For the entire nine months I lived in Nairobi, I slept in a single bed. I had volunteered to move there because my boss said we didn’t have anyone else to cover East Africa. The bureau chief in Capetown guaranteed me at least seven days of work a month for my reporting, a hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.
Newsweek was losing money. Staff reporters who quit were never replaced, women left for maternity leave and didn’t come back, and the editors were more than happy to rely on freelancers to cover stories they couldn’t pick up from the wire services. I packed one suitcase and paid for my own flight from London. I left behind a group house and a relationship I wouldn’t have found my way out of without the excuse of a transcontinental move. I had never been to Africa.
Through friends of friends, I found a room in a shared apartment in a small complex in Kileleshwa, and I kept the address on the piece of paper folded in the front pocket of my backpack the entire trip. My flight landed early on a Saturday morning, and the taxi from the airport took over an hour. Miles of slow traffic on crumbling roads wound around concrete apartment blocks and shopping centers. The smog of burnt gasoline was so dense I could taste it on my teeth. It was colder than I had expected. People in sweaters walked barefoot on the dirt shoulder just inches away from the cars, and when we stopped at a light, someone knocked on my window offering DVDs and bunches of roses for sale. We passed women with baskets of green bananas balanced on knots of cloth on their heads and babies hammocked tightly onto their backs. The men, light without the weight of such cargo or passengers, walked more quickly, their arms swinging.
The apartment building sat in a quiet suburb with red dirt streets and a Korean church. The taxi driver honked at the guard to roll back the security gate when we arrived. I was here; I’d done it.
Beyond the cement wall that protected our building, yellow-wood and fountain trees bowed over the roads. Inside, the apartment had three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room, and a small balcony that looked over the parking lot. It was a short walk to a nearby stall to buy bottled water and Safaricom top-up cards for our phones. In the evenings, you could see trails of smoke slithering toward the sky where people in the surrounding neighborhoods burned their garbage.
My flatmate Georgina loved that balcony. She had already been living in the apartment for a year when I arrived. She was half-Welsh, half-French with blonde hair down to her waist. She called her afternoon drinks sundowners, string beans haricot verts, and underwear smalls. She laughed at the tourists who arrived in khaki outfits and hiking boots just to sit inside a jeep on safari. Instead, she wore white stretchy jeans and sparkly ballet flats everywhere she went and the tiniest bikini I’d ever seen. She told me that when she felt stressed she liked to take her fishing rod to the pool and practice casting it out and reeling it in. “It’s one of the loveliest ways to pass the day,” she said.
The Finnish girl that lived in my room before me had moved to Zanzibar to be with her boyfriend who flew planes for Ethiopian Airlines. What a world to enter, I thought, where girls wore gold slippers on safari, people practiced reeling in invisible fish to pass the day, and boyfriends worked as pilots.
* * *
When I arrived at the end of July, Georgina and I had just a week to get to know each other before she left to spend August in France with her parents and sister. She had arranged for a guy she knew from Cambridge to sublet her room. He had a month-long internship with the United Nations, which had several of its agencies headquartered in Gigiri, about a half-hour to hour-long drive from us, depending on traffic.
“You’ll love Russ,” she said over drinks on our little balcony before he arrived. “He’s such a laugh.”
I had no reason not to believe Georgina that I’d like him, but I felt a little disappointed that she was leaving so soon after my arrival. We had had a nice few days together, an almost routine of dinners out for Italian or Ethiopian food, and she’d invited me to do her yoga DVD with her, though it never happened.
Russ’s taxi pulled in on a Friday night, and Georgina met him at the door with a drink in her hand, which he immediately took as if she had made it for him. A large duffle bag hopped from his shoulder to his forearm before hitting the floor. The zipper of his hoodie was undone halfway, forming an arrow that pointed down from his broad shoulders. He gulped Georgina’s drink dramatically and hugged her, lifting her off the floor. She slapped at his back to put her down, screaming playfully, loving it.
I stood back from the doorway, waiting to catch his eye to introduce myself. I was awkward; if there was something I could have been doing at that moment to look cool, I couldn’t think of it. It embarrassed me, immediately, how much I liked him. The heat of it spilled down the front of me, and I looked at my shirt, like it was something others might see.
