On this sleepless, February night, I find myself standing by our master bedroom window, watching the quiet rustling of dried, palm leaves dancing in the mild breeze. The heat hangs in the air like an unannounced guest on a Saturday morning. I let the strap on my pink, satin nightdress fall off my shoulder, welcoming the coolness of the off-white wall against which I am leaning. The sky is dark and blue, littered with white twinkling lights and the occasional red winks of a Boeing bird in flight. Faint sounds of Rumba float across our cozy cul-de-sac from Ochi’s battery radio at the security guard’s station. They remind me of simpler times, back in those tiny servants’ quarters in South C where we started out, big-eyed and eager for life.
I was straight out of campus, working a shady sales job for a Mhindi on Tom Mboya Street, while Kagwe spent most days at a cyber café, hunched over his laptop, going through his training sheets. The days were long, drudgery, and the nights all too short, but it is the evenings we spent together that I remember most fondly. We lived off my weekly wages before Kagwe landed his job, and we were content.
On the rare occasions when the Mhindi hadn’t docked my pay for one alleged indiscretion or the other, we would buy gizzard from the local butchery and break out the fine china – which only meant actual matching plates in those days. While the food simmered, we would open our windows to keep them from sweating, and in poured the smooth voices of Franco, Tabu Ley, Papa Wemba…It was not our chosen genre of music, but having no radio of our own resigned our fate to the landlord’s mood and stereo. Luckily, he was consistently a Rumba man, and we both soon grew to love it – Kagwe more than me, though. He said it reminded him of his old man.
Ten years later, I find myself here, in our five-bedroom maisonette, restless. Yet neither the dry heat, nor the nostalgia keeps me from sleep. The whirring of my husband’s Land Cruiser, accompanied by the rays of its headlights pouring through our golden colored sheers, draws me from my thoughts. I glance at the time on the brown, leather Longines watch resting on my bedside table – a gift from Kagwe, my husband, for my promotion to Senior Marketing Executive at the digital agency for which I work.
I take a step back into the shadows, watching him close the heavy, steel gate in the red glow of the V8’s taillights through a narrow parting in the curtains. He walks back to his beloved, kills the lights and the engine, then, he sits there. Seconds turn into minutes and he just sits there, in the quiet, his fingers toying with his stubble. His expression is indiscernible, but when I peer closely enough, he looks almost like an actor rehearsing his lines before a big play. What does he possibly have to think about at four o’clock in the morning? Why does he just sit there, as if the thought of coming in, coming home to me, fills him with absolute terror?
The white screen of his iPhone comes alive on the dashboard. He reaches for it and holds it to his ear. A slight smile and two satisfied nods later, he hangs up. He types furiously on the screen, then without warning, he jumps out and quietly shuts the door. The double chirp of his car alarm is my cue to slip back into bed. I cock my ears like Daisy, our two-year-old German shepherd, but all I hear is the loud thudding of my own heart and the irregular rhythm of my breathing. As the bedroom door creaks open, I shut my eyes and lie still. I try to calm myself as small beads of sweat start collecting on the tip of my nose.
His keys ring against the coins in the ceramic key bowl on his dresser. I can tell that he is trying not to wake me, but the way he collapses on the bed reeking of whiskey, cigars and an elusive hint of cherry gives him away.
“Thirsty Thursday,” he said when I brought it up last week.
“Since when do you do Thirsty Thursdays?” I snorted in the way only a wife familiar with her husband can manage.
“I don’t remember you giving me notice when you started doing Whiskey Wednesday with kina Nancy and Magdalene,” he said, taking off his epaulets.
“I thought you have flights on Friday.”
“Eh Njambi, leave my work schedule to me,” he sighed, propping himself up on his Lazy Boy chair. “Pass the remote. There’s a Man-U game going on.”
With that, he closed the subject.
He sits quietly for a while. I can feel his eyes on me. For a moment, the knot in my stomach loosens, but only for a moment, before the soft buzz of his iPhone startles us both. I pretend to stir lightly from sleep and turn towards him. He waits until my breathing evens out before he reaches for it. With my eyes-half closed, I catch a glimpse of a portion of a text message that reads ‘home’.
He continues to watch me, and when he is satisfied that I have fallen back to sleep, he places the phone back and proceeds to undress. As he takes off his half sweater, I catch a whiff of that cherry fragrance again. I wait for the hum of the rainforest shower in our bathroom before reaching for his phone and scrolling through his texts. The last message is from Mwai, one of his drinking buddies, and the proverbial thorn in my flesh.
Ay chief, open parking spot below the balcony. Where you at? 6:56 PM
Stuck at Nyayo, traffic. 6:57 PM
That can’t be right. I distinctly saw the incoming text message box. If it were from Mwai, contentious as he is in our marriage, Kagwe would have no reason to delete it. I mean, I have made it clear that it’s not the man himself that I dislike, so much as the unencumbered lifestyle he worships and strives to impose on my husband with poorly veiled jabs about hen-pecked men and their toxic women. I have always felt that he resents me for all the times Kagwe cancels a night out with him or has left the party too early. Of course, he and I have excruciatingly varied opinions on what time is too early to leave a party.
How long until Kagwe’s inner cave man yearns for the supposedly fulfilled yet unburdened life of a bachelor in his prime that Mwai purports to live? What will it take? One beer too many? One second of infirm judgement? One sniff of that god-awful cherry perfume?
I remember the slight smile on his face as he spoke on the phone down in his car. I recognize that look on him – amusement. She amuses him. She must be young. He used to smile at me that way, once upon a time.
Is she younger than I am? I wonder.
She has to be if she imagines a cherry fragrance to be appealing. It is a sweet smell, but applied copiously – as I am sure she did since I can now smell it on him – it turns nauseating. There is no way Kagwe would find that attractive. She is obviously trying too hard. Yet, here I am, losing valuable minutes of my life and sleep, agonizing about it.
The squeaking sound of the faucet closing brings me back. I close the texting app, hit the power button and put the phone back. When he walks back into the room, I have already turned on my side to face away from him, this time, unable to shut my eyes. The mattress shifts under his weight as he climbs in. He tosses and turns for a few minutes before settling in a spooning position behind me, his heavy hand resting over my hip.
The distant sound of my alarm chiming and buzzing draws me from sleep. As I struggle to flutter my eyelids, now sealed with eye crust, remnant images from a dream I have just forgotten meld and fade from my mind. I groan silently as I wriggle out of Kagwe’s embrace to hit the snooze button on my iPhone. When the second alarm goes off I am still seated on the edge of the bed, face buried in my hands, drunk with sleep.
Crap! It’s going to be one of those mornings. I stagger groggily to the shower and force myself awake with a cold stream. By the time I hit the road, traffic to town has already built up on Thika Superhighway. I am just rounding the corner on the Forest Road underpass when Nancy calls.
“I’ve just dropped off the kids at school. How’s the traffic?” She asks.
“Terrible. I think you should try the service lane today, huku katikati ni snail speed,” I say.
“Niki? I thought you’d be in Westlands by now.”
“You don’t know the night I’ve had. Listen, I have fifteen minutes to get to work and that means I have to speed. I’ll check in with you later. Tumia service lane,” I say hanging up.
I speed up just as a text from Ben, my boss, comes in informing me about an unscheduled morning meeting. 8:30 finds me seated in a cold conference room for a briefing at my office. Battling the insane traffic on Thika Road, coupled with my sleep deprivation and an insufficient dose of caffeine has left me in a sour mood. I stare blankly at the slide show of graphic designs Ivan is presenting for our new client’s Facebook ad campaign, his annoying, chirpy voice drowned out by my own brain chatter. My manicured thumb lingers over the screen of my phone, the word that is the subject of my fixation staring back at me menacingly.
Home. Home. Did you get home safe? Do you have someone waiting for you at home? Why couldn’t I come home with you? Did she ask why you’re home late? Could she smell my cherry perfume on you? No? Is she anosmic or is she just stupid?
I shake the thought out of my head. Focus Njambi. Think. What did that damn text say? He didn’t text a reply, so it must not have been a question.
I’m home safe. I’m glad you’re home safe. Thanks for driving me home. Thanks for ubering me home. I wish you were coming home to me.
“Do you not agree with that?” the mellow voice of the man seated across from me intrudes on my thoughts. “Njambi?”
“Huh? I mean…yes. Yes, I agree with Ivan’s uh…assessment.”
“You shook your head for a second there,” Ben continues. “There’s something not quite right with the color scheme and I think that’s what Njambi just caught. Look at the blue on the logo; it’s more turquoise than sky blue. Isn’t that so, Njambi?”
The uncomfortable heat of embarrassment creeps up my cheeks as I realize that my boss has not only caught me absent-minded but also, he is offering me an out to save face.
“Yes, that’s it,” I take the out gracefully. “Ivan, why don’t you get in touch with the client and get the specific hex code?”
“Does that sound good?” Ben chimes in, stacking up the papers in front of him, signaling the end of the meeting.22