I was nine years old when Wairimu, seventeen at the time, left the letter to our parents on the coffee table so that it was the first thing you saw as soon as you had entered the house. It was Easter weekend, so nobody saw it until Saturday morning when we returned from Good Friday overnight prayers at church, by which time Wairimu had filled a bag with her clothes, stolen the money kept in the kitchen for daily purchases and made her escape.
Even at that age I knew that it was a stupid decision.
I feel that I must admit before we go any further that Wairimu was not known to be the stupid one. I had been the stupid one briefly, in Standard One when I held the lowest marks in my class for an entire year before my parents realized I could not see more than one meter in front of me and finally took me to the eye doctor. Wairimu, on the other hand, star daughter at school and at church where she led praise and worship for the youth service, had never done a thing to which the adjective “stupid” would be applicable until Macharia came into the picture. In fact, were I to be perfectly objective I would admit that even in her stupidity she made some very un-stupid decisions. For instance: writing the letter and leaving in such a manner, thereby sparing herself the trouble of having to look into my parents’ disappointed faces and seeing their shock and disappointment erupt into anger and hysteria before it collapsed back into itself, deflated.
If things had been different, or rather, if things had been the same as always and there had been no rift between Wairimu and my parents in the last year, perhaps she would not have done what she did. But months before Easter I had started to notice the change in her, a creeping sense of impatience, a restlessness and dissatisfaction with a way of life that had seemed to sustain her without trouble for many years. And so, because things were the way that they were and not the way that they were supposed to be, it was not so difficult for her to leave the letter on white lined paper plucked from the middle of an exercise book and folded two times over. There was no envelope: “To Dad and Mum” was written on the side facing upwards in her perfect, even handwriting.
Mum read it first. No doubt thinking that it was something about school fees or a thing that Wairimu wanted them to get for her, she unfolded it with the indifference with which she would have approached a note reminding her of an errand, compiling the sort of checklist that exists in every mother’s mind keeping store of the things that need to be bought and done for her children. In retrospect she took it rather well. After her eyes had scanned its contents from top to bottom, she let out the loud and heavy sigh of one who has encountered more than their share of disappointments in one lifetime, passed it over to my father, fell into the armchair by the door and held her head in her hands. She began to say a prayer of three words only: “Oh dear Lord...”
I was not surprised that my father reacted a little more dramatically. Where Mum had always been soft and pliant, Dad was loud, forceful. On Sundays in front of the congregation when he was particularly touched by the Spirit a vein would show on his sweaty forehead and sometimes he would even burst into tongues, leaving me terrified and in awe of him. At the moment he was done reading the letter, when he grabbed me by the shoulders so tightly that I could feel his nails digging into my skin through my woolen sweater, I thought briefly that he looked very similar to how he did during these services. I almost expected him to break out into tongues right now. But instead what left his mouth was the same sentence over and over again, in staccato: “Your sister has brought shame to the family. She has brought shame to the family.” With every other syllable that left his lips he shook me over and over again, with so much force that soon I could feel the metallic salty taste in my mouth that let me know I had bitten my tongue. In front of me: the heat of my father’s morning breath and saliva specks flying into my face. Behind me: my mother weeping quietly.
I think that, for my father, the evil was to be found not so much in the fact that she had become pregnant before marriage as in her decision to go live with the father of the child. The pregnancy was nothing new; girls had been getting pregnant since the beginning of time. When they did they dealt with it the proper way: with prayers, a tearful confession in front of the church and a renewed devotion to the church. And so when I say that Wairimu acted stupidly, what I really mean is that what she had done was wrong for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that for years after the event I was to bear the burden of her sin. My mother would drop comments in the middle of mundane moments: in the kitchen, cooking, the smell of fried onion and tomatoes and beef in the air and then, out of nowhere: “Don’t be like your sister,” words rising into the air like all of the irrelevant things that we say to one another as we cook but unlike those other things, this one does not dissolve and disappear with the steam, condensing instead into an accusation that drips back onto me with the weight of a disappointment that should not be mine. The first time I wore a skirt that ended above my knee, Mum sneered, hissed: “This is how your sister began. This is how she ended up pregnant. You better be careful.”
