As told by Mel
The day of Jonathan’s second flight as Captain, I go back to my place. It’s been an intense time for us. Jonathan has been a champ about it all but it’s a big adjustment, more so for him with work too. We both need to decompress, so we’ve agreed to take some time away to process. It’s Saturday evening and he’s on a flight to Kigali through a Bujumbura connect. I’m napping on the couch after doing laundry and cleaning the house when the buzzing of my phone jolts me awake.
I fish it out from between the cushions, open one eye just long enough to hit answer and place it on my cheek.
“Hi Melissa.” I sit up and try to clear the grogginess from my voice with a cheerful, high-pitched hi back, but Kagwe knows me too well. “Did I wake you?”
“I was just resting. What’s up?”
“What are you doing right now?”
“Why? What do you have planned for me?”
He pauses and I can tell he’s smiling on the other end of the line. “Can I pick you up in an hour?”
It’ll be 6:00 PM in an hour. I have some time on my hands. “Sure.”
When he gets to my apartment building he calls me down, just like old times. Only now I feel anxious and I’m warring within myself. What would Jonathan think about this? It’s nothing. There’s nothing to think of it. But if he must, we said we’d take time to process. This is me processing.
I climb in and shut the door and along with it the smell of dashboard polish; copious amounts of it. Come to think of it, his car is gleaming like it’s just been waxed.
“Goodness! Did you say you’re going to the carwash? Am I the carwash?”
“Eh. A man can’t even get his car washed?”
“Am I the carwash?”
“Do you want to be the carwash?”
“The carwash is the carwash. Now stop those siasas and give me a hug.”
He’s wearing a dashiki shirt and washed out jeans. The shirt has an intricate black print – no way there’s not a matching dress to go with it in his wife’s closet. The scruffy beard is gone. In its place is a round trim goatee to complete the husband look; a flattering and fitting look given how he’s now spotting a few more white hairs on his temple.
“Wear your seat belt,” he says starting the car.
“Where are we going?”
“To have an affair,” he says rubbing the tips of his fingers like a comic book villain. “A sax affair,” he adds, complete with an evil laugh that morphs into his usual laugh. “The look on your face!” he says tickling my chin.
I tuck it into my neck.
“Relax,” he says, strapping his seatbelt across his tummy as we pull out of the driveway. “We’re going to a sax jam in Spring Valley… I think. It’s somewhere on lower Kabete road. Is that okay?”
“I don’t have to be on my feet, do I?”
“Only if we’re dancing.”
“We? Did you say we?” I have seen Kagwe dance a total of one time since I’ve known him. I always wanted to dance with him but he never once asked me.
“Yeah. Hell yeah.”
“All right. Right on. Let’s do this.”
The hang is in an old residential house turned gastropub. When we get there the saxophonist, who Kagwe tells me plays cover songs exclusively, is setting up on the verandah outback. There’s an open kitchen inside the house where a chef is having a tense discussion with the sous chef about some salmon that is not defrosting fast enough. He stops a moment to nod at us and say welcome, then returns to giving instructions like an auctioneer on a roll.
In another room, separated from the kitchen by a glass wall with wooden paneling, is the bar. The bartender sets the glass he is wiping down, and clasps the towel onto a belt with shot glasses on his hips. He introduces himself as somebody the mixologist – John, Don or Tom. Oh excuse me, he’s a mixologist not a bartender. I miss his name because I’m now acutely aware that I’m not allowed to drink and I’m wondering if I should even be here.
“What do you have for non-alcoholic drinks?” Kagwe asks as I look around.
A group of white folk roars with cheers. They’re standing around a table watching two people face off in a fast-paced game of checkers. He gives us a menu of mocktails to choose from. I eventually settle on pineapple mint while Kagwe orders a beer.
“You’re going to feed me, right?” He opens his arms in mock offence. “Good. I’m hungry.”
We find an empty booth for four, but we sit face to face on the edges so that we don’t have to share. The waiter takes our chicken order. We stay away from the fish having overheard the struggle going on in the kitchen. There is a loose few minutes where we just sip our drinks, toy with the glasses on our table and take the place in. Kagwe is quiet and pensive. He cracks his knuckles on one hand and I know that he’s working up the nerve to broach the subject of why we are here. I’ve always thought, I don’t know, but I’ve always thought that’s how he looks in the cockpit. All the same I’m glad I don’t have to drag it out of him and be a buzzkill. Of course he does it the way only he can.
He asks, “Why did you come?”
What do you mean why did I come? I furrow my brow. “Because you called.”
“Yeah. You didn’t have to though. You could’ve said no.”
“I should’ve said no.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I wanted to hear what you have to say.”
“So you are open to persuasion. All right. That’s a good sign.”
Damn. I’ve already shown my hand. Why could I never hide my fault lines with this man? How is he so adept at unweaving me? Here I thought I came armored, that he was the one making his case and I was the one with veto power. Tsk.
“Part of you came because you couldn’t resist me, right?”
I chuckle. “I can’t wait to hear this. This is going to be good.”
“You know it. I know it. You might not want to admit it but I’ll admit it. I couldn’t stay away. You…I don’t know what it is about you. Oh I love this song,” he coos when a song by Doris Day comes on a speaker at the bar counter. He sings; you do something to me, something that simply mystifies me … “You don’t know it?”
