She often goes to a spa over the weekend for a body scrub and an aromatherapy massage, after which she sits in the garden and drinks a glass of tonic water with a slice of lemon or herbal tea because she’s now a teetotaller. She had her last alcoholic drink four years ago, on the night of her 33rd birthday. Five Whisky Sours and three tequilas later, she had stepped out of the bar to clear her light head of the alcohol, the loud shrieks of her drunken girl friends and the screaming music and short shimmering cocktail dresses gyrating in the thrall of hedonism. Her husband – on some transatlantic flight – had missed the party. Outside, a guy smoking under the awning of the night had said, “Happy birthday!” and offered her his burning, half-smoked cigarette. Though she was not a smoker, she pinched it between her freshly-manicured fingers and they shared that one cigarette, not uttering one word in conversation. The next day she had a terrible sore throat. And she never drank again. Or smoked with nameless strange men.
On those afternoons after the scrub and massage her skin feels rich, like it can grow a cash crop. She feels the glow from within, as if a sun lives within her and she wants to curl up and hold herself like a fetus to keep it all inside, to trap it within her. She loves these moments. They are the only times she’s truly alone; away from her children and away from her emails and the various demands of being a woman. On rare occasions she will take a picture of these moments with her phone and post on social media; most times she will just lean back and close her eyes and enjoy the moment selfishly, like a secret that will never pass through her lips. Ironically, although these moments offer refreshing solitude and relaxation, they also ring hollow with a niggling restlessness, something abstract, something echoing with insecurity, dissatisfaction, but often if she just shuts her eyes and turns away from that interrogatory pulse, the feeling slowly subsides under the disturbed surface.
At 37-years she’s learning to slowly ease her foot off life’s pedal because she has always been in a hurry; hurry to get a career, hurry to get her name on the door, hurry to get a family, hurry to clamber up Maslow’s Hierarchical ladder and prove that she is enough. She’s never been one to sit waiting in queues in banks and salons or for her vegetables to be weighed and packed. She wants everything express; to crash against life like a strong wave against a rocky shore, over and over until the land cedes for her. She wants to rise and rise, to soar to ridiculous charmed places she dreamt of as a girl, places that she now realises are metaphorically often masquerading as ambition. She wants to raise her head above the parapet but her mostly melancholic personality stands in her way. She loves the silence of her mind but is confused by the turmoils of her heart’s yearnings.
She has done what she’s supposed to do. She went to school without falling pregnant, without the truancy and rebellion of youth. She passed, joined university, drank, partied, slept with some amazing guys and some first-class shitheads, graduated, got a job, met a man, dated him properly, married him in a church in a white sleeveless gown, got babies and worked her ass up the ladder in the office, pushing and jostling, Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War tucked under her arm. She engages in constructive social forums and wider political worldviews. She will occasionally participate in charity walks, doesn’t let hair grow under her arms and has so far planted seventeen trees. She prays often and even visits a children’s home every other year bearing shopping to cleanse the passion with which she has wanted to acquire a certain lifestyle. She has done everything, well most things, yet, now in her late 30’s she feels a tidal wave of restlessness breaching her walls.
A few weeks ago she arrived home and found her husband was back from his week-long trip overseas. He came downstairs to the parking with one of the kids as soon as he heard her car. She had had a long day, her feet hurt, she wanted to walk barefoot on the gravel. He hugged her while she held her purse in one hand. He was in his sleeping shorts. He smelled of shower gel. His one week old stubble pricked her cheeks. He carried the groceries from the boot and later leaned on the door of the kitchen as he watched her wash an apple at the sink. “He was so happy to see me and I wondered why I wasn’t as happy,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I was happy he was back home safe, but if he had extended his trip for another week, I don’t think I would have been sad. You get?”
“Uhm… sort of…no,” I say.
“I’m supposed to be happy,” she explains. “Everything I have is supposed to make me happy and content, but I’m not happy and at the same time I’m not unhappy.” We are on the phone, one of the six or so phone interviews we will have. I make these phone calls from Tafaria Castle either facing the Aberdare ranges, or sitting on the grass or lying in my room, the room reflected on the television I will never put on. “He’s a terrific guy, my husband,” she says. “Sometimes I hear what other husbands do and I just can’t. I feel lucky, I know I’m lucky but I just don’t appreciate it…I feel somewhat trapped.”
“By what?” I ask.
“By my life.”
