She sits over there, near the big shelf full of old files and you sit over here, by the louvered window that never opens. Her computer is the old type that the IT guy constantly has to come to hunch over to tinker with. The company won’t buy her a new computer just yet until this one either dies, explodes or is stolen in the night by a sympathizer.
She’s very light and keeps her nails short. You can count the number of light accountants you know who keep their nails short on one hand. To be clear, you don’t like her like that. The IT guy likes her like that. Because surely, how long does it take someone with two degrees in Information Systems to fix a small problem of a computer hanging? He can hang there for 40 mins, pulling a seat next to her, pretending to squint at her monitor. But she doesn’t like the IT guy like that even though you can often hear her laugh hard at something he said. She likes another guy, a banker guy, who has big hair. She once showed you a picture of her and her friends at Hell’s Gate and he was standing next to her, one arm around her. You don’t know his name but she’s saved him as “Beau” on her phone.
Once in a while she complains about him at the cafeteria as you eat lunch. He does and says stupid things often. Most men with big hair tend to. She’s one of those people who eat with a fork, never a spoon. Even dessert.
You are also seeing someone. But who doesn’t have big hair. So basically you are great friends. Colleagues. The year is 2001.
Then you got a different job. “Will you take it? It’s out of the country!” She asks you over lunch, excited for you but also seemingly afraid for you. So you sell your household goods. You have a big fridge, which you give her as a gift. It’s one of those with big double doors. You have a thing for fridges. How they purr. Like wild cats. She comes to pick it up in a hired pick-up. It’s a bright Saturday morning. She opens the fridge door and cautiously peers inside, as if she might find a severed goat’s head therein. “It’s so big,” she says excitedly. You also give her a soap dish shaped as Pharaoh’s head.
Before you can completely unpack in the new country, you break up with your girlfriend. It wasn’t that serious to begin with. You start thinking about her. Not your ex but the very light girl you gave your soap dish, your ex colleague. There is no WhatsApp then because it’s 2001, so you chat on Skype. She sends a lot of smileys. She’s terrible at chatting, always gone for close to an hour before she can reply. She’s still dating that guy with big hair, Beau. But she talks about him less.
In 2004, you come back home briefly and meet for lunch, then coffee and then dinner (not on the same day) and on the last day you bite the bullet and tell her that you like her. And that you haven’t stopped thinking about her since you left. And that if you don’t kiss her right there and then you’ll develop liver cirrhosis. So you kiss her. Against your friend’s silver car you had borrowed. She closes her eyes into the kiss, as people who are not psychopaths tend to do. Yours remain open, like a fish …if fish kiss. You want to look at her as you kiss her so that you can vividly remember her face on the days you are back in your empty house in a foreign country rummaging your memory of her.
Three weeks later, she decides to leave Beau. And his big hair. You start dating. She flies down for an hour to visit you in this small African country. You wiped down your keja clean. The three dishes and four sufurias sparkled at the drier. Your bathroom is scrubbed. You told your neighbour that your “fiance” was coming from Kenya. You haven’t even proposed. You are that guy who jumps the gun. That night, in bed, the curtains opened revealing a dark starless sky. She says, “My parents would never allow me to marry you. They don’t know me and Jack are over. It’s complicated because Jack’s family and my family have been friends forever and it was natural that me and him would marry.” She’s lying on your chest. You are thinking to yourself, “This nigga is called Jack? As in Jackson? What kind of a cheesy name is that?” Isn’t that a name you give a street or something? Or a port.”
“So what happens now?” You ask her, tracing the word “Jack” on her soft back with the tip of your finger.
“The only way is to make me pregnant,” She says.
“I can do that,” You say, still tracing on her back. “Can you tell what I’m writing on your back?”
She laughs and says, “Jack?”
“And now?” You write something else.
“Jerk?” She clicks and giggles.
So you make her pregnant. Because you are that guy who can make a chick pregnant on cue. Your swimmers are something else. They are Alexander. They are the best ever. Ruthless. They are Sonny Liston. They are Jack Dempsey. There are none like yours. None that can match yours. Their style is impetuous. Their defense impregnable. They are ferocious…of course these are lines Mike Tyson said and has got nothing to do with this guy’s swimmers. I thought I’d just throw that in there. Because it’s 2020. And none has ever replaced Mike.
