Michelle Angwenyi: What Colour is the Chameleon at Night

Jamila turned into a dream on that rainy night – the night it rained so much that the earth was a spectre beneath the water’s fervour. The lights had gone off, and Jamila and I stood there, facing each other, her words suspended in the still room, dropping heavily to the ground when she asked if we could go to sleep. 

It perhaps had been too good to be true: finding Jamila while the cold weather seeped into the month of May in Nairobi, even if all around the world was flowering open in the sun; while strange, dark ideas, like lightning flashing across the sky, shot through my body as they pleased, threading along after a horrible fight with Issa; while I was pale with the love I had for all my fabrics, and threads, my sewing machine and my dresses hanging in a line in my wardrobe that were not going anywhere. It was too good to be true, since I hadn’t wanted to go for the walk where I met her in the first place. 

When colour begins to feel offensive, I can tell that the world is beginning to slice halfway and tilt away, even if colour is where I go to hide, wrapped inside layers of them whenever I wear my dresses. So, when it was difficult to wear one, feeling the colour protest against my skin, I knew there was something wrong, but I put it on anyway, and went for the walk. And then there was Issa  –  even after we decided not to speak to each other, I thought I’d be meeting him there as usual, and surely enough, I saw several of his phone calls later that night. I would have picked up at the first ring, I would, but what happened before, meeting Jamila for the first time, made it impossible. I met her where I walked, a small anger brewing in my chest. The frustration churned, lifting from an indecisive stagnancy. Everything seemed so far, so, so, far from me. So I began to run – if I just ran, and ran, and ran, perhaps I could go far enough to break free, perhaps I could meet myself. And I did. 

I bumped into Jamila on the pavement, her camera slung across her shoulder. As she raised it up, in the brief second before the camera fully obscured her face, I caught a glimpse of it – a face so familiar, it could only belong to one person – me. It was easy for me to imagine it was an invisible mirror that had slid between us, a trick of light, a trick of cameras, what the halves of the world did as they slid past each other lengthwise, cutting me in half, doubling me. It must have been the way the evening light fell, or the fury illuminating me from within, but she told me to lift my chin up and straighten my back, which I did, right as the camera flash went off. She lowered her camera to fiddle with something. But I knew there weren’t any mirrors, or tricks, when I watched her pause from behind the curtain of her braids that fell over her face as she clicked through the photos, and then when she tossed her head back, sending the braids spraying down to her waist, looking directly at me. 

My phone vibrated – Issa. In an instant, it seemed like I had shed an older version of myself, one that remained on the other half of the world where Issa was, a place I was now unconcerned with. On the other half, there was now only a population of two; me and someone who looked like me, outside of any designation, outside of any word – twin, doppelgänger – that attempted to explain it. I saw it again in how her eyes widened then narrowed, just as mine did, when she saw it, too. 

I like your dress, she said, breaking us out of the pause, raising the camera to her eye and clicking again. 

Oh, there’s a lot more like these, I said. A small smile, there. 

I’d love to see them, she said, smiling back. Perhaps take some more photos

And that is what happened – it perhaps had been too good to be true, again, that she came with me to my apartment that week, where my dresses were still dead, hanging in stiff lines, untouched for years, dripping in something like the excrement of hope. She was there, unasked for, the first hand to touch them in ages, wielding her camera, asking me to wear them. 

It was only at the end of that week that I remembered to call Issa back. I must have called him a hundred times. I must have tired him with my texts flooding with apologies that rang hollow and ragged, the sincerity, admittedly difficult to conjure, stripped from them. 

Over several months, in several places – I wore the dresses. The more unusual the setting, the better, so with no real audience of my own but one that the camera might have promised, I was there at the butcher’s in Ngong Town in a lengthy plissé skirt, lilac, dragging the detritus of the city in it’s train; in a bus, on the way to Buruburu from the CBD on a hot afternoon, dressed in a baggy pea-green velvet suit, trying to keep the sweat from staining the bright pink silk shirt I wore beneath it; in a supermarket on Thika Road, casually moving from aisle to aisle, taking my time with examining each product before I put it back on the shelf, in a tulle dress that cascaded in front and behind me, it’s endless waves exact as the Indian Ocean, crashing and spraying against coral cliffs in Takaungu; I’d be in a dress, hand embroidered with several small glass beads – yellows, reds, blues and greens – at Kenyatta Market, not there to do anything but walk the narrow paths that twisted between stalls, hoping the light that came in through the narrow spaces above would catch on the beads and be bounced, mercilessly, to whichever eye would be found in its path. I was walking in Nairobi, but arriving in New York, in London, in Paris, to cities muggy with summer or clenched into winter, places where the days were sweetened with novelty, and on that day in the rain, Jamila and I were everywhere at once as people and their cameras flung us to the farthest corners of the world.

