I met Fred a few weeks ago while I was staying with an aunt. They go to the same church. We had not shared a total of seven words before the day he came over and I was alone in the house. There had not been an earlier warning, so I did not let him in until I had confirmed with mwenye nyumba that Fred was expected. He was. He needed to use the internet and the electricity in his apartment were lost [is that direct translation?]… or so he told me. We sat in the common room, me on the couch and him on the dining table. It was quiet. A kind of quiet that can only be held by strangers who know not what to say to each other. A silence that picks on your thoughts, turning them over until you are left bare. It felt too quiet to get up for a cup of water. Too quiet for a cough. So we sat. I watched two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale with earphones on because I was afraid to disturb the peace that the silence had established.
There is a saying about habits. That if you spend a specific number of minutes or seconds doing something, it becomes a habit. Alcoholics Anonymous has become my habit. I look at people with alcoholic eyes now [perhaps I can frame that statement better]. My conversations have developed into alcohol-related experiences. I find myself slipping alcohol into a sentence and before you know it, I am being told about people in their ten-year-old pants looking for sips of alcohol, of fathers who restricted their wives from taking alcohol and of mothers who drank in the presence of their children. I have also become a somewhat better conversationalist… or so I think…because I have had more conversations in the last six months than I had in 2017 and 2018 combined.
At some point, in the quiet, the power followed the example of Fred’s place. He sighed, the first sound I had heard from him since he asked if I had been told he was coming. I took this sigh as an opening, because the only available buffer to the silence (a neighbor’s blasting Kenyan obscenities from his woofer) had now joined in the sovereign stillness.
“Stima imepotea?” I asked, to spark something. He turned. I felt on top of the world. For those two seconds, I was the negotiator on those movies where there is a hostage situation and FBI guys have tried talking to the bank robber to no avail, till a guy in jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up strolls in and talks the bank robber to tears, having him release the hostages. The scene ends applause from onlookers who were afraid for the hostages and the guy [my guy] throwing a toothpick he had in his mouth all this time at the FBI guys’ feet as if to say “F y’all”. They beg him to join the FBI but he is better than that. He refuses and walks into the sunset to a piano playing in the background.
“Eee, na I’m not done with this work. I don’t know what I will do.” He looks at his phone.
“What kind of work is it?” I ask. [Am I crushing this conversation thing or what]
He says it is something for the government. Then turns back to his laptop, assuming the position he has held since he arrived. I feel the quiet threaten to return. It peeps at the door, waiting for an opening. I think about letting it. Slipping back into my comfort zone sounded so good. But then, I think, WWSD. WhatWouldSpongebobDo. He would badger this guy till he got what he wanted. And I wanted a story.
“When is your deadline?”
“Ilikuwa inasupposed kukuwa 12.30” [He said ‘inasupposed’… Would I lie to you?]
I look at the time. 1.03pm. He was way past his deadline. The lights were not back yet. All odds were in my favor. There was no longer a deadline to beat, and there was no electricity to back him up. We had to have this conversation. “What do you do?”
“A couple of things here and there. I dabble in a lot.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Writing…consulting. And other stuff”
His “stuff” sounded so much like ‘staff’. I swear. But I told someone about it and she said that I was probably hearing my own things. I guess you had to be there. I gathered he did not want to talk about what he did for a living…but he had said enough to catch my attention. I asked what he writes.
“These academic stuff [I heard it again]. Writers’ Hub. It pays well.”
Okay, so the writing conversation had run its course before it even started.
“Fred,” I said, because I wanted to rip off the band aid once and for all. “Do you drink? Alcohol.” [You and I both know we needed to be specific here]. He turned, again. Progress! I made a little jump inside.
“Why?” He asked.
I told him about AA, and MIRAWU, and my motivation behind everything. Then I caught myself, because I tend to ramble when I talk about things I actually give a fuck about. He sat there, nodding and staring at me till I felt weird about it and ended with asking the question a second time.
“No.” He said. I waited for accompanying information. I was not sure whether his no was to deny drinking or answering the question. I felt the quiet watching, waiting to stretch ten seconds into forty-five and make it awkward for follow up questions. I had to at quick. WWSD?
“Why not?” I saved it at the eleventh minute.
“It has never interested me.”
I looked at him. He is tall enough. Not the kind of tall that you see and say “damn, that’s tall”, but tall. He never shaves everything on his head, but he also does not have the fuckboy haircut [you know the one I’m talking about, don’t be coy]. His nails are always short, I think he owns a nail cutter and goes to work on them every Friday evening for church the next day. He looks you straight in the eye, either to establish dominance, or to prove he is listening. I am leaning more on the latter. He has watched all behaviorial videos that tell you where to place your hands and when to scratch your head. He wants to seem collected. Approachable. His feet are slightly parted, not to close to seem feminine and not too wide to achieve “male comfort”.
“Have you tasted alcohol?”
I laughed. He was beginning to seem like a modern day unicorn. A late twenties male whose lips have known no alcohol. It was surreal. Straight out of a Barbie’s Dreamhouse episode. So I asked about his father, because, I presumed, it was either he was a messy drunk or was absent all his life. “My dad died when I was in…class…2 or 3” he places two fingers on his chin, thinking. “Class two, yeah. And I’m the firstborn of 6 kids… I had to be responsible.” I point out that taking alcohol does not necessarily make one irresponsible. He agrees, but then he says “You never know where the line is between the two. I didn’t want my siblings to grow up without a father and on top of it have a sibling who was addicted to alcohol. It was a risk I was never going to take.”
“So you’re the Delmonte guy when your friends are hanging out?”
“Ha-ha, yeah. It’s not so bad actually. I get to be the designated driver, and I love driving at night.”
“I guess everyone has their place then” I say.
The time was 1.41pm. the lights were still not back. He asked for the link to MIRAWU. At 1.56 he looks up. “You have a nice font,” he says, looking right at me. I say than you and pretend to watch another episode. This conversation has run its course. He takes his phone and calls three people, asking if their Wi-Fi is still functional. Electricity is out in all three places. “I think all of Kitengela does not have electricity”. I look up. “Huh?” [I should get an acting gig]. “Stima zimepotea kila mahali.” He repeats.
The silence has won. We fought the good fight. We will be given medals of valor. But the enemy had weapons that our will could not tackle. It was two of us against an infinity’s worth of experience in haunting children’s nightmares and creeping into cementeries. We fought the good fight. I admitted it.
Five minutes later, he got up. “I’ll be leaving now”
“Oh?” happy dance in my head “Hii stima sioni ikirudi saa hii”
“Yeah” he hauls his backpack on. “Are you going to write my story? It’s not much to go on” he says with an open door before him.
I smile. “Biko says everything is a story.”
When he was 15 years old, his older brother woke him up at 4.30am to go get their father. The words used were ‘Let’s go pick dad up’ which makes the whole situation sound so mundane, like their father was stuck with his luggage at the airport with no Uber money. He is the middle child, meaning he, too, at some point years into the future of his time, is forced to have this same conversation with the youngest of them.
“To understand my story, I first need to tell you about my household,” his first text reads.
“Alright” I say, mainly because there is no other thing to say.
His parents are what he calls “busy people”. There are never around for a week straight… and if they are, they are cooped up in their respective study rooms [Yes, I too had to wrap my head around this. Each parent has their own study]. His father is a businessman. One of those who instead of using their early twenties to wild out and live by YOLO, were busy strategizing and working out plans to come up with the next big thing. He got into the shipping industry before people were even able to comprehend the potential ships held, other than sinking tens of people while allowing a flower-named woman to emerge with a tragic love story. He envisioned the company from his hostel room on campus and by the time he was graduating, he had secured funding to set everything up.
Business went well, and because it is an undisputed fact that every successful man has a woman at his side, he met a travelling agent when he was 25. She was just starting out, learning the ropes of a business she did not quite understand and he used his entrepreneurial brain to woo her. He helped her secure a promotion and she thanked him by proposing marriage. He said yes. He liked how aggressive she was. How she saw what she wanted and went for it…and she wanted him. What more could he ask for?
By the time he was 31, he had three sons. It was hectic, having to be responsible for four people in a span of just a few years. He had not prepared for it happening so fast and furious-ly, but it did, and he made the best of it. Work had to be his priority now. It was the only way he knew to take care of his suddenly big family. It did not help that his wife’s money remained just that, meaning all his money was what helped run the household. Late hours developed, which then became an issue with the wife.
