“eNGAGEMENT” by Richard Oduor Oduku
Tika sat on a rickety folding chair by the window and looked down Woodvale Grove. Couples walked hand-in-hand, talking, giggling. Once in a while, their thin foils of public modesty were pierced and sharp carefree laughter rent the air. Hugs. Kisses. He strained his ears to pick words from their converses but the soft wind turned words into murmurs and swept them away. Still, he watched, wishing, longing. A pop directed his eyes to the MacBook Air. He smiled at the tenderness of the chat message, tapped onto the keyboard and sent a data packet of winking happy smileys across the Egyptian revolution and cinders of crumbling European economies to a chattel on the plaid plains of Sundsvall.
Annalina tiptoed from the bathroom, leaving a wake of scented droplets on the marble floor. She pushed a strand of hair from her eyes and scrolled to read the message, then typed and sent a parcel of love across the Sahara desert, trailing the eternal snarl of R. Nile, avoiding encounters with Janjaweed, navigating envious stares from South Sudanese beauties, sketching the bleak and burnt out shores of Lake Turkana, on to a chilly Nairobi evening. The parcel announced its arrival with a pop. A swig of Coca Cola cleared Tika’s potato’ed mouth. He typed:
“Nothing much really. Nairobi is breezy. How is Sundsvall?”
“Expectant. The party mood is infectious. I have to go now sweetheart. XOXO!”
Tika eased off his pants and grabbed his pyjama. He needed to sleep early to wake up early enough to communicate with clients in America in the morning. As an E-Ticketing Agent with Safari Tourist Travels, his job was to assist clients get the most flexible and affordable return air tickets to Nairobi and the greater East Africa region. But before going to bed, he had a Mission to complete. The Grand Theft Auto was on PAUSE. He clicked START.
A car screeched to a halt.
Shoot that mothafucker, Soddy
I said blow his sodden brains off!
Take him out!
The sound of metal against metal and gunshots ripped his bedroom. Police sirens tailed the ensuing silence in a cortege of curses. Tika sweated behind the wheel at 200 miles on the freeway. The squeal of tires as he wrestled the wheel could be heard in the adjacent apartment. The police sirens got louder and louder. Above him, a nasty chopper fixed his car on the firing radius and released a volley of bullets. He stepped on the brakes, disengaged and ran into an alley to evade the incoming fire. But a precision guided missile from the chopper found his car anyway, as did Kalashnikov fire from cops on his trail.
Silence. Tika exited the game and shut down his console, angry at the growing pile of Mission Fails. He clicked on the new message, read, and typed:
“Have fun! XOXO”
Annalina was an American of Swedish descent. Three decades before, her father had deserted Sundsvall for the greens of opportunity in America. But Annalina was not in Sundsvall to trace her lineage. She was 20, hot and bubbly, and the heavy metal autumn had called. The Nordfest! It would be heaven!
Tika and Annalina first met on Facebook, on a White House ‘Picture of the Day’ comment thread. He liked her name – with its sole vowel easy on the tongue; he shuffled through her pictures and liked her body as well. He hit the Friend Request button. They began talking. She was bisexual with a fetish for veiled but rebellious English-speaking Muslim women and charcoal black men whom she considered the last of a dying breed of real men. Tika was modest with the nether details. He told her he loved women more than he loved himself or his neighbours. He told her he entertained no form of discrimination, especially when it came to sex. “Like bodies repel, unlike bodies attract.”He depended on the laws of electrostatics to understand sexuality.
Tika woke up to a blinding light. His watch read 10:24 AM. Unfashionably late. He yawned, jumped out of bed and made a mental note to attend a Twitter demonstration against the thieving elites later in the day. He grabbed his iPhone and SMS’d ‘LOVE’ to 2424. Three minutes later the radio presenter introduced him to a mellow voiced girl, somewhere in Nakuru, who said she was ‘as soft as a calf’s nose’ – whatever that meant. Millions of listeners moved their ears to the radios, in matatus, kiosks, and stalls to listen to Tika’s wooing. He lit her interests phrase by phrase, chuckle by chuckle, with a knowing wit that brightened her morning.
