I never allow emails to summon me. I summon them instead. I see them when I’m good and ready to see them, not when they want to be seen. So with no email notification on my phone, I can keep them waiting for me like a truant schoolboy waits outside the headmaster’s office, for as long as I choose.
His email waited until 7am even though it came in shortly after 3am. He must have sent it while lying next to the warm heat of his wife’s sleeping body. Most likely she had her back turned to him, because women are instinctive and she could feel the restless energy of confusion in their marriage. Strangers in bed, as it were. He had most likely sent that email on a whim, having succumbed to his vulnerability; after all, 3am is the hour that we seem to confront our true selves without the noises of life, isn’t it?
It was a strange email; mysterious and hesitant, written and reworded carefully from the bright glow of his mobile. It came from a fake email address, created for anonymity. He said he was 44 years old. He had a compelling story for me – a secret – for the 40s series. But he would only tell it if I promised him complete (written in caps) anonymity, which meant meeting in a place that was private. I knew he wrote it in a moment of weakness and that in the bright light of day and the sobering realities that come with it, he would chicken out and not pursue that conversation further. Although I’m averse to anonymity for these 40s series (what’s to stop someone from spinning a yarn?) I was drawn to his story only by the promise of its mire and so, naked (because I sleep as I was born), sitting at the edge of my bed, I tapped a quick reply from my mobile.
Thanks for this middle of the night love letter. Flattered that you thought of me at 3am. 🙂 I’m sure you have rethought your email now in the light of dawn, but if you haven’t then I will be keen to meet up. But I need to know what this is about upfront. If it’s about politics, peadophilia, murder or beastiality then I’m not interested.”
Then I walked into the shower to use my new shower gel. I discovered this new gel that smells like a swarm of yellow butterflies.
A week later, I called Eric Mbugua of Hilton and asked him which days were the slowest at their Pool Restaurant. There was no way anyone I know would run into me there. A few days later, I walked into the Pool Restaurant 30mins before my 6pm appointment with Joe, and stationed myself on one of those awkward seats at the bar, my back to the swimming pool. Then it started raining. A snappy breeze lashed at me. Nairobi’s skyline greyed out behind that sheet of rain. So I grudgingly moved down to the Jockey Pub on the ground floor. I had earlier texted Eric and told him not to come say hello, that my company would be uncomfortable. “Must be a chick,” he remarked and I said, “Yeah, I’m keeping her away from your irresistible charm.”
Have you been to the Jockey Pub? It’s all dark wood and red; red carpet, pictures of jockeys on the wall, booths with red leather seats, a dance floor with a disco ball, horse racing paraphernalia, little promotional materials atop tables announcing deals of 350 bob a beer during happy hours. In short, the kind of place I would run into someone I know and blow the cover of my interviewee.
Typically, no sooner had my ass taken the shape of my seat than I saw a gentleman I knew when I was a teenager and he must have been, what, 4-years? I last ran into him five years ago. He comes over and we shake hands vigorously. He’s all grown now. A man. In a suit. Razor bumps on his chin. Turns out he works here because his name-tag reads: ‘Jacob – IT Manager’ (his “home name” was ‘Rough” even though his younger brother was the rougher one). We catch up on old days. I remind him how small he was. I ask him if his father still keeps his massive “Moses beard” streaked with silver. He says he’s relocating to Hilton, Namibia. He met a Namibian woman and they have a wedding in three weeks’ time. He’s moving countries for her, uprooting everything here and starting a new life in Namibia. He’s coasting on a flying carpet of love.
“Are Namibian women hot?” I ask him.
“Mine is,” he laughs. I ask to see a picture and he fishes out an iPhone from his right pocket and finds one in the gallery. She is stunning. She has a baby-face and lips that look like that flower that grows in darkness, what’s its name…yeah..Lily of The Valley and she has these small fragile shoulders that belong to the kind of girl who loves to be hugged. Those girls who hug with their eyes closed tight.
