Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I live in a massive hostel block occupied by fellow college students. Often, my own room stifles me with overwhelming familiarity. At such times I flee in search of adventure, to other rooms, albeit a lot like mine. Company has a way of making wasted time seem worthwhile.

One evening I was paying a visit to Bro Coolio. We were talking about inconsequential issues, just the two of us, companionably. However, in the course of it, he failed to mention that a swarm of guests was headed for his room right then. They didn’t even knock, walking in noisily, their heels making clicking noises that almost masked their loud, high pitched voices. All of eight girls walked in, took positions (I can’t say there were seats enough for everyone, ahem, student life, [cough], yeah). For a while they gave me looks which only brides give gatecrashers at expensively organized weddings, and the air was thick with tension. But, pointing at me, Bro Coolio said, “This my boy Duski.” They all shrugged. Some lit their cigarettes.

It felt at first like I would drown in estrogen, for their stories were limited to things in the feminine realms, and their emotions were extravagantly giggled out. I felt out of place: none was familiar, their sentences mentioned people I’d never heard of. I wanted to run away. A look at Bro Coolio gave me a comforting sensation of solidarity, for his eyes were glazed over in a look of dead boredom; it was the look of an atheist who had to sit through grace. Evidently he didn’t care for their concerns.

Gradually, it dawned on me that the cigarettes were not simply stuffed with dried tobacco leaves. First, the flavor of silky threads of smoke wafted into my nostrils, then on into my lungs, and further still into my bloodstream. Before long, my brain was battling the formative stages of a trance to no effect. At length, the smoky haze, which had been wafting into my lungs in silky puffs just beneath my consciousness, began to influence the length and force required to operate my smile. Time would have frozen to make that moment freeze forever and I wouldn’t have minded becoming a statue, a perfect sculpture of an embodied emotion, reveling in an eternal instant.

Suddenly, the girls transformed in my perception from snobbish know-it-alls to exceedingly intelligent and companionable people. They had become a relaxed lot; literally taking laid back positions on any furniture available and liberally gushing verbally at the mouth, having become “loquacious and free in the impartation of information”.

So it was that I sat there and listened to them gossiping about themselves, each other, and others not present. Some of it was purely silly talk, and most of it was scandalously embarrassing and not for public consumption. Nobody took offense. The room got cloudier and cloudier as more of the filterless cigarettes were lit – they seemed to emerge in endless supply from a certain Louis Vuitton handbag – and eyes all round got shinier and shinier. The ring of laughter, energetically performed, made me quite happy, and I felt relatively at home. So I joined in the talking.

The relaxed atmosphere motivated one of Coolio’s guests to take a position next to me. Out of the blue, a certain female, who, prior to all this had been seated in a corner of the bed and smiling with the ceiling in a celebration of celestial zest which only she could elaborate ( further than this self-intrusion of mine allows), rose to her feet. She then made careful strides as she wove her long, tights-bound legs between the legs of others present, tiptoeing in a partly-graceful partly-clumsy way as she meandered towards me. Once parallel to me, she sidled over on the carpet and settled next to where I sat with my back against the wall. I turned my head to look at her face only to find her fixing me an uncompromising, direct stare. Her eyes were striking and unsettling; they seemed to be ablaze, and her sharply defined, recently trimmed eyebrows contributed to the general sensation that I was looking full-on at an all-knowing classic oracle of sorts.

One wonders how to react when someone decides to psychoanalyze you based on five minutes of conversation in a crowd. As the massed collection of crowded bodies on Bro Coolio’s bed continued to chatter and laugh recklessly, The Oracle continued to face me, and she said, “You’re a strange guy.” And Bro Coolio, who was seated smugly in a seat with a red-eyed beauty relaxing comfortably on his laps, burst out laughing at me. “It’s true!” he cackled, “That boy is totally from way out!” I ignored Coolio’s exclamations - his accent had somehow suddenly become American, which pointed to his state of mind.

“Explain yourself,” I told The Oracle simply. She shrugged, averted her stare for the slightest instant, such that I had the barest snatch of relief. Then she turned her fiery eyes back to me and said, “You’re mysterious, in a funny sort of way.” I nodded, shrugged and dismissed it as a smoke-fuelled bit of madness on the part of a stranger. How dare she presume to know me after less than an hour of not talking directly to one another? It amused me genuinely.

The moment seemed to have passed, and I sat there amongst them,everyone generally enjoying the mirth. It was truly fun, until a time the topics returned to gossip about persons not present. I can’t say I minded hearing slander, seeing how saucy a lot of it was, even if my conscience gave the customary nudge of unease. Soon, however, the topic turned towards my friend Angela, who wasn’t present. It’s a small world; they all seemed to dislike her. A particularly talkative lady began to supply us with updated accounts from Angela’s long and populous romantic history. The narrator’s own jealousy was well masked in an affected attitude of condescending spitefulness towards Angela. Her damaging revelations were well received by those present.

