A Person’s Restaurant of Grief
It was tiresome to watch all those restaurant pictures pop up all at once on my phone. It was impossible to choose. From old navy aesthetics to brown shimmered spaces, every one of them looked amazing. Of course, Diane was excited about going out. It was our thing now.
Every Saturday, we’d raid a new place that either Diane or I had found on the internet or some friends had recommended. However, I liked to stay indoors, so it was often she who found those ‘new galaxies’ as she called them.
After our regular disputes on everything, Camellia was the choice. It was tucked away on the last floor, with a beautiful view of the city and some perks of it that looked out of line, mainly because the houses couldn’t be seen at night from poor lighting conditions. It was magnificent.
Diane was on time. At least I like to believe that. I was always late; it’s probably a Rwandan habit. She rarely mocked me about it, but she gave me the same disapproving look fathers use to scare the shit out of their children. She wore a black beanie, leather boots, and her favourite blue jeans. “Favourite” because she wears them almost every time we go out.
For once, she didn’t take selfies or food pictures. I barely even saw her open Snapchat. It was surprising, but it felt right. My aunt had passed away that week, so I think it was her way of helping me cope with it. I’d never lost someone close, but things were different now.
“You’re not eating?” Diane asked a few moments after we’d ordered. I’d ordered a burger and chips, and she’d asked for burritos.
“It just looks like hard work,” I said.
I had no appetite, no courage. I’d waited for time to heal me, but nothing had happened yet. It was heartbreaking to see that burger taken away by Diane’s greasy hands covered in burrito sauce.
There was something unusual that night. We talked softly about things we’d never thought we would ramble about. Besides food, sex, and occasional flirting, topics like pain and grief flooded the scene. She’d known pain and grief. She’d experienced them before, a lot harder.
But mostly, it was arguments. Diane and I were always in some debacle about life problems. Specifically, the fact that I didn’t know what I was talking about when it came to facing difficulties. I don’t know how we became friends when we were never on the same page on most subjects. Fate, I suppose.
The funny part of the story is that I had a crush on her at first. I’d been searching for the eye doctor’s room for quite a while, and she walked through the hallways of Kanombe Military Hospital as if she owned it. I was struck just by looking at her, in her leather boots and blue jeans. She showed me to the doctor’s room, and that’s how we met. With her tiring the nurses and wiping the smiles off their faces, and I, testing their patience. I seemed to be annoying almost everyone with questions because honestly, the only way to know if you’re going the right way is to ask for directions from every person you meet. After all, you think that maybe they are part of the architects who built the maze.
We kept bumping into each other over the next three days because, as it turns out, I had all these medical checkups to complete to finish my scholarship applications. When I proposed that we have lunch, she said the hospital’s coffee was terrible. So we ended up walking a couple of miles to what seemed like a club turned into a coffee shop. It looked dark, with plants covering the doors and the soft music normally used to lull babies to sleep.
And now, two years later, here we were — in another coffee shop. Diane comforted me, and I hid my tears from the people at the next table. I felt embarrassed, and she saw it. We paid the bill and left. On our walk to the bus station, I asked her how she felt when her father passed away.
“It wasn’t easy at first. I felt a hole inside of me so deep I didn’t think I would recover,” she said. As I watched her face turn moist, I realised I had made a big mistake by bringing up all the memories of her father.
“But you find solace in knowing they are still with you,” she added, before quoting a movie line, “No one really ever dies.” Despite chuckling at the quote, I felt a warmth inside me, one I hadn’t felt in a long time.
When her father had died of stage four cancer, we weren’t exactly friends. But she called to tell me he was gone. I was shaken, so I promised to be there the next day, for it turned out he wanted a quick funeral, and they gave him his last wish.
I hadn’t grasped what one goes through when their loved one dies. Something inside a person goes to pieces when they have to bury the person they cared about most. There is no time to heal that sort of wound. Grief is a strange thing. Diane knew it, and now I do too. But she understood also that people come out of it, that they survive, for she had done the same.
That’s how we became friends, and it was enough. Someone to hold on to. We understood each other, our pain, our addictions, our loneliness. It was all part of the package. I can’t see myself dating her and yet, there is no one else I’d rather be with.
That night, when I got home, memories of my aunt dawned on me. I wasn’t able to visit her in the hospital when things got really bad. I hadn’t felt guilt before, but it was there unannounced. I shoved it down, but it came back up. I lived with it for the next few weeks. I would go out and put on my happy face because the world doesn’t care. I hoped it didn’t.
