“I didn’t catch you clearly…hello, can you please speak up?”
“Yes? Hello? Can you please speak up?”
The telephone operator, Judith, nibbled the tip of her pen mechanically. Judith always did that when she was nervous, and on this job, she was almost always nervous. She was used to getting prank calls or, at times calls that were not really that urgent. Like when a person was stuck in a public toilet or when a parent lost her child at the supermarket. She had developed a good ear for such calls. Judith’s stomach churned; this one was no prank call.
She continued to prod.
“Hello? Are you still there? Can you please tell me your name?”
Judith pressed the telephone firmly against her ear and waited. She could hear the person’s ragged breathing from the other end of the line. She presumed the person to be male. She had caught a hint of gruff, and although the person had not said anything coherent, Judith was positive that she had caught a whiff of a baritone, a deep baritone. Judith’s palms felt clammy; she wiped them on her long, drab, pleated skirt.
She stopped wiping her palms when she caught wind of a snivel, a sigh, and a quiet, quivering voice.
Judith pulled her pen from in between her teeth and began scribbling on her notepad.
“Okay, Justin Baraka…can you tell me why you contacted 999 this evening?”
Everything went quiet, eerily quiet. Judith rapped her pen rapidly against her notepad. Had she spooked him? Had she come off as too strong? Curt? Brusque? She had been working there for close to a decade, and she still had the nasty habit of doubting her skills.
Judith was about to replace the receiver when Baraka’s voice blared through. Strangely enough, there were no tremors in his voice, no sense of apprehension or fear. In fact, Judith began to wonder if someone else had taken charge of this conversation.
“Tell the police to come to Ruai…White house, the address is 522522…Black and gold gate…tell them to hurry…”
“Okay, Justin, I have noted down all you have said. But I need to know the nature of this call. Is someone hurt? Are you hurt? Should an ambulance be issued? What happened?”
Once again, there was a lull at the end of the other line. Judith, accustomed to these long quiet spells by now, resorted to making an origami from one of the stray papers on her desk. Apart from nibbling pens, Judith made paper art; both activities had a calming effect on her.
When the voice spoke again, it had gone back to it’s original state—disoriented, quailing, desperate.
“I-I killed m-my w-wife…”
* * *
She was stunning.
She had long, natural, dark hair complete with brown dyed edges that matched remarkably with her pale, honey-colored skin. Her smile, ever demure, made every part of me hot, the ozone layer kind of hot. I would bet actual money that my skin could boil water at the moment. I watched intently as she shifted her weight nervously under her legs. My eyes wandered to her thumbs; she was twiddling them. I smiled at the small gesture; I found it appealing.
“Put it here…”
She glanced at me briefly before taking calculated steps towards my desk. I crossed my legs as I watched her approach me. I tugged at my collar and reached out for a jug of water. She beat me to it.
And I did. Normally I would insist that I was perfectly capable of pouring my own drink. Whether it was scotch on ice, a cappuccino, or water, I was a human being with two strong, capable hands granted to me by God. Today, I had no trouble feeling handicapped. I unconsciously shook my head when the image of her in a nurse uniform suddenly assaulted my brain.
“So, what are the updates?”
There it was, that famous demure smile. I gestured for her to pour me another glass of water. I gobbled it down loudly and ungracefully. By the time I was done, my cheeks were aflame with embarrassment.
I had to fix that goddamn fan.
“Mr. Njahi rescheduled the content meeting to Friday…Miss Oddotte is coming in today at 5 p.m. to pitch her new idea regarding the credit system-“
“What do you think about the credit system?”
I squinted my eyes at my secretary. She had worked here for two weeks and had already proved herself more than a pretty face. She had digitized all the office documents, rearranged my work calendar, and learnt my schedule by heart. She was smart and efficient. Two words I have never used when describing my former secretaries.
So far, Janet Wanjeru seemed perfect. Sadly, I knew more than anyone else in this world that nothing was perfect. Not even my hot secretary.
I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take me to spot a flaw. I always got bored once I did. Perfection was intriguing to me, even though it was an illusion.
“Well I think it’s a marvelous idea sir-“
“Sir? What did I say about you calling me Sir? Call me Justin.”
I flashed her a mischievous grin which widened significantly when Janet smiled coyly.
“You were saying?”
“Yes…ummh I was saying that the idea is brilliant. A synchronized credit system will be very effective…I mean, think about it, one app to get loans from every possible loaning platform. It will combine Equity, Tala, O-kash, Mshwari, and the likes…and you could even pitch this idea to other African loaning platforms…”
I zoned out. Majorly because I thought it was amazing how she had actually thought about Oddotte’s pitch in length and plus, her voice was something else. Not too whiny not too manly. It was like she always had a cold. A sexy snort-free cold.
