This post celebrates Valentine’s day, which is about love, I promised Jennifer a story and I deliver, this was an unfinished tale and I finally decided to share. I guess the best stories are spun from real events and this one’s no exception. Today’s post is in honor of Jennifer @drealgenie and inspired by Paternak.
THE ONE THAT GETS AWAY.
You hold me without touch,
You keep me without chains,
Never wanted anything so much,
Than to drown in your love,
and not feel your pain…
Sara Bareilles – Gravity.
Nathan is taking forever again. The street is chilly from the harmattan and standing in the cold in my dress and this flimsy shirt was a bad idea. I really didn’t think this through. I can feel the cold creeping in and I don’t recognize this part of town. I almost contemplated walking back to school before but now I’m glad I didn’t. I’d have frozen to death or worse, caught pneumonia. I feel a little bad for Frank or Fred. I’m not really sure about his name; I just know it starts with an F. I’d be really worried too if the girl I brought home wasn’t there when I woke up. I just hope he doesn’t remember my face, he thought we had a connection. I seriously don’t need another guy walking up to me, accusing me of leaving without even saying goodbye.
Nathan pulls up. He drives a Volkswagen Beetle which he has spent the last two years customizing. The noisy engine is gone and he’s replaced the metal roof with one of those retractable thingies. Black matt paint and graffiti complements the internal improvements. Nath’s t-shirt is inside out and his glasses are only slightly askew and he is fuming.
“I cant believe the kind of idiotic things I do for you.” He says as I get in. “I had to stop twice for directions.”
“Sorry, the guy was supposed to drop me off in the morning.”
“And you bailed on this one, again.” Nathan concludes.
“Its 2am, and I’m cold and this is not the place for another lecture.” I reply pre-emptively.
I can tell Nathan wants to vent. He glares at me but starts the car anyway. We drive in silence; his shoulders hunched forward, eyes focused firmly on the road while I stare at my lap and twiddle the edge of the oversize dress shirt. If either of us makes eye contact right now, the words will flow and we’ll probably say things we don’t mean. The unspoken rule of our friendship has always been that we never tell each other about what happens in our private lives, we’re both intensely private people and our friendship is simpler this way. That is part of the reason I have never told him I’m in love with him.
Nath and I have always had a complicated relationship, he is emotionally unavailable and I am attracted to him because he doesn’t want me. But we keep appearances and pretend not see the tension underneath. He has become my plumb, setting me straight when I flirt with destructive behavior and I, the only girl who accommodates his anti-social behavior. Two emotional cripples latching onto each other, afraid to stand alone.
Nathan drives past the school’s main gate and I smile inwardly. He isn’t mad enough to drop me off to find my way to the hostel. I’ve only been to his house twice before and I secretly wish he’s taking me there. We drive to his house in Hanwa and I wait in the car while he goes out to open the gate. We push the car in, him steering with one hand. The landlord doesn’t take too nicely to having his sleep disturbed, that we’ve had to learn the hard way. The self contained apartment Nathan lives in is blissfully warm and I shrug off the shirt onto his couch and kick off my espadrilles. Nathan frowns disapprovingly and arranges my shoes properly by the door.
He asks if I want anything and I ask for a mug of cocoa. He makes for the kitchen and turns on the electric kettle. He turns on his stereo system while we wait for the water to boil. The Alanis Morrissette song ‘Not The Doctor’ starts up from where it was last played. Nathan nods his head to the angsty, angry, pro-feminist music. Sometimes I wonder how he is sometimes so grounded. All the music he listens to is about loss and pain and heartbreak. You’d think all that would mean nothing but here he is, life imitating art; quiet, sullen and obliging to my every mood.
He asks for the details of my latest misadventure and I summarize, skimming over the messy and uneccessary parts. Nath listens quietly and nods where appropriate but I know he’s tired of hearing this story repeated over and over, cloaked in different guises. He tries to hide his disapproval but he’s always been a bad actor. I see it in the way his back is ramrod straight and how his lips quiver, brimming with the words he really wants to say. I hurry to finish my story and pretend I dont see that he is disgusted with me. He leaves me in the living room and goes to make the cocoa. I go to his bedroom and pull off my dress and pull on one of Nathan’s t-shirts. There’s a big legend on the front, something about love being a mirage; something about it being so ironically appropriate appeals to me. I go back to the living room and watch him negotiate his way around the kitchen. He is mumbling to himself, probably trying to find the best way to tell me what he thinks of me. I brace myself for the lecture I’m sure is coming. Nathan sits and hands me my cup. He’s made two cups of coffee instead of one of cocoa. I start to bring this to attention but he shushes me.
“I made coffee, because we’ll be up for a long time.”
“Nathan, I can’t deal with another pyscho-analysis of my self destructive behaviour.” I groan.
His smile is rueful. “No lectures I promise. I just want to tell you a story, the one I should have told you the day we met, or the day I first realized you were special to me.”
I want to protest but he puts a trembling finger to his lips.
