April comes clothed with promise of rain.
Outside, the days are dry and sweltering and yet, for some reason, everyone believes it’s on the verge of raining. The nights are balmy and a relief from the oppressive heat. I land in Nairobi on a dry Tuesday evening still wearing my heavy jungle-green winter coat, not so much because of the cold, but because I didn’t have space for it in my luggage. Which, because of the heat situation, makes me look ridiculous.
It is well over ninety days already in the year of Elon Musk Twenty-twenty three.
My friend W is dead and I’m in Nairobi a couple of months before I’m actually supposed to be back. The years do not belong to the Lord anymore. The world seems to be in a long spiral where nothing seems to work normally. Putin’s still alive; the Kenyan shillings is doing terribly against the Dollar Almighty, and on the plane, the pleasant French flight-attendant lady called me ‘Sir’. Surely, with all these happening, these years must belong to somebody else.
The Lord, any Lord, would have more control.
April has always been a strange month for me.
Take for instance last April when I was respectably struggling for love; then there was the one before that from which I remember nothing. Like it never existed. As if the year somehow jumped from March to May. Then the April of 2020 when I landed back from Tianjin, China, in the middle of Covid and found the country had been thrown into a nation-wide panic. In the April of 2019, I traveled 26 hours in a bus to Kigali to settle an old score.
Within the week I land, I move from the Airport to an AirBnB to a new apartment because I can’t go back to my old one. In my absence, my roommate, who also doubled up as the Love of my Life moved in with the love of their life (in their defense, at least they waited for a month after I left).
The house is cold and bare. Apart from the new mattress and my suitcase (both of which are on the floor), there’s nothing else in the house. The nights are dead quiet. My kitchen window (the only one openable) opens to a view of a long corridor that separates my house from my neighbour’s. There’s a soft light that lingers from the bulb in the corridor, and because my windows are curtainless, the room is lit enough to form soft shadows. If there’s a moon outside, I can’t tell.
I wake up to the sound of my phone buzzing.
Outside, someone climbs the stairs in a frenzy, half-laughing half-speaking. Their steps are quick and heavy, and my window rattles softly in protest. Somebody else follows them. Their steps are also heavy but deliberated, lacking the light-heartedness of their company.
Someone to our Campus WhatsApp Group: We have lost one of us- WM. I’ve just talked to the family and his brother has confirmed. He left us this morning.
Someone else: Posts a picture of W in a grey mitten, his face partially facing away from the camera.
Person 1: Posts a picture of W in high school (probably downloaded from another WhatsApp group)
It is strange how as I grow older a lot of my memories of people and places are tied to music. That in my mind, conversations and feelings from events or interactions are attached to certain songs to which they spring alive.
On the night I learn W is dead, I play Roddy Ricch’s Live performance at the Wireless Festival (on YouTube) on repeat, which is out of routine, because my (fancy) go-to grief song has always been La’Porsha Renea’s ‘Why Won’t You Call Me Anymore’.
Neither of the songs has any immediate connections to W. I knew W for four years in campus, right from the first lecture in first year when a lecturer made us introduce ourselves in class with reasons why we had chosen to study Law. I remember W had to leave his seat to speak in front of the class because the lecturer couldn’t hear him from where he was sitting.
(Side note: When I told my mother this part of the story, she said, unironically: ‘hao [watu] soft ndio hukua dangerous’.)
Those soft ones are the most dangerous.
Ours was a casually amiable relationship. We were casual in the way classmates can be casual and then we were tight in the way classmates can be tight. Other than occasional WhatsApp messages spread thinly over years, I had not seen W in the four years since we finished campus, and yet my heart crashed when I read the text.
Unable to resume sleep, I stare at the condolence messages (and the oh my Gods!) on the WhatsApp group trickling in and my mind wanders off to my own interaction with W. In the background, Roddy Ricch sings to an ecstatic London crowd:
/Pullin’ out the coupe at the lot//Told ‘em (something something) SWAT/
/Bustin’ all the bells out the box// I just hit something something the box/
/Pour up the whole damn seal, I’ma get lazy/
/I got the mojo deals, we been trappin’ like the 80’s/
/she sucked that nigga soul, gotta Cash App…
At a few minutes past midnight when the group finally goes quiet, I text Marietta (my campus roommate):
“What happened to W?”
Sunday comes still with no rain in sight. The long wait continues. At midday, I leave the bed to answer a knock on my door.
It’s the caretaker.
He looks from the emptiness of the house, to the suitcase– lying open, next to the door from where I haven’t moved it since I walked in– to the dusty floor then back to me.
“Aya, kumbe uko!” he says, unconvincingly in a heavy accent I cannot immediately place.
“Mimi nilidhani hata hukuingia.”
He hesitates a little, having not expected the brevity, before he regains his composure.
“If you’re around then ni sawa.”
Then, as I start to close the door,
“Where did you say you work again?”
(To myself: I didn’t.)
But what I say loud is, “Kwa Gazeti. I’ll send you the balance today.”
Then he’s gone.
Monday morning, I wake up to a text from the love of my life (i.e the one who moved in with the love of their life) to meet them at a bar in Nairobi West.
Because there’s no running water, I wash on the sink and put on a light layer of lilac-bronze eyeshadow from a pallet of all (and only) shades of bronze– which flatters my eyes gratifyingly– and hop onto a bike because if there’s anything I’ve learnt, is that the world belongs to people with pretty eyes. Doors (and legs) open effortlessly for you.
The love of my life (i.e the one who has moved in with the love of their life) is sitting by the bar counter with a sleek bottle of Whisky when I get there. I greet them with a casual warmth– which immediately gives me an advantage of looking happy and grudgeless– and pull a chair.
