She will talk about the loneliness. However, in order to talk about loneliness, inevitably, she has to talk about choices. But first, there was a little issue of our meeting venue because her identity had to be super anonymous. She insisted she wanted to meet in a place where nobody knows us. I honestly don’t have that problem I’m not a common face, I told her, but she on the other hand…I suggested the gardens of Moonflower Restaurant at Palacina. She said no, she knows people who frequent the place. There is a balcony restaurant/ bar at the rooftop of the Executive Residence by Best Western on Riverside Grove. She said no to that as well because someone who she used to work with now works there or she suspects still works there. At my wits end and as a last choice, I suggested any cafe in Sultan Hamud, 110kms from Nairobi. We could Uber to the SGR, jump onto the train (sit in different compartments to shake off these people she thinks will suddenly find us talking) then just as we are nearing Sultan Hamud, start a fire in the cabin and in the ensuing melee slip out and abandon the train, then walk the rest of the way. Then we’d find a cafe next to a butchery, sit at a corner table, hurdled over our sugared teas. She can wear a scarf and shades the whole time, I suggested. Even that she turned down. She said it was “too dramatic.”
So I went to her apartment. Which I had to swear not to disclose or describe. (Well, I didn’t really swear, I simply said “Cross my heart and hope to die.”) When I get to her apartment, up a flight of stairs, through a doorway with the Census number inscribed above it in blue chalk, I ask her if I can use the bathroom. She points down a corridor, the door after the sink. It’s those houses that smell good. Her toilet cover has a picture of a seaside beach and a palm tree. I try not to pee too loudly. It’s intrusive to go to people’s homes and pee loudly. If they can hear it over the hum of the microwave, it’s loud. I look around her bathroom as I pee. There is a small clothe’s string that runs across the shower area. A parade of thongs line it, slivers of cloth that are so small they look like colourful strips of spaghetti. The hand soap smells fantastic. There is a small silver can which I press for hand lotion. That smells good too.
I find her pouring hot water into a mug. “Your house smells so good.” I tell her. She smiles politely. She has an old smile. Her smile doesn’t match her youthfulness. It’s like a smile she’s using temporarily as her real smile charges back in her bedroom. She: “Some tea?” I ask for green tea. She doesn’t have green tea but she has purple tea which turns out isn’t even purple in colour. We settle down in a small dining table by a window and an open door that opens into a balcony from where we can see the cars on the road below. The sheer door curtain occasionally twirls in a slight breeze.
“Where do I even start.” She says holding her mug with both hands to warm them. She looks somewhere faraway without looking anywhere. Her mug is written This May Contain Wine.
“I met Mike* through a colleague of mine, 11 years ago.” She says. They met at a seminar in Mombasa. The colleague knew Mike’s sister and they were introduced during tea break when participants mill about eating samosas and other mini bitings, lanyards hanging from their necks, trying to sound knowledgeable and engaged when all they are waiting for is the evening cocktail when they can let go of these stuffy personas and release their true selves. “He was manly.” She recalls.
“Like, what, he had hair on the back of his hands?” I ask.
“That’s your idea of manly?” She asks amused.
“That and hair on the back.”
“Ha-ha.” She adds. “No, it wasn’t anything about that, it was his… physicality.”
“Yeah. He isn’t ati a handsome guy…as in you wouldn’t remember him as the hot guy in the room, but he had that manly personality. He had presence.”
“Like an energy, a manly energy.”
“Yeah! Something like that.”
“I hate such guys.” I say.
“You know, walking around with their physicality.” I lean on the word. She thinks I’m joking but I’m serious. On the road I never let guys with physicality join in; let them stay there with their physicality. Use it as a staff to part open traffic.
She says. “I don’t know how to put it, but when I met him I was simply overwhelmed by his persona…maybe overwhelmed is not the right word…I was taken by his manliness. He had this stare, he’d look at me and I’d feel owned by him. Like he’d say come, follow me, and I’d follow him. You know?”
“No. I don’t.”
