My roommate and I were both freshers and had both been assigned temporary accommodation at the college hostel. My mother hadn’t paid the hostel fee and because she knew someone who knew one of the college administrators, I was allowed temporary accommodation for ten days. She promised she would send the money before those days were up. The matron, a portly nun with a serious face, said she didn’t care.
“I’ll kick you out of the hostel on the eleventh day if there’s no money by the promised date,” she said. She didn’t soften that declaration and I didn’t hold it against her. It was a business at the end of the day and the nun was just doing her job. I didn’t know how my roommate sweet-talked her way into getting accommodation without paying for it. The matron had introduced us and said we’d only be given one key.
“If you are smart girls you wouldn’t think of making a copy of this key because I will find out and if I do I won’t be smiling like I am now.” Her spectacles had thick lenses like a magnifying glass. Her eyeballs bulged if you looked at them through her glasses at an angle.
She told us we’d be assigned different rooms when we paid the fee and we’d have our own keys. “Students are not allowed in room B4. I want you to remember that. I’m doing you a big favour.” She dismissed us.
My roommate had the key the first three days. Sometimes I’d stand at the door for hours waiting for her to come and open it. I’d send her text which she wouldn’t respond to, always saying she was saving her airtime for a 10 pm call when Safaricom call rates were down. She would show up with her friend whom she had introduced as Makena and say she was so sorry to have kept me waiting.
She’d already made friends while I only knew one girl from class. We got lost the first day and found our way to class together. The fourth day my roommate brought back her friends to the room. There was Makena, another girl from her class called Gacheri and a boy from the school of engineering. She had met the boy at the canteen. His name was Billy. He had escorted her back to the hostel because my roommate was scared that the monkeys and baboons would chase her for her food. It was mostly girls they chased. Girls were always scared and shrieked whenever they saw the primates. I think the primates enjoyed it. The chase, the shrieking and the final surrender when the girl would throw the food at them.
When Billy excused himself to go to the bathroom, my roommate turned at me and said, “He was checking out your ass, Lillian. I’ll ask him to change the light bulb tomorrow and leave the room and that’s when you know.” She winked.
“He is too good looking,” I said. They must have thought I was being modest because they laughed sarcastically.
“What are you talking about, have you seen your ass? I’d given anything to have your ass,” my roommate said. Makena asked me to stand up and my roommate pointed. “Look at that. See what I mean?”
“You’re just saying that because we live together and you want me to clean the room. It’s still your turn,” I said. My roommate came over to me and put her hands around me from the back and said I was the best. She started singing the sexual healing song.
When Billy came back, he said the ladies’ toilets were very clean. We were all quiet as if contemplating what he had just said. Makena said, “You know what, we need alcohol.” Gacheri said she didn’t drink and had better be going. “It’s almost 7 pm.”
“I don’t drink either but this is college. This is where you’re allowed to do all these things,” my roommate said. She looked around, waiting for us to back her up. “Fare will be 20bob to Rongai if you leave at 8.”
“It will be 10bob if you leave at 9,” Makena said.
Billy said, “It will be free if you leave with me at 10.” He winked.
“I’m just not interested in trying,” Gacheri said. She took her bag from my bed and waved around. “See you tomorrow,” she said, blowing kisses around. When she walked out we were quiet for a while. If you concentrated hard enough you could hear the heartbroken wailing of Daughtry from the radio in the next room.
Billy grabbed my hand. “Let’s go get us some alcohol.” My hand was limp in his. We walked hand in hand and didn’t say a word to each other. We got to room C36 at the boys’ hostel. Tupac Shakur’s voice slammed my face when the door was opened. The room was dark and thick with a mixture of cigarette and marijuana smoke. Billy had to shout his order over the music. The boy who got us the alcohol had red-rimmed eyes. His dishevelled look reminded me of the drunks in Dagoretti Corner. The small bottle of Napoleon brandy fit perfectly in Billy’s back trouser pocket. He took my hand again as we walked down the dark corridor.
When we got back to my room Makena said she had to go. “You’re joking. I just brought the alcohol,” Billy said.
“It’s late,” she said, looking at her phone.
“It’s not even 7 o’clock.”
“I live with my aunt. She’ll be mad. She’ll probably call my mum,” she said and hugged my roommate goodbye. She turned to me and told me be a good girl and have fun.
“Hey. I’ll walk you to the stage. We’re going the same route anyway. I live with my brother in Maasai Lodge,” Billy said. My roommate said she couldn’t believe how boring everyone was. Billy hugged her and told her we’d all drink some other day. He turned to me and said it was nice meeting me. He told me to not be so quiet. He put his hand around Makena’s shoulder as they walked out.
The next day Makena came into our room at lunch time and said that Billy was such a good kisser. She said Billy escorted her home and kissed her for a very long time. She avoided my eyes the whole time she told the story. A hush swelled the room. My roommate pretended to be absorbed in the cooling contents of her coffee cup. I asked Makena if she wanted a cup and she said, “Sure, Lillian. Thanks so much.”
