The Locking Mechanism
By Nthenya Nzioki (Kenya)
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“My child, you must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. When you fall in love, learn to love the man without needing him.”
As if it were only yesterday, I recall the rasp in my dear late grandmother’s voice as she said these words. Yet that sweet old lady has been dead for almost four years now. I think of her sunken yet oddly comforting smile that always touched her eyes and gave them a mischievous twinkle every time she brought up this particular topic.
“Always remember that your life belongs to you only and nothing a man does should make you change who you are and what you believe in. When a man realizes that you can truly love him without being afraid to lose him, when he knows that your love for him and your life are not meshed together,then he will respect you. And if he is a wise man who understands the nature of real love, if he is the kind that does not continuously court foolishness nor give in to fickle whims or impulses, then he will behave himself, just like any well brought up man should. After all, does not the Good Book tell us that a good child is a source of pride to his father and a shame to his mother?”
She would chew vigorously on her chewing stick with her few remaining teeth and peer at me with those mischievously twinkling eyes.
“When the time comes, choose wisely my child and love truly and honestly. Only, learn to love without needing. That way, your life will always belong to you and you will be in control of your own happiness. That is the locking mechanism and we each hold our own key.”
With that, she would spit out a perfect bullet of saliva through her teeth and smile serenely at me,rocking slightly in her chair and looking at me as if she expected some sort of question or other.
I never asked any questions. Her words made perfect sense to me and I often found myself thinking about them a lot over the years.
I think about my grandmother and her locking mechanism now as the plane starts it’s descend. “I failed you, grandma”, I think sadly, looking out the window as the airport buildings down belowget bigger and clearer as we approached touch down. “I guess I didn’t understand the locking mechanism as well as I thought I did… as well as I should have.”
I sigh and lean my head on the window, closing my eyes. I try to push back the dread of having to face him again, but it isn’t easy. All through the flight, my mind has gone through a million scenarios about how it will be… What will I find in this house that I have thought of as my second home away from home, that I have worked on so hard to make cozy and comfortable in the last one and a half years? This house that holds so many happy, special memories and yet I now dread to return to. Worse yet, who will I find? He does not know I am coming, it was a last minute decision to come and collect my belongings and perhaps get an explanation from him face to face. Now, I’m beginning to doubt the wisdom of it.
Finally the plane lands and taxis. When it stops, I disembark and go through the usual formalities of clearing with customs and immigration, all the while my stomach is churning and knotting and making me so anxious that I start to feel nauseous! Eventually, I walked out the gate at the arrivals terminal and stand momentarily caught in a state of nostalgia. How many times in the past had I walk out through this same gate and into his waiting arms?... I smile ruefully, feeling the sting of tears in my eyes. There is no one to pick me up this time, no warm embrace or kisses to welcome me; I am all on my own. With my heart in my throat, I square my shoulders and set off towards the taxi park and to my last ‘2ndhome coming’. My last journey back to him and to the house where I have known so much happiness, so much love… Could I have imagined it all? Is it really, truly over? I fight back the tears. I will soon find out.
He welcomes me in. Nothing has changed in the one month that I’ve been away. There are some new additions. Impressive, but they are no longer my concern. If what he has told me is true, then someone else will soon be coming to enjoy them. I reflect briefly upon the ironies of life.
Old habits die hard, and I find myself walking into the bedroom to store my bags.
I notice that our picture is gone from its usual place on the mirror. So are all the greeting cards I have sent him – with all my love… Birthday, Christmas, valentine, all gone! I wonder what he has done with them. Did he toss them out in the trash, shred them, burn them? I don’know. I don’t ask… I don’t want to know.
The pain is too much. I swallow a lump in my throat and it goes down with great difficulty leaving a trail of bile in its wake.
I do not want to linger long in the bedroom; it brings back memories that make me feel rather weak. Quickly, I walk out to the dining room and pull out a seat at the table. Not the usual seat that I have always occupied during our wine sessions – No, I couldn’t bear to sit on that one. I sit at the very end of the table, while he sits at his usual place at the head.
