What’s left of that love,
are shadows in my coffee,
the stain holds my heart.
Your online status Its 'Available' mocks me, to me? surely not. But I wouldn't care if I knew you were present for some who will cry. Those souls will not mind, if you leave all the deadlines behind, when you die.
I send only one, of fifty texts that I draft then say it's the last. Chiselled from heartache, my words pretend to be light, love hides in plain sight. And each time I get a thoughtless response, or none I swear I am done. But these pregnant texts, seem to be writing themselves, yearning to be sent.
Time passes quickly, and things could change in the blink of an eye. It has been over two months since I broke one self-imposed silence, and two weeks since we all had to self-isolate. I am glad that I met him while I could, before the offices, and our shared coffee stations closed. And somehow it was a necessary step towards letting go and accepting.
It happened on a Monday, my second week at the office after returning from holiday. I went through my usual routine of looking him up, to see whether he was away, or had blocked some busy times for meetings. His public calendar showed that he was free for the next 8 hours. I opened a blank email message, stared at it for only a minute or so, then drafted a single subject line. Do you have time for Coffee today? Without hesitation, I pressed send.
I don’t think I planned it. It was just a normal day, and on a normal day I think of him at least a dozen times. Thanks to technology and social media, I always know, in the broadest sense, what he is up to. I had needed to know, sometimes, even while I kept the pretense of trying to forget him. By the end of last year, I knew that my attempts at forgetting were futile. I also dreaded the prospect of a chance meeting that will disassemble me anew, and painfully remind me of things I never forgot.
The year I spent away, trying to get over him, had served its purpose. First, I walked away with my wounded ego, when I felt that he rejected my open adoration. Then I was confronted with the layers of my pain, and by chance discovered that it all originated from a deep unfulfilled need. Because while I had a wonderful childhood where I was loved and unconditionally by close and extended family, things drastically changed when I became and adult. As soon as I grew into a woman, I was judged superficially for my appearance rather than my essence, and found that I need to work very hard for genuine appreciation and validation from others, all the things that I received freely as a child. The moment of realization came one late afternoon. I was complaining to a close friend and colleague about lack of recognition from my supervisor, then I found myself talking with bitterness and pain about the abuse I suffered in my marriage. Finally, I dissolved into tears when I remembered the final rejection from the man I loved. This meltdown sent me on a journey of self-discovery, where I learned to be kinder and more accepting of myself and others. I now know that I can always offer myself the love and compassion I needed, and I no longer crave as much validation from others as I did before. The journey is ongoing, but I have gained a better sense of my genuine self, and I realized that letting go of the ego, means less pain or at least less suffering.
My trusty therapist accompanied me on this journey. After ten sessions of talk therapy, she told me that I was now better, and perhaps I did not need her on a weekly basis. At the time I was going on holiday, and it felt right to have a break. However, one question she asked stuck with me and tortured me. She asked me whether I saw the man I loved again, and I told her that I have successfully avoided him after our last chance meeting some three months ago. During the calm time of the Christmas holidays, and embraced in the safe caring circle of my family, I spent long times ruminating about this problem. Does avoiding pain really equate to healing? How can I be over my heartbreak if a chance meeting would tear me apart?
By instinct I knew that avoiding my almost-lover was useless. I always criticized others for trying to run away from themselves, yet here I was trying to avoid my soul’s deepest desire. How could I ever think that I could leave him, when he has never left me? But this had been a recurrent pattern of my life. My intuition and heart were always way ahead of my mind and intellect. So on that day in January, I let my heart lead my fingers as I typed the email asking to meet him.
When I sent the email note, I did not know that he was in the middle of one of his usual work crises. It took him some time to reply but when he did, he accepted my invitation without hesitation. Later he commented on my timing and how I caught him at the worst possible moment in his working life. I seem to have a knack of doing that all the time. He never asks himself why it is so, but I know that my soul must be very close to his that I feel his distress.
We did not meet for long. He bought me coffee and I filled him in about the most important events of the past year of my life. I filled him in about my trip home for example and the reason for it. He told me that he thought I had left, since he never saw me on the street. I said I was still here, but did not mention that my departure was still a possible future outcome. He did not say much about his life, preoccupied as he was with the immediate work concerns. I tried to point out that work was not everything, but he was quick to counter that it was a bad time for advice.
I did not need to tell him that I was still ‘weird’, I felt our connection just like before. I still looked at him in the same way, and he asked me, like he usually does, to stop staring. He said that we resembled an old divorced couple, and he joked that he did not remember the middle bit, just the divorce. He said it would be nice if we met again, every quarter, then left to resume his professional battles. I finished the rest of my coffee, alone but for the warmth he left in my heart. I knew that I still loved him, perhaps more than before. The pain was still present, but I would live with it. Neither of us could change what was and would perhaps remain between us. We were just one and the same. Time and space meant nothing when we were together.
