hundred acres of marshland
by wanjiku wa ngugi
Even I find it hard to believe that I learned how to swim in a low-lying wet land with grassy vegetation. Down the hill, from my house was what seemed like hundreds of acres of marshland. The sky with a blue so prominent that even when the dark clouds gathered, it was difficult not to make out the azure bouncing off the clear waters of the lagoon. I spent half my life swimming, even with passers-by who wanted to rest their weary feet in the cool of the water. A week after Ted, my now five-year-old son, was born, the lagoon was waiting for me to wash away the fatigue of motherhood. This was before I boarded the plane to the land where I began the wait. Waiting for Ted to join me. Waiting for my life to come together, in the way I had envisioned so many times lying on the green grassland by the lagoon. Like the photos I had seen of my neighbor’s daughter’s life in America. There is hope, but these days only in my dreams; when someone gently pulls my hand and leads me towards my aspirations. And then I wake up in stone cold Newark, N.J.
I mention the lagoon because lately I have been visiting there in my mind during the awake hours. Mostly I wonder if Ted has been swimming. On this particular morning, my attention is on me. It feels like someone is ripping my intestines out. I know it’s the French fries. It seems my body has waged a war with food in this new country. Not so new, its been a year already. Right now, I have an immediate problem. The thing is, although most of last night is a blur, I do remember that after the third glass of wine, I made promises. To Au, my Thai friend. She is actually the one I blame for this revolution taking place in my head. I would much rather sit and wallow in my dreams about my grassy marshland, not set out to make social calls. I do get like that sometimes. I feel the need to reach out. And then I feel guilty because I know its his voice, my husband’s that is, in my head telling me to make more effort. It’s hard to describe how heavy my body feels these days. My pen is lighter. So I sit in a café and fill papers with haikus. A habit I have always entertained, and one that he, my husband used to find endearing. Now he likes to be practical. His words not mine.
This morning, I watched my husband set off to work through my half shut eyelids. He was not aware of it. I like to pretend I am sleeping when his morning ritual takes place. Mostly so I don’t have to listen to his rants, and his endearing wish to be in my position. Free. He says it as if I had paid money to buy it. Like it was an expensive virtue only available to some. What he really means to say is that two incomes are better than one. Many unpleasant words come to me for him. But I am bound by this contract I have with him. So I do not say them. Well I could, but it would only add to the wall we have constantly been building between each other.
In any case, on this particular morning, I have other things to worry about, like this Djembe drum playing inside my head. I tell you, if you have heard the beat of one, you would know that djembe sounds are not muffled, they sound like a hundred cracking bullwhips, they make you jump, the same way you would if you touch the rack that barbeques goat meat during the naming of a new born child. And yet, I had made a promise to visit Au this morning. Where I come from, you just don’t wave off an invitation. And that’s the other reason I did not mention this to my husband. He would have thrown all that culture out, dismissed it like the American in him does. Or maybe its his age. Add ten to mine. I may or may not regret not having his input on this visitation rite. But I suspect Thailand is like Kenya. The way you become friends with anyone can tell you a whole lot about how they were raised. Take for instance my first meeting with Au.
I met her in my ‘Intro to Nursing’ class. On the third week of class, she sat next to me. I only noticed her dark hair, and lopsided walk later. In the moment she sat down, her presence was distracting, not her really, the smell emanating from below her feet. The lecturer drawled on, her words lacking the necessary emotion needed to engage us in the nursing world, so it was easy to put one’s attention elsewhere.
“Do you want?” The woman was speaking to me.
“Want what?” I asked.
“The food”, she said pointing to the brown bag that sat on the floor.
An hour later, sitting on the wooden bench outside the class, I leaned back on the hall-way wall as the sweet spice mixed with pepper lingered in my mouth. The cook—Au from Bangkok. The other two smacking their lips were also foreigners. India. Nigeria. It was about six o’clock and it made sense to proceed to the wine and bar located across the street from the metro trains. There is nothing like a watering hole located near transportation home. That was yesterday. And what a difference a day makes. Now I had a friend. And friends come with obligations.
And yet, on this morning my feet were dragging. I walked to the bus-stop, taking deliberate steps, because if I didn’t, I was sure that my feet would simply turn around and go back home to the two-bedroom apartment that my husband was planning to eventually buy. Well this is not what he had told me when I was wallowing in the country side of Limuru in Kenya. The place I was born, opposite the hundred marshes, where as kids we kicked and flapped in the water. A swimming technique I find frowned upon here in America.
I remember holding on to the reeds when I was learning how to survive in the water, but in reality there was no danger of me drowning as my feet easily found the soft clay that lay just beneath the water. There were seasons of swimming because in the summer, we walked on water. Well, the water always receded to just under the clay, which made it seem as if we were walking on a soft mattress.