What was he doing when he stayed out 4 nights out of five in a week? And what was with the going in to work on Saturdays? Sometimes Sundays? It was too much. The family needed him, not just his money.
The long hours were so he could make enough money to cater for the family. For clothes and school fees and groceries. But she would never understand that. She never contributed anything.
Did he just say that? Did he just say that to her when she is the one who takes care of their kids while he is out (mocking air quotes) “working”? The nerve of him. Such a man move. He could never understand what she goes through…
You know what, he is not having this conversation with her. (walks out)
She was a small town girl. Born and raised in Molo. Went to church every Sunday until she left home for university when she threw religion out the window because she was “sick of being forced to worship”.
“We never went to church as a family. Sundays were always family day when I was younger. My mom, and dad on the occasions he was present, always made sure we had family time. They said church was a waste of time. That the families who pack themselves into cars clad in their Sunday best were just pretenders, hiding in the supposedly sacred cloth of the church”
“Would you have wanted to go to church with your family?”
“I don’t know. I think so. Maybe it would have brought us closer…growing up believing in a higher being. You know this meme about fathers threatening to leave their families on Sunday morning?” I think I have seen something like it. “I wish we had that. But we didn’t. Instead, we were guilted to playing charades and monopoly with parents who spoke a total of two words a month to each other”
“Wait, it was that bad?”
It was. the more money they had, the more silent the house became. They talked amongst each other though, and he believes their parents’ failed marriage helped them bond more than they might have if there was a closer relationship. “We never had househelps. We ran our house. The three of us. Not that we wanted to. I remember complaining about it every night before bed. Mom always said that as boys, we were vulnerable. That you never know what strangers want with young boys from a well off family. She preferred that we stay alone than hire help. It was hell…but somewhere between the chores and writing grocery lists for our parents, we became the best of friends, and we have our parents to thank for that.”
One morning, at ungodly hours, his older brother woke him up to go pick their father up, and his view of their father’s constant frowning and solemn state shifted. He saw his father smile for the first time. A genuine smile. One that did not care about anything other than staying on his face.
“Dad has dimples?” he asked his brother.
“Dad is happy here. He is also drunk.” There is a bottle of Blue Label on the table in the airport’s lounge.
“What? But he drinks at home. In his study. I’ve never seen his dimples at home”
“Exactly, his dimples remain here. Do you understand? They remain here because they don’t belong at home.”
“Wow man,” he scratched his head in a confused daze. “What does this mean?”
“Nothing. He brought me here one day and showed me this side of him because he trusted me. And now, I am choosing to trust you. You will tell no one. Do you understand?” He understood. The brothers could be trusted with their father’s dimples, no one else.
“Do you think your mom has seen your father drunk?” I ask.
“No. She calls him a “responsible drunk”. He only has like a glass of whiskey while home. But you know… I have seen him drown half a mzinga on his own, while we wait for the sun to rise at the airport.” They always meet him at the airport, when his business trips end and he comes back home. That is their sacred time. Their church, and they could ask for nothing more. Their youngest turns 17 next month and they plan to wake him to show him their father’s dimples.
“Why does he get to see this at 17 when you did at 15?”
The youngest is their mother’s baby. They are not sure about him. Whether he will keep their secret or he will rat them out. He is unsure of their youngest because he sits with their mother, whispering. But he has never told on them in the times they vowed to keep something secret, and hey hope this too, will be among the brother’s secrets.
He does not know what happened to their parents, because their earlier pictures look happy. But those smiles faded with time. Now, they don’t take pictures anymore. It feels fake to smile when immediately after the flash it is back to business as usual. But he has photos on his phone, of genuine smiles, with his happy drunk of a father and older brother. He sends me one. There is an older man, with a dash of white hairs on his head and his arm placed over the shoulders of a boy of about 20. Their smiles are identical to the boy taking the selfie (the one I am talking to). The photo has the brightness of the first rays of the morning. It is a good picture.
“Don’t you think he is only happy to be with you guys in that time? And it is not the alcohol that makes him happy, but being with his sons, in an empty airport lounge while the sun rises?”
He says it is possible. But in that narrative, his father is unhappy in his life as a husband. He is unhappy to have said yes to their mother when she proposed, and that is something he does not want to believe, because that is still his mother and father, and mommys and daddys are supposed to be together, and be happy. So he is convinced that his father lives in this solemn state. He has embraced this fact. And he wants the world to understand that his father shows his dimples when he is drunk.
There comes a time in a man’s life when he has to sit himself in a corner and say ENOUGH! Enough of chasing and moving and playing. This moment varies in all men. There are those who are in the corner for two seconds and they walk out new men. There are also others who spend years in this corner and never come out. These ones spend their days telling themselves that things HAVE to be different. They need to move on up. To change their situation. But they remain in the corner not because they lack the will to move, but because they know nothing else.
As I read his text, I could not imagine what he was going through. Which corner had he ventured to and been unable to pull away from? I had so many questions, till he asked me the one question every guy asks me during our conversations.
“Do guys really tell you their shit? Like…boys?”
“I don’t know. (Lauging emoji) Because I listen. I don’t ask why they do what they do… I ask what made them do it.”
“I have never thought of telling this part of myself to anyone. Let alone a journalist!”
I laugh. There is stigma associated with the title ‘Journalist’. He is accusing me of doing what I studied in school, because of a few misgivings from a few of us. He is accusing me of telling secrets. And of lies tied into these secrets that make them extra scandalous and worth the tabloids. It makes me want to say I am not a Journalist. To disassociate myself from the stigma and stand as my own person. To be able to tell someone that I tell stories without them saying “nyinyi ndiyo hawa watu wa propaganda.” I crave this freedom… But then what would I be? A lawyer? Those are told they are liars. A doctor? They are told they give the wrong prescriptions [Plus my handwriting is too neat to qualify as a doctor] Anyway, let’s get into this before I transfer my existential crisis on to you.
At eleven years old, Jesse realized he was fat. It was not something he had noticed before, especially since his twin brother was the same weight as him from birth to December 2008. But he could not fit into his shirt on the morning of the first day of school and his mother had to go buy him a new one… then get more during the week. His classmates compared him to his brother all through the first week of school in 2009. “Ai Jesse, Kwani you ate all of your bro’s food during Krisi?” But the girls said he was ‘fluffy’ and it wasn’t all bad. He liked being called fluffy. They said he was “comfortable to be around”. He was okay with that. He says he was okay with it because he did not know what it meant, till he asked a girl he liked to be his girlfriend and she said the same thing. “You are just so comfortable to be around, Jesse. I would’t want to ruin that.”
When I was eleven years old, I hurt myself during the December holidays. I could not make the first day of school because I needed to have my bandages changed. My classmates were taught new things that day. I went in the next day, sat down and waited for my teacher. In between the lessons, she was checking everyone’s work, and as expected, I was a little behind than my classmates. She looked at my book and told me to ‘pull up my socks’, an idiom she had taught the previous day. I reached for my socks. My classmates laughed. I hate that day.
Being bigger than your identical twin has some strings attached. On one part, your grandmother will show you more love, and nothing is more precious than a grandmother’s love. But the downsides outweigh the good in Jesse’s case. The catcalling is worse when it is done by people you thought of as friends. I know this, because people pulled up their socks even on the day of our KCPE exams. “Friends are supposed to bring you up. To support you, and be by you through your ups and downs.” Jesse writes. He has all these quotes that may make him seem pretentious, even if they hold some truth to them. “But when you’re young, you think everyone you know is your friend. You don’t know about talking behind people’s backs because its meaning is above your thinking capacity. You cannot comprehend it, and that just builds into a lifetime of hating yourself and hating your past when you get to the point that you actually understand it.”
In high school, he was the fat kid. He tells me that in almost every setting, he was always the biggest person around. He was ashamed of himself. Everyone focuses on girls when it comes to overweight issues. There are programs made for girls, and sitcoms that are made to show that they are not as different as anyone else. That they too can love. They too can lead lives that allow them to get in a matatu without the conductor asking if they will pay for both seats. The boys have to fend for themselves. It was in form two that he discovered the wonders of alcohol. It never interested him at first. He always saw the drunkards sprawled in trenches soaked in their own vomit and decided that it would never be him. But Justin Bieber and cute Jaden Smith [I cannot speak for him now] said ‘Never say Never’.
