Their first major row was about the wedding. He wanted a massive affair with 500 people because he’s a popular fellow who knows everyone, but even more critically, who is known by everyone. They couldn’t enter a restaurant, a bar, a play, a hotel, church, or even take walks at Karura without someone who knows him stopping them to say hello or shouting his name from a moving car. She found it charming at first, of course, to be with a popular fellow, a man of the people, but later it would irritate her because she felt intruded upon. It was like being with Idris Elba, if Idris was shorter, hailed from Bungoma and constantly nibbled his finger nails. With all his charm and beauty his fingernails resembled that part of a cow that ticks like.
Anyway, he also came from a very big family where everybody seemed like a cousin. And because all these people liked him or acted like they did, he wanted everybody on the wedding list.
She, on the other hand, wanted a small wedding. Something very intimate and noiseless. She didn’t believe in sharing her special day with throngs of people, with strangers, people she had barely exchanged two words with. She regarded weddings the same way she regarded her sauces; thick, not diluted into a broth of floating debris. She wanted something in a garden, with white seats and white canopies and a white tent with a small band dressed in white, that played mostly white music. But not ‘Coward of The County’, surely. Maybe some Phil Collins because she loved Phil Collins. [Where the hell is good old Phil anyway?]. Unlike his, her family was scattered and not as unified. It had been splintered into factions by divided loyalties and jealousies and endless and senseless infighting. Unlike his family, they hardly gathered on important dates. She didn’t want that energy on her important day.
“I will speak for myself when I say I don’t plan to get married again, so I intend to do it once and do it well.” He had said and that statement had escalated the row colossally. Because she asked, “Oh, so you think I want to do this twice?” And he had said, ‘twice? You are not known to limit yourself.’ There were undertones from old bruises, her sexual history, which he seemed invested in.
“The thing was, for the longest time I had suffered from bipolar which was not diagnosed until I was 33 years,” she said, “if you know anything about bipolar during the manic episodes, some people experience hypsersexuality. I was one of those people.”
So her twenties were, shall we say, uhm busy. “I was stupid enough to reveal that part of my life to him when we met because well, love and honesty and openness and things like that you are encouraged to do when you meet someone you love and you want to spend the rest of your life with.”
“Describe the manic episodes.” I asked this, not to know about her then hypersexuality, but because I’ve heard stories and interviewed someone who described it as being high on cocaine for days. I have never done cocaine. Well, I did. Once. In 2013 I accompanied a friend to a party in Kileleshwa. One of those parties with media types. It was a townhouse of sorts, with wooden staircases leading upstairs and things. My mom had just died the previous year and I was blue and vulnerable and I thought nothing made sense. I wondered why we even bothered wearing shoes or underwear or sleeping with lights off when we would all end up losing to death eventually.
The party was one of those where people sit around on the arms of sofas or lean against walls holding their drinks and trying to sound intelligent. I hate parties. But I attended. At some point I wanted to pee, as one would at parties. The bathroom downstairs was occupied. The hostess directed me to another bathroom upstairs but that too was occupied because people pee a lot at parties. As I stood there waiting, I looked across to the open bedroom door and I could see light from another bathroom, ensuite. When you have to go, you have to go, right?
I’m crossing the bedroom, past a big bed; halfway in, I realise there is someone in the bedroom, a very attractive petite girl wearing a very long white dress shirt, a big belt the colour of a baby’s tongue, knee-high boots. Very chic. She’s seated, bent over a small stool by the dresser. She’s chopping something on the table, she looks at me, slowed down by my unexpected presence, and says, ‘join me when you are done.’ I’m not an idiot, I have watched movies and I know what cocaine looks like. It’s powdery, it’s white and you chop it using a credit card. Maybe some people use a debit card, but I think the debauchery of it requires one to use a credit card. It seems befittingly reckless.
I go pee and as I flush the loo I hear a voice say, ‘you have to give things a try.’ I realise it’s the devil. And he wasn’t referring to cocaine. Ha-ha. Lucifer is funny, I tell you. I wouldn’t mind having a drink with him to be honest. I think the devil drinks vodka.
