Previously in Njambi & Kagwe’s world…
The blue light of the TV flashes across the living room. Night has taken hold of the room. The silver of the moon is streaming in through a parting in the curtain. Crickets are chirping. The streetlights are casting faint, dancing shadows of the neighbor’s palm trees on our living room windows. The colour has drained from our cheeks; we feel as blue as the screen.
The credits of the whodunit start rolling up. The soundtrack is an ominous violin composition that fits our situation so eerily, I feel queasy listening to it. I mute it.
“What is it about her?” she asks.
“What is it? About her.”
Njambi’s rings glint on the table. I’m frozen on the couch because I feel that if I get up, I have to do something about them. The wedding band, a classic white gold piece I bought in Amsterdam after six months on the job. The engagement ring, a sapphire stone I bought at a jewellery store in Port Alfred, South Africa. It was a little over 8 years ago, after I got my commercial pilot’s license. Njambi was taking her MBA part time, and had finally left her dead-end sales job with the mhindi on Tom Mboya street. She had taken a marketing job with an insurance company in Upperhill. It was gruelling work that she didn’t enjoy, but we had since moved in together, and she had been holding down the fort while I was away. I was as broke as a street musician, but I have never been more certain of a thing in my life, as I was using the last of my allowance to buy that ring.
I had plans. I knew what I was doing. First the wedding, the house, then the baby. I got them all. Life couldn’t have been better if it tried. The pregnancy hadn’t been a surprise. We had planned it meticulously. We had done the doctor’s appointments, the ultrasound, the prenatal vitamins. When the day came we booked a private suite at the hospital. Our mothers came. Ng’endo came. Mwai, still dating Karen at the time, came, but spent the larger portion of time fighting with her in some corner of the hospital.
After six hours of labor, when the contractions got more painful and closer together, Njambi asked for her mother as we all do when things start looking bleak. In the waiting room, Ng’endo kept me company. She fetched me coffee, the good kind from outside the hospital, and kept me from yelling at the nurses. We talked about our childhood, how I threw my first punch defending her from Billy the neighborhood bully. She reminded me how after that, I insisted that everyone call me ‘Bond, James Bond’. I laughed so hard my spleen hurt. Then she told me I would make a good dad and I was mighty glad to have her there.
In the evening, a new obstetrician clocked in. A man in his forties, who after seeing Njambi pulled me aside, and said, “Listen, a lot of the time the births go easier when the father is not in the room.”
I nodded. I thought that was just an old wives’ tale but I was glad to abide by it. “But your wife has been in labor twelve hours now. She’s exhausted, her blood pressure is up, and the mother isn’t getting anywhere with her. Would you mind tapping in?”
The delivery room was drafty. It smelled of antiseptic. The monitor beeped erratically. I averted my eyes from an assortment of steel instruments, plastic needles and used gauze resting on a blue towel. There was talk, but all I heard was muffled noise. Njambi was lying there sweaty, her hair clinging to her forehead. Someone pressed a cold, metallic pan with a wet towel in my palm and told me my only job was to keep her awake.
“Keep talking to her, call out her name,” the nurse said.
I tucked her hair away. She looked up at me and told me how tired she was. I remember saying words, words that she liked. Words that she nodded to.
She tried to stay awake after they whisked the baby to the corner of the room and drew a curtain. A warm, salty smell of blood overpowered my nostrils so I left the room. The whole place was oh so cold.
Hours later, the OB hid behind his glasses and refused to meet my eye as he said respiratory distress syndrome. Njambi looked at me for translation because he might as well have been speaking Minion.
“They’re saying he didn’t make it,” I whispered, my voice lost in the pit in my stomach.
She asked, “Where?”
Her voice was soft, eyes wide like a child unable to understand why her dog won’t wake up. Something just snapped in my chest. The picture perfect future I held in my mind scrambled right in front of me.
“You know how it was when we lost the baby,” I say. “She was there.”
“You talked about that with her?”
The look on her face is like I stabbed her. She just falls short of clutching her chest but I see her wince. She swallows. Her nose waters. I wait for her to say something.
Say something, I plead with my eyes.
“You could’ve talked to me. I was here everyday for a month. We went to therapy.”
“You know I couldn’t have.”
“And why is that?” she curves her mouth in that I-can’t-wait-to-hear-this-shit way. It pricks me the wrong way.
