“Will you be completely honest and raw?” I asked. “None of that boring perfect-husband spiel?”
“Of course,” he said. “But you have to protect my identity.”
“No, I mean you really have to protect my identity,” he stressed. “If she finds out this character is me…my wife doesn’t forgive or forget easily.”
“I got you. We are on the same side,” I said. “The losing side.”
He laughed. “No, but I’m serious, man.”
“Don’t worry. I will marinate this story. She will have to be a genius to know it’s you.”
“She is a genius,” he said.
“Well, let’s see then.”
They say people change. That the person you married will not be the same person in five, ten, fifteen years. They lied. Because my wife has never changed. She snores. She has always snored. I think we have been married long enough (over a decade) to know that she will never stop snoring. I wish I could say that I have gotten used to her snores. I haven’t. I can’t. She still wakes me up with her snores. It’s like sleeping next to a big cat. It’s a deep and low growl, like she’s constipated…or she’s giving birth to a tree. We are so unalike, it’s amazing this marriage is still going strong; she likes to sleep with her head all covered (I have never understood it) like she’s scuba diving whereas I could never cover my head because I’d suffocate and die. So when she snores with her whole head submerged under the duvet, her snore is amplified and I can feel it trapped in our bed. I can feel it desperately looking for a way to escape but not finding one, so it stays in there, angry, like a cornered animal. My wife doesn’t have a raspy voice by any chance. She’s a petite girl with a sweet and consistent voice but when she snores it sounds like Leonard Mambo Mbotela is in bed with me. Often, like one would lift the edge of the duvet to release a fart (yes, I’m the farter, she’s the snorer. One has to bring something, a weapon, to the marriage), I sometimes lift the edge of the duvet and try to release the snores out. It’s an exercise in futility.
We met through my small sister. They were best friends. Thick as thieves. There is a seven year age-gap between my sister and I. Technically I started checking her out when she was underage; 17 years, and in Form Three. I was winding up with university, already a big boned boy playing a lot of contact sport. I struggled with weight in my teenage years and twenties. At 18, I looked like I had worked in the transport business as a loader for a decade. I was Goliathian – but circumcised, unlike Goliath. I also had some anger issues, which I’m not willing to get into now, because this is not therapy. I wasn’t bullied because of my size, I was the bully in primary school. I was that boy who during break-time would lead a bunch of boys around the yard, looking to start trouble. Boys feared me. Girls hated me. Secretly, I hated myself too.
I grew a beard in my second form, a big massive beard. I was called Father Abraham in high school. My hair just grows fast. Now when I go for a meeting and see men my age who have small sprouts of hair on their chins I wonder if they have wet dreams to go with those smooth chins. Anyway, so you can imagine that when she was 17 and I was 24, big boned and heavily bearded (couldn’t be bothered to shave often) I must have looked like a child molester; watching her as she came home to visit my sister during school holidays. They’d be locked in her room the whole time, giggling. I didn’t make a move. Never said a word to her apart from “hello” or “how’s school?” or “what do you want to study in uni?” or “I’m going to the supermarket, do you girls want anything?” Also, I was a virgin. Like her. I suppose. I hope.
Now – because of quarantine – I wake up before my wife. For over a decade, she has woken up before me during weekdays. It now feels like another lifetime when I used to hear her at 4am, sweeping through the house, making sandwiches for our children, packing them in colourful food tins, the fridge constantly opening and closing, her footsteps muffled by old slip-ons from a hotel (she picks them up when we travel, she also picks all those miniature showers gels. And never uses them. I think it’s a mental condition) but audible at this hour of the morning. Eyes half closed, contemplating getting out of bed but not mustering enough resolve, I see her shadow shuffling around under the thin lit strip under our bedroom door. Then the sound of the children waking up, the complaints, the threats, the cries sometimes, the younger one saying she is sick, that she has a fever (“mom, feel my forehead”), the middle one talking about a nightmare she had and the eldest asking if dad signed her trip form. Then the door is suddenly kicked in and the eldest is brandishing the letter from school in my face – no good morning dad, no how did you sleep dad – demanding why I haven’t signed the trip form. Never mind that the trip is to go to a bloody butterfly farm at 10K for a whole day. You’d imagine that for 10K they’d watch the whole five stages of a butterfly’s life span. Nope. Just the butterflies, already adults, flying about. Schools are thieves. A den of crooks. So my mornings always start with a confrontation, because I’m not paying 10K for a butterfly trip, not when I paid 25K for piano lessons and another 15K for swimming lessons. I just don’t have any more money. Not for bloody butterflies. How is seeing a butterfly going to make her a decent citizen?
