SHORT STORY: Separated by her lipstick

Friday June 23 2017

The picture spoke of licentiousness and sin. The bottom right corner of the paper had been kissed on both sides, a profile of lips so full and luscious they would stop men, women and beasts in their tracks. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGA | NATION


Dear John,

I wish the wind was blowing right now, carrying paper around in its invisible grasp. I wish the rain was falling hard and fast, turning sand into mud and potholes into puddles. I wish something, anything was pounding on the hard implacable earth, making it feel, making it cry out, making it give up answers.

I wish that what I was looking at as I wrote this had any resemblance to what I feel — violent, destructive, angry, loud. Instead, the sun is shining, and a little bird is sending out its sweet music to the world.

It is sad that lipstick tore us apart. A cliché tortured to death by movies. The story of a man coming home wearing the scent of someone else’s perfume and the print of someone else’s lips is an often told story.

I remember the day it happened. I arrived home at about 8pm to find you frying potatoes, the heat was up too high and little drops of oil flew through the air so that the sounds in the kitchen were of sizzling oil and the slight drawing back of saliva signifying small bursts of pain.

I rubbed the places where the drops of hot oil had landed on your skin, and drew up a seat to keep you company as you cooked. The story of the perfect husband who, if he got home first, would make sure a meal was ready for both of us. A meal fried to perfection, cooked with love, laughter and longing.


It would have been just another one of the thousands of nights we had promised to spend together if you had not received that phone call. Something fluttered out of your pocket as you walked away to take the call, a piece of paper that made its slow descent to the kitchen floor.

I picked it up to hand it back to you, or perhaps to throw it away, or maybe I was just curious, right now it’s a haze. Then I looked at it. The paper was beautiful and clearly custom-printed. Around its borders were three snakes wound around each other all headed towards a vast tree.

Under the tree, a woman was reaching up, her face reflecting wonder and curiosity. She wanted the apple. The picture spoke of licentiousness and sin.

Maybe it was these images that made me sensitive. The bottom right corner of the paper had been kissed on both sides, a profile of lips so full and luscious they would stop men, women and beasts in their tracks.

I imagined her holding the paper in her mouth, then carefully taking it out and placing it on the table, I pictured her winking, with you mesmerised, picking the paper up after your rendezvous and putting it away so that you wouldn’t forget.

In the shape of her lips I read all this. All in the moment you had walked away to talk on the phone. I was instantly obsessed. To have something so small turn me into someone so petty makes me feel that I always had jealousy in me. It became an addiction.

I needed to know who she was, what she meant to you. I went through your phone obsessively, looking for clues. Finding out who you saw, and when. Which of your friends you talked to the most, where you went when you weren’t with me. Which women you were talking to and why.

Every one of my friends told me that I would find what I was looking for if I searched thoroughly. I found infidelity. I read the messages and saw the pictures and accepted the pain, but what I never saw, what I never found, were those lips.

So I looked for the paper with the woman and the snakes. I knocked on the doors of bookstores, shops, and hotels. I scoured the Internet, being led link after link down rabbit holes of vastness.

Reading articles about how the shape of a lip is linked to the personality of a person, learning crime scene techniques for the identification of criminals from the shape of their lips, talking to spurned spouses and reading tales of revenge.

My hair became frazzled and I chewed my nails. My work suffered and I ignored my friends, I ignored you. A sullen gloom was all I saw, an almost physical blackness that I couldn’t walk away from or push against. It felt like madness.

When a few months later I came home tired and haggard to find you frying potatoes again, everything came rushing back. I started screaming at you. I watched from afar as someone who looked exactly like me hit you again and again.

I heard with growing concern as a voice laid over with grief and pain and madness screamed at you. Then I was back in my body with a throbbing pain in my cheek and we were irreparably broken, irretrievably lost.

And as I lay curled up on the kitchen floor emotionally spent and physically exhausted, you reeled off your infidelities name by name. The devil was in both of us that night, and I asked to see pictures. I wanted to see her.

Even then, that was all I wanted. Your wrath slowly softened, the length of your list chastened you, and when you were reduced to a blubbering mess of tears begging for forgiveness, blaming your parents and the environment, admitting to your weaknesses and faults, I still hadn’t seen her. I knew I would recognise her if I saw her picture, but I still didn’t know what she looked like.

You should have seen the look on your face when I took out that piece of paper. The way you traced the outline of the snakes and followed them to the holy tree and the woman with the wings of an angel. You cradled it like a child, held on to it like you had once held me.

I believed you when you told me that nothing ever happened between the two of you, and that the paper was her parting gift. It explained the sorrow that had entered our house, how you remained my mirrored twin despite the unmooring of my mind. This is why I have to leave you.

The memory of lips on paper nearly broke me, just as the owner of the lips surely broke you. We can’t help each other through this life as two broken ships that sank despite striking nothing at all.