“Because you were crying all the time! All the time Njambi! You were always crying in the bathroom. I heard you. I always heard you when you slipped out of bed. I’d reach out to you at night and your pillow would be wet. You cried when you cooked. Your tears were in the food. And then you wouldn’t eat, so how could I? And a few weeks of it, all right. You were grieving, we lost a child… But six months?”
“So what? My grief was too much for you? You can’t put a limit on grief. I’m not like you. I can’t just say we lost a child, like he wasn’t our son, like he wasn’t inside of me for nine months, like I didn’t get to know him -”
“Oh here we go again,” I shake my head.
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We spent all ten weeks of therapy talking about your grief and how I should support you. What about my grief? It doesn’t matter because I didn’t carry the child?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
She looks at me, opens her mouth to say something but shakes her head instead.
“Look, I was there for you when you needed me. One of us has to be the stronger one sometimes. But I needed a support system too. And Mwai, try as he might, does not come close to understanding what losing a child is like. Mel was there for me. She got it.”
“You should’ve come to me. We could’ve gone through it together. I never asked you to be strong for me. Maybe it would’ve helped more if you had cried with me instead of just going back to work after a week and leaving me feeling so alone.”
On some level, I know she is right but it didn’t feel that way at the time. I was pressed for options. I was drowning. I’d get home, pull up to the driveway and be afraid to go in and see her face like that again. Nose swollen, eyes puffy. A headscarf on her hair. The way she broke down when she had to take the pills to stop the milk from coming in. It killed me to watch her like that for days on end. I did what I could. I cooked food she didn’t eat. I did the dishes. I tidied the house. I sat with her – well, I paced while she sat. She said it made things worse and asked me to leave her alone. Sometimes I drank whisky in my study. Sometimes I smoked in the car. Sometimes she would look at me with such searing disgust, like my attempts to fall back to a normal routine were an insult to her. A betrayal to our son. But what is a man to do?
I remember feeling this way for so long that I forgot what other things felt like, until I met Mel. It didn’t happen instantaneously. In fact, I didn’t call her for a long time after that night. I came home one day, and found the sonogram Njambi took with her everywhere, resting on her nightstand. It had streaks of tears on it, and a fold at the edge. I thought about framing it, but I didn’t want to buy just any frame off a supermarket aisle.
And what’s a friend who’s a photographer for if they can’t point you to a good frame studio? I called her up. She answered in a cheery tone.
I said, “This is your Captain speaking.”
She said, “I know,” and then she chuckled. “What’s up?”
I really was just going to ask about where to find a good frame but she was oddly specific about the details.
“Is it for a wedding picture? A mural? A-”
“A mural? What’s that?”
“Eer… So it’s not for a mural then, ha-ha. A mural is a painting,” she said, “on a wall.”
We went on like that for a bit, until I told her it was for a sonogram for my son.
She said, “That’s perfect! I have just the thing.”
“So you know where I can get one?”
“No, I’ll make you one. I’m a crafty woman.”
“A crafty woman,” I chuckled, and we joked about her choice of words.
When we got off the phone, I took a deep breath and felt lighter.
She was working out of her apartment at the time. I dropped the picture off for fitting on a chilly, March evening. She came down in a t-shirt and leaned on the driver’s side window. We talked so long that I ended up switching off the car and because she shivered, I asked her to come in and put on the A/C to warm her up. And warm up she did, everywhere but her fingers.
She curled up, threw jabs at my music, rifled through my glove compartment, and that was the first of many more such nights to come.
“I didn’t know what you wanted,” I say. “I never know what you want anymore.”
“You need some other woman to tell you how to love me? How to treat your own wife?”
“If you’d get out of your own head for a minute and actually say what you want I would’ve known what to do.”
“Don’t come at me with that bullshit! If you spent even a little bit of your time home after your flights, you might actually get to know what’s going on with me. Instead, you’re always out drinking like these married bachelor types! What is so horrid about this house huh? I cook and I clean. I press your shirts,” she counts on her fingers. “There’s always food in the fridge. It’s not five star, but then I wasn’t a chef when you married me and I’m not one now.”
“There’s nothing horrid about this house. It’s not about the house!”
“What is it then?”
“I – I …” I sigh.
I love her. The thought surprises me. What the hell. So that’s what that thing in my chest is.
Sometimes you stumble into someone when you’re in a dark place and when you find the light together, it bonds you. Why should anyone get to say anything about it when they weren’t there? They don’t know your journey. They don’t get your struggle.
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” I say finally.
“Here’s what I understand. It may have started out as a friendship, you and this woman, but it has since grown into more than that and it’s getting in the way of our marriage,” she says. “I think you know what you have to do.”