When you go for the introductions, her people are not amused. Her uncles shake their heads when they realize this can’t be saved, that she’s six months pregnant and showing. Her father looks at you silently across the room like you would someone who has just beaten you in a game of chess. Nothing can be done. The fat lady has sung. The guy with the big hair is surely undone. Buried. Jack if you are reading this from exile, it’s probably your name that did you in, mate. Jackson isn’t a name that stirs a girl with passion. Shakespeare lied.
You come back home to start a family and a new job. A day after Christmas of 2006, at 1am, you go into theater and hold your newborn son. He’s as brown as her. He’s fragile, like a baby bird. He weighs a little less than a commercial fruit blender. You are delirious with happiness. You are in a dream. You walk on balls of cotton wool. You float. You have a son. Named after your own father. An heir is born. A brown heir. He who will stand on your right side, holding his spear, looking over your territory, bending to whisper in your ear, something like, “father, I think the beans I ate might have messed up my stomach.”
In 2009, you get a job in Eastern Europe and land smack in the middle of winter. You are a boy from Nyeri and it’s cold there, yes, but this is madness. This is sub-zero. Your nose peels off. Your ears feel like Satan licked them. When you speak, words form into ice before your face. You struggle to settle in, get a house in a big grey apartment block that overlooks a park that is now all white. “You guys have to come over,” you tell her on the phone while standing staring out at the white desolate landscape. Loneliness stares back at you. Your breath mists up the window. You draw a frowny face on it. You can’t cry.
“What about my job?” She asks.
“We can be a family again,” You say.
“What do I do with all these household goods?”
“Take them to your dad’s. He has that extra quarters behind the house.”
So she comes. Because she loves you and she wants to be a family again. She blinks and looks around the airport, your son’s small hand in hers, the poor boy looking sleepy and jet-lagged by her side. When he yawns, you marvel how perfect his mouths forms an “O”. You can’t believe he’s your son. He’s beautiful. You pick him up and kiss him on the cheek, deliberately making a loud sound to irritate him. He squirms and wipes his cheeks furiously. He smells of Kenya. You bury your nose in his hair and you smell your love for him, it’s all over him. He will start out in a part of Eastern Europe where Kenyans are countable, let alone Africans. He will be the only black child in his school and he will struggle to shape who he is in the eyes of those who see him. You’re now living in a bigger apartment with a view overlooking a big river called Lepenac. If you open the window, you will hear it moan, but you never open the window because of the cold. Sometimes when you let yourself in from work, when your son is already in bed and you walk into the bedroom, you find her seated at the window staring at the lights on the shores of that river. “What are you thinking, babe?” you ask her as you hang your coat in the wardrobe.
“How far we are from home,“ she says, her small shoulders shimmering with every word, “and how lucky we are to be here together.” Those nights, in bed, you kiss her with your eyes open. For months you keep asking if she’s happy. You keep checking in with her to make sure that being a mother and a wife out here in the blasted frozen land hasn’t diminished her horizons.
She gets pregnant the following year because remember, your swimmers are ferocious, their style is impetuous, their defense impregnable. You are overjoyed. Now your son can get a sibling. Someone he can fight for. Someone he can protect. Not long after, you get a job 8,048 kms away on the other side of the globe, in the Caribbean. “Here,” she points out the little country to your son, an old map spread out on the table. You sit down with her and agree that she would have to go back to Nairobi and deliver as you take up that job in the Caribbean, then she and the kids can join you later. She nods and asks, “And what are we going to do with all these household goods?”
You fly down to the Caribbean, a small backwater country with great superstitions. You settle in a fairly fancy pad with a very old black landlord who always sits in his balcony smoking tobacco through a pipe. What you do is irrelevant, but it’s evident to all that you are very good at it. People want your services. And you are the type who doesn’t mind starting over in a place where people don’t look like you, speak like you or even drive on the same side of the road like you.
The baby is due in the second week of April 2011. In readiness, you book an advance ticket for 1st April because she has a way of just getting into labour quickly and popping out the baby after 15 minutes. You are restless. She’s restless. “Last night my dad (deceased) came to my dreams as a young man to see the baby,” She tells you over the phone. “It’s his spirit coming to welcome the baby,” you tell her.