“Promise me you wont interrupt, that you’ll just listen.”
I don’t want to but I see how hard this is for him so I nod. Nath usually isn’t like this, he always has a sharp retort or a witty remark, he’s never this serious or sombre. He looks me straight in the eye and begins his tale.
“There’s this boy who is the first of three children. Both his parents are university professors. His mother’s an English professor and his father majors in human anthropology. They met fresh out of postgraduate school and had a torrid affair which unfortunately resulted in his mother getting pregnant out of wedlock. His father is pro-life and his mother is pro-choice so his very existence was only because his mother threatened to have him removed if his father didn’t marry her and leave a fellowship at an American University to be with her. So even before he was born, this boy had cost both his parents their dreams. He was born three months after his parents married and they named him Nathan. Even when he was little, Nathan was precocious and painfully empathic. He could sense that beneath the veneer of domesticity, his parents despised each other. He always knew he was the glue that held them together so he tried to please them in every way. He read twice as hard, took care of himself so they didn’t have to and tried to make them love each other. But the more he tried, the more he became a pawn in their unspoken war against each other. Eventually, he began to withdraw into himself.
“He was a small for his age and he never did anything fun or interesting and he spoke like an adult so other children hated him. They bullied and taunted him incessantly, beat him up and stole his food. Nathan couldn’t tell his parents what happened to him every day at school because they were never home. There was always a meeting or a thesis or scripts or a lecture that was more important than him. When he turned seven, both his parents became professors and decided to try for another child. They were overjoyed when his mother became pregnant six months later and had twins; a boy and a girl. Taiye and Alexis were lavished attention, while his parents ignored him, the one thing that had kept them together when everything else had fallen apart. So Nathan acted out in school and got into fights.”
Nathan stopped to sip his coffee. I felt mine, it had gone cold. I hadn’t even sipped it once. He cleared his throat and continued.
“His parents were appalled at his behaviour so they pulled him out of his former posh school where their colleagues children went and put him in a public school where he was even more out of place. Their justification; to teach him a lesson. The bullying became more violent and severe as Nathan tried to win his parents favour back total obedience to school rules. When he was twelve, he crossed the class bully who beat him so badly after school that he broke two ribs. Nathan crawled home, coughing up blood and his parents weren’t there. They’d taken the twins to a departmental dinner. Nathan’s parents found him on the floor in the living room, in shock, drooling blood and spit. He spent a month in the hospital with a bruised lung and broken ribs.
“After that his parents withdrew him from school and got him a private tutor to home-school him. They were embarrassed by him. Nathan spent hour after hour alone with nothing to do and nowhere to go. He didn’t have a television, his parents didn’t believe in commercialized entertainment. Nathan’s thoughts turned to suicide; all he wanted to do was end it. Maybe his parents would notice when he was gone. He tried to slit his wrists when he was thirteen but he couldn’t get himself to cut deep enough. He tried to hang himself but the ceilings of their generic staff duplex were too low and he’d grown too tall. He became a recluse, a hermit. A sad little thing, on the fringes.”
Nathan shakes his head as if to clear it of the melancholy.
“Then he discovered music. It gave him catharsis, a way to express his sadness, his solitude, his pain. The deeper he delved, the more release he felt. It gave him a sense of identity and shapes the person he is today. His parents can afford to give him anything he asks for now, and they rush to satisfy his every whim. They still don’t ‘see’ him, but he’s learned to live with that. But he knows inspite of all your troubles, you see him as a man, someone you can depend on, and he loves you for it ”
I am numbed by this. I’ve begged him many times to tell me about himself and each time, he’s wriggled out of it. Nathan has many friends but he is always guarded around them. I am beyond surprised that he would tell me any of this. He’s broken all our rules. Nath takes away my cup of coffee. As he comes close I notice he is watching for my reaction. I put my hands around him and try to meld him into myself, share just a little of what he’s gone through. I’d thought I was the only one who life had been unfair to but his life makes mine seem so petty. Nathan lets me hang on for as long as he’d dare and lets go when it becomes too much for him.
“Jennifer, I know something happened to you, something so bad you just want to numb it with all these guys that pass through your life, but I’m here and I don’t want to use you, I just want to listen.”
Even though I know he’ll never betray me, I make him promise me on the pain of death he’ll never tell anyone what I tell him. And I tell him, everything. The words come hesitantly at first, like a small crack widening in a failed dam, trickling out of me till it becomes a deluge. I tell him about my father dying, about my mother, about Nnaemeka and Nnamdi. I tell him about my friends and how I always feel the need to bury my problems and be strong for them. I tell him about my first time, my pregnancy and giving Luke up for adoption. I tell him about the guilt I feel towards my ex Tade, about my bouts of depression. But most of what I tell him revolves around Tade; our fights, his betrayals, my betrayals, Tade’s mother and my fear that I’ll never be able to set things straight with him. I tell him about Luke; my son, my guilt about the decision I made to give him up, the constant second guessing that tortures on me when I see other teenage mothers taking care of the their kids, my worries if he’s been treated well by his foster parents. How I wake up somedays unsure if I really had Luke or if I just dreamt up the whole thing. And as I finish, my mouth is dry and my head is heavy but my heart is light. Nathan puts a finger to my cheek and it comes back wet. I hadn’t realized I was crying. Nath’s cheeks are wet too and he is doing nothing to stem the trickle of tears.