I meant to write that love letter then, to tell him how meeting him, and recognizing him as my twin soul was one of the most unsettling and challenging events of my life. It was, and continued to be, my greatest learning experience, and the catalyst for my ongoing spiritual growth.
Before him, I was hiding inside my protective shell of cynicism and apathy. I saved my love and affection for only a few select people, and avoided the rest of humanity. Then he found me and eventually broke the artificial barriers I built around my heart, to shield myself from disappointment and pain. He broke through my defenses because he knew me, and I was not prepared to love so selflessly, to relate so completely, and to look into the mirror of my soul. The ego resists and rejects experiences of true love, because they threaten the boundaries we keep between the self and the other, between what is wholly ours and what belongs to God or the universe. But as love destroys the ego, it offers the clearest passage to enlightenment. I finally understood what God was. God is love, and love is where he is, in my heart.
I remember the only time I held him. In a hospital room, I told him that everything will be Ok. We will be fine. Then, I looked into his eyes and said: “You will learn something”. Undoubtedly it was my intuitions speaking even then, because -unbeknownst to my rational mind- my heart had already opened up to the spiritual journey, that our twin soul is destined to to take.
I never managed to write this letter, not on the first day we met, after such a long time. I still had so much to process. But I thought I would write it later here to celebrate his birthday in February.
But his birthday has now come and gone. I sent him a greeting on the day, even though I knew he was away, and invited him to a celebratory coffee a few days after his return. A day before the appointed time. His message ringtone chimed on my phone and I was dumbstruck at first then delirious with happiness. That ring tone has gone quiet for over a year, and I could never assign it to anyone else. For the past year, it had always unsettled me whenever I heard it from a stranger’s phone. The shock could hit anytime, in the supermarket, in the cafeteria, or worst while boarding a plane, and I would be back to the twin thrill and disappointment of hearing it, then knowing it was not coming from my phone. This time I was to keep the thrill. His text adjusted our meeting time, and I was drunk on my own happiness for almost 24 hours in anticipation of a small meeting over a cup of coffee.
That meeting was a bit longer, and he was more relaxed. He talked to me about his business trip to a desert kingdom, and his real and imagined adventures there. His real escapades included skydiving and bar-hopping and what I suspect some less important socializing. The imagined ones included running away to live with the Bedouins in the desert, and I said that I would join him for that.
While we were talking I thought I misplaced my phone and looked for it for almost a minute in my purse before I realized that it was sitting there next to my coffee cup. He confuses me this way, whenever he sits opposite me. He said that my forgetfulness reminded him of a movie he saw “The Notebook” where one character was suffering from dementia. I reminded him that I was not a movie person, and he said, that it was a nice love story.
This time I told him that I was waiting for news about an application I made to transfer to another duty station. He asked me when I would know the outcome, and I said, perhaps it would be a month. We parted, and I told him I was giving him a virtual parting hug.
That second meeting was tougher on me than the first. I felt more, and I feared saying goodbye soon. After I left, I shed some tears in the privacy of my office. Later at home, I realized that I had seen the notebook in December. My parents are TV addicts, while I only enjoy televisions programs as part of family time with them. I watch with half of my attention, while knitting or crocheting. Most of the time I listen to improve my German, but sometimes the story sucks me in. I was only half-watching for the first part of the movie. Two young people in love who end up together despite the obstacles. The second half seemed unrelated at first. An elderly man visiting a care facility and suffering the rudeness and maltreatment of a woman resident. He is often berated by younger visitors that he is wasting his time. At some points, we the viewers find out that the elderly man and the woman are the same lovers whose story we saw earlier. The man is retelling to the woman, through letter, or through this notebook he kept. He visits her all the time waiting for the one rare moment she returns, and recognizes him. I cried my heart out when I saw the movie. I cried again that Thursday evening, because that story was a metaphor for how I loved him. I was just waiting, never abandoning the distant hope, that one day he would, maybe, recognize me.
Since that second meeting that left me in tears. I reached out to him twice. Once near the end of February. He answered me that he was going to be unavailable for the next three weeks, on short leaves and then workshops. Then last week I wrote to ask him how he was doing with the self-isolation, but that email is not yet answered.
I wrote so many letters to the man whose existence in my life was an outward curse but an inner blessing. Two of them, separated by almost a year of suffering, punctuate and chronicle the evolution of my feelings for him.
In the first, the theme was an awakening. I described a cynical woman who has long given up on human connection, let alone a belief in love. On a sunny afternoon, the woman was enjoying time alone with her book and a cup of coffee, when a tall older man, with charismatic blue eyes, intruded on her space and insisted to make a conversation, which evolved into a connection.
Their meetings for coffee continued, and they were always more than just chats. The two connected on deep levels, even while they joked about their funny friendship. When the woman had to be admitted to hospital, he watched her awaken from post-anesthetic haze, held her hand, and planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. She knew by then that she loved him, more than she had ever loved anyone in this lifetime.