He called her a week after the conference. (Let’s call her Rose, shall we?) He invited her for a drink and they met at Tamasha one Saturday afternoon, he liked Tamasha because it was unpretentious and laid back. “I didn’t think it was a date because he was with his friends and their chicks. It was fun.”
“What did you discover about him in that meeting away from the seminar?”
“That he was the alpha male.” She laughs when I roll my eyes. Now on top of having the whole physicality, he had to also be an alpha male. “No, really, it’s how you could tell he was the leader of the group of his friends even though he was the youngest of them. His friends were a bit older than him. He was in his late 30s then and most of his friends were in their 40s but you could tell how he controlled the table without even being loud or sijui ati pushy.”
At the parking lot later, he kissed her. He didn’t dilly or dally. He didn’t tell her, “You are beautiful” or “I had a great time today.” He didn’t hold her hand and stare long into her eyes before he kissed her like a character in a Tyler Perry movie. He didn’t pretend to hug her first, or touch her face. That’s not what a man with physicality does. “He held the back of my neck with his big hands and he kissed me. A deep kiss. No preamble.” She said. “I honestly didn’t see it coming. It took me by complete surprise. And what happened next was even more confusing; after kissing me, he didn’t say anything, he simply opened my car door and I don’t remember getting in.” She laughs. “I don’t remember anything but how hot my face was, how my neck seemed to be on fire. He said, let me know when you get home, and he simply walked back to his friends in the bar.”
She looks deep into her cup and sighs, as if she can see the scene unfold again in her cup, this crystal ball with purple tea that isn’t purple. Thus started a confusing relationship – with a surprising kiss at the parking lot of Tamasha. “It wasn’t exactly a relationship. It was more like a sexual relationship at first because we didn’t hang out a lot. He would come over to my place because it was conveniently near where both our offices were and we would just listen to music and have sex.” She says. “He had fine taste in everything; music, clothes…everything he owned was nice. He loved hats and his hats were the kind of hats people constantly stole.”
This went on for months: Mr Physicality showing up in his hats at hers after work and over the weekend when he would often spend over. His attire started accumulating in her house: his ties, pants, shirts, socks, hats. “I spent over at his house a few times.” She says. “Other than a toothbrush that looked feminine there was no indication that a woman lived there.” She says before getting up to make more tea. She leaves me there wondering what a “feminine toothbrush” looks like.
“He was one of those guys who you didn’t want to question too much.” She says when she settles back with her tea. She makes a thinking face; creased brows. “It’s how self assured he was…like…he was above questioning. I guess he wasn’t used to being questioned, or challenged, so he always made you hold yourself back.”
Sometimes he’d be off range a whole weekend. Often his messages would go unanswered for long. “He had a bad relationship with his phone, he acted like it was a bother, so often he’d leave it in the car or forget it at home. So it wasn’t uncommon for him to be gone for days without a word. He was a strange guy.”
They travelled a bit, he liked safaris. The kind who owned a safari hat. One time they had gone to the Maasai Mara when her phone rang. It was a number she didn’t know so she ignored it and they went for candle lit dinner, at the balcony of the restaurant overlooking the vast darkness of the Mara, the sounds of the nocturnal wild, coming to them through the still, sweet smelling but ominous darkness. The sky was lit by a galaxy of stars that seemed so close she could see them in his eyes. “It was perfect, until my phone started vibrating.” She says, leaning back with a sardonic smile. “I kept ignoring it but he looked at it and said, ‘Pick it,’ so I picked it. It was a lady.”
The lady said, “Hi, is this Rose?” She said, “Uhm who is this?” The lady said, “This is Martha*. May I please speak to Mike?”
“She was so decent and kind-sounding, I didn’t even think twice about handing him the phone in spite of how strange the whole thing was.” She says.
With a puzzled look he took the phone and put it against his ear. Suddenly he looked like all the air was knocked out of him. He pushed back his chair and walked away. She sat there staring at her glass of wine and waited for what seemed like an eternity. When he sat back down they didn’t speak for a moment, as if they both wanted to enjoy the few seconds of the special moment before words completely ruined it. “Who was that?” She finally asked, knowing the answer before he said, “That was the mother of my child.”
