All My Exes Live in Texas
“You have thirty seconds. Impress me.”
“Sorry, what?” I asked as I sat down.
“Less so now,” she added, still not looking up. I can tell from her profile that she is beautiful. I should pull back, find myself another table. Beautiful women are notoriously treacherous.
“For my eighteenth birthday my step mother took me to Amsterdam to listen to Sharon del Adel sing. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. Still is.”
“So you are rich. Good for you.” She still didn’t look up. I was okay with that. I am not saying that I am ugly but put me next to a Calvin Klein model…….no I wouldn’t want that.
“My first term holiday, Form One, my step mother hooked me up with an unpaid internship. News reporter stuff, field work, grunt stuff. There was a guy there, sharpest dresser in the office, at least from a far. Up close you notice things, the wear and tear of his shirt, the creases on his trouser, each carefully disguised.”
“Is that supposed to mean something? Some philosophical shit?” she asked, looking up as she did. I liked her eyes. Brown, like chocolate.
“Means you are lucky,” I told her
“Is that so?” she asked with a smile.
“Beautiful things were sometimes mixed with treacherous things, they could even happen at the same time, or one could lead to the other, I thought.”
She cocked her head to the side.
“You got an original thought in there?”
“Let me guess. English lit student.”
“I am Sal.”
“Thirty seconds are up,” I told her and she laughed. Second most beautiful thing I have ever heard.
I woke up one year after the fact, in a different place and like Sal would have said it, a different man. I had been out of school for two weeks plus change. I had spent the best part of that time masquerading as non-productive member of society. I went through the motions. I slept, I woke up, I ate. The rest of the time I was in my gaming rooming. I know I know.
There was a man in my room. I heard a screech and then there was light. I scrambled off my bed, a vampire escaping sure death.
“Wake up,” he said as I made a mental note to myself to fire James.
“What do you want?”
For a moment I couldn’t recognise my own voice. Over ten hours of sleep can do that to you. And I wasn’t even hangover. Go figure. The duvet fell off my bed as I clawed up to my feet. I shied off the light as I growled the question a second time.
“We got invited to a party. You are coming.”
And with that royal declaration my cousin left my room.
I don’t remember what possessed me to follow my cousin that evening. Five hours later and there I was, trapped in his German monstrosity heading to a party where I probably knew three, five people at most.
“Where are we headed?”
I shook my head.
“Come on, man. We went to school together.”
My cousin and I shared only one alma mater, our primary school. Come high school his father thought he deserved an exclusive private school with fellow rich arseholes while mine thought a public education would fit me. He did his post grad abroad while I stayed home.
“Nope. Not a clue.”
He shook his head like a disappointed father before completely ignoring the first chapter of the origin story.
“Well his father used to be something, sometime back. He passed on while we were in high school. Now the mother wants to dip her toes in the murky waters of politics. Women rep for starters.”
“Cool back story bro.”
He shook his head though I am reasonably sure (yes, even now) he didn’t get the reference. I sighed. Loudly. I should work on my disappointed father shake.
“What does any of that have to do with me?”
“She needs your father to back her.”
“And since she can’t exactly call him up……?”
“He is hoping you vouching for him would be a good point to start.”
I wanted to open the car door and jump into the tarmac. Maybe some enterprising bodaboda rider would have put me out of my misery. Instead………. sigh. Loudly.
“And what do you hope to gain from this entire endeavour?”
“Your father isn’t a fan of you shutting yourself in for days at end. Your weekly appearances in town have become something akin to legend. Like a big foot sighting. You don’t like the party; you tell Max to fuck off I still get credit for dragging your arse out of that castle. You like it, want to step into your rightful place, I still get credit. Major cred sure but still……”
He gave me a look as we pulled in to the drive way. We weren’t the first car there. SUVs and a few sedans were parked ahead of us, leaving little space for us to park. That’s what you get for being fashionably late.
We pulled up short at the door, two gorillas in barely fitting black t-shirts and shades were holding a pair of clipboards.
I thought Mike would have a heart attack. No. Let’s go with transient ischemic event. Makes me sound smarter.
“I am Charles.”
“The fuck?” it came out like a bullet, slow at first and then uncontrollable at the end.
I ignored him as the gorillas went through the lists attached to their clipboards.
“Sorry, you aren’t on the list.”
“Jesus Christ, do something,” he told me, his face contorted in incredulity.
“Okay cool. Can you check for Mike or Michael?”
There is a word for the killing of one’s father, patricide, matricide for mother, fratricide, I think for you brother killers. There has to be something for cousin killers. These were my final thoughts as my cousin contemplated the best way to kill me without getting blood on his shoes.
