A man at the end of the bar lights a cigarette then shakes the fire off the burning matchstick. We are at Tatiz Bar, restaurant, barber and car wash, seated outside on the curved verandah overlooking Muthangari Drive. The man’s cigarette smoke stretches towards us. Dr. Kinoti is trying to find the right definition of a happy marriage. He’s in a happy marriage. But happiness is such a simple yet complex concept, isn’t it? It’s like describing the colour blue. He hasn’t always been in a happy marriage. He has been in a difficult marriage, a difficulty he created, mostly.
“A happy marriage is not just happenstance,” he will say later, “it doesn’t happen because you prayed for it. It happens because you made choices.” As it turns out, to put his happiness and marriage into perspective, he has to take me back to meet the man he was before. We have to confront that man. And question him. Because that man was a good man, but one who made bad choices. Over and over again. He was selfish and unsure and wanted to have his muffin and eat it too. The reason he is opening this door is because he isn’t embarrassed about that man anymore. That man doesn’t hold him captive. He is free of him and because of that freedom, he can look him dead in the eye.
Oh, I forgot to mention – Dr. Kinoti Mugambi is my dentist. And my children’s dentist. He knows our teeth. All of them. How did I come to talk to him about marriage, even a happy one? Well, one day I discovered that he follows me on Instagram so I followed him back (@kinotimugambi). You’d imagine that a dentist would post pictures of healthy molars and premolars. Or maybe tooth jokes like:
What do you call a dentist that doesn’t like tea?
What did the dentist tell the golfer?
You have a hole in one.
Okay, one last one.
Why the hell did the cell phone go to the dentist?
It had a problem with the bluetooth.
Ha-ha. I love that last one.
None of those jokes feature on his Instagram page. It has normal pictures of a normal guy who could be anyone, even a surveyor. (Are surveyors on Instagram?) They are mostly pictures of smiling people with great teeth, which in itself could be product placement. I noticed that every other picture is either of his children or his wife. Or of a giraffe. Or of him running while smiling. There are many pictures of his wife. He’s one of those guys who are always posting pictures of their wives. I feel like I know her. Like I went to school with her. She’s slender and wears fitting – or sometimes – bulbous print dresses. She has a slender face and looks like those women that cats love. Of course having pictures of you and your spouse on social media doesn’t mean anything. It could mean she’s photogenic. It could also mean you have been married for three days.
One time, after a session of teeth cleaning, (I take lots of black masala tea, it stains teeth) I asked him if he was happily married. From behind his mask, he said, “Yes, I am. Very.” (Have you noticed that it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who has a mask covering their mouth?) I told him that I was looking for a happily married man to interview for Men and Marriage. “Yeah? I don’t know if I want to expose myself that way, but we can discuss it over a drink.”
“I didn’t know you drink?”
“The hell! I do. I like blended whiskies, not single malts. I also add Coke in mine.”
“Why, is it too bitter, Doc?”
He chortled and snapped down his mask.
“Some men like it sweet.”
“Ha-ha. Oh yes!”
He stood up and scribbled something on a pad. (Doctors are always writing something.) He had on white Crocs. Old 90s bluesy jams played in the room. He’s 39 and likes them old 90s ballads with lyrics of overly-ambitious men overpromising women to make love to them all night long.
“They also have Fanta as whisky mixers, just in case,” I said, determined to be an ass through and through.
“I’d say f*ck off, but I don’t mouth off at paying clients,” he chuckled.
“Anyway,” I said, “how a man drinks his whisky is his business.”
“Thanks for understanding.”
As I gargled water, he asked if he can come for the interview with his wife.
“It’s men and marriage,” I told him, “not men, marriage and their wives.”
He met Sophia in medical school, circa 2001. She was slender and beautiful and had a smile that reflected her heart. Years later, when his friend Nick would come from Russia he’d tell him that Sophia was the woman he was going to marry. He finished med school in 2006 and started shaking the bushes. She also finished not long after. (Kenyans like to say, “I cleared campus” as if it’s a thicket they cleared with a machete. Also, campus is the grounds and buildings.)
