“Obscure Sorrows” by Ndinda Kioko

The day Tito Telagat wrote to me, saying he’d been sleeping with my husband of one year, I was thinking about my knees, which have always had scars.

On the email, Tito Telagat had attached a picture of the two of them sitting on the edge of a bed, my husband half-dressed or half-naked, his hand on his lover’s knee. I’d just woken up, and there was music coming from a radio I couldn’t remember switching on.

For the rest of the morning, I sat in bed staring at Tito’s knees. How small, how beautiful, how soft they looked under my husband’s palm. There wasn’t a single hint of life’s wear on his skin.

Later that evening when my husband came home, I said nothing about the lover or his beautiful knees. I let the news sit at the roof of my throat, suspended, and listened to the unvarying rituals of his evening. There was the carefulness with which he turned the doorknob like a thief, a touch that was almost not there. It was light. Like a soft wind on sand. There was the sudden loudness of the door opening. Then, the weight of his boots on the wooden floor. He walked in, leaned over and kissed me in practiced motions. His right hand rested lightly on my forehead in that soft way he’d always been with me, and the other loosened the buttons on his shirt without looking..

Then he sighed. He was home, away from it all.

My husband was in his late-thirties, and like most Nairobians in their late thirties, he was becoming more disappointed with the state of the country. In these first few minutes, he complained about the unending traffic on Ngong Road, the heat, the noise, the increasing lack of personal space, and three short men he worked with who drank cheap whiskey and talked a lot. Then, he collapsed on the sofa and slept, his head resting on my thigh.

It was a restless nap, and as I sat there watching him, I wondered if he knew about the email from Tito Telagat. But my husband had always been a restless man, even in sleep. On several occasions, he’d woken up screaming about being stuck in a hole with a tangled mass of snakes. Once, he was so convinced about the snakes being there that he tore through the mattress with a knife.

Other times, he’d forget I was sleeping next to him, and when I moved or came back to bed from the bathroom in the middle of the night, he’d scream in terror.

Later that night—the night of Tito Telagat’s email—when I moved to change the TV channel, my husband woke up startled. He pulled me to him, still half asleep, and took me silently with his eyes closed. He slept almost immediately after.

I lay on my back with my legs raised, listening to my body and that upsetting stillness of the room. There was a cold breeze coming in through an open window. I watched the curtains move like waves. When I was sure my legs had been up long enough, I closed the window and rested my head on my husband’s chest.

We were trying to get pregnant, my husband and I. We scheduled sex like business meetings. We predicted what the body might do, observing it the same way farmers test the wind with their hands. My husband’s sister had told us about the leg trick. She said, once we’d done our business, and my husband had finished inside me, we were to defy gravity, trap those little critters in for as long as possible. So, after sex, I lay back—legs pointed to the ceiling—until I was sure those little critters had travelled up, trapped in my depths.

I too was in my thirties, and my body had become a thing with its own capacities, like a teacup. A part of me had always envied snakes, that ability to slither out of one’s skin, to renew themselves.

We weren’t dying for the baby, but there were enough reasons to have one. The first time I mentioned the baby to my husband, he nodded and said it made sense. I’d moved back to Nairobi after five years in Joburg, and jobs weren’t forthcoming. I had a master’s degree in education, and half a PhD after quitting two years into it, but so did half the city.

One potential employer for a sales job in Westlands wanted to know what I really had in me to qualify for a job. What made me so special? When I showed him my papers, he flipped through the file I’d carefully prepared without resting his eye on a single page, then winced as he put it on the side, as if the mere act of holding the file had caused him inconceivable pain.

He said a degree was nothing.

Everyone had one these days, even those selling roasted maize on the street. You could wake up one day and decide, I feel like a PhD today, then find someone on River Road with a creative mind and a working printer.

The last time I attended a job interview—the third one that week—the man behind the desk suggested I read Nicholas Boothman’s How to Make People like you in 90 Seconds or Less.

So, I needed something to fill my days, something to do.

