It didn’t happen that first week or even the next month. Not for lack of trying on Lenny’s part. He called and messaged, and I always said, “Sure, let’s do it,” but he couldn’t pin me down on a date or time. He understood that I had declined without disagreeing.
On my part, things were in limbo. My son Josh was in a delicate place, asking after an absentee father I hadn’t seen in four years. I didn’t know what had triggered these yearnings. He’d begun coming home after school in a suspiciously clean uniform. His socks weren’t lined with dirt and his legs were still as shiny as they had been in the morning. He hadn’t been going out to play. Even when he got home, he preferred to hang out on the dining table doing homework rather than go out on his bike or (annoyingly) kick his football against the gate. I was glad to have less to yell about, but the gap was filled with more to worry about. I feared he was being bullied or excluded in some way.
I took him to a movie to cheer him up which did it for a while. Then he went go-karting with his cousins and it was all he could talk about the next few days. I considered asking my brother to take a more active role in his life but he barely has time for his children. His two boys are rascals. They’re hard-headed and they think every surface is a wrestling ring. Therefore they ruin everything and whenever they come to my house my gas lighters disappear. I have good reason to suspect that one of them is an arsonist in the making or a chain-smoker at the very least.
I didn’t ask him. Instead, I asked my dad if he would spend some time with Josh on the farm. When he is with his grandpa, Josh enjoys walking the perimeter of the farm inspecting the fence for holes. And my father, when he wants to be charming, regales him with stories of his boyhood. He throws in tidbits of his knowledge on trees and poisonous weeds from his time in the Forest Service. Of course, my father’s idea of raising a boy includes telling him things like, “Boys don’t wear lotion,” or, “Big boys don’t stay in the house all day.”
Josh is not a big boy; he’s six years old and he likes hanging around the kitchen when I’m cooking, asking about this spice or that condiment. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but I was pressed for options and it takes a village, right?
It turned out that grandfather and grandson liked spending time together. I think Josh derived the most joy from his grandfather’s pick-up; an old Chevrolet that was always leaking oil and whose engine boiled over now and then. It was a relic that my dad refused to let go of. I think he took as much pleasure in tinkering with it as the boy did.
Once he even confided in me that Josh made better company than my brother’s sons. He was more inquisitive, quick to learn, and better behaved. He didn’t give any credit to my parenting skills, rather he attributed the qualities to the child’s innate nature. Then he said some things about Josh’s father, whom he had only met twice, missing out on a great kid. He never admitted to me that I was doing a good job, perhaps fearing that I would take it as an endorsement of my poor choices. Nonetheless, my world now had only slim pickings in terms of victories, and I decided to take it as one.
My mother, making herself comfortable in the role of grandma, stuffed Josh full of food. She let him snack in the kitchen while she was cooking, something I didn’t allow in my house because Mother had never allowed it in ours when we were growing up. Because of this and many other ways, his grandparents spoiled him, Josh seemed like he could do without his attachment to me – for a couple of days anyway.
As it happened, the boy wasn’t the only one craving some testosterone in his life. Lenny’s repeated calls had injected a feverish excitement to the mundanity of my life. I kept catching myself humming in the kitchen, as I hang clothes in the back yard, in the ladies’ room at work. Even though I declined his invitations, I continued to enjoy his attention. I didn’t set out to string him along from the start. I had just been starved of any flattering male attention for longer than I’d like to admit and I thought, What harm could it do? At the back of my mind, I also had the conviction that it could never work. By ‘it’ I don’t mean a relationship although I’d certainly visualized it. The mere image of him arriving at my parents’ farmhouse in that motorbike of his promptly aborted that line of thought.
By ‘it’ I mean anything; nothing could work. Postpartum had rocked my body like a volcano, changing its landscape irreversibly. My skin had become looser, streaked with stretchmarks in almost every direction. I had developed contours that curved out where they should’ve plateaued and curved in where they should’ve rounded. As a result, I’d learned almost everything there was to know about body shapers, oil serums, and yes, YouTube yoga.
