She was one of those girls he had the privilege of saying, “Oh that is my childhood friend.” Except he would only brag to his friends and never to himself. Because one time, when he was 10 and she was 7, she stepped out in a bubbly yellow-themed dress with different floral patterns. She looked amazing, so much that, many years down the line, he still remembers her presence overpouring in the room immediately she entered the Sunday school class.
Because he was a good boy, and he hardly ate his offering, alright, he ate a little, but always kept some for the big man up there, his angels were working harder than usual on that particular Sunday. She, Stephanie, sat right next to him.
He doesn’t remember much about the sermon, but he remembers how the beads on her head clattered every time she moved. He was anxious, waiting for the slightest chance to look in her direction. And when it came, when he had to pass the sadaka basket to her, he didn’t hesitate. He looked at her and almost immediately lit his face with a wide smile, so wide, that his eyes disappeared into the hills of his chubby cheeks.
Stephanie didn’t like the smile.
He still doesn’t know what she told the Sunday School teacher about the smile, but, after the class, he was summoned by the teacher. She pinched his cheeks threatening to tear them apart farther than the dorsum of his nose did. I suspect she warned him not to smile at girls ever again.
By the time he was in high school at Utumishi Boys Academy, girls would smile at him. But, he dared not smile back. His fleshy cheeks had morphed into strong muscular cheekbones, the thought of having them pinched made him Kanye West every time a girl smiled. The way, Kanye West, moves from smiling to frowning, faster than the wisps of smoke from a struck matchstick disappears.
When he was in form four, she was in form one. She attended one of the mathematics contests held at his school. She had grown, but it was not news to him. If the neighborhood was the vine, Stephanie was the blossom and Anton had had the privilege of watching the blossom stretch its tendrils one year and pop its petals the next. All thanks to the school holidays.
It was during that math contest that she first struck a conversation with him. A weird conversation. Although young at the time, what had happened about 7 years ago was still lingering in their memories. And because he was not sure if she had reconsidered liking his smile, he didn’t smile but he asked, “That day, kwani what did you tell the Sunday school teacher?”
That would be Anton’s icebreaker. We will all agree it was a bad one. Like how a male friend you haven’t seen in years will pull a, “Unajua nlikuwa nimekukufia 50 years ago.” And you will wonder what to do with that information. It doesn’t help that you are hardly 50. So you will result to saying, “Aki wewe!” something you say when you have spent a conversation.
Anton’s line, though bad, worked like a charm. During his graduation party at home, after being abroad for his Undergraduate studies, he used the same line to start a conversation with Stephanie. And in the history of working, there has never been a line that works better. That conversation led to a coffee date, then a lunch date then to several more coffee dates. Anton would have wished for a dinner date, but Stephanie was still a student at USIU and she lived with her parents. Like regular African parents, they didn’t fancy the idea of eating out, especially not her mom.
While abroad, Anton had gotten a job at the firm where he had done his internship. His job was to start in three weeks after his return to Kenya. Two days to his departure, he asked Stephanie out on a date.
They had a good meal. While Stephanie was relentlessly sucking on a straw which led to a decent amount of blueberry milkshake served in a fancy glass, the waiter who had cleared their table, returned with a pearl-white plate. She placed the plate next to Stephanie.
On the plate was a small piece of fudge cake and for a minute, it didn’t make sense that they had used such a big plate to serve it. She then realized that there was some writing across the plate in what looked like chocolate syrup. The writing read, “Will you be my girlfriend.” When she looked up, Anton was on his feet, smiling, this time hoping she would love it. Hell! he had put in the work to perfect it.
Anton was among the good guys, the kind that pops the ‘be my girlfriend’ question and Stephanie, having admired what her mom and dad had, thought this kind of question makes a good recipe for the perfect relationship. She said, “I like your smile.”
For close to two years, their relationship was conducted online. They texted and sexted. And while phone sex is the closest best thing to actual sex, it’s still not sex. You would expect a good man like Anton to be of the school of thought; sex is not everything in a relationship, but he was sharp enough to know that it is still an important ingredient. So when they had had enough fantasy pillow talks and cuddling, he came back home. That night, they rested on real pillows and shared a bed. Stephanie was done with her studies. She was working for a PR firm after her dad had pulled the necessary strings.
