Her husband had been driving to the sports club that Sunday afternoon. With him in the car was Lewa, his childhood best friend. On Nyali Bridge, he had simply stopped the car and—ignoring Lewa's confused questions, and ignoring frantic beeping from the other motorists—briskly walked to the edge of the bridge, over which he deftly heaved himself, before freefalling into the ocean.
He had never learned how to swim.
His friend, Lewa, had remained frozen in the car, a scream stuck in his open mouth. That evening, there was a huge pile up on the bridge and it was not until the police came that Lewa was finally able to leave the car, and then not until the next day that he was able to collapse into a fit of distressing wails.
This is what Sidi did after getting the news:
She sat on her bed and oscillated between apathy and grief. Finding both to be inadequate, she got up and walked to the kitchen where she retrieved the pack of cigarettes she kept hidden under the rice bowl. Leaning against the kitchen sink, she lit one cigarette and took a deep pull. Then she made an O with her mouth and watched the smoke rings rise before taking another drag, a little slower this time. She felt her bones sizzle; her body come alive. Buoyed by the nicotine high, she walked to the living room and fumbled with the radio knob until she found a station that was playing upbeat music. And then she danced.
Above all, it was the ennui that had choked her: that feeling of being trapped, stuck, like rocking and rocking on a chair and going nowhere.
Right from the beginning, there had been an unspoken agreement between her and her husband: he would follow his heart and she would follow him. So she followed when he assured her that it did not matter to him that she could not have children. Followed when he said no to adoption, even though she wouldn’t have minded one or two children with whom to temper the engulfing loneliness. Followed when he asked that she give up her part-time job at the municipal library and kept following, still, when the marriage grew tepid, when it became like a breath held in for far too long, like that space one inhabits as they wait for a better thing to come along. They had first met at a mutual friend's party. She had been attracted to him by the beard he sported, the drawl with which he spoke, and the characteristic steel-rimmed glasses of the left-wing intellectual that he wore. He was the kind of person who is a type, she could tell, after they had gone on several dates. Here was a man who had learned most of all he knew about life from books. He bolstered his arguments by quoting other people so that a conversation with him sometimes felt like a list of book recommendations. (Often, Sidi would kiss him right in the middle of a long monologue just to shut him up). He had read his Fanon and his Hall and practically every sentence Baldwin had written. He was rich enough to sneer at wealth, and in particular, his family's wealth, which he considered to be too much, vulgar even. His greatest accomplishment – and he was always talking about it—was breaking away from his family which—and he would sneer as he said this—was too occupied with retaining its hold on its vast wealth: acres and acres of prime beach plots; connections at the port; and significant stakes in nearly all the companies that were raking in the profits.
His family brought to mind a cult: they were very close—all of them with their noses deep into each other’s business. His uncles were known to choose wives for their nephews and his female cousins would have their aunties gently dissuading them from dating men who had no name. When he first took Sidi home for a family luncheon, he had paraded her around and insisted on introducing her to everyone, as if he were rubbing her into their faces. From her dreadlocked high bun to her improper sequined dress to her general lack of refined poise, it was clear to his family that she came from a completely different world. They could tell that she was yet another of his experiments, an additional prop to his act of rebellion. At one point during the luncheon, Sidi thought she saw embarrassment in the eyes of his mother, who was looking at her the way you look at something that is nice, yes, but not necessarily nice for you.
And so Sidi had been surprised when he asked her to marry him, and even more surprised when she said yes. She knew that he was marrying her because he thought her to be a woman gifted with clairvoyance, the kind of woman who had her finger on the pulse of the world and who would be the soundboard through which this world communicated to him. He was hoping that she would ground him and balance him, be the silent orchestrator of his successes. On her part, she had no delusions about their marriage. Despite her romantic sensibilities, she was marrying him for practical reasons. It was his name she was lurching onto, the various comforts that she would enjoy as a Mbugua. With him as a husband, her day-to-day decisions would no longer be tied to the question of how much money she had: she could now easily pay for her family’s expenses and ensure that her parents gently eased into their twilight years.
