There is nothing like a falling out to remind you that Nairobi can be both a big and small town at the same time. On the bad days, when you’ve given yourself over to the spirit of pining, (or the spirits and the pining), you think about running into her. It would have to be the perfect place – cool, but also normal enough that she doesn’t see right away how hard you are trying to distract yourself. So no #KissingGiraffes or #IceSkatingatPanari things.
Maybe a night out with Mwai and the boys? Yes, whiskey, cigars and testosterone-doused noise – if Mwai would stop being a love sick puppy for a minute, and come out without Olivia. (I wasn’t like that with Njambi, I swear!) It especially would not work if she decided to tag Cheru along. Mel would take one look at me and know that I didn’t want to be there. Then she’d shake her head and I would know she thinks I am the lamest guy she ever met and she can’t even tell what she ever saw in me.
Perhaps a play at Alliance Francaise? She’d be looking for her seat number on the left aisle and as her eyes wandered, they would land on me at the front and center. She would do a double take, mistrusting her own vision and I would look at her like, That’s right. And you said I wasn’t cultured. Ha! Because she is polite, she would sling that trench coat she takes everywhere over her chair and come over for a quick hello.
“I wasn’t sure it was you,” she’d say.
I would pretend that yes, I do in fact go to plays on occasion and have no idea why that would surprise her. “Yes, the lighting is a bit off.” Feeling a bit mischievous, I’d add, “It’s hard to get a good view from all the way over there.”
She’d turn back at her lousy seat and rub her chin with the backs of her fingers, because she hedges that way. I’d know that they were cold, (her fingers), and I’d fight the thought of wanting to warm her up in my own palms.
“If you had told me you were coming I would have snagged you a good seat,” I would say.
She would look at me like, Who are you? I completely misjudged you! I would see her glancing my way throughout the play from the corner of my eye, and by the end of it; I’d be drunk on victory.
Or maybe she’d prop herself on the seat next to mine and say, “So plays, huh?” I would know that she could see through my façade right down to the fraud that I am, and it would prick.
“Yes plays,” I would say. “You don’t have monopoly over plays. This is a public space.”
She’d let out a small smile, say, “Alright then,” and head back to her seat. I would see then, that she was on a date, and feel proper small. But going by sheer primal instinct; I would refuse to cede ground. I would sit through the two-hour play with a deflated ego, and endure her giggling during the interludes.
By the stroke of luck, (whether good or bad is debatable), none of that happens. Somebody must be playing dice with my life, because we meet at an industry dinner at which my wife and all my bosses are present. What you might call…dicey waters.
I am in a terrible mood because Njambi and I have been bickering all evening. She wore this new, red dress, I suppose because swimming has worked wonders on her shape these last few months, and she was getting her groove back. She looked hot – but not wife hot, I’m-back-on-the-market hot. She looked single. I may or may not have gotten insecure. I looked at my belly and asked her, “Is that what you are wearing?” She blew up.
So now I can see her across the ballroom filling up with wine to make up for James’s dry jokes, (but there’s not enough wine in France for that). I’m busy sourcing the inside scoop from an airline association guy. I need to make a decision on whether to take the offer from Gulf Air by the end of the night. The whole scene unfolds in front of me like a bad romcom.
She’s wearing her work clothes – Mel. Cargo pants (laden with all her lenses, memory cards, battery packs and cables), plimsolls and a checked blouse. Her camera is slung around her neck and my first thought is, Why is she here and how is that strap not chaffing her neck? Then she starts walking over to where Njambi and James are seated and they have a bit of a back and forth. My stomach is a knot right now, a liquid knot, if such a thing exists. I should go over there, right? Or not. She’s just taking their picture. What could she possibly say in two minutes? Move on…Move on…Oh no. Njambi is pointing at me now. She’s waving me over…
She sees me. I see her. We freeze for maybe a fraction of a second and then she lifts her camera and beckons to me. I must be floating, because one moment I am excusing myself, and the next I am standing next to her and I can’t feel my legs.
“Do you two know each other?” Njambi asks.
She defers to me for an answer but I just stand there like a buffoon.
“Umh…I covered last year’s dinner at the Intercon. We might’ve met then?”
“You did?” I ask. I don’t remember now, but I do later. We met at the after party, at a whisky bar. She bummed a smoke and I remember looking at her pretty, little lips and thinking, No way she doesn’t cough. She didn’t cough. She tapped the ash off after three puffs, gave it back and went back to her Baileys. After that, the cigarette tasted like chocolate.
She nods, shows me where to sit and goes about setting up her camera on a tripod next to her. Two, three or may be ten snaps and different angles later, she wraps up.
“And they’re going to be published…?” Njambi asks.
“On the newsletter and the inflight magazine.” Mel says.
“Apparently we are the best dressed couple,” Njambi says turning to me. “And you didn’t even like my dress.”
So that’s what they were talking about – dresses. Tsk. Thank God for women. “I never said that.”
She turns to Mel and mouths, “He didn’t like it.”
Please don’t make friends! Mel smiles, says it’ll look great in the pictures and to look out for the magazine. Then she picks up her tripod and moves on.
An eternity later, when the speeches are over, I find her and her team in the back of the ballroom, packing up their equipment. She doesn’t stop working and I don’t start talking. I can see that I’m in the way by the dirty looks her assistant is giving me every time she has to go around me to untangle a cable, but I don’t care. I am here and I will not be ignored.
Eventually she rubs the back of her neck wearily and says, “She’s lovely. You’ll get a full page spread.”
“I don’t care about a full page spread. I might be leaving.”
“Yeah. What’s that tone?”
“It’s a your-marriage-will-not-survive-Bahrain tone. So stay, Kagwe, and be the man you always say you are but never come around to being.”
“I – what? What’s that supposed to mean?” I hate that that’s the best I can come up with. I’ll think up a million things I could’ve said in this moment later, but right now they’re just all smoke in the wind.
She sighs. “Look, I have to load all this equipment into the van, drive back to the office, offload it and drive everyone home.”
She is not playing and I’ve been there too long already. Njambi must be looking for me.
“Pick up my calls,” I say.
“I’ve been calling. Pick up my calls.”
She lets out a soft but cavalier laugh. “Sure. Like there’s anything left to talk about.”
“There’s plenty left to talk about. Pick up. Meet me and we’ll talk.”
Then I turn and leave, denying her a chance to protest.13