“You have a son.” He says in wonder. “How you found the strength to live after all that astounds me. You are the most amazing person I know.”
He crosses the space between us in a second, and his lips find mine. His kiss is dewy like the petals of a freshly cut orchid. I try to kiss him back but he stays me.
“I have loved you from the first day I saw you, sitting alone atop the architecture studio, watching me with a smirk on your face as I fumed because my Nirvana CD broke.”
I’m surprised he even remembers. So many times I’d dreamed about him saying the words, but this is even better than my silly daydreams. He touches my cheek tenatively, as if to draw my attention back to him.
“But I’ve seen that every man in your life has wanted you for what you could give them. But I don’t want to be one of those guys who share your bed and nothing else, so let me love you, don’t reciprocate.”
Frustration wells up in me and I want to scream. He actually loves me. For two years I’d hidden my feelings for him, because I thought he didn’t feel the same and he’s loved me all this time. I can’t understand why now that we have nothing to hide, he wont even try. Against my every impulse of self preservation, I voice my confusion to him.
“Maryann, we are two fractured souls.” He says. “I don’t think I am ready or able to give you the kind of selfless love you need to heal you, or me. If we were to date, we’d end up destroying each other.”
“But we have to try.” I beg. “We know what we’re getting into. We can make it work.”
Nathan sighs. He’s resigned but resolute. “I’ve had a long time to consider this, and no matter how I rationalise it, you end up hurt. I’d rather you are hurt because we never happened than because we did.”
Thoughts swirl through my head. Negative, irrational thoughts that I know aren’t true, logical or even cohesive and I entertain them, and just as I want to do something stupid, he says the unexpected thing.
“Jenny, tomorrow my resolve will be stronger and my honor will force to keep to my vow, but for tonight, fuck it all!”
He reaches for me and in seconds my shirt is off, discarded in a heap along with his. He is surprisingly muscular. I gingerly remove his glasses and drop on a nearby stool, his eyes are the brown of dark chocolate and I am drawn to the longing within them. He kisses me with an urgency that matches and surpasses mine. My fingers trace the welts on his wrists and on his ribs. The mementos of his troubled past. He is so close, his breath warms my cheeks and we are recycling each other’s air. This kind of vulnerability was what Tade took from me and Nathan’s helped me claim it back. I kiss the faint line of rope burns on his throat and he returns with kisses on my eyelids and my navel. He explores my lips slowly, sensually; he isnt in a hurry. I am at ease with him in a way I have never felt before. It is the ease that comes when you know the one you want, wants you. Every move is deliberate yet spontaneous and all together wonderful. It comes naturally and we bask in the afterglow. We lie side by side on his couch till morning comes, I don’t sleep, I just soak up the moment.
As the first light stream in through the slits in the curtains and bathes the room in a warm glow, I unfurl his hands around my waist and tiptoe to his room. He is so peaceful on the couch, part of me wants to go back and join him but I push away the thought. I slip on my dress and my overshirt and make for the door. I decide not to shut the door behind me when I go , I’ll leave it ajar. The significance of this I know Nathan will obviously see. The door in our relationship will always be ajar, discreetly withdrawn till he’s comfortable enough to want more. I want to leave because his honor endears him to me and I dont want his resolve to falter. Hope wells up in me and I cant help the little sashaying that creeps into my step as I walk. As I touch the knob, Nath calls to me. He wasn’t asleep after all.
“Dont be like this Jennifer.” He says.
“We’ve made our choices.” I say, trying for the right words to convey my thoughts. “I just didn’t want this morning to be… awkward.”
“It isn’t going to be.” His voice is much closer this time. It would be cowardly to still leave so I turn to him, one hand still on the knob incase my resolve falters and I need to make a quick exit. He is as close as politeness will allow and he has that rigid look he gets when he’s made an uncomfortable decision he intends to see through. Part of me secretly gloats at how accurately I can read him. He reaches for my hand and clasps it firmly. He hesitates, its obvious he still struggles with what ever decisions he’s made.
“I’ve had a long time to think about this, and I see that I’ve been selfish. I didn’t want to hurt you so much that I am shutting you out.
“I want this as much as you do. It is a risk but I’ve taken worse risks to do things that only brought me pain. I just want to try happiness, just for a little while.”
I dont wait for him to continue. I just fling my arms around him and pull him to myself. For what seems like ages we just stand there, not talking, not moving, just being. Nath knows just how I feel. In this second, for the first time in four years there are absolutely no thoughts of Tade lurking in my head, stirring up guilt and sadness. I am truly happy.