How I Met Lorraine

And that’s how I met Lorraine. I was heading home one afternoon, and as I walked out the building I ran into a bunch of high schoolers hanging out. My eyes zeroed in on a Maxi skirt, this flowing phenomenon of fashion. A Maxi skirt is such a contradiction for me. My sense of style is all about minimalism; I dislike anything superfluous in a dress – bits the tailor should clearly have trimmed before the item made it to the store. Except when it comes to Maxi skirts: where excess is the new simple. And Lorraine wore hers with panache. The light grey skirt fit her perfectly, sculpting her hips and curves like marble. The cotton-polyester blend moved in waves as she stood chatting with her buddies. She wore her top a little small; if you paid attention as she balanced on one leg then the other, you saw a glimpse of her firm tummy underneath. And then her hair-do was a school-girl-blow-dried-pony-tail that’s quite common in Nairobi. More fashionable than corn rows, but not illegal like perms and weaves. Basically, she looked hot. I’d not seen this group of kiddos before, and they did not seem particularly studious. They all seemed to be at the library more for the company than for quiet study spaces. I overcame my prejudice. I also knew I had to step up and Carpe Diem, chances were that this beauty would not be frequenting the stacks. The surprise is that I somehow plucked up enough courage to walk over, say hello, and introduce myself. Two minutes later I could not have told you what her companions’ names were, but I did walk away with Lorraine’s email address. This was 2001, and we were all going digital. Cell phones were not yet in, so email was the way to stand out.

And we began an email correspondence. Mostly one paragraph messages that always started “I hope you’re well?” Sometimes I’d be adventurous and switch it up to “Sasa, I hope U r OK?” Once final exams were over, we had a lot more time on our hands. We could write more often. I was now a frequent customer at my neighborhood cyber café. Going to the “Cyber” was posh. This practice clearly marked as you not-villager, as destined for great things. It was all about being modern. Forget that connection was dial-up, and a few kilobytes of email took forever to load. The keyboards were clunky, and the monitors huge. Internet cafes crammed in as many machines as they could; most of them locked away in wooden cabinets for a semblance of privacy, but especially for security reasons.

Prosperity Institute 029

Going to the “Cyber” was posh. This practice clearly marked as you not-villager, as destined for great things.

Once Lorraine and I had established an ongoing conversation, email was no longer enough. We needed something more immediate, a way to hear the gasps, sighs, and heart throbs that accompanied whatever news we exchanged. And that’s how we graduated to evening phone calls. Lorraine gave me a cell number, and advised me to call mostly in the evenings after 5pm. The phone probably belonged to her parents. It was one of those 0733 numbers, the very first sequence of KenCell mobile subscribers. KenCell, rival to the much more established Safaricom, was rolling out phone booths by the hundreds, and signing new customers by the thousands. Their ideas was to grab as much market share as possible, then worry about profits later. At Vet, next to the first supermarket in the area, KenCell installed a phone booth. You couldn’t miss it if you tried: neon pink, bright and shiny. It called attention to itself, and whoever was suave enough to have business with it. The chemist in the same complex sold phone cards in KSHS 100, 250, 500, and 1000 denominations. My go-to was the KSHS250 card: affordable enough to my unemployed wallet, but not so cheap that you’d be embarrassingly cut off mid-sentence just as you were melting your Intended’s heart. Around 5:30pm I’d shower, get dressed, and walk to the phone booth. If I was too early, I’d hang around for a bit, before placing my call.

“Hello, may I please speak with Lorraine?” Most days, she’d pick up herself, clearly waiting for my call. Other times, I’d be less lucky. Or perhaps she would be on the line with other suitors. The worst was calling, one of her relatives would pick up, and let me know that Lorraine was around, just not in the house. That perhaps she’d just ran out for an errand and would be back soon; would I please call back in about 15-20 minutes? That meant waiting as the sun went down. And the mosquitoes came out!

Eventually, I did get through, and convinced her to venture out to my house. We arranged the trip; she was to come over next week on Tuesday. I was super excited; Lorraine was quite the catch – way above my pay grade. And I couldn’t wait to meet her at the bus stop and walk her home. I could just imagine how envious my Kangawa buddies would be. My instructions were pretty easy; she caught a 111 matatu, and got off at Vet. This stop was a little farther away from my house than Bul, but it was also more polished. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint my ka-babe by walking her through the dilapidated slum that Bul Bul township was.