He got posted to Embu after his internship. As luck would have it, she was posted to a town near Embu. They continued with their on and off thing. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” he says, “ I knew I loved her, but I also loved the idea of freedom, of being young, of exploring, of having possibilities and options, because what is youth if it’s not about possibilities?”
This meant that he was seeing her but he was also not seeing her. You know what I mean, gentlemen? They were going steady and then they were not. They were a couple and then they were free to see other people. Rather, he was. A game of musical chairs but one that involved hearts, not chairs. In 2006, he decided, “You know what, I’m going to get serious with this chile.” (Whatever happened to that slang. I liked it.) “There was a ka-chick I was seeing then, and it had brought issues because someone had told her I was seeing someone else on the side but I denied it. I said, ‘Zii! She’s just a pal.’ And her being the kind of person she is, she just let it go and I was like, ‘Phew, missed that bullet.’”
Then Sophia got pregnant.
“My dad always told me that I shouldn’t be that guy who gets kids all over the place, and for me Sophia’s pregnancy was a sign that perhaps I needed to be serious with her. I needed to make this legit, you know, make an honest woman of her.” So they got married officially in 2009. He gave himself a pep talk; told himself to leave all those shenanigans of yengs behind. He was going to be a father now, a serious family man. He was going to be good.
The baby came. His son. Koome. Doc cut the umbilical cord himself.
“You have children, so you know that euphoric feeling of your first child,” he says. “That boy awakened something in me, a terrific kind of joy. This inexplicable happiness. Real happiness. I posted so much about him on Facebook, wrote lots of updates about him on my page. I even opened for him his own Facebook account.”
He stopped seeing the other chick. He was being good. He helped with the baby, woke up when the baby cried, changed diapers. He even learnt how to test the temperature of the water with his elbow. He wasn’t the kind of guy who calls home from the supermarket to ask, “Ati you said I buy which size of diaper?” He was the guy who knew the size.
Then one day, against anything he could comprehend, he called that girl and said, “Hey, you want to meet up?” He couldn’t explain why he would do something like that; how he had this happiness in his life, this boy and this wife who gave him this boy yet he still wanted to see this other girl. Something had invaded his flesh. It was like he had two versions of himself. Although he disliked the other version – this version that wanted to ruin what he was building at home – he felt that he had to entertain him, this illicit version that wanted to lurk in darkness, this selfish man with running desires and a flesh that was burning. And so this version would lead him on a leash and he would find himself knocking at the girl’s door. He would stand there thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ He’d want to turn back and run to his car and go home. But he wouldn’t, he would hear her footsteps coming to the door and he’d wait, hands thrust in his pockets.
“But guilt would kill me after. Oh, I’d be so guilty,” he says. He would flog himself with guilt after, and then repeat it. One day, before his son turned one, he decided he was going to put a stop to his escapades. He drove out to the chick’s house after work, after seeing hundreds of teeth. It was a very dark night, no stars, no moon, just a grouchy sky, bruised in some parts. “I told her that I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says, “that I wanted to focus on my family, that it was the right thing for me and that I would like it if she supported me.” She was seated on the arm of the seat in a short dress. The TV was off. The fridge hummed somewhere in the kitchen. She said it was fine. That she understood. He slipped out of her house and life and vowed to lead a virtuous life like Jesus did.
“A week later, my pal calls me when I’m at work and says, ‘Boss, X [that chick] has commented on a picture on Facebook!’ I quickly log in and look at a picture I had posted of Sophia. In one of the comments Sophia had commented saying something about her loving husband and on her comment this chick wrote something like, ‘Yeah, the loving husband that we both share…’ You guy! I completely freaked out! I deleted that picture quickly.”
“I hope you have kept that pal!” I laugh. “Everyone needs that friend. An eye in the sky.”
“I have. He’s called Eric,” he says.
(Eric if you are reading this, have a double.)
He contemplated calling this chick but didn’t. He let it go. Five months passed. This one time he was MCing at a friend’s small event. Sophia sat in the front row in a flowy dress, her hair done. “You always know when something is eating at your wife and you are the cause. I instinctively knew something was wrong. Her body language was off. She wasn’t laughing at the jokes I was telling on stage. She was giving me this cold, icy look. Her friends were also treating me funny. I just knew that the chick had done something. At the end of the evening, Sophia told me, ‘We have to talk’ and I knew that shit had hit the fan.”
