The neighbours fought constantly because of their dog. Rather, their mothers did. Their dog – a scruffy hound called Panther – would make a hole beneath the fence and knock over the trash bin outside their kitchen, rummage through trash and strew it all over the place. Sometimes it would take a crap on their verandah. There were other neighbourhood dogs but their neighbours were convinced- as they were, really – that it was their dog.
“I remember his mother, a thin woman with very white teeth, standing on the section of the fence that didn’t have bamboo waiting for one of my older siblings to go fetch my mother whom they would proceed to exchange bitter words as we stood behind her and they stood behind their mother. It was like North and South Korea.” She says.
Those fights were constant. Almost every week. There were threats from them that they would poison Panther, threats that they never fulfilled because they were not dog killers, just neighbours who didn’t like dogs. Her own father and his father never got involved in those feuds. “When my mom would be bitching about his mom at dinner or while cleaning up on Saturdays, my father, would not offer any soliciting word or any word of support. He would grunt and nod or shake his head, but only to pacify mom.” She recalls. His own father, on the other hand, was a quiet man as far as she could see. He drove an old Datsun, wore a thick beard and thick rimmed spectacles. He was a lecturer of food science at the then Kenya Polytechnic.
Of course because of this enmity, they were not supposed to speak to the neighbour’s children, or even play with them. They were made to believe that they were an odd family, an ill-mannered family, because who doesn’t like dogs? Playing with them would make them bad people. So for the whole of her primary school years they never spoke to the neighbour’s children – three boys and a girl – even though two of them shared the same school with them.
But then two things happened when she was in class eight: Panther – who was now old and with slower reflexes – was ran over by a car. The other thing that happened was that one of the three sons of the neighbour who didn’t like dogs talked to her when she learnt about Panther when she was coming from the kiosk carrying onions and milk. He was called Martin. They knew all their names because they would always her their mother shout their names all the way from their house.
Martin was sitting outside their gate with another boy from the neighbourhood. “Panther has been hit by a car.” He told her without preamble. She had blinked. The polythene bag with milk and onions hang loosely in her hand. She was confused at the very fact that he had addressed her. “We were sworn enemies, remember? We were not supposed to address each other. He came from a family that gave us grief, or rather gave my mom grief. I suppose they also thought our family was weird. I mean my mother wasn’t exactly a neighbourly person. She was always quick to anger. And so to hear him address me was very confusing, perhaps more confusing than the news that we had lost our dog, who I liked but who really belonged to my brother. I had an elder sister and brother. I was the last born.”
She didn’t tell him anything that moment because families stuck together and you didn’t betray yours by talking to the enemy. She went inside and fetched her brother because it was his dog anyway. They buried Panther in a faraway field near Kayole. This was in the early 90s when that area after Donholm estate was an expansive dryland.
If there was any silver lining to Panther’s death, it’s that the feud between the two families stopped. Now they had nothing to fight over. Silence took the place of bickering, but silence never meant peace. The grew up. When she joined form one, she started really noticing Martin. How long his legs were, like a mature pine tree. His voice had broken and sometimes she could hear his booming voice through the wall of her bedroom at night when he laughed. The bamboo in their backyard fence had now come apart in many places and from their kitchen she could often see him slashing the small expanse of grass in their compound, shirtless. She would be alarmed at how she felt seeing how his muscles moved under his skin, as if it was lubricated by castor oil. “One time his basketball fell in our compound and when I went to throw it back over the fence he smiled at me and I think that’s when I felt I could faint. He had a terrific smile. The most beautiful smile.” She laughs. “For many nights after that I lay in my bed at night thinking about him, going through the small incidence of me throwing the ball over the fence to him, over and over in my mind.”
She had a crush on him. She would wash dishes so slowly hoping to see him wander about in their backyard, burning compost heap. Their neighbour never had any house helps and it was always up to Martin and his brothers to do house chores. They cleaned and slashed grassed and moped and went to the market and bathed their younger sister, sometimes outside in the backyard in the sun from a basin. “His mother was tough. She made them work.” Often she would would time her kiosk runs in the evenings to coincide with the time he would be coming from playing football in Umoja, so that he notices her. On the rare occasion he said hello. Mostly he just smiled at her, an act that would weaken her.
Martin grew a beard and went away to university. “When I was in third form, I think it must have been second term holidays, I came home and I learnt that they had moved. I was so heartbroken!” She cries. “ I felt like I had lost someone I loved. I couldn’t ask my mother where they moved to, she wasn’t the type you asked those questions. Our new neighbours were a couple with small children. They felt like impostors. I hated them, as if it was their fault that Martin’s family had moved out.”