“Hey, Mike. What’s up? Sorry for the hold up, man. Have to take precautions man, we do have standards to maintain. Still, so hard to get good help these days. Charles! You came! (he pulled me into a forced half hug like we were long lost friends) Sorry about that man. Come in, come in….”
And he kept on and on. I tuned him out like any reasonable human being would. He was accompanied by two girls, one on each arm. He was dressed like the typical rich American teenager (I assume. Never been, you see.), designer wear from top to bottom, gold chains and golden Rolex with a pair of white Nikeys. An ear piercing caught the light as he turned his head from side to side. He was a very animated talker. I decided I disliked him. I decided then too that I wouldn’t be staying long either. I know. Best laid plans and all that.
He sheperded us to what he claimed were the best seats in the house. There were two more girls waiting for us there and this time he had the decency to introduce us.
“Charles, these are W, X, Y and Z. Ladies this is Charles, His Royal Highness. And of course you know Mike.”
They smiled at me, all at once.
“Hello Charles,” they said in unison and I wondered how long they had practised that. Of course their names aren’t W, X, Y and Z. It’s been over six months. You are lucky I remember this much. Two of them (the so conveniently named X and Y, I think) attached themselves to me as I sat before attempting, and failing at starting a conversation with me. I am not a people person.
“So what’s your poison?”
I hadn’t drunk in close to a month (the glass of vodka I had during my last day of school doesn’t count.) and I wasn’t about to buck the trend just for him.
“Yohana Mtembezi,” my cousin replied. He gave me a look as though he had just realized his faux pas but I had moved on. I had seen her. Beware of beautiful women, for they are treacherous.
“Who is that?” I found myself asking.
“Oh that’s Lavenda. Her father is a business man, I think, not yet big time though. Her grandfather used to run in the same crowd as ours back in the day.”
I was on my feet even before he finished explaining.
“Is this seat taken?”
She looked up as I spoke, rebuke on the ready.
Not really. But I didn’t tell her that. I was a gentleman back then. Cassie told me that gentlemen don’t contradict ladies. I know. Sounds tiresome.
“I am Charles,” I told her, offering my hand.
“Lavenda.” She shook it, I think. I don’t really remember the little bits. Sue me.
“So what are you doing sitting here alone, Lavenda?”
She looked over my shoulder for a moment before responding.
“Trouble with the jet set crowd.”
I considered asking for a drink. One of the waiters passed by and I stopped her without even thinking.
“Vodka Martini. Shaken, not stirred.” Yup. Didn’t get that one either. “Vodka please.”
She was still smiling when I turned back to face her.
“Once, I came back from school and I found my step mother at home. Father wasn’t around and she couldn’t write a paragraph to save her own life. She dragged me to a car parked outside. There was a biplane, four seater I think, waiting for us at the airstrip. I was back in Nairobi less than half an hour after I had returned home, and on a flight out of the country soon after. She took me to Monaco. It was the most humbling experience of my life. You see these posers around here? This is not the jet set. There are kids blowing money out there that make them look like amateurs.”
She said nothing for a moment.
“How long have you been back?”
“From school? Two weeks and some change.”
“Lost the accent rather fast, haven’t you?”
At some point my drink had arrived, not a vodka martini but then again you can’t have everything.
“I didn’t study abroad. My father wanted me to, he even puled some strings to get me into Duke but I didn’t want to. We settled on a compromise. Local private university.”
I shrugged, took a sip and considered asking for a screwdriver but thought better of it.
“Where to begin. Is it the crazy president or the misinformed public? Maybe it’s the trigger happy cops and the ignorant half of the population that think global warming is a hoax and Donald Trump isn’t actually for all intents and purposes a joke. I would rather stay here, with our corrupt politicians and rather shockingly if you can believe it, more corrupt cops. At least here the policemen that will try to kill me are ours, the corrupt politicians are ours.”
She says nothing in reply. I considered that screwdriver once more.
“What’s that?” she asked pointing at the ink on my inner upper left arm.
“Once a friend of mine bullied me into accepting his side in argument over the meaning of life. When I came back home I had a similar discussion with my step mother. Her answer was simple. I have loved, I have been loved, I have lived.”
She didn’t get it. I could see it in her eyes.
“What about yours?”
“It’s my name in Arabic.”
There. Conversation over.
“Want to get out of here?”
Somebody please stop me.
