My girlfriend reclined on the sofa, feet on the djembe that she used as a footstool, knitting a new scarf. She looked utterly serene and comfortable as we discussed switching to a fixed rate mortgage, while she kept an eye on Coronation Street. I was still amazed by that feminine ease with which she could do so many things at once. The spool of wool fell from her lap, unraveling as it went. She reached down to get it.
Why didn’t I pick it up for her as I would have done not so long ago? In those seconds, the thought kept me rooted as I watched her slender hand collect the mass of wool. The moment passed and she didn’t even notice that something fundamental had occurred.
“I don’t like this idea of chopping and changing,” she said.
I replied with something about comparison websites and the Guardian money pages. When I watched her work, the swift motion of her fingers and wrists, I did not feel the pang of desire that I’d felt not so long ago. In fact, as I watched her, my mind was on another woman.
Is this how it ends?
Under the soft light her profile reminded me of the girl I’d wooed on the steps at a party in Broomhouse. Then we were students, and where we once spoke of grand ideas to save the world, now we worried about ISAs and interest rates. Was the old us still in there somewhere, even when our bodies and minds had been stripped, changed, altered and grown. Were we still those two kids who fell in love? It’s the Theseus paradox. Theseus and his crew return from Crete by sea. It’s a long voyage and along the way they have made many repairs to the ship due to damage from the sea, bit by bit changing parts until nothing remains of the original wood they set out in. The vessel they come back in looks exactly like the one they left in. Is it still the same one?
“Please can I have a glass of water?” she said.
I went to the kitchen. Granite worktops, magnetic knife rack next to the kettle and toaster, every drawer shut, him & her aprons on the hook on the door. Everything was in its place as she liked it to be. I took a glass from the wall cupboard in the corner, ran the tap for a few seconds, checked the temperature with my hand and filled it.
“Pay the troll,” she said when I gave her the water and kissed her on the lips.
There was no honey, no sweetness in the kiss, just a meeting of lips for me. I wondered what it felt like for her. At what point did the tenderness leach away, those feelings of desire that used to come so naturally?
Last night in bed she touched me and I shuddered. My body did this of its own accord. She must have thought the reaction was a sign of my desire. We made love and all the way through I had to muster all my self-control. Still, I could not help thinking about the other woman, wishing it was her my body was connected to.
In the great romances of old, love lasted a life time and beyond. That’s why I’m drawn to the ancient religions, the Greek gods and Orishas. These gods fell in love, cheated, got angry, made mistakes, were so utterly human compared with the god of the Abrahamic faiths. I had no doubt that my betrayal, though for the time being it was only in my head, was a sin.
“Henry and Thabiso invited us for dinner next week. She sent a text,” my girlfriend said, putting her mobile down and returning to her knitting.
”I’ve got my five-a-side.”
“I’m sure the guys can cope without you for one night only.” She turned to me with a smile, the same one that used to melt my heart.
”I’ll see what I can do,” I replied.
The truth is I was planning to see the other woman. She was my boss at work; mid-thirties, smart, beautiful, divorced. My girlfriend had even met her once and thought well of her. When I started out at Dystel and Hunter, I found her cold and formal, as though there was a barrier between us. I spent the next two years thinking my boss hated me. Then on a work night out, we happened to be outside, smoking, when the rest of the group went back inside and I found myself alone with her. We talked about work, departmental politics, that sort of thing, and then it happened. Well, it didn’t happen. We both moved in for a kiss and stopped with inches to spare. Awkward days at work followed in which we put it down to the alcohol and tried to bury it. But her thin lips, high cheekbones, the way she raised a single eyebrow in thought, her perfume, every gesture she made haunted me. I was in turmoil each night I went back home to my girlfriend.
I talked to Pablo and he told me to ride it out. “We all get the hots for an older woman every now and again,” he said. Try not to think of a pink elephant. The more I resisted, the stronger the feelings got.
“You think your mum’s gonna like this?” my girlfriend said, holding up her half-finished scarf. It was blue with intricate white lines running through it at angles.
”She’ll love it—keeps raving about the sweater you made for her last year,” I said.
”Nothing beats handmade.”
I wanted to say, “I love you,” but nothing came out. My throat felt dry. There was a little smile on her face. She was trusting, innocent, unaware of what was going on inside of me. I felt sorry for her.
I’d spent the last few months plotting how to leave her. Surely she must have seen some changes, I must have given the game away somehow: the way my gaze didn’t linger over her long like it used to, the tone of my voice when calling her name. If she knew this, then it must mean she was burying her head in the sand. Or perhaps I was.
The paintings on the walls by local artists were hers. She chose the cream curtains. The entertainment centre was mine, Xbox paid for with her money. The coffee table made of discarded wood we bought together at Upcycle. We shared a single toothbrush. We would need to separate all these things, mine/yours, their own to each.
There would be tears, recriminations, accusations. And afterwards? Bitterness, then the long drift apart.
It had to be done.
Is the love you feel for one person the same love you feel for the next? Is it the same IOU that you then give to the other person—a physical thing with a fixed value and unchangeable dimensions. Is it the same in your twenties as in your teens or thirties? Where does all the lost love go, to a giant repository in another dimension to be redeemed in another life?
I had told her I would love her forever and ever, and at the time I meant it, felt it with every fibre of my being.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she said.
”You look lost in thought.”
”Yeah, there’s something I have to tell you.”
”I’m quitting my job.”
Story © 2014 Tendai Huchu
Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Warscapes, Wasafiri, The Africa Report, The Zimbabwean, The Open Road Review, Kwani?05, The Thing Itself and numerous other publications. His next novel will be The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician.