He sleeps with his Fitbit on. That’s how he knows it’s 3:52am when he stirs awake. He’s monitoring his weight, his sleep, his food, his moods, his ambitions, his shortfalls, how fast his hair grows… everything that a Fitbit tracks. At 109kgs, he’s a bit on the overweight side. It feels weird, this weight, because it takes longer and more effort to do things he usually wouldn’t struggle with. Like walking up a flight of stairs, hauling shopping from the boot, foreplay. He breathes hard now, his shirt often sticks to his back. His blood sugar can bake a chocolate cake. He likes to excuse his weight by saying, “But I’m a tall man, it spreads out!” Only it doesn’t. It’s right there on the belly. And arms. And neck. He has to lose 29 kgs or he will soon be put on hypertensive drugs, his doctor said. Or he will die. One of both. Because of that he’s reluctantly taken to walking, which he finds quite boring. He wishes he could swim but he never learnt to swim and besides, at 47 he figures it’s a tad too late. He can’t see himself being tutored in a pool by another man holding him as he tries to float, thrashing about like a walrus. He’s one of those bloated men with terrible shorts who spend their holidays at the coast seated in the baby pool displacing all the water and being laughed at by children.
He lies on his back in bed and stares at the ceiling. A sharp sliver of grey light presses through the side of the curtain. The room is the colour of pre-dawn. He lays motionless, like a stone at the bottom of a lake. He can hear his wife’s breathing, it’s a rhythm he can recognise anywhere, one he’s known for the past 11 years. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that she’s there, next to him, breathing. Sometimes that’s all you need, the breathing. He lies there thinking how many ways the day can go wrong. He plays scenarios in his head because he’s a bit of an obsessive pessimist.
At 6 am he slips into the bathroom for a shower then later, towel around torso, he fills the sink with water and then proceeds to lather his chin and cheeks. He shaves carefully staring at his reflection in the mirror; long uninterrupted, careful strokes. Shaving, he finds, is art, but it’s also therapy. It’s the only time he’s truly invested in a task. As he’s rinsing his face off, his wife – still half asleep – wearing nothing but sleeping shorts, staggers into the bathroom and sits on the toilet whereupon she starts peeing. No ‘good morning.’ She just sits there, head in hands, sighing deeply as she pees. She’s one of those who say they think best on the toilet.
Finally she looks up and asks, “Are you nervous about today?”
“Because you shaved two days ago and you are shaving again today,” she says, “You never do that.”
Truth is, he’s a little anxious. She flushes the loo and stands at the sink next to him, her breasts shaking wildly as she brushes her teeth vigorously. And because she’s a woman and she was born with the inherent talent of multitasking, she speaks at the same time, foamy mouth and all. She says, “uggggg gagyguh uaggugau grugggiug?”
“The gugu gugg ggugg ghuhuggru?”
“I can’t understand what you are saying,” he tells her grinning.
Toothbrush half in mouth full of watery foam, she turns to look at him with a frustrated look as if he’s the crazy one. She spits in the sink and says, “Do you think he might not show up?” He says he doesn’t know.
As he opens his wardrobe he hears the help drawing the living room curtains and beating the cushions; the sounds of domesticity. His clothes occupy a small section of the wardrobe. Her clothes occupy the rest of the wardrobe, most of which she never wears and keeps meaning to donate but never gets around to it. He riffles through his clothes. He knows what he won’t wear; a blazer. Especially not the green-ish one; it reminds him of his good friend’s funeral ; said friend went into surgery for what doctors called a “small procedure” and never came back.
His wife wears a t-shirt and throws on a bathrobe and leaves the bedroom. As he buttons his shirt he hears her talking animatedly to the help. Unlike him, she’s a morning person and never stops talking, she even talks in her sleep sometimes. Doors open and close. A child’s voice, obviously moaning about something because children are always moaning about something. The TV goes on. Cartoons. Another child’s voice. Something falling to the floor. When you have children your life is an endless soundtrack of something falling on the floor.