“I don’t have the money, sweetheart,” I tell her, speaking away from her face because she might call out my morning breath and hurt my feelings in the process. That is not how I want to start my day; with bruised feelings.
“I will be the only one who won’t go for this trip,” she moans, half-lying on me in bed. She’s pressing my chest. I….I…I can’t…I can’t breathe.
“You will go for the next one, sweetheart.”
“I want to go for this one. My best friend is going!”
My wife and my sister had a big fall out just after they finished high school. I learnt from her when I ran into her at an education expo at Sarit Centre, a year after she was done with university. She was looking to go abroad for her master’s degree. I was at Sarit for a much less impactful errand: to buy a toaster because I love bread. I didn’t recognise her, she recognised me. I was easy to recognise because, not to belabor this point, I was still heavily bearded and big boned. You couldn’t miss me if you were blindfolded. Anyway, I was like a landmark. So we started dating – not right there on the floor of Sarit Centre, of course – but months later. Eventually I (selfishly) convinced her not to go for her master’s abroad. I convinced her with my intense and unwavering love. OK, I also made her pregnant. Rather, she let me make her pregnant. If I knew that baby would one day grow up to demand 10K to see a butterfly, I’d have let her go for her master’s abroad.
Now I leave my wife in bed at 6:30am, head completely covered like a snoring mummy. The eldest is usually still asleep in her room, the middle one and the youngest sitting (like miniature buddhas) about 0.2inches from the TV, watching cartoons. They love each other, those two, more than they love us. “Good morning, little people,” I tell them, perching myself on the arm of a sofa. They don’t say a word, neither do they acknowledge my presence. That’s not uncommon, I’m used to being ignored in this house. It stopped bothering me. Sometimes you just have to make peace with your position in the domestic pecking order.
My wife has a strict weekend rule not to be woken up until 9am. You can, but she will stab you in your right eye with an eye pencil. So, nobody knocks on her door. Nobody walks into our bedroom. (Except me, obviously. I pay rent. Kinda.) Our children know this rule. I know this rule. And it works. Now – in this quarantine season – the 9am rule applies daily. She doesn’t emerge until 9am even if she’s been long awake and is in bed on her laptop. All weekends I brew her coffee (I don’t drink coffee) from a fancy coffee-maker she bought. I love the experience of making her a cup, standing there watching the coffee drip into the jar. It’s my constant service to her. Now – because nobody leaves for work – I make her coffee every day. She likes her coffee very strong and very black. I’m tempted to say “like me”, but it’s the kind of thing that would make her roll her eyes. Before she drinks her coffee, my wife is tempestuous and combative. We have had our worst fights in the morning before her coffee. She’s highly unreasonable, sulky and emotional before her caffeine fix. She’s an addict. Once she has taken a cup (it’s always just one a day) she turns into this very balanced person with kind eyes again. Coffee keeps our marriage together.
When you stay in the house with your wife the whole day you find out things about her that you completely detest. Things you hadn’t realised in the past decade-plus of marriage. It’s like a new discovery, like meeting someone new. Because the act of leaving for work in the morning and spending the whole day apart really hides certain realities of marriage. I did some math and realised that on a normal working week, we spend about 24 hours a week together. (Not counting when we are asleep). Now we spend 84 hours together. It’s both good and bad.
During this time of quarantine, I have realised that I wouldn’t be crushed if we didn’t grow old together. If we broke up after our last born has gone to university, I wouldn’t be terrified of starting over. And not because I don’t love her. One afternoon, as she sat out on the balcony, talking on the phone with her sister abroad, I wondered if I’d miss her terribly if I was 60 and we were apart. I guiltily accepted that I wouldn’t. So when she finished her phone call I joined her on the balcony and after thirty minutes of mundane conversation I tactfully steered the conversation there and asked her if she would struggle to start over if – hypothetically, of course – she found herself single at 60.
“Are you dead or you ran off with Mildred*?” She asked, raising her leg to step on the railing. Mildred is a girl I had a brief fling with ages ago (we were in a very bad place in the marriage) and it’s now the national anthem in our house. Although it was many years ago, that name is so toxic that even when we are watching TV and a character with that name comes on, it changes the mood of the room. I normally see her, from the corner of my eye, glaring at me, wanting to stab me in the neck with her eye pencil. I wish screenwriters would stop using that name.
“I’m dead,” I mumbled, wishing I hadn’t brought up this damn topic.