On their way to the after party, she sat in what he describes as a “deathly silence.” It’s a silence every man knows too well. It’s when you have done some bad shit and your woman sucks out every sound from the room and lets you sit in that deafening silence. While he drove, his mind was a whirlwind; what had she unearthed? “I had a green Subaru Forester back then and I remember that it was so silent in that car I could hear the distinct sound of the turbo, which seemed louder than usual.”
They got to Sailor’s Club in Hurlingham and sat away from the rest, in a corner. Sophia started by saying, “You know X, the girl that we have been having a problem with for long, the same girl you have always denied having a thing with, you know her right? Well, she inboxed me on Facebook.” He wanted the trumpet to blow and for Jesus to come back right that moment. He hoped she wouldn’t see his heart beat so fast under his shirt. He tried to keep his face neutral, but his breathing was off. But he had only one consolation, he hadn’t seen or talked to her since he told her it was over. He had that comfort of truth on his side and he was going to buoy onto it.
She then silently retrieved her phone and showed him the message. “It was a long message, my friend. Long! That woman had said things on that thread,” he says. “Back in those days Messenger would take a bit of time to load so I was reading and sitting there waiting for it to load and wondering how much worse was left.” That chick threw him under the bus. “She wanted to teach me a lesson,” he says.
When he was done reading those damning messages, she said simply, “You will never see your son again.” They went home and that night she told him that she didn’t want him to sleep on their bed. He said he wasn’t taking the couch in his house. (Meru men don’t take the couch.) So she said, “Fine!” and slept facing Guangzhou. The next day, while he was at work, her best friend came over and together they packed her stuff, bundled his son and the nanny into the car and left.
“I wanted to kill that chick. If I’d have met with her in a dark alley I would have strangled her to death with my hands,” he says. “I was so mad and bitter at her. I wished her death – the violent type of death.”
The days that followed were distressing. Confusing. He couldn’t sleep well. He apologised and begged her to come back. He begged and begged. She finally rescinded her decision and came back home. They ironed things out and were cool. For three years. “I was a good man. I did what good men do. What good husbands do. Three years!” he says.
Then one day, he called up that girl. That same girl. He called her up and said, “What’s up! You want to have coffee?”
“You are kidding me!” I say laughing.
“It’s witchcraft, you guy,” he says, “witchcraft!”
Here is how he was caught the second time. He had a lousy phone; a bugger that never kept charge. One day he bought a phone and instead of throwing this old phone in the dustbin or in a drop toilet, he tossed it into the drawer of their wardrobe. Genius move from the dentist. Someone please hand the doctor a plaque. (Been dying to use that plaque joke). Time passes. Months. One day the wife is leaving for a weekend Naivasha trip with the girls. She tells him, “Babe, my phone is rubbish.” He tells her, “Aah, si you can use my old phone temporarily. Hang on, let me find where I kept it.” He gives her the phone with all the old messages which he had kept for the Second Coming and off she goes to Naivasha. When she gets there, there is radio silence. “It was so unlike her. She was too quiet. I knew something was wrong.” Then the coin drops. The phone! The messages! Those are the things that can make one drive all the way to Naivasha at 2am. Or pray for a miracle. Anyway, she comes back and shows him the messages on the old phone and says, “Are you serious, Kinoti? Are you serious?! You are still talking to this woman?! I can’t believe you, I just can’t! Don’t. Touch. Me!”
Thankfully, the messages were not salacious. Just coffee dates and all.
Right here is the point that a woman will say, Fine, you want to run around with women with bad weaves and worse grammar, go gaga. You do you, I will do me. When it gets to this point, it’s bad. It’s very bad. All bets are off. It’s open season.
“One day I discovered through a friend of hers that she was close to some other man. That she was having drinks and coffees with him, that there was a chance something was happening there,” he says. “It hit me like a brick. That she could be doing things I was doing. It crushed me, completely. I confronted her and she denied.”
