Lost Years

A university student is keen to make time an ally when she reconnects with a high school friend she missed out on a relationship with.


Nothing was crueler than a clock, Iris thought, as she alternated glares between the round-faced tyrant on the wall and the digital dictator on her Samsung. Not even 11am yet. She couldn’t decide which was worse: the brazen ticking coming from the wall or the quiet leaking or freezing of time that seemed to happen whenever she looked at her screen, depending on what she was or wasn’t looking forward to. And as if time and the hot sticky air weren’t oppressive enough, the last bits of oxygen in the room were trapped among the thighs of the three women forming a Bermuda triangle around her head.

“Is three really necessary?” she groaned. She flicked a twist over her shoulder. She hated the way it scratched her collarbone and grazed her oily face. One of the women firmly flicked the twist back, with four others. Iris seethed.

“Three make finish faster,” the woman said. “You want faster.”

“There’s no fan in here?” It was more a rebuttal than an actual question. It should've been illegal to have three wide-hipped-and-thick-thighed women braiding hair in a broom closet salon with zero air circulation. One of the women had her crotch right against Iris’s shoulder, and one’s belly was a turn away from colliding with Iris’s forehead.

“Fan cost money. Here.” Belly-woman handed Iris a small fold-out fan that she immediately started fanning. “No shaking too much. Head steady.”

Iris’s phone pinged and her hand flew to the device. Then just as quickly fell away when she realized it was just her mother texting to find out if she was almost ready to be picked up. Time was such a tyrant. Torturous necessities like braiding hair made it expand and seem endless. But when time was called on to be generous, it gloated and compressed the hours between its hands.

Not a necessity, Iris, she was forced to remind herself. You could’ve just as easily rocked your natural. But length is sexy and super-feminine. And today we want sexy and super-feminine.

She skimmed through their texts from the last couple of days, reading and re-reading his words, devouring them, giving them life in her mind, imagining his voice. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in years and yet it was perfectly preserved in the time capsule of her mind. She looked at his profile picture for the trillionth time and smiled; it was of a sunset. He had been online just a few minutes ago. She wondered what filled those minutes. Was he re-reading their messages until he had memorized them too?

“Are you in a relationship?” Crotch-woman cut into her thoughts.

Iris flipped her phone over. “Are you reading my messages?” She didn’t bother to hide the irritation in her voice.

“Ah, how can I see anything from all the way up here? Just a question, my daughter.”

“That’s a random question. Why do you ask?”

“I want you to marry one of my sons. I have four. They are all excellent choices.”

Iris laughed. “What?”

“You are nice girl. Beautiful. Nice hair. Good manners. Come from good family, I know your mom. My sons also good. Handsome. I raised them.”

“Thank you, mum, but there’s someone I like. So, I don’t think its wise for me to run off and get married just yet. That might ruin my chances.”

“Okay that one doesn’t work out, you come meet my sons.”

Ping. “Deal.” Ping.

She scooped her phone and pulled the notification panel down to read the incoming messages without accessing the app.

Her heart jolted as she read his words: let me know when you’re done everything and I can pick you up. Or if mama won’t let a guy pick you then let me know. Haha

Iris chuckled and resisted the urge to immediately reply. She pulled up a game on her phone, closed it, flipped open her book, read a sentence 10 times, then finally shut the book and picked up her phone. Three minutes had passed. Good enough. She pressed her manicured thumbs to the screen and typed: Lol I think it’s safe to say I have pick up sorted. But maybe you could drop me home after?

He went offline then seconds later came online again with ellipses indicating he was typing.

Of course. I got you, came his reply.

Suddenly the room didn’t feel so claustrophobic.

*

Iris was pleased with the way the braids turned out. As soon as she could orient her own head, the amnesia set in; her buttocks regained sensation, she forgave her braiders for all the pulling and twisting, and she forgot the claustrophobia. Other than the throbbing tightness of her scalp, the whole miserable experience evaporated as she admired her silver-ombréd twists.

