There had to be an end if anything was ever going to start. There had to be. That’s what Mike learnt the night he was handed divorce papers.
In our Rwandan culture, ending a marriage was considered taboo, much like watching a pig seducing a cow. It was unfathomable. And yet, Mike wasn’t the first person we’d heard of being divorced. It was becoming a trend. The western world finally had something on us.
“Hey Joe, did you bring the chicken?” asked Aunt Elise.
“That was the little boy’s job,” responded Joe.
It was our annual Christmas family dinner at my parents’ house. It was busy and packed as ever. Everyone we’d ever encountered somehow was invited, given responsibilities, and held accountable to them. Mike was coming alone for the first time in two years.
“Did you bring the chicken?” Aunt Elise asked me, standing at the doorsteps of my room.
“There is still time. I am heading out to get it in an hour,” I said.
“What? Who raised this kid? Go now!”
Aunt Elise was strict, more strict than my mother. She demanded perfection out of everyone and everything. I guess it’s the reason why she did not like Mike’s wife that much. Laura was too loose for her taste, Aunt Elise often said.
Mike and Laura had been co-workers long before they were bunk beds. Mike had conquered Laura’s heart even though she was his superior. He said bragging was the key, but Laura said it was because of the regular check-ins he used to do every afternoon, the coffees he bought her, the attention. They would spend summers at work daydreaming about adventures they wanted to take once they saved enough. During the season tulips bloomed in the wilderness, the spring of springs, Mike had, on one knee, asked Laura for her hand. It was beautiful. It would be heartbreaking.
After a few minutes without movement, Aunt Elise scampered up the stairs and straight into my room with a spatula. “What did I tell you?” asked Aunt Elise, lifting her arm as if to slap the hell out of me. “Get off your phone and run to the store now!”
In a viable hurry on my way outside, I bumped into Mike entering the front door.
“Ah yes, you’re here. Could you give this little scoundrel a ride to the store?” asked Joe turning towards Mike.
“Why me?” said Mike,
“Well, because you’re still in the door,” exclaimed Aunt Elise, moving back into the kitchen. “These kids will be the death of me.”
Mike sighed a yes. We quickly ran towards the car since the spatula woman was not far behind us and in rage. Mike stepped on the gas, and away we went.
The ride was calm at first. A brisk summer wind breeze in the now cold winter. The car smelled like shit, or I did. Either way, it was awkward. Mike was my uncle after all. It eluded a crucible of topics.
“I think I’m in love,” I said to which Mike nodded. “I kinda want to go all the way with her, you know?”
“Hmm mm,” voiced Mike.
“But there is this other girl–” I said before being interrupted,
“Look kid, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like talking about that right now,” said Mike.
“Okay, no worries,” I replied. Mike had always been my favourite uncle. I was closer to him than any other member of my family. Often, he would give me money and advice when he came around. That’s why I was excited to tell him about my love life, or the lack thereof.
The rest of the way to the store was silent. Mike put on the radio. By chance, I bought the last chicken off the counter. It was staggering, the miracle of the festivities. Or maybe Aunt Elise was just out of our league. When I returned to the car, Mike had his eyes shut. He covered his face with his forearm and backed down from his chair.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” said Mike as I entered, “I, uh, received the divorce papers yesterday,”
“Oh, I didn’t know, that’s… how are you feeling?”
“Like shit,” said Mike, starting the car. “Let’s get back home before your Aunt strangles us,” When I overheard my father discuss Mike’s situation with my mother, no one could have figured out he was going through such pain. He was still smiling, his big loud smile. It was as if he’d gotten over it, or most probably, hadn’t accepted it yet.
In what felt like a second, we were preparing the chicken for Aunt Elise to do as she pleased, which always gratified our hearts. Her cooking was a delight, wonderment in a shell. After the scrumptious and delicious meal, the little kids ran to play outside in the grass, the adults split in half, the women holding court in the living room doing whatever moms and aunts do together. The men, often fat and grumpy, slowly pulled beer cases to the backyard, where they sat and talked trash about politicians and their vile plans whilst getting drunk and drunker by the minute. The “neither young nor grown” adults like me suddenly didn’t have anywhere to go or anything to do other than enjoying the whims that technology offered by watching movies.