Russell had a wave to his dark hair, a wicked, loud laugh, and big ears that bent out from his head and made him look endearingly like an overgrown schoolboy. Every time he put his arm around Georgina he gave her a look like he knew it was naughty to touch her.
Remembering me, she linked her arm in mine and patted my hand.
“I present to you, your flatmate,” she said. “Please go easy on her.”
Russell raised his eyebrows. “Georgie. No promises.”
Outside, the sun had gone down, casting the parking lot and its neat rows of cars in shadows. In the distance, we could see other apartment buildings circled with their own lots, tall walls around each complex, some threaded with harps of electric wires for security. Starlings rustled the branches before flying on. The guard sat in a folding chair by the front gate, reading the paper.
After Russ put away his bags, we pulled a third chair out on the balcony and lit the citronella tea lights. It was a warm evening, and I wore my favorite dress, white cotton with little blue boats all over it.
Georgina topped a new round of mixed drinks with mint leaves, which we mashed into the ice cubes with our straws while we talked. Russ had just finished some work experience in New York, and he told us a series of stories that all seemed to start with high-level visits or meetings at the U.N. but end with his friends dancing on tables at clubs or vomiting out of yellow taxis.
We were all at an age that’s still young but starts to require grown up decisions about where to move and what work to do, decisions that can shift and define the direction of your life. Russ was coming from New York and planning to move to London to start a new job at the end of the summer. Georgina was going home for the month and then coming back to Kenya. I was a week into my life in Nairobi and had no idea what was next. I didn’t know if I would stay a year or ten.
We drank until we decided it was time to go out. Georgina called a cab, which took us to a club called Casablanca that had a hookah lounge and dance floor. The whole place smelled like apple and cherry flavored smoke, with groups sitting on oversized pillows, all the walls decorated with broken mirror and tile mosaics. It was full of expats who worked in development or for foreign papers, and Kenyans too, some dressed like we were, in short skirts or jeans and flowy tops, and a few in traditional Maasai outfits, bright red and blue checkered clothes, tied at the waist with beaded belts, which Georgina said they did to seduce tourists. We talked, we smoked, we danced. Everyone who served us drinks asked Georgina and me if we were sisters. We both had round faces and blonde hair, though hers was a bright bleachy color that went all the way down her back. Mine stopped at my shoulders, mousy from the lack of sunshine in London. Georgina shook her head, whispering in my ear, “They think all white girls look alike here.”
On the dance floor Russ twirled Georgina dramatically, like a 1920s swing dancer, the disco ball overhead scattering dizzy stars of light over the crowd of faces and bodies. I wondered if they had hooked up at university. Probably. When I laughed, Russ took me into his arms and dipped me wildly so that my back almost touched the ground. I stood up, and Georgina hugged me tight from behind.
“Careful with her!” she shouted at Russ. But we had to read her lips because the music was so loud.
* * *
When I woke in the morning, Georgina had already left. Russ and I wandered into the kitchen into a new dynamic, a more equal one, as two newcomers to Kenya with no one to guide us. Outside the back window, workmen dug room-shaped holes into the red clay earth, a foundation for another block of flats, which they secured with long wooden branches as crooked as witches’ brooms.
The kitchen smelled like the lemon spray our cleaner had scrubbed into the countertops a few days before. Georgina had instructed we leave her 20,000 Kenyan shillings on the kitchen table every Wednesday and put our smalls in the washing machine ahead of time so she wouldn’t have to touch them.
On that first day together, we didn’t know how to call a taxi or figure out the bus schedule, so we walked a mile and a half to the Yaya Center to buy our groceries and then back the same way with our plastic bags of pasta, tomato sauce and bottled water.
The red dirt from the road stained our flip flops and toes, and yellow blossoms from the gold medallion trees stuck in my hair. A blanket of cloud overhead kept the air thick, and sweat marked a line down Russ’s back.
Those first weeks, and maybe the whole time I was there, it was hard to feel I was really there and not recording it all to tell someone else—my parents, my friends in London, even my editors in New York. I had arrived. I unpacked. I settled in. What was next?
