The dirty banner reads ‘Kaloleni Pub’. From where I stand, it reeks of nothing but dinginess. It is a small pub stacked between sheds of similar stature in the backstreets of California, some shanty hood in the heart of Eldoret. A young woman in her twenties staggers out of the pub muttering incorrigibly to herself. She was wearing blue sweatpants, a white vest top and puma flip-flops. I look at my watch, it is a few minutes to 5. She bumps into me and teeters away. It is nothing. Just a girl and her escape. Across, kids are playing checkers on the verandah of another pub. A small crowd had gathered around cheering them on. Ah, nostalgia. This looks like a scene out of my childhood.
I walk into the pub and the classic Mamou by Franco blared from the cheap underrated speakers. A few tables were empty while most were occupied. The waitress, an old woman probably in her fifties waves me towards an empty table. I smile. The smoky small room is filled with the pungent ethanol smell, cheap liquor and its mishaps. An old man and his young belle take it to the dance floor, a small hole in the middle as their table-mates cheered them on. I stare at them for a while. The old man was a show-off. She was not the SI unit of Wale’s PYT (Pretty Young Thing) but she served the purpose- masked the insecurities of the old man trying to relive his golden days which as far as the biological clock is concerned were far gone. If she weighed much, she was half of a bag of maize. I could tell she was from the hood from her shamelessly transparent tights.
My friend Jim had told me to meet him here. Why, I could not tell. But life can humble you my friend. If you have never hit rock bottom, you can afford to laugh at your friends’ misgivings and ask Jim why he wanted to meet in a dingy bar, right in the heart of a shanty estate. We called him Jamie, a nickname he earned from his favorite drink Jameson. We go back in the day though he was a few years older than me. He took me under his wing when I was a barely through with high school. Jamie taught me how to roll in the hood and his coolness must have rubbed off on me. He is the guy who introduced me to Tupac and B.I.G while I was still waking up to the beautiful world of music. A keen student of Tupac and his riddled philosophies, his man cave looked like Tupac’s shrine. All his t-shirts had Tupac on them and he would use his songs to woo girls.
But then we grew up. We got carried away chasing ambition. Him, chasing fine women and I, chasing milk and honey. Occasionally, we would meet for soul adventures. A few days on the road, binging and talking about our dreams to not hearing from each other for weeks. But life got in the way. He hit the jackpot and disappeared on us. I would only meet him on my Instagram timeline-flashy HD photos, the expensive tours to Abu Dhabi, wining and dining at the high-end hotels. I never got an invitation to his wedding. I just saw a notification on Facebook, he had updated his status ‘Jim Were Got Married to Eileen Nzilani’, then one pic of his beautiful bride, a stunning light-skinned mamii with the smile of an Aquafresh commercial model. That was last time I saw or heard of him. From afar, Jim was living the life. His life was every new millennial’s dream, the fancy cars, paid vacations and the icing on the cake, a beautiful wife.
Six years later, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I get a call from a private number. For a few minutes, I hesitate but it gnaws at my soul. I pick up and silently wait to hear who was on the other end. Jamie had this unique pompous voice. I am excited man. It had been forever since I heard from a soul friend. We talk for a few minutes and plan to meet soon. I did not know his schedule, mine was a bit flexible so I let him choose the venue. Deep down, I was crossing my fingers he does not choose those fancy places where a bottle of soda goes for 250 and then decided we split the bill. He made it, I have not. The thing about this life. It is a journey, and everyone’s is unique. His journey and my journey are not identical, our timelines very parallel. Competing is not wise either. Anxiety will kill you, depression will corner you in a dark hole.
On Friday evening he texts; Hey. Kaloleni Pub would be nice. Saturday afternoon.
Wait, is there a new Kaloleni Pub in town? I asked Uncle Google. Nothing comes up. There is only one Kaloleni I know, in the shanty California. I could barely sleep out of anxiety and the eagerness to see a long-lost friend. Even though, my mind could not take the location. It searched for ‘whys’, and ‘what ifs.’ The ‘maybes’ and ‘could bes’ turned up on the search too but the definite ‘is’ took a backseat.
Saturday, a few minutes to 5 I arrive at Kaloleni Pub. I spot him at the counter wearing a blue cape with the Kenyan flag like the DPs. The person sitting at the counter was the frame of Jim, a smaller Jamie, three or four frames of the Jamie. We embrace.
I hold out his sweatshirt and tease him, ‘Did you and Tupac have a falling out?’
He guffaws and pulls me a chair. The laugh dies suddenly and the smile quickly disappears from his face.
‘We never did. Tupac never lived past 25 and that’s when shit gets real.’
The waitress is grinning at us, exposing the stunning gap between her teeth. I wait for Jim to order before I do, he was great at setting the tone of the moment.
