I’m seated at the counter of a deserted terrace bar chatting up the bartender. She’s eyeballing me over her geek glasses, because I was uncool enough to ask what’s playing on the stereo.
“It’s folk music. Hozier? No?” She scrunches up her nose. “What are you, like forty?”
I laugh aloud because I’m in too good a mood to feel stung. I had a short mid-morning return flight, so I got ample sleep last night. When I landed, I was feeling pumped. It has taken me two weeks to work up the nerve to call Mel after the industry dinner, in part because I wasn’t at all confident that she would pick up and even if she did, I wasn’t sure what to say. So I sat in my car and told myself, Don’t think about it, just dial. On the fourth ring, I started to get this sinking feeling and on the fifth ring I thought, Hang up, hang up now. There is triumph in not letting the network have to hang –
“Hi!” She picked up!
“Eer…Come out and play.”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Mmh…I have to ask my mom first,” and I thought, Atta girl! She gets it.
“Tell her I’ll have you home by midnight…midnightish.”
She laughed. “Okay, drop me a pin.”
And that was that.
I have reserved a spot secluded from the other tables by a line of potted palms. I like the look of the dark, sisal chairs and round table with a glass top, under an umbrella cover whose inside is lined with yellow bulbs. It is not dark yet, but by the time we’re finished, it will be. Mel will love the lights when she gets here. At least I hope she will. She doesn’t aaaw and coo at the things she likes. Pleasing her is as much a gamble as playing dice.
Now that I’ve had a glass of Chivas, neat, a bit of nostalgia is creeping up on me. The night we met, Mel and I were sitting at a terrace bar not much unlike this one. The ambiance was colored with smoke, disco lights and gyrating bodies. For reasons I can only attribute to kismet, she was with Mwai. He was excited about a nomination to the Top 40 under 40, so he was prattling on about that. Now, he’s not married so I don’t fault him for not recognizing the look on her face.
I’ve seen it on Njambi when I’m telling her a story – whether it’s for the first or seventh time is contentious. She’ll be at the kitchen counter, peeling carrots and throwing in the occasional ‘mmhmn’ in a monotone. I won’t get to really see it until later, when the stew is simmering and there’s nothing left to do with her hands. She’ll lean on the counter with her head titled to the side, and study my face for hidden clues. I imagine she is wondering how she ever willingly signed up for this. ‘How did I get here and is it too late to bolt?’ ha-ha.
So Mel was across from me wearing the same look. She must have been thinking back to earlier that night when she was still fielding offers, and wondering why she said yes to Mwai’s. ‘Pato? Too thirsty – death by vampirism. Jaymo? Can’t hold his liquor for nothing, hits on the waiters – death by embarrassment. Joe? Too cheap, keeps his own spreadsheet of the bill – death by boredom. Martin? Groper. Also married – death by clubbing, (his, not hers). Jacob? Insecure. Controlling. Always picks fights – death by toxic exposure. Mwai? Talks incessantly about himself. Also has to go to the bathroom a lot.’
Homeboy popped the lid on his bladder way early on a night of drinking, and had to go to the bathroom every half hour. She was on the phone most of the time. She looked relieved to be catching a break, until he came back and she had to put her phone away. At some point, she looked like she was weighing whether she could still make it for the thing the girlfriend she had been texting was at. Third wheeling has got to be better than this, right? Nah. Becky’s guy starts to give me the eyes three beers into the night. I can’t deal with that today. (Or ever.)
I hadn’t brought Njambi with me so I was seated alone, people watching. There was a chic in short shorts and a baseball shirt dancing in front of me. For a while, it made for a better show than the train wreck waiting to happen at my table. But what can I say. The Kenyan in me that absolutely has to watch a bad thing happening took over, so I went back to eavesdropping.
“…so I get home and the first thing I see is the dent on the car – no, dent is an understatement. The car was wrecked! Wrecked! The front bumper was hanging on by a screw, the driver’s side door wouldn’t even open…” Mwai was saying.
No! Is he…Is he talking about what I think he’s talking about? Is he talking about his ex?