“This was like six months into this relationship. I had never heard of a baby.” She tells me bringing the cup to her mouth with both hands. “I asked him how old this baby was and he said one year old.”
“Are you with the mother?” She asked him.
“Yes.” He said. “Sort of.”
“What does sort of mean?” She asked. “You are with her some days of the week and others you aren’t?”
She sighed and slumped back in her chair, like a deflated balloon. He reached out to hold her hands but she retracted them and kept them under the table. She stared out into the darkness, out there where a pride of lions were starting a hunt, headed by a lioness because lions are too busy grooming their manes to be bothered with getting blood on their paws. She wondered how such a perfect moment can turn so sour in two shakes of a duck’s tail. What a waste of stars. She sipped her wine and barely heard him say things before cutting him short. “I’m going to bed.”
She stood up, dropping her napkin on her untouched dessert, spoiling the pastry chef’s art. A Maasai guard with a big rungu walked her to their tented room. She had packed flimsy things for this romantic trip in the bush. Things you could see through. Things you could eat through. Things that elicited desire, things for the bush that brought out the bushmen in people. Instead she wore to bed things you could bungee-jump in. “That night we had a major row.” She says. “If I could leave the camp that night I would have walked in that wilderness and gotten eaten by wild animals.”
“Where was his family the days you visited?” I ask.
“Well, he said they only moved in not long ago because his child was asthmatic and he needed to be there.” She says. “But he insisted that they were not married, it was a temporary arrangement.”
They came back to Nairobi and she told him to sod off; take your hats and wear them into the sunset. But he came back the next day with apologies. And the next. And the next. He kept insisting that there was nothing between him and her, that he was being a responsible person, a caring father. “I told him a responsible man would be with his sick baby at home, not dining another woman in the Mara, having his wife look for him through another woman.” She sniggers. “But I was already in love with him and he was a good guy, plus our sex life was through the roof, so I eventually took him back.”
“What about his baby momma, how did she find your number, did you ever speak to her again?”
“I will come to that.” She says.
But she just didn’t take him back, she sat him down and told him that she planned to get married. “I was categorical. That was one of the things I was clear about before we got back together. I’m not the type who sits on the side, I’m not the other woman. I want a wedding and a husband who I’m not sharing with someone else.” She said. She grew up in a stable home; mother, father, children, Bible, family car, Sundays spent together, family portraits and holidays spent together praying and eating. Order. No drama with parents. Well adjusted. “There was never a doubt that I wanted what my parents had.”
He agreed to marry her “with time” and so they started dating again until eight months later when she saw on Facebook that he had gotten married the weekend he said he would be away at work. “I was in the salon when my friend called me and said she saw someone who is a friend of a friend’s page that had posted a picture of someone who looked like Mike getting married.” She says. “I told her it was impossible, Mike was in Dubai. His phone had rung like he was abroad. She insisted that the gentleman was Mike. She sent me a picture and sure, there was Mike in a suit dancing with a woman in a wedding dress. I couldn’t even breathe. I felt like my bowels would open right there. I didn’t even finish doing my hair, I simply stood up and left.”
With half unfinished hair she went to her car and tried to take in as much air as she could, but she was suffocating. With trembling hands she called his phone, it rang like he was in Dubai but nobody picked it. She called again. And again. Finally someone picked. It was his best friend, who happened to be the Best Man. “Mike is not near his phone now, but I will have him call you.” He said. “Where is he?” She demanded.
“Listen, Rose.” the Best Man finally said. “You will find out sooner or later and I wish he was the one to tell you this but Mike just got married.”
She now laughs. “You know, I don’t know what I was thinking even asking where Mike was. I had seen him getting married, yet I was hoping it was all a lie. But it wasn’t. I was crushed. I sat in my car and cried for hours. I couldn’t even drive, so I called my friend who came and drove me home.”