During his brief stay at home, Anton has teased Stephanie about moving abroad with him. She liked the idea and it did not come as a shock to Anton. She always came out like the type of girl who was content with staying home and raising a beautiful family. She constantly complained of the work environment and he did not like how it stressed her either.
Nine months after his brief visit, she boarded a plane to Canada. As they lay in each other’s warmth that night, in his decent pad overlooking a community green space, she went on and on about a Nancy who sat at a corner desk in the office. Turns out, Nancy had once used her coffee mug and misplaced it. That didn’t sit well with Stephanie. She also ranted about how she is constantly overwhelmed with work because everyone assumes she is not married and hence has more time to be in the office for a while longer.
As Anton listened to her rant, he thought of how he was financially able and generally ready to start a family. By the time Stephanie was leaving, he had proposed and the necessary dates were set.
During introductions, Stephanie’s dad was not entertained, but Stephanie had had a premonition of his response about getting married and moving abroad. And so, in an attempt to be a step ahead, the two had a plan B. Stephanie was 2 months pregnant. Checkmate!
The wedding was everything colorful and so was the honeymoon.
Anton and his family settled into a decent neighborhood somewhere in Canada. Things were looking good, he had climbed up the ranks at his job and was now a department head. The first black department head in Telecommunication Engineering. Back at home, his family was flourishing; Stephanie had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, Makena. She had the eyes of her mom and the hair of her Dad, afro-textured, and voluminous –something about engineers and that type of hair.
Stephanie blended perfectly into the stay at home life. She was the Sergeant at arms of everything tasks and order. She organized the chores, the food and even the fun. When she was not delivering on her sergeant tasks, she was baking. She baked cookies, cakes, cupcakes, and muffins. She particularly had a keen eye for blueberry flavor, and when it was not blueberry, it was chocolate or salted caramel. It was her baking that made her good with neighbouring kids and so she made friends with other moms faster
Anton would report home every Tuesday with something new that had a blueberry flavor in it. Someday it would be ice cream, the other milkshake and sometimes punch juice. Whatever it was, the trick was for both of them to compete in eating fast and finding the blueberry flavor. After which they would watch a movie or chill, mostly chill. One Tuesday, he brought home 2kgs of cake and they had so much fun -read- noise, Makena joined them. She never got over the fact that her parents would and had been indulging in good things without her.
When Makena was three, Stephanie added organizing academics into her role. When she was 5, one day after school, she returned with a looming heaviness around her. She would hold on to this mood for a day longer. Stephanie tried to get her daughter to speak, she surrounded her with love and when it didn’t work, she allowed the mood to linger. The next day, Anton was deliberately home early for dinner, and while at the table, Makena said, “Papa, why is my hair different from other kids at school?”
“Because you are different and it’s a good thing. We are all made differently.” Anton had answered. “Then why are there no barbie dolls that look like me.”
“Honey, who told you that?” Stephanie had interjected. “Melody, she sits behind me at school.”
“There are dolls that look like you baby girl. Even better than dolls, there are people who look like you. Just because the majority of people don’t look like you doesn’t make you any more or less a person. We are all different and in there lay our uniqueness.” Her mom had said as she gently poked Makena’s chest using her index finger.
“I am unique?”
“Yes baby, you are,” she reassured her while gently stroking her hair.
The next day, Anton spent the larger part of his day scouting for black barbie dolls, but his efforts met a dead end. It didn’t surprise him much but the profiling and racism was an unpleasant one. So, he visited his daughter’s teacher and they promised to implement some changes. He also made a promise to Makena that they would visit Kenya. She was elated.
At the beginning of Spring, Anton was home on medical leave. The day was warm with just the right amount of wetness. He was on a call with his brother and Stephanie was baking pizza in the kitchen. At some point, she stared out into her backyard where Makena was playing with three of her friends. The giggles from the children were radiant and as they wended their way through the humid air, they created a ripple effect of mirth. A cheerfulness that could be seen even on the red tulips that had set off on a journey to kiss the sky.
But, the tulips were not the only ones raising themselves from the ground that day. Stephanie was on a stool trying to access one of the high shelves where she had stored the pizza plate. Unfortunately, while climbing down, she missed the surface and landed on the floor. The thud, was loud enough to capture Anton’s attention but low enough to not disrupt the kids. Anton helped her up and massaged her knee, which was the only part that was hurt, and took over the baking with the help of Stephanie.