The rest of the afternoon breezed by in a flurry of discarded outfits, tweaked hairstyles, and slathering on the perfect combination of vanillas and peonies to slay the senses. Finally, she was ready. She had chosen an ochre blue and silver sleeveless maxi dress that spilled past her ankles. She had to gather up one end of the dress in one hand to keep from tripping as she walked. The slippery material felt like heaven, which was the theme she was going with for the night. She felt like a goddess with the braids flowing down her back.

“So, what’s my curfew?” Iris asked her mother as they pulled into the beach plaza that hosted hundreds of shops, beachside restaurants, and a movie theatre. Even at 23, she knew better than to entertain grey areas so long as she lived under her mother’s roof.

“You’re a grown woman now. I’ll leave it to you.”

What kind of mind fuck?

“Really?” Iris asked skeptically.

“Really,” her mother said, and Iris detected the cold wall of caution in her mother’s voice. Or maybe the years of lessons learned too late had crystallized into paranoia. Better not to push it.

“I’ll be home by 11?”

“10.30.”

“Okay. Thanks Mama!” She kissed her mother’s cheek and catapulted out of the car. She felt her mother’s eyes on her all the way past the plaza entrance. Up on the first level, she paused to look out over the balcony. The car was still there.

Go. Please, she pleaded telepathically. I don’t want the ghost of your energy haunting my night.

Finally, her mother’s car pulled away and Iris exhaled.

She glanced at her phone. 5.30. The movie was at 6.10.

I’m here, she texted. Seconds passed.

Ping!

10 minutes and I’ll be there, he wrote back.

‘Oh, dear God, this is happening.” A thousand knots clogged her stomach. She couldn’t breathe.
I’m just exploring until you come, she managed to text back.

She did exactly that; weaving in and out of stores to distract from her nervous anticipation.

When the next ping came in, she was on the verge of splintering.

I’m here by the movie theatre.

She took a moment to collect herself, use the bathroom, and touch up her makeup. Then with a thundering heart, went to find the movie theatre.

*

She didn’t necessarily know what she was looking for, and he hadn’t told her. They hadn’t seen each other since high school and time could do a lot with one year, much less seven. They hadn’t exchanged photos and neither of them had kept up with their social media so Iris didn’t know what to expect. She slowly climbed up the stairs to the fourth floor, willing herself to breathe with each step, and tried to imagine what she would say to him.

Several feet from the top, she spotted him; sitting, back to the stairs with nothing unique about his cropped hair or the shape or size of his head. Still, something inside her latched on and illuminated him for her. She pushed past the pressure in her chest and tapped him on both shoulders. He turned and a smile flooded his face, which in turn made her smile stretch.

“Reese!” he said in his trademark husk as he rose. Iris came around to fold into his embrace.

He looked good; a fitted cream polo shirt accentuated his muscular frame, but he looked leaner than in high school; long runner legs, splayed beneath dark skinny jeans, culminated in some white Nikes; a little goatee cemented his manhood but his giraffe lashes kept him boyish. He smelled incredible. Warm, sweet, woody; like he’d been soaking in amber and bourbon.

He gently pulled away, leaving his hands on her waist, and said, “You look good, Reese. You haven’t changed.” It was a wonder how that deep voice could still make her dizzy.

She fought through the haze and said, “You look good too, Amartei.” His truffle skin was as unblemished as ever. She had once hated him for it; how he made it through puberty intact while some, like her, were pimpled messes whose make-or-break high school experience came down to the half-baked promises of a concealer stick. Amartei let his hands fall from her waist. She tried not to look disappointed.

“No-one has called me that since high school,” she said. “Actually, I’m pretty sure you’re responsible for making that nickname go viral back then.”

“Yeah it leaked somehow. It was supposed to be a codename between us two.”

“Yeah right.”

“It’s true. You still obsessed with Reese’s peanut butter cups?”

“Actually, no,” Iris laughed, recalling how much of her pocket money went to the treats.

“Well I say the name stays.”

“Shocker.” But she glowed inside. The nickname had always been special to her, but only when it was him hurling it at her from across the schoolyard.