On 30th March, she’s wheeled into the delivery room. “The baby is coming,” her doctor tells you over the phone.” Can you come now?” You can’t. Your ticket is for 1st April and you can’t move it. You could take a boat if you could, but it would take a month to get to Mombasa.
You daughter comes out of the delivery room on 31st March, 2011. But she doesn’t.
“She couldn’t stop bleeding,” the doctor says. “We lost the battle.”
“BATTLE? WHAT F*CKIN BATTLE!” You scream, crying on the phone. “I DIDN’T KNOW THERE WAS A BATTLE! WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? PUT HER ON THE PHONE!”
They can’t put her on the phone. She’s dead. Dead people don’t take calls. Or tell tales.
You are only 39 years old.
And now, ten years later, you are almost turning 49, you are seated before another Jackson, in a pub, but this Jackson doesn’t have big hair and he wants to know how it is to be a widower and a single father for nine years.
Obviously, I want to know how it feels to be a widower and to raise your children alone for ten years. He’s having a cold ginger ale, I’m having a whisky. “It feels like someone chopped off your hand and you can see the hand lying on the floor but at the same time you can still feel your hand attached to your body,” he says about grief. “So sometimes you reach out to touch it but it’s not there.” Then more somberly. “If you are married, you are a widow or widower in waiting.”
The first time he saw his daughter was when he landed and went to the hospital where she was still being held because the mother died and the father was on his way carrying his heavy load of grief and misery on his back. She was in the nursery, a tiny little girl. She hadn’t been released because she had not been vaccinated and that hadn’t happened because he had to sign some forms for that to happen.
“I bought these two pairs of dark sunglasses in Charles De Gaulle Airport, one for myself and another for my son, while connecting because I was crying all the time and not sleeping and my eyes were a mess,” he says. “And I stood over my daughter’s cot looking at her through these sunglasses and thinking, ‘she will grow up without a mother, while my own is alive.’ Then he went to see her in the morgue and she had dried blood in her mouth. “It felt like a dream which I would wake up from any moment now.”
After the burial in Lang’ata he now had two children to think of. The children were living with his in-laws because he didn’t have a house. He would do the school drops for his son. The boy would ask about his mom. He would say, ‘They put mom in a box, is she going to come back as an angel?’ and I’d look away, and say, ‘yes’ and the next time he’d ask me, ‘When do we get to see mom again, she is an angel now’ and I’d mumble, “soon.” When I’m on the phone he’d ask me, ‘Is that mom, can I speak to her?” And this went on and on, because he was so young (around 6) and he didn’t understand the concept of death and you have to be strong. You have to be strong for him and when you step outside, you have to be strong for yourself before the public.”
But inside, he’s a mess. It’s like waking up in a washing machine. “You think being a father automatically qualifies you to have and keep your children?” He says. “The first challenge as a single father was fighting for my children.” It reminds me of the Marriage Story on Netflix where Adam Driver tells his divorce lawyer in regard to the son, ‘I want him to know that I fought for him.’ Only this wasn’t divorce, this was death, which technically is a divorce but without a chance of reconciliation or arbitration.
“My in-laws sat down and decided that my children would be better taken care of by aunts from their side. I was shocked because they were acting like these children didn’t have a father,” he says. “I was there, I was alive and I was capable. But I think as men, people just assume that we can’t step up and be single parents. That we will naturally be incapable of raising our children alone. This caused such a bad rift between myself and my in-laws. It got very nasty. It’s the first time I realized what the term two-faced really is. People can really change before your eyes. It ended up with cops getting involved. I wanted my daughter who was only a few months old to go live with my mom out of town and for me to live with my son. I was considering quitting my job because there was no way I was going to go back to the Caribbean and leave my children to be raised by others. As luck would have it, my employer eventually agreed to transfer me to the Nairobi office if I went back and finished my remaining months.”
After six months he came back and got a place and started living with his son. “I had the most amazing Nanny in the history of Nannies” he says. “She was from a place in Karachuonyo -”
“That’s my shags,” I tell him proudly, as if I knew that Help personally. I bet we are separated by a bridge. Maybe a hill.