It would be many years before I would forgive Wairimu for this, just like it would be many years before my parents would forgive Wairimu, just like it would be many years before my mother would start to see me as a person of my own, just like it would be many years before the coffee table would grow so old and chipped that we would give it away and purchase a new one.
By the time all this had happened, I would have realized that my mother should have saved her time and energy. As it turned out, there were many ways in which I was nothing like my sister.
The Cameroonian lady next to me on the plane had decided that the two of us were friends. I did not know when this decision was made, which is why I did not have the chance to agree or disagree, although it was sometime in between waiting to board the plane in Heathrow three hours ago and this current moment. I would have protested but I did not have the energy to do so. As such, I listened to her recount all the details of her love life, which is how I now knew she was travelling to Nairobi to meet an old flame, a boyfriend whom she had not seen for twelve years who worked at the World Bank. But, back in New Haven was her current flame, an engineer who would have been perfect were it not for the fact that he was not very “well, you know what I mean”— a non-confession confession that came with a conspiratorial look. “Actually, no, I do not know what you mean,” is what I would have said if I cared enough to protest. But I don’t. And so, I listened with half of my brain and not with the other half.
I was returning home.
I would have done it earlier. I had wanted to return for ten months, since finishing freshman year, but my parents balked at the suggestion when I emailed them about it.
“Barbie, what’s this I hear about wanting to come back?”
When I was six, I was a flower girl at my aunt’s wedding, an occasion that won me the honor of a tiara of faux pearls around my head and a cream-colored dress that was too big for me, so big it touched the floor when I walked and collected mud on its hem from the grassy field where the reception was held. Still, mud or no mud, something about me in that dress meant that my aunt could not stop marveling at how I looked. At some point she made the declaration, “She looks just like a doll: a Barbie doll.” And the name stuck in fitting irony, since my actual name is Beauty. Now, Mum still uses it when she is particularly worried about me, almost as if she sees me as that six year old again.
“Barbie, are you sure? There are not so many opportunities here in Kenya. You should stay there for a few years at least. Did I tell you about Margaret, the one who used to live next door to us when we were still in Buruburu? Her two sons just finished medical school in the U.S. They’re going to be doctors. Can you believe it? Can you believe it, Barbie? No, you can’t come back right now. At least reconsider. You told me you were thinking of going on until grad school, no? ”
Yes, I was. And then things changed and I felt engulfed, suffocated in this space. I could not see myself staying. But my parents would not see me return.
Then, two weeks before, when Dad fell ill, Mum sent a one sentence email to me: saying that she really wished I would stay away, but she would understand if I wanted to come home. It was the middle of the semester, so Wairimu was a lot less agreeable when she called me. “Do you really want to risk your visa? I’ve heard that you can’t get back in as easily, especially if this affects your academic record.”
“I’ve spoken with my advisors. They’ll deactivate my record for the time being, but it shouldn’t be a problem when I decide to return.”
My suitcase was open by my bed. A pile of my clothes was on the table. I had been planning to transfer the pile of clothes from table to suitcase for six days now and Wairimu’s phone call was the latest excuse to not bother. I lay on my bed and toyed with my earphones.
“Beauty, still. I don’t have a very good feeling about this. Are you sure? You never know with these people.”
And that’s when I mentioned that there were other reasons to go home, and what I really wanted to do was to go and mend my broken heart. I meant for it to sound like I was joking, but something about the way I spoke made it clear that I wasn’t.
“Eish Beauty, please don’t tell me all of this is because of a man? Don’t be stupid.” She clicked and snorted and I was quiet.
I would have left it at that, but there was something about the way she spoke, something about the fact that she of all people would say this to me. There was a bitter taste in my mouth. I wanted her to know that I was not the stupid one.
When she noticed I wasn’t speaking her voice lost its edge and she asked: “Do you want to talk about it? What was his name?”
The answer tumbled out and with it came the bitter taste, also: “Brenda.”