We stole my cousins German monstrosity and headed into town. We hit the clubs one after the other. I recycled the James Bond joke till it got stale and yet not even a single person got it. Ridiculous the shit I remember, yeah? I didn’t want the evening to end. I suggested Eldoret, then Nakuru perhaps even Kisumu. In my defence I was drunk. We kissed. At first an awkward accidental bump and then on as many rooftops as we could find until finally I drove her home. I woke James up in the wee hours of the morning, leaving the German monstrosity for him to park properly. I remember him grumbling but I don’t think I cared. I went to sleep smiling.
My cousin woke me up. I considered locking my room every night I slept. I considered buying a gun but the sheer cost of it (a quarter a million) gave me pause. Maybe a sword. A katana, old fashioned. Would cost more, I think but the very idea of it? Worth it.
“What do you want?”
He grabbed my hand and gave me a glass of something. I swallowed the contents in one swig and almost retched. That is trust for you.
By the time I got downstairs Mike had already ploughed through half of my breakfast. Behind him James was grinning like an idiot. I made another mental note to replace James.
“You are eating my food. Why is he eating my food?”
“Because, sir, he is a guest. Guests get preferential treatment.” The way he said sir. Hard to find good help nowadays. Loud sigh.
“And there is no more food in the kitchen?”
Yup. A katana would do nicely.
“Why did you wake me?” I asked him.
By my estimation I had had six maybe seven hours of sleep. I was grumpy. Sue me.
“There is a thing. You are invited.”
“No. And fuck off. You are eating my food moments after rudely interrupting my sleep for the second consecutive day. Seriously. How the hell are you still up?”
“It’s a hike. A bunch of us are going on a hike,” he went on as though I had said nothing, still eating my food like I wasn’t sitting across the table from him.
“She will be there.”
They were waiting for us on the hoods of SUVs passing around blunts in a circle. The girls were clad in Lycra shorts that barely descended below their knees, exposed midriffs and ankle length white socks with even whiter sneakers. The gents had traded the leather jackets for double XL NBA jerseys of players I am sure they didn’t really know, shorts that reached mid-calf and an assortment of NBA standard kicks. I shit you not. She stood apart from the pack talking to some guy I didn’t recognise. Probably her ride. He scattered the moment he saw me, not even bothering to stop for introductions.
“Hello,” she said with a smile.
“Hello yourself,” I replied, “sleep well?”
She smiled back in reply. My cousin found a way to wander towards us, half a blunt in hand.
My mother took me up the trail once when I was a kid, maybe five or six, a couple of months before she oh so helpfully exited stage left. It was meant to be a whole family affair but father excused himself at the last second. Something to do with the president, I think. I am certain they argued for a spell before he left. Mother insisted on keeping our date, as she called it and so we went. I don’t remember getting to the top. I just know that we did, mostly because if we hadn’t something significant and worth remembering would have happened. Fast forward all those years later and there really wasn’t much to it. I started the climb with Lavenda to my side with Mike the uncomfortable third wheel. Every once in a while someone would join our party, intrude in our conversations and insist on taking selfies. Kids nowadays, yeah? Our party of three had increased significantly by the time we made it to the top. In all that time I had successfully avoided being alone with my old buddy and friend and Max. I noticed him gravitate towards me so I ducked. She was alone once more, staring off into the horizon.
“So what happens next?” she asked the moment she felt my presence.
“You ever gone skydiving?”
It started with skydiving in Diani. And because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut I suggested scuba diving in Zanzibar. We spent the day and night in my father’s apartment at the EnglishPoint Marina as we waited for her passport to be fast tracked. After Zanzibar I told her I knew a better place in the Mediterranean. There was shopping in Milan by way of Dubai. We visited places I hadn’t been to in years, and some I hadn’t even thought of. For a week I did my level best to put a dent in my father’s bank account. My barely passable and I suspect broken Spanish got me a screwdriver in Madrid while an English bartender in Cyprus (long story) finally got my James Bond joke. After Amsterdam and their weed cafes, it was time to crash back to reality. A black chauffeur driven sedan was waiting for us at the airport. At Wilsons there was a biplane fuelled up and ready to take us home. We were met by yet another black sedan at the airstrip. We took her home, luggage and all and I went to face the music.
He was waiting for me in my living room. Just behind him was his bodyguard Maurice. I don’t like Maurice. There is something rather off-putting about him. Could be the fact that he is allowed to carry a gun, or maybe it is the fact that he is six foot four, packed like a rugby player and never smiles. I think it’s because while many politicians of my father’s stature walk around with an army of bodyguards my father has only him. Yup. Terrifying.
“Father, Maurice. Fancy seeing you here.”
