Saturday morning finds me standing shirtless in my kitchen with a strange woman. She averts her eyes from my chest hair and says, “Mama ako hapo nje.”
This is how I find out that Njambi has hired help to clean the house, do laundry and iron on Saturdays. I will have to increase the allowance on her debit card, and if it keeps the peace, then I consider it an investment in our wellbeing. I am up early for a breakfast meeting in town. Mwai insisted I accompany him and I acquiesced, even though I’d much rather be snoring the morning away than eating hotel food and talking about equity funds and life insurance.
“Come on, your wife knows these things,” he said.
“Exactly, that’s why I don’t need to be at this thing.”
“It’s not for you, it’s for me, all right?”
“Why are you so keen on it anyway? Now you’re investing?”
“Yeah, don’t look so surprised. We can have lunch at yours later, so you don’t get into trouble and whatnot.”
“Oh how generous of you!” I said, and he burst out laughing.
I decided to go because it might pass for effort on my part to get back on track with Njambi, and if Old Man asks about it over Christmas; I’ll have something to talk about.
It has been a few raw days without Mel. I keep thinking about what it will be like when I see her again. Our chemistry will be dead. I will have filled the void she left with other people, or perhaps with the fullness of life like she wanted. I will have lost my hair and her laugh lines will have set in her cheeks. I might have a little rascal impatiently pulling on my pants, and she might have a shy, round-faced girl hiding behind her dress. I think about looking at her and saying, “I used to know that girl.”
It makes me so sad I can’t breathe. What will it be like to feel nothing for her, or perhaps, to feel something different? To think nothing of her lips or her cold fingers, or her smell in my car? To land at the airport on a Friday evening and go home without a hole in my chest because I can’t call her? To not stare blankly at the TV replaying every detail of the last time I saw her in my mind?
Eventually I will have to accept that my place in her world is now external. That like rocks floating around in space, we may occasionally cross orbits but that will be all. That is what our fate requires of us now and it is the right thing. You would think that logic brings me comfort but it doesn’t. I have conversations with her in my mind in a masochistic effort to keep the connection between us from snapping. Despite my efforts, I still feel our cosmic thread unwinding. She is slipping away from me ever so slowly.
Njambi keeps busy over those days, up in the bedroom down the hall. I take the black, leather box out, and try to get her to wear her rings again but she says it’s no use. She can tell that she doesn’t have her husband back because I mope around the house all the time. She says she won’t put them on until I am ready, until I have let go of Mel.
She changes the curtains, and then she buys an ottoman and stuffed pillows for the window seat. She moves an idle shelf out of my study and turns it into a bookcase. I gather her plan, like mine was, is to fill it up with books. I am tempted to say that I was using it but since she wanted it bad enough to haul it up the stairs on her own, I bite my tongue.
In a few days, the room shapes up to what I assume is her woman cave. She has finally decided to make a nook for herself to retreat away from me. Daisy is allowed in the room because she scratches the door and whines. When Njambi opens it she wags her tail and I can hear her upstairs saying, “Fine, you can come in, but only if you’re quiet.” But Daisy doesn’t always stay quiet, especially if she sees a bird through the window. She starts barking and Njambi says, “Go out or go downstairs. You can’t stay here if you’re going to bark.”
So Daisy comes down and finds me on the couch re-watching Sully because I always fall asleep in the middle and wake up at the end. She sits there eyeing my take out and I resist tossing her a bone. The one time I give in, Njambi happens to be coming down the stairs and catches me in the act. You can hear her eyeballs turning in their sockets right before I get into trouble for rewarding the dog when she’s begging.
I figure if I show up with hot cocoa and cookies she will let me in. Unlike Daisy, I don’t have any uncontrollable urges to yap when a bird comes to the windowsill. Hell, a well-timed glass of wine might get me the season pass.
She fills up the room & starts working on nifty craft ideas. First, she tries making scented candles but finds the wax too messy. She tries crocheting but grows impatient with it. Then she tries beading but after a few needle pricks, she decides that needlework is not for her. Instead, she takes glue out of my study and makes an interesting abstract mosaic with the beads and what do I do? Frame it, of course, the smart man that I am, and hang it up in my study. I think about Mel’s frames, elegant in their simplicity and no longer available to me. I grab one off a supermarket aisle that’ll do and Njambi cracks a reluctant smile when I show it to her.