You know people who irk me? Those people you show one picture from your phone and they start scrolling through other pictures! Turns out I am one of those guys and I scroll to see more pictures. There is a video of a beautiful toddler crying on a windswept beach, and a woman telling her something. (“Yeah, we have a one year old daughter” he says). I look at some more of his fianceé’s pictures until I realise that perhaps (perhaps?!) I’m being rude then hand over the phone. (My weak excuse is, who wants to see just one picture of a beautiful thing?)
“Yeah, she is hot,” I say. “You might want to go down and marry her asap.”
We exchange numbers, and I congratulate him and wish him luck down in Namibia. Then the groom is gone.
I’m seated at the end of the bar counter, facing the entrance at an angle. Jockey Pub doesn’t stock Glenmorangie, so I’ve settled for a bourbon. It’s 5mins shy of 6pm, any moment now my subject will stalk in. I won’t know who he is until he walks up to me. I had told him that he would identify me by my watch; round face, orange in colour, blue, white and orange strap.
He isn’t what I expected when he finally stands over me. He gives me a firm handshake and says, “Happy belated birthday. By the way, you don’t look 40.” I tell him, “You don’t look 44, either.” We sound like post-high school girls in a re-union. He orders a whisky. Naturally we talk about whisky, then we talk about work, then we order another round and he removes his jacket and drapes it over the backrest. He is interesting – cerebral and curious. He asks odd questions like “Would you rather be a duck or an owl?” and then when I say an owl, he plunges into highbrow psychoanalysis. And for all this intelligence and curiosity and awareness, he turns out to be completely unaware of or unwilling to decipher his own feelings because when I finally ask him what his story is so that we get this baby on the road he says, “I’m bisexual…I think.”
I don’t want to look surprised. Of all the things I guessed his story would be, this wasn’t one of them. I don’t want to change my facial expression, because he’s watching me for a reaction. I wear my poker-face, but I’m not sure what it looks like from his end. Sometimes you might think you have a poker face kumbe you look diarrheic. His admission is the equivalent of a woman asking you to hold her baby for a minute as she buys airtime in the next shop and then disappears. Now you have this baby and you don’t know what to do with it.
“You think?” I ask him. I think I might have chicken for lunch. I think I might spend Christmas in town. I think Dunkirk was a shit movie.
“I like girls for the most part,” he says, “but I sometimes, well, sometimes I have some feelings towards men.”
“I think being bi-sexual is the greatest height of greed. You want the girls and you want the men. I wish you were just fully gay, so that you leave all the girls to us,” I joke to kill this air that has just filled the space between us. He snickers. (Yeah, too soon.)
I want to say something very naive and foolish at this point, and I want you to allow me to. He doesn’t look bi-sexual! I know gays or bisexuals don’t have a uniform look or a particular hairstyle but he is the least likely person I might have thought was bi. Not that he would be walking around with a special hat. Or have his small finger nail painted nude. Or say things like, “totally.” I just…I don’t know, man. He’s manly. He’s as manly as my straight friends. Or friends I think are straight. I won’t describe him because he asked me not to, but when he sits in a bar, he doesn’t look like the kind of person who is confused about their sexuality. He looks like a straight man having his whisky straight with another straight guy.
“Are you uncomfortable?” He asks which is ironic because he looks uncomfortable. “No,” I say, “taken aback, but not uncomfortable.” Then I add, “ I would have been uncomfortable had you covered my hand with yours and said you were bisexual.”
He laughs hard at that.
“But why is this a story?” I ask him. “Come on, let’s admit it, you are hardly the only gay or bisexual man in this city. It’s not a story that excites me, I mean, you have to be more than just a bisexual man. Just being bisexual is a cliché story to me. It’s like doing a story on ambidextrous people.”
To be honest, I start feeling like this was a waste of my time. I could have been home in this rain, writing a long overdue Msafiri magazine article. Or finishing a book I’m reading. Or wondering if I really want to be an owl or might be better off as a duck. But then he says he’s married and starts to talk about a collision of self and then launches into this massive rhetoric of manhood, unpacking it with science, history and biology in ways that I had previously not even thought about because as a man I have never felt the need to investigate my manhood or rebuild it from back to front. He soon loses me in this monologue and I sit there listening to him with a mixture of admiration of his prose, envy of his erudite deconstruction, growing restless and what starts to feel like distraction.