“Grant me the pleasure of meeting you today, in the evening,” she said.
“It would be an insult if I refused,” Tika replied.
“I can’t wait to see you,” she said.
“I can’t wait to see you,” he said.
In the studio, the radio presenters exchanged a knowing glance. Tika said Yes because there was no incentive to say No. Dating in Nairobi was that simple. Walking out of the Java Coffee House that evening, Tika was pissed that ‘as soft as a calf’s nose’ had turned out to be the biggest hoax in the history of dating. ‘As wrinkled as a black rhino’s nose’ was much closer to the truth. Such dates satisfied the hunger for human contact lacking between him and Annalina, and between him and Adisia. Toxic was waiting just across the street. He waved.
A group of young Americans passed a murmur away, weighed down by huge bags – a breed from a culture of excess. A beggar extended an arm in the direction of the whites. They ignored him. They too had learnt the art of indifference.
“That’s an insanely huge bag for such a matchstick-type woman!” Toxic said, laughing.
Toxic lived on the windward side of the city. They walked towards Pangani cursing the sundown drizzle, past the old barber with an odd sense of humour and his octogenarian clients, past a bevy of slender young men with yellow jeans, low-soled sneakers and hugging V-necked tees. They walked past the virginal mannequins in trendy see-throughs.
“Captivatingly sexy inanimate objects,” Toxic said and laughed again.
Annalina! Did he love her? Tika recalled how his heart had once danced in the village. Back in the day when it was just him and Adisia. Fast, primitive love. All that was lost now. In its kennel lay an effigy of what it once felt to be strung to another.
Did he love her? True, the virtual sex, as bots creaked and crawled billions of miles to relay throbs of excitement, was heavenly. He thought of Adisia – a strand of beauty wholeheartedly nurtured. The trees had waved jubilantly, happy that they were happy. The carousing troupe of weaverbirds had sealed their beaks on hearing their giggles. Tika recalled when they sat by the granary sifting weevils between their fingers, how happy they looked. Even his old dog, Saddam, seemed happy for them. It had waved its tail with glee and licked Adisia’s knees. Adisia had been the first and the last, thought Tika. She was the only one with whom he had drunk from the gourd of love. A gourd that had since broken and decomposed in the soft earth called growing up. What remained from that era of earnestness were disjointed fragments. He had lost himself and found himself, lost.
“It’s been two years sweetheart. And my skin hasn’t touched another, since.”
He’d woken up to Annalina’s message.
“I’ve also been a faithful man here, Annalina. I have been chaste.”
It is a man’s nature to lie when truth may not be wholesomely appreciated.
“I’ve kept myself for you Tika, ever since I knew where my heart sat. Marry me. Pleeease! I know it sounds strange for me to propose but fuckit Tika! Marry me.”
She had continued,“I’m drunk! I know. Why lie plus Scotch is the game here haha … Even if I don’t make you babies, I know how to cook. I can live in Africa with all the wild animals and bushes. I love lions, you remember the Tsavo pictures you sent me and the fichu? Effin beasts + I can dedicate my life to helping the dying children. Please, will you?”
A snake of anger crossed Tika’s eyes and escaped upwards in small ripples across his brows. Then she added:“I could make you babies but … my shape, I don’t want to loooose it. I’ve always wanted to be tiiiight forever.”
Tika wondered if Adisia would think the same. Words almost escaped his fingers poised over the keyboard.
The creaky staircase to Toxic’s habitat demanded a delicate balancing act. It was damp and slippery. A misstep and one could fall and roll to the hard slab below, twisted, deformed and possibly dead. Toxic inserted a key into the dark hole of a half-kilogram padlock he had inherited from his mother. They walked in. Toxic crushed the dry leaves, rolled, and lit another round.
