The Jambo ballroom at Safari park is abuzz with conversation and clinking glasses when we walk in. We are there for the Aviation industry’s Annual Dinner. Kagwe places a cautious palm on the small of my back, lightly enough that I couldn’t shrug it off if I tried to. I don’t though, because despite the surly mood I am in, the rules of engagement are sacred – no dirty linen in public.
That evening I play the social butterfly. I smile and trail quietly by his side as he works the room, introducing me to his colleagues. When his bosses narrate to me how he navigated his plane through a terrible storm over Malawi, I feign surprise and with a pat on his chest say, “That’s my Kagwe.”
Two glasses of champagne later my spirits are soaring, and the bile in my stomach starts to dissipate. The laughter comes easier now and even Ben’s mansplaining has grown less insufferable. But Kagwe hasn’t apologized yet and I am determined not to stop begrudging him.
The roots of this particular emotional duel trace back to earlier that evening, when somebody – not me – decided to say something thoughtless. I was staring into the closet trying to figure out what shoes go with my dress when he said it. I damn near snapped my neck in two whipping my head back.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He made a not-this-again face.
“Argh, Njambi, don’t start now, please.”
“Don’t start what?”
I glared at him but he didn’t look up from the silver watch he was circling around his wrist. I had seen him snap it on whilst hustling for a parking spot at the airport, so it annoyed me even more that he was avoiding eye contact.
“I only asked if that’s what you’re wearing,” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?”
I turned to look at myself in the mirror. It looked perfect when I bought it two days ago.
“I didn’t say anything was wrong with it.”
“Yes, but it’s not what you said. It’s how you said it.”
The chirpy Kao chic who talked me into buying it said it amplified my hips. Perhaps she neglected to mention how it also amplified my belly.
“It’s the baby weight, isn’t it?” I said.
I shouldn’t have said it. He warned me not to start but I did. I poisoned the well and soured the air. He pursed his lips and walking out of the room, said, “I’ll be in the car.”
When I emerged half an hour later, he was waiting for me outside the gate – left me to lock up by myself. I waited for him to say just one thing about being late to unleash that cutting comeback I had snugged at the tip of my tongue.
When he swerved away from a pothole too late and my side of the car bore the brunt of it, I cursed and made a show of putting on my seat belt muttering, “You’re going to kill us all.”
When he said nothing, I put off his music because he was tapping on the steering wheel in rhythm and it looked like he was enjoying himself. Why should he get to, when he had made me feel so deflated? Raring for a fight, I tried to bait him to engage me, but he just looked straight ahead.
“Well, aren’t you going to say anything?”
“What would you like me to say?”
I had a couple of ideas as a matter of fact. For starters, “You look lovely in that dress. You’ll light up the room so bright every man will be drawn to you like a moth. I feel so lucky to have you, Njambi.”
Instead, he said, “Why do you perceive slights where there are none? Why are you picking a fight with me right now?”
I rolled my eyes and said, “You don’t understand me.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence, me staring out at the streets passing in a blur, and him, cracking his knuckles in that way he does when he’s replaying an exchange in his mind. Occasionally he glanced at me with a questioning look and I knew he was trying to figure out where it all went south. It tugged on the strings in my heart, but when the guilt started to rise in my throat, I quashed it and refocused my energies on the anger I was working up.
Perceive slights where there are none…tsk. Like I’m the crazy one here.
That’s how I find myself here, giggling a little too hard when James, self-declared funny guy, launches into this completely inane story.
“Oh James, you’re hilarious,” I say, urging him on.
I tell myself I’m not trying to make Kagwe jealous, but I have the perfect response for when he asks, “What the hell was that?”
Of course, he’ll never ask any such question because he’s the kind of guy who always gives me a little bit too much space. As I lie next to him that night, I am awash with this crashing shame. I could have borne myself better, but I let my insecurities get the best of me. All that space he’s put between us two is aching for me to grow into it, blossom in it, flourish in it. He never says anything but I get the sense that he’s deliberate about it, that he’s waiting patiently for me on the other side.
My ego has not scorched me so badly that I can’t recognize the love there. I do, and it terrifies me. I think, by God, I don’t deserve this man. I’m afraid that I’m going to disappoint him, hurt him. That he’ll wake up one day and say, “No more Njambi, I’ve had enough of you.”
More than that, I’m afraid that he might stay. He might actually stay, wait my shit out and love me through it. And I might actually have to look inside, see the ugliness in there, and pull it out by the roots. My first instinct is to sabotage it because I cannot fathom a love like that, not if it is aimed squarely at me. Stronger than l’appel du vide though, is the insatiable hankering I bear to be worthy of that look he had in his eyes when he said his vows to me.
So with a tear-stained face, when I finally work up the nerve, I confess all this to him. He listens with a furrowed brow, a look that tells me he doesn’t come close to understanding why I put myself through all this. It leaves me vulnerable, unguarded and with a bittersweet mix of dread and relief. I make up my mind to bury every expectation of validation from him and when I stop putting words in his mouth long enough, he affirms me. When he says, “I’m not going anywhere,” this time I choose to believe him.
On the flip side, I am aware that the freedom to change his mind is his own. Any attempt on my part to manipulate or cajole him to fit my exact needs would only draw him further away from me. A self-serving love wilts and withers the soul. So I choose to leave him that freedom and by so doing untether myself from my own fear.14