His glasses reflect the orange sun coming down over Lake Naivasha. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and we’re standing by the shore trying to spot hippos in the water.
“Oh there’s one,” I say pointing at a dark mass further along the shore. There’s an old boat bobbing at the edge, brown and chipped from water damage.
“No. That’s a rock,” he says.
I squint my eyes at it. “How can you tell?”
“It hasn’t moved in the last twenty minutes.” His beard is as rugged as ever, streaked with more grey hairs now. Has it been that long? He’s still a head taller than me. Leaner than I remember.
The kids are running circles around us like a game of in and out the bamboo forest. The camp is a few meters behind us. Goat is sizzling on the grill – well, goat entrails. The real meat is marinating in rosemary and garlic in a sufuria by the fire. Someone is playing Naija music on a portable soundbar.
“I didn’t know you were coming to this thing,” he says. There’s just a tinge of regret in his voice, as though he might’ve done something differently had he known.
“Why is that?” I hold my breath. He’s going to say it’s because of work. I’m in international relations. My work involves a bit of travel. When I am not in transit I’m usually bent over a trade brief or presentation that my boss delivers to her boss as her work. Then her boss uses it to make himself look good at one international conference or another. Still, it’s rewarding work and the paycheck does not hurt one bit.
What we both know to be true, but which remains unsaid, is that I don’t get invited to family road trips because I’m single. The wives don’t like me. They don’t like how I stand with their men sipping old-fashioneds while they grill, with no kids to run around after. They envy my freedom. And they hate that I’m privy to all of their husbands’ inside jokes because I tag along to all the stuff they don’t get invited to.
“It’s just been a while since I’ve – since we’ve seen you around,” he says bending over to cut a blade of grass. He releases it in the air and it flies right past us. The wind is blowing towards the shore. You can see it in how the water is rippling.
Oh. I thought he’d go for the work thing but he’s gone for the other thing. A fight we had that I’m not ready to talk about.
“Well, you know how work is. I just got back from Djibouti. I only saw the group chat last night but I decided to drive down anyway.”
“Is that you over there, with that beast of a car?” He nods to a silver Ford Explorer in the parking area.
“Yeah. That’s me,” I say folding my arms and kicking up a mound of dirt. A speck of mud sticks on my trainers and I have to wipe it on the grass.
“Eish. Things are good at the consulate,” he nudges the air between us. We’re standing too far apart for him to touch me. Maybe conspicuously so. Perhaps I should walk around so it stops looking like we’re afraid if we move any closer we will ignite.
“Things are all right. We’re trying.”
“Oh get out of here with that modesty. Things are good. You’ve worked hard to get here.”
“I have worked hard to get here.”
“Then own it. I can’t believe you’re still so superstitious.”
“It’s not superstition. Jinxing is a real thing.”
“It’s not jinxing to affirm that your life is good.”
“You can never be too certain. The universe lives for the plot twist.”
He shakes his head at me.
“What?” I ask.
“You’re still you,” he smiles.
I shrug. “I’m still me.”
He hands me a stone he’s been squeezing in his left hand like a stress ball. Then he picks up another one and tosses it into the water. It skips three waves before it sinks. The kids are so thrilled to see it that they stop running and gather around to watch me throw mine. I shake the stone in my fist and have his son blow on it like a game of craps at a casino. It skips over five waves before it sinks. The kids go ballistic.
“Lucky break,” he teases.
“Pure talent,” I shoot back.
Now the kids all want to try it. They run all over the shore looking for perfectly spherical stones and fighting over their findings. We watch over them until the excitement dies down, then we return to watching the lake. A flock of marabou storks wades by.
“Flying solo?” he asks.
I shrug. “Can’t find anyone solid these days.”
“There are no solid people,” he says pocketing. “Only people trying their best.”
“Some people’s best is better than others’.”
“Yes,” he nods. “That is also true.”
“I was on a date a while back and the guy asked me what my body count is.”
He bursts out laughing. “Ati body count?”
“Yeah. Don’t laugh.”
“It’s…I’m sorry. It’s funny. What did you tell him?”
