It was common knowledge that Nairobi was one big bedroom. He came into her life when this fact no longer kept her awake at night. She loved many things about him, the ultimate being his need for her. Now, as that Friday transformed from empty streets and quiet offices into traffic snarls-up and banter from her colleagues, she began having a needling sensation because her phone remained quiet. Her colleagues asked her the usual Friday question, “form ni gani?” and instead of saying she wasn’t joining them in Brew Bistro or 69-Lounge, she felt anger reach the tip of her tongue at their meddling. “You talk like you will pay my bill,” she said and put on her headphones. She didn’t hear their riposte, and even if she did, she just didn’t care.
At 5:20 p.m., his text popped up and a feeling of victory settled in. “I’ll drop by at 9 p.m..” She also loved his brevity in the same way she hated it. Her first reaction was to text back, “why 9 and not now?” but instead, she texted, “see you then.” She gathered her gym bag and handbag and fled to her car, failing to answer back the goodbyes and the drink “responsiblies” and the “condomizes.”
She wondered whether he’d eat wherever he was or not and decided to prepare him salad and fish fingers. He’d been keen on his weight and starch didn’t feature in his dinner. Sometimes she thought he refused to eat because she wasn’t a good cook. She poured some vinegar and noted that the honey jar was still full. She quivered at the thought of him using it on her tonight. Her eyes caught the whisky he’d brought three weeks before and pushed it further into the cabinet: She wanted sobriety. An hour later, she finished fixing his dinner and jumped into the bathroom. She wondered if she should wait for him but thought against it because she hadn’t shaved. “I see you have decided that deforestation isn’t good,” he would mock her and ask for Veet, not Gillette. She hated his aid, but it was something she could tolerate. She found shaving a highly private activity that needed only one pair of eyes. It was humiliating somewhat, the whole activity of part, arching, dropping the lumps. Besides, he loathed pubes and the ingrown hair on the legs. She wondered as she shaved if he was coming home sober and if he’d ask her again to reconsider removing the coil.
His eyes sparkled every time he talked about children as though he didn’t have two teenagers. She wished for the same enthusiasm but in its place was a sludge of disgust and fear and uncertainty. Even though she was out of the streets, she didn’t trust man nor nature to care for a child. It was not like a child came with a fat cheque. In any case, it came with an overbearing entitlement and an urge of consuming everything and anything; finances, sleep, freedom, body shape. That was why she had abandoned the three-day-old Dorcas in front of Reinsurance Plaza and disappeared into Kenya Cinema. She was better off than those who threw infants in pit latrines, she told herself. A part of her begged her to linger around the building and see who picked it, trail them, and confirm she was safe. But another part of her willed her to never look back: A child belonged to the community. Kama mbaya mbaya. Crossing the Haile Selassie Road, she felt a sense of freedom from her past and a welcome into her future. She’d boarded a Citi Hoppa bus, straight into her new life.
Now, standing under the hot shower, she reminded herself that life had been fair to her. What would that child feed on? Murram? Nairobi men didn’t give a chance to women with live children. She toweled herself and stared at her reflection in the dressing mirror, and smiled at the thought of him licking her neck. She didn’t wear anything sexy. She didn’t want to appear too eager. He didn’t like it obvious. It is why sometimes he came and left her untouched just because. She dressed in her loungewear, a black pair of tights, and a promotional Safaricom t-shirt. It would irk him perhaps or not; he was all shades of personalities. He wanted her sophisticated; he wanted her as basic as she could get. He wanted her to be his baby; he wanted to be the baby. He came to her on Thursdays or Sundays; monthly or daily. Sometimes, he was out of reach. He was imposing. He was accessible. Every shade of him came with a mystique and freshness that she adored.
She blended an avocado and warm milk and took it while browsing Facebook, noting how her circle had changed in the past years – from her prostitute friends and clients to working-class people. Half of her colleagues updated their Facebook statuses and locations and spilled their blurry photos taken in neon lighting that screamed of a middle-class club somewhere on Ngong Road or Kilimani. It was one of the few things he hated – people broadcasting their relationship status, their vacation destination, their misunderstandings to the world but never their weakness. Yet whenever he took her to private places, he took pictures of her, and she hoped he’d post her. “Look into the camera, my butterfly, yes, yes. I’m loving that smile”, he said, flicking and flicking. She smiled generously, demurely, made poses with her head, looked into the camera until he said it was enough, and kissed her on the lips. His kisses in public gave her a sense of ownership and dignity.
At 9:15 p.m., he texted that he’d be home in the next five. She squealed and spritzed her neck, cleavage, and corridors of her thighs with Victoria’s Secret’s body mist. He obsessed over that specific scent, and sometimes when he wasn’t going to fuck her, he buried his head in her cleavage and fell asleep. She prided herself in being the only one who could make him unfurl this vulnerability to her.
The doorbell chimed.
“My butterfly,” he said, lifting her and closing the door behind him with his leg, “Longest two weeks ever! And you smell edible.”
He was burrowing his head into her neck. Thankfully, he wasn’t smelling of alcohol, a good sign.
“We missed you.”
“We?” he asked, easing on the couch and seating her on his lap.
“All of me.”
He threaded his fingers through her hair and pulled her for a kiss. She had kissed a whole pond, but him? He was the one for her, she thought. He asked if she’d had dinner.
“Yours is ready too, but I forgot to buy chili.”