For two weeks she was sick -she couldn’t leave her bed. She stayed in crying. She didn’t care if she was fired from her job. She didn’t care if she decayed in bed. She woke up crying and went to sleep crying, only getting up to drink water. Her best friend would pass by every evening to try to force her to eat, but she would just throw it all up. “I felt betrayed. I felt worthless. I felt cheated.” She says. After two weeks she crawled out of bed and wore black clothes to the office. Her best friend had gone to work and told them she was depressed. “So at work people were treating me with kid gloves,” she laughs, “Like I was crazy. I waited for Mike to call me. I waited for him to come back from his honeymoon and explain whatever that was about. I needed closure, answers. He never called.” She shakes her head in disbelief.
Two months went by, no call from him. “It was strange. It was like he never knew me. In fact, the only evidence that I used to know him were his clothes in my wardrobe, which I trashed after one month of mourning.” Mike never called. He simply vanished. Months rolled by.
“I got into a period that I call my whoring days.” She says. Her tea is now over. “I was drinking a lot and sleeping with men. One night stands were my specialty. I was bitter. You can’t imagine how easy it is to pick men from bars if you are even half beautiful. I never had a problem getting a man. I sat alone at the counter and flirted with unaccompanied men I found attractive. A man would ask me what I was drinking, but I would tell him, ‘No, what are you drinking’ which I’d buy him, then he’d move closer and we would drink and if I liked him I’d go back home with him. This went on for a long time, maybe a year or so, I don’t know, maybe more.”
One day she was going back home from the bar, driving her small German vehicle when she slept on the wheel. “When I woke up I was in Nairobi Hospital. I had tubes in me. The man I had carried broke both his legs. He’s still in a wheelchair up to date.” She says. (These are the people newspapers refer to as “unidentified male/ female’). Unbeknownst to her, she had been unconscious for five days in the ICU. Her brain had swelled. Her parents were in the room when she woke up. The room smelled of methylated spirit. Everything seemed bright. Her head, swathed in bandages, felt like someone had used it as the white ball in a pool game. She couldn’t hear what everybody was saying. She was awake for what seemed like a minute before she went under again.
When she woke up again briefly she was alone in a different room, this one with a TV. Then she went under again. Up again to her mother oiling her lips with vaseline. Then under. When she came up again, there were relatives and a forest of get-well cards, flowers, she was told later, were irritating her. “I couldn’t recall a thing; one moment I was driving and the next I was here. I was told the car was written off.”
The second day of her complete consciousness, she spent some time dealing with visitors then when they finally left, she had dinner and settled in to sleep. Suddenly there was a soft knock. “I thought it was one of the visitors again only to turn and see Mike standing at the door.” She says. “It was surreal, like seeing a ghost. I hadn’t seen him in something close to one year.”
He came and sat on her bed and said, “Don’t scare us like that again,” because that’s just something a man with physicality would say. She wanted to tell him, “Scare you and who, your wife?” But she was tired and weak. “I just stared at him. I think I might have asked him how his wife was. I don’t remember but I remember him coming daily to visit me after that, mostly after visiting hours and bringing me half bars of white chocolate or silly things like a half sucked lollipop or half eaten cake that he had saved for me from lunch because he knew I loved cake. He brought everything in halves. He said it’s because I was his most important half.”
I chuckle at that. Fresh Mike, fresh.
Either it’s because of the bump to her head, she says, or the near miss of death, but she grew so fond of him again in the hospital. He visited daily and she looked forward to those visitations. He seemed different; he had added weight, his shoulders rounded off in his shirts, had a bigger neck. After she got out of the hospital he continued passing by her new house to see her, bringing her groceries, skiving work to go make her meals.
“Did you ask him about Dubai?” I ask.
“That’s the code word for wedding.”
