Listen to this story, narrated by Hollis Beck:
Eighteen years ago, Ntinyari takes her heart out of her chest for the first time. It is a frightened bird in her hand. An ugly thing, slick with fat and slippery and loud, kugu kugu kugu. She squeezes it, willing it to still for just a moment and let her hear herself. Mother finds her fallen over, a marionette in a heap. Her heart has rolled under the bed.
“Why would you do this?” Mother asks, jamming her heart back in place and shuttering her chest. “I have given you everything.”
Ntinyari tries to remember she has no right to unhappiness, but she cannot help occasionally taking out and cataloging her parts: kidneys, lungs, vagina, eyes (those she puts back in immediately; watching herself from the table is disorienting), lips, spleen, uterus, nose, stomach (it sloshes with undigested breakfast), pancreas, ears, tongue, intestines. Everything is present, she thinks. Everything is present. Not a single part is missing.
Why then doesn’t laughter escape her in puffs of yellow, pink, and blue as it does the other girls at her secondary school? Could she not be as possessed of saccharine happiness? Or at least be at the center of some frivolous rebellion — going without a bra, for example? Anything to make her more than a well-mannered, if awkward, blob of excellent grades.
They meet at a nightclub they are both a year too young to be in. Together and drunk on fruity cocktails, Kiku and Ntinyari own the deserted floor, vanishing and reappearing among the coloured strobe lights, each feeling secure because the other is there. They shout introductions over the licentious dancehall music and are soon grinding buttock to pelvis, because they can and because it makes men stare greedily. A few hours later, they are bent over a sink, united in vomiting and the best of friends.
Kiku’s love for nail polish, makeup, and perfume soon permeates Ntinyari’s bedroom. Mother approves: Kiku is just the kind of influence Ntinyari needs to smooth out her edges.
“Ask her what she is doing to her skin,” Mother says.
Ntinyari’s hand goes to her cheek. A new pimple is sprouting there, hard and stubborn. Her forehead is a constellation of rashes and black spots. Nothing she does seems to stop her pores from secreting thick, greasy sebum. She feels poisonous. If only she could slip into Kiku’s skin.
At their next sleepover, she presses against Kiku as they lie on their bellies watching a bootleg DVD on Kiku’s laptop. Kiku’s face is wet from all the crying she has done along with one of the movie’s characters.
“I can’t help it,” she says every time Ntinyari witnesses her osmose other people’s emotions.
And this is why they are friends. Ntinyari gets off the bed and slips out of her skinny jeans and t-shirt, then her lacy panties and bra.
Kiku hides behind her hands. “What are you doing?”
“I need to show you something.”
Ntinyari reaches her hand to her back and feels for a zipper. She draws it along the rail under her skin. It splits her open halfway across her neck and then down through her chest. Her ribs peer out, visible through muscle. She is almost unzipped to her navel when Kiku punctures through her shock and screams.
Then come years of endless falling. Ntinyari is a bottomless pit, an unpunctured exclamation, a darkness imperceptible to the human eye. Under a microscope, she finds that her nerve cells have tails like mucus pulled out of a child’s nose. Her blood cells could be doughnuts, her muscle cells worms, her bone cells spiders, her skin cells blocks of gummy sweets stuck together. And yet, nothing is out of the norm here. She pulls away from the microscope and rubs her eye with her fist. A dull pain creeps up her back between her shoulder blades.
She is twenty years old, and behind her, on a laboratory’s cold slab, lies a cadaver. His face and chest are hidden under a blue sheet, as if that could shield him from the indignity of what is happening to the rest of him. She and the other first-year medical students have been picking him apart for four months, stripping him down to his essentials, naming him by his pieces. After every session, the pain in Ntinyari’s back escalates into a smoldering spot of lava.
“Sometimes, I dream I am him,” she says to Brother-on-a-scholarship-abroad.
With each conversation she feels she is regurgitating her brokeness into the world, soiling it. Brother squints into his video-chat window, trying to make out the seams along which she is coming undone, but even he cannot tell her what hurts or why.
“You scored an A, Nti.”
“He’s dead. He feels no pain.”
He does not understand that she is a composite of mismatched parts: too-large eyes; a short, rounded nose; arched eyebrows; a too-small mouth; and ears flattened against her head. She is God’s leftover pieces.
They chat once a week, but she does not settle. What is murky about her does not fall to the bottom and leave clarity that she can decant and inhabit. She grows more turbid. She fails her exams that semester. She drops out of medical school. And all who know her shake their heads and lament wasted potential.
At twenty-five she swipes right on a dating app.
“Architect,” he says over what he insists are the best burgers in Nairobi.
