Sleeping in a matatu is how I beat the Nairobi traffic. Precisely, from the second I board a matatu and either a preacher, radio Jambo or some boring generic music mixtapes rent the air, I adjust my head towards the window and sleep all the way to town. Often, I wake up around the Nyayo roundabout when traffic is at its peak. But the music was fascinating today, so I’ve barely slept since I left Rongai, and my best friend calls me.
“Baff, hello?” It’s how we refer to each other, meaning best friends. We call it her TV voice, the one she uses when talking to her boyfriend or interacting with new people. The way she shrinks her voice to sound some type of way is insanely annoying.
“Hey, where are you?” I ask.
“Aga Khan walk. Could you please hurry, my boyfriend is picking me up in a few, so make sure you get here before he does?” It sounded more like a warning.
“But we planned for this date. I thought we agreed not to make plans with other people today?” I ask, pretty pissed but downplaying it.
“He misses me. Besides, we still have that pending matter we need to talk about. But just get here. I’ll explain in person.”
“Still that’s not fair Esna. It really isn’t.”
“Just get here, you are wasting time.”
She hangs up.
I alighted at the roundabout because there was a traffic snarl-up, as usual, and I needed to hurry. I saw Esna pacing impatiently next to the newly opened Naivas supermarket. I snuck up behind her when she was just about to call me.
“You took so long baff, Arnold is already here, what do we do?”
“What do you mean what do we do? Wasn’t he aware that we have a date today? You told him right?” I ask.
“Yes, I did.”
“Well then, remind him that.” “Baff,” she said her face frowning into what I’d term as a priority battle and said, “I can’t do that. He’ll be so mad at me and as it is you know how he feels about you, please don’t make it worse than it already is.” Her phone rang, it was Arnold.
“Why are you still on edge about us Esna? Why would you take a whole week talking about our friendship? Shouldn’t it be a straight-up no?”
“He’s a few steps behind you, please be nice” Her face lit up with a smile and she walked towards her boyfriend, and they shared a tight hug. She really liked him, even a child could make it out.
Arnold stretched out his hands to greet me, “Hey, Alma. Good to see you.”
“Good to see you too Arnold. Can I talk to Esna in private please?” It was an impolite ask, more like a demand, like I wanted to stamp my presence and significance in his girlfriend’s life, and he looked at me with disgust before he replied.
“There’s nothing she won’t tell me, just go ahead and say it.” I turned my head towards my best friend and she nodded. That nod betrayed me. It felt as though I had been stripped naked.
“I would really like to do this in private,” I said, my voice beaten.
“What? Do you want to talk about your boyfriends? Is it the lawyer, that tiny guy you are clearly taking for a ride or did you get back with your ex?” The disgust in his voice and face very clear and for a moment I doubted myself.
“Why do you like stringing guys along?”
“None of those people you mentioned are my boyfriend!” My voice came out desperate like I really had to clear my name.
“Esna can we please talk in private?” I turned my focus to her.
“She won’t leave here if I don’t approve of it. She’s leaving with me”.
“Why are you speaking to me like that?”I asked, feeling disregarded.
“Alma, who am I to Esna?”
“Her boyfriend” I replied.
“Good. Stay in your lane.”
Esna gasped. Then opened her mouth as if to talk but she remained quiet, then she tilted her head and shrugged her shoulders. She stood there and watched her boyfriend humiliate me.
“If there’s nothing much left to say, we’ll be leaving”. He held his girlfriend’s hand and they left.
It took me at least five minutes to recollect myself and dust off the humiliation I had just been put through. I absent-mindedly walked into Cafe Deli, made an order and silently remembered the humiliation I had just endured. Esna and I have been friends for over nine years now. We’ve seen each other through good and bad times and as is the case for most friendships, we vowed never to let a man come between us. We’ve failed. It was evident that she shared our deepest secrets with her new boyfriend who was disapproving of our friendship. Somewhere in my heart, I knew this would happen. I just didn’t expect that it would be this soon. Somehow, I thought we’d survive the trials of time and never become ghost friends.
Memories of our friendship come tumbling into my mind as tears well up in my eyes. I remember that time in high school that I broke my leg and Esna bathed me, washed my undies and helped me around. People thought it was too much, that she was being a slave to me, but I only recognized unconditional love. To date, we still laugh about the day a slight earth tremor occurred. I was on top of the bed, my clutches on the side and she was torn between carrying me to safety or running out to call for safety fast. She ended up running out alone while promising to come back for me. It was probably one of the happiest days of our lives.
A guy in walking clutches walks over to me, sits on the other end of the table and offers me a pack of pocket tissues.
“Hi. Are you okay?” He asks.
“Why?” I ask, pretty confused as I rush to wipe my tears with my bare hands.
“You have been crying for like 10 minutes. Usually, I’d mind my business, but kindness is what keeps me sane.”
“Thank you, but I’m fine. I will be fine, thank you.”
“Is it work problems?” He queries.
I shake my head in response.