“It started out as rumors. You know, you hear some guys in form two North have a mzinga and you have to give them your hard-boiled egg on Sunday to qualify for a sip. But that did not interest me. I loved my Sunday egg.” But not all boys share the same sentiment for eggs as he did, and one of the guys who fell prey was his friend (who we will name Larry –loosely based on Jackson Biko’s Drunk character).
Larry did not come from a fine household, unlike most of the boys in the school, which meant he had to try extra hard to fit in. He had to put in effort to be accepted. So he gave his egg for sips because the mzinga was being given by the more affluent boys and it was the only way he knew to get them to notice him. The exchange happened immediately after breakfast was served and it had to be quick, because Sunday mass was immediately after breakfast and you could never be late to that. There was a small window of five minutes between breakfast and mass, where they boys were allowed a bathroom break so as not to disrupt others during prayers. This was the egg-sip window. It seemed an easy trade for Larry. A full bladder for popularity. When he was hooked, the popular boys told him to bring his ‘fat friend’ along the next Sunday and they would both get to keep their eggs.
“I did not want to go” Jesse texts. “But when the popular boys want to see you in their sacred time, you get intrigued. Tempted even. And Larry tried so hard to convince me. He was my only friend then, because we were both losers in school. Poor kid, Fat kid. We were a team… especially when our adversaries were beating us behind the toilets.”
“Was your twin brother in the same school?”
“Yeah, but he is one of those people who blend with the right crowd. I would hang out with him and his friends, but it always felt weird. They would talk about things I had no idea about.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“(laughing emoji) like girls, and rugby. You know, normal guy stuff.”
When they got to the exchange spot, they guys had a bottle of Best. Larry got his sip, still holding on to his egg. He had gotten so used to bringing it that he forgot they had said he shouldn’t bring it. Jesse was Larry’s egg now. He would have gladly traded his best friend for a place at the popular table. Jesse did not mind it. He saw it as helping his friend. A charitable act for the guy who was always with him. His one loyal friend. The bottle was passed to him and for a second, he was confused.
“I was not really sure what they wanted with me to this point. They had only told Larry that they wanted him to come with me.”
“Where was it? This exchange point?”
“Ha-ha, behind the toilets. Just two steps from where they used to beat Larry and me up.”
The bottle in his hands caught him by surprise because his theories had not added up to him having his first taste of alcohol from these guys… and definitely not on that spot. This was going to change things. He would have preferred his first sip of alcohol to be bought by his last savings, in the comfort of his brother’s presence, probably as they were sneaking behind their parents’ backs, with the cover of darkness just behind their watchman’s shed [He did not say this]. He would have wanted the thrill he felt to be experienced somewhere other than the same place he had acquired unexplainable bruising.
One of the boys pushed the bottle to his lips and he hated it. The invasion of both his freedom and his taste buds. “I didn’t like it one bit. The taste was unlike anything else. When someone says something is a little bitter, you imagine sweetened lemon. That is what I had prepared myself for. Lemonade that messed with your senses. Instead, I got this cringe in my face that made the boys laugh.”
“Did you pass by those toilets again? Did you go to the exchange the next Sunday?”
“I had to! they would otherwise beat us up if we didn’t. you have to understand that we were losers in school. Being in the crew made us popular. We were cool. I hated it…but it was better to go behind those toilets to murder my tongue and throat than come out limping. That spot now had a double sentiment. It was either bruises or a sip…and Larry would have sold me out for that sip. I was just being smart”
[We’re back to AA. Thanks for being patient through the Mental Health break, but I believe we did some good work in the few stories we told]
It is only fitting that this story is told today. This specific month and day. It becomes appropriate to talk about this girl today because I have saved her for so long that she began to think I had forgotten about her. She texted me yesterday, “Hey, was my story not important enough?” I think I made her feel less important by keeping her on the shelf. It was not my intention. I was waiting for the right moment. Not for me, I already know her. I have thought of her for weeks. I was waiting for you to be ready. To relate to her in the backdrop that this month represents. So here goes.
When I started this AA thing, I didn’t think it would go far. I thought I’d be done for by the time March rolled by, but here we are, In May, with almost 10 stories done. She was one of the few people who believed in AA from the word go. She reads every story, understands every word, every message. After the first AA post, she emailed me, a stranger, and told me she would love to tell her story if only to give me content, but that she was sorry she did not have any relationship whatsoever with alcohol. We became friends, as close as online friendships between two people in love with telling stories can be. After the second AA post, she asked me how I can form a story out of one’s confession. I told her my brain works and my fingers type. I only sit there and marvel at the masterpiece that emerges. Then she said she drank a lot in university, which, as it so happens, she finished in December, like me.
“You don’t drink anymore?” I asked.
“I do, but only wine. No whiskey, no vodka.”
“That’s specific. Can’t stand the taste?”
She sent laughing emojis. “No, that’s not it. I got to a point where I was numb to the bitterness of it. I’d see people cringe their faces and could not even understand what that feeling was. I think my taste buds died with my soul.” She was at a dark place in university, she said. Her heart was so broken in 2017 that she didn’t think it was possible to come out of it. “You know guys. You love them, and they destroy you.” Damn, I think, someone did a number on her. She refused to tell me what happened. Said it’s not part of the story.
May is Mental Health Month. Anyone who knows me well enough knows how much I advocate for this one topic, particularly depression and anxiety. You probably know how important peace of mind is to me. And I lied. This story is not for you. No. It’s for me. The last couple of weeks have had me reevaluate my life more than a billion times. I have been sad. Really sad. I almost went back to a place I had sworn I would never get to again. A place I had vowed never to sink to. But I was almost back there. I was sad all the time and worried about everything. So in as much as I have kept my promise to remain happy, I think I knew in the back of my mind that I would slip, and let other people’s words get to my head. But this time, I realized it early enough, and I remembered I had this tucked away. What better time to talk about mental health than now?
When she described what she went through, I saw myself in her. It was like I was listening to a recording of myself. She made voice notes, and it was like a dream. A flashback.
“I don’t know how to describe what I was going through”, she began explaining, “I was depressed. At least that’s what my psychiatrist said. But I didn’t know that at the time. I found myself crying in public most times, so I stopped going to school. People said I was pregnant, and you can never really understand the magnitude of a rumor until you get one about yourself. So I had to force myself back to school. I was a zombie. Color faded from my vision and everything became grey.”
“Like a romantic French movie from the 1940s where the woman is on a bridge with a cigarette between her fingers and a dress that seems to accentuate her figure even though it’s baggy and flare? Or a sad American one where the man forgets how important he is and a guardian angel has to be sent to him to show him what the lives of those around him would be like without him in it?” [I did not ask her that]
“I could not concentrate in class,” she continues “I am a pretty bright student. I scored As and Bs. But my 2017 transcripts are embarrassing. You know what happens when you tell someone that you are sad?” I don’t. “They say being happy is a choice. Like what to eat and which song to listen to. They tell you to ‘be happy’. Then they sing that song. I hate that song. It haunts me. It made me ask why I couldn’t just stop being sad. Why I couldn’t leave everything behind and let go. That song makes it seem so easy.”
“You don’t like Bob Marley?”
I like Button Poetry. I can listen to them for hours. As she spoke, I heard Sabrina Benaim whispering the words to ‘Explaining my Depression to My Mother’ [I think you should listen to it]. Sabrina likens depression to a fly in the hand of a bear one day and the next as the bear itself. It is more than just feeling down in the dumps. It is a struggle in the brain that drowns you until the breath in your lungs exhausts and the space left is filled with sadness. This is how she felt. Submerged in her sadness, like a submarine, with no oxygen in her tanks. She was broken, with no one to hold on to, and sad. A kind of sadness that even fish could not understand. That even dolphins could not save her from. So she started drinking. It numbed all feeling and, in her stupor state, she was almost happy. Alcohol became the choice she made.
She would go to class with a bottle of Dasani, only her water was bitter and had the distinct smell of Vodka. She killed the rumour of her being pregnant. But in its stead, came one that she had gotten rid of the pregnancy and was now using alcohol to fill the void. What made it worse was the guy who had “destroyed” her orchestrated this rumour. “He said things about me that no one should say of the devil. So I morphed into a state of constant hatred. I hated my nails, my face, my friends. There was always this thing in my chest that weighed me down day and night. I hated it. I hated myself for feeling it, and I hated waking up.”