Her mind was spinning with all the things she wanted to say. Though via text they had somewhat touched on the key events that filled the seven years they hadn’t seen each other, there still seemed too much to talk about. She could sense he felt the same way because he said, “First things first, there are two movies starting around the same time. Which one do you want to see?”

They walked up to the ticket desk, an arm around each other’s waist, and selected an animated comedy. Iris asked him how much it was and reached for her purse.

“Don’t worry.” He sounded amused. Iris thanked him when he handed her a ticket and they headed down the hall to a small foyer with a concession stand. “Popcorn?”

“Always,” she grinned.

Soon, they were settled near the back of the theatre with a large popcorn, some maltesers, and cokes. There were only a handful of others in the theatre. As they waited for the trailers to start, Iris tried not to drown in his perfume. She made a mental note to find out what it was so she could get a sample at a perfume store to smell whenever she thought of him. Which is all the damn time, Iris. Your nose will get numb –

“I want to have this in my own house someday.”

“Hmm?”

“This –” his arm swept across the space. “A home theatre. How cool would that be to have in your own house?”

“Pretty damn cool.” Was he asking to gauge her interest in their hypothetical future house? Or just making conversation?

You should tell him what else you want in your dream house just in case he’s taking notes. Iris shook her head and reached for her coke. He reached for his and they grazed arms. The little hairs on her arm sang. He gave her a shy smile and picked up his drink in the semi-darkness. He didn’t seem too eager to move his arm, so she lifted her coke and kept her elbow against his on the shared armrest.

The theatre fully darkened as the movie began. She nestled into her seat and slowly munched on the popcorn in her lap, hyperaware of every crunch her teeth made. She kept the paper bag close enough for him to lean in for scoops.

She laughed generously at the movie’s punchlines, more to seem humour-conscious than because she found them funny. He knows you, you don’t have to pretend to laugh at corny jokes. No, he knows high school me. High school me would’ve laughed at those jokes.

They whispered throughout the movie; commenting on things happening onscreen, reminiscing about high school and who they were still in touch with. She teased him about his breakdancing skills back in the day and he chuckled and looked away in embarrassment. “I don’t do that anymore, thank God,” he laughed.

“Shame. It was hot,” Iris said.

The end credits rolled onto the screen and she could remember only a fraction of the movie but could recount almost word for word everything they had talked about. They left the theatre last, locking fingers, then parted to use the restrooms.

They met in the foyer. Iris anxiously looked at her phone: 8pm.

“Cutting it close to curfew?” he teased, nodding at her phone.

Iris groaned and recounted the car conversation with her mother. “She actually said, ‘you’re a grown woman now’ can you imagine? That’s code for ‘you better read between the lines’.”

They started walking down the stairs. The traffic on the steps and around the plaza had picked up.

“I swear African mothers invented punchlines. When they say things like that you just know that somewhere in there you better know what you doing!”

“And what exactly do you, as an African man, know about being punked by your mother?” Iris challenged.

He laughed and shrugged, “You’re right. We have it pretty easy compared to you women on that front. I’ve seen how differently my sister is treated and it’s no small thing.”

“Seriously, it’s not fair. You guys get to come and go as you please, whenever you please, even if it’s the middle of the night, and you’re free to withhold details of your comings and goings. But oh no, wholesome girls stay home and only go out during the day, and even then, ideally only for errands. Girls who step out too often or too late are clearly up to no good.”

“Man, I hear that. One time my mom yelled at my sister for two hours for staying out past nine. But they mean well, don't they? You can't fault them for wanting to protect you from early pregnancy and dangerous situations.”

“Ok, but do we create those dangerous situations? Do we impregnate ourselves? I think efforts would be better spent policing the walking sperm banks.”

Amartei laughed. “Give men curfews?”

Iris shrugged. “If it’ll even the playing field. It’s time women had some freedom too. Seriously. I’m 23 years old and I still have a curfew. And I probably will til I get married and then I become my husband’s responsibility. Why do men get to monopolize free movement?”