And I relished it.
I shot her a playful glare.
“I was telling you about the doctor’s appointment at six p.m.?”
It was a permanent fixture, the doctor’s appointment. It was marked in my office calendar, phone calendar, phone reminder, and well, at the back of my brain. It was a routine, something I could never miss unless I had been hit by a truck or some thugs kidnapped me, and why wouldn’t they? I was rich, filthy rich. Like every other venture capitalist in Kenya.
“Is that all Janet?”
“Yes, Sir…I mean Justin.”
For a while, we stared at each other, our lips quirking, our cheeks crimson. The tension was so thick you would need a power saw to cut through it. None of us moved, I honestly believed that it was the longest time I had ever gone without blinking.
“I should go back to my desk.”
And there it was, the shy smile that made my skin burn. My heartbeat accelerated, my mouth felt dry. I felt like a teenager, a very hot-blooded teenager. I blurted out the next words without sparing them a thought.
She had already started exiting my office. She dramatically halted at the door and shifted slightly, enough so she could see me.
“Please, call me Justin. And I…I want to take you out on Saturday afternoon…is that okay?”
I tugged at my collar and waited. From time to time I glanced at the jug of water, craving the liquid’s cold sensation cooling the lining of my throat. I didn’t make a move towards it though; I was nervous. Although I hardly got rejected, I was quite aware that there was a first time for everything.
“But Sir, aren’t you married?”
Next to the jug of water was a large framed photo of my wife, Stella.
“I am, Janet…So, say 2.p.m? 3 p.m.? You know what, I will call you.”
* * *
“You are home late dear?”
“Is that so? I thought it was quarter to five dear.”
“That is late dear…”
“Oh dear, will I receive a spanking? Or shall I dash off to scrub the toilet?”
“Maybe you should go up to your room dear, think of what you have done…”
“Like time out dear?”
“Not the same thing dear…”
We burst out laughing. For a while, I couldn’t breathe. My arm rushed to hold my stomach as I bent down towards the mahogany floor, wheezing. I could hear my wife’s loud, labored grunts. During our first date, we couldn’t stop laughing. How could we? When she laughed, she sounded like a lost piglet, and when I laughed, I sounded like a tuberculosis patient.
When I talked, my voice was high pitched and giddy from all the laughing.
“You should have become a kindergarten teacher…”
When Stella spoke, her voice was raspy and out of breath.
“I hate kids remember…They are so cute and innocent…disgusting!”
The latter word was exaggerated, which sent us into another spiral of laughter. It lasted almost five minutes, our own queer peals of laughter causing the delightful chaos.
I only snapped out of the laughter frenzy when I heard the distinct sound of Stella’s heart-wrenching coughs. By the time I had reached her, she had slammed her head against the couch rest. Her white handkerchief was covered in bloody sputum, her nose was running, her eyes bloodshot and teary. As usual, I let her coughing spell pass before lifting her from the couch and whisking her to our bedroom upstairs. With each step, she moaned she was fine and that I was being ridiculous. Eventually, she got weary of trying to act strong and kept quiet. As I laid her on the bed, I heard keys jingling downstairs. I glanced at the wall clock at the center of our room.
It was 6:00 clock sharp. Our day housekeeper had just taken her leave.
I rubbed my palms together, stood up and removed my coat.
“What are we having for dinner tonight dear?”
* * *
We ate in bed and watched Game of Thrones on HBO. We were repeating the show for the third time, I had recently found out that Cersei had been promised to the mad king’s son. My brain cells were still trying to comprehend this piece of information.
It wasn’t going well at all.
“You didn’t know?”
“Now you know.”
I heard my wife chuckle. She never laughed out loud in the middle of a meal. Something about choking and dying. She had read about it as a child. I had told her that the notion was stupid, she had concluded I was stupid. For some reason, the argument had ended there. With me being stupid.
With Stella, I never had to explain myself. I would say something incomplete or incoherent, and she would understand the said thing. She would even respond to it. When we began dating, I called her a psychic. She never disputed my theory. To date, I wasn’t sure whether she was one or not.
“Wait, so all this time Robert?”
“But he seemed so…”
See? No need to voice my full thoughts. She just got it, she always had.
* * *
I met Stella in my early twenties. I was fresh out of campus, hungry for money and a Subaru. I had spent four years on campus competing for girls with rich kids who coerced their parents into getting them Subarus. USIU was a jungle, and the lions owned something fast, something that could rumble.
