By Moraa Gitaa (Kenya)
Louis Beautah is a disturbed and depressed man. Deep down he feels like a failure because of something he’s always known – his oddity or absurdity. The anomaly he has spent his life running away from. He’s been forced by family and society to pretend that it’s not the case, that he can be what everyone related and acquainted to him think as ‘normal’. Growing up it didn't help matters that he was a cabinet minister’s son, from a wealthy family and had been enrolled at Saint Martin’s Senior School, the exclusive boarding school where sons of Nairobi’s Who’s Who studied. When about to graduate from university, his mama started pushing him to bring her a girl home. He tried to oblige but failed miserably. He remembers one time at college trying to date a girl. One night after their group had gone back to campus from the Cinemax, he’d attempted their first kiss but she’d pulled back surprised.
‘‘I thought you’re gay,’’ she’d said recoiling back shocked.
‘‘Why are you assuming that?’’ he’d demanded.
‘‘I just thought you are.’’ She’d shrugged and never given him her reasons.
Louis had resorted to the gym to build himself up. He thought that if he looked macho, people would not doubt his masculinity. After he developed impressive biceps, he made sure to always have lots of women around him. Being with a woman meant he didn't have to think about the male bodies he felt drawn to at the gym, the same men who also gave him searching, questioning looks. He had to ignore them because his father, the minister in charge of Kenya’s Internal Security docket who was always with the president, would skin him alive if any of his abnormalities leaked to the media.
That was until Tony, years later.
He and Tony had met at Saints. Louis had always promised himself not to get too close to someone he knew personally. He had to think of the family name. The upholding of the Beautah name transcended all else. The respectability of the Beautah’s was not to be tarnished in any way by him or his two younger sisters. Since he was a baby, it seemed to Louis this sole responsibility rested upon him the first born and only son of ‘Mheshimiwa’, honorable, Laban Beautah, who himself had been son to colonial senior chief Moses Beautah.
Tony. They had bumped into each other at The Legacy. The exclusive golf club owned by Tony’s also influential family. Tony who had been abroad for years was back. They’d gotten drunk reminiscing about Saints and left the club together late that night. Despite thinking about it later, every second of that night for days, Louis is not sure how he let it happen, but he and Tony ended up sleeping together after twenty years. What Louis remembers most about that night is how every nerve in his body had tingled as if it were on fire. He remembers the nights he had together at Saints with Tony who had been special to him. Cuddled together on the school bunker until the early hours of the morning when one of them would sneak back to his cubicle. Back then, those had been immature hands, exploring a forbidden love.
Now, as he and Tony hooked up every other night, the feelings were back. But what about the Beautah name? And these emotions didn't feel unnatural or wrong. It felt like the most wonderful feeling. It became an obsession. Later, Louis racked with anxiety would finger the beads of the rosary in his pocket, knowing that like the Catholicism his mama had imparted to him, the redemption nestled there is unfulfilling, an allusion to other things. He would mutter a Novena and Hail Mary to assuage his anxiety... Oh, Immaculate Mary, Virgin most Powerful, I beseech you, through that immense Power which you have received from the Eternal Father, obtain for me Purity of heart ...
After two months Tony left for America. He told Louis he couldn't keep up with the pretense and he’d rather be in America where most people accepted who he was.
Louis remembers when he first met Imelda. Imelda’s presence meant Louis didn't have to travel down a path he wasn't ready for. Imelda embodied security from snooping eyes and wagging tongues. Louis was thirty five. Why wasn't he married? His relatives kept saying they wanted to take cows to potential in-laws, alluding to dowry and marriage.
One day at the club he’d watched on TV demonstrators from GALCK picketing to be recognized. He’d cringed at the disparaging comments from patrons. Later he’d been ashamed for not standing up for the demonstrators, because deep down he knew he was one of them.
Imelda would sort him out he’d thought those many years ago. They had met at the Beautah flagship coast beach resort. Had Louis been attracted to Imelda? Even today he doesn't know the answer. All he knows is that she was a camouflage for his ‘abnormal’ desires. He remembers men at the beach pub trying to get Imelda and her girlfriends to notice them. But Imelda only seemed to have eyes for Louis. He hadn't understood it then and still didn't understand it now. He wasn't looking for romance as he’d recently broken off with his girlfriend – another front to his actual desires. Nimo had wanted to get married and he’d run in the opposite direction!