Her friends held an intervention for her. I swear people should stop watching too many movies. They said she was going down a dark path and they cared for her. They wanted the best for her.
“That was nice,” I say.
“Until someone said ati ‘what I had lost should not define me. Ati they understand if I didn’t want to keep it and they still love me. Can you imagine the nerve! That a guy can come from nowhere and with no context accuse you of something that they were not even sure of.” See up to this point, she had not heard the exact rumor. Only bits and pieces that she made sense of in her head. When she heard she had lost it, she assumed it was the guy. When she heard she was using alcohol to fill the void, she understood the void he left in her life.
She had been binge-watching series all month, since she had no energy to be around people. She spent her time getting drunk and bingeing on series. It happened that on this specific day, while she was at her lowest, she watched ’13 Reasons Why’ [If you were not in the rage then, 13 Reasons Why is a series about a teenage girl who goes through so many things that destroy her will to live so much that she commits suicide]. She said that that could never be her. She could never let her mother suffer such a tragedy. So she called home and said she needed to see a psychiatrist. The date was 13th September, [I don’t know if it was a Friday]. And her road cleared up.
“Sometimes I still sink. It doesn’t really go away, you know. There are times that a series of events happen that make me feel unworthy, but I remind myself of how far I have come. That I am worthy. That I have forgiven myself for loving the wrong person, and for hurting myself for other people’s actions. I am still learning to let go, but I am more than halfway there, and that is all that matters”.
Kitambo, we used to be told that you should not stress yourself over small small things because you would get ulcers. Or H. Pylori [which I have, Ha-ha]. But our parent’s ulcers is our depression, and the effects are worse, because H. Pylori is cured by a kit of a week’s worth of medicine, while depression is a lifelong disease that is suppressed by blue happy pills that you have to take so you don’t sink back into the darkness.
Happy Mental Health Month.
[And if you have a Mental Health story kindly email me on email@example.com It doesn’t have to be AA related. I’m thinking of honouring the month then we’ll get back to AA in June]
It didn’t make any sense to him that Monday morning. He woke up to shouting from his parents’ bedroom. His mother’s voice was louder than he had ever heard it. It sounded like she was screaming herself sore. And so he did what any teenage boy would do if he heard his mother shout. He got out of bed, went to his parents’ door and knocked once. The voice went silent. “What!” “Uh, mom? Umm… Are you okay?” The door opened. His mother was in her bathrobe, her hair a mess and his father was seated on the bed. “Why aren’t you in school Mike*?” They had been on holiday for two weeks. He remembers his father bent over and supporting his head by the bridge of his eyes. He remembers his father’s exasperated voice telling her to ‘leave the boy alone and go take a shower’. Then, he remembers the door slamming in his face. He went back to his room, got in bed and went to sleep. It was a dream. None of what he had seen that Monday morning was real. When he woke up he smelled pancakes. Everything was back to normal. His father was reading the newspaper at the dining table, with his coffee on the table. He took his seat and waited for his pancakes. They had breakfast as a family. Like a normal family. Then his parents left for work and he watched cartoons.
That week, the air felt like there had been no raised voices in the wee hours. It was like everyone forgot that a door had slammed in his face. But it ate at him. He saw the door when he watched Samurai Jack and on his plate during supper. He heard it in his dreams, with his mother’s voice echoing in the background. “Why aren’t you in school Mike?” When he couldn’t take it anymore, he called his brother.
“Mom forgets things,” he had said.
“What do you mean, Mike?”
“She forgets things. She didn’t know I have been home for two weeks. And last week she put salt in tea.”
“Ha-ha… Come on dude. Maybe she’s just tired. I’m sure you don’t even help out at home anymore.”
“But nothing man. She’s mom. She’s okay. Don’t worry about it. And help her bring in groceries at least. Okay?”
He hung up. His brother didn’t know anything. It made him feel lost. So he did what any kid born in this day and age would do. He asked Uncle Google. He typed in ‘is being forgetful normal’ and says he got some hope. This has to be the first person in the world to have asked anything on Google and not found out he, together with his entire extended family, was already dead. So I take my phone out and type in the same thing. A girl needs hope in this tough and unruly world. ‘Many people worry about becoming forgetful as they age” comes my sliver of googled hope ‘They think it is the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease. But some forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging’. That is all the hope he needed. To be told that salty tea is part of aging, and he took it. He accepted his mother was getting old and went back to school when they opened and forgot all about his mother’s forgetfulness.
A few weeks later there was commotion in school. Mike’s class was having Social Studies, which he hated, meaning any excuse of a break was welcome. He would purposely not pee during break time only so he could ask to go outside during the class. But on this particular day, he remembers having been extremely pressed and was forced to pee when they were out. It was odd. Like hitting your toe on a table that was never in your living room [Okay, I don’t get that either].
The disturbance, it turned out, was his mother. He remembers looking out the window and his eyes immediately meeting with hers. The familiarity in them uncanny. He knew, before his eyes travelled down her bathrobe and sandals, that she was not herself. “It was weird. The way the look in her eyes transported me back to that Monday morning. I heard her voice. ‘Why aren’t you in school, Mike?’ I saw her at home, adding salt to my tea. It was the first time my heart broke.”
12 year olds do not understand empathy. All they know to do is laugh and make fun of their friends. They don’t know that a person’s mother cannot just come to school in pyjamas out of their own accord. Their immature brains cannot process the possibility of being held at gunpoint to wear the most ridiculous costume to your son’s school, let alone what Alzheimer’s disease is. //Mickey, si that’s your mom? // Kwani her problem is what? // You guys just wear like that when going out? // Ha-ha, hey guys, look at Mickey’s mom. Kwani you don’t own combs in your home? // Haiya Mickey! That’s really your mom? Na vile she is usually smart. Kwani what happened? //
Mike ran to her, this time his social studies excuse too dire to comprehend. She came to her senses as his hand touched hers and he witnessed first-hand what the realization of what had happened did to her mother. “Mom,” he said to her “It’s okay. Breathe. Just breathe. You’ll be fine. I promise. I’ll call Daddy and he’ll take you home. But I’ll take care of you till he comes.” He held her hand through explaining to his teacher that he needed to call his father. Held her hand through the waiting. Through his classmates peeping at them from the windows. Through the 12-year-old theories of what was wrong with his family. He held her hand even when there was enough sweat between their palms to fill the Red Sea. When his father arrived, they both got in the car and drove off. He never went back to the school.
“I can only imagine the kinds of stories those kids had to give. How many of them called my mom crazy, or said that I was mad myself?”
“They were just kids. Kids say things that they don’t mean”
“But kids also say the truth, right? I had been told that so many times and I started believing it.”
“You thought she was crazy?”
“For a time, yes. But I was young. And hurt. I had lost all my friends because of one thing. One mistake that my mom could not control herself making. My heart was broken. I was broken.”
His brother came home from campus. He convinced their father to seek medical assistance for their mother, who was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease [Yeah, I know. I expected something different too. Point for Google]. She was admitted at Mathari Hospital for five months and released, provided she took her medication. As Alzheimer’s progresses, brain cells die and connections among them are lost, causing cognitive symptoms to worsen. While current medications cannot stop the damage Alzheimer’s causes to brain cells, they may help lessen or stabilize symptoms for a limited time by affecting certain chemicals involved in carrying messages among the brain’s nerve cells. Mike’s mother had a combination of cholinesterase inhibitors, Donepezil (Aricept) and Rivastigmine (Exelon), which are prescribed to treat symptoms related to memory, thinking, language, judgment and other thought processes.
“My father became my hero in that time. I mean, he was okay, for a dad. He always took us out, helped us with homework and did dad stuff like a respectable…well…dad. But in the five months that mom was admitted and in the years that followed, he was spectacular.” I don’t think your dad is your hero if you can’t describe him as spectacular. He is otherwise just a dad who does homework among other dad stuff. “He became everything to us. He would go see my mom every day. We weren’t allowed in to see her, so he bought a polaroid camera and would come home every evening with a photo of her, so we would now she was okay. He made sure we were fed and went to school. We never lacked anything. My mom had everything she would have needed, and, in all this time, he never drank a single drop of alcohol.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. He remained himself. He never self-medicated. He showed us a kind of strength that we needed to have in that time of our lives. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. He was spectacular. He proved to us, my bro and I, that family is everything. That a man takes care of his own, builds what he has, so that when he stumbles, he has something to hold on to.”