Maurice said nothing.
“You know the way out,” I told them as I kept walking.
“End it. You can do it today or tomorrow if you choose. I could care less. End it. Soon.”
“If I don’t?” I asked, pausing mid step.
He was silent for a moment. I imagined him readjusting his already impeccable suit.
“When we were expecting you your mother used to joke about our family legacy. This was just after your uncles had fucked everything up with their hare-brained get rich quick scheme. I could see where they were headed and what it would mean for your cousins. So your mother suggested a way I could secure your future. It was meant to be a joke. I was to open a bank account for you when you were born and every week we would drop in a k or so whenever we could. She forgot all about it, I didn’t. Only it wasn’t a k every once in a while. It was a little more than that. And the older you got the more it became. High school, campus. This house? I bought this house with your money. I pay James with your money. That little trip you went on? All you. As it stands the only person worth more than you in Western Kenya is me, purely by design of course but still. The only other person who knows this is Cassandra, of course. Now imagine if the rest of them knew.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I think I was still stuck on my money isn’t everything phase.
“There is a piece of land as you approach Kanduyi a little bit before Total that I bought some time back. It was insignificant at the time so people thought I was being eccentric just for the sake of it. Then Bungoma started expanding and suddenly there is barely enough land in town. People start looking to the outskirts. Suddenly this little insignificant piece of land is worth a little bit more than everyone thought. So the bidding war begins. A few days ago your girlfriends father comes to me. He has great plans, that one, but not enough money to compete. So he has a plan. He names his figure. I am about to laugh him out of my office when he suggests a way to make up the difference. He is building a shopping mall, one of a kind if he can be believed. He already has investors lined up. What he can offer me that the rest of them can’t is shares. I will own a piece of the business, benefit from the property ad infinitum. He even has the papers drawn up. I am sold. Of course he doesn’t know that. So he goes for what he considers the killer blow. How about as a favour. We might be family one day after all.”
I heard him get up.
“End it,” he repeated, looking at me as he said it. He stopped at the doorway to add, “oh, I already wired the money to your account.”
And then he was gone, dragging his shadow with him.
I slept. I know I know. But when in doubt go back to the classics. James woke me up the day after the moment she arrived. She was waiting for me in the living room, standing uncomfortably close to where father had been just the day before. I noticed the make up the moment she turned to me. Seemed like something I should have noticed in the beginning doesn’t it? She was a black dress with black heels. She looked delectable. Caveman me wanted to give civilised me a high five. We tapped that.
“Yeah I keep hearing that. Something to drink?” I asked as I offered her a place to seat.
“Orange juice will be fine,” she replied.
“Chilled?” James asked somewhere behind her, momentarily startling her. She nodded her reply and he was gone.
“What do you want from me?”
The question shocked her almost as much as it did me. I don’t imagine I had planned it all out, seeing as it’s not every day a man breaks up with a beautiful woman. Typically, all my relationships have had the decency to end after I find my girl in bed with another man. My first break up. Yay. Nerve wrecking as hell.
Her face cracked for a moment and I got a peek beneath the mask. It was only for a fraction of a second but it gave me pause, made me doubt myself. What had I seen in her, really?
“I am sorry?” she asked, her voice cracking instead of stammering.
“My first girlfriend, I met her in campus, one month or so after school started. I saw her and I loved her, almost immediately. Or so I thought. I pursued her with the single mindedness of a T-100. I did things, mostly because I was under the misguided impression it’s the sort of shit a man does when he is besotted. One day she came up to me and asked me, what do you want from me? I have never been able to really get the answer to that one, smart guy that I think I am. I suppose turnabout is fair play, right?”
She looked at me like I had lost my mind. I couldn’t blame her, not really. I was talking in circles, a snake eating his own tail. For the umpteenth time I asked myself what I saw in her.
“I don’t understand.”
“Father thinks you are using me, taking advantage of me.”
“And how exactly am I doing that?”
I thought that over for a moment. Yeah, I had nothing.
“You’ve never done this before, have you?” she said, inching closer as she smiled. Only it wasn’t a smile. A smile that isn’t a smile. There is a riddle for you, Mr. Sphinx.
“What do you want from me?”
That stopped her short. Sounds like a simple question, it really isn’t.
“You do everything your father asks of you?”
Different tact. I didn’t answer her. Oh I could have. I had the perfect anecdote on the tip of my tongue. Anecdotes are kind of my thing. You noticed that, didn’t you?
She shifted in her seat, uncomfortable. Here is a random thought. Where had James vanished off to?
