“One time, a long time ago, we were drinking at this local in Buru when she started arguing with this other girl. I can’t recall what the argument was about but I was used to her sparkiness, especially when drinking, so I ignored it,” Matt says. (By the way, these names aren’t real and I’m running out of them). Suddenly there was the thud of something fleshy hitting a wooden table. “She had grabbed the other girl by the hair and slammed her against the bar’s wooden pillar. Boom!” There were screams and blood and a tussle; legs and arms intertwined like duelling octopuses, rolling on the floor as other patrons tried to untangle the two fighting women.
“She was very violent when she was drinking, very provocative,” Matt continues. “She would escalate a situation from zero to a million in a millisecond, and once she got to a million there was no talking her down, she would be fighting and throwing things at her opponent while scratching and cussing.” He says she was pretty petite, weighing no more than a half a sack of potatoes, but pretty strong. “But I weighed twice her weight so it was always easier for me to grab her and carry her out of a situation—kicking and screaming.”
She had no qualms starting fights anywhere and everywhere; parking lots, restaurants, in taxis, bars (her favourite), at concerts, in a hospital ward once, in an elevator, in a government office’s counter, by a canoe in Naivasha…anywhere. But he was always there to quell it, to grab her hand and pull her away. To carry her, if he had to. To hold her hands by her side and say, “Don’t fkn behave like a lunatic!” to which she would say, “Then go! I will finish what I started here.” Some women might tie their hair properly before they thump you, but her signature move, the first sign that it was all going to hell in a handbasket, was when she removed her shoes. She fought shoeless.
They met after his first marriage went pear shaped. “She was the exact opposite of my ex-wife who was very mild-mannered, polite and the least confrontational person you will ever meet. My ex-wife never raised her voice.” We’re speaking on the phone. He’s at work in a different town. He told me simply that he ‘works for himself’ and I didn’t push. So he could be doing anything from human trafficking to breeding fighter roosters.
“You liked the drama, didn’t you?” I ask. “It’s what attracted you to her. You like dodging ashtrays and high heels. You like being hit and yelled at and called a sonof*. You hate peace. Strife and violence turn you on. You are a freak.”
He laughs at that longer than I expected him to laugh. In fact, he laughed for so long I started thinking he wasn’t laughing at that joke and he had seen something on his end tickling him.
“No. I didn’t like the drama, but I loved her more than enough to marry her, or rather move in together.” His first marriage was short and childless, but his second marriage, with her, brought forth two children in quick succession, almost like he was trying to catch up and meet a quota. They continued going out to drink together and motherhood only tapered her feistiness a tad. She was still willing to take on anyone. You dropped the gauntlet at her feet and she wasn’t going to walk away. If you’d guessed that she was raised in one of those violent homes, you are sadly mistaken. Her father was not an alcoholic who came home drunk with songs on his lips and violence in his heart. Her father was in the military but you couldn’t tell, if he wore a civilian shirt, he might pass for a hardware owner. You couldn’t tell he was in the military; she told him that her father always spread their bed (his and her mom’s) because he didn’t trust her mom to do it ‘the proper way.’ [For this reason, she hated spreading their bed, he said] Her mother worked as a cateress in a government institution. She never once saw her parents fight, maybe a raised voice from her mom, but never saw or heard a fight. They were never beaten up, in fact her father was very liberal and – ironically – never chose violence. “So I don’t know where her violent streak came from,” he tells me. I can hear him open a gate or a metallic door. It’s 11am, so maybe he’s getting into his workplace or wherever the hell people who work for themselves go to at 11am. He’s distracted as I hear him touching things that cause cluttering noises.
“Maybe one of her mother’s sisters cooked for the Mau Mau at the edge of the forest,” I observe in jest, “and when the Mau Mau slipped back into the forest to fight the good war, they handed her a parcel for safekeeping, something wrapped in an old newspaper and they told her to be careful with it because there was violence in there and that they would be back for it and she asked them, ‘What do I do with it if you don’t come back for it?’ And one dreadlocked soldier spat tobacco on the floor, picked his rifle that was leaning against the hut and growled, ‘share it with the world.’ They never came back for their parcel. And that violence skipped a generation and found her.”
