We have heard it said that crying over spilled milk is not something that we should do. In public, I stand by this statement. In private, I am the one that wails whenever the milk I am holding is spilled to the ground, never to be enjoyed again.
I remember when I first met you. We were 17. New school. New faces. New challenges. We were all looking around a room at new people, trying to identify the ones that we would identify with. Looking for our clique, as it were. We were green-eyed, looking at the world through the lenses of hope. Neither of us knew what the world had in store.
I noticed you first. Your face was familiar, yet unfamiliar at the same time. In a class that was 90% Kenyan, I realized that your face was familiar because it was one I was accustomed to. You were Ugandan too. Your face was one I had seen before. I knew you, yet I didn’t.
I sat next to you. You smiled. I smiled back. I waited for you to ignore me. I wasn’t striking. I had a chubby face, a chubby body and I was dark. I was never going to be one of the girls that boys gravitate towards. Boys either ignored me or befriended me for what I could do for them. Connect them to the girls they like and do their homework.
You did neither. You were genuinely nice. You wanted to know what my combination was. I told you. You gaped. No other girl was doing PCB/M, you said. I told you I was a crazy person. You laughed, your eyes twinkling. I liked your laugh. It was so carefree. A contrast to your serious face. I remember thinking that you needed to laugh more. I wasn’t a funny girl, but I vowed to try and make you laugh every day.
But, like the promises we tell ourselves that disappear into the ether, I forgot that promise in favour of silence. It wasn’t you. You were nice still. You smiled at me every day. You greeted me. You asked to see my messy notes. You were so nice. It wasn’t you. It was the fear of my own inadequacies.
As the term grew long, so did the friendships form. You were part of the cool crowd and I wasn’t. Nerdy Mable belonged to the Scripture Union and the library. The cool crowd didn’t mingle with the lowers. The way they upturned their heads meant that they were breathing different air. The gossip of you filtered through hallways of the girls’ dormitories. You were a hot commodity. Still, you smiled. And said hi. And were nice. I heard your laugh but it was never directed at me. I missed your laugh. And that was the way it was throughout school.
The potential of what our friendship could have been was the spilt milk on the ground that I cried over. I wanted to know your kind sparkling eyes. I wanted to hear your deadpan humour. I wanted to make you laugh. Again and again. But the me that could make you laugh was stuck in the shell of a shy girl who was scared of her own shadow.
School ended. So did the dreams of what our friendship could have been. We went to university. Holding handouts in big bags, thinking we knew what the world held. I wish I could say I thought of you a lot. You were like whisps of smoke that I tried to hold with my fingers. I just knew you were somewhere out there in the big world, laughing and smiling at a girl who could have, should have been me.
After university, when the reality of life hit us, I’d think of you and your smile that brightened your serious face. When I got a rejection from yet another job, I thought of your hands. They were beautiful, your hands. Elegant for a man. When a boy I liked said he only saw me as a friend, through my tears I saw you as you rubbed your face in frustration at one thing or the other. I heard your voice saying a non-specific thing. It soothed me.
I met you again. By chance. You were meeting a mutual friend of ours. A person who’d become a friend after school. My heart raced a mile a minute when I realised it was you. You whose face was a permanent fixture in my mind. You saw me. You smiled that big smile and gave me a hug. I think about that hug every day now. It was the first hug between you and me. It was perfect. It was everything. It was you. It felt like it spelt the beginning of a friendship that should have been. Or something that should have been. That hug was a promise.
You had grown up. Taller somehow. You had more beards. You looked good. Like someone whose arm I would be proud to hold in the street. We talked for what felt like ages, locked in our bubble, making our mutual friend a third wheel in the crafting of our story. His gaze ping-ponged between the two of us as we finally got to meet the real people we were behind the masks we wore in school. You finally got to meet funny Mable. And I got to meet Tony, not the Tony I had idealised in my head. But still, your eyes sparkled when you laughed. And your hands were soft where they held mine.
That day we met, I thought, I could love him. I really could love him. We exchanged numbers and hugged again. Longer this time. I didn’t want to let go. I like to think that you didn’t either. This goodbye hug felt big. It felt like a birth and a death. That’s a core memory for me.
That was the last time I hugged you. I think about that hug every time I think of you. That hug was a promise of what could have been. I think about what could have been. Tony, I really could have fallen in love with you. You were lovable. And the ‘what could have been…’ kills me a little bit everyday.
You died a few months after we met. Liver cancer. It took you fast. And at the time, we were working on our friendship. I got to know a little bit of you, your story and your humour. You wanted more for me and pushed me to be more than the life I had settled for. You teased me and made me blush when you flirted with me. You were funny. You smiled with your twinkling eyes. You were kind. And you were nice. And your laugh is something that stays with me.
I miss you. I miss what could have been. I cry over the potential of us. Friendship. More. You. Me. I curse cancer, everyday. It took you too soon. Cancer took what should have been and made it what could have been. Fuck cancer.
Anthony Lwanga, may your soul rest in eternal peace. 🕊️