The woman sitting on his left has earphones on. He frets over whether he should say something or not. Maybe just a simple hi to break some ice. Or maybe ask her what kind of music she’s listening to. He thinks she’ll probably ignore him. Something nudges him from the inside, yet Jonathan is afraid of looking like a fool. What if she won’t respond? Or what if she responds, and he doesn’t know what to say next? This was usually the problem with him, always overthinking things too much. It fed his fears. However, before Jonathan makes up his mind, the bus arrives at Rongai and she is the first passenger to alight. 21-year-old Jonathan, then a sophomore studying Economics at the University of Nairobi, alights as well; only to find that the woman has already disappeared in the evening crowd at the bus stop. Its 8pm and Jonathan walks home regretting that he did not take that one chance. The regret would later come to him in quiet moments, such as later that night before he went to bed. He thinks of how, as she was alighting, he’d caught a glimpse of the ankh tattooed on her bare shoulder and it made him want to see more.
Jonathan hopes he’d see her again. This time he swears he’d talk to her. So, every morning and evening when he boards the bus, he’s on the lookout for her. And for a fortnight her face is etched in his mind, then he becomes painfully aware of the futility in his longing for a stranger. He stops searching for her. Life goes on. Slowly he forgets the face. She becomes a silhouette as if she walked out of a photograph and left behind the blackness.
Two months later, on a Friday, he boards a bus to Rongai at around 7pm. He finds a seat the back and starts reading The Diary of a Combatant; Che Guevara’s original, unpublished diaries from the guerrilla war in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. This is Jonathan’s nature, he loves rebellions and rebels. Some would call him a dreamer but he has always felt that he can never be satisfied with a normal life. At sixteen when he read about Alexander the Great, it gave him perspective, it showed him how one life could span hundreds of years. The bus is now almost full. Jonathan remains undisturbed. Words appear and disappear as his eyes flit across the pages, quickly picking out anything of importance from the myriad sentences that litter the world he has immersed himself in. He scours through the pages as if in search of something.
Whilst our protagonist is engrossed in Che’s Diary, a young woman boards the vehicle. She occupies the only seat left at the back, next to a young man reading some book, who barely notices her. Outside, the traffic is at a standstill, cars bumper to bumper, exhaust fumes belching out, a normal Friday evening in Nairobi. She steals a glance at the handsome stranger, he still doesn’t notice, so she takes her time. Well-built physique, nice haircut…not bad. It reminds her of a page she follows on Instagram called Hot Dudes Reading. He’d fit there. She reaches into her handbag to retrieve her phone and is disappointed when she realizes it’s out of charge. “Fuck!” She curses softly, not wanting to attract any attention. But that makes Jonathan take notice of the woman sitting next to her. He immediately recognizes the ankh tattooed on her left shoulder. It’s her. Jonathan then stares straight into the book, without reading. The words don’t make sense anymore. He turns and looks at the lady and smiles. She smiles back.
The story begins here.
Their conversation catches on quickly, like wildfire. He gets to know that she’s called June. She’s an artist, who paints for a living and she works part-time at Java as a barrister. He’s surprised that she has read Che Guevara’s book, not once but twice. He tells her he has been seeing her around for a while and that he’d meant to talk to her. When she asks why he did not do so, he says that she did not seem approachable.
‘I resent men who are afraid of women’s strengths.” She says, Jonathan laughs, but deep inside that statement stings like nettle.
When he asks about the tattoo, she says that she feels like her soul belongs to the ancient Egyptian era. That it symbolizes the life in her. She talks about Cleopatra like one would regarding a close friend. She is well-read as well and this keeps their conversation going. As June speaks, Jonathan is fascinated by her eyes, her mouth, her lips…the way she pouts them before she speaks. He feels lost in her and doesn’t understand what she is saying, he feels only the warmth of her words, their vividness. When she talks, it’s with an intensity that he thinks she must have while making love, the way she thrusts her head forward, giving her the appearance of a woman at the prow of a ship. He’s suffocated by her egoism, her relentlessness, her destructiveness. The way her personality is expanded to the limit, something that’s not common in girls his age who have not yet learned to bite. It excites him.
June, on the other hand, is intrigued by how raw Jonathan is, and it’s not unlikely that she has thoughts of inviting him over, after all, its Friday and she’d only maybe watch a boring sitcom and fall asleep on the couch. She’d never directly invited someone before, but she feels it’d be memorable. Jonathan does not seem like something she can’t handle. Men don’t come to her house often, as one would expect, given how beautiful and intelligent she is. Her inability to keep her opinions to herself has often intimidated the men in her life. She’d got to fourth base with a few, sometimes she’d get a good shag and other times she’d just tell them to leave the next morning. She felt good when telling a man that she didn’t want him around anymore.
There are times she longed to be soft and be held by a man; to be the innocent woman kissing her husband as he left for work; longed to be the woman who was given a flower to wear; the one who was being helped into the bus. But she knew that could never be her. Men who got close to her were often pushed away. She felt that men could not really understand the kind of loneliness a woman knows, all the chaos in her was only tamed by her painting brush. One could say that she is the kind of woman your mother warns you about, but you still don’t stay away.
