She sat at a table in a corner of the dimly lit restaurant nursing her drink and injured pride. Kicking off her shoes, and stretching her legs under the mahogany table, Juliana wiggled her toes, reducing the numbness in her feet. All morning, her feet had threatened to burst out of the dainty brown pumps, she had forced them into. How she hated her big round feet! They would certainly have served a man better- a footballer perhaps. Lifting her lipstick stained glass she contemplated downing its insipid contents, then thought better. Letting out a deep sigh she unzipped her imitation- leather hand bag, pulled out her crimson lipstick, applied it- blind, then pressed her lips together, to even its spread. Slipping on a pair of leather sandals – she always carried a pair – Juliana stepped out into the sun’s garish glare. At least her date had been civilized enough to settle the bill, before pulling his disappearing act.
It was not the first time it was happening. Only this one had fled without the all too familiar lines, often sheathed in vague generalities. ‘I’ll see you again as soon as I can,’ was a common one. Or the more tactful ‘I wish I didn’t have to leave so soon,’ followed by hurried footsteps – testimony of a desire to hastily depart.
Crossing the busy intersection of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue, Juliana boarded a matatu-taxi. As she squeezed into the cramped interior, her thoughts went back to events of the past week. She remembered the bow legged, French teacher, with bushy eyebrows, who had tried to sneak out of her apartment as she showered. Like an animal caught in the head lights of an oncoming vehicle, he had stood transfixed to a spot near the door, various articles of apparel in hand. What had sent Juliana into stitches of laughter was- the pair of pink heels in his left hand. In his haste he had grabbed her shoes instead of his safari boots. Like a reprimanded child, he had slowly closed the apartment door and slouched back in, eyes glued to the carpeted floor.
‘I just had to leave,’ he had lamented, slumping onto the comfortable leather couch that faced a huge plasma TV, prominently positioned in Juliana’s living room. ‘I mean, look at me,’ he had continued, gesturing with his eyes and hands, as if he had just discovered something hideous about himself. ‘I’m neither a good dresser, nor good looking. Worse still, I’m a mere teacher!’ he had said, shaking his head as if in disbelief. ‘You are too good for me. You deserve better.’
Tempted to ask why all this had dawned on him only after he had shared her bed Juliana instead just smiled. What a gem of an excuse, she had thought to herself. Shrugging, she padded into her bedroom, certain Mr. Bow legs would not be there when she emerged.
Juliana recalled how Bow legs had laced his Guinness with fanta, and executed a merry jig, at the ‘suitor’s pub’. Showing scarce regard for rhythm, he had enthusiastically launched into a jerky dance routine that elicited curious stares. And when he was not performing his comical dance, he had busied himself with a loud narration of his achievements. Bragging about the two daughters he had seen through college, and his dream house, approaching completion, Bernard – that was his name – had let one and all know, that he was a man who took his obligations seriously. He had also launched into a lecture on the similarity between house construction, and learning a language. Foundation was everything. A weak foundation would, in time, manifest itself, he had concluded. He had then lapsed into prolonged silence.
His love-making too had been marked with spurts of enthusiasm, followed by a perceptible disinterest. As though uncertain on how to proceed, his body would freeze mid-motion, only to resume vigorous movement. Juliana had thought it was her inadequacies that dampened his spirit, but then realized, it was the pattern of Bernard’s life.
Juliana’s reverie was suddenly interrupted by the matatu conductor’s brusque voice. ‘Mama, pesa-money.’
Pulling out a crumpled five hundred note from her handbag she proffered it to the red eyed conductor who made no attempt to receive it.’ Where do you expect change to come from, don’t you have smaller money?’ he scolded.
Realizing her destination was just a turn away, she hurriedly rummaged into her purse, coming up with a sordid fifty note which she pressed into the conductor’s sweaty palms, and disembarked.
‘How are you soldier?’ Juliana enquired of the lanky security guard manning the entrance to the Kiboko apartments. From where she stood, the green blinds to her living room windows on the first floor were visible as they blended with the leaves of the nearby trees and gently fluttered in the light breeze. She must have left her windows open.
