I open my eyes and the light is too bright. My stomach feels like a pit and I have a headache on the left side of my head, and bladder’s pressing. It starts somewhere behind my left eye, ow. The taste in my mouth is nasty, of day-after alcohol. I am not ready, so I close my eyes and drift back to sleep.
I wake up a little later. Head still hurts, stomach, still queezy, but my bladder feels ok. I feel around the bed…you know, just in case.
It has happened once before. Visiting a friend in Nairobi, I had a night worse than last night and in the middle of the night was fortunate enough to find the bathroom. In the morning I felt relieved, but it turns out I hadn’t left the couch.
I drag myself to the bathroom. The light in the window has changed to a hazy halflight. One of the bulbs in the room burns out and slight acrid smell lingers. I do the routine; pee, dump, shower, and brush teeth. I pop an Advil.
Walk to the kitchen; fix some instant coffee and an oily egg breakfast. Dump a little too much oil in the pan let it heat. Crack a couple of eggs and as I watch the lively blobs, turn white, bubble and stiffen I remember to call Wahu, Awino and Kip.
I call and leave a message on Wahu’s machine. Last night was pretty tame. A couple of quick drinks when we got to the club, and then just water and dancing for the rest of the night. I was the designated driver after all. I had picked up Awino and Kip and met Wahu at the club. On the way back they had ridden with Wahu because they lived closer to her. I thought Wahu was okay, but was she? Anyway they’re probably still asleep anyway.
I slide the eggs off the pan onto a plate and let the oil drip onto the eggs. They are slick and I just swallow them, washing them and the oil down with the coffee. Between the dump, the Advil and the ‘hangover special’ I now feel completely revived.
I take a drive, for what I don’t know, but I do. The sky is overcast but it is still bright and hazy, so I dig around the car for some shades. I find my brother’s old aviators! Incredible, I didn’t even know I still had them. He gave them to me once when he was home from the Kenya Air force. He looked like the guys I saw in the movies. I wanted nothing more than to be like him. Totally Officer and a Gentleman. Between him and the movies, I decided I was headed for America. And now that I was here, I smoked Marlboros like he did, I got a leather bomber jacket like he used to wear…and a pair of cowboy boots – Justin’s, just like his. I put the glasses on and I felt good.
I called my girlfriend; she was in California, 3 hours behind. Mweni was just getting up and was not in a good mood. She said she missed me. I missed her too. She said she wished she was with me and I too wished that she was with me. I felt much better after talking to her, even though she cried. Mweni doesn’t usually cry, but I understood. Being away from each other was difficult for me too.
Wahu still hasn’t called me back. I wonder if they are okay. Growing up so many friends had died in road accidents; usually returning from a party or club. I knew four kids personally and too many through others to count. Not many parents in my neighborhood had cars, so we always road with the richer kids. We sometimes took the bus to the club and walked the last half mile. It wasn’t cool, but when there was no ride, we had to. Robert the minister’s son had died coming from the club. His two passengers survived. Dan the Ugandan was killed in his friend’s sports car. Mary and Ann were the only two who died when the car they were riding in rolled a mile away from the club. There were seven people crammed in their car that night.
Car accidents were a major killer and alcohol its main accomplice. Fifty people in a bus would die in one accident and matatu deaths were regular occurrences. It seemed like the norm. Poverty led to bad, roads. Bad roads to bad cars, and bad cars to more accidents. Poverty led to reckless drinking; reckless drinking to reckless driving and more deaths. Poverty led to desperate youths. Desperate youths led to violent criminals. Violent criminals brought more death. For many people, life in Nairobi was lived at the gates of death. The only escape it seemed was alcohol, but alcohol would often lead to death. And then AIDS came to town, with a scythe to cut down those that were left standing.
Bars were the most booming business in town. The only institution that rivaled the bar was church. My neighborhood had more churches than schools, or banks. Every denomination was represented and new ones were started every Sunday. They didn’t offer an escape, they offered to save. And so at some point we all got saved. But the salvation they offered was in the after-life. We needed salvation down here, and many made the calculation that some of it could be drawn on the account early; after all, those who had faith would also be blessed with success.
