You see a man in a beautiful well-cut suit, looking like he was baptized in it, one hand thrust in his pocket, standing casually at ease, waiting for the elevator to come down. That man’s hiding something. A woman in a flashy red scarf curled around her neck like a serpent of fashion, pointing at bread through a glass display at a chic patisserie. She’s hiding something. You see a boy, with his large innocent eyes, before they are filled with secrets of his own world, asking if he can only take two more spoons because he’s full and his stomach hurts. He’s hiding something.
Everybody’s hiding something from the world; a wild dream, a dark fear, a complicated past, an inadequacy, a secret, illegitimate children, a scar of life. Whatever. But the man who hides something from themselves? Oh that’s the man to watch. This is a man who has believed he’s someone he’s not and he’s out there, saying someone else’s lines, eating their food, listening to their music, watering their plants, just living someone else’s life. But then one day when he looks in the mirror, when he really looks in the mirror, he will not recognise who he is anymore. He would have been lost in his own deceit and sunk into an endless theater of delusion.
I don’t know why I thought of opening this story with those words. I wrote them a long time ago when I was to write about someone very complex and tortured and beautiful, someone who at the last minute texted me in the middle of the night. “I’m pulling out. I’m not ready. I’m kinda scared. The person’s life I had described in the interview is not who I am. Sorry I wasted your time.” And that story’s tits went up in the air.
So I wrote what I felt about that development in the notes on my phone and I forgot all about it. Well, until I interviewed this gentleman recently and a section of his story reminded me of that incident, so I retrieved the note and read it and I said, “baby, I knew one day I’d use you.” Sometimes I call paragraphs I write “baby.” I validate them. It’s the language of love for paragraphs; words of affirmation. For example I’d say to a particularly clunky paragraph, “baby, this is not going to work. Your bones are too dry. They make noise when someone turns a page.” Or to a paragraph I particularly enjoyed writing, “go out there and grow in hearts like a bush of bougainvillea.”
It’s complicated. And a bit psychotic, I realise.
I’ve known this guy for 13 years now. He’s the kind of guy you’d not find me standing close to at a cocktail function, because of his dressing. It was like standing next to a ringing Catholic church bell. You can see his trousers from the moon. I used to observe him from afar, like one would Mt Kenya, in his blazers, dotted cravats, complex shirts and loud fancy shoes. A clotheshorse. We started talking when he won a competition for the magazine I was writing for. I remember him waltzing into the office to claim his prize. I’d never seen a man so well put together before in my life and if I did it was Andy Garcia on TV, killing people or some pimp in Harlem calling everybody “baby.” The men I knew were scruffy yahoos, who at best oiled their elbows as a fashion statement. But there he was; wearing so many pieces of clothes, all of them so well pressed, well thought-out, well coordinated, a fashion ballet. The clothes also seemed to accept him. There are men who can throw a Savile Row suit on and you might as well have worn a bush with it. There are men who clothes reject, like a transplanted kidney would.
This guy was proud, or self assured, or whatever. It’s in how he strutted in there, like a prized fighter getting into a ring to defend his belt. He drove a Mercedes. This was 2007 when driving a Mercedes was still a big deal. The office girls gathered around him, immediately claiming him as their own. They seemed at ease around him.
He was effeminate.
Over the years, I’d run into him and I noticed his dressing was getting bolder, louder. He would waltz through foyers like a sweeping gale, turning heads. One time I was driving along Galana Road at 7am on a Saturday morning, off to catch a worm and I saw him outside that notorious Kiza gate, standing there in an extravagant suit, looking up and down the road, waiting for a cab, or a bloody chopper, who knew? Amidst the debris of the night that Kiza had spat out in the morning – drunken men and women, faces sagged by debauchery, wearing the ugliness of the night like disgraced dogs of war – he stood out like a sore thumb – how still well-put together he was, how untouched the night had left him.
Two weeks ago he called me. He wanted to tell me his story, he said. I found him seated in a booth at Java on a quiet wintry morning. He was frail-looking and had grown a beard. His hat sat next to him, together with a bag made from african fabric. (I’m simply calling it a bag because I’m not fashion forward but I realise it must have a fancy name). He was in jeans. I’d never seen him in jeans before. Under an over-sized coat he wore a loose fitting shirt belonging to his dead lover. He looked spent. Light refused to reach his eyes.
“I’m gay.” He said before I could order my tea.
“No shit.” I said dryly, tearing the mask off my face. Masks have become to us what bras are to women; you just can’t wait to remove them. I looked up at the waitress with a lean face and ordered scrambled eggs with basil and mushroom and some brown toast buttered. He was already half-way through his pancake. His fork lay facing upward on his plate. His tea looked lukewarm now, like mangrove water.
“I think you have always worn it [sexuality] on your sleeves, no?” I said.