“Oh yeah, we definitely talked about it. He owned up. But you have to realise that I was recovering at that time and I was very vulnerable. Plus, him being there meant so much. I can’t explain it.” She says just as the doorbell rings. It sounds like a church bell. She gets up and goes to the door where she speaks to someone with a deep voice, then she says, “Sawa, ahsante,” then closes the door. She stands at the door reading the contents from the brown envelope before placing it on the stool near the door.
“We started seeing each other again.” She says. “I can’t explain to you why. This was something totally against how I was raised and what I wanted. Remember me saying I was never going to be the other woman? Life, I tell you because there I was.”
“Did that mark the end of what you call your whoring days?”
“Pretty much.” She cringes. “A near fatal road accident changes you. It marked the end of my drinking and picking up men, except there was this one guy I liked during those days who stayed around on and off. His name was Micah -”
“Like Micah from the Bible?”
“Yah. By the way what big thing did Micah do?”
“I don’t know. He’s like Habakkuk. Nobody really knows what that Habakkuk guy did.”
We share an illicitly blasphemous chuckle. “Anyway, Micah was one of the men I’d bring back home frequently.”
“Because he was just a freak, if you have to know Biko.” She laughs.
“I’m sorry, then.”
I have to go back to the bathroom. All that tea. Plus to stretch my back and take a small wee-break. The door to one of the bedrooms is ajar and I see a toy as I head back.
“So I was seeing Micah and Mike. Micah was random, he was a bit dysfunctional, drinking a lot borrowing money from me, that kind of thing. But he made me laugh, he was good with people. Mike on the other hand was sort of constant but the lines were not defined and I knew he was never going to leave his wife. We were sort of in an open relationship, sort of.”
“One day the wife tracked me to my salon. I don’t know how that woman would track me.” She says. She told her that they were expecting another child. “It was a very weird encounter but she was so sweet and I felt bad for her and for this whole situation.”
Four months after that visit and almost another year after leaving the hospital she went for her routine check up and pap smear results from her gynae. It was a Friday, she remembers, Friday afternoon, she had taken time off work. The doctor stared at her results without saying anything and immediately she knew they contained bad news. “He started counselling me…he started off with your results don’t mean the end of life… I didn’t wait for him to finish, I grabbed my results from him and right there it was; HIV positive.”
She remembers his lips moving and her slipping from her chair. She recalls the ground coming at her and then darkness. When she woke up, she was on the observation table with the clinic nurse standing over her. Her feet were propped over a pillow.
“When you are diagnosed, you sort of walk in a daze for weeks, sleepless nights. You look at your veins and imagine that your blood is dirty. You are sure your life is over. I was having nightmares where I was dying and watching myself die, my parents crying around me, my friends touching my coffin, a cheap and shiny wooden thing. I dreamed of my own funeral many times. I started losing weight because I wasn’t able to eat and feed this virus in me. Plus, I was always worrying.
“Did you tell Mike?”
“That’s the story. I suspected where I had gotten it from. It could have been Mike but most likely Micah because we stopped using condoms at some point.” She says. “But it could have been maybe one other guy I slept without a condom during my whoring days. He had lied to me that he had used a condom and since I was drunk, I didn’t bother to confirm. I only discovered in the morning, when I searched the room for used rubber and I didn’t get.”
“Yeah, I didn’t tell him. I could have told him but I opted not to at that time.”
“What stopped you?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know how he would take it. I didn’t want him to leave me. That would mean me being alone. I wanted a child, remember, now that a marriage was out of the table?”
“Why was a marriage out of table?”
“Who would marry an HIV positive woman in her 30s?” She asks bitterly. “I can’t think of anyone to be honest. It’s hard enough for a 30 year old woman without HIV to meet anyone even today.”
So she kept her status to herself. And when Mike came to see her, in his hat and proper shoes, they had sex that day. And the end of that week. And they continued having sex, her lying there knowing what she knew. She continued going for her counselling and tests to see if she could start on ARVs, her health improved.