I went to the Catholic Church and believed that I had to wait for my blessings in the kingdom after life. If you were good, you earned an eternity in the kingdom, in bright light, in the presence of God. If you were bad, eternity, in hell, fire and sulfur, but worst of all, they said, was the absence of God. Eternity was too hard for my young mind to grasp so I fixated on limbo. Absence of God, suffering, but most importantly with an end. That seemed bearable or rather imaginable. I imagined that there would daily canings, and people would come and yell at you for being bad. I could endure that I thought. After all I had endured that from my Dad all my life. Aiming for heaven was too hard. The rules were tough, ambiguous and they just felt foreign. I looked around and saw good people do clearly bad things and not even feel bad about it. It was too easy to see inconsistency. You know there’s a point where spotting hypocrisy around you gets easier than deciphering the teachings in the book. You know what I mean?
Many of the priests and pastors were foreigners; here to teach us. That felt odd. Why did we have to learn their rules? What if we didn’t feel like it? Our priest was called Father Stephen, but he told us to call him Father Steve. I couldn’t look at him and not picture the story of Saint Steven being stoned to death. It made me think of Father Steven as a saint. Of all the things that disconnected with me though, were his hands. When I shook his hand, it was soft. Not soft like a woman’s hand is, but soft like a pillowy cushion that hisses when you sit on it. Neither my parent’s hands, nor my grandparents – who were closer to his age – felt like that. My grandmother’s hands were tough from breaking firewood and digging up her garden with a panga. He didn’t smile much either. He had left America and spent the last 30 yrs in Africa. He had already earned his place in the Kingdom. I however was aiming for limbo, but I was going to America first.
So over a number of years after high school, many of us ended up spread across the world. Like a bead pod exploding in the sun. We landed wherever we could. I was in Houston, in the hot American south. Wahu, Kip and Awino and were like me in various stages of education. I had dropped out of school for a semester and was determined to return in January. I had saved enough money now to pay for the year that I had left. My girlfriend and I had timed it so we would graduate at the same time and return to Kenya. Five years in this country were more than enough.
The weather has gotten colder and I feel it through the thin shirt I am wearing. It is an old shirt of my fathers that I wear when I am feeling sentimental. My mother sewed it for him when I was a kid. In fact she sewed us all her men, identical shirts. My brother and I soon grew out of ours, and my dad stopped wearing his. As I was packing for the states I saw it hanging in his closet and I stuffed in my bag on impulse. It was made of a dark blue light-weight rayon material that was fashionable at the time. I had picked out the shiny gold buttons with my mum. The dark colored artificial fiber never faded through the years.
I called Wahu again, this time I couldn’t hide the worry in my voice. I told her Awino had left her jacket in my car and Kip his CDs.
I am back in my apartment and it feels much darker and colder now. My heart is heavy. Something is terribly wrong. By my feet a small beetle-like creature is scurrying across the carpet. Startled I raise my feet to avoid it and look for others. Using an envelope from the table I scoop it up and fold the envelope so I can study it through the plastic address pane. It doesn’t look familiar at all. I get on my hands and knees to look under the bed and table looking for a hole or trail. Off to one side are two long insect legs and a head. I must have smashed a long legged insect with a magazine a few days ago. Something else must have gotten to remains. On the other side is dried up shell of a spider I remember taking out with a paperback last week. It looks undisturbed. My skin begins to crawl as I locate more dead insect parts, and I remember each encounter that dispatched it to its current state. The space under the bed had a dry scaly smell. Afraid of finding a nest of eggs, I stop looking and pick up the phone to call one more time.
I haven’t spoke to a soul today except for my girlfriend. No one else has called me. Wahu or at least Awino and Kip should at least have called.
“Are you sure you won’t ride with us?” Awino asked yesterday as I walked to my car. I remember now. Kip was already in the car. He seemed annoyed. I was annoyed too that they had decided to ride with Wahu.
