Short Stories

The Duke
January 11, 2018
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Photo by Rui Silvestre on Unsplash

Previously in Njambi & Kagwe’s World …

I’m clacking my heels down the hallway from the kitchenette, when I see him. It’s 10:00 AM in the morning and I’m feeling radiant like the sun. My foot brace finally came off and I can wear heels again. I’ve been swooshing my sleeveless, navy blue, chiffon dress across the office all morning because what can I say – these hips don’t lie. I am also on my fourth cup of coffee. (#CoffeeisBae)

*

I slept eight hours last night for the first time in maybe two months. I was wheels up into an overthinking spree when Kagwe came to bed last night. I turned abruptly and asked him, “Are you really not taking the job because of me, of us?”

It startled him. He was about to lift his other foot onto the bed, but then he looked like he was considering just going back downstairs. I sat up. He exhaled.

“Yes, it was the right thing to do for us. Now come here, the doctor said the brace comes off today.”

I had forgotten about that. He took it off, squeezed some foot cream onto his fingers and rubbed my ankle. Foot massage? Yes please!

*

I stop in my tracks so clumsily that the coffee spills over the mug I’m holding. If I was a car, my tires would’ve screeched. He’s standing outside the conference room talking to Ben and Ivan. I consider ducking into Ben’s office, which is closest to me. He hasn’t seen me yet –

“Njambi?”

Ah. Damnit!

“Duke,” I smile too hard.

“Is that really you?” he says, walking towards me, leaving Ben mid-sentence. “You work here?”

Okay. Here’s what you need to know about Duke. Did we date for a brief three years in business school? Yes. Is he a thoroughbred man with a rugged goatee? Yes. Is he as lofty, debonair and unattainable as he sounds? Yes, yes, yes! More so now that he’s standing here overwhelming me with what I assume is aftershave. He is the kind of guy whose hugs involve cheeks rubbing, and the part of his jaw that is clean-shaven is baby-bum soft. Even in my heels, I have to look at him like I’m reading the name of a building.

“You have to let me take you out to lunch,” he says, his palms cupping my bare shoulders.

*

When we met, I was a fresher in business school. My identity as a woman was constructed on the shaky beams of societal expectations and dog-eared, Cosmo girl magazines. The days of our mothers sidestepping tailoring and cateress jobs in favor of teaching and nursing were gone. I was lucky to be in the brave, new world of women in business and aviation.

Even so, it was expected – as I learned from the hushed voices of my parents and their friends discussing career choices – that I choose something along the pink-collar line. I was not to concern myself with anything too threatening, (like leadership, ambition, or the worst of them all, feminism), that might scare away a husband. I confess that I was yet to make acquaintance with introspection, and that I happily went along.

My chief concern was to finish my B.Com in Marketing, get a stable job as a bank teller, buy a car and maybe a plot for speculation – in that order. In the meantime, as this plan unfolded, I scoured beauty and fashion magazines for tips on ‘How to Be Irresistible’, because getting boys to like you was the true north for every young woman.

From them, I gathered a trove of valuable gems concerning womanhood. Things like coarse, African hair had no place on my head if I was going to look glam, and to see about that perm right away. Size 2 was the size to aspire to and that muffin top could be remedied with endless sit-ups ‘in just two weeks!’ That lip-gloss is a girl’s best friend (eye-roll). Oh and stretchmarks? What are those?

I was green as a guava, you see. I lapped it all up. I was all of those things! Boy crazy and reading about ‘What He Tells His Friends after You Hook-Up’, while the boys were reading about ‘How to Dress for More Sex’. I was entirely consumed with cooking like a mke nyumbani because a husband returning you to your mother’s house to learn how to cook (or God forbid, ask for his dowry back) would be the ultimate dishonor.

My prize? Duke. Also going by ‘Mr. Right’. Cliché of a man. Tall, dark and handsome, yes – but absent of any kind of personality because looks were all he ever had going for him. He mistook women-bashing jokes for a sense of humour and had zero ambition, besides of course, ‘dressing for more sex’. Again, this was pre-introspection, so I hadn’t figured these things out.