Or perhaps, it was my dislike for this city I loved once, that eternal loneliness of Nairobi, the endless dizziness I felt each time I stepped out of the house, the unbearable hooting, the monuments of men, the masses of people hurrying with somewhere to be and things to do. Time was always moving, the clock constantly rotating. Builders laid down foundations for new buildings, and I watched them to their completion. Lovers I eavesdropped on in the bus made plans to meet again another time. A road was closed for renovations, then reopened. The city was constantly in motion, and I was outside of it. What I wanted was to fling myself right in the middle, to be part of this madness. And so, I thought these anxieties could be lightened by the arrival of something new, like a baby.

* * *

In the days following the email from my husband’s lover Tito Telagat, I became obsessed with him. Every morning after my husband left for work, I spent most of my day piecing together Tito Telagat’s life.

An email address was enough. I collected every bit of him available on the Internet. Tito Telagat was not his real name. He was a skinny man who liked his blue shirts on blue pants. He drove a blue Subaru. He loved Whitecap beer and was often photographed raising his beer bottle to the camera. He had an obsession for fabrics and the textures on leaves. He was the kind of person who liked camping. I preferred comfort, rugs that felt soft under my feet and warm food. He’d been to the big cities, and was planning on visiting Berlin the year after. On his social media, he quoted a lot of Joel Osteen. He liked to take pictures with only one side of his face. He disliked raisins, which is something we shared, beyond my husband.

I constructed my version of their affair.

They must have met when I was still in Joburg. I too had once or twice thought of getting a lover for the time being. I might have kissed a couple of people and a friend’s dog at a New Year’s party. From time to time, one needs to feel the warmth of another body, to be reminded of the blood flowing in them. At times during these first six years of our long-distance relationship, I forgot what it must feel like to be touched. I worried if people hugged me or stood too close, my body might twitch in response to this closeness.

My husband and Tito Telagat must have met in the evening while it was raining. Rainy evenings in Nairobi aroused my husband. The sound of rain on the window, he said, always intensified the moment. It made everything good.

I thought of my husband standing by his lover’s door, waiting to be let in. I thought of Tito Telagat pausing briefly on the other side of the closed door, turning around to make sure the house was ready for my husband, that the glass of water was where he needed it to be, and there was enough room between the sofa and the coffee table for them to sit or stand, and then satisfied, finally opening the door to meet his lover, my husband.

I thought of Tito Telagat and my husband standing there looking at each other with the shyness of new lovers, that hesitation after having not seen each other for a while, before a lover’s hand reaches out to touch their lover’s face. I saw them as though they were standing next to me, and I could almost breathe their air.

What did they do once this brief uncomfortable moment had passed? What did they say to one another?

I saw them, and they were beautiful.

I thought of my husband’s hand on his lover’s knees. It was difficult imagining Tito Telagat naked, so I imagined only my husband. It was a nakedness familiar to me. I thought of all the ways they might have had each other. I wondered if like us, they were quiet too. The lovers stayed in my mind for as long as I wanted them to, and then I let them recede slowly like the end of a song.

* * *

My husband and I had fallen in love on the dance floor—the same way I fell in love with most lovers—a night before I left Nairobi for Joburg.

He was a kind man who wrote his own horoscopes. When I took him to my apartment that first night, he said I spoke in superlatives. The music was always too awful. Things were too expensive. The food was the worst thing I’d ever eaten. The book I’d just finished reading was unreadable.

We connected over our shared detachment from family and a deep-seated hatred for definitions and binaries of any kind. We were neither this nor that.

For the six years we dated, time spent together was brief and experienced in chunks. He preferred to visit me in Joburg. When we met, he was a creative director for an up and coming advertising agency in Nairobi.

What I loved and hated about these first years was the constant battle against time, the anxieties of departure, starting at the moment I picked him up from the airport, and then, the fullness of that week.

Whenever he visited me in Joburg, we had only one plan—to live now, to inhabit this moment and only this moment alone, to make as many memories as possible.

There was no other life but this. We were here, now. And so we gnawed on every bit of beauty, leaving nothing on the bone. We’d catch ourselves somewhere in the beginning of an argument, then we’d stop and take a walk or go to a restaurant and eat.

Food filled us.

It calmed us.

Then, we’d go back to my apartment and love fiercely.

We’d become wildfires in the wind, turning each other into ash. When I told him to split me into halves or fold me into shapes, he did. He liked to watch us in the mirror, to see how desire looked like on our faces, how our bodies moved away and back to each other.

