The shrieks of children stomping around the driveway pull me from sleep. My eyes are sore and I could swear someone has set up a blacksmith’s shop on my temples. Swallowing feels like trying to play Slip ‘N Slide on dry rubber. My tongue is stuck to the floor of my mouth. Downstairs, the household is humming with activity. The clang of cutlery, the clink of crockery, the whirr of a vacuum cleaner at work, Njambi’s voice floating up the stairway, muffled laughter, more footsteps…too many footsteps. The drapes thrash around in the wind, whipping the choking smell of burning coal my way. I try to reach for my phone but my bones have turned to lead. So I just lie there, drifting in and out of consciousness, feeling sorry for myself and thinking, This must be what a deathbed feels like.
A feeling of the mattress sinking on my side, and the sound of Njambi crunching a baby carrot awakens me again.
“Good, you’re awake,” she says looking down at me.
Her hands are wet and speckled with bits of grated carrots. She puts down the contents of the tray she’s holding on my nightstand: painkillers, a glass of water and a concoction that smells citrusy.
“Hair of the dog,” she smiles. “You’re going to need it.”
My chest starts to swell with gratitude, but the way she is smiling tells me she knows something that I don’t. As if on cue, the curtains thrash again, this time whipping the smell of dung my way. My stomach roils. A goat bleats.
“What in the world is that? Where is that coming from?”
“From the backyard,” she bites off another piece of the carrot and savors it. “Mother and Mugo are here and they’re waiting for you. They brought a live goat so… Chap! Chap! You better hit the shower.”
She skips out of the room, leaving me to nurse myself back to sobriety.
In the shower, I give myself over to the cold spray of water and allow it to shock my system awake. Then I throw on a t-shirt and my red trackies and venture downstairs. Nancy and Magdalene are at the kitchen island slicing lettuce, cucumbers, French beans and a whole lot of other green stuff. I say hello and head out to the driveway. I don’t have to look back to know they’re exchanging looks behind my back. Their rascals are running around our cars and have already ran out of room to draw stick figures on the dusty windows. I hope they have better sense than to scratch the cars. Eh… It’s too much to hope for. I go back inside, grab the keys and move the cars to a vacant plot in the estate.
The slaughter is a gruesome thing. The goat kicks, yowls and refuses to close its eyes so that we have to face up to our murderous ways. Tears come to my eyes and I blame the smoking coals on the grill. My head pounds on. The sight of spilling guts and smell of blood makes me woozy. My stomach riots and refuses to keep anything down. I swear off that goat’s meat. I swear off gin. I swear off brandy. I swear off brandy and gin together.
At noon, Njambi’s family arrives because the in-laws are never late. Aunties and uncles, friends and neighbors troop in. Mwai breezes in with Olivia looking minty fresh. Am I the only one who feels and looks like I got ran over by a truck? She’s wearing a sundress showing off a star tattoo on her shoulder blade. I suppose it is the best we can ask for because her tatas are safely tucked away. The uncles seated at a table in the back will have to find something else to gawk at today. Mwai takes over manning the grill, leaving me to hydrate like my marriage depends on it – it may as well.
The backyard is packed. More seats have to be brought out. Njambi takes care of everything. Every now and then, I catch the yellow of her shuka as she crisscrosses the compound, sitting guests, directing others on the way and giving instructions to the caterers. Some cousin has brought their boujee kids. Those boys with the voices of men twice their age who tramp all over the house stealing leftover cigarettes from ashtrays, and anything else they can get their grabby hands on. Mother takes control and calls the gathering to order. She speaks into the mic even though she’s giving instructions that no one else needs to know about. She sends one of the boys to come get me. He runs towards the grill and breathlessly says, “Uncle Henry, Gram is calling you.”
“Yeah, I heard. Everybody heard. The whole estate heard.” I cringe.
This is what happens.
As it is our house, Mother has insisted that Njambi and I welcome the guests and pray for the food. Since the goat slaughter was bloody business, we set up in a corner behind the tents. I barely see who’s coming and going. To get to the front of the gathering, I have to circle the tents. While I’m doing this, Mother is still speaking into the mic and she’s saying, “Cameraman please, kuja hapa uchukue hii picha.”
I stop in my tracks. I forgot about the photographer! She says something else that I don’t quite catch and people in the tent titter. While I’m standing there – and this all unfolds quickly – Njambi emerges from the house. She discards her shuka over the handle of the back door, straightens her ivory dress, and we both walk to the front of the tent.
She sees me before I see her, panics, and topples her tripod over. I catch this movement from the corner of my eye. When I look at her she’s trying to stop the tripod from hitting the ground, but the camera hanging from her neck swings forward and whacks the metal with a sickening crack. I flinch. Something has broken. The look on her face tells me it’s something expensive.
