My breath fogs up the helmet visor. Through the haze, I see savanna grass in my peripheral field of vision. Directly above is a wisp of a cloud and a hawk hovering in a mostly clear sky. It’s a great day to be out riding. I might even have enjoyed this view but I can’t move my head just now. The helmet is on my neck like a boa constrictor slowly asphyxiating me.
A sharp pain stabs my shoulder when I try to take it off. I may have torn a ligament. I try again, this time bracing myself for the pain. I manage to wrestle the glove off of one hand and wriggle out of the helmet. Blood dribbles out of the side of my mouth. I can taste the dust on my lips. Fetid burnt rubber makes my stomach roil, but not as much as the ghastly sight of my shin scraped to the bone. The ringing in my ears subsides so that I can now hear the wind whistling through the valley below. I have a few more glorious moments of shock before my body reorients itself and registers the extent of my injuries. A few more seconds of wondering how I got here.
I’ll tell you how, but I have to start from the beginning.
It began with Lenny’s pompous entry to a kid’s birthday party. The revving of his bike drew everyone’s attention to the gate. We were at Fiona’s house in Kahawa Sukari, a compact bungalow sitting on a quarter acre of land. He parked in the spacious front yard, pulled out his keys, and took off his helmet. It was a hot day and I remember seeing his forehead glistening with sweat. In one swift motion, he swung off the bike and pocketed his keys in time to greet all the boys who rushed over to gush over his toy. He momentarily brought the party to a standstill, chatting up everyone, kids and adults alike. I remember thinking, Ugh. He had the greasy ways of a politician. You’ve got to be a disingenuous person to be that popular. Or worse, a people pleaser.
I was watching the scene unfold from the kitchen window. Fiona and I were sticking candles in the cake while I kept an eye on my son, Josh. It was three in the afternoon and he hadn’t inched from the flowerbed border he’d been sulking at. I had put him to bed the previous night and reminded him about his friend’s birthday party that day. He made a big fuss which is unlike him. Bedtime has always been easy for us. Josh is content to sleep like a bear in hibernation if I don’t watch him. It is mornings that are a battle for us. More than once he’s fallen asleep over a bowl of cereal and gone to school without breakfast.
Finally, he said in a small, mousy voice, “I don’t want to go. Everyone’s dad will be there.”
I knew this was coming of course; the day he’d ask about his father. I thought up all kinds of explanations, hoping that I’d be a good enough parent to beat him to the punch. But nothing could’ve prepared me for this. My world came to a screeching halt.
When had he first noticed that other children come from two-parent homes? How long had it tormented him before he decided to talk to me about it? Had the other kids been mean? Excluded him from games perhaps? Had he been bullied and not been able to say, “I’m going to tell my Dad!” It crushed me, the way he sat there head hanging low as if he was somehow unworthy. Incomplete.
For a moment, I second-guessed myself. Maybe I should’ve tried to make it work with his Dad. Would it have been so bad? Then I snapped out of it and set about coming up with a good answer. One that would put the issue to rest. He’s a smart kid. I knew he wouldn’t be satisfied until I told him something that made sense to him.
But how could I explain to him that his father was an unfit parent? That he was always absent and whenever he showed up, my hair would start falling out. How do I tell him that he never made funny faces or baby noises at him? Never learned to change a diaper or swaddle him, and that the one time he held him at arm’s length he wouldn’t stop crying. How do I tell Josh that they never bonded? That at the very end, when he’d been gone two months and I told him not to come back, he’d said, “Fine. I told you I didn’t want a baby anyway.”
Would he blame me for the part I had in making his life the way it is? I told him that his Dad is not in the picture because he wasn’t at a place in his life where he could accept us.
“Why?” he always asks why, my little philosopher. He’s on the precarious road to becoming an overthinking adult.
“I don’t know why,” I said. “I think maybe he wasn’t ready to receive our love.”
“Because adults are complicated.”
“What’s com – com …” he couldn’t pronounce the word.
“Comp-li-ca-ted. It means…something hard to understand.”
“Like reading a clock?” he asked. They’re learning how to tell time at school and it confounds him.
“Yes. It’s a little bit like that.”
He was quiet for a while and then he asked if we still had to go to the birthday party. I thought it might get his mind off it, playing with his friends. Blowing bubbles, flying kites, popping balloons, and drinking tons of soda. Instead, he was just sitting forlornly on the sidelines. I couldn’t even get him to have his face painted and he loves getting whiskers. I so badly wanted to go sit with him, even in silence. Sometimes we do that and it brings him comfort, I sense. But I heard my father’s voice scolding me. “Stop coddling the boy Emily. You’re making him soft!”
Mom says he means well but I feel that he is constantly reminding me that my son has no father figure in his life. And he does so in an accusatory tone like that’s somehow my fault. But more to the point, I feel he just falls short of telling me that I am raising a sissy because I am a woman and a single parent. It gets my goat. What could I have done? I can’t make a father out of a man who didn’t have a bone for it in his body.
