He groaned as the lights began to sputter out. He had worked hard to install the second bulb and had been beyond excited when the wiring connection finally clicked for him and his little studio room filled with the extra light. He had forgotten to buy the electricity tokens. The lights went out. As he stared into the darkness, the sole window in his abode letting in that early moon light, beams streaming in through the metal cutout with accompanying mosquitoes. He felt around for his phone to check on the level of the battery life.
Well, at least the lights had not gone out when Sylvia had come to visit. He had spent the last ten weeks paying attention to her, his subtle way of showing his romantic interest. She had never seemed to want to reciprocate. He had bought her two boiled eggs on Tuesday, once he had delivered Sonny’s repaired boots and Sonny had actually reached into his pocket and slapped 15 bob into his hand. He had stared at him for a beat and then hurriedly retreated before Sonny’s other personality whipped through the drunken haze that surrounded him and pulled the coins back into their fold.
He had walked quickly, head down, all smiles. Perhaps she had seen the beams from his downward facing smile refracting against the ground and cascading all around him. He recalled hearing Sylvia’s melodic voice cutting through his daze and when he looked up, all he could see was her wide gap-toothed smile stretching out towards him. He had looked over his left shoulder, momentarily surprised that she was looking right at him and talking to him.
“…na umebambika sana leo”
She had tilted her head in that particular way that always had his stomach rolling. And then she had laughed. Yes, the laugh that…
He quickly shook his head, recognizing the beginnings of a daydream that would distract him. He heard his father’s voice in his ear then, “Do not let these women fill your head… only your pants…they are only good for keeping you from your dreams!”
His father always blamed his derailment, as he termed it, on his wife. He smiled slightly in the dark, the whites of his teeth gleaming in the darkness as he remembered his mother. A statuesque woman, she had towered over his father and this seemed to be the genesis of his apathy towards her. She would never smile in his father’s presence but when he was gone, the brilliance of her smile lit up their one roomed shack. That smile would usually fade as the sun traced a path across the sky, counting down to when his father would fling the door open, his alcohol breath blazing a path ahead of his entry. His own smile would fade too and he would squeeze himself into the corner of the house where the light didn’t quite reach. And he would pray. Rock back and forth on his heels, avoiding eye contact with his father, and closing his eyes on the days that his father’s fist would push the smile completely off his mother’s face.
His phone beeped loudly, startling him back to his reality.
He inhaled deeply. Sylvia. She smelled of roasted corn and pilipili. She had sat on this bed and her laugh had filled his one roomed bachelor pad. He had been so nervous, he recalled. Because she had just knocked on his door that Sunday after church.
Not his church because he chose to spend his Sundays washing his two shirts and preparing for his Monday hustle.
He had opened the door that day, suds of soap clinging to his forearms and a sheen of sweat coating his forehead. Her smile had taken his breath away and when she asked if she could come in, he was not sure if she had taken five seconds or five minutes to ask him that question. She had dressed in her Sunday best; a white cotton dress that had seen better days but was stiff from repeated starching. Splashed across this white backdrop of cotton were yellow and red slashes of color that only made her look even more radiant. She had pulled her hair back into a tiny ponytail but he was happy that he could see her face, with the solid cheekbones that held up her smile and made him forge the thin long scar that pulled itself from her right eyebrow down over her right eye, kissing the side of her nose and ending right above her lip. He had traced his finger over the scar and, uncharacteristically, asked where she got it. She had laughed that laugh and then sighed and said, “Made in Kenya” before she looked away. He had seen the sadness dawn in her eyes and he had also seen the way she had tried to keep it at bay. He felt he had to make her laugh.
They had sat together on his narrow bed, his laundry forgotten. She had brought with her some mandazis and he had thanked the heavens that he had had a small Fanta stored away courtesy of bartering with Sonny some weeks back. She had stayed for an hour but it had felt like 60 seconds. She had laughed at almost everything he said. For a moment, all was right with the world. They shared the small pastries and took turns sipping from the soda because he did not own glasses or cups. He had told her he was not much of a tea drinker but the truth was he was saving his money for something else and since he rarely received visitors or guests, he saw no need for the purchase of cups and glasses.
He sat up on his bed, peering into the darkness of his room.
It was quiet tonight.
His phone beeped twice.
And the tiny light flashed red furiously.
He stared down at the small screen that angrily displayed the 59 messages he had yet to open.
His fingers danced across the small screen, his mind struggling to convince them to navigate to the SIM tool menu so he could buy electricity tokens.
But he felt comfortable in this darkness. In the silence, he could finally hear himself think. The darkness draped around his shoulders, arranged in place by those moonlight beams that now rearranged themselves against the wall and watched him sink into the inky velvet black darkness. He knew his neighbors could hear him if he sobbed again so he held it in and, instead, focused on her laugh.
That Sunday had been the start of something he had never expected. Her smile had brought him back to himself and even when she poked at him for buying her two boiled eggs but not splurging on the side sauce, he had laughed right along with her. Belly laughs that he had not felt stir since his mother’s jokes and light-hearted ribbing when his father had left them in the house.
He had watched from his rocking corner as his father’s fists pulled the life out of his mother’s tall slender frame. Her blood had fanned out beneath her head and the whole world had gone quiet, his ears plugged by heavens that perhaps did not wish for him to remember death and homicide as being so loud. When his dad had drunkenly passed out after his fists exhausted their assault, he had crawled over to where his mother lay. He had taken her hand and held it. That’s how his neighbors had found him.
His voice had disappeared that day and so did his father.
Sylvia had brought him back. Slowly but surely. The last ten weeks he had held himself back, so afraid of becoming a replica of that which he hated most. A father who never understood him or cared for him.
That Sunday with Sylvia had been the happiest he had ever been in a long time. When she said she had to leave, he had stood up with her and for a moment, in that cramped space where he had to bend slightly in order to avoid hitting the roof, he leaned into her. She had stared up at him, a smile in her eyes and a wish in her throat.
He stared down at the phone.
He felt a tear begin to form and he didn’t have the energy to wipe it away or coax it back into hiding.
His fingers moved to the Messages inbox.
He pressed to read the first message.
“Sylvia alidedi aje?”