Duncan Mwangi

We found out about Esse’s wedding on the day Emm, Wafula and I started a band. 

We immediately hopped on a call to speculate on why this masc bi girl from Kilifi—who could do this thing with her tongue and whom we’d all had as an ex at one point—had decided to leave for greener comphet pastures. Didn’t she like orbiting on these lesbian circles full of reputable head, even though she always considered them too crammed? Had she been waiting to settle for a man all along?

Emm, Wafula and I had gotten together as a band in June, days after Wafula jetted into the country from Houston on break from her Microbiology PhD. It was time to take advantage of our highschool dream of being rockstars, which we constantly ping-ponged in the group chat. Wafula, who had an entire reservoir of initiative to cover the rest of us slackers, took over the reins of manager and divided roles. Chatty and friendly Emm knew an artist who often showcased at Goethe—some Burkinabe girl in her twenties with a face that was bent around the ears like a scroll about to close. Using her charming eldest-sister aura and banking-teller voice, she scored us a practicing venue and some free instruments from a jazz band whose members had daytime jobs. Emm and I spent Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons playing chords and we matched them to Wafula’s Tony Bennett bass during the remaining weekdays.

Since our Kangubiri High days, Wafula had always been chasing something more bountiful than the rest of us, who were happy weeds, eager to be grafted into whatever stage of life was willing to have us and perfectly fine with falling through the cracks. When this thing she was searching for did not materialize in her Kenyatta undergrad years, she applied to work at a NASA-affiliated program and used her acceptance to get part-time admission to Rice University in Houston. With the level of ambition between Emm and I amounting to chicken feed, it was easy to feel happy for Wafula. We showed up for her farewell, got her drunk, gave her overpriced Maasai bead jewelry and shukas and made her save the East African timezone on her clock app so she would know when to call us. 

The band came together just in time to play Esse’s wedding night, which was on a lantern-lit lakefront a few minutes’ drive from Naivasha. Wafula, who either had a parochial view of marriage, or detested marriage’s own parochial view, decided that she couldn’t make it at the last minute, leaving Emm and I to play an instrumental set all night. As the land breeze blew kisses at the lake, the rings on our fingers contracted slightly and chafed our fingers, which in turn started to get cold and so we passed a small insipid blunt between each other as we played, which turned into two blunts, which turned into three. Nobody, least of all us, noticed when we got high. It happened very random-like.

Esse was suddenly in our faces in evening wear and with her make up lightly dusted on, marveling at how good we were together on our choice instruments. She revealed that she initially had reservations about hiring us but then shook her head with firm flattened lips when we pressed her for the reason. We watched her explain to us the order in which her song requests would follow, all serious and businesslike, and in that moment we felt so enchanted by her, because now that we were back under her thumb, sans her nuptials, she was just as we remembered.

With an inhibition placed on both our streams of consciousness, neither of us were able to recall the exact details of Esse’s song requests, so we decided to wing it. Emm’s nimble fingers were a delight on the Les Paul; as the strings trembled so did my neck. I turned to the drummer, who came with the venue, to see his reaction. She shrugged as if she knew that Emm was high, and I shrugged back as if I wasn’t. This exchange pleased me and as a result of the superiority that I felt from this deception, I made sure to play my keyboard with as much reservation as I could muster so as not to draw attention to myself. We played old Benga, Chakacha, Rhumba and new pop music that seemed to coalesce around the same old forms. The music became a spell that shrunk the audience and venue and elevated the night sky.

Ya Elodieeee, mapasaaa
Ya Famille
O ti wapi?

We took a bathroom break when the couple’s best man stood up to do the toasts and accompanying roasts. Walking behind Emm, who was clumsy with her steps and kept hitting the raised steps, the drummer and I shared a conspiratorial look.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” the drummer said. Her name was Munira and during the weekdays she worked in sales. She was with child. I discreetly googled WebMD. Smoking marijuana while pregnant was ill-advised. 

After a few minutes of walking, we witnessed Emm ricochet off a wall she’d bumped into. The building attached to it turned out to be the bathroom, of course. As I pushed my piss out of me and straight down the hole, I prayed that I was not that loud because Munira would think that I was vulgar. To my right, Emm’s stall sounded deathly quiet, which made the stakes even higher for me. I measured my squirts.