But they were barely a year into their marriage when Sidi discovered that all the criticism he had always directed towards his family was purely for show: cosmetic and academic. She began to see that the privilege in which he had been raised all his life was not that easy to shake off. It was right there in the way he never cleaned up after himself, accustomed to someone picking up after him. It was in the way he expected money to solve everything, even the littlest inconveniences that life placed in his way. It was right there in his natural confidence, in the way he would stride into a room, in that specific volubility which is often the twin of privilege: the belief that all he had to do was speak and the world would listen.
After four years of marriage, Sidi finally admitted it to herself: between her and her husband was none of that collusion people speak of when they speak of love. One day, she held their marriage up to the light and found it wanting, found that there was only familiarity between them, and even though familiarity was known to grow into love or something like that, she was not certain that she wanted to spend the rest of her years cultivating love out of a fallow patch of familiarity. And yet, she could not simply up and leave. She had her elderly parents to think of. It was also unheard of, she knew, to step out of a marriage simply because she was bored.
Then one night, her husband came home and quietly said three things to her. First, that he had fathered a child with one of his old girlfriends from university. It was nothing, he said. It had just happened. Second, the woman did not really want to keep the child, but she would carry the pregnancy to full term, which was her way of obliging him. Third, because he wanted the child, he had decided that he would bring it home when the woman gave birth, so that they—Sidi and him, this much he made clear—could raise it together. Sidi was too stunned to say anything. It was amazing, she thought, how her husband had broken the news to her: as if he was giving the maid instructions on how he liked his linen ironed, as if it was very natural for her—a woman who could not have children—to raise someone else's child, with absolutely no say on the matter. That night, the fact of her meaningless life became clearer to her. That night, and every night after that, she refused to sleep with him in their bedroom, relocating permanently to the guest room, where she spent the nights with her knees to her chest, tearfully rocking herself to sleep.
The silent resentment she had been secretly holding for her husband until then now grew into a seething hatred, and it is this hatred that sustained her and gave her the will to keep up appearances with his family, even though they all knew what was happening in her home. Sidi found that her life had become something akin to a sigh, like a mechanical accumulation of days that she had to stoically withstand. And it would have continued like that until godknowswhen, but then she met José, and her life took on a different hue, if only for a while.
My, that man.
Smooth like silk.
Quick eye; quicker moves.
José smoked all day, danced all night, and still found time in between to woo his mistress, music. And lord, the man could sing. Sidi first heard his voice while she was on a night out with her husband and a few of his friends. José was right there on the stage, the luminary in a white linen suit, stilling all chatter in the club with his voice. And as he crooned, he scanned the entire room—left to right, and then right to left—until his eyes met Sidi’s. Perhaps he saw something there: the longing for anything exciting, the squinting look of concentration, the slight arch of her back, as if she was especially listening to him. When his set was over, he had a waiter slide his business card to her, even though there was nothing clearer than the fact of her marriage: the huge diamond on her index finger and her husband who sat next to her with his hand casually splayed on her thigh, a silent claim.
José was the lead singer of the band that had been playing that night, he told her, when Sidi finally sneaked away to meet him one afternoon. He told her about his singing background, about his late mother who had been the village voice: the singing woman who sang at every wedding and funeral, fitting entire family histories into stanzas and melodies. Sidi knew something about these music men. They were hard drinkers and fancy dressers: men with expensive taste and no money to match their appetites. But what they lacked in money, they made up in rhythm. There was rhythm in how they talked and rhythm in how they walked, as if their whole lives were a performance and the whole world a stage they had to dazzle.
It was the sum of him that drew Sidi in: the white linen suits, the signature scent, the whiskey breath, the toothpick on the left corner of his mouth, and the song he was always humming under his breath. It was that particular way he listened to her as she spoke: with a slight cock of the head, a squint of the eyes, and a purse to his lips. She especially loved his gentle gentleness, how he softened when he spoke to her, how his iron demeanor melted so that he gave—like a door—and allowed her in. During those stolen afternoons, after they had finished romping on his bed, José would reach for his guitar and belt out a few songs, which Sidi would listen to as she smoked her cigarettes. Sidi loved to hear him sing, finding that she could lose herself in his luscious voice, that voice that folded into itself like batter, sweeping her away in it, so that she became weightless and rootless, like driftwood.