My friends used to tell me, “You’re going to have such beautiful babies.” In woman speak, back then anyway, that loosely translated to, “A boyfriend with a hot bod, and he wants you and your offspring? Guuuuuurl! You are doing womanhood right. We are choking on jealousy.” It was the matriarch of compliments, so I stayed three years. Oh Njambi.

*

He calls me that Thursday afternoon with a change of plans – dinner and a jazz band. He takes me to the kind of place expats meet up to trade horror stories about Kenyan traffic cops.

“…and then he just grabbed my registration and walked away…so I’m on the side of the road wondering…should I call the embassy?”

Pfft!

We have to wade through a party of bearded Turkish dudes drinking cider to get to our table. The place has the feel of a mini UN convention, which is ironic, because there’s more African print here than a kitenge shop. We have to shout our dinner order three times.

When the band starts their show, it becomes impossible to make conversation. Duke appears to be enjoying himself, if not a little self-satisfied. He’s taking short videos of the performance and typing furiously on his phone every so often. I get the sense that when he said we should catch up, what he meant was, “Come, let me show you how well I’m doing now and what you’ve been missing.”

I am his prop, an audience to watch him preen, hopefully with the awe of a nineteen-year-old and the regret of a thirty-two-year-old. I’m not sure whether to be annoyed with him or with myself. Dinner with the ex? What was I thinking? Nancy will get a good laugh out of this.

For the half hour that the band is on break, my mind drifts. Of course, Duke would bring me to a place where there was no risk of conversation. He could never hold up his end of it. When I strip away the party scene, there remains one distinctly familiar feeling – mind-numbing boredom.

*

This is how we broke up. I took a job working for a Mhindi who sold clothes and textiles on Tom Mboya Street after graduation. One slow afternoon, the boss let me leave with the sales van to deliver a consignment of pilot uniforms to a flying school at Wilson Airport. As the KYM offloaded the batches into the store, these two guys in crisp, starched uniforms came up to me. I thought they were going to help but they just stood there, not lifting a finger. I thought, God forbid they crease their precious uniforms. I don’t remember what we talked about – something banal that led us to eating chips with toothpicks at Dambusters.

I would later make friends with these guys, Kagwe and Mwai. To my relief, I would learn that Kagwe is many things, but boring is not one of them. He can be manipulative when he wants something; sweet, when he’s in a good mood. He’ll teach you things if you show even the least bit of interest. He can keep your stomach in a knot for weeks and be hard to pin down most times. He can be talkative, if you catch him in the car; aloof and difficult when he’s feeling insecure; insufferably smug when he has the upper hand, but not boring, never boring.

Duke, on the other hand, was like flat soda. You know how after the third sip, you begin wondering, Why am I even drinking this? That’s what happened with him. After the third year, I began wondering, What am I even doing here? And you know what they say, happiness is never stopping to think if you are. I had one foot out the door as soon as I asked myself that question, but you know us womenfolk. We have to wait for these huge defining moments. Is a sign even real if it’s not an epiphany, 3000 volts of intuitive current or a flashing neon sign reading ‘ditch the guy’?

I believe the exact moment I decided to leave him was that evening when I insisted on leaving Dambusters at 8:00 PM on a Friday, the good girl that I was. As I headed out the door Kagwe said, “So are you going to take my number or what?”

It wasn’t his finest moment, nor was it mine because I thought, He’s not nearly hot enough to execute that line. But it was ballsy, and I liked it and I did take his number.

*

When the band goes on their next break, the place quiets down. I grab my purse, gulp the last of my juice and tell Duke that I am leaving.

“But the show isn’t even over yet. You have to stay.”

“I really don’t,” I say. “But you stay and enjoy the show.”

As I drive home, I glance at my watch. It’s 9:30 PM and I am sober. Not bad, Njambi. Not bad at all.

Next: Done and Dusted

 

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About author

Wanjiru Ndung'u

Wanjiru Ndung'u is a Published Poet and Founder of The Hooting Owl. She is an irretrievable, tea-loving nightowl with an ardor for matters of Personal Development.

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