The pain on her knee was occasional and sudden: not enough to complain about but equally too much to ignore. When she had had enough and the regular painkillers were not working, Anton took her to the hospital. She was given medication including very strong painkillers.
Life moved on. The general buzz of a happy home. Anton was working, Makena was being a child and Stephanie was running the home. Except she had a new activity in her schedule, popping pills. At first, to kill the pain. To help with the cohesion between her bone and blood. Then slowly, she needed the pain killers to help with cohesion between the brain and the body. She needed more than her prescription and every decision in her daily routine ended at her getting the pills, one way or the other.
But nobody noticed, not even Stephanie. In her mind, she had it under control.
Unbeknownst to her, she was about to find out just how much control she had. At the beginning of summer, they always went camping. It was a three days camping and Makena would be left at her best friend’s home. As was the ritual, they used a bus to get to the camping site. However, in the summer of 2018, their luggage was misplaced, they had to wait for a day before they could it get back.
That night, she was unsettled, constantly asking about the luggage. She had not popped her pills and her mind was clamoring for some high. The next day, early morning, the luggage was delivered. Anton was grilling some sausages when Stephanie began to tremble, then vomit and within 5 minutes she had a seizure.
She was rushed to the hospital and the diagnosis was overdosing on Fentanyl. In the doctor’s office, as he discussed her addiction, Anton was trapped in a loop of “How did I not see it?”
How did he miss that for 5 months his wife was abusing drugs? What were the signs? Was it how she had stopped baking? Or how she was frequently irritable. Maybe he should have noticed that she stayed awake longer even after he had retired to bed. How she had stopped talking of the small things that excited her, like the color of the sky at night or of the flowers in the backyard. Sure, he had seen her flinch at a sudden crippling pain, but she had assured him it was getting better. Matter of fact, for the past one month she had not complained of any pain.
“The two of you should consider signing her up for Rehab,” The doctor had said.
When they went back home, Stephanie insisted that her overdose was a one-time thing. That she had it under control and was it not for the pain, she would not need the drugs. Anton tried tiptoeing around the issue, but it always ended in a fight.
Three months passed and they left behind their fair share of challenges. Stephanie’s addiction was getting worse. More and more money was disappearing from the purse and the fights were on the rise. She was easily irritated and would quarrel often. Makena would constantly cry when the dad left for work. One day, Stephanie overdosed on the pills. Anton would find her collapsed on the couch after he had to leave work early to pick Makena from school. She had been left alone for two hours. Shaken and traumatized.
After the fight that night, Stephanie ran away. There were Rumors that she had been seen at a market gate where dealers and addicts were known to operate. However, Anton’s efforts to get to Stephanie were futile.
One week later, she returned home, a skeleton of herself. She had lost weight and grace. The light in her eyes was on rushed downward trajectory. Her voice was lethargic and she could barely construct a sentence. Anton was beyond broken, but it was not a good time to show. He took her in, cleaned and fed her. He was a believer, that the worst wounds are healed by love and compassion. So he loved her in the ways he had done before, perhaps even more intensely.
But not even love could take Stephanie out of her addiction, it helped for a day or two, but the relapse was bound to happen and it did not fail. When love was not working, Anton tried tough love. He cut her off finances, rather, whatever she needed they would get it together. But this only made things worse. Stephanie was determined to get high, even if it meant selling household items. She had turned to a cheaper option of the pills, Heroin
Anton was running out of patience, he was frustrated. One day Stephanie would swear she is clean and the next he would find her on the floor, her jaw dropped as though she was dead. Even though the lies were right in front of him, he wanted to believe her. To believe that every time was the last time. That she was clean, that she was willing to return to the woman he had fallen in love with. That she would consider rehabilitation. But they were lies. And that’s the thing with addicts, they have no clue that they are addicts, and if they do they refuse to believe it. Instead, they make up lies to justify their use, to fuel it, so much that the truth is elusive.
When there was nothing else to sell, Stephanie ran away. Her transition to street life was smooth, as though that was her long-forgotten home and it had come calling. She lived in a tent behind the market where she would share dirty needles with other addicts. But being black, homeless and an addict meant that she survived by a whisker. Every day that she roamed the streets and abused drugs, was a day closer to her death. But isn’t that the fate for all of us – the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor?
