‘Old Habits’ by Ciku Gitonga

At 11 p.m., the Ottawa airport was nearly deserted. I sat there surrounded by my luggage, an island on a sea of blue carpeting.

“What are you doing on the ground?” I didn’t look as he came to stand beside me. “Hey, come on, it’s gross down there. Shoes have been everywhere.”

“Mm-hm,” I said, not moving. “I’m tired.”

He crouched beside me and took my hand. 

“I know, baby, I know. Look, we don’t have to go back to—” Instinctively, he paused as some people walked past us. I hated him for that second, for his reflexive accommodation. “We don’t have to go back all the way to Mum’s. The lady at the desk said that we can stay at The Marigold free of charge for tonight. Come back tomorrow morning for the new flight.”

It was good news—a part of me acknowledged it, and another part stared absently at the passing feet of a large family rushing to gate 12, thinking nothing. 

“How would we even get there?” I said. I was still not looking at him. Lifting my gaze seemed too much effort. 

“The airport shuttle,” he was saying. “We should start moving to the stop, actually. The next one leaves in, like, 20 minutes.”

“Mmh.”

Now he placed his hand on my chin, tilted upwards. “Hey,” he said. I looked at him, then away, gently chastised.

“I’m sorry. I feel like shit.” I had since this afternoon, when I woke up at 5 p.m. to the tinny blare of my birth control alarm. We’d stumbled in well past sunrise, fallen asleep fully clothed. There’s something depressing about waking up in the afternoon. I’d had a whole day planned to cap off our trip. A morning jog along Rideau, brunch at a nice little place in Byward. As I lay in bed, the back of my head gradually gained momentum to a steady, sharp thudding. He’d moved to press himself against me, hand reaching for my breast, and I’d shot away, ran to the toilet bowl to heave. 

This was on Kibanja. On all of them, really, but on him especially. Throughout the night he’d hovered like a fucking odour, closer than anyone in the ring of friends. On the Uber to the bar, I’d promised myself silently to show enthusiasm—we’d fought the day before about his friends, our voices hushed and hissing in his mother’s guestroom. It had scared me to see his nostrils flared and his voice sharpened—sometimes I forget that his cool, almost neutral expression is not permanent. Afterwards, lying naked in his arms, I had promised to try. And I did—I immersed myself into his circle last night, feeling like a swinging hatchet plunging into the rings of a tree trunk, tightly bound and ancient. 

When I first met them, Kibanja and Stef and the rest, I saw how they carried the years with them, and how the years melted away in their gestures, echoes of freshman days. He became different with them—regressed, I guess. It was repulsive. Like how he became around his mother, sitting in adolescent complacency as she bustled about. When he reached for me across his childhood sheets, I instinctively recoiled. 

“Kibanja was there for me when no one else was,” he had said during our fight. “He helped me stand up to the guys who were giving me shit at Ridgemont.”

“But he takes advantage of you,” I had said.

You’re a pushover, always have been, I had wanted to say. 

Last night I watched them: he, hanging on to every word, downing the shots as Kibanja egged him on. I remember the stories he told me about grade 12, how he’d get beers with his new ID while Kibanja and his lacrosse friends waited outside. Afterwards, he’d walk behind them into the woods, following their long shadows.

“One time they got me to drink so much—it actually wasn’t that much—and I was puking everywhere. Kibanja didn’t even want to drop me off home because Mum would know what was up. God, they roasted me for that night for, like, months.”

“So you had to walk home alone?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

I smirked. Kibanja was their centre when they all got together. They moved like waves at his frequency. His little band of misfits. I watched, ordering one drink after another, pretending to laugh with Stef. 

I had said: “It’s like you haven’t, like, grown up at all—”

Now he was holding both my hands. “Look, it’ll be just the two of us in a big hotel bed. You can relax. I’ll give you a massage. Eh?”

The skin of his palms was damp and warm. I imagined the patches of sweat he’d leave on the hotel sheets. I imagined the hotel room deep in darkness, after I had given in, after he’d finally fallen asleep. I would look at him from across the bed. His features went even softer in sleep, and his body curled inward like a fetus, like a wilting flower. And I, stiffly staring.

Now, on the airport floor, I looked up and matched his smile. I rose when he pulled me up with him. As I stood, I fought the sudden urge to vomit.


Ciku Gitonga is a second-year student at the University of Ottawa, studying Political Science. She immigrated to Canada from Kenya in 2016. She enjoys writing, mostly fiction, and sometimes poetry. This piece is her first to be published anywhere, and she is very excited.