We look at each other, wondering what to say, how to begin. I search for an opening line .I have rehearsed this moment over and over in my head, how could my mind suddenly go blank now?He breaks the silence.
“Would you like a drink?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” I don’t really feel up to drinking anything even though my throat feels dry and patched.
“Ok, give me a minute.”
He disappears into the kitchen and leaves me trying to organize my thoughts. Shortly, he returns with a bottle of larger and a glass. I watch him as he pours his beer and once more, a wave of despair and mild resentment sweeps over me. This is the man that I have loved so dearly and completely for the last two years, the man I love still. The man who claimed to love me back and called me his soul mate! To see him sitting there across from me, seemingly calm and nonchalantly pouring his beer into his glass, as if all is right with the world, while my life unravels around me and plays out like a Greek Tragedy is infuriating and rather nauseating. By now of course, the nausea has become a constant.
I clear my throat, “Ehem! I decided I should just come and collect my things. That way, I could save you the expense of having to send them to me via DHL.”
Even through my pain and confusion, I am still trying to be considerate.
“Thank you for that. You’ll have saved me quite a bit.” Comes his cool reply.
“Also,” I continue, “I want to hear you tell me to my face what you told me on the phone.”
“Mmmmh!” He swallows a large swig of his beer, “Ok…”
There is a moment of awkward silence.
“Would you like a cigarette?” he asks suddenly, holding out his pack of Camels towards me. I start to decline, then think; ‘what the heck?’, and reach out for one. I light it with slightly shaky hands and hope he does not notice this as I touch the light to the tip of the cigarette .Above all else, I am determined to maintain my composure and not let him see how this whole thing is taking a toll on me.
I take a long drag of the cigarette, letting the smoke fill my lungs, savoring the heady feeling it gives me. Then I slowly exhale and finally face him eye to eye through the hazy wisps of smoke. It is clear that he isn’t going to say much without prompting. So I take a deep breath and simply plunge ahead, asking the question that has been plaguing me and robbing me of sleep for the last two weeks.
“When exactly did you decide you want to do this?”
He looks away from me into the far corner of the ceiling and takes deep puffs at his Camel.
I Can see him trying to compose his reply and I wait with bated breathe for the answer, the explanation that will hopefully help me understand and perhaps free my mind from the endless torment of ‘what ifs’.
“I told you,” he begins, “When I was home on leave… the day that I went to see my son. It suddenly hit me that he was growing up and I wasn’t there to see it, to watch him grow, to be his dad!”
He stops and steals a glance at me as if seeking for some sort of encouragement or approval.
He gets neither; I merely look at him and concentrate on keeping my expression as neutral as possible. I drag at the butt I’m holding with more enthusiasm than I feel. It actually tastes rather nasty and it occurs to me that in my present condition, it’s about time I kicked the dirty habit.
Then I quickly suppress the thought, not wanting to think about my present condition. That is for later.
“You know what it’s like to grow up with your dad… all the good time and memories you had in your childhood… I want the same for my son.”
I look at him and ask quietly, “Does that mean that you are seriously considering getting back with your ex?”
“Well, she is his mother.”
“Is that the only way you can be a dad to your son? Is there no other way?”
“I want him here with me!”
“I see… Do you love her?”
“I stopped loving her long ago.”
“And yet you want to go back to her…?”
“I’m doing it for my son, for his sake!”
“Right, a loveless, strained relationship of in and out… A nice environment to bring up a child. Do you think its fair to him, to any of you involved?”
“I have to try…”
“How many times will you keep trying? Haven’t you tried before and she still left you? Have you spoken with her about this, is she willing to come back?”
I marvel at this. It’s as if this two people enjoy playing the back and forth game with each other and never mind who gets hurt while they’re at it. I think momentarily of that old story about the boy who cried‘Wolf!’ one too many times and when there actually was a real wolf and he needed help, no one believed him because they were all tired of his games and tricks.