Something in me snapped, and I rose to my feet, and spoke up, “Stop it. She’s my friend.”

Silence fell upon the gathering. They were all staring at me.

In that instant of smoke and silence, it only then occurred to me to wonder whether or not Angela and I were friends, for we hadn’t talked in ages, and the last we’d talked, we were not being friendly. I scratched my head and wavered for a while on whether or not to take that statement back, and then I noticed that they were all looking at me expectantly, as though I had set out to make a speech and they were patiently waiting for its rousing and elaborate conclusion. Having already lost control over some of my faculties, stage fright further seized me. I fled the scene.

The downward-spiraling staircase threatened to dizzy me permanently, for I was turning constantly to my right and ever stampeding hellward between turns – or so it seemed, until I got to the ground floor and made my way towards my room. I stood outside and fiddled with the key in unsteady fingers for many minutes, my brain feeling fried. Someone tapped their finger on my back, and as I turned to face whoever it was, I dropped the keys. Once again, I found myself looking into the freakishly big eyes of The Oracle.

“Yes?” I demanded, feeling a degree of apprehension not-so-distantly.

“My name is Ailis,” she declared with a flourish - a flick of her wrist and a sideways movement of her head on her neck. That said, she waltzed back towards the staircase in a perfectly executed brisk catwalk. I stared after her until she vanished from sight.

As I went back to fingering my key in hands that felt alien, I toyed with the idea of looking for her when she wasn’t smashed on weed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

They call me Duski

Certain people in our swim team call me Duski. The name originated in 2009 at a Coast Trip. Oppressive Mombasa heat somehow mixed with a solvent called fun, and viola! All the boys on the bus baptized each other Duski. (The ladies heard the name and made faces at us for “acting childishly”, to quote their self-appointed spokesperson, and thereafter continued gossiping among themselves as they had done since we left Nairobi and as they would continue to do until we returned.) Somehow, the name stuck with me in certain people's heads. When it later emerged that I could run faster than a mob-justice avoider, they modified my name to become Duski-Bolt.

Fond memories of my time in the swimming team will always be balanced by a tinge of that “I should have known better” feeling. As these bittersweet recollections go, a girl is usually involved who should never have come into it in the first place. However, what is already done cannot be erased.

The swimming team has a dual character, which, crudely put, is determined by the ladies' team and the guys' team. Obviously there are differences between men and women which will affect teams which include both men and women. (At swimming competitions, guys are rowdy hecklers and cheerers of their compatriots, bent on offending the sensibilities and eardrums of the conservative swimming-watching audience, shouting renditions which must sound to the cultured gathering of parents and guardians as “native songs”. The girls of our team turn their eyes away, ashamed to be associated with untamed monkeys.)

But beyond the irrefutable fact that men and women are fundamentally different, even if both are in college, lies the ugly truth of the girl clique. Now any man with at least half a hemisphere of brain and a few minutes of experience in social interaction knows that any clique of girls confers upon itself the sacred duty of protecting its members from boys. A series of machinations gets this done. Girl cliques rely on gang psychology tactics including name-calling, rude interruptions, nose-curling, staring daggers and making various cold and discouraging faces, not to mention the social ostracism imposed by the gang upon any lady who falls for the wiles of a Romeo.

You, the reader, therefore have a vague impression of how anyone in the men's team must overcome great odds to put a word in edgewise to a swimming team female. This is not to suggest that we men of swimming are chickenhearted in any way or form. Quite the contrary. Between doing uncountable laps in chlorinated pools at torpedo speeds and successfully approaching one of our female counterparts, either as is easy as the other.

Still, when a lady somehow enters the team without also entering the girl clique, it seems like a breath of fresh air, a gift from the gods, a shoo-in compared to the alternatives. In actual sense, questions should pop up all over a man's head, and cause him to wonder: why is she unmoved by the natural female instinct to flock and hold the fort collectively? Why? But no, the man in his excitement only sees a woman without a rude, living, protective barbed wire fence around her, and judgment is clouded.

I leave it at that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Childhood memories

Nursery school was all about reciting lines in books and coloring things. By the end-year you had crammed the whole damn book by heart and you chanted the stupid lines in your idle moments to impress anyone within earshot. The rest of life at that tender age consisted of fears, joys, tragedies and hopes. (Dismiss the hopes as wishes for chocolate and sweets.)