“Hang on,” I say raising a hand. “Let’s start slow. Don’t tell me these things that I don’t understand, tell me who you are, instead.”
He’s a husband, for more than five and less than 15 years. He’s a corporate man, a suit. He says he manages scores of people and is a respected professional. “I’m good at my job, and many would agree.” He likes sports, played it when he was younger, he sits in bars with his friends when a big match is on. He doesn’t support Liverpool. He has children, he doesn’t want the number disclosed. He ‘s a family man, “I enjoy being a father and sometimes enjoy being a husband, and so it works for me.” He also makes a few things clear to me, so that I don’t box him. “I wasn’t ati molested by an older male relative as a boy, I didn’t have any homosexual experiences in boarding school or university. Those are boxes I don’t tick. I’ve probably gone through the same middle-class lifestyle like many people I know; born in a city, to a mother who prayed for her family and a father who drove an old Volvo or Datsun or Peugeot. Worked hard in normal schools to have better grades. University. Tarmacking. Jobs. Marriage. Children. You know what I mean? My counsellor thinks –”
“You have a counsellor?”
“Well, yes, I got one three months ago, total waste of my time, to be honest. I’m more confused now than when I started seeing them. I didn’t want to get someone from Nairobi, because it’s a small town, so I got one in Nakuru. So sometimes I will take a morning off from work, drive for two hours to go for therapy, drive back and be at my desk in time for a 2pm conference call.”
He says he feels like his hardware is a man’s but his software sometimes goes berserk and he feels the need to constantly “reset” it to factory settings.
“When did this start?” I ask.
“I have been fine all along, I think. I don’t recall my teenage being anything but normal sexually. I liked girls, actually I think I liked girls rather more than my peers did.” Small laugh, swirls whisky in his glass, thoughtfully. “University was okay, but I think my interest in women wasn’t as it was in high school. I dated three women over four years of university, which wasn’t out of the ordinary because I was doing a very tough course and I was immersed in books. I would sometimes look at a man’s physique and linger on it for a bit, but I thought that was normal. But then after university I got a job that had me travel abroad and I had a strange experience in Europe, where one of my colleagues convinced a few of us to go to a gay bar to see, because none of us had ever been to one. We spent hardly any time there but I remember feeling comfortable in that bar, like I had been there before. I don’t know if I’m making sense?” Another pause, “ Thing is, I went back to the bar the next day, alone. Every time I would travel abroad after that, I would look for a gay bar. It’s almost like I was this person in Kenya and when I got in a plane and landed in Europe I would become this other person, and it confused me. It still does. It’s like discovering something about yourself that you can’t comprehend, something, I don’t know, unnatural, so to speak. Like there are two people living my life.”
We sip our drinks.
“Do you think Toni Braxton is hot?” I ask him.
“Aaarh, you are straight. Now go home.”
“No, but seriously,” I ask him, “what do you really feel about girls?”
“That’s the thing. I like girls. I really do. Every time you write about a woman’s ass, sijui ass like a rainbow, I always chuckle and say, I feel that guy, because I’m an ass guy too…”
“Okay, maybe we are different types of ass guys,” I smirk and he cackles.
“No, seriously, I like the things that normal guys like in women, I like looking at a naked chick’s body. I have been in love before, with women. But still somehow, once in a while I will want to be with another man and it – how do I say this – frustrates me. I don’t understand it….It makes me feel, I don’t know, queer, or different, it changes everything in me, my stability. But at the same time, a apart of my likes it….as much as I try to suppress it.”
“A long time ago I read something about MSMs, these are men who have sex with men,” I say, “ you could be one.”
“I have heard that term in my counsellor’s office. And that’s the other thing, I don’t want to be explained by a social definition. Am I gay or bi because I sometimes want to sleep with a man? My counsellor thinks I have triggers that make me want to sleep with men…I don’t know.” He looks to me to chip in. I don’t know squat about this topic. But I know I need another drink.