“You look nice,” they say. “Your eyes.”
“Thank you,” and then as if by a cue from the devil, I blurt,
“I’ve always looked nice,” and to my horror, I hear myself add. “You just never noticed.”
There’s a long second of silence in which I roast in the fire of shame from my own stupid sabotage as I watch myself lose the initial advantage.
Ten points to Team Deserter.
They turn to the counter without so much as an acknowledgement, letting the accusation float uncomfortably between us.
“Can we get another glass?” They ask, their voice sounding calmer, relieved.
I watch in silence as they take the glass from the bar girl and calmly pour a shot, then finally looking up, they offer it to me.
“How was Germany?”
“It was good– cold, but good. Actually, really good.”
“I had fun.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
“Yeah. I fucked a lot.”
“Oh, nice. I’m actually glad you did.”
“Why did you invite me here?”
“No reason in particular. I just thought we might also get to talk about the logistics…you know.”
“I’ll pick up my things. Unless of course, the woman cannot stand seeing them around.”
“Pria has no problem with your things being in the house. It’s me who thought we could do with a little more space.”
For a moment, we are enveloped in that silence again. The silence of formerly familiar bodies, of unknown possibilities and what-would-have-been(s). Of drifts, of knowing without having to say, that this small attempt (from both of us) at a visual closure was almost definitely the last. Of…
“Did you really ever love me?” I blurt again, this time near tears.
Again, they let the question hover between us, relishing as it were, in their realization that I was in fact broken by their leaving, while I just sit there looking pathetic and feel tendrils of bile beanstalk up my throat.
Finally, when they look up, their face says,
Kind of belated, don’t you think?
Nevertheless, they start as if to say something, but are cut short by my phone buzzing.
Marietta (from Campus):
“I was just about to ask you that (crying face emoji). I thought you guys were tight buddies!”
For some reason, whenever I think of memorial church services, I imagine long narrow cathedrals with stone-grey walls, narrow colourful windows and endless pews with raised files for kneeling. I imagine wide altars covered in glamourous purple, and huge wooden crosses raised high up on the wall behind the altar, where a dusty, tired-looking Jesus oversees — for a billionth time– the funeral rituals, as Mary, marble-eyed, looks on with a long rosary in hand or a deflated carving of a snake under her feet, sometimes with her face looking sympathetic.
No offence to people who go to churches where they sit on green, plastic, Ke-nAfric chairs and prayers are conducted over Auja microphones.
I imagine the coffin, a deep shade of brown, resting at the feet of the altar and the bereaved family– dressed in all black– leaving the front benches at the end of the funeral mass, dejected, their worlds having halted– or started– differently; with the mourners following, deep in grief, as an opera version of ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘It Is Well’ plays in the background with the exaggeration that befits the occasion.
W’s memorial mass was on a chilly Tuesday afternoon.
While there was a long narrow cathedral, with stone-grey walls, colourful windows, endless wood benches… the choir sounded like they were on the verge of winning something at a drama festival, and the mourners, most of them professionals (who had dropped by over lunch hour but were itching to get back to the office) looked dustier than Jesus On the Cross during a sandstorm.
Also, there was a palatable guilt that hovered around those present. A guilt so thick, you could almost taste it, like the grit of dust under your tongue. Everyone blamed themselves for something. Collectively, we blamed the Unforgiving Country, hard times, the softness of a generation.
Individually, we had varying personal regrets:
I should have reached out more
How did I miss the signs?
I should have been there for him
I should have spent more time with him
He’s probably dead because of me!
How did I not see that he was not okay?
And, these last two being mine:
What was I thinking wearing hot orange (pants) with this dust!
Oh, shit! Is that KT (an old flame from campus days)?
I have this awkward tendency whenever somebody I know or was close with dies, to feel like I will also go the same way. The few days or weeks after learning of a cause of death always feel so urgent. Like their death was a foreboding of what is to come to me.
For instance, in 2017 when a cousin died after an epileptic attack, I worried myself sick for about a month thinking it might be genetic. When my grandmother died a year later of multiple old age cancers, I could have sworn I felt a lump on my breasts. Then there was the time that someone I knew was killed by thugs, and I didn’t leave the house past 5pm for the remainder of that year. When Grandpa went (having been overwhelmed by many old age problems including arthritis), my heart would jump at any slight discomfort at the joints.
The week after W died, I wrote stickers with all sorts of affirmations and stuck them all around my empty walls:
1. Say ‘Yes!’ to life, G.
2. I wanna stay.
3. You need not go today. Death has a lot of time. It will wait, it will wait (from a poem I like)
4. Oriti, osiepa
They laid W to rest on a Wednesday somewhere in Kajiado. I didn’t go to the funeral.
I don’t know if he would have been pleased to see me there. Me, an 11th-hour-acquaintance, an imposter who knew nothing about him beyond his quietness, physical attractiveness and WhatsApp statuses, crying and mopping my face amongst people who knew him and loved him all their lives. I felt it would be pretentious.
Perhaps, I should have gone.
A few days ago, I dreamt about W for the first time since he died. In the dream, I know he is dead, but I don’t feel petrified of him. He’s wearing a checked shirt with a black T-shirt inside. We are standing in some open field and there are a lot of vans (the automobiles, not the shoes). I have the feeling that I’m being waited for, but we are both in a chatty-ish mood. I tell him he is wearing his brother’s shirt, that I saw his brother. That the brother looks less like him. He smiles and says, ‘Really? Maybe you’re confusing the brothers?’ But he is laughing, so I know he’s bluffing. Just then somebody calls me from one of the vans to ask if I’m coming with them. He, W, asks if I’m staying, and I say I have to. He turns his face away without a word and gets on one of the vans.
I wake up then.