[Remember to subscribe to Mirawu for more compelling AA stories…among other totally random things that you would never know of unless you were notified that they were posted]
Larry had hated his birthday by the time he was thirteen. He doesn’t care for it. He never gets that rush that hits on the morning of. His steps lack rhythm. It’s like any other day, he says. But it’s not, right? Who wakes up on their birthday and says it’s just a day. I mean, you can tell it to people, especially if you are like me and don’t like people to fuss over you… but there will always be something that makes you feel special about it. That ka-happiness that fills your soul when you open your eyes in the morning. The spring in your step. The rush in your bones. Instead, Larry feels sad on his birthdays.
If he were a woman and was turning 37 without anything to call his own at the time, I would understand. Society has put so much pressure on us to achieve specific things at a certain age, but guys have it easy. They get to cruise through life doing what they want and as they please without eyes judging them from the corners. And Larry is a dude [Duh]. A dude of 24. He is at the peak of his youth. His birthday should be a valid excuse to get shitfaced and sleep in the gutters. He says he wakes up sick.
The year is 2005. The boy wakes up on the morning of his 11th birthday to find nothing. Usually, there would be the sweet smell of his mother’s pancakes. He is immediately alarmed. He calls out to his mother, who on this day wakes him up with a kiss [I presume there is no greater joy to an 11-year-old boy than a forehead kiss and the smell of pancakes in the morning]. There is no answer. He gets out of bed, without the kiss. The atrocity! He walks with no shoes, thinking that maybe it is a surprise party. He had hinted earlier in the year that he would have loved to have one of those. Could this be it? He tiptoes. He wants to surprise the surprisers. To become the master of his ceremony [He-he]. There is no one. He straightens his back in the kitchen. No one.
He remembers being shocked, and then thinking that maybe that is what his parents wanted. His surprise could not be easy after all. They had to make him believe that there was no party to bombshell him.
The boy takes a shower and dresses in the clothes that were bought specifically for this day.
“What were they?” I can’t tell you why I ask this.
“Oh,” he thinks. “A pair of really nice jeans.” His face lights up “G-Unit. That’s it! It was a pair of blue jeans and a matching jacket. I don’t know if you know them, but they were the shit at the time.”
Oh, I know them alright. I still wear my G-Unit jacket today.
The boy leaves his room for the common room, (read sitting room), and finds nothing. Not even a single blue balloon to tell him that at least someone thinks of him. The thought that they forgot his birthday plays at him, but he dismisses it as soon as it floats in. They had been fussing about this day all month. /What do you want for your birthday? //A bicycle//But you already have a bicycle Larry//Yeah, but that bike is for kids. I want a mountain bike//Aah/ Laughter. /So you want a big man’s bicycle now, huh big man? // Smiles. The kinds of smiles that make your cheeks hurt. Smiles that make it impossible to hide your molars. Happy smiles.
The boy hears the gate open and rushes to the door. His father walks in, disheveled, “Like a person who had not slept for a week and only survived on coffee.” This guy watches too many movies. He remembers thinking his father had been up all night making arrangements for his big day. He stands infront of his pops to show him how well the clothes fit. His father looks right through him.
“Did you feel like Taylor Swift in Delicate?”
“What?” he seems puzzled.
His mother had left. On his birthday. She had packed her things and taken off with a man who his father described only as “that bullshitter from the office”. His world turned upside down. The father, who walked in the door with a smile on his face and arms outstretched for a lift to his shoulders, became a shadow of his former self. He stopped drinking only on special occasions and started “living every day to the fullest”. His clothes started getting tears in weird places. He would leave in the morning with a perfectly good shirt and come with it missing a pocket. His trousers started getting looser. Larry was sent to add holes to belts every other month. But he remained strong. He never broke.
On the 24th of May, the next year, he there was a knock on the front door at about 10:30 pm. I like it when a story has a twist like this. A knock at that time of the night can never be a neighbor asking for salt. It is always something else. Something trivial. Something that can only be understood by opening that door and facing the other side of it. He got up from his bed to get it and met with his father on the corridor. “Are you expecting someone?” his father asked him and he only looked at the older man with puzzled eyes. The knock persisted. His father opened the door to find his mother standing there, having lost a couple of pounds herself [I’ve always wanted to say pounds instead of Kgs. Hello milestone] Anyway, his mother walks in, hugs him and says “Happy birthday baby”. Then he remembered it was his birthday. He was asked to go to his room. See what money does? He was asked. In my house, unapewa macho and that’s it [For the sake of my non-existent diaspora peeps, this is loosely translated to ‘you are given eyes’]
The boy heard raised voices then they were hushed. Whispers that did not really whisper because they were of angry and hurt people who still had to remember there was a boy sleeping in the next room. He heard them, in parts, but the parts he heard made sense enough for him to understand. /what are you doing here? //He is my son//why are you here? //it’s his birthday. I had to see him//Okay, you have seen him. Go to your bullshitter//Darling please//DON’T TOUCH me//I have nowhere to go//We were happy, you know. We were getting back on our feet//What did you do for him today? //What do you care? LEAVE//I have nowhere to go/. Silence. Sobbing. /What are you crying for? YOU left. YOU took your things and left us//I know. I’m sorry/. Silence. /Get up. I’ll drive you to a hotel. We’ll talk tomorrow//I love you. I still do/. The door unlocked and closed after the voices. He heard the car engine start.
He hears this last conversation over and over in his head. That is why Larry started drinking. To drown the voices in the bliss of a stupor. When he drinks, all he hears is the car starting, and that is better than the hushed voices of his parents. Alcohol helped him to remain blind to the policeman who came to his door in the morning. He couldn’t see the strange man’s pitying eyes as they told him how much he had lost in that one night. He lived the next couple of days in a daze. He saw aunts and uncles talk without hearing what they said. He floated through the next few years, going to school and doing the bare minimum so he could be expelled… but he finished school and managed to secure a spot in the University of Nairobi.
One day, in his fourth year of campus, he saw a girl. She cleared up in his otherwise blurred vision as if he was meant to see her. “There is a difference between being happy and being distracted by happiness. She made me happy. She showed me that it was okay to laugh again. That my parent’s death did not define who I was.”
“Do you still hear them?
“Every day. I don’t think it is something that can just leave my head. But it used to feel like nightmares in the daytime. Now, it’s a memory. And I like that it is, because at least they were together in the end. I only wish I heard him say he loved her back.”
“Maybe he said it in the car.”
“Yeah. I formed versions of the conversation they may have had in the car. I want them to have made up. To hold hands. I hope they smiled at each other before the end and looked at each other in the eyes like the first time they met. I hope they were happy.”
“Are you going to tell me about your girl?”
“Maybe, but not today. I need to love her more. To hold her hand and look her in the eyes before I tell anyone of how she dug me out of the hole I never knew I could ever survive and how much I miss her face right now. Maybe it’s the way she says my name.”
There’s a difference between ‘I miss you’ and ‘I miss your face.’
[Have a lovely Easter holiday, My Lovelies]
PS. Don’t forget to subscribe
Girls are dangerous beings. They can lie through their teeth and smile at you like you are sunshine on a cloudy day. They can think thoughts so vile that they ferment fresh milk. They move mountains as mothers and break hearts while younger. Girls can be mean. They can destroy a soul so badly its restoration will be in vain. Don’t get me wrong. There are good girls out there. Girls who are roses with fewer thorns. Girls whose sole purpose is not the destruction of humankind. But these girls are a handful compared to the grains of sand with malicious cores. I’ll let you decide what kind of girl Ivy is.
She has a total of 2,354 contacts on her phone. She says she is in touch with each and every one of them. I must be living wrong because even with my 74, I can never seem to remember who some of those people are. Hers is an iPhone of course. She claims she doesn’t know how to use an android. This is a lie. Not because I know her or anything. I’m not one to judge. But for a ’96 kid, at some point in her life, she must have owned a Nokia C10 or an Ideos, to say the least.
