The seesaw goes up and down making the sound of metal grinding on metal, indicating that it is poorly oiled. They watch from their table, the conversation having dried up. She remembers that this venue was his pick for their date. She had wanted a more uppity location but he had insisted on this one. She had agreed half-heartedly and now listening to the ambiance of the poorly oiled seesaw, she wishes she hadn’t.
He is telling her about the workings of the seesaw. How there has to be a give-and-take for it to work. “It’s simple physics, really,” he is saying, establishing that he is the smarter one in the interaction. She hasn’t decided if she likes it yet – after all, she hated physics in high school.
She allows herself to be distracted by the two kids on the seesaw. A boy and a girl that couldn’t be any older than five. Were it not for their clothes, you couldn’t tell them apart. She supports her chin with her hand and wonders when interacting with the other gender became such a chore when at one point it had been so seamless.
She looks deep into her mirror, allowing it to swallow her and a murmur escapes her mouth. “Narcissist” The murmur becomes sonorous and she screams out. “NARCISSIST!” She watches her mascara run down her cheeks in dark streams while racking her brain for the definition of the word, then realizes she doesn’t know it. Is she like every other ordinary woman in Nairobi who calls a man a narc whenever things don’t go her way, or whenever she doesn’t want to take responsibility?
Judy takes pause, walks to her bed, and sits down. She opens her dresser, removes a pack of baby wipes, and wipes off her mascara along with her makeup. She gets up from her bed and stands in front of her mirror again. She is still beautiful but she had been stunning once. That date would have gone differently if she was seated across from him in her twenties. He would have been drinking every word falling from her lips and kissing the very floor she walked on as if his breath depended on it but now she has to compromise, a word that still feels strange on her tongue.
She removes her dress and the shapewear giving it form. Her stomach blobs out and she exhales with relief. A year ago she would not have needed the shapewear. Five years back, she wouldn’t have needed the dresses. Baggy denim jeans and sneakers would have done the trick. She stares deep into the mirror, allowing it to swallow her and a murmur escapes her mouth. “Time” The murmur becomes sonorous and she screams out. “FUCK TIME!”
He has gotten to the age where people ask if he has a wife and kids or assumes he does. He will have to stay a bit longer without one judging by how poorly his last date went, he thinks while alighting from the matatu. He walks, balancing the shopping bags in both of his hands while dreading the conversation with his dad. His dad is seventy and retired but he still has to work in neighboring farms to pay for their last born’s school fees. He tries to help when he can but life in Nairobi is hard enough without the extra burden of black tax straddled on his shoulders.
Sam sits on the wooden chair in the hot, mud kitchen drinking the tea whose milk has so much butterfat it makes his lips glisten. He sips the scalding tea while awaiting his dad. His mind wanders momentarily – a cow mooing brings him back to the hot kitchen. He watches his mom unpack the shopping while getting ready to prepare lunch.
“Do you cook?” He remembers asking his date.
“I’m not a maid.” Judy had answered expansively.
He gets up to help his mother unpack the shopping in an effort to take his mind away from it. “You shouldn’t have bought milk, we have plenty of it from the cows.” He hears her mom say. It angers him for a split second. ‘You ungrateful…’ He thinks of it but it doesn’t escape his lips. Instead, he nods submissively. Maybe he should stop bringing them shopping or giving his share of his sister’s fees, let them try that on for size. He lets himself be distracted by the mooing cows and the hot tea in his hands and the droplets of sweat quickly forming on his forehead. He is not sure if they are triggered by the hot, mud kitchen or the anticipation of the coming conversation with his dad.
She slips into baggy pajamas and a hoodie and goes to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of Four Cousins. ‘A Friday afternoon drinking wine by herself?’ She chuckles. At this very moment, a few years ago she would have been on a fully paid vacation, or on a road trip, or at a house party. She remembers the smoke from the shisha pots and she coughs. She takes her red wine to the sitting room, remembering Kevin and Brian and all of them and she smiles but the smile is wiped off her face by the thought of her date.