The connection was too intense for her, she refused to accept it even when it was exhilarating. And when it became heart-wrenching during the longer periods they stayed apart, she yearned for the times she was free of heartache. More than once, she attempted to walk away. She tried to regain her autonomy, her freedom from this connection that sometimes felt like a restraint to her free spirit. Yet even when he was not around, even when she refused to speak to him or contact him, he stayed with her. He was always the first person she thought of when she woke up in the morning, and the last image her mind conjured before she drifted to sleep.
Sometime in that first year, the woman conceded defeat. She simply could not resist the pure joy, the energy that their meetings generated. She realized that the few moments of connections she experienced with her love were more precious to her than some years of her life. The mere thought of them waking up in the same city or listening to the same rain shower was sometimes enough to give her a smile.
By the end of the letter, I asked to restore the connection. I asked the man I adored to write to me, text or email me, every once in a while, because I knew that I could not severe our bond.
To my knowledge, this first love letter remained unread. He refused to look at it, for fear of being drawn into the web of what he thought of as ‘my emotions’. Instead he took a course of denial, trying to dismiss or disbelieve what is written in the stars.
The second letter, was meant as a goodbye letter. A letter to forget. It was never intended for his eyes, and was not even meant to be kept. The therapist asked me to write it. The theme here was letting go of grief for the unattainable, even if it was true love.
In this letter too, I told the story from the beginning. I described our meeting, and the growing awareness. There were more memories, the kiss on the cheek that I stole from him as he collected our used coffee cups, and the way I turned away and ran after this unusually bold act. The surprisingly profound pronouncements I made from my hospital bed, with my brain in the semi-dazed state of pain-killer haze. I told him, that I felt him, “here”, and pointed to a space on the left side of my chest right under the rib-cage.
I recalled how every meeting with him felt like a sunshine in the heart. And how every short stretch we walked in step together felt like a winged flight above the clouds. I remembered the moments I felt he cared. But I still reproached him for starting this whole thing up, for persisting on breaking me out of my shell then retreating behind an indifferent mask.
In this letter, I still struggled to make sense of the experience, to put it to bed, to bury it, and say goodbye to it, because even the beautiful memories caused me pain. I cried while writing about them and I cried again as I read the letter to the therapist.
I have been broken by this and emerged as a different person. You have made me what I am, like the sleeping beauty that was awakened by a prince, and this is something I wrote in the letter you never read. I read every book I could on grief and how to survive it. But I often return to the theme of love, which I think I finally understand. I was always skeptical about the concept of soul-mates, and scoffed at love as a passing fancy. Now I know better, because it is enough for me to see you from afar for all this to re-awaken and torture me. I wake up at odd hours at night with this sense of loss. As if a part of my soul is missing and I cannot replace it. When the pain is too much I miss the days when I considered myself whole and above any feeling of desperate love.
In all my other relationships there was this desperate angst. The constant questioning and worry: Does he love me? Doesn’t he? will I be with him? This is totally absent in this one. I see photos of you on the web or on Facebook and I am struck by the single thought, that you are simply my twin soul. I am also certain that I love best this present version of you. The older man with the eyes full of pain and unspoken words. Not the goofy younger guy who was extremely handsome. If I had met you as a young man we would have completely missed each other.
I have exhausted myself talking about this and cried several times in the process of writing. I just pray that you are happy and at peace. If not, then there is nothing I would not give to make your life a bit less sad. I write this and the part of me that used to be rational cringes at what a pushover I am. I am the quintessential desperate female, but surely I am not on the lookout for love, or affection. It is just you are the one person who moved my soul. Again, lots of poetry and quotes about love seems to resonate with me and describe my condition quite truthfully.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte makes Catherine say about her love for Heathcliff – I do not know what souls are made of but his and mine are the same. And Elif Shafak in Forty Rules of Love writes this– “Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”
You were the only person who changed me so profoundly and for the better. I wish I could tell you this in person. Because I believe that, at least on some level, I changed you too.
It has been a while, but I think I wrote this letter before the wound of my beloved’s final rejection. Before he told me off for being weird, and invited me to fall in love with Jimmy the postman. My last attempt to walk away came as reaction to this rejection. It was my final stand for my ego, because after his persistence on breaking me out of my shell, and after his role in liberating my capacity for unselfish love, I felt that he had no right to deny me my right to express those feelings and live them.
I managed to avoid contacting him, writing him texts or love letter for 447 days. During that time, every chance meeting broke me. And he never left me. Perhaps I forgot about him briefly at times when I was preoccupied with my sister’s illness, or when I was visiting her. I might have felt invincible against the pain for some time after a long therapy session where I read that second letter, and for a longer euphoric period after I finished my first marathon. But when those events faded or settled back into normalcy, he returned where he belonged, in my heart. So perhaps it is time for that third, and final, letter.