“Did you ever love me?”
“Yes, you know I did!” He replies, rather impatiently.
“Then when did you stop?” I can feel the tears very close now.
“When did I stop what?”
“When did you stop loving me?” I ask in a voice that is barely above a whisper and look down at my hands which are clasped tightly on my lap. I hate myself for showing weakness, but my heart is breaking and I am determined to get all the answers.
He takes a long while to answer and we sit in silence as I struggle to hold back the dam of tears that is threatening to break through. Finally, he says in a quiet subdued tone:“I never stopped loving you. It’s just that some things are bigger than us.”
I look up at him, wanting so hard to understand, to see things from his perspective. I search his face for anything that will help me make sense of this, but I find nothing there but a stubborn determination.It is obvious that he has made up his mind about this and I am too emotionally battered to even try and talk him out of it.
I suddenly laugh in exasperation. There is no mirth in my laughter, only a hollow emptiness. It occurs to me how pointless this whole talk is. There can be no going back, not at this stage. I’m not here hoping to get him to change his mind. Deep down inside, I know it doesn’t matter either way. The damage has already been done. With his betrayal, he has shot me down in mid flight, and I have plummeted to the ground with my wings broken and my spirit wounded – but not crushed!I feel a dull buzz of anger rising in my head and with a lot of effort, I suppress it. I will be the bigger person no matter what.
I sit there mutely, thinking about his ex and how she had chosen her life when she chose to leave him -for the third time! He had vowed that it was the last time he would take that from her and if she left,this time around, he would move on. She had left, and he had moved on – to me. I had believe him when he had told me I was his soul mate, I had believed that we would grow old together! Have I only been a diversion, a play thing to while away the time and satisfy his bodily desires while he waits for the storm to blow over then go back to her? Here I am being discarded like a toy that he has outgrown, and no one is giving me a choice. Things are simply being done to me and I am expected to understand. But I do not understand!
How does one expect me to understand a situation where one minute we are in love, planning a future, looking at houses to buy and trying to making babies and the next minute, with barely any funfair or warning, I am all alone, pregnant and abandoned because the person who promised to stand by me; hold my hand through the adventure of life and love me always, has suddenly realized (two years down the line) that ‘some things are bigger than us’? What should I understand?That his son needs him? Did he not know this before he made his promises to me? Before he visited my father’s house? And speaking of children needing a father, I’m I then carrying a log in my womb? Is mine not a child that needs a father too? I marvel at his skewed, selfish reasoning.
Maybe some things just aren’t meant to be understood. Maybe if you were to try too hard to understand them, you would go stark, raving, mad at the eventual senselessness of it all! No, some things just aren’t meant to be understood, but they should be accepted because denial is the worst kind of lie we can ever tell ourselves.
I think of how he had taken me to meet his family and how I went out of my way to ensure we got along. He had come home to see my parents and they were quite impressed too. Had all that just been an act? If so, what a show! What a performance!
My life with him flashes before my eyes: The instant attraction when we first met. We had hit it off immediately, and even though we were in a crowd, it was as if no one else mattered. When every one else left we had stayed back, talking and getting to know each other till the wee hours of morning. By the end of that night, I felt as if I had known him all my life. I remember giving him my phone number before we parted and jokingly telling him that it wasn’t for calculations and he better make use of it. That was a pretty bold statement, but somehow, with him, I felt comfortable using it.