“Well, Reese, we’re usually busy out doing manly things.” Iris couldn’t believe her ears. She was about to spin on him and rip him sideways when she saw the cheeky glint in his eyes. “It’s still too easy to get you riled up, Reese.” He laughed. Her face burned and it was her turn to look away in embarrassment.

Halfway to the ground level, Iris paused. “What now?” She wasn’t ready to go home yet and hoped he felt the same. “We could watch another movie or…”

“We could.” It almost hurt to look directly at him. And yet she couldn’t look away. “But I have a better idea.”

“Yeah?” Too eager, Iris. “What’d you have in mind?”

“Come, let me show you around my city.” He reached for her hand. She let him take it.

Her palm fit his like a lid to a pot.

*

“Where are we going?” She sat in the roomy passenger seat of his black Honda CR-V as they weaved between cars on the busy road. Palm tree trunks wrapped with amber fairy lights winked along both sides of the road. The lights accentuated the vertical forms of the trees, drawing Iris’s eye up to the star-strewn sky.

“To a great restaurant by the water.”

“Didn't we just leave a place that had plenty restaurants by the water?”

“Trust me. I know somewhere better.”

He drove with one hand resting loosely on the wheel and the other leaning against the armrest, palm facing upwards. She resisted the urge to lay her hand on his. Several times he turned to look at her and chuckled, shaking his head. Finally, she said, “What?”

“It’s just crazy to me. Seven years later, here we are.” She couldn’t read his face.

“It’s not that crazy. People have reunions all the time.”

“Sure, but some reunions you fantasize about and never think it’ll actually happen.” He held her gaze in the dimness and then turned to face the road. Iris felt dizzy.

“What’s that perfume you’re wearing?”

“It’s called Tamima. My pops brought it for me from Mecca last year.”

“It’s intoxicating. Seriously.” He laughed.

“You smell amazing yourself.” She turned back towards the window so he wouldn’t see the stupid grin sprawling across her face.

Amartei pulled into a parking lot and shut off the engine. The sultry beat of a slow rumba song drifted in through the car window. Iris hoped wherever they were headed was in that direction. The music gave her chills; the good kind. Coupled with the cool night air, the smell of shrimp, the sound of the waves crashing close by, and the fact that she was there with him, she felt an almost nauseating sense of contentment. Surely if one were to look up bliss in the dictionary, this were it?

“Do you mind if I have a smoke?” His voice jolted her from her thoughts. But it was his request, when the words had sunk in, that truly jarred her.

“You smoke?” Iris stared at the pack of cigarettes in his hand. Always too good to be true. Perfect man doesn’t exist.

“Damn it, now you’ll think of me differently.” His face clouded over.

“No, it’s just… I’m surprised. When did you start smoking?”

He looked away. “Maybe five years ago.”

“Five ye-?! What? How many a day?”

“Two. Sometimes three.” He cringed as though scalded by the shock on her face. “I’m stopping right now,” he said jokily as he pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He did it hurriedly; eager to satisfy the urge or eager to get it over with, or both. Were they in his pocket the entire time? He held the cigarette out of the car and leaned a little sideways to puff and blow the air out the window, but it still crept back to her. Smoke is stubborn like that, don’t you know? Iris grimaced at the smell, deeply disappointed in him. She knew it was written all over her face and didn’t care. She wanted him to stew in her disapproval; maybe enough that he would feel embarrassed enough to quit right there. What’s a little second-hand smoke? One night won’t kill you. I think.

“Seriously Reese. I’m going to quit. I swear. Just… it’s not that easy.”

“If it were easy, no one would smoke. But if anyone can break the habit, A, it’s you. You did it with alcohol, why not with smoking? Can you even imagine what your lungs look like by now?”

She was no lung expert, but she took the liberty of painting him a gruesome picture. He listened. When she was done, he said, “I appreciate that. It’s nice to know you care so much. This is why I need people like you in my life. Good influences –” People like me? Or just me? “It still blows my mind how you made it through uni without doing alcohol or drugs. Not even weed. That’s wild. I admire that –” Iris laughed and rolled her eyes. “I mean it, I’m proud of you, Reese.”