By day, Anton was an engineer, by evening, he searched the streets for his wife and at dusk, he was a dad and a mom. Sometimes he would have to answer questions like “When will mom return?” He lied to Makena, so much that he was beginning to believe the lies. That Stephanie had left for a short trip and would return.
On lucky days, Stephanie would allow Anton to find her. She was always in torn clothes, sometimes in a jacket but most times she was cold. Her hair had gathered up in soft tufts and occasionally she would cover it up in old ugly wigs which she had collected. She had scars and wounds, some from the injections and others from what looked like a fight.
Anton would bring her clothes, food, love, blueberries and a smile. Same smile that she had gradually come to love. He figured, if indeed it was his good luck charm, it would surely bring his wife back. He would sit with her, watch and listen to her. She was emotionally deluded and her speech was not coherent. She talked of things that did not exist. Almost as if, she had a whole new world in her mind. There are days she would stare back at Anton, especially at his smile. Then there are days she looked away, like she would rather not be there. Like she would rather be in her kitchen baking for her daughter. Like she wanted to escape the mental captivity as bad as Anton wanted that for her, perhaps, even more badly than he did. On those days, she would grab the blueberries, stare into them and say, “There is no colour, no colour.”
Such days would fun the flame of hope in Anton. To see her connected to reality albeit a little, was all the hope he needed to know that she was still in there. Because even though hope is bad thing, sometimes we need bad things to keep us from dying.
But not all days were good, sometimes when Anton tried to approach her, she would create a scene by screaming and shouting obscenities at him. Other days, she would disappear for almost a week. At first, her disappearance would get to him, then slowly, he normalized the pain, since every time she disappeared, she would show up, eventually.
However, when she went missing this time, she did not come back. A week passed, then a month, then two. There were whispers, some said she had been deported, others claimed she was in jail, while others, she had been trafficked like other homeless women before her. Every day, he looked for her like it was the first time. He talked to every homeless person, every drug addict, every prostitute. He even tried approaching the drug lords. When he was convinced she was not on the streets, he looked for her in police stations. At some point, he toyed with the idea of searching for her in the morgues but he couldn’t get through with it. He knew he wouldn’t survive it, and if indeed she was dead, he postponed his grief.
Anton used money, influence, words, tears, strength and prayers to look for his wife. He knocked on all the doors, listened any advice and clang on people’s words. Even that didn’t bring Stephanie home. Gradually the flame of hope was dimming. Darkness was waiting at the corner, hungry and excited to engulf him. Someone can only take so much, and Anton is not an exception. Four months of searching, four months of false hope. He stopped.
He walked right into darkness and took a seat next to the door. He did not want his grief to miss him and neither did he want to give it a hard time searching. I mean, he had already taken one for the team. His days became long, waking up was more of a negotiation than an order. And his nights were longer. Everything reminded him of her. The side of her bed cold and untouched, the scent of baking which had since colonized their home’s aura. Maybe it was Makena’s eyes, eyes she had borrowed from his wife. He was not living, he was existing; every minute not sure he would breath the next.
Until one day, one of his days was shorter. It was on a Tuesday morning. The nanny was getting Makena ready for school. There was a knock on the door. Standing on the other side, was Stephanie. She looked aged and tired. She was dressed in an old smile but what she needed was Anton’s smile. She needed warmth and humanity.
“I brought you some cupcakes,” She said stretching out a pack of four blueberry cupcakes. Anton took a step closer to her, stretched out his hands and collapsed her hands and cupcakes in his embrace. An embrace with an overload of pain and an equal amount of love. In between the hugging, Stephanie broke down first and said, “I am ready for the rehab.”
“Let’s bring color back into your eyes,” Anton replied as he fought to keep his eyes dry.
Photo Courtesy: Google: Harvard Health-Harvard University.
Hello, it’s me, again. I know I know, I ghosted ya’ll, left you high and dry. You probably don’t want to see me right now. Hear me out though, so, I might have gotten myself into a relationship that I would describe as demanding. Four years long. So it kept calling and calling and eventually, I decided to give it my undivided attention. My undergraduate studies came calling, and when you have invested in something, it’s only right you give it your all. Right?
Happy reading gang! I missed you so much.