We are standing at the rooftop of the apartment he lives in in South B. He’s wearing bulbous track pants, a bottle of nearly finished wine in his hand. “It’s a panorama of inequality,” he says, “On this end,” he points east with the hand holding the bottle, “You see how the other side lives, the side with means, but on this other side,” we cast our gaze west, to a more rambling metropolis in the background, a cluster of shacks, an industrial smorgasbord of industries spewing lazy smoke in the sky, “is, well, you can see for yourself.” We stare at this vista like two people would a famous painting in a gallery. Only we are staring at life.
He’s intense. I can feel it hum from him. He reads tons of books. Ask him about Plato or Confucius or about Dedan Kimathi or about stem cell research and off he will go like a hound on the scent of blood. He loves art. He reads poetry. And big complicated books. He reads newspapers back-to-back. His turn of phrase is fast and quirky. In the right moment, he will quote a poet you have never heard of. His laughs come easily. He stands too close but you don’t mind him because you get the impression his intention is to connect, to know you beyond your name, beyond your words. He doesn’t do surface. He wants to hold his breath and go under.
When we meet he wears his mask under his nose as he hugs me tight in greeting and he will hug me tight outside the open elevator door when I leave three hours later. He hugs me tighter than a man has ever hugged me. Somehow, I understand this gesture, it’s like a gift he’s trying to give. He has always called me “Dear bro,” or “Biko buddy” “or Biko my lad” but I have a feeling he calls many people this. He’s charming in a very innocent way but you also get the feeling that he can also get angry, and throw something against the wall in anger. He’s a Rubik’s cube. You want to figure him out.
It’s a Saturday and it’s almost noon. The sun won’t decide if it wants to shine or it wants to hide. It’s slightly breezy up here, just enough to prevent you from lighting a cigarette but not enough to make your nose run. Under his half-jacket he’s wearing an old t-shirt. He’s wearing socks in his open-toed shoes. He shuffles around like a professor, awkwardly, like an old man searching for his glasses. He’s only 44. Downstairs, in one of the apartments, are his wife and his son. He speaks highly of them. He says his son is a genius, a very smart boy who is “obviously better looking than I am” and his wife a “phenomenal woman, just phenomenal, Biko buddy.” I will not meet them. Not today.
When we sit under one of the umbrellas he will tell me about his youth and the decadence that defined it. Long nights drinking. The three or so times he sat in the same bare reception of an obscure health facility, waiting for his girlfriend as she had abortions. He talks of pizza in Nairobi West called Canon which he’d have after a night on the tiles back in those days. Pizza that only tasted great just before dawn. When the sun came out it tasted like old gumboots. He talks of the threesomes he had with his girlfriend, the only girlfriend he dated through university, the one who “loved him for him” and how he fell in love with one of the girls in the threesome. He shakes his head as he reminisces these stories and he keeps asking me if I’m sure I don’t want a drink. I’m fine, I tell him.
Bored with his wine, he gets up and says, “Let me get something else,” and he goes and comes back with an imported canned beer from Denmark called Faxe. It’s 10% alcohol, the can announces boldly. “My doctor said I should go easy on the spirits, so I’m doing beers and wine. Which is also fine.” The beer froths as he holds it by its throat and plucks it open.
“Biko buddy, I have to say,” he says after a sip, “I’ve never been interested in having children. My sister and I have always been clear on that. She’s abroad, my sister. She was married in Sussex and divorced in Essex, I always tell her, these sex and the cities thing of yours. Anyway, she has held to our childhood conviction of not having children, I – “
At this point a lady pushing a baby on a stroller shows up at the narrow doorway of the rooftop. We both start to get up to help her push the stroller up the landing but she smiles and says, “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m fine.” We silently watch them. The baby is maybe two months old, still bewildered by its new world. He watches them with a very engaging smile. She looks young and tired, the lady. Probably her first baby. Perhaps her nipples are cracked and hurt. She sits under a different umbrella, soaking in the sun, scrolling through her phone, her back to us.
“Anyway,” he resumes, “After university, I found myself moved into this girl’s house. We talked about having children and I was clear that that wasn’t my life. She was older than me. I was 26 and she was 29. She obviously wanted to settle down, I still wanted to have my fun. I liked the idea of living in our bachelor pad with my buddy, drinking, watching porn, my roomie smoking his weed. He had an old car so we were mobile. We were earning our first salo, which was very little, but it was ours, you know. We called our bachelor pad The White House.”