“I’d start over, life is short,” she said without missing a beat. “You don’t think I’d find a partner?”
“I think you would.” I also meant it. She doesn’t look her age. She eats right, doesn’t drink and exercises.
“I believe that anybody can start over if they wanted it and find love.”
It’s how she said it, with a longing in her voice, that made me question how happy she was in the marriage.
My wife made me lose weight early in our marriage. She introduced these terrible diets at home; lots of traditional vegetables for one. And smoothies. I grew up with a father that believed eating vegetables was a sign of poverty. So most of what we ate was meat and rice or chapati or warus. Occasionally we ate ugali. My wife – who isn’t from my tribe – brought in a healthy diet of veggies and fruits and exercise. Eventually – over a couple of years – I slowly shed off a lot of my weight. I will give her that. She’s the first woman who also made me feel desirable beyond my money. (I was making some good money before and a few years into the marriage. Now not anymore because I’m paying 10K for butterflies). I played karate for the longest time, channeling my aggression into my kicks and punches. I was angry and my anger was linked to my weight and a bit of my childhood that I won’t say here. In retrospect, my wife somehow knew all this and she knew what to do. I’m fairly balanced now. Fairly. And certainly a better man.
My normal day now is bland. Sometimes I sit in the living room and watch Netflix with my headphones on because the children draw a timetable for who watches what on TV. I’m never included in that timetable so the only time I watch it is when everybody has gone to bed. Often I watch the children ride their bikes. We normally eat lunch together. Most afternoons I nap. Sometimes I offer to drive to the supermarket to fetch something just to leave the house, to leave my children, to leave my wife, the house help, and the familiar walls of my house. But often, that plan is ruined when my children insist on coming with me and so in the car I have to listen to their incessant chatter through their face masks. I have to say, children can get exhausting.
I can’t go to the carwash. (Insert wife’s voice: “What do you need a clean car for now?”) I can’t meet friends. (Unsafe). I can’t go to the bar. (Closed). I don’t keep drinks in the house because my wife doesn’t drink so she forbids alcohol “around children.” At the beginning of the quarantine, I was dying for a drink, so I bought a six-pack of cold beers and – at dusk – sat alone in my car at the parking lot, drinking my beers listening to Homeboyz Radio. This was until my wife knocked on the driver’s window and said, “What picture are you showing the neighbours?” I looked around. There were no neighbours in sight. They were all in their houses, preparing for dinner. She didn’t say anything else. She just walked away. That ruined my drinking. You can’t continue drinking after that kind of passive aggression. I packed it up and went inside the house.
I don’t do anything in the house. I have never learnt how to. I’m bored out of my ass. I’m bored of my children, which sounds like a bad thing to say if you’ve not had children and you aren’t spending all your time hearing them fight, watching them eat, fight with each other, or fight over whose turn it is to watch TV or why they don’t want to shower. My wife seems bored of them too but mostly she seems bored of me. I’m bored of her too, most days, because I don’t have an opportunity to miss her and she’s always fighting me. She seems to be always fighting me because I do nothing around the house, I use a fresh glass each time to drink juice or water and leave them lying around, I seem to nap all the time, I don’t help with the children’s schoolwork because I don’t understand what these kids are learning nowadays. (I have a Master of Aerodynamics and Computation. Good luck in finding a job with that). I feel like she likes to pick on me now because I’m a low hanging fruit. The other day she stood over me where I was trying to nap. “Why do you sprinkle pee on the floor of the toilet when you pee? Are you 12, surely?”
“It’s not me!” I protested.
“So, what, it’s Mark? [Our son].”
“It must be!”
“Mark doesn’t use our toilet!”
“Maybe he did this time.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m the mother, I know my children more than you do.”
“OK, then, I will be more careful next time,” I mumbled.
We have such fights nowadays: I left the wet towel on our bed after showering. I forgot to buy mixed spices even after her reminding me a million times. I bit an apple and returned it to the fridge. I giggled at something on WhatsApp. I lost the cap of our toothpaste. My movie on my laptop is too loud or too violent for the children. (I was watching Sicario). I shaved and left my hair all over the sink. I bought tangerine instead of lemon. I shouted at our middle one for trying to pee from the balcony. I tried to pee from the balcony. I bought children ice cream in the supermarket. I said the fish was “slightly under cooked” on the inside. I farted before I was fully asleep. (She somehow allows it if I’m fully asleep). I didn’t let the water run in the sink after brushing my teeth. I didn’t fully close the tap of the shower. I used a bad word in front of the children. (Is “shit” a bad word?).
