Her lips were darker than her areola. But not dark enough to make you notice. Regardless, she remained very insecure about them. She imagined it’s the first thing people noticed about her. Not her dreadlocks that stood on top of her crown like a haunched predator, not her complexion, a cross between stirred chocolate and red clay, nor the epicanthic fold of her eyes that made holes on everything she looked at. She imagined people looked at her and thought, boy she’s got dark lips! Consequently, when she laughed she covered her mouth and looked sideways. Her lips were dark because she started smoking around the time her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was 16.
She’s forty two now. She’s propped up against a bed in an open penthouse in Shela, Lamu. It’s hot and humid but a breeze licks through the room. She’s in her sunglasses for no reason at all other than a girl can wear her sunglasses when she feels like it. She’s also naked as one should be in Lamu and the area between her breasts glistens with tiny beads of perspiration. A fan whirs overhead. She’s drinking gin and smoking and tapping the ash into a glass of water on the dresser because she’s an alpha-female, high achiever, unapologetic, cuts her nails short like a grade three boy who does his homework in the bus. She also doesn’t shave her pubic hair, as a statement of some gender revolution. A middle finger to patriarchy or whatever it is at the moment that tries to put her in a pigeon hole. But she waxes her armpits because she says her armpits are “closer to her face than her pubes.”
Her husband is lying next to her. He is the reason they are there; he turned 52 the previous day. He’d never been to Lamu before. He has no interest in travel, in the romance of beaches and sunsets and the Caucasian trivia of snorkeling. During a sunset dhow ride last evening he looked like someone who was being held against his will, forced on a boat for a trip around the lagoon. The simple explanation would be that he’s an auditor, but such things are rarely simple. He’s a teetotaler whose idea of letting loose is to untuck his polo shirt. But he’s an excellent father and a good man. While she’s more artistic; an acute problem solver, innovative and a boundary pusher, he’s a man of great cerebrum, a broad thinker and an obsessive planner. His only sin, the one she knows of at least, is golf. The only thing he spends more time on than golf is his long work phone calls. If she didn’t know better she’d have thought he was having an affair with one of those flirty girls in the country club. But he wouldn’t. He doesn’t have it in him to stray. He wouldn’t sustain a deception for as long as an affair demands. He’s too one-track minded, too pragmatic for affairs. Besides, he’s too scared to lose her, to lose the comfort and structure of marriage, to lose the title of husband and the honour of love. They had a rule that his phone would be off for once during this trip. He has instinctively reached for it ten times since they got on the island two days ago. She smirked each time and chided him.
She’s talking about her mom while blowing streams of smoke towards the fan. He is rapt in attention. These are things she’s never shared with him in the 15 years they have been married.
“I was a teenager when she fell sick, caught up in my own life, in the trivial things that teenagers are caught up in; being cool, boys….” She sighs. “ When her cancer got very bad I was already out of the house, I had a job at a small marketing agency and I had moved out into an apartment I shared with a friend. I hadn’t been home in a while to visit her. She was getting home care because there was nothing more the hospital would have done for her at this point other than get her comfortable for death. I was afraid of the phone call. You know that call of death?” She turns to look at him briefly and he catches his reflection from her sunglasses.
There was no phone call, but there was a doorbell. When she opened the door to her apartment, her father was standing there. “You need to come home.” She was with her boyfriend then, her first boyfriend. She was seventeen he was 21, a mixed-race boy who she had given her virginity to. A waste of good virginity, she liked to say. But then again to be fair to this boy, those who are handed the privilege of virginity are always undeserving of it.
“My dad said I needed to come say goodbye to her,” she says, “so I packed a small overnight bag and went home. She was in bed, fading away. For days I stayed in bed with her. She was by now a bag of bones. She spoke in whispers. I would prop her up for meals and for the drugs she was taking. The priest was called to give her final rights. I remember many relatives gathered in the room for the service as I lay with her in bed. At night she said, “I’m waiting for my uncle, grandma and grandpa, they are almost here.” These are people who were long dead. I saw the looks of the aunties who were in the room keeping vigil. I didn’t know it then, but people on their deathbed call the names of the dead. She then started breathing deeply. Deep and shallow breaths. Finally she took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Then she remained still. She died. Right there, next to me.” The tip of the cigarette crackles red as she sucks on it.
“That’s horrible, Vics.” He says.
She’s called Vicky but because he’s an auditor and he’s so busy he doesn’t have time to call her name in full, so he calls her Vics. Like Vicks Vapour Rub, only with very shapely legs but which, like Vicks Vapour rub, bring tears to the ears when you first set your eyes on them.
“Life.” She says in a dead-pan voice.