“Hey T, do you think you want grass?” Toxic inquired.
His nose blew huge rolls of smoke that hissed and circled on their way to the impenetrable ceiling. The smoke rolled back sluggishly and formed nimbus clouds in front of theTV.
“A spliff a day keeps the doctor away,” Tika jibed.
“A friend with weed is a friend in deed,” Toxic added and passed the roll to fulfil this idiomatic oath.
Tika’s puff created nimbus clouds of his own. They hung directly in front of his eyes. He swatted them with his bare hands. They went to the curtains.
“T, what do you think of that girl?”
“That brown pumpkin that was with Biggie at Club Caesarean.”
“Can’t really remember. What about her?”
“I think I want her. I think she’s really nice.”
Tika raised an eyebrow, threw the stump of weed-stick to the floor and habitually crushed it with the heel of his shoe.
“Sure, no biggie! I could get myself the red one who sits at the counter.”
Zoned, they exited the apartment. The dark sidewalks spotted street lamps colonized by moths. Tika was tired to his bones. He literally limped to the bus station. Toxic walked beside him lost in his world. Two street boys sparred a few meters ahead of them. The shorter one, with aged skill, chopped his opponents’ nose with an upper-cut. The crowd beerily cheered on. Even Toxic agreed that the jab was spectacular. But the fight stopped abruptly and the kids hobbled to opposite directions. In slow, swollen steps, the crowd dissipated. The streets became naked again, empty and noiseless.
Tika walked on and did not notice Toxic slinking to his quenching hole. But he understood. Toxic was the tightest campus mate he ever had. He was still unsure how he should drag him from the mess he’d gotten himself into. That was a thought for another day, now he had his own life to think about.
“Can we be together again?” Adisia had asked when they last talked. He recalled how companioned silence had connected their distant memories. They both retreated to the past. It was as if the line had gone dead, but he could hear her soft breathing on the other end of the line waiting for him. He said nothing.
“Anyway, I received my admission letter. I’m going to study Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Nairobi. Intake is September. I know I should be happy about this but I wish the thing between us was stronger. I’ve never been with anyone else,” she went on, “but I had no way of getting to you. I only got your number from your sister recently. Are you employed now?”
“Make that future worth living, Tika. There are dreams waiting for us to decide whether we’ll ever come back to each other.”
Can we be together? Tika knew this was one of those nights when all he needed was silence. He lay on the bed and counted illusory twinkles on the ceiling. He wanted to make a mindless phone call to ‘as soft as a calf’s nose’ just to jerk her ego but thought better of it – that would be like rubbing pee-soaked pumice stone on a wound. A haunting odour of loneliness clung to him.Well in an hour he’d call Annalina and drink from her spring of love, her joy in life and belief in the impossible. She was a fairy, a genie from a faraway land, a dream he could always grasp in snatches and relive. He drowned in the wait. One hour. But his eyes closed and his focus became blurry. Darkness engulfed him, warm and cuddly against his frame. The silent voices of introspection that had occupied the room before were replaced by snores. Without sleep, all men would rot on their feet.
The stage was all set. Copper wires climbed the sparsely decorated wall, duct-taped at intervals and seeming like hugging tendrils unable to control their thirst for the sun. Up they went and escaped via tiny holes into the darkness past the ceiling, emerging beneath a satellite dish facing the city. Where the copper wires had originated, another set navigated the intersection between the wall and floor then rose and clung onto the rear of a laptop.
The room was silent and cushioned from the tattle of a high speed photocopier in the adjacent office. There were three other people in the rectangular windowless room. A boardroom demeanour on their faces. It was true Tika’s mama could not understand what was going on. She was unsure of what was to unfold before her eyes. Tika’s father had stopped trying to understand. As for the Pastor, he was happy to be a witness, an intercessor – a god among men.