He laughed. “Wow, where did you come up with that story?”
“Wow. But no. She’s jango. I don’t think you guys fought in the bush.”
“It’s a shame we can’t stick with that story.”
The violence wound its way into their house in their sixth year of marriage. “You never quite know how physical fights start but what I know is that she just started coming at me,” he says while a door slams on his end, “And I would try to suppress it because we have children in the house and you don’t want them to hear you guys fighting. We came up with this rule where we would go to the car, lock ourselves out there in the parking, and fight away from the children.”
“Did the car steam up?”
“I suppose you rolled up the windows,” I say, “So I wonder if the windows would get all steamed up from all the yelling?”
He is chuckling into the phone. “No, Biko. Things are not as dramatic in real life as they are in your head.” I try to picture him. He sounds like a guy of average height, dark and perhaps is the new breed of professional that has taken to golf and talks about it ad nauseum. He definitely has a good head of hair, he doesn’t sound like he’s balding. Anyway, the car thing stopped at some point and the fights raged back into the house, first as verbal shouting and then as her trying to punch him or hit him with a lampshade or stick the pointy end of a heel in his skull. “Mostly, I’d grab her and hold her hands together and hold her down on the bed with one hand while covering her mouth with the other until she promised to stop the madness, then I’d slowly let her go.”
“Ha-ha. It was a beautiful love, trust me, even though it sounds very unstable. When we were not fighting we were the poster child of great love. We held hands. We kissed in public. She was very big on PDA, she loved sitting on my lap. She was the life of the party.”[I will come to why I’m referring to her in the past tense. But she isn’t dead.]
“The violence was increasing because her drinking was getting out of hand. It started with a bottle or two of wine in a sitting on a Saturday, then it grew to a bottle on Tuesday on top of the Saturday ones, then three times a week, then soon she was hiding from the children in the bedroom on a Sunday while drinking. I was concerned, of course, because when she drank she completely ignored the children and ignored me and ignored the household and all she wanted to do was raise hell and since she was drinking almost daily she just lost interest.”
“What would she say were your limitations as a husband?” I ask him.
There is a long beat in the line. I think he’s looking out a window, a thousand-yard stare, brows creased. “That’s an interesting one,” he says, almost to himself. I can hear him rummage through his thoughts, like one would go through an old drawer with old documents. He’s looking at himself, assessing himself, weighing himself on a calibration of introspection and he’s deciding whether to be honest and vulnerable and risk unclothing himself or to preserve himself, cover his nakedness. He eventually says, “I think she would say that I was not supportive of her, and, well, the things she wanted to do.”
“What did she want to do?”
“Many things, sometimes all of them at the same time and they didn’t work out. She would start something, be very excited about it for two months or three months then completely lose interest in it and start another one and the same thing would happen again. It would frustrate me because, come on, we are not rich people who just wake up and say they are now painters…”
“Or they want to make pots!” I chime in.
“..yeah, we had bills to pay! But when she went off to do these experimental things I was left as the sole breadwinner for the family and it wasn’t easy. I was working hard, struggling to make ends meet for everyone while she was trying out new things yet we had children who we needed to cloth and feed and it felt like I was the only one who was thinking of this fact. I needed help and she wasn’t helping anymore. She was acting like a millennial…”
“No, I meant it. No sense of responsibility. Also on top of having to take care of her share of responsibility in the home, I also had to take care of the children when it became apparent that she was not very interested in that too. How could I be supportive of these things she wanted to do? Of course our fights always started off as money fights and then they became about other fights and then she would start getting violent and at some point in the heat of the moment I might have used excessive force to stop her, to subdue her.”
“What excessive force? Like beat her?”
“No, I never beat her or slap her, but I mean like to use more force than I should have to make her stop; this is when all else failed and she was going nuts and I could hear the children cry outside the door.”