I had met him again the next day and we had talked about heaven and hell. I have no idea how the topic had come up, but I vividly recalled telling him that if there really was a hell, then I definitely wasn’tending up there! Never mind what every bible thumping preacher coming out of the wood works was preaching from their pulpit about all sin being equal. My so called vices were small fry compared to the terrorists, suicide bombers and pedophiles running amok in the world. I remember laughing un self-consciously as we talked. He was so easy to be with; I could have talked about anything and everything with him even though I had only just met him. I remember reluctantly saying it was time for me to leave, hating to say good-bye. I remember him calling my name as I walked away and I, turning to find him right behind me. I remember how without another word he took me in his arms and kissed me gently but firmly, full on the lips. I remember my pleasant surprise at his spontaneity and boldness. But most of all, I remember the electric shiver of delight that ran through me in those endless seconds that that first kiss lasted… and the resulting all encompassing warmth that enveloped me as I walked away with a smile on my lips. Lips that felt somehow vulnerable and tender after that brief sweet encounter.
I remember thinking about him a lot after that and being pleasantly surprised when he called me the very next day when I arrived home. What had followed was a long distance friendship. We never once came right out and spoke of the growing attraction that hang between us. The distance and our individual circumstances confined us to the friendship zone. Yet we were undeniably, strongly drawn to each other.
It was two months before I saw him again. I called him on the phone.
“I’m coming down tomorrow.”
“Yes, come! Come! Come!” The delight in his voice was unmistakable.
I had arrived, nervous with anticipation and when he walked into my hotel room, my breath had caught in my throat. He looked so handsome as he stood for a moment at the door, smiling at me with a certain boyish charm that stole what ever little reservation I might have had left.
“Welcome back.” He said as he came towards me with fluid confidence; with the gait of a man who knew where he was going and what he wanted when he got there.
In a few steps, he had closed the distance between us and I was in his arms. I looked up into his lovely brown eyes, feeling myself drowning in their depths as he bent down to kiss me. My eyes fluttered shut as his lips touched mine and when he gently led me to the bed, still caught in his embrace and lost in his kiss, I did not resist. I did not open my eyes, I simply yielded to his will and a short while Later, I was suspended in time, in the moment. I could not think, I wasn’t even sure I was breathing…I could only feel.
That was the first time… and the passion only grew stronger with time. The need never diminishing,the love never waning… I knew I loved him by then, loved him more than I had ever thought it possible to love a man. I planned my life around him. We went on romantic get-a ways,exploring each other’s minds, bodies and souls. We shared with each other the most intimate details of our lives, our dreams, our fears, our hopes, until there was little we did not know about each other – or so I thought. We used to joke fondly with each other and say, “There’s nothing anyone can tell me about you that I don’t already know.”
And I had actually believed that about him. I had believed that I knew him by heart, because he was in my heart. Caught up in my love for him, I forgot that you can never really know anyone for sure.Even the understanding and knowledge of yourself is a life long process because human beings are dynamic and their strength or weakness of character is constantly being tested by the circumstances of life.
Blindly, I basked in our love. Soaking up every precious shared moment. He was my dream come true,the fabled knight in shining armor from my childhood fairytale books. He was kind and loving,generous with his affection and lavish with his words. He never tired of telling me I was beautiful and he was never afraid to express his feelings for me in the most sentimental ways. Maybe that is why I was so taken in by him, so ready to believe everything he said to me and all the promises he made.So completely was I in love with him that sometimes in the deep still of night, I would wake up from a pleasant dream, gently disentangle myself from his warm embrace and in the soft glow of the security light outside the bed room window, I would watch him sleep.
My enamored mind would take in his handsome face, made soft and almost vulnerable by the peace of slumber. I would gaze upon the delicately arched brows, the firm full lips that roused such a fiery passion within me with a single kiss. I would listen to his throaty breathing, watching his chest raise and fall with each breathe, and I would whisper a prayer of gratitude, almost awed that providence had been kind enough to bring this wonderful man into my life.
I would then curl up again by his side, nestling my head on his broad warm chest. And always, even in his sleep, his arms would wrap around me, and he would draw me to him. There wasn’t any place in the world that felt safer, more secure, than being in his arms with my head resting on his chest.
Blissfully, I would then drift off into a sweet slumber, secure in the way that only people who are hopelessly and blindly in love can be – that I was his and he was mine.