Back then, I didn’t even own a bicycle.
My first day at Smart Inc. was a disaster. I had never been eloquent despite going to USIU where everyone talked through their noises. I was an intern, which meant I had all sorts of tasks ranging from making coffees to data entry. On my first day, I made the worst cup of coffee in history and entered the wrong data into the company’s system.
By the time the day was over, I had gained a reputation for being the worst intern ever at Smart Inc.
I was summoned to the boss’ office. Something very peculiar for interns. The only time interns met the CEO of Smart Inc was when we were leaving. It was a formality. There were platonic handshakes and pseudo-happy pictures involved. Smart Inc. beleived PR was everything.
The CEO of Smart Inc had a reputation for being cold and calculating. These two characteristics did not peg well for me. Cold meant that they did not care at all that I was new to the company. Calculating meant they could fire me on the spot to salvage company’s resources like coffee grounds and well, the company’s information.
Needless to say, I was nervous.
I finished perfecting my LinkedIn profile at the office lobby, waiting to speak to the CEO. I needed a backup plan, just in case. If the profile didn’t work, I had skills in making mahamris. What is it everyone always said? You had to start from somewhere?
A secretary came to fetch me. She was tall, eerily tall. She also had broad shoulders and a cleanly shaved, oval head. Her floral dress completely mismatched her physique. She could stand out in any crowd. Despite her intimidating stature, she had this warmth, this motherly warmth. When we reached the CEO’s office, she stopped me abruptly.
“Be coherent and direct…try to maintain eye contact all through and for the love of God don’t sit unless you are told to. I hope you keep your job, you seem like a decent guy…”
With that cryptic message, she walked away, her floral dress sashaying behind her. I held the doorknob for about five seconds before a voice spoke from behind the door. There were no CCTV cameras in the hallway, the secretary could not have reached her desk within that short time.
So how the hell had she known I was at the door?
I swung the door open and ambled into Stella Kariuki’s mahogany office. She was seated on a swivel chair, staring through the window. She had installed ceiling to floor glass windows all over her office. Later I would learn that she was claustrophobic. Her having sight of the world through her large windows kept her calm. She also loved mahogany; every structure in her office was made out of mahogany. And it was all so breathtaking. For a moment, I completely forgot why I was there.
The reason for my presence there was completely scrapped off when Stella Kariuki, the 38-year-old CEO of Smart Inc, swirled around to face me. She had dark burnished skin and a gorgeous dimpled smile. I did a double-take and cussed. Yes, I cussed, out loud. If I had not been getting fired earlier, I presumed I was going to be fired then.
“Sit down Mr?”
I blurted out my name, in my head.
“Did you hear me inquire your name?”
Wait, I hadn’t said my name out loud? And where the hell was my voice? My integrity? My manhood?
“Do I need to repeat myself?”
“No…no…I am Justus, Justus Baraka…”
“And why do you think you are here Mr. Baraka?”
“Because I have been a bad boy?”
For a moment, we stared at each other unflinchingly. I expected a reprimand, a demand that I leave her company and never return again; instead, she laughed and not just any laugh. The cold, calculating CEO of Smart Inc. had the most bizarre laughter. She snorted so hard she began to grunt like a pig. I stood there for a full minute before I too began to laugh, my wheezing causing her to laugh even louder.
Five years after this encounter, we got married. A decade later, I took over Smart Inc.
Even after all these years, I have never forgotten our first encounter. Just like I had never forgotten our first date or kiss.
I have never stopped loving Stella or her pig-like laughter.
And I never will.
* * *
“This place is fantastic Sir…I mean Justin.”
I flashed Janet my signature grin and averted my attention back to my meal. There was nothing quite like a pork, greens, and ugali combination on a chilled afternoon. I ordered a plate of diced pepper and prepped my stomach for an afternoon of intense pleasure.
“What does this mean Justin?”
“I mean, I am your secretary, and well, you are married. Isn’t this a little inappropriate?”
I snorted. I couldn’t help it. She knew the answer to her question, yet she acted like she didn’t. She even pulled off the “I am serious” look, complete with a pout and widened eyes. She did look lovely, though. She had worn a short, red, flared dress that showed off her brandy-colored legs. Her back was strapless and smooth, really smooth.
I sighed and leaned in. I took her hand in mine and smiled.
“Listen, Janet. You and I are both adults here. You know I am married, I know you are my secretary. Yet here we are, enjoying a nice lunch together. Must we really define its context? Wouldn’t that simply ruin the moment?”