“Easy there, dad.”

“Always with the sarcasm. You know, other than my friends, you’re the only one who knows I smoke.”

“Not possible. At three packs a day? No way.” Then she thought about it and realized she was blindsided by it too. “No wonder you smell so damn good! You probably carry perfume with you everywhere you go, don’t you?”

“And a toothbrush,” he grinned, flashing white teeth like headlights against his dark skin.

A familiar tune drifted into the car. Iris swayed and sang along, self-consciously at first, and then more intentionally as the beat fused with her spirit. Amartei leaned back and watched, highly amused.

“There’s no way we’re sitting here while my song is playing out there. I don’t know where you were taking us but I’m redirecting us to wherever that music is coming from.”

“Then it’s a good thing that’s where we’re headed. Let's head out...”

They exited the car. He clasped her hand in his, claiming her, offering her sanctuary, as she drew the eyes of men drinking with companions along a pebbled pathway framed by more palm trees. Within seconds, they were on the beach. Iris’s breath staggered. Round tables draped with white cloth sat feet from the ocean.

“A, this is incredible.” He squeezed her hand. Teardrop-shaped mood lanterns sat in the center of each table, changing colour and washing the sand in a different glow every few seconds. The slow rumba, coming from a thatched-roof patio to their right, was loud enough to discern the words but not so obnoxious that she needed to strain her voice. The sand crunched beneath their shoes as they were led to the only vacant table. The server lifted the “reserved” placard, presented them with menus, and asked in Swahili if he could start with drinks. Amartei ordered a mocktail and she ordered fresh sugarcane juice. The waiter left.

“Reserved huh?” Iris teased. “Not leaving anything to chance, are we?”

“Not tonight,” he said, looking intently at her. She met his gaze for a time and then shyly looked away. “It’s the best place in town and I know you’ll love the food. That popcorn massacre at the theatre was proof that you still have the heartiest appetite of any woman I know.” Iris covered her face in her hands, feigning embarrassment.

“You are a lot of things, Iris. Easily embarrassed is not one of them,” Amartei chuckled. “Unless a lot has changed since high school. But from what I’ve seen so far, you’re still the same bold, happy, and vibrant Iris I had a mad crush on in high school.”

Her pulse stuttered. “Look at that, it only took you seven years to say that out loud.”

The waiter arrived with their drinks and asked if they were ready to order. They hadn’t so much as batted an eye at the menu. A few more minutes, they said.

“Reese, come on,” Amartei said as soon as the waiter left. “You didn’t give me a single sign that you were interested. I thought you were way out of my league and I didn’t have the guts to get shot down, so I went after girls I knew were a sure thing.”

Did you hear that? He thinks you were out of his league. That sick bastard Cupid.

“I don’t know, I guess I thought us getting together would be weird. You were one of my best friends. In a weird way, still are. If it didn’t work out, then what? Our friendship would be over.”

“That’s a pretty morbid way to think about things. What if we had worked out? Who knows where we might be now?” His dark eyes glinted in the blue glow of the lantern. “And still, there you are quiet, letting time pass us by. What did you feel then?”

“I thought you were cute of course. Who didn’t? And you were the best guy I knew. Kind, funny, sweet. So, I did wonder about our potential.”

“And now?”

“I still wonder.” They sat simmering in the newly shared knowledge of their feelings.

The waiter returned. They laughed apologetically and promised to actually look at the menu this time. He left again, still seemingly good-natured. They finally picked up their menus. Everything on it made Iris salivate, but she knew what she wanted.

“Shrimp coconut curry. Hell yes.” She laid down her menu. He grinned and went for a burger and fries and kachumbari. Iris cocked an eyebrow. He was a health nut in high school before people fully caught on to what it meant to be one. “I’m a terrible influence on you today. First popcorn and coke, now fast food? Oh dear.”

“I’ve earned a cheat day, okay?” He flexed a muscle and they laughed.

