Her virginity was ripped away from her, gruesomely and gut – churningly. No one but her mother had known about it. For eleven years, the heart-rending memories silhouetted her every move. How he had come to her room, tore apart her dress, slapped her when she tried to fight back, pinned her against her bed and squeezed his way in, her cries for help echoing against his sickening moans of pleasure. When she came to, she was lying on her mother’s bed. Her mother was in tears. She told her how sorry she was for bringing that man into their lives. She told her of her step – father’s illegal narcotics business and how the money had supported them ever since her daddy died and her mother started seeing this man.
She told her reporting the matter would open a web of police investigations that would tie the two of them as accomplices and possibly land them in jail. She convinced her to not say a word to anyone. She packed two bags, one for each one of them, and they drove away, five hundred miles north of the little town of Kisauni, Mombasa County. They settled in Kasarani and a new life began. New neighbourhood. New school. New church. New friends. But the scenes of that night remained deluged in her mind. Eleven years later, she still shuddered at the slightest touch of a man. Her heart would pound fast, her hair would rise and her jaw would clench. Every man seemed like a threat and her body would naturally react on reflex.
This affected her love life a great deal. She could not hug any man and only shook hands with them if she had to. When she did, it was as if they had leprosy. She set a perimeter of principles around herself and followed them religiously. She turned down any advances, sexual or not, from anyone with a voice deeper than hers. She did not partake in any social meet-ups or hang-outs where men were in attendance. She would never go to a man’s house. She would not work under the supervision of a male colleague. She fiercely campaigned against any gender-based discrimination. Everyone ridiculed her as the uptight and conservative feminist. The lesbian feminist. They called her Mother Teresa.
It is not like her body did not occasionally crave for the presence of a man. Her nipples would ache for a rub. The heat between her legs would yearn for a quench. Her hair would itch for a ruffle, a strong masculine ruffle. Her lips would thirst for a rough touch, a soft bite maybe. From who? A man? Which man? What would be different from the man from that night, eleven years ago? These thoughts would kick in and extinguish all her desires. Her fear would overcome the urge for pleasure. Scenes from that night would play in her mind and her body would suddenly go cold. Her mind would be distorted with a mixture of regret and self-pity. Why am I the one suffering and this man is free? He is probably enjoying himself right now, wherever he is. And she would drain her sorrows by draining shots of vodka that would often have the salty trace of her tears.
As her sorrows grew, she reacted as any twenty-six-year-old would. She would spend more money on alcohol than she did on groceries. She is also the kind that eats a lot of junk food whenever she is stressed. Her weight increased alarmingly. She was an obese alcoholic on the outside and a bitter pile of emotions on the inside. Now she was the fat lesbian feminist. This eased her troubles a little bit. The number of men shooting their shot with her declined. Maybe they had gotten the memo. She was a no – go – zone. One morning, she tried out a few outfits for a weekend meeting with one of her clients and when none of them could fit, she decided it was time to hit the gym.
She subscribed to Hevensis Gym and made it clear that she preferred a female instructor. Lucy was a great instructor. She worked late into the night and early mornings to accommodate Hannah’s tight and irregular schedules. Quite often, they were just by themselves at the gym and this would give Hannah an unusual sense of comfort. She felt safe. She would ride the treadmill and her baggage of thoughts and bitter memories would disappear, making her mind feel fresh and new. She would lift the weights and feel her emotional pain ooze out with the sweat trickling down her back. After her work-outs, she would use the gym shower and feel a different kind of clean. Almost as if she was a virgin. Almost as if that night eleven years ago never happened.
Lucy became her crony. Hannah realised that she had never spent as much time with anyone in her life as she had with Lucy. It worked out because Lucy got her. Lucy could tell that Hannah was troubled but she was wise enough not to probe. She wisely and patiently let Hannah feel comfortable enough to voluntarily share her story. Slowly, Hannah began to trust her. They extended their interactions away from the gym. They would go shopping together and occasionally visit each other for sleep – overs. It was during one of these that Hannah opened up to Lucy. She told her about her stepfather, her mother, their life in Kisauni, her job, her friends (or lack of, thereof) and that night eleven years ago.