“School? Boyfriend problems? Rent? Finances?” I shake my head till he asks, “Loss?” I look at him, my eyes bursting into fresh tears, and panic takes a hold of me.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry. Did you lose a loved one, a friend?”
“Yes. She basically just dumped me, a few minutes ago. I thought she was my best best friend.”
“I Know this might sound too generic, but I understand how you must feel.” He volunteers.
“How?” I ask.
“We were pretty close. She sacrificed her time and studies to look after me all the while I was in the hospital. She was like a personal nurse. Since the diagnosis, she was by my side during the chemotherapy sessions and everything in between. Some days, she slept on the chair, watching after me, till my family drove her away.”
“Are you comparing situations right now?” I ask, agitated.
“No. I want to show you that I understand how you feel.” I’m quiet. I just want him to finish talking and leave. The last thing I can afford to be right now is rude to a differently-abled stranger.
“Her boyfriend complained about the lack of attention and how she’d put her life on pause to tend to me. He suspected that we probably had an affair, despite the fact that we made it clear, romance wasn’t an option for us. My family too was pressurizing us, her, particularly to advance our friendship to intimacy. You know, most people don’t expect people to heal from cancer, so my family implored marriage in her. Love me as to the extent to have a child so as to preserve my legacy and be legally responsible for my care, since none of them was readily available for the kind of commitment she offered.”
I have stopped crying. Listening to this stranger makes me feel seen. Someone who actually relates to my loss. Our orders arrived at the same time. He was having fish curry and ugali. Chicken and potato wedges for me. But we didn’t start eating.
“One of my sisters reached out to her boyfriend, in desperation to get her to marry me. She literally drove their relationship to the pits by telling lies. Her boyfriend demanded that she set aside time to spend with him weekly and that she resumes school. He suggested we create a schedule, but most of my family members were a no-show. So she’d sneak to the hospital to watch over me.”
“Did her boyfriend ask her to choose between the two of you?” I asked, eager for his response.
“Not quite. He’d tried so much to be decent and understanding. He’d visit me at the hospital sometimes. So on one such visit, he came to take her out on a date, and my mother and sisters were present. They hurled insults at him and made her choose between her love life and our friendship. Her boyfriend made the choice. I would have done the same.” He concluded.
“What do you mean?” I was surprised.
“They expected her to abandon her relationship, get pregnant for me and have her watch the father of her child die slowly. Our friendship deteriorated gradually, and she stayed out of pity. It hurt to see my family ruin such an amazing friendship, but I’m glad she escaped my family’s venom. I haven’t reconciled fully with them either.”
“What are you doing about this? Do you want to rebuild your friendship?” I ask.
“I got a second chance at life and I ceased being the person she knew when I regained my health. I lost many parts of myself. Physically too.” He pauses. He’s staring into emptiness, and I’m afraid to ask how, but he volunteers with the information.
“My right leg was amputated to prevent cancer from spreading. I had bone cancer, so my doctor deemed it best to have it amputated, to stop the cancer from rapidly spreading. I recently started walking with clutches, making bold steps every day. I use a prosthetic leg sometimes. I’m learning to love myself with this new change. It’s not easy, because it reminds me of what I’ve lost, hence my decision to ditch the prosthetic leg today,” He gives me a faint smile, and I instantly want to flee, I hate that I remind him of the worst.
“I’m so sorry…” I want to say his name, only to realize we don’t know each other’s name, so I just repeat the words again, to reaffirm how I feel.
“Your friend could be wrong for choosing her partner over you, but that’s a choice. We are the choices we make. She’s known you long enough to know you are worth fighting for. But also, she deserves to be selfish. To choose to pursue something new, rather than laden herself with what ifs? What if you only landed her in a ditch? Give her the benefit of the doubt, she might come back searching for you, or not. Be content that you had the chance to be in their life when you did. She took a leap, maybe you should too.” He focuses his gaze on me.
“What are you? A therapist?” I ask to ease up the tension.
“I try to be. It’s what I’ve been doing since I got healed. I try to see good in everything, find purpose and just leave a positive impact on people’s lives. It’s the most I can do, given my condition.” He adds.
“Why?” I probe.
“My clutches. Not everyone is willing to take things a step further with me. It’s understandable. I have several lady friends. They prefer to stay close but not so close. I haven’t given up on love though.” He says with a chuckle.
“Are you healed?”
“From cancer? Yes. But I still have to go in for frequent check-ups to ascertain that I’m healthy.”
“Thank Heavens for that and I must say, for someone I’ve known for close to three hours, it’s felt like a safe haven. We’ve had the deepest, raw and most authentic conversation. In different circumstances, I would have been another of your lady friends, but that would be a nod to fears unexplored.”I say.
“You don’t have to be different to impress me or do stuff out of pity,” he responds, reaching for his food and I hold his hands midway.
“Would you like to hang out with me?” I ask with a smile.
“I’d love to.”
“It’s Alma by the way,” I say letting go of his hand.
“Alma. I’m Myles. Now, the food is probably cold, shall we?”
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