I met her. The girl who, with no prompting whatsoever, strikes up conversations with complete strangers. She was seated on the opposite side of my table. Her head bent and with doleful eyes, as though the social feeds she was scrolling through were a murky terrain of obituaries. She looked out of sorts. Not even the chicken wings she had been served had done anything to cheer her up.
She caught my attention because of the way she clung to her phone. Meeting every notification with the gust of a new flame. Her phone, was the type that is tethered to its life support. She’d struggled to it keep alive when she arrived because the charging port in our booth was not easily accessible, it was at the base of our seats. The waitress and my foot had to intervene. The waitress, plugged and left. My foot, fiddled with it till it worked. She mumbled a thank you and proceeded to stare at the blank screen, willing it to live.
I hadn’t minded sharing the booth. The restaurant was busy on that day. I had selfishly occupied a four-seater booth. One that I had littered with evidence of my day job. The waitress had come to ask if I was ok to share. I took one look at the girl she pointed to and I obliged. It was something about her. I watched her weave through the tables. There was a drawl in her pace, small, unsure. On one hand, she had her phone, covered in a green case. On the other hand, she held her purse, tightly clutched next to her chest as though anticipating someone snatching it. She smiled at me then slithered into place. A half-smile frozen on her face.
Her hair, a horse’s mane. She had parted in the middle and pulled it back into a ponytail to reveal a face caked in subtle ish make up. She was in her early 20s. I could tell because she looked fresh. Skin shining and taught with the excitement of her third decade. She paired this freshness with a nondescript red dress and scuffed silver pumps. One of which was now dangling off her big toe next to my leg. She’d put in some effort for that grey Monday, despite her gloomy demeanour
It was the way she kept checking her phone. The way every alert jolted life into her with the kind of excitement a child has when unwrapping a birthday present. Poor girl, I thought, she’s getting stood up. With every notification, her face fell. Darkening the clouds even further. It made me want to will into her phone, a “‘i’m here'” texts, currently famous in these Nairobi streets.
I once saw a tweeter feed. It claimed that if a wife is looking for trouble, all she’d need to do is broadcast a text. Sent an ‘i’m here’ to all the contacts in his phone and await the responses. That’s ingenious, I had thought. No one would ever suspect the motive. My mind then spiralled. Imagining the myriad of responses that would come in.
Siblings: ah huh?
Boss: He’d just mark it as read and move on.
Mechanic: he wouldn’t notice till three days later.
His boys: great, it’s your turn to buy us beers.
Side chick? Well, the bright one would open her door and be greeted with the wind. The other one? The one laden with the trouble the wife was looking for: coming babe (heart emoji).
Then bam! Volcanoes erupt. But I digress. Lol.
She reminded me of my younger days. When I was convinced that men with jobs, were better than my peers who borrowed my notes. There was one I liked. He was a venture capitalist. A guy, who took me through his version of finishing school. He was always preened in suits, polished shoes and manicured nails. He liked me looking like a lady and nudged me towards dresses, subtle jewellery and never red nail polish. I was fond of him and not averse to dresses, so why not, I figured.
He taught me how to sit upright and scrape the meat of bone with a fork and knife. For which, I’m still a pro. He was a stickler for time and his bald head would turn red if I missed a minute. Needless to say, I adorned my feminity in a timely manner. He spoke the queen’s English. Mine, was the Moi infused one that he relished correcting. On the floor of the building by the road. Not in the floor, on the building at the road. He referred to women as ladies. Ladies shouldn’t raise their voices or sit with legs crossed or eat soup like beats to a song. I speak with a higher octave when I’m excited, I like sitting with one leg on the couch and I’ll slurp soup for all the flavour it deserves. He was too much so I rolled my eyes all the way out of that relationship. But not before he taught me how to know it’s run its course.
It’s when we’d planned to meet for lunch. I had some exciting news to share. So I spent the previous day painting my nails blush and burning my hair straight. I had the perfect dress too. Knee-length, black and made me look one shilling short of a million bucks. I booked a table at our favourite restaurant. Well, it was where we met so I declared it so. I was there thirty minutes prior. Excited, but nervous. I was not a girl of means. So I ordered juice, you know, just in case. And I waited, phone in hand. Time tick tocked past twenty minutes in, nothing from the Venture Capitalist. But my hope lay weighty on the next ten. I checked my phone for messages that could have been stuck mid-air. Ignoring that gnawing feeling that was creeping in. The feeling that I would in the future look at, in the face of the girl in a red dress.
It was when my waiter brought the bill, saying his shift just ended that I graduated from his finishing school. When I learnt that I don’t like being stood up. At least without an excuse bordering death. I paid the bill and picked my purse. Walked out to the world a grown lady, with a pinch in my heels and a punch in my heart.
I recognized that look in her. When the device on her hand, carried the weight of hope in the minutes just before. When the flat smile on her face as she nibbled her cold chicken wings looked even sadder. When, and this was her sell-out, she felt the need to reach out to her neighbour for random chit chat.
“You’re working?” There was an inflexion at the end of her sentence.
“Yes,” I said, lifting my eyes to meet hers. They were big and brown. Droopy at the corners, like they mimicked her heart, I felt for her. She was too shy to keep my contact. Instead, she laughed, no, chuckled, no. She made a sound that sounded like a chuckling laugh but filled with nervous energy.
I was on my laptop, typing away a story with a deadline so close, it was seated between us.
“Too bad. I’m on leave” then that sound again.
The finishing school had a course on how to converse. Look the other person in the eye and respond with enthusiasm. Find a response, even when there’s none.
“Hhmm” I made a sound of my own. Counted to three and went on typing.
She’d set aside her phone. Now her focus was me. I wished it wasn’t. I wished it on the two wings left on her plate.
“I’m on leave. For two weeks” why is she making that sound.
“Good for you” good manners prevailed. This time I faced her. Daring her to get to the point. Spill it out. Nothing. She pinched one wing, tore off its meat, and lifted it to her lips. With her mouth occupied, I went back to work.
The clock was nagging me, three minutes to go or else find another vocation. I was determined to make it. As long as__
“You work from anywhere?” Good lord. I wondered what would happen if I ignored her. If I pretended to not have heard. But I couldn’t, not for manners but curiosity. I wanted to know how far she’d take this. Would we at some point exchange numbers and be BFFs. Was this it? The story I was going to recount as an example of kismet? Whom am I stop fate?
“As long as it gets done, that’s all that matters” I had pushed my laptop aside and leaned in. Deadline or no, I was now invested. I was taking in the moment. Absorbing her energy. Relishing at the moment that our paths had crossed.
My move, however, was too bold. She coward away. One hand reaching for the booklet bearing her bill. The other hand reached for her phone, her face, dispirited. There were no messages. Her impromptu chat with a stranger was a plea for more time for him. Not an added contact for a possible friendship. She paid the bill and walked away. Perhaps with a pinch in her heels and a punch in her heart too. Not even a goodbye for me. The message, though blank, was quite clear. He wasn’t coming.
Girl in a red dress, you and the nervous laugh that punctuated our conversation. If you’re reading this. I’m sorry I used you here. But our story needs to be told. We deserve better.