Things came to a head when their eldest started wetting their bed. “A friend told me it was trauma from all the violence in the home, so I had to give her an ultimatum; to get help, like rehab or to leave us.” So she went to rehab but since she felt like she might meet someone who knows her there and word would get out, her parents found a rehab out in Uganda. It was a small, private house with a garden and white walls and people sitting on swings under trees reading books or just staring at grass. “Her mother checked her in. When I went to visit her two months later she was bitter and she looked old. She kept saying she was fine, and that she needed to get out of there and come back home. She never once asked about our children. Not once.”
But the children asked about her constantly. They loved her. They missed her. They asked him to Google where mom was and they looked at Google map images of the place mom had gone to for work. The eldest started seeing a child therapist. Even though he was glad she was seeking help for her alcoholism he felt lost alone with the children. He let them sleep in his bed even though they were too old to sleep in his bed. “It felt like all of us sharing a bed made them feel loved.”
After three months she walked into the house with her mother in tow like nothing had happened. She had on a brown leather jacket and white jeans. It was a Sunday evening, the children had just showered and worn their pyjamas and were about to start eating dinner. They smelled fresh and bright. She kissed them, held their faces and looked deeply into their eyes, as if to confirm they had not been polluted by her absence. She later held them on the seat as they watched TV past their bedtime, her feet peeping out from under the throw. In the bedroom, they talked. “She apologised because her therapist told her she had to apologise to the people she had offended during her time drinking. We started a new chapter and we were happy for a while.” Six months later he discovered that she was back to drinking and when he confronted her she said, “She didn’t want to be the person he thought she was.”
“Faultless. She said she felt pressured to be a perfect mother and wife and that it was my fault that she was this way because I had undue expectations.”
“I wanted her to be an adult with responsibilities,” he snapped. “This is not a reality show, this is life, but she was going through it like she could audition for other roles that fit her.”
I chuckle at that analogy. Anyway, the fights and violence ensued and they became worse. One day she came home drunk. “She couldn’t park the car well. I could hear her struggling to park. It was past curfew but she didn’t care about curfews, I don’t know how she beat them. When I went downstairs, she was very drunk so I asked her to get out of the car so that I could park it properly. Which I did. When I came out, she started fighting and I walked away and she ran after me and attacked me at the staircase. She started scratching and screaming and so I pushed her and as she fell she put all her weight on her wrist and sprained her wrist and she started screaming like I was trying to kill her. Long story short, someone called the cops who came and found me massaging her wrist with warm water and liniment. It was a mess. She was still drunk and was screaming at the cops to leave her house and the cops left but in the morning she started fighting me again and I just left for work. Little did I know that she went to the police and reported that I had beaten her. Beaten her! I asked the cops, where did I beat her, on her wrist? She said I had tried to break her hand. It’s then that I realised that she was unwell because what she was doing was unexplainable. Her behaviour had become bizarre. A friend of mine told me that she might be depressed and alcohol was her crutch or something.”
The reason we are referring to her in the past tense is because that’s not who she is now. That’s who he remembers her to be then because her parents shipped her out to another rehab then when she got better, she was sent off to a middle-eastern country to live with one of her relatives because, well, no booze? She was also seeing an alternative medicine therapist to “center her chi.” Then the lockdown happened and she couldn’t travel back and when things re-opened she decided to stay longer and now she has been gone a while. “She is clean but she’s still taking care of her mental health,” he says. “She talks to the children on video calls whenever she can, she’s afraid of coming back because she thinks the environment might trigger her again. She isn’t in a hurry to come back but I’m afraid the children might soon forget her because they are asking for her less and less.”
He says he feels like a single parent. “I will tell you that you can’t do this if you don’t have a very good house manager. It’s impossible. Let nobody lie to you, we are just not capable of running a home as efficiently as women, we need another woman to help be it a sister or an aunt. Unfortunately my sister and I are not very connected but her mom is always dropping by to make sure that the children are great. But our Help is the star, man. She anticipates the needs of the children and my needs before they happen. It’s like a super power. So, the children are fine. It feels like I’m like married but without the drama…and the sex.”
He laughs at his joke.
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