As a young girl in college, Anna followed the latest fashion trends. Our nails were covered in shockingly bright pink nail varnish, absolute white, screaming reds, and ultra-fashionable black and gold. Anna was proud of our long manicured tips and would talk with expansive gestures, as did all the girls, nails catching the light, trying to look sophisticated and mature.
Always busy in college, we spent endless hours in the library writing in thick yellow pads with cheap ballpoint pens whose ink sometimes stained our fingers. On the weekends we washed the clothes that had been worn during the week. At first it wasn’t bad when we only had Anna’s washing to do, but when she met Jordan his washing was often added to hers. The lighter woolens and silks were easy to wring and lightly scrub, but jeans and other coarser materials were hard on our knuckles and the strong detergent left our skin dry and coarse with little cracks radiating from around our nails.
But we had to give it to Jordan. When we held hands and he softly rubbed our tired knuckles and kissed our tips, it felt wonderful. We too loved to touch his firm body and woolly hair and this happened often, as Anna and Jordan dated throughout college and on graduating there was talk of marriage.
To begin the marriage negotiations, Jordan’s family visited Anna’s home where preparations had begun the day before, with the house getting a thorough cleaning, even the areas the guests would have no business entering, just in case. As part of the cleaning crew we had been kept well protected by heavy fleece-lined rubber gloves then given a good wash so we could cut and marinate the different meats and vegetables for cooking the next day.
Jordan’s entourage consisted of his close family and friends, all male. On Anna’s side, the hosting party was made up of her father, uncles, close friends, and church elders. Traditionally, the visit was named kumenya mucii and was for the boy’s family to introduce themselves, make the acquaintance of the girl’s family and home, and state his intentions.
These discussions were held for most of the morning with tea and pastries, vegetable samosas and mandazis, served at regular intervals. The meeting ended well with smiles all around and just before lunch, Anna dressed in a lovely colorful but modest African kaftan, was formally introduced to each of the guests. The palms we held varied, as did the ages from the limber hands of youth to the drier, older hands. Anna expressed her happiness at their visit, and invited the guests to help themselves to the buffet-style lunch served in the next room.
The lunch menu was extensive and ranged from curries to steamed dishes for the less adventurous or those on special diets. We spooned the meat, ﬁsh, chicken, rice, chapattis, and vegetables onto big round dining plates. “Obviously our boy will not starve in his home,” Jordan’s group joked, “In fact, expect to have frequent visitors!”
After the symbolic njohi ya njurio, a toast of alcoholic spirits that the guests brought to seal the proposal, they left with a lot of handshaking and invitations to visit their home. Anna’s father beamed, it had been a success.
At the end of the day, Anna examined the large microwave oven and 52-inch color TV Jordan had brought for her parents to underscore his seriousness. We were bone tired, every joint hurt and our muscles ached. It had been a long day.
Subsequent visits followed the same routine. We prepared a lot of meals and teas to feed the guests during the lengthy, sometimes heated, verbal sparring sessions that constituted kuuiru miti, dowry negotiations. All gifts they brought after the first visit, kuhanda ithigi, were part of the total dowry agreement. The families agreed that the equivalent in cash of 20 goats and two cows would be paid slowly over the marriage’s first two years. The other dowry items, a brand new personal computer and laser printer, would be delivered before the actual wedding ceremony.
On the eve of the ngurario, the air was electric. Per tradition, the wedding ceremony would be held at the bride’s mother’s house, and so Anna’s aunts, cousins and close friends had descended on the home to cook and clean. We were one pair of a bevy of hands moving at speed to shell peas, pick rice, peel potatoes; cut up cabbage and spinach; scrape carrots; slice cucumber, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and radishes for salads; and prepare fruits for desert. Young male relatives would handle roasting the meat. A tent had already been set up with chairs and tables and we arranged cups, glasses, and eating utensils on a table. It was exhausting work, ending at midnight.
The cool touch of the drinking glass we held that evening soothed our overworked muscles as Anna sat with the women in the comfortable, airy sitting room enjoying conversation. Anna’s aunts sang her traditional bridal songs and gave advice to guide her in her marriage. The memorable evening was filled with jokes, laughter, and music. Before going to bed we lovingly rubbed a mixture of olive oil and cocoa butter into our dry skin.
Early the next morning we were off to the beauty parlor for the full treatment: a good invigorating soak in warm water in which jasmine oil had been added, a thorough cleaning under and around our nails, cuticles trimmed, nails shaped, and then the three-step base, polish, and coating process. We left there gleaming in raspberry tones.