She eventually joined university to study Economics. She dated a few chaps in university, random university boys with their out-of-control hormones. She lost her virginity in a tent during a camping trip with a few other students who loved the outdoors. “Do you know I never talked to that boy the following day or week or month? It’s as if the only reason I knew him was for him to break my virginity.” She laughs. She joined the university volleyball team but then dropped out after an injury in her wrist. She fell in love in third year then suffered a heartbreak in fourth year and swore off men for a year, then met a nice man just after graduation. He had played rugby for USIU and was a gentleman for six months then a colossal asshole for the rest of the six months they dated. They broke up over the phone. She discovered a love for poetry and pan-africanists and that replaced men. She also started attending church seriously. “I wasn’t ati born again, I was just very religious. I was those people who would post verses on Facebook.” She grins.
She got a job in the government, in the Ministry of Finance. Her desk looked older than her. The job didn’t pay much but it had lots of opportunities for education scholarships which she finally got and fled off to the UK for her Masters. In the UK she lost the Lord, dropped her bible-thumping Facebook posts and discovered that she had been a smoker all along.
“I started smoking because I was stressed. I was stressed because I was lonely. And cold. It rained all the time in the UK, I felt wet inside.” She says. “The first year was horrible. I had gone during winter and I knew nobody and the British – as you might know – don’t smile at you. Nobody talks to you. Or looks at you. Do you know how important it is for people to look at you, Biko? It says they recognise you as a fellow human being. That you are not a lamppost. I felt like people looked at a traffic light more than they looked at me. The British ignore you. It’s the worst form of racism. I also, for the first time in my life, discovered that I was black and that affected my self esteem for a minute.” She bristles. “I used to work part-time in a pub after school and you can imagine how boisterous and loud a British pub can get. But even though you’d imagine that you’d not be lonely in a loud bar, I found myself terrifically lonely and sad for the most part. I don’t want to say depressed. I was just sad.”
She never dated in the couple of years she was in the UK. But she slept – on and off – with a bald struggling Jamacian bass player called Fitzroy who lived under a grocery store run by a Pakistani in an old brick flat in Bromley, South East of London. “He also smoked a lot of bangi, I discovered. Everything in his house smelled of bangi.” She says. I love how she calls it bangi, like she’s an OCS. “But he was funny and a lot of fun. When I was free, I’d follow him to the small do’s he played with his band-members. He distracted me from my loneliness. I smoked the most during my time in the UK.”
She landed back home on a warmish dawn of October of 2003 with her Masters in Political Science tucked under her armpit. At International Arrivals, she sat on the kerb and smoked three cigarettes as she waited for her sister to pick her up. She was wearing Fitzroy’s hoodie written “Jamaican Thighs Save Lives.” “It smelled of ganja and cheap cologne.” She recalls. “Funnily, I knew I wasn’t going to miss him.” Nairobi smelled different. The sky unlocked differently in the morning. She was happy to get back home to see her siblings, her parents and to be looked at again and not to have to compete with traffic lights for attention.
For two years she put her back into working for the Kenyan government. While she thrived at work, her siblings got married – first her big sister and then her brother. “I – on the other hand – wasn’t meeting anyone.” She says. “I was doing all the things one should do to meet men; joining gyms, volunteering for social work, doing things that I normally wouldn’t have interest in; like going for archery or to opening of art exhibitions or dance classes. I was even going to church. There were no men…OK, there were men, but they were this bottom of the barrel sort of men.”
“What is bottom of the barrel kind of man?” I inquire.
“Jokers.” She says. “Men who don’t know what they want. Men who live at home with their mothers. Men who don’t pick up the bill. Men who last a minute in bed. Men who who lie about what they own. Men who borrow money from you. Men with little to no ambition. Men who -”
“I get it.” I say already exhausted with these litany of men.
“One day my small sister calls me and says, ‘guess who I met today?’ I said, ‘who?’ she says, guess! I say, uncle Tom. She says, nobody that we are related with. I said, Linda? She said, no. Martin. I was confused. I said, which Martin? She said, the Martin who was our neighbour back in the day, the ones who didn’t like dogs?! Martin for kina Humphrey! I remembered. She told me that they had met at a conference and he had asked about me and she had given him my number. I wasn’t excited. I forgot about that conversation as soon as she hung up.”
Three days later her phone rings while she’s in a meeting. She returns it later during her cigarette break. Like all love stories, that first conversation goes something like this.
Her: Hello, this is Gathoni, I’m returning your call.
