What do men do when darkness beckons? When winter closes in on them? When their unhappiness starts making their fingernails grow slower and their pillows get harder? When their wedding rings become hollow metaphors, a mockery of vows? When their marriages that once promised to flourish forever, like they promised God and man, now start disintegrating like a cork coming apart in the hands of a poor wine opener? When, unconsciously, this state starts showing in their choice of their wardrobe; darker ties, duller shirts and socks that start getting darker and darker, a river of misery. When they wake up one day and their unhappy marriages have seeped into everything they do like an ugly cancer. When even when they go to the golf course to find peace and quiet or whatever it is golfers go to find on the course, their swing, once the envy of peers, is now weighed down by the ennui of that marriage.
And then one day, while they are driving from school, in that twilight zone where they are aware they are driving but not aware that they are alive, their son suddenly asks, “Daddy, why are you sad?” And that question chokes them with burning self-pity so much so that they momentarily look away from their son, in shame, for exposing this ugly stain of unhappiness in the presence of this beautiful and innocent boy they want to protect from the cruelty of world’s realities.
Do you sometimes wonder why someone decided that envy is green in colour? And cowardice is yellow and boredom is brown and that if you are “blue” you are sad? Most importantly, can you read deep unhappiness in an email?
And I love it. I get drawn to unhappiness, curious about it’s source. It makes me want to follow it like an explorer follows a river inland to find where it stems from. Then I want to light a small fire and camp there.
The sadness in this email (his) was in the way the writer used words that didn’t seem to like each other, their rhythm broken, like musical notes that refuse to blend. It’s also how fast he wrote it, how the words haemorrhaged out of him from a wound someone was still cutting. His words were opaque, weary and raw, straight from that part of the heart that pumps deoxygenated blood – blood that is dying from asphyxia. He wrote it fast because he didn’t want to acknowledge its source, its truth, because then he’d be giving that unhappiness volume. And when he ended his email, he cut his thoughts abruptly the way you would close the door of a lavatory, embarrassed, when you realize there is someone inside.
He’s 48-years old and works for a multinational. So does his wife. He says in the email that from the outside they look like a power couple making moves -two children, a paid for house, a fairly lavish lifestyle – but inside, things are tumbling down like a house of cards. He’s unhappy. He wrote, “I think in the modern age there is a big disconnect between our women’s expectations of us as men and what we are able to deliver.” I nodded reading this – which was as useless a gesture as insisting on looking at the radio while listening to it.
To arrange a meeting he sent me a calendar invite. A calendar invite for Pete’s sake! I have never had anyone I’m interviewing for the blog send me a calendar invite. I wanted to borrow Fred’s ankara bow tie for the meeting. He has this one bowtie that he wears when going to ask someone for a bagful of money. The interviewee indicated strict anonymity and even went ahead to choose a name I should use. You will never guess. Actually you can; Paul.
Paul! For the love of God!
Of all the names that anyone could choose – Gerald, Jermaine, Koko – he picked the vanilla of names. It’s like ordering chips and sausages.
Anyway, we meet at The Gallery, in Sankara. I get there before him and sit against the window at the table at the far corner, my back to the wall like Jack Bauer told us to. I settle for a juice because the whisky I normally drink is almost one thousand bob a tot here and my stature doesn’t allow me such liberties. Behind the soundproof glass the after-work foot migration head back to where they will gather around fires and family like man has done for centuries. Paul sends a text saying he will be ten minutes late, so I try calling my home girl, Joyce, who works at the hotel, to come down for a laugh. She’s mteja. (Wangui, you okay? I tried calling you. Goch’na)
Like a Swiss train, Paul walks in exactly ten minutes later as promised.
“I’m a good man, I want to believe,” he starts, placing an open palm against his chest. I don’t know why people don’t touch their heads instead when they say something like that. It’s always the chest, maybe because that’s where the heart lives and it’s the heart that dictates goodness, not the head. Anyway, he’s a good man. [Touch chest]. “I’m a mild drinker. I used to smoke, I don’t anymore, ten years now. I don’t chase women. I’m not a batterer. I’m a good father. I have a good relationship with my in-laws. I take care of the bedroom. I provide for my family. But no matter what I do, anything I do at all, it’s never enough for my wife!”
“Right. What’s her grouse?” [I wanted to use the word famous in that question, like “What’s her famous grouse?”, but we hadn’t warmed up enough for such cheesy jokes].
“There is never enough money to make her happy. We have made some sound investments over time and for the most part they have worked well. However, we have reached a situation where we are asset rich but somewhat cash poor. This has made things worse since my wife ties her wellbeing to having cash and it has affected how she views me and the marriage.”
“Why do you think she’s like that?”
