The gust of wind blowing through the J.K.I.A parking lot feels like that pop and fizz of a beer being opened. I’ve just landed from Khartoum; my hottest flight yet. I take off my blazer and hang it up in the trunk of my car. The breeze teases the back of my neck delightfully. I could actually use a beer. I take my phone off airplane mode as I slide in the driver’s seat. A text from Mwai saying he is at Greenwich comes in. Sigh. I’m too tired for Greenwich today.
I take off my stripes and toss them in the glove compartment. A crumpled, white envelope stares back at me. Argh. I forgot that was there. I slam the compartment shut and pop open an 8.6 beer I picked up in Amsterdam last week. Mmh! It’s not at all impressive but I need this burning in my throat so I’ll take it.
I place the half-empty can in a cup holder and start the car. They’re playing something by The Weeknd on radio. As I head out, I crank the volume up so loud I can’t hear myself think. I’m just passing by Cabanas when Mwai’s call comes in.
“You coming to this thing or what?”
“Man, I’m tired.”
“Ah Chief. Don’t even start. I was in Lilongwe today.”
“Nimetoka Khartoum bana. The sun was crazy. Even Kidega was waking me up after controlled rest, karibu nimwambie apana; I’m not ready to take back this craft.”
“Just pitia, two hours tops. You know I’m trying to close this chic but she brought her friend.”
“The one from last week?”
“Yea man. And you know if she gets bored she’ll start saying she wants to go home early, and then they’ll band together…”
“Ha-ha! Boss, you’re in problems. The kasmall one was already breaking glasses after like two drinks.”
“Ah don’t even bring that up. Just get here.”
8:00 PM finds me parking below the balcony at Greenwich. I spot Mwai at a table in the back scrolling through his phone wearily. The girls next to him are whisper-shouting into each other’s ears over the music. He looks overwhelmed, the poor bloke ha-ha! I shoulder bump Mwai then go in for a disarming hug with the girls. The little one’s head is heavy with these impossibly, long braids twisted around her head like Minnie Mouse ears. It is in sharp contrast to her friend’s short, blonde-dyed cut. Agnes, the waitress, pulls up a chair for me. There are already two bottles sweating on the table.
“Hit the ground running,” Mwai says, raising his glass of whiskey.
I cup one bottle in my hand. “I hope they’re not warm.”
“They’re fine man, drink.”
Agnes brings what looks like a second round for the girls. It is a rich, red cocktail served in a mason jar and garnished with mint leaves and a lemon slice. Looks just like the kind of thing Njambi might enjoy. Speaking of which, I should call and see if she’s home yet.
“Henry,” Minnie Mouse is saying. “Henry?”
“Yoh, Kagwe. Cheru is talking to you,” Mwai says.
“Huh? Oh God, no. Call me Kagwe. Never Henry.”
“But Henry is such a nice name, right?” she says turning to her friend.
“Yea, it sounds strong,” she says.
“Nobody calls me that.” I say, and to change the subject I ask her, “What’s in that?”
“Sour cherry. It’s a cocktail.”
I can see that. “What’s in it?”
“Umh it’s cherry wine and…,” she places a finger on her lips. I find her multi-colored claws so distracting. Why are they all curved like that? Those are alarming. “And… lemon and whiskey.”
“Cherry for Cheru,” I say.
She laughs her head off, catching me by surprise. That wasn’t even that good.
“Pope, I’m in the mood for shisha,” she turns back to her friend, cutting Mwai short.
“Hold on, what did you just call her?” I ask.
“Pope? As in Olivia Pope?”
I blink at her. She rolls her eyes at me.
“Dude, her name is Olivia,” Mwai cuts in. “Have you not watched Scandal?”
“Oh right, right.” Njambi is the one who keeps up with all of that. I should really call her.
I summon Agnes to the table and leave it to Mwai and his birdlings to order their Shisha. It always takes too long to get the coal hot and going. As well, there is something about watching a woman trying to work a hookah that I find …unappealing. I certainly don’t want to be there for that, so I go out for a smoke. I dial Njambi but an incoming call cancels my call. With Mel on the line, I roll the sunroof in my car open and light up a cigar.
“Mmh. Nothing like a full-bodied cigar with a strong finish,” I say aloud without meaning to.
She sighs. I feel her shaking her head over the phone. She doesn’t like that I smoke, but she’s far too polite to say anything. I can usually see it in her look, this look that tells you everything without saying anything. Only a certain kind of woman can pull that off.
“Ok, I’ll be there at 10. Don’t be late,” she says and hangs up.
Back at the table, the shisha has arrived and the girls are puffing away. Mwai is not looking too pleased with me. I can tell he hasn’t been able to edge a word in since I left the table. He’s giving me that you-had-one-job look. Minnie Mouse over here is a Chatty Cathy. I can see why Olivia brought her along as back up.
“Take a puff,” Cheru offers, handing me the shaft.
“I’m not putting my mouth on that thing!”
She makes a pouty face.
“I only do cigars.”
“You have cigars?” she perks up.
I tap my breast pocket.
“Light it up. I want a puff.”
“You can’t handle it.”
“This is a Montecristo. It’s pure Tobacco hand rolled in Maduro – tobacco leaves. Ask Mwai, he’ll tell you.”
She stares at me. How much whiskey is in that cocktail? She wants to smoke everything.
“I have cigarettes too –”
“Not cigarettes. Cigars!”
She waves her arm at me and knocks over the Mason jar, which splashes the cocktail on my sweater as it flies to the floor. I manage to catch it just before it hits the ground, because my reflexes are on point like that (and I’m definitely not paying for another broken glass). Minnie Mouse takes out some wet tissues from her purse and paws at me with them. I let her because more than anything else, it seems to assuage her embarrassment.
An hour later, the coal on the shisha has gone out and I’m ready to call it. I offer to call Cheru an Uber home before I leave, because Mwai would never let me hear the end of it if I bail. The relief on his face when she agrees without much convincing tells it all.
I am half an hour late to meet Mel but she just smiles sweetly and says it’s okay. Crap. I forgot to call Njambi. She’s probably asleep by now, but just in case she’s not…Let me send her a text. I hope it doesn’t wake her up.
She reclines the front passenger seat and settles in. The night is so quiet I can hear her breathing. She sounds like a cat purring; I feel warm when I’m around her.
“I went to see the guy.” I open the glove compartment and toss the offending envelope on the dashboard.
“You haven’t opened it yet?”
I shake my head.
“It’s been two weeks.”
“Did you tell her?”
She sighs and looks at me with those soft eyes of hers and I know what she is going to say. “If I were her, I’d want to know.”
“You want to know?”
“If I were her –”
“But you do want to know.”
She cocks her head to the side. “It’s not my place.”
Always with the conscientiousness this one. She always knows what the right thing to do is. I want to be like that. I know I should probably open it. How hard can it be? Just tear it open.
“I’m not ready,” I say.
She takes my hand in her cold, little fingers and squeezes it. Just like that, a knot I did not even know was in my chest unwinds and I feel all right for the first time in weeks.