Getting back home, Anna snuck through the back door not wanting to be seen until fully presentable. In Anna’s bedroom, we carefully removed the stockings from their package and slide them over her legs, very careful not to damage our nails’ smooth surface or snag the hosiery. With assistance from her close girlfriends, Anna dressed in a colorfully beaded necklace and matching bangles to complement her traditional beaded bark-cloth dress specially created by a local designer.
Our colorfully painted nails actually saved the wedding day; during the ngurario, as the two families feasted and celebrated the traditional form of marriage, the groom was tested to see if he really knew his intended. As was customary, the bride and her sister, being of similar height, coloring, and build, were completely covered with brightly colored kikoi cloths, leaving only hands and feet visible. When it came time for Jordan to identify his bride, he carefully examined our hands and feet and confidently chose. “Are you sure?” he was asked, “I don’t think you’re right,” Anna’s mother teased.
“And, if you’ve made a mistake, everything’s off!” her father threatened jokingly.
“I’m sure,” Jordan stood ﬁrm and waited for his bride to be unveiled.
“Truly he knows the body of his beloved if he can tell her apart just by her hands!” guests and family exclaimed. Yes, he knows my ways; she had chuckled softly as he slipped the wedding band on two days later during the church ceremony.
Once married, Jordan and Anna moved into a small house provided by the government, as Jordan was an engineer in the civil service. Those days, money was in short supply and had to be stretched to begin a home and buy a car, so there was no hired help to do the housework. Like most newly married women, Anna wanted her home to be perfect, and so midnight often found us cleaning and polishing. Gloves were often forgotten, and all of that activity plus a reduction in salon pampering, our nails were split and soft, and coarse calluses developed on our palms. Jordan got used to the rasp of dry skin at our touch and forgot about the pleasurable sensation of long nails stroking his back, soft hands cupping his face.
Anna’s overzealous housekeeping plus demanding job took a toll on the relationship. Jordan began to distance himself from her and one day during an argument in which with her every falling tear, his voice grew louder, he ended by saying, “and look at your hands; when we met, your nails were always done!” Yes, it was hard to believe that we, chapped and neglected, had ever been manicured. Jordan employed a maid, and it was like a vacation for us and a second honeymoon for them.
Then came the babies: lovely, soft, plump bodies. Small features so delicate, hands like soft dough. For childcare, our nails and fingers were often bare except for a wedding band. We were busy in a new, exciting, different way: bottles to be sterilized, nappies changed, food cooked and mashed into mush, bodies bathed, tiny heads with hair like fine down shampooed, stomachs with skin like satin to be rubbed. Our fingers were sucked by hungry toddlers, knuckles gummed by crying teethers, and tightly clenched by tiny ﬁsts during feeding.
The joys of motherhood didn’t allow for any form of self-indulgence besides a nightly application of moisturizer. There was never a moment’s rest and life became a race against the clock. In the battle to fit everything in, we got nicked, scratched, and scarred. But our fingers were adorned with rings that Anna had received from Jordan with the birth of every baby. We wore our finery with pride, presents from a doting but often absent father and husband.
As the children grew, Jordan and Anna’s personal relationship was put on hold. Anna thought this was only natural and what marriage was all about: Jordan left the homecare to her and focused on his career. Although Anna had help, all the children felt her food tasted the best, so we still spent a lot of time in the kitchen. We grew fat and Anna content.
Anna was also employed as a junior accountant, and we worked her adding machine—nails clicking like castanets. Painting our nails was now a joint effort as the younger family members believed in full participation. It was a good thing Anna selected polish in muted colors as the children’s enthusiasm far exceeded ability.
Fifteen years on, with four children all in boarding school, Anna experienced her second youth. She joined a gym and began taking special care of herself. With her new friends she would go out on the town dressed in bright outﬁts with nail polish to match. They were the success stories, women who had and had done it all: marriage, motherhood, and careers. Partying, having fun, was more a way of reaffirming their success, attractiveness, individuality, and independence.
The evenings out were fun, but Anna missed her old best friend, Jordan. Over the years, he’d made his own friends outside the group they shared, and seemed to go out almost every night. While the children were at home, she hadn’t minded; drinks with friends to unwind after a long twelve-hour day, once, twice, or thrice a week couldn’t be anything but that. He needed to unwind, have time to himself; he worked hard making sure the family lacked nothing and the family had prospered. But the children were all in college abroad.
