All you want at 19 years is biceps. I never had any lofty ambitions, nothing burning and unsettling in sleep, just muscles. All my life’s efforts and aspirations whittled down towards growing big biceps. So we all joined gyms with the shameless hope of, not competing in a bodybuilding pageant, but lighting wicked and illicit desires in the hearts of girls. This was back in 2000 before mobile phones came into gyms, making them social media content of the city’s narcissistic troves. In fact, back in 2000 mobile phones weighed the same as dumbells. With two phones you could do a Fly exercise for the chest.
I joined a gym and worked out dutifully every morning. Okay, most mornings. The gym was a small makeshift sweathouse in the backyard of a house belonging to a former pugilist, a robust man who walked bent like ramapithecus and would come to the gym and bellow, “Stroooooong!” when you were struggling to complete your bench press. The gym was ratty and threadbare as most gyms in the estates were. The equipment consisted of old, heavy car parts and all manner of metallic items welded together to form weights, bars and machines. It was cheap, you paid 50 bob a day or 1K a month, or something ridiculous like that. There were no bathrooms, showers, water dispensers or racks for keeping weights. There were no trainers in matching sports gears. Mirrors were cracked and stained. All around were old pictures of these bulky and ripped iron-heads – Mr Universe, Mr World, Mr Kenya, Mr Nakuru – who growled at us from the walls. They played loud rap music from a massive speaker – Tupac mostly, because Biggie never lifted no weights. The biggest person in the room controlled the music stereo and the kind of music that was played, which meant the likes of us never had a dream of touching that stereo. There were two doors, the entrance from a back alley and one leading into the kitchen of the pugilist. The gym was small and stuffy and smelled of men. Notably, there was never a single female member. The rare woman who would come always accompanied her man, sitting silently in the corner, a flower amidst the debris of men and sweat. On those days, all the men would double their weights. I’m surprised nobody ever died.
It’s in this meleé of testosterone that I met Guy*. [Not his real name, obviously]
I actually thought he was a bit of an ass at the beginning. He had an air. A snootiness. He carried himself like he was better than everybody else and never spoke to anyone. He would come and train, listening to his own music on his headphones to block off the noise and vapid gym chatter and groans. He would place a towel on the bench before lying on it because God forbid he should get in contact with the sweat of commoners and contract something that would require open surgery. He had that kind of a body that just responded to weights; small at the waist, wide at the top, defined biceps, a strong neck and well-formed thighs and legs. He – unlike most guys in the gym then and now – was proportional. He had a keen sense of gym fashion before apparel was a thing. He knew he looked good. We knew he looked good.
I didn’t like him.
We trained for almost a year without so as much as exchanging a nod. This was because my default setting is silence. Talking tires me. Unless I’m tipsy. So we never spoke to each other. Then one day I went to the gym on a Saturday and he was there alone with his beloved towel. He asked, “Are you doing bench today? We can do it together.” We did bench together. And that was it. We started working out together; his motto was heavy weights and less reps, mine was light weights and more reps because I wasn’t going for the hulky Orangutan look. Somehow we found a middle ground. Then we started hanging out. I realised that we had tons in common; first we shared the exact same birthday; date, month, day. I’m named after an African freedom fighter, he’s named after an African freedom fighter. I also found out that he, too, was an ass man, after I found out that he wasn’t an ass.
Sadly, we grew up and outgrew the gym obsession. Sort of. I found my purpose and pursued it across the border. We lost touch briefly and when we reconnected again, he had moved to a different neighbourhood uptown, a big four bedroom house in a small compound with three roommates, one a budding musician who – thankfully – gave up on that dream because anybody could tell that he couldn’t sing. I remember their kitchen being so big you could build a servants quarter in it. Before flat screen became a thing, they had the 52 inch TV. He would throw mad parties at this house. Mad. Parties. There was a lot of alcohol and a lot of girls and loud music. I remember they’d call it three to one, to mean a party that didn’t have three girls to one man was no party. “There is a three-to-one on Sato,” a message would read. [Whatsapp had not been invented].
He was a guy of biashara, I was just starting out as a writer. He was very ambitious, a workhorse and just had admirable work ethic – no place was too far to chase the paper. At some point our priorities started changing and the things that brought us together became less relevant. I became a father. We lost touch. We would meet on the very rare occasion to have a drink.
Then he met someone and they started dating seriously. He quit drinking and partying. If he could find the Lord, I thought, anybody can. He had found Jesus and Jesus was good to him. I thought, ah, it’s the girlfriend, he will be back. But he never drunk again. Then his fiancée must have said, “Do you need to stay in that big house? I think it’s a waste of rent. Plus, all those friends seem to do is drink, play Playstation and entertain light-skinned girls who don’t seem to be doing anything with their lives.” So he moved out to a smaller digs. Then I heard he was married. Just like that, like a bird off a tree.