“Another one?” I ask raising my glass. He says no, he’s fine for now.
We stare at a heavyset Egyptian-looking man with hairy hands as he walks in with a thin, petite girl wearing knee-high boots. He leads her to the sitting area at the wall opposite where we are. They don’t seem to be decided about where they want to sit, but they eventually occupy a booth. While the Egyptian-looking man looks at the menu, the girl looks at him with such unfiltered and naked adoration, like he’s the brains behind the Arab Spring.
“I’m at a point of questions in my life. I think everybody gets here; you question your life, you question your career and your relationships, you question your purpose and your successes and you scrutinise your failures closely, maybe a little more closely than necessary [chuckles and sips his drink].”
“So what’s the biggest question you have now, at 44?”
“I think it’s a question of persona, of individuality. Who is this man who likes being with other men? Who have I become and what do I do with this guy? What if I’ve been gay all these years and I didn’t know it? Is it even possible? Who knows these answers? I have read books but books haven’t helped me much.”
“I suppose your wife doesn’t know.”
“No, of course not,” he says.
“And how is that marriage going, are you happy, content?”
“Happy?” He laughs. “I think there reaches a point in marriage where such questions become irrelevant, where happiness isn’t within the marriage itself but in the things around it and about it. I love my children.”
“So you are happy.”
“My children make me happy.”
“Children are not the marriage, they are a part of marriage.”
He smirks. “Well, while they are still a part of marriage, they bring me happiness, and besides, what lasts forever? A new car will bring you happiness until it grows old and starts breaking down, but while it’s still new it makes you happy.” His glass is now empty. “My wife keeps my home stable…she is a good mother, dedicated and supportive. [Pause] You know, she supports and understands me, she knows what I’m about and I think that’s all you need in a wife. Nobody needs a superwoman. I respect her because she’s respectful of me…I feel bad that she has to be caught up in all this.”
“Does she know or suspect your battles with your sexuality?” I ask.
“Why does she have to know?” he snaps.
Okay. Maybe it’s time he got another drink. I catch the bartender’s eye and his glass is filled. Water bottles are opened. The music is polite. (Why do people say that? Polite.)
“This is a personal revelation,” he says as a way of reconciliation. “Those two are mutually exclusive. I take care of my business as the man of the house, as a father and husband. [Pause] It’s confusing, look I don’t know what’s going on. Every aspect of my life seems to be going so well except this, at this time. I thought if I didn’t actively pursue answers to explain it, it would go away and I would revert back to my old self, who likes only girls. But look at me, sneaking out of town for therapy. ”
“Are you seeing a man currently?”
There, I asked it. It’s out. The cat, or the elephant, no, cat is out. He can snap if he wants to. He can say “no comment.” He doesn’t do any of these things. Instead he says, “Where are the washrooms?” and then disappears behind the door at the end of the room. The girl with the Egyptian-looking guy is laughing heartily in the booth. Maybe Asim over there just told her a pyramid joke.
When he climbs back on his seat he finds the question exactly where he left it; over his head.
So he’s seeing this man; 32 year old guy who he says is gay. (I’m confused as to who is gay, who is bi and who is MSM). He has come around to his house for his children’s birthday parties. His wife thinks they work together on his side hustle. He has been seeing him on and off for the past three years but he says that there are many months during which he doesn’t see him because he doesn’t “feel like being with a man.” During those months he lives as a straight man.
“Who do you enjoy sex with most, her or him?” I ask.
“It depends,” he says, looking everywhere but at me.
“On what, whoever is wearing the sexiest lingerie?”
He laughs hard, slapping the counter with his open palm. The nuts in the bowl jump up. He doesn’t answer me, instead he focuses his attention on the big screen TV across the room.
“How is your sex life with the wife?” I try again. “Are you in it or do you just show up as a domestic duty?”
He seems surprised that I asked, of course. I am too.
“It isn’t frequent. Once a month, twice a month, sometimes.”
“Well,”he leans back and puffs his cheeks, “because…I don’t know, I feel guilty. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s right…if sleeping with her is right, it seems like the greatest deception, for myself and for her. It doesn’t seem natural anymore… some days, it does, some days it doesn’t.”