Very rarely during this time did I think of my grandma’s locking mechanism.
I am startled out of my reverie by his return to the table. I hadn’t even realized that he had left.He has a fresh beer and as he sits replenishing his drink, I have an epiphany. I do not know this person!The man sitting across from me is a complete stranger! The man I have been in love with is a fictitious character and now that the story is over, so is his existence.
I sigh deeply. I feel so tired, so empty, so sad! I ask the last question, the million shilling question;“So, now what happens to me and the baby? We talked about this and agreed to have a child, what happens now that you don’t want to be with me anymore?”
He looks at me with an expression I can’t read and when he answers, it’s with the emotional gradient of‘please pass me the salt.’
“I will support the child financially, I just won’t be there.”
Something in me dies right then. I barely have the time to acknowledge it, only to mourn it.Is this the price I pay for being a woman? For loving a man? He will carry on with his life, with no stigma or social burden, while I will forever carry the scars and bear the burden and stigma that comes with being a single, unmarried mother in society. I am overwhelmed by a bright searing pain that seems to start from my chest and spread to the rest of me. I clutch my belly, put my head down and finally let the tears come.
And when he comes over to me and holds me, I gladly turn to him.
clinging tightly, I bury my face in his chest and soak his shirt with my hot, burning tears. His arms around me feel so familiar yet so alien as he holds me in a borrowed embrace. Yes, it’s borrowed because it doesn’t belong to me anymore, if at all it ever did.
I start to shiver, I feel so cold. I fleetingly wonder if I’ll ever be warm again.
I want to hate him, I want to say hurtful things to him and make him feel some of the pain I’m feeling… But I don’t, I can’t… Because you see, I love him still.
“I hope you find it in yourself to forgive me.” He whispers.
I can not give an honest response to that.
So I let him hold me instead, as I cry my eyes out, and make a futile effort to draw warmth and comfort from he who has caused all my anguish.
Some hours later, I sit in the plane homeward bound. My mind feels numb, my eyes feel raw and my heart is a hot throbbing lump lying somewhere between my chest and my throat. I try to sleep, at least with sleep, I can escape my thoughts. I have informed the stewardess that I will not be needing any service but would appreciate if she could get me a bottle of water. My throat feels dry and grainy,as if I spend the day eating handfuls of sand.
The steady roar of the engines begin to lull me and I must have slipped into a light doze because surely this is a dream!
“It’s hard when they leave, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. It cuts deep and it hurts.” I reply automatically before realizing with a start who that aged raspy voice belongs to.
I turn quickly. “Grandma? What are you doing here?”
She smiles her sweet, sunken smile and looks at me kindly. “I came to hold your hand and to remind you about the locking mechanism.”
I sigh heavily, and look down at my hands. I notice that at some point in this endless nightmare, I managed to gnaw both my thumb nails right down to the skin.
“I’m sorry Grandma, I failed in my locking mechanism.”
She reaches out and takes my hand in her old gnarled one and asks me softly;“Did you leave your happiness back there? With him?”
“I don’t know, Grandma. I don’t know! I feel so empty inside, so…” I trail off, at a loss to findthe proper word to express just how miserable I feel.
“Did you never know happiness before you met him?”
“I did, but not like this. This was different, it was special!”
“Every moment in life has its own kind of special quality, my child. And life never runs out ofspecial moments if you’ll only give it a chance.”
“But I did give it a chance Grandma, I loved him! Look where it got me.”
She touches my face tenderly and looks at me with so much wisdom and compassion in her old eyes that I feel close to tears. How I can still have any more left after all the crying I have done today is beyond me.
“Well, at least you loved and you loved truly. Not many have been so fortunate.” She says, softly.“I wouldn’t call myself fortunate in these circumstances.” I reply wearily.
“Were you not happy in the time you had with him?”
“Of course I was! Well, most of the time. There were some low moments.”
