Her first kiss didn’t destabilize her center of gravity. She suddenly didn’t feel like she wanted to lean against a wall and gather herself. Her heart skipped a beat, yes, but it didn’t gallop away with intense feelings of longing, surprise, want, ache, or any of those things you read in romance novels. And she certainly didn’t sit at a window long after that kiss, looking vacantly outside, questioning her feelings. This was mostly because it was so unexpected.
“We were seated on the lower bunk bed in the dormitory, saying our goodbyes after finishing our final exams in high school,” she says, “you know, crying and saying how we would miss each other, promising to stay in touch. Suddenly, without any warning, she leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. A full kiss, with tongue and all.”
She shakes her head now, not because it was ridiculous, I suspect, but from the overwhelming nostalgia of it. She’s got short hair, neatly manicured and dyed red ochre. A Redhead. “I didn’t imagine that my first kiss was going to be from a girl,” she remarks. “I hadn’t kissed anyone before – I was 17-years old – so I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about it or how it was supposed to make me feel. So if you ask me to remember exactly how I felt, I couldn’t tell you.
Thankfully, I’m not going to ask how it felt. But she does tell me that the memory of that kiss lingered for much longer than necessary. She had a high-school boyfriend then – one of those who signed off their letters with “Always and forever.”
When she got home, fresh in the “outside world” – as they dramatically called life after high school as if it was a vast sea with no sight of land – she told her mother that a girl had kissed her. (They had that kind of a relationship.) “My mom was like ‘How did this happen?’ I told her. She then asked me how I felt about it,” she says. “I told her I didn’t know.” A little white lie because she knew. The kiss hadn’t shifted her axis of living, yes, but why did it stay in her head like a song on a long loop?
“Don’t tell anybody about it,” her mom told her. So, she didn’t. It was her little memory. Over time she stopped processing it. She put it in a little box, labelled it “Shit that Happens to You that You Can’t Understand” then put it away in a pigeonhole.
Two important things then happened within the year after high school that changed the course of her life. The first one was that her father died. He fell off a ladder and broke his neck while he was fixing the television aerial. The younger chaps who were born in the internet age must be asking, “What’s a television aerial?” They will never know how it was to struggle to adjust the TV aerial in the rain while you shouted to someone in the house? “And there?!” Well young-uns, a long time ago when television sets had a hump at the back, you had to raise the aerial on the roof as high as you could to catch the signal. Sometimes it would lose signal because the damn wind blew it and it changed position and was now facing Chavakali, so your screen would have grains that we would call “mchele.” Of course now mchele means something totally different.
Anyway, her old man fell off the ladder as he was fixing the aerial. Her mother was inconsolable, completely grief-stricken. After the burial she hardly left her room. Very few things passed her lips, not food, not words. She would lie in bed the whole day, cuddling her Bible, her look faraway.
The second thing that happened in her life was that her mother died months after her father’s passing. She died of heartbreak. She had a complete inability to find any purpose or reason to live after the love of her life passed on. She willed herself to stop breathing and follow her lover. They buried her in shags, a few paces from a big lemon tree. What is it they say you do when life gives you lemons? You get too numb even to squeeze the lemons for lemon juice. You lose sensation in all your senses. Everything that has taste, smell or feeling departs your body.
Now an orphan, she moved in with her auntie, who was from hell, complete with a flying broom propped in a corner of the house.
“Because of these tragedies I couldn’t join the university even though I had scored a mean grade of A-minus,” she says. By this time she had already broken up with the boyfriend who had been signing off his letters “always and forever” and gotten a more serious guy who didn’t care much for letters. “He was a fit guy who worked in a fancy gym as an instructor. He was buff and chiseled and because I was tiny, it was perfect for me. I felt safe with him, especially after having lost both my parents and was dealing with my aunt’s drama,” she remarks. “He also had an amazing sense of humour and was romantic. He would buy me cards and take me to the movies and I’d laugh at his jokes.” I don’t know why as she describes this guy the image that comes to mind is of Fresh Freddy, the Close Up advert dude.