Damn, we’re fucking beautiful, he’d say.

Yes, we were. We were beautiful.

We brought ourselves to the brink of animals. We went to sleep knotted around each other, our bruises burning from the salt in our sweat. When we finally slept, our bodies would move slowly away from each other. We’d wake up the next morning on the opposite ends of the bed. Then, he’d pull me back to him.

Once he went back to Nairobi, everything else happened on the phone. We summarized our days into the length of a phone call, presenting only what was necessary. Distance allowed us very little room for detail. The pieces he didn’t give, whatever was half-formed, I provided with my imagination. I’d stay in Joburg, sucked into the dailyness of a communications job I hated, but knowing far and without reach, only until the next airport pickup, was another breathing human, the love of my life.

We never talked about marriage. It was a natural progression. Once, I asked him what the end looked like for us, and he asked what I wanted it to look like. We liked each other. We agreed on most things. We enjoyed each other’s company. The sex was good. Getting married made sense. And so, I moved back to Nairobi without telling my family, and on a Tuesday morning in that cold month of July, we invited two friends who drove the car to Sheria House, and there, we signed the papers.

In the life I envisioned for myself before I met my husband, I was going to finish grad school, meet a man or a woman, and fall in love in a city that loved us too. I was going to earn good money and live deliberately. I was going to be the kind of person who buys a scarf just because it’s the good kind of blue.

Babies were never part of it.

Not since that time I was traveling from Nairobi to see my brother in Ol Donyo Sabuk and sat next to a woman who cradled her baby for the whole length of the journey.

The woman never once looked at the baby, but she sang softly to it all the way. Those of us sitting next to her asked how old the baby was, and when she said three months, we were in awe, as if we couldn’t imagine a baby that young. We asked the driver to turn off the loud music. There was a baby on board, sleeping. We hadn’t seen the baby’s face. We told the woman how beautiful her baby was, how peaceful, what a delicate bundle. For two hours, the baby didn’t move. When the woman stepped out of the bus at the last stop, she threw the delicate bundle of a baby into the arms of a man who’d been waiting, and then she broke down. That’s when we knew the baby had been dead all along.

For a long time, I thought it was impossible to want a baby after seeing a dead one.

* * *

A few days after the first email, Tito Telagat sent another message asking me to tell my husband to call him. It was urgent. This time, he addressed me by my first name. My husband had done something, I could tell by the tone, and his lover was angry.

I started typing an email, asking him to leave us alone, but deleted it. A part of me admired Tito Telagat’s audacity. I considered embracing this new role of an intermediary between my husband and his lover. I didn’t want things to end between Tito Telagat and me. I’d started looking forward to his emails. Something was finally happening, and I was part of it, right there in the middle. Nairobi no longer seemed unbearable.

I don’t remember what we did the evening of the second email after my husband returned from work. There might have been a candle burning somewhere. He must have been home when I received the email, and there might have been the sound of him playing chess on his computer. What I recall is that after this second email, I started wanting the baby more.

Each time my husband was inside me, I prayed.

Fill me up, Dear God, fill me up.

There are times during sex when I could feel my belly slowly swelling. I could feel the baby forming. But as soon as he collapsed on the side and I went to the bathroom, I’d pass gas and the feeling would be gone. I’d sit on the toilet wondering if I should tell him that I knew about Tito Telagat, then I’d decide against it.

If I was going to lose my husband, I wanted this secret between us to remain. Fill me up, I prayed, again and again. Dear God, fill me up. Make me whole.

* * *

For weeks, Tito Telagat didn’t write. At some point, everything my husband did irritated me. I hated how easily he fell in and out of sleep. I hated how he spoke everything twice, repeating for emphasis. Then, he started taking longer in the bathroom. I’d wake up in the middle of night and notice the light. I’d imagine him disappearing with the toilet guck through the pipes. Then, I’d panic and knock to check if he was still there.

