My hair grew wild that year. Tightly coiled and black, it pushed through the rows between my braids in little fuzzy clouds, just a few days after plaiting. It got so that every Friday afternoon, I found myself in the tin stalls of Kenyatta market, on a low stool with my legs folded awkwardly at an angle and three women over me. Every Friday, I waded through the thick heat of a matatu car stand, ignored catcalls and whistles, to have my braids undone by a skinny girl who hummed to every song on the radio. Every Friday, after a quick wash, the three women divvied up portions of my head – three, one for each one, hair gathered away and banded – like it was land over which to build new homes. Each woman then carefully sectioned portions of angel braids hanging from between her pressed lips, tugged at my scalp to square away matching parts of my hair with a wooden comb before plaiting rapidly in preparation for Saturday.
Saturdays were for Mr Smith. He called me, without fail, in the morning, squeaking into my ear, his voice unevenly shrill. Did you remember to buy me a new bar of Nivea? Did you change your bedsheets? Did you leave your door ajar so I can slide right into your apartment without alerting your nosy neighbors? Yes, I would answer, lying on my back in bed with one bent knee over the other, my right hand playing with the ribbons that held my lingerie together, and nodding eagerly. Yes. Yes. Yes.
One Saturday morning, Mr Smith's wife was out of town, and we planned to spend the whole weekend in my apartment. I lay waiting on my bed, first on my side, with my hips twisted seductively, then on my back, with my knees up in the air, then finally, exhausted by my anxious excitement, on my stomach, I fell into a dreamless sleep. My phone startled me awake in the afternoon. It was Mr Smith. The traffic along Ngong Road had woven itself so tightly it was impossible to move more than an inch in my direction, he said. After four hours, he had succeeded only in moving his fuel gauge downward. Would I, he asked, ride a boda boda to his home in Karen instead? I tugged on my lingerie. His home? I asked. Where he lived with his family? There was no one home, he assured me. Not even the housekeeper, or the dogs, who had accompanied the children to visit their aunt in Arusha. I slipped into easy jeans and rode his way.
He met me at the gate of his grey villa in Karen, at the end of a dirt road that branches out from Langata Road. It hugged a slope, skulking behind a high concrete wall, looking out to the Ngong Hills over brilliant green plains. He was barefoot, his pale feet delicate against the paved driveway. He led me by hand past a tented lot that housed more cars than I could count, down giant steps carved out of a rock. Behind the hand-carved Swahili door was a large house built against a slope, so that no matter where you stood, you had the illusion of being pulled towards the sparkling blue swimming pool outside. The entrance was the home's highest point, leading down to a dining room with its oak table, down to the living room, with a low marble top coffee table, down to an open terrace, into the pool. There were no walls to separate the kitchen from the dining room from the living room; the whole place was one free space partitioned only by altitude. A light breeze wafted through the large French doors, folded open.
Over one wall, where the television should be, was a picture of his family: a wife and two children at the Giraffe Centre, all pale against the Nairobi sun, all freckled, all with blond hair. The photograph looked realistic, blown out to life-sized proportions. His wife smiled into the camera, her green eyes dancing, even teeth partially hidden behind thin lips. Their youngest son, a toddler, straddled against her hip. In the background, over a wall, a black-tongued giraffe threatened to lick her straight hair, which fell below her waist. Their other son stood off to the side, pointing at the giraffe with candy-stained fingers, cheeks blushed pink. Behind him stood Mr Smith, wearing his crooked smile, with a restraining hand over his son's shoulder.
Another photograph, hung over the massive oak dining table, was of his wife standing alone outside their front door in a black suit jacket. We never did talk about her. The conversation never got to a point where he spoke about his family. The closest he ever got was one time in Yaya Centre; he and I were wandering through Yaya Centre, together but as usual pretending not to be, looking to buy some new underwear for me. He pointed to a pair of wedge-heeled sandals with little sunflowers printed all over them, standing elegantly behind a display window, and said, with a far-off look in his eye, that she had owned the same pair years ago in Geneva. We were young, he said, touching the tips of his fingers to the window; we were young, broke, but happy. He fixed his gaze on the shoes for such a long time that I felt I had to ask when they lived in Geneva. He looked away, walked into the shop, and bought the shoes without bargaining. Afterwards he dropped me back home, and as I walked away, I saw him twisting toward the back seat and peeking into the brown paper bag that held them.