Then one day she tells him she is pregnant. “She said it the morning I was set to travel abroad for a three-month summer program. She says she’s two months pregnant already. We had a long hard talk. I said we had agreed on this; no babies. I said, you you can choose to have this baby, but be sure I won’t be a part of its life. She was crying and all. Eventually we agreed to terminate it before I leave because when I come back it would be too late or she would have changed her mind. I pushed my flight to a few days after and we took care of it.”
When he came back she had changed. She was cold. She was formal. It was as if something was brewing, a storm he didn’t know. A few months later, on a loose Friday, she walked into the house tipsy at 1 am. He was sprawled on the sofa, watching CNN, a drink in hand. “I sat up when she walked in. She had this glazed over look that she used to have after sex,” he remembers. “I asked her who she was drinking with and she said her friend Laura. But that look, man, it just couldn’t go away. So after she had gone to bed I called Laura. Biko Buddy, if your woman called me at one in the AM, I’d not pick. I’d call you immediately and ask, ‘what is the official statement?’ right?”
“Right,” I say.
“Laura says she hadn’t seen her in three months,” He shakes his head, he’s holding the can of beer but not drinking it. Like he’s using it to warm his hand. In the morning he confronts her and the bottom falls off. His bottom. Because she eventually says, so here is the thing; I’ve been seeing someone else and before he can comprehend what the hell she is saying, before those words can take shape in his brain, she adds, ‘and I’m pregnant.’”
He says, “you know the expression you got the ‘wind knocked out of you’? Manze I sat down because my knees were weak.” He packed his bags in cartons the following day. Sometimes months and years of relationships wind down to pathetic cartons. Or in suitcases. Sometimes it’s just you standing outside in the rain.
Not long after that winter of heartbreak, he met an Indian girl who was lugging about her own hurt. Her engagement had been broken because the parents of her fiance thought she was of a lower caste. The two of them made a sandwich of their pain. They fell in love. And moved in together.
Then his only brother died. This is important because he says, “With my brother gone and my sister convinced not to have children, I felt like our family’s lineage would be wiped clean. It’s like we were never here, you know. What would show that we had been here? I freaked out. My brother’s death made me think of my own death. I was 33, the same age Jesus died.” He chugs the beer, licks his lips. “My mama was slightly older than me. I spoke to her about my fears and so we started trying for a baby. We started having sex to have a child. Have you ever had sex for the sole purpose of having a child, Biko buddy?”
“No,” I say, as a slight breeze stings my ears. “I haven’t had that pleasure. Describe it for me.”
“It’s work, buddy,” he says. “You time it. Mara what position is right. Recording body temperature and things. It’s not sex for enjoyment, it’s scheduled sex for procreation. You are working to get a baby. But she got pregnant eventually. By the way you seem cold.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Here have my jacket,” he says, trying to remove his half-jacket. “Don’t do the whole macho-man thing.”
“No, really, I’m okay.” Truth was, I was kinda cold, but I wasn’t about to accept a jacket from another man. Come on now. I was ready to suffer hypothermia if it came right down to that. [He died in his own clothes]. Yes, I was choosing toxic masculinity over smelling like another man. Bite me. In fact, give me two of those toxic masculinities and a side of common cold.
Anyway, where were we? Yes. She got pregnant. But then she miscarried at two months. Then she got pregnant again. Then miscarried a second time. She then got pregnant again for the third time and the pregnancy went well. They picked a name for the baby but in the fifth month she miscarried again. “You have to interview a woman who miscarried, Biko buddy, I can’t describe it. I can’t even try. It’s grief on another scale. And Janice, man she took it so hard. She was 40 now, I was 35. We felt time had run out. I was reading so much about it and finally one day we decided that we try surrogacy.”
So they go to Fertility Point IVF Kenya where they sit in a room with a fertility specialist and they answer questions. They need a ton of money, it turns out. She has to take a loan of 2 million. But first they have to find a surrogate.
“There was a chic who used to come for my talks,” he’s in the business of selling ideas and thoughts, let’s just say. “A young a ka-chic like this, early 20’s innocent. She’d come to all of my dos and just sit quietly at the back, looking at me like matoke.”
