Maybe We Love Once
“My shop is just close to the bus stop,” was what the lady who owned the bridal shop told Mimie on the phone, yet they’d walked for about 20 minutes to get there. Dust coated her Nike sneakers and sweat her face. The shop was located at the end of a chain of small rooms that served as electronic shops, barbershops, internet shops with labels that read ‘NO STREAMING OF PORNOGRAPHIC MATERIAL!’ Men and boys loomed by the entrances, all of them with hair coated with dust and bodies with dirt. Her friend, Mimie, was bathed in sweat, her blouse wet, but her face was relaxed and content. How could she not be irritated by what the combination of heat, sweat, and dust brought?
Later, she stood in the shop, the cool from the air conditioners biting her skin, knotting the muscles on her arms. There was an expanse of wedding dresses in different shapes, all white, like an endless white wall. White. A symbol of purity, unsoiled. Mimie was trying on her 6th dress, a Cinderella dress, hands clutched together over her stomach so that it looked like she was holding something in them. The bodice clung to her chest tightly, and the bottom of the dress flowed like Cinderella dresses are meant to. Eldesi remembered that she was supposed to say something about the dress since that was what she had come for. Give comments and help her friend pick a dress. Suddenly she just felt tired. Tired of having to give little pieces of advice to people while feeling her own life slip through her fingers. She gave consultations on hair management to clients every week and read and reread their reviews and comments on their social media pages till she felt a sense of pride at having helped someone love their natural hair. Yet, the feeling would wear off as quickly as it came. She wished she could sometimes get the serious attention she gave other people.
She regarded Mimie carefully before she spoke, making sure to put on what looked like a smile as she did so. Mimie waited, her smile growing larger, stretching her cheeks all the way up, and Eldesi, in that moment, guiltily thought that it didn’t suit her friend to smile that widely even though she knew that smile by heart now. Her smile, her enthusiasm ever since the date for their wedding had been announced, annoyed Eldesi. She looked for the best answer to give her friend, who believed in Cinderella dresses like every bride did, how magical they appeared in pictures. She was supposed to like it, to agree that she found the appearance magical too. She didn’t think her friend looked any special in the dress – she would have been better off in a fit and flare dress that would show off her well-sculptured figure – but she said, “I think you should go for this one.”
“Great!” Mimie said, turning around so Eldesi could unzip the dress. She watched her friend talk to the owner of the shop with excitement, her voice uncharacteristically high-pitched, more girlish.
Eldesi was amazed at her ability to morph from disliking men to being this happy once again, to be joined in holy matrimony after a failed marriage. And for this, she felt a pang. Her married friends from college were now friends with their married friends, with whom they shared an understanding of marriages, shared hate for single girls who were available to their husbands in workplaces. She watched friends from college who had been quiet then but had suddenly become activists against MG2s, side chicks. Standing in that shop, she watched excited brides who had only met for the first time that day but carried on inspecting dresses, trying them on, assisting each other with ideas, what sort of flowers or earrings would do with a dress, teasing each other and laughing, slapping or pushing at each other’s shoulders as they did so. They had that effortless chemistry because they were brides with a lot to talk about. They shared the satisfaction of having found someone to settle down with, which she failed to relate with in that moment even though she was in a relationship with a man who had her as his WhatsApp display picture. Walls had come up between them that they had difficulties navigating around to find the younger versions of themselves that had bonded without the need for effort. Now their relationship required effort to work. She felt her throat constrict as though something was pressing on it and her eyes heat up, a rush which she stifled with several rapid blinks. Her friend was happy, and she should be happy for her, but that was not what she felt. Instead, she felt drawn away from the world, apart, alone, not feeling what she was supposed to feel, what the rest of the world felt, caught and floating in a forceful wave of weddings.
When she’d met Mimie, divorced Mimie and I-swear-I-will-never-get-married-again Mimie, it was their shared hate for marriage that had brought them together. They joked endlessly about how miserable most married women are, Mimie using her own lived experiences. But here was Mimie, her love for marriage alight again, and when Eldesi had asked her if she was sure she wanted to go back to being married again, she’d said, “I believe in love again because of Ephraim. If being with him means marriage, then I am getting married.”
They had met at the salon, Mimie and this new prince charming. He walked into the salon for a cut one day, and every three to four weeks after that. Each time he came in, she would see him glance around, scanning the room until his eyes settled on Mimie. Eldesi thought of it as one of those gazes their male clients had for Mimie’s big buttocks. On his fourth visit, he insisted on having his hair cut by Mimie, who was busy braiding another client’s hair. He sat in the salon for two hours, texting, taking long phone calls, but mostly watching Mimie, who had noticed and talked and laughed the loudest. That night, he took her out on their first date. Eldesi had viewed him with distrust in her eyes, waiting selfishly for the day he’d break her heart with news that he had a wife and kids. Her friend began spending more nights at his house in area 49, old Gulliver. “That man has a permanent place in my heart,” Mimie had told her.
It was beginning to rain outside. She walked out of the shop, leaving Mimie to say goodbye to her new friends with floating hugs and loud kisses, and stood outside to watch the rain, which started out as hesitant drops on the ground but soon graduated into larger drops, a huge downpour that dug out the contents of one of those mobile dumping places in Lilongwe, moving them with force into the drain of the bridal shop: papers of Jiggies, bottle tops, banana peels, mango peels, a mush of waste that was disgusting to look at. The air was cooler now, a mixture of smells dried and forgotten, of long sunburnt wet soil and the stale smell of urine and rotten waste, but the cool in it was more bearable than the hot sun. She stood there, leaning against a pole, and watched the raindrops hit the ground, sending ripples of sand up, the sound of rain on the roof calming to her senses, until Ephraim’s car pulled up and she waved at him. On their way back to the salon, as she watched Ephraim and Mimie talk about their upcoming wedding, she thought that things used to be like that too between her and Ntchindi before Alick. A month ago. That happiness and romance with smooth edges and surfaces free of rough patches. She felt something hot prick her eyes and again she blinked fast to stop the tears.
There was Ntchindi, leaning against a pillar close to PEP. It was happening. After months of WhatsApp conversations, which had gradually graduated into late-night phone calls that she never wanted to conclude, wishing she could go on and on speaking to him yet not wanting to meet him in person.
She had met him through Amon. He’d seen several pictures of her posted on Amon’s WhatsApp status, and he told her that he had been shy to ask for her number until he couldn’t see any more without doing anything about it. “He sees your photos and says he is sure he is in love,” Amon had told her the first time he asked her permission to give Ntchindi her number.
“Over a photo on a WhatsApp status? Has he ever bought clothes online? Is he okay?”
But most of all, she wondered why she had never heard of this person called Ntchindi who had been in love with her since her brother’s pre-med days. It sounded to her like a fake story, something that had her mother’s clever tricks written all over it.
Her brother had gone to the College of Medicine, and on his first holiday he’d come back with stories about college that she’d been eager to listen to as soon as he arrived: the woman at the registry who had begun shouting at him before he finished speaking, cutting him short, her voice louder, who had laughed at him because she said he spoke broken English; the beautiful girls from Kamuzu Academy who walked in the corridors in shorts and large t-shirts, who at first didn’t speak to guys like him from government secondary schools, but when assignments became difficult tried to be friends with them. He shared his first disappointment in college with her: that he was made to sleep at a hostel in Chichiri because there wasn’t enough space on the Mahatma Gandhi campus and that living off campus meant they were almost not part of the college, missing out on all juicy things happening on campus.
She knew of all the friends he made in pre-med: Jonathan from Rumphi, Miracle from Nkhata Bay, Medson from Chitipa, almost all of them from the north, with whom he spoke Tumbuka loudly even in the library so that people turned and looked at them with frowns, sometimes mock amusement, like people did every time someone spoke Tumbuka in public. He called the boys mzala and the girls adumbu so that he earned himself the name Mzala among his classmates, and Eldesi saw what she could classify as pride at having attained this name. She imagined her brother speaking loudly without shame, ordering food at the cafeteria, the D’s and B’s prominent. He never mentioned someone called Ntchindi, so when he told her of his friend from college who had joked about marrying his sister and whose jokes he’d downplayed as just that, jokes, she couldn’t believe it, that he had a friend who waited till she finished school at Chancellor College before he could ask for her number. For a few crazy moments she had thought it was their mother’s doing, that she worried that her daughter was 25 and single with no man, so she’d decided to find her a man, and the best way she could have done so was through Amon, the only person Eldesi would ever listen to in their family.