Ntinyari hides her disappointment at having to pass a first date in an open yard, among rough-sawn benches, chairs, and tables, while all around, expats smoke pungent marijuana. But slowly she relaxes into his world. He nods his head to music she has never heard before. He calls out the names of artists and sound tracks.
“This is the real stuff,” he says.
She is envious of his confidence, his firm belief that he belongs — a sticky kind of envy that forms a lump in her throat. His gestures are wide, his posture straight yet relaxed. She is ashamed of her inability to be as large, to saturate every space with her own contentment. Mother’s words return to her: you have everything. She smiles wider and wider as he talks. She could choke on that smile.
When he calls asking for a second date, Ntinyari is scared. How soon before he realizes she is broken? Date after date, she works hard at being interesting and nodding intelligently.
“You are so different from anyone I’ve been with before,” he says after date five.
Her insides liquefy with gratitude. She settles into this warm feeling. She deserves it. A month later, she is sharing her secret, and he is listening intently, beer can in midair on its way to his mouth. She knows this will be different from Kiku. And it is.
He is not afraid. When she pulls off her leg to illustrate, he puts his hand out for it. She lifts it up to where he sits on his car’s bonnet, as though making an offering to a god. He gives it a light toss and takes another gulp off his beer can.
Ntinyari sips wine in kisses from her place on the picnic blanket. He has brought her to Karura forest for date twelve, to the twitter of birds and the rustle of leaves and an air so fresh that she feels slightly dizzy. In her mental checklist, she has ticked “romantic”.
“Can you pull off the other one?” he asks.
As he examines both legs and notes that there is no blood, his expression — his bewilderment — makes her feel proud, as though this coming apart is a gift, and she is special.
He drinks from his can and considers her closely. When he speaks, his voice is cold and exact: “Now come get them.”
Not even the realization that she is terrified makes Ntinyari demand that he give back her legs. She tries lifting herself up onto the car bonnet. He is testing her, must be testing her. Sometimes, this is the way to love and be loved. She laughs as she struggles. She laughs and he laughs.
“I will break you,” he says when he leaves her a year later.
“Look,” she pleads. “Look, no pain.”
She pulls off an arm. It is as easy as breaking a Barbie doll apart. Klack! She could throw her head against a wall to make him stay and make her lovable again.
At twenty-nine, she has climbed to the significant position of team lead at an advertising agency, which means she is often sitting on the bad side of her boss’s desk. Everyone in the open plan hall beyond the woman’s glass office can see Ntinyari squirming as she waits for the boss to finish typing out an email. When the woman shuts her laptop, Ntinyari feels herself crinkle under her gaze, like foil on a fire.
“This job is too big for you, Ntinyari. Don’t you agree?”
Pain is the cheekbone-chiselling bob cut her boss wears and its stark red highlights. Against the light of the window in her office, she looks aflame.
“Have you considered looking for something you can actually handle?”
There has been an email from Ntinyari’s nightmare client, the bank man in charge of the agency’s largest contract. He regularly shares briefs at 5 p.m. and expects work delivered by 8 a.m. the next morning, forcing Ntinyari and her team to work overnight.
“We are trying our best. It’s just not possible to work on his….”
Boss Lady jabs her finger at Ntinyari. “Excuses. Excuses. How long are you going to live like this? Doesn’t it bother you to be so mediocre?”
Ntinyari does not dare to let the door bang on her way out. She walks back to her desk under a deluge of stares and whispers. In that soup of 24-7 office-wide music, advertising jargon, too many hugs, and endless brainstorming sessions, she stands out for her inability to dissolve. She lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Spontaneity, she’s heard someone say, or perhaps just more life than a rock. She’s heard worse things whispered about her, and a few of these have made her lock herself in a toilet stall twice this past year.
Laughter explodes from one corner of the office. It’s Maina, her team’s social media strategist and perpetual latecomer. Today he arrived at eleven o’clock but is now seated on someone else’s desk, telling what must be a funny story for all the laughter it’s causing. He’s a creative, he says, and his ideas need time to percolate, so no, he hasn’t yet worked on the Christmas campaign proposal the client wants to see tomorrow, and she should buy him time, because that is her job, isn’t it?
She has a First Class Honours degree in Marketing, but it is only a piece of paper in the face of office politics and client ass-kissing.
“You will keep running away when things get tough and then discover you have wasted your life,” Mother said when Ntinyari quit Medicine nine years ago.
For entire weekends she lies in bed afraid of something she cannot articulate. Something gaseous and amorphous. She is trapped in her bedding. And when her undrawn curtains darken again and a whole day is gone, guilt takes on a tangible form and becomes her companion in bed, cold and cutting, insistent on cuddling.
