As told by Jonathan
We’re still sitting on the terrace when a chill seeps back into the air. Mel is hugging herself out in the garden, talking to a woman (who together with her husband), Bram says owns the resort. We’re moving to a den inside where it’s warmer, so I bring her a coat and tell her we’re moving. She rubs the goosebumps on her arms and shimmies into the coat. After a few pleasantries, I throw in a word about the food taking too long and what do you know, the chef comes out to our table later and apologizes.
Mel’s camera battery has died so she has no alternative but to come back inside. Thankfully, tobacco doesn’t go well with a steak and we don’t have to endure Bram’s spitting anymore. Over lunch, Mel tells me she did a shoot of that resort just a few weeks ago. The owners loved her work and will honor a standing offer they made her for a one-night complimentary stay.
I narrow my eyes. “What’s the catch?”
“Goodness, must you question everything?”
“Oh now I know there’s a catch for sure.”
“Okay. All the rooms are booked right now, but there’s a free camping tent out by the lake.”
“In this cold?”
It is bone-numbing cold. We’ve had to cancel our swimming plans seeing how we can’t feel our faces.
“We could make a fire, throw back some drinks, listen to music…It could be chill.”
“It is chilly!”
She laughs and rolls her eyes. “We’ll ask for extra blankets, and they’ll give us a lantern.”
“A lantern! I thought you were going to say an electric heater.”
She says, “Come on, be spontaneous,” and that’s a woman’s way of saying don’t be a wet blanket. I say all right. I don’t have to be anywhere and anyway, there’s nowhere I’d rather be but with her.
As the sky turns dark, we go out to forage for twigs to build a fire. She enjoys herself, more so when she discovers she knows more about wood and building fires than I do. The tent is erected on a wooden deck and they’ve got this portable, outdoor clay chimney out on the verandah. She gotten a fire going without a whisper of smoke stroking our eyes. Now she is explaining something called priming the flue to me, talking about the art of building a fire. I can’t help but be impressed by this twig-cracking, fire-whispering face of hers.
The first time I saw her she was standing outside a café at the airport. She was wearing camouflage pants, camera slung over her shoulder with a lens the size of artillery, looking like a G.I Jane about to go on a quest. She had sunglasses perched atop her head. I remember the exact moment because it was hot out. I was sweating under my uniform and she was just standing there like a luminescent badass. I risked staring at her, she caught me, and before I could figure out what to say my legs started walking towards her. I reached her, hand outstretched for a firm handshake which is all I had come up with in the five steps between us. Her fingers were cold but her voice was warm. It turned out that I didn’t have to say anything because she nodded at my stripes and asked if I was leaving or had just landed.
“Oh, just landed.”
“Moroni. That’s in –”
“Comoros islands,” we both said.
“You know your Geography.”
“It can be argued that I do,” she chuckled. “How was your flight?”
“What’s Moroni like?”
Ah, my chance to shine. “It’s a coastal city at the foot of a volcanic mountain, so it has some interesting views. You would like it,” I motioned to her camera.
She smiled. “I bet I would. If only.”
It was going way better than I expected, conversation was easy and I figured it was a good time to segue into asking her out.
“What about you? Where are you headed?”
“Oh I’m waiting for someone. I can see him over there actually.”
She waved at someone behind me so I turned to look and who do I see if not Captain Henry. Well, Captain Henry to me. She calls him Kagwe and I suddenly understand why girls find eye-rolling so satisfying.
“You know him?”
She raised her eyebrows and curved her mouth in this half-apologetic expression. The realization hit me right as he slapped my shoulder from the back. I just flew with him to Moroni. That’s how she knows Moroni is in Comoros!
“I see no introductions are needed here,” he said hugging her for an unnecessarily long time.
When he asked if she was ready to go he had his hand on the small of her back and she was all too obliging. Just like that I was segued out of the conversation. I told the Captain it was a pleasure flying with him like a prim, little boy, and to her I said it was a pleasure meeting her and went my way.
Later I sat in traffic replaying the whole thing in my head and kicking myself.
‘You know your Geography’? What are you, like a 1970s Casanova? Aaaaargh! I pressed my fist onto my forehead. Then I realized that I didn’t even get her name. Poor ball Jonathan. Poor ball! Oh well, I probably won’t even see her again.
I saw her again maybe three weeks later, during which time I had received word that I was being leased to another airline. It’s all anyone could talk about that night. We’d all flocked to the watering hole to draw comfort from being among brethren who were possibly facing the same axe.