Outside the wind had changed. It spat in our faces as we hurried back. Standing by the stage tent, the bride’s mother hissed at our lateness, which we promptly apologized for to avoid a docking of our remaining payment.

As I took my place behind the keyboard, I spotted the newlyweds sitting together at their table in awkward-looking silence as they stared at the shimmer on top of the lake, a forlornness humped on their shoulders. A random thought, something dismissive of their marriage, pushed its way through my very thick mascot head, which I turned to share with Emm only to find that she was not there.

A search party consisting of Munira, a few caterers, the watchman, the groom and I was formed quickly. Munira and I were tasked with retracing our steps to the bathroom while the rest of them dispersed in different directions.

The moonlight slunk in through the windows and then jumped off the ledge to land on Emm, who was curled up on a toilet bowl like a tomcat, sound asleep. Her fingers were stretched out in front of her, terribly blue from the cold and relentless strumming. The question of whether to wake her so that she could walk or to lift her on our backs and carry her was never asked. Munira took it upon herself to lift the helpless little thing, now awake but visibly dazed, on her back.

We wordlessly walked back to the venue, listening to the din of the crickets as they shook their miniature marambas. Emm hummed a fitful tune, one that rose and fell with her breath as she dipped in and out of her dreams. We could hear the wedding party going on; the late-night DJ was playing his set an hour early, which meant we would lose part of our money.

As we got closer, the silhouettes in the tents got more defined. There was a man bobbing gingerly on his chair, arms raised as if in the back of a moving convertible. Two women held hands and careened downwards, their asses spinning like slowed-down blades of a wind turbine. A young couple shared a plastic chair: the man sat on the woman and ran his hands down her back as they swayed. Two trespassing teenage boys discreetly emptied cocktail flutes from one of the tables into their soda glasses before exiting the party tent. The most visible people were the bride and groom, no longer cast in gloom, but radiant like children playing outside, holding hands as they rubbed closer together like flint, causing sparks to fly everywhere.

Later that night in my bed, in the company of the drummer and the afterglow from her skilled love making, I contemplated both memories of the couple—in their gloom and radiance—that I had committed to mind so I could pick at Esse’s fate. I kept reviewing every piece of footage of her from last night that I had tucked inside my mind to prove that she was obviously either happy or miserable or confused or resigned to her fate, but each time I must’ve come upon a false memory for in all of them, Esse bore no resemblance to her former self. 


The next time I saw Esse, it was close to a year later and I was in a new band. We were opening for a Kenyan-Swedish rapper at the Alchemist. Emm and Wafula had a table right next to the stage which was heaving under the weight of Pilsner bottles and spicy chicken wings. We played music worthy of the night and fed the drugged and overstimulated crowd to their most primal impulses.

The crowd was small but lively at the sides where it was broken up into chatty friend groups showing each other off. The world shrunk many measurements smaller, and each member regarded the other with augmented fondness. What a beautiful thing it was to be a friend or a significant other or an in-between, an equation to be solved daily. Self-congratulations filled the air as people imagined themselves worthy of each other, presenting small bits of themselves to be devoured in some inane cannibalistic ritual that turned their social circles into bigger and better packs.

As young people, we were shrewd. We knew everything about the world and how to solve it. Together, as the “it” generation, we would work through the mess. The fear of losing people to the world and its claws made us come even closer and huddle for warmth. We wondered whether the world would end and made many drinking games out of these questions. The air was pollinated by imaginative endings. There were boys and girls and a few genderbending sprites, all acting foolish around each other.

Esse, who was dressed like a biker girl in her jeans, leather jacket and combat boots, waved at me from across the bar. She was nursing a small cider bottle.

“You played well,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said while waving the bartender over to ask for a daiquiri. In a series of quick and impressive movements, he shook the alcohol and juices and let the resulting mixture gush into a tall and narrow highball glass. He then plopped two large orbs of ice into the drink and clamped a slice of lemon on the rim of the glass.

“How come Emm and Wafula didn’t play tonight? Trouble in paradise?” Esse asked, her acrylics tracing the outline of the bottle, creating a small trail on its misty glass. 