I walk out and the devil holds my hand and leads me to her. She asks if I’ve done this before? I say, nyet. I’m SDA. She chuckles, rolls a crisp 50 bob note into a thin flute. Her Afro is massive, like one of those 70s pop singers’, and it glitters in the light. I want to smell the crown of it, because it looks like it would smell of coconut. I like coconut. She’s got a small mouth and a button nose, fragile birdlike fingers. She separates the cocaine into two thin strips using the credit card and looks up at me and says slurring, seductively like the real temptress she is. “his and hers,” then she laughs, a very thin, lonely laugh. I laugh too but only because I’m nervous. I’m out of my depth. I have no business being in that room, standing over drugs and her big shiny afro. These are the women my mom warned me against, but mom is dead.
Using the thin flute, she vacuums one line through one nostril and tilts back her head like they do in the movies. Her eyes are closed but she’s smiling. Bright light from the dresser falls on her face. She’s glamorous but also very mysterious, quite possibly dangerous. She then opens her eyes, pinches her nose satisfactorily and offers me that note and that smile and says, ‘use the nostril you don’t use often.” I wanted to say, “wait, what? What do you use your other nostril for then, lady?’ But I didn’t want to sound naïve or childish. Plus, she was so petite, yet she wielded such power over me at that point. Yes, I was quite the victim. Also, don’t forget that I was a few drinks in, my mom had just died and I was grieving furiously and I was a bit reckless because I felt life had been reckless and unsafe and unassuring to me.
So I snorted His. When I hand her back the note, she pushes my hand away and slurs, ‘Keep it. My gift to you.’ She told me her name, one of those Meru names. Downstairs I sat on the arm of a sofa, feeling very calm and unbothered and mighty, like an emperor or one of the wise men. I felt like I was amongst idiots, charlatans and plebeians. I felt like everybody in the room was stunted in intelligence and words coming out of their mouths were dangerously illiterate and not fit for human ears, maybe goats and camels. Well, it’s the only time I ever did drugs. Drugs are bad for you. Don’t do drugs.
So yeah, we were talking about the lady with her bipolar and hypersexuality during her manic periods.
“I was invincible when I was manic,” She said. “I was super energetic, I’d go out and dance the whole night and go home in the morning and do nothing but clean the house. I never drank alcohol, still don’t, but I liked to dance. But dancing would not sate my energy. I was like a machine that you couldn’t turn off. I would be very hyper, and quite honestly exhausting to my friends,” she laughed, “so they avoided me because to be fair they didn’t know I was sick. I didn’t know I was sick. What could I do with my energy? What could absorb it? Sex. Because my sexual energy would go wild at that time. I mean, really wild. The only boyfriend I had dated broke up with me because he couldn’t stand or comprehend my moods which would swing from very happy and then very sad. Also, he couldn’t keep up with my demands for sex. I couldn’t keep up with the demands of my own body. So, yeah, I had a few years of just having mindless sex during those manic periods until I discovered what my problem was and sought therapy and treatment. But you know how men are, they want to ask you intimate questions about your past but they just can’t handle the truth.”
Anyway, they fought and he won because when you have many friends and people shout your name from moving cars you win. Massive wedding in a church and a massive reception. Over five hundred people attended. A hundred gatecrashed. The wedding cake was the size of Toni Braxton in high heels; 1.6m
She saw hundreds upon hundreds of faces she didn’t know. It made her cry. People thought she was crying because it was her big day but she was crying because “I felt I didn’t have control on the most important day of my life. The one day I could control.”
A year later they got a child and named him after a road because her husband, let’s call him Wafula, almost died on a particular road when he went to school abroad. The second child came and they gave him an African name. So, they started raising the African Road. A road that took them through where all roads paved by children take you; joy, fear, insecurity, love, worry, beauty, responsibility. They were healthy and happy children. The road took after the father, buoyant, friendly, bouncing off people. The African took after her. “I prayed that they don’t take after my mental illness. I really did and so far it’s okay.”
When the African was four she decided to ‘regulate’ her meds. “I was taking a lot of meds and I felt like they had altered who I was chemically and I wanted to get my old self back. So I dropped some meds and what that did is that it also dropped my libido. Suddenly sex was a problem in the marriage and when sex is a problem in marriage it’s a big problem because it says something – unfairly – about attraction or affection.”