Him: It’s Martin from the 90s. Former neighbour? Your dog Panther ate my homework once. Sandra, your sister gave me your number.
Yes, Martin. I remember you. It’s been many years.
Putting it mildly, it has. How are you, what do you do nowadays?
I’m excellent, I work for the government.
At the very center of power?
No, at the center of civil service. I make very important decisions.
Red carpeted office and your name on the door.
Small desk in a windowless room. An old chair.
I’m sure you are being modest.
I’m sure you are wrong. And you?
I’m a consultant.
That normally means “jobless” in Nairobi.
His large laughter fills the phone.
I’m in energy. Policy. The least sexiest profession. But I can bore you about it over coffee this evening if you want.
I have plans this evening. [She didn’t]
So they met at Exchange Bar at The Stanley. She didn’t have to look for him, she immediately recognised him seated at the high leather seats at the bar, having a coffee. He still had long legs. “He was no longer the boy I knew then. He was a man. A man with big hands and an adam’s apple.” She says. “Guess what he asked me as soon as I sat down?”
“Who calls a dog Panther?
“No, my mother.” She laughs.
They laughed about childhood and of their mothers’ trivial and long-winded feud. He asked about her siblings, both his hands on the bar counter, as if his cup of coffee was a candle and he was protecting it from the wind. He made annoying jerky movements with his left leg, perhaps a sign of nervousness. Or his brain was frying. He smelled great. He was surprisingly soft spoken in person, not the cocky guy who had asked her earlier to cancel her plans. He was obviously successful going by his suit and shoes.
“So,” I say sarcastically, “not bottom-of-the-barrel, I assume.”
She grinned. “Hardly. Things were going swimmingly well until he mentioned that he was engaged to his Zambian fiance who was working away.”
“Oh.” I mutter. “So you punched him on the throat and left. Something your mother would have applauded.”
“I wish, no. Suddenly it felt like I was wasting my time. That I should have gone straight home.” She says. “I was in my 30s. I didn’t have the time for sitting drinking coffee with unavailable men.”
When he called her two days later asking if they could have lunch she was forthright. “I told him I didn’t want to entertain nostalgia if this was about nostalgia. I told him that coffees and lunches were for people who were working on something. He said but we are working on a friendship. I might have been rude but I told him that I was in my 30s, I didn’t need to work on any more friendships, certainly not male friends who are about to get married.”
He must have been stung because she never heard from him for a month. When he called he said he had broken it off with the Zambian girl. “I asked him what kind of a man does that; breaks off engagements casually. He said they had been having problems and he had been having doubts about the marriage and that meeting me had made him realise that he was wrong. Then he told me over the phone, we should get married. I think we can be happy, he said. I laughed it off and we hang up but he kept asking me to marry him whenever we met and the more he asked the more I thought about it. After two months of him asking on each date I said yes.”
Her mother couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t – or pretended not to – remember the boy: “Was he the tall one who always kicked a ball in our compound?” “Was he the one who had pierced his ear like a gangster?” “Was he the one who looked like his mother?” “How is that woman?”
His father was equally surprised, but for different reasons. He told her mother, “If this is a lesson in anything, it’s that you never know who you will one day sit at a table with.”
“They haven’t gotten married yet,” the mother shot back.
But they did get married a year after they met at Exchange Bar. Her mother and his mother, regarded each other like dogs unacquainted during the wedding. Their fathers were chumy towards each other, standing at the edge of the room with short glasses of drinks. His father still had that thick beard but with owlish spectacles this time. He looked like someone who spent his whole day looking at old archaeological bones. Her own father now had a proper baldpate. During the speeches, his mother said, “the only reason these kids got married was to spite us.” She laughed louder than everybody else. She remembers eating the cake and her mother telling her she had lipstick on her teeth. She didn’t care.
“We have been married for 11-years now.” She says. “The first three years were tough because we were fighting over a baby. He wanted a baby, I didn’t. I made it clear before we got married that I didn’t want babies, he thought he’d change my mind.”
“Why don’t you want babies?” I ask.
“I can’t explain it. You know how when girls are growing up and they are playing house they have a dolly and pretend to be feeding it and putting it to sleep? That never interested me at all. I didn’t ever imagine myself carrying a baby or breastfeeding or feeding it.” She says.
“When did you know this?”
“I’ve always known this even when I didn’t know I knew it.” She folds her legs. “ It’s not something that people understand, even women. You are expected to give birth to babies and so when you say you don’t want to have babies people think you are selfish or abnormal.”
“Why not both?”