I waited and watched. I watched as she played with her fork, moving around the fried chicken on her plate. I watched as she furrowed her eyebrows. I watched as her nostrils flared. Her face was something else, something straight from a magazine. The girl deserved to be in the model industry or an air hostess. She was the right age too. Twenty years old was awfully young.
But age was just a number.
She finally opened her mouth, her sensual mouth.
“I guess so.”
And just like that, I knew how that afternoon would end.
I let go of her hand as the waiter approached our table with a bowl full of chopped pepper. My stomach was dying to have an orgasm.
* * *
Stella was playing snakes and ladders when I got home that Saturday evening. I peeked at my watch, 5:30 p.m. I ambled to the kitchen and found our housekeeper Lorna shrilling in delight as she made her groundbreaking move. Unfortunately, my wife slew her with her next move.
She never lost at snake and ladders. She never lost at anything.
“Welcome home dear…”
She had not looked up, and I had intentionally opened the door quietly, yet somehow she had felt my presence lurking in our kitchen.
Say what you will; the woman was a psychic.
“How about a worthy opponent, huh dear? No offense Lorna…”
Lorna chuckled good-naturedly before pulling out a seat for me. I took my time, humorously taking off my coat and rolling up my sleeves. I even popped my knuckles.
“Done being dramatic dear?”
I gave Lorna a somber salute and sat down. Lorna shook her head and walked out of the kitchen, muttering that she had never seen adults who played snakes and ladders.
Fifteen minutes later, Stella got her snake up the ladder. Mine was still crawling around, asking for directions.
* * *
“This pork is amazing!”
I watched as Stella gobbled down the contents of her plate. She never did have the patience for cutlery; she said it was a colonization thing. That our ancestors did just fine without spoons and forks. Besides, spoons scooped less food. And humans had wide mouths even though we pretended not to. I once told her that the concept was stupid; she had wound up calling me stupid. And somehow, the argument had ended there, with me being stupid because I liked using forks and spoons.
“I can’t believe you went there, though…so cliché…”
This was said in between munching and moaning.
“You know I am uncreative…besides, she seemed like the type.”
And there it was. The sigh, the sigh that I always dreaded. The sigh that made my insides clench.
“You can’t keep doing this Just…”
“What do you want me to do? Do you know how hard this is for me?”
“I know but-“
“But what? Yes, I can’t deny it, they are hot and smart and feminine…God they are gorgeous, but baby…baby they are not you…”
We were watching Game of Thrones again. Someone had stabbed someone, and clanking noises had followed. Probably a scene with a sword fight or maidens in the kitchen. The former, I thought, seemed closer to the truth.
“Tell me about this one…”
I heaved. Suddenly very exhausted. Stella coughed, deeply and painfully. She lurched forward and hugged her stomach. I held her frail body with all my might, afraid that the cough spells would cause her to tumble over. Once she was done, she asked for water. I brought in her medication tray.
“I asked for water Just not the damned hospital…”
“Tough luck baby…The doctor is in.”
Stella smiled weakly at me before taking her meds and flushing them down with water.
“So? What’s her name?”
“Cute…What is she like?”
“Intriguing. I am still in the perfect phase…”
“No flaws, yet? It’s been what, two weeks?”
“Strange right? She did ask me a dumb question during lunch though…”
“Well, tell me? What was it?”
“She asked if what we were doing was appropriate…”
Stella and I peeled our eyes from our television set and stared at each other. Seconds later we were slamming the mattress hard; we laughed until we cried. It was only when we finished that we realized we had just laughed throughout a very grim GOT scene.
The red wedding.
Stella suddenly reached for her tablet beside our bed. She double tapped it and went straight to Instagram.
“I found a new one today…her name is Emily Oloo…she is one voluptuous woman…tell you what, when you get tired of Wanjeru…you could fire her, and I could make some calls and get Emily for you…”
No flinch, snicker, underlying loathe…just love.
“Anything for you baby…”
And I meant it.
* * *
My wife’s cold and calculating reputation was not unfounded. She had this knack of reducing human beings to a machine. If you were not efficient and skilled, you were useless. On the first day of meeting her employees, Stella would sit them down, serve them coffee, and grill them. While doing this, she would retain a stoic expression; later, I would learn that she had picked up this skill from her father. After grilling her subjects, she would avail an array of tasks before them and watch from the sidelines. Stella did not believe in lacking in confidence or creativity, and she especially did not subscribe to the idea of employers making employees nervous. So she would stand there, against her mahogany table, sipping a cappuccino from a tiny, white cup and watch her employees execute assigned tasks. If you fumbled and gave up, she would point at the door. If you fumbled and fixed your mess, she would offer you another cup of coffee as you went through your employee’s contract.
