All my legal documents bear a defunct number. Somewhere—here time must be spatialized—somewhere in the 11 years since I left Nairobi the family phone number fractured into multiple mobile numbers. Every few months I ask for them and just as promptly lose them. They lack history, my imprint, a shared sense of belonging that, somehow, constitutes us as a family, that made the house into a home.
Even though the house has a new number—digital, my sister tells me—I am loathe to imprint it on my documents. It lacks the extended, rambling confessions of my youth, the stolen, expensive calls to siblings abroad, my father’s arbitrary and rarely enforced rules about appropriate calling times, the late night emergency calls that defined his profession. It has all the intimacy of a trick’s never-to-be-used number.
To place it on my documents would be an admission of my absence, an acknowledgment that I no longer have a room in what has become a house.
There are, of course, other attachments.
582 defined a place quite unlike 581. They were new. We were old. They were emerging and wealthy. We were established and akin to the boring English middle-class we replaced and emulated, often without irony. 581 were cosmopolitan. We were rooted, careful to travel upcountry ever so often to reassure ourselves that our psychic displacements were more imagined than real. 581 seemed, from that long-ago perspective, more anxious and less ambivalent. They wanted entrée into private clubs and multi-million deals. And they mocked, with their indifference, our been-to mentality.
582, to use a cliché, was a social passport, recognizable to those who were supposed to know, meaningless to those who did not count.
But these illusions fade as I recall the multiple unreciprocated calls I made, the endless afternoons of frustration that revealed the thinness of my social life. School friends who lived elsewhere had, it seemed to me, vast social networks of which I knew nothing. Their conversations carried from school to home, from class period to weekend. It felt unfamiliar.
While they spoke of outings, the casualness of meeting for roast maize or a game of marbles, I told stories of movies I had watched, inventing as I went along. I had discovered reading, but it was an eccentricity not to be shared in a world where action garnered attention.
Once, perhaps recognizing my loneliness, my mother allowed me to have a sleep-over at my best friend’s house. I termed him my best friend. Insisted he was. Now, I think he tolerated me and was kind. I may be ungenerous. The experiment was never repeated, though we continued to talk over the years, he becoming a man with a deep voice and heterosexual lust. And I waiting on corners for strange men to call me attractive.
582544 is, of course, the number my legal documents bear in case of emergency. Were something to happen to me, the call from here to there, this life to that life, would vanish into the ether. There is something appropriate about this. It would be possible to spin a narrative about Africa’s inefficient telephones, the corruption of third-world telecommunications. Knowing people would exchange anecdotes about how rural Africans steal telephone cables to adorn their houses and their bodies. At such a moment, 582544 would become a metaphor for African inefficiency—mine for failing to update the number, the number for failing to work.
It has been easier to mourn dying relatives than it is to mourn this number. I am struck by the simple phrase “your number is up,” the end of waiting and the beginning of being numbered and, ultimately, numberless.