When we got home, Russ banged the shopping bags down on the kitchen table. “Well, wifey, hope you can cook.”
“Maybe we can figure out how to boil water for the pasta together,” I said, pulling the items out of the bag onto the counter.
Russell nodded, deadpan. “Deal.”
After dinner, we sat next to each other on the porch reading the stack of Grazia and Us Weekly magazines Russ had brought from Heathrow for Georgina. We didn’t know anyone else in the whole city, and we didn’t know each other at all, but being half of a pair, any pair, felt easy.
* * *
Russ and I made up our routine from scratch. His driver picked him up early on weekday mornings to take him to his U.N. office, and I worked at a small desk in between the two twin beds in my room, grateful for the quiet and time to focus on work. I connected my laptop to the internet through my Nokia cellphone, which lay face up on my desk. I’d check my Gmail first, then Facebook, then The New York Times and Newsweek’s website.
Sometimes I walked to the corner stall to get the local papers, The Star, The Standard, Daily Nation, and I read those cover to cover too. There were so many stories about Kenya, Africa and the developing world, and I was here, I thought proudly. And yet, where was here, and where was I in relation to the news I wanted to write about? I was in Africa reading about Africa. But I was also looking out my window at the Indian lady who lived downstairs walking the length of the tree-lined parking lot, maybe forty steps, back and forth, feeling like a suburban housewife.
I wandered around the apartment, sometimes into Georgina’s room, where I put on mascara she’d left behind and sprayed her perfume on my neck. It smelled like limes.
Kenya’s general elections were coming up in December, and most people predicted the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, would easily beat his challenger, Raila Odinga. Odinga’s family was Luo, the same as Barack Obama’s father’s, and people joked a Luo had a better chance of winning the presidency of the United States than in Kenya. I circled the name of each person quoted in every article I read about it and did my best to track them down. I emailed NGOs to set up coffees, went to see the spokesperson for the World Food Program, an officer at the E.U. Mission, and a reporter for the Financial Times, who had also recently arrived. When I couldn’t find a phone number, I showed up unannounced at the International Crisis Group to see if anyone there would talk to me. I sat in the lobby for over an hour before leaving my information with the receptionist.
My editors were always talking about challenging “conventional wisdom”, and so I pitched them upbeat stories about Kenya’s flower industry and Rwanda’s tech sector. The Cape Town bureau chief emailed me encouraging notes on my story ideas and said he’d try to make it up to Nairobi soon to buy me a drink. Passing some afternoons by the pool, I thought about where I might take him for dinner to prove I knew what I was doing here.
Russ got home from work around five or six, depending on the traffic, which was usually horrendous. We’d have a drink on the porch, eat dinner, read, talk about how our days had gone, who we had met, who we had heard from back home.
“What’s our mailing address here? Do you know?” he asked me one evening.
I stared at him, realizing I hadn’t received a paper bill, letter or magazine since I left London.
“Is there mail here?” I asked. “I don’t think there is.” I wondered if I should email Georgina to ask or if that would make me look like an idiot. “Why?”
He rolled his eyes and stretched out his legs, his bare feet almost reaching our balcony railing. He kept his gaze low on the parking lot.
“A girl from New York,” he said. “She put together a care package she wants to send me.”
I imagined what might be in it: a t-shirt from a restaurant they had been to together, something that proved she knew him best, like a book or postcard of a painting, and, of course, a handwritten letter. Without an address, the package would sit, assembled, next to the door, with nowhere to go.
What would my old boyfriend send me, I wondered, if we were still together. My favorite chocolate, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, a pair of Topshop pants covered in little lambs or baby chicks, a Nigella Lawson recipe cut out of the Guardian—all the things I loved from my old, faraway life..
“What about you?” he asked. “A trail of broken hearts left behind in London?”
“Miles long,” I said, my smile as thin as a tin shield.
I did miss him, of course, the way we roasted a chicken together on Sundays, the English way he referred to things as bits and bobs, used a squillion as if it were a real number, and how he started so many sentences with, “At the end of the day…” He had a sing-songy way he called me sweetie, like it had about ten e’s in it. He always made sure I had my oyster card before I left for the tube or the bus, and when we got there he navigated all the routes and station changes. But weren’t all those the same reason that we’d broken up, from the boredom of feeling like elderly twenty-year-olds with an endless future of early nights? I thought so, but sometimes I wasn’t sure.