In September, she is passed over for a promotion at the agency. Two mornings after, she cannot find the big toe of her left foot. On another, her eyeball hangs out of its socket; she cannot quite get it back in. And on yet another, she has only one breast. Then she comes home from work one night and stumbles upon her hand still clasping a dirty teacup on the kitchen counter. How did she not notice all day? She sits staring at it for a long time, knowing that she has crossed a certain dangerous line.
Yet she experiments. She detaches her lower jaw and sits disfigured through meetings. She hops around the office on one leg. She walks blind into walls. She leaves her buttocks on a chair in the kitchenette area. She stands by the water dispenser with her intestines spilling out of her in twisted, visceral knots. No one looks at her twice. No one says more than a dry, hurried, “Hi.” She has vanished from the world.
She weeps with upraised arms. She sways in the slow, melancholy music the choir members foment in the depths of their despair. Ntinyari is broken before the Lord. Pastor David bellows into his microphone and reverberates off the walls: “Receive the healing.” If the Holy Spirit descends, He only descends on other people. To them go grace and renewal. Ntinyari swallows her bitterness and sings louder.
One Saturday morning, while sitting on her couch, she has a maddening itch in her scalp. She attacks it with the lid of a pen, then the point. It multiplies and spreads, as angry as a thousand ant bites. She plucks off her head, sets it between her knees, and gives her scalp a thorough scratch. Thus, with ten fingers aggravating her itch, she alights on an idea: the thing that is wrong with her is inside her head, the only part she has never broken down. It must be.
Self-help books tell her to picture what she must excavate: a malicious, black ball nestled between the lobes of her brain. She finds a screwdriver. She tries to coerce the seven screws in her skull out of their holes. Hours or years later, one flies off and cracks her T.V. screen. Alas, the other six are bolted down tight. All is futile. Nothing can be mended.
On her bedroom floor of cold brown tiles, she uncouples her feet from her ankles, her toes from her feet, and her nails from her toes. Piece by piece, she lays herself out on the floor in the lazy parallelograms of sun falling in through the window. She is thirty-one years old. She can no longer hold together; she has never known how to hold together. She decouples hip from torso, thigh from hip, knee from thigh. She watches herself from where her head lies on its side. Even now, nothing is missing.
Life seems a row of glass windows on which she slides, leaping, reaching, appearing, and disappearing. She is a mere reflection. She does not die; or perhaps she does.
Dr. Oduor is a cliché: a white head, thick spectacles on the bridge of his nose, and an array of framed certificates on his wall. His greeting is flat. He mechanically tracks her movements from the door to the chair. All he will do is lecture her, as others have done since she woke up at the hospital, all of them whispering because she committed a crime and could be arrested if discovered. A peppering of allusions, here and there, to the value of life and the importance of talking about one’s problems. Even her doctor and the nurses had to pretend she accidentally swallowed a boxful of paracetamol.
“Do you want to live?” asks Dr. Oduor.
Is it so simple? Wanting or not wanting? She looks away.
A lonely, dwarf palm is trapped in a pot in one corner of his office. A laden bookshelf is sagging in the opposite corner. Above a hand basin is the painting of a nondescript stretch of beach in which wanders a bare-chested, black boy. Ntinyari imagines him looking over his shoulder at her.
“You just wanted attention,” he would say.
When she does not respond, the doctor jots down something on his pad. If she were to begin trying to scratch off her face, would he be forced to lock her away in a psychiatric ward forever?
“Do you want to live?” he asks again.
So irritating. She could scream luminous colours onto his ugly, off-white walls. She could crack thunder and flash lightning. She could burn his books and dance around the fire naked. But she is just a body in a chair and tired, so tired.
“Do you think it was easy?” she asks.
Now he has no words, staring out of his silly glasses. He sits back in his chair, retreating behind defenses. He is going to tent his fingers and attempt to cower her. She glares all her anger at him and forces him to break eye contact first.
“I am not your enemy.”
She fills up like a glass under a tap of cold water. Her voice is dissolving when she speaks: “Who is my enemy? Who is doing this to me?”
Does he not see that she is in too many pieces and some have been lost? He passes her a box of tissues before she realizes she is crying.
“Look, Ntinyari. Depression is treatable, but you must want to be treated.”
She has not wanted to accept that word. Depression.
All that she has suffered summarized in a single word. Depression.
The feeling of being constantly submerged in dark waters. Depression.
How can such a large thing be so neatly delineated?
He puts a rough hand on hers. She nods.
But this will be a long journey. Ahead are years and years of pills and therapy. Ahead are days when she will wake up a confusion of parts. Days so small, so hard, so gnawed upon. Bruised, ugly days when she will almost fail at putting herself back together. Ahead is the gigantic impossible task of lassoing and pulling down an intangible, ferocious beast.
But then, at last, the day will come — surely it must come — and a golden day it will be, when Ntinyari no longer disassembles.