“…she was bored of working in a nursing home, taking care of the old who refused to die.”
They first saw each other seven years ago, outside the US embassy in Gigiri, on one of those early Nairobi mornings when you were not quite sure whether it would rain or whether the sun would rise. She did not see him as they began lining up outside the embassy, separated in women’s and men’s files. Everyone seemed to carry DS-160 forms and bank statements peering out of brown manila envelopes and plastic folders, nurturing a hope that the old bespectacled white lady or the young Indian man would tell you to collect your visa in four working days. She had heard that Indian Americans were wont to deny you visas, and so she left Eldoret the day before praying that she would be matched with a genial white woman. A white woman who might look at her admission letter into nursing school and the financial support statement from her American benefactors with less suspect eyes. She only saw him because he was dressed in a navy blue suit and a red tie, sandwiched in a line of men who wore clothes in varying degrees of casualness. He stood out among them the same way she always stood out among her friends, with her insistence on wearing floor-length dresses and skirts, and in sitting on the side of church with the most number of women. She looked at him with the curiosity that she imagined her own friends looked upon what they had decided was an ingrained village spiritedness that would never depart. When he turned to meet her eyes (he had actually turned to count the number of Kenyans who had turned out for a visa), she held his gaze until he moved past her to the security guard for his pat down.
They did not see each other again until after they had both finished their undergraduate degrees. Jerop, a nursing degree at Texas A&M, and James, a political science degree at Calvin College.
Jerop saw him again as she was applying for a visa to pursue a master’s degree in the United Kingdom, after she decided that she was bored of working in a nursing home, taking care of the old who refused to die. She did not know then that the man sitting next to her was the same one she had seen before in a navy blue suit and red tie, breathing the stale air of the small waiting room in the first floor of 9 West building in Westlands. She had a scholarship this time around, but even a Commonwealth scholarship did not stop her from hoping that the faceless interviewer would allay her fears.
“This is my second time applying for a visa,” a girl with an off-centre wig said, exhaling her anxiety to an Indian girl next to her. “The first time I was denied because my father gave me company bank statements instead of a personal bank statement.”
“Yes, they are very strict,” the Indian girl said. “My mother has had to sign an affidavit that she is the same person on her bank statement. She uses her maiden name on her bank statement.”
“Where are you going to school?” she asked. Jerop remained quiet, unaware that the question was directed to her.
“Oxford,” she said finally.
“Oxford!” the Indian girl and the off-centre wig girl both said.
“Oxford,” the man on her right said. She nodded, hoping her demeanor would shush the awe that seemed to engulf the room. “I’m James,” he said. “I’m going to Oxford too.”
She did not manage to say her name, before he was called to go in for his interview right after. When he left his interview, she went to submit her biometrics. They would have missed each other entirely had James not decided to linger outside the building, waiting for her to finish her interview. Thirty minutes later, she walked out, and he asked for her phone number. He did the customary entreaties, adding her on LinkedIn, friending her on Facebook, and following her on Twitter. But he did not go beyond saying his name, and as she scrolled through his profile, waiting for the “Said Business School-bound” man to say more than his bio, she began to wonder if the whole Oxford spiel was a lie he had concocted to bolster his pedigree.
She did not see him again until the matriculation party the second week after she arrived in Oxford. He was standing there, in the line snaking into Linacre College, his red tie even brighter in the search lights piercing the dull Oxford night. Looking at him across her line, she remembered the visa lines of Gigiri, a memory from a time when her desire for the diaspora was still fledgling. Here he was, again.
“What happened to you?” she asked him after walking up to his line.
“Jerop, I’m so sorry. I was delayed,” he said. “But, I’m so happy to see you again.”
He did not tell her that his mother had been diagnosed with Stage IV endometrial cancer the day of the visa interview, that in struggling to decide whether to pursue or defer his MBA, he had always remembered the woman who was going to Oxford. He only told her two months later, on the day his mother succumbed, and she found herself spooning with his heaving body through the night. When he returned after the funeral, she willed her body to numb his pain. She had spent her Saturday nights in the sylvan chapel of her high school, her legs barely budging in her ankle-length maroon skirt whenever she tried to dance. But poised against him, her hips came to life, in the basement of a dancehall night club they had begun to frequent every Friday and Saturday. “You’re my favorite dance partner,” he told her, rum and coke in his hand, their bodies sliding against each other, willing Kranium’s “Nobody Has to Know” to life.
She did not tell him about the pregnancy test she took before flying home to pay homage to her American benefactors, as she waited out the limbo between the end of her coursework and her graduation. She wanted to wait for him to follow her after the end of his coursework.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said to him the morning he boarded his Turkish Airways flight from Heathrow. A surprise she wanted to reveal as they drove through Gigiri, at the exact moment they passed the entrance of the US embassy.
And so after the gunmen walked into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and set the international terminal alight, James’ last memory was not the father he would never become. His last memory was Jerop. Jerop fixing her gaze on him outside the US embassy in Gigiri. Jerop walking up to him as he stood outside Linacre College.
“What happened to you?” she had asked him.
“Jerop, I’m so sorry. I was delayed,” he had said.
“He is being delayed,” Jerop said, when his sisters began texting her to confirm his flight number, when they began debating whether to buy a burial plot at Lang’ata cemetery for an empty coffin, when his absence began to sprout within her, unrelenting like the baby she chose to ignore. “It’s fat, I’m just growing a bit plump,” she said, before his sisters coached her through Lamaze classes, before they signed release forms for a C-section after the doctor declared that she was too weak for a natural birth. Before her lullabies to her son became snaking lines outside the US embassy on Nairobi mornings, snaking lines edging for intoxicated dances on Oxford nights.