Even from afar Collins looks huge. And he actually is huge. But I have gotten used to him, so I don’t notice his size as much – and as often – as other people do. He weighs in at 104 kilos, and rises to six feet and an inch to spare. His hands are the size of a baby elephant’s trunk. Because he works out, and lifts dead weight. I say dead weight because they are the kind of weights that can make one very dead. Just not him. He enjoys the thrill of grunting as he lifts the bar with immorally heavy metals on either side, sweat dripping from his brow and muscles tightening all along his arms. I have been to the gym with him a few times and he is a beast. He runs in the morning to build up adrenaline that will push him through each day. His frame is big, and his legs are just as big as his hands, which means he looks like a bear. Or a teddy bear or a big koala bear. That is actually what his girl used to call him in college, Collo Bear.
Going by this introduction alone, you would expect him to be all macho and hard and tough as steel. He is not. He is really soft on the inside. I have found him on more than one occasion reading love poems. He also jots down his thoughts and feelings in a journal in his laptop. His favorite movie is About Last Night. And he actually listens to Blues and RnB. Not the new age stuff that is laced with Hip-hop and Crunk.
He listens to hardcore Blues – you know, Celine Dion, Babyface, and 112, N’Sync, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and Brian Adams.
The first time I walked into his room and heard the music, I thought it was the roommate listening to those songs. I was surprised.
That was in college and he tells me he still does.
Imagine a big bear listening to the softest music on the planet while nodding along with his eyes closed and his palm to his chest, mouthing each word.
It was very anticlimactic.
You know, I always pictured him listening to hardcore rock and techno and house music as he lifted dumbbells while eating his low-fat, high energy lunch. But life is funny, it gives you a big body and a soft heart. Well, it gave Collo exactly that. I have since accepted his strange choice of music and moved on.
Today, we are meeting to catch up. You know, align our chi (as Kisauti would put it). Because life is short and you have to appreciate big bears. He orders ugali and fried fish with vegetable salad. I want to tell him that the fish is not likely to be delicious because I come from fish, and I don’t believe you can find better fish anywhere outside of Homa Bay County. But I hold my piece because maybe tasteless fish is part of what makes him that big.
The waitress who takes our order keeps glancing back in our direction – at him. Probably wondering what a big beautiful boy he is.
Am also a big beautiful boy, not that anyone is asking. But this story is about Collo, so…
You might notice that his smile is never genuine. It must cover so much hurt and pain. The hurt of having to live in society when all he wants is to withdraw from it all. To take control of his life. To live life at his own pace and to not feel like his life is not his. To gain some control over his existence. To get away from all the noise that everyone makes and the judgment that everyone throws his way. To crawl into a bean chair and blast out his soft smooth music right into his eardrums and float away.
Like many people I know, he is battling his own demons. He has an ex-girlfriend he has not spoken to in three years. You know, Winnie, the one that used to call him Collo Bear.
It hurts him.
Not the fact that he has not spoken to her in three years, but that she is the mother of his baby girl. Which means he has not seen his girl for that long. She left him a year and a half after the birth of his daughter.
He remembers her as a tiny beautiful girl with big bouncy eyes that looked like white marbles and a smile that must have made him think of soft clouds and quilts and feathers. Her neck and arms and legs were full of folds – which means she was (is) healthy.
They named her Nadine, like the South African author.
Her baby picture is still his wallpaper. He looks at it and smiles – a smile that almost looks like hers. You can easily tell that his is labored, because there is pain behind it.
“She makes me believe in God” he tells me as he prepares to savor his meal.
“Do you ever miss her?” I ask without realizing what a silly question that must be.
And because you cannot take back words, we have to sit there in uncomfortable silence for a moment as he mulls it over.
“Of course!” He hesitates for a second then continues
“Thinking of her brightens my world…” He says, and I swallow a hard ball down my throat.
“I miss her everyday.” He adds with tangible emotion, and I feel cold icicles forming at the tips of my fingers.
Am forced to keep quiet for a while to let the air mellow for a bit.
“Why haven’t you spoken to Winnie for that long?” I prod and I immediately realize how stupid I am.
“It’s not as black and white as you would think.”
“Then why don’t you live with the kid instead” I continue along with my insensitive inquiry.
“Let’s talk about something else, please…” he says in a voice that commands more than requests.
He looks up to the sky (or ceiling) for a moment and I know he is fighting tears. Which is sad because it means I broke him and his spirit. So I have to remind myself to always remove my foot from my mouth.
He has been called a dead beat dad because he is not there for his girl. To him, nothing matters because those are just words – even if they sting.
It is only God (and maybe Winnie) who knows the truth and to him, that is all that matters.
Because am perceptive, I can tell that it eats him up.
He probably sits in his bedroom at the end of the day, with not a soul to share his pain. Probably staring at the ceiling and fighting back tears. Or letting them flow freely into his pillow in the dead of the night as he listens to Celine Dion and willing his own heart to go on…
The soft melodies drowning away his pain and shutting the door of his emotional turmoil to the outside world.
Those lovely beats letting him set down the heavy suitcase of sorrow he carries with him. Allowing him to be vulnerable in private because he is an African man.
And in our society, men are not supposed to cry or complain or share feelings because they are raised to be strong.
I imagine he suffers the pain of having to be called a dad, albeit a dead beat one, when all he wants is to see his Nadine again, and believe in God some more.
The pain he must feel when he remembers how Winnie had told him to scrum as she left with that guy in a blue Subaru…
How surreal it all must have seemed to him. Like it was all in his head. That big head that harbors thoughts and questions that bog him down each morning.
The tears that must fill his eyes as he tries to look for somebody to talk to. Somebody that will not judge him, or look at him like a broken soul even though he is one. Someone that can love him without condition and assure him that it will be just fine.
It must be painful to not have someone to remind him that he is a big boy who loves deeply and who listens to soothing music.
Someone to remind how much he loved life back in the day.
Just another soul to help him listen to the lyrics and to be there for him through the pain and sorrow and darkness. And days filled with the reminders of failure and dark thoughts that border on suicide.
Someone to hold his hand and shed a tear with him from time to time. Someone to remind him that it is okay to be weak. Or to be as “broken bad” as he is.
Because God Loves Big Boys who have soft hearts…