She doesn’t want me to tell you exactly how they met, so I will stretch the story on how they met. One evening because of unpredictable aviatic events that are too bland to recount, she found herself on the jumpseat of the last local flight. As she sat there, propped up, the First Officer in his crisp whites kept turning to crack jokes about her 90-degree posture throughout the flight. He continued those jokes a week later when he found her number and called her, then continued them weeks later in a bar and then two years later on their wedding day. You wouldn’t say it was a running joke but more like a flying joke. There are head guys then there are heart guys: Head guys will wonder why you didn’t carry a jacket. Heart guys will cover your goose-pimpled shoulders with their jacket. He is a heart guy. When he laughs, a loudness that comes from that heart, neighbours hear him through walls. Doves sitting on rooftops, grooming themselves, cock their heads towards the sound. He gives great big hugs. He makes big meals. He dreams big dreams and goes for them blindly, with unabashed innocence, almost recklessness. His posture-jokes were pale and peeling but she knew he was going to be a good husband before he proposed. “He was responsive to my needs before I was even aware of them myself.”
“So what do you want?” I ask her because now I’m thinking she’s married to Jesus’s cousin.
“I don’t know.”
Two years ago, she says, she started watching pornography and because of that, because she felt “dirty and morally deliquent”, she started seeing a therapist.
“What kind of pornography?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“As in, white buffed up men and black girls, balding tattooed black men with thin blonde white girls, big black women with shy thin Asian men, bestality, nurses who force you to take your meds, nurses who take your meds…” She starts laughing and I keep going, “…nurses who tie you with a stethoscope and force you to say “aaaaaaa”, nurses who are not even nurses but are actually M-Pesa shop attendants…”
“Stop,” she says laughing. “Stop.”
I stop, albeit reluctantly.
“I like the boring kind of pornography, women on women. Mostly white women, not black women.”
“So on top of your sexual illicitness you are also a racist.”
When I suggest to her that she has lesbian fantasties, she says she doesn’t at all. “I have never been interested in women, I don’t like women like that. My therapist doesn’t think this is even about sex; she thinks it’s about freedom. That I want to move from a mould I have built for myself and it’s my mind subconsciously driving me into the other path. That I want a challenge.”
So she advised her to try challenging herself to do things she would normally never do. She started learning how to ride a horse, then she learnt how to ride a motorcycle, then in Zambia did the Flying Fox…
“What’s that?” I ask.
“It’s when you run off this gorge in Zambia with a harness strapped to your back and you fly almost 100m like a flying fox.”
“Sounds very white,” I mumble.
“It is.” She chuckles.
“Did it make you feel alive?”
“Yeah, it did at that moment. But then after, I crashed. I felt empty…like with a hangover. I never told my therapist about this feeling after because I stopped going to see her. Therapy is very expensive and I felt like she wasn’t helping me.”
“Do you have suicidal thoughts?” I ask.
“Like when you are on the 6th floor of a building and you look down, do you wonder what it would feel like to jump off?”
“No,” she says. “That’s weird. Do you?”
“No,” I say. “But I think of talking someone down, telling them it’s not worth it and them shouting, ‘You don’t know me!’ Then I tell them, ‘Me and you are alike, there is a reason this is happening today when we both are in blue jeans!’ Stuff like that. And they come down and we hug and we become friends till death.”
“Interesting. Like saviour mentality?”
“Yes, I want to save the world from itself.”
Sometimes they go for dinner, mostly when he’s in town (he travels a bit) and he likes to go the extra mile, choosing a spiffy restaurant where they hold the wine bottle with a napkin and allow you to read it in that low lighting and you nod even though you can’t read the label because it’s also in French. And he’s enthused talking about his work and asking about hers and cracking his funny jokes and he looks forward to such dinners because they get to bond and connect.
“But do you know where I’d rather be during those dinners?” she asks.
She laughs. “No, close. I’d rather be at home. Not that I don’t like his company, but I’m jaded by life. I feel that I should be grateful that he’s doing this, getting out of his way for me after all these years – 13 years – of marriage. I should feel appreciative and lucky but instead I don’t and I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Yes, especially because this is what other women would like.”
“What would you like?”
“To be at home. With him, of course. But just be at home, no pressure of candles and jokes and this quality time.”
“Maybe your language of love is not quality time but words of affirmation. Maybe you love to be told how amazing you are because you planted 17 trees.”
We cackle at that.
“No, I didn’t mean where would you like to be when not at the restaurant, but generally?”
“I don’t know. I like being where I am but I also question if it’s what I really want.” She pauses as if she just remembered something. “I don’t mind quality time, I love it, but I was telling my therapist that at this point I just want something else, mostly to just do things alone.”