She drops the butt of her cigarette in the glass. It floats and spins like a compass point. She holds the long glass of gin against her face. “We had these very expensive cutlery, stored away for guests,” she continues, “before she died she told me, Vicky, when I die, make sure you pack all of the cups and plates in a box and keep them away quickly. I don’t want your aunties taking them away.” She laughs as she gets up to use the bathroom.
On their first date she showed up an hour late wearing something that looked like a leso dress tied around her neck. If she hadn’t been wearing red-blood lipstick she might as well have been homeless. Her dreadlocks were younger and shorter and she looked like a little revolutionary leader. “And she couldn’t stop talking. I barely got a word in edgewise. It was like she had a machine inside her, a fast talking robot that nobody could switch off.”
By the end of the date he didn’t think it was a good idea to meet again. They didn’t seem to have anything in common. She looked and behaved like a gypsy. Nothing tethered her. Her mind was wild and unrooted. They didn’t share any significant ideals. He had just come out of a wrong marriage that had lasted a year, leaving him bruised and cynical. But three nights later his phone rang at 3am, waking him up. “It was her. She sounded very cheery and happy as if it was midday. She asked me what I was doing so casually it almost felt like I wasn’t supposed to be asleep. She said she wanted to meet me that day at 10am for breakfast. She described exactly what she planned to have. She sounded like she was doing dishes. I asked her if she was sure she would make it for breakfast and she said, “yeah, I don’t sleep.”
Well, she never showed up for breakfast. And her phone was off. For two days. His phone rang again a few days later, on a Saturday. It was her. She was crying on the phone. She was incorrigible. She kept saying she was in a bad place. “So I got her address and against my better judgement drove to her house. She was living in what looked like someone’s store in a farm in Tigoni, a store converted into a house. It was slightly bigger than a matchbox with a sofa that turned into a bed. All her clothes were on that sofa.” She also had a chicken in the house which upon his [reluctant] inquiry she said she was trying to see if it could lay eggs!
They sat outside on a very old sofa that looked like it had been handed down to her by David Livingstone. Or Livingstone’s gardener. “She said she hadn’t slept in two days. It all felt unhinged to me. I tried to keep away, I didn’t want to get involved with her but she kept calling and meeting and doing these crazy things like blowing very hot and very cold and then going for long periods of time without a word, phone off, then resurfacing without apology. I think I was both fascinated and fearful of her.”
One time she started a fight at a bar in Westland’s Electric avenue. Someone knocked her as they brushed past her, spilling some of her drink in the process. She demanded an apology but the man chuckled and walked away. So she followed him and jumped on his back and started choking him from behind. When he walked back from the washroom, he saw her on a man’s back and the man was swinging around and around, like someone trying to get a monkey off his back. She was finally sent flying into the air and onto the other revelers. “She’s a very eccentric dresser; she wears whatever she wants. That night I remember she was wearing one of those ridiculous Scottish skirts and black military-style boots.”
Another time she took him to dinner at a fancy restaurant and refused to pay because her steak tasted “like ass.” [Her words]. A confrontation with management ensued; their argument was, if she didn’t like the steak, she shouldn’t have polished off her plate. Her argument was, nobody deserves to eat ass at Sh. 2,300 a plate. At least not that kind of ass. So she wouldn’t pay. He was ready to pay and call it a night but she forbade him to pay. There was a standoff and she finally stood up and told him, ‘Let’s go.’ And they left.
Away from the theatrics, she was highly creative, talking about artificial intelligence before it became a thing. She got a boner from long-winded dinner debates about economics, religion, history, fertilisers, the middle-east, gender, so much so that she could follow someone to the parking lot to finish her point.
“She was fascinated by everything and when she didn’t know something, she would start reading up on it with such focus and dedication not giving attention to anything else. Even the most useless of things were awarded her undivided attention. She beat me at chess all the time. And at Scrabble. At all board games. She didn’t like winning, she lived to win. Her head was full of trivia. She would call me deep at night, always deep at night, and say, ‘ do you know that at birth a panda bear is smaller than a mouse?” and I would go, ‘it’s 4am Vics.” and she would say, ‘sorry, I thought you would want to know.” Not at bloody 4am!
Then there were confusing long spats of her silences. The impenetrable walls she would build around her. How completely off the radar she would fall, like a stone in a dark galaxy. One time after not being able to reach her for days he went to look for her and he found her crying on that old sofa, and she wouldn’t stop crying or say why she was crying. So he sat next to her and held her hand until the cries subsided into sobs, until she put her head on his lap and folded her legs on the sofa and she fell into a deep sleep. He had never seen her sleep. He had suspected she was a vampire who slept in a coffin below the old floorboards of her house. He sat still as she slept on his lap, afraid to move and risk waking her up, his legs growing more and more numb, until both his legs felt like dry wood. He was sure he would lose his legs two hours later but he didn’t, instead he lost his heart because before he realised what was happening it was all too late because he already loved her. He was already ensnared in her web of eccentrism.