On the mantelpiece were pictures of Mrs Smith shaking hands with Mbeki and Dangote, her perfect smile brightening everything. She was the founder of AfricanChildren.org, which handled millions of fundraised dollars, and had recently been involved in an embezzlement scam. She had been on the news less than a month before, being interviewed by Jeff Koinange. There she sat on a bench in a studio garden inside my screen: a blonde woman with striking green eyes who looked so much like Nicole Kidman that I thought for a minute she was. Jeff sat back against the bench, his hands holding a copy of The Nation, his legs splayed before him. He bombarded her with questions: It says here, for every dollar given to AfricanChildren.org, only one penny benefits the children. Is this true? It says – he posed and looked directly at the camera – it says that the children you sponsor into American schools are not, in fact, needy, but children whose parents can afford to bribe you for the opportunity? Is this true, Mrs Smith? She sat there, one ankle over the other, waving her long, slender fingers and answering ambiguously. Her voice was low and even, her eyes round with surprise at every question. In the silent pauses, she turned her face this way and that, hair grazing her cheekbones, her wrinkled nose making her look like a bruised doll. Against the interviewer with his big voice and bigger laugh, she began to look like a victim and he a bully.
I turned to a picture in a thin silver frame, in which her oval Nicole Kidman face was as pale as a porcelain doll. In this one she stood by the pool, her pink toes threatening to dip into the water, her teeth glistening in the sun, her hair under an oversized straw hat that cast a webbed shadow over her. I caught Mr Smith’s reflection in the frame, the blue of his shirt matching the blue sky of the past, frozen in paper and pinned to a wall, and wondered whether she too had to endure him.
I turned around to find his eyes on me – grey eyes with gentle wrinkles dropping from the outer edges. Mr Smith was generous. Mr Smith was loving. Mr Smith was always beautifully dressed. There was nothing wrong with Mr Smith until he opened his mouth. His nasal, whiny voice had a way of grating against the side of my brain so incessantly that I sometimes caught myself fantasizing about throwing the whole of him like a ragdoll out of a window. It did not help that he talked without stopping, storming word after word into me, pausing only for yes and no answers.
He would go on for hours, those lazy Saturday afternoons, lecturing me about the politics of Africa. Once, while I sat astride his back, rubbing coconut oil into it, he gave me a three-hour lecture on how Kenya's tribal numbers dictate its politics and how this was a trend started by the British colonialists. It took the tightening of all muscles over my belly not to turn him over like an omelette and scream into his face: thank you for stating the obvious, Sherlock! Instead, I forced my mind to rise out of my body through the window into other worlds. While dancing my hands over his skin in rhythm with his drone, I wondered how Mrs Smith endured it. I imagined her waving perfectly manicured hands at him and looking away. I imagined her sitting on a sunny beach in Diani, sipping iced lemon water through a straw, rolling her eyes at him, and saying, shut up, honey, my hair is too shiny for me to worry about other people.
I poured drops of warm oil over his back as he went on speaking into the linen, explaining my country to me. I fantasized about the reverse. I created, in my mind, an anthropologist sponsored by the Kenyan government in conjunction with the University of Nairobi to go to America to study its people. My mind followed him over months of expensive research, as he travelled around the country with a team that jumped every time he barked. At that moment, Mr Smith cranked his neck and asked, do you agree? Can you see that? I reined my mind back and offered a feeble, yes baby, you are right. He nodded and turned his head back into the pillow, picking up from where he left.
I picked up the anthropologist. He had finished his research and hired a conference room in a hotel with dark wood furniture and wall-to-wall paisley carpet, in which he gathered American scholars, aid workers and professors. Look, he said, I discovered something! Everyone leaned in, excited. My findings will go a long way towards creating a base for all the excellent work that Kenyans will do for the American people, he said. My Kenyan Mr Smith paused for effect, hand on chin, eyes blinking rapidly behind fingerprint-stained glasses. Ladies and gentlemen, he said slowly, rounding out each word deliberately, every state in America has a subculture that is quite different from others! The word pronunciation in New York is different from Miami! The food in Louisiana is far different from that in Hawaii! The mood patterns of Bostonians are different than those of Californians! I imagined everyone quietly looking around the room for a moment, afraid to be the first to speak. The real Mr Smith reeled me back into that Saturday afternoon, asking me to pull hard outward from his neck to his shoulders. I rubbed a drop of oil between my palms and flew away, back to America.
In silent unison, everyone at the conference, branded water bottles on their tables, agreed that the discovery was brilliant. The government people did not want to believe they had bet taxpayers’ money on an idiot. The university people were looking to protect the flow of their grant money. It served nobody in that room to say to the anthropologist: look, sir, you need to immerse yourself into the culture to build context. The information you are giving us, we could get from a toddler. They all patted his back and shook his hand over a luxurious buffet lunch. The emperor was naked, alright, but it would be better for posterity that he stayed that way.