Imelda had drawn him in like a netted fish from the ocean. Women like Imelda didn't look at men like Louis. Not that he was bad looking, after all the gym had developed him impressively. But he was understated and quiet – The Libra in him. Despite being wealthy, Louis loved parties that were small, where you could connect with people, hear one another’s thoughts, not parties with loud music and noisy barbeques where you couldn’t hear one another think.
He and Imelda were like oil on water. She loved loud parties, loud music and even louder friends. Imelda was extroverted, glamorous, always laughing and ambitious – an Aries to a T! Louis then understood how opposites could attract. His Libra introvert self was seduced into a relationship, and once he was in it, he felt safe. Safer certainly than being single and craving after fellow men!
A couple of years went by as they dated. Imelda managed to get a job in Nairobi. They established a routine, living together in Louis’s two bed-roomed apartment in up-market Lavington. They had lunches and dinners with friends, the occasional night club rave and weekend retreats at Beautah resorts down coast or at the Masai Mara.
Until one morning when Imelda complained of aching and heavy breasts, and the following day her pregnancy was confirmed. Louis almost went berserk when she started talking marriage. Imelda is a determined woman. It wasn't long before she walked down the aisle as Mrs. Louis Beautah.
Louis had never been good with children, but the minute three kilogram Natasha was placed in his arms at Nairobi Prime Hospital he had fallen in love! The same happened with baby Noah three years later. It’s his love for the children that has kept him going in their marriage. When Noah was born they bought the mansion in the affluent Westlands suburb.
Imelda seemed happy with her Programme Manager job at Save Our Forests, her many friends and her BOG position at their children’s international school. Louis found that he still couldn’t stop running from his hidden desires. He thought if he filled his life with duty at his financial services firm, he wouldn’t have to face the truth.
For a couple of years, it was easy to keep running. Many times he would replay in his mind his nights with Tony. The temptation to find that passion again was overwhelming. On one company trip to Amsterdam, he walked past a gay bar. He’d thought his overseas trips would give him the chance to indulge his ‘forbidden’ passion but at thoughts of stray paparazzi getting a photo of him, he would freeze.
It would be so easy to slip into this gay bar, have a nameless, faceless encounter and go back to Nairobi – a place he could never be free to indulge himself. Here, nobody would know. Nobody would be hurt. But he’s married now, with children. If he started down this path of destruction in Amsterdam, he might be tempted to continue in Nairobi and there is a part of him that knows there would be no turning back. This is because Louis knows secrets become harder to keep the older you get. The idiosyncrasies you hope will never be discovered become harder to hide as the years go by. In Louis’s case, the secret has become like a tumor, refusing to lay dormant and become benign, instead metastasizing into malignant cells.
It’s been seven years of marriage - years of excruciating psychological torture for him. He has assumed that if he stays, they would make it work. He doesn’t want to be anything other than a full-time dad. He’s scared of getting divorced. Terrified Imelda will turn the children against him. He also knows his staunch Catholic mother will oppose a divorce. How can he tell Imelda he’s leaving because he’s gay? He dips his hand into his pocket for his trusted crystal-encrusted beads ... Oh Virgin Mary, My Mother, through that ineffable Wisdom bestowed upon you by the Incarnate Word of God, I humbly beseech you, obtain for me Meekness and humility of heart ...
Dr Macharia leans back in his chair, steeples his fingers together, peering over the top through his fashionable glasses at Louis, who is shifting uncomfortably on the sofa.
The seconds become minutes, and still Louis keeps quite.
‘‘Louis?’’ Dr Macharia prods gently.
Louis nods, looking miserable.
‘‘Is there something you want to talk to me about?’’
Louis nods again nervously, his eyes flickering up to meet Dr Macharia’s before he looks away.