“Murage! Just leave the car, you can get it tomorrow.”
“No just go. I am okay. Just go ahead I will follow you.”
I was getting hungry. There was a waffle house somewhere on the way home. I picked out the familiar tail lights in the traffic and settled in behind them. I hadn’t eaten all day and that last shot towards the end of the night was a bad idea. It was wreaking havoc on my stomach. I really need to eat, so I pulled out to go around them and lead the way to the restaurant.
I was jolted by the memory. That last shot! The blinding lights as I pulled alongside them. The looks on their faces at that last instant.
The insect in the envelope gave a few last scratchy kicks and then stopped. The light outside the window flickered and dimmed.
I put the phone to my ear and there was no tone. I realized that hadn’t talked to anyone in ages. There was no one around I was alone. The smell of the insect parts was stronger now and I felt sick. I poured the beetle onto my palm and it did not move.
I didn’t want to be here anymore, but where would I go?
Waves of feelings; First anxiety, then worry. They wash over me at the same time and instead of joining forces to create a new wave they would overlap, and each line would break over me individually. The effect was a lattice work of thin wire dragged across a raw exposed nerve.
My mum presented all three shirts to us one Christmas. “Sizes: big, bigger, biggest!”, she exclaimed. I soon outgrew the ‘big’. Wearing the ‘biggest’ one was like armor. A shield against the world, without which I would have been worn down to nothingness. The aviators protected my eyes against the hazy light and allowed me to look out into the world feeling like I saw my brother. Strong, all knowing, I even adopted his cock-sure gait.
We were never a very expressive family. It just wasn’t the African way. But it was more than just that. I watched other families hugging and kissing. Sometimes on the lips! It just wasn’t our way.
So, living away from home makes you figure out how to continue this. The only way was to condense and package your feelings into manageable packets. Emotions were reduced, as much as possible to a point. Difficult emotions like missing someone, or past hurts were folded down to a reed switch. The swish through the air telegraphing the impending sting as the reed cut into your center. The good thing about that was that you could brace yourself and absorb the sting. In a few minutes the sting would wear away. You would be whole again, back to school or work in this non-stop America.
One of my favorite memories of childhood was a ten cent piece of candy called a Patco. This was essentially powdered sugar pressed to a small disc. The neighborhood kiosks that sold everything from newspapers to milk would have display the plastic tubs in the window with an assortment of sweets. The patcos were in the cloudy white tub.
Patcos had a chalky texture and dissolved in your mouth. It was a guaranteed kick. The pleasure delivered quickly. Good memories were patcos that soothed away the bad times. Thinking of my Mum, was a patco exploding like a fireworks. The sweetness was all encompassing and faded slowly, like balm soothing for days. And even eight thousand miles away, we would talk regularly but not for long. Often I just wanted to hear, my mothers voice or my fathers voice and that was enough.
“How are you doing?”
“How are your classes?”
“Are you going to take the early retirement offer?”
The government had been ‘asked’ to trim the civil service. 40% will be asked to leave. Oh, how that burned! My stay in this God forsaken country was getting to me. I needed to get back and hoe my piece. My life had become a series of pushed brooms, packed boxes, bathed pensioners, and only partly-opened books. It wasn’t fast cars and concerts. It so was not like music videos. Ah, but that didn’t matter now.
The dull light flashed again in my eyes and this time the reed rained uninterrupted. I was trying to summon up a patco to cover the pain. What had I done? Wave followed by wave. Now each memory was a packet of pain delivered in doses for elephants. The fatal change of lanes had put me directly in the path of a speeding tanker. The jackknifing tank landed on Wahu’s car. I watched the fireball even though my fate was instant.
There is no telling how long my clumsy tricks will give me brief relief. How long? When time no longer matters, it no longer matters how much of it has passed. These empty hoaxes are just fragments of a failing reverie whose unfailing cargo is grief. It makes no sense the light, the dark, the infernal smell. I just wait.