she was aware that there was something fake about her elation. It did not come from the old place. The shadow of the other women was always present.
And the nightmares she had, which always had her walking into her bedroom and finding him in her bed with another woman, always left her wrecked. She would wake up panting, with a tight feeling in her chest. In the darkness, the reality would come down on her with the force of an overloaded freight train. She’d cry into the covers for hours until she fell asleep again.
But when he proposed, kneeling on the dust outside a tent in a camping ground on the edge of the Mara, the light from a crackling bonfire playing on his dimpled cheeks, she said yes. She thought it would make it better, that things would change after that, or that she could at least learn to live with it. They had known each other since childhood anyway. There was no one else she had ever dreamed of saying yes to.
But try as she might, she could not get used to it. Instead, the unacknowledged elephant grew fatter and fatter. Slowly, it pushed the air out of their affection and hollowed it out. Its stinky excrement wrung the life out of their romance, turned them into tentative lovers, bereft of happiness and verve, dragging the carcass of their relationship along by a fraying thread.
The bubble in which she lived became tighter and tighter, making her feel more and more trapped. The plans for their wedding went on gathering steam. Their parents and uncles met and negotiated. But she felt dread instead of giddy trepidation. She started making up fantasies to console herself, but reality would not leave her alone. In some moments, she thought she would go mad.
None of it mattered now though. She had just broken it off. After much prevarication, she had finally gathered the courage and confronted him. And when he did not deny it, she told him it was over, that she could not be with him anymore. As she walked out of the café at which she had delivered those words, it all felt unreal. She had walked into the building his fiancé, and was now walking out single for the first time since high school.
On the outside, nothing had changed. But everything about her world felt different. The colours on storefronts felt muted. Cars seemed to crawl on the streets. Everybody’s footsteps seemed to move in slow-motion. And the sounds that entered her ears melted into a muted, undifferentiated drone.
She saw a matatu and walked to it. She did not know the route it served. But she did not care. It did not really matter now. All she knew was that she just wanted to get as far away from there as possible. The red-eyed conductor waved her in, shouting the name of the terminal destination and the fare from a mouth that also spewed spittle.
She did not hear a thing he said. The half chewed shrub that landed on her cheek did not bother her either. She sat down by a window. She saw that it was open, but that fact did not strike her as being particularly meaningful. Her mind was somewhere else. Her world was spinning. The blood pumping across her temples was thumping like a drum. She felt her grasp on sanity slipping.
Then her phone, to which she had been holding tightly as if it could support her, vibrated. She turned up its glowing screen and saw a text from Jason. “Can we at least talk sometime?” She felt bile rising from deep within her, but it got cut off by the muted sensation she felt around her. She had lost even the power to be angry.
She looked out the open window at a tree whose leaves were caked in a layer of dust and soot. A dirty boy was leaning against its trunk. Nothing about him struck her as particularly meaningful. She saw him, but she did not really see him. What she saw was part of a world that no longer made sense to her. Her reality had transformed into something she did not know could even exist.
Why did it hurt so much? Had she not done the right thing? Had she not thought through the whole thing, and had she not been sure that the right decision would be to confront him and cut it off? Was she not the one that had been betrayed? Had she not given herself to him unreservedly? And had he not taken her love and stuffed it back down her throat until she gagged on it?
So why did it hurt so much to do the right thing? Hadn’t the anguish of making the decision been enough? Why did she feel so bad for jettisoning him, when he could no longer offer her anything, when he no longer deserved any grain of her tenderness? Her phone vibrated again. It was Jason. “Please.”
She wrote, “Leave me alone.” She hit the “send” button with a huff and went back to looking out the window. Another passenger sat next to her. She felt the rustle of clothes, a whispered complaint, and the pressure on her ribcage as her new companion settled into the tiny seat. But she didn’t turn to check out who it was.
The matatu jolted as it backed up out of its tight parking spot. The boy who was leaning against the tree took a step away from it. She was staring vacantly at him. She wasn’t seeing him. She wasn’t seeing anything. She couldn’t see. Her eyes were windows into the void. They were there because people are supposed to have eyes.
Her phone vibrated in her hand again. She looked down. Realised with disgust that his contact still bore the name “Babe.” She told herself she must change that immediately. He was asking, “Can I at least call you later?” She would change the name on his contact card after responding. No, she would delete his contact entirely.
She started typing, “I can’t do this anym…”
Her co-passenger dug a finger into her arm. She shook and turned to look at her companion. Saw that she was old and fat. Her thick arms were creased at the joints and marked with lengthy stretch marks. The pressure on her ribs acquired a bit of meaning. She cursorily noted that the matatu was full. That it was now easing out of the parking spot.
Then she noticed that the old lady’s other hand was pointing out the window. And she realised her hands were inexplicably lighter than they had been just a moment before. She looked at them and found that they were empty. Her phone was gone. Outside the window, a dirty boy was turning to run away. The same dirty boy who had been leaning against the tree. He had her phone in his hands.
That’s when she screamed.
Chaos and bedlam. A street vendor, whose stall was a plank of wood loaded with sweets, resting atop an overturned cardboard box, shouted “Mwizi!” and pointed at the disappearing street boy. Someone jumped from behind a shop counter and echoed the cry. He shoved a pedestrian aside and took to his heels after the boy. In another second, there were a dozen people going after him.
Sharon watched the street coming to life in response to her scream for a wild moment, unable to process this dramatic new addition to her already overloaded day. The matatu continued to move. It was when the scene was hidden behind another matatu that she burst out laughing.
It was a deep-chested, genuine laugh. The chortles rocked her slight frame like a steam locomotive going uphill. She was aware that all the eyes in the matatu were trained on her in deep puzzlement. The other passengers must have thought she was mad. It would not have made sense to them any other way. Who laughs after their phone gets stolen?
But the truth, which they could not know, was that, at that exact moment, she was unqualifiedly happy. For the first time in over a year, she was free. Whoever had directed that young boy to take her phone must have been sent by the gods.
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