By the time they reach Rongai, it feels as if they have known each other for a while. Jonathan wants to go home but he still wants to stay. When she invites him over, he calls home and says that he’ll be running late.
Her one-bedroom apartment looks like something you’d find on Pinterest, the living room is minimalist, painted with hues of black and white. Bookshelves fill one wall from floor to ceiling. Three incomplete paintings are tilted against another wall. More paintings hang on the wall, forming a beautiful gallery: A lioness lying next to her cub; a bunch of grapes; a woman with dark long hair bathing in a pool at the bottom of a waterfall, where the water strikes the ground; a naked woman on a horse; a young man smoking a cigarette, shirtless; a beggar sitting beside a lamp on the streets… On the wall opposite the mini gallery, hangs a stunning, black and white photo of a forest of palm trees bordering an ocean. Jonathan sits on the only couch in the room. At first, he’s shy and unsure of what to do. She serves him cookies and a glass of Del Monte mango juice. She then excuses herself and goes to take a shower. Jonathan gulps down the drink but does not touch the cookies. He stands and decides to study the paintings.
The painting of the lady at the bottom of the waterfall unnerves him, every aspect of it conspires to bring Jonathan’s attention to the half-immersed woman facing away. He observes that there’s a striking similarity between the woman and June…
“You have an eye for detail, in case you were wondering, yes that’s me.”
He turns around to find June standing next to her bedroom doorway. She’s wearing a translucent gown, it fits her beautifully, leaving some allowance for imagination. Jonathan can see a silhouette of her body underneath the gown. Her hardened nipples fight for attention even under the dimmed light. She is quiet and gentle as if she were a sister. Her usual vivaciousness is controlled and subdued. And as if that’s not enough, she tortures Jonathan further by slowly parting her legs such that, he could see all the way through the dress to the Persian carpet adorning the bedroom floor. He walks towards her.
What Jonathan wants from her is very simple, that she be constantly and immediately accessible. He presses his fingers against the silk covered hips, feeling the richness of the hips, the fullness of the thighs, caressing her. The tantalizing smoothness of her skin and the silk of the dress melt into one another. He feels the little prominence of the waist garter, it makes him want push June’s knees open, right there. But she stops him, ‘You are mine all night,’ she says, ‘don’t be hasty.’ She says it in a way a mother would casually tell her playful child.
Inside the bedroom, candles are lit, windows are open and if you listen keenly you can hear the wind moaning. There is a faint scent of cannabis in the air. As it is custom, Jonathan quickly gets rid of his khaki pants and t-shirt. It’s not a good thing to be overdressed for such occasions.
“You look beautiful,” she says, expecting a response.
Jonathan says nothing and stares at her. She returns the full gaze, and her eyes betray the fake composure. Jonathan can play games as well. Blood beats in his temples, he stretches his hand and reaches out for her. June takes hold of it and lays it over her heart, over her left breast. Through the silk, he can feel her heart beating. Jonathan is tormented with desire. But June does not betray the heat she feels between her legs, as they move closer to each other. He dares to take the nightgown by the hem, to raise it high over her breasts and passes his hand over her body. She does not resist. He feels the outline of it until he knows where the skin grows softer, where the flesh is most full, where the valleys are and where the pubic hair begins. The fullness of her buttocks takes him by surprise, he feels the dimples at the bottom of her spine. He dares a little more and June almost orgasms. She slides out of her dress and they find themselves on the bed. It is low and wide. More silk, silk between her fingers, silk between her legs. He loves the way her body lays, exposed and defenseless. He takes her like a thief and is amazed to hear little sounds of pleasure coming from her throat at his thrusts. Jonathan does not go home that night, nor the next one.
He returns many times to her apartment. There are days he finds her moist and trembling. There are also times when she’s not easily aroused. Some nights they don’t make love, and instead talk about other things: books, art, history of the world, feminism, politics. They indulge in marijuana too, but not excessively. Sometimes he feels that he can not love her, he fights it. June feels the same too. It’s a battle they both lose. There are instances where they go for days without talking, Jonathan using his school work as an excuse and June feigning the need to concentrate on one of her paintings. But they don’t go for long without one searching for the other. This goes on until the day Jonathan knocks on her door, a year after their first meeting, only to find a new tenant where she used to live.
“She moved last week, she didn’t say where to. We were not that close.” Says one of her neighbors after Jonathan inquires where she could have gone.
He tries to call her, but her number is no longer in service. Every day, for a month he tries again and again, but still, nothing. The ache of longing to be with her echoes inside the very marrow of his bones. He sees her everywhere he goes, in the things they both loved, in nature, in music, in silly things. The pain dulls with time, things get better, he gets a girlfriend, who madly falls in love with him, but they later break up, the reason being that he does not listen to her, that he does not love her back. No one can replace June, no one ever does.