She would never forget the story of her uncle Yohane who had moved to South Africa in search of a better life, like every other man in her mother’s village. The men usually came back after a few years to marry women from their villages and leave them pregnant. Her uncle went and never came back to marry but later on sent pictures of him and a woman in South Africa. They had gotten married at the Department of Home Affairs. Her mother was angry. Number one: the woman was a native of South Africa, those women without manners who drank beer like men and had four piercings. Number two: they did not get married in a church and that meant bad luck for their marriage. Later on, she was vindicated when their marriage failed. His wife left him, taking their 5-year-old son with her.
Her mother had called him and cried on the phone, telling him that his mlamu, her father, was so disappointed at what had happened and didn’t want it to happen again. Eldesi suspected her father didn’t even say anything about her uncle’s marriage, but her mother used it to scare him. She had used a similar technique with her when she misbehaved. “Your father doesn’t want you to attend the video shows,” she would say. Or: “Your father doesn’t want you to come home late.” She’d found him a wife from Mzuzu, a church girl who sang in their praise team at church. Now and again, the woman called her mother to tell her that she found condoms in her uncle’s pockets, that her uncle had affairs with prostitutes. Her mother encouraged her to pray for him. Eldesi pitied both her uncle and the poor woman. No one should have such crucial decisions made for them. Then she laughed at the ridiculous thought. Of course, Amon would never agree to that. Her brother thought less of marriage than she did, calling it the perfect spoiler of a good thing. “No person should be expected to love another that’s not their brother, sister, mother or father for that long.”
She downplayed it the first time. She had, after all, a line of men in her inbox.
But he kept asking, till Amon told her he was not that bad. “He is a good guy. Handsome boy. He used to play basketball. Your type. With a beard, very tall, with muscle too.” Then he added, “But he is a coconut. Be ready to speak English because that’s all he speaks when you are with him.”
“Because I had seen you so many times through Amon’s WhatsApp status updates, it felt like I had already met you somewhere else. I just wanted to continue our relationship from that somewhere else. My heart couldn’t take it anymore. I knew I had to talk to you,” he’d said to her after they began talking on WhatsApp.
Their conversation had been dry and curt at first. She was hesitant to open up too much to a stranger and he was trying too hard every day to talk to her. But if he was disappointed by the lousiness in her texting, he didn’t show it. Soon, within a week, the veil of awkwardness and strangeness was lifted; she was pulled to him by his persistence, and their lazy, dry chats grew into talking all day. She was surprised by their sudden and abrupt intimacy, the natural flow of it and by how much of her days, her little successes, her heartbreaks she wanted to share with him. From time to time, he asked her if she would be in town any day and to let him know, a subtle way of trying to get her to meet with him.
She could handle a WhatsApp friendship but the thought of meeting him in person twisted the contents of her stomach and made her shift uncomfortably every time she thought about it. She didn’t know what she would say to the stranger who had a sudden interest in her from a picture on WhatsApp. Someone who travelled each year for a vacation to a country outside Africa with his family. Someone whose sisters always wore their hair in cornrows in all their pictures, a hairstyle that seemed okay on them because they knew their place in the world. They wore sunglasses and bikinis and went skydiving with their little brother. Their names were Kwamala and Kondwerani. She couldn’t find his sisters. They were not on Facebook. He tagged his father under the name Bob Kamanga and his mother, Stella Kamanga, in some of his posts. And she checked their profile pictures too; a dog staring moodily at the camera on his mother’s and a grinning face of an older version of Ntchindi on his father’s. She understood why Amon would call them coconuts: his parents at the beach, kissing, arms around each other, smiling at the camera, his father in shorts that exposed his long hairy legs, and his mother in beachwear that covered little of her body lined with stretchmarks. She thought of her own mother, who never went anywhere without a piece of chitenje, didn’t own a skirt that had a slit or that didn’t cover her knees. An image came to her of her mother and his mother at their wedding, standing side by side. His mother wearing a gold lace dress and a hair fascinator, long nails well-manicured, clutching an expensive purse, and her own mother wearing a blouse with a matching chitenje, clutching a purse awkwardly with both hands, staring at the camera with wide eyes as though greatly surprised.
