The Good Girls and the City: Chapter Five
Updated: Jun 28
Note: © Makena Onjerika. This material is a work in progress and subject to change, small or radical at any time.
Edits in prior chapters (12/06/2020). In Chapter 2, Tony never proposed to Wakio.
Her sister's last days were bright and white and lazy with clouds that nonchalantly tore and reconstituted themselves in a terrifyingly blue sky. Days toxic with the sweetness of white, yellow-stained Frangipani. The grey-skinned trees grew everywhere in the greens of the hospital and were transfixed in twisting poses as though the music had stopped suddenly. Akorot was not awake to those days. Sound, wind, cold, heat, all sensations blended into a queasy swirl; after nine months of praying, she was tired and God was dead.
By then, her sister Akai had eroded down to a sliver of existence. She had lost more than half her seventy-two kilograms and the tyre of fat around her waist that she'd lamented during her high school days. The concaves of her cheeks could have held water. She was brittle, and lying on the white of her hospital sheets, she gave the impression of translucency.
Akai had taken to the habit of silently staring up at the ceiling for hours and keeping mum to all queries, then suddenly jerking her body and letting out a groan.
"I'm going to die. Fuck," she'd say.
She no longer cared who she speared with her pessimism, not their father, mother, younger brother and certainly not Akorot.
In the fairy tales, young women dying of Lymphoma are saintly, graceful in their suffering, eager to erase the pain of any loved ones. Bullshit. Akai was ugly and vengeful. She raked her nails over their skins, pushed pins into their eyes and snipped off pieces of their flesh.
"Kill me. Just fucking kill me," she said when morphine no longer adequately douse her pain.
Akai's mental deconstruction was more difficult for Akorot to watch than the voracious work of the cancer. Akai was two years older and although she did not have Akorot's grades, she had everyone's good will and admiration. She'd held herself in a certain manner, between reserve and warmth that made people want to draw close to her, to want to know her although they also understood they could never get deep enough inside of her. She had been a head girl at the primary school she and Akorot had attended, appointed to the role for neatness – hair always tamed into a bun, socks folded precisely, shoes gleaming even on cloudy days. A role model. In secondary school, her photo had appeared in the newspaper, her body stretched in near parallel to the volleyball court. She had been named National Team Captain of the Year twice. Unlike Akorot, she must have always felt that the universe was on her side, until the cancer.
A day after the doctors advised a second and more aggressive round of chemotherapy, some members of their mother's church convened in the hospital room to beg God for Akai's life. Akorot had been with her that morning and knew she was in a foul mood. She had not spoken in all those hours and had sat in a low chair, facing the window and dripping tears. Akorot wanted to hold her, to tell her that it was okay to be angry, but Akai was tending to violence those last days. Just might have slapped or kicked or thrown something. And so they sat on opposite ends of the room, one sliced open by the morning light and her vertebrae small hills on her back where her hospital gown parted. The other hiding in a book.
Akorot did not have a chance to warn their mother. She arrived suddenly with a dozen prayer warriors, and the smells of human bodies filled the room: of soap, of worry, of need, of a myriad perfumes and hair products and lotions, of longing, of freshly wept tears. Akai, now returned to bed, would not respond to their greetings. She just stared at the ceiling and left Akorot and their mother embarrassed.
"Sister Akai. We know that you feel abandoned by God and lost. But we are here to tell you that Jehovah, our God, is with you. He suffers when his children suffer," said the group leader, a man Akorot had never seen dressed in anything but a black suit, brand labels sewn at the cuffs of the coat.
"Hallelujah," said the others, and Akorot felt she was defiling their faith with her presence and lack of belief.
The leader flipped open his leather bound Bible and read Jeremiah 29:11. "Sister Akai, the Word of God is true. The plans He makes are for our good. Our health, our sickness. Trust in Him. Allow us to pray for you," he said.
Still, Akai said nothing. Just lay there staring and dripping tears. They bowed their heads, hands held together so that they ringed the bed, and the man began praying. The others joined in, and soon there was a cacophony of Holy Spirit tongues. Their eyes were shut, but Akorot watched them and watched Akai. A woman opened and closed her mouth, but overcome with emotion, she brought forth no words. The guilt of being healthy and young clogged Akorot's throat.
