Growing up, I do not think there was anyone as happy as Noel. She had plump, annular cheeks, and long, spritely legs. They ran all over the field, past Nyarmalo’s Vegetables vending shack, all the way to the shop. When parents needed something, Noel was always the one to be sent. They nicknamed her ‘The Tigrean Express’ after Ethiopia’s legendary athlete Moh Farah.
She was also quite confident. There was this time the prime minister visited our school, Noel was called to give a welcome speech. The ending had sent the Prime minister into a delirious chortle. She had said:
“Ukipata kazi Nairobi kumbuka nyumbani. Ni sisi tutakuwa nafamilia yako ukilemewa” (Remember wherever you are from, we’re the ones who’ll help your family on your toughest days.)
The world burst into laughter. When it was calm again, the prime minister called her to his dais and handed her an envelope filled with money. That evening, she appeared on NTV. The presenter – Larry Madowo – said:
“Oh my God, like, how did you do that?”
“The Prime Minister has always been a father figure. He is like my second father. He loves children and has built us schools.” she fawned admirably.
Larry wished her all the best after the interview. For some reason, he did not give her money – like the prime minister. But he gave her a warm smile. Noel was happy to take it. He was her idol.
For a whole week, Noel was the talk of the nation. We were green with envy. Yet, she had earned it. Her future was bright. I knew it. Her parents knew it. Everybody knew it. She was destined for great things and this was affirmed by her admission into Law program at Moi University a decade later.
I was also admitted into the program. I had not seen Noel for quite some time. Over 7 years. So we picked up where we had left off. We were fond of each other. We had grown up as siblings. Like me, she was the only child in her family. It was only natural that we would find solace in each other.
Noel was still her old, bubbly self. She watched movies and loved dancing. She had a boyfriend too. Ted was an unassuming, tall chap. He was humorous in his reticence. Ted would say and do the silliest of things in the most unexpected of moments. One time, in a restaurant, he promised to show us magic. I had carried my girlfriend along. She was excited. He folded two serviettes and hid them in his fists.
“I’ll make them disappear now,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
We were all focused on him when has started swirling his fists. A minute later, he would open his fists and sure enough, they were empty. We – my girlfriend and I – were awed, but Noel regarded him with curious adoration. He was her man. She knew when he was up to no good. She asked him to stand up. At first, he refused. When we all insisted, he stood up. Right there on his seat were the folded serviettes. He had surreptitiously thrown them behind him during the swirl.
“It’s the thought that counts,” he’d said pulling a laughing Noel to himself.
He planted a kiss on her forehead as Noel melted organically into his chest. I pulled my girlfriend closer too and would have planted a kiss on her forehead too were it not for her height. She was a bit taller so it was a lost cause. I contended myself with a feel of her hands and I held her hands for quite a while. We were happy. Ted was happy. Noel was happy. It was a good day.
Noel and I graduated at the same time. Ted had graduated two years before and was working as a solicitor in a decent legal firm. I found work as a legal officer at a bank. My girlfriend was in her last year of schooling at the Kenya School of Law. Noel had gone ahead to become a legal adviser in an insurance firm not far from where I worked. We were still close. We would meet on the weekends and have a few drinks if we were not on road trips.
After two years, Noel and Ted moved in together. They had decided to get engaged. Ted, polite as ever, broke the news to us one time when we were having drinks and some lunch in Kitengela. Noel was beaming with Joy. I was happy for them. They were a perfect couple.
Two months went by before I saw them again. I had gotten a promotion at work and the transition had seen me assume more responsibilities. My weekends were just as packed as my weekdays. I suspected some hostility between them but took care not to mention it. Couples have differences all the time. It was not in my place to prod for details if they were not giving them.
“So, what’s been happening?” I asked Ted nonchalantly
“Nothing really. Work, work and work…where is Tausi?” Ted asked evasively
He threw a cautious glimpse at Noel, who did not seem in the least interested in our conversation, one way or the other.
“We broke up,” I stated casually. “She met someone else. It was about time. We weren’t really happy.”
Ted was surprised. He tried to crack a joke but it dried in his throat. It was an awkward evening. I excused myself shortly afterwards.
“I need to get early sleep. I am meeting a prospective client tomorrow,” I lied.
Ted said he understood. Noel grunted. She had not said a word. It was unlike her. I left as fast as I could. I committed to avoiding them for some time.
Months later, I was immersed in the demands of my work day when a call came through. It was Ted.