Some good news. Our sex life has improved during this coronavirus season. That’s because she’s no longer tired and I guess her irritation towards me turns her on. We used to average once a week, but we could also go for two weeks without any sex. Now it’s more frequent, three times a week on some weeks. The week Kagwe announced that Kenya had surpassed 100 infections, we had sex three days in a row. I think it was a survival instinct – to populate the earth and increase chances of our offspring’s survival.
What has changed though is the timing. Normally we would have sex at night because we have children. And more often than not, missionary position. If we spice it up, she gets on top. (She should, she’s lighter and fitter than me). Or I get behind. I hate going behind because I hurt my knees during karate. You could argue that I stand by the bed but our bed is so high that I’d need to step on the kid’s stepping stool to reach her spot. Now, thanks to coronavirus, we often have sex before 9am when there is no chance of someone knocking on the bedroom door whining, “Mark is calling me bad names!” We cuddle mostly, even after being married so long. I’m not a cuddler, she is. I’m a farter.
It’s strange having sex when it’s so bright outside. And her lips taste of coffee. Afterwards she showers for 20mins making sure she doesn’t leave any traces of my DNA on her. She still looks beautiful naked, my wife. She looks beautiful because she works at looking beautiful.
I no longer take calls from my female friends during this quarantine season. At least not friends she doesn’t know. One time, the middle one was watching YT Kids from my phone when my phone rang and he shouted from the living room, “Dad, Lucy is calling!” I almost collapsed. I bet the whole neighbourhood heard him. I wondered if this kid was really my son, my own flesh and blood. My wife and I were in the bedroom changing into our sporty clothes to go for our evening walk. I could see her tense up immediately. I opened the door and snatched the phone from my middle one’s puny hands. I was so guilty even though I had no reason to be. Since Mildred* I’m guilty until proven innocent. There is a way my wife can just make me feel guilty even if I’m not. It’s a look. Her body language. How suddenly the shape of her mouth changes. I took the call on the threshold of our bedroom and could literally hear my wife’s whole body listen in on that conversation. I could feel her presence behind me. Even her breathing changed, suddenly she was breathing like a big cat. That phone call must have lasted 56 seconds but I must have lost 280 calories by the end of it. I needn’t leave for my walk anymore. She never asked me about Lucy that day. Or the following day. And then one day, after I had forgotten the call, she suddenly said, “Who is Lucy?” I was cutting pawpaw for the children and almost stabbed myself in the heart with the knife. I think I must have over explained who Lucy was. She was satisfied with my innocence. Sometimes I suspect she enjoys torturing me. I think I’m in an emotionally abusive marriage, compounded with Stockholm Syndrome. So now I just ignore calls from all my female friends. It’s easier that way.
Lately days seem to blend into weeks. The weekends have shrunk into normal days. I no longer have any income coming in, not since six months before Coronavirus. I have almost exhausted my savings. My wife now brings in the bacon as I stay on the phone chasing debtors. Nobody is paying. Nobody can pay. It’s a difficult time. It’s harder when your wife has to wire money to the landlord. It punctures my ego. I’m increasingly feeling small, inconsequential, disempowered. I can’t make any move when nobody is leaving the house. I watch her with a mixture of envy and fear, always on her work Zoom calls as she jots down on her notepad, being productive, building her career in this ruin of Coronavirus.
I don’t know how this will shift the power in our house. I don’t know how long she will be the breadwinner before she starts resenting me. I know her fighting me about sprinkling urine on the bathroom floor is not as a result of her paying the rent but soon I might start thinking it is because of paranoia. (Note: it’s hard not to sprinkle on the floor when you are shaking after use. You need a penis to understand.)
I have an elderly uncle who once told us that a woman is like a bank account. You have to keep putting in deposits otherwise you will never be able to withdraw anything. You put in nothing, you get nothing. You put in a lot, you get more interest. And you put in by showing her love. By being attentive. By listening. By being kind. By taking her to dinner once in a while. By being thoughtful. By going out of your way sometimes to do things she finds important. By holding an umbrella over her head. By sacrificing for her. Opening her door. Taking her side. You keep putting in this bank because when dry times come, when times like these come, then she will be full and she will give you back. If you never put in anything, if you never invested anything, you will have nothing to get back in return when you need it.
I sometimes wonder if I put in enough, if I invested enough in this marriage to survive this looming season I am in when I have almost nothing. I don’t know if she will love me less because I’m bringing almost nothing to the table. If she will look at me less. I don’t know anything at this point. All I know is that “shit” can’t be a bad word.
*Name has been changed.