She laughed, and there was something familiar about the way she laughed. I had heard this laugh before. It was the way my mother laughed when she teased me every time I talked to a boy at church, asking me to recount the conversation. But I could always tell that Wairimu was not begging for details, she was begging for something else. And now on the phone Wairimu was laughing but what she was really doing was asking me to save her and I decided that I had had enough of saving these people, of carrying their fears and their sins and I let the silence sit. Let her drown.
Wairimu spoke: “Brenda?” And then she was quiet. She switched off the television. “Oh. Beauty, you mean to say that you’re a... a...”
I snapped: “For goodness’ sake Wairimu, stop being a child. You can say the damn word.”
I could hear her breathing on the other side and nothing else. The two of us were floating in the silence. I thought of that thing people say sometimes: when one is trying to choose between two answers and cannot tell which one is the right one, they should throw a coin in the air, because at the moment when the coin is falling they know what they want the answer to be. So now, throw a coin in the air, Beauty, stretch out time and wait, wait, wait for the assurance of gravity. Heads: you’re evil. Tails: I accept you. But was it that simple? Was it really just those two options? My throat was tight and so was my stomach and I wondered if it even mattered what the answer was.
She spoke again: “Are you sure?”
My first night in America, the students on my floor in the dormitory played a game to get better acquainted with one another: two truths and one lie. This is how it worked: everyone would say three things, three facts about themselves, one of which was a lie and therefore not really a fact, and everyone else would listen and try to guess which one was not true. My facts: “I have never seen a lion. I have thirteen siblings. I like to dance.”
With the exception of one person, everyone guessed that the first one was the lie. Because, Africa. Duh.
It’s a fitting ending to this story that I would play this game with my sister now, only there were no truths to be found; only one lie that needed to be told.
“Are you sure?”
I say yes and the coin reaches the end of its journey and I know what the answer is. Or it shatters into thousands of pieces because it doesn’t even matter once I am free.
But I laughed and this is what came out, instead: “Wairimu, you need to learn to take a joke. But
please stop fighting me on this? Dad is sick and I want to be home in case of anything, to help out and make things less stressful for them.”
The coin stops just before it would have touched the ground and stays there, spinning indefinitely. I have defeated gravity. I have rescued my sister from drowning. I congratulate myself but now I am the one who is drowning and there is no one to catch me.
“Oh, you’re so silly, Beauty. All right then, I will let you be. Come visit me when you get home. We should do a ladies’ night out—get our hair and nails done and do some shopping, maybe even go clubbing as long as you promise not to tell Mum and Dad. Oh, but Beauty, you’ve always been the good daughter. I don’t know what our parents would do if they didn’t have you. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have you.”
My last night in New York, I come as close to understanding Wairimu as I ever will, at least in one way. I cannot sleep so I get out of my bed and sit at my desk and I begin to write a letter. I think it might be a letter to God but I cannot tell for sure because I’m just writing what comes to my head. It’s at first a letter full of stupid things, like is it really wrong to drink Coke when it’s flat because sometimes I do that and it tastes OK, and why do people say “that’s so interesting” when they’re not very interested, and why is it that chewing gum that has been in one’s mouth for too long starts to turn into powder and disintegrate and why is disintegrating chewing gum such an appropriate metaphor for life at times? I keep writing for so long that my pinkie finger begins to hurt; I have not written this much by hand since secondary school. And after all the stupid stuff is done I start to write about the darker things. Like the hurts I am carrying from my childhood and the ones I am just now starting to carry. How it is stupid that these people are always expecting me to save them, but whether it is even more stupid that I love them in spite of this. I am not afraid to express those thoughts that most frighten me and as it gets light outside Wairimu’s act stops looking like one of cowardice because I know I would never have the courage to leave a letter for my parents like she did, because I know that when I am finished with this one I will carry it outside, put a matchstick to it and let the ashes fall onto the grass in front of my dorm.
But before I can do that I must finish filling page after page with disorganized thoughts and ink, writing and writing as if my life depends on it. And if you read what is in my letter, you will know that it does.