In the beginning, when he swipes right, he does not think much of it. He is new to the application, and he imagines that the workings are different from dating in the real world. And for the most part, it is different, but he is seventeen, fresh out of high school, and he is at home waiting for university admission, so he installs the app on his phone to while away time.
The match happens quickly, and when he receives the notification, he realises he has been fooled, or rather, he is a fool. There is no way the person in the photos could be the same person on the other end of the phone. Someone else must be using the photos to trick him. Regardless, with a bit of urging from the app (“what are you waiting for?”), he sends a message.
Two days pass without a response. He checks daily, every few hours, to see if the message has been delivered, but there is no way of knowing. He thinks of sending a second message, a follow-up to the first (perhaps the person has an obvious disdain for people who send one-word messages), but he does not want to seem overly eager or to betray his inexperience.
And then, a message on the third day.
He is getting ready to go into town to help at the kitenge and kanga fabric shop his father runs, and he does not respond to the message. He thinks about it in the tuk-tuk on his way to the shop, but the large woman seated next to him has her prying eyes glued to his phone screen, and the scowl on her face tells him that she would pass judgement if he were to open the app. He ignores her, puts his palm over his screen, and reads the message again. If this is truly her, then he is the luckiest man alive.
It is a busy day at the shop, and he does not have much time to think about the message. He measures and cuts fabric while his father collects money and tells customers to come again. He listens to the slow Taarab music that seeps out of the small radio, and imagines listening to it with his newfound match, sprawled on the beach, the warm sand beneath their bodies, the blue sky above them, and the sound of the ocean slapping the shore lulling them.
The day drags its feet slowly; noon stretches out into a period that feels as if the sun is intent on burning everything on earth, leaving behind only ash and dust. He takes a torn piece of fabric from the floor and wipes sweat off his face and neck. His father tells him, “The customers will think that is what we do with our fabric, Ismail.”
He drops it back on the floor and asks his father for fifty shillings to buy a bottle of water.
His father hands him thirty shillings and jokes, “Only a camel needs that much water.”
On his way to the shop to get the water, he checks his phone. There is another message from her, but he is too terrified to open it. He wonders if out here in the open, in the wide streets with the sky above, Allah watches his actions. He knows Allah watches regardless, but he imagines that the safety of his room is different somehow. He waits.
His father closes the shop fifteen minutes early, saying business has been bad for the day. They walk home together. They pass the other fabric shops all in one line, then the row of Italian shops that sell better-quality fabric, and take business away from his father. It is quite a distance from the shop to the house, but Ismail enjoys the walk home. They don’t say much to each other on the way, and he looks at the makuti-thatched houses and the small children playing in the sand. The silence between them is satisfying to both of them. That is how it has always been. In fact, he is still surprised that his father bought him a phone from his trip back from Dubai, but he knows that is his father’s way of loving: of expressing the love he has stored in the crevices of the silence. He had shown his father his own way of loving by passing his exams. The dynamics, to someone watching them walk in silence, might seem strange, but father and son have their way, and it works.
His mother has prepared chicken biryani and he eats greedily, gulping every spoon of rice until his mother, who has been watching him, says, “Don’t eat with such greed, Ismail. You will choke.” She laughs and disappears into the kitchen.
He helps her wash the dishes and his brother wipes them with a cloth. The evening is unusually quiet, except for the muezzin calling people to prayers. The crickets have not yet started chirping, and the bullfrogs are just finding their voices. They all sit on the verandah and watch the night, the breeze from the ocean blowing cool towards them. His mother tells them a story.
He tells his mother that he has a stomach ache and he wants to get some rest. She prays to Allah to keep him well, and he goes to his bedroom. He hears his father say, “He has been distracted lately. I think it’s that phone.”
His mother sighs, and goes on with her story for his younger brother.
Inside his room, he opens the application and sees the message.
“Are you there?”
“Yes. Sorry I was busy all day,” he responds. He wonders if he should ask how her day was. He is uncertain if this is even her. He closes the app and opens Google. He types her name and reads about her. He makes mental notes of the most important stuff.
- She was born in England to a British father and an Italian mother.
- Her family moved to New Jersey when she was still a baby.
- She is either 32 or 35. (Media speculation about her age has revealed nothing.)
- She sings blues, pop and hip-hop, and has won two Grammy awards.
- She has been married twice and has two children with her current husband, a famous actor from the Caribbean.