She must have heard Akai first.
"Stop," her sister said. Was that the devil burning in her eyes?
"Stop," she said, this time loud enough to get some of the prayer warriors to open their eyes.
"You, shut the fuck up," she said, pointing a thin finger at the group leader.
"Akai, what is wrong with you?" said their mother.
"I said shut the fuck up and get out. Get Out! GET OUT! And take your stupid God with you."
Their mother delivered a slap across Akai's face, then stood shocked at herself.
"Hit me again. Hit me until I die. What did I do to Him?"
"Sister Akai... " tried the group leader.
"GET THE FUCK OUT!"
And that was the last time anyone from the church ever visited. Akorot had heard that the pastor there had preached a sermon about that incident. He'd said that Akai died because she cursed God.
"When will you stop?" Akorot asked the photo she retrieved from the recesses of the cloud. "When will you let me be, sister?"
As she wiped tears off her face with her palm, a giggle reached Akorot from Wakio's room next door. She felt that she was tearing along a crease, from head through to one hip. She had never protested Tony's overnight stays in the apartment, but she detested them keenly. Wakio and he kept their business quiet, but Akorot could not help imagining what went on behind Wakio's closed door. What would it be to have someone to call her own? Someone to lag life along with? She felt deprived even though she knew that Wakio's and Tony's relationship was more thorns than petals.
Earlier that year after close to ten years of dating, Tony had forgotten Wakio's birthday. That night, Wakio had roped Mukeni and Akorot into a winefest in the living room, during which she had called Tony every possible variation of 'asshole'. Then there had been a one week break up for the hundredth time.
But here they were at it again. Later in the evening, they would take over the living room to watch a movie in the dark, as a single body on the couch, oozing the satisfaction of endless sex.
Akorot wiggled her small finger in her ear and pulled out a dark lump of wax. Where to dispose of it? She considered wiping it off on the hem of her shirt, but after a moment's debate with herself, she slipped off her bed and got a square of tissue paper from her bathroom.
Flushing it down the toilet, she decided that what she felt was not envy. Rather, she was sometimes overwhelmed by having to wade through the swamp of life on her own. Her sister was gone, and her parents could not overcome their disappointment that she was not Akai. Sometimes she was overcome with emptiness, and it was alright at such moments to allow herself to be taken in by ideas she knew to be a lie. These were just momentarily lapses, however. If life had taught her anything so far, it was that no one could carry her burdens or help her live. All anyone could do for anyone else was give some comfort, some encouragement, and that was hardly enough. All assurances were false, and if she leaned on them, she would drown. Akai had died at nineteen, with all of life before her.
Akorot found a coat in her wardrobe and locked her bedroom door. It was past seven p.m. The living room was dark, lit weakly by the lights in apartments in the building next door. Akorot thought she would only walk a little, to get some fresh air, and not further than shops, a hundred meters or so from her apartment building's gate. She pressed the lift button but as she watched the numbers flash, she panicked, turned and took the stairs, an act she regretted immediately because why should she worry about bumping into Sonia or Sonam or whoever else she was? She was not the pathological liar.
Angry with herself, she cut through the parking lot in urgent strides, ignored the gateman's greeting and plunged into the weakly lit street outside. There she took in a deep breath. The Indian chick was not her sister or even her friend. Why was she all hurt and angry about her? Nairobi was full of crazy people, after all.
Digging her hands deep into her pockets, she walked towards the shops. There were still people about the cul-de-sac, most headed in the opposite direction as Akorot, to the local pub. She stopped at one of the general stores that had a sloping, segmented vegetables table before it and bought a soda. Then she went on and joined Mbaazi Avenue although she knew that walking the avenue at this hour was dangerous. But the chance of encountering motorcycle muggers on this night felt slim. She had nothing on her, anyway, but her clothes. She'd left even her phone behind.
She walked and she thought, and by and by, she stopped outside the corrugated iron-sheet fence of a construction site. The chained gate did not close all the way. She peered down at the seemingly bottomless dug-out in the ground from which rose steel, skeleton pillars that would soon receive concrete. It was a ghost of a place with lorries and diggers abandoned everywhere as if on a child's playset and a forlorn crane with its hook still attached to a drum like a dead tongue. Akorot saw desolation instead of the stylish, glass-walled apartments that would one day rise out of that hole. There was a wound in the ground in the shape of her loss.