Cold and calculating.
Stella grew up under the care of her father. Her mother went out to buy vegetables for dinner one evening and never returned. Stella was one of the lucky ones because her father did not spend time pouting and moaning over his neglectful wife. Instead, he diverted all his energy to his six-year-old daughter. To secure her future, Stella’s father worked three jobs. One during the day and two during the night. Soon he had enough money saved up to start a financial advisory consultancy firm. The man had not gone to the university, but he knew his money.
Believe it or not, that is how Smart Inc began. With the sweat and blood of a father who wanted a comfortable life for his daughter. Unfortunately, he never got to see her live this cushioned life. On Stella’s eighteenth birthday, her father collapsed during dinner. There was no warning, no sense of preparation. One day her father was there, and the next, he wasn’t.
His death had been surreal.
Stella discovered the next day that her father had prepared a detailed will before his timely death. Apparently, he was fully aware of his departure from the world of the living. He had a rare genetic disease that had no cure, and he could not bring himself to tell his beloved daughter. So he prepared for his death by himself while ensuring that the last memories his daughter would have of him were jaded ones.
I honestly doubt Stella has ever forgiven her father. She thought his decision cruel that he had no right to paint rainbows and floral gardens when there was a looming storm in their lives. She had wanted to be part of his struggles, his fears, his pain. And he did not let her. Stella hated him for that.
To date, she cannot eat at a conventional dinner table.
Stella forfeited going to the university and learnt everything she needed to know about money online. She studied and ran Smart Inc. at the same time.
I can still picture it, the first time she walked into her father’s multi-billion company as the new CEO. I can picture her cold and calculating. She was, after all, an eighteen-year-old with a bone to pick with both her parents entering the corporate world originally designed for the male gender.
Within the first year of her reign, the company plummeted. Most of the employees who had stuck by Stella’s father’s side through thick and thin headed for the rails claiming that the daughter was unfit, incapable. Here is the grappling part, Stella had sunk Smart Inc. on purpose. She believed humans as a resource were everything.
When I was eighteen, I was applying ash above my upper lip because I believed that the act would help me grow a mustache.
Three years into Stella’s reign, every resigned employee came to her begging for their jobs back. She didn’t budge, she had made up her mind.
Loyalty was what made an empire successful, marriages too.
* * *
Looking for a housekeeper is the most tedious task in the world, especially if you are doing the activity with Stella. My wife wanted someone strong enough to carry her up the stairs but tender-hearted enough to hand wash her blood-stained handkerchiefs. She wanted someone who cleaned to a fault and cooked like a chef. Well, the latter bit was my doing, really. Stella couldn’t cook to save the world from an alien invasion. This housekeeper had to be respectful, confident, and witty. She or he had to be fun to hang around and reasonable enough to send Stella off to bed.
I told Stella she was looking for an angel and that her whole housekeeper wish list was dumb. She said I was dumb. We didn’t pursue the matter further. Even though she was looking for a creature that did not exist, a unicorn or Mumbi.
For weeks we interviewed multiple individuals with impressive resumes. People who had gone to universities but had yet to secure jobs. People who had ten to fifteen years of housekeeping experience. People who could smile, cry and bark at my wife’s command. We came up empty. I demanded she let me run the company from home; she scoffed at the idea and continued with her unicorn search spree.
Then Lorna rang the doorbell one afternoon. She was a short, plump woman with a stern face. She looked older than she actually was; life had taken a toll on her. She was a grandmother in her late thirties. The moment she walked into the room, I could feel it—the connection between her and my wife. I had bobbed my head at Stella and left the living room. Four hours later, when I returned, Lorna was fussing about in the kitchen, cooking something delectable. Stella was watching her on the sidelines, drinking herbal tea from a tiny, white cup. Lorna didn’t fumble, didn’t squirm; she worked furiously and thoroughly. Stella fell in love.
We had a big argument that evening.
While Lorna seemed perfect, she had a monstrous flaw. A flaw I thought dangerous, but my wife, my beloved wife, was in love.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the whole ordeal was stupid. So I kept quiet and called myself stupid; that is how the conversation would have ended anyway.
* * *
“Unmh Sir? I mean Justin?”
I had caught the scent of her perfume long before she strode in. She had switched it up a notch; the scent tingled my nostrils and warmed my insides.
“I wanted to show you this…”
I had been going through a proposal, it wasn’t as impressive as I had hoped it would be.