My roommate’s eyes followed me as I rinsed a mug in the sink and made Makena tea. When our eyes met, she looked away. I was seventeen again and in high school. The only girl in our dormitory who didn’t get letters from boys and without the prospect of any love interest.
My roommate and I expertly manoeuvred the tension that was suspended in the room hours later. We timed our coming ins and going outs so that we weren’t in the room at the same time. Billy came to the room at some point to look for her. I told him I hadn’t seen her. “Always reading, do you ever go out?” he asked me. When I shook my head, he said he was going out that night and that I could go with him if I wanted. I said, “It’s fine. I’ve got a lot to do.” He shrugged and walked away.
I didn’t know when my roommate came back because when a knock came at the door she was asleep in her bed. The time on my phone said 2 o’clock. The knock kept on coming and someone called my name. My roommate shifted in her bed and asked why someone was knocking at such a late hour. She squinted at her phone. The light from her phone gave her face a ghostly look. When my name was called again my roommate said, “It’s Billy. Open the door.”
“Why should I be the one to open the door?”
“Because he is calling your name.” There was silence for a few seconds before the knock came again. I switched on the lights. When I opened the door, Billy fell in. He righted himself with some effort and hugged me. All his weight was on me and he almost sent us toppling over.
“Oh God, is he drunk?” my roommate said.
“I’m not drunk. I was leaning on the door when you opened it,” he said, squinting at the light.
“Billy, it’s 2 a.m. What’s wrong with you?” My roommate—it was the first time I was seeing her angry.
“I don’t have anywhere to sleep. There are no mats to Ronga at this hour.”
My roommate sat up straighter on her bed. She gave Billy a stern look. “So, you decided to knock on my door at 2 a.m.?”
“I need somewhere to sleep.”
“Not in my bed.” My roommate turned violently to the side of the wall and covered herself. “I want those lights switched off,” she shouted from inside her blanket. She mumbled something I couldn’t make out. Billy and I stood dumbly staring at each other.
“Please, Lillian. My brother will kill me if I show up like this.”
“You mean show up drunk?”
He studied my face. “If I had somewhere else I could spend the night I couldn’t have woken you up.”
“No snoring and if you touch me I’ll kill you.”
He smiled as he removed his shoes and crawled into my bed. The room started filling up with the stink of his feet. The smell awakened a memory from the past when my grandmother had come to visit and brought fresh omena neatly wrapped in a polythene bag. My mother forgot about it for two days and when she opened it the smell made me swear off omena. I slept rigidly facing the wall. Billy put his arms around me. His breath was warm and stale on my neck. After a few moments, when I thought he had fallen asleep, I felt him stroke my arm and move closer towards me. His hand trailed my arm to my breast and hesitated. I placed my hand on his and pressed his palm on my breast. He kneaded and I shifted to allow him more access. I felt his hand go limp. “It’s OK. You can sleep. I won’t try anything,” he said. His voice was low and clotted with sleep.
I couldn’t sleep for a long time. I listened to his snoring and after some time shook him awake. “You have to go,” I told him. “You have to go, Billy,” I said again, louder, with more conviction.
“Where do you want me to go? It’s almost 3 a.m.” I left the bed and switched on the light.
“Please get out.”
“Jesus Christ, you two,” my roommate shouted. “I need some sleep.”
Billy said, “Where am I supposed to go?”
“You don’t ask me that question until you’ve earned the right.”
“You’re kidding.” He rubbed his forehead and looked like he was in deep thought.
“What the fuck is that smell?” my roommate asked. She sat up on her bed. “Please turn off those lights. What is that smell?”
“You created this problem and now I’m cleaning up your mess and I don’t think you should be talking right now,” I told my roommate. “You brought him here. He is your friend,” I said to her cold stare.
“He called your name.”
“He knew my name because you brought him here. This is all your fault.”
“You two are talking like I’m not in the room,” Billy said. He was clinging at the door.
“Why are you still here?” I pushed him out and shut the door in his face. I opened the window to let out the smell. It was hard to imagine that such a handsome boy had such smelly feet. The knocking came on the door again and Billy called my name.
“If you don’t answer he won’t stop knocking,” my roommate said.
I opened the door and walked out, locking it behind me. He pinned me to the wall and grabbed my ass. He said into my ear that he needed my help, that he didn’t have anywhere to spend the night. I put my arms around him and told him I couldn’t let him sleep in my bed.
“Please, Lillian,” he whispered, nudging his erection against me. His chin was rough to the touch.
“You have to go.”
The cold night air rang with our silence. We stood for a while with our bodies pressed together, untouched by the cold. Finally, he pulled away and walked down the silent corridor. I went back to the room and turned off the lights.
“Is he gone?” my roommate asked.
“Don’t talk to me.”
Billy came back in the morning when my roommate and I were getting ready for class. He didn’t say a word. He took a seat at my desk, his forearm on my desk and placed his head on his arms. Soon he was fast asleep.
“The nerve of this boy. It’s incredible,” my roommate muttered, padding around the small room in nothing but pyjama bottoms and a bra.
“Please don’t wake him up,” I said.