He watches one of her songs, and realises that it was a popular song about five years ago. He wonders if he liked it.
The notification comes, and he opens it eagerly. She asks him what he is doing, and he responds by saying he is doing nothing, and then she goes quiet. Just like that. He thinks: She is fake. Someone is using her photos to lie to me.
On Google, he learns about catfishing. He reads every definition on Urban Dictionary. He is left more confused than he was before, but now he has learnt that there are people who use celebrities’ photos to lie on dating apps. He is convinced that this is one of those cases.
Forget about it, Ismail. There is no way one of the biggest celebrities in the world is chatting with you on a dating app. I mean, how is she even in Malindi?
He types her name into Google again and adds the word “Malindi”. Apart from a gossip blog tied to a former porn star, which mentions that her mother’s side of the family owns a group of hotels in Africa, there is nothing. But this is Malindi, not Africa. He checks again, adding the word “Kenya”. Now he sees that she has been to Nairobi before, in 2006. He clicks on the other pages until it asks if he wants to “repeat the search with the omitted results included”.
He closes the tab.
You are a fool, Ismail.
He is drifting off to sleep when he opens the app and sees three dots that show she is typing. He wants to block her, but he decides to see what she has written.
“Are you feeling better? Do you want me to make you some tea?” His mother’s voice, shrill but steady, startles him. Her small figure is leaning against the frame where there is no door, and he wishes at such moments that there was one so he could lock it and have some privacy. She walks in, sits on his bed and touches his forehead with her slender, henna-painted hands, as if a stomach ache would show itself in that way. She asks him if he is okay and tells him, in a whisper, that his father thinks his new phone is distracting him. He wants to admit that this is true, but he knows it will mean something else to his parents – a go-ahead to take the phone from him – and he is not ready for that yet.
Once his mother leaves, he checks the app. There is a message from her.
“Come to my hotel.”
He looks at the message and switches off his phone.
In the morning, he tells his father that he is too sick to go to the shop. His father tells him to stay at home and get some rest. His brother has left for school, and he is left at home with his mother. He goes to the sitting room and watches her clean the house while she hums along to the Bongo songs on the television. Occasionally, she asks if he is feeling better and if she can bring him tea. Feeling guilty, he declines her offers of kindness, and she goes on with her chores.
“Hey. You went silent.”
“Sorry. I fell asleep,” he lies. His parents would never allow him to leave the house at night. The government has been cracking down on terrorists and radicals, and any Muslim boy his age found out and about at night is picked up the next morning with bullets in his body. Also, he doesn’t really know if she is the person in the profile. He decides to ask her.
“Is that you in the photos?”
“Yes. That’s me.”
He realises that if anyone was going to catfish him, they wouldn’t admit this if questioned.
“Well, it’s me. I’m on vacation at our family hotel here. Just taking a small break,” she responds.
He wonders how to proceed with the conversation, if there is a way of verifying her identity, without seeming like an amateur, without annoying her in case it turns out that it truly is her.
“Um, okay. I just didn’t think someone as big as you would be on this app.”
“Yes, a big celeb.”
“Ah well, things are far more complex than you think. Plus this town is dead anyway and the few people around don’t imagine that it’s actually me.”
He spends the rest of the afternoon on the sofa trying to verify her identity, asking her questions about herself and typing her responses into Google to check if they are true. Family. Songs. Awards. Everything matches. If he is being catfished, this person must have done a proper background check on her.
In the late afternoon, his mother goes to the market to get the ingredients for the evening meal. Before she leaves, she announces that she plans to make coconut rice with fried catfish, and heads off with a big basket under her arm. It will be at least two hours before she comes back.
He sends her a message asking if she wants to meet. She does not respond.
The following day, he is at his father’s shop snipping fabric and sweating in the sweltering heat when a message comes in. He stops everything, and the white-and-yellow fabric falls on the dusty floor, getting soiled in the process. His father sees this and walks over to him, hand raised as if about to slap him – but he takes his phone away instead.
“Akh! Ismail, this phone is making you act like a fool. I should never have given it to you.”
He feels a hole inside, for if his father giving him this phone was his way of showing his love, then taking it away is the equivalent of taking back that love. He watches as his visibly annoyed father, who is grumbling about the loss of the soiled fabric, locks the phone in the drawer where he keeps his money. Then he takes his cap off, wipes the sweat off the bald patch on his head and smiles at the queue of customers, while apologising profusely for Ismail’s incompetence.