“Every cough would scare me. Every rash. Every headache was a sign of death.” She says. “I started keeping away from people, being alone in my house, avoiding friends and family. I became very withdrawn and lonely. I was so sad that I wouldn’t have the marriage my mother and father had. That I would probably die alone. As time went by I started reading about having a baby and if my baby would be positive and during that time such information was scanty. I wanted a baby to occupy me, to give me purpose. I met a doctor who said that I could get a baby. So I removed my diaphragm without telling Mike and sure enough six months later I got pregnant.”
“What did Mike say?”
“He wasn’t ready for a baby, with me, but since he had put me through so much he sort of relented.” She says. “He was guilty from the wedding and so I could get my way with many things.”
“If he wasn’t the one who infected you, was there a chance you intentionally infected him as punishment?” I ask because I have been dying to ask.
She looks at me and for a moment I think she’s going to change her mind about the interview. “Biko.” She says, looking away. She’s quiet for a while. I can hear her leg banging against the leg of the table. She gets up and takes the cups to the sink where she takes time washing them and drying them. She might have OCD, I think, looking at how spotless everything is.
“You think that’s the case?” She asks me almost with some hostility when she gets back.
“I don’t know. I was just wondering.” I say, suddenly feeling unmoored.
She’s quiet for a while. “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.” She says. “He has a family, a wife he goes home to. What do I have? A moment, three hours with him? He sneaks around, having his cake and eating it, what do I have?”
“Do you love him?”
“So why wouldn’t you tell him?”
“It’s not that simple Biko. It may look simple but it’s not.” She says. We sit there for a bit. I’m thinking about Habakkuk now because I’m too tired to be honest. I make a mental note to Google the guy. Surely, he must have done something with his life.
She got a baby, HIV negative baby. Maybe the baby was a bouncing baby, as they say, maybe this one didn’t bounce. The baby is now old enough and was taken by one of her relatives to the mall before I came. Mike is still in the picture, oblivious of her status. Micah is a fading story. I look at her and she doesn’t look HIV positive, which is a foolish thing to say in 2019. But still.
“I thought my baby would fill me with happiness, and they do. But there is another type of unhappiness that a baby can’t fill.” She says. “It’s of knowing that I will never marry, which is something I really wanted to do. To have a wedding, a white one. To say I do, to someone who is mine, not someone who leaves. I feel that I wasted all my best life on Mike and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. Just my baby, yes, but what else? I’m HIV positive, headed to my 40s, I’m technically single with no shot at love or lasting companionship. I think about growing old alone and it fills me with dread. But I also think about dying before my baby is old enough, dying thin and wasted and bitter and leaving my baby behind and that’s even worse.”
“Is keeping the secret from Mike burdening?”
“Yes!” She says. “Oh yes. It is. Sometimes I hear of his plans for the future, things he wants to do, he’s very ambitious, and I think to myself, you have HIV, I hope you live right to see those plans happen.”
“How does that make you feel? Does it make you feel like it’s your small win?”
“Win? No. I just feel like he has to be responsible for where we are, here.”
She crosses her arms across her chest and thinks. “Sometimes I want him to share the kind of worries I have. I think he sleeps soundly next to his wife yet he doesn’t know the full story of his own life. Maybe he does.”
“What if he reads this? Won’t he know it’s you?”
“If he knows, he knows.”
“Was this your idea, him reading this and finding out?”
“No. But if he knows through the blog then he knows. We don’t choose how we receive bad news.”
Remember that old smile? She flashes it again when I leave. She walks me to the car downstairs and at the car (I’m parked under a tree that looks as old as her smile), I tell her. “One last question,” she’s standing in the sun, blocking the light with her forearm. “Who is the father of your child?”
She laughs and drops her arm. “Is it important?” She asks me to which I say, “Only if you say it is.” She looks at her feet – she’s wearing those slip on fluffy house shoes. She then says, “Only a mother knows the true father of her child.” So I bid her goodbye and as I reverse, I watch her long shadow follow her as she walks deliberately to the staircase of her house; a house full of contradiction, a house full of love born from hurt, of a heart that beats with loneliness.
As I drive out of their main gate, I think of only one thing.
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