‘I taught you well.’ He guffaws again and throws a side hug.
We sit in silence for a while. Each of us trying to hatch the convo in our heads.
Break the ice. Side shove.
‘It’s been long Jim.’
‘Really long Syl.’
He takes a deep gulp of water. Beads of sweats begin forming on his forehead and his lips dry up.
‘Breath. Breath brother.’ I hold his hand. He looks at me and smiles.
‘Still the sweet Syl. I always thought I would marry you.’
We laugh. This is a silly joke born after one time, I drunkenly confessed my ‘feelings’ for him. But he understood. Nothing changed. The beautiful friendship ever blossomed. The waitress quickly introduces herself as she pops my bottle open. Njambi is her noun. Jim ransacks his pocket and takes out a coin. He starts tossing it I, taking gentle sips of White Cap.
‘Heads or tails?’
‘Tails, I tell you a story.’
‘One year, sober.’
The look on my face betrayed the perfect chaos inside my mind. I am embarrassed by my ignorance.
‘No. Don’t worry. I won’t toss back.’
‘With addiction, you never toss the coin and say heads, I am an addict, tails I’m sober. It just happens. That line is so blur. One day, you are partying with friends, living the life, smashing goals left right and center. The next, you are sneaking out of meetings for a sip then you start ducking friends. You know they will tell you, Jim that’s too much. So, you avoid them. And start drinking alone. Now you are snoozing alarms, because you need to squeeze in some few minutes of sleep. Show up to work late, drink more to drain work frustrations, eventually you just don’t show up.’
‘Jamie, you would have at least called.’
Saying it, I was trying to be the perfect friend but in the real sense I understand. I have dealt with my pain, not in the best way possible. In a similar manner. Chased the highs for an escape. And while the highs served a reprieve for a short while, the insanity returned much stronger. Friends cannot do you any good. Some of them are the markers of success, their relationships are harsh reminders of yours failing. It is hard, to sit with people and pretend you are okay. You can for a while, but not for very long.
‘And say what Syl?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I have slept in a ditch one too many times. Paid for alcohol with my valuables. I knew I was in pain, but I could not tell what it was. I just didn’t want it anymore. So, I stayed drunk.’
‘For how many years?’
‘After my marriage.’
‘You were not happy?’
‘I don’t really know. I had the money, I could drink anytime. Monday morning, drink. We get into a fight with my wife, drink. My life circulated around alcohol so much we became intertwined. Actually, ex-wife.’
Addictions are lethal. If you have read Naked Lunch you probably understand how deep it runs. William S. Burroughs was a famous writer in the early 1920s who authored this soul piece among others like Junkie. Naked Lunch is the deepest yet most incomprehensible shit I have ever read. Because this guy wrote it while he was high on heroine. The book is about his heroine addiction and how he traveled all over Europe using. He paints addiction an ugly color, far from black. It is worse than a pandemonium, but close to a delirium. Impulse. And the next high.
Sometimes it runs in the genes. The spiritual ethos calls it a generational curse. The Zen and enlightened ones, know it is a pattern preconditioned by biological engineering. Jim said it felt like being possessed by a thousand thirsty demons. Thirsty for only one thing- alcohol.
‘No woman will stay with a ticking time bomb.’
‘No. Those are nothing. Alcohol-induced psychosis. I would go on a rampage. Belittle, insult, demoralize and sometimes hit her. I resented her. I hated how she cared for me or asked if I had eaten before drinking. She tried intervening. Got my fam to come, but no. The thirst was insatiable. The party had to go on.’
‘I am so sorry you went through that.’
‘I am sorry too.’
‘After she left, the women came. Fine women. I had these nice things with no one to enjoy them. The house parties, the booze and the sex parties.’
We never thought Jim would ever find a mate. He held marriage with such resentment. He feared commitments like a plague. Guys fear settling down. They worry that when they marry a woman, they have to zero-graze. But years later, Jim says the greatest thing that could have happened to him was marriage. Especially for a guy like him. If only he was sober to be in the marriage and stay married.
‘Looking back at my marriage the view is blurred. Technically I was never married. It was nominal.’
I am fighting with balancing tears. Time changes a lot and a lot can happen in really short time. Jamie, the life of the party wallowed in the well of addiction. The one guy who could handle his liquor no matter what. If there were awards for guys who drink, he would have been the most disciplined drinker I know.
‘When did you look for help?’
‘After being deported. I just woke up at the embassy. I had no drink on me, but the pain inside my body was an enormous monster. It had swallowed me alive. I started screaming. The security thought they should throw me out, but one lady, the secretary thought I needed help. She linked me up with some white guy, Tony. He has been a sponsor for over twenty years and runs a rehab. He gave me this coin, when I hit one year sober.’