Who We Are Not: by Christine Mwai

Photo credit: Brainflakes via Flickr

I look at the menu, turning every page and fighting the urge to offer Jenny helpful suggestions on what to eat. I stop myself as it would make me what I seek to forget, and I am not that person anymore. At least so I tell myself.

“All the food here is shwara shwara,” she clicks as she noisily drops the menu on the table and takes large swigs from her Tusker bottle. I want to joke about the acquired twang on her English and the coastal Swahili but I can’t trust my voice to work, so I nod and keep looking at my menu, although I cannot see the writings. I have to keep my eyes focused on something or else I will simply stare at her. Her face looks so familiar yet so unfamiliar, it’s like I am seeing her but not really seeing her. I wish there was somewhere I could hide and just look, take her in.

“Lighter?”

“Uh yeah,” I turn to my bag,

“Thought you’d have quit by now,” she sort of laughs, a non-laugh that I have never quite liked.

“I guess not,” I fumble amidst the makeup, papers and gadgets in my handbag trying to find it, but today of all days, I can’t find it. I feel her eyes on me like she is unimpressed and an eagerness to please grabs me, as though 10 years have not passed between us, as though we are still Jey and Zo. I catch myself, pause and then slowly go through the bag like the grown up independent person I should be.

“Here,” I hand it over, almost offering to light it for her.

“Oh do the honours kama the old days,” she says like she can read me, with her smile that’s like teasing, taunting even, and there in that brief smile, her face takes shape.

As I light the cigarette, cupping it from the evening Nairobi breeze, I see in the illuminated face, the old free spirited Jenny I knew and then I see the new one, who has life piled on her and the unfamiliarity I had spotted makes sense. Her skin is drier, patchy, like she is healing from a ring worm attack, though this is well hidden under the foundation. There are some small but clear wrinkles in the eyes but none in the mouth where laughter should be.

I finish and put the lighter on the table to avoid another need-to-borrow moment. From back across the table, she looks well made up, almost trashy but classy and effortless carelessness it appears and not because life has lacked the material element. She catches my eyes and I look down going over the menu once more, finally seeing it.

“I think I’ll just have something light, samosa and sausages before I drink anything.”

“You don’t wanna get drunk, let loose?” she asks letting out a curly puff that makes her look edgy still, though not like it did in the past, now it looks like trying.

“I didn’t have lunch so…,” I say as I signal the waiter. I make my order and look on a bit longer as the waiter leaves, not wanting to turn back to Jenny just yet. I feel a panic set in as now there was no menu or decisions to make, I would have to be conversational.

“You look so Good Zo, very dapper in that librarian type outfit.” Her eyes seek mine but I turn looking at some revellers passing onto the table next to ours. I take careful deep breaths as I look around the gradually filling pub with young blokes in stylish but crumpled semi-formal wear, which largely speaks of a learned awareness that making a fashion statement determines how you fit in and not that taste comes too naturally, at least to most. I regain some composure and turn back to her.

“Thanks. So how long are you in town for?” I try a chipper voice, but it sounds cartoonish. She looks at me weirdly and I clear my throat to deflect.

“Yeah not sure yet, you know I’ve never been big on the plans, not like you anyway,” she sniggers.

“Right, though we plan and the man above laughs huh?” I try to sound jocular and fail, she simply nods. The waiter brings my food and drinks and I feel the hunger pangs rise earnestly. I had not been able to eat since yesterday when she had called and asked to meet.

‘Hey you so am in town, wanna meet up?’ that was all she had said on the phone. My stomach had rushed up my gut at her casualness. She had not even said her name, as though I couldn’t possibly not know who she was. And I had known immediately, that was the worst part, it’s like I had been waiting for that call every day over the years.

When I gather my attention back to the present, Jenny is admiring the waiter’s choker. The piece looks Egyptian or something and has a loud gold glint of cheapness that seeks to announce itself; in a way like its owner. The girl soaks Jenny in, gushing like a school girl and soon they are admiring each other’s jewellery and bodies and calling each other sweetheart and darling. She finally leaves after promising to meet our every need. Jenny watches her leave, and then turns as if just remembering I am the one she is actually meeting, “What?” she scrunches her face,

“Nothing,”

“Inaitwa kuwa friendly sweetie,” she hits me playfully, I nod.