“Can’t this wait Janet? I am in the middle of something…”
“It will take only a few minutes Sir…”
Persistent. Persistence also intrigued me.
I almost couldn’t breathe when I brought my gaze to Janet. The word spectacular echoed in my mind loudly, excitingly.
I stood up from my desk and made my way to her. Her lips parted when I reached her.
Damn that demure smile.
When she talked, her breath fanned my face. I watched as her lips moved.
“I wanted to show you this…”
I glanced down, my eyes raking the structure cupped in her hands.
“It is magnificent…care to tell me what it is?”
Of course, I knew what it was, I just wasn’t sure what it represented and why she had brought it there.
“It is a diorama of a spa, hotel and library…”
“Where is it located?”
“Nowhere Sir…I mean Justin.”
“I don’t know such a place. Where is it? Is it still in Kenya, or is it from one of the East African countries?”
“No…I mean it does not exist.”
I averted my gaze from the gorgeous diorama to Janet. She had chosen maroon today. Maroon lipstick, eye shadow, earrings, dress…The color complemented her features exquisitely. I wondered whether her inner garments were also maroon.
“Then why is it in my office, Janet? I am a venture capitalist…you know what that means, right?”
I could tell she was taken aback by my tone. She was used to my playful, warm nature. Normally I would not assume this tone with her, but this was business. Besides, I was curious to see how she would respond to my crass demeanor.
“I know Justin-“
“Then why is a diorama of a nonexistent business doing in my office?”
“Maybe if you let me finish my presentation, you would understand.”
No coy smile, nervous blink or twiddling of thumbs.
I unbuttoned my coat and made my way back to my seat.
“Well? What are you waiting for?”
I watched as Janet’s features suddenly cowered. She was now nervous, as showcased by the hesitation in her footing and the slight tremor of her fingers.
“I believe a relaxing environment where people could get massages, eat and read is a niche in this market. I was hoping you would invest in the project.”
I mentally rolled my eyes. Did she know how many people approached Smart Inc. with billion-dollar ideas on a daily basis? Ideas only meant something when they were off the ground, and Smart Inc. only invested in ideas that had taken off.
“Who does this project belong to, Janet?”
My fists automatically clenched. I ground my teeth, a coping mechanism for my anger issues. I swirled in my chair, only stopping when I was facing the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. I relaxed once I took in the view outside.
“You think because you are a pretty face and that I have been giving you some attention, you can just barge in my office and ask for money for your little project?”
“But what? What Janet? So we slept together, big deal! Ask for a raise, a trip to Dubai, a car hell, a promotion! But a goddamn blind investment? How good did you think the sex was? I will tell you now, I’ve had better…”
And there it was. The hidden superpower all women possessed. The ability to make men feel like shit by producing a single sound. Janet started with a snivel, then a whimper, and before long, she was bawling, loudly. I whirled around to face her.
“You sumofabitch…you selfentitled…you…you…”
And she was gone. She dumped the diorama on the floor together with a bunch of papers and stormed out of the office.
Later I walked up to the strewn papers, picked them up, and read them. They were proposal papers, more impressive than the one I had been going through earlier.
Janet did not want a handout; she just needed someone to give her a hand. She would foot in a majority of the capital. She needed some people to buy shares so she could start her enterprise. She had a plan, an elaborate one at that. She had secured two investors; she had just needed one. Yes, the project had been nonexistent, but it had rooted itself.
And I was a sumofabitch…and selfentitled. And everything else Janet had called me in her head.
Stella was going to kill me.
* * *
“You did what!”
Stella had cussed, yelled, and shrilled since my arrival home. She had also punched me on my arm incessantly and threatened to run me over with her wheelchair.
“Baby, I didn’t know, okay? I thought she was a gold digger!”
“Does she look like a gold digger?”
“Well, riddle me this, how are gold diggers meant to look like, huh? Should they go around wearing gold digger tags?”
“Don’t get smart with me, young man!”
“Don’t you ever call me that again!
And it went on and on. The argument lasted the whole night. Stella would take breaks, exhausted and out of breath, but too mad to actually fall asleep. She would demand I bring her water, demand I give her more pills. And when she was recharged, she would start again. At some point, I stopped arguing and just listened.
“She sounds perfect, Justin! She is smart, proactive, gorgeous, good in bed-“
“I never said that!”
Stella sighed before reaching for her handkerchief. She had dozens of them, all white. She wiped her face; it was covered in perspiration.