“What was I supposed to tell him? I’m a woman in my thirties. What does he expect? Yes. I have travelled many miles to get here and left a trail of bodies in my wake. It hasn’t been elegant. But isn’t that how life is? Living it forward, learning it backwards? And anyway, as far as I’m concerned dead men tell no tales. If they got murdered by this cookie, and they ghosted, why exhume them? What’s the morbid fascination about? I mean they’re still lurking around my stories and statuses, dying for me to make them feel alive again but that’s no concern of mine and neither should it be anyone else’s.”
“Please tell me you told him off.”
“I smiled and said, ‘A gentleman would not ask.’ And then I took out my phone and blocked him as we spoke.”
“You’re too polite.”
“Well. A career in diplomacy will do that to you,” I say. “How are things on your end?”
“Yes, but how are they really?” I prod. I already know the answer. Things on his end are thorny. It’s a touchy subject but we’re far beyond the point of accepting superficial answers from each other. We have a silent agreement to show up to every conversation authentically.
“I’m worn out.”
“You work too hard on the wrong things.”
“Easy for you to say, Miss Ford Explorer.”
“You know that’s not what I mean,” I say feeling a bit miffed.
The thing about him is that he struggles with feelings of inadequacy. He pushes away anyone who makes him feel like he doesn’t measure up. It takes up too much room in his mind, so much so that he views everything through that lens. Even a legitimate request that is well within his ability to deliver is seen as a criticism. An attack on his person that is so threatening it must be met with great resistance. Needless to say, it makes him a hard person to get along with sometimes.
“You are enough. That’s what I mean to say.”
Relationships, where giving is one-way, have a finite lifespan. Usually a short one. Unless he meets someone who gives tirelessly without getting any of her needs met. That’s what he wants. To repeat the relationship he had with his mother which was all about her selflessly sacrificing everything to meet his every need. That’s what he got with me.
It’s entirely possible that his mother even overcompensated to make up for the absence of his father. But – and life is funny this way – that only further skewed his idea of the role a woman should play in his life. This struggle with inadequacy is really about that feeling of missing a part of himself that has stalked him from childhood. It’s really about feeling like he’s incomplete because he grew up without a father. He tries to fill it with all sorts of things but nothing and no one can fill it but himself.
“Why’d you leave then?” he asks. “If I was enough?”
I grew up with a father. I know what men are supposed to do around the house. It was frustrating dating someone and raising them at the same time. I’m not going to tell him that though, am I?
“I got tired of advocating for myself all the time. Long-term, it just wasn’t doable.”
“You could’ve just let it be. Take me as I am. You didn’t need to try and change me.”
“I wasn’t trying to change you. I was trying to change your mind! You only see things your way. You don’t have empathy for the other person’s experience.”
“I’m not looking for an argument,” he tries to back out of it but I’m already fired up.
“It doesn’t have to be an argument. It can be a conversation. Why are you putting a negative spin on it? A little verbal sparring never killed anyone. It’s stimulating. What’s so wrong with that?”
“It’s just not me.”
Sigh! Yeah. I remember now. Being with him was like lugging around dead weight. I couldn’t get him to stir on anything. He is the most resolutely passive person I have ever met. It was exhausting.
“Look. They’re watching us. They can tell we’re fighting.”
“It’s a stimulating conversation, remember?” He takes his hands out of his pockets and turns to face me. “How many is it anyway?”
“Si body count,” he laughs.
“You can go and jump right off that cliff, all right?” I throw my folded Maasai shuka at him. He lets out a school girl scream, shielding himself with open palms and a thigh. The shuka falls on the grass. I laugh without meaning to. I had forgotten he could be like this. He was always able to puncture a moment swollen with tension with one goofy look and take all the pressure out of it. I could never stay mad at him for too long.
The wind begins to pick up pace as the sun dips lower. Back at camp, one of the tents loosens from its peg and starts billowing and flapping.
“Maybe we should head back,” I say slapping a mosquito in my palms.
“Not yet,” he says picking up the shuka. He unfolds it and wraps it around my shoulders. “I want to stand here with you a moment longer.”
His face looks so radiant in this light. I suppose a moment longer won’t hurt.14