Dressed, in the living room he says hello to his two offspring. They say good morning back – but at the TV. They look like their mother – which is a good thing if we are being entirely honest. He tries making small talk with them but they ignore him. After eating an apple (oh what sacrilege) he leaves the house as the children’s breakfast is being set on the table. His wife’s final words of advice to him is, Just be patient with him.”
To understand how we got here we go back to 2001 when he was about 28 years old, a roving salesman, covering the Central part of Kenya. There was a girl he used to see whenever he was in a small town for a day, a girl who had just completed university and was working in her mom’s humble retail shop. Actually he was lowkey interested in her mom initially, he says, but then he saw her one day, arranging shampoo on the shelves and the tide changed immediately. Not long after he lost his job, one day he got a call from the girl informing him that she had missed her period. “I wasn’t in a state where I was even thinking about being a father, I was focused on getting employment again. Besides, this wasn’t ati a girl I was serious about, she was a distraction when I was in that town.” So, because he’s the god of periods, he assured her not to worry about it, her period would come. He had it on good authority.
Only they didn’t and she called a month later and said she had done a test and she was indeed pregnant. “I sent her money to take care of it and promptly forgot about that story.” Only, she didn’t “take care of it.” A year later, she sent a picture of a baby which he guessed, rather correctly, I might add, was his.
“I was shocked!” he says unconvincingly, “mostly because I thought she had taken care of it. I called her up and we talked about it. My position was that I wasn’t ready to be a father or to settle down, at least not with her. We had had a physical relationship, there was nothing more to it. Nothing more for us. ” She sounded cool about it. She said she merely wanted him to know that she had kept the baby and she would fend for the baby. You have a good life, she said. [She didn’t, but I’ve added this for my own pleasure]. But she changed her number and he never heard from her again from 2002 until 2015.
In 2015, he was married with two children and running a business you could describe as fairly successful. He narrates how he got the call out of the blue from a number he didn’t recognise.
A young voice on the phone, uncertain, nervous. “Hi,”
“This is Ricky.”
“Okay. Hi. Which Ricky is this?”
“Yeah. Brenda from Embu.”
“I don’t know a Brenda from Embu. Anyway, how can I help you?”
Nervous. “I wanted to say hello. You, you are my dad.”
Then a long pause from his end. Then it all came to him, slowly at first then very quickly, like a herd of charging buffalos. The boy was 13, a teenager. Thirteen years had simply flown by in a jiffy.
“What did you do?” I asked him.
“I told him I’d call him back,” he says. “I was so confused. You wish some of these things away, it’s burying your head in the sand.”
“You told him you’d call him back!” I laughed. “I’m sorry, were you in the middle of your life?”
“I was confused, man. I needed to process all this. I felt ambushed.”
“So did you call him back?”
“Next day, yes, but his phone was off.”
So they never spoke again until the following year, when Ricky reached out on Whatsapp and kept reaching out intermittently over the next few years but he admits that he was not very receptive. “I was selfishly caught up with thinking about myself and the implications of what having a son like him meant at that point. It’s no excuse. But yeah, I didn’t respond very warmly. I was also struggling with how to tell my wife that I had a son; that I had a teenager and had somehow forgotten to mention it a few years into the marriage. He only told his wife in 2018. She was apoplectic. “What kind of a man are you who turns his back on his own child? Your own child! Who are you, even? This is your blood, your blood! How can you claim to love our children when you have a child you refuse to love? Why are our children more deserving of your love than this boy?” These are all good questions he didn’t have answers to. He sat in the naughty corner and contemplated his choices. “Do good by this boy and by yourself!” His wife told him. Unfortunately by this time of course, the boy had given up on him; he had stopped trying to reach out. He was pissed off, it’s safe to say, perhaps wrote him off as a good for nothing father. Brenda of course might have warned him that his father was a punk. But he kept trying to reconcile with him for the next couple of years and eventually, begrudgingly, agreed to a meeting and thus all the shaving he had done, as if he had a date with the court.
