Three things could’ve clued me in on how my night turns out. The universe is always kind enough to send you a sign when you’re about to weave yourself into a scrape. Wise men get the hint right away. They fold up and go home. But the universe knows human nature so it sends two more for the slow ones and the mulish ones. The cocky ones are left to fend for themselves because no one likes hubris.
The first of those signs is Njambi choosing ‘haya’ as her parting shot. Nothing good ever comes of a woman saying, “haya” – not especially when she says it inspecting her freshly done nails. It is Friday morning and I’m about to complete my rotation for the week. Njambi has taken the day off from work because Ng’endo’s graduation party is tomorrow and the tent people are coming to set up. I’m trying to stay out of her way because she’s in a full-blown squabble with my mother over the menu.
“Kagwe, your mother is driving me crazy!” she tosses her phone on the couch and pinches the bridge of her nose.
I don’t ask for details because I’m hoping to fly under the radar on this one. To her credit, Margaret can drive anyone crazy when the opportunity to show off to her friends comes up. I try to slide off the stool quietly but it squeaks and she looks up. “Did you get the photographer?”
“I’m working on it.”
She presses her lips together. In Njambi-speak, that means utmost displeasure.
“I’ll find someone.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, but you’re doing that thing with your lips.”
“You said you’d look into it.”
“And I will.”
She says, “Haya.”
It is not doubt in her tone. It is certainty that I will not deliver and she can’t wait to soak it in when it all blows up in my face. Do I listen?
This is how Mel tells me she’s back from Cape Town. ‘I’ve fikad,’ she texts after two weeks of radio silence. Like we were together last night and then she split and said, “I’ll text you when I fika.” I’m a little miffed so I let the text sit unanswered.
I land back at JKIA in the afternoon, ten minutes ahead of schedule. I swing by the duty free shops to pick up whisky for me, and wine for the party. I’m making my way across the parking lot when Mwai’s phone call comes in.
“Chief, kuja tujiweke.”
“Perfect timing. Drop me a pin.”
Then I execute a move I have been sitting on all day and hold my breath. I drop Mel a text. ‘Chomoka.’
I get to the car, pop the trunk and stash the drinks. Then I circle round to the front, toss the tie and the stripes and unbutton the top of my shirt. After seven long minutes, she replies, ‘Where to?’ Atta girl! That’s more like it.
‘I’ll be at yours in twenty.’
She makes me wait in her driveway for an eternity. I’m starting to realize that she’s not great with time – big surprise. When she emerges, I see her white dress first, billowing out around her. I see her hair surfing on the wind. I see the silver watch glinting on her slender wrist as she tucks an unruly strand behind her ear. The brown skin of her legs glows in the sun as she walks to my car. She looks up at me, claps her hands gleefully and says, “Yeeey! You’re here!”
I step out of the car and walk round to her side. She watches me, taking me in like the tall drink of water I am. Ha-ha!
Her waist feels small in my arm. Her fingers feel cool against my back. Always with the cold fingers, this one. Her neck… Dear God, her neck! I can’t help but nuzzle into it. I don’t know how long we stand there. In her force field, time is suspended. Just the sight of her makes all the hardness in my chest melt away. It scares me a bit. It feels like my heart was beating out of step but now it’s fallen back in rhythm. My universe has realigned.
Because it is too early to meet Mwai, I ask her where she wants to go in the meantime.
“We can go anywhere. The night is ours.”
The night is ours. That tricky little fella leads us to the Rift Valley Viewpoint at Lari. I should’ve known that this was the second of those signs because not a night ends well that starts with ‘the night is ours’. At the very least, someone always ends up blind drunk. When we pull up, the sun is an orange ball of fire sinking fast behind the Longonot. There’s an ungodly gust of wind blowing. We step out onto the deck. It is a shaky, wooden platform overrun with gaps – apertures with a view of the ghastly death you would plummet to should it give way. The planks creak with every step.
The traders are starting to fold up their merchandise but not before they try to land one last sale. Mel, ever the polite one, gives them her attention, feeling the fabric and looking at the colors. I know I’m toast the moment she does that because now I have to buy one. The crafty sellers realize that she’s the real decision maker here so they don’t even bother with me. After a while she says, “This one.”
She takes out her camera and her lenses and takes pictures. I stand beside her trying not to move too much. “Here, hold this,” she says handing me a lens.
“Are you done?”
“Oh thank God! I can’t stand on this deck one minute longer.”
I pull my car up right to the edge of the deck. Because it’s windy and the hood of the car is warm, I lift her onto it and we sit there and look at the shots she’s taken. She puts music on her phone; a playlist she says is indie rock. Before long, we’re huddled under the blanket, the wind nipping at our noses but the night is ours and we’re not going anywhere – yet.
When we are talking, she toys with my fingers and she doesn’t even seem aware of it. Sometimes she instinctively reaches up to touch my hair. Perhaps this is why, or perhaps it is the charged air between us. All I know, all I have wanted to know since the first time she took a cigarette out of my fingers and put it in her pretty, little lips, is what she tastes like.
Now that I do, now that I’ve crossed that threshold, I’m afraid that there’s no coming back.
When we meet Mwai later that night, he’s sitting with some bird in a jumpsuit whose name I don’t bother to learn because she’s not Olivia. I lean in and ask him over the thudding music, “Where’s Olivia?”
“Where’s Njambi?” he shoots back.
“Oh it’s like that? All right then.”
He’s drinking something out of what I am reliably informed is a gin glass even though it looks like a wine glass to me. It is an unusual departure for him because he is attached to Jack Daniels like a vine on an old tree.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s called the doghouse.” Need I tell you that this was the third and most obvious sign of them all?
“The doghouse? What’s in it?”
“Gin and cognac. Let me order you a round on me.”
I can tell that this is the new bird’s idea – her and her six-pound weave. I drink anyway because I don’t have to be at work tomorrow and I’m having a particularly pleasant evening. When I look at the time it’s 11:13 PM. Okay, 45 minutes and then I chomoka.
Mwai orders another round. “You guy, I have to leave at midnight.”
“Mellow your melons woman! Drink. I’m buying.”
I do not have a good comeback; something I suppose leads me to drink even more than I should. The next time I check my watch it is 12:39 AM. Okay, I go and drop Mel then I drive home. I can be home by 1:15.
“Melissa, amka twende.”
“Chief, it’s already past midnight,” Mwai interjects. “You’ve already broken curfew. You might as well just sit and drink.”
The gin in me thinks it sounds legit.
At 3:52 AM, I stagger through the front door to my house. Njambi doesn’t even pretend to be asleep. She’s sitting on the couch in sweatpants, one leg tucked into her thigh. She’s leaning back, one arm draped over the arm of the chair and the other on her thigh. She’s not drumming her fingers. The TV is off and there’s no music playing. I don’t know how long she’s been sitting there seething without distraction. She doesn’t make any move to demand for an explanation. There’s no snide, “Mmh. Welcome home.”
She laughs a quiet, mirthless laugh. Then she nods, sucks on her teeth and says, “Well played.”
I am smashed out of my mind but I feel like we had an entire conversation for which I wasn’t even present. Which means this is war. I am ten steps behind and I am outmanned and outgunned.
Shit. It’s bad.