I was feeling all kinds of nervous that afternoon. My mom had errands to run so she was out of the house. Home alone! With a gorgeous girl for company – 7th heaven! I made sure to set aside some food for her, a plate of the githeri we’d had for lunch. I met Lorraine, and we started walking back home. Just a few houses away, we ran into my mother, she was standing by the roadside chatting with Njane. We, obviously, had to walk over and say hello. This was an excruciating moment and I couldn’t wait to be done. Meeting with my mother, and Njane’s knowing glances, was seriously undoing the cool demeanor I’d adopted for that afternoon.

Lorraine had some of the githeri. Then we just sat chit-chatting about nothing. I wanted to kiss her. And having no idea how to ask her, I suggested that I show her my bedroom. I’m neat to a fault, so my room was always a pleasure to show off, especially my small fiction library. These were still the days when teenagers exchanged Danielle Steele’s, James Grisham’s, and Sidney Sheldon’s: paperback American thrillers and romance series. We sat on my bed and flipped through the books, our finger tips grazing as we perused the glossy covers. I had all sorts of dreams about physical intimacy. I was done with high school, my virginity intact, and ready to lose it. A part of me hoped this afternoon might be the day!

Then Lorraine started coughing. Our house didn’t have a ceiling. You could see right through the boxed rafters, originally designed for nailing the ceiling boards, to the green-colored mabati sheets. Our neighbor to the right had a tall Acacia tree in his yard. The Acacia did a wonderful job of providing shade during hot afternoons, but it also shed leaves like crazy. The small twigs, a giraffe delicacy, would make their way into the most counter-intuitive spots. For sure you could spot Acacia leaves on the gutters which harvested rain water, but you could also see some of these leaves caught in spider webs on the ceiling or indeed floating down towards you from the rafters. As I tried to assuage Lorraine back into health, one of those brown, dry twig floated from my bedroom ceiling, landing neatly on a shiny Sidney Sheldon cover between us. And just like that, I knew my dreams of being an afternoon Casanova were gone. My libido dropped in tandem with the falling leaf. She was now coughing up a riot; she was in no position for a kiss, much less a sexual proposition. I ushered her out of the seclusion of my room, back into the living room. I dashed back to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of water, pausing momentarily by the side board with all of Mother’s delicate china. This was the stuff my family never used; it was only available for special occasions – like when we had guests over. Lorraine accepted the water thankfully, gulping it down before placing the glass – clear, with blue leaflets plastered on its side – back onto the table. We didn’t sit for much longer, since it was already getting late, and not only would Mother be back soon, Lorraine also still needed to catch a bus home.

Ever the gentleman, I walked her to the bus stop. Though disappointed, I had no choice since she would not have found the path back on her own. I’m glad that I did. I chose to use the shorter route through Bul; this was the path I had often taken to and fro school. Unless I’d gone to evening mass, I’d cut across town around 6pm, in my school uniform, and my back pack swinging on one shoulder. That late in the day, it was all survival mode: just make it home so I could sit down for a snack. With Lorraine beside me, though, I was in beast mode. I walked liked I owned the entire city, like a Big Dog. But I still had to play it cool: real men, I figured, don’t make it too obvious that they’re smitten by the woman whose hand they’re holding.

Deux Vultures had just released a hit single “Monalisa.” The song is all about this gorgeous babe whom the persona is in love with. His buddies are totally shocked that he snagged such a catch. Those lyrics described me to a T. No surprise then that just as we walked past the last block of shops, some joker belted out the line “Cheki vile Monalisa anatingisha!” “Watch Monalisa move her hips!” Lorraine chuckled; I squeezed her hand a bit and gave the guy a nod. I was basically like “yeah! You said it!” Heading to town on a weekday afternoon means you’re going against traffic. Lorraine didn’t have to wait for long before an empty matatu came by. One hug and a goodbye later, she boarded, and that was that. Lorraine and I met a few weeks later to watch “Captain Cornelius’ Mandolin” at Nairobi Cinema. But I moved to Singapore soon after and our love never blossomed.

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Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part II)

It is the quirky things like jogging that mark me out as strange. In truth, I discovered long distance running way before I ever traveled out of Kenya. At the Aga Khan Academy, we’d have one day a year dedicated to “torture by running” in the form of a marathon. In retrospect, the distance couldn’t have been more than 5-10km but pounding on pavement with the wrong kind of shoes, under a hot and dusty sun, it certainly felt a lot farther.