The next time I looked in his direction, Mr. Superbike was sitting next to him with his elbows resting lazily on his knees. They appeared to be getting acquainted. Josh reluctantly flashed a one-dimpled smile and this strange man ruffled his hair. Huh.
I turned my attention back to the cake. Fiona had left but Janet – Fiona’s friend, not mine – was there nosing through the gifts.
“Who’s the guy who came in with a bike?”
“Why? Are you interested?”
“No, but he’s talking to Josh.”
“Lenny. One of Mike’s drinking buddies.” Mike is her husband.
“Is he married?”
“No,” Janet said.
“He’s a little old not to be married, right?”
“Who would want to be married to that?” she motioned to him with an open palm. “Look at him, he’s a walking midlife crisis.”
I went back to the window to have another look but they weren’t at the flowerbed anymore. Standing at the doorway, I saw Lenny lifting Josh onto the bike.
“Excuse me!” I said marching over there. “Excuse me! What are you doing?”
They both turned to look at me, Josh shaking his head in protest, Lenny wide-eyed and puzzled.
“He wanted to see the motorbike,” Lenny said. “I -”
“And you just go around lifting other people’s kids onto your bike as you please?”
“Mom!” Josh interjected.
“Ah-ah! Get off that motorbike, now now now now,” turning to Lenny. “Get him off now!”
“Don’t tell me to relax!” I raised my voice at him. He set Josh down next to me, who proceeded to stomp off.
“It’s just a motorcycle.”
“Yes!” I said. “People die on those things!”
Until that moment he had looked bewildered but when I said that, he looked stricken.
After the cake cutting, I pulled Fiona aside and asked her what his deal was.
“Mmh mmh. Em, you don’t want to go there. I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole,” she said, rinsing a glass baking pan. She went around the kitchen island where an assortment of towels was hanging and grabbed one to dry the pan. I followed her.
“Why? I mean…” I didn’t know how to tell her I had just yelled at him. “Why?”
“It’s complicated with him. And I know you’re not looking for complicated right now.”
“Just…everything.” She turned away from me and started preparing a place in the cabinets for the pan. “His past and present.”
“For heaven’s sake Fiona,” I breathed down her neck. “Just tell me!”
“Fine! Jeez.” She pulled me towards the window, looked around, and whispered. “Okay look, he’s widowed. And he has issues. His wife died in a carjacking a few years back. Four years maybe?”
She craned her neck then reached out to part the tier curtains. “See that scar above his left eye?”
“It’s from that night. They threw him out of a moving car. He was scraped up all over. They found the car in Kiserian the next day.”
“And his wife?”
She shook her head. “In the car, stabbed.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, more to myself than to her, remembering how I jumped to conclusions about the source of his scar and yelled at him. Ah…the look on his face. He must think I’m crazy now. I have to apologize.
“Look at his shoes,” Fiona pointed with her chin.
They were leather boots that appeared to cup his ankles.
“What about them?”
“Look at how his jeans are resting around the shoes. Do you see it?”
“Umh…I don’t…” I shrugged. “What am I looking at?”
She made a frustrated noise at me. Just then, he reached down and adjusted his trouser leg at the knee. I gasped.
“Are you saying what I think you are saying? Is that…?”
She raised her eyebrows at me. “Trouble.”
Then she swang the drying towel over her shoulder and returned to washing dishes.
He was standing with the weight of his body on his left foot when I went up to him. His right foot out in front of him with a soft bend in his knee, presumably because the gun was weighing on his ankle. He had an energy drink in one hand and apparently, his ginormous ego in the other.
“About earlier…I feel bad for yelling at you. I didn’t know about…” I motioned to his scar. “I shouldn’t have yelled.”
“What do you mean ‘mmh hmn’? I just apologized. The least you can do is acknowledge my apology.”
“That’s your idea of an apology?”
“I was trying to be nice to you.”
“No, you were trying to make yourself feel better because you went in there and asked your friends about me and they gave you a sob story about my life and now you feel bad.” He looked down at me while he spoke, took a swig of the energy drink, and then stood up straighter so that he was towering over me. “How about, I’m sorry I made assumptions about you based purely on how you look because I’m shallow like that –”
“Ah ah. I’m not done yet. …shallow like that. How can I make it up to you? Well, I’m glad you asked. Frankly, your assumption wounded me. But I think maybe, just maybe, lunch and ice cream might patch me up.”
“Lunch and ice cream!” I scoffed.
“I accept.” He smirked. “I’ll call you.”
“You don’t even have my number.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
“You’re an insane person,” I whipped around and walked away. I tried to resist looking back but I had to confirm. Yes, it was indeed his eyes that I felt on my backside.