I was surprised to see that Esse still had this needling thing about her. Her effervescence nicked like a small blade; I could feel pinpricks of it as she teased me tonight.

She had first drawn me to her on the night of her brother’s graduation party. While at the drink station, she had grabbed the Fanta orange I’d just opened with my teeth and spat into the bottle. She had followed this up with a series of more childish pranks: hiding my greasy metal plate of nyama choma when I went to wash my hands, discreetly removing my phone charger from the charging port, and then calling upon me to toast to her brother, whom I barely knew, in front of her entire family. After making sure she’d riled me up plenty, she had then offered up her place for me to spend the night, banking on the fact that getting to Rongai at that time of the night while drunk meant risking rogue Uber drivers and my mother’s wrath. 

Our escapades—consisting of her self-assured madness and my perpetual hand wringing— had made me briefly take up smoking.

The cold glass stem stung my fingers, prompting me to give Esse my reply.

“Emm has a full time job now and Wafula is still preoccupied with school. We talked about it and the band decided to take a break,” I said. I marveled at how easy she made it for me to tell her things I did not wish to share. Things she would probably use to make fun of me. She picked up a napkin from the table and blotted her lips with it. 

“Do you have any lip balm by any chance?” she asked. “Mine ran out today and I forgot to pick up some after work.”

I begrudgingly handed her the small tub of Vaseline I always kept in my coat pocket. With the dexterity of a bird’s claw, she received it with her right thumb and index finger and propped it open with her middle finger. A large white unidentifiable trickle fell on her hair just as she was applying the jelly onto her lips, making her stop right in her tracks.

The crow shit got all the way down to her neck. She screamed and tried to rub it away with the sleeves of her chunky sweater.

I wanted to help but froze, afraid that my insensitivity would bubble to the top, causing me to laugh, and that I would be the next target moments after her. My karma was a shifty little thing, always looking to smack me in the head for any wayward behavior. A reminder that the deep roots of my evangelical days had somehow found a way to coexist with my post-teen minted brand of chaotic lesbian. 

“Let’s try the loos,” I said as I pointed away from the general club area, watching her look of hesitance—of pleading to be separated from the mess, from the incident, from her body so she wouldn’t have to handle it—and briefly wincing at my impulse to take it away, servile as it was.

In the bathroom, I cupped water on her hair as her neck chafed from the weight of her head. She asked, “What happened to us Maxine? We used to be such good friends.” 

I gave it a shrug and let the elliptical silence speak. Who knows, really. Could be the fucking crows. Or the fact that you spun my entire block of friends. 

The fluorescent bulb wheezed with each yank that Esse gave the paper towel dispenser until she eventually had enough sheets to pat down her hair. I sat on the rim of the sink, my back against a wall of corrugated concrete, studying her. She still had the springy waifish look of a schoolgirl about her, which was offset by the trail of blackheads on her cheekbones and the fact that the cheeks were filling out. Now that her jacket was off, I could see her top, which was cartoonishly small, showing off her square midriff and dark navel, which induced familiar flashes—of me bent on the floor with my hands petting her thighs and my face against her pelvis while she rocked back and forth, both of us gasping in turns. 

“Does Paul give you…you know…” I asked, my voice trailing off as I raised two fingers and passed my tongue through them. It took Esse a quick second for her to register what I was asking, and she turned her face away from me when it did.

“I see you still think like a dog,” she said in a low raspy voice tinged with her annoyance at the question and, perhaps, the shame of having to deflect it.

Then the door burst open and a beautiful Desi boy staggered in with his eyes flushed and his puffy hair flattened in irregular patches. Panicked, I jumped off the sink and reached into my pockets, letting my fingers curl around my keychain. I turned to Esse to find her unmoved, a hand still patting her hair. 

He took a second to gather his bearings.

“Sorry ladies…can I use the bathroom?” he said, clasping his hands together. Heading towards us. 

Esse fixed him a scowl. 

“Shoo!” She yelled. 

As soon as the door slammed shut, she turned to me and said, “They find us here with that jailbait and we’ll be back in Central Station holding our pee for dear life.”

“I’ve been trying to forget that day. Thank you for bringing it up,” I said, rolling my tongue to ward off the cottonmouth that came with the memory of blistered hands clutching the bars to the women’s cell and denim jeans which were firmly glued to my privates. 