They set their Thursdays apart for the Spot, a hidden club on Digo Road where Mombasa’s music men spent their downtime. These men—and they were almost always men—came to the Spot to commune with each other and the music. The first time José took her to the Spot, Sidi considered turning right back and forgetting everything she was beginning to feel for him. She wanted to cut her losses and return to her life with her husband who guaranteed her a predictable—albeit painful—life. But because José’s hand was resting on her waist just so, and because his whisky breath danced on the back of her neck just so, she let him guide her towards the melancholy music, and the stuffy smoke, and the dazzling darkness.
It was chaos and calm folded into the Jazz and Rhumba; the Taarab and Bango. José told her that the Spot was where the lonely and defeated of the town came to silently commiserate with each other. It was a place for the music men, yes, but it was also a place where regular people came to forget their overwhelming lives, if only for a moment. It was something like a church: its patrons would leave their burdens at the door and step – weightless – into the heart of music. There were the regulars: the man who wore felt hats and sat brooding in the left corner, eyes never leaving the stage, his feet—always in open sandals—tapping to the tempo. It was whispered that Mr. felt-hat had been coming to the Spot for about six years. He came every Thursday night—rain or shine—to stare into his past, while the waitresses listened out to his nyingine kama hii and kept the glasses of whisky coming. Then there was the Maasai woman who always asked for the band to play ile yangu, a popular song by Les Mangelepa. She owned a hardware store around the corner and would come to the spot with a fanny pack full of the day’s proceeds tied around her waist. Sidi thought the Maasai woman was particularly intriguing: she would never leave until the band played her song, and would leave almost immediately after they played it, but not before dropping a tenga on the table for the waitresses, even though she never drank anything, not even water.
It was at the Spot that Sidi and José tended to the affection that was budding between them until—in just a few months—it became a fully-formed thing, something that walked and talked and looked like love. The whole thing had begun as an affair, a hollow thrill, a way for Sidi to wait out the agony of her life, before she could finally divorce her husband and sail off towards a new life. Sidi understood that the best part of an affair is the anticipation, the thick tension between two people, that buildup towards the inevitable. As soon as two people yield to the tension, they find that the spell is broken, insufficient to sustain what was built on the shaky foundation of lust. But it was a little different with José. Instead of the affair fizzling out—as is the fate of all flimsy affairs – they kept recreating that first yearning, so that every time they spent together seemed like a little taste of the future they could build.
Five months of drunken afternoons at José’s apartment and Thursday swayings to the music at the Spot passed before her husband noticed that Sidi no longer cared about their marriage. He noticed the extra care she took with her clothes and her hair. Noticed that she went out more, that there was a certain joy in her that he couldn’t quite place, mostly because he had never been witness to it. One day, he returned home early and found her in the living room, dressed in a house robe, eyes closed, dancing to the jazz pouring out of the radio. And in that moment, he knew. He knew that he had never seen her like that—knew that only desire of a certain kind could lead to such an unbridled display of pleasure.
Sidi was so lost in the music that it was a long while before she noticed her husband standing at the threshold, silently taking in the sight of her. She switched off the music as soon as she saw him standing there, gathered her things, and gathered herself. They awkwardly stared at each other for a moment. Finally, he said would you please get a hold of yourself, before walking away.
And then one day, José vanished.
He would not pick Sidi’s calls and would not respond to her messages. When Thursday unstoppably came, as days are wont to do—indifferent to the shattering of our little worlds—he did not turn up at the Spot.
Sidi was distraught. She became like a mad woman, camping at the Spot night after night after night, asking after her José. No one had seen him. She kept seeing parts of him everywhere: in one man’s laugh she heard his distinct timbre; in another man’s body she made out the slight bend of his shoulders; and on another man’s clothes, a whiff of his scent. But he stayed gone. The days stacked onto each other, and she felt like she would buckle under the crushing weight of the looming loneliness of spending more days without him. Then one night, one of the waitresses at the Spot stepped in front of Sidi as she was going to the bathroom. People are saying it is your husband, she whispered to her.
So it is him, Sidi thought to herself when she returned home that night. But she knew him and she was almost certain that he had not done it himself—whatever it is that he had done to her José. This one had his family written all over it. Unexplainably, this information gave her a semblance of peace, a steal of calmness. José had not abandoned her; he simply had been forced to leave. Banishing thoughts about his possible death, she acknowledged that there was, at the very least, that one unerring comfort: everything that had happened between her and José had been real; and it had been true. If nothing else, there was this one thing to hold on to, and she found that it was sufficient to stave off the bad days.