“Why don’t you tell him what you want?”
“I don’t know what I want. Plus he will be hurt.”
We ring off because I have to go back to my workshop. When she calls me again she tells me about her breasts. She hates them. She tells me about her breasts because she says she’s at a point where she is questioning even her body while her agemates have settled into theirs, warts and all. “It’s almost like I want to undo everything around me and about me. I’m suddenly having body issues that I didn’t have; am I poised enough, is my posture all wrong, is my ass too angular as opposed to widening out at the hips… all these obsessions and it’s spilling over into my roles as a wife and a mother, spiraling into dissatisfaction.” She moans. When I tell her that it sounds like mid-life crisis and it will pass she disagrees with the very premise of mid-life crisis, citing that every period of one’s life comes with its own crisis.
“I know I have a great marriage, it’s not the best marriage, but I’m luckier than most and happier too. I wouldn’t trade it for something else,” she says. “But at the same time I feel like I don’t enjoy or appreciate it as I should. I feel like I’m used to it and I feel guilty and very ungrateful for feeling this way or for asking myself is this it.”
“So what do you like about him?” I ask. I stare at a bird perched on that white statue of a horse outside Tafaria Castle. She says he’s the kind of man who fixes things. He is the kind who never hires handymen. If the microwave stops working he will open it up and fix it. He fixes iron boxes and water heaters, he will remove and put new wallpapers in the rooms. He paints walls. He figures out plumbing issues. He has a tool-box in the house and sometimes, when there is nothing broken in the house, he just removes the tool box and wipes down the tools, like rewarding them for just being there. Appreciating being them for being them. Maybe he talks to them, tells them, “You are a good hammer. You always hit it on the head.” He’s good with the kids; better than her, if she were to be honest. Maybe it’s because he travels a lot and so when he’s home he wants to make up for lost time by spending time with them, drawing, riding bicycles (which he fixes) or just watching cartoons with them on the carpet. He sounds like an angel to me. An angel with a toolbox.
“He’s not an angel. He can be annoying,” she tells me. “He is set in his ways, thinks he’s always right. He doesn’t say he’s sorry when we fight, never. He is secretive with his money, I never know what he’s doing or where he’s kept his money even though we don’t lack for anything.”
“You sound like you have a good deal there from where I’m standing here in Nyahururu,” I say. The bird took off, off to find other things to perch on. A bird’s life is filled with just looking for things to perch on. My editor Linda thinks even a dog’s life isn’t that bad. I disagree, a dog is always looking to be loved, for affirmation that it’s a good doggy. Then you have to wait to be walked. And fed. I’d rather come back as a Sparrow than a Spaniel.
“I do!” she squeals, “And that’s why this is frustrating for me, this place where I am.”
When the pornography phase abated she started to fantasise about having an affair. “I fantasise about purchasing a new phone, something analogue, a phone my husband doesn’t know about. One that I only use in the office, leaving it in the drawer. He sends me messages on that phone and I find them in the morning when I go to the office.”
“Are you serious?” I say laughing.
“I am,” she retorts.
“What kind of messages are these that will float your boat, mushy ones telling you that you are the salt of the earth, planting trees and saving the Mau?”
“Haha. No. I don’t want anything mushy or romantic, just messages telling me where we will meet and what time, something commanding and authoritative, something that doesn’t give me room to say no.”
“Okay. So, ‘the key is under the flower pot” kinda of thing?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“Do you have an image of this guy in your head?”
“I don’t, but I know he is heavily bearded and wears shorts a lot.”
“So he has nice legs.”
“Haha. I haven’t gotten that far.”
She says she has been having these fantasies for months now but she isn’t sure that she “will go through with it” when push comes to shove. She hasn’t seen her therapist this year. I tell her that I’m straining to find what her struggle is, because it looks like she just wants to upset the apple cart, that she’s bored, that surely of all the men anyone can have an affair with, a man who goes about in shorts on a weekday, hiding keys under flower pots isn’t worth tossing everything out for. After our six conversations I struggle to find the gravitas of her story. It seems that she’s bored, she has time on her hands and she wants to disrupt something, but what do I know?
“What do you think is the take-home for this story for readers?” I asked her the last time we spoke.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I know how this comes across, confused and maybe entitled and I know that against what other people go through in marriages this is perhaps a joke. I just don’t know how to describe this season I am in, I don’t have the words for it. It’s like when you have malaria and one time you are feeling cold and the next you want to remove your clothes. I need to know if there are other women who have experienced this and how they handled it.”