Small fights dragged on for days. Silences got louder between them whenever they occurred. “When we fought he would accuse me of sleeping with other men. He thought I was stepping out. He once said that I hadn’t changed, that I was going back to my ‘old self.’ To mean the girl who was sexually hyperactive. You see how rubbish it is to tell a man anything?”
“Yeah, men suck pipe.” I said with my best sarcastic voice. [Which she missed].
Eventually she got back on the meds to “save the marriage.” After a month or so her body adjusted and the sex got back into their marriage and there was peace on earth again. That was before the storm kicked in.
She had gone for a seminar at the coast, falling on the African’s birthday. “I felt guilty that I was going to miss his birthday, I really did. But I also couldn’t just drop work since I was facilitating a session. After much negotiation I managed to convince the team to have me present an afternoon before, which allowed me to get on a flight the next day at around noon. I took a cab home. I had bought some shopping and things to bake my child a cake and cook stuff to surprise him when he got back from school. I didn’t tell my husband because I knew he might say something. He talks so much and he is the worst person to tell a secret.”
She remembers being irritated waiting for the Help to open the door. She pressed the doorbell several times. She could hear music coming from the house, which was odd because the music playing was playing from the Bluetooth speaker and the music playing was not music that she would normally listen to. Eventually her husband opened the door in shorts. “His forehead was sweaty. When you have been with someone for so long you can tell the sweat of sex and the sweat of doing push-ups. This was the sweat of sex. I knew it.”
She stood there, rooted, not knowing what to do. She couldn’t move. You could have watered her and she would have sprouted right there at the door like a tree. Birds could have perched on her and made their homes on her hair. [She had great hair, not like those weaves that look like a bush of cactus].
“I felt like as long as I stood at the doorway, I wouldn’t get into the world I was about to get into.” She said, a world of tragedy.
“It’s almost like enjoying the before phase, before the deed. Before, when things were good.”
Anyway, the decision was made for her when the husband said, “Oh no.” She walked in, dropped her bag by the door and placed the shopping in the kitchen. She removed the items and placed them in the fridge. She put some fruits in the sink, plugged the drainage and ran water over them like she liked. She liked to drown her fruits in water before washing them. She removed her sneakers and tossed them in the kitchen balcony where they normally would place dirty shoes. She then walked into her bedroom and tossed her bag on the floor. “He was seated on the bed, biting his lips.” She walked to the spare bedroom, which their Help and their daughter shared. “She was wearing a deera, folding clothes by the shelves.”
Her hair was ruffled and her face was flushed. The bed had been quickly smoothened but not quick enough. “The windows were opened but I know what sex smells like.” She said, “There had been sex happening in that room.”
She told her, “chukua vitu zako na uende”.
“At this time you aren’t even thinking. Now that I think about it, I wondered why I would chase her away, and not him. You know. But you aren’t thinking. You are numb from shock. You are just doing things like a zombie. I went back to the kitchen and washed the fruits and then packed them in the fridge. I started making dough for the cake. I could hear whispers; they were whispering. Maybe she was asking him for fare. I don’t know. I made my cake. I heard her leave, eventually. ”
“You are dangerous.” I said.
“I was hurt. I thought to myself, waah, yaani now I’m those women whose husband sleeps with mboches! You know, I used to read those stories on the Facebook group for women that I am in and it felt so removed. It felt like something that happens to other women you know, like I don’t know, women in low cost areas. Women married to guys in mjengo or boda guys. Yaani this guy who I respected, the father of my children, the man people loved and respected was sleeping with a mboch! I couldn’t believe it. Nobody would believe it later when I talked about the reason why I wanted a divorce.”
But she didn’t ask for a divorce immediately. She stayed on because you don’t leave immediately, marriage is not a bar. You hang around because you have faith in the institution, in love, in humans and besides you aren’t the type to give up on things quickly. Plus, there was the African Road to think about. They went for counselling, couples therapy. She said she felt blindsided by that level of infidelity [“shagging a neighbour would have been much better”], she felt insulted, she felt that he had ruined her self esteem, lowered it to a point where she couldn’t even ‘bother making my hair.’ He said he felt ‘neglected’ and ‘unloved’ and that she had stopped paying any attention to ‘his needs.’ That she worked long hours and she was never interested in sex. He also said that he was afraid that she was ‘going back to her old ways.’ The therapist asked, what old ways and he said, ‘her sexual disorder,” and she shouted, ‘you are a real bitch for shaming me over my illness!”