Ivy is tall. She has the kinds of legs that people say are for days. She tells everyone she does not eat apples. I think it is because there is already one on her phone. Or maybe she just likes doctors. People enjoy being around her. They like her. She says she attracts crowds. You know… like the moth and the flame. She burns and burns bright. She was the one texting me with the story yet she had me blue-ticked a total of about seventeen times. At least now I know what guys complain so much about. Those blue ticks hold such anxiety, especially when they come under a “what happened next”.
She moves on quick. Says there are no second chances with her. Once is all you get and then you are done. But she does not warn you about this when you face your first chance. She doesn’t tell you that you will have no opportunity to redeem yourself. She lets you believe that you have a lifetime with her until you screw up and ask her something she doesn’t take kindly to. Something like what makes her add sleeping pills to a man’s drink in a club. Something like what her thought process is when she fakes pregnancies to get money from men old enough to be her father.
“Age is just a number,” [so is 1959. But the latter is also a year when Kenya had not yet achieved independence, and the year the man she most recently asked for money was born]
“How many times a week do you tell yourself that?”
It’s frustrating. Talking to Ivy. Usually I just text the first thing that comes to mind, but I don’t know what to text her. I don’t know when to put in a joke or when to feign seriousness. She seems so full of herself that she believes she is a superior being. A god among gods. She behaves as if she is a painting on the wall that can only be brushed ever so delicately by the feathers of a rare pelican. She is Athena. Precious. Priceless. And I hate her. I hate the way she types without vowels. I see her in nursery school disregarding her vowel lessons to take selfies with her paper phone. She is supercilious and snobbish and imperious. She didn’t sit with other kids in school because even at a younger age she was just as condescending.
“Tell me about your friends” I text, for obvious reasons.
Her friends, she says, worship her. They love her. It’s a requirement to be in her circle, that you love her. You have to do as she pleases. Ivy never asks you to jump over a cliff and you ask if there is water of cold hard ground at the end. You take the step because she asked. You never dispute her because, as she says, you chose to be her friend. She never chose you. So you go with her roll. You cough after she does. You cry if she does. You even pee after she has gone to the bathroom first. You are her friend. She isn’t yours.
I was at a dark place filled with hate when she mentioned her “light”. A little girl, Carina. This name reminds me of a soap opera villain with long blonde hair and green eyes that could turn the scales on a snake’s skin. A photo pops up on my phone of a little girl in blonde braids who looks more of the protagonist than the strange talkative little girl that follows the protagonist around in almost every telenovela ever written. She has these big brown eyes that make you fall in love with her instantly.
“Stepdaughter?” I ask, picturing the little girl up a chimney cleaning cinders till 3.36am.
“thts ma bby gal”
I open the picture again. Really? This is a weird combination. Like salt coming from water. Like pineapple on pizza. They look so strange together, but when you give them a chance, you find yourself with the perfect duo. This is Fanta orange and bread right here. “Where’s the father?”
I’m getting tired at all the waiting around because I was already writing this piece in my head. It began with the evil stepmother without a stepdaughter to put to misery and now, there she was, at the end of the opera with the perfect smile and the perfect little girl, standing by a pew singing praises at the top of her lungs. She had me in a twist. She gives these little anecdotes one after the other that are total opposites. One time she tells of an injection that gives false positives on a pregnancy test “in case the dde wnts 2 b thea wen u test” [dde is equal to dude. Who types incase in full then says “dde”?]. Some guys are easier, she explains. They prefer you send them the results on WhatsApp. With these ones, you can send an old picture taken during Carina’s time and all’s well that ends well. Then she will tell you about Carina’s second birthday when she had no money to get a store bought cake so she used pancake mix to fashion one and it actually worked out. She knows how to twist you and turn you until you end up around her little finger, then she keeps you there for when she will need you.
She apologizes for keeping me in blue ticks. It was long overdue anyway. But it is the way she delivers the apology that gets me. She says it like something she has said her whole life. Like it is her and she it. The apology comes as the most natural thing that you may miss it, even though it is there staring you in the face like that one big fly in a latrine. You know the one. “sry 4 kipin u waitn”. Kipin?
“Why Carina? Why not Tracy or Rita or Shirleen?”
She says because Carina was strong. You remember Carina of Storm Over Paradise? Yes, her. She says that Carina had character. She fought for love. “Didn’t the ones on the poster fight for love?” [Please remind me what the names of these protagonists were. I have racked my brain long enough to no avail]. She says they may have, but she didn’t really notice. She saw Carina burn cars and plot murders for the love of her life. “You want your daughter to plot murders?” I ask. She says Carina can do whatever she sets her mind to. That if she will want to raise hellfire then she will not stand in her way. She doesn’t let men do the things they do to her because she likes it. She lets them because it is the one way she can keep a roof over her Carina. Her Carina needs pancakes at breakfast and Kiwi for her school shoes. She will do whatever it takes. Whoever it takes.
She says she has no friends. That the people who follow her around do so for the things she has to offer, be it the men who buy her these things or the exclusive passes into Nairobi’s grand nightclubs. She says that she cannot call any one of them to ask for help when Carina is sick because those girls can talk of her to the grave. “They aren’t reliable” [I want to applaud her for remembering her vowels but I’m not sure if she is one to take kindly to cheesy banter] “They wld abandon mih in a hrtbit. Cnt trst em” Girls are sad. They wear so many masks that you cannot tell which is which. They lie so much that they start to believe the lie. “goin hme nw”
The time by my clock is 3.49am.
[PS. If you have an alcohol-related story that you feel needs telling, I am more than willing to help. Send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org… And I know, I know. March was terrible. Happy April my lovelies]
Luke’s life changed before he could even understand the meaning behind the word itself. There was no exam. No preparation for what lay ahead. Just a sudden, violent swing that pushed him into a life he had never expected to lead. But that’s the thing about life right? You just never know what happens next.
He remembers being at his grandmother’s place. Luke is one of those kids whose grandparents are a 30bob fare away. Some people have it easy. If I want to see my grandparents, I have to climb up hills, go through a forest of fire, swim through a sea of ice and brave a storm. And that’s only if it doesn’t rain on that Got Agulu hill because that becomes a different story. He was dropped at his grandma’s by a woman whose name he doesn’t remember, but seeing that we are not using his name here, I don’t think this woman’s name has any significance. On him was a backpack with two pairs of trousers, three shirts and a game of monopoly. He does not know how to play monopoly.
Now all grandmothers, no matter how evil a mother-in-law, love their grandkids. His adored him. He was the light to her dimming eyes. Her face lit up any time she laid eyes on him. But she was old and weak. There was no way she was going to take care of an eight-year-old kid by herself. She considered boarding school but he was her grandbaby. He needed to be home, not holed up in some dormitory with random boys just because she could do nothing about it. Then grandma had an idea. It was a risk but it was all she had.
The next day, after breakfast, Luke was given a piece of paper that had instructions on how to get to his uncle’s place and sent on his way. It took him about an hour to get there. He stood by the door for another hour, gathering the courage to knock. The door swung open about two hours after he got there to a man he had never seen before. This man, in pyjamas, at 12:30 pm on a Tuesday, sported an unshaven face and dried up drool running a thick white line from the corner of his mouth to his cheekbone [you felt if your cheek has a bone too right?].
The man looked at him, and him at the man. Droolface asked what he was doing there. Was the little boy lost? He didn’t have any money to give to strays, he said. His uncle spoke to him as if he were a cat that had meowed him from his dreams.
“I am not a stray. My grandmother sent me”
“Well, go back and tell her I don’t know any old people, much less their grandies.”
He explained that his grandmother was Rose, from Roysambu. That she had sent him to live with him for a while, before his parents came back. He said his mother’s name. That seemed to have done the trick. He watched as sleep was cast out from the man’s eyes. They were his mother’s eyes. That was what assured him that he was in the right place.
Saying that the inside of that apartment was a mess will be an understatement. Luke uses the word ‘disarray’. Nobody uses a different word for ‘mess’ to describe a few clothes scattered while looking for an outfit. It is the only out of order word he uses so I know he must have looked it up. He says he did. There was a sufuria with mold at the door. He wondered how his uncle had not stepped in it on his scuffle to the door. Worn clothes hung from the ceiling and in the kitchen sink. There were clean clothes under the bed and he found a spoon in a couch cushion. He didn’t ask, because it was not his house. People don’t take it kindly when you visit them and start by asking what cutlery was doing in the seats. In his head, he was only here for a few days until his parents came to get him. Nobody came.
