Her laughter floats through the room like a genie from a bottle and tickles the back of my neck. As always, my body reacts even before my mind registers her, the way animals smell a tsunami coming when it’s still working up its wrath at the bottom of the ocean. And because her energy pulses like Chernobyl, I don’t have to look around for her. I simply turn to my left and there she is; her chin turned upward in ecstasy.
God, it really has been months. Look at her.
I was fogging up the windows in my car on my way to the airport, suffering the engine fumes typical of a morning commute when I thought of the warmth of a coffee house hitting my face: the sizzle of coffee-makers behind the counter, the smell of croissants and muffins with raisins fresh from the oven, and of course, music. A saxophone instrumental if I’m lucky; otherwise jazz or that indie stuff she liked. I pictured it exactly like that and made a split-second decision to duck into Nextgen Mall. Raisins reminded me of Diani, how she picked them out of her rice and said, “I only like raisins in chocolate.”
Rum and raisins, her favorite. Not dark, not white, not fruit and nut. Rum and raisins – a somewhat useless little nugget to know about her now.
It’s early Thursday morning when I order my latte and wait, drumming my fingers on the counter. I catch the barista spying my stripes and resist making eye contact lest I fall into a silent contract to leave her a big tip. As I watch the milk foaming in the cup, thinking about nothing in particular, I feel it – I feel her. I don’t know what she’s laughing about but it already pains me to see her so mirthful. Without me.
My usual urge to go to her immediately emerges like a submarine out of saltwater. I don’t realize that I’ve stopped in my tracks until a short Mhindi guy circles me, laptop in hand, an irritated scowl on his face. He turns back, takes an earphone out of his ear from which rock music is blazing, and says, “Excuse me.” After he’s already passed me! I square myself. I’m about to have me a nigga moment straight out of Boondocks. My eyes dare him to say something else. Say something else you little –
I’m in the way, I know so. I should probably apologize but not if he’s going to be like that. Not if he’s going to expect it from me. I’m not a man who often subjugates himself with apologies.
He rethinks his stance and turns away shaking his head, only to run smack dab into a server lifting cups of scalding hot espressos off the counter. Her white, polyester shirt stains brown from the spilled coffee. She yelps and drops the tray. It tumbles down with a roar, silver spoons sliding across the tiled floor away from the shards of ceramic, except for this one saucer with butter packs on it. It’s egg-white in color and more spherical than round – like an alien space ship. The kind you would pick out when you happen to walk into a gift shop to get out of the rain and have to buy something out of social obligation.
It falls on its side and rolls all the way to Mel’s feet. You can tell it’s one of those oddballs by the way it wobbles like a clumsy ballet dancer or an attention-seeking twelve-year-old who can’t stop hoola hooping at the family gathering. There’s a long moment of silence in honor of the broken cups, the spilled espressos, that woman’s poor scalded boobs, but primarily that saucer’s performance. It goes on so long that I get the urge to go to it and slap it down, end its fifteen seconds of fame, but my shins have turned to mercury.
She looks up from the saucer with her usual, puzzled, doe-eyed look. The edges of my lips tingle and before I can bite down on them it’s too late. The betrayal has already occurred. I have smiled and now she knows how glad I am to see her. How soft I still am for her. She hides her mouth behind her fist like that’s supposed to blind me from seeing her smiling back there.
I step forward uncertainly, like a calf taking its first step. I notice her eyes flutter with panic before the baby stroller comes into view. I can’t see the baby but I can hear her gurgling. I imagine she’s kicking her little legs under a pink fleece blanket. Perhaps there’s a matching bow on her head and bright gold earring studs on her ears. Mel certainly seems like the brand of a mother who would pierce a toddler’s ears – no judgment. What I can see is the one thing I’d recognize anywhere. The shoulder strap of a pilot’s uniform, much like the one I clip my stripes onto.
A gentleman would go over and say hello. Tickle the baby’s cheek. Tell the lady she’s glowing. ‘Motherhood becomes you’ and all that. Steer clear of commenting on who the baby looks like because that’s a potential minefield. Fellowship with the guy over the lack of sleep, our ‘crazy’ schedules, and the exhaustion. Tell him he’s doing a great job. Tell him it gets better and if the conversation starts to take a southward turn, bring up paternity leave. Resist offering the man a drink because you know all too well, from experience in fact, that that’ll make for an icy car ride home. Offer to pay for breakfast instead. Insist.
“No-no-no. Chief, it’s on me. You have a good one.”
But Jonathan is sitting behind a pillar and I don’t have to be an architect to know that he doesn’t have a direct line of sight of where I’m standing. He hasn’t seen me yet. I still have a chance to get my coffee and be on my way like I was never even there. Besides, I am no gentleman, and now is not the time for fine manners.
… and so I do.30