I laugh too loudly.
“Anyway, so anyway, I trace her and I find her and I take her for a drink at Parkside Palace – you know where that is?”
I shake my head. “Nope.”
“It’s huko in tao. Anyway,” As she sips her Smirnoff Ice he tells her of his predicament and tells her they need a surrogate mother. “Look, she’s young and she’s broke. This whole thing only works if the other person needs the money and they are healthy. I tell her we will pay her 300K and she agrees and goes away but I think she talks to a few people who ask her, are you crazy? Get more. So she counteroffers and says she needs 700K but we later end up with 485,817.”
At this point I really want to find out about the 17 shillings and how they arrived at it. I don’t because he’s on a roll and I don’t want to interrupt him but it starts eating at me and it continues to eat at me. Even now as I write this I’m dying to know what happened to the three shillings.
His wife meets her. It’s a nervous meeting. She asks her a ton of questions; do you drink? How often? Do you smoke? Do you smoke weed? Do you do drugs? Are you a young girl of sound morals? [He scoffs at this question. ‘Why would you ask anyone that?’] Do you have any health issues? Do your parents have any health issues? Do you sleep walk? Do you sometimes open the fridge and stand there thinking, why have I opened this fridge? When was the last time you listened to Phil Collins? Wait, you don’t know Phil Collins? [I’m adding my own here, humour me].
She likes her. They take her to the fertility clinic where doctors ask her to say ‘aaaaghh” and shine torches in her mouth and eyes and run blood work and listen to her lungs and things. She is a good match. They will need his sperm and her egg and then work their magic.
“Tell me how you got your sperm,” I say.
“Are you serious, buddy?” He asks, amused. “How else?”
“Yeah, but where? Did you get it at home then take it there or did you get it there?”
“Oh no, my God, no, It’s a very sterile process. You wear this special zip up blue apron and then you are taken to this room, a very very sanitized room, extremely white. You leave your shoes outside, that’s how sanitized it is. I wore gloves. In fact the whole room looks like those NASA space simulation rooms. So you go in there and you do your thing..”
“You watch porn or they just leave you with your dirty teenage thoughts?”
“Ha-ha. No, you are asked to come with your best material, stuff that really gets you goin’,” he’s laughing. “There is a movie player and a seat and off you go.”
“What did you carry?”
He chuckles. “An Indian DP.”
“Double penetration. A big-bosomed, bedroom-eyed Indian girl being penetrated by two dudes.”
“You filthy bastard!” I say grinning like an idiot. “You sick filthy bastard!”
We laugh at that. We really laugh at that. Talk about going to space.
“You know what I learnt from this IVF experience?” He says. “Forget everything else man, forget buying a house, or passing an exam or building a new roof in shags, life is biological and it all boils down to continuity.”
The process is successful and Mary gets pregnant. They rent her a house for the duration of the pregnancy. They send groceries. They visit her. They call her. They make sure she is safe and their baby is healthy. In May 2012 she gives birth at Mater where he was born as well. He names her Milan after his favourite football team. The contract with the surrogate was that she stays with the baby for the first year then they take her. During this year they visit her and they invite her over for sleepovers with the baby.
Something strange happens, his wife starts getting distant from the process. She loses interest. She starts getting disinterested in whether the baby is brought in over the weekend or not. “She had developed a bad addiction by this time, gambling,” his beer is now over. “Gambling is like heroin addiction; it takes over everything in your life. She was spending 10K a day gambling. And spending so much time at the casino on Mombasa road. My marriage was crumbling. I think it was because of all she had gone through, man. The three miscarriages and also taking care of my brother when he was sick.”
“What killed your brother?”