So much has happened since I last wrote to this blog. The year that passed came heavy with difficulties and heartache, and although I felt the urgent need to unburden, I was frequently torn between the need for brutal honesty, with myself and this writing space, on the one hand, and the desire to make things look pretty, palatable or worthy of publishing on the other. And since I value honesty more than visibility, I kept quiet. During the last quarter of 2019, I found myself in the midst of so many events, that I had first to absorb and internalize. I needed to make sense of what was happening around me and inside my mind before I shared it with the world.
This time last year I felt like the weight of the world has landed on my shoulder. I had my personal grief to deal with in addition to a challenging situation at work, where I was saddled with a supervisory role I was not fully ready for. The team I led, on a temporary basis until the vacant position of chief was filled, consisted of chronic under-performers with huge egos and unpleasant attitudes. I surmounted the difficulties as they arose, but eight months into the task, I found that I was thoroughly tired of being the hardworking odd-ball in a team of slackers.
It stung me initially, that I did not make the cut for assuming the Chief’s role permanently, but later I understood that perhaps I did not have the time and energy to constantly crack the whip behind this team, and I resigned myself to the time-tested method of wait-and-see. I kept things running as best as I could and waited for the next Chief to assume the position and take ownership of this problematic situation. I practiced patience and tolerance to the limit, putting my foot down only when it was absolutely necessary, and thus achieved the maximum cooperation possible from my troublesome and trouble-making colleagues.
I also practiced running, mediation and kept on with my therapy sessions. These simple actions, were my lifeline, and now I think that they rescued me from a total breakdown. The running, for one, was crucial. I was selected in the draw to enter the Berlin Marathon and worked since late 2018 to gradually increase my mileage. I thought that completing the marathon would be a worthy goal that I have full control over, something that I can achieve in the year I was faced with antagonism, failure, rejection, heartbreak and grief. I envisioned this achievement as an antidote to pain, and a remedy for restoring my faith in myself.
I fought hard to make it happen, from carving out training time in a busy schedule, to planning a short turnaround trip and absence from work. And of course, I also had to arrange care for my son in my absence. But as I crossed that finish line, the rapture on my face told it all. I went the distance, and the euphoria carried me on its wings even when my legs could barely function. The very next morning I was on the way back home already, and even as I dragged my aching legs to the office a few hours after my arrival, I felt triumphant and invincible, there was nothing I could not do. I made it to the finish line, and for a short while, I felt certain that I could surmount even the tenacity of my heartache.
The next obstacle was my long overdue visit home. This was brought about by my sister’s illness. My parents made the journey in September and I thought that I could coincide with them there for one week during a school holiday. The logistics of planning this journey were a nightmare, and the whole plan would have come to nothing if it weren’t for the assistance of family in Dubai. This time I dragged my son along, and left him behind with a cousin in Dubai while I took a flight to Damascus.
When I left Syria to the Gulf in the late nineties, I had no idea that my departure would be permanent. I first became a Gulf expat, and visited home a few times. Then I met my ex-husband and moved far to South Africa. The last visit I made to Syria was with my ex husband in 2002. In those 17 years, my sister got married, and became a mother to two boys, now almost young men. During the same period my parents and brother left Syria in their turn to settle in Germany.
Even before Syria’s rapid deterioration from civil protest to unrest to all out civil war, the prospect of a trip from South Africa was daunting, and given the fact that I had the competing priority of visiting my parents and brother, I somehow never got around to making that visit to my home country. And in all honesty I did not miss it that much.
My emotional detachment from my native country is an uncomfortable subject that I would rather tackle elsewhere. Because although there is a universal theme of expatriates frequently feeling like foreigners in their native countries. The Syrian experience, especially after the war, adds another layer of complexity. I had trouble with the Syria of the 1990s, but last year I stepped into a place I did not recognize at all.
The road from Damascus to Aleppo seemed endless as it made a very long loop around the rebel-held areas in Idlib province. Whenever I nodded off to sleep I was woken again by the car stopping for one of the scores of control points. They were mostly amicable and waved us through but their presence was a clear indication that this was still a country at war with itself. My native city of Aleppo was even more scarred, whole buildings gutted and showing their broken insides, with remnants of a living room or part of a kitchen counter overlooking the void where the other half of the building collapsed to rubble and dust. The city itself ends abruptly with concrete barriers cutting off a main street that was once a busy bypass to the north, connecting it to the Turkish border.
Like the city, my sister was also battle-scarred. But unlike the city, which to me changed beyond recognition on many levels, my sister still retained her fighting spirit. She changed too, but I could still recognize her feisty nature, and her ability to laugh at herself, and make fun of a terrible situation. Perhaps I recognized my sister because I still have much love left in my heart for her, whereas my love for my native city has run dry.
