We’re seated in a small ballroom in Kilimani quaffing glasses of box wine before the open bar closes. Nancy and I forked up a ton of cash for this women’s seminar. The spirit of it is to have raw and candid conversations about the men in our lives. We are eating at these dark, oak tables juxtaposed against ivory, leather chairs like proper royalty at high tea.
Elaborate, crystal chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings give the room an elegant feel. The walls are painted gold and red coral, blending seamlessly with the intricately woven carpet. The wood paneling is embossed with geometric patterns that match the stained glass windows. The atmosphere is buzzing with shrill conversation and ephemeral camaraderie induced by the previous speaker’s indictment of women who tear other women down.
On the dais, one of the organizers places a solitary chair for the last speaker. The sharply dressed waiters are now serving the last round of wine and dessert. There’s talk of calorie-counting and cheat days as the women place frantic orders for the last of the chocolate fudge cake. Few notice the woman dressed in all black, amble onto the stage. She smoothens the creases on her satin dress and crosses her legs at the ankles. The veiled hat partially obscuring her face and the smoky lipstick on her full lips give her an aura of mystery. She taps the ear set mic with her gloved hand then clears her throat.
“I am a middle child,” she says without preamble. “I have an older sister and a younger brother. My sister enjoys first-born rights and the crown of daddy’s girl. My brother enjoys last-born rights; the crown of mama’s boy and of course, the title of the only boy.”
Her voice is soft and mischievous but her gestures are boisterous. I recognize her immediately and nudge Nancy.
“You didn’t tell me Magdalene was speak – ”
“Sssh! Njambi, don’t say her name out loud,” Nancy says.
The women at our table turn to look at us.
I smile at the women politely and turn my attention back on stage.
“The running theme in my life has been floating in the middle. There are no middle child rights. I lived most of my life pining for my parents’ attention until eventually I settled for what I got. It is how I grew up and it is what I know. Given that tonight’s theme is ‘the men in our lives’, you can guess where my floating middle ground has been,” Magdalene says.
Half the room lets out a collective ‘mmh?’ A murmur erupts, some women asking what she means while their tablemates shake their heads. I turn towards Nancy to confirm my theory but she is so fixated on the stage that I take pause.
“For those of you who haven’t caught up yet, this is a story about my experience as the other woman. You can call me… Jezebel.”
The clink of glasses and cutlery ceases and silence takes a hold of the room. Nancy turns back to me now. I understand. Magdalene has ventured behind enemy lines. It takes no little pluck to sit in a roomful of married women and admit that she was once the other woman.
“Now before you brand me a home wrecking, gold-digger, I should also tell you that I am a Senior Client Relationship Manager at a local bank.”
Magdalene is one of my oldest friends from university. She is smart, sassy, spirited and loves chunky scarves and calf-length boots to a fault. Nancy and I always tease her about ending up in a rigid banking career instead of something more suited to her personality, like fashion or interior design. She worked her way up from a Bank Teller position straight out of high school. The bank sponsored her for a business degree and then an MBA over the years. She has been working there for thirteen years now.
“So by all accounts, I am a successful woman,” she says.
“Independent woman, wooooh!” someone cheers from the crowd. The wine has gone straight for the screws of her tongue.
“Well, I don’t know about independent,” Magdalene says. “And I’ll tell you why in a bit, but right now, let me tell you a little bit more about my dating life.”
She stands up and starts pacing about the dais. “I don’t know how many of you have had this experience. I have one of those bodies that for some reason only attract older men.”
Laughter roars hardest from this one table where all the snidest women at this seminar must be sitting.
“It is true,” she says. She poises herself for scrutiny from the crowd. She has a bosom so ample that she looks like she’s going to tip over the front any moment, more so because she’s rocking platform heels. Her cleavage is like an eclipse. Only a slit of it is revealed yet it is so ensnaring and bodacious that it blinds you to everything else about her. Her legs are long, slim and perfect for Daisy Dukes.
“It’s not that I never tried dating men my own age. There was just something off, you know. Because I worked my way through campus, I would find myself paying the bill most of the time… and then all of the time. I became a bona fide cougar at the ripe old age of twenty four.”
We all laugh, some harder than others. I suspect there are some camouflaged cougars in our midst.
“I also worked in a corporate setting where I met my fair share of older men who wanted to ‘help me’ climb the corporate ladder,” she pauses to make air quotes. “Most of them were married with kids almost as old as I was. That was always out in the open. In fact, they swore on the honour of their wives that they had noble intentions.”
The more reserved women find this unamusing. They stoop over the tables in scowls, taking uneasy sips of water and jabbing at their teeth with toothpicks.
“This is how it usually goes. First, they take you to an obscure location, by design. Not only so that they don’t run into someone they know, but also because you are more likely to be pliable in unfamiliar territory. You go through the usual motions. They say, ‘Order anything you want,’ but are utterly dismayed when you order a packet of guava juice. They’ve done it enough times to know that juice goes straight to the bladder though, so they wait. Until you go to the ladies’ room. Then they order you vodka and have the waiter pop it open, counting on your politeness not to let it go to waste. They proceed to pour your drink every two sips, urging you on and when they feel that they have sufficiently disarmed you, they move closer. They stick a prying finger on the inside of your palm and say, ‘I am harmless.’”