You can't continue like this, she thought. You have to live. Breathing in the hostile cold air, she decided that the stories she needed to write were already inside her and that Kalamu Bantu could fuck off if he did not like them.
Five days later, she emailed her second short story in. It began:
The night my sister died, she called God a bastard and a thief.
Wakio had planned to spend Friday night in her pyjamas, watching a Korean drama, sipping wine and munching Pringles. But then, just as she got cozy with her laptop, the doorbell rang. She heard Akorot step out of her room to get it, then a muffled voice. A moment later, her door opened and there stood Tony, afro as shaggy as ever, backpack strap cutting into his shoulder, jeans sagging. Happiness jumped out of her in the form of a squeal. Their kiss tasted of completeness and onions.
"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" she said and gave him a mock-slap on the shoulder.
He just smiled at her, looking proud of himself for having surprised her. In a korean drama, he would have said something like "Your oppa keeps his promises". She was going to have to postpone her sixteen-episode date with Park Seo-joon who looked like he bathed in milk and charm, but Tony was way better: he was all hers. She put her hands around his waist. He smelt of the morning after a long night of rain.
"I brought you something. Go see," he said.
She skipped into the living room. Boxes of grilled chicken, fries and salad stood on the dining table (and luckily Mukeni was not around to see it since Tony had forgotten the table mat rule).
"Ooi. But I already ate," she said and pouted.
He reached into the bag he brought the food in and out came a tub of salted caramel ice-cream. He loved her.
Three hours later, she walked out of the bathroom after spending half an hour doing her make-up to find Tony still in the same clothes he'd arrived in.
"Let's go out," he'd said. "It's been a mad week."
"You left some clothes here last time. I can iron them for you," she said.
"Naah. I'm good."
He was in a T-shirt he'd received from the sponsors of some hackathon three or four years before. The white wording was webbed with cracks and the black dye had faded into an ashy dark grey. His jeans were passable but had mud stains at the hems. And he was wearing old sneakers.
His choice of dress was a constant battle for Wakio. She considered herself reasonable. She was not one of those women who forced their men to dress a certain way as if playing doll dress-up. She just wanted Tony to see how good he looked when he tried a little. If he would just tie up his hair, comb his beard, wear darker colours that complemented his skin, exchange the jeans for slacks, the sneakers for loafers or brogues, strap on a decent watch instead of his cliché Kenyan flag bead bracelet, he would stand out of the crowd. Wakio did not think his style was bad. It just could have been a bit better.
She stepped up to him as he sat on her bed, legs wide apart and arms extended behind him in support of his torso, admiring her in her short, shimmering dress. She kissed him softly, carefully. He could be stubborn.
"I thought you wanted to have fun tonight," she said.
“No one really cares, babes. I feel comfy in these,” he said.
“Yeah, they are nice for chilling,” she lied. “ It’s just I thought we were dressing up and now we look unbalanced.”
She'd learnt early in their relationship that gentle cajoling worked better on him than showing her frustration. If she got him to change his shirt – and fingers crossed, his shoes – she would be happy. Over time, she had learned to choose battles she would actually win and shut her eyes to some of his perplexing habits – things she would not dare mention to anyone because they were so embarrassing. She reminded herself that he had grown up differently from her, and she had to be patient with him.
It took another kiss to get him to agree to change. Looking over him as they stood waiting for the Uber he had ordered, she felt proud and wished he would let her help him with the things she was good at. But she always had to be careful because sometimes he complained of feeling mothered, which she just did not understand. Wasn’t taking care of him how she showed him that she loved him?
“What are you thinking about?” he asked after the pleasantries with the taxi driver.
“Nothing. Just stuff.”
He reached out and pressed his finger lightly between her eyebrows. She realized she had been frowning.
“Just some job stuff,” she said.
He didn’t ask about work though. Instead he asked the taxi driver to turn up the song playing on the radio. She had whined about her job on the phone for hours, but still, a passing enquiry would have been nice. She checked herself. Why was she nitpicking? He had come to see her, after all, and he was taking her out. She leaned into him and stroked his arm. He gave her the smile of a man whose life was working out just as he had planned, and yet, he had still not proposed.