“We are running out of time, Justin…you need to find someone, and I honestly believe that she is the one…”
And maybe she was. Despite her coy demeanor, she had an edge, a backbone. She also had a brain to match her looks. And even though I would never say it out loud, Janet was splendid in bed. She was young, eager to please, and simply stunning.
Stella reached out for my hand beneath the covers and squeezed it. I turned and looked at her, really looked at her. Her face was wrinkled with worry and weariness. Her cheekbones which once stood high, were sagging. Her skin was dry and loose. The skin beneath her eyes was dark and strained. And her eyes, her eyes were glassy with unshed tears. Lately, they were always like that, glazed with palpable despair.
We were running out of time.
“Tomorrow, do something nice for her. Take her shopping, check into a fancy hotel, spoil her…make her feel like a queen.”
“Why can’t I just apologize?”
I felt a quick, intense pain in my forearm. Stella had punched me again.
“Because words are nothing. They are like a plate of stew without meat. All you have is soup. She will slurp it all up and forget the taste as soon as she is done. Give her something to chew on.”
I complained for a few more minutes before conceding to Stella’s plan. We winded up in each other’s arms, watching Game of Thrones.
When I woke up that morning, Stella was breathing shallowly in our bed. I had deprived her of rest, never again. I would fix this mess with Janet and give my wife peace.
I kissed her lightly on her forehead as Lorna trudged up the stairs with a breakfast tray. Once she was in the bedroom, perched next to my wife, I left.
* * *
A wise man once said that getting drunk was not confined to when the sun sets. One can get drunk at dawn, noon, or dusk. It was all a matter of preference.
That wise man was me.
When I arrived at the office, Janet was situated at her desk. She did not spare me a glance when I passed her working station.
This was going to be harder than I thought.
Once I was settled, I summoned her to my office.
“I messed up yesterday and I want to make up for it. Tell me how.”
I had practiced those exact words in front of my bathroom mirror all morning, and I felt really good about them.
“Really? You think you can throw money at this and make it go away?”
“No no I mean-“
“I get it, I am poor, and pretty so all you see is a gold digger…but let me tell you something Sir…I was raised right, and I have dignity. All I want from you is an apology.”
Aha! Suck it Stella!
“I am sorry Janet, it was wrong of me to assume that all you wanted was my money.”
And I really was sorry. All Janet had wanted was someone to believe in her. She had a plan and the brain to execute it. All she had wanted was some little financial backup. I saw a lot of myself in her.
Two hours later, Janet and I were gobbling down shots in a dingy bar somewhere in Eastleigh. Soon after, we got into my car and drove to Hilton.
Janet was no longer mad, which meant that Stella wouldn’t be. It was turning out to be a good day after all.
There was also this small factor, I was falling in love with Janet.
* * *
I felt like I had been mangled. Like a speeding trailer had run me over or a group of rowdy bulls had trampled over me. Everything hurt; my head, my limbs, my stomach. I suddenly jerked to the side and hurled. Once my nose caught a whiff of the pungent vomit smell, I hurled again. This continued until I ran out of alcohol and food to hurl. The lining in my throat burnt with a vicious reckoning. My stomach felt queasy.
What the hell happened?
I patted the side of my bed. It was cold, almost as if no one had slept there. Panic began gnawing at the pit of my stomach. I sat up, or at least attempted to.
The first thing I noticed was that I was stark naked. The second thing I noticed was that the room we had checked in was completely empty. There were no curtains, no flowers, no jug or glasses, no television set, no towels, no bar soap, nothing. My bed had only one sheet, I was certain that there were more when I slammed my body onto the bed earlier that day.
My stomach turned when I began scouting for my belongings. Car keys, phone, wallet, clothes, sunglasses, briefcase. Nothing. There was nothing.
I was alone, naked, and robbed with a body that didn’t feel like my own.
That bitch had robbed me.
Like any sane man, I began to laugh. I laughed at the fact that I had no way of going home. I laughed at the fact that there was sensitive information tucked safely away in my briefcase and that my phone was now in the hands of a stranger. I laughed at the fact that I had to reimburse the five-star hotel for its belongings. I laughed at the fact that I had actually developed feelings for a professional thief. I laughed at the nonsense that was perfection. I laughed at my insane need to please my wife.
My laughter died in my throat as my eyes flitted outside. The lack of drapes gave me a clear picture of what the time could be. The sun had set. It was well beyond 6.p.m.
I hurriedly planted my feet on the floor. I needed a phone, I needed to call Lorna.
As my luck would have it, I slipped on my own vomit and landed face flat on the cold, tiled floor. Just as my body made contact with the floor, the door swung open with someone yelling room service. I then heard the distinct sound of a woman screaming and feet shuffling.