One day she went over for a sleepover in Fresh Freddy’s house and since he was always fresh and had a big honest grin, he lit one candle in the bedroom, the type that smells of Blueberry scones and told her that it “wasn’t going to hurt at all.” She was twenty. Then he popped her cherry. She laughs. “I don’t even know why humans say that – pop her cherry.”
“How was it having your cherry popped?”
She shrugs. “Mills and Boon lied. It wasn’t exactly magical.”
Eventually she moved in with him. It was an easy decision given the kind of stressful and unhealthy environment in her aunt’s household. Also, he was much older – seven years older – looked great, made her laugh, was kind and he felt woishe for her. “I considered marrying him. I met his family and all that.” But she didn’t and her reason was because of something that might look inconsequential. One time she was sitting in the living room with him and his friend, who mentioned that she was very intelligent. “He sniggered at that statement. He undermined me. I felt immediately that I couldn’t deal with someone like that. It showed how he felt about me, less!” she says. “I think he might have felt threatened by me because I had scored A-minus in high school and he was a gym instructor. He wanted me to remain at his behest. So from that day I started making plans to leave him. I couldn’t, however, leave him immediately because where would I go?”
Some friend of her mom had invited her to join her in Diani because there were opportunities there given that tourism was booming. One day she bought a one-way ticket to Diani and broke up with Fresh Freddy. In Diani, she got a job as a cleaner in some posh villas that overlooked the ocean. The compound had massive palm trees and green lawns, ponds, small bridges, a sauna, swimming pools and a small stretch of beach. It was mostly frequented by wealthy Europeans – Germans predominantly – and sometimes there would be the odd Nairobi types with money, renting whole villas (it was expensive in those days) and spending days drinking champagne with ballsy broads who walked around without underwear. Her job description was to clean the rooms, change the bedding, dust, do laundry, all this for five hundred shillings a villa. If she was fast she could clean all the five villas in a day. She was invisible to the guests, the shadow in uniform walking against the walls. Even though she was doing this job and it was paying her bills she knew that she deserved better.
One day an old Italian man who did nothing but lie on a pool-bed all day until he turned the colour of creme brulee called her while she was pushing a cart full of clothes by the edge of the pool area. He said, “Your English veeery good.” She stood there smiling and squinting in the sun. “You come work for me, I pay you good.” he continued. “My hotel. Yes?” She said yes. So she got a job at front office in his boutique hotel. “Money was better and now I didn’t have to clean up after anybody.”
While she picked calls she went to school part time and did a diploma in front office administration. Her job was not as intellectually stimulating as she would have wanted because, see, she is very cerebral, but her days were filled with taking calls and saying, “Of course, Mr Josef, I will have someone from housekeeping come over right away and show you how to turn on the water kettle.” Or, “Uhm, Mr Karani, uhm, there is a lady here at the main desk saying she is Mrs Karani…I’m sorry, sir…she’s light and has dimples …never heard of her?…Oh, I’m sorry to hear of your wife’s demise…..certainly sir, sorry to bother you.”
One day she was at the front desk, looking busy on the computers as they normally do in hotels, when in truth she was actually on Facebook, poking friends and waving at them. Facebook suggested that she might know Cheryl because they had five friends in common. Cheryl was the same girl who had kissed her. She hadn’t talked to Cheryl for seven years now after high school and suddenly Facebook was urging her to be friends with her. Suddenly the memory of the kiss came to her so freshly she could taste her lips. The pigeonhole had suddenly flung open and that file she had saved as “Shit that Happens to You that You Can’t Understand” was suddenly before her, urging to be revisited. “It was as if time had swiftly gone back,” she says.
So she sent a friend request. “Two days later she accepted my friend request and suddenly in between fielding inquiries from guests, we were chatting constantly. I learnt that she had completed her training as a special needs teacher and was now working for a special school.”
