Jonathan doesn’t call me down from the parking lot, he comes up to my door. It’s a little thing but I find it endearing. He’s wearing blue khakis, and an off-white blazer jacket with an onyx brooch pinned to the collar. I’m starting to get a sense of his style now. He loves his lapel pins, and for shoes he loves loafers. Anything without laces will do. He’s freshly shaved, and he smells clean. A soft, well-rounded fragrance mixed with his body warmth that makes me bury my face in his neck.
“You smell nice.”
“Thanks,” he says, giving in to my clingy embrace.
“You look tired though. Hard day at the cockpit?” I smile, nuzzling my nose under his chin.
“Very, very hard,” he says trailing a finger from the nape of my neck, over my peach dress and the belt cinching it to my waist, down to the small of my back. I shiver and try to nibble on his ear but he pulls away and tucks it into his shoulder with a titter.
Nina emerges from the bedroom with our coats and bags, trying to talk down mom on the phone. We’re running late and she’s lost patience for our reluctance to participate in anything that concerns Jack. She is afraid we might embarrass her and I can tell she has launched into one of her lectures about making Jack feel welcome into the family.
“To be continued,” I whisper in Jonathan’s ear, then slip on my shoes as we leave.
It’s an hour’s drive to Jack’s farm. Guests are being directed where to park their cars but being family, we get to drive into the homestead. The caterers have just arrived and are setting up a table under a tent. There are other guests chattering over an unmanned Mugithi set playing on the speakers. I don’t recognize any of them but it’s easy to tell that they are Jack’s friends.
One has only to look at the stiff leather cowboy hats resting on their knees and the heavy, suede corduroy jackets accompanying a variety of checkered shirts. Even the women fit the profile in their suede boots, wrap dresses and short dyed hair. This is Jack’s squad from his days as a senior bachelor, that came to a halting end the day he met my mother. They’re a bunch of oddballs, which tells you that they’re fun.
Jack sees us first and promptly excuses himself from the men he is speaking with to come and receive us. He is tall but not imposingly so. He keeps his hair trim so you can’t easily tell that it’s started to thin in the middle. Still, it’s an impressive head of hair for a man at sixty. He nurses a moustache from time to time which makes him look older in an uncool way, but he’s shaved it all off now at my mother’s behest I’m sure. His hands are hardened and darkened from working with car parts and engine oils, which is no surprise. My mother always liked men who could work with their hands.
“Well, let the vetting begin,” I whisper to Jonathan. He was uncharacteristically quiet in the car so I try to tease him to ease his nerves. “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
He straightens his coat and squeezes my hand with a small smile.
“Hello girls,” Jack says, surprising us with an embrace. His voice is mellow, jovial. He turns to Jonathan and asks, “And who is this fine gentleman?”
“His name is Jonathan, he’s here with me,” I say.
“Munene,” Jonathan adds, offering his hand in greeting.
“Looking sharp Munene,” Jack clasps his hand and shakes him vigorously but Jonathan holds his own. “Has he met Helen?”
I say a tentative no. It’s still odd hearing him address Mom by her name. I think she likes it though, going by how she blossoms when she hears it. I think it makes her feel young.
Jack laughs. “Well, she’s in there somewhere. Go find her.”
We start to walk away but he holds Jonathan back. “No you go ahead. Let me have a word with the young… stallion here. Go say hello to your mother.”
Mom’s voice giving instructions floats through the doorway. I can’t help but linger on the porch, trying and failing to read Jack’s lips. What is he saying? Jonathan has his back to me so I can’t tell what’s going on. Sigh. I’ll have to ask him later. Mom comes sweeping out in a dress I have never seen before. I think she had it made for this occasion. A straight, burgundy, georgette dress with bell sleeves and a waterfall necklace. Simple but oh so elegant. My mother in full bloom. We say our hellos, then she inspects our dresses and approves without much fuss.
Another guest arrives to greet her and compliments her look.
“But why are you wearing a head wrap? Your hair is just fine,” she says.
“This is the most important part of this garment,” she says. “This is the wife material.”
They burst out laughing and high five each other so hard we can’t help but laugh ourselves. It’s enlivening to see her so joyous in her new life with Jack. A while ago I begrudged her for it, for leaving us alone in our grief, but now I think I am thawing.
You might be mistaken to think she was in the house giving instructions all along but she already knows Jonathan is with us. She wants to know who he is and is that his car? At that very moment two women working catering heave a dish onto the serving table. A stew of beef spills a bit on the side releasing the aroma, (or smell, depending on which side of pregnancy you’re on) of garlic.
“His name is Jo –” I gag. Breathe. “Anaitwa Jo –”
I bolt through the living room, barely making it to the toilet before I hurl. Of all the times, morning sickness chooses to kick in now? When Nina comes to find me I’m leaning over the sink, still feeling queasy.
“Lemon slices, thank God,” I say biting into one and welcoming the sharp, sourness on my tongue. She gives me a funny look. “What?”
I chuckle. “Perfect. Just perfect.”
Outside, more visitors stream in. The strumming of a one-man guitar typical to Mugithi songs and a characteristic drum beat is carried across the entire ridge. Jack’s farm is atop a hill that stretches down to the banks of a small stream at its foot. It used to be a coffee farm but the coffee bushes have long been uprooted. In their place are raspberry vines that he is growing for export. There are also avocado and banana trees – it is Kiambu after all. His retirement home is newly built, with the proceeds from selling his auto spare parts business in industrial area. It doesn’t feel like it yet, but as long as mom and her cooking are here, it is home and it feels good to be home.