He got sick. Literally. Like malaria sick. He had shivers and fever and his bones hurt. He couldn’t get out of bed. His heart hurt like hell. That’s the thing with us men, we want to be the cock of the walk but when there is even a whiff that someone is giving our woman attention we get malaria and we want to die.
“At around this time I had just gotten a great deal of a lifetime to go practise in Congo and had accepted but now I didn’t even want to leave Nairobi, not when there was a chance that some other man might be in the picture. I was heartbroken, completely and utterly. I realised how selfish I had been. How inattentive I had become. I was a young doctor, making some money. I felt entitled. I could afford to treat girls. The world was mine. I had put my career before her. I had put my son before her. She came last on my list and I had completely ignored her needs while I was busy chasing mine.”
By the way, I forgot to mention that we are drinking. Rather, I am. Dr. Kinoti is a poser drinker. Those guys who will nurse one double for three hours. He uses his glass of whisky as an accessory. But what did I expect of someone who mixes his green label with coke?
“I remember this guy’s name, this guy who was buying my wife lunches, dinners and coffees,” he says. “I found him on Facebook. I knew his wife’s name and his children’s names. I also knew that he had found an opportunity where I was missing. It wasn’t his fault or her fault. It was my fault but it didn’t feel like my fault, it felt like deep hurt. Like death.”
He tells Sophia that they need to sort this mess before he goes to Congo. So for the first time since they were married, they leave town for a retreat in Maasai Mara with another couple, in case someone tries to kill the other. They talk for days and nights and agree to start afresh. No lies. No women. No man. No coffees. No old phones with old messages.
“I come back to Nai and leave for Congo with a heavy heart,” he says. Congo was busy and isolated. He worked as a partner for a high end dentist that catered for the wealthiest of the wealthy in Congo, tier one politicians, the UN. He worked twelve hour shifts and at the end of the day, since he couldn’t speak French and had no friends, retired home alone. He did nothing but think. And jog. “I was so miserable. I have never been that miserable and sad. I would cry at night. Literally. I could cry on my jogs. In Congo I was alone and lonely. Only one or two of my friends would check up on me. My dad called me often,” he says. “When you are alone, in your house, your thoughts gallop. I would imagine that my wife was out there with this man. When she would tell me she was going for a work trip – because as a doctor, her job required a bit of travel – I would wonder if she was with him. Jealousy and suspicion consumed me and it plunged me in such deep unhappiness and a constant state of insecurity. Which was ironic, because here I was making tons of money, tons of it, but I was so sad and miserable. All I wanted was to be with her. I wanted things to be right again. I wanted to feel that she was mine entirely. I would call home a lot to check up on her. Others could call it stalking her, [ chuckles] but I would call a lot and ask how things were, how her day was and for the first time, I was interested in my wife as a person. I gave her attention. I wanted to know about her, genuinely. And I realised that I loved her more than I imagined. And only her.”
After six or so months, he came back home horny (don’t look at me, those were his words) and they went for a trip. He said he realised that he was in love with her and didn’t want to hurt her again. He didn’t ever want to look at another woman again because she was a great woman and she was his woman. There was no need to find anything else out there.
He asked her to move to Congo. He said, “Quit your job. I will pay you whatever you are currently earning now to come and be with me. Money and Congo don’t make sense without you. Come with me, come and make sense of my life.” He was willing to pay her anything to be his wife. So she quit and relocated to Congo and those years in Congo, he says, were the best years of their lives. “The bond we shared in Congo was special, a bond nothing can ever break because it was just me, her and Koome. We talked a lot. We did things together. I learnt to be a husband again. I learnt that the most important person in my life is not even my child, it’s my woman. So I put her first before myself and before anything else. Congo saved my marriage.”