“Describe her for me,” I say.
“Tall. Strikingly tall. Curvaceous. Very beautiful,” she says. She went to her pictures and scrolled through them. Time had been kind to her. “Next time you are in Nairobi, we should hook up,” Cheryl told her. She said she was due to travel to her shags and so she would let her know. Three weeks later she – and a bottle of water – sat waiting for Cheryl at Trattoria.
“Were you nervous?” I ask.
“I wasn’t nervous. I was looking forward to seeing her again after so long,” she says. “I guess I was curious.” Cheryl eventually walked in; still tall, long legs eating up the room as she walked towards her. She had lost some weight since the last time they saw each other due to some health complications, but she still looked striking. They hugged and she took in a lungful of her hair. When they broke the embrace and held each other at a distance Redhead said, “You haven’t changed much.” Then, while still holding each other, she said, “Well, you are kind, but I’m much older now.”
They chatted the whole afternoon with her bag at the foot of the table. She learnt that Cheryl had adopted a daughter and she was now living with. She loved her job. In the evening they went to her place where they freshened up and went to a local pub to have drinks. They had cold beers sitting in a corner of the pub, under a big screen television. They sat close together, laughing and giggling over the roar of a football match that was going on, after which they went back home.
“There was some chemistry between us, it became apparent,” she says. “Seeing her rekindled something in me that I thought was never there. Something that was deeply familiar but also strange at the same time. Well, maybe strange isn’t the word to use…” She twists her face, thinking. “It’s like listening to a song for the first time and thinking, this song is very familiar!”
Like deja vu of sorts.
Although nothing happened that night, on her way back to Diani the next day she was taken back to the past. “I thought about that kiss again, but in a broader context. I wondered why it happened. Why did I not get offended? Or repulsed? Why didn’t I react to it? What did it mean?” She pondered over this throughout the journey to Diani and for days after that. “When we chatted I asked her about it and she said she was attracted to me, that seeing me rekindled something in her. The funny thing is that without thinking about it, I blurted out that I was attracted to her as well.”
Uttering those words was in itself a point of departure. We wouldn’t call it freedom because we are not dramatic, but it was a definitive point in this story; the acceptance. “But that’s not when I knew for sure I was a lesbian,” she says. “I knew I was a lesbian when I first got intimate with her.”
“What happened for you to be sure?” I ask.
“It was different. It came naturally,” she says. “I didn’t struggle with the physical intimacy.”
“Is being a lesbian something that was always there lying inert, a part of you, or was it something about your socialisation or your environment?”
“I believe it has always been there,” she says. “Always underlying. What I needed was a catalyst.”
They started this long distance relationship where after every two months or so she would take the bus from Diani and come to Nairobi. They were girlfriend and girlfriend. One time when she was visiting, a man walked into the house while she was chilling with her girlfriend’s cousins in the living room. There is a way a guy can walk into a lady’s house that will leave no doubts as to who he is to the lady of the house. It’s how he keeps rearranging the room with his presence. It’s subliminal.
“Later I asked her who that was and she said, he was a guy who liked her.” She says.
“You were jealous.”
“No, it’s a free country,” she says. She likes to say that, and that wasn’t the last time she would use that phrase during the interview- it’s a free country.
Anyway, a few months later she visited again. That evening she sat on her bed watching Cheryl take off her work clothes. She was shocked to see that her body had changed so she asked, “Sweetheart, are you pregnant?!”
“Pregnant,” she repeated, “are you pregnant?!”
Cheryl put her hands on her belly and nodded morosely.
“Are you serious?!”
“It just happened!” Cheryl squelled, as if to imply that she stubbed her toe.
“It just happened? How did it just happen?” She stood up. “ Things like this don’t just happen. Is it that guy I saw here last time?”
“The guy! The guy who came looking for you the last time I was here. The one with the big shoes?”
Cheryl sat down on the bed and sighed.