“I am harmless,” she says, this time doing a male impression. “Ladies, these are your husbands,” she says.
“Nooo!” we protest even though we all relate.
“That’s when you know it’s time to leave. So then I met this man, who by all indications was not married. He didn’t have a ring on his finger or any sign that he had ever worn a ring in his life. On the day we met, there was a torrential downpour and you know how it gets when it rains in Nairobi. He offered me a lift and dropped me off at Parklands where I was living at the time. He lived on the opposite side of town but he said that he occasionally came to the sauna at a sports club nearby. So when he asked if he could call me when he was in the area, of course I gave him my number – out of gratitude.
“That call came about two months later. We went out a couple of times on these well-thought-out dates. When I arrived he’d always have two venue options for me to choose from. He never once asked me, ‘So where do you want to go?’ There was no thirty-minute debate about what to order. He didn’t suddenly need to take an eternal phone call when the bill came… By the fourth date, I started to get antsy. He was a hard man to get to know and I was naïve enough to chalk it up to mystique. You know how we like to rationalize things.”
The audience nods in agreement.
“I looked around his car for any sign of a woman in his life – a make-up mirror, an old tube of lip gloss, Nivea stick… Ladies, leave something in your man’s car. Something indisputable, like a hairbrush. Not an afro comb or a jolly comb. A hairbrush, you know the one for your weave, the round one with long bristles?”
“What if you have dreadlocks?” the woman from before asks.
“Leave a tab of beeswax,” another says.
When the hysterics have calmed down, Magdalene resumes.
“I continued seeing this man, until one day he mentioned his wife in casual conversation, again by design. He had already figured me out. He could tell that I had lurched on and that I wasn’t going to let go. So he sat me down and we made a clinical decision. He needed me to be fun and easy-going and because all my life – this is where my upbringing comes in – I was used to always coming second to someone else, it felt normal to me. I was mostly self-sufficient, financially independent but emotionally codependent.
“It worked out for a while, until I fell pregnant. And the thing about pregnancy is, for some reason, people lose all sobriety around you. Your bosses…your friends…All your boundaries come crashing down. At every turn, someone at the office or at church was asking me, ‘Who’s the daddy?’ Especially because I hid it from everyone the first five months. After my first ultrasound, I told the man that I was having his son and he seemed pleased enough. Of course we couldn’t go out drinking anymore and talk of prenatal vitamins and amino acids was no longer stimulating conversation.”
She falters. That part of the story is still raw for her.
“The idea of bringing a child into the world seized me in unexpected ways. I had never questioned why his life took precedence over mine or why I always put his needs before my own. But I started to do so and I realized that I hadn’t mastered this in my childhood. I never learned that self-care isn’t selfish.
“Even though I had this realization, the actual process of extricating myself from this man’s spell – and I don’t use that word lightly – was a herculean task. But sometimes, when you are desperate enough, you ask the universe for help and you don’t get to question in what form it comes.
“So this is what happened. Allow me to paint the picture for you. I am at Capital Centre because a friend has told me that there’s a maternity store there selling body pillows. I am eight months pregnant and I should tell you that my pregnancy was not a pretty affair. My back is killing me, I haven’t slept well in weeks and my skin has darkened. I’m wearing the ugliest, yellow crocs you have ever seen because my legs have swollen terribly.
“I’m waddling across the parking lot, wrestling this huge body pillow and who do I see? Just a few cars over is this man’s car – a 2005 Land Rover Freelander, know it like the back of my hand. He’s standing outside the boot and there’s a lady next to him unloading their shopping from a cart. In this shopping cart is this cute, baby girl in a pink dress and a pink bow on her bobbing head kicking her legs about. His wife is a tall, waify thing, has the kind of elbows that bend a little too much inwards, you know? When she smiles, she has a mouth full of teeth, the most earnest smile you will ever see. She looks like the kind of girl the women at this table made fun of in high school.”
The women at the mean table laugh, oblivious of the jab she’s taken at them.
“In the span of the maybe twenty seconds I was looking at them, the baby throws something out of the cart. His wife reaches for it but the man quickly offers to pick it up and she looks just positively delighted. I saw a look in him that I had never seen before. I could tell that despite his own issues, that kept him from loving her right, he did indeed love her. She got everything he could give. And that was my turning point. I run out of there, well, hobbled out of there since I was very, very pregnant and never looked back.
“The moral of my story is – ”
“Leave a hairbrush in your man’s car!” a woman at our table says louder than she intended.
A lighter mood takes over the room again.
“Well there’s that,” Magdalene laughs. “Today, my son is four years old. He is the main man in my life. If I meet the proverbial Mr. Right, I hope for a healthy and balanced relationship. In the meantime, I am working on putting myself first. Thank you.”
She leaves the stage to an ambivalent applause.13