A month later, schools were opening. His grandma came knocking. She had his uniform and all needed effects to get a class 3 kid to school. She did not come in. She never did. Not for the 4 years he lived with his uncle. Any time he brought up his parents, his uncle, always drunk, would ask him to shut up. He would say he did not know. That parents abandon their children all the time. He was not special compared to these children. He should be thankful to have a roof above his head.
Before sitting for his K.C.P.E. exams, Luke’s teachers asked the class to fill in their details and those of their parents on a form. He asked if he could bring the form home to be filled, because he did not have some of the details. Details like his father’s name. His uncle, in his constant drunken state, always referred to his parents as “my sister and that prick that took her away”. The form did not have enough space for that. At home, he pulled out the form, woke up his uncle from another of his smashed sleep and asked for his father’s real name. The uncle got up and staggered to the wardrobe. He rummaged through the pockets of the one jacket he owned and came back to the couch. He threw folded pieces of paper on the table.
“There. You are old enough to understand this English. I have no answers to any and all questions you may have,” and with that, he slumped back to sleep. Luke picked it up and unfolded it. The first page held the face of a woman with his uncle’s eyes. The second page was the proceedings; from taking the body from the mortuary to the time the body would be lowered to the ground. There was no vigil.
His eyes rested on the eulogy page just as his uncle began snoring. It hit him. The gravity of what he held in his hands became so dense he felt his fingers give way as the pages fell to the floor. His eyes stung. For a minute, he forgot how to breathe. He wanted to run away but there was nowhere to go. He had exams in four days, plates in the sink and his mother’s eulogy on page three.
“She was beautiful, my mother. She had the same eyes as my uncle, but hers held a kindness I have never seen in this world. Hers were not bloodshot like his. Her eyeballs were the white of fresh milk. And you know what the cause of death was?” he lets out a bitter laugh. His laugh has known no mother’s touch. He pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of page three.
‘Cause of Death: Drunk Driving’
“You can call me orange” read the email.
“Like the fruit or the color?”
“I was told this was where to go if I wanted to talk about my mother”
Oh man. Orange must have the wrong email. But then, I thought, that would be pushing it a little far right? That there is a person out here with an email address so close to email@example.com that I was sent the troubles of another?
“Well she drinks. I mean I do too, but she drinks like a whole lot. For breakfast, for brunch, for a midnight snack”
Ah, my kind of trouble. So I gave her my number and when she Whatsapped me, I thought I would call this story “Orange”. I saved it as Orange. I almost color-coded it as well. Almost changed the wordings from black to orange. But I’m also practicing self-control because I have been too impulsive lately and that has bitten me in the arse a few times.
She told me she was not sure if this is the kind of place she would want her story to go. She said she would have wanted a smaller platform [do you feel my head swelling just a little bit?]. Has she seen a psychiatrist? I asked. She said she was “not comfortable doing this face-to-face”. That this was safer. Nobody would know her. Nobody would judge her. So I said “Let’s talk about your mother” because I don’t know if nobody would know her or judge her here. I am not people’s judge-mentality [this is underlined so maybe I should explain that I mean it as an individual’s ability-to-judge. Somebody tell Merriam Webster to document more words]. Also, lightbulb; I’m sitting here thinking how Judge Mentality has a nice ring to it. There should be a series about a beat up judge who gets hit by space rocks and acquires the ability to use his/her brain to make court rulings. We should be able to see the brainwaves swirling trying to come to said ruling. Seth Rogen could play it, or write most of the lines at least, and obviously Idris Elba should be the bailiff and at the beginning of every episode he would say “Order. Court is in session. The Honorable Judge Mentality will be presiding” and Seth Rogen or Rebel Wilson would come in on a wooden horse.
Orange’s dad, who I am tempted to name Peel, supposedly left her mother when she was born. She clings to little anecdotes that her mother blurted out in her late-night drunken stupors when she forgot the existence of Orange in her life. Her dad was fun. That’s what she texts me. I can’t imagine a fun dad. No one spends time with their dad and comes out of it going, ‘Hey dad, that was fun. We should do this again sometime’. It only borders “fun” if at the end of it he reaches for the wallet. So I think it is because she looks at her father with her mother’s eyes. This seems like a falling road to go down. I am afraid she will start texting how hard his abs were and how his laugh made the hairs on her skin rise. I change the subject back to her mother.
Most girls grow up being told they are beautiful and strong and smart, and that anyone would be lucky to have them in their lives. They are the rays of the sun. Their beliefs are affirmed and the ideas they have are the best thing their mothers have ever heard of. Most girls have it good. Orange was never most girls. She never woke up to the smell of pancakes in the mornings. She had to come home fed or she would have to sleep hungry. She learned to cook just last year and up until she was 10, she thought mothers were not obligated to do anything for their kids.
She says she discerned the difference between a house and a home when she spent an afternoon at a friend’s place. She understood that one could laugh loudly in a home without fear of a condescending remark. Mothers touched their children in homes without flinching. Homes did not have the constant stench of liquor and vomit that could not be scrubbed out even if her fingers bled fire. Homes had onions in the kitchen and a welcome mat at the front door. She found out just how much was missing in her house and she began hating her mother for it.
When she told her mother about this, she was told of how ungrateful a daughter she was. “She said I was a thankless no-good daughter who didn’t even appreciate all that she did for me.” It’s hard writing a story in my head without a tangible subject in mind so at this point I went offline. I needed a break and break-time has always meant something to eat, has it not? The first thing I see in the kitchen is this deformed unhealthy looking orange in the fruit basket and my brain screams EUREKA! I pick it up and this has to either be a rock or the hardest orange to have ever walked the planet. It doesn’t help that I can’t remember when oranges were bought last. This is a forgotten orange. A sad orange. An orange that has seen days when the basket was full of his brothers and sisters and shed so much when sibling after sibling was taken away to face the wrath of the knife. I don’t cut it. Not yet. This orange is my muse. You don’t destroy a muse. You study it, from afar. You place it on a pedestal and watch it, lovingly, as it sits there, unmoving, unflinching, while the words come pouring out of your brain as if the orange was the cork. I see the orange for the first time. I mean really see it. I think Orange and this orange must be related in a life before this. Before this orange was on a tree, a seedling, a seed, manure, trash, a human. So I sit there for what seems to have been an hour, staring at an orange until someone knocks on the door and I wake from my reverie.
“I’ve been looking at an orange,” I text Orange.
“Ha-ha, the fruit or the color?”
By the time most girls were celebrating their sweet sixteens, Orange was trying to tape her breasts into her back because her mother said she was developing too quick for her age and that she was abnormal. “I can’t tell you how many times I wrapped my chest in masking tape so that I could feel normal. I was going to school on an Equity Bank scholarship and I was scared that they would pull me off it if they realized I was not like other kids who got the sponsorship.” I ask her what she means by not being like the other kids. “My mom made me believe I was not deserving of anything nice I had. She made me doubt myself. I doubted my walk, the way I talked, even my body. She made me feel inferior to everyone else, even her. She constantly woke me up at 2.00am to tell me I did not deserve the scholarship. That I should have let someone who needed it more to have it.”
The tempo changed when she finished school. The 2.00am wake up calls became questions. Why did she not have a man? What was she doing to get herself a husband? Was she thinking that she would live with her mother till she got old? She remembers one time when she was coming from those computer classes we do after high school like a ritual and found the door locked. She was sure her mother was in, because it was 3 in the afternoon and she usually did not leave until about 5:30 for when the bars had customers who she would nag to buy her one or two. She knocked twice and heard her mother’s groggy voice inside. “She said that if I ever want to get into her house again, I would come with alcohol as my rent.”
And so for the next three years, Orange bought quarters for her rent. She tried to avoid being known to the liquor store keepers. As soon as one knew her name, she changed to a different store. People called her names. They said she was going to end up like her mother. That she was wasting away. Women snickered when she walked past. Everyone she met commented on how bright a future she had had before she destroyed herself with alcohol.
In 2017, at 23, Orange packed up her clothes and left. She did not say goodbye. She says she did not want her last memory of her mother to be as painful as her life with her.