‘‘I think...’’ Louis starts, his voice a whisper before he stops and sighs. ‘‘There’s something I’ve never been able to talk about ... Oh God.’’ Louis’s voice is a moan, his pain and confusion evident. Dr Macharia knows what Louis is about to say, has suspected it for a while. For how can a healthy, virile man not want to have sex with his beautiful wife yet he doesn’t suffer from Erectile Dysfunction? Once ED and extramarital affairs had been ruled out, Dr Macharia had started wondering.
Louis closes his eyes, unable to look at the doctor, his guilt and shame evident. He feels like an idiot. He has no one to confide his deepest fears with. Not even to extended family members whom he feels close to. It’s been painful, eating away at his insides. He doesn’t know where to begin even with the therapist. Yet Dr Macharia is the only person he can think of to share with this oddity weighing on his mind. Going against everything you’ve been taught to believe in, for the sake of indulging in the forbidden has its price.
Louis’s voice when it finally emerges is timid.
‘‘I’m gay and I don’t know how to tell Imelda.’’
Sitting here in the six-figure consultation fee per session therapist’s office at Nairobi County Doctor’s Plaza in Hurlingham another affluent suburbia, saying those words aloud to someone else, feels as if a load that’s been sitting on Louis’s shoulders all his life has been lifted.
No one seems to be having an active sex life with their partners anymore Imelda told herself when she evaluated her sex life with Louis. On the days she and her friends met for a girl’s day out for lunch, a movie, or play–dates with the children, whenever the subject of sex came up, all of them would laughingly say, ‘‘Sex? Who on earth has time for sex nowadays?’’
They would joke they were running out of excuses to give their husbands, that the headache excuse was old and they were constantly having to come up with new ones.
‘‘My husband thinks my period lasts three weeks every month,’’ Lulu said recently. They’d all burst out laughing.
‘‘After I had our third baby, I told my husband that my gynae advised me not to have sex for a whole year,’’ Tina added. ‘‘And he believed me!’’ roars of laughter.
Imelda was thinking to herself maybe that was why Lulu caught her husband with the maid and Tina hers with his PA? But on the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t want sex, Imelda thought if Louis wanted it as much as other husbands. Maybe the reason she misses the intimacy and closeness, is because he refuses to. No one is having sex, she tells herself when doubts that she refuses to permit fill her head. We have young children, we are both exhausted after a hard day at work and all we want to do when we climb into bed is sleep. Still the obstinate thoughts persist. She tries hard not to think that its Louis’s refusal, not hers, and that he’s the one who is always tired and not her!
The one time she dared contribute to these girly jokes over coffee lattes and Black Forest slices at The Cake Café, she realized it wasn't normal. ‘‘I know what you mean girls!’’ she’d added, ‘‘Louis pretends to be reading until he thinks I’m asleep so we don’t have to make love – even when I've caught him holding the book upside down!’’ she’d looked around for laughter, and seen only pity and embarrassment in her friend’s eyes. Was there something they knew that she didn't? She had wondered silently.
The cathedral looked imposing with the stained colorful windows glinting in the sunlight. As the sexton tolled the bell hanging from the belfry, Louis felt as if it was beckoning him. He prayed he would have guts to talk to Father Francis, just the way it takes immense courage to embrace our obscure oddities and absurdities. But how will he start, given that his name had been put forward for nomination as patron for the church youth group? The hymns calmed his nerves. When he got inside, he dipped his fingers into the holy water and made the sign of the cross. Imelda followed suit with the children through the central column to a pew upfront. The parish was teeming with faithful looking forward to celebrating Holy Communion, the aroma of incense teasing nostrils.
Louis stares at the shiny purple hue of Father Francis’s Papal-blessed ring thinking of the confession he wants to make. The Father makes the sign of the cross. Louis’s mind shifts to his mother. How will she take his transgression, for surely that’s what she would call it – mama who is always first in queue for Sacrament, mama who never wants to miss Holy Communion, her rosary always around her neck like a permanent tattoo, her ring of the first decade of the rosary adorning her finger. At such times he envies his friends who have been brought up by agnostic or atheist parents. They never worry of a supreme all-seeing, omniscient deity whenever they do something ‘wrong’– they never think of the Day of Judgment where they would have to answer to charges of their ‘evil’ deeds. Louis stares at the catechist with incense holder and Bible in his hand. Behind him are the altar boys in their vestments and Father Francis with chalice. Louis cringes at the memory of his childhood as altar boy. What became of his ideals?