I went the distance, here too, to visit my sister. And despite the difficult circumstances we managed to reconnect and make some memories. There were also the awkward moments where I felt like a stranger in what used to be my father’s house, but the love and support that my sister deserved had to come first. Still, I could not help but see that whole city, the whole country, lived under a cloak of misery. Some of this misery was visible in plain sight, but most suffering lay under the surface, and manifested itself perhaps in my sister’s illness, my nephew’s rebellion, my brother-in-law’s dependence on tranquilizers and cigarettes, and my cousin’s obesity.
I choked on my tears as the ancient Airbus 320 lifted off from sad Damascus airport, and climbed to cruising altitude. I prayed for my sister’s full recovery, and I prayed for everyone who was left behind in my broken native country. In my heart I knew that I will never return.
The year was tough, like running a marathon, but I managed to end it too on a high. The last two months were more pleasant. News from my sister was encouraging, and my new chief arrived and quickly assumed his new position. I was pleasantly surprised by his forthright character and his willingness to work hard and confront problems. I gladly took a back seat and allowed him to establish his leadership and authority. I have learned from this experience that I function better as a supportive and diligent first officer, and that I have no interest in command.
I concluded the year with a long and well-deserved proper holiday. My son and I visited the family in Berlin. My parents had safely returned from Syria too. Their return trip was perhaps more eventful than mine. First they missed their original return flight because of the unrest in Beirut and had to reschedule a different departure a week later. Then they spent almost half a day in Beirut airport as the local low-cost flight from Beirut delayed its departure because of the ongoing protests.
My son and I made a city stop in Vienna before we headed to our final destination in Berlin. And it was a long and lazy holiday to finish off a really difficult year. I had time to knit, read, ruminate, and simply enjoyed being with family, without worries about the office. We shared our stories from 2019 and reflected on our hopes for the year to come.
Throughout this last part of the year, I felt I was experiencing a rare period of downtime. In my last visit to the therapist in 2019, she told me that she would not book another appointment for me in 2020, and advised me to call her, if I needed, next year. My biggest fear for the new year was to find myself adrift without a new goal or a challenge. I entered and was selected for the Berlin Marathon this year too, but I knew that running a second marathon is not as motivating as running a first. The stakes for the first one were not that high. It would have been no big failure to try and fail, and the success, when it came, was my big underdog moment under the sun. For this second marathon, however, winning would not be as sweet and losing may be doubly bitter.
I have thus concluded my summary of 2019, with the problems I anticipated for 2020. In trying to solve them, I started a daily gratitude journal and set myself on a course to surprise and challenge myself. A book I am currently reading suggests that life should be approached in a gameful spirit. And to keep my interest and skill in the game I need to devise and accept new challenges. I need to embrace new changes and challenges and believe that 2020 will be my best year yet.
I have been silent on the blog, and it is less from lack of things to say and more from having too much weighing on my heart.
Just as the clouds lifted over my working life, a huge sadness cast its shadow on my family in early July. My only sister is seriously ill and has to receive long and exhausting rounds of treatment. My family was devastated by this news and for a while the diagnosis, the denial, the acceptance, the fear and the hope obliterated all other thoughts of minor problems like a bit of heartache.
The passage of time, however, does some weird things. We are still weighted down by this monumental sadness, and the inevitability of my sister’s suffering for the next year. We accept the course that the treatment will take, and the damage that it will do to her body before it will hopefully makes her well again. But we cannot walk this road with her, so we stand by, cajoling, encouraging and praying, while she alone carries the physical pain. We try our best to boost her spirit, which often falters, and this understandable given how much she was opposed to this type of treatment.
For months, I prayed daily for her strength, and thought only briefly, and only second, of what I now thought of as the insignificant problem of my broken heart. I suffered some guilt that it took my sister’s illness to relegate it to 2nd place in my mind. But the memory of the man I love was never completely absent. Even when I went home to South Africa I spoke about him with my friend, and stalked some of his public profiles, but I thought I was done with the deep grief.
Until another chance meeting that cruelly happened on the first day I went back to work. I was awaiting my turn at the protocol office, to hand in my application for work permit renewal, when I heard a voice, a familiar one. And there he was receiving passports from the reception counter, and regaling the office clerk with stories of his daughter, the singer, who will be his retirement plan. This was a familiar story for me, because I heard it before, and I could not help wonder why he related it so loudly to reach my ears. I was sitting down, my eyes helplessly going back and forth from his tall back and partial profile, to my visibly trembling hand. He finished his story, walked past my chair to a desk across the hall to say hi to some other protocol clerk, then came back to face me. Hi, he said and walked away. I think I replied or nodded back, I do not recall.