With every step I took to Au’s, I swore the jeans got smaller. Just the other day, as I slipped on the same pair of jeans, my husband had enquired about their size. Read my weight. Maybe they shrunk in the washing machine I had said. He asked too much after my body. I knew what he really wanted, but I knew better than having another child. Least of all before I had managed to bring Ted over. When he came I was going to take him to the local YMCA for the swimming and hope he would enjoy it more than I had dared to. You see, it was unlike the hours spent on the lagoon chatting our lives away. It seemed so simple then. Life that is. Now it seemed like it was a hundred years away. America was different. It was a marsh of quiet. Besides, everyone worked three to four jobs, it was not possible to break for tea at four and while the evening away. Like my husband likes to say: There is no time in America.
My husband’s friends became mine when I first arrived. But then I only saw them on Thanksgiving and Labor Day. I tried to make my own friends, when we made our way, past midnight to the Shaken’drink night club in New York. All the Kenyans, assembled in Newark drove to New York once a month, to dance to songs of yester years. Kamaru. Achieng Abura. Michael Jackson also made many appearances. So did Kenny Rogers. Suddenly the entire club would be dream dancing to his raspy voice, that brought memories of the Lagoon into focus. The air pregnant with memories; we screamed out the words, and the words we didn’t know, we made up. But we kept up with the rhythm, because it is one we knew so well. It was a rhythm of memory, ours, of our country, of our childhood, back to the memories of the place we had crafted our dreams. And for me, back to the lagoon. For a few hours I enjoyed the connection to Kenya, but the feeling quickly dissipated after the last call for drinks was made. It’s the way the shoulders stooped, and the silence that followed the walk to the trains and buses. It sobered everyone up.
So I stopped going. Besides, Jack Daniels could come home to me, in the comfort of reality shows, in between my dreaded home work on nursing ambitions. That’s what they told everyone. America needs nurses. God knows my husband had said it enough times to me. If only I could run away. To where? That was the problem. I was thinking that on the morning as I trekked to take bus 45 down to Au’s house.
For no particular reason, this morning reminded me of the morning when I left for the promised land. My mother who had single handedly raised me had thrown a party. The, ‘my daughter is going to be someone after all’ kind of party for those who had looked down on me after I had stayed home before and after my Ted was born. That was the other thought I entertained on the way to visit Au. Would it be better if Ted were here? He was born with a brain older than his years. So he liked to argue, and him and me were constantly exchanging opinions, mainly me trying to get him to see reason. “He is very much your son” my mother liked to say. Copyright, my aunt said. Whom else did they have to compare him to except me.
I met his father, before I graduated high school, a year after he had. He, a Kenyan like me, had done well on his University entrance exam, an ambition of mine. But that was not the only reason I took to him. He was cliché. Tall and dark. But back then that was the only thing I had on my list. So I gave in, but Ted had other plans like being born to me at the wrong time. His father had felt the same way and disappeared. Not much of a surprise since my father had done a similar thing. Men. That’s what my aunt said. I had not believed them, proof being that I finally found my partner, not on university grounds because I never made it there. Out on the hundred marshes, I had met him amongst a bus of white tourists. Looks were a thing of the past. He had promised to support us: me, Ted and my haikus, because his dreams had already manifest.
That’s why upon arrival, and the discovery that my husband had just been selling me his aspirations, I had not thrown a tantrum. Besides he had recently been promoted to manage the Starbucks near our apartment. That’s where I did the writing. It will be something one day. Like a book. I knew this. Like I knew I was not a morning person. I had not communicated this effectively to Au. But halfway to her house, I entertained a change of mind. I would not wait for things to unfold in my life. I would not wait for someone to hold my hand in my dreams. Instead I was going to dive into America’s bayou. Nursing. Writing. Ted. It all made sense. I would complete nursing school. I would write on weekends. I would bring Ted over. His dreams would be different. I would make them happen for him. It would also free my mother. Epiphany. Suddenly I was filled with the hope, that had escaped me for so long since my arrival. Enough not to mind when the bus was thirty minutes late, and to ignore the youngsters shouting profanities. A habit some young Caucasian boys had picked up around Newark.
Elated, I arrived at Au’s house. It was like my house really. Sparsely furnished with echoes in the hall way leading to the bathroom. A brown couch sat on a brown carpet. To the left, in almost exact proximity to my house, was the dining table. She asked me to join her on the table.
It was only 11am and she had a table filled with food. Rice. Shrimps. Soup. Noodles. This is another thing I had not told her. I could only withstand strong smells in the afternoon. That’s how I found myself on the bathroom floor of her green decorated bathroom. The toilet rug. Shower curtain. Toothpaste holder. In my house, blue was the color. I gave up the contents of my stomach before I had a chance to fill it with Au’s food.
I asked her, later as I lay on the couch, if she had invited her other friends. Which ones? she asked. I understood her. Her quiet manner sprung from her. This other persona, the one who cooked for strangers, invited them to her house was simply a symptom of America. She did not visit clubs, but she longed for home. This occurred to me at the exact time I realized the throwing up had been going on for over a month. And then it dawned on me. Another Ted was on the way. Clearly my dreams would have to wait.
Wanjiku Wa Ngugi is the author of The Fall of Saints (Atria Books, 2014). Her short stories and essays have been published in Wasafiri Magazine, The Herald (Zimbabwe), The Daily Nation & Business Daily, Pambazuka News, and Chimurenga, amongst others.