The music gets a little louder and around us the crowd is getting more upbeat as the drinks start working in their systems.

“All these people, Mondays are not what they used to be,” I indicate the crowd.

“What is?” she sighs loudly, “But what gets me is that every time I come to Nairobi, it’s like someone dropped off more humans in this place.” She points at the revellers and the traffic below us which is at a standstill. I hate the numbers too.

“Yeah we need to decentralise Nairobi, but with the government’s corruption and…” As I am saying this, her statement hits me and I turn and look at her, “Wait, so you come to Nairobi often?” She meets my eyes, and then quickly looks down, running a hand down her afro and gulping a huge one.

“I have been here a few times like 3 or 4 I guess.” Her tone is measured, nonchalant but she can’t face me. I nod and down the rest of my wine. I signal the waiter for more, she comes swiftly almost running wearing a beaming face that is too eager and it peeves me slightly. As she takes my order, I realise that beyond the service act, her need to please is not a gimmick, but rather who she is. I feel moved for her because such exhausting behaviour will age her early.

I light another cigarette and inhale deeply. “Zo, I …” her voice trails as some guy comes up to the table and borrows a lighter. Jenny smiles, picks up the lighter and asks, “May I?” She wears that husky tone of hers that I can remember so vividly all those times it was next to my ear, it gives me the creeps and I puff hard again. He plays along and after a few giggles and whispers, he leaves his card behind.

“So why now, why call me now?” I want to yell, but I say it quietly and with the music louder, she doesn’t hear me. She is also occupied blowing kisses to the guy as he walks off. The waiter comes with my wine. I feel unable to ask the question again. My phone buzzes, it’s Jim. ‘So the big reunion going okay?’, ‘yeah I guess, if awkward is okay anyway will be home soon xo.’

“That Jim?” she asks eyeing me critically, I nod. “How is he? Reminding you about your curfew?”

“You don’t get to do that, anymore!” my tone is sharper than I intend and she seems surprised, “I mean …”

“It’s fine, I am just glad that you guys made it this far happily.” The happily sounds more like a question than part of a statement. I don’t like it, but I swallow my dislike and continue on a lighter tone.

“He is fine, but no he has never changed in that way, always a worrier.”

“Yeah don’t I know it, the number of times he used to call me when he couldn’t reach you, panic every time!” she chuckles and I do too. “Remember that time he was calling you out at the festival on the microphone, what was it?”

“The Nairobi show and my phone had died,”

“Yeah and we were in the washrooms getting ….” Her voice trails off and we avert our eyes as the memories rattle back. I feel like the room has been lit on fire immediately, I am all sweat and wet in inappropriate areas. I remove my coat and settle further back in my seat to try and relax.

She lights another cigarette. I take a sip and wonder whether to smoke too or just wait. I light one myself. “He is really good, started his own gallery, actually he is kind of a big deal.” I say.

“Well he was always a dreamer; it’s great it paid off.”

“Yeah, it’s good for him,” I nod, “and for me as well, for us both really,” I add, a bit hastily.

She nods and puffs away and I puff away and we let the silence linger for a little bit. She is assessing me though I pretend to be engaged taking in the traffic, finally she says, “Well to you and Jim, may you always be happy,” I raise my glass and we toast. I gulp all the remaining wine.

“Yes to Jim and I.” We smoke quietly as we each take in the dim set up. The disco lights are on and their rainbow colours fill the warm pub, giving silhouettes of the energetic crowd. In my now starting heady haze, they look like happy beautiful people.

Some louder, weird Jamaican music comes on next. This rouses a good number of the revellers and a ruckus of tables, chairs and humans ensues. The girls now in revealing tops that were not evident earlier get right in position bending low in front of stiff-waisted men , who thrust back and forth as though in fits.

“The music they make now, what the hell?” I ask and we laugh. Her laughter is throaty and deep. I laugh quietly to hear it, remembering how I loved it. She always laughed longer at a joke, and still does and I laugh longer now because of it.

“We shouldn’t be meeting here, right?” she says when she has managed to stop.

“No we shouldn’t,” I agree and signal the waiter for another glass of wine.