The next day, I cried my heart out on my therapist’s couch. I think what hurt most was the knowledge that he was still with me, after all this time. I tried to leave him be, almost a year ago, but he never left my heart. He knows what those chance meetings do to me. I told him that I am torn apart even if I glimpse him briefly. The sight of him brings back every moment and every emotion I experienced with him. It awakens the sleeping heartache, and revives the pain I thought I successfully buried.
After a week of unreasonable pain, interspersed with worry over my sister and headache at the workplace, I felt sick of this whole story. I was ready to pack up and leave Kenya at the earliest opportunity. Then I made myself stop. There are things that cannot be changed and can only be carried. I thought initially that my helpless longing for this man was one of them, but now I think I was wrong. My sister’s illness is one thing I cannot change. My insufferable workmates are another thing I cannot change. I am fine with carrying these, in the hope that a resolution, a healing, will happen sooner or later. My sister will get better, my workmates will improve, I will learn to tolerate and manage them better, or they will no longer be my problem.
This grief, however, needs closure. And the way that I left, and the fact that I allowed him to keep silent and passive are not helping my closure. I need a sincere talk. I need everything to be spelled out in the open. Last year I felt that I said everything that I could, and interpreted his silence for rejection. As long as we did not meet, I could convince myself that it was so. But the connection feels alive again – at least for me- whenever we meet by chance. This last time was worst, because I shared the same space with him for some time, and watched his behaviour. And after ruminating over the circumstances for days I have a strong suspicion that he was trying to catch my attention with his chatter and final detour to the clerk in the middle of the hall, which brought him, as he made his way out, on a head-on-collision course with me, sitting where I was and unable to leave my position in line.
Even if I was wrong and delusional, there are a number of danger signs I cannot ignore. I am starting to seriously consider leaving my beloved sunny Kenya, a place where I have a simple life, and where my child is enjoying a happy school-life for the cold embrace of a European city I once fled and could not tolerate as a young woman. I cry every time I read the post I wrote in May. And when my therapist asked me to write a letter to him, as a form of closure she explained, I wrote for two hours and cried my eyes out for the rest of the night. The memories and emotions are real and fresh to me even after all this time, and their sincerity deserves a final recognition, and a fitting funeral. I will buy the flowers and the coffin, and bury the dead. I think I will be fine then.
I had decided that this is the only way, even before the therapist asked me to write the letter that will never reach the man I still love. I am, however willing to wait. I no longer act impulsively every time my grief stops my breath. I have made myself forget, or pretend to forget, his number so I am not tempted to text or call. I will breathe and wait. If I manage to finish my marathon, if I manage to go the physical distance to the end, I will seriously consider going over the metaphorical distance, to the end of this story as well. Among all the things I find myself forced to endure, this one I do not think I need to carry forever. Just one hour of honesty will be enough. I will either find the love that I lost, or bury its remains.
Love is not measured in minutes or days. If I added up all the moments I spent with you they will be one or two days at most. Yet I grieve your absence from my life, like a widow who mourns the passing of a husband she loved all her life. Because in that brief time, you were that to me, the love of my life. I let you into my world and shared with you everything I know and love. You sat at a table with my closest family. I saved you a portion of every treat I enjoyed. I broke with you bread and chocolate. I bought you dates as sweet and soft as kisses, and juicy baby tomatoes bursting with sunshine and flavour. I introduced you to my favourite books and authors, and to my stories and memories. You shared some parts of yourself too, but I left nothing out, I was an open book. I told how I felt, and I even wrote you a love letter.
You sampled and tasted. You took the gifts, but rejected the underlying emotions. Apart from the times your eyes or words betrayed you, you gave very little, only some impersonal or discarded pieces of your chaotic universe. You liked to see me, but did not want to see my pain. You wanted me to look at you, but not look into you. You disliked me reaching into your soul. You liked to feel adored, yet you left the love letter unread, because reading is getting involved in the emotions of another. It did not suit you that I was expressive, that I spoke my heart, and fully acknowledged and accepted what I felt. You labelled me weird, where I was merely honest. I went through my own phase of denial, but unlike you, I eventually realized that love is a wholesale preposition. You cannot cherry-pick the joyful parts and discard the sorrows. I could not pick out for you the parts that you wanted, so I decided to keep everything that remained to myself. Now I am free to be honest and emotional. I can weep with the memory, and laugh alone at a joke or an anecdote that I am sure you would have enjoyed.
I left you because you rejected the most elemental part of me – that I loved truly and deeply. You did not understand that it was the one thing beyond my will or control. You could have asked for anything else. I would have plucked the stars out of the sky for you, but you went and asked me to deny or ignore the one truth I cannot change.
I left you but you did not leave me. I still see your empty seat at the table. My joy in the simple sights, sounds and tastes is now forever diminished. They were only perfect when shared with you. A small piece of sorrow remains for me at the heart of every joyful moment, each time I taste a perfectly brewed double cappuccino, and every time I read a brilliantly crafted phrase, or an engrossing and touching story. I will never stop looking for you to complete those experiences, even in moments we never shared. I look for you to walk beside me when I am taking a solitary walk on the beach. Alone in my bed, I turn to you on the pillow next to mine, to read you a passage I found interesting. And I see you looking at me over your reading glasses, and your eyes tell me that you are truly with me, listening to me, and seeing me with your soul, not just your eyes.