In between, I learnt her name. Jamila. Jamila, who found an old Rollei, and now it was all she ever thought of; Jamila, who liked her tea cold-brewed, steeped overnight in the fridge; Jamila, who couldn’t stand the taste of boiled carrots: they made her eyes water and her nostrils flare; Jamila who liked to read the last paragraph of a book first, as a way of telling how good the book would be before she started; and Jamila, who would only wear all black, except for her nail polish, which was always bright and noisily coloured, noisily constructed. This was incredibly unlike me in my inability to wear anything without the clash and clamour of colour, and this was one of the reasons she could not explain, not even a little bit, how it was that we could look the same, especially across any hint of genetics, especially with something as intimate as one’s face. Neither could I. She’d be sitting on the couch in my apartment interrupting moments of silence with soft hows and whys while I sewed, but I was not interested in any of that, myself. There are impossibilities that dart between the mundane, and here was one, trapped into the reality of the days, and it was not struggling to wriggle free. And that, too, might have been too good to be true.

The trouble began when it started to feel like there was no difference between Jamila and I, the day we walked up to the unfinished apartments they called San Diego, where the sand and rainwater created an artificial beach. There was a woman, we heard, who sat in one of the ground floor rooms, who cooked, and sat with you as you ate. What they said was that she would begin to tell you about your life, like some kind of fortune-teller, reading the air around you and reworking it back into the folds of your skin, such that when you left, you’d know you had been changed – without any way to explain what, exactly, was different – but you would know it, nonetheless. 

It was a Sunday. There was a delightful afternoon spread of food: spinach and eggplant and chickpeas, goat stew and cumin rice and coconut chicken, samosas and masala tea. The woman sat in her corner, atop a seat of cushions, incapable of knowing where Jamila and I sat, as she could not see. Her eyes were shut to the world by her old age, but her other senses remained sharp, as I had learnt when I said hello to her when we arrived, seeing how she sifted through the textures of sound and skin and smell. So when she called me Jamila, and insisted on doing so, it was not so much that she knew that name without us having told her, but that it was what she called me, which I couldn’t believe. I was hanging between pretending to be who she thought I was, and telling her that I wasn’t she, really. She kept on speaking, nonetheless, her face turned to me.

Jamila, she said, there is something different about you. You aren’t where, or who you were before. 

I stopped, a strange consideration taking form within me. My name, Jamila, even if Jamila was right next to me, the warm air from her nose brushing against my cheek. There were two of us – one of us – on the border of a tentative, amorphous entanglement – both a war cry blackened into the night, and a whisper, its gentle petals, its particulate intimacy. 

The second time it happened was when she wore a dress of mine. Perhaps my favourite one. It was me behind the camera, after we laughed and laughed about how terrible the mirror I had was, its surface covered in scratches and mysterious stains that couldn’t be removed.

Then let me take a photo of you, so you can see, I suggested, taking her camera out from her bag. 

The third time it happened was the night, coming home with Jamila, when it rained so much. It rained like every lost dream, every lost thought – hidden things, forgotten, unknown things, all of them – found, released on the earth. Jamila and I were just coming in from what must have been the best evening of our lives thus far, feeling so good, incapable of realising how much the water had soaked into the silk brocade of my dress, making it heavy, so heavy that she had to carry it behind me as we climbed five flights of stairs to my apartment. It was dripping mud, water, debris from the streets – probably ruined for good, expensive as it was – but we giggled all the way up, our voices echoing through the night, sending light like weightless arrows through the darkness, much the same way the camera flashes felt a few hours ago, going off all around me as I stood in the rain when it began to pour, and brightest of all the lights, at the front with her camera held to her eye, was Jamila.