This story is not about a son reconnecting with his father. This story, for me, is about the moment the son, a young adult son who hasn’t known a father, finally meets the man who is also his father. A stranger, really. I wish I had spoken to the boy instead of the man. It would have made for a better story. To see this meeting in his own eyes; cynical eyes, cautious eyes, jaded eyes, hurt eyes, cautious eyes. I wondered how it would be talking to a father you never knew. But I will never know, unless he reads this and says, “that’s me! I will talk to you!” then emails me on [email protected] with the subject; It’s Me. And a smiley.
They had agreed to meet at Java Mama Ngina Street. There was no space upstairs so he found a table downstairs that always feels like sitting in a submarine. You always feel like it might get flooded. Or that you will come out after your coffee, blinking into the bright light, and find that an apocalypse happened while you were underground and you’d roam the haunted, empty streets, shouting, “hellooooo?”, your discombobulated voice echoing all the way to the Railways station on Haile Selassie Avenue, the streets strewn with trash and abandoned cars in the middle of the road. It would be like living alone in a pot. There would be no humans, no mobile network, no sound, no birds in the sky, just you and the handful of you who were happily taking coffee downstairs at Java Mama Ngina Street as the world crashed and burned. You’d be forced to start over again. Maybe marry each other and have babies and start from scratch. That’s the point at which you would hope and pray there was a doctor amongst you, not someone in IT or accounts or a marketer or a fashion designer, or God forbid, a lawyer. Those are useless professions after an apocalypse. You’d need a doctor to survive. And maybe someone who can start a fire with two sticks. If there is a comedian (non-slapstick variety ) it wouldn’t hurt, because you’d need to find laughter in this new doom.
He texts him and says he is downstairs: “Dark guy in a blue shirt with red buttons.” His palms are wet, as they get when he’s very nervous. He watches the staircase. When twenty minutes later Ricky hasn’t shown up he texts his wife, “I don’t think he’s coming.”
“Be patient.” His wife texts back curtly. When you have been married to someone for a while, you can read their facial expression from their text. He’s sure she typed that message while rolling her eyes.
He finishes his masala tea and orders a dawa. He waits. A very thin man comes halfway down the staircase, looks around in the submarine, sees no empty table and goes back up. An ageing couple scrape their chairs loudly as they stand to leave. The man has a cane and an old hat – the type cats would love to nap in. Soft music trickles over the light chatter and clanking cutlery. Finally – almost an hour later, he sees his shoes before he sees him and he knows instinctively that it’s him. Red sneakers. Jeans. Long slender legs belonging to a tall slender boy. He looks around and he sees him; there is not any other man in a blue shirt with red buttons. He doesn’t know why but he finds himself standing as if to compare heights. He walks over to him, avoiding eye contact, looking uncomfortable, shy even, ready to bolt. Maybe he doesn’t want to confirm what he thinks of him.
He discreetly wipes his hands on his pants and they shake hands. Father, son, strangers, men. There is something wrong with a father having to introduce himself to his teenage son. He says, “Hi, I’m Mark,” as if he’s selling a piece of land in Syokimau. He later wishes he could have said, “Hi, I’m your dad,” but he was nervous and he felt that he didn’t deserve that title.
“Ricky,” he says, then pulls a chair.
They sit. Their knees touch under the table because they are both tall men. The air is so thick with tension you could place your purse on it, instead a menu is placed on it. He studies his face carefully as he peruses through the menu. It’s his son, no doubt. The nose. His lower lip. His ears. How thick his hair once was. How he sits in the flickering energy of his teenage. It feels like he’s looking at himself, his younger self, slimmer self. He envies his weight and his good knees. He wonders what courage it has taken for him to come here.
Ricky finally orders orange juice and says, “thank you,” to the waitress. Even though he can’t take credit for his good manners it fills him with both pride and guilt.