“So where do we start?” she asked to drown out her thoughts.
Not her favorite place, but she knew he wanted to get some shisha and the music at Blue Night was not too bad: Nigerian afrobeats, South African Kwaito or House, some Tanzanian Bongo. What she needed to do was dance, really shake her body and loosen all its knots. Then some wine to de-stress because all these strange thoughts were just stress. She’d never been one of those dramatic chicks, but now she could feel herself turning into one; she was wound too tight and wanting too much too fast instead of enjoying it as it came, as Tony did.He worked when it was time to work; played when it was time to play. He never let anything get to him.
She held his hand as they rose four floors up to the club. She smiled at the not-so veiled glances he got from the three girls in the lift with them, then pretended to dust something off his shoulder with gentle pats, so that they would know she was his woman and would tolerate no intrusions into her territory.
When the lift doors parted and the loud music caught them like the pounding of a large heart, Wakio felt herself grow buoyant. She looked good in her dress. Her body wanted to move. She led Tony through the crowd by the hand and he let her. As they hunted a corner in which to ensconce themselves, she kept leaning in to whisper into his ear and bringing her body into his. His arm went around her waist and as soon as they were seated at one of the couches, they began kissing.
Tony was not much of a dancer. He preferred watching Wakio dance as he pulled on the shisha pipe and sipped his whiskey on the rocks. As soon as the DJ let loose Skales' Shake Body, there was a collective scream by the ladies at the club. Wakio got to her feet and began shaking her body, gyrating the hips, pumping her behind up and down so that her dress teased Tony with views of her thighs. She wiggled. She whined. She seemed propelled by an internal motor and about to take flight. She laughed at her ability to mesmerize him. She got into wiggling her torso and twirling her braids, then worked her shoulders to match the song's fast rhythm all the while holding his eye. She felt glorious and got down to a twerk that got the dancers near her to make room, whistling and ululating. She edged closer to Tony and drew him up to her then started dirty grinding on his crotch, becoming one with him, her eyes on his, his hands at her waist. It was exhilarating. They got so intertwined, when the song ended, they remained in a hug for a moment.
"Sheesh, woman," he said. "You are trying to murder me."
Wakio felt oh so powerful. She gulped half the new glass of wine he had ordered for her.
"Take it easy, babes," he said, detaching her from the glass.
"I feel so happy," she said, slurring. "When's the last time we were out like this?"
He gave her the shisha pipe. He'd chosen her favorite strawberry flavour.
"I love you," she said, leaning into him. He had not changed his cologne in five years. Woody, musky, with a dash of citrus. She had picked it out for him a few days before their graduation day.
"I love you."
He kissed her and looked away towards the dancefloor, nodding to Mafikizolo's Khona. The bodies on the floor were in rapture, twisting, dipping, spinning, arms taking in space and remaking in, feet pounding the floor, mingling and loosing form to become an amorous mass of limps and drunkness. Wakio's body wanted to go forth without her, but she was solidifying with fear.
“I love you,” she said again, deliberately.
“I love you too, babes.”
She pulled away from him. “Why do you love me?”
"Because... " he said.
"No seriously, what exactly about me?"
It was an answer enough. Reasonable. But it pierced Wakio right in the belly and she felt queasy. Perhaps she had drunk too much. Perhaps she was hungry again.
"Everything?" she asked.
"Babes… what's up?"
Even in the loud club, among the shouting waiters and patrons, she heard the fatigue in his voice. She was nagging him. She was making a big deal out of nothing.
"Do you actually love me, Tony?"
A crease appeared on his brow, then his face became impassive like a politician's statue. "What do you think?"
Wakio felt suddenly sober. She really needed a drink of water or to get out and stand somewhere breezy. But already the wheel was turning and the words came tumbling out of her: "I think you've stopped loving me."
He took another pull of the shisha and turned his head to let out a plume of smoke. He shook his head. "You just want to fight," he said. “You always do shit like this.”