She looked back at me with big, round eyes. “Who are you to decide? It’s my room, too.”
“Not really. You haven’t paid for it.” She passed off that comment with a snort. I left for class and when I came back at break time Billy was snoring in my bed. When I came back at lunch time, Billy was at my desk leafing through a magazine. He said hello and asked if he could make me a cup of tea, like I was a guest at his place. He turned the kettle on and stared back at me. “You know what, Lillian. You should throw away all your trousers. You look great in a skirt.” I didn’t know what to do with the compliment. Without realising it, I started twisting a braid around my finger. He regarded me with smug eyes. His gaze faltered when his phone started vibrating. He turned the kettle off before answering it. His voice was soft, like he was talking to someone he was fond of or someone he had been intimate with. He told the caller that he had class in the afternoon. He said he was in the library and would call back in the evening. He finished the call with “Love you” and switched the kettle back on. Right then I started noticing things about him that disgusted me more and more. Of course, I remembered his smelly feet and the stale breath. When he turned to me I saw, for the first time, that his nose was a little too big for his face. When he said, “What are you looking at?” I realised that one of his teeth was missing. His hair too unruly. His frame too thin. I asked him when he was leaving because I wanted to lock the room. He drained his tea in one gulp and walked out. Months later when we passed each other around school, I would often wonder why I was ever attracted to him.
My roommate was assigned a different room five days after our fight. We still weren’t talking. She was silent as she cleared out her closet and packed her things. She placed the key on my desk and left. I wasn’t surprised fourteen days after admission when I walked into my room and found my mattress missing and my sheets and blanket on the floor. There was a note on my desk signed by the matron and written in red: SEE ME. I was tired and hungry, so the first thing I did was sit on the wooden slab that was my bed and tried to concentrate on the silence. It was 5:30 in the evening, almost twenty-four hours since my last proper meal.
I had tea and a quarter loaf of bread that morning, same thing at lunchtime and I was still planning on tea and bread for supper. Meals at the school cafeteria started at fifty shillings and cooking in the college hostel was forbidden. It was a crime worse than cheating in exams. I had one hundred shillings left. That was enough to last me three more days. I had talked to my mother the evening before and she said she would send the hostel fee with more pocket money. I didn’t call her about the mattress situation. She was doing her best and I wasn’t planning on worrying her. That night I spread my blanket on the bed and used the sheets to cover myself.
I didn’t go to class the following day. I spent the whole time in the TV room and watched cartoon until 7 p.m. when students started streaming in for the news. I bought three ngumus, my next day’s meal.
When I got back from the canteen, three girls from my class were standing at my door. It was too late to duck into the shower stalls because one of them, Amina, had already spotted me. I had told them my room number when they asked the first day of class. I didn’t know they meant it when they said they would come hang out.
“We’ve been knocking for so long. We almost left,” Amina said. I looked at them dumbly for a while with the key in my hand. I said, “My room is kind of empty. I don’t have lots of stuff.”
“I don’t have stuff either,” someone else said. She was the girl who was always chewing gum in class. I opened the door and let them in. Their eyes flitted across the room.
“It sure is empty,” Amina said to nervous laughter. “Where is your mattress?”
“They took it,” I said, pointing towards the general direction of the matron’s office. “I haven’t paid the full hostel fee.”
“Where have you been sleeping?”
I told them I was sleeping at a friend’s. The room went silent as I fiddled with the single key in my hand. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow in class. Nice to see your room,” Amina said.
I was relieved when they left. I wasn’t surprised when everyone in class later knew that I didn’t have a mattress. Amina--we called her Amina FM. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. Sometimes I fantasied about bashing her face in.
I was in the matron’s office telling one bold-faced lie after another. Her assistant had seen me come out of the shower stall. When I was getting dressed, she didn’t even knock, just opened the door with the spare key and ordered me to the matron’s office. All the way there she kept asking me the same thing: did you get the matron’s note? Did you get the matron’s note? It was like an annoying song that stuck in your head all day. I ignored her. “She has been sleeping in that room,” she told the matron, “I just saw her come out of the bathroom.”
“Matron, I have not been sleeping in my room. I wasn’t even in school. I came back today. There is no mattress on the bed. Do you think I would sleep on a wooden slab without a mattress?”
“She has been sleeping in that room,” her assistant insisted. “She has been sleeping there. I saw her.”
The matron gazed at me flatly. Humiliation stung my eyes and I started crying. I asked the matron to let me use the room one more night, that I would bring her a banker’s cheque the next day.
“This whole thing was about trust. I trusted you the first time when you said you’d pay the fee within ten days. It’s been sixteen days.” She turned to her assistant. “Follow her to the room. Make sure she clears out. And please don’t let her disappear with the key.” I told her I didn’t even have bus fare to my aunt’s place in Ngong’. The way she turned away from me to her desktop made me know that she was done talking.
I cried on the way back to my room and when I was packing. I texted my roommate and asked her if she could lend me one hundred shillings. I promised I would give it back as soon as I could. I stuffed my clothes in my suitcase, the matron’s assistant hovering at the door.