She comes back from the washroom and lights another cigarette using a matchbox. She smokes silently. She’s looking out over the makuti-thatched Lamu rooftop balconies to the blue ocean and the mangroves yonder. The breeze struggles to break through the defences of the unrelenting heat. Distant sounds of passing motor-boats and of squeals of ocean-gliding birds drift to their room.
“My mom always brought me back chocolates from work,” she says, as if addressing herself. He puts down the book he had started reading. “There was always chocolate in her purse. She worked for the court and would come home with very interesting stories. We would sit at the dining table and she would tell my sister and I about her day in great detail. I mean every single detail. She was funny and colourful.” A sip of her gin. Then a drag of her smoke. “But she was also very strange. Now I recall instances of her telling us to draw all the curtains and hide under tables whenever a visitor showed up. She could say, ‘I can’t people right now,’ But she also loved to host and she was a great hostess; engaging, funny, hospitable, knowing who to tell what. But sometimes in the middle of a party, in the middle of a conversation, she would leave the room and we’d assume she had gone to the bathroom, only to find her in her bedroom, in bed, head covered. Happened a lot. I’d crawl in bed with her and we’d lie there in silence for an hour, then she’d turn on her back and she’d start talking. Of course, she was unwell but this was before she had heard of bipolar. She struggled with it in her own life, balancing being a mother and a wife and career woman. And she died struggling with it. And that makes me so sad for her.” She turns away. He puts his head on her bare belly. Her skin is cold. She breathes like a baby panda. She strokes his hair and smokes.
When they moved in together he witnessed her in her fullness. There were spells of high energy that could last for two days , days she barely slept, couldn’t stop talking or reading or listening to music loudly in her headphones. Or great laughter and conversations that made his hair stand on end. And then there were episodes when it felt like she was wearing someone else’s face. When she seemed to wear sadness like a second skin, barely leaving her bed. Confusing days when he didn’t know what the hell was wrong with her. How to talk to her. “It seemed that that was who she was. Her super confidence and the demons she seemed to wrestle. He noticed her great obsession to control every situation, always seeking to control, asking questions like, ‘but what is our plan B, what is our plan C?” She had the need to want to know all possible outcomes and risks. She could never have the patience to read a book to the end. She’d skip to the end to find out what happened to a character, then go back to the beginning. “Her restlessness was always annoying, she could never sit down in one place, always on the move, touching this, doing that. I found it strange and distressing but she made up for her low moments with such a bright personality, very creative, very confident. Our space was always clean, spotlessly so, and very cosy because she liked to change the decor constantly so I never knew what I was coming home to.” When their daughter came, he thought she would not handle motherhood but she became a mother hen, protective and dedicated. “Because I understood her as someone who needed to be allowed to explore their feelings and impulses, I knew when to step in. When to stay with the baby at night as she slept for hours. I knew when to be a father and mother to our daughter; wash her, go for walks with her, take her away from the house for hours to let her be herself. There were periods when she struggled but I had studied her and I had no expectations of her other than to ride it out.” She dressed their daughter in mad clothes; some days as a boy, other days as a girl, and yet some days as something that lived in a nest by a riverside.
Her career was skyrocketing because she was constantly going for positions above her with uncommon courage. “I have never met anyone who has absolutely no fear, no reluctance in the things they seek and complete and utter faith in their potential to do the things that seem impossible.” Money came but her sense of financial planning was deplorable. She was impulsive, purchasing useless things that often she never seemed to need or use. She bought rubber ducks, for crying out loud. Like a child. Small useless purchases filled her with joy. They had fights about that. “Just before we discovered she was pregnant with our second baby she fell into a great depression and saw a therapist. That’s when we discovered that she had bipolar, anxiety and ADHD, the Great Cocktail, she likes to call it.”
It all made sense to him. It was a relief to know that he could read up on her condition, to research it and it helped him know what his role was in her life. She got on drugs for her condition. She became a more controlled, more stable individual but with the edge still on. She read everything about her mental health and she continues to read about it.
“It makes me so sad that my mother never had the resources to help her with her bi-polar. I can’t imagine how tough it was for her, not to know what she was suffering from, and to suffer through it alone.” She drains her glass and throws the butt into the glass with the other four butts.
“Do you want to go down to the pool?” She removed her sunglasses and squinted at him. He can’t swim. He’s one of those shameless adults who can’t swim. The baby-poolers. She slips into shorts and a t-shirt and carries her pack of cigarettes.