Girls leave boys all the time. When Shiku said she was leaving me, I cleared my throat and said, “Leave the keys on the windowsill, next to the vase.”
I should have said more. I should have told her that I would miss turning her omelet over without breaking it. I should have told her that I would miss lying on the sofa and watching reruns of About a Boy together. I should have told her that I go around taking a little of my soul, and using it to fill the spaces in other people’s souls, like putty on a windowsill, and that she was one of the souls I was filling. I should have told her that she was beautiful, but I knew she did not need to hear it from me. I saw bubbles of Shiku’s soul floating in the room, and I needed to tell her something that would make all of her bubbles come together and be her, and stay.
It feels, sometimes, like I am in a room. It is not dark. The sunlight illuminates it, but not in the bright and yellow kind of way. There is daylight. And Shiku is there, inside the room. And I can see her. I have memorized her. I know that she smiles more on one half of her face. I know that when she walks, her left leg trails her right; she slides it forward rather than lifts it. I know that she has a black beauty spot below her eye.
In this room that is not dark, I see her, and I stretch my hand out to touch her. I hold her cheeks in my palms. I tell her that I love her, but my lips do not move, and there are tongues, ten of them, at the tips of my fingers, saying, “I love you,” ten times, like echoes of each other.
I want my fingers to pass through Shiku’s cheeks, through her jawbones, through her teeth, through her tongue. I want my hands to cradle her lungs and her veins and her heart. I want her skin to become transparent to me, to part when I touch it the way jelly parts when you dip your fingers in it, so that I can see her. So that I can really see her.
I am always trying to find her — Shiku. I am always trying to get her to tell me about the games she played as a child, about the first friend she made in high school, about what makes her happy. She is always there, has always been for the past two years. But she is not really there. It is like she lives inside herself. She lies on the bed, and faces the window, and bends her legs at her knees and her hands at her elbows so that she is as small as she can be, and I could mistake her for a shirt I removed after leaving the gym and crumpled up and threw on the bed.
What I want is to be let into this life she lives inside of herself. I am out of stories to share with her about my own. Every night, before we go to bed, I tell her stories about my day and about the days before my today, and even about the untruths I have built up about my future. Mostly she “hmm”s me on. Sometimes, she tucks her tongue in her left cheek, and directs her face my way, but doesn’t really look at me, like she no longer agrees with what I am saying. Sometimes, she laughs. She laughs more often than I expect.
But what she tells me about herself comes in small doses. Like the syrup my friends and I would suck out of orange trumpet flowers as children, it is little and it is gone before I can savor it. The other day, I noted to her that she speaks less of her childhood best friend Michelle nowadays. I wanted to show that I listen. She said that her Michelle died.
Shiku does not tell me things and so I have time to tell her even the smallest details about my life. One day, I told Shiku about the skipping rope a classmate brought to Calculus. She told me she had bought a skipping rope that weekend, for her niece, whom I did not know she had, who was the daughter of her sister, Njeri, whom I also did not know she had.
That day, I stayed silent, afraid that if I interrupted, which I am good at doing, she would keep quiet and I would never reach her again. She went on and on, and it felt like that moment when the computer stops telling you to press numbers and allows you to speak to a customer service assistant. I could never come up with a formula for what would make Shiku say more than two sentences to me. A skipping rope, can you imagine? Shiku spoke into the night. She told me about her father, whom she was “not too close to.” I felt bad for him. I could not imagine how little he knew about his perfect daughter. She told me about her ex-boyfriend, and if it were any other girl, I would not want to hear about him. But this was Shiku, and when she spoke I imagined purple butterflies leaving her mouth. I had to catch them without hurting them.
Sometimes, when I walk around the city center, I see girls with black beauty spots below their eyes. And their eyes bore through me. I know I am supposed to turn away, but I look and look and look. I imagine that their eyes and Shiku’s have seen different things, but they come from the same place. A forest clearing where the backs of eyes sit cross-legged in a circle around a fire on a cold night. They are taught not to just sit there but to hold close to their bosoms with their shivering hands the things they have seen. To not let anyone see them. They are taught that the rest of the world should not know what they know.
When Shiku said she was leaving, and I told her to leave the keys on the windowsill, next to the vase, I went to bed. Shiku has tried to leave so many times that at some point, I numbed myself to it. She is not mine. It pains me. Sometimes it angers me. It is the kind of anger that comes to you as a child when you are picked last to join a team when playing kati. You are angry, but you know everyone has the right to choose. She is not mine, but I wish she were.
The usual things went through my mind. Like how I really do not want to be the one to beg the other to stay again. Like how I could leave her and go around filling other people’s souls with some of my own until there is none of me left to miss her. Like how I am already missing her. Like how I am scared she may pull it off — she may be alright without me.
Then I thought of the good stuff. Like how maybe she loves me. She must, because that night she woke me up at 3 a.m. and told me she loved me and I should not leave her, and then she placed her cheeks on my shoulders and I felt the tears against my shoulder blades. And how we were having dinner with her friends and laughing and they teased her to say who her favorite person in the world was, and she said me, and she looked at me just in time to see the look of surprise on my face. She knew I wouldn’t mind if she picked someone else — she was not the type of person to care if I did mind, and here she was, without a gun to her head, choosing me. It felt good to be chosen.
I want to fight for her, but I am so so so tired of begging her soul to be with mine. Instead, I felt tears in my eyes, and I let them be, hoping I could clean myself up before she came back into the room, now dark with the onset of twilight, and switched on the lights.
She did not switch on the lights. She slid into bed next to me, and I held her, and that night again, I tried to find her.