“We could be something, you and I. I had hoped to have this talk a bit further along but beggars really can’t be choosers, I suppose. The things we can accomplish, the doors we can open, together. Think about it. Your connections, my brains and ambitions, the whole world at our feet. You ask me what I want from you? I want the world.”
I didn’t laugh when she said her brains. Point in my favour. I would like you to note that I wasn’t that big an arsehole back then.
“Wow. I was really hoping you’d go for the whole love thing.”
“There really isn’t much point to it, is there? Been there, done that and it got me nowhere.”
“And every king needs a queen, right?”
I think I might have inadvertently quoted someone there, don’t remember who though. Oh, Fabolous. Or was it Tyga? Bieber? I really hope not. She nodded, and there was that smile again as she finally got her message across.
“Yeah that’s not going to happen.”
“I am not beautiful enough for you?”
I considered for a moment how best to answer that.
“There was a woman I loved and she loved me. She is by far the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. She has these deep engaging chocolate brown eyes that hold your attention. She was intelligent. That’s an understatement. Incandescent. Transcendent. Inimitable. She could talk circles around me for hours and I suppose I loved that the most about her. I have been to places you wouldn’t imagine, seen cultures that amaze and confound at the same time but she, she was something else. I suppose now that I think about it, putting her on a pedestal wasn’t really the way to go. Three weeks ago, I came back to my room and found her in bed with another guy. I know, I know, you wonder why I am telling you this. I am twenty-one years old. I was ready to leave everything behind, pack up my shit and start my life with this woman. We argued about it a bunch of times. I kept insisting to her that I had lived. I had seen all there was to see of the world. Every time we ended at an impasse. I couldn’t convince her any more than she could me. I think I see it now. She still loves me, that much is sure. She did what she had to and here I am, and there she is. I am not tying myself down at twenty-one. I am not planning the rest of my life right now. There is no point to it. After days of locking myself in and skulking like a spoilt child I see it. I know nothing of the world, despite my arrogance. So no. Thanks but no thanks.”
I think I was infinitely more shocked by that than I was. She said nothing for a moment.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
Needless to say it all went downhill from there. Maybe I should have quoted Childish Gambino instead.
James showed up after she had left, tall glass of orange juice in one hand.
“Huh,” he replied with a noncommittal shrug.
“Oh by the way. Things are about to go crazy around here.”
Amazing how he does that while keeping a straight face.
“I suppose a raise is in order?”
“Obviously,” he said, still standing there.
“Not for you,” he replied before taking a sip. He then turned and walked back the way he came. Hard to find good help.
Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night) was playing when I made my entrance. I had considered going with The Jetset Life is Gonna Kill You but decided against it. Would have been a bit too on the nose and I was reasonably sure nobody would get it. Then again, nobody got The Last Night but that’s for another day. My house was full of people I didn’t know and didn’t care about drinking my booze and listening to my music. There was weed in certain rooms and shisha in others. No cigarettes though, one had to draw the line at some point. My cousin found me, zoning in on me like satnav.
“What’s up, man? Heard about you and Lavenda. Brutal, man. Brutal”
Aah, the lady had been making moves. I shrugged it off.
“Who leaked it?”
I didn’t have to ask him twice. Mike can be quite clever when it suits him.
“It was trending on some blog, wakajuaness. Heard of him?”
I shook my head.
“Local guy. Met him once or twice. Not bad for a Chelsea fan. Writes on just about everything, politics mostly though. Some photos from the hike found their way to him, so he published, effectively making a connection between Max and you.”
I thought it over.
“Where did you get all this people from anyway? And on short notice?”
“Got money, bought friends like am TBS.”
He didn’t get it either. Oh how I despair at the state of the world.
I saw him on the dance floor, W and X conveniently creating a life sized sandwich of him. I moved. They really do let anybody in, don’t they? Oh well, there goes the neighbourhood.
“Charles. Nice house, man.”
I shrugged it off. Heard it all before.
“You played me.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about man.”
He had to shout over the music, as did I.
I moved closer. Must have been something in my eyes.
“So what? Man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do. No hard feelings, right?”
Somebody had asked the music to be stopped. It didn’t occur to me then but that seemed strange. I didn’t realise until I spoke.
“Ladies,” I offered them my hand and they skipped over to my side. Then I turned my back on him. The cut direct I think it was called.
I didn’t see it but from what I was told they all turned their backs on him, one after the other as he screamed at them. After a while I am told he left and the music resumed. My cousin was on me as I walked away.
“Damn, Michael Corleone, that was cold.”
I think I smiled. I don’t remember.