* * *
That evening, Russ and I sat together on the couch in the small living room and looked at photos on each other’s laptops, both curious to figure out who the other one was in real life. Here I was at a cricket match in London with my housemates, smiling at a game I never understood, and posed with my ex by a kissing gate on a country walk, long before the shine of being together had rubbed off. There was Russ surrounded by Australian women at a bar during his semester abroad, his eyes red with the flash, and there again with an arm around his mother at Christmas in Buckinghamshire. But it was hard to know: Were these old photos the real us, or were they the skins we’d shed and left behind to find our real selves here?
I began to feel more normal being next to him, like we could be close, real friends. Or maybe something more. I couldn’t tell how he felt, which made it hard to decide how I felt. I caught myself thinking about him, about us, in frustratingly endless loops that had no beginning and no end. All day I waited for him to get home, and once he was there, the evenings went too fast. It was never enough time for anything to happen. I think I loved him. Or at least it felt like the love was just about to start, at any moment.
* * *
We decided we wanted to learn Swahili, so we hired a tutor, who came twice a week and scattered her textbooks over our kitchen table for us to study together. We were never going to be fluent; we knew that. But we also didn’t want to be completely mute in this new country. Just being able to introduce ourselves, say hello, and thank a waiter or a taxi driver in the local language would help pierce the bubble we lived in, we hoped. Our instructor arrived Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, her hair pulled back in a bun, dressed in a dress or long skirt.
“Jambo,” she said, hello.
“Jambo,” we repeated like children, smiling and nodding, like a game of pretend. None of these sounds meant anything to us, though we tried to connect them in our minds to the translated sentences on the page. We might as well have been beeping back and forth on an alien ship.
She was harder on Russ. “Russell,” she said, “Speak up! Sit straight! Look at me and repeat it again.” We exchanged glances. I couldn’t save him. But he charmed her with local slang he picked up at his office or out at school visits, naming far off Kenya towns he’d heard about, where you could find the brightest fabrics or the rarest birds. The names—Nanyuki, Laikipia, Nakuru, Naivasha—delighted her to hear. She repeated them, made us say them correctly, over and over, and told us we had to visit. We had to see Kenyan life outside the capital, which moved slowly, polepole.
After she left, I marched around the kitchen behind Russ shouting in the same way she did, until he lobbed a cucumber at me in frustration. When she said Russell’s name, it sounded like she was saying “Rosebell,” and I started calling him that all the time, when he left in the morning and came home at night. I’d hear his keys in the door, and my heart would stand up. Rosebell, my flatmate. Rosebell, my protector. My Rosebell, my person.
What would happen next? I wondered. What did he want? To be my best friend? To kiss me? To take me back to London and to all the faraway places he’d go next?
“Rosebell,” I’d text him during the day, bored at my desk, thinking of him, working, and then thinking about him again, falling hard. “What do you feel like for dinner tonight?”
* * *
One night, Chris, a friend of Georgina’s, invited us to a party at his house. In this transient city, it was common for someone you’d met only once to ask you to dinner just to even out the numbers. “Definitely the dress with the blue boats,” Russ said when I asked him what to wear. But instead I grabbed something from Georgina’s closet, a silky lemon yellow button down top that I wore over my own white jeans.
Chris had grown up in Nairobi and lived in a stone house with a stucco roof that sat at the back of a long driveway, away from the road. It was dark when we arrived, through a side door into the kitchen, and all over his refrigerator I saw photos of him with his friends on safari, picnicking on red and blue checked Maasai blankets, a hatch top Land Rover posed in the background.
“These look straight out of Vogue,” I said.
“Do they?” Chris asked, kissing both of us on each cheek, not disagreeing. Georgina had warned me that he could be a dick. Years later, I saw his name in the Economist, a Kenyan member of parliament.
“How’s it going living together so far?” he asked, looking back and forth at us, trying to catch a hint. I looked at Russ.
“Celia’s a saint,” he said, shaking his head. “She’s being canonized next week.”