I remember the things I was afraid of, and how I would hide from them. I used to “see” devils and run from them. My dreams and nightmares were vivid and engrossing affairs. Sometimes I confused actual past events with events in my dreams. I remember feeling that within me there were two versions of me, a good and a bad me, and I remember always straining to suppress the bad one. I tried to explain these things to people a few times, but after a while I stopped trying because nobody seemed to understand, maybe because my vocabulary was limited.

Running, drawing and playing soccer defined who I was at breaktime. This was a result of my dreams, in which I would be sprinting hard, in a state of terror, away from either a teacher with a cane or a red devil. (There was always a red devil with horns, a firm eight-pack in his abdomen and an arrow tail, but who otherwise looked like me and, sometimes, would audibly call my name!) In waking hours, especially in class, I avoided going to places alone, because, in my mind's eye, the red devil would appear and start giving me ideas and terrors. Therefore I avoided going to the restrooms alone. One day I told a teacher that the red devil was in the toilet seat and he pretended to chase the red devil away but I knew the stupid teacher didn't know what he was dealing with so I hid behind the door as the exorcism continued.

The red devil never did much to harm me, except that at certain random moments he would chase me and I would take off running at the top of my speed. Other times, something funny would happen, or a joke would be told, and I would laugh so hard I was out of breath and my entire ribcage hurt; I would silently blame the red devil for making me laugh. “The devil is poking me,” I would think amidst manic laughter.

Laughter was a big part of my childhood. I was always laughing at any given opportunity, a happy kid. The laughter would make me stretch my legs forward before me and curl up my toes! My six-pack came into being necessarily as a result of laughing so hard it felt like my abdomen would cave in from the pressure! I would laugh until a tingling sensation ran down the backs of my legs down to my curled toes! My head would be thrown back! In those moments it seemed as though the whole universe had come in to participate in that particular bout of laughter. The more memorable ones were whence I fell out my seat – I was notorious for swinging in my seat, and convulsive laughs from red devils tended to spring surprise attacks on me in these moments. Elsewhere, I discovered that I could laugh while running, both at the same time, for no reason but to enjoy the sensations thus created.

Girls held a strange but somewhat vague attraction for me, as objects of curiosity. To start with, the administration at that nursery school gave the general impression to boys that girls were bad and not to be mixed with. On the other hand, my class teacher openly favored girls and beat boys with apparent malice using great vigor to swing the big bamboo sticks. One could easily cry in advance by simply anticipating the beating. The girls themselves were enchanting in a funny sort of way. Girlfriends were taboo, though I did ally myself loosely with a certain light-skinned classmate and the whole arrangement was an unwritten pact even if very little actual conversation ever happened. In those days, all that sufficed to convey that a relationship had begun was a prolonged stare accompanied by a wide smile (the resulting facial expression was mildly alarming). If she cried and ran to the teacher with “He smiled at me,” game over; out came the bamboo stick and you became enemies. If she smiled back, members of the class were supposed to see that a boy and a girl had smiled at each other, and others were required to respect the union by avoiding smiling aimlessly at either party. The same mechanism worked with best friends; you could walk up to a best friend and demand to know why he was smiling with someone else.

Of course, snitches and teachers' pets thrived in such environments. There was no question of liking or hating them. You feared them, gave them bribes to overlook your misdemeanors, and also gave then little encouragements in order to help them avoid making up imagined crimes and assigning you as their perpetrator. I remember parting with a Fudge Chocolate, then prized highly, to seal the prefect's lips, which tended to unleash multicolored versions of untruths with my name sandwiched therein. She accepted the treasured chocolate delicacy with royal airs, arrogance and a sense of entitlement which if I had been any wiser I should have slapped her for daring to display. She forgot to thank me. She also “forgot” the fact of the bribe the same day, having my name placed in the list of tiny tots who her eagle eye had spotted picking their noses without a handkerchief – a category of crime which rose above other possible crimes.

Childhood innocence was fun. Often, I would pick up taboo statements from a variety of sources, but I had the intellectual wherewithal to recognize them as proscribed in public hearing. One such maxim was “All of nature has an orgasm and we call it a natural disaster!” This statement was and still is outrageously funny, but for one complication: back then I didn't know what an orgasm was (despite the fact that I would laugh like one possessed after sharing the joke with myself). Telling this joke to close friends and the light-skinned girlfriend yielded little more than polite but entirely clueless laughter inspired by the vague awareness that a weak joke of some sort had been shared. I even whispered it to the class prefect, because her record as the class genius would serve her well in appreciating and maybe even breaking down the joke for me; but she widened her eyes at me, puffed up her cheeks and promptly added my name to the noisemakers' list, with never a care for whatever the blazes I was grinning about. After being beaten by the teacher for noisemaking, I cried soundly, overcame the hurt slowly and returned to the Nature Orgasm Joke surely. Again, nobody got it, and others even sent me away because I was smiling at them and they already had best friends and boyfriends. Desperate times call for desperate measures; I decided to ask my mother that evening when she came to pick us from school.