Mike savoured his glass of scotch at the far end of the garden with the view of the airport. Alone, inescapably alone. He was still in shock, stuck in the same forward motion he was in when the papers came knocking at his house, dressed in an expensive suit. The whole family knew his marriage was falling to pieces for a long while, but none thought divorce was on the way, let alone that it was already in the midst.
“Can I join?” I asked Mike, holding in one hand a cold beer and in the other a chair. Mike gestured a yes, I set down the chair and sat beside him.
“I’m sorry if I offended you, back in the car, I still–”
“No, I am the one who should be sorry,” said Mike, turning his head towards me only once and looking back to his drink.
“You’re going through a lot, I get it,” I said.
Mike chuckled and stared at me, then leaned over. “Well, c’mon, ask me what you wanted to know,” gestured Mike,
“Seriously?” I asked as Mike nodded. “Okay then, uh, so I couldn’t ask anyone about this, they would just laugh at me, but–”
“But I am the cool uncle who knows about love more than anyone else?!” Mike interrupted seemingly joking. I grinned and went on to describe to him my complicated love situation.
“I have feelings for this girl, and for long as I can remember, there is no doubt I want her, but she’s expressed relationships are not what she is looking for at the moment, but then there’s this other girl, Melissa, who has shown interest in me and wants to go the long mile. Unfortunately–”
“You don’t like her,” remarked Mike,
“Can you stop interrupting me? It’s weird,” I said with a grin. Mike leaned back in his chair, it was getting a little dark and cold, but it didn’t bother us. We were now into a new zone, the grown-ups zone.
“I believe what you’re trying to ask is who to commit to?” said Mike,
“In a way, yeah,” I said, sipping my drink, “On one side, someone finally likes me, but on the other, there is this gorgeous woman I love whom I wish could reciprocate that love.”
“We call that karma, kid,” said Mike, smiling. I threw my hands in disbelief. Mike poured another glass of scotch. “Alright, hear me out. Do you know why my marriage ended?”
I shook my head.
“Because we were not happy,” Mike said before swallowing the whole glass in his hand in one go, “and you don’t become unhappy in a marriage if you both love each other unconditionally.”
“What went wrong?”
“At first, we were simps. Never stopped being obsessed with each other.”
“Ew,” exclaimed Sheilla, Mike’s little sister, passing by to pick her son up out of the mud.
Uncle Mike went on to describe his relationship with Laura before the wedding. They would make fun of each other’s lifestyle choices, which I understood when it came to Mike because he dressed like a white Harvard student in the fall every day. It was nerve-wracking. They would plan small adventures for the weekend, and they almost often never went because they were always tired after long work weeks. They would stay in bed all day, cuddling and watching TikTok videos together, and it would be a hundred times better than going on some hiking morning sabbatical. Then Mike, with some tears starting to form slowly, said something that not only made us realise he had not talked to anyone else about his love’s demise but that we’d also completely turned the page on my problem.
“They don’t tell you when you’re going through a divorce that the suffering is not simply emotional, but also physical and depressing,” said Mike. “Like how much you miss kissing or having sex with your wife. People seem to only think of the money or the custody and therapy, but never the lack of sexual intimacy.”
“That is, uh, crazy,” mumbled Sheilla, who had stayed, hence, having a flock of people starting to form around us. Mike turned around to look at his family, who, for a brief moment, seemed more concerned than usual.
“I take it it’s serious, you guys are not recovering,” uttered Joe.
“She sent the divorce papers last night,” replied Mike calmly.
By the looks of it, I had opened a wound that Mike had tried hard to seal off. My unconnected love triangle was no match for his pain. As kids, you’d never really imagine that the men that raised you could ever show their emotions in front of you, let alone cry. But at that moment, Aunt Elise, the first born from my mother’s side, plodded towards Mike, gave him a long tight hug, and for the first time in my life, a tall bearded man who’d taught me arm-wrestling, burst into tears.
“Let it all out,” she said.
“I don’t even know what went wrong,” Mike voiced through his whimper. “We were doing fine, planning on having a baby, then suddenly we were fighting, constantly.”
“Why didn’t you tell us it got worse?” my dad asked.
“C’mon, Frank, you know damn well men don’t share a lot. He probably felt ashamed,” Aunt Elise came to the rescue.