I laughed, smoothing the collar of Georgina’s yellow shirt against my chest. It should have felt like a compliment. It almost did.
We sat down to dinner at a round, candle-lit table with the other guests and drank a few bottles of wine before any of the food arrived from the kitchen. The first two glasses felt amazing. Every joke I made got a small wave of laughter, and I landed the punchline for a story about falling asleep on a pile of coats at a London nightclub perfectly. But by the time the salads were cleared, there was a drunk motion to the room that hadn’t been there when we sat down. My face was humming, and the music sounded like it was the same volume as the voice of the person next to me: loud but indecipherable. I had to stand up. I did, carefully, stepping away from the table and pushing in my chair, thinking at first I’d go to the bathroom, but then Russ looked up at me, and I pinched his cheek hard. He grimaced.
“Let’s dance, Rosebell,” I said, like we were in a musical and this was the cue. I pulled him up out of his seat. He laughed, stood, and put an arm around me.
“It’s a dinner party,” he whispered into my face. But I pushed him, catching his hand with mine in time to snap him back toward me.
He tried to sit again, but I led him away from the table through a doorway, where I turned him to face me. I pushed him so that he walked backward down the hallway until he hit the wall. I slammed him up against it. I knew I was being rough, but at that moment it felt like the only way to shake what I needed out of him. We were in some kind of danger, I felt, of settling into a shallow groove that wouldn’t take our relationship any deeper. The pounding that had started in my head echoed in my chest. My face was hot, and now it was close to his. My hands still gripped his shoulders.
“Are you trying to kiss me?” he asked loudly.
I stepped back. Was I? It had happened only three seconds before, but I couldn’t remember. He was still staring at me.
“You’re bleeding,” he said.
I looked at my hands. My knuckles were cut, shards of glass sparkling all over them. I had no idea where they had come from. Russ stepped away from the wall, and a picture frame fell onto the floor. I must have slammed him into it. The other guests stood up to come see the mess, delighted by the drama. Chris waved in a housekeeper to help sweep it all up, refusing my apologies, and we returned to the table to finish the meal. I drank water to try to stop the room moving and didn’t say another word for the rest of the night.
The next day, when Russ got home from work, I was lying in my bed, my forearms crossed over my face, deep in hangover shame. He knocked on my door, and then came in and lay down on the other bed.
“Good day?” he asked, even the volume of his voice teasing me. “Get in a good workout?”
“Leave me alone,” I mewed, a sad kitten.
Georgina would be back in ten days. Her yellow blouse was in my drawer, her perfume in my bathroom, and I wondered what else of hers might have mixed its way into my things and would need to be returned.
“You should tell Chris you’ll pay to replace that frame,” he said. His tone annoyed me. It sounded like a parent urging a child to do the right thing. Why did he care so much about the frame? Chris was rich. I lived on a few hundred dollars a month. I still had my eyes covered, but I could hear him pulling the pillow out from the blankets and rearranging it under his head. “So what do you fancy for dinner?”
* * *
My last birthday in the UK, my boyfriend had surprised me with a trip to Wells-next-the-Sea, booking the connecting trains and bed and breakfast with a one-eyed cocker spaniel where we stayed three nights. Our second day there, he gave me a gift: a ring decorated with dozens of small pink squares of broken seashells, all pinned down to a silver band. I had admired it at Liberty, the department store near my office, where we had stopped together a few weeks earlier to kill time before dinner. It was a little sphere of beach treasure, and I loved it. The ring was so perfect, so exactly what I wanted, as was the trip, as was he, that it was clear that the only thing wrong in this whole story was me. He had followed my lead, to this beach, back to the shop to buy this ring. He listened and watched me so carefully, but the closer we got, the less I felt. Why didn’t I love the things I thought I wanted? Why didn’t I love the things I had when I had them?
Chris forgave me for the broken frame, refusing my offers to pay for a new one, and invited me to come with him to Kibera, one of the city’s largest slums, along with a friend of his who was working on a research project there. Chris’s driver dropped us at the side of the road, on the dirt ledge of the neighborhood, the start of rows and rows of small, raw concrete houses, most just one room each, surrounded by dirt footpaths. Wooden planks made narrow walkways over ditches full of trash. A few people passing us wore bright orange t-shirts in support of Odinga and his party, the Orange Democratic Movement. Chris knew his way around and navigated us to the school his friend wanted to see.