They clung to each other tightly as Hannah sobbed bitterly, her tears dripping down Lucy’s dreadlocks. Lucy held her much tighter and let her cry. After a while, Hannah coughed up, wiped her tears and smiled faintly. She felt a bout of relief overcome her. A tonne of baggage off her shoulders. She had never told anyone what she told Lucy that night. That night, she slept like a baby.
Mark had been a member at the Hevensis gym for just three weeks. He mostly came in at midday and spend an hour or two before having lunch at the restaurant downstairs. He did not speak much and kept to himself most of the time. He would stick to a corner and do his thing, his air pods pounding his eardrum on full volume. It was the beginning of a new month and therefore time to renew one’s subscription. After his work-out, Mark strolled into the gym management office and knocked softly.
‘Come in,’ a voice shouts from the inside. Mark enters. There are two ladies seating across from each other.
‘Hello, ladies,’ he says.
‘Hi, how may I help you?’ the lady on the other side of the desk asks, smiling brightly.
‘I would like to pay my subscription fee for the new month,’ he says.
‘Oh. Alright. Please have a seat,’ she points to the unoccupied seat next to the other lady.’
‘My name is Lucy. I don’t believe we have met. And this is my friend, Hannah. She’s also a member here,’ she offers her hand and points at the other lady.
‘I’m Mark. I’m new. Started a few weeks ago,’ he says, shaking their hands.
‘How do you like the experience so far?’ Lucy asks.
‘It’s wonderful! I love the view from the window especially. It’s….uhm, refreshing,’ Mark responds.
‘I know!’ Lucy exclaims. ‘May I please have your membership card?’ she adds.
‘Sure.’ He pulls out a wallet from his backpack, picks the card and places it on the table.
‘Mark Mwangombe. Are you from Taita?’ Lucy is curious.
‘Yes, originally. But I was raised in Mombasa,’ Mark responds.
‘Oh, me too,’ the other girl finally speaks.
‘What part of Mombasa?’ Mark asks.
‘Kisauni,’ Hannah responds.
‘I grew up in Mtwapa,’ Mark says.
There is an awkward silence as Lucy does the paperwork for Mark’s subscription before Mark turns to Hannah.
‘You’ve been a member here for long?’
‘Three months,’ Hannah responds.
‘Wow. It shows, look at you’ he jokes, eying Hannah from head to toe.
Did that come out wrong? He wonders. Maybe it was sexist. I’ll just shut – up.
‘Here you go, enjoy your membership’ Lucy says, handing him his membership card and a receipt of his payment.
‘Thank you,’ he says, standing to leave.
‘Hey, I am sorry if I offended you,’ he says, looking at Hannah, ‘there is a nice restaurant downstairs. Allow me to buy you lunch,’ he offers.
‘No, thank you. Maybe next time,’ Hannah responds.
He nods, a little disappointed.
‘You two have a lovely day then,’ he says and steps out.
The two ladies stare at his diminishing frame, giggling like little children.
Mark was the subject of their conversations for the rest of the week. Lucy kept convincing Hannah that Mark had actually asked her out when he offered to buy her lunch. Hannah dismissed it as just another casual pass that men had been making at her since she started hitting the gym and her body started taking that shape that men like. You know, the firm breasts, slim waist and round bottom. She was well – endowed. Lucy and Hannah both agreed that Mark was equally well – endowed. He was six feet two. A stuffed upper body with veins popping out his smooth spotless skin that was the colour of red beans. A well-trimmed healthy beard descending down his chiselled face. Full red lips. A small gap between his front teeth that made his smile heavenly. Deep manly voice. He also smelt nice.
