It’s evening in Naivasha and the night creatures are stirring awake. I’ve spent the day talking about pelicans and marabou storks on Crescent island. The sun has been on my back all afternoon. My heels are hot from being on my feet all day, but I love it. I love traveling, the everchanging landscape, and the daily negotiation with the weather. The only dull moments on this job are when I have to wait for something. I’m not impatient, but if I stay in one place for too long I start to get restless.
On a normal day, after we dropped off our guests Dad and I would go and get the cruisers washed. We would have supper and a cup of tea as we waited, then go to our hotel rooms. Rest is an essential part of the job because our days start early. But today is not a normal day. Today the earth hitched and triggered a set of dominoes that put me on the side of the road. The rally is in town this week so the road is busy with chase cars, camera crews, fire engines, and ambulances. I’m at the exit of the hotel when I look to my right and see him.
I don’t recognize him right away, being out of his uniform. He’s wearing egg-white khakis, a black t-shirt, and a ball cap. With wiry hands in his pockets, he is nodding to the music playing out of a pair of earphones. I follow their path down his chest to a phone in his pocket. There’s not a hint of beard on his jaw, save for a smattering of hair on his chin. He’s either a late bloomer or a youngin I have no business talking to. I glance at his shoes hoping to see loafers but instead, he’s wearing sneakers. Men my age are still wearing sneakers, but it leaves the door open for the possibility of him being younger than I am. Not that it matters. What’s in a beard anyway? It could be worse. He could be balding prematurely.
I tap the horn. He looks up at me, his face lighting up as he recognizes me. Then he raises his hand in a half-wave. I lean out the window and ask if I can drop him off somewhere. He takes out one earphone and turns towards me but refuses to cross the ten meters between us. I beckon him to come over.
“Can I drop you off somewhere?” I ask when he’s close enough to hear me.
“Are you going to town?” he asks. I nod. He circles the van and climbs in. I watch him take in the interior of the cruiser. The upholstery is a mix of red Maasai blanket and leather. There’s a dried-up pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. I use an oil diffuser now with citrus scents that help with car sickness. He looks at the safari hat resting on the dashboard, my wild locs, and then the sunglasses hooked on the neck of my polo shirt.
“Make yourself at home,” I say as he settles into his seat.
He smiles and just as quickly realizes that I meant he should belt up.
“What are you listening to?” I ask turning onto the rough road. He looks like he’s had a long day. He may not be up for conversation but I dive into it anyway. Without saying a word, he connects his phone to my Bluetooth speaker right as the song he was listening to fades. In the silence before the next one begins, he fidgets in his seat. He is either uneasy with his choice of music, or his choice to let me listen to it. As well he should be. A person’s choice of music tells you instantly whether you can jam with them or not. I’m going to judge him by it.
A tune I recognize within the first five seconds begins playing and carries me back to 2005. That must’ve been when I first heard California, the theme song for The OC.
“No way! That’s what you were listening to?”
“Yes. Do you remember this song?”
“Do I remember it? I was obsessed with it! This one and the one for -”
“One Tree Hill.”
“One Tree Hill! Yes!”
California here we come/ right back where we started from/ Carlifoniiiaaaaa!
I release the steering wheel for a moment to play air drums. I always thought I’d be a drum player if ever I joined a band.
“Where were you during that time?”
I chuckle and decide to hedge. “Is that a clever way of asking my age?”
“No. I already know you were in high school. Or college maybe, doing computer packages or something cooler like French classes at Alliance Française.”
He does a French accent that I must imitate. “Oh Alliance Française, you say.”
“Yeah. You’re a cool kid, I can tell.”
“Where were you during that time?”
“Cutting up my t-shirt sleeves to look cool.”
I laugh aloud. I remember boys doing that. “And playing basketball?”
“I’ve never been a fan of basketball.”
“But you have the height for it,” I say, appraising him. He must be 6 foot 3 at least judging by how his knees are grazing the dashboard.
“Where I come from we mostly played football.”
“And where is that?” I ask taking the turn at a T-junction off Moi South Lake Road.
He smiles to hide his discomfort at having to answer that question so I move on, keeping the conversation light. “So what’s your team now? You look like a Chelsea guy.”
“What do Chelsea guys look like?”
I shrug. He says, “Red Devils all the way.”
“Yes. Why? Are you an Arsenal fan?” He lets out a scornful laugh. It amazes me how football brings out the fanaticism in some men.
“Worse. Man City.”
“Really?” he asks with a frown.
I chuckle. “No, I don’t follow the leagues. I only pay attention to football during the World Cup.”
“And drink whiskey.”
“Well, you can’t eat popcorn. It’s not the movies. If you’re going to watch a game you have to do it right.” He nods, studying me with an intensity that’s just shy of unsettling me. “What about you? What’s your poison?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Ever?” I ask in a pitch that’s a little too high.
“Mmh. That has changed something. You’re bored.”
“Yes. People always find that boring.”
“Well I’m not people, am I?” I say, feeling a bit miffed. I don’t like being bundled up in generalizations. “I think if you’re not already an interesting person alcohol doesn’t help with that.”
