Mother always told me it’s unmannerly to sit on the armrest of a chair, particularly as a guest in somebody’s home. Mel is padding around the kitchen pouring juice into glasses when this thought elbows its way to the fore of my mind. I push it back. I prefer to watch her without Mother’s nagging voice in my head.
I spent six hours in the air on a return flight to Seychelles today. All I could think about was this evening. I thought about it looking out at the Indian Ocean and its spectacular shades of blue, green and white. During my descent, I caught a view of Mahe Island wearing a halo of clouds for a crown. I thought about it as I tromped around the airside before I had to begin preflight for the trip back. The air was sultry, and if you stuck your tongue out, you could taste the ocean. I thought about it as I taxied to the runway stretching along the beach. When I pointed my bird to the sky an hour later, I saw the islands’ mountains peeking out of white sandy beaches. I thought, The sun shines here just as it shines at home, and I tried to will nature in all its grandness to deliver me an epiphany, anything to get me out of this evening.
At JKIA, the runway lights pointed me home at twilight. I sat in my car drinking whiskey from the bottle and waiting for traffic to wane. In the center console, Njambi’s rings sat in a black leather box. Mine, a black gold piece I bought for an obscene amount of money, was still gleefully cutting off the blood supply on my finger. I looked at it, mused about what a fitting metaphor it was for my life the last few months, and chuckled to myself.
The last time we took the bands off was two years ago, when we had them engraved with our son’s name. We had found ourselves bound to a peculiarity in our culture that assigns the family names only to living heirs, which left my son without a name. Njambi and I agreed on Henry Kagwe Junior for him, but it still didn’t capture the fullness of our loss.
I went to collect my sonogram from Mel on an evening much like this one. She asked how the baby was doing out of politeness and I had to tell her. She didn’t offer to pray with me, buy me a round, pat my back and ask me to stay strong, or tell me there’d be more. She didn’t marvel at my stoicism. Instead, she slipped her cold fingers into my palm in silence and a clear channel opened.
There were no words, no static, but something flowed between us. Only somebody who’s gone through something unspeakable could understand that my stoicism was the inevitable byproduct of language failing me. She offered to have the frame embossed for me, but then the idea of the rings lit up in my mind and I knew that was it.
I can see the light on in her house from the driveway. I always call her down to my car because ‘people in this apartment block are nosy and they’ll talk’, but today I step out in full uniform. She has always said she’d like to see me in my stripes and lapel pin. My shoes crunch against the gravel as I walk to her door. In my pocket, I draw hoops around my keychain with my index finger. It’s a stainless steel model of a Cessna Skyhawk an uncle gifted me when I was a kid. It got me interested in planes, and is the most sentimental thing I have that is all about me.
She’s surprised that I went up. “And you’re wearing your uniform!” she shrieks. “But where’s your cap?”
“There’s no chance of getting me to wear that,” I say.
I linger in the doorway like a vampire awaiting an invitation, until she beckons me inside. Her house is cozy and warm. It smells vaguely of air freshener and food, like she just took something out of the oven. My stomach rumbles.
“Would you like a tour of the castle?” she chuckles. “It’ll only take a minute. No really, if you stand right in this spot you can see into every room.”
She leads me through a corridor and swings the door to her studio open. I half expect to find a red-lit darkroom, drying prints held up with pegs on steel lines. I always thought a photographer’s house would have strips of film strewn about, and pictures of strangers on every wall.
“It’s 2017 grandpa,” she laughs, slapping my belly. “Everything is digital. We use printers now.”
So much for my retro fantasies.
On a black, wooden table set against the light green wall, a printer sits next to an iMac . There’s a sisal basket under it filled with old camera gear – broken lenses, filters, an umbrella and a light stand. Near the only window in the room sits a round, green, polka dot chair. I’m beginning to see that she has a thing for polka dots.
“It’s called a Hang-a-round chair,” she says. “It’s great for baby shoots. Moms just go cuckoo over it, and I get to charge premium.”
A relic clock with a thick, brown wooden frame hangs on a nail on the wall. Its face has the yellow-brown of aging paper, its hands frozen in time. There are about a dozen black and white pictures arranged around it. They’re all set in black frames similar to the one she made for my sonogram. There’s one of her mother sitting on a stool with her and her sister on her lap. They’re wearing blue, knitted shoes her mother probably made herself. In another, her mother’s portrait is set in a round, flowery border with big curls in her hair. She’s wearing a white turtleneck shirt underneath a dress with puffy shoulders, and it reminds me of my own mother.
The biggest, is of her old man leaning against a 1980s Volvo looking hella proud. There’s an up-close candid of his face where he looks to be about thirty. His afro was healthy but his beard was patchy, and his moustache was still struggling to come in. She has his eyes and soft jawline, and her mother’s cute-as-a-button nose.
Of course, you can’t claim to be African if your parents never took a picture squatting in front of a flowerbed of lilies, or of the patriarch sitting on a stool with his family gathered around him. There’s another of her mother sitting on a cliff in Mombasa, her arm shyly slung over old man’s shoulder on what must’ve been the apex of their romance days.