“Stop this glass nonsense and get a bottle already.” Without waiting for my response, she turns and shouts to the waiter, “leta chupa ya wine instead, na beer zingine zangu kama nne,” the sappy girl nods and quickly turns to get our order.

“I really don’t want a bottle,”

“Yeah and I don’t want oxygen,” she shrugs eyeing me, “guess none of us is getting our wish.” I laugh,

“Some things haven’t changed I see,” I put my glass back on the table.

“There is a difference actually; my belief in alcohol has grown tremendously,”

“You don’t say,” I try to put on my shock face,

“Go away psh… and no dear acting will never be your forte.”

“Definitely not like you, with an English and Swahili accent now,”

“Come on, it happens with Mike and his family and living in Mombasa….is it too much?”

“I literally could not understand you at all,” We laugh. We tease each other like the old days, I enjoy it.

The waiter arrives with the drinks that now crowd our table. “See this here is the kind of grown up drinking I had in mind,” she pours her drink to the glass.

“Perhaps you should list opening a little brewery on your bucket list?” I pour some of my wine and the chilled feel of the bottle in my hands stirs a care freeness that I have not felt in a while.

“Ah shut up smart mouth, but seriously though, time is such a tricky thing, you wake up and half your life seems like a flicker that just happened, at least that’s how I feel.”

“Half really, you think half your life has gone by?”

“I still have half a life that I have lived you know and besides with these things,” she indicates the cigarettes, “and the foods today, and if cancer doesn’t get you, we might as well be there soon,”

“Life is hard enough without that talk Jey.”

“Tell me about it,” We smoke on as we make fun of some dancing couples, grinding and bumping like they misplaced their bones and shame.

“So you, how is Mike?” I ask.

“Oh he is so fat now jeez, but still same old goofy self. He has this new hobby now, fighting for animals. Thinks we shouldn’t eat meat at all, in fact he should see you eating those samosas, he would totally freak” I laugh.

“Still having a new hobby every other month?”

“Oh please, it’s worse now that he stopped working for the corporate world and decided jobs are enslaving,” she shakes her head in an exaggerated manner that suggests she enjoys saying that.

“Privilege does that; it allows whims like that,”

“Yeah that trust fund sure made him open to whims…,” I am distracted by her tone. She talks of him easily with the detached humour you would use to describe your errant child, not the man she had wanted to leave for good. I realise that we would always have wound up here. I inhale some more and think it’s time I kicked the smoking habit.

“Zo,” she is touching my hand, when I refocus on the conversation, and I pull it away slowly.

“Sorry I got distracted, was thinking I should quit smoking,” I say as I put it out on the ash tray.

“Yeah, I gave up thinking I can quit! Shit I need it for sanity.”

“So I heard you have two little girls now?”

“Little huh, oh they’re snappy girls who can now talk back at their mother.” She laughs and removes her phone, “here they are.” I crane over and see the chubby twins, they are gorgeous.

“Thank God, they took more of your genes in the looks department,” I laugh.

“Yes Mike was never the looker, but they have his hair thank heavens, not this woolly mope we have.”

“Yeah you were always keen on that, the need for the exotic, the foreign,” it unintentionally comes off as a stab. She looks at me and her face crumbles. She puts away the phone and takes a sip.

“You always said it Zo, I always want to be where I am not,” I sip and wonder what to say to change the atmosphere.

“Ah that was just talk Jey, what did I know rather do I know, I feel like I’m still a child at times”

“Who doesn’t? But you know me, always have.” She pauses, her face hardening for a minute and she smokes hard. I smoke away too admiring the lighted Nairobi city, it’s beautiful. The ugliness too, illuminated does not look half bad.

“I like your woolly mope though, you got into the going ‘all natural’ frenzy huh?” I indulge a guilty cheerfulness.

“I did, and then Mike got so excited when I mentioned it and so I tried it. So much work though this afro with the cold seasons in US and when we’re here the Mombasa heat. I am thinking of cutting it all; maybe maintain the shaggy short look like you” she reaches and ruffles my hair.

“Stop, I’m not a dog,” I laugh as I push away her hand. “Anyway this has never been a style, it’s always been laziness and I am just relieved that now it’s trendy and people have stopped asking me why I don’t get an easier to manage perm or weave,” She laughs.