“I actually think money’s where all this stems from; I grew up in an upper middle class background, schooled and lived abroad for almost all my life. She, on the other hand, grew up in a single-parent home. Her father left them when they were young and her mom struggled to raise them. So for her, money is security while for me it seems money is simply a means. I’m an optimist, she’s a pessimist. And this money thing has really affected our marriage so much so that she can now go three months without talking to me. All we talk about …when we do, is money, the kids or the home. But even worse than that she criticizes me and everything I do and nothing I do seems to please her, not one thing, and I ask myself, what am I doing wrong? What more do I have to do to make her treat me with dignity? I check off the things that I’m doing right, Biko; we live in a nice neighborhood, we have two nice cars, I’m the kind of father who bathes his kids, I make breakfast every Saturday morning while she sleeps, while most men I know are nursing a hangie or even never showed up at home! As in when she wakes up and finds breakfast ready do you know what she says when she sits at the table?”
These are quite sumptuous, darling, thank you, I made the right choice marrying you. I would choose you again if I had to! Thank you! In fact, come back to the bedroom I show you in kind, because my momma told me that words are cheap?
“What does she say?” I ask instead.
“She criticizes the breakfast! Because the eggs are not done right or the pancake is too fluffy!” He throws his hands in the air. “She never gives any compliments. If I am to compare my involvement in the house with that of other guys, come on, man, I’m doing much better at that job. Look,” he leans in. I lean in instinctively. “I’m doing everything that we are told a man should do; I provide, I’m this good father, I serve her. Yet she treats me like this. But you know what baffles me the most? I see guys who are the opposite of me, they don’t do shit at home, they run around shagging girls, but their wives seem to appreciate them, yet I, who does things by the book, my wife thinks I’m no good?!!”
I laugh at that. Not to belittle his feelings, but because of the way he puts it. You had to be there, you would have laughed too.
“What do women want?!” he asks, his voice a pitch higher. “Because we can never achieve those goals.” His juice is set down on a coaster. He nods a thank you at the barman and when he leaves, Paul ploughs on. “She insisted on us building a house in shags, for instance, and because I’m this guy who wants his wife happy, I built a 3 million shilling house in a place we visit twice a year because, come on, my folks live in Kileleshwa. Even they don’t go to shags that often. What is the opportunity cost of building a house like that in shags? But even that house doesn’t make her happy. You know when she was young auctioneers came to their house and took away their property. I’m sure that’s traumatizing but I keep telling her that I’m not her dad, I’m not going to l…”
I raise my hand from the table like I want permission to say something. He stops.
“Here is an alternative thought. The things you mention are just that, things. What if that’s not what will make her happy? What if it’s not a house that makes her happy. They [women] always say we have to fill their cup of emotions – well, I think it’s bottomless. Is there a chance that you could be going about this the wrong way and are filling the wrong cup?”
He tilts his head slightly to the side, like he’s just made a comma using his head. “She knows I love her. She knows I love her because I tell her that I love her. We used to do things together…we’d go on dates at least once a month. Every year I take the family for a holiday. Church is important to her so I choose to take it seriously even though I’m in a crisis of faith somewhat at this moment in my life. I have made what’s important to her important to me but it’s not enough and I feel unappreciated. I’m not enough for her.”
“I’m not a perfect guy but I would like to be supported even when I may be wrong,” he says. “ I want someone who believes in me and who else should that be if not my wife?” I want to say, “Yourself, only Paul can believe in you! “ but that will sound so Joel Osteen-like.
“I want my wife to believe in me because she married me and her heart should be in the right place,” he says.
“Does she believe in you?”
“No. She second guesses everything I do. There is nothing I can ever do right in her eyes. Tell you what, we can be driving, I’m behind the wheel, she is in the passenger seat and when I hit a pothole she makes these snide remarks to make me feel like I can’t even drive. I mean, it’s not like I go looking for potholes to drive into! I mean, sometimes it’s good to just let some things be, but she doesn’t. She seems to look for any opportunity to put me down. I really think there are men who do worse things that drive into potholes, to be honest. Husbands not hitting potholes is not the type of thing marriages thrive on.” Pause. “I’m trying to make the marriage work but I seem to be alone in this. How many of our friends are divorced or separated? Many! Her siblings? None is married. Some are separated, some never got married, one keeps changing wives. You would think she would look around her and think, gee, this man of mine isn’t too bad after all. But no.”
He says that he is the one who goes for all the children’s school activities; prize giving, sports day, open days, swimming galas. He takes cake to the school during birthdays, waiting around to cut it, sing and blow balloons. “When I go to these school events, I’m always one of the three dads at the function.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like you.” I say it so abruptly that it surprises even me.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“You know how you can have a mother who is evil and with a bad heart, treating everyone like shit? But she is your mom and you love her but you don’t like her as a person? Maybe your wife stopped liking you at some point. Sometimes I suspect that some of women just wake up one day and think I love this guy but I don’t like him anymore, and then they start hating everything about us, that even the act of us chewing food itself irritates them….”
“Actually she even hates when I chew…”
I laugh and say I was just joking about that chewing part.
“No, really, she does.”
“She hates how you chew?”
“She does.” Long sigh. A glance out the window. The streetlights are now on. “My question is, do you separate on that basis? I don’t know.”