‘Can I be anything but sad?’ The guard responded. What business of hers was it to enquire after him; he thought to himself, as he closed the heavy metal gate, behind Juliana. ‘Malaya-prostitute!’ he muttered under his breath. He had lost count of the number of men he had seen accompanying her into her flat. Were it not for his fear of the dreaded disease he too would have made a move.
Standing naked before the mirror in her apartment Juliana took a deep breath; contracting her flabby middle. Enclosing her tiny breasts in her palms, through a veil of tears she stared at the plain plump woman that stared back at her. This routine, had with time, for her, become an act of atonement. At the culmination of each one-night stand, or put-off – and lately their frequency had increased – Juliana would critically examine each part of her anatomy, deride herself, and then slink to a corner of her bedroom. Sinking onto the tiled floor, she would draw up her knees, and allow her tears to flow freely. This was her flagellation.
The second daughter of a single parent, Juliana had never been much to look at. Her mother’s constant re-assurances that she had an inner beauty lacking in her elder sister had little assuaged her. It was easy for her mum, a woman who – even in middle age – had retained a soft prettiness, to lay a low premium on looks. If what she said were true, why did Edna get all the attention from boys?
Growing up with her mother and sister in a council flat, she had always marveled at how Edna nonchalantly pulled out articles of clothing from their shared closet and with little effort managed to look stunning. For Juliana, dressing had always been an assemblage of this and that; a delicate balance, punctuated with doubt; lots of doubt. The final product staring back at her from the mirror, as she stood amidst a mountain of discarded garments, had always been far from convincing. And so she had settled into the role of entertaining Edna’s dates in their cramped living room while ‘Eedina’ – as her mother called her sister – spruced up.
With time and much effort Juliana had come to preen. With great bewilderment she noticed boys who had come to take Edna out eyeing her suggestively. A lingering handshake; an innocent brush to her breast; a wink, and finally open invitations, left her light headed. Soon her bewilderment was displaced by joy, then gradually by vanity.
‘Are you out of your mind?’ Edna had asked, hands clasped on top of her head.
Unperturbed, Juliana squeezed a tube of lotion, allowing the contents to settle on her left palm. Rubbing her palms together she then placed one foot on the low unmade bed and methodically rubbed the lotion on to her thighs working her way down to her feet.
‘They are all talking about you, all the gory details. How stupid can you get?’ Continued Edna, throwing up her arms in exasperation. ‘Even Jeff! Little sister, how could you let that creep anywhere near you?’
Just as quickly interest in her had dissipated. The earlier suggestive looks were replaced by deliberate avoidance of eye contact. The accidental brush of a hand on her body became rare. Desperate she became the initiator of the first move. The hunted had become the hunter. With time her aggression increased and with it her promiscuity.
As she lay in her bathtub brimming with hot water Juliana reflected on her life. She thought of all the men she had bedded and how they added nothing to her life. She had picked them, not out of expectation of any gain, but from a deep desire to prove to herself that she was wanted. And so with every new casual liaison, the girl whose late mother had tried to reassure of her inner beauty, sought reassurance from all the wrong places; all the wrong things.
How easy it would be to end it all, Juliana thought to herself; eyes riveted on the glimmering razor nestled close to the yellow soap dish. All it would take was a quick slash to the wrist, and time would do the rest. She wondered what lay beyond, if indeed there was a beyond. Would it be dark; would it be quiet. She remembered how as a child she had always dreaded the dark, and would slide out of her bed and slip into Edna’s; snuggling close to her. If only her mother were still there; how she missed her faint smile, the clear encouraging eyes, the soft un-hurried voice; always allaying her fears.
Watching the soap suds float in the white tub, Juliana thought of all those who had tried so hard to impact on her life and how they would have reacted to her numerous short lived liaisons. She had no doubts as to how her late mother would have reacted- A hard slap to the cheek, followed by tearful remonstrations, and then a tight hug; full of understanding.
Her former teacher at the convent school – Sister Mary Magdalene – was a different cup of tea. Juliana pictured the tall beak-nosed mother superior hurriedly making the sign of the cross; the pain and sorrow of realization clouding here azure eyes. She would certainly have demanded that Juliana recites a dozen or so Novenas for forgiveness. Most important though, was that both would have forgiven her.
©P. Ochieng Ochieng 2010
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