BY MIKE MUTHAKA
The cloud-stitched sky was loosening and the Sun sliding into view. Bright light struck the earth as the traffic crawled by, the sound of drilling pierced the air. Slow down, men at work. A roller truck with a blue Chinese Logo was smoothening part of the tarmac on the other side of the road. The sweaty dude at the controls wore a helmet and a reflector jacket, he stuck his head outside his window as if waiting to hear the squelch of the tiny bits of rock.
His work must be fun, I thought.
I mean his job was to seat atop the monstrosity and squash things on the ground with a big rounded mass of metal. Imagine how powerful he must have felt, that at any moment he could simply decide to drive the thing onto the main road and flatten everyone else into the afterlife.
I was seated in the passenger seat of a Mazda Axela, sharing legroom with a pair of high-heeled shoes. As you might have guessed, the car belonged to a chick – my cousin, Liz. She’s keeping a safe distance between us and the car in front because she needs to check her email from time to time. Liz is your typical career woman, really; married, two kids, pushing towards 40 and a desk job that stopped floating her boat ages ago.
“I’ve barely slept,” she says, swallowing a yawn.
I can tell because she has bags under her eyes and her face has lost its shine. She’s placed her elbow out the window, holding her head at a tilted angle. The other arm loosely hangs onto the steering wheel. This job is sucking the life out of her and I can’t help but feel sorry for her a little.
“How are the kids?” I ask.
She sighs but I know she loves to talk about her kids. She says, “Well, the older one is turning 10 in a few months. You are invited to the party, Mike. The baby is six and is getting more stubborn by the day. She’s very moody that one, kwanza when you don’t give her the phone,” she rolls her eyes, “hell.”
Liz is the kind of person who – when she’s frustrated about something – says stuff like, “Can I just be tired?” And she says it with just the right touch of anger and exhaustion so that you know it’s not really a question.
“Do you ever see yourself in your daughter?”
“A lot!” Liz says, eyes lighting up. “The other day I asked her to fetch something from the kitchen and you know what she told me? Ati, mum can I just be tired?”
That killed me. We cackled.
“It was just the other day I was bringing her home, Mike. Gosh.”
At that moment, I happened to see, to my left, a bearded man walking out of Gertrude’s Children clinic. I thought I saw a smile play about his lips and it wasn’t hard to imagine why because he was carrying a baby by his chest. The baby didn’t look a day older than a week. It was wrapped in pink blankets and I quickly assumed it was a girl, because, well, pink is for girls, right?
I could see she was asleep. Her tiny lips were open and rounded like the muzzle of a gun and she looked mighty peaceful, removed from all the noise and hubbub of the world around her. Against that man’s chest she remained shielded from the carbon-spoilt air and the clank of metal.
I wondered if she could feel the man’s heart beat, if it was in sync with hers in some way. I looked around to check if a woman was trailing them but I didn’t see any. I wondered where the Mom was, and what this moment meant for him, the Dad. How close will these two be? Will the girl naturally prefer to be in his arms? What of her eyes, does she have his eyes?
I wondered how she would turn out.
She meets me at the gate, green plastic comb in hand. Part of her hair is undone and she refuses to hug me because her hair is wet. “I’m doing bantu knots,” she says. I don’t remember her head looking this round, but her smile is as it’s always been, warm and joyous. Her face looks scrubbed clean. She has a sleeveless top that accentuates her long brown arms. She smells like lemon trees.
“We’ll have to go to my room because I need the mirror,” she says.
She has soft soundless slippers on her feet as she leads the way, I notice that her hips have majestically ballooned over the years. She now wears horn-rimmed spectacles to correct her shortsightedness, she tells me school is taking a toll on her. She always wanted to do architecture but she didn’t think the hours would be this crazy. But, unlike Liz, her complaints are tinged with satisfied exhaustion.
As we climb up to her room, the wooden staircase creaks beneath my feet. The rest of the house is deathly quiet and at the turn of the stairwell there’s a large vase with what looks like orange tree branches sticking out of it. Someone must have really put some thought into that, I think.
As soon as I cross the threshold into her bedroom, I notice two oil paintings hung on the purple wall. One of them is of a forest of sorts with two feeding giraffes. The other one shows a beautiful sunset and it arrests much of my attention that I don’t hear what she’s banging on about.
“You did all this?” I ask, interrupting her.
“What…?” Casually, hands still in her hair, she says, “Yeah…I did. Yeah.”
For a brief moment I picture her while she paints. I imagine that she looks at those pieces every morning and they inject her with pride.
“This is amazing,” I say. I trace my finger against the canvas.
She says it as if it doesn’t mean much to her.
Her bed is unmade but the rest of the room is neat, smells clean, like it has been soaked in a wash of lavender. Her green dresser is set next to the bed, with an oval mirror and a bunch of hair products in front of it. At the far end sits an open bottle of body lotion.
There’s a wardrobe on the other side of the wall, one of its doors is opened by just a crack. A pink nightgown is slung over it. The gown sticks out like a rose among nettles.
When she isn’t looking, I go over to the closet and hold a piece of the gown in my palm. It’s made from satin and it feels comfortable against my skin. An image of her in the nightgown climbs into my head and I see her wearing it in the evening, after a warm bath. I imagine her in the dead of night, unable to sleep, standing by a blank canvas thinking of what to paint next – it’s 2AM, and a ripening moon is hanging low over her window. Maybe she’ll gift the painting to her Dad for his 40th birthday.
And when she gives it to him he’ll have that same smile he had when he carried her home that first day.