They had started talking about how time flies and she had asked him how old he thought she was. She had expected a number with a two in front of it, instead, he had mouthed one with a three. She didn’t know why she got irritated when he was right. It must have been the annoyance from all the tools of deception she had used to look younger falling short. “Sam.” She finds herself saying the name and wondering what she was doing giving him the time of day. A decade ago she wouldn’t have looked at him twice, let alone shared a table with him. She takes a swig from her tumbler and says his name again.
That’s the problem, she decides. He’s not a Kevin or a Brian. He’s just… he’s just average. Her mind wanders. What happened to Kevin the gym instructor, or Brian the speed junky event organizer, or the disc jockey, or the rugby player or… or all of them? Every weekend with them felt like electrocution from the fuse box. She drains the Four Cousins, picks up her phone, opens social media, and taps on their profiles.
She quickly throws her phone on the couch. She had forgotten that Kevin was still in rehab and Brian… Brian and his Yamaha doing 200 km/h on the Nairobi Mombasa highway and a sleepy truck driver… She sits down overwhelmed by all of it and her date springs to mind again. She puts her face in her palms not wanting to relive it but it comes gushing out like a burst pipe.
He hears his dad’s gumboots thumping the gravel outside and he puts his cup away and adjusts his posture. The door is filled with a shadow. His dad is a big man and even at seventy he still has his strength. He scans the kitchen as if seeing it for the first time. His gaze stops at him and it lingers before he opens his mouth to speak.
“Sam, the kitchen is for women, what are you doing here?” He doesn’t allow him to respond. “Join me in the main house.”
He sits on one side of the red velvet sofa and his father sits on the other. The main house is made of brick and in clear contrast from the kitchen. It is the sum of his father’s success. It speaks of newer times and the shedding of older days. Yet, the architecture is so archaic, they might as well be back in the mud kitchen.
He looks at his father, all veins and skin like leather. Toughened by the world, by decades of working in Nairobi as a driver. He looks at his hands, they’re like gravel, calloused by years of working in shambas in the village. The sight of him is too much for him to look at for prolonged periods of time and he finds himself lifting his chin and allowing the television tuned to Kameme TV, pinned in a metal cage on the wall, to distract him. He barely looks at it for two seconds before his dad gestures and he gets up from the sofa and switches it off.
“Do you want kids?”
She had heard, “Can you have kids?” and her mind had drifted to her gynecologist. She remembers asking her if she can conceive safely and she had gotten into spiel about how it was better to have children between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-five instead of later. The problem with science was that there was very little room for debate, she thought, annoyed.
She gets up and goes to the kitchen to pour herself another tumbler of Four Cousins – at this point, she might as well be the fifth cousin. The red hits her cup and her thoughts drift again. Why didn’t she have a child with Kevin or Brian, or, or…. She remembers all the pills and the alcohol and the irresponsibility and she picks up her phone, fingers Instagram, and scrolls through her profile page. It’s all ‘Throwback Thursdays’ she realizes in annoyance that she lives in the past way too much.
She goes back to the sitting room and her mind wanders back to the gynecologist. “After thirty-five your muscles have stiffened and you’re setting yourself up for a difficult birth.” Those were her exact words. She downs her Four Cousins and a murmur escapes her mouth. “Stiff” The murmur becomes sonorous and she screams out. “STIFF!” “You’re the stiff one,” she says, finally, remembering the feeling of wanting to grab the stethoscope from around her neck and choke her with it. Weren’t they living in the 21st century, a world with In-Vitro-Fertilization and surrogacy?
She puts her tumbler down, feeling tipsy. “IVF, surrogacy, I’m spoilt for choice,” she says, but it eats at her. She stretches from the sofa and picks up, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda from her coffee table. She hasn’t read it. She bought it on a whim, as a statement that the future is feminine. She turns the pages without really seeing the words and wonders who’s got it backward, the feminists or the patriarchs?
His dad starts by scolding him for sending half the fees for his sister’s tuition. He tries to explain that he has to pay rent and other utilities like electricity, water, food, clothes, and shoes.
“You know, I wore my first shoe when I was thirty?” His dad says then continues. “You don’t have a wife or children, where are you taking your money?”
He looks down at the floor and at his shoes. He wore his first shoe when he joined high school and his dad has made sure he feels guilty for it. For a minute he contemplates getting up and leaving but he knows his dad. He’s tough but sensitive. His dad and his only-wore-a-shoe-at-thirty feet would curse him every day for the rest of his days.