We arrived at a half-built two-story building, one of its walls brightly painted with a mural of children holding hands around a yellow sun. The teacher greeted us, shaking our hands with both of hers. While Chris’s friend spoke with her, I watched the children run around outside at what might have been their recess time, a few of them doing cartwheels and flips in the air before landing back on their bare feet.
“They’re pretty good,” I said to Chris.
“Another development project,” he explained. “A group of Swedes came here to teach the kids gymnastics, so now they can do flips in the garbage.” He rolled his eyes. He was allowed to be cynical in a way only a Kenyan could be here. But when I looked back, I felt bad, watching them spin around and around, over and over, among the half-built houses, going nowhere.
I was completely turned around inside Kibera, but I knew there was a set of tennis courts nearby that Russ and I had played on with our neighbors, radio journalists who lived downstairs. Children reached their arms through the fence to catch stray balls, which they sometimes threw back and sometimes ran away with. I thought of them with our tennis balls, keeping them like they were precious until they lost interest.
“Odinga’s having a rally here today,” Chris said. “We should leave.”
“Why?” I asked. A rally sounded interesting.
“They won’t want to see white people here,” he said. “It’s not safe for you.” He pulled out his phone and texted his driver to come get us.
* * *
The Capetown bureau chief called, sometimes for reporting help, sometimes just for contact details for embassies in Nairobi, and once to brag about a piece he’d just filed on a gorilla massacre in Virunga National Park. I looked it up on Newsweek’s website, refreshing the page until I saw it, the lead story. Of course I was jealous.
Every night I went to sleep alone in my nightgown, tucked into my single bed like a nun in a convent, my body, I thought sadly, wasted.
I told myself what all passed-over girls tell themselves. He doesn’t want to ruin our friendship. He doesn’t want anything serious right now. He respects me too much. I was hurt, but I made a kind of joke out of it. Can you believe he won’t make a move? I emailed friends. No, they responded. He’s probably just nervous.
Georgina got back from France a few nights before Russ was due to leave. We gave her a warm welcome with a roast chicken and mashed potato dinner laid out over our lime green kikoy tablecloth. We told her about the dinner party and the broken frame, our tennis playing and Swahili lessons, and Russ’s new name.
“Rosebell?” she scrunched her face. “Nope. Don’t see it.”
She listened patiently like a mother hearing stories from her kids just back from camp, as if we were the ones returning home and not her. Our month together had been fun, an adventure, sure, but Georgina’s arrival had a very Sunday night, end of August feeling. The vacation was over.
On Russ’s last night before leaving for London we decided to go back to Casablanca. I dug my dress with the blue sailboats out from the bottom of my drawer and put it on, smoothing down the creases. We took a taxi, entered by the dancefloor and made our way single file to the bar, Russ, then Georgina, then me. It was hot; everyone was sweaty, red and blue lights flashing through the dark on our damp faces. Georgina had gotten Russ a paper crown to wear for his leaving party, and strangers came up to us all night, shouting into our ears over the music to ask if it was his birthday. We went through rounds of drinks, Tusker beers and rum and cokes, but hardly had three sips before we ditched them to go back on the dance floor. When Russ and I danced, he dipped me only gently.
A girl I didn’t know took my hand. “You must be so sad your boyfriend is leaving,” she said into my ear. “He’s so handsome.”
I turned to face her. “Oh no,” I shook my head. She had misunderstood. “We’re just friends.”
She leaned back in. She was Kenyan, her voice sing-songy, her dress bright purple, tied at the waist. We were facing each other, close, so that when she spoke her breath went almost straight into my mouth. She said, “I saw you kissing by the toilets.” She tilted her head in that direction, down a narrow dark hall, off the dance floor.
