This is Tess
My phone rings consistently, and I press the silent button without fail. After four rings go answered, whoever is on the other end goes on a spree, sending countless messages. I am on a zoom meeting I am dying to leave. I am listening to someone I’d shoot without second thoughts. I am staring right into my laptop camera, but all I see is darkness.
It has been the order of my days nowadays. Waking up with a racing heart. Hurrying with breakfast, before settling down in front of my laptop. I spend the rest pf my day juggling in between zoom meetings, responding to emails with ‘kind regards’, even though the lump in my throat is big enough to crash the entire screen.
So when I leave this meeting, my phone has four missed calls and nineteen unread messages from an unknown number. I do not fret because if you are a business person like me, and your number is all over social media, unknown numbers are the last thing you are afraid of.
Hi. You probably don’t pick new numbers, but please hear me out.
When are you free so I can call?
Please don’t ignore me.
Are you there?
Are you in a position to help?…
I stop here because, help? Me? How? What makes a stranger think I could help them? What has sold me out? Has to be that picture of me in a hat, with my friends saying I look like a super-moneyed woman who drives a Subaru and spits on men.
I pick an incoming call at the third ring:
Hi. This is Tess. I know you do not know me, but I know you. She follows this with a long speech, which I hear nothing of, because I am afraid of strangers who call me and say they know me. As she rants, I wonder whose husband I have snatched, whose son I might have impregnated, or whose brother is sleeping and sleep talking with my name.
Can we meet, please? The question startles me from my reverie. Wy does a stranger want to meet me? A woman who knows me? Is this how I die? And the way I am tiny? Please, let me grow first.
“No. We cannot meet. You are a stranger to me.” I say.
“I come in peace.” She says.
“Does your peace have knives and scissors and drugs and needles? I am petite; I cannot fight.”
She lets out a forced laugh, and I bet I hear sniffs, as if she is crying.
We meet on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. I have managed to ‘steal’ a couple hours from my busy schedule, and the Nairobi rain has stepped aside to let me shine. I approach the meeting place slowly, staring directly at people’s masked faces. Please, Lord, if this is how I die, please let it be quick and painless. Please let her not be big. Please let me intimidate her. Now is not a good time to joke about my petite self. Oh, please let me not die before I can tie my locks in a long ponytail.
She spots me first and starts walking towards me. For the first time, I thank heavens restaurants aren’t operational in Nairobi. She lowers her mask, so I see her smile. I halt three steps away from her, because I am allergic to people who wear masks on their chins. Because this is how chokoras defraud you. Because this is how those free t-shirt people in the streets con you; with a smile.
“Ni mimi. This is Tess.” She says, offering me a fist bump.
We sit on two pieces of hard stone, where Nairobians busy walk by. Acrobat children do their thing. A preacher preaches against dreadlocked and tattooed humans. Street pranksters cast out demons.
“You look expensive and luxurious.” She says. In the past, I would have downplayed this and said casually, “ah, this is just a pair of jeans and a normal tee.” But ever since I learnt how to unapologetically live luxuriously, there is no stopping.
I smile, and tell her I am glad she sees me as expensive. That I work extremely hard, and it would crush my heart and soul if anyone thought I am just an ordinary Nairobian.
There are minutes of awkward silence when Tess stares at the ground. I follow her gaze and realise she has been barefoot all along. Her feet are covered in red dust, the reason maybe she has folded her jeans. I lift my gaze from her feet and realise she is crying, softly, pulling at her head wrap.
Within moments, the head wrap disentangles and falls on her shoulders, revealing a bald head. I pull out a couple of soft tissues from my handbag, and hand them over to her. I do not ask questions. I do not stare at her. I let her cry, as I gaze at a street child approaching me with an outstretched hand.
“I am sorry you had to see me like this,” Tess begins to speak. “It was unprofessional to lift your number off social media, and ask you to meet me. Trust me, I had no other option.”
Tess reaches into her back pocket, retrieves a photograph, and hands it over to me. The photograph is of a little boy, maybe three years old. He has her eyes, and a crooked smile. From the wrinkles on his forehead, I gather the picture must have been taken when the sun was too hot. He is barefoot, also, and his red baggy sweater is tattered on the shoulders. His equally oversize blue trousers are tattered on the knees, and he desperately holds it in place with his left arm.
“That is Ephy. I left him outside our house, with a promise to come back within an hour.” I do not get a chance to ask why she would leave a young child outside.
“We haven’t eaten I think in a week. Water supply to our house water was cut short. Before that, I used to let him drink to his fill. After supply was cut short, I give him my breast to suckle. There is no milk, but the illusion of it makes him fall asleep.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Dead beat father. Hotel industry closed. No jobs. Evicted. An orphan. Stage four cervix cancer has drained all my savings. Right now, I am worried about cholera, if not death by hunger.”
I struggle to fight my own tears, and I am grateful for my black mask. I almost feel guilty for having multiple jobs, and a business, in the middle of a pandemic. My phone rings, and I step aside to talk. When I come back, Tess has another picture in hand; of herself.
“How do you want me to help? How do I know this is legit?” I ask as she pushes the second photograph into my palms.
“When you meet him next, show him this picture. Tell him this is Tess. I know he holds you in high esteem. I know he shall listen to you.”
My hands begin to shake, and my voice gives in. “Who are you talking about?” I manage to ask.
“Jabali. I know you will see him soon, or you will talk. I know he listens to you, because you have a brilliant mind.” I startle a little bit, afraid of this woman sitting next to me.
“Who is he to you?”
“The father of my child.”