“Every relationship has its highs and lows. But you were happy with him and that makes you fortunate despite the pain you feel now. Many go through life without ever knowing even half of the happiness or love you knew with him.”
She fumbles into her pocket and fishes out her chewing stick which she promptly proceeds to chew with zeal. The ghost of a smile touches my lips as I watch this familiar act with affection.She looks at me, and holds my eyes with hers.
“Would you say he was perfect? Without fault or flaw?”
“Of course not! He had a terrible temper, was rather selfish and vengeful during fights and had some childish tendencies. He was also rather careless with his finances.”
“And yet you loved him and managed to find happiness with him.”
“Yes, I guess I did.”
“And you love him still.” It is a statement, not a question.
I look at her rather impatiently, “I can’t just switch off my feelings in the blink of an eye like he seems able to do! Yes, I love him still, but I wish I didn’t. I want to hate him!”
“Child, you do not know what it is you ask for when you say you want to hate. Hate is a wild and untamable animal with large, sharp teeth and it only feeds on what is good in you and around you.It will feed and grow and finally consume you completely! No, you must not speak of hate. In this life,people leave us when we least expect it. Some times they leave out of choice, some times they are taken away. Either way, it hurts when we lose someone we cared for. Your own Grand father, my husband, passed on when your mother was barely out of nappies. I wasn’t much older than you are now. I was devastated but did I lie down and die with him? Did I give up on living the life that was given to me by the almighty because the man I loved wasn’t there? No! I loved him, but I did not need him in order to live my life and enjoy the blessings in it. My life was given to me and me only. And I had a responsibility to myself to try and live it right.”
She pauses and spits out onto the blue carpet of the cabin floor. I look at the spittle, mildly horrified. But before I can say anything, she squeezes my hand tightly and proceeds with earnest;“The locking mechanism was never meant to lock a man to you. It is meant to lock the ability to be happy, to survive, to rise up even when life beats you down, to hold your head up no matter how bleak the future might look… The locking mechanism is meant to lock the will to be the mistress of your own destiny within you! Do not place your happiness, your future into the hands of another person. Only you hold the key to these things in your life!”
I sit there motionless, blinking owlishly at her as understanding finally dawns on me. There is hope after all! There is a light at the end of this long dark tunnel! I feel myself starting to smile and my Grandma smiles serenely back at me. She removes her chewing stick from her mouth and points at my belly; “You are having the child of course. Don’t go running to those butcher doctors that other young women go to! A child is a blessing and a sacred gift, no matter how it is packaged.”
She pops the stick back into her mouth and adds matter of factly; “It is a girl and you will name her after me.”
I look at her in surprise, “How do you know that?”
“Oh, I know. I can smell it on you. It will be a girl.” She smiles, revealing the few remaining teeth in her mouth and her whole face lights up.
“She will be beautiful, and she will learn the locking mechanism, just like you have. Make sure you tell it to her! And now my dear, I have to go. I am glad to see you smile and I know you will be fine in the end. Do not hate and do not curse. Let the Good Lord pay back the dues as he sees fit.Let go of what has gone from you and look forward to what is coming to you.”
She sprays fine drops of spittle onto her hands and places them on my head in the ritual of blessing. I bow my head in respect and silent gratitude. When I look up again she is gone.
I came out of my doze to find the man seated next to me looking at me rather cautiously.It is the kind of look we reserve for those we suspect to have some loose screws in their heads.
“Do you usually talk in your sleep?” He asks hesitantly.
I smile in amusement and reply rather cheekily, “I really wouldn’t know that now, would I? I mean, I’m asleep.”
He seems to relax slightly because he offers me a loop sided smile and says; “Well, you were talking to yourself just now and I couldn’t tell if you were awake or sleeping.”
“I wasn’t talking to myself.” I reply with a smile and a mysterious air.
Then, before he can say anything more, I turn away and look out of the window into the night sky.