And they became many, the bad days, what with her husband’s girlfriend finally delivering, and the girlfriend moving into the house, and the house becoming a riotous place filled with the chatter and laughter of her husband’s relatives, who—upon receiving the news of a newborn baby—now came and went as they pleased.
It is during this period that Sidi understood that there was nothing truly impossible—nothing that one could not do, or withstand. It was possible to be kept up at night by the cries of a newborn baby and never see it, not once. It was possible to give up on a marriage by holding on to it. It was entirely possible to be turned into a mere shadow in your own home—the very one that you had picked out from a catalogue, and whose walls you had painted, and whose decorations were the record of your eccentricities. But there was the Spot. And on Thursday nights, it is to its melancholy music and stuffy smoke and dazzling darkness that Sidi kept going back to—returning to commune with the music and with the ghost of José.
Then came that one afternoon when everyone had left the house, and the house had fallen back—as if in sweet relief—to its old silence. It was just her and the nanny and the baby. In this stillness, Sidi’s curiosity took the best of her. Heart in mouth, she tiptoed to the baby’s room and watched that little bundle of innocence sleeping, oblivious to the tumult it had tumbled into. Sidi studied the baby’s tiny face. On it: her husband’s cheeks as they must have been when he was a baby himself; and the eyebrows that huddled too close; and already—at barely a month—her husband’s famous feistiness, revealed in the little clenched fists. What fights, Sidi wondered, was the little one waging, with those little fingers folded into fists? Right there and then, she decided that she would not number among those who the baby would have to fight. And so afternoon after afternoon, Sidi returned to the baby’s room, drawn in by the quiet calm of that little, sleeping creature—that baby that was at once cause and effect of her anguish.
When the little girl’s mother finally left, just like had been promised, Sidi found that she had a new way of tempering her grief, a new way of preventing it from swallowing her whole. And yet, if the baby had turned her grief into something she could withstand—like a pain in the joints that never quite goes away—it turned her husband into something else entirely. After his mistress disappeared, and after his relatives tapered off, it is many times that he tried—and failed —to reach out to Sidi. Sidi would barely return his greetings in the hallway, and if they happened to meet in the kitchen, it was almost as if they had never once shared a bed, or made each other dizzy with the giddiness of new love, or walked down the altar and said I do.
Instead, Sidi reserved all her energies for the little one, who quickly became attached to her, crying endlessly and only easing into a happy calmness when Sidi scooped it into her arms and soothed it with lullabies. Then one unsuspicious morning, her husband walked into the baby’s room and found Sidi on a couch at the corner, quietly murmuring the baby to sleep. This time, he did not pause at the door. He walked up to Sidi and snatched the baby away, saying nothing. But none of them had expected such a heart-rending scream from the baby. It wriggled its body and flailed its little arms towards Sidi, as if begging her to rescue it. Sidi’s husband quickly handed the baby back and watched it sigh with relief as it quietly settled into Sidi’s body. If ever there was a feud between the two, it was clear that the baby had chosen Sidi’s side. There was nothing for else him to do but to flee from the room.
And so there began another chapter in Sidi’s life. She begun spending most of her afternoons rocking the little one to sleep and most of her nights at the Spot, looking out for her José who would—surely, surely, surely—return. In this way, she became a club regular in her own right, and her story became part of the yarn that went into weaving the Spot’s stories. Sidi became the little, sad woman who sat in a corner of the club and waited for the return of her lover. In this way, too, she was able to hold on to her marriage, not because she got better at it, and not because her husband changed, but because the afternoons with the little one and the nights at the Spot gave her something to always look forward to. And the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months and the months, well, the months went on and on, until that Sunday afternoon when Sidi got the news that her husband had plunged into the ocean, setting her free to dance.
Idza Luhumyo was born in Mombasa, Kenya. She obtained her LL.B. Degree from the University of Nairobi. Her short fiction has appeared on Jalada Africa; Writivism; Short Story Day Africa’s Migrations;Queer Africa 2; Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly; The Johannesburg Review of Books; and Amsterdam’s ZAM Magazine. Intrigued by the idea of “writing your way in,” Idza’s literary work explores the broad themes of home, belonging, displacement, memory, language, music, class, and the everyday lives of women who live on the edges of the social order. She is currently at work on her debut work of fiction.