...Louis’s mind drifts back thirty years for over an hour until Mass ends. ‘God be with you,’ Father Francis made the sign of the cross. ‘And with you too, Father,’ the congregation chorused. Soon it was their turn to receive Sacrament. Louis stares at Father Francis now seated, as the seminarian with the assistance of the altar boys took the goblets. The Father then stood at the altar, made the final sign of the cross and led the procession from the altar. Outside, the Beautah family stood in turn to shake the Father’s hand. Louis could barely meet Father Francis’s eyes as he blessed them, ‘God bless you. God be with you.’ Louis mumbled ‘And also with you, Father Francis.’ If he could barely meet the Father’s eyes, how could he gather courage for confession?
Louis leaves the office at seven this evening. Today as he walks past some of his employees, he feels he can’t meet their eyes. He’s embarrassed because for the first time he wants to do something he has secretly wanted to do. He feels the workers can see into his soul, and know where he’s heading to.
Louis the Libra is – Indecisive. Charismatic. Hates conflicts. He knows he fits this description perfectly. Everyone thinks of him as funny, yet respectable with invaluable years of experience in the financial services sector. He handles portfolios for Nairobi’s Who’s Who but he doesn’t dwell much on that. Indecisive – that’s what galls him, definitely one of his bad traits. He likes to think through situations in a drawn out manner, making decisions with extreme caution. Overly cautious and wary, this is why he thinks himself an introvert though Imelda the Aries has tried to change this.
Earlier today he’d flicked over the pages of the newspaper. The Libra horoscope said, ‘‘Venus has moved into a highly favorable position. Today is a good time to take action on hidden physical and emotional desires. New relationships will be formed and old ones phased out. Don’t let this opportunity pass you.’ The horoscope startled him, yet he went about the day walking on air.
Later as Louis drives from his office on Riverside Drive, off Waiyaki Highway onto the University Way underpass past the Museum Hill roundabout and cruised into Nairobi’s CBD , he thinks of his family and when he’ll finally gather the courage to tell Imelda.
Louis has known about The Agenda for years. It’s a pub on Mama Ngina Street rumored to be for gays. He’s always been drawn to it, as he has been to other clubs purported to be exclusively for the gay-oriented, but has never dared do anything other than drive by, looking yearningly at the tinted windows.
He has memorized the address, scared of even having a gay pub’s name appear on his Google history. Whenever he Google’s anything ‘untoward’ or deemed to be ‘abnormal’ for a man, he never uses the word gay. He types in the name of the building to see what comes up. Like today he’d pretended to be Googling development programs and added the word Focus for the popular TV show. Several Agenda links came up and as he’d rightly guessed the name of the pub – The Agenda: exclusive lounge cum pub.
In the unlikely event that he would be investigated he could always come up with an excuse that he’d been researching socio economic programs. He has done this before at home on his laptop. Sometimes the temptation had proved too great and he’s gone to pornographic sites, followed amorous stories blogged by men. He has become an expert at wiping out his Google history, deleting his caches and his cookies. Once in a while he uses his smart phone for his indulgences. Now he enters the address he got from Google Maps on his ride’s GPS to see if it will direct him to the right place, he drives on auto–pilot, not sure of what to do once he’s there. Sure enough his GPS directs him to The Agenda!
The pub is dimly lit. A few men are sitting or standing by the bar. Others are grouped around a pool table. Some lounge on cushioned settees. Music plays and Louis walks to the bar, sits down to stop his legs shaking, and immerses himself in the drinks menu to avoid eye contact. He has put on a cap he’d stuffed into his trouser pocket. He lowers the cap to shadow his eyes. He notices that there are no women in the pub.
He looks into the face of the barman who’s just greeted him.
‘‘What can I get you?’’
‘‘I’ll have a Malt.’’
‘‘Coming right up.’’
He takes a sip, turns on his stool, noticing that in the shadows of the pub there are more men. A couple stands against the wall, making out, before walking hand in hand through a doorway to the back.
Louis watches the two men unable to tear his eyes away, his heart beating loudly with excitement.