They came back in 2017 to have their second born – Kanana, the tyrant – then he went back. He finally relocated back completely in 2018 and continued with his dentistry at Upper Hill Dental Center, a modern dentistry hovel. It’s pristine white. When you lie on the dentist’s chair, there is a big screen on the roof where you can watch Netflix or whatever, while he probes a tooth. When the TV is off, he’s always playing slow, groovy-ass music like Lionel Richie. Or some gospel, the slow modern type that they will play during the procession to heaven. There is an X-ray room where one of the lovely Dental Surgery Assistants – Karimi or Roslyn – tells you to “bite here.” My son Kim loves going there because Doc’s gentle and he entertains him. Tamms couldn’t be bothered. She doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve; you have to earn them.
While his practice thrives, his marriage blossoms. So when he defines happiness now he says, “I found happiness when I eliminated what was distressing me. Now I’m in this zone of happiness and freedom because I had to make choices. But I have to say that I’m here because of my wife. She gave me many chances because she can weather a storm, because she read out the riot act and because she’s a good woman. In my heart I know that for a fact, she is a great person inside, very generous.”
“She has forgiven and let go of all my past transgressions. She never reminds me of them even when we fight. She never says, ‘Oh, like that time you used to run around with that bi**h!’ She forgives and expects her forgiveness to count, so I have to honour that.”
We talk about marriage some more. I’m now tipsy so I show him a Whatsapp message Julius, my bro, had written to me this one time I had asked him how he keeps the fire in his marriage alive. He wrote, “ …by accepting your partner for who she is and not who she should be or who she could be…” Kinoti nods and says, “That’s true.” “...the latter one is a big problem that keeps recurring because then you keep wanting to model them on your own ideals. You have to accept that your wife is not perfect, that you are not perfect and that there is always something we will miss which can be found in someone else. Acceptance is the key word here. Accept. Accept. Accept. Otherwise marriage is an eternal fire that sometimes flickers or burns but one that must be closely monitored like the life support machines at ICU.”
Kinoti says, “He is right.”
“How do you now remain faithful? How do you make sure you don’t slip?”
“The easiest way to remain faithful is to go home,” he says. “Just go home. I also have great friends who keep me accountable – Migs, Dennis and Nick. If you learn to just go home you will be okay. Why go looking for trouble? Because, come on, there will always be that chic who is your type, the one who gets you, that one who is hot and who you are infatuated with. She will always be there, but you need to decide what’s key for you. So just go home. Walk away. I don’t play with fire. Have I been tempted before? A thousand times. Have I met someone who I wanted to get on with? A thousand times. But you have a choice and they all come with their consequences.”
“How is your sex life?” [Like I said, I’m tipsy. I need to go home.]
“Sex changes. Look, we both work long hours and often when we meet we are too tired. I’m too tired to get creative with styles and whatnot. My game has gone down sana.” He chuckles. “But you know what helps? When we take time off and do trips together. That’s when now I make up for all those nights I was just playing around.”
“You put your back into it.”
“Yeah, because you have time and you are relaxed. But I think at some point you have to make sure that you don’t go too long without sex. Don’t let it get to two weeks without sex,” he adds. “We are also seeing a sex therapist (Miss Nerima) who is supposed to be excellent at reigniting coital fires, but we’ve only had one session with her.”
“So what’s a happy marriage in a thumbnail?”
“It’s easier to make my wife happy than to make my son happy. All I have to do is give her attention. I make sure that we have a dinner date every week. I used to buy her flowers every week until she gave away the vase. I listen to her. When she comes venting after work, don’t offer a solution, don’t get your phone and say, ‘Here, call Wambua, tell him I sent you.’ She doesn’t want a solution, she wants you to listen to her. So I have learnt to listen…”
“And nod and say things like, ‘What? How dare she? That boss is an idiot, my God! Those people DO NOT deserve you!’”
“Ha-ha, yeah. I buy her gifts . I randomly pass by Gacheri’s shop ( Gachy’s, Elysee Plaza, Kilimani road. She has great chic stuff) and pick her heels and clothes. It makes her happy. You have to invest in your marriage. You have to invest in your wife. You have to prioritise and honour her. Anything I do now I do to safeguard and uplift her. If it will hurt her, I won’t do it. And when she is happy, I am happy.”
“Boss, let me go now. I think I’ve had enough to drink,” I say, signaling for the bill.
“Can you drop me off?”
There is no announcement today. It’s a tragic day.