“She was a great help because I didn’t have a clue as to how to grieve and be a father and mother at the same time. I would drive to visit my mom and my daughter over the weekend. I would pick them up for clinics and drop them back but eventually the Nanny said, listen, it’s not that difficult, just bring the girl to live with us, I will take care of her. And she was a great help but I also had to learn everything from zero. You learn which cries mean what. There are different types of baby cries; the hungry cry, the wet cry, the sick cry, the attention cry. You learn about formula milk and feeding times and sleeping times and patterns.”
He pushed aside his interests and needs and leisure to go straight home from work and be a mother and father. And do homework as the Nanny fed the little girl. Carried the little one as the Help put the boy’s clothes for the next day ready for school. Put the little one in bed. He learnt how to see holes in his son’s uniform and make mental points when to buy new ones.
“I loved nights because it’s at night that I could dream of my dead wife,” he says. “And it was vivid dreams that she was there and it was the present.” Until the baby woke up and he had to warm the milk and rock her while she fed and sometimes she would not want to feed and she’d be crying without a reason because she didn’t have a fever, her diapers were dry, she was full, she burped. So he’d carry her, rocking her as he paced the living room, CNN on TV on the lowest volume because the boy was asleep in the next room and he needed to be up early to go to school. Often, after what felt like he’d just caught a snooze, his son would be shaking his shoulder waking him up, already dressed for school and he had to take a shower without falling asleep and then drop him off to school. “Often, in the early periods when going to bed, I’d leave the door ajar.” he says. “I’d tell my Help, usifunge mlango, mama watoto hajaingia bado. And she’d leave it open.” (Karachuonyo ladies have that Emotional Intelligence)
Then the wonderful Help had to go get married. “I started experiencing Help challenges.” You have to kiss many frogs to get the right one. “You hear women talk about problems with house Helps, it’s enough to drive you mad,” he says. “There are the Helps who would refuse to come work for me. They’d ask, ‘Hana bibi? Ni yeye tu peke yake kwa nyumba na watoto? Hapana.’“ He shakes his head. “I had Helps who wanted to run my house like it’s theirs because there was no woman’s presence. They made decisions on their own, sometimes overturning my own decisions. They silently questioned my authority. Then there are those who wanted to act like my children’s mother. It was difficult.”
His daughter grew. A lovely child. She loved sitting on his lap as she drank her milk, watching cartoons. He learnt to sit and watch cartoons. And play on the floor. “When she grew older you don’t know when to tell her about her mother. She would ask, ‘Why don’t we have a mommy?” and my son would tell her our mommy is an angel and I would tell her I’m mommy and daddy. Then one day she saw pictures of her mom in my wife’s best friend’s album and she came home and said she saw her mommy and she had nice hair. So I had to show her all the pictures of her mommy. It’s easy for her because she never met her, not so for my son.”
“Why didn’t you remarry?”
“Because when your wife dies and you have children you are faced with a choice. You have to choose between your children and a woman. I chose my children. They’d not have to share me with someone else,” he says. “There is a guy I know who remarried after his wife died and remarried and it was so strained because he had children and they didn’t get along and so they divorced and it really affected the children because now they were losing again and grieving again. It destabilizes children. But it’s a sacrifice to choose your children. You have to forgo most things that normal guys do; like going on dates, trips, having a long night in the pub. Your children take center stage and you are constantly choosing them and their needs over yours.”
“Dating has been awkward,” he continues. “The first time of course you are not sure if it’s too soon to date after your wife’s death. How long should you wait? And when you start you are riddled with guilt. I felt like I was cheating on my dead wife. I was also concerned with what society thought.”
You become domesticated. You learn everything; how to buy meat, fish and vegetables. You know how long these things should last. You can smell an orange and know if it’s got a bad heart. Avocados fear you because you know their soft secrets. Bananas go mad if you stare at them. You learn to haggle in the market. You learn how to cook and what each child likes to eat. You discover their allergies. You learn when to play good and bad cop. You hold them at night, because they are all you have left. And because you are scared yourself, scared at the uncertainty of the world and scared of your own fragility.