“So you struggle with it.”
“Have you ever had sex with another woman apart from your wife in the past year?”
He isn’t looking at me now. His shoulders seem to have sagged now. The cocky man who walked in a few hours ago isn’t cocky or self assured anymore. It’s like a mask has been lifted and his true self is seated here before me, and he seems embarrassed by this new man, maybe even defeated.
“I tried once,” he says so softly that I have to lean closer to the counter to hear him, “some random chick who worked in the next building, I went back to her apartment after pints but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
“You couldn’t raise the axe?”
“The axe…an expression…you couldn’t get an…”
“No,…no, I could, well, we didn’t get to the point where I was required to. I guess I left before anything happened.” [Long pause]. “I feel burdened. I feel like I’m cheating myself with this secret, that in the end when all has been done, I will really be the one who got deceived. A secret like this is like a big weight that you wake up with and you drag it with you everywhere, to work, to meet friends, to family meetings and it’s tiring because you are two people but you have to present this one person to the world. [Pause] I’m just tired of it. I want to be one person.”
But he doesn’t know how to be that person, he says. He doesn’t know what that comes with, what he has to change. He’s afraid that he will be different, because he is now defined by being a father and being a husband and that guy who takes care of things at work. The guy whose door people knock and stick their heads and ask what they should do. That’s how he sees himself, a construct of what he does at work and his role at home. He’s a prisoner of selves.
“You want to eat something?” I ask. He says he doesn’t eat while he’s drinking. He orders another bottle of water. The bar is now buzzing, so far nobody I know or anybody he knows has walked in. We talk about other things for close to another 45 minutes then he asks, “So what do you think I should do?”
“You are asking me?” I chuckle. “ I’m the last person who can tell you what to do, this is all new to me.”
He shifts in his chair and plays with his car keys on the counter while he considers my words. Finally he says, “I can’t leave to be with a man because I don’t want to be with a man, at least not like that. Plus, there is my reputation to think about, my job to think about, and then of course my children, whom I can’t destabilize because of my identity crisis. Besides, I feel like it’s too late for me to make such drastic decisions now in life.”
“You are only 44 years old,” I say. He doesn’t even hear me. He’s left the room, leaving his body there and his jacket. I say more loudly for him to hear, “Do you know the life expectancy of a Kenyan male? Is it 63 or 62? So, technically you have 29-years to live, give or take. In another 15-years or so your children will be out the door, making their own nests. Then what?”
“You will be 54, with a bad hip. Sitting in the sun on your lawn on Sundays with a newspaper, having, what, 14-years left on your clock, a wife for a stranger, money in the bank and a hole in your soul. Your children will be so busy, they won’t even have time to return your calls until the end of day. Then what?” When he doesn’t say anything I continue. “ Tell you what, though, I could use some chicken wings!” So I order chicken wings and we don’t talk about that matter again. When my chicken wings come he says maybe he will have one but then he has two because who says no to chicken wings?
We finished and I called for the bill and he insisted that he had to pay, but then he didn’t make a move to fetch his wallet, he just held onto the bill and started making small talk and I only realised much later that he didn’t want to leave. He was reluctant to go back to the prison he had found himself in. Because in that bar, he had exposed himself to me, shown me who he really was, unburdened his secret and it was a temporary relief to get off those chains. He felt lighter at that moment. But when he finally steps outside the doors of Hilton he will be going to wear the usual skin of the person he has shown the world, the confused and conflicted person who goes through the motions of life, sneaking to Nakuru to see a therapist, being an engaged father and a reluctant husband, seeing his male love for trysts in the shadow created by his own deceit, resigned to a fate of living a half life of appearances.
So you will forgive him if he stays in his seat for a little longer, if he takes a deep breath before jumping back into his life, because a life of falsehood must require a lungful of air.
Are you in your 40s? Have you lived an interesting life you want to share? (This sounds like one of those terrible ads in Reader’s Digest of 1985). If so, drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org I might not respond asap, but I will.