Shortly there was a bun in the oven and then boom, a son. He was those guys who immerse themselves in family right up to their moustache. I remember one time he had a small mbuzi thing at his house, one of those tame ones where everybody goes with their wives and children run between chairs outside in the front yard, the smell of roasting meat in the air and chaps being very well-behaved, talking about business or politics or money or the future of asbestos. That’s the first time I was meeting the wife and I remember two things from that afternoon. One, is how strikingly beautiful she was, which wasn’t surprising because he was always that guy who cherry-picked. The second thing I remember is how, while we were seated outside, a cluster of men, she came out and said something to him in a tone that we found to be off, almost stripping him naked before us. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember her tone and we all picked up on it. Although we pretended that it never happened, it floated over our heads uneasily like a foul smell for the rest of the afternoon. We were embarrassed for him. I never asked him about it because how your wife speaks to you is your business. Maybe it’s your language of love.
After that party we didn’t communicate for a long time. It was quiet for close to two years. One day last year he called me and we had fish at Mama Oliech.
“I’m no longer married,” he announced.
I said, “Perfect, now we can run off together.” We laughed.
“What happened? I thought things were going great!”
“I thought so too…well at least in the first year,” he said.
The first problem – the only problem – was that she was earning more money than he was. But it wasn’t a problem at the beginning. Five months in and finances started rocking the boat. “When we got married my business was doing so badly,” he said. “I was having many bad months and I didn’t think money would be a big problem because we had even attended pre-marital counselling and finances were discussed extensively. Ey, but this chic just started changing slowly, boss, it was like she was someone else.”
While his business was dragging and he was counting pennies, she was balling. Her dressing was changing, getting better, heels getting higher, hair looking like somewhere only the golden eggs are laid. Her circle of friends also started changing, it climbed to a different status. Suddenly she was hanging out at hotel bars with their thick carpets and overpriced cocktails. They were taking trips out of town, to places with swimming pools and filtered sunsets, champagne and shit. He would stay behind looking after his son.
“You are just sore you weren’t having fun,” I told him jokingly.
“Oh! I wasn’t ati intimidated. I was doing my part. I was trying to be transparent as a provider.”
“Transparent with what?” I asked. “It’s always the person making less who wants to be transparent.”
“Kwani whose side are you on?”
“Elephants,” I said. “But seriously, so these things started when you got married ama they were there but you never saw them?”
“I think they might have been there but si you know how it is when you are dating. You overlook things. I think the biggest thing I overlooked was her faith. I had started on a strong faith, clear about my relationship with God but she wasn’t and I didn’t think it would be a big deal, really.”
“So what happened?”
“I think her friends started poisoning her, asking her what she was doing with a broke man. Her family also started questioning her choice. I think they thought she was doing too well to be with someone like me. I also think she was interacting with a different calibre of men at work and she thought she deserved better. She started resenting me. I could tell from how she would talk to me,” he said.
“With madhaa? She would answer you by putting the word “si” before a word?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You know when a woman says, “Si I told you I was with my friends,” “Si it’s huko in the drawer where everything is kept.”
He chuckled. “Worse. She slowly started becoming nasty. During fights she would really come at me, you guy. Personally. As in, it would feel like she was angry at me as a person, mpaka I was like yaani how can you even talk to me like that? You get? And it grew worse by the day. We seemed to be fighting all the time and it was always about money. She didn’t want me making any decisions about money given that I wasn’t contributing as much as she was. She had a way of reminding me all the time that the money was hers, but subtly. You know how a chic can say something to mean that she’s calling the shots?”
“Money is crazy.”
“I believed greatly from my faith that marriage was something of a partnership, a union where your problems are my problems and my problems are your problems and the money you make is our money…”
“Oh, come on!”
“Is that what they told you in the premarital counselling classes?”
“I mean, yeah…as in how do you expect to go towards one direction when you can’t handle money as just this…I don’t know…tool you need to get somewhere?”
“You were naive.”
“If say I was making more, do you think we would have other problems?”
“We will never know, will we?” I say. “But how did you react to her during this time?”
“I’m stubborn in that I thought I’d do everything to make it work. I thought I’d love her into submission. I had a great spiritual faith and I chose not to look at her as a problem but as this issue. That’s what they taught us in premarital counselling. But having our son made things harder, because now we had more bills. Her conversations started changing. She started complaining; suddenly where we lived was a problem, she was complaining that we never went on holidays as a family, she seemed to want more and more.”
Then the house became a hostel; a place they all converged to sleep, like a crossbreed of YMCA and YWCA, only with a child. They slowly stopped speaking. When they spoke it was always an argument about money. “She would be saying nasty things to me but I chose not to react or say anything.”
“Jesus held your tongue,” I said.
“Yeah. Plus we had a child in the house, I didn’t want to create a bad environment for him, so I thought my not arguing with her or reacting to her would make her back down but she only got bolder and more disrespectful. It got to a point where her phone would ring at night and she would leave and speak on the phone away from me.”