Three feet from where Tika’s mama stood was a blank LCD screen powered down from the ceiling. The screen seemed apprehensive, waiting for the signal to speak to the trapezoidal table where Tika fidgeted with TV, Projector, and PolyCom remotes. All four people were well within the camera’s vision. The lighting was sombrely tuned. The furnishing was that of a cockpit without consoles. All were sweating.
This was the best Single-Point Video Conferencing room that one could set up with the right amount of money and brains. Fabric panelling on the wall and acoustic perforated tiles deadened the pitch of the Pastor’s voice. Tika’s eyes circled the room, looking for missing connections before signalling the giant projection screen to life. He was proud of what he had done. Two VGA Projector Inputs hung at the far end of the table. He fixed them and switched on the light control and the projection screen switches. White light directed four peering eyes to the LCD screen projected on the wall.
Marry me. He had said Yes to Annalina because there was no incentive to say No. He loved her. She loved him. That was all. He wanted a wedding, but not a traditional wedding. Hidden in the midst of tens of icons on the desktop was a shortcut to eNGAGEMENT, a virtualization software. Tika started the program and Logged In. He was directed to eNGAGEMENT.COM – the virtual space that created virtual wedding videos and streamed them. For Tika, eNGAGEMENT was like any other video game, only the characters were him and Annalina and the game was their wedding.
Annalina waited on the other end, having Logged In to familiarize herself with the moves she had practiced for seven days now. There were jubilant waves at the bottom of the screen. The second were online friends invited to witness the union between man and woman. Their voices democratically shut off. Viewing a virtual recreation of herself, Annalina applied virtual makeup complete with a free flowing set of black silky hair that dropped gingerly to her bare shoulders. She wore an Oscar de la Renta masterpiece – a strapless satin gown full of tulle netting. SheControl-exed the ivory gown with cap sleeves she had settled on earlier, saved these changes, exited the Settings Mode and watched the real world and virtual interface merge. Tika appeared on the screen, regal on a sequined boubou.
Drum beats, whistles, shouts, and tribal chants of celebration played in the background drowning the sonorous croon of Catholic hymns. Tika picked St. Peter’s Cathedral for ceremony and Buckingham Palace for reception and watched the two distant locales position themselves on the virtual map. A white carpet of sanctity looped out of the cross-sculptured mahogany doors of St. Peter’s, Nairobi. He entered the church, walking stealthily to the altar. There were no bride-maids. Friends who RVSP’d online marvelled at the spectacle.
“You look yummy. No shit!” said Tika.
“Umm, flattered. Thought you’d bleed dry coz I dropped the ivory with cap sleeves,” Annalina’s voice hissed through the headset.
“Here’s sweet Mami and benevolent Papi,” said Tika.
Annalina’s parents also came into view. A flurry of hands manufactured a wave, brows lifting as the dripping reality of virtual experience seeped deep into their subconscious beings. Without warning, this pleasant tête-à-tête was replaced with an alternating show of bar talk and horrific screams.
“Suspicious virus activity!”
Tika’s eyebrows widened. Some sod had hacked into his virtual wedding and was now posing nude on the screen. Evil laughter and gibberish blabber rose and peaked in the laissez-faire chatroom.
“You crazy asshole! You are ruining my wedding!” Tika thought to say. But all he said was, “Damn, I think we have a problem with the system. Let me work on it. A minute.”
He switched off the giant screen to shield his parents and the man of God from being treated to a Molotov cocktail of a pregnant man with a bushy ass doing a barmy torso twist. Tika rapidly typed a set of commands on the blue screen of the laptop but logged in to the virtual reality setup using his iPhone to track progress. He repulsed that hacker and re-entered the virtual wedding space.
Annalina had not known that the setup had been attacked. The screens had gone black but came back after a minute. She blew him a kiss. Tika opened his lips and caught it. Mami and Papi said nothing. Not a word had escaped their lips since being unwittingly convinced to take residence in the rectangular windowless room. Not even when Annalina’s Pastor began reading from A.C. Grayling’s Humanist Bible, The Good Book.