“Did you cheat?” asked Grandpa Gakuba out of the blue. Our faces were astounded, all eyes on the grumpy man who’d somehow dictated in words what everyone was asking themselves deep down.
“No, never,” replied Mike while cleaning himself up from the tears.
“You hit her?”
“No, what’s this?” Mike answered, clinging to his tissue.
“Well then, were you guys not on the same page?” Grandpa added on.
Mike looked down as if he realised something catapulting unfold in front of his eyes, then stared back at Grandpa. Maybe unicorns suddenly existed in his world. Maybe he just lost his world. Because for what felt like forever, Mike was a stranger to speech.
“I didn’t tell you guys because, for a while, nothing drastic changed. I hoped we’d get together again and talk about it and fix things because honestly, I didn’t think divorce was ever an option,” said Mike.
He sprung back into silence, leaving everyone standing in crust ignorance. Mike had realised something upon leaving the question unanswered. He looked relieved. Firm and active. A man again. We all thought it was because he’d finally let go of his pain, but no one could recover from a divorce that easily, no one except Mike, who had realised something far greater. An impulse of high-definition frequency had put his mind in the right direction and then at ease. This new life without the woman he loved dearly suddenly didn’t feel impossible or awful. It was the same metaphor reformed party-boys used to say after almost losing their inheritance. “Often you find yourself parting ways with clubbing that you end up forgetting it was ever fun. And when this becomes the case, there is no fear of being left out that ever surges in you.”
“Do you need a refill, Uncle Mike?” I asked. As if the silence that had been a burden now succumbed, they all laughed.
“There has never been a greater line ever said,” noted Mike, chuckling.
The whole family seemed to have gained their famous morale. It was darker outside, so everyone moved back into the house. Mike too. Like all things that get normalised as fast as they are discovered in our country, they started gossiping about divorces they’d heard around town, gas prices, the kids that still pee in bed, in a way, the usual topics at Christmas.
My little brother turned on the speaker and put on some zouk music, which everyone with their partners danced to, rendering the house into a small club destined to awaken the neighbourhood with joy.
“It’s nice showing potential, bragging about yourself and what you can do,” said Mike into my ears, finding me outside on the balcony.
“That’s what I learnt dating Laura,” Mike continued, “bragging helps. No one can fully tell you what to do, or who to choose. It has to be you, it’s the only way you can live with your decision.” declared Mike.
I looked at him, then glanced at the undignifying pictures of both girls I was displaying on my phone. “I know,” I said.
“But know this, you need to make sure that you truly love that girl,”
“How can one do that?”
“When you kiss or make love to her, you will both know,” Mike said, leaning on the balcony, “if it’s real. You have to make sure.” In his eyes, Mike was not talking out of necessity but rather experience. He was fine. He looked fine. The chain of thoughts that Grandpa’s questions had prompted in his mind had done wonders.
We would later learn that Laura had terminated the marriage because she wanted more. Of course, she didn’t tell anyone, but her new Nicolas Cage looking boyfriend had given something away. There had been no disputes or tantrums in their marriage, she was simply unsatisfied. It had run its course. Despite all that, Mike didn’t feel any guilt. He had given his all, but it wasn’t enough. It was time to move on. There had to be an end if there had to be a start. We just never really knew what the end would look like.
“Don’t pressure yourself on these things, kid. You’re still young, one day you’ll find someone who will equally love you the same way you love them, and it will be beautiful and lasting,” voiced Uncle Mike.
“I don’t doubt that, but do I choose the one who loves me since there won’t be a lot of work in convincing them, or–”
“Do what feels right. You can’t force love, that’s how you get your heart broken.”
I grinned and took everything in, leaving no crumbs unheard. “Thanks, Uncle Mike,” I said,
He patted me on the back and went back inside for dinner. For a second, nothing happened, then nothing continued to happen, then I felt a moment of relief scent its beautiful perfume inside me, and grasped some courage, texted Melissa back and told her I wasn’t available. To me, I was better off never finding out the end. I was young, bound to make mistakes. Maybe I had chosen wrongly, but if I’d learned something from Mike’s situation, only heartbreak comes out of forcing what’s not there. That was not the kind of end I wanted in my life.
Mike signed the divorce papers the following day. It wasn’t unfathomable anymore; it was just a divorce.