Jordan and Anna now live quietly in a lovely home with a pool and tennis court. It’s a long way from government quarters, and there is now money to spend and finally time to spend on each other. As the late afternoon of their years heralds the sunset of their lives, we have a comfortable retirement existence, a graceful ending to a life well spent. On the backs of our hands appear a smattering of age spots and deep furrows which the weekly visits to the beauty parlor where we are cosseted, massaged, pampered, and buffed, cannot erase.
Five days ago Jordan asked for a divorce: he has another family, he said. Some young girl he’d been seeing on his nights out with the boys. After the initial paralyzing shock, Anna had become angry, violently angry. We threw plates, glasses, and dishes at him and against the wall. We tore at her hair and as many of Jordan’s shirts as we could before she’d collapsed on the bed in tears. Jordan didn’t come home for days. He’d never done that before.
Today, Jordan and Anna had a talk, open and honest, the way they used to. He wanted his new relationship to work, another chance to do it again and enjoy it without all the pressures. Another chance to enjoy the noon and early afternoon of life. When Anna and he had married, their relationship had been sidelined by family and busy careers; their emotional life ignored. This hadn’t been intentional, but as one year ran into the next, hopes of catching up with each other never materialized, and now that the children were grown, they were two polite strangers, respectful, but distant. He felt he’d not had a chance to enjoy the beauty of his wife, children, life, and living.
So now we rub each other, making sure every inch is well lubricated with the expensive perfumed lotion. We too are friends, each a help and a companion to the other, now two age-mates waiting out the remaining years. Yes, we’re aged, you can tell from the network of green-colored veins standing out on our backs like a map of a life traveled. Deep red polish on short nails suiting our complexion well.
Jordan’s new love’s hands would be plump, firm, and soft with skin thick and smooth—a life of living ahead. Her nails, probably not as pretty as ours, would be brightly colored as ours once were. It’s the midmorning of her life. Maybe she has a ring for every child, the only one she doesn’t have yet is the wedding ring.
Earlier Anna had bathed with fragrant crystal salts, after which we’d draped a pale peach silk nightgown trimmed in a slightly darker shade of lace over her well-moisturized body. With a jazz instrumental low in the background, she sat at the dressing table and we skillfully groomed her soft, ﬂuffy hair. Now looking at herself in the large ornate dressing-table mirror, the former head accountant knows it’s time to close the books, cut her losses. But ﬁrst, there’s a small item of business to take care of.
Walking to the door she pauses and looks back long enough to double-check our careful preparations. The overhead light is switched off leaving the bedside lamp lit. Soft light falls on the invitingly made-up bed; soothing music ﬁlls the room, low enough not to be distracting but mood enhancing, relaxing. A bottle of dry port and two crystal glasses stand on a tray conveniently within reach.
As she enters the mahogany-paneled study, Jordan is seated on the settee reading the paper. Hearing her, he lowers the paper, and his eyebrows arch in surprise at her provocative attire, but without comment he continues to read. Anna walks over to him, and we gently remove the paper from his hands—good, strong square hands with short trimmed fingernails. Hands we know as well as ourselves.
“What is it?” he asks, his voice distant but polite. In reply we take his left hand and place it against her lower belly, our fingers gently playing over his. “No . . .” he begins, but we hold it there. Rising, he tries to draw away; we won’t let him and move to embrace him. “Look, Anna, it’s no use—” Jordan begins again. “I’m leaving, and nothing is going to make me change my mind,” more firmly this time, looking down at her. But the look in her eyes silences him. Don’t reject me now, and his eyes recognize twenty years of history between them. After a long silence, he allows her to lead him quietly, hand in hand, to the bedroom they haven’t shared for a year, and lets us undress him.
We caress his chest, feel the muscle under our palms. Moving up, we shape his shoulders and then move under his arms, to rub his back till he responds by lifting his arms from his side and cradling her. As we stroke his body, Anna hears his breathing accelerate; we feel the muscles contract.
It isn’t like the first time, it isn’t like the wedding night or the time their first-born came home from the hospital. It isn’t like the time their last-born joined the rest of their children in boarding school.
It’s like no other time and as his hands clasp us, Anna knows it’s the last time.
Temo Buliro loves excitement, being spontaneous, active and delights in thinking about abstract ideas and a variety of subjects. Her first book is Walk to Recovery, a children’s book on physical handicaps; her second, Faceless Voices, addresses aspects of healing; while her contributions to anthologies, newspapers and magazines vary in subject matter. She loves coffee in the morning, layered movies and rainy, quiet days.
Related country: Kenya
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