“Did you ask ama you are one of those guys who see that as weakness.” [I know, I’m badgering the witness]
“Of course. She would say it’s a colleague who wanted something and I would ask her why a colleague would be calling her at night and she would fly off the handle, asking me what the hell I want from her, this job is the one paying for stuff in the house yet I still question work calls! So I would just chill,” he said.
Sex became once a month. Then once in two months. Then once a quarter. “On the rare occasion that it happened, I could feel how dead she was to it, like she wanted it to end fast. So I stopped asking,” he said. After sex went, any form of meaningful conversation also ended.
One day her phone rang after 10pm. They were in bed, strangers in the sack; him reading, her pretending to be asleep. She picked it and since it was quiet and her volume was loud, he could hear that the voice on the other end was a man. She said, “Sasa?…Yes….Si I call you tomorrow…sawa….goodnight.” When she hung up he sat up in bed and said sarcastically, “Was that work again?” Without turning she said, “Yeah.” He said, “Please go sleep in another room. You can’t sleep in this bed if you can’t respect it.” So she picked up her pillow (why do people always leave with their pillow?) and went to her son’s bedroom.
“I told God that I had tried everything and that I was waiting for whatever he would decide of that marriage,” he said. “Things got so bad that sometimes I would hear her being dropped late at night.” He would stand at the upstairs window and see the car that had dropped her parked outside the gate. After a few minutes, she would step out. “Do you know how small that makes you feel? That some man can drop off your wife right outside your gate?”
“That’s mad,” I said. We had finished eating, ugali now dry on my hands. It’s annoying to scrape that off when washing your hands.
“A week later she texted me one afternoon and said she will be moving out in three days,” he said. She moved out with everything. He gave her everything in the house and remained with the mattress and a few items in the house. “The house didn’t look inhabited. I remember people knocking on the gate to ask if the house was up for rent.” He laughed. “I had very little money coming in and she knew it. I think she wanted to see how long I’d survive without her. I remember going down on my knees and asking God what I had done to deserve all this. I’d given my all. In fact, that was the best version of myself. I had stopped drinking, turned my life around and that is what I got? I said, “If indeed you’re there listening to me, please don’t allow me to be embarrassed. Don’t allow me to be kicked out of the house and go back to my parents.”
For a few weeks he ate bread and milk while standing, or on his mattress. He felt destabilized. A failure of love. His self esteem was low. He would avoid anyone who might ask him how his wife was doing. Well, God heard his prayer because a month later he got a 1.5M gig. A miracle, really. The largest amount of money he had made in years. They even paid him half as down payment . He bought curtains, a gas cooker and other things. People stopped asking if the house was up for rent. He heard that his wife was now dating one of her colleagues. “It cut me like a knife,” he said. “As in, a few months later and she was already dating while I didn’t even know where to start my life again?”
Months passed with them doing the co-parenting thing. “He heard she broke up with the man because, well, it’s all fun and games until she is your girlfriend and not someone’s wife,” he said. “Now you are no longer stealing moments.”
“At some point we tried counselling,” he said.
“You thought of taking her back?”
“Yeah, for the sake of my son.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Yeah, but man, counselling wasn’t working either. That’s when I realised that we had different value systems and that this faith thing is big for me. I can’t be with someone whose faith isn’t aligned to mine.”
When we met he was three years into being single again. We met again last year and this time he was looking for someone to marry and settle down with. Someone of the same faith. Someone who is big on spirituality and family and starting a family. So, God and children. He was also categorical that he didn’t want someone who would want to have premarital sex. She’d have to be willing to go on dates and things but not try and take him to bed. You know, entice him with foggy bedroom eyes and fabric that slide and slither on her body shape or someone who picks her strawberry from her desert with her fingers in slow motion. By last year October he had been celibate four years. (Still is, last I checked.) At first I said there is no way someone can be celibate for that long, surely you’d get dizzy spells and, or, migraines and athlete’s foot? He said it was easy, “the first year is the toughest.” To mean he even avoids eye contact with keyholes.
I hooked him up with a friend of mine who also big on her faith and wants to start a family. We all met at a café but she didn’t feel him because she felt he was too quiet. I said, “It’s because I was running my mouth, give him another chance!” She said, “Nah, really, I didn’t feel that thing.”
“What thing!” I said.
“Plus, he’s dark, I like light men.”
So I hooked him up with another friend, someone who doesn’t mind dark chocolate going to her waist. This time I didn’t go because I realised I was getting in the way of love. They met for mid-morning coffee. They had a good conversation. But that also didn’t work out. They both didn’t feel each other. She felt he was too nice. “I’m stubborn, I want a man who I will not walk all over.” He felt that he wanted someone much younger, like 26 to 33. (He’s late 30s]. So another one bit the dust.
So I gave up. But he hasn’t. He wants a second crack at marriage. So he’s still looking. God will get him his woman. Maybe she’s here on the comment section. Maybe she’s at Mavuno. Maybe she’s on leave and just woke up to do last night’s dishes. Or she’s driving to her doctor’s for her annual pap smear. Maybe she’s writing her resignation letter at work. For the ninth time. Or laughing at a meme.