In the long run (pun intended), this annual shock therapy got me hooked and during the “off season” I’d do long jogs every Sunday afternoon. It turned out to be a great way for clearing my mind, reflecting on the past seven days, and planning for the week ahead. It was part of a ritual I looked forward to. Sunday morning involved going to mass, and on the way back I’d buy a copy of the Sunday Nation. Once I got home, this would promptly be shared out between my parents, my sisters, my cousin, and I. However, as long as I got to read “Whispers”by Wahome Mutahi and Philip Ochieng’s opinion column, I was good. After lunch, and possibly a movie on one of the national TV stations, NTV, KTN, or KBC, I’d don my neon blue track pants, sneakers, a t-shirt, and head out.

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At the United World College of South East Asia, Singapore, I finally benefited from having a running coach. I trained at Singapore Polytechnic with their track and field team. Our coach, a former member of Singapore’s national running team was great. His skill at encouraging and nurturing the budding runner within me was demonstrated by the meets I competed at, even placing in the top three several times. In 2003, at the end of my first year at UWCSEA I was awarded the “Best Male Athlete” award. That was sweet of the athletics department, to note and encourage my participation in sports, but it was also hilarious. On the one hand, I didn’t think I’d been that awesome on the track. I’d certainly gotten my ass kicked multiple times, but I was approaching the sport as an amateur; I had no plans to go professional. Just training next to future champions was exhilarating enough for me. On the other hand, my award seemed to piss off at least one other runner, personally. Jaffery just could not stomach the idea that I’d received the “Best Athlete” commendation. After the fact, he repeatedly challenged me to a race, or at least to tell him my personal record for a 5K or 10K. He was a sprinter; I was into long distances, the comparison seemed absurd to me. But seeing the teenage envy in his face made the accolade twice as savory.

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Since then, my running has morphed severally. As an assistant teacher at Friends’ Kigama Secondary School in Western Kenya, I was a track and field coach. I would take a group of approximately 10 seventeen to nineteen-year-olds through practice. We’d always begin with some stretching before hitting the road. Those guys were good! I’d have them going uphill, down a valley and then uphill once more and they’d hand it to me, every time. But it was a lot of fun.

In the first two years at college, running took a back burner. I remember going to see the athletics running coach during the first week or so of school and asking how the team conducted practice. When he mentioned time commitment to the tune of 3 hours a day, I ran, not walked, ran out without ever looking back. I certainly spent time pumping iron at the gym (#beachbody), but in the end I’d inevitably return to running. Easton, Pa had several trails around town and those were always fun to explore. When I studied abroad in Sydney for a semester, running by the beach and on the cliff tops made for a great time. Back at Lafayette, I could work out on the new track/football field during the fall, and if the weather was really nice trails by the Delaware river beckoned me into the woods.

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Moving to Miami for my doctoral program, running became a game changer. Writing, a major component of my doctoral work, involved mental gymnastics and a lot of sedentary time at the library or my work desk at home. That was the yin. Running proved to be the yang. Gym shorts, a t-shirt, and my sneakers were all I needed to hit the sidewalks of area code 305. In the beginning I ran mostly in shady, secluded neighborhoods such as Bird Road and South West 57th Ave. Where pavements lacked, I could venture out onto the street because traffic was usually light by the time I went for a run. When I moved apartments and relocated to the much shadier Overtown, I began running to the beach at Virginia Key more often. This meant crossing the Miami CBD and financial district before hitting the Rickenbacker Causeway. A great attraction to this route was that it featured 2 elevated bridges – a welcome addition to the flatland that is Miami.

After not having ran competitively for almost 7 years, I finally signed up for a sprint triathlon in Sebring, Florida. I was so excited for the trip. I looked at various options on how to get there , including renting a car, but I eventually settled for Amtrack. Getting to the train station was a walk and bus ride away. Getting the bike onto the train ended up being a bit of a hassle. It turned out that I should have brought along tools for removing the bike pedals. That had not occurred to me so I hadn’t brought any with me. I forget how the conductor and I eventually got the bike onto the train. I think I ended up having it next to me in the compartment, rather than keeping it in the designated bike carriage. In any case, I made it to Sebring, alighted, and rode to the pre-race sign-in location. After checking in and receiving my gear – bib, t-shirt, and hooks – I indulged in the free pasta meal that was being offered. Nothing fancy; these folks were not out to master Italian cuisine. They simply offered you a nice big chunk of free carbs. On the evening before a 0.3 mile swim, a 14mile bike route, and a 3 mile run, I was not being especially choosy.