“My man! You have arisen.” I joked.
“Hey man, can I see you tonight?” He sounded broken.
I was alarmed.
“Yes, sure. Is everything alright man?”
“I’ll tell you about it. 8:00 pm? Usual place?”
“Sure. I’ll be there, man. Take it easy.”
I left work earlier than usual. I did not head home to change. I was going to meet Ted at Club Pronto, in Hurlingham. The traffic was lighter than I had anticipated. I arrived thirty minutes earlier and was shocked to find that Ted was already there. He looked disturbed and his eyes were quite swollen. Like a man that had not slept a while.
“Ted, right?” I asked pulling a seat next to him.
“Ha -ha, very funny!” He smiled.
It was the fakest smile I’d ever seen.
“Is all alright, man? Who did you kill? I am not going to jail for your ass!”
“Haha! Chill man! If I needed an accomplice, I’d get someone without spaghetti for arms!”
He was happier.
We talked about nothing for another thirty minutes before he spoke about what was really stressing him.
“I am breaking up with Noel,” he started. “She has changed.”
“What do you mean?” I was shocked. I had suspected a conflict but not to this extreme. “Did she cheat on you?”
“No,” he was laughing. “She would not do that, but she is not herself since she joined social media”
“I don’t understand, Jeff.”
“I don’t either, bro.”
His voice sounded distant.
“Start from the beginning, man! This can’t be. You guys love each other.”
“I have tried bro. I have tried everything.” He started
I felt there was more to it than he was letting on.
“Alright, I’ll tell you,” he sat straight. “Noel joined Instagram in April. She would post funny things and her pictures on there. I did not give it a mind. After all, we were happy…”
Ted stopped to sip the beer in his glass, before proceeding, “…She would show me these comments of men and women complimenting her. I thought it was awesome. She was so happy. Do you remember that engagement picture I showed you? The one with me kneeling?”
“Yes, I do. The one you were in a white suit? Looking like Jay Z during the Grammy awards?.”
“Yes, that one! She posted it and got over two thousand five hundred likes. She was ecstatic. I did not care really. I was happy indeed, but only that she was. For some reason, it seemed important to her so I just respected that move,” he paused reflectively, “but I soon noticed that she was spending too much time on her phone. I did not wish to raise the issue yet. I figured it was just the excitement of a new finding. It would soon fade out. Right?” he stopped.
“Right,” I offered impatiently.
“Wrong! It did not fade out. She would post just about anything we were doing together: where she had been, where she will go, and what I got her – every time I got her a present. You know me, bro. You know how much I like my privacy…”
“I do, man. I do.” I seconded digging into my ugali.
“Before long, the dynamic changed. She started receiving just as much hate as she received the likes. You know how the internet is: men and women who felt she was too much. She would get upset by it. One moment, she would be fine. The next, she would be embroiled in a war of words with total strangers. I did not understand her. She would take it out on me with silent treatment and insults. You know me, bro. You know how much I hate conflict…”
“You do, Ted. You hate conflict.”
“She got increasingly sensitive. I could not talk her out of anything. In fact, I could not talk to her about anything at all. It would almost always degenerate into a fight. Then she would go quiet for weeks. Initially, I had a mind to try and resolve the issues. It is the way I saw my mother and father do it: to talk about the elephant in the room before taking another step. But she would just go into her silent moods again and accuse me of manipulation. Me? Manipulative for wanting to solve an issue threatening our relationship?” He posed incredulously.
“Are you talking about Noel? The Noel I know?” I could not believe it.
He was a sight for sore eyes.
“Yes, bro. As I did not wish to see us fight further, I would try to de-escalate the fights by cracking jokes and inviting other topics beyond Instagram. She would say she hated it when I tried to be humorous. That she would rather I was straightforward. Can you believe it, man? I had tried to be straightforward with her before, and she had disappeared for three weeks. You know how much I loved this woman, bro,” he pleaded.
“I know, man. I know!” I stated empathetically.
“How else am I supposed to engage a woman who disappears instead of talking things through? I hoped it would be a passing wave so I determined to tolerate it for a while. I wanted to build a family with this woman, bro. You know how much I have given into this relationship. Do you remember Susan? Remember how she begged me to leave Noel for her? What did I say?” Ted asked indignantly.
His voice was breaking.
“You said ‘No’,” I posed. “You are a good man, Ted.”
