BY MIKE MUTHAKA
She leans closer and plants a wet kiss on his cheek. Her pouty lips linger on his skin, and I almost want to walk over there and ask if she could give me one of those, wrapped in her matte lipstick.
They’re a playful couple. They crack jokes. They sit by the window, one row ahead of me. The sky outside is turning a lovely shade of scarlet. He has a Rasta-colored shambala. She whips her braids over to the other side of her face with one swift head motion. Love smells.
The student’s lounge is springing to life. There’s lunch time chatter at every corner. Students balance plastic plates on their hands. One lonely boy hides under massive headphones in a corner. Two girls giggle together. The room is a blur of overlapping voices, smells of ketchup and steamed rice, clanking dishes and light gossip.
I’m at the back of the room, lumbering through Meja Mwangi’s ‘Going Down River Road’. But the dialogue feels a bit off. It’s tiring to read construction workers who talk like Cambridge University scholars. So I’d rather stare at the lovely couple.
My usual response to PDA is to look away, mostly out of shame, partly out of solidarity. Why? I wouldn’t want people gawking at me while I sneak a hand under my lady’s shirt.
This particular couple catches my attention, though, because they’re young. The relationship couldn’t have clocked more than six months. They look too happy. They have too much to talk about. The silences in between are too tiny. You could sniff the romance all the way from Kaplong.
(I later asked them how long they’ve been together. They hooked up in June. Before he answered me the girl made a face as if to say, “Oh, here we go again”. Like they get asked that question every godamn day.)
They’re treading on ice, these two.
Dating a schoolmate is a horrid idea. I know this because I’ve done it, and you’ve probably done it, too. My girl and I were together every minute. We didn’t have many friends. We existed as a unit. We shared classes. We did assignments together. We had a favorite spot at the cafeteria. The relationship defined me. I was no longer Mike. I was ‘nanii’s boyfriend’. And ever since that storo died I still hear whispers behind my back, “Si he was the one dating nanii?”
That sort of thing spoils your market price. You become a ‘used’ product. Slowly, even the girls I thought I had a chance with crawled back into the woodwork.
Anyway, looking at the couple makes me feel a bit lonely. Especially after the guy went out and came back with a plate of fries. Before he sat back down again the girl said, “Can I feel your fries?”
Ha! I loved that.
And it made me think, Must be nice, to have someone to feel your fries.
I whisper your name under my breath. I savor the taste of it. I inhale it. You fill up my lungs.
I’m 19 years old.
My body is built for hunger pangs and thin mattresses. My metal box smells like Kiwi shoe shine and Flamingo bar soap. During prep I pencil your name at the back of my books. I’m holding on to a noble promise; that once I’m done with school, I’ll find you waiting for me.
High school feels like incarceration. I’m doing time for love.
Nights I like to stare at the stars, and think about you – on the outside – and I wonder if you’re looking up as well, standing barefoot on your balcony.
I’m getting intimate with Geography. Math and Chemistry leave a bad taste in my mouth. Sauti Sol’s ‘Nishike’ is the soundtrack behind my many push-ups. All I want to do is lift you up and wrap your legs around my waist, the way Savara does in the video. Heck, I don’t even know he’s called Savara. He’s, ‘ule msee anaimba verse ya pili.’
During Christmas, at a family gathering, I get so hammered I fall into a puddle of mud, much to the delight of my cousins. It’s a horrid sight, really. But the future, for all I care, is sunny and combed like strands of hemp.
I feel ready for the world. I’ve succumbed to Android fever. The move from a Nokia E72 to a white Samsung Galaxy is both frustrating and amusing.
I don’t see myself going to campus. I experiment with Adobe Photoshop. I replace my head with Lil Wayne’s. I photoshop myself next to Wale and Rick Ross. Uhunye has been president for one year. Noble promises of laptops and improved health care are burning bright. I assume after high school I’ll get a gig as a graphic designer, and then I’d make a shitload of money and move to Italy with you, my girl, and then we’d live out the rest of our days driving red MINI Coopers and eating pasta doused with marinara sauce.
The volume knob on my radio lights up in blue. It’s a tiny light, but at 2 a.m. it burns bright and ferocious, licking the furthest corners of my room, illuminating the mess. The speakers bop to ‘Rescue Me’, by Thirty Seconds to Mars. I don’t want to think about the general disarray of the room – sock balled up under the bed, hairy-toothed comb, pile of unwashed clothes in the corner, old carpet smells, a half-eaten apple sits on the nightstand, the innards already turning brown. I just want to sit here, and think about Belgium.
And I’m replaying the past day’s events, bits and moments whir in my head, colors and voices spool for my attention, stealing the sleep right from under my nose. A full moon hangs outside my bedroom window. I wonder if it’s a full moon in Belgium, too.
In some ways, I’m glad you didn’t want me back. It would have been a disaster if you did. I’d have been completely shattered by the news that you were heading to Belgium. And then I’d put on a brave face and lie that I’m happy for you.
I met your sister in tao, outside Pizza Inn. After some small talk, I said, “OK. Now to the most important question of all…”
“I know what you want to ask,” she said.
Then she told me about Belgium.
She feels sorry for me, your sister. Her eyes grew tender with each question I asked afterwards: What is she doing in Belgium? When does she come back? Is she happy?
More and more questions wandered into my head as the day wore on.
6 p.m., in a Wamasaa matatu: Is she showering in Belgian chocolate?
8 p.m., pinching a piece of ugali: Did she carry all her black pants?
11:30 p.m., twirling a Rubik’s cube: Has she seen Lukaku?
At 2 a.m. I’m wondering what went through your head during takeoff. What were you thinking about as the earth gave way to the clouds? It makes me sad, really, that you went away.
But this was always the story. You’d go off to some place far away. You’d further your studies. And I’d remain here. I’d struggle with my art, rocking up sentences and barely making rent. And on moonlit nights, when sleep becomes elusive, I’d think about you, all the way out there, touring timeless ruins and walking through medieval towns, feeling someone else’s fries.
I switch off the radio and the blue light fades to black.
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