His son is now 13-years old and the daughter is nine. There are school functions to attend for both. “And I can’t attend all, but thankfully we all agree which one I’m going to attend and which one I won’t. My son sees how I struggle with this and he sometimes steps in and talks to his sister and explains to her why dad can’t come for your function this time because he also has to work.” He’s the father who always sits in the salon, looking like he swallowed a frog, reading old magazines featuring women who are talking about motherhood and careers and their choice of nail polish. He waits for hours for her hair to be done. “My daughter took her mom’s hair, so it’s kinky and long. Initially it would cause problems to fix in salons and she’d cry and make a fuss. We were once chased out of a salon because they couldn’t deal with her crying. So now I have had to learn what to use on her hair and which salons are great for that kind of kinky hair.” You learn how to shop for shampoos for her hair.
The daughter has adjusted to knowing that she doesn’t have a mommy. But the boy, the boy is fragile and all the childhood loss is bubbling above the surface now, making him fragile in his teenage years. He recognises the need to do more for him. “My son knows how it is to love someone and then they are gone,” he says, “and for this reason, now that he’s at this stage of his life I see the need to reassure him that I too will not go. That I will not walk through the door and not come back. I recall how scared he is when I say I’m leaving for a work trip abroad. I see it in his eyes. He’d get sick when I’m away – hyper-acidity. One time when I got back from a trip my daughter told me that he had been crying when I left and he protested and told her that she doesn’t know these things.’ So I have to tell him where I am going. I always share my itinerary. I have to call him before I board a plane, text him when I land. If it’s an early morning flight I have to wake him up and tell him I’m leaving. Otherwise he will think I’m never coming back, like his mom.”
He finished his Stoney Tangawizi and I drained my whisky and he had to leave me with my friends in the pub and run home. So I called him an Uber and I walked him out of the quickly gathering dusk and he waved through the passenger window, off to the children he chose.
I stood there for a minute, looking at my notes, gathering myself before getting back into the warm embrace of the bar. If this was a movie, I would have lit a cigarette to marinate over the moment we just shared. And stood out there, in the dying light from the sky, and smoked lazily, leaning against the pole of the verandah, and looked without seeing, two girls pour out of another Uber, laughing loudly at a conversation they had been having. The one with the shorter dress – and longer legs – bends over the driver’s window to confer about payment, while the other stands there and looks around as if she just got off a boat in an island with birds that have one leg, the laughter they just shared now melting like butter into a waning smile on her face.
But this isn’t a movie. This is life and I don’t smoke and no girls with long legs and short dresses are getting out of an Uber laughing at a joke.
Last evening I called him at 6pm. He didn’t pick. He returned my call just after I had gotten into bed at 8:23pm and was just settling to start reading.
“Sorry, homework, dinner and then I was putting them to bed,” he said.
“Even the boy?”
“Isn’t he 13?”
“Yeah. So they get to bed and I go back to tell them goodnight and switch off the lights after a few minutes.”
“Do you normally have bedside conversations?”
“Yes, mostly. But briefly.”
“What conversation did you and your daughter have today?”
“She forgot her swimming costume on her bed this morning. So she was sad she didn’t swim.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That it’s okay. There will be next week to swim,” he said. “Then I left her reading.”
“What is she reading, do you know?”
“Uhm, I think she’s reading that guy, Dahl’. He writes children’s books.”
“Do you know the title?”
“Yeah, BFG. That’s the title.”
“And your son?”
“He’s read all of his [Dahl) books, now he’s into video games, Fortnite and Minecraft.”
“Do you tell them you love them when you tuck them in?”
“Do they tell you they love you too?”
“Even your teenage boy?”
“Haha. He’s now getting shy to say out loud. His replies are getting weaker.”
“So sometimes you say “I love you” and he just pretends he didn’t hear and you stand there waiting to be loved back.”
He laughs. “No, I don’t wait. He mumbles it under the covers.”
“So for all you care he could have said, ‘green tea sucks pipe.”
He laughs again. “It always sounds like ‘I love you too.’”[Pause.]
“Do you fear for him, your son?” I ask. “He sounds like a fragile boy.”
“I used to but he’s grown stronger and more independent than before.”[Pause.]
“So what do you do now after they have all gone to bed?”
“Now is me time,” he says and I want to ask him if that means that now he has time to remove his nail polish, but I don’t because he thinks people from Karachuonyo are dope people.
“I will probably watch the news or some documentary and then sleep by 10:30,” He says. “Tomorrow the household is up at 5:30am.”
“Then the madness starts all over again.”
“Yeah, man, all over again.”
You have a compelling life story? Hit me up firstname.lastname@example.org