The waiter returned and they placed their orders. Then he left with their menus, looking relieved. Iris anxiously glanced at her phone. Almost nine. Only an hour and a half left. Her heart sank. If only time took nights off from being cruel. Amartei registered her cloudy face and the smile briefly left his own face. Then he reached for her hand across the table and distracted her with questions. He asked about things he knew but wanted to probe deeper on: when would she graduate with her master’s degree? What was her dream job after graduation? What was her dream, period? And then he asked about things he didn’t know: had she had any serious relationships in university? Why did they end? Where did she see herself settling down?

Their food came and as they ate, she in turn teased information out of him. He confided in her about his struggles with binge-drinking and drugs in university and how after a terrifying blackout that wiped out his memories of an entire night, he rekindled his relationship with God and hadn’t had a drink since.

“I saw the prayer mat in your backseat,” Iris said. “I haven’t prayed in a long time. Too long. I feel ashamed saying it out loud.”

“I’m the last person to judge. All I know is that as long as we’re alive, Reese, there’s always an opportunity to do better.”

She squeezed his hand. Something scuttled around her feet and she lifted her legs onto the chair rung. She studied Amartei, seeing him in ways that hurt knowing how limited their time was. As though sensing her thoughts, he said, “I wish you had reached out sooner.”

“I didn’t know you were around. I found out from Sandrine a week ago. I messaged you as soon as she gave me your number. Trust me, I wish I had too.” Just when I’m about to have the summer of my life, it has to end, she thought miserably.

“Why couldn’t you do your internship here? There are great opportunities here too.” The disappointment in his voice only deepened the wound.

“I know, I just didn’t think of it at the time. Now it’s too late. I can’t flake. I have a limited time to do it in and the summer’s halfway over. I need this internship to graduate next year.”

He nodded.

When the bill came, Iris reached for her purse.

“Iris, what are you doing? You keep doing that. Stop it.”

“I want to help pay.”

“You’re insulting me.” His voice was light-hearted but firm. She apologized and waved her hands in surrender. You’ve been abroad too long, Iris. Think it might be time to leave the west and come home?

After paying, he reached for her hand and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

They walked along the beach and talked. In the moonlight, he pointed out beach clubs and restaurants and made lofty plans to take her there one day. He spoke of camel rides and fresh coconut water sipped from shells. Then, sensing she had been quiet for too long, wallowing in lost years, he gently pulled her to him and pecked her on the lips. Iris awoke then. Leaning into his chest, she wound her hands around his neck, and pressed her lips to his. He trailed his strong hands down her back, working his way from her shoulders down to her backside and back up. Wherever he touched caught fire.

Then he pulled away. She saw her pain etched in his face. “I have to take you home, Reese. I don’t want you getting in trouble.” He seemed to struggle against the words.

He drove her home. As they cruised along the phantom-quiet road, he held her hand and asked if she’d had a good night. “Are you kidding? The best.” He nodded, satisfied.

Outside her gate, he gave her another lingering kiss and then waited to ensure the watchman had received her and shut the gate behind her. Then she heard him drive off and almost ran after him.

In her room, she lay on her back, staring at her phone screen and biting her lip. A thank you message was playing at her fingertips when – ping.

She opened the message.

I wish we had more time, he had written.

“I wish we had more time too,” Iris whispered, closing her eyes in agony.

She lay like that for a long time, eyes closed, phone against chest, her silent pleas for more time slipping deeper into the dark tunnels of her inner mind. A clock ticked rapidly nearby. She felt a strange whooshing of air. Then the air shifted, and something was off. The cool cotton of her bedsheets was gone. She was sitting in what felt like a plastic chair. She felt greasy and sticky. A claustrophobic heat pressed from all sides. She felt the scalp pressure of multiple people pulling at her head.

Her eyes sprang open when she realized where she was: the same broom closet salon she’d been in that morning. The same women twisting her hair.

Dizzy with déjà-vu and a sense that the earth wasn’t tilted on its right axis, Iris waved the women away mid-plait and stared into the mirror dumbfounded at her half-plaited head.

From the wall, the clock winked at her and she felt a euphoria take root.

***