It wasn’t just my body. My wardrobe too was like a time capsule from 2012. It was full, but I had nothing to wear. I hadn’t bought anything worthwhile after my maternity clothes. All I had were a ton of mom-khakis, ankle-length cardigans, and goodness, why did all my dresses have flowers on them? The only cool stuff I had were the ripped jeans I wore when I was 22 and I certainly couldn’t fit into those anymore – not if I wanted to do things like sit or walk.
But Lenny had managed to infiltrate my mind like a Trojan horse and at every opportunity came to the fore of it. He with the energy drinks and the leather boots and the gun. The gun. What a trove of stories he must be – captivating, adult stories. Nothing about Teacher who or the other, or buy me this or that because Mama so and so bought it for her little brat. More than the attention, I think it was an adult conversation that I most desired. So on one of the weekends when Josh was at his grandparents, I agreed to have lunch with Lenny.
After much rifling, when everything was strewn on the bed or the floor, I settled on leggings and a kimono that regrettably had flowers on it. I completed the look with block heels I wore for work and a chain purse that was the only truly suitable accessory for this lunch date. I went under strict instructions from Fiona not to give in to the urge to talk about Josh the whole time.
“Talk about your interests,” she said. “You have those, don’t you?”
I widened my eyes uncertainly.
“And whatever you do, don’t talk about the ex. He’ll try to draw you into it but don’t fall for it. Ask him about himself.”
With that, I went out swatting away expectations like fruit flies on a dotted banana. It’s just lunch, no biggy. As it happened, I did end up talking about Josh but only because Lenny seemed more interested in the boy than in me. He asked about his interests, what he was like, and what it was like for me to raise him on my own. My heart sank at the last one. I’d hoped he could see me in my original form, as a single woman first before a single mother. Then I reprimanded myself for allowing that hope to creep in unnoticed. All the same, I gave myself a one-sentence leeway for each question.
Only two significant things happened. The first, in a bid to ward off any more questions about my son I mistakenly called him Leonard and he said, “It’s William.”
I said, “What?”
He said, “It’s William if you want to exclaim my full name. Lenny is short for Lentilalu. William Lentilalu.”
I was dumbfounded. A little intrigued, a lot embarrassed.
“Aah look at you with your foot in your mouth again,” he chuckled.
I kept myself from punching him in the arm. His father was Samburu, a magistrate who’d married a plump Njeri from Nyeri. He’d passed away years back, but his wife, Lenny’s mother, was still alive. A retired court clerk. That was all he would tell me.
The second happened when I bent over to get napkins and my hair fell to the side. He said, “Nice ink.”
It didn’t immediately come to me. I’d forgotten all about the tattoo of four tiny butterflies at the back of my neck.
“You had a wild streak,” he said.
“The operative word here being ‘had’.”
I was hoping to evade the question altogether but he had this scornful look for every nonsense answer I gave that compelled me to do better all on my own. The only problem was that I couldn’t think it all the way through.
I said, “I met someone like you and he left me with a child to parent on my own.”
Things went helter-skelter from that point onwards and didn’t recover.
“Someone like me?”
I hesitated to answer, not wanting to admit that I’d already judged him to be a bad boy.
“You seem like a smart woman,” he said, cracking open a can of energy drink. “How did that happen?”
“Seem like? I seem like a smart woman?”
He took an unnecessarily long swig of the drink. “Well yes. Unlike you, I’m not one to make assumptions.”
“Are you always this combative?”
“Just on first dates?” I pursed my lips.
Sensing that it was all about to go south, he took on a conciliatory tone and paddled back to safer subjects but the conversation stalled and hissed much like my father’s old Chevrolet. Thus concluded the afternoon’s slew of mixed signals and my hopes for a captivating, adult conversation with it.