“They had to threaten to move me to the men’s cell so they could get me to stop shouting,” Esse recalled. “Meanwhile you were calm as anything.”

“Easiest thing in the world when you’re as high as giraffe pussy.”


One rudimentary makeover later and Esse and I were as high up as the crows, our legs hanging off a Parklands building and inducing vertigo as we stared at the jumble of twinkling, fuzzy and wiry lights that was the Nairobi skyline and judged its lesbian population. 

“On to the east sides…who wins between Buruburu, Donholm or Umoja leles?”

“Tough choice,” I said. “Buru babes are too domestic while Umo babes are too out there so I’m going with Donny babes.”

“I abhor and respect the spectrum in equal measure,” said Esse. “You really know your way around this city.”

“I know my way around a lot of things,” I said, all charming and cocky. 

Esse laughed and fanned her face with her left hand, the wedding band fitted snugly between the dips in her fingers, reminding me that her vistas were no longer open to exploration. 

“Seriously though, do you love hettie sex now?”

I was nothing if not persistent.

“You want me to be real with you?” 

Desperately, I thought, nodding as I straddled the construction wires that stood between my torso and imminent splatter. Spare no details

“It’s awful. Always badly timed. The foreplay barely scratches the surface. Last month, he let me get a vibrator for those nights when I don’t finish.” 

“That does sound bad,” I said. Secretly happy that my deep seated curiosity had been satisfied in a way that validated my perception of things. “I’d leave and never look back.” 

She fixed me with a look of exasperation and pity. Eyes that sized me up before saying I know what you are.

“I doubt you would,” she said, in a definitive voice that bristled the hairs on my skin, reaching out to tame my exterior. “You’re the kind of person that likes to linger. I don’t know why you do it, but I can give you examples. Your best friends are from high school. You’re still chasing the dream of being in a band even after your friends bailed on it. And you still act like you want me to be a carefree lesbian again. It’s a wonder how your life progresses when your mindset is so rigidly attached…”

A part of my brain switched off, leaving me with a pinch of consciousness and soggy limbs and a tingling spine. I was suddenly back to being aware that we were high up. She was still going—tearing into layers of my delusion with carnivorous instinct. Amid mouthful crunches of her own analysis, I could sense her determination to undo me. A feat that many other girls had attempted before. 

I broke through the fuzz of my head and reached out for her head, aggrandized in its self assurance, with the lips pulsing and erect, and brokered a kiss that gently sank her voice into the depths of her gut. As I sucked at her lower lip, I could feel her blood switching currents for her brain had changed preoccupations, and the skin around her nose flushing as the blood started moving low. She placed her tongue between her gums as a pushback, a plea for herself to stop, I could only assume. I tickled its pink underbelly with mine, aiming small jabs at its lateral border, unwilling to stop until I felt it go limp in an act of surrender. 

We stayed like that for God knows how long. Eventually my hip started to cramp but I didn’t want to be the first to let go. She was right about me, of course. I stayed on because people needed me, and long afterwards too because I had no idea how to bundle up and get going. My mother had been a freer spirit, and watching her sow her prospects around the country as a child had made me crave longevity, and consistency, and all of these things that other people found boring. 

Later, as I my way home from the matatu stop, where I had waved Esse goodbye with scant promises of meeting up at some art exhibition or grunge scene where we would take some molly, I bent down to retrieve one of my sandals and shake the gravel off. That is when I saw it, a stray dog come out of nowhere. Barking madly without domestic charm. Bearing its teeth and grinding its jaws against each other. Maniacally. 

I started by hopping away. I threw the sandal in my hand ahead of me, and my foot caught it just as the dog broke into a sprint. As the dog chased me around the neighborhood, I considered my thoughts which ran in a loop. The most pressing one being the desire to let the dog have its way so that I could spend time at the hospital and lick all of my wounds while being absolutely pitiful. 

Maybe in the hopes of getting someone to linger so I could be the one to leave. 

Duncan Mwangi is a fiction writer, poet and a graduate of the Nairobi Fiction Writing Class NF2W4 2020. Their work has previously been featured or is forthcoming in Afreada Magazine, The Shore Poetry, Kikwetu Magazine and Ringling Shift Journal.