“What do you remember of her?”
“Well,” [she begins most of her texts with ‘well’] “I definitely remember the smell. Sometimes I am in a matatu and a guy brushes past me and I swear my mother must have clung to him. It haunts me. I feel like I have failed her as a daughter, and for real this time. But that house had no color. It was grey and I hated it. I hated that life.”
I ask her if she would like to see her again. To mend things. To try and get her help. “Well I have done all that. I went back for the eighth time last month. I cleaned her up, got her clean clothes and took her to some rehab in Limuru. She stayed three days then ran away. Again. So how do you help someone who does not want your help?” I look at my orange, then get up to get a knife. “I have tried so much. I cry every time I see her. she looks worse on each visit. I tell myself ‘You know what Orange, you escaped this. You are no longer a prisoner to your mother’, but every time, it feels like she holds something over me. The fact that she stayed with me. She didn’t leave like my father [Peel]. I will forever be grateful to her for that.” I cut into my orange.
She will try again in April.
[Do you have an AA worthy story, send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org and Let’s talk drink.]
She was the kind of girl he was sure he would never get, and not only because he was years older than her. They were from different worlds. Her father had large farms and his mother had twelve children. It was doomed from the first day they saw each other. Of the twelve, he was fifth, and third among the boys, which made him among the middle children. He could get nothing. Could ask for nothing, and unless he was coughing out blood and shitting himself simultaneously, no attention was given to him.
There is this perception that middle children are disregarded. Nobody pays them any mind. They can drag themselves through the mud with their asses bare and nobody would care. He would leave whenever he wanted, be gone for hours on end and when he was back, no one had missed him. No one had even noticed he was away. Once, when the thirteen of them were in the shamba, he detoured with his older brother to relieve themselves in nearby bushes and his mother threw a fit! she scratched and wailed for her first born son claiming somebody had napped the fruit of her loins and she could have none of it. This was the only time he ever felt missed.
When he finished high school, like many of his peers, he did menial jobs. It was during this time that he met the one person who was ever excited to see him. She looked at him, not through him. He felt seen. She missed him. She sneaked him things she thought he needed. He tasted his first strip of bacon with her, sneaked out through the folds of her tunic. He liked the smell of her. She said she used Fa soap, and gave him a bar. He took baths every day for her, then applied Fa soap on his skin because he liked her on his skin [okay, I made that up]. She talked him up to her father and he was promoted to groundskeeper. His mother was proud. A son with a steady job at a rich man’s was a good son. A son to take notice of. He was taken to driving school and given another task. He would pick up the rich man’s daughter from school every day and bring her straight home. “The ride took twelve minutes to the school, a three-minute wait for her to say goodbye to her friends and another twelve minutes back.” That a person needs a whole three minutes to say goodbye to people you see 5 days a week baffles me. He cherished these minutes. Sometimes he drove there in 10 and drove back slower so he could hear about her day. She could talk about anything; how many math problems she was able to solve, which trees were shedding, who pissed her off in class. She could have talked about the weather and he would have loved the weather.
“Theirs was a different kind of love”, says the person telling me this story. “They had nothing in common. Different generations. Different worlds and yet, they managed to sneak past their parents and be together. There is a thin line between love and madness.”
When she got pregnant, she was fifteen. He was twenty-five. He got a note in his quarters at her father’s compound. She wanted to see him and she had news. She never had news. He had resolved to thinking she made up the things they talked about off the top of her head. She was spontaneous. The note scared him a little. “It was his ‘we-need-to-talk’ note,” she says [Dang it! I had wanted to say that] She told him that she had been feeling weird. Her body felt like it had aliens experimenting on it. He knew, before she said it, that she had missed her period and his first thought was to get away. To talk to someone. “So he told her not to worry. That everything would be fine and they would be fine. Then he went home and cried.”
“He told you this? That he cried?” I ask.
“Well, no. He’s my father, he would never tell me that he cried. Do you know nothing about men?”
His brother found him crying. The same one he went peeing with in the bushes. So her uncle was the one who told her about her father “cleaning his eyes”. Are we together now? Good. The brother prodded and poked and pushed until he stopped just long enough to tell him about the knocked up girl. That she wanted to leave school to be with him. She had said she would follow him wherever he went. She even gave the ‘can’t live without you’ speech. The brothers talked and fought and came to a conclusion. Tell their mother.
“My grandma is one tough cookie. She is the strictest woman I have ever met, and that is to me. I can only imagine what she was like with her own children.” My mind is racing. Strictest? Really? “Yeah, she was so strict.”
Did I say that out loud?
“I hear all these stories from my aunts and uncles…” “The Twelve,” I say, because that tag has been playing in my mind since she said her father had as many siblings. This must have been the kind of family that disagreements happen and it is split into two, sometimes even three, and a mother is asked to pick a group, and if she picks one, the other two will pack up and leave or if she picks the other, the rest get to throw a tantrum. Constructing this sentence alone is giving me a headache, I can’t imagine living it. She shows me a picture of The Twelve, with the oldest uncle on one end and the youngest aunt on the other. They look like a staircase. I hope I didn’t say that out loud. None is taller than the other nor fatter than the next. Also, their resemblance is uncanny. They look like the same person in different stages of height. “My father says the first time he tasted alcohol was the day he had to tell his mother that he had impregnated his boss’s 15 year-old. He claims he had never tasted alcohol before and that that is the only reason that justifies his drinking today. He says my mother turned his life upside down, and that even though he loved her, he was mocked by everyone he went past. They called him the destroyer of homes”
“I thought it was only women who were labelled that.” I learn new things every day.
“My father was. People said he had used traditional medicine on my mother because for such a girl to drop out of school for a man like him, juju had to be involved,” she laughs. It’s a sad laugh. A widow’s laugh. “They call him names, to date. My mother was disowned. Her father said she didn’t deserve her inheritance or his name. She was bent on my father, a man 10 years older than her who had no future other than what he would do the next day.” I ask what Grandma Strictest did. “My uncle talked to her on my father’s behalf. It was tough.” She chased him away that night. He went to the girl and married her, then brought her back home as his wife. They were chased away together. His brother sneaked them back into his simba. The newlyweds slept on a worn mat that night with her new brother-in-law snoring on the bed beside them. “She says she didn’t leave him because she loved him.”
“Why do you think she stayed?”
“Because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Because she was scared. Terrified even, of what her life had sunk to. She didn’t leave because she had nowhere to go. She would be homeless and pregnant with no one to turn to. You know her father hired a watchman?” she asks. I shake my head that I didn’t because I don’t even know her mother past a selfie she showed me, how would I know her grandfather had hired a watchman? “Yah! He hired some guy to sit by the gate and send her away any time she came back. He told her to go to her destroyer of homes and stay there. She had made her choice.” Some fathers can be mean.
There are love stories that begin with one look across a room. Others begin as tragedies. Some begin when some end and others even start in the middle of another. His love story began when his brother took him to one of those raunchy sheds that men go to blow off steam with cloudy frothing glasses. “My father loves the bottle now. The love he had for my mother changed into something else and stirred up another story that he finds every night at the bottom of the bottle. He drinks himself blind. And every evening, he comes home, soaked in his true love’s perfume and tells us the story, word for word, of how he discovered love in 27 minutes and how it changed him so much that he had to seek solace in alcohol. He says he looks for a feeling he had when he was twenty-five, but it’s been twenty years now. If he was to find something, he should have found it by now. He is broken, and in so many pieces that counting is impractical.” She says her mother cries every night the story is told. Whether she cries for him or herself no one can tell, but the girl’s heart breaks for both of them every day.
I ask her if her parents’ story makes her believe in love any less.
“Father says it exists. But that we should wait until we are sure. I mean, they fought for themselves and had my brother. They were strong enough to have three children. I’m sure they loved each other at some point. I just don’t think I have the strength to go through the pain they go through right now.”
As she leaves. She says something that stays with me for a while. She says that she doesn’t wait for her soulmate. That she will love, and love deeply, because she wants something to hold on to twenty years later when he is sad and she is crying and there is alcohol involved. She says that soulmates do not exist, she looks for compatibility, and that falling in love with someone you are compatible with is easy, the hard part is working through it and working for it.
Have a wonderful Valentine’s, my Lovelies.