‘‘Hey! Want to play?’’ A slim, brown young man catches his eye and offers him a pool cue stick. Louis shrugs. ‘‘I’m not much of a pool player,’’ he says.
‘‘Neither am I,’’ the young man says with a laugh, sitting down on the stool next to Louis.
They shake hands. Ian orders a drink. He doesn’t look feminine or gay. No stereotyping pierced ears or limp handshake, just your regular guy in jeans, tee shirt and a friendly smile. Louis begins to relax.
‘‘So...’’ Louis starts awkwardly. ‘‘Are you a –a– regular here?’’ he stammers over the word regular.
‘‘You mean, do I come here often?’’ Ian laughs. ‘‘I guess you can call me that – a regular. I live on State House Road. Not too far from here. Let’s face it. There aren’t exactly dozens of gay bars in Nairobi. I haven’t seen you here before. Are you in the city for business?’’
‘‘Not exactly. I’ve heard about this place for years but I’ve never ... I haven’t gotten round to checking it out.’’
Ian takes a sip of his beer then smiles. ‘‘Scared and married. Right?’’
Louis looks down in alarm at his ring finger. He thought he’d taken the ring off. He had.
‘‘I can always tell,’’ Ian says. ‘‘You have the look. Married with kids and unfamiliar with this scene.’’ He waves his slim hand in the air.
‘‘You’re good,’’ Louis says with a shrug. ‘‘that’s exactly right.’’
‘‘We get a lot of marrieds or had–been–marrieds here,’’ Ian says. ‘‘Usually this is their secret life. The wives have no idea their hubbys are into other men, but I don’t think that’s the case with you. You appear too nervous.’’
‘‘My wife has no idea I’m ... I’m–into–into men.’’ Louis stammers again, the words sounding unfamiliar, tripping off his tongue.
‘‘You look tortured, and more scarred than scared. You want to tell her, right?’’
‘‘Are you a mind-reader or what?’’ Louis is amazed.
‘‘I’m sensitive, I guess that’s why I’m who I am – gay. But I can be anything you want me to be,’’ Ian says with a raised eyebrow, Louis suddenly realizes Ian is flirting with him, and that this might not be as safe as he’d assumed.
As Louis leaves The Agenda his mind fills with fear. Once he’d understood the flirting was harmless fun, he’d opened up to Ian. Before an hour was up, they had exchanged cellphone numbers.
‘‘Do you want to go into the back rooms?’’ Ian asked after they’d been talking for hours, Louis had hesitated. He’d wanted to but couldn’t. It would mean removing the cap and Ian might recognize him as the influential Louis Beautah. It took all he had to say no.
As he walks to his car, he’s tempted to turn around, walk back into the pub and allow Ian to take his hand and lead him into the back. Libra – a strong sense of justice and of right and wrong...
He puts his hand into his pocket to get his wedding band and realizes it has tangled with his rosary. He disentangles it and slips it back on his ring finger feeling blasphemous. His shaking legs hardly make it to the car, onto the highway, and even though he fights the urge to turn around at every single exit on the Museum overpass and go back to Ian, he manages to make it home. Only that it doesn’t feel like home anymore. He recites ... Oh, Mother of Mercy, Mother of penitent sinners, I stand before you sinful and sorrowful, beseeching you through the immense Love given to you by the Holy Spirit for us poor sinners …
Louis checks the piece of paper to make sure he has the house number right in the affluent Kileleshwa address. He pulls into the driveway when the guard opens the gate. His is the fifth car to park. As he approaches the front door, he can see into the living room where a few men are holding glasses of wine and champagne.
‘‘Louis! You made it!’’ Ian opens the door ushering him in. ‘‘Come meet everyone else.’’
Louis walks awkwardly into the living room, suddenly apprehensive for there are only men here. Unlike when he went to The Agenda, this is the first time Louis has ever been to a party where everyone is openly gay. Ian had invited him to another exclusive gay bash in the suburbs of Gigiri near the UN Avenue last week but he’d chickened out at the last minute afraid he would bump into diplomat friends or acquaintances from any of the United Nations agencies.