“The only dinner I’m having is you,” he said, his hand crawling into her breasts, his lips on her neck. She squirmed. She felt the urge coursing through the right places. His scent alone moistened her, made her weak-kneed.
“I love this t-shirt,” he said, locking eyes with her, “and I hate to take it off.” She giggled and looked down. He lifted her chin. He loved eye contact and loved fucking with lights on. He loved to ask, whose woman is this? And she had to answer with every thrust, or he’d lose his brains. The t-shirt was off at record speed, a thing she often wondered about: How quickly clothes fell off just before intercourse, but when one was undressing on their own, the neck seemed to have grown twice its size. He tugged off the tights and carried her to the bedroom. The more she begged him to slow down, the more he pounded and growled and the more she hungered for him. He was a beast running wildly in a field. She whimpered as the waves of pleasure coursed through her body. Every time he finished, she felt aftershocks of his damage for days.
“So...” he began as they lay naked and sticky. She wanted to scream, no, not tonight!, wished he just slept till morning before talking to her. “I have been thinking maybe you are right.”
“About children? No. I have been thinking...”
“No, of course not about children. Jesus Christ. About Angela. She shouldn’t meddle in my business, nor should any other person in that matter.”
She shifted in his arms and recalling the message Angela sent her. “You are not even beautiful. I don’t understand what my dad is doing with you.” On a whim, she replied, “He is fucking me. That is what he is doing, child.” She regretted immediately. He hated this kind of cheap. She knew it. She sent him screenshots on WhatsApp and texted, “I think I messed up big time.” Blueticks. She’d come to hate blueticks. It made her worthless like what her former clients made her – how they chained her to bed and did everything she opposed, how they spit on her because of some demonic fantasies. She wanted to ask him what was more urgent than family matters. But for the next two weeks, he did not speak to her until that evening with his text.
“Yes. You are a big boy,” she said to him, easing again.
“And are you a big girl?”
His hardened tone made her bladder overstretch. This was it. She had always wondered how he’d react when cornered with both his women, and wondered how his wife would react to this affair. She was armored with a solution if ever she confronted her. She wasn’t going to fight anymore; she’d won already by having him. Her response would be silence. But his daughter’s message scattered her brain. Fight for him, she would. What was silence?
“Some struggles are not worth it,” he said and, perhaps sensing her subdue, added, “Don’t let fear eat into you.”
Ironically, she felt fear feeding on her innards, a premonition. The stone in her stomach moved lower, and her bowel felt heavy. She wondered what he’d say to her by the end of the night. That he cannot continue hurting his daughter and wife? That he was leaving? The thought slapped her face like torrents of rain. She wanted to beg him to stay. She didn’t know where to start from without him. Her life began and ended with him. She wondered how she’d reached this point, that a former client was her entire world. She listened as his fingers walked on her back and felt tears stinging. The disappointment in herself morphed into quiet sobs, and he held her tight, which made her feel worse. She thought of his laughter, his scent, his playfulness, his little gestures of love, and the pain in her heart intensified. Angela was wrong. This was love. And so what if he was decades older than she? Did love have any class or age, or rationality? If it did, she’d be with Ernest, not him.
Everything with Ernest was right except chemistry. How does one learn to have chemistry with another? God knows she tried. But it just refused. Ernest’s touch felt offensive and intrusive.
“What did I tell you the first time?” he asked her now when her sobs collapsed into silence. Her mind ran over all the things he said, and at that moment, she didn’t know what he wanted to hear.
“I said I value peace above anything.”
“Did I take that away from you?”
He kissed her forehead, and again, she felt worse because no matter the extension, the eventuality glared its ugly face at her. She thought of moving houses, jobs, towns and start anew. Who was she without him? If she said she loved nature, it reminded her of him – the tranquility, all those picnics, and private walks. When she said she loved reading, she thought of all the books stacked in her bookshelf by him in earnest hope that she’d read–Christian fiction and romance. When she thought she loved swimming, his image trailed him in Nanyuki, Kajiado, Samburu on those private pools and the Indian Ocean where they kissed and caressed like teens. When she resolved that she loved long drives, he was there with her, old Congolese music filling his jeep, his hand on her thigh. She shrank at the realization that he introduced her to everything she supposed was now her hobby.
How glorious her life had been! His presence poured life into her. She’d resolved never to fight for a man or anything. The therapist he’d hired for her said fighting was a reaction to greed. You cannot have everything, nor have your way in everything. That therapist was wrong! It was not a reaction to greed; it was a reaction to trying to grasp happiness. She caught his last words, “…about your health.” When she didn’t respond, he said, “What do you say?”
“Don’t leave me, please. I will apologize to Angela or your wife if you want.”
“Why would I leave, my butterfly?”
The feeling of fear left her through the kiss she planted on his chest and closed her eyes, willing to sleep in his arms, arms that belonged to her too.
Gladwell Pamba lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. She has previously been longlisted for the African Writivism Short Story Prize and won AFREADA Contest in 2019. Her works appear or are forthcoming in Digital Bedbugs Anthology (2019), Equipoise Anthology (2021), The Offing, Kalahari Review, Kikwetu Journal, Patchwork, Tint Journal, Waxwing Journal, Sahifa Journal and Five South. Gladwell blogs at chingano.com and tweets from @GladwellPamba
Art by Gabriela Knutson