“Yeah, maybe.” He stroked his beard. “But it’s not the same when I tell someone. When I utter those words. It’s…I dunno, different? At least for me. It’s like I’m freeing myself because this is not something I generally tell people. It’s not easy to say those words, so to verbalize them, to say ‘I’m gay’ makes me feel like it’s out of my hands, this weight.”
“A weight.” I say testing the weight of that word.
“Yeah, that’s what it feels like. It feels good to say it because -” The manager came and placed my hot water with lemon before me. “I’m sorry, we don’t have basil. Can I put baby spinach instead?”
I resisted saying, yes baby, because she didn’t look like the type who might take a joke like that. Instead I said, “if it will still taste good, sure.”
“It will.” She smiled.
“Here is what I think.” I told him. “I don’t want to tell a gay story. It’s not something I’d want to read myself, to be honest. I’ve read a dime a dozen. What more value will a piece like that add? Look, I like girls with a lovely ass, I care little for boobs. But guess how many people care about my preference but me?”
“No one!” I said. “Not one person cares what I want. It’s my preference. But I also realise that being gay comes with its challenges. Many. But the question I ask myself is, are you hurting animals being gay? Is it causing global warming? Are you hurting people?”
He smiled like he knew something. “Go on.”
“If I’m to know your story, I want to know you, not you the gay guy. I want to know what you fear, what you want, I want to know about your dead dreams. I don’t want your story to be centered around your sexuality, you get? So you like men, go gaga!”
“I hear you, but you realise that the life I have led as a gay man is different to the life you have led as a straight man?” He says. “I have not had the liberties to express my love and wants like you have? I have had to hide my whole life, to deny who I am at some point, to people and to myself. So, how can my sexuality not be central to who I am when it has dictated my whole life and the choices I have made? I don’t want anyone to see me as Tim* that gay man. I don’t. I want to be known as a professional, a friend, a colleague, not as gay. But I can’t deny that it has shaped a lot in my life.”
He had a point. Across the room, a middle-aged guy with a face-mask that has a spiderman web on the side sits down. The boy in us never dies, I think.
“Ok, so why now?” I asked him. “Why is telling your story now so important?”
“Because I almost died.” He said leaning back and looking out the window to the balconies of the next apartment. “I had a scary liver problem. Plus, I’m turning 40. Also, I didn’t choose to be gay. Nobody does. It’s not something you can return to the supermarket and get another, because if it was I’d have done that ages ago because it’s not worth going through the things I have gone through.”
“How long have you known you are gay?”
“Since I was in class six in primary school.” He looked at his pancake. He didn’t look like he’d eat it. “ I sat on another boy’s laps while goofing around, as boys would and I remember thinking how good it felt. I liked the idea of it. Also, I would look at another boy and think how cute he was.”
In form two he was caught making out with an older boy in the dormitory one night. The boy was in fourth form and had a big Adam’s apple. “I went to a private boarding school, a posh one. Most of the boys were Nairobi boys. That night, they had laid a trap for us because there had been rumours. And so when we were busted, we were frog-marched through the school at night. The whole school came out to watch as we were led to the head teacher’s office. There was a big commotion. We were taunted and jeered and abused. Some boys kicked, pushed and punched me. The other guy wasn’t touched because he was a senior. It was greatly humiliating. Sana!”
The head teacher, whose night had been interrupted, came to the office wearing a trench coat and carrying a torch. He was a tall man with broad shoulders. He looked like Batman from behind. He led them into his office and locked the door. The whole school waited outside, some sort of a lynch mob. He looked at them and sighed. “We are not going to sort this mess today.” He said. “But tomorrow morning, we will.” So they were let go. He packed his bags that night because he knew the head teacher would humiliate them during the morning assembly and they would be expelled. However, during the next day’s morning assembly, the head teacher never said a word. Nor the next day. Or the day after. Or the following week. Or ever. The story was never brought up.
But he became a pariah.
“My life got very tough after that. I had my name scrolled in loos as a homosexual, a word I resent.” He says. “I was constantly abused and made fun of and taunted for the rest of my high school. That kind of treatment takes a toll on you no matter how strong you want to show you are – the constant reminder that you are different, queer, odd, strange, the abuses, other boys laughing at you, talking about you. But you know what?”
“What?” [Wait, where the hell are my eggs?]
“Some of the nastiest boys who beat me when I was being frog-marched later came to me in private and started seducing me. Can you imagine? I couldn’t. They were closeted. Which makes me believe that the most homophobic men are afraid of their own sexuality. I ended up dating one of those boys who had been at the front of the people braying for my blood.” He says as my eggs come.
In university he dated a girl. “We actually lived together the whole of my campus days.” He says. It’s hard to show dismay with your mouth full of scrambled eggs.
“Oh, how did that work out?”