I almost didn’t recognize her in this kathing she was wearing which she tells me now is called a romper. A curious name for a piece of attire that I can’t tell how she got into, which means I have even less chance of knowing how to get her out of it. In my opinion, that absurdity of clothing is in fact the anti-romper. Nonetheless, it transformed her into this dainty creature I could just squish in my arms. She was in the next booth, head thrown back in laughter, having the time of her life and completely oblivious of my presence.
“That’s not true,” she says. “I said hi to you.”
“You said hi to everyone.”
“Exactly,” she flings her arms in the air.
“Exactly. You said a blanket hi to everyone.”
As the night wore on, she tossed her shoes and tucked one leg under her thigh. There was a premiere league game on the screen that everyone was watching. His hand was resting on the part of her foot sticking out from under her thigh. I was sitting there wondering how to get some skin in the game. Should I send a drink over to her table? Sigh. She already has a bottle of vodka.
Every once in a while she turned to look at him adoringly. If you stripped away the club scene, they might as well have been on a beach watching the tide come in. It was the strangest thing. Her comfort around him irked me. It just irked me. Of course I couldn’t put a name to the heat caking my insides at the time. It made even less sense when I considered that I didn’t know her name so I did the natural thing. I drank too fast, grew surlier and had to go home early.
I was standing outside waiting for my cab, trying to decide between a kebab and mshkaki. I blinked and she was standing next to me picking out smokies on her own. I wanted to say something smart-mouthed about her losing her sidekick but everything I come up with was weak. The vendor handed her the smokies wrapped in napkins. I saw her making to pay for them and offered to pay.
“Jonathan,” I said over the roar of after midnight hedonism.
We did a drunken toast, her with her smokies and me with my mshkaki, to something cheesy like new friends, touched the backs of our wrists, took a bite, and then she went back to her table. Now that I knew her name, the eclipse passed and there was light again.
They say third time’s a charm. When we met again I was collecting a contract at the office that I was supposed to go over, concerning the lease. She was working on a newsletter for an aviation dinner I missed while flying. Alone this time, I talked her into having coffee and when she warmed up to me, coffee turned to dinner. It was the best time I’d had talking about nothing in particular. By the end of the evening the only meaningful thing I had was her number but man, I wanted to do it again.
I saw her a few more times before I left, always with him. The last time I took her out was weird. One of those dates that just refuse to click. It was a hot day, we went out to get ice cream and that was the only thing that went right. We couldn’t decide on what to eat so we ended up ordering spicy Indian food that neither of us liked. Then we spent most of the day in traffic hopping from mall to mall trying to find a good movie. In the end, we were too tired to sit through one so we split. After that I wasn’t sure she would want to see me again, but I knew that I wouldn’t see her for sure because I was set to leave in two days, so I left without calling.
“I had to hear it from someone else,” she says. “That was a terrible thing to do.”
“I didn’t think you’d care.”
“Yeah. You iced me out after that bad date. And anyway, you had a full life at the Captain’s table. What happened with you guys by the way?”
She sighs. “Must we really talk about this?”
“Yes, we have a whole night ahead of us, so talk we shall. First about this. Then you tell me about this Harry chap blowing up your phone.”
She is surprised, so much so her lips part.
“If I had known this was going to be an interrogation –”
“It’s not an interrogation. Come here, I pull her onto my lap. “There. Now tell me.”
She looks at me like a cornered house cat, but I am willing to wait it out until the little girl in her shows up and she gives in to the vulnerability of straddling a man’s lap.
Uh. There we go.
“He was married, it wasn’t a sustainable connection.”
It’s a carefully worded response wound so tight I can’t pick at it for details without prying and coming off insecure, or badgering her and ruining the evening.
“Are you still friends?”
She looks at the red glow of coals on the fire but her eyes grow dark. “We’re not in each other’s lives anymore, if that’s what you’re asking.”
There’s just a tinge of sad fondness when she says that, faltering, like the fruity notes in a good malt. I can’t decide whether to begrudge her for it. It is absent when she talks about this Harry fellow though, who she’s more open about. I have an instant feeling he’s not the one I have to worry about so I let the conversation drift to other things. It’s been a day with lots of excitement. Fatigue sets in early so we take the lantern to bed. While she lies fast asleep next me, I lay awake, ears perked up in case hippos come out to graze. Sleep eludes me. My mind is a city in ruins. My walls have crumbled.
My walls have crumbled under her spell.
Taste of Mel continues next week.22