Wanjiru Waithaka is a Kenyan author whose debut novel The Unbroken Spirit, won the third prize in the adult fiction category of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2007; the most prestigious literary award in the country. The novel was published in 2005 by the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) and attracted rave reviews from the critics. She shares a short story about sport, betrayal and acceptance.
I received an unexpected call from an ex who I hadn’t seen in years the other day.
Leo* was the quintessential bad boy. Over six foot tall, ebony skin, perfect white teeth, chiselled jaw line and a physique sculpted from years of playing rugby that made women swoon. A busted knee took him out of the game but he still looked good. Years before the bald head look became trendy, Leo wore it with panache. He was also cocky as hell.
When we spoke recently, he sounded a lot more mature. Getting kids will do that to you. The cockiness was still there though. I found it endearing while we dated. Now it sounded contrived and mildly irritating. Clearly I too have matured and what I find attractive in a guy is very different from 18 years ago.
Leo and I started dating when I was almost two years into my first job. He was a gentleman – opening car doors for me, pulling out chairs for me in restaurants, pouring my drink, lending me his coat when it got cold. All the little things that make a girl feel special. Other aspects of the relationship were not so savoury but I ignored the red flags which should have warned me that he was trouble. Like always calling me when he was broke meaning I ended up paying for our dates. Attending my first rugby tournament, Safari Sevens, in 1997 finally opened my eyes to reality.
Rugby wasn’t my game. I’m more of a football fan thanks to a brother who is crazy about the sport. Growing up, Marc spent hours commentating imaginary football games as he grazed our cows, pretending to be Leonard ‘Mambo’ Mbotela. “Kadenge na mpira…Kadenge na mpira…Gooooooooal!” he would shout until he became hoarse. I remember watching the World Cup with him and we would invariably end up supporting different teams. He was a fanatical supporter of Brazil but the Samba boys didn’t do anything for me. Remember when Roberto Baggio missed that famous penalty? Heartbreak! Marc crowed about it for weeks, rubbing my nose in it.
I still remember the 1998 World Cup with fondness. Ronaldo, the golden boy of Brazil disintegrated in the final and France won 3-0 in regular time. Oh Joy! The only thing I regret is that Marc was working in Mombasa so I could not rub his nose in it. The man of the moment was of course Zinedine Zidane who two years later helped France win Euro 2000. That game came down to the wire with Italy and France tied 1-1 after 90 minutes. France scored a “sudden death” goal in extra time winning the match. Yipee! I actually preferred that system and really, really hate penalty shootouts.
World Cup 1998 was special for another reason. I was laid up at home bored out of my mind after fracturing my left ankle at Easter during the Vunja Mifupa Games, which meant 6 weeks in a plaster cast and another 4 weeks on crutches. The World Cup was the only bright spot. I got to watch every single game which was heaven after weeks of enduring teasing from friends. Even the most sober couldn’t hide their mirth once I explained how I got injured. “You know it’s just a name right? The organisers didn’t mean you should take it literally” or “Talk about commitment to a cause. Gal, you go all the way” and my personal favourite, “So how are you going to top yourself next year?”
Anyway, back to Leo and the Safari Sevens. I was clueless about rugby and spent the first day (Sato) asking all manner of blonde questions. How do they score? What is a scrum? Why do they kick the ball after a try? How come there are 7 players? Thought rugby teams had 15 people? We ended up at a party on Mombasa Rd hosted by Leo’s neighbour. There was a large crowd and a blazing fire which was lots of fun. At some point Leo excused himself to drop home one of the girls who had an early curfew. At around 2am I decided to call it a night. Leo still wasn’t back and his housemate Johnny* offered to walk me to the house which was a few streets away. His car was in the driveway.
“He must have come back and crashed, too tired to rejoin the party,” Johnny reckoned, seeing my surprise. His bedroom door was locked. Johnny and I must have knocked on that door for an hour but there was no response. “He must have blacked out,” Johnny finally said with a casual shrug, as if that was an everyday occurrence. He offered me his room but I opted to sleep on the sofa not wanting to put him out. I was too restless to sleep and spent the hours till daybreak watching TV.
In the morning I tried his door again. He opened it after several minutes looking bleary eyed and wrinkly. I opened my mouth, a big smile pasted on my face ready to tease him about drinking too much. The smile died when I saw a sleeping form under the covers in the dim room where the curtains were still drawn across the windows. “Who is that?” Leo hurriedly shut the door.
I stumbled backwards and sunk heavily into the sofa. Was it the girl he had gone to drop home the previous night? I hadn’t heard him engage the lock and so could go into the room and confirm, but wild horses wouldn’t drag me in there. Johnny came in from the kitchen where he’d been preparing tea. “What’s wrong?” I mumbled something about needing air and stumbled outside.
The gate was locked. Rather than go back into the house and ask for the key – and have to face Johnny – I went round the side to the back where the landlady was building an extension. I am a very private person and this felt like a very public humiliation. Knowing that Johnny would soon know what had happened just made it a thousand times worse. I walked aimlessly around the unfinished building kicking stones as I tried to process what I had seen. She was what, 16, 17? Still in high school or had just finished. Leo had chosen a kid over me? My mind was reeling.
Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe nothing had happened between them. A snort of disbelief quickly followed by a burst of laughter. I whirled around and there she was. My alter ego. The one who appeared at the most inconvenient of times. Who wouldn’t let me lie to myself no matter how much I wanted to. Like now.
Oh please. Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
He was probably too tired to drive so he offered her a place to stay.
In his bed? With you at the party, knowing full well you would come here? Another disbelieving snort and raised eyebrow as if to mock me. I hated it when she did that.
Exactly. Why sleep with another woman under my nose? I’m telling you nothing happened.
Yeah, he’s Mother Theresa. And I’m the Virgin Mary. Unrestrained laughter welled up in her belly and then she let it rip. Pwahahahaha.
Hahahahahahah. Once she started it seemed she was never going to stop.
It’s not funny!
Overcome, she rolled on the floor, tears rolling down her cheeks, heedless of the cement now covering her face and clothes or the ballast digging into her skin, arms clutched around her middle, shaking in mirth.
I first met her in primary school. I had been selected to play the role of one of the three witches in Macbeth, to be performed in front of the entire school. I’m terrified of public speaking and have gone to great lengths to avoid it over the years. I only took on that role because the witches would be wearing masks. But once the moment came, with 600 pairs of eyes staring at me expectantly, courage failed me. My heartbeat was so loud it felt like my heart would rip right out of my chest. My hands were shaking, palms clammy with sweat, as a cold trail of moisture worked its way down my back.
And then suddenly she was there. Between one breath and the next, I was on stage watching as the most creepy, diabolical laugh sounded in a hall that had suddenly gone hush on our appearance on stage. I assumed it was because the costumes looked very lifelike. The next few minutes were a blur as someone pranced around the stage in my body, giving a very convincing performance of a wicked witch, with that diabolical laugh sounding every so often.
Who the hell are you and where did you come from?
Afterwards, even the teachers told me how good my performance had been. Except it wasn’t me on that stage. But I could barely explain it to myself let alone make someone else understand, so I didn’t even try. I blamed it on my overactive imagination. Now here she was again.
The laughter continued unabated.
Many women would have burst into that room, pulled that girl out of the bed and clawed her eyes out, all the while shouting obscenities at the boyfriend. But I’m not built like that. When I’m really hurt, my self-preservation instincts kick in and I shut down emotionally. You know in those movies when something triggers an alarm on the perimeter, a loud siren goes off and the thick steel doors of the strong room come down with a resounding thud. It felt like that. Boom! My heart was encased in metal, nothing going in or out. A fortress. Nothing could hurt me now. I was calm. Icy calm. And my alter ego had vanished.
I walked back to the house. Leo’s car wasn’t in the driveway. He and the girl had left. “Do you want to go home?” asked Johnny.
“No, I want to watch Safari Sevens,” I replied much to his surprise. On the way there I made two decisions. I wasn’t going to let Leo ruin my weekend. Two, I would drink beer to wash away the pain. I had tasted beer only once before and hated it, finding the taste too bitter. My drink of choice at the time was Kingfisher’s Cider. I ordered Tusker Malt. Leo appeared at some point minus the girl. Smart man. We were around seven or eight; same crowd as the day before so it was easy to ignore him.
I was on my sixth beer before I realised the beverage wasn’t even giving me a buzz. I was still stone cold sober which really pissed me off. People actually get high on this stuff? Meanwhile, Johnny kept giving me a worried look every time I asked for another beer. I was actually matching his pace and could understand his confusion since he had been told I didn’t drink beer. At some point, I switched to Coke realising that my plan of getting drunk enough to forget what I had seen wouldn’t work.
We ended up at the Carnivore for Super Soul. The club was packed to the rafters. People stood four deep at the bar and it took more than 20 minutes to buy a drink. We actually used to enjoy this? Standing for hours in a club in heels that were killing us? Or wearing spaghetti straps and micro minis in the coldest July weather just to look fashionable? Leo was still acting like nothing had happened and pride wouldn’t let me broach the subject first. At 1am I’d had enough of the charade and asked to be dropped home.
I didn’t call him again and we never talked about that night. It was over just like that. I’ve never touched another beer and have since graduated to wine. I never attended another rugby match. At first it was because it brought back painful memories but also my circle of friends then and now didn’t include fans of the game so I never really developed an interest. Johnny became a pastor years later. I smiled when I heard that but wasn’t surprised. I’ve never forgotten his compassion. I got through that horrible weekend without falling apart and with my dignity intact because of his kindness.
In a bizarre twist Leo called me a few years after the Safari Sevens fiasco and told me he wanted me to meet someone. We had kept in touch, not really friends, more like acquaintances. Turned out his girlfriend (not the same girl) was pregnant and terrified (his words). I don’t know why he wanted me there but I accompanied them to the hospital where she was getting some tests done. Afterwards we ended up at Kachoi on Baricho Rd. When he went to the bar to get drinks, she turned to me and said, “I’m in trouble with him, aren’t I?”
How is someone supposed to answer a question like that? Yes, he was a player, but she was only 23 and knocked up. She had enough to worry about without me adding to it. So I mumbled something reassuring and quickly changed the subject. They are separated now. He is a single father and she found love with someone else.
*Names have been changed
Read a FREE novel (Duel in the Savanna) by Wanjiru Waithaka online. Please visit her blog https://wanjiruwaithaka.wordpress.com/ for more details.