Things came out of those sessions, ugly things, untrue things, shocking things. Things that cut and seared and singed and damaged. “Therapy can break you up,” she said. “It can make you see the ugliness of others and sometimes when you witness that you can’t just go back and see them as human beings. You can’t just move ahead.”
Of course they went back to what normal might have looked like in situations like this, but “something had changed, I just couldn’t see him the same. I didn’t want to be those women who hire old women as help because they couldn’t trust their husbands to keep it in their pants. It just defeats the purpose of marriage if you are afraid your husband might sleep with your help. I truly believe that if your husband can sleep with your househelp, he can also sleep with your best friend, your sister, your aunt, basically that’s not a man who will be stopped by any lines. ”
The story should have ended here, except lawyers got involved. And when lawyers get involved things get messy and unpalatable. His lawyer was an old, expensive divorce lawyer with a thick hide under his expensive suits. He didn’t talk, he growled and glared and she never once saw him smile. She suspects he had done botox, his face was as stiff as a porcelain cup. Her lawyer was referred to her by one of her friends, a little tigress that was not known to back down. She went against bigger lawyers with nothing but her sling. She wore very thin pencil suits that further exaggerated her already thin frame. She couldn’t imagine that her lawyer ate food like normal humans. She looked like the kind of person who would be offended by people who take lunch breaks. She was always working. If you sent her a WhatsApp at 3am she’d suddenly be online. Very vampirial.
The divorce proceedings got very nasty and very loud. “He wanted to be the primary caregiver of the children because, in his words, I wasn’t fit to be a mother. He said I was of loose morals and would be a bad influence on the children, especially our daughter,” She shook her head and actually shivered a bit. The proceedings were very acrimonious and very brutal. “I felt at some point I was being trailed by strange men, maybe private detectives, maybe to see if I was going to a whorehouse to sell my body because I was a sex animal on heat.”
The families arranged a meeting a few times and when he showed it to them [late, a bit tipsy] he “continued making impossible demands and ridiculous allegations. Just very hurtful and untrue things. Men can really finish you, as in grind you to the ground like powder and the most amazing thing is that you guys don’t even realise it, this power to hurt and diminish a woman.”
She was amazed. “I had hoped we would be mature about it. That we would even be friends at the end of it, seeing as we had children together. I couldn’t reconcile the person he was during the divorce period and the man I had lived with rather happily and had children with. It was like two people live in one person.
“I think the divorce proceedings were actually more hurtful than the actual cause of the divorce. I could barely eat. I lost so much weight I would sometimes struggle to do something as natural as breath. I got stomach complications due to hyperacidity. My anxiety increased so much I had to get on meds. I could barely sleep. My self worth and confidence was so damaged by this man, if you would have told me I’m not any better than a dog, wait dogs are better than us, than a cow or a hyena, I would have agreed with you. At some point I was at the brink of a nervous breakdown and I wanted it all to stop. I told my lawyer, let it be, I will get my justice from God but she wouldn’t hear anything of it. She truly and purely hated my husband. She believed that he was truly an animal, a vile human being, someone who didn’t deserve to be near his own children. She said, if this was the last case she was going to litigate before she died, then she would win. And we did. We got what we wanted eventually but there was no joy at the end of that win. I don’t know if you ever win in matters like this. I love my children more than my life but I don’t think I won. The price has been too high and it’s taken me six years of therapy to be here, talking to you and not struggling to breathe.”
When I bade her goodbye and she left with the heavy air that seemed to hang around her like a halo, I realised she had forgotten her book behind. It was titled, How Should A Person Be, by Sheila Heti. I opened the first leaf and where the person who gifted her had written a nice note:
The person you want to be isn’t what you need to be. Remember that.
I didn’t understand that sentence immediately, but I loved it as soon as I read it.