“I’d be with them the whole week and the weekend – because the uni was out of town – I’d be with my boyfriend who was then already working.”
“And you’d have sex with this girl?”
“Maybe you are bi, then?”
“No, I don’t believe there is something like bi. You are either straight or you are not.”
“So this girl, she never suspected you were gay?”
“And you didn’t struggle being intimate with her?”
“No, it’s because I never saw her as a girl. In my head – when I was sleeping with her – she was a man.”
“She had a beard.” I said smiling. “It’s happened to the best of us.”
He chuckled. “Actually she was quite voluptuous, and light, with long hair. Very nice girl. She even took me home to meet her parents. But uni was interesting because I was struggling with who I was. I was battling many things about my sexuality and being with her – the first and last girl I was with – was perhaps me trying to tick a box, or reassure myself that I could be straight after all. My mental health issues started that moment, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, this was coupled with the fact that my mother had passed on not so long ago and it really affected me because she was all I had. I’m the only child. The guy I was seeing suggested that I see a therapist who I went to see for many years, like four..”
After uni he secured a job with a reputable firm. Meanwhile he was hiding his sexuality which must have seemed like hiding a neon ball under your shirt in darkness. He then met and started dating an older man. “He was a single father. He spoilt me.” He says. “He was a great supporter of my career, always at hand with advice. I moved in with him and we lived together. He was a very nice guy, very understanding and gentle and most importantly he allowed me to be.”
Then he met another man, down the road from where he lived with his lover. “He came from a very wealthy family, he was an heir in waiting. He was not handsome but he was very successful and charming, but also tortured, with mental illness to boot.” He says, “His parents, he would tell me, had expectations of him, to get married and then take over the family business one day, but he couldn’t. He was deeply closeted but also conflicted. So I noticed that he was doing drugs; someone would supply cocaine to the house every evening and he would disappear to snort it in the loo. I only found out one day when he blacked out in the loo.”
“Wait, what was happening to the guy you were living with?”
“We had drifted by this time, sleeping in different bedrooms, but still friends.” He cuts his pancake and takes a bite. “ This new guy really spoilt me, anything I wanted he would give me. We traveled. He bought me clothes. He was very generous but I had a problem with his drug usage and every time I tried leaving he would cry. Anyway, eventually I left. And soon after, he overdosed on cocaine and was found dead. I have never cried like that. I was completely devastated. Completely. You know this guy.” He shows me a picture of him in the wallet.
“I can’t say I do.” I said “He doesn’t look anything gay at all.”
“Oh, I know very many deeply closeted men who are very manly, you stand next to them and they are more manly than you.” He said. “This guy, with all his problems, found escape in drugs.”
“And what has been your escape?”
He thought about it. “Hmm, I have never thought of that before.” A long pause followed. “I think luxury. I like to dress well and to travel and to eat out in good restaurants.”
When he was taken ill and he was in a ward, his liver almost gone, literally at death’s door, he had a lot of time to reflect on his life. He thought a lot about his mother; who separated with his father (“he abandoned us”) when he was young and she was the only thing he had being an only child. Then she died and he was left alone. He thought of his life, hiding half of himself to the world and losing the man he thought he might have saved but also, losing what he had with the first guy. If he was going to die, he thought, what would he show for his life?
“You know, I might come across as confident and well-heeled but I’m lonely. I’m happy but lonely. I don’t know if that makes sense?”
“Describe that for me.”
“When I was in the ward, dying or trying not to die, I didn’t have anyone special to sit by my bed and hold my hand. I didn’t have anyone who was worried for me. You want that. You don’t know how important that is when you are thinking you are not going to make it. I thought I’d die and there’d be nobody by my bed crying, someone who would be devastated by my departure. I mean, my mother is dead, I don’t talk to my dad, I have no one. And that really made me so sad. I realised I was lonely. When I go home, there is nobody there. My house has things, but it’s a shell. It’s empty.”
“What do you regret?”
“I regret not having a mother. I regret that the relationship with the older man never worked out. I regret not fighting harder for him. He’s a good man.” He said. “I also regret not leaving this country when I had a chance to. It’s hard not being yourself, not living your life freely here, not acknowledging who you are not only to yourself but to others. I have a close unit of friends who are tolerant of me, but that window of starting over in a different country at my age is closed.” Pause. “I want to let go of grief, of loss, of starting a different chapter after my 40th. Maybe something better awaits me in the other half of life. I think I deserve it because I think I’m not a bad person.”
Later, when he’d long gone I sat there and thought; you see a man wearing an over-sized coat, standing outside a cafe waiting for his Uber in the cold and you don’t know the turmoil and grief he’s hiding under that coat. A dead lover’s coat.
Most people show you what they want you to see. That’s what I’ve learnt. The streets are full of masks. Everybody’s wearing one. Some are ugly.
Nobody shows you their hand.
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