She saw guests pointing, muttering, gossiping. A sudden urge to destroy it all before it began overwhelmed her. Subdued by immense feelings of insufficiency, she began to ignore his calls, lied to him that she was busy and made up excuse after excuse for why she couldn’t respond to his texts fast enough like before. She felt that he was attracted to her not for who she was but for who Amon was, the idea that his sister would be chic because he’d met Amon. Amon who had grown up in an average family but had the power to charm people from all walks of life. Amon who read widely and had a growing library of books that demanded three bookshelves at his house.
She imagined him telling his family that he had met a new girl and them crowding around him, forcing him to show them a picture of this girl. He would refuse, embarrassed, somehow not wanting them to see her. She imagined them asking for her full name and then searching for her Facebook profile. All the photos she had posted on Facebook looked blurred, jagged, and scratchy, as though they were taken by an impatient photographer. When she had first posted them, they looked like the best of pictures; she’d picked the best. She deleted every photo from her timeline and left her profile photo blank. There would be nothing for them to see when the time came to check her out.
“You have been evasive lately,” he told her when she picked up his call one day. She had missed him. His voice sounded wounded. She was surprised by the hurt in his voice, the graveness of emotions buried in the simple statement his deep voice delivered over the phone. She hadn’t set out to hurt him, hadn’t even thought about it. She only wanted to ward off what she saw as forthcoming rejection. And because she felt bad, wanted to do something about the thick emotion in his voice, to soothe it, take away that hurt, she blurted out, “Are you free this weekend?” Her own words surprised her. She was still not ready to meet him. Hadn’t prepared a conversation that would be able to make him laugh, keep him interested. She thought maybe if she read more books, with time she would become confident. Have more to say. But she realised that if she allowed herself to get ready, maybe she would never be ready.
He was taken aback; he hadn’t expected it.
“This Saturday? That would be great. It’s about time I see you.”
And now here she was, to see him after months of prolonging this meeting that even she knew had been inevitable anyway.
There was nothing special about the day. Everything was chaotic as she got ready, all her trousers appearing to flare at the bottom and all her blouses not chic enough. Even her hair gave her trouble. She had done bantu knots on her head the night before and there was unevenness to the afro after she unravelled the knots and fluffed them out. Her hair didn’t seem full enough, wide spaces with no hair stood out within her scalp, as if laughing at her. She thought she must be nervous because all through her natural hair journey, she’d never struggled with hairstyles, had always done it with ease, but now heat filled her cheeks and belly as she worked on her hair. In frustration, she ruffled her hair, disturbing the curls and coils, and instead settled on a high puff.
He wore a navy green golf shirt and grey sweatpants. He didn’t stand straight, his legs and back slightly bent backwards, but even so, he was significantly taller than her. Later, she tried to remember the hug, how her body felt against the firmness of his. She remembered that the hug was too long. He held her close, his arms around her body, but she was unsure of where she had placed her hands, around his neck or his waist. She forgot too how it felt when his hands circled around her waist. She was too taken in discovering Ntchindi that there was no space reserved in her head for the small details.
After they hugged, a silence followed where he regarded her intently with his eyes, a small smile on his face. She took in the physicality of his face, the way his chest rose and fell as he looked down at her. It was a sacred silence, their shared comfortable silence, the two of them taking in the realness of the other. She instantly liked what she saw and at the same time wondered what he was thinking. Then she became once again aware of their surroundings: the small white woman carrying keys in her hand, wearing a yellow cotton embroidered top, clutching a phone between shoulder and ear, talking rapidly in an unintelligible language; the girl in white at the entrance to the pharmacy next door to PEP, absently twirling a pen in her hands as she watched them, finding her shyness with Ntchindi interesting.
“This is you, huh?” He was breathing deeply, the small smile still on his face, and she found this enchanting, would always find this little exercise enchanting: his breathing in deeply as he looked at her as if in awe. “I thought I was never going to see you.”
