When I make my entrance to the Java at Reinsurance Plaza, one of the waiters points me to a table that seats one. I want to bury my head in shame, because, again, why are you walking into a restaurant alone, if your intention is to not sit alone? But I gather courage and ask him for a table of two.
When I find my seat, I immediately feel uncomfortable because it is a center table. There are people seated behind me, about four tables, and I keep feeling their eyes against my back. I keep fighting the feeling of a knife being driven right through my back, tearing my heart into two, and letting my blood dry on the small wooden table.
So, even though Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing lies open in front of me, I am unable to read. My eyes keep darting from here to there, checking my wrist watch, and swearing for the hundredth time that I will stop being the one human being who keeps time. I will say we meet at 2 p.m., then shamelessly drag my feet at 4 p.m. into the bathroom, all the time picking my calls and saying, niko hapa tu kwa corner. Hata nishakuona. Simama tu hapo.
My ‘date’ arrives one and a half hours later. Way after I have shifted tablest wo times, and finally getting that corner seat with my back to the wall. Way after my glass of mango juice has run out, the waiter has carried it away, and I am now looking like a peasant who walks into expensive restaurants just to pass time, and to take pictures for scaring the village witches.
My ‘date’ makes up for running late. They do not waste time beating around the bush, and within a few minutes, my head is spinning with all the news that is hitting me. You are paying for my training that lasts 3 months? Me? My work is just to sit in class and learn and bag that certificate? You are moving me up the ranks at work? Haiya. Like a typical Kenyan, I am tempted to ask ‘for real? Si jokes?’ What is that you said? That I will be in charge of the whole company? Me? Me with my small body? Me who started out on this just fir fun? Are you sure you are talking to me?
I am seated there thinking all this is a dream when my ‘date’ makes a call and says, ‘oh yeah. She is in. She will attend the classes starting from tomorrow.”
I am still reeling from the shock when a familiar figure walks into the restaurant, right past me, and a wide smile flashes across my face. He is in a t-shirt and jeans, a black cap and glasses, with a bag that I know does not miss books. I get carried away in the moment and tap my date saying ‘Haiya, have you ever met Ndugu Abisai? There he is.”
I am a second too late to tell my ‘date’ not to look at him directly, because immediately I say the name Ndugu Abisai, their whole body tuns and follows Ndugu, right until he sits down.
So now, I am scared because si Ndugu will think I am saying things behind his back with strangers? Halafu he will go slander me on Facebook? But Ndugu, calm and composed, flashes the most radiant of smiles at me and lifts his left thumb to me.
I sigh in relief.
When you meet Ndugu, either of these are bound to happen; laugh your heart out, or become a ball of emotions. If you are lucky like I was, you will experience both of them.
I join Ndugu at his table seconds after my ‘date’ leaves, and before I know it, there is a large mug of tea in front of me. When he removes his cap, a waiter comes to the table, salutes to him, bows and says a joyful, ‘ah, kumbe ni wewe bwana? Kwa nini umetoa kofia? Unafanya nakusahau. Karibu sana. Leo naona umetuletea mrembo.’
I give out a pretense-laugh because, no, I am still not ready to talk about warembo with Ndugu. I am still recollecting the broken pieces of my heart after reading his tribute to his lover. I am still finding courage to love without fear of loss. I am still rereading his letter to his lover, and wondering what it takes for a man to pen such an emotional letter (Read the letter here).
But Ndugu is calm and composed, so he waves the waiter away and says, ‘huyu tunajaribu kumrecruit kwa hii kamati yetu ya chai.’
We talk about books and the cartels in the book industry. We talk about our sales, and how the money suddenly leaves our pockets immediately we get it. We drift and talk about sex, and in his words, ‘This Nairobi is full of sex, and people willing to have sex. You do not have to go on forcing people to indulge in it.’
We talk about money; the bait in people expecting to own you whenever they start giving you monetary favours. We talk about the ‘eating fare’ scandals and come to a conclusion that if I really like you, you will not need to send me fare. I will just come.
When we drift again and start talking about loss and death, I am short of words, because I know no matter what I say, I am yet to experience it first-hand. So, I remain quiet as he goes on and on about walking carcasses. About broken bones and tired hearts walking around the streets, dishing out strong faces and fake smiles. Why? Because it is the way life is. You keep hearing of fatalities and somehow think you and your people are immune to all that. You imagine death was meant for other people; not you or the people you love. But sooner or later, it knocks on your door and leaves you empty-handed. it reminds you that there will be low moments in life, for everyone, but life has to go on.
I only find my tongue when my person arrives to pick me up and when I introduce them to each other, Ndugu jumps in and says, ‘Mwambie apart from being a writer, I am a professional Actuary. Unajua kuna watu hudhani we writers hatunanga akili so tukaamua tu kupigia watu story.”
Of course, we laugh our hearts out and promise to catch up later. And even when I get home, Ndugu’s words remain with me: Our work as writers is not just to make money from the craft. Sometimes, we need to mirror what happens in society, and hope that through our writing, someone out there gets the courage to live another day.