The smell of gasoline so soon after breakfast makes my stomach roil. We are at a gas station off Waiyaki way filling up for a trip over the long weekend. It is Kagwe’s idea to drive down to Nakuru for an evening game drive and spend the night. Tomorrow we’re heading over to Elementaita for a rest day that involves shooting lots of flamingo photos for the Gram. Then we’ll load up on carbs for a hike at Hell’s Gate the next day, and maybe take a boat trip on Lake Naivasha if we’re feeling it. He has the itinerary all mapped out in his head. He has even booked some cool Airbnbs because the last time we went on vacation, the hotel food made me sick and we had to fly home early.
“All you have to do is sit pretty and try not to cringe when I’m overtaking long trucks,” he says.
That last bit is going to be a challenge because Kagwe clocks so much time in airspace, he forgets that there’s no traffic control tower for Kenyan roads. Other than that, it sounds like non-fattening butterscotch ice cream – perfect. What could go wrong?
There is this four-hour playlist that Kagwe brings on every road trip. It starts with P-Square’s Ifunanya (because like Kenya’s music industry, he was going through a phase at the time). About two hours in, Wahu’s Still a Liar comes on and he skips over it every time because he just won’t clean up the damn playlist. If I have to listen to him sing hapo vipi, hapo sawa one more time…I unhook the flash drive and for a split second contemplate throwing it out of the window, but settle on hooking up my phone instead. I’m scrolling past all my girl power songs when a notification from Uber pops up. Going out this evening? Nah fam. Going out of town this – hold up! Uber catalogues your trips, doesn’t it?
I glance outside. Kagwe is buying a new can of engine oil. He is explaining to the gas station attendant in vivid detail why it absolutely has to be the 5W-30. His phone is resting on the center console with a look that says, “I know something you don’t know, and I’ve got something to tell ya!” What are the ethical implications of going through – ah hell! There’s not enough time for this.
I grab the phone and navigate to the Uber app. When Kagwe comes back in, the phone is back in place but my fingers are shaking like a coin on a running generator.
My face feels cold and numb, as if I had a Botox injection go wrong. I clench my fists and smooth my palms over my lap. “The smell of petrol is making me sick.”
“Pole,” he says, rubbing the back of my palm with his thumb. “We won’t have to stop for gas again.”
He makes conversation the rest of the way and I try to keep up, fake smiling so much that my jaw starts hurting. Every time we drive by the Rift Valley viewpoint, we make a game of who will spot the satellites first. This time we drive by in silence and I realize that my sullen mood is starting to permeate the air between us. I can’t seem to get out of my head though. I fixate on the thoughts careening round the circuits of my mind like a destination f****d compilation – I can’t peel my attention away.
My nostrils remain indifferent to the fresh, piney smells of Kinare Forest and the dung of the braying donkeys at Flyover. I stare unseeingly at the elaborate irrigation jets in the Delamere farm, the red-butted baboons of Gilgil and the sprawling town of Kikopey, now barely recognizable from when we used to go there as children in the nineties.
So the text read ‘thanks for Ubering me home’ after all. It must have, since there are Uber trips to Nyayo Embakasi on three different Thursdays. Was he home? Do I have the timelines wrong?
“What’s up?” he asks for the third time since morning.
It is 9:46 AM, and the clouds have started making way for the famous Rift Valley sun in all her scorching beauty. I flip the sun visor to the side and serve up an excuse about breakfast not sitting well.
He points to a shopping bag in the back seat. “I got you that lime juice you like. It helps, right?”
A lump swells in my throat as I reach for it. I have to pretend that I can’t find it for a minute just to still myself. This trip is perfect and I am ruining it. So he had a few drinks with this cherry woman. What of it? I don’t need to know everything that happened in between. Maybe not everything needs to be known. Magdalene’s Baby Daddy doesn’t know she switched their son from the school he insisted on last term. Nancy’s husband doesn’t know that she smokes half a pack of cigarettes on Whiskey Wednesdays. Hell, Kagwe doesn’t know about that plot at Kamakis that mom convinced me to buy. The larger portion of matter in the universe is invisible and nobody is wrecking their vacation with a husband who remembers to buy them lime juice for their carsickness over it. He thought of everything! Sigh. Get a grip, Njambi.
I down the lime juice and the sugar rush makes me feel better but somewhere around the Soysambu Conservancy, I crush. When I awake, we are on the outskirts of Nakuru town. We check into our Airbnb a few minutes later, and grab an early lunch before heading to the park late in the afternoon. I manage to maintain my newly found, sunny disposition, especially when we are assigned a chirpy, little bird called Joanne as our tour guide. She is plump-full of anecdotes and has an unsettling ease with dark humor. I suspect her phone is filled entirely with Hitler memes.
She tells us all about the pollution of Lake Nakuru after breaking the news that we are going to miss what was once a spectacular show of flamingoes. Lake Nakuru and my marriage can trade war stories about losing their glow over a glass of bourbon. Just like that, my chest starts to feel like it will cave in on itself again. I start to feel even more depressed when we pass by a buffalo carcass but find no lions in sight. Even the black rhino, which we are told is endangered, refuses to come out from behind the forest foliage.
Our young tour guide assures us that we will catch them later in the evening. After driving around in circles and running into the same giraffe Joanne said has better eyelashes than mine four times, we head out with our necks hanging low. (She said J.K right afterwards even though I am certain she wasn’t kidding).
Back at the Airbnb, we wash the dust off our eyelids and microwave our precooked dinner. We’re too exhausted to talk much so we just look at the day’s pictures and upload some carefully curated ones on Instagram (#vacay). In bed, I have trouble sleeping because the mattress is dipping to the middle and it feels like we are sleeping on a slope that we have to scale out of every thirty-nine minutes. The light is coming from the wrong side of the room, we are holding court with a swarm of mosquitoes on the other side of the net, and it is too quiet. Why is it so quiet?
It takes me a moment to figure out what’s missing – Kagwe’s snoring. He is sleeping on his side, turned away from me. For the next few hours, I toss and turn. It is excruciating to be so tired yet sleepless. I have this pain all over my chest that feels like my lungs are dry, like I’m drowning in hot air. Eventually I flutter my eyelids open and allow the darkness to look me in the eye. My inside voice drones on. I finally decide to do something when I find myself getting emotional about that season in Family Guy when they killed Brian, (the dog), and replaced him with a brown, waggy dog without a personality.
Kagwe turns for the first time in hours. How can he get such restful sleep when I am lying here on the verge of capitulating to madness? The pain in my chest flares. I try to shake him awake but he just grunts and sets off the snores. I shake him harder and then slap him ungently on the chest.
He wakes up with a start. “Huh? What?”
“Wake up,” I say.
“I can’t sleep.”
He lets out a sigh that turns into a yawn and then he’s back to snoring.
I slip out of bed, set water on the stove and rummage through the shopping bags for chamomile tea. Then I throw on a scarf and go to the balcony overlooking the park with my hot mug. I am watching this brown butterfly dancing around the security light, when a quote I once read sticks its neck out from the grasslands of my mind. ‘If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ I came by it when my Philosophy professor assigned us a group paper on Friedrich Nietzsche or Fredrick Nish as he used to call him. Of course, at the time I thought it was all very banal. Most of it passed right over my head, but you know what they say about knowledge gained; it is never lost.
There, in the dead of night, an epiphany comes to me. I have focused so long on something Kagwe may or may not have done that it has brought unhappiness to my doorstep. At present, I am the source of my own strife. All I have to do to transcend this situation is stop looking into the abyss. Starting now.6