For the first time, he looks out his window. We’re coming up a bridge with a view of shanties flanking the railway line on the left. To the right is the escarpment, where the tinted windows of some houses are reflecting the last rays of the setting sun. We fall into an uncomfortable silence. I get the sense that if I said I found him interesting it would smooth the awkwardness, but I’m not in the mood to prop anyone up. Usually, I am hospitable. I exude warmth and accommodate whatever inadequacies a person brings with a generous uplifting. I am a bit of a people pleaser, but I’ve lost a taste for it lately. I’ve grown exhausted shouldering the emotional labor of making everything pleasant and agreeable.
He directs me right then left down a road the brings us outside one of the newer looking apartment blocks in town.
“So, how do you like my playlist?” He asks. ‘Feeling a moment’ by Feeder is now playing.
“It’s brought back memories. So this is your music? Moody boys and brokenhearted girls?”
He chuckles. “Not exclusively.”
“I think I lost that part of myself, but it’s nice to remember it.”
“If you want, I can send you the link to the playlist on SoundCloud. Are you on WhatsApp?
“Sure. Just key in your number here,” I hand him my phone.
“How long are you in town?”
“Four nights five days. Tomorrow we’re going to Hell’s Gate so I’ll be at the hotel early. Then I’ll be back in the evening.”
He hands me back my phone and I see that he has saved his number under the name Bruce. It surprises me. I find it to be such a visceral name, being so close to the word brute.
“Bruce? Like Bruce Lee!” I say, realizing that’s the other reason I find it so visceral.
“Just call me Russo. Everyone calls me Russo.”
“Chef Russo,” I sample it on my tongue. “It suits you better.”
“Just Russo,” he asserts with a glimmer of shyness. The flutter of his dimple is a dead giveaway. Every emotion that stirs his face creates a ripple that is plain to see because of those little depths on his cheeks.
“Well, it was good meeting you officially, now that we’ve exchanged government names and all. I’m Sherry or Gacheri depending on who you ask. But please don’t go authentic on me. I prefer Sherry.”
“Sherry it is then.” He smooths his hands on his thighs and then asks, “Long shot but do you want to grab a coffee?”
He can’t possibly expect me to say yes to that flaccid bid. Long shot? He’s right. It is a long shot. “I still have to get the cruiser washed and fueled for tomorrow.”
At the carwash, I pick up Mark’s call. “What’s up?”
“Are you with Dad?”
“I’ve gotten myself into a situation.”
“I dented the van,” he exhales.
“You had an accident?” Panic surges up my throat. “Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m okay…Everyone’s okay but… the van is dented.”
“What do you mean?” I place the back of my palm on my forehead to stave off the dizziness. He was at a bend in the parking lot when he scuffed up the van on one of the pillars.
“Were you speeding? Were you late? Did you have guests with you?”
“No… I wasn’t speeding, not more than usual anyway. This guy just came out of nowhere and I swerved too hard.”
“How bad is it?”
“Eer… The side mirror is a goner…” I can hear him walking around, assessing the damage. “The whole left side will need a paint job and maybe some bodywork.”
“Some bodywork! Mark.” I shake my head.
“It was an accident. It could’ve happened to anyone. I’m starting to think you’re not the one I should’ve called,” he says in an accusatory tone.
I sigh. I know why he called me. I’ve always been a buffer between him and our folks. It’s an unspoken pact we have. I’m good for us both so that he doesn’t have to be. I’m the chill big sister and he’s counting on me not to ask the hard questions. But… I know enough not to be the one who enables him.
“Mark, had you been drinking?” Static and silence. “You have to see that it’s getting out of hand. You’re day drinking, you’re drinking and driving and you’re doing it while working. So many things could go wrong.”
“You could’ve hurt someone. You could’ve hurt yourself!”
“Then why do it? Why drink?” I’m all wound up now.
“I don’t know,” he says. He sounds so defeated, almost in tears. Guilt weighs on my tongue like something insipid I want to spit out. Maybe I’m being too hard on him. Maybe we’ve all been too hard on him. I don’t know if that’s what he needs.
Mark has always been a quiet kid, feels too much of everything. He’s so smart that not too many things can hold his interest. He is always plagued with boredom. Can’t stand the humdrum of everyday life. Routines make him feel like a sailor on dry land. If he stays too long in one, he wants to jump out of his skin. He could do anything in his life if he decided on it, but the tragedy is, he doesn’t know what to do. He hasn’t found anything that ignites him.
“You know, some people drink because it makes them numb to their feelings and they don’t have to think about the things they are avoiding. Or because they are feeling empty and booze is a temporary relief.”
“Maybe I have the gene. Like Uncle. Kihara.”
“No. You don’t get to just say it’s the gene. You are only twenty-one. You are not fated to live a life of alcoholism.”
“You don’t know that.”
“But I do. I do know. Mark, you can’t say things like that. You’re breaking my heart.”
“What can I do Sherry? Tell me what to do.”
I pause and think. “Let’s start with the van. You have to get it fixed and you’ll have to do it out of pocket.”
“What? What about insurance?”
“Insurance will give you the runaround for months and then reject your claim. Also, I’m assuming you don’t want Mom and Dad to get involved in this.”
“Which means you can’t go to Otis. He’ll sell you out immediately. You have to call Kilonzo. Tell him to take your trips and refer you to a good garage. He knows people who can do it fast. But he’ll be doing you a solid so you’ll owe him.”
He makes a sound to protest and I resist the urge to tell him that alcoholism is costly. I don’t want to label him an alcoholic yet, but also I figure he’ll learn the lesson on his own.10