“Yes, this is me,” she said, thrusting both hands forward, not knowing what else to do with them.
As he drove her back home, a song played, Chris Martin’s ‘I Can See’. She had listened to those lyrics before – I can see, you and me girl, loving each other for eternity – from Amon’s Bluetooth speaker almost every morning and sang along with a matching easiness, but now, sitting next to him, his eyes fixed on the road, his hands softly and casually holding the wheel, she felt buoyed up in the lyrics. Endlessly close to me, girl. Feels like this was meant to be. Each word took on a new meaning. She wanted to tell him she loved him. She knew it was too soon to call it love, but it felt true that she loved him even if she had seen him for the first time that day. The atmosphere was thick with an untouchable feeling.
She would always reach back to this moment with a helpless nostalgia. She wanted to preserve the rawness of the moment, this moment of euphoric romantic excitement that made it seem as though the lyrics were written for them.
There was a drizzle outside, and people walked about, their faces downcast. It was a cold evening, the harsh stinging cold of June, but she felt warm on the inside, a warmth that spread to every body part.
He drove slowly, cautiously letting cars behind overtake them, and this pleased her greatly. He wanted as much as she did to prolong their time together.
The first time they had sex, she was nervous because she didn’t want him to see it.
The appearance of breasts is not only exciting but also confusing for young girls. When Eldesi’s turn came, instead of the swelling under both nipples, it only happened in one. She’d heard from older girls in their village that the swelling happened in both nipples. How come it was not that way for her? She didn’t know how to ask or who to ask. Her brother wouldn’t know. Her mother would look at her in the way she had done when Eldesi had asked why her brother had gotten his own room after his voice began to deepen.
That sore and tender feeling on her right didn’t develop until months after the one on her left, and her right breast grew slowly and timidly. The left one grew bigger and demanded larger bra cups in which the other one hung loosely, so that with time she began to slip a folded piece of cloth in her right cup to make up for the space.
As he made a move to remove her blouse, she didn’t want to stop him but she wanted to tell him first. She told him about it in a voice lined with laughter to make it look like it was something she found amusing, a lighter issue, even though the heaviness of it had weighed on her for 13 years, even though she held her breath, too alert to his reaction after he saw, desperate for him to like her as she was. She dreaded the questions that always came after people saw her chest. It was the reason she had never undressed for any man until that moment.
She had hated the questions even in the self-boarding house that she lived at while she prepared for Form Four exams and had gotten used to covering herself up with a wrapper every time she dressed in front of everyone.
He removed her top, then her bra. His mouth immediately latched and clung to her offending nipple, the one she avoided most of the time, the defect, and his teeth pulled hard, so that it did not feel defected anymore. She gasped, the sound leaving her lips without warning. He touched it and said, “This little one will be my favourite because she fits perfectly in my hand; that rude one spills off.” They both laughed, their gazes locked. His eyes and voice were void of any mockery. He understood without needing an explanation. There was that burning sensation in her eyes again. She was glad that she didn’t have to explain to him something she had never understood.
Being in a relationship with Ntchindi felt like having her feet set on a soft rug all day; there were no rough surfaces rubbing against her. Sometimes she’d catch herself smiling as they held hands while they walked. One day, after they hadn’t seen each other for one week, and she met him outside Shoprite, he sprang out of his car and kissed her while people watched. People complained of their partners being ashamed of them, that they never got posted, but Ntchindi posted her on his WhatsApp status more than he posted anything. She could see he was happy with her, happy that they were together. She felt it in the way he kissed her, looked at her. Like something precious. She felt happy to be with him too.
Then came Alick, with his sharp teeth and large eyes in his face and his long slender hands that she’d looked at and her mind had wandered to other things it shouldn’t have wandered to, shattering her romance novel fantasies that a person in love thought of sex only when they looked at their partner.
It was she who had flirted with him after he brought in the new sofas she had ordered for the salon. He’d simply looked at her and, smiling, he said, “I am very pleased to meet you, Eldesi.” She had thanked him for the sofa and he left, but she texted him again, saying thanks one more time. Their conversation drifted to other things like how handsome she thought he was. I am flattered! he texted, accompanied by blushing emojis.