I have to hide out in the house for the better part of the party to avoid the wretched smells, which gives Nina, Jonathan and I plenty of time to gossip about the guests. I ask him what Jack told him. He says Jack said that my mom is the real gatekeeper and that if he makes good with her, he’s made good with him.
“That’s what you talked about that whole time?”
He nods. I doubt it but obviously there was a reason I was not made privy to it so I let it go. When everyone has eaten, Mom has the caterers clear out so that we can sit outside with everyone else.
“But Mommy, nobody else’s kids are here,” Nina and I whine.
“Nobody else’s father is retiring,” comes the swift reply. She’s not having any of that.
I keep my lemon slices on hand to ward off any other nausea triggers. Short speeches go around the tables lauding Jack for his success and good fortune. His old friends tell anecdotes from their days of youth. He is firm, decisive and smart, which can sometimes make him uncompromising and might explain why he remained a bachelor all these years. It is clear though, that people like and respect him because he is candid and dependable.
The party doesn’t really begin until the gin comes out. One of the men, a dual citizen of Houston and Githunguri passes around a bottle of Hendricks. Of course it comes peppered with a tale of how it was smuggled into the country and the problem with immigration in Kenya. Jack calls Jonathan over and offers him some of it. Now Jonathan doesn’t regularly partake in whiskey let alone gin. He would like to be a sport because there is the danger that if he declines, he’ll make the wrong impression. He declines all the same, on account of driving us home later. Smart man.
I watch for a moment when Jack is alone and approach him to talk about my van.
“Is it still running?” he asks.
“All right. I’ll have something for you within the month. It won’t fetch much though. What will you do for work in the meantime?”
I hesitate. I don’t know. Sometimes I borrow Jonathan’s car, but only if I’m doing a shoot within town.
“I have a friend here who runs a car yard. I can top you up and get you a good car if you’d like. My gift to you, but don’t tell Helen yet.” He gets the attention of a stocky man with a toothpick in his mouth. “My daughter here is looking for a car.”
I have always felt such a discomfort at his possession of us, like it’s a betrayal to my own father. Not that step-daughter would be any better, but I always wondered why he couldn’t just use our names. He proceeds to tell him all about my photography business in glowing terms and how I’m just like my mother. He speaks of her with such fondness. I feel such relief handing over the van issue for somebody else to take care of. I had only to ask, and it’s different with Jack. I don’t feel disempowered by depending on him. I feel loved.
As I stand there nodding politely, I see a glint in his eyes that speaks of pride. I realize, with dismay, that I may have misjudged him. I refused to give him a chance based on the misconception that he was trying to replace my dad. All this time I have rebuffed him and he has always been graceful and patient. It’s never occurred to me that perhaps calling us his daughters wasn’t possession; it was acceptance. It was an invitation into his life. I am disappointed and surprised at myself. More so because I came to him without a leg to stand on save for entitlement. I expected him to help yet he doesn’t owe me anything.
Huh. Maybe I’m not always right. Maybe I still have some growing to do.
While I was taking care of my van business, Mom saw the opportunity to pounce on Jonathan. I don’t know how long they have been talking when I rescue him, although it appears he didn’t need my help.
“I hear you have some good news,” she says, before I interrupt.
“Yes, we were going to wait but this baby keeps announcing itself before I do,” I say, and then instantly regret exhuming that issue.
“Have you thought about where you will be living?” she asks.
“My place,” we both say. “What?”
“Your place?” I say. “Your house is one-bedroomed. Where will the baby sleep?”
“We’ll get a two-bedroom.”
“You have a mortgage on the one-bedroom, which now that I’m saying it out loud is occurring to me as an odd thing to do. Why would you take out a mortgage for a one-bedroomed house?”
“It’s close to the airport.”
“And I work at the airport. It suits my needs.”
Goodness. I don’t know whether to be terrified that he never thought of it beyond that point.
I turn back to Mom. “We haven’t figured it out.”
“Well, as you think of it, consider the living arrangement as well,” she says, honing in on the real issue she wants to address. “You know how we do things here. It needs to be proper.”
We both nod, hoping she’ll move on because we haven’t figured out any of that stuff. Instead she turns to Jonathan and continues.
“Lakini sasa si unajua umevunja mbuzi mguu?” she says, busier than she needs to be folding a napkin into squares and even smaller squares until the only thing left to do with it is roll it.
“Wewe Wacu unajua hujui hii maneno. But Munene understands what I’m talking about. Ameniambia kwao ni Kigumo so I know he understands. Isn’t it?”
Jonathan clears his throat and acquiesces. I look at him apologetically.
“I know you think these things are outdated and traditional but in the olden days this was how the tribe made sure that a man honored a woman. You come from a good home where you are loved, you are precious and you are held in high regard. And if Munene chooses to take you into his fold, this is the commitment he is making. Don’t you think you deserve to be honored in this way?” she asks.
“I do,” I mumble. Gosh, I never thought of it that way.
The car ride home is a pensive one. For one, Mom has unloaded a lot on us that we need to unpack. I’m not sure how Jonathan feels about it all but he hasn’t bolted yet. Maybe he’s not going to bolt at all. If there’s anything I’ve learned today, it’s that I’ve been letting my grief cloud my judgement. I’ve let it skew my view of people. Perhaps some of them are here to stay.
Perhaps, I should let them.
Taste of Mel continues here: Failsafe.14