“You have a government job back in Nairobi, eh? You don’t want to wait too long before you get children.” He gets into the math of it. “If you get your first child at forty how old will you be when they’re twenty?”
“You’re going to be retired.” He answers his own question, making him feel like a halfwit, and continues. “Who will pay for their university fee when they don’t even have an older brother or sister that can help?” He nods, finally understanding the mechanics of black tax. “Three children would be good for you, space them out three years each. You’re still in your working years and you can work harder still. You will be astonished how fast children grow and start pulling their weight, and when you retire, you can relax and enjoy your pension.”
He listens to him talk as if everything is simple – a matter of arithmetic, but even numbers have variables. His mind drifts to Judy. There might not be a wife, or there might be one and no kids. His dad’s entire hypothesis hinges on his government job, who’s to say he doesn’t lose it tomorrow? What then? Or win the lottery the day after and be set for life, then can he have kids in old age like Father Abraham. How about it? He thinks about it and decides he doesn’t need his permission. So much of his dad’s thinking has its foundation in fear – that he won’t be all that he can be.
Judy goes to the kitchen to fill her tumbler for the third time, now both drunk and tired. Tired of the false bravado, of the pretense, of all of it. She’s done pretending she doesn’t want the things every woman wants. She’s done meeting with her girlfriends for brunch and sundowners to kee-kee as if everything is okay when she is screaming on the inside. She goes back to the sitting room with her Four Cousins, deciding that she is ordinary after all and she wants ordinary things.
She sits on the couch, takes the remote, and switches on the TV. It’s on Nickelodeon. Two kids are playing on the Seesaw. ‘There has to be some sort of give-and-take for it to work. It’s simple physics, really’. She remembers Sam’s words. She watches for a minute longer before switching channels to BET to watch her favorite show: The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
A woman called Kenya Moore has just given birth at the age of forty-seven. ‘She’s the exception, not the rule,’ she can hear her gynecologist’s voice. She watches the show and notices for the first time how loud and combative the women are, and how their love lives are always falling apart. She takes pause. Is that it? Is she becoming the shows she’s watching, living other people’s lives, and forgetting to live her own? She thinks of Sam again. She switches off the TV and picks up her phone.
They had talked about having a second date in that way people say to try and be polite after a sour date but she now wishes he had reached out. She taps on his contact and composes the message quickly, as if the quicker she writes it the less of a compromise she will feel she’s making. “I’m willing to give it another shot if you are?” She clicks send.
He sits in the hot kitchen watching his mother prepare supper, his father having gone back to his farm job. He sips another scalding cup of tea, the butterfat in the milk glistening on his lips, and allows the mooing cows to distract him. That’s what he loves most about being around his mother; how they can both be comfortable in their silence.
“You know, it’s not always about you.” His mom breaks the silence. “Sometimes you have to compromise.” She says and goes back to blowing the fire.
Compromise? Is that what has held the fabric of their marriage together for so long? He looks at her and wonders the things she has had to compromise. He can’t imagine his dad compromising on anything, not with that iron fist.
In return, life has punished him for being unyielding. Forcing him to work even when he should have been retired. His thoughts are interrupted by his buzzing phone. He takes it out, replies to Judy, and puts it back in his pocket. “Who is making you smile like that?” His mom is interrupting the silence again. He didn’t even realize he was showing teeth. “No one,” he says, his mind drifting back to the mooing cows.
Boy and Girl
The seesaw goes up and down making the sound of metal grinding on metal indicating that it’s poorly oiled. They sit down for their second date, the sound no longer annoying her as much. A young mother comes to check on her child on the seesaw. She reminds Judy of herself when she was younger. She finds it strange that she’s young yet she’s made up her face to appear older. She sees the irony now. The young mother is trying to look older while she is trying to look younger.
She gazes at Sam and asks him to tell her about the workings of the seesaw. “The seesaw can’t work if the weight is the same on both sides or if it’s too much on one side. There has to be a compromise, some kind of give-and-take at any particular moment for it to work. It’s simple physics, really.” She finds herself being enchanted by this. She resists for a second then reaches out and holds his hand. They both look at each other, understanding for the first time that this goes beyond physics.
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