Hannah and Mark bumped into each other a few more times over the next weeks. Mark made an attempt at getting to know Hannah better but she shoved him away, much to the dismay of Lucy. Hannah was still rigid and did not feel ready to open herself up to a man. Lucy understood why. However, she tried to make Hannah control her thoughts and emotions, forget the past and move on. She saw Mark as a good guy who would usher Hannah into the next phase of her life. The phase of settling down, starting a family and raising a daughter whom they would protect from such people as the man who defiled her. This went on for up to six months, Hannah dodging all of Mark’s advances.
Mark was getting frustrated. He really liked Hannah. He did not understand why she would not even go out on a date with him. He was appalled by the mixed reactions he received from her. She always turned him down verbally but her body language told a different story. The way her lips trembled and her throat ran dry while speaking to him. The way she ran out of breath while on the phone with him. The sparkle in her eyes whenever they landed on him. They all reflected a lonely vulnerable soul that yearned to be loved, protected and taken care of.
Lucy knew that she had to save the situation or Mark would give up and that would be the end of the beautiful love story she had created in her mind. She betrayed Hannah’s trust and spilled the beans. She told Mark everything. She told him why Hannah is reserved and non – commital. She pleaded with Mark not to mention a word to anyone else but to use the information to his advantage in his bid to woo Hannah. It worked like a spell. Mark cut off all his physical advances on Hannah and simply positioned his presence in a way that Hannah could feel him without seeing him.
He only touched her if she touched him first. He only hugged her if she opened her arms wide and he let her be the one to let go first. He slept on the couch and offered her the bed whenever she visited. He turned his face away whenever she needed to change into her gym wear. Hannah slowly settled in. She felt naughty breaking her own rules. Bringing down the wall of principles around her, one brick at a time. Experiencing puberty at twenty – six years old. Six months later, a man was inside her for the first time in twelve years and for the second time in her life. Two years later, Mark proposed to Hannah at the restaurant downstairs and she said “Yes”.
The SGR Train station at Syokimau is normally packed on Sundays. City families travelling to vacation at the coast, business executives catching a meeting the following day and residents of coastal towns going home to see their kin. Mark and Hannah are part of this swarm of people. Mtwapa, Mombasa County, is their destination. They visited Hannah’s mother at Kasarani last week and are now on their way to meet Mark’s parents to share the good news. They’re getting married in three months’ time. Lucy is back in the city giving the wedding planner a hard time. She will be the maid of honour. As the train pulls up at Mariakani, the punge of salty and stuffy air fills Hannah’s lungs and she reminisces the old times she spent growing up at Kisauni. Her thoughts get clouded by the bitter incident that made her and her mother leave that town. The incident on that night, thirteen years ago.
They board a Tuk Tuk which bumps its way through the dark brown pools of water and glaring potholes along Nyali Road. They arrive a tired bunch. Hannah is dressed in a brightly-coloured dera, brown leather sandals and an African – print headwrap on her head. She looks motherly. Mark is in all – white. Short-sleeved white Chinese collar shirt with matching khaki shorts. He has a pair of Nike sandals on his feet. Hannah is a little nervous. Will they like her? Mark has told her stories about his parents. They are divorced. However, Mark’s dad was courteous enough to calm his ego and come home to meet his son’s wife to be. Mark asked her to just be herself and it would all be over before the drop of a hat. The house is a few metres from the beach. Its brick walls are plastered with white ochre. It sits on a huge compound that has not been manicured in a long while. Dozens of palm trees tower over it, with dried palm leaves hanging effortlessly from them. Occasionally, they fall on the thatched roof and are scattered by the wind across the sandy expansive grounds.
They are received warmly by Mark’s mother who takes them inside. She is bubbling with excitement and cannot get over how pretty Hannah is. She receives the shopping bags and utters some thanksgiving phrase in Swahili. They take a seat and Mark’s mother disappears outside. She has gone to call her ex – husband who is smoking at the beach. He stumbles inside and a strong stench of smoke and sweat engulfs the room. His hand wobbles every time the aluminium walking – stick he is supporting himself with touches the ground. Mark and Hannah stand to greet him and he removes his dusty country hat. And there he is. His wide bulbous eyes with the same bloodshot glare they had thirteen years ago. His wrinkled face with the same dark deep scars it had thirteen years ago. The man that raped her thirteen years ago, stands there as his father in law to be.