“Meanwhile, she’s passed out on the living room floor coz she couldn’t even make it up to the bedroom…” Nooo! Hurricane Karen? Why would he tell her that? Scoring own goals left, right and center…Should I stop him? Should I try to help?
“And this was after you bought the ring?” Mel asked.
He’s already told her about the ring? Yea, it’s too late now. There’s no salvaging that situation.
I went back to bird watching but then little Miss. Short Shorts got tired and sat down, so I lit up a cigarette and let my mind stray. Whenever I meet new people, I try to picture them as children. It’s a little tip Njambi and I picked up in couple’s therapy that I have repurposed. Apparently, when you’re in a heated argument about who should’ve remembered to change the oil in her car, and you feel a strong case of the I-told-you-so coming on, it helps to picture her as a little girl just trying to make adulthood work. It’s a lot harder to be mean to barefoot, seven-year-old Njambi holding a puppy.
So I pictured Mel and Mwai as kids and the picture just didn’t gel. Mwai was the attention-seeking boy that no one liked because he always hogged the ball on the playground. Mel looked like the sweet, round-faced, girl who would give away her extra pen and not ask for it back. I can’t say I know why, but I felt this stab of…protectiveness. Maybe it was because she had actually sat through Mwai’s self-absorbed rant and I knew him. He left her alone for the umpteenth time, this time to pick up a phone call, and I said to her – what was it that I said? That she should think about where she’s at in her life. Yes. “Give it some thought,” I said with no little air of self-importance.
By the end of the night, no doubt because he’d let Karen seep back into his mind, Mwai had drank too much. (Even in her absence, the woman could still reach her toxic tentacles into him – but Hurricane Karen is a story for another day.) Mel didn’t want him driving her anywhere and good on her too. He ended up running into NTSA guys and thoroughly failing the Alcoblow test. Anyway, I said I would get her home. He said, “Alright, Cheers Baba.” So I went the extra mile and bought her flowers and smokies, because which chic doesn’t want flowers and smokies at the end of a rave?
When Mel shows, I’ve had three glasses of whisky and successfully convinced the bartender that we should be listening to something else. She puts on Fatou by Fatoumata Diawara and says, “There, that’s African folk music. You like?” I do.
She has on this long, floral dress with a risky front slit and a blue travel bag in tow. I feel like I am seeing her for the first time, like when the nose of the Embraer 190 I fly breaks through the overcast clouds, into a utopia of sun and sky. She plumps the bag down next to her and it just sits there, like a mum third wheel.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, not at all.”
I look at the bag and then I look at her. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Why would you think that?” she asks, as though she didn’t just see me refer to the bag.
A waiter comes to take our order. We settle for a platter of lemon chicken and fries and a bottle of white wine. When the pleasantries are all done, I dive right in. Njambi says that I never apologize, that I do the dinner and wine thing and if it goes well, I throw in a ‘So are we good?’ at the end, like a fairy swooped in and smoothed things over.
I clear my throat and say, “Mel, I’m sorry about those things that I said.”
She says, “No. It’s all right. Don’t even worry about it. I’m past it.”
“Yea. I thought about it and I realized that you were right. This married guy thing is not my jam.”
“I’m going away for a while,” she says biting into a drumstick. “Cape Town. Photography school.”
“How long is a while?”
“Three months, maybe more.”
“Is that what’s up with the bag?” I chuckle. It comes out in the form of a nervous shriek because even though I asked, I’m not ready for the answer. She stops chewing and looks at me. “When is your flight?”
All right. Keep calm. Airport things? That’s my zone. I can do this. Just be cool. Offer to drive her.
“Wait. Were you going to leave without telling me?” I can hear the neediness in my voice by the way the words are being pulled back into my stomach.
She shrugs. We eat in silence and then we drink in silence. I convince myself that I should be happy for her, even though I feel robbed. Of what exactly, I can’t tell. It’s just three months. And there is WhatsApp now. I can adjust. We can video call. I don’t want to have to though.
“Mel, why are you really leaving?”
“Why do you think?”
I don’t answer. I know why. She is running away and I have nothing to offer to make her stay. Does it stop me from trying? No. Does she tell me to keep away? Yes, and in no uncertain terms.8