Ntchindi was out of town on a field trip at work, and Alick texted: I am in the neighbourhood, mind if I stop by and say hi? She knew that letting him into the confined space of her bedsitter would lead to more, yet she said: Yeah, sure.
She escorted him out of their compound to his car. It was she who initiated the hug, and later on she texted him, “I wanted to kiss you badly,” after she had just got off the phone with Ntchindi, who had called, ending their phone conversation with “I love you” and “I miss you.” They talked at length about what they would do the next time they met, and he told her, “I will show you.” He stopped by again the next day and showed her as per the promise. After they were done, she lay with him, naked in bed, loving the rise and fall of his chest and the way he looked at her. Every time he stopped by, he made sure to get up and leave before dawn so her neighbours wouldn’t see him. When she told him about Ntchindi, while they lay with tired and fluid limbs, he answered back, “And I have a wedding next week; it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we have. Our partners don’t have to know. We have a good thing.” It was too good a thing, and it scared her that she felt for someone else what she felt for Ntchindi. Ntchindi to whom she had lied that she had late-night clients at the salon when Alick stayed over. He believed her; she had never given him cause to doubt her.
When she told her brother, he had stared at her in disbelief for a long quiet while, and then said, “Not a big believer in these things, but when I saw you guys together, I thought you were perfect.” Her brother thought it was a good idea that she tell him so she could avoid carrying the guilt throughout their relationship. “If he loves you, he should be able to forgive you,” he had said as he hugged her. She didn’t think he would forgive her because if roles were reversed, she wouldn’t do so.
She wanted to tell him over the phone, through a text, so she could avoid seeing the reaction on his face, but she knew it was not appropriate.
She told him while seated in his car at Gateway Mall. He had taken her to Elly B’s because she had told him she was craving the Elly’s Classic. All through dinner, he did the talking, complaining about a cancelled trip to the USA to learn laboratory techniques because of COVID, and she ate the burger, laughing nervously, wondering when was the best time to tell him, after sex or before or the next morning.
Instead, she blurted it out in the car as she pulled on the seat belt, before he inserted the key in the ignition.
“I have been with someone while you were away. The carpenter.”
He looked at her and inspected her face, then waited for her to finish.
In her explanation, she omitted how many times it had happened but made sure that he knew it was more than once, and when she concluded, she didn’t tell him that she hadn’t known what had come over her. Because to say so would be a lie, a lie that would make her guilt graver than it already was. Desire had come over her. She had seen Alick and known she would sleep with him. Had it happened once, she could very well claim that it had been a mistake, that it had accidentally slipped in and she had pushed it away disgusted with herself, with Alick and the act in itself. But they had merged their flesh six times in the space of four days.
His grip on the wheel had grown tighter, the muscles on his arms tense, and his breathing had changed by the time she was finished. A song by Joram Nyirongo was playing at the Acres Bar. Cos we live once and die, maybe we love once in life, oh no! She began to cry because she knew this had soiled the air around them forever. Suspicion would always hang in the air.
“I am so confused,” he told her.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said, her voice choked. She wanted to beg him for forgiveness and say she couldn’t imagine a life without him.
“I am telling you what I feel right now,” he said.
She nodded and said nothing, her tears still falling.
It was silent between them and she kept on crying, staring at him as he stared ahead, willing him to look at her or to hold her hand until he broke it or to shout at her, anything but just keep quiet and do nothing. After she stopped crying, he started the car, drove her back home, and didn’t open his door to rush and open her door as always. His hands still gripped the steering wheel and she could sense that he couldn’t wait for her to get out of his car.
He sent her a text at 12.43am the next day. A simple text: My feelings are all over the place. I know I don’t want to lose you. It was a text that she had wanted to receive; it was supposed to massage away the tension that had knotted her up since the moment she watched him drive away without a glance at her. Instead she was thinking of the fact that he sent her a text at 12.43am. He was not a late sleeper. She wondered of the many other things about him that would change.
Donna Nyakapira is a Malawian writer who lives in Blantyre.
*Image by Oluwakemi Solaja on Unsplash