Hannah is dumb-founded. Her heart begins to pound. A sweat breaks from under her head wrap and her upper lip. Her face turns red and her eyes are filled with horror. She freezes and stares right at him, her dry lips apart, and he stares right back. He definitely recognizes her. Hannah collapses on her chair and her lights go out. She wakes up at Aga Khan Hospital located in Nyali Centre with Mark and his mother at her bedside. Mark tells her what happened. He tells her of his father’s confession on what happened that night, thirteen years ago. He tells her of his father’s tribulations with the law and how he is facing a possible life – sentence on his impending case for his narcotics business. He tells her of his father’s diagnosis with Stage Four Throat Cancer. He tells her of his father’s guilt and how he (Mark’s father) believes that everything he is going through is God’s way of paying him back for what he did to her thirteen years ago. Mark kneels down and begs for Hannah’s forgiveness on behalf of his father.
‘Where is he now?’ Hannah asks.
‘He has gone back to Nairobi for his chemotherapy,’ Mark responds.
‘He will have to ask for my forgiveness himself,’ Hannah says, ‘And my mother’s too,’ she adds.
Mark nods. He knows this is the beginning of a tough ride. He is unsure if Hannah will still want to go through with the wedding. He regrets why he brought her home. They should have just gone ahead with the wedding without involving his parents. But again, who would have thought? When you see your father, do you picture a rapist? Me neither. You picture a hero. A champion. A wise old grandfather for your children. A rock – solid foundation that holds the family together, not tearing it apart. Mark’s mother is still in tears. To her, this is all a movie. The Swahili movies she likes to watch on Maisha Magic East. Her ex – husband raped his step – daughter and now the step – daughter he raped is her son’s fiancé, thirteen years later.
The next three weeks were a nightmare for Hannah. She could not sleep. She ate like a pig and drank like a fish. She skipped showers more than she skipped her rope. Mark tried to bring her back to sanity but she did not even want to see him. Lucy was the only person who could get to her and even she was unable to fix her. The wedding was put on hold. Mark sent flowers, chocolates and apology cards but they all found their way to the bin. He called, texted and visited but Hannah did not say a word to him. One morning, she looked at herself in the mirror and what she saw scared her. Her face was full of acne, her unkempt hair was turning brown, her eyes were heavy and brown and she had added twenty pounds. She dropped to the floor and sobbed, deep in thought. Why should I lose myself yet I am the victim? Why should I lose the man I love yet he has done nothing wrong? Why should I lose my happiness yet I did nothing wrong? She realized that forgiving Mark’s father was the only way she would move on with her life. She realized that the bitterness she had in her was gnawing on her and destroying her more than it did anyone else. She realized that her forgiveness would set a prisoner free, and that prisoner was her
That night, she called Mark and said she was ready. Ready for his father’s apology. Ready for the wedding. Ready for a new life with him.
It had been a beautiful wedding. One of those where the smell of true love is in the air. Mark’s father had walked Hannah down the aisle, his aluminium walking stick decorated in ribbons and flowers. Yes, Hannah had forgiven him and accepted his request to walk her down the aisle, the way he should have done it as her stepfather. Mark’s father had apologized to Hannah and her mother while lying on a hospital bed right after undergoing another series of chemotherapy treatment. The doctors had said that the closure was good for his mental health which would then affect his physical health. It took Hannah’s mother a great deal of convincing for her to allow him near her daughter again. A few weeks later, here they were. One big, happy family, tied together in holy matrimony. That was the first time Mark’s father had smiled in a long time. It was the first time his bloodshot eyes had sparkled in pride and joy. That night, he died peacefully in his sleep.