Celebrating East African Writing!
Hey sasa? So quiet?
Leila looked at the WhatsApp message from Jim with mild annoyance and pretended not to be relieved that he had got in touch. How convenient, she thought, that he had surfaced 3 days after Valentine’s Day.
I’m good. You? she texted back, a little too quickly. The blue ticks on her message indicated that he’d read it. When two minutes passed without a reply, she wrote in panic, Are you there? Jim? Helloooo??
And then unsuccessfully tried to phone him.
Jim was the one her heart beat for. The one that made her want to cancel all her plans to rush off to whatever he had planned. Jim was so together. Just the right amount of tall and dark for her 5foot6-ness. He was intelligent and witty. She sometimes felt quite shallow with him. He knew everything about everything. Even things she didn’t really care about like oil spills in the ocean or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, oil in Turkana, or baby whales that washed up the shore an Australian beach or Manchester United. He could say all the US presidents by heart. Had an opinion about The Lord’s Resistance Army or theories about the missing MH370 Malaysian plane. She had, up until now, quite happily breezed through life disinterested in the world around her. Now she found herself often Wikipedia trying to find context to things he had said.
Jim wasn’t openly romantic, hardly dropped any hints, and was never flirtatious. This made him even more alluring. She knew he was saving those gestures for when they were an item, properly. He was perfect in every sense and Leila felt overwhelming gratitude that he had even looked her way.
Leila panicked that Jim was slipping away again. They’d been seeing each other on and off since after a mutual friend’s Christmas party where they had met. Jim was spontaneous. She loved that about him. He sometimes called after 7pm to ask if she was free for an 8pm dinner. Leila would scramble out of whatever she was doing to be available. Saying no to Jim was simply something she could not do. And after weeks of this spontaneity, Leila thought Valentine’s Day would be the day he’d make things more official— when he would finally ask her to be his girl. She had played it over and over in her head. She would say in disbelief, “Why me, of all the girls?” and he would proceed to give her a list of all her wonderful qualities, and she be all doubtful, “Are you just saying this?” He would reassure her that he meant every word, that she was, indeed, all these and more; after which she would say, “Yes, yes, I’ll be your girl” as tears of gratitude would run down her cheeks for being the chosen one. Her Facebook status would promptly be updated to ‘In a relationship’. This would be accompanied by a selfie of the new couple if Jim was open to taking one. The expected outpouring of proud of you girl, congzz, finally! and aiiimens would follow.
She had, instead, spent Valentines’ Day with her friend Noah. Noah’s puppy dog loyalty was often cute and endearing. But sometimes she found it pitiful and unattractive. Noah was awkwardly tall and lanky, with a permanent stoop and a little too skinny.
Leila had called him when she realized Jim would not be available. Jim’s phone had been off for days.
Noah rushed to her rescue and was willing to take her anywhere she wanted.
“Do you want to try Fairmont? It’s a bit pricey but we should treat ourselves once in a while?” Noah needed no persuading.
As they sat across each other at The Fairmont on Valentine’s Day, servers at their beck and call, Leila felt, despite the ambiance and pampering, enveloped by sadness. She moaned to Noah about Jim. “I don’t get him? I really don’t. One minute we’re like headed somewhere, the next he’s all quiet on me?”
Noah was always comforting. “He’ll come around when he realizes how good he has it.”
Leila sighed and thought of the unfairness in the world. “Aww… you are so sweet, Noah. You should really get a girlfriend.”
“I’ve kinda had my eye on someone for a while,” Noah confessed.
“Oh, do tell! Some refreshing news at last on this otherwise sad sad day.”
“It’s not a sad sad day. Not for me it’s not,” Noah said and added timidly. “I’ve always had eyes for you.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” Leila admonished like it was the most ridiculous thing ever.
“Relax. Just teasing.” There was a noticeable tightness in Noah’s voice. His stooped back was more pronounced than ever. It was as if he was cowering.
Leila noticed the strain. It wasn’t the first time Noah had dropped such hints. She needed to discourage this kind of attention. “And anyway,” she pointed out wisely, “it couldn’t work between us. You are my BFF. We are practically siblings.”
His face changed even though he tried to smile away her comment. That was the thing about Noah, everything he felt showed on his face. Leila felt a sudden rush of pity for her best friend.
“Awww, no frowning allowed,” she said, reaching for his hand. “We can be each other’s plan B if it doesn’t work out with other people.” She had seen a TV show where the characters had agreed to marry each other if they ever found themselves single and over 30.
“I can live with that,” Noah said, his normal face coming back.
Jim’s phone finally went through. Leila felt her heart leap when he said, “Hello?”
“I was worried when you didn’t reply my text.”
He was in a noisy place. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said.
“Hey, I could call you later if this is not a good time.” Leila was always trying to be appropriate.
“No, now’s fine. Sema?” She heard a crunching sound. He was chewing!
“Where are you?” Suddenly there wasn’t much to say.
“At a bash. I’m feasting on a rib as we speak.”
“Oh cool.” And then realizing he wasn’t helping to keep the conversation going, she said, “Enjoy then. We’ll talk later.”
“Bye.” He sounded anxious to end the conversation.
Something happened to Leila after that phone call. It was as if the fog blocking her vision had lifted. Jim didn’t care about her at all. She was doing all the chasing and calling. He was simply tolerating her and only seemingly interested when he had no other company. Noah suddenly looked different. Nothing about him had changed. Except everything had changed in Leila’s head. It was like a revelation. Noah’s awkward tall and lankiness was now somehow cute. Noah’s kindness and devotion to her was suddenly not only endearing, but also wholly attractive.
Perhaps Noah was it. All the while he’d been there and she hasn’t noticed. All the while she was pinning for someone who’d not been the slighted bit interested.
She reached for her phone and scrolled to find Noah on her WhatsApp contacts.
Hey she began. Remember the thing we talked about at Fairmont?
They didn’t have to wait till they were 30. They could give it a shot now.
Hi he answered back quickly. I took what you said very seriously.
You did? And suddenly the idea of them wasn’t at all ridiculous. In fact, they’d look so cute together. The more she thought about it, the more it actually seemed like the best idea ever. She was filled with regret that it took her so long to realize this.
So I plucked up courage and asked a girl on a date. And she said Yes! Cool huh? I really like her. I hope it becomes something.
Nothing had prepared her for this response. She felt a huge lump forming in her throat. It was a few minutes before she could reply.
Super cool Noah! Way to go, she typed, finally. Large tear drops fell on her trembling hand, some splashing on her phone’s screen. She was relieved that it hadn’t happened at a restaurant, and wondered how it must have felt for Noah when she was so openly put off by the idea of them as an item.
Are you okay? He must have sensed her grief. He knew her that well.
‘Course I am okay, silly. Can’t wait to meet this girl.
She knew for sure that that sharp and pounding ache in her heart would never go away.
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