The food at our office canteen tasted a lot like my job felt—bland. I cannot say that it was always bad. But I’d lived with a Senegalese woman and a Zanzibari woman for a total of two years and the transition from their delicious food to the canteen was brutal.
Still, I can’t say the canteen food is bad with the confidence with which my colleagues do. I have a fear of trivializing people’s work. But there are things I like about the food that I cannot say out loud for fear of martyrdom.
For instance, I like Chapati Chuesday. I think the chapatis are done well and with a little pepper in the stew you can close your eyes and imagine you are in your grandmother’s kitchen in Siaya and people have convinced the favorite cousin—favorite because she cooks the best chapatis—to make lunch.
It is a bit of a stretch, but the smoke at this Nairobi canteen rivals that at my grandmother’s firewood kitchen. It is especially smoke-filled on the best food days—Tuesdays, and then Fridays when they make fries and fried chicken—like a good omen.
I have been feeling very heavy this year.
I often feel that my soul is too much for my body and that I am holding some of the extra soul in the palm of my hands. I try to press my fingers tightly together but my soul pours out and pours out and pours out. It is not watery, my soul. It feels like the time I tried to “be a lady” and made a nutritious mix of oils for my dreadlocks and the bottle filled faster than I planned and the coconut-castor-argan oil poured out and poured out and poured out.
I loved a girl once. Very much. She loved me too. Very much. On Thursday afternoons which the New Haven winter baptized into nights too soon, I talked non-stop while she baked brownies with a kick. When they were ready, she would get them out of the oven and she would say to not eat them until they cooled. So I would talk while we waited. Or we would watch too many episodes of Brooklyn 99 or something else that had the kind of humor that could make us feel smarter than other people. Make me feel smarter than other people; she was not conceited like that.
When she allowed it, we would eat the brownies—two and a half each, sometimes less for me, and sometimes more for her.
Then I would start talking proper. Non-stop. She was a quiet one, and she became quieter after the brownies were in her. She’d never tell me to stop. But she’d say that I talk a lot and make The Face.
The Face is a reaction people sometimes have when I speak.
It looks two ways. The first and the more common is a raised eyebrow that is somewhere between a question and a frown.
The second I have seen most often in white people, or black people who only hang out with white people. One side of the mouth stretches into what looks like a cringe but changes its mind at the last minute and becomes a full-mouth smile.
Both are extremely subtle but when you have been seeing them all your life, you know.
Sometimes, as I talked with the brownies for fuel, I felt gradually lighter and lighter until I was twenty-one again and it was summer again and I was lying face up in Central Park and felt like I could laugh into eternity.
But then the lightness from the brownies would become emptiness and I’d dive into myself to fill the vacuum in a panic but inside the vacuum my drained soul would look back at me with such accusing eyes that I’d pack my things and leave my body in fear.
Once, after I’d eaten the brownies, and we were taking a walk, I imagined myself zipping my mouth, and the woman I loved asked why are you quiet and I said I do not want to change you by forcing you to deal with chaos and she said I do not want to change you either.
I watched a video once that said we are all so appalling that we should never show anyone the full extent of our true selves.
It is brutal but some of it made sense to me, especially because the people around me are kind, and because I can be overwhelmingly myself in the way that I crave company at dinner and savour conversation, because being so shifts the responsibility (not burden, I know now) of dealing with myself to other people who are comfortable with their own company and are juggling 8,000-hour work weeks.
I have been watching The Good Place (yes, it makes me feel smarter than other people). In one episode, the guy who plays Kevin in Brooklyn 99 acts as a Supreme Judge. He listens to the characters make arguments and whenever they become emotional, a green goo covers him like a flower blooming backwards. The characters then have to calm down and “lose their emotions” so the slime disappears and Judge Kevin returns.
I feel two things.
The first is that Judge Kevin would be a perpetual goo if he ever had to deal with me.
The second is that I wish I had this shut-down mechanism but designed for the moment when too much of my soul is leaking out—when I talk so much that people make The Face, and when I ask for help.
This year, I have been trying out some plumbing to control these leakages. I have spent much more time alone and made much fewer phone calls (which everyone but my telco is happy about). Sometimes, when I am about to say something out loud, I think it instead. I record Whatsapp audios and instead of letting them send, I select the trash icon and delete them. It’s like journaling into the abyss.
Secondly, I have been trying not to ask for help because it feels… like asking other people who know to keep their souls somewhere proper like inside their body to take on the responsibility of holding my own in their palms because I was not even smart enough to get soul Tupperware.
At first, when I was overwhelmed and panting from trying to hold my soul all on my own, it showed. But after some time, I learned that, like the canteen food, you can put pepper on your soul and it can become more palatable. You do it right before receiving a phone call and you do it right before meeting a friend for dinner and you do it right before sex. And for two or three hours, you are palatable.
As a plumber, I am proud of my handiwork. But deep down, I fear that I am doomed to the life of the toilet in my father’s bedroom, forever leaking a little, but always little enough to survive another day.
I have been thinking about being a happy soul, then going through dark times, and feeling like you are haemorrhaging sorrow from your soul in the same way you once haemorrhaged joy. And instead of showing the blood from the sorrow off like the priest does the wine glass at Mass, you hide it the way a pubescent girl does menses that come as a surprise.
I think of my new darkness as a false advertisement, like the disappointment when the food tastes nothing like the glossy picture on the menu.
I told the trees once that I felt bad that the people around me had been forced to be part of the darkness and that I tried very much to hide the extent of it.
The leaves rustled and said what will happen if they found out?
I said they might get tired of dealing with it. I was.
They asked what will happen if they got tired.
I said they will leave.
They asked and what will happen if they left?
I said then I will be alone.
They said and what will happen if you were alone?
I said I will hate it very much.
They said will you hate it so much that you’d rather live a lie?
I did not know whether to answer correctly or honestly.
Ivy Nyayieka: Nairobi-based writer who loves to dance. Words in Huffington Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Yale Daily News, Daily Nation, Business Daily, Yummy Magazine, Nomad Magazine, Commonwealth Writers’ Forum and my personal blog Okasungora.