Probably I didn’t want to understand. Even though I had had several drinks, I knew I hadn’t been to the bathroom, and I certainly had not kissed Russ. But then I could see it, like noticing something you love is missing and then imagining what the thief looked like while taking it. Georgina had been kissing Russ. Russ and Georgina were the couple. Maybe it had started here in Nairobi before she left for France or maybe it was a continuation of whatever they’d had in college. I imagined they’d kept in touch all summer, anticipated her arrival back here, and now had one last night together: tonight. This summer’s romance was their story, not mine.
Why had I not seen it? I’d left London, left my too-comfortable relationship for the unknown, the romance of Africa, found a man I could have loved but who didn’t love me back. My last relationship had dulled into a friendship. My friendship with Russ had felt like something more, but only for me. I was everyone’s dear, comfortable friend. Nobody wanted to kiss me in the Casablanca bathroom or rip off my clothes in a big double bed. What was I doing wrong?
I’m not sure why they hid it from me, and I never asked. Maybe Georgina knew it would hurt my feelings. Maybe Russ did too. Or maybe they thought it was more fun to sneak around on those handful of nights the three of us had been together in the apartment. I remembered evenings I had gone to bed first, leaving the two of them to clean up and turn off the lights. It made sense, I guess. After Russ left for London the next day, they dated long distance for months but broke up eventually for reasons I can’t remember or maybe never knew.
Ahead of the elections, there were more rallies and more riots across Kenya. When they finally counted up the votes, there were all sorts of fraud accusations, and protests turned violent. Even though the city was on fire, Chris went ahead with his fancy dress birthday party at the Muthaiga Club, but there was no way for me to get there. Later I heard the New York Times bureau chief had arrived dressed as a butterfly. Maybe because of the disruptions or maybe because they just ran out of money, the builders stopped showing up to their project next door. From the kitchen window, Georgina and I watched the half-laid foundation fill itself back in with dirt and rain as the months went by.
* * *
Years later, I called Russ to wish him a happy birthday. We had kept in touch, emailing every now and then. He had sent me a postcard in Baghdad when I went there on a six-week reporting trip, and I had mailed him a care package full of instant coffee to Kabul, where he had been posted at the British Embassy for a year.
I was married by then to the first man I’d dated after that year in Nairobi. We had a baby, a son, who was just a few months old. My seashell ring lived in my jewelry box, rarely worn. The green kikoy that had been our tablecloth in Kileleshwa was now our bedspread. When I wore my orange Odinga t-shirt, nobody had any idea what the Swahili words on it meant.
The three of us had been on a long walk that morning through the Boston Public Garden after what I’m sure had been a near-sleepless night. My son was a ferocious eater, and I was still nursing. I sat on the couch while my husband went to the kitchen to boil water for tea.
Russ was in London now. The phone rang five or six times, and I was preparing to leave a voice message when he answered.
“Celia,” Russ said, loudly, as if he were trying to get my attention, calling me instead of the other way around. I could hear music and voices in the background. It was after nine o’clock at night where he was, probably in a bar. Outside my apartment window, the sunshine dropped through the trees. My son, just unstrapped from the carrier, slept, his face hot and mashed against my chest.
Russ’s voice was low, pouring heavy into the phone. “Those legs, those tits,” he said, laughing wickedly. I heard him swallow hard before he added, “Why did I not fuck you when I had the chance?”
He had never spoken to me that way, and when I tried to laugh, it came out as a shock of hot air through my nose. That whole month we had lived together I had been trying to figure out how he felt about me, desperate to have him see the attractive and adventurous person I was trying to shape myself into. But I’d just been a joke. He hadn’t been the good friend who had held back out of respect or nerves. Just as I hadn’t ever really been the dedicated reporter, hunting down leads and breaking stories, shining a light into the dark corners of that continent, as I had imagined I would. Kenya would always be a foreign place to me. I could tell myself a sad story about my time there or keep the nice one. Or maybe Russ and I could just be two people who had overlapped in an apartment for a month, lived together, moved away, and tried to stay in touch.
Silvia Spring works on Instacart’s public policy team. She previously led foreign policy for TikTok and Airbnb. As a State Department foreign service officer, she served in Beijing, China and Washington DC. She started her career at Newsweek as a Special Correspondent based in London and has reported from Kenya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Her fiction has appeared in The Common.
She lives in Washington DC with her husband, three kids and dog.