‘‘I’m sorry I didn't make it to last week’s party,’’ Louis announces to no one in particular ‘‘Ian told me it was a blast.’’
‘‘I’m sorry you didn't make it too. It was fantastic’’ Ian says. ‘‘Champagne?’’
‘‘I’d love some.’’
‘‘ Louis, this is Joel.’’ A dark, tiny size eight handsome man with trendy glasses smiles and warmly shakes Louis’s hand.
‘‘You must be new to our circle. I haven’t met you,’’ the small man says.
‘‘Yes. He’s new.’’ Ian offers on his behalf. He places his hand possessively as if to say ‘hands off, he’s mine’ on Louis’s back. Louis is surprised at how natural it feels to have Ian’s hand on the small of his back as if it belongs there.
A middle aged man walks up to them. Joel’s eyes light up, ‘‘Louis, meet my partner Paul. We've been together five years. Welcome to our humble home.’’ Humble is an understatement Louis thinks silently looking around the tastefully furnished upwards of fifty million shillings mansion.
After drinks they watch screenings of gay-themed movies including A very British Sex Scandal and Like a Brother. When it comes to BrokeBack Mountain, Louis looks longingly at the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall embracing at their reunion. He hopes tonight will be the night for him and Ian. Libra – loves world peace, balance and beauty.
Dinner has been served. Intimate conversations are going on, replacing the raucous laughter of earlier on. Platters of sizzling mbuzi choma, mukimo, chapati and ugali – never has Louis eaten so well, nor felt so comfortable. This is what he’s been missing. This is what he’s been looking for all these years of driving yearningly past gay pubs and lounges on Mama Ngina and Kimathi Streets.
There are a dozen couples present. Two European, one Asian and two Arab, the rest are Africans. Three have admitted to Louis they are married like him. One man says his wife knows he’s gay and theirs is a marriage of convenience, his wife agreed to marry him for appearances sake to a give society the facade they expect.
Louis owns up for the first time in his life to a group of gay men, that societal and familial expectations had forced him into pretense.
All the men he has met here tonight feel completely comfortable. Here they don’t have to prove or hide anything.
Louis looks around the table until his eyes meet Ian’s, who is smiling at him encouragingly.
‘‘What?’’ Louis can’t help but return his intimate smile.
‘‘It’s nice, isn't it?’’
‘‘Being out of the closet silly! Being with others just like you.’’
Louis nods, blinking away tears and swallowing a lump in his throat as Ian reaches over and gives his arm a reassuring squeeze.
‘‘It feels like I’m finally home,’’ Louis says with tears in his eyes. ‘‘I never thought it would feel this normal.’’
‘‘I know,’’ Ian says. ‘‘It’s as normal as it can get. Just not the normal you’re used to. Speaking of which, how are things with you and your wife?’’
‘‘Soon–to–be–ex wife,’’ Louis corrects ‘‘Though she’s yet to agree to it. I moved out of our home. I’m trying to convince her that whatever we feel about each other, it isn't about us but about the children and maintaining a semblance of order. I don't want to push her too hard.’’ Libra – diplomatic. Intelligent. Urban.
Everything he’d wanted to say he’d said it.
‘‘Ian, this has been the best night of my life. I wish it could last forever.’’
‘‘So do I Louis.’’
Dinner had passed quickly, and one thing had led to the next. Now a sated Louis lay next to Ian after days of yearning. Decisions have to be made. Like their move to a European country where their sort of love was not forbidden but where they were even allowed to marry each other! Many things he’d imagined as fantasy for so many years would now become a reality in a foreign country. Louis smiles at Ian who gently smiles back. Louis knows that no matter what people say, these feelings right now right here were real.
Old habits die hard. A short while later when Louis hears Ian’s breathing even off into soft snoring, he opens his bedside drawer, picks up his aged brown leather-bound gilt-edged Bible a gift from mama on his first Holy Communion almost four decades ago. A niggling conscious doubt prompts him to recite the Lord’s Prayer and ten Hail Mary’s in rapid succession. He knows the least the kind Holy Mother can do from heaven is intercede. The expensive Tanzanite and crystal-encased rosary beads which had accompanied the Bible years ago, rolling between his trembling fingers ... Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be Thy Name ...