Just a Friend
It was about midnight when she texted:
I’m with Hera, but I’m thinking of ditching her.
I want to come over to yours.
I’m only five minutes away.
Moments later I heard a knock on my door.
That was fast, I thought.
I opened the door to Caren standing in a petite black dress. She had a mischievous look on her face; her expression was a strange mixture of sensuality and innocence, like that of a naughty child who had licked some sugar and was trying to hide it from her mother. I could smell the gin on her breath as she hugged me, coming into my room.
“You were with Hera?” I asked.
“Yeah, I met up with her after leaving Lucy’s party,” she said, taking off her coat.
“Wait, Lucy was having a party?”
I was surprised because until then I had thought of Lucy as a close friend. That Caren had been invited to the party and I had not struck me as odd. It would later occur to me that she was the only person from our class Lucy had invited.
By this time, Caren lay supine on my bed with her knees raised. Her black dress was folded backwards and was almost at her hips. “Come,” she said, beckoning me with her index finger.
The mischievous look was still on her face.
I had always found Lucy’s name strange, because he wasn’t a woman, but never brought it up because everyone seemed okay with it. We had met at a students’ event at a campus bar in a student residential area on a chilly evening at the end of summer. I was talking to a friend when he walked in. Glancing at him, she gestured frantically: “Come! Come say hi to your fellow Africans!”
Lucy sauntered over. His black-and-green checked shirt matched well with his brown corduroy trousers, draping his tall, slender frame in a casual elegance. There was a swagger in his step; you could tell he was a confident man, not in a brash, in-your-face type of way, but tacitly. There was a “hereness” about him.
“Hi, I’m Lucy,” he said, stretching out his hand. I rose to meet it, watching him as he sat down beside me.
I thought back to that first meeting as Lucy turned to leave my kitchen. Caren and I were seated on a couch in the kitchen’s far corner. Her legs were crossed over mine.
I couldn’t shake Lucy’s strange demeanour, or the fact that he had struggled to look me in the eye. He had been in my kitchen for all of five minutes, but it seemed longer. I could not get his awkward smile out of my head.
Something was up.
Caren seemed able to breathe again after he left. Smiling at me, she sat up and leaned on my shoulder.
“Let’s go watch Netflix,” she said.
Before I had experienced it on the steps of the university library, I had always considered heartbreak a strange concept. The idea that someone could die from “pains of the heart” seemed absurd, almost comical, to me. “Heartbreak” was a Hollywood invention limited to clueless cinematic white boys who ran across flowery fields and cried in the rain.
When, therefore, I experienced heartbreak on those steps, it did not manifest emotionally as I had expected. Instead, it was an overpowering physical manifestation, a bodily apprehension felt from fingertip to ankle bone. It was, in a very real sense, a shattering feeling, and I felt my legs buckle under my knees.
In the distance, Caren and Lucy walked across the green lawns together, not knowing I had seen them.
It was around 8pm when I glanced down at my phone. I had received a message notification on Facebook. It was Kristen, and she had sent me the Google Maps directions to her house, which was not far from campus.
I had decided to hoof it to her place instead of taking an Uber, a decision I quickly regretted. I shivered bitterly under my gloves and coat. It was spring, but the wintry hangover of the previous months hung stubbornly in the air, forming frost on the tree leaves and grass.
I thought of Kristen. She was the studious, bespectacled type, often full of well-thought-out opinions on life. We had argued often on those opinions, in the process forming a casual association that drifted easily from absurdity to seriousness.
I had noted an underlying tension in our interactions. Despite the terseness of her lips, there was something in her eyes that screamed at me. It was a lustful, boundless stare; the attraction of a moth not just to the light of a lamp, but to the pain of its heat.
I took a deep breath.
Weeks earlier, we had met in a restaurant near campus. Mundane chatter had quickly progressed to flirtation, and soon one of my hands had reached under the table, steadily stroking her thighs in between bites.
We held hands as we left the restaurant and headed into campus. We had found a secluded spot where we had sat to converse, the chatter creating tension that had, in turn, resulted in action.
It was, in the proverbial words of old, the one thing leading to another.
My phone buzzed again.
A message from Kirsten: Where are you? It’s been fifteen minutes!
Almost there. A smirk formed across my face.
I reopened the Google Maps application. It showed a red line from my standing position to a row of houses a few metres away.
As I rang the doorbell, my phone buzzed again.
It was Lucy.
Hey. I need to see you again.
I put the phone back in my pocket as the door opened. With one hand, Kristen held the door frame, a grin plastered amorously on her face.
With her free hand, she held the right side of her bathrobe, and I could see her black lace undergarments.
The phrase ‘something in the water’ can be taken to mean several things. Often, however, it is an attempt to explain a bizarre or uncommon situation. Because there is something in the water, our strange actions can be explained. We need water – water is life. If there is something in the water, surely it is to blame for our unexplainable decisions?
Caren sat beside me in the empty varsity auditorium. We sat hand-in-hand in silence for a moment that seemed to stretch to eternity.
“I know,” I said. “I saw you and Lucy on Sunday.”
Caren remained silent, her breathing slow and measured. I knew, in that moment, that our relationship was over, and yet losing her evoked an internal turbulence that shook me violently, creating a “Jonah’s dilemma” of two untenable options.
“Yes, I was with Lucy,” she said softly. “We’ve been friends for some time and he wants me to be his girlfriend…that’s why we were meeting on Sunday, to get some food together.”
My stomach tightened, and loosened its grip momentarily to allow my mouth to speak, but I found myself unable to utter a word.
“I told him no,” she added, “I can’t afford to lose you.”
The tears that had welled in her eyes spilled over, forming gentle streams that ran down her face.
“So…nothing happened between you guys?” I asked, straining to lift the words from my chest.
“Nothing,” she replied. “You’re the one I love.”
There was a tenderness to the way the tears fell from her face, forming, drip by drip, small puddles on her lap.
“Swear to me,” I retorted.
“I swear,” she said, speaking with a conviction that I felt in my bones.
I looked down at our hands, our fingers were still intertwined and our palms touching. From the moment we sat down, they had not parted. My head, initially stable, began to spin and my bones felt gelatinous.
“Can I kiss you?” she asked.
I nodded, and as she leaned in my phone buzzed, but I ignored it, focusing instead on the moment.
It was a text from Lucy.
So…your place? 9 pm?
Edwin Chege is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.
*Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash