The house is a duplex whose front door opens into a foyer. There’s a wooden coat hanger on one side that accosts you like a gnarly butler as soon as you open the door. I bend down to unclasp my wedges and notice two pairs of girls’ shoes – pink, with flowers on the buckles. Next to them is a pair of pointed-toe flats with an ankle strap made of faux cobra skin. I don’t have to wonder whose they are because a pair of bare feet with toenails painted orange pads towards us. One look at those long, bony fingers and narrow shoulders and I remember her from the golf course. She towers over me but matches Harry shoulder to shoulder. They exchange a stiff hug in which Harry pats her shoulder blade and pulls away, leaving her hands lingering in the air.
“This is Melissa. Melissa, this is Vivian. Where are the girls?” he asks, leaving no room for us to shake hands or exchange a curt nod.
“Mel, make yourself comfortable,” he leads me to the living room, which he crosses and disappears towards the sound of children laughing.
Alone in the room, we look each other up and down. She is pretty and she knows it, which makes it both her best and worst feature. It’s all terribly familiar, facing off with ‘the wife’, and yet I am grateful because I know exactly what to do. I square my shoulders and look her right in the eye. She relents.
“Have a seat,” she says.
The living room has a high ceiling from which a chandelier is hanging on a long, gold-coated chain. Against the window is a three-seater chesterfield couch. Two wing chairs angled towards one another with an ottoman in between them sit across from it. They are the kind of chairs that you sit on and they thrust your knees right into your stomach because they have short, slim legs. They are upholstered with a garish, pumpkin orange material with leaf patterns on it. No one has to tell me that they’re her idea. In the middle sits a round, glass table with one of those foil centerpieces you would find in the lobby of a three-star hotel.
As one of them is closest to the door, and a good guest sits where it’s easiest to bolt, I make to sit on one of them.
“Not there dear,” she pauses to laugh. “We don’t want to break it.” She moves to the chesterfield, taps it right in the middle and says, “Here. Sit right here.”
“Darling, can I make you some coffee?” she calls to him. From the living room I can see part of the hallway upstairs. Turning to me she says, “He loves coffee. He’s crazy for it.”
If he hears her, he doesn’t reply.
“What about you? You look cold.”
I am cold, but I say, “No thanks. We’re not staying long.”
She purses her lips. “I’ll just make tea for me and the girls then.”
When she whips out of the room I take a moment to study it. There’s a red-brick, ornamental fireplace to the left. The curtains are glossy black with large silver circles on them. The carpet is also black but has an orange flower stretching out across it like a field of marigolds in a charred forest. Together they make the house look like a witch’s lair.
Heavens. Harry’s house is horrid!
There is a soft gushing of a faucet, the thud of a fridge door closing and then the door swivels open. In troops Vivian holding a tray with cups and a kettle on it, followed by the twin girls. As soon as they see me, they stop squealing. Peeking from behind the wing chairs, one of the girls asks, “Mommy, who is that?”
“Nobody,” she rebukes them. “Go back and have your tea.”
She bundles them out of the room and gives sharp instructions to someone I can only assume is the nanny, to watch them. Then she bristles back into the room, plops herself on the wing chair I was not to sit on for fear it might break, and pours herself a cup of tea. As the cup clinks against the saucer, I feel a sudden irritation over Harry taking too long. What is he doing up there? Probably stuffing his pockets with a list of endless odds and ends. Do you really need all those keys if you’re not a groundsman? Tsk! If he doesn’t come down in the next five minutes he will get an earful. Leaving me here, with his ex? Ugh!
She picks up a fashion magazine and idly flips through it.
“So where did Harry find you?” she asks as though Harry is a cat that dragged a dead rat home.
“We met in town,” I say, and I want oh so very much to throw back the question at her. I have to press my mouth against my closed fist to keep from doing it.
She sniggers. “Mmh. Of course.”
I don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean because she’s clearly baiting me, so I focus on the house instead. That damned carpet, that’s what I’d get rid of first. That, and those curtains. Those ought to be locked away in a forgotten storeroom. If it were up to me I’d put them in a bonfire. That’s the only time they would ever give a place any light. Ha-ha! The mere thought of it fills me with glee.
I would store firewood in the grove where they’ve squeezed in the TV. Then the ornamental fireplace would be a fireplace. I have missed the smell of gum melting off the barks of timber slabs. I have missed the warmth of red-hot embers on my shins, the sound of wood shavings crackling, darting away from the sparks of a roaring fire. I’d make it an accent wall with one of those rustic finishes that warm a room right up. The TV would go above the mantle and the wing chairs turned towards the fireplace. I would have them reupholstered of course, or better yet, just throw them out and buy my own.
I can see it all coming together now, curling up next to the fire with Warsan Shire, Rupi Kaur or Lang Leav, a glass of wine in hand. I’d bring in another couch, perhaps throw an afghan and some pillows on it. Okay, who are we kidding? Lots of throw pillows. And I’d get that glass table out of the living room so the girls can sit with us, watch cartoons and leave scrabble pieces on the carpet that later back up the vacuum cleaner – normal kid stuff.
I see Harry crossing the hallway upstairs and hear him come down on the other side of the door but he takes a long time saying goodbye to the girls. When he returns, he has a fresh pair of socks in one hand and a pair of suede boots in the other. He’s wearing washed out jeans, and a hoodie underneath a puffer vest. It is the most dressed down I have seen him since we met and I have to admit, he not only doesn’t seem so old anymore, he looks great! I don’t mind listening to ‘Papa was a rolling stone’ in his car as long as he dresses like this. He’s freshly shaven because his intoxicating aftershave has wafted across the room and is almost weakening my resolve to give him an earful, but I still shoot up because I am miffed and I am ready to go.
“Vivian, lock up when you leave. And don’t leave the back door open because the monkeys –”
“Rampage the kitchen. I know. I lived here too.” She claps the magazine shut, smiles and wishes me a good evening like she didn’t just call me a fat nobody a while earlier.
Mmh. So that’s how it’s going to be. All right then.
“See you around Vivian,” I say, because I will stick around and her gaudy décor won’t!
In the car, I ask Harry, “So that’s the ex?”
He nods, looking at a pair of headlights approaching before he enters an intersection.
“Are you sure she knows she’s the ex?” I struggle to even out my tone.
“Why? What do you mean why? Why is she at your house on a Friday night offering me tea?”
“First of all, the shoe policy in my house is very strict,” he says, “And she’s just picking up some things for the kids. Co-parenting, you know? They leave things at my house all the time.”
Actually, I don’t know. I have so many questions! But I already feel surly and surely he must’ve known that would ruin dinner, right? He must’ve known Vivian would be at his house. He could’ve picked me up when he was ready. And the way he pointedly did not introduce me to the children? What was that! Why did he even ask me over?
Unless…unless this was a test? Tsk! Of course it was a test. He wanted to see how I’d hold up squared off with Vivian. She is the mother of his children, so she’s not going anywhere. I don’t imagine he wants to spend any more time than is necessary playing referee between us. If he is any type of a man I imagine that’s exactly the kind of thing he is looking to avoid. In which case, I’m not sure I did well. I don’t much like his approach, this, this dating by ambush! I’ll have to stay ahead of these tests. I’m not going to be insincere and pretend that we got along well. But I will have to try to, without putting him in the middle of us. If I don’t and he decides that he’s tired of it, I’ll be the first one to go.
He picks a hotel in Hurlingham that I’ve never been to. One of those places where the food is served on square dinnerware with silver cutlery and pickles on a stick. He gets the pork ribs and I the steak because I am a nyama kind of girl. Dinner is bumpy at first, because we haven’t ever sat to share a full meal. There are silences filled only with the soft pop drifting through the restaurant. I stay quiet because everything I think of saying has a sarcastic streak in it that I can’t tame.
Once the red wine starts burning my tongue though, I am able to veer the conversation towards the wines and food I had in South Africa. Soon we’re talking about Apartheid which does not make for friendly dinner conversation, but it gives this date a leg to stand on. We realize, to our mutual delight, that we’ve both read Trevor Noah’s ‘Born a Crime’. Turns out, he does a bit of reading too. He is preoccupied with Historical books and the evolution of law, while I find myself leaning towards more feminist works.
“So that’s why you drive a stick!” he says.
“Well, I like that I can.”
“You’re not a man-basher though, are you?”
I laugh. He doesn’t presume to understand where I’m coming from unlike other men I have met. Instead he says that he would be thrilled if his daughters modelled after a woman who could drive a stick. That singular comment makes my night. All irritations are forgotten.
When we move to the bar the mood has lightened a great deal, so I do what any woman would do. I take advantage of the situation and possibly ruin the moment by asking about Vivian.
“I left for the simple reason that it was a bad marriage,” he says. “I got into it because I was pushing on thirty five, my career had taken shape, and it seemed like I was overdue. It was pure happenstance that I was seeing Vivian at the time and she fit the bill – pretty, pious… Plus I knew she was waiting for me to propose after she clocked thirty.”
That woman is pious? The woman I just met? Ha!
“I was living on autopilot,” he chuckles,”but you can’t do marriage on autopilot.”
I don’t press him any further because talking about her seems to draw a dark cloud over his head. He’s being good-natured about it but all the blood has rushed back to his face and he’s turned dark. I don’t know what any of it means and since the wine has seized all my feel-good zones, I forget about it. The music has got so loud now that we have to shout into each other’s ears. Since we have already surpassed our quota for meaningful conversation, we get up to dance. They’re playing an upbeat mix of Ragga which is fairly easy to dance to, and thank goodness because I don’t have the thighs for a Shaku Shaku or a Gwara Gwara. I suspect he doesn’t either.
I’m just thinking that he’s not a half bad dancer when he pats his pocket and leaves me to answer a phone call. He tries to stay where I can see him but it’s is so noisy he has to go outside. I go back to our table. A moment later he comes back to me, only he’s pressing my purse into my hands and saying he has to go. He doesn’t say where or why. He just weaves through the gyrating bodies until night whisks him out of sight.
What the hell?
Taste of Mel continues next week.11