“I was heartbroken!” she tells me.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because she never saw the need to tell me that she was pregnant. I had to find out like this,” she says. “I wasn’t a fool. I knew that she had society to think about, the expectations. If she wanted to settle down, she ought to have told me. I mean, I was clear that I didn’t want marriage or children because if I died, who would take care of my kids? I didn’t have parents. But her? She wasn’t honest.”
She left the next morning. Cheryl called her dramatic. “She was nasty, saying I couldn’t give her what she wanted. It wasn’t pleasant. So I went back to Diani with a broken heart.” Months later she heard Cheryl gave birth and she went to see the baby. But by this time the relationship was on the ropes. So she decided to hell with it and started dating a married man. For six years.
“I was fast approaching my late twenties, that age where when I would go to shags my relatives would pester me about when I’m settling down. Having a man helped, because they could see I was making progress in that department,” she says. “I realise that what I was really doing is use him to cover a wound.”
“So what happens to your sexual orientation when you are dating a man? Is it something that you just switch on and off?” I ask.
“I didn’t want to deal with it, I guess, so I put it in a box.”
“It’s something you can just package and store away?”
“Back then I could,” she says. “I was young and I think it’s easier when you are younger but the older you get the harder it is to run away from who you are.”
“How was the sex generally with a man?”
“There were good days and bad days, but overall it was clear that this wasn’t my kind of thing,” she says. “You must be attracted for intimacy to be complete.”
“And you weren’t.”
“No. He looked good, especially in a suit.” She chuckles. “Very easy on the eye and charming. But I faked it many times.”
“The whole thing, the orgasms, the satisfaction. I faked that I was into it.”
When they finally broke up, disappointed, she vowed to focus on herself. She changed towns, running away from the ghosts of her past. She came to Nairobi and started pursuing her love for cooking by apprenticing as a chef. “I cut my hair as a sign of new beginnings. I started writing and cooking. I put my all in it,” she says. “I’m a staunch christian, so I delved deeper into ministry. I was teaching Sunday school children. I enjoyed working with children. I then started a catering business and it started blossoming.”
“Did you go on dates during this time, with men?”
“I did. I went for meals with men. I made it clear to them that I wasn’t looking to date,” she says. “And I was clear with myself that if I was to date again, I would date a woman.”
“Did you find that working in church, teaching Sunday school, conflicted with your sexuality?”
“How do I answer this?” She pauses. “I know my relationship with God. I know what the Bible says. But I also know this is not a disease you can cure. I’m being true to who I am. I don’t get into Biblical arguments about it because I know what the Bible says.”
Months dropped off the calendar. She was running a small catering business, delivering food to offices and running a small spoon in an office building in Upperhill.
One morning in July, her friend who sells handbags calls and says she has some handbags she wants to show her. She tells her to come in the afternoon when she isn’t too busy. “She shows up at 4pm with this girl, a petite girl with dreadlocks.” She was like whoa! “She looked beautiful. Soon we were talking and texting.” Then they met a couple of times. She was much younger than her. (She’s now in her mid-thirties, while the dreadlocked girl is in her mid-twenties).
“One day as I was saying bye to her, I held her hand for a little longer and felt this electricity going through me,” she says with a shiver.
“Was that love?”
“I don’t know. But what I know is I couldn’t ignore it.” She laughs. “She had great taste in music and I love good music. She was perfect.”
“How were you sure that she was a lesbian at the beginning? Can I refer to you as a lesbian? Is that appropriate terminology?”
“Yes. I’m a lesbian.”
“So, yeah, how sure were you that she was also a lesbian? Did she give off a vibe?” I ask.
“I sort of knew because my friend is bi or curious. My friend also mentioned that she – the dreadlocked girl – was having something with another girl,” she says. “But I wanted to be with her, so after hanging out a few times, I told her that I liked her and that I wanted us to have something serious.”
