It will happen unexpectedly, like a pop up window.
You’ll be walking down a footbridge, escorting this girl you fancy to her hostel from a film gig. Later on, as you write about the whole thing, you’ll try to remember what lead to it, what you were discussing the moment before and you will end up with nothing. You’ll only remember the statement rushing out of your mouth, heavy and uncomfortable, “I lost my best friend 5 months ago.”
You’ll brace yourself for the tightness in your chest, the dry throat, the sting at the corners of your eyes and the breathlessness that comes after the recoil punches you in the belly. It has become part of your reflexes, as anything that repetitive does, yet it feels surprisingly raw every single time. You’ll wait for a second too long before you realize it won’t be becoming this time. That is when surprise will set in – and a lonely question, “has it really been five months?”
The girl will have lost her smile and whispered a solicitude coated “pole” by then, evidently without an idea on what to say next. Both of you at a disadvantage. And you being you, will try to ease the tension. You’ll say something (else you won’t remember later) to shrug it off then slide in a joke and seem to walk away from the moment. Only it will replay in your mind over and over.
You’ll remember that night you found the missed call, tried calling back and received a text instead, “It’s Bee, she’s dead.”
Four fucking words that took your world by its nuts and turned it upside down with a thorough shake. The disbelief caught you first, then disarray, then anger… All of a sudden you were outside, staring at the sky, thinking about one of two things:
1. The one hour difference between Milan and Nairobi and wondering whether the same stars were shining in Italy at that moment.
2. Her Facebook message, “Everything will be okay baby, I promise.” She kept all her promises, apart from that one.
That is when the tears threw you to the ground, and you didn’t even bother to hold them back. You just dragged yourself back into the house and lay curled, shaking and sobbing and not believing still.
When the first flood subsided and the headache started to pulse, you remembered to ask about the baby – with a pang of guilt. Was he alright?
You’ll feel some guilt at the footbridge too.
You first thought the worst would be over in a week, and then you’d start the sure journey to healing. You’ve never been one to grieve much anyway. When your grandmother died, only you and your mother held fort in the whole family. You only broke down when it was time to sink the wooden cross into the fresh loam. Even then, you managed to walk a whole field away without letting a tear drop.
The day after the four word text, you stood in the sun outside her aunt’s house with a migraine splitting your skull and your eyelids sore, dialed the first number and broke the first person,then the second and the third. It felt like aiming at glass bottles with cannon balls. Only they would boomerang and smash you to smithereens too – every time.
“… She died yesterday.”
“…It can’t be! Man! Ngatia! Why are you doing this?”
“*sigh*… I’m sooo sorry.”
“…Passed on jana, postnatal complications.”
“OH GOD NO! She was only 21! We spoke yesterday!”
You regretted taking the responsibility of making those calls, but you knew they all deserved to hear it from someone who knew what it felt like to lose her.
Later that day, you dragged her aunt to town in an limp attempt at distraction, but all that came up in the conversations was her eccentricities, her obsessions, her insecurities, her stupid jokes, her passions, her grudges, her this, her that, her life… her death.
You walked through the streets pretending you could feel the sun, acting like the wind wasn’t blowing right through your ribcage. Like it wasn’t horrible to feel so alone in the world. Like you weren’t light-headed and scared you’d faint in the street any moment.
You’d be light-headed and scared of fainting two months later, escorting a friend to her bus stop. You’d have to rush into one of those city council benches outside Kenya Cinema to concentrate on not crushing. The coincidence would hit you later; the bench you chose is the setting at the beginning of one of you favourite performance poems.
By then you’d have stopped performing. The unexpected teary bouts and dark moods scaring you away from the stage. Who wants to crumble into an emotional mess behind a microphone? You’ll force jokes that taste like ash-paste into conversations to ensure no one notices a change in you. Then even the pretence will start feeling like too much work, so you’ll avoid conversations as much as possible, stay away from friends at school and blame work for that, plug your earphones in at work and leave early for school… Even when classes have been cancelled.
You’ll try to write but what comes out will terrify you. Then you’ll think of writing for her, about her, but no word will feel worth describing who she was or what she meant to you. Then later no word will feel worth anything. So you’ll stop writing. And answer questions about disappearing from the art scene with answers like. “I’m just taking a break.” … “Hehe, I’ll be back soon.” … “I’m working on something new.”… “Miss me already?”… “I sold out.”… “I’ve been caught up in so much…”
Normal looks from people will start reeking of “Get over it already.” And you’ll wonder why you haven’t. Why three months down the line, you still can’t reread your chats. So you’ll start to Google “grief” then change your mind. Then bump into a doctor friend and playfully ask for the symptoms of depression under the disguise of doing research for a character.
She will make your heart sink every time you recognize a symptom; the single meals a day, the erratic sleep, the helplessness, blandness of life, increased irritability, disinterest… But you can’t be depressed, you assure yourself, you cannot be. You don’t want to be one of those cliché broken artists. Depressed people are suicidal. You haven’t considered killing yourself. Not seriously anyway. You are just grieving. Bereavement is real. You are too young to be depressed. This is Africa after all. Africans don’t get depressed. That is a white problem.
You’ll swear to prove them wrong. Who are they? That, you won’t have the answer to.
So you’ll immerse yourself in more books to escape from thoughts of her, you’ll get more new music, more movies, start visiting friends, start reappearing in events. Talking to random folks, joking around – ignoring the effort it takes. But her name will still be stuck on facebook’s suggested chats, and random mutual friends will mention her or a phrase she would have used will bring her to mind – with a kick to the belly – every time.
Tightness in your chest. Dry throat. A sting at the corners of your eyes. Breathlessness.
Another month will pass, and you’ll start feeling a little bit alive again. Conversations will stop feeling like ill fitting shoes. Smiles will spread a bit easier. The hollow space in your laughter will start filling up.
Still, every thought of her will bring tightness in your chest, dry throat, a sting at the corners of your eyes and breathlessness.
And then the walk over the footbridge will happen. Afterwards, in the bus on the way home, you’ll get an idea of a story that would go really well in a poem, and before you can even finish smiling over the ease at which the intro came to you mind, you’ll get an idea for a script.
That will make you feel a bit guilty.
A bit happier.