Report & Essay

Brotherhood, or, Dirty Socks
Keguro Macharia

 Even now, the memory of his socks assails me. It was, as with most smells, slow to arrive but full in the moment of its arrival. At first, simply a hint, cause for sniffs and questions. Eventually, ripe, pungent, unmistakable.

This is a story about brotherhood.

He was a jock and I sang in the choir. He played rugby and I won awards for “best female.” I devoured Oscar Wilde and he, it is rumored, toyed with steroids. He made being a certain kind of man easy. I struggled to grow into a body that I inhabited uncomfortably. There was little to bind us except the shared experience of first form, shared in the sense that both of us evaded bullying, and the fact that my bed was next to his.

For weeks, if not months, I inhaled the scent of his rugby-infused socks. His body-at-work became my nightly vaporizer. Each triumph, each loss, each practice, each match, all distilled to this ether. To say that I smelled his socks might be accurate. To say that I inhaled his essence grapples with a more profound truth about how we became brothers: not blood of my blood, but smell of my smell, skin of my skin, air of my air.

He was only one of the many boys and men I encountered over the course of high school, where the splashing water of adjacent showers meant we shared dirt and clean; the bowls from which we served our rations bore the traces of our dipping spoons; the cold night air carried our discordant voices trying to master traditional English harmonies; and the ground bore the indelible marks of our indistinguishable shoes.

This was not a brotherhood forged in battle or shared struggle, nor did it partake of those fictions of blood and shared origin. Its fragility was its strength, its tenuousness offset by its tensile strength.

He was taciturn and I was chatty. I recited poetry and he spoke in sports formations. I barely remember if we spoke after that first eventful year. Our lives diverged, mine devoted to pianos and the men who play them, his devoted to hockey and rugby. When he succeeded, the school cheered. When I succeeded, the school booed.

Had you called us brothers, it would have been unremarkable. We might have quibbled over who was the elder, the more attractive, the more talented, but, ultimately, we would have agreed that we were brothers. It was not a brotherhood based on what we shared. It happened across ethnicities, across religions, across social interests, across personal tastes, even across sexualities.

It is the very impossibility of its possibility that anchors my hope in Kenya’s possible futures. For this story is not idiosyncratic or unique. It is shared across schools and workplaces, in army barracks and local bars, on buses and in planes. To smell a stranger might begin an intimacy through which to forge a household, a community, a province, a nation.

Keguro Macharia is completing his Ph.D. in the United States. He writes non-fiction prose, and has recently been published in Wasafiri and the anthology Identity Envy: Wanting to be Who We are Not. He is a member of the Concerned Kenyan Writers collective, and can be reached at kmacharia[at]gmail[dot]com

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