My aunt was rare. She never castigated me for not visiting her in the holidays, was never alarmed by the fact that I was skinny or that I spent my time in front of the TV. She was marvellous in the way she talked softly with tender words, the way she cooked her delicious crêpes, and the way she served them, forcing my brothers and me to eat while they were hot.
Aunt Ruby, as we were used to calling her because the name suited her badass-ness, would every day in the afternoon go to church to pray. There was this community called ‘Legio Maria’ that was all about worship and prayers. And I loved the way she always bugged us for not doing the same while we were still young. Truthfully, I didn’t love it.
She once came to visit me at Byimana School of Sciences. There were all sorts of horrible boarding conditions at the school. But alone she came, travelling for two hours just to see me.
I was her little angel, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
In the weeks I felt like an asshole for not calling Diane back, I thought of her quite a lot. A lot of things had happened, and we were in a pandemic now. Often, my thoughts would wander into different topics as a means to ease the pain, I guess. I thought about how she was straight out of a Netflix movie, but with the unfortunate particularity that she didn’t read books nor liked writing in diaries. It was too girlish for her. In addition, she hated the colour pink. Like, a “What the fuck is this?” kind of hate.
In the days after her father’s funeral, she read one of my stories. We spent half an hour arguing about how cliché first dates are and how romance was a thing made up by men to compartmentalise women. It was a big thing, but I liked it because she opened my mind to crazy theories that somehow seemed real. But I definitely reckon it’s a good thing she doesn’t read books; imagine the unlucky author who’d have to argue with her on every chapter of their book.
This, I came to understand, was her way of staying connected to her dad. The real world held her memories, and she wasn’t going to mix that with fantasies and fiction. So instead of texting or going to the movies, we spent days in restaurants I couldn’t afford. And every Saturday, we had a new coffee shop to invade, and every time she ordered burritos, her dad’s favourite. That was her way of coping with grief. I had to find mine.
She was mad at me when I called her the next day. I knew it was wrong to go MIA for so long, especially to her. I promised I’d make it up to her when we’d be allowed to go out again. I would invite her to a new coffee resto-bar near home. It was quiet and had a shitty view, but everything in it was delicious.
Diane wasn’t one to go around things, so she asked me straight questions like “Did you find a girlfriend?”, “Are you okay?”, “Are you able to feel good?”. While listening to her interview me like I was a celebrity coming back from the dead, I realised I had been smiling genuinely the entire time. Not because the guilt had disappeared, but because I was talking to her.
“These last couple of weeks, I wanted to know if there was a meaning to my aunt’s death, that she hadn’t died for nothing,” I said. My voice trembled, as if I was at the tip of a breakdown. I had been finding ways to feel good again, to get myself forgiven for not being around when my aunt needed me.
For a moment, Diane was quiet. She understood what I was going through.
“There is no shame in dying for nothing; that’s why most people die,” she finally said. “There is no meaning in death. That’s why it’s so terrifying.”
There was silence, a deep silence that reminded the noise that it had nothing on us. I chuckled over the phone, partly because this mare of a lady who never read any book had just said some profound words, but also because it was a comfortable silence.
“Uh, who am I kidding?” I said, “No one asks for the reasons behind anything in 2020.”
“But you do!” she said.
“Yeah, guess I’m the only one…” I said with a sigh.
“That’s not a bad thing, you know?”
“I just really hate not being there for her—”
“I know, but she has no grudge against you up there,” Diane said softly, “You gotta move on.”
“Is that what you did?”
“Yeah, and you helped me achieve that…”
“How?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, you let me pay the bill every time we went out to all those restaurants—”
“What? I don’t let you pay, I’m just broke!” I exclaimed.
Diane laughed hard. For two hours straight, she made fun of me for knowing nothing about life problems. We later got into more arguments over a political piece I still regret sending her.
I wanted to know whether the future was going to be bright because only then would the present make sense and the past become more tolerable. But Diane didn’t think so.
“Things don’t need significance to matter. It’s life! You’d be wasting your time searching for meaning in everything. Sometimes, things just happen,” Diane said.
“Agree to disagree?” I replied.
“Agree to disagree,” she jokingly answered.
After she hung up, I rolled out of my bed, went into the kitchen cabinets and took a bowl, a can of sugar, milk from the fridge, two eggs, a cup of flour, and salt. I googled the recipe and started making Aunt Ruby’s famous crêpes. I failed miserably.
Patrick Shyaka is the author of I Will Get Drunk: An Idealistic Visual of a Mental Health Endgames, the lead copywriter at Iblue Concepts, a visual artist, abstract photographer, blogger, and content creator.