I couldn’t stand the silence in the house when he left for work. I’d open the windows to fill the space with the sound of cars and matatus. The living room was suddenly too minimalist. The walls were too bare and too close to each other. At times, it felt as though the walls were trying to crush me. Everything was either strange or in the wrong place. I couldn’t stand those awful mugs we bought from Maasai Market and their arrogant colors. I disliked the mirrors in the bedroom and their forwardness, how they confronted me without warning. The sofa was too hard for my back. I’d always thought that it should have been somewhere in the middle of the room where there was light, but my husband preferred it by the wall where no one could see us through the window.

I forget the time of day, but it was a sunless day in July when I started thinking of leaving my husband. It’d been three months since the first email from Tito Telagat. Each morning and in the evening before I went to sleep, I refreshed my inbox but there was nothing from Tito Telagat. The silence from my husband’s lover was unbearable.

The first time I packed my bags to leave, there was a faint image of my mother in her bedroom, her bags on the bed she shared with my father—my mother who never knew how to stay. I unpacked as fast as I could.

After, there was that constant fear that my husband would wake up one day and take away my secret. He’d finally tell me about Tito Telagat, and that he was in love with his lover.

* * *

Do you feel it? I asked my husband one day.

It was an hour before the city went completely dark, and we were out for dinner at a restaurant in Yaya Centre. For a moment as I watched him eat biriyani with his hands, he appeared so assuredly mine. I was convinced everything else that had happened was a product of my own imagination. He was mine. He was knowable.

Feel what? he asked.

The silence, I said.

I thought you liked the silence. It’s always quiet.

He must have meant the silence in the restaurant, but I was thinking about us. A silence had descended upon us, and there was no telling when it started, or if it’d always been there. That same night he took me again as he had done on other nights, so quietly I couldn’t hear our breathing. Unlike other nights, he didn’t finish inside me, and apologized for it.

I’m just tired, he said.

He wanted to sleep, and I wondered if he was also tired of this, of us.

The last time Tito Telagat emailed, my husband and I stopped trying for a baby. In the email, he apologized for finding me in the first place, and for sending the emails. He said whatever was going on between him and my husband was over. It was the last time I ever heard from him. I was in the bathroom when I received the email and my husband was sitting by his computer, playing chess. I remember him facing the general direction of the bathroom without really looking at me, his right hand on the mouse.

Maybe we should stop, he said.


The baby thing.


Aren’t you tired?

I said nothing and stood by the mirror for a while. Then, I walked into the bedroom and spread out three dresses. My husband didn’t follow me, not right away. I could hear the mouse click as he moved his chess pieces on the screen. I took a scissors from his drawer and cut the dresses into neat pieces like kale.

It wasn’t anger I felt that night, but there was a pressing need to know when things had turned around for us. Was it the argument in the bus from Kilifi? Was it that night we argued about a food blogger whose name I can’t recall? There’s a time in our first week of marriage when—as we walked along the crowded Moi Avenue—I let go of his hand for a couple behind us to pass. He was livid. Don’t ever do that again, he said. Was that the moment? Or was it a moment so brief, so forgettable that none of us noticed? I wanted to find the pieces and arrange them until they fit into each other like the parts of a corner.

He came to the room, and seeing the mess on the bed, asked what was wrong. I said nothing and kissed him.

That night, his hands were rough on me. There was something very final about this moment. My husband pulled my face to him and kissed me gently and then harder. He turned me over and watched us in the mirror. Once again, we were at the brink of animals.

Do you like that? he asked.

I said nothing.

His untrimmed nails were inside me, tearing my walls. It hurt like hell. I liked it. When he stopped, I asked him to do it again. I wanted him to grab my throat, and I might have taken his hand and forced it. That night, for the first time, I saw my husband. I saw myself. I saw us in our most human. Unadorned. There was something in us; a silence, something undiscovered that would remain there, buried underneath.

In the dictionary of obscure sorrows, there’s a word for this final moment.

Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker. She has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Oregon. Her works have appeared on several platforms and publications including The Black Warrior Review, The Trans-African, BBC Radio 4, Wasafiri Magazine, Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, and Jalada Africa. She was a winner of the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the Black Warrior Review Fiction Prize. Ndinda has also received support from the Blue Mountain Center and the MacDowell Colony. In 2018-19, she was an Olive B O’Connor Fiction Fellow at Colgate University. Ndinda is currently working on her first novel.


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