“AIDS.” He says and crosses his arms. He starts talking to himself now, looking at a spot on the table. A very sombre monotone. “Do you know how we, how he discovered he had it? He fell off a motorbike when drunk and he was taken to Kenyatta and when we went to see him the doctors said we can’t do some procedure because of his condition and we asked, what condition?” Pause. “Yeah. Look, I did shit in my 20s, I mean careless shit and yet I didn’t get it. He fell in love with a girl who worked in a bar and moved in with her and he got it. And he refused to accept he had AIDS and refused to take drugs and so my wife agreed that we house him and he fell sicker and sicker.” He sighs. His eyes are getting wet but he isn’t crying. He could. But he isn’t. “He would vomit and diarrhoea and he lost so much weight at the hospital he was just spine and spindly arms hanging like this. The last eleven days were horrible. Just horrible. I couldn’t see him the last four days before he died. I would go to the canteen at Nairobi West hospital and sit there with my vodka, waiting. I couldn’t bear to see him…it was horrible. Then he died. My bro, man.” He is filled with such emotion for the first time, it wells out of him. He becomes smaller in his seat. He doesn’t look at me. I stop taking notes. We sit there alone as the new mom had left with her pretty baby.
“I think all these affected my wife, taking care of my very sick brother. Cleaning after him. He had such bad TB we were wearing masks in the house before masks became a thing. I think all that came at her and she was overwhelmed and she went gambling.” He pauses. “That year after the baby was born, she told me one day that she was in love with her ex-fiancé. That his marriage hadn’t worked out and this was her chance to be happy. Her chance at love.” He offers me a smile as if to say, Yeah, I know, you can’t make this shit up.
“So she left?” I ask in a near whisper, as if if I ask it loudly the answer will be different.
“Yeah. She left to be with him. Well, he got a stroke later and she is still with him. She takes care of him now because he can’t move around a lot.”
“Damn.” I say. “You sound so cool with all that?”
“What do you do?” He shrugs.
“And the baby? Did she not want the baby anymore?”
“Naah, she had lost interest in that project.”
There are people in the world who never hear their phones ring. He’s one of them. I point at it and say, “I think your phone is ringing,” and he says, ‘Oh Oh’, as if he just realised he owns a phone. He looks at the screen and smiles so broadly.
“Hi mom…yes, sweetheart…how are you?….yes, yes…oh okay, I’m glad,” he’s stroking his beard as he speaks to sweetheart, he’s smiling and his face is suddenly filled with warmth and beauty, his eyes sparkle with love. “…i’m with a very good friend of mine and we are talking about you….yes…do you want to say hello?” He hands me the phone. “Milan.”
“Hi Milan, how are you?”
“I’m fine.” Small sweet voice. Like sugar syrup. A voice that can give you type 2 diabetes if you stay on the phone too long with her.
“How old are you?”
“That’s a nice age.” I say. The father grins proudly.
“What are you doing now?” I ask.
“Folding my clothes.”
“That’s good. That’s good. You are a responsible girl,” I tell her. “Do you like your dad??
“What do you like about him?”
“He is kind and caring. And he works hard.”
“Oh that’s nice. That’s very nice.” I look at her dad who has this foolish dad grin.
“What don’t you like about dad?” I ask.
“You don’t like his drinking?” I say out loud so that he can hear.
“No. I don’t like when he drinks.”
“You don’t like when he drinks? What does he do when he drinks?”
“He is too excited. He is very excited.”
“He is too excited.” I laugh and his dad laughs.
“Yes, and he sings.”
“Ha-ha. He sings when he is drunk.”
“Is he a good singer?”
“No, he is not.”
“Of course he is not. I didn’t think so.”
She giggles as her father laughs thoughtfully.
“Okay Milan, nice talking to you. Keep being the good girl you are, okay?”
“Okay, thank you.”
“God bless you.”
Milan lives with the foster mom. When his marriage crumbled and his ex took off to find her true love, it seemed better for Milan to stay with her foster mom. He met someone else in 2014 and married her and they got the smart son who is now 4 years old. The foster mom married a guy and got three children with him. There is a bit of tension now. “Her husband doesn’t like Milan, step dad issues,” he tells me. “I don’t like him to be honest. He’s a kid. He tells Milan useless shit. He’s a young insecure asshole. He calls me mzee, like I’m an old man. As if youth is an accomplishment.”
“Why don’t you bring Milan to live with you here?”
“She is,” he says, “we have discussed it with my wife and she will join us.”
An Indian man walks onto the rooftop with a dog on a leash. “Max!” he calls the dog. “Hey Max!” The dog stops and turns to stare at us then goes off sniffing things. It’s one of those very posh and very clean dogs with a pointed sinister face. A dog that looks like it would love to gossip if dogs could gossip.
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