My stomach floors. Shit. What is Mel doing here?
She takes a while to detach the lens because her fingers are shaking. I step towards her, wondering how to help, but she’s not looking at me. She’s giving me no indication. I imagine the tent has quieted down because I can see them all looking at her, but all I hear is this ringing in my ears. Njambi steps forward and picks up the tripod. Ng’endo joins her and they talk a bit about the broken lens. Mel says she has another one that she takes out of her cargo pants. Just like that, the whole thing is resolved without my input. I have never felt so useless.
I half-ass the speech welcoming everyone. Njambi prays. We open the buffet. I consider asking Mel what the hell, but I decide it’s safer to ask Njambi. She says, “Ask your sister.”
So I find Ng’endo, pull her aside and ask, “How did you get that photographer?”
“From Facebook. Why?”
“You went behind my back?”
“Where’s the one you got?”
Her friend draws her attention away from me. I gratefully exit that exchange. I greet the in-laws first, and then I proceed to shake other people’s hands. Mother takes the opportunity to introduce me as ‘the one who flies planes’. Dad says I look like I’m nursing a hangover and asks if I’m drinking too much. I lie. A concerned auntie shoves two boys in my direction and says they need career advice. What do I know about careers? I’m just a pilot. My female cousins herd me to their table asking if I invited any single friends. An uncle pulls me aside and begins a long-winded story about a dead cow that ends in me sending him money on M-pesa. Eventually, Mwai rescues me and has Olivia bring us both food. In all of that bedlam, Njambi swings by to check if we have food. I don’t deserve her.
Mwai lowers his tone and asks, “Chief, don’t you think you’re playing fast and loose here?”
“What are you talking about? The doghouse was your idea, and I’m the sucker who listened to you. Now I’m literally in the doghouse. Kwanza who was that you were with?”
“I’m talking about her,” he points to Mel.
She’s weaving through the tables taking short videos of congratulatory messages for Ng’endo. I watch as my two worlds intertwine and my stomach starts to cramp with anxiety. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Friends and family make speeches. I look in her direction. An overly emotional Auntie cries. I look in her direction. The funny uncle brings the house down. I look in her direction. The more I try not to, the less control I have over it. We cut the cake. We place envelopes of money in the hood of Ng’endo’s graduation gown. I send one of the kids to get the box wine still in the trunk of my car. The sun yields. Still my eyes seek her out from the crowd.
I realize, with dismay, that I haven’t seen her eat anything all day. I find Njambi talking with her mom on one side of the tent and tell her I’m going to hustle up some food for the photographer.
“Oh no, let me do it,” she says.
“No, you rest. Just tell me where the food is, I’ll have someone else do it.”
“All right. There’s salad and chapos in the kitchen. The chicken was a big hit so there’s none left. Unless you guys have some meat left on the grill. If not, there’s rice and stew from jana in the fridge.”
I fix up a plate, pour her a glass of wine and we sit around the fireplace. She refuses to talk about the broken lens. I can tell the whole thing has her shook. It’s not her fault. She had no way of knowing. Perhaps if I had asked, she would’ve sent me her assistant. But then I’d have to admit that I didn’t want her at my house and some things are better left unsaid. I, for one, didn’t want to deal with that particular elephant in the room.
I ask her what she makes of my family. She shrugs. I prod.
She says, “They’re nice.”
“Come on, what did you really think?”
“I think that this is not my world,” she says draining the last of her wine. “I am an outsider and you’re being unfair. I think I should leave.”
I am sorry I asked.
By sundown, my hangover has stopped raging. The party continues well into the night but I refuse to imbibe. At two in the morning, I wave Mwai and Olivia off. Everyone else settles in on the couches or the guest bedrooms for the night.
Even though she went to bed at midnight, I find Njambi awake. She’s lying on her back when I plop myself next to her.
“You haven’t slept?” I ask.
“I’m too tired to sleep. Everything aches.”
I never understand how tiredness does not translate to sleepiness for her. Lying still, she asks how my day was.
“I came this close to swearing off whiskey.”
She exhales. I can tell she is smiling ever so slightly.
“Was that her?”
“I know you heard what I asked.” The resignation in her voice rings out across the darkness. My chest tightens. My ears warm up. “You like her. I can tell.”
I don’t know what to say. Her breathing is so shallow I’m not even sure she’s there. A few more moments of silence and she sighs. Then she says, “What can you do. The heart wants what it wants.”
She turns on her side, doesn’t make a squeak, and that’s how I know that she’s crying.