That night, the night it rained down through to the centre of the earth, we were cold, face to face in my apartment, a cup of hot tea shared between us. 

Let me help you out of this dress, she said, low and laughing, and that was when I wondered for the very first time, whether it was all there was, only our faces that were the same. And so, breathing heavy, I turned around and placed the cup on the counter, stood there, and felt her hands as they lightly tugged at the zip, as the dress fell away from my body, folding at my hips. Maybe it was the headiness of the night – people, and lights, and rain; sudden celebrity, cameras – all because of a dress I had made – that had me turning around and stepping out of the dress, naked, saying to her, okay, your turn:

And after one blindingly long microsecond, as the flash of time’s light settled around us and Jamila came back into view, she took off her muddy trousers, gingerly folding them in half before placing them on the counter, and then taking off her shirt, which she gently tossed on top of the trousers. Here I am, she said, her voice sounding much like I knew mine would if I spoke out loud, and so it must have been a shared feeling – how it felt like to be naked in front of her, watching her take a step to stand before me, how it felt to look for ourselves in each other, yet unafraid if we did not find it, and for what lasted like forever, even if it was probably a minute or two, we ran our fingers over each others skin, transfixed by ourselves – or the other person, it was impossible to tell, because in that moment, there was one body in the room moving against an invisible other like something solid and proud and shiny in the night, until my head suddenly cleared, and I saw my beautiful dress in a ruin on the floor, something dead, and Jamila before me, herself not quite there anymore, making me believe I wasn’t there anymore, and at that moment the lights went out. All that was left was the simmering skin of what felt like our singular body, split in half, and the sound of the rain. And the knocking at the door – I do not know for how long it had been going on for – it could only have been one person: Issa. He stood there, knocking, knocking, shouting my name, choking the night with his voice. We stood there for what felt like hours, the dark seeping through our skin, when the knocking stopped, and when Jamila said it: Ah, friend. You chameleon, and it felt as if that was my voice, soft and fearful, saying it about myself. 

In the darkness, a boundary had been corroded, one that had slowly been piecing apart for days now. That night, something gave way, almost as if dissolving in the rain. I was grateful not to see Jamila, whom I could feel breathing from where she stood, because now that there was nothing between us, nothing that held me back from whatever it was of her that was also who I was – not clothes, not light, not distance, not propriety – I would have rushed into her, leaving my body empty, perhaps to crumple on the floor like the dress I had just taken off. 

You know, she said, her voice taking on the quality of something from outside time, something solid and unchangeable, there are places in this country where, if you take a photo of yourself, it is said you can see who you really are from the photo.  It comes back as different things for different people. Animals. Rocks. Even other people, sometimes. I suppose you could find this place anywhere, if you have a keen sense of timing. The problem is, sometimes the photos come back blank. Nobody knows what to make of that.

A silence followed.

Shall we go to sleep? she said.

The night swung, swelling into a day hanging with a gossamer delicacy, pierced through with the vibrancy of the sun’s rays in the early morning. It was as though I had been trapped in a reality spun through with several unfamiliar fibres that now gleamed an indescribable shade – one which glowed brighter at every turn, and that threatened to blind with Jamila’s words, and then, a couple of hours later, Issa’s too. In a text, he wrote: who are you, really? 

I dreamt about her. In the dream, we are in my apartment at night, where I sit down between her legs as she braids my hair. They are similar to the ones she had the first time we met, and they fall over my shoulders and down my back in thick, shiny ropes. I can feel the wind as it blows in between each braid, shifting them slightly over the skin of my neck, a feeling too good to be true. Then she paints my fingernails a delicious, viscous yellow, one that reminds me of the sun. She wishes me well, and as I leave the apartment, she hands me a stack of all the photos she took that rainy night. They were all a brown smudge – no lines, no features, no form – just rain, just mud. 

As I leave, I close the door and stand on the landing for a long minute. Then I walk out into the night, closing my eyes against the wind, not sure if it was myself who had left the room behind, or if it was I who was still in it; perhaps leaving all of myself in the room I’d just left – perhaps none of it. 

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