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.”