“Why don’t you eat something?” He suggests. “Have you had breakfast?”
“Nah, I’m fine.” He says looking around for a familiar face or an exit.
To avoid the table sinking into the deep pond of uncomfortable silence, he fills it fast with words. Wrong words, it turns out. He asks “so, how have you been?”, a loaded question. Does he want him to start from when he was born or just last week?
“I’m good,” Ricky says.
“Good…good,” he says, “how’s your mom?”
“She’s good. She’s waiting upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” He’s surprised.
“Yeah, she brought me here.”
“Oh.” He looks up, as if he can see her through the ceiling.
“You guys live around?” He asks, and he realises with great embarrassment that he doesn’t know anything, anything at all, about his son; where he lives, what he likes, what he wants in life, who his friends are, his birthday, his allergies, nothing. “It felt terrible to be honest, I felt like a shit father.” He told me. “Like those fathers you never thought you’d be.” Curiously, he’s close to his father who is now old and in the village still farming. His mom died when he was in his twenties.
They sit in silence. He didn’t know what to say, where to start. So he asks him if he wants to ask him anything. “I’m sure you have questions.”
“No,” Ricky says indifferently. That jolts him. A slap on the face.
“Oh,” he says.
Ricky’s phone lights up on the table and he can tell it’s an Instagram notification. He checks it and continues scrolling on his phone. He can’t tell him to put down his phone because it’s rude because he doesn’t know him. He feels he has no moral ground, besides he doesn’t want to antagonise him. So waits for him to finish. A waitress comes with the order and says with a big smile, “Would you guys like something else?” He wants to tell her, “Yeah, a rope and strong beam to hang myself.”
“I’m sorry that it’s taken us so long to meet up,” he says.
Ricky looks up and places his phone away. He looks irritated. He just stares at him. “And I would like us to have a relationship,” he continues, “ we can start slowly, from the very bottom, you know, get to know each other. We have lost so much time. I have lost so much time and I would like to fill it up, you know, make up for it. Is this something you would like to do?”
Ricky shrugs. Like he couldn’t care either way.
The next hour is painful. He asks him questions – what do you want to study now after high school? How is Embu? How are your other siblings? What do you love doing during your free time? – and he offers very little to no insight into who he is. It’s like a blind date where one partner has already decided that this is not going anywhere but the other party is still clutching at the straws of false hope.
“He never once asked me about myself,” he moaned. “He was completely disinterested in my life. Never asked what I do now, why I was never in his life, nothing. Even though I expected it, it sort of stung.”
When it was obvious that the meeting was not going anywhere and that he needn’t push his luck anymore, he called for the bill. After paying, he asked him if it was okay if he gave him some pocket money to, you know, buy data and shit, and he stonily said, “Naah, I’m good.”
They walked upstairs. He hadn’t seen Brenda in as long as his son was old. At first he didn’t even recognise her, sitting in a corner with her laptop. “She was stunning!” he says. “Remember I last saw her when she had just finished university, what, when she was 22? Complete transformation. Complete.”
She was cordial but distant. She looked at Ricky and asked with concern, “You guys are done already?” Ricky sat down and said, “Yeah.” Small talk. Then he made his excuses as his palms sweated even more, then he stepped out of the cafe and was relieved that the apocalypse hadn’t happened.
Their relationship hasn’t transformed much even after a couple more meetings.
“One time he texted that he hasn’t lacked much in terms of a male figure, that he has his uncles. I feel horrible about this. I regret having turned my back on him when he was born but what could I do? I wasn’t in the headspace to be a father, you know.” He said. “Maybe one day he will come around, maybe he won’t. My wife thinks it’s the bed I made so whatever happens, I have to lie on it. She also thinks that I should not stop trying. She says I should try for the next 18 years, the number of years I was absent from his life.”
“Will you?” I asked.
“Yeah. I have no other son.”
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