When we come to a table littered with paintbrushes and chipped wood, she shows me how she makes the frames using prefabricated wood and a glue gun. She tells me she comes from a long line of people who like working with their hands. He grandmother weaves baskets, her mother loves sewing, and her father was a carpenter. He had timber yards in three towns and was wildly successful. He was astute and thrifty in business, and had an open and kind manner with people, that made his yards popular. She says this as though she is not consciously aware that she is describing herself.
“That was before he was shot outside our home in Nakuru,” she says. She remembers hearing the shot ring out. It wasn’t even fully dark yet. She had been playing with her sister under the security light while her mother cooked in the kitchen. “I’d never heard a gunshot before, but I just knew, you know?”
A business rivalry had motivated the shooting, but no one was ever arrested for it. Such was life in the 90s. As she takes me through it, I gather from the longing in her voice that family is a priority for her.
I feel stabs of guilt in my chest because she was right that last time we fought. I had been stringing her along even though I’d made swaying declarations about my upstanding character, (which she threw back in my face without apology). I told her I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t stop with the mixed signals. I just had to go and kiss her and make a mess of everything.
Back in her living room, she invites me to sit on the couch while she fetches me a glass of juice. I settle for the armrest instead, because even I know it’s cruel to let her cater to me while I’m sitting on a revelation she will find displeasing.
“If I had known all it took was the uniform to get you to open up, I would’ve worn it sooner,” I call to her in the kitchen, loosening my tie.
She laughs. “Seems only fair, since I met your family. It was nice. I wish it had been under different circumstances.”
She places the juice on a coaster next to me.
“Come here.” I slide the keychain off my keys and place it in her palm. Then I cup her cold hand in mine.
“I have to leave,” I say.
“So soon?” she asks.
“No Mel,” my eyes soften, “I mean I have to stay away for a while.”
With me seated on the armrest, we’re the same height. She looks at me, understanding washes over face, and her smile disappears. She hugs her shoulders closer, like a child self-soothing.
“It’s because of the graduation, isn’t it?”
“Among other things, yes.”
She blinks back tears. I circle my hands around her waist but she pulls away from me.
“You know… My marriage is falling apart. I need to make things right.”
“And I’m getting in the way of that?”
I stand up and shove my hands in my pockets. She curls her fingers over her mouth and toys with her lips.
I find myself hoping she’ll say, “Don’t go.” Then I might tell her that if she doesn’t want me to, I won’t. I might tell her that I love her and that I want her in my life some way or another. That I deserve at least one thing for myself and no, I’m not going to try golf. That fires like ours shouldn’t be snuffed out because other people can’t stand the heat, and that it’ll be a tragedy and a damn shame if they were.
But Mel was never the kind of girl to say such a thing. If she were, I’m afraid I would find her boring. Instead, she chokes up saying, “You do what you have to do.”
I hate how measured that response is. I thought I hated when she yelled at me but this is worse. I wish she would tear into me as she did before, so I wouldn’t feel this lump in my throat. I know I should probably just walk away now, but the situation is like a scab I know I shouldn’t pick at but that I do anyway.
I feel this need to push her buttons because I know that if I leave now she won’t call. Certainly not to hear my voice and then say that my number is on speed dial, and that it was a butt dial. She won’t send an attention-seeking WhatsApp message and pretend it was a drunk text. She will fall off the grid. Radio silence. I’ve thought about not being able to talk to her when I see things that make me think of her. It’s killing me. I don’t know how to go back to how things were before her. I don’t know how to undo her presence in my life. It’s funny. If I asked her for advice about this kind of thing, I know exactly what she’d say.
“Stop trying to go back. Find a new normal.”
That’s what she’s going to do, but I don’t want to find a new normal. Man, if I only had half her willpower.
“Can I still call you?” I ask.
She exhales in a half laugh and the tears on the brims of her eyes stream down her cheeks. “You know, I don’t really like playing second pickings Kagwe. I think I’m done.”
“What? It’s not second pickings.”
“No? What is it then?”
“It’s not. I don’t have a better answer but it’s not.”
“Yet here we are,” she says folding her arms. That’s my cue to leave. She’s too gracious to ask me to leave but if I don’t, she will and I don’t want that. “Don’t call me. Call her.”
She shuts the door before I have a chance to look back. I walk down the stairs reeling and kick up gravel in the driveway. I feel like ten-year-old-me kicking a rock home after losing a fight. I call Mwai and go out drinking in defiance, because I’m feeling particularly resentful of Njambi for blowing this whole thing out of proportion. She can sleep alone today if she wants. I moan about my marriage being on the rocks and curse all the people who act like their marriages are nirvana.
He says, “Kwanza pewa moja on the rocks coz of that story,” and pours me three fingers of his Jack Daniels.
I’m not high enough to cackle the way he does, but I crack a smile. When I’m caught in the vortexes of my intense women, Mwai always manages to shake me out of it and a man needs a friend who can do that for him.
“It’s just a rough patch bana. Bottoms up,” he says. “To shaking it off.”
“To shaking it off.”22