The door to Ben’s office is ajar when I get there. I tap lightly and walk in to find Awiti, our elderly tea lady, serving the afternoon snacks. The hot rays of the February sun have turned the office into a sweltering box. The facade that gleams wonderfully on the outside, colors the ambiance in the room a soft green. Ben takes off his coat and hangs it on a coat stand by the door – a luxury only afforded the heads of department. I have to place my coat on the visitor’s chair next to the one Ben beckons me to sit on.
Awiti engages him with news from home, waving the flask around every now and then. By his measured responses, I can tell that he is growing impatient. Her prattling is slowing down her work. There is talk of a funeral and other details that Ben is reluctant to disclose when she leaves the room. As I am locked out of the conversation, I fixate instead, on a clock hanging over Ben’s desk. It is another perk only afforded the bosses, albeit a plain, unimpressive one.
When I was little, my mom had this retro alarm clock sitting on her nightstand. It was a fascinating timepiece: had a silver back and a brilliant white face. I’m sure it once worked, before either my brother or I broke it. The only memory I have of it though, is holding the weight of it up to my ears and shaking it. It must have had a loose washer or gear because in place of its ticking, came this poignant clacking noise, the sound of something broken. If a giant child with curious, dirty-nailed hands, from one of the worlds in Gulliver’s Travels were to hold me up to their ear and shake me, they would hear the same clacking sound. Something inside is broken. I can feel it in the salt under my eyelids and the stone in my chest.
This morning I watched Kagwe sleeping, his brow a little furrowed and his lips twitching ever so slightly. He was snoring like a truck, sure, but his fingers were all curled up on his chest. Clear as the stars on a moonless night, I could see the ten-year-old boy in him. It thawed me a bit to see him that way. Yet, I could not reconcile that compelling picture, with the man who now shuts me out of the places inside him that I hanker for.
“Tea or coffee?” Ben asks.
I draw my eyes away from the clock.
“Tea please, one sugar,” I say.
I take a tentative sip of tea, twiddle with my thumbs and just as I begin to speak, Ben starts to say something too. We both stop mid-sentence. I struggle to reign in my nervous giggling.
“You go first,” he says.
“No, let me go first,” I say.
He cocks his head to the side. “Yes, that’s what I said.”
I press my fingers to my temple, willing the gods of time to obliterate this moment. I gulp down the tea and swallow loudly. What does one say when their boss catches them absent-minded at a morning briefing? Do I accept the premise of guilt, or pretend that I was mulling something over and needed time to think? He sets his coffee mug aside and circles his desk to where I am sitting.
“I assume this had something to do with why you were distracted at the meeting,” he says, leaning on his desk.
He holds up his phone to me. My cup clangs against the saucer as I struggle to place it back with shaky fingers. In our thread of messages is a text that reads; I wish you were coming home to me, and I know exactly how that got there. My stomach turns into a deep hollow pit swallowing all the words I am babbling. My heart is pounding in my ears so loudly I can’t hear myself speak. He has on this amused look, as he takes the cuff links off his dress shirt, and folds his sleeves up to his elbows.
“You see, I was texting my husband because umh… he’ll be away for two weeks, for training umh… in Amsterdam. I know I shouldn’t be on the phone during a meeting and –”
“Sssh. Don’t tell me now,” he says, taking my hand by the wrist. “Tell me over drinks. I know a place near here. I’ll swing by your office at 5.”
He presses the cuff links into my palm, binding me to a silent obligation to give them back at the place and time of his choosing.
“Oh and Njambi,” he says, when he has sat back at his computer, “leave your car. I’ll drive you back to pick it up.”
In the privacy of my office, I exhale. I try to take deep breaths but the air feels thin and my lungs too shallow.
I was clear that the text was for my husband, wasn’t I? Should I tell Kagwe? Why didn’t I say no? And why do I have his cufflinks!
I should go back and explain. I should tell him that I don’t think having drinks with my boss is very professional. I should tell him that I am married, that my husband is expecting me at home.
My husband is expecting me at home. I break out in fits of laughter. Oh, that’s a good one. I start to laugh even more hysterically and I have to lean against the door lest someone walks in on me. If Kagwe’s trend is anything to go by, he won’t be home until three in the morning. Besides, it’s Friday and I could use a drink. What’s a few hours? I’ll be home by nine, ten at the latest.
He takes me to the kind of place where fickle characters who borrow your lighter and pocket it, hang out. When he leans over to ask for my drink order, his breath tells me he already broke into the stash of Hunter’s Choice he keeps in the bottom drawer of his file cabinet. I get an inkling that at some point in the night, when he has drunk more than he should with a co-worker, he will do something repugnant that will hand me the advantage over him. He does not disappoint.
For starters, he neglects to mention that he’s invited a friend over – a prop; the guy he says he’s with should his wife call. He (the friend) is a brooder, by the looks of it. He watches with the same bemusement on his face as mine, as Ben has words with the steward over the bill. He remains quiet for most of the night, nursing his drink and smoking his cigarettes. He watches this sweet-looking, plump bird with red dreadlocks dancing with her friend for a while, but even that fails to retain his attention. When Ben has all but talked my ear off about things I am only half-listening to, and I have vowed to storm off if I have to swat his hand away from my knee one more time, he interjects. Perhaps because every time he turns in my direction, I happen to be yawning or because the disdain I now feel for Ben is seeping out through my pores.
He holds my attention with witty conversation for the next two hours, much to Ben’s annoyance. A bottle of Four Cousins later, I decide that I have enough ammunition to leave. Two things happen: first, I realize that I am too drunk to drive and Ben is worse off than I am; second, Ben drives off in a huff, leaving his friend to step up and Uber me home.
It’s a little past eleven when I walk through the gate to find Kagwe’s car parked in the driveway. I run my hand over the Land Cruiser’s hood. It is cold; he must’ve gotten home hours ago. The lights are on downstairs, and I can hear familiar voices inside. I check to see if there are any missed calls on my iPhone. There are none. Could it be? No. The front door swings open before I manage to fish out my house keys from my purse.
“Oh, it’s you. I didn’t hear your car,” Kagwe says.
He is dressed in red trackies and a t-shirt; he appears to have been home for a while.
“I left it at the office.” I say. “It smells like you cooked. What’s for dinner?”
The edges of his mouth curl up in a sly smile. “Chicken,” he says.
I take off my shoes and walk into the living room, leaving him to lock the door behind me. I am asking him why he is home early when the other voice I heard stops me dead in my tracks.
“Welcome home, Njambi,” my mother-in-law says. “It’s nice of you to finally join us.”5