“Let us throw our eyes to Genesis, Verse 3-12,” he started.
“In humankind the work of renewal lies in the work of affection, the bond of one to another made by desire. Among the objects that nature everywhere offers desire, there is little more worthy of pursuit, little that makes people happier …If there is anyone who could take offence at the praise given to the most noble and universal of passions, let us evoke nature before him, and make it speak. For nature would say: ‘Why do you blush to hear the praise of pleasure, when you do not blush to indulge its temptations under cover of night?”
At the bottom of the screen, jubilant waves emerged from the crowd of online friends, their voices now democratically turned on. Tika’s face registered a chai jaba smile – the classic Kenyan half-arc smile of contentment. On Mama’s face were ink-drops of curiosity. Papa maintained a smirk and the Pastor a lopsided grin.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,” the Pastor began, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Father, you have made the bond of marriage a holy mystery, a symbol of Christ’s love for his Church. Promise them that when they walk through the fires of love, they won’t be burnt,” he pleaded with God.
They took their vows.
“You’ll be my cake, my tea, my bread and hopefully, my wine.”
“I will be your wine. I will be the satisfaction of the last swirl at the bottom of your glass.”
“Tell Mami that you will be my wife and Papi that you’ll grace my bed every night.”
“Yes, I will be,” she said and heard Pam Ayres lines rushing to her lips. “I’ll marry you my dear so that I can push you out of bed when the baby starts to cry. And when we hear a knocking and it’s creepy and late, I’ll hand you the torch and you’ll investigate.”
“Babies?” Tika whispered. They smiled with a shared surprise. “Then I’ll be your husband.”
Two figures stood by the altar of promises. They were falling fruits trapped mid-air in a trance. A moment became an hour and then years. Detached in spirit from the stares around them, they could hardly tell how much time had ballooned. A sense of falling washed over them with pauses like bites on violin strings, like the hesitant splash of water on oil paint: together but not mixing. Their minds roved to places they have never been. The Congo forest with its unforgiving undergrowth tested their resolve. Mt. Kenya’s foot was pinching cold and the never-ending ripples of Lake Victoria stretched their possibilities far and wide.
Legend had it that after laying the foundation of the earth and life on the first seven days, God spent the entire second week shaping the crystal sands of Mombasa’s white sandy beaches. His intention was to build himself a sanctuary. It is under these coconut palms that God dictated the creation myth to Moses.
Annalina was to jet in for the honeymoon.
Then it all went black. The room went black. The screens went black. But Tika was still lost in the wonder of the moment. He imagined the fretted coastline, the delicate tracery of waving casuarinas. He imagined the powdery soft beaches, crystal azure waters, hobie-cats and laser sails.
“Any power backup?” the Pastor’s voice ripped through the silence.
Tika heard the voice from afar. He came back to reality, exhausted. He came back to blackness. Darkness burnt his eyes. His heart sunk. It was only possible to print out a Virtual Wedding Certificate when the wedding session was complete. So there was no certificate to be validated by e-Government Marriage Office.
“Do we have any power backup?” the Pastor asked again.
“No,” he replied. “A new installation is scheduled next month. We relocated the backup for this unit to the Data Recovery Unit.”
He opened the door to a dark night. Streaks of lightening bisected huge rain drops as the streets sagged under the weight of raging waters. The world passed Tika staring fatally at joyful malice. Adisia. He stood alone in the rain, his tears joining the heavy downpour running unto the tunnels beneath the city.
Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology at Egerton University. He works, as a Research Consultant, and lives in Nairobi. His work has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja, San Antonio Review, among others. He also writes for #MaskaniConversations in the Star Newspaper. He is also working on a novel and a collection of poems and is a member of Jalada Africa (a pan-African writer’s collective) and Hisia Zangu (a writer’s and art society).
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