After that awkward first date, I found myself out of sorts. I had tried not to place expectations on it. I was a good sport. I talked about my son even though I would’ve preferred not to. I entertained most of his conversation even though I found bits of it shallow and banal. Three days later he still hadn’t called. I should’ve been glad to be rid of him but instead, I felt robbed. Short-changed. A tiny bit of expectation for good conversation had snuck in when I wasn’t looking and ballooned at the back of my mind. I thought, and I didn’t think that I was mistaken, that he’d shown a lot of promise that went unfulfilled on that date. There was a click between us that felt so right, like a ball joint being popped back into its socket. It can’t just have been me. Surely he must’ve heard it…felt it? Ugh. First dates are the worst.
In my shared office at the Forest office where I work in HR, I kept turning it over in my mind. Perhaps someone had told him during a pregame pep talk much like the one I had with Fiona to show interest in the kid. Maybe they’d even said single moms like that and he’d run with it past the land of keen interest into slightly creepy territory. He didn’t seem like a pep talk kind of guy though. What was his deal?
I was a dog with a bone. It puzzled me throughout the week until I became aware of the obsessive energy it was wracking me with. Was this really the most exciting thing in my life at the time? Unfortunately, yes. Most of Josh’s exciting moments had passed – his first steps, his first toothless smile, his first words, the first day of kindergarten, his first trophy for most fluent reader… There had been many more trophies and gold stars and there would be many more to come. They handed them out like ball gums at his school.
The only thing left now was if he showed interest in a new book, which happened once every few months. Mostly he was a creature of habit – reading and re-reading the same books, riding his bike, kicking his ball. Occasionally he’d make me buy him a newspaper because there were always newspapers at his grandpa’s house. On Sunday mornings I’d find him on the couch, cartoons playing on the TV on mute, trying to read a political column with his ankle crossed over an already dusty knee. Then he would echo something he’d heard his grandpa say about the handshake and I’d ask him, “What do you know about the handshake?” And on and on we went. Then here comes Lenny yanking my head from the sand and forcing my eyes open to the exact colorlessness of my life like some loony out of Bird Box. Sigh. It made me sad.
Anyway, between laundry, report cards, parent-teacher conferences and “Mommy, mommy look…loooook…You’re not looking!” I forgot about it all. That week schools closed so I did what Nairobi parents do. I shipped Josh off to the farm. On my way home I bought a bottle of Rose then settled in front of the TV to watch all the shows I would normally watch on my laptop – Insecure, Big Mouth, Killing Eve. My phone buzzed on the fleece blanket. The name Lenny Biker popped on the screen and I was at first gripped by a moment of disbelief. Oh my gosh, he’s calling! Then a moment of annoyance. Humph. After all this time? Let it ring. Then a moment of panic. It’s rung too long! What if he disconnects and doesn’t call back?
I picked up. Later, I looked at the call duration and it was 00:01:39 minutes. He fumbled through all of them but the gist of the call was that he’d be in my area the next day and would I be persuaded to maybe have a late lunch with him, an early dinner, or supper as the Brits call it. I cringed for him. It was awkward, like hearing a hot woman shrub through the menu, or discovering a guy you hold in high regard can’t keep up with witty banter. Still, I felt an unexpected satisfaction having discovered a chip in his armor – some well-hidden social awkwardness.
Following that triumph, or maybe for lack of anything better to do I said, “Eer, sure. I could be persuaded to have a late lunch stroke early dinner stroke supper as the Brits call it.”
This is how it came to be that one Saturday afternoon in November, Lenny pulled up at my house on his motorcycle. To clarify, it is my parents’ townhouse left under my stewardship after my father’s retirement. I opened the gate for him, hands still wet from hanging the last of the week’s laundry. He looked different than I remembered. His face was rounder, softer. His eyes had seemed shrouded when I first saw him. Reading him was like trying to peer through an iron veil, yet here he was disarming me with a soft gaze. He had this pouty way with his lips, thin eyebrows, and his ears – well, his ears were still big but not disproportionately so.
It was a warm day and contrary to every biker I have ever known, he actually took off his leather jacket and slung it across the seat. He gave me a one-armed hug, holding onto his helmet under the other. His bike looked different too. It had been buffed. I trailed a finger across the handlebars, down to the fuel tank. It was warm to the touch.
“It’s a Kawasaki Vulcan 900,” he said. “A cruising bike. I bought it off a South African Dutchman on a whim.”
I took a walk around it, all the while watching a caricature of my reflection on the glossy mufflers. “Sleek,” I said more as admission to myself than to him.
“Thanks. I thought so too. I liked that it doesn’t have all that plastic bodywork, like with the superbikes. I mean the fenders are plastic, but I like that it’s minimal.”
“And the fenders are?”
He tapped on what I would’ve shadily called a mudguard and I was glad I kept my mouth shut. He told me how he liked taking things apart when he was a boy.