“Anyway so what are the girls’ names?” I realise I had not asked.

“Right, um Ledisi and Molly.”

“You stole my reserve name Ledisi!”

“Yeah shoot me… it’s not like you will ever use it, unless you now want kids?”

“Ah God no, there are enough humans in the world.” I shudder at the thought.

“You and your philosophies, the earth has always been here we won’t suddenly finish it.”

“Um we will, first we will eat everything and finish it and finally we will eat each other.”

“Then maybe that’s the way it should be, Amor fati!”

“No way and wait, is Molly named after…?”

“Yap the one and only. I mean I figured how long can I hold on to mommy issues right?” her voice wavers and a dejected softness appears over her eyes. “And also I finally deserve motherly affection now that I send her a hefty monthly cheque.”

“Right, the miracles of money” I raise my glass and we toast laughingly at that.

“I am sure having my devilish influence out of your life helps too.” I can’t stop myself from saying it. Her face falls and I feel guilty bringing up the prayer incident.

“I’m so sorry about that, I still think it was a dream at times,” she says quietly

“Oh that ‘exorcism’ was almost more spirited than Emily Rose’s.” She doesn’t laugh.

“I had never seen her pray before that and never again since,” she comments, “that’s the worst part.” she looks at me, a plea message plastered on her eyes, and I reach out and squeeze her hand although I can’t understand what they say, I can let it be.

I drink steadily, she looks at me seems as though to speak but just drinks too, there is nothing to say. The music is at its peak inside now with the DJ hyping every other minute as he plays the Nigerians who are crooning Pidgin and similar sounding tunes one after the other, but all the revellers seem to be enjoying and are on their feet.

“This Naija music abeg oh,” I say and she laughs

“I hate it but it’s very catchy,”

“True, even dad likes it,”

“Oh he doesn’t worry about his refined sensibilities? How is he by the way?” I laugh

“Impossible, I gave up. Only wants to discuss books or ‘serious global issues’ never anything real about life or how dysfunctional the family is” I feel sad saying it.

“Oh our dear parents huh?”

“This be the verse-Larkin,” I remember,

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad…” We say and burst out laughing.

“Well you’re the parent here, so you are braver than me.” She looks at me unsmiling slowly, with an intensity that I had forgotten, the way she used to sometimes in the past, a darkish glint over her eyes. It sends ant trails on my skin and I feel myself shrivel a little. It passes swiftly and a warmth, like that one gives a puppy replaces it, almost like a switch.

“Bravery is a fallacy. I mean look at us, how our lives are now, so much for bravery,” she says. Instinctively our hands reach out and squeeze. For a moment it’s just the two of us and everything has been drowned out.

She then stands, and opens her arms.

“Not hugging,” I whine.

“Oh yes,” she smiles and I stand and go in. Being there in each other’s arms, it feels to me like a lakeside sunset.

We are still at it, when the chirpy waiter appears asking if we need anything else. We part, laughing a little, embarrassed in a sense and I nod as I pour down the last of my wine and we ask for more drinks, in agreement this time. The waiter walks away.

“Shots, I think we should do some shots too,” I feel giddy.

“Now you’re talking,” she whistles to the shots girl, I cringe.

“Really whistling?”

“Uh please, come on whistle, what could possibly happen?” I nod and whistle loudly. The girl comes up amused, looking at us like we are a little crazy.

“Tequila, pour and keep at it till we say stop,” the waiter smiles and pours obediently.

We drink to everything and nothing. We dance to songs we are too old for. We grind against some young boys and girls. We sing badly to songs we don’t really know. We dance on the table. We have fun. We say goodbye.

 


Christine Mwai (@cristinemwai) is a writer of fiction,non-fiction and film scripts. She is also one of the editors of Kikwetu Journal. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared on Africa Book Club, Muwado and Truelove Magazine among others and has 4 produced films.Great books, music and film are the truth!

This story was published in collaboration with Writivism. Writivism is a Kampala-based initiative that supports and promotes African Literature, they are also the organisers of East Africa’s leading literary festival. You can follow their work on Twitter: @Writivism.

Related country: Kenya

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