“These children of nowadays…”
The rest of the afternoon, he wonders if she has tried to reach him. He worries that she might be upset with him, and block him or never talk to him again. What if she leaves to go back to her country thinking that I didn’t want to meet her?
In the evening, after his father has handed back the phone to him, he tells him that he is going to meet his friend Abu so that they can go and watch the match between Man City and Chelsea at the video shop. He remembers too late that his father, who is also a Chelsea fan, knows that the match is not until tomorrow. But his father only says, “Make sure you come back home early. Your mother will be worried.”
“Sawa, Baba.” He runs in the opposite direction to Abu’s home, leaving his father shaking his head. On the way, he remembers overhearing his father once saying to his mother, “Mama Ismail, when children reach a certain age, they no longer belong to you. You can only pray to Allah and trust that the upbringing you gave them will serve them well.”
He gets back home earlier than expected and heads straight to his bedroom. His mother follows, asking him through the door, “Is it that stomach again, Ismail?”
He grunts and his mother promises him that he will be better in the morning, and if not, they will go into town and see the doctor. In truth, his stomach is fine. Everything in his body is okay. The emptiness in his stomach comes from the feeling that he has wasted his time talking to her. He vows to uninstall the application and move on with his life. He will wait for his university admission, go and study to become the engineer he has always dreamed of becoming. He will come back home and marry the good girl, from a good family, with a good upbringing, chosen specifically for him. His hand lingers over his phone screen as he thinks about all this. He opens the app.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to ghost on you. I spotted some paparazzi a few minutes before you showed up. I have to be careful. I’m sorry if you were upset.”
“Are you there?”
“Hey, I suppose you don’t want to talk.”
“Hi Ismail. Please, I’m sorry.”
She sends more messages, but he ignores them.
Eventually, unable to bring himself to uninstall the app and go on ignoring her, he responds. He tells her it is fine and agrees that she has to be careful. He is now convinced that she is a celebrity. She tells him she is relieved that he understands. What she does not know is he has spent the past three days sulking, barely eating and not talking to anyone, his mother always asking, “Ha Ismail, what is wrong?” and his father saying, “Let him be. The boy is becoming a man.”
His heartbreak heals when she suggests meeting him. They agree on a Thursday evening.
Right after his father closes the shop, he makes up another lie, and goes to the hotel to meet her. At the gate, the watchman lets him in without the usual harassment Ismail has seen accorded to beach boys and young guys looking for work.
He notices her on the balcony, a figure so beautiful and unhuman-like that he stands there at the gate and wonders if she is an angel. He is dazed until she signals for him to come up to where she is. He takes the stairs instead of the lift, and when he gets to the fourth floor, he is panting and sweating. He takes a moment to cool off before knocking, and she opens the door.
It is her, without a single doubt, standing in front of him.
They have sex in which he struggles to stay on top of her because of his lean frame and the fact that he has only done it once before – with a girl with catlike eyes named Khadija. (She cried all through the act, and he wondered if he was doing it correctly, but she had nodded to urge him on. He never heard of or saw her again.) His breathing is loud and he is embarrassed when he is unable to finish, but she pats his head in a reassuring yet unsettling manner, and tells him he was perfect.
She gives him a blowjob. Nothing. Afterwards, they have nothing to talk about. They lie on the bed and listen to the sounds of the street below. A tuk-tuk roars. Someone calls the name of a child, and he has no idea if it is a boy or a girl. The gate opens and closes. He tilts his head towards her and scans her body. He marvels at how smooth and flawless her skin is, and the only spots on her body are her two darkened nipples and pubic hair that looks like fur. And yet, as she lies here next to him, she seems like any other woman. He watches her chest rise and fall.
“My family owns this hotel,” she declares, breaking the silence inside the room.
He does not know what to do with this information. He fidgets and stares at the whitewashed walls and the badly done paintings of the big-five animals under acacia trees in the sunset. The painter’s name is signed at the bottom, and he wonders if that is a sign of pride in the work.
“My grandfather – my mother’s father – came here in the 1980s and built three hotels. This is the smallest and most private. My family has been coming here since I was a child.” Her voice is thin, like she is not used to talking. It sounds different when she sings in her music videos.