The last day we met I left empty-handed. You did not give me anything that deserved to be kept. I only have the memories I lived, and the visions I fantasize. The most lasting of your parting gifts has proven to be the grief I feel, the sadness that keeps assailing me and eventually flows out of my eyes. And since it is the last gift, I am reluctant to part with it. It is the only piece of you that is truly mine, and the final proof that you, and what I felt for you, were real.
I always dreaded a chance meeting with my imaginary lover. When this happened in the past, I used to get a terrible adrenaline rush, my heart raced uncontrollably and my leg muscles twitched and trembled in a fight-or-flight reflex. I felt close to passing out, and most of the time I needed to sit down. Later I would cry and suffer for days, like an addict with a relapse.
As late as last week, I wrote how his imagined form, that my subconscious mind summoned in a dream, was sufficient to break me, and put me out of kilter for a day or two. In time, that sadness passed too. My trials, however are not over.
Today I was supposed to be already on vacation, if it weren’t for my misunderstanding of my son’s holiday calendar. But fate has other plans. I had to extend my stay for one more week, and one unintended consequence was meeting him by chance, after over five months, and not once but twice.
My colleague and I have recently established the refreshing habit of going for a walk, around mid-morning. We talk about work, about our kids and a little bit about heartache. She has experienced a recent break-up herself, and I told her my own sorry story. I have stopped being ashamed of it some time ago, because it looms so large in my consciousness. And even if it had all the hallmarks of an illusory affair, it was real to me. In fact it is still real, because I am mostly still living it.
Ironically, I had little thought of my heartache today. We leisurely circled our block, cleared the parking lots near the modern blocks of his agency, the areas I usually ask her to avoid, and climbed up the circular path that skirts the compound. And all of a sudden a boxy 4×4 parks on the grassy shoulder right ahead of us. Out of the corner of my eye I see his tall figure climbing out. I think he lifted his arm in robotic salute and half-smiled but I looked straight ahead and did not acknowledge. My friend must have noticed that I chocked in mid-conversation. I muttered under my breath, explaining in shock that it was him. She was sweet, and tried to distract me with other subjects. I stumbled on, both in step and conversation, but deep down I was grateful for two things, the presence of my friend and the reflector glasses I was hiding behind.
We were still halfway through the path, when my friend said she was feeling tired and it was too hot. So we circled back towards the main hallway that returns us to our office. This time I had my sunglasses off and again in the distance I saw the tall, thin, bald figure I know so well walking towards the lobby in our direction. He was deep in attentive conversation with a much shorter Asian-looking woman, I am really not sure, as I only managed a short look at a great distance. As I took all this in within a fraction of a second, I said to my friend “please don’t tell me it is him again”. In another millisecond I know for sure, and I dive for my phone feigning intense interest in its screen, even though I cannot see a thing there without reading glasses. It is a well-worn, and obvious, device for avoiding eye contact. But I make it clear, I refuse to acknowledge.
At the office I feel a bit stunned. I have to admit that I still had the tiniest hope that he would perhaps acknowledge this rare meeting with a text, but my rational mind knew that it was not going to happen. I sigh now and realize that I survived this dreaded encounter, and it was not as bad as I imagined it to be. I remember that I also survived a surprise encounter with his wife about a month ago. My son and I were at the supermarket and I saw a tanned lady wearing an understated elegant white shirt over tan trousers and comfortable sandals. She carried a big leather bag with the shoulder strap across her body. I pointed her out in the distance to my son and said this how I imagined my friend’s wife looked like. I turned a corner in the shop, and next thing I knew, she was facing me in a supermarket aisle. The woman I only ever saw in the rare photos I stalked on public Facebook and Instagram pages looked at me gave me the warmest and kindest smile, as if she recognized and knew me. She also broke me that day to a thousand pieces. It was perhaps a message from the universe to let go.
The universe should know by now that I am listening. I received the message and I am doing all I can to let go. Even though he visits me in my dreams. Even though I spend most of my time these days translating the documents of his ineffectual and broken agency. I try to live from day to day and survive one month to the next. The tears will come either now or later, but I will still survive this day, as I survived the ones before it.
This was an important step forward for me. A chance encounter was bound to happen, and it is no use going out of my way to avoid it. Today the chance meeting hurt me less than it did a year ago, and I now have reason to believe that the next one, if it happens, when it happens, will hurt less than it did today. I also have to believe that the man I love exists only in my head, and still, to a certain extent, in my heart. The man I met by chance today is a stranger I do not need to acknowledge.