She notices that I no longer have the Cessna on my keychain and asks about it. I tell her that I gave it away, and add that it was mine to give away for good measure. She shrugs, perhaps too exhausted to fight with me, and instead says that the old makes way for the new. Then she slides four black beads onto a strip of leather and ties it on my keys.
“There,” she says. “When we have a baby, we can add one more bead.”
I know now that I can never take it off or give it away because the beads represent our family and you can’t give away family. Not even when they’re talking to the dog more than you. It’s a good thing that it’s not hideous, but even if it were, I would keep it.
In those few days, we sit on the floor of her woman cave. She explains her fascination and irritation about each new project and I listen. She says she is exploring herself and I wonder why now. She says that she needs to reinvent herself. She has outgrown our old life and wants to experience new things, to experience herself in a different way. She is on a renaissance.
“Why don’t we take another trip?” I say. “I’ll have a few days off and we can go away somewhere for Christmas.”
She says, “No, that’s a nice offer but I need to do this for me, by myself.”
I feel afraid because change is like being asked to leave the comfort of a warm fireplace and go out into the rain. It’s nature demands that it be met with resistance. I am afraid because I don’t know where this growth wave she is riding will take her, who the woman she is becoming is. I am afraid because I feel that she is leaving me behind.
She can’t still think of me as the man in her life who takes care of things if she feels the need to go ahead and clear her own paths. She must have decided that I am no use to her, and it’s scary to not be needed by her. It’s scary being a mantelpiece in my own house, watching her going about her life, my place in it now simply decorative.
At the meeting, a bunch of suits who take themselves too seriously talk numbers and pose hypothetical scenarios that go right over my head. The only value I find comes from unlikely quarters. An old man who appears to be in his sixties sitting next to me strikes up a conversation. He tells me how he planned his income twenty years ago to get him through retirement.
It’s an elaborate retirement plan with a formula and numbers and awfully personal information about his income in the Civil Service. He neither talks in a loud, bragging tone for everyone to hear, nor does he speak so quietly as to appear like what he has to say is a great, valuable secret. I don’t know why he singles me out for this, as opposed to the guy sitting on his other side, but I am grateful. It makes me think.
In fact, I leave feeling a bit embarrassed because I have clung to my boyhood ideas about manhood well into my thirties. Ideas based primarily on James Bond, his Bond girls, whiskey, cigars and machismo. Now this man talks about long-term planning and investment and I try to imagine the kind of follow through that requires. I am impressed. Inadvertently, he impresses upon me a different reality of manhood, one of focus and grit not just in finance, but in family life. My old man was right. I have lost focus and grown soft.
After breakfast, Mwai says we have a few hours to kill before lunch and could we talk over coffee.
“Talk over coffee? What? Do you need a kidney or something?”
“I’ve seen how much whiskey you can drink man. You wouldn’t be first on my list if I needed one.”
“No, you’re thinking liver. My kidneys are pristine.”
“Oh pristine! If you do say so yourself.”
“If I do say so myself.”
He stirs his coffee unnecessarily long, gathering wind for his words.
“I don’t know how you’ll feel about this. I’m not even supposed to be telling you this because it’s only been six weeks. Olivia’s pregnant.”
“No kidding,” he says smiling with a look I’ve never seen on his face before. I think it’s pride.
“Well in. Congratulations man! I’m happy for you of course. What do you mean ‘don’t know how I’ll feel about this’. I’m happy for you. It is a good thing, right?”
“Sure,” he says. “I like Olivia.”
I laugh. “Yes, if you’re going to have a baby with someone, it is paramount that you like them.”
“There you go again with the fancy words,” he says.
I tell him about the man I sat next to and how his eloquence has rubbed off on me, among other things. I wish that he had told me sooner so that I’d have been able to process it all with Mel. It’s a selfish thought that reminds me what Njambi said about pulling away from her when I needed something, instead of drawing closer.
I say I have to go to the bathroom and text her that Olivia’s preggers, and we’re going home for lunch and what would she like me to bring for takeout? I don’t remember the last time I texted her something that wasn’t transactional. I’m sure she is surprised. She types for a while, says to bring chicken and asks if I’m okay. I type back, ‘No, I’m not okay.’ The admission alone makes me nearly burst in tears in that bathroom. She texts back, ‘Hang in there. Come home, we’ll talk about it later.’
It makes me feel all warm inside, and somewhat proud of myself. For the first time in a long time, my judgement is clear. I have done the right thing. Njambi will be pleased with me. I think…I think I have set the stone for my new normal, and it’s the way it’s supposed to be, with my wife by my side.
How about that.23