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That weekend, I was supposed to take a local group on a guided day tour of Nairobi National Park but I woke up feeling fuzzy despite two days’ rest. A paralysing malaise had taken over my body, so I feigned a cold and passed off the tour to Mark. 

I spent the next few days loafing on the couch with snacks and arguably bad reality dating shows. Mundia usually got home around seven in the evening, so I’d get up an hour before to straighten up the house and shower. By the time he got home, dinner would be simmering in the kitchen. I left the TV on to liven up the living room so that there was neither the hint of melancholy nor evidence of self-indulgence. 

It was important that Mundia not pick up on any dips on my mood or energy — that always triggered spells of nagging from him that exhausted me. Whenever I was in a bad mood, he put off asking what the matter was, not wanting to open that chest in case it turned out that he was, in fact, the matter.

He often was, but sometimes he wasn’t. Sometimes I was just tired from work, or from my body’s wrath at yet another ovum going unfertilized and the punishing period that followed. Sometimes I was tired from cleaning up Mark’s messes and playing the mediator between him and my parents, but other times my sadness was nebulous.  

Mundia was used to me prodding, trying to rouse him, trying to connect with him. He had the rare talent of being present but unavailable, speaking only with words that slipped through the fingers like mist. My little tentacles, glowing and delightfully warm, unfurling and seeking him out like a vine blossoming towards the sun, often met his cold rebuffs and had no choice but to curl back in on themselves.

You would think that he would be relieved when I withdrew and left him be, but the effect was often the opposite. Silence had to be on his terms or else it was too threatening. He could not abide it. After an unusually quiet dinner, he would cave and say something silly like, “Pfft. What is this? A Quiet Place?” Then laugh at his own joke. That was his way of saying that my sullenness was not lost on him whilst also putting it on the record that he had attempted to address it and could not, therefore, be accused of not caring.

It was a dance we partook in many times, him asking, “What is it?”  

Me saying, “Nothing,” and ushering him to the landmine area of the conversation that he loathed oh so much — having to figure out if by ‘nothing’ I meant that I wanted to be left alone or meant for him prod further to reaffirm that he truly cared. 

We had a short code, him and me. When I wanted him to prod further I kept quiet, and when I wanted him to leave me alone I told him to just leave it. Rather than learn this simple flowchart, he chose instead to be repeatedly baffled by it. Inevitably, it grew into a menacing labyrinth over our years together, until the weekend Mark scuffed the van. 

“It doesn’t seem like nothing,” he said with hostility.  

I noted his tone and sighed, impatient to end the conversation, “Just leave it. It’ll pass.”

“What about how I feel?” he asked, and I couldn’t help but be stunned at the level of self-absorption on display.

“How is this about you right now?”

“How am I supposed to feel when you are like this?”

A thought sprang to mind, coming to me in slow motion. The weight of the plate in my hand as I stood up to throw it against the wall like a frisbee, the sound of it smashing, dark, red blood juxtaposed against the white, ceramic shard as I held it in my palm, Mozart’s Lacrimosa playing in the background as I lunged at him in a moment of splendid and violent madness…

Rage, rage, sun bright rage!

“Like what, exactly? Human? Are you trying to get me to make you feel better about me being bummed out?”

On any other day, this would be the point at which I tried to make him understand what a rough day I’d had. This would be the point where I tried, futilely, to extract empathy from him. But on that day, a fog I hadn’t known was there lifted and it hit me. Why did I always end up soothing him even though I was the one in a funk? Why did I stash my sadness under a veneer of false cheerfulness so that it wouldn’t bother him? Without even knowing it, I absolved him of any responsibility he had to hold space for me during a difficult time. And it suited him, didn’t it? Because then things would return to their proper order — him at the center of the universe and everyone else in orbit around him. 

What a triumph it was to finally find some balance after being discombobulated for so long. I hadn’t been able to give form to my frustration. Until then it had been shadowy, hooded. It just hadn’t occurred to me that despite his pretence, Mundia actually relished having my full attention. All that nagging was simply a way to get back in the spotlight. I’d never thought of him as needy. Selfish? Yes, but never needy. Even more perverse, I had never imagined that his neediness was so great that it left no room for me in my fullness. 

Of course, my epiphany hardly changed anything on Mundia’s part. To save myself from dealing with his whataboutery, I started to hide my melancholy before he saw it. As long as I maintained a semblance of normalcy – a made bed, clean house, and dinner— he had nothing to complain about and I had nothing to answer for. 

What this meant was that things unfolded in flat lines. An absence of conflict also meant the absence of cheerfulness. We found a sweet spot of numbness and lurched onto it, ignoring the growing disquiet until it congealed. Until it grew teeth, hair, and bones, and began joining us for meals like a house guest we’d allowed to stay too long and now didn’t know how to kick out. 

Then, Nazir and I met again.