The past few weeks have been some of the most difficult in my working life, and the show is set to continue, during a year that is extremely heavy on conference and meeting schedules. I am heading my small unit as Officer-in-Charge, while management makes a final decision in the recruitment process of my future boss, the new head of the unit.
The workload has been unreal, and my team are some slackers, to put it mildly. Some of them will not do an ounce of extra work without the incentive of overtime. Meanwhile I am doing double my usual quota of work in addition to the admin I am saddled with since October.
Through this, I have attended to my own waxing and waning aspirations at work. I oscillated between wanting the vacant position of chief of unit, and dreading the prospect of it. As I mentioned earlier, by all reckoning I am the only one in my small team who is willing to put in the extra work and go the extra mile. The rest are in it for their own agenda. One wants a promotion to land at his feet when I become the chief, and the others just want things to carry on as slack as ever while cashing in on the overtime.
One afternoon, they even decided to leave the office and work from home for the rest of a Saturday meeting shift without checking with me. On that day I was in and out of the office several times, dealing with one problem after the next with my son, who needed to attend a compulsory school open day, then came back from it with an upset stomach. When I finally settled my child’s ailment, I came back to find an empty office two hours before official shift end. I wrote an email to the typing team leader reprimanding her on leaving the office, and while I copied only my immediate supervisor, she went on to escalate the matter to the several heads of the Department, questioning my own lack of reporting to my subordinates on my whereabouts.
Fools have the biggest egos, and I have to manage a small incompetent team where each member has a huge sense of entitlement, whereas I have none myself. It looks like I am not even entitled enough to become their boss. I did not have enough ego to sell myself to the selection panel for the Chief’s post. Perhaps my inner dread at managing this exasperating and frustrating team sabotaged my chances at landing the job. In short I failed the interview, even though I was the top scorer on the technical part of the recruitment test. It is true that I barely make the cut in terms of the years of experience required, but the job was within reach. I have been doing it for six month already during the heaviest workload I have seen in three years, so perhaps it is my intuitive side that did not really want it.
While I was initially disappointed at my failure to grab the chance for a promotion, my feelings finally settled into a sense of relief. The battle is far from over and I have some of the heaviest challenges ahead as officer in charge, but failing at them is no longer such a big deal, because at least now I can plead that the responsibility is above my grade-level. I can allow myself to fail now, and this has eased my sense of dread considerably, especially as my stint as officer in charge might lengthen at least three more months into the future. It is going to be a marathon, not a sprint and I might as well conserve my efforts. And I should follow the example of my slacker team on this one, since I am not getting paid for the extra responsibility.
You would think that with all this going in my life I would have little time to ruminate over my other emotional problems, You would be wrong. There is always time for a little bit of heartache. When I led my team to finishing a successful meeting, and as I came down from the adrenaline rush of delivering all those documents on time to the participants and member states, there was a piece of me that missed a kind word, from the man I loved. He used to text me at the end of my night shift to check on me. The memory of this would lead me again to remember all those little moments of kindness and caring that he showed. My rational mind and my wounded heart would then start again on their well-trodden circular path of an argument that leads nowhere. My mind would tell me it was just normal and natural kindness and my heart would deny this and try to articulate what each small gesture felt like, and how they were all perceived, as part of something bigger, even before he or I were aware of them as such.
Another day in the morning I was sitting at my usual spot nursing my heartache. I wrote about it in my notebook. I was feeling blue because I had conjured him the night before in a dream. In the dream we just walked together and sat on the steps of my old college in my country of birth. I think we held hands as we walked but no further intimacies were shared. I reflected on this earlier as I was drifting into wakefulness. My brain has no reference to what it would feel like to be intimately close to someone I love so much, so I cannot recreate it, not even in a dream.
I once told him that seeing him, even from afar, is enough to bring my day off balance. But apparently even the thought or image of him, in wakefulness or asleep, does the same. In my notebook I wrote: How do I get over someone I carry within me? And that question made me weep. A Kenyan colleague I never met before stopped on her way to a morning walk, and we talked. I told her my story, and in the telling the loss and the pain intensified and became even more real. I must remember this too. I should never share it outside of paper, and cyberspace, as it will just grow and fill whatever empty space was left for my breath. I went to the office with red and swollen eyes, but at least I connected with a kindly soul.
I still walk with the pain, and on some days it is kinder on me than on others. Philosophically I try to take it as a lesson, as a teacher of endurance, patience and acceptance. If it weren’t for surviving my suffering of the past 20 months, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the pressure and adversity at work. I would have crumbled under the weight of this responsibility, this grindstone I am carrying around my neck. Today, thanks to my training on the endurance of pain, I am still upright, and still planning on going the distance, like a marathon runner. I say to myself that being here has fixed me at the extremities but broke me at the centre, in my heart. My consolation is that a broken heart feels keener compassion for a broken world. No regrets.