“Actually I do. How do you know it?”
“Boston Legal. They used to have these old songs for soundtracks.”
“Oh thank goodness. A reference I can understand. I thought you were going to reference Sinatra or something.”
“But you know Sinatra.”
“Well… I mean my dad used to have these mash up vinyls with his songs and kina Etta James and Aretha… Did I ever listen to them?”
He sucks his teeth. “Good music lost on undiscerning ears.”
The song fades into another one we don’t recognize so we get back on track.
“Aren’t you tired?” he asks.
“Of fighting it. Of fighting us.”
I don’t know what to say. On one hand I understand what he’s asking but on the other, I don’t understand. I open my mouth to say something but the words in my head refuse order.
“Me I’m exhausted, personally. I’m ready to give in and see where it goes,” he sighs. I suppose it’s the way he hunches his shoulders; I see the tiredness in the fine lines under his eyes. I hear it in the way his voice wavers. “I want you back in my life. I don’t want to complicate yours, but I don’t see why it has to be complicated.”
“What do you … what are you saying? You’re the one who left, and things were much less complicated then.”
“For you, not for me.”
“Why now? What’s changed?”
A waiter brings our food on a wooden platter. We have to sit side by side after all to keep from having to crane over the table. Three bites in, he turns to me, lips all greasy with cheese. It makes me smile a little. I’d forgotten how boyishly he eats. “I’d rather deal with the complexities of having you in my life than the hell it has been trying to forget you.”
What am I supposed to say that? “Kagwe, you’re the one who left. You’re the one who said you needed time away from me for the sake of your marriage. I kept my distance. I was gutted, but I kept my distance out of the wealth of love I have for you,” my voice breaks at the last minute. Tears sting in my eyes but refuse to flow. They perform a balancing act on the brims of my eyelids like an amateur acrobat.
He wipes his hands on a napkin and draws me closer to him. Outside, the MC for the night begins testing the mic. One two one two. Mic testing one two – It shatters the air with a piercing noise that makes everyone wince.
“I can’t go through that again,” I say softly, now that I can feel the warmth of his ribs on my side.
“You won’t have to,” he says. His breath is pure petrichor. I have to part my lips to breathe it all in.
“You’re just saying that. When it comes down to it, you won’t stand with me.”
“Will you stand with me?”
“I’m here, am I not?”
He looks at me for a long minute. “We can be more than one thing at once, right? I mean, human nature is dynamic. Human beings are multifaceted. And we live in a world of relativity, not absolutes. Nothing is absolute in the world. There’s a little bit of chaos in order, and a little bit of order in chaos. I don’t know why the institution of marriage is expected to be absolute. There is no way a singular, flawed, human being can satisfy the needs of another equally or more flawed human being.”
“Are you making a case for polyamory?”
He laughs. “Get out of here with that polyamory story. You know what this is. I’m just soliloquizing. I had a teacher in primary school who loved that word…soliloquizing.”
“I don’t though.”
“I don’t know what this is.”
“You do. You know how it is for me and you. It’s walking a fine wire, sure. It’s an exercise in self-restraint and one might even argue that it’s best not to play with fire.” He sighs. “But we’ve tried that and it hasn’t worked. Losing you is like losing a part of myself. Does that make sense? You make me feel alive in ways that no one else does. That doesn’t take away from anyone else mind you. So why must I smother that part of me? If I do, am I even living for myself? It’s a steep price to pay, don’t you think? Must we meld into each other like…I don’t know. I’m suffocated just thinking about it.”
“The only people on board with this thing are the two of us.”
“And? We don’t need anyone’s permission to be us. We’re consenting adults, and we’re good people. We’re not trying to hurt anyone. What’s so bad about that?”
How would I even sell that to Jonathan? It’s a lame duck. A ship without sails. “We’d have to fight the closest people to us to sustain it, which makes me very uneasy. There’s more at stake now.”
“Some things you’re going to have to do for you. For you. Life will deal you blows sometimes. And let me be honest with you, some of those sucker punches will come from those people closest to you. The ones that aren’t supposed to hurt you but will do so with the power of a wrecking ball because you love them most. You need someone in your corner. I need someone in my corner. I’m tired of fighting the currents now. I’ve given in Mel. I’ve given in. Let them take me where they will.”
When we draw ourselves from the intensity of our conversation, the lounge is almost empty. Most people have taken spots outside as the show is starting. Our food has gone cold but we eat it anyway, and then find a place by the fire outside. The saxophonist eases into the show with covers of a few oldies. Occasionally he takes a request from a fan which infuses energy into the crowd. But the show doesn’t catch fire until about two hours in when he does covers of recent pop songs. Everyone gets on their feet to sway or cheer or declare undying love for him. He stops to laugh, then we have to wait until he gathers his wind back to continue his alchemy with the saxophone.
Kagwe and I dance, skirting around each other at first, but then we close the distance between us and settle into a comfortable embrace.
“What if people say we’re bad people?” I ask.
He shrugs. “What do they know?”
I rest my head on his shoulder. I don’t have to say anything more. He understands. I have given in too.
Whatever will be, will be.
Taste of Mel continues here: Rowing.16