The urge to scream bubbling up Wakio's throat. She rose quickly, grabbed her purse and headed for the women's bathrooms where she heaved over a sink while the club's cleaner told her all vomiting needed to be strictly done in the toilets. Wakio stared at herself in the mirror, all makeup and mask, none of herself showing through. Who was this tearing up in a stinking toilet and why? She tried to remember if she was getting close to her next period, if this was why she was feeling so sensitive. Tony was right. She was being ridiculous. She slipped into one of the toilet stalls and peed, then washed her hands for a good minute while the cleaner glowered at her in the mirror. She took her time reapplying her lipstick and mentally gave herself reassurances. She was just overwhelmed. Nothing had happened. Work was driving her crazy.
The black walls of the corridor from the bathrooms flashed with neon colours. There were two girls there standing very close to each other, one with her back leaning against the wall and the other, taller, leaning over her. Their faces almost touched as they whispered. Wakio carefully walked around them, a feeling of discomfort welling up in her belly. But as she came to the club's main hall and into a blast of P-Squared well-worn Chop My Money, she realized that what she felt was not disgust, not entirely. She was jealous. Those two had something she did not. Something she had always imagined that she had.
Stop, she screamed inwardly.
The club was inexplicably fuller than before; it took her almost ten minutes of 'pardon' and 'excuse me' to get back to Tony. But he was not at the table they were sharing with two other couples. His jacket was gone too, although his glass still held some whiskey and was sweating on its coaster. Had he gone to the bathrooms too? Wakio ordered a bottle of still water from a passing waitress. Or had Tony gone to take a phone call? It was quite infuriating just how inseparable he was from that device. Always some deal to discuss, broker or close. Five songs played and the couples around Wakio got more touchy feely and kissy-kissy. She hated them all.
She tried calling him, but Safaricom cut her off with a “Line busy” message. Getting annoyed, she went round the club, peeking at people in the semi-darkness and into all the nooks and crannies. Luckily she was dressed well enough to get a pass from the bouncer manning the upstairs VIP section next to the DJ. But Tony was not there either. Wakio went back down the black corridor to the bathrooms. The girls were now gone and in their place was guy sitting on the floor in the corner, his head resting on his knees. He did not look okay, but that was not her business. She hang around the door of the men’s bathroom contemplating how she was going to storm that fort. When a guy emerged, she ambushed him.
“Hey. Please do me a favor. Please ask if there is a Tony in there.”
He gave her an odd look like he was about to laugh in her face, but she persisted in batting her eyelids and smiling like a doll. He shrugged and pushed the door open.
“Tony toka, unatafutwa,” he yelled.
Wakio winced. Not what she had in mind, but effective. She rewarded him with her smile, and he bounced off. Tony did not emerge.
Wakio tried his phone again as she walked out of the club. Had something happened to him? She took the stairs down, stopping at every floor to yell his name at the locked, dark office below Blue Night. By the time she got down to the ground floor, her knees were protesting her poor choice of shoes. She yanked them off and pitter-pattered out the entrance of the building. Tony had abandoned her at the club. The bastard. Wakio was between crying and throwing a shoe at the guards who stared at her as though she was mad for being barefoot.
But as soon as she stepped outside, there was Tony leaning on the wall, one foot against it. He had a Red Bull in one hand and his phone in the other. She caught him mid-laughter, his head slightly thrown back. All Wakio’s emotions condensed in a rock at the center of her chest. Her hands were shaking as she walked up to him.
“Why would you do that to me?”
“One sec,” Tony said to whoever he was talking to on the phone.
“How could you just leave like that and not say anything?” Wakio asked.
“Did you tell me where you were going?”he asked, scowling at her.
“The ladies.” Her voice was teary.
“Whatever,” he said.
A man had set up a barbeque grill on the street nearby and was just then turning over the marinated pieces of chicken on the fire. They sizzled and popped and the fire leapt up to devour flesh. Around the meat seller were customers waiting and salivating visibly. Wakio felt sick. There was a clogged drain right next to the grill.
“Let’s end this, Tony. It's not working. Let’s just stop.”
He gave her a hard look. He showed neither surprise, nor interest. “Fine,” he said, then he went on with his phone conversation. “The lowest I can do is 50K, boss.”
Wakio stood frozen in the magnitude of what she had just done, but before she could speak again, he walked around her and went across the street to the taxis parked there. And then he was gone.
Continue to Chapter 6