He leaves the hotel at dusk with the promise to see her again. Before he goes, she kisses him on the mouth and asks, “How old are you, Ismail?”
“Nineteen,” he says, hoping his voice doesn’t betray him.
She smiles. “Perfect.”
Friday is for prayers and he does not go to see her. Right after the Jum’ah, he watches all her songs on YouTube and masturbates to one of her earlier videos, made when she was around his age. She has blonde hair in the video, and is wearing a spaghetti-string top and a skirt that shows her legs and thighs. Afterwards, he kneels on his mat and asks Allah to forgive him.
Before he sleeps, he messages her to tell her he misses her.
She does not respond.
They see each other again on Saturday evening. They have sex again, and it is better this time. He fucks her slowly – with controlled, measured thrusts – and cups her breasts in his hands like he saw in a porn clip Abu once showed him. His breathing is the hum of a generator, and he ignores her loud moans and trains his mind to listen to something else. A bird cooing lazily but noisily. He thrusts faster. The gate creaking open. Steady. The droning dragged-out call of the muezzin. She is shaking, her thighs clasped around his waist. Allahu akbar! He comes inside her.
The world is silent in his head.
They are quiet for a while as they catch their breath. Soon, they talk about her music, and she tells him she is releasing an album. He is glad to hear this, having learnt to like her music. They talk about her husband, and she tells him they have been having marital problems, and are to divorce; that is why she is here. They talk about her children, and she says she is going to give full custody to her husband so that she can focus on her music.
They do not talk about him.
They have sex again, and he leaves at dusk.
At home, his mother asks why he is in such a good mood. He does not respond and eats his pilau, devouring it slowly as if he wants to feel the taste as it travels through his gut. His mother looks at him and smiles.
“Is it a girl?” she asks.
He drinks from his cup of water while his father’s piercing eyes watch him.
He goes to bed early and watches more of her music videos. He types her name into Google yet again, and checks the news. He finds out that she has indeed filed for divorce. He reads the blog, but it offers no concrete information apart from speculation about possible infidelity by her husband with an Australian who won Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards three years ago. He tries to find more information, but all the other websites have copied from the blog, simply adding different images of her husband and her.
He wonders if he is part of her plan to get back at her husband.
He searches for the hotel name and checks Trip Advisor, where the hotel has a rating of three stars and has been praised for the privacy it offers to its clientele. Below these comments are accusations of racism. One man whose avatar has no photo has written: “Fuck this hotel! I came here for honeymoon with my wife and they would not let me in, saying that I was a beach boy. Shame on establishments in Kenya that treat Kenyans like second-rate citizens.” He tries to imagine what the man looks like, he tries to imagine what must have transpired between the man and the watchman at the gate, he tries to imagine the man’s new bride, but he fails.
He falls asleep still looking at the page.
The next morning, he receives a message from her saying that she has to fly back to New York. He asks if they can meet one last time, and she says it is not safe. He types a long message saying he understands, thanking her for the wonderful time he has spent with her, and wishing her well. He adds that he looks forward to listening to her new album when it is released. When he hits “send”, he realises that she has blocked him.
He deletes his final message and uninstalls the app from his phone.
He listens to her music every night.
The new album, titled “Fire in Malindi” is a success, and Ismail reads that the critics have praised her for the ability to make music with such raw honesty and passion. He downloads it illegally off some site where he is required to skip several ads. He listens to it every morning on his way to class at the university where is studying mechatronic engineering. He is happy for her, and soon learns to forget how her body felt when he was with her. He knows he will never see her again.
He goes back home for the holidays. That same period, he learns from a gossip blog that she has reconciled with her husband and given birth to a baby boy, whose name is some Swahili word he has never heard before. She does a photoshoot and the photos get more than five million likes on Instagram. He adds his likes too, and comments with a love symbol, but his is lost in the sea of responses. Some media house buys the photos of her baby for two million dollars. He follows every news update, gulping every detail he finds.
He reads the latest gossip blog. He goes down on his knees and prays to Allah. He gets up from the mat and checks again. The blog says the paternity test is not conclusive, but her husband has released a statement saying he doubts very much that he is the father of the child. Ismail wonders if the child could be his. Filled with a sense of dread, he lets out a prolonged wail.
His mother calls out from the kitchen: “Ismail, is it that stomach again?”
This story was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and is published in the anthology Hotel Africa: New Short Fiction from Africa edited by Helen Moffett.