“She would make the biggest things out of the smallest shit. Things that did not have a bearing on our future, or reality. It is like she no longer had a mind of her own and was living for a group of strangers she probably would never meet. To try and understand her better, I decided to join Instagram. I was trying to save our relationship, bro.”
“I understand, man. You don’t have to explain yourself.”
“I stalked her account the very next day and it was immensely dark. The woman I knew was kind, soft, and graceful. This woman was embroiled in battles of relevance with people half her age, in the middle of nowhere. I thought to myself, ‘why is this woman destroying such a good thing we’ve built for so long over something as foolish as likes and impressions.’ In her timeline, I discovered several photos of her in scanty clothes. There were mean comments below them. But there were also positive ones. Yet, she had entirely dwelled on the negative comments: engaging them in a war of words. I did not understand her. Why would you go seeking approval from strangers when you had people loving you with your flaws back at home? Real, living people willing to have you in their lives for eternity?”
“I am so sorry, Ted,” I said looking away.
He did not deserve that. He was a good man.
“One time, her friend from work called to tell me that Noel was in trouble at work. Her irritability had rubbed her colleagues the wrong way more than once. She was also spending too much time on socials. It was starting to become a concern. Her productivity was waning. I tried to talk to Noel that night. She went into her silent spells for the next two weeks. She was sacked last Tuesday. I do not know what happened to Noel, bro. I did not know that people could change so much.”
“People change, Ted,” I said trying to be helpful.
“You know what I hate about this most? It is that she almost made me hate myself for being a good man. She questioned my value on the standards of men and women she will never meet. Most days, I wanted to be the guy who was less composed. To be the man that could shout as loudly as she did. To be the man that gives silent treatment when he is upset. To be the man who could ignore that she had grown into a cantankerous, mean person. But that is not who I am. I am a good man, bro. I cannot be that which I have not experienced in my reality. I have known kindness. I care for a kind partner. I care to go to bed with my woman on good terms – to see a problem resolved because tomorrow is another day, with new tacks and splinters. A man who is defined by turmoil, I cannot be, bro.” Ted stated resolutely.
“And should not be!” I seconded him.
“So now, bro, I am leaving Noel. This is not the woman I met. I felt I owed it to you to tell you my resolution. I love Noel. You don’t know how happy I was to rush back home most days. We were going to have two lovely kids, and play by the Indian Ocean on vacations. I had designated Friday evenings for Karaoke nights in the house: To father our children, nothing would have made me happier. To marry her, my greatest of joys. Did I tell you I had called my father? I told him I would bring her home soon. Do you remember that time I told you I was busy? When did you ask me to come with you to Watamu?
“Yes, I remember”
“Well, I had gone to scope a piece of land in Nakuru. I had hoped to start building my house in a month or two. It would have taken years but I was willing to wait. I don’t know man. I cannot, for the life of me, express the extent of my hurt. I loved Noel. But I cannot be with a woman who does not go beyond herself every once in a while: who understands love only through pain. I have known kindness; I cannot administer pain as a habit. It will only break me. It is unfortunate, but it is life, I guess. I will be alright.” Ted finished somberly.
“I am so sorry, man. I wish you had told me earlier.” I contended.
“It wouldn’t have helped much. I will pack my things tomorrow. I have found a house at South B. I will go there.”
We talked for a few more minutes. It was midnight when he left.
I met Noel a few times after that. She was not kind to me. She had indeed morphed into a grouchy shell of her former self. Her rich, round cheeks had since dissipated. In their place, stood prominent cheekbones. Her feet, once lithe, now dragged heavily through the floor. She was always on her phone. She was seeing a few men here and there:
“All men are trash,” she reminded me promptly lest I forget. I once stalked her on Instagram and discovered that she was always posting about fake people, and how she does not need people. She vented about men a lot too. Everything is bad for them. I decided to halt further association with her. I feared her pessimism would rub off on me.
Luckily, my work would take me to Mombasa that same week.
Five years later, Ted would invite me to his wedding in Nakuru. He fell in love with Sasha – an Australian woman of Afrikaans descent. I arrived a bit later than I had hoped and had to rush straight to the church – where the ceremony was being held. They were just finishing their vows when I came in. As I advanced towards them, a tiny, brown hand emerged from Sasha’s gown. It was a beautiful young boy of about three years old. He had a familiar look of mischief in his eyes. Now, where had I seen that glint before?
“Oh, Ted! Ted! Ted!” I chuckled happily as I picked the giggling child up.
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