“I’d take out the cardboard back of our only clock just to see how the gears worked. And it wasn’t just the clock either. I’d take apart almost anything. My father’s old car batteries, my mother’s kitchen radio, electrical sockets… Earned my fair share of thwacking for it too. My mom did not play around.”
He said these things without any qualms or embarrassment. He stopped taking things apart when he was older but he always liked how things look on the inside. He liked the exposed cylinders and exhaust pipes, especially after a good polish.
“Eventually I might buy alloy fenders but I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“Do you want to take it for a spin?” he asked.
I hesitated a moment and then shook my head. He sniffed it out and realized that I would bow to pressure if he piled it on.
“Come on, hop on. Straddle this bad boy.”
He showed me where to rest my foot as I swang my other leg over. I thought I heard myself giggle in a most strange way.
“So this here is the ignition switch,” he pointed to a little key, towering over me from behind. “You give it a little flick to get it going.”
I turned the key and the cruiser came alive under me, whirring rather than thundering as I’d expected. It was a pleasant sensation, like a cat purring on my lap.
“And this here is the throttle. You give it a gentle stroke, just to warm it up,” he said interlocking his fingers with mine. We revved the bike into a roar that made me immediately rethink my earlier cat comparison. After the surge of adrenaline I had, I was convinced. This here is a beast!
“And there’s a speedometer here to pace yourself. Once you get a good rhythm you can ride till the sun comes up. That’s all you need.”
More giggling. His breath was pleasantly fruity, no doubt from an energy drink.
“So, after that well-guided tour, may I take you for a ride around the block?”
I shook my head. “That’s enough excitement for one day.”
Dinner was on Kiambu road. One of those nyama places that boil their meat before they grill it. We took my black Mazda Demio whose choice I’d had no cause to question until I saw Lenny’s knees squeezed against the glove compartment. The only man I’d had in mind when I was shopping for it was my little man. How could I have known? Great. Now he’ll always grumble when we have to take the car.
He brought an easy comportment. We talked about fragments of our lives. I, about the Forest Service and he, about his job as a network admin, which he called cable work. I wasn’t surprised. He seemed exactly like the kind of guy who would derive excitement in knowing what every blinking light on a server means. He told me what it was like growing up with a magistrate for a father and a court clerk for a mother. How he learned never to make assumptions about people from them. How if you give them enough rope, people always hang themselves with their words and that you learn more by listening.
He said, “People are always who they are. It is our assumptions about them that cause us to be surprised when they do something totally aligned to their nature.”
I thought that was a bit cynical but I suppose he had reason to be. I myself suffered a benumbed outlook on people now and again. By the end of the evening, I was thoroughly sated on all fronts. I was teeming with ecstasy so I didn’t notice Lenny clutching the door handle and glancing at the rear-view mirror on the drive home. What I did notice, with much annoyance, was a dark car behind me blinding me with its full lights. And what I noticed next floored my stomach. I don’t know at which point he’d reached down to his ankle, but resting on his thigh now in my full view was his gun.
His gun! I’d forgotten all about it. He had it on its side, his index finger stretched out across its black barrel, well away from the trigger. It was pointed away from me, but hair-raising all the same.
“Don’t be alarmed, but I think the car behind us is tailing us,” he said.
“It’s not tailing us,” I said gripping the steering wheel harder which made the car swerve a little. “It’s tailgating us. The guy is a bad driver. This town is full of them.”
“Speed up,” he glanced at the rear-view mirror again, then the side mirrors.
We were on the Northern Bypass heading towards Ruiru. It wasn’t too late and we were only a few minutes away from home, but right then it felt like we were in a time loop, on a road with no end in sight. As I sped up, the headlights fell farther and farther away until I saw the car indicate and turn right towards Kahawa West. Still, Lenny wouldn’t put the gun away and I couldn’t exhale.
“Would you mind putting that away? It’s making me nervous.”
My voice shook. He heard it but said nothing. He did put the gun away though. By the time we got home, my mood had soured. I launched into a distraught proclamation that I had a son and couldn’t have firearms around him or his only parent. He countered with a disorganized explanation for why he brought a gun on a date. I would hear none of it of course, because I had already made up my mind that it was inexcusable and wouldn’t listen.
“I don’t like being in cars. But I knew that you wouldn’t want to go on the cruiser so I didn’t even bring an extra helmet.”
He brought up the carjacking in which his wife died and I didn’t know whether or not to acknowledge that I knew the story. But I understood in a disconcerting way that even though he was obviously still battling some form of PTSD, he’d got in the car with me. For me. And the security of his gun was the only thing he could lean on to stay calm. He turned to walk away looking defeated and I felt bad. I called after him.
“Hey, is that your idea of an apology?”
He turned back, flung his arms out and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Sure, tell me over lunch and ice cream. Tomorrow?”
My approach lacked both finesse and originality but it made him smile.
“Is that a yes?” I asked.
He mounted the motorcycle, nodded with his helmet on so that all I saw was a tinted visor in the glow of my security lights, then took off.