The Mr Smith in my room asked me to end the massage. I walked into the bathroom, soaked a towel in boiling water, squeezed it dry, then back in the room, opened it over his back. Steam escaped through my fingers up into the air, and my mind with it. He droned on, and I steamed the oil away, filling the air with its thick scent, betting with myself against myself that Mr Smith's wife never had to even talk to him, yet she got a beautiful villa with a pool and two babies and shoes with sunflowers on them. On the other hand, I got only a tiny, boxy apartment to rent and a few lousy hours a week.
In the villa, in front of his family pictures, the memory of that Saturday afternoon, and others nearly the same, flooded my mind. Mr Smith moved close to me so that we stood there, facing the wall, one side of his arm grazing mine. He squared his shoulders towards me and cupped my chin, pulling my face in for a kiss, but I pulled away and walked across the cold marble floor to lie on the L-shaped leather sofa.
How can this be enough, even for me? I asked in a whisper. I curled my body, hugged my knees, and refused to speak to him, to touch him. He sat on the edge of the sofa, next to my head. He freed my braids from the ponytail that held them up over the top of my head and massaged my scalp with the tips of his cold fingers. We sat that way for hours, listening to the chlorine-scented breeze that blew in over the pool.
When the evening mosquitoes began to buzz in, he stood up and stretched his open hand down towards me. I gave him mine, and with little effort, he pulled me up and walked me out of the door to their tented car lot. Pick one, he said, grinning. I looked around, first unsure, then excitedly running around like a child in a toy store. I got in one four-wheel-drive car, sat on the driver's seat, trying to imagine myself hooting angrily at unmoving traffic. Then, laughing, I jumped out and ran to another, one with a transparent sunroof that could be folded open, and sat over the hood pretending to be on a long winding road like I saw in pictures of people I did not know but followed on Instagram, taking selfies. He followed me around, giggling, laughing a little too loudly at my jokes, closing the car doors that I left open. I finally settled on a little red car with a soft white interior and shiny wheel caps. The top of its roof was no higher than my hips.
So, then, I was happy again, back to my life, watching Netflix all day, going out with my friends in the evening, and seeing him once a week, on Saturdays. I was so proud of my car that no matter where the conversation with my friends went, I drove the agenda round back to my Mercedes Benz. One friend would be talking about how unfair her boss was, and I would reel it back to how the high unemployment rate in Nairobi is a contributing factor to adverse working conditions as employees cannot afford to walk away, right back to wishing we had better choices and systems such as unemployment cover to help, back to how it was done in Mr Smith's country, back to how he gifted me a car.
One evening, just as I was reversing out of a parking spot outside Lavington Mall, there was a knock on my window. I turned, and my eyes met Mrs Smith's, so close that I could see the gold flakes streaking her pupils. Her breath misted my window in choppy waves. Her voice was as soft as I thought it might be in real life, lighter than air, though I could still hear it above the thrum of the engine. Where did you get this car, darling? she asked. I am only asking because we lost it. My husband told me that he reported it lost. Let me call him. She fished a phone out of her bag and began dialling. Her long fingernails were the same red as the car. I am sure it is a mistake, darling, she mouthed as she listened to the ring, with her hand over the mouthpiece.
I watched her through the window. Her lips had tightened to a smile that began and ended around the mouth, afraid to crease her perfectly smooth skin. She was looking at my precious car like a child with a thousand button collection who had stumbled upon one she had forgotten. This woman, who probably had never had to come second in anything, squeezing my little bit of joy, just to use it as a footrest. We will get this mess sorted in no time, darling, she was saying, her “darlings” sounding like pearls against the glass. And she kept talking, her words rolling out of her tongue as if they feared getting wet on her saliva.
I turned off the engine. Now the only sounds were the keys dangling melodiously in the ignition and the drone of Mrs Smith’s voice as she waited for her husband to answer. When he did, I knew I would have to listen to him too. Or maybe Mrs Smith would tell me what he said. The things he said I was. But that was ok. I knew how to listen. And when they had finished talking it would be my turn. I was already thinking about what I would say. Listen, darlings, I would say. Listen, I would say, and let me tell you about something.
Noel Cheruto is a Kenyan writer whose work has appeared in Transition Magazine, The Boston Review, Strange Horizons, Oscilloscope Literary Magazine, Hotel Africa anthology, Yellow Means Stay Anthology, Johannesburg Review of Books, Kikwetu Journal, On the Premises Magazine, and elsewhere. She won Silver in the Short Story Day Africa Contest. In addition, she was named a finalist in the Aura Estrada Short Story Competition and longlisted for the Afritondo Short Fiction Contest and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.