“Ha-ha. Or both.” She chuckles. “ My mother didn’t understand it. His mother was even worse. The pressure!! My God. But I put my foot down even though it threatened to destroy us because of how bad his family wanted him to have a baby. Eventually, we adopted, something I always thought I’d do and I can tell you that I love this child like I’d love my own, maybe even more because I chose them.”
They also fought about her smoking. All the time. “He said it’s a horrible habit.” She smiles. “I say there are worse habits than smoking.” She also couldn’t understand why he couldn’t let her smoke in his car. “But when you grow older in marriage certain fights just don’t make sense. Time solves problems if you let it.” She says.
“Why do you think your marriage is working?” I ask her.
“Because we are not in each other’s faces. He travels a bit because of work and sometimes I do, as well.” She says. “I think that space really helps us to reconnect. I can’t imagine being with him every day, every month every year without space between us. I want to miss him and I can’t miss him when he’s leaving his socks all over the place, pressing the toothpaste from the middle and leaving droplets of his pee on the toilet seat. It’s hard to miss someone you want to kill.”
They also don’t have date nights. They have two days a month where each one of them suggests something they want to do as a couple; dinner, a physical activity, a cookout class, camping, hiking, whatever. “The rule is you have to accept it even if that activity isn’t your thing.” She says. “He likes the outdoors, for instance. I don’t see the point of it to be honest. Birds don’t thrill me. Neither do clouds. But it’s his thing, so I normally go and sleep in a camping bag and make eggs from a small camping stove. What I love about those trips is how he gets excited before it, making plans, putting gear together. It’s amazing how we are different and I think that’s why it’s beautiful.”
“How’s the sex?”
She laughs bashfully. “Do you ask everybody you interview this question? I don’t recall.”
“No, only smokers.”
She chooses her words.
“The sex is good mostly. I still find him sexy. I think that’s what helping our sex life.” She grins. “I like to see him naked. I like his body. He does too.” She laughs. “He’s a bit vain, that man. I think he loves his body more than a man should, fussing over his weight. He dresses up while looking at himself in the mirror. He takes very good care of himself. But that’s OK. It’s a turn on for me. Oh and we also don’t make love.” She sticks her two fingers in her mouth and pretends to gag. “I would die from boredom from ‘making love.’ I like my sex fast and furious. Minimum foreplay. Don’t suck my earlove because I will start laughing. Haha. He struggled with it at the beginning. Also, you know those women who say they can’t have sex if they are mad at their men? Not me. If I’m mad let’s just have sex, please. Those two things are mutually exclusive in my books. Thank you.”
“What’s your biggest sacrifice in marriage?”
She thinks about it for a while.
“I think my sacrifice is knowing that he could get a baby with someone else,” she says contemplatively as I try to process why that is her sacrifice. “Because men really want to have their own children, from their own seeds. I always suspect that he never got over me not wanting a baby thing.”
“Would you be pissed if you found out he had another baby out of wedlock?”
She stares intently at a spot on the table in deep thought.
“Would I?” She bites the corner of her lips. “I don’t know.” Another pause. “I really don’t know. But if that were to happen I don’t want to find out on Facebook. Or when he’s dead. I want him to tell me that he had a child.”
“Would you walk out of the marriage?”
“That question can’t have a yes or no answer.” She says. “But chances are I would not. I made this bed, so I’m ready to lie on it.” He makes more money than she does and they have a pool account where everybody puts 70% of what they are making to go into bills. [Her idea]. They hardly ever fight about money. “He trusts me with money because I’m an economist while he’s just a guy who tells people about oil.”
Their fathers get along. They enjoy having a beer whenever they get together. Their mother’s not so much. They don’t like beer. Ha-ha. Ahem. Right. Their mothers engage each other only when they don’t have a choice. It’s because of the damn Panther dog.
“I don’t know what a happy marriage is,” she says. “Marriage is very tough, at least for me and I wouldn’t say it’s happy. I would say it’s fulfilling. I love him with all his fault, rather, I have learnt to love him because of his faults. I realise that I’m also not easy to love with my faults, with the decisions I made about children but he’s here loving me in the best way he can. I think it’s compromise. It’s giving and knowing when you can’t take and what you can take.”
“Would you marry him again if you went back in time?”
“In a heartbeat.” She says. “He’s a good man, to be honest.”
Marriage series ends today. Thanks for the ladies who shared their stories. Thanks a lot for writing in with your marriage stories even if I didn’t respond. I haven’t had a chance to read tons of emails because they are just a number. But the year is ending. Ahsanteni for your participation. We close this shule next week, Inshallah. I don’t know about you but I’m worn out. I need to lie under a tree and do nothing all day.