All I was thinking was how I would get home, naked.
* * *
Lorna was like Cinderella. Once the clock struck six p.m., she had to leave. She had a disabled, epileptic grandchild who was enrolled in a special school that allowed him to stay over until a little over 6:00 p.m. They would then drive him to the stage, where Lorna would meet him and take him home. The reason why I had adamantly argued against Lorna being our housekeeper was because of this rigid timeline.
What if I wasn’t there at 6:00 p.m. one day? What if something happened at work? Stella couldn’t be left alone. She needed someone to be present, always. But Stella had fallen in love with Lorna. With Lorna’s selflessness and gallant nature.
So it was jolted down in her contract. Lorna was free to leave at 6:00 p.m. under any circumstance. This meant that I had to be home by 6:00 p.m. Always, at least until the inevitable.
And for the first time since my wife got diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, she was alone in the house.
I knew for a fact that Lorna wouldn’t wait. If it ever came down to a choice between your family and employer, you would always choose the former, no matter how good the latter is.
* * *
I found her at the foot of our staircase. She was lying on her side, her breathing severely labored. She was also coughing and sputtering blood into one of her handkerchiefs. I paused momentarily at the door, a feeling of dread burrowing itself in my stomach.
I rushed to her.
“Breathe baby…breathe for me…”
She slowly raised her head to look at me. I saw her eyes crinkle.
I chuckled humorlessly. Of course, that was the first thing she would notice.
“This baby, is the new outfit in town…”
“A manly dress…”
One of the housekeepers at the hotel had felt bad for me. She didn’t wear trousers, a religious thing. So she gave me one of her dresses. She kept spares for emergencies. I had scarcely wondered how many men had left Hilton in dresses after unfortunate encounters with gold diggers.
“No time for that baby…we need to get you to the hospital…let me call-“
I froze. My body went rigid, my brain stopped playing out scenarios.
“I am in pain Just…please…please make it stop…”
I didn’t even realize I was crying until I saw a drop of tear fall on Stella’s cheek. Her breathing was now ragged, she was struggling to take in air, struggling to talk to me. Her body was hot, her features stiff. She was crying too, crying because her chest was on fire.
My wife was in excruciating pain.
“I am not ready Stella…not yet…please…”
She tried to move, to get more comfortable. But her body failed her. She was weak and tired. So she stopped trying.
And there it was. My familiar friend, the one I turned to when everything else was too overwhelming. I welcomed him with open arms.
My voice quivered when I spoke.
“Damn you woman! Damn you for thinking that there is someone out there that could replace you! Damn you for making me spend time with random strangers who you thought could be the potential mothers to my children! Damn you for imagining that there was somewhere else I would rather be than by your side! Damn you for thinking that it was them that could make me happy! Damn you Stella, for thinking that I could love anyone as much as I love you!”
As a man, there is no moment in your life that you think will cause you to fall on your knees and bawl. You always think that you will handle it better, that you will maybe cry in the shower or when it is raining rain or not at all. As a man, wailing and moaning is a disgrace no matter how difficult your situation is.
But there I was, in a long yellow dress, holding my wife tightly in my arms, bawling.
“Just…I love you…”
And she did. Why else would a person prolong her suffering? Why else would a woman spend an entire year searching for a person to comfort you after they are gone? Why else would a woman let another woman take their man? My wife was the most selfless person I had ever met.
And it was time I learnt from her.
As if in a trance, I lifted Stella from the floor and carried her up to our bedroom. With each stair, she flinched and squirmed, moaning quietly in pain. When we finally arrived at our room, I laid her on the bed and covered her with a pink, floral bed cover.
“How about some Game of Thrones baby?”
* * *
It was her favorite episode. The one where Hodo straps his body around a door, barring the dead from reaching the living. She says it is the most selfless act in Game of Thrones. I think Ned Stark keeping his sister’s secret is more selfless, but oh well, women.
I watched as Stella sipped her herbal tea, closing her eyes each time the hot liquid made contact with the lining of her throat. Her small, white cup trembled under her loose grip.
Suddenly dark, sticky, blood began oozing from her nose. Her skin became increasingly pale.
I felt a tear escape my eye. The cyanide was working.
“Hush now, baby…everything is going to be okay…”
I held her tightly and wholeheartedly, only pulling away when she stopped breathing.
There, on her mouth, was a small, content smile. She was finally at peace.
After what felt like forever, I disentangled myself from Stella and reached for her phone.
I dialed 999.
A woman’s voice blared through.
Image by Cdd20 from Pixabay (modified)