My brother and I sat in the back, pinching each other and admonishing each other to be strong and not to report each other to our mother for various crimes committed during the day, upto and including the ongoing pinches. I decided to ask Mum the question quite innocently and naturally, and so, pretending like it came to me unbid and out of the blue, I asked, “Mum? What's an orgasm?” She paused and asked why, and I said “I heard some class eight boys saying “All of nature has an orgasm and we call it a natural disaster!” and laughing."

Mum laughed till tears rolled down her face, and we laughed too to see her so happy, but she eventually refused to tell me what an orgasm was.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wise Men at War

I have no way of knowing what happened to GalPal. We stopped communicating. On the other hand, all my calls to The Ex were dial tone repeating to infinity and never answered. Unlike before, when I was single and unbothered, now I’d felt a taste for relationships and the tease of it had me hunting like a junkie. The days went by and I became so intensely aware of my unhappiness that I felt madness beginning to get its cold grip on my brain. Confused, I turned to books, poetry and philosophy.

More potent means of keeping it all together were available; in those days I had not yet forsworn alcohol. Thus I occasionally found myself at a disreputable joint occasioned by students looking to get drunk, lucky or preferably both. It quickly became clear to me that sitting I these environs with the Wise Men, my team mates from the soccer team who only became Wise Men when alcohol flooded their bloodstreams, was a form of therapy. It mainly involved sexist statements, politically incorrect exclamations not defensible in a court of law and even brazen catcalls at similarly drunken ladies. Good times.

Once, a Wise Man named John had enough to drink rather earlier than the others and he decided to leave in the company of a Wise Lady. The soiree continued merrily enough for a while without him, truisms were synthesized and lies were traded with alacrity as usual; but briefly, reports came to us from outside that Wise Man John had got himself in a fight just outside the premises. We rushed outside, rallying to his aid in various states of stability. There we saw Wise John, unwisely throwing punches against an opposition of many, as his Wise Lady propped herself against the wall with her arms crossed and her eyes sleepy. A battery of swear words arose from the lot of Wise Men which would have put our wisdom in question, and then we all swung into action. Trust sports fraternities to help a member.

Our anger, inebriation and sense of outrage fuelled our rash action above any sense of rationality. It was a mismatch; they were more than us, not as drunk, and were evidently all gym-freaks. At any rate, the struggle was good while it lasted, because we threw ourselves into it bodily. I absorbed a few memorable kicks in my ribcage and landed a number of square right hooks which made my wrist throb with pain for weeks afterwards. I saw a Wise Man rolling in the dust under the forcing of many pairs of chunky boots, and soon, other Wise Men swarmed to his aid, their fists and shoes arcing dangerously as they effectively abandoned their fight partners - who didn’t take kindly to the gesture and so followed the Wise Men to their Crusades. A free-for-all ensued at that spot at which participants liberally baptized the mothers of others with names proscribed in civilized society. On my part I launched myself into the fracas, grabbed one of the enemy’s weaklings by the collar, took him aside and fixed him a number of punches in his midsection. It became darker as our fighting mass moved further away from the lights, so that there were sharp and startling noises emanating from funny directions in the dark and one could not really tell who was a Wise Man and who was a Gym Freak. Amidst the confusion, and I think I absorbed some friendly fire, my chosen weakling took off running on long legs the instant my hold on his shirt loosened enough for him to yank himself out of my grasp. I gave chase and someone else gave chase after me.

The chase was short, as I am fast. I caught up with the hated weakling under a security light. Recognition made me freeze: it was Lucas, and he too was busy recognizing me, and he looked at me with fear. His knees were shaking (I hope) and he was still panting from his futile running on puny legs (by my estimate). Whoever was chasing me caught up at long last after great effort (did I mention how fast I am?); and he turned out to be a Wise Man who had mistaken me for a Gym Freak. Once he identified me, he was unwilling to let his dedicated run go to waste, so he turned on Lucas while Lucas was still panting and looking at me with a dazed and stunned face; slapped Lucas, violently, using the back of his hand; called Lucas’ father names in rough slang and ordered Lucas to go home. The insults and orders turned out to be redundant as Lucas had already hit the ground running following the slap. The Wise Man and I then ran back to the real fighting.

I discovered a scar on my forehead the next morning; it was raw and red and ugly.