After a while deadlocked girl ended it with the other girl and they started dating. A few months later – early this year – they moved in together as girlfriend and girlfriend. They live on the second floor of a one-bedroom apartment with cream walls. When you open the window you can see roofs and hills on the horizon. Theirs is like any other home – except nobody leaves the toilet seat up. They share duties. They read in bed at night. They take turns to take out the trash on Saturdays. Since she’s good at cooking- and actually enjoys it, she cooks while dreadlocked girl sits on the counter, legs dangling, scrolling through her social media feeds, or reading something out loud to her. They fight. They kiss when they come from work. They pray before a meal. They tell each other if someone will be home late. They are huggers, so it’s not uncommon for them to hug each other for no reason. Well, there is a reason – life is short.
“What do you like most about her?” I ask her.
“She isn’t into superficial talk. I can’t stand small talk. I also don’t think I would have been attracted to her if she was a tomboy. Some lesbians like a girl who’s manly, but it’s not my thing. I love a girl who is girly,” she says. “I love it when we both go to the salon or spend the weekends indoors painting our nails and talking about nothing and everything.”
“Does this mean you have come out?” I ask her.
“Come out?” She resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Not in the textbook way, I haven’t. It’s our private life, so I don’t think I need to ‘come out.’” She scratches the air in quotes. “I don’t think anybody should wear their sexual orientations on their foreheads. We are just living our lives.”
“Do the neighbours know you are a couple? Do you guys exhibit PDA, holding hands and things?”
“The neighbours think we are sisters.” She chuckles. “A few friends know about us, otherwise for the most part nobody thinks anything of it. Sometimes I will call her ‘babe’ in public but then nobody thinks much of it because it’s not uncommon for women to call each other sweet names.”
I wonder what the plan is. Where does this road lead? “The plan is to enjoy ourselves and this moment. Because of the law we are never going to make it official, but marriage is something we look at differently, as a formality.”
But then there is the question of children. “I have to be realistic, because she’s 26 and I’m 36. She might want children even though I’m not keen on it. But I’m open to adoption.”
“What if one day she tells you that she wants to have children, but in a natural way?”
“It’s a free country,” she says. “I’m lucky that I don’t have pressure to get anybody grandchildren, but I’m aware that for her its different.”
I ask her if they experience the same challenges that heterosexuals who live together face. You know, someone who leaves clothes all over the place, or who doesn’t like to draw the curtains, or who comes home late, drunk, singing a terrible song, or who uses the last of toilet paper and doesn’t dispose the cusk.
“What do you ladies fight about often?”
“Well, she’s a major procrastinator, her sense of urgency is zero. I have obsessive compulsive disorder so I want my things in a certain order and condition. She is the messy type who needs cleaning up after. She wakes up and prefers to watch TV rather than doing chores. So while I’m dusting and cleaning she’s watching something on Youtube,” she says. “She also loves loud music. I don’t. I like to budget but she likes to spend and let tomorrow take care of itself. Being younger than me she sometimes wants to go out which is okay, but that’s not my scene anymore.”
“You have dated and lived with men, now you are dating and living with a woman,” I say. “What is the marked difference in the two?”
“Women get certain nuances that men just can’t,” she says.
“Like what? Give me an example.”
“Like she just knows when I say certain things,” she says. “For instance, when I say “fine” she will know what kind of fine I mean.”
“How many kinds of fine are there, kwani?”
“The first ‘fine’ is when say you were to go somewhere and you go home late and you say, ‘I’m sorry babe, I got caught up’ and she says, ‘its fine.’ There is a fine for ‘I don’t want to talk about this just leave me alone’ then there is the very bad fine and there is the fine for really, it’s fine.”
I’m confused. But then again, I’m a man, we live in the endless female corridors of confusion.
Their domesticity is working just fine. She’s happy. Very happy, she says. She’s controlling what’s in her control to control and leaving the rest to the forces that own that control. She says this will work as long as there is “willingness on both parties to make it work.” But she’s clear about many things, but what she wants to come out strong is that she’s more than just her sexuality. “Nobody walks around with their bedrooms.”
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