Paul was married before. He was young then, 29 and living abroad. The woman cheated on him so he divorced her. It was a traumatic experience, going through the divorce, something that took so much from him that he is reluctant to go down that road again. He’s hanging onto this marriage, clutching onto it and it’s taking a toll on his self-esteem. His wife is shrinking him with a word here, a sigh there, rolled eyes over there and most of all, the wall of silence that she has built around her. He’s trying to stay the course, but the wheels are slowly coming off.
“What I’m trying to do now is to get affirmation in fatherhood, in my children, that I am worthy as a person, as a man, and that I’m doing one thing right. My children love me. At work, my colleagues respect me. I manage big teams all over Africa yet somehow that doesn’t bring the same satisfaction, somehow I still feel like less of a man…”
“When did she start changing? I mean, has she always been like this?”
He thinks about it for a bit, clutching his glass of juice as if trying to warm it with his body heat. “We have been married for ten years now and things were good the first three years but then I started seeing this attitude towards money.”
Conversations with his wife during the day have dwindled to nothing. He likes phone-calls, she likes messages. The last message she sent was the previous day about groceries. He says he’s not a big subscriber of what men should do in the house and what women should do. He pays school fees, buys groceries and makes investments. They live in their own home, which he paid the deposit for but because she was earning more at that time, she took over the mortgage.
“Has she ever been a warm or loving person?” I ask because now I’m thinking of her as a block of ice.
“Not extremely. I mean, she was never going to be the woman who helps you get your coat off at the end of the day and make you tea,” he says.
I don’t even think those women are out there. I think the last one was sighted on State House avenue circa 1998. She had a red scarf around her neck. The other day I heard one was also spotted on Mombasa road but the source was drunk so we can’t record that sighting. Now everybody removes their own coat and warms their own food.
“Do you think she loves you?”
He stares hard at a spot and then looks up. “I don’t know. That’s a tough question.”
“Do you feel loved?”
“Do you feel liked?”
“Do you think she is happy?”
“No,” he mumbles.
‘What do you think is causing her unhappiness??”
He crosses his hands across the chest in a cliché body-language kind of way.
“I think she is unhappy that I’m not meeting her expectations.”
“Do you know how she likes to be loved? As in what’s her language of love?”
“Words of affirmation.”
He says he hasn’t spoken to anyone about this. Not his closest friends, nobody. I ask him what has to happen now for this marriage to work and with his hands still crossed across his chest, he says for sure that it’s not more money. “It doesn’t matter how much I make, money will never make her happy. They say the number one issue in marriage is money, whether you have less of it or more of it.” Pause. “I don’t think any amount of money will fix this marriage. What will fix this marriage for me is if she starts appreciating me, not as a perfect man but as a man who tries his best.”
“Is this the end of the rope?” I ask him.
“I have some rope left. When you have children you don’t run out of rope fast. You sacrifice your happiness for them. I think it is the right decision for me now because I don’t have the fortitude to leave. I’m trying to balance my personal happiness and the happiness of those around me.”
In his email Paul had mentioned that he had yet to stray but was thinking about it. He now says it was a thought he considered, toyed with, but didn’t go through with it because he doesn’t “go to nightclubs anymore.” I silently chuckle at that purity. As if men who have affairs only meet these girls in nightclubs. That sounds so 1976, like meeting girls in a “disco.”
“Tell me something nice about her. What do you like about her?” I ask.
“She’s resilient.” He pauses and thinks hard. “Attractive. When things are good we have some very good conversations. You know, the funny thing is that even though we come from the same tribe and area in shags, we seem to have different outlooks in life.”
I ask him what he thinks she would complain about him if I asked her what frustrates her in the marriage. “She is not happy with my involvement in the spiritual life of the family. Faith is key to her but for me I have had a checkered spiritual life, it’s not agnostic, but it might be in a few years or so. I’m a logical thinker, have you read Sapiens by Yuval Noah? Fantastic book. Look I have done whatever I can. I’m the one who wakes up every Saturday morning to take our child to catechism classes. Is that not involvement enough? I also think she would say that I’m not a good financial planner and that she might not have confidence in my financial leadership of the family. Which is unwarranted because we save in treasury bills, we have paid off the house, we have invested in real estate….is that not planning enough?”
“How do you personally think you fail as a husband?”
“I guess I don’t communicate. I don’t tell her what’s going on in my mind as I should though that’s because how I process things is different from the way she does. The fundamental issue seems to be her past, this fear that everything will come tumbling down, so she requires me to have a plan A to F and to review it every month like she does. I have a fundamental belief that things will be fine. She disagrees.”
We have been talking for two hours. I pay the bill. We stand outside in the parking lot, talking. He thinks that marriages should be like a driver’s licence which you renew upon expiry. “I think people should get married in blocks of five years. At the end of the fifth year you all sit down and decide if both of you want to renew your marriage. If one partner doesn’t, the marriage ends. That way nobody has to feel compelled to stay married if it’s not working for them.”
Yes, I have read your emails and yes, I’m getting a man who says he’s happily married. Give me a week or two. The world is not ending.