Nyamwezi knew love. Uchi introduced it to her and she learned that it was simple. She learned love as fast as she learned attraction, chemistry and the demanding task of obsession. There were many complex things in her life but love wasn’t one of them. Love was a stare, an excessive laugh at a bad joke or simply standing next to Uchi and letting the tiny hairs on their arms touch. The feeling of love made the simple things enough. Things like two minute encounters dressed up as “What time is Game of Thrones airing?” or “I just came through to say hello”. Nyamwezi had many friends she could ask about TV shows, it was more about hearing him respond, his word choice, the colours of his voice, even when he said he had no idea. Love blurs the line that marks the start of obsession – is it even love if there is no obsession?
It was a windy cold day in July, the cold that came with June was waving goodbye as the wind that blew in August announced its arrival. Nyamwezi was trembling in front of the old Toyota Land Cruiser, the bonnet was open and the clouds of smoke had cleared out but she was afraid to do more than stare at the tangle of cables and wires that men called an engine. Nyamwezi’s Ma was the older, wiser version of her. She predicted the weather so she was heavily guarded against the wind as her gloved hands ran rapidly across her keypad as she typed for help. It was their second breakdown that day, clearly the man who fixed it earlier did a terrible job. The phone rang and Ma took a few steps away before answering it. The conversation was brief but Nyamwezi heard her mother use a baby voice before she ended the conversation and returned to the car. Nyamwezi had never heard Ma use that tone before, and yet it sounded oddly familiar.
“Looking at the engine won’t fix it, let us just wait.” Ma said as soon as Nyamwezi joined her in the car.
She had the urge to ask what sitting in the car would fix but intuition told her to keep her lips together and relax. It was warm in the car and the comfort made it too easy to drift away into her thoughts. The car no longer smelled like her father. As his favourite possession, it still smelled like his cigarettes and cologne a year after his demise. His scent wore off together with many of the memories and the distinct fear and reverence Nyamwezi had for him. They were replaced by a life she didn’t recognise and a love for him that she carried everywhere. She forgave him for all the things she thought she hated him for and she was hurt that he was missing the best parts of her life. He missed her graduation, never saw her first payslip and wouldn’t walk her down the aisle to Uchi. When he died she was still a virgin, he suspected she was dating the scruffy Uchi boy from the neighbourhood and though she denied it, they both knew he was right. It was part of the African game to never tell a father about teenage romances. Fathers were only told about marriage and until vows were exchanged, the answer to all relationship questions was no. Nyamwezi wondered about how her life could have been if he never gave up his fight against lung cancer. Would he tell that she was having sex with Uchi and enjoying every second of it? Would he be proud of the woman she had become? The unanswerable questions trailed through her mind, familiar questions that she asked herself often.
At least she knew for sure that if he was alive, he would have known what was wrong with the car and how to fix it. Just as the thought crossed her mind a white Jeep parked behind them. It was brand new and had one of those new number plates that started with a B, the brilliant crystal lights turned off and the engine hummed to a stop before a man stepped out of it and walked towards them. The man had a salt and pepper beard that matched his hair and when he came closer she noticed little nose hairs peeking out and thick, stubborn eyebrows that were still solidly black. He was wearing an age appropriate but trendy outfit, one that even Uchi could have easily killed in; chinos, a white shirt, navy blazer and a red pocket square. Nyamwezi made a mental note to lay out the same outfit for Uchi on Sunday when they went to church. The man surprised Nyamwezi by going straight towards Ma’s door and opening it. Ma’s relaxed demeanour told Nyamwezi that she should relax too but her curiosity was increasing past the speed limit. Ma had no Jeep driving friends.
Nyamwezi knew that Ma had few friends and one boyfriend; he was a school teacher and Ma often paid his rent and ‘lent’ him money. Of course the money never came back and Ma cared too much about his ego to ask for it, instead she cooked him more meals, furnished his house and listened to his problems. This was all information Nyamwezi stumbled upon while reading Ma’s text messages. It was a terrible habit but Nyamwezi trusted the habit. People told the truth, but never the whole truth unless under oath. Nyamwezi appreciated the gems of knowledge she discovered in people’s messages. When she was ten she read about her father’s various girlfriends, she even learned which one was his favourite girlfriend and what position she liked. Text messages had built her a beautiful chamber of secrets. Jeep man was not in the text messages.
“This is my very good friend, Lewis.” Ma said before jumping out of the car and leading Lewis to the bonnet. Nyamwezi watched as Ma ran through the car’s symptoms like it was a child who had a fever, developed diarrhoea and then a cough before collapsing. Lewis checked the water, oil, squeezed the battery terminals while nodding seriously and listening to Ma’s account of the car’s illness. Nyamwezi stepped out of the car and stood next to them. More out of curiosity than helpfulness. The wind blew Lewis’ cologne around and the area was filled with the scent of a man in authority. He had no idea what he was doing but they appreciated his effort anyway. He made comments about the weather and Ma giggled, Nyamwezi laughed out of pure politeness and the sound of her fake laugh seemed to scratch her throat so she coughed to summarise it.
“You know, the coffee house across the street has the best café latte. Simply the best. Would you like to try it?” Lewis said the words in that all-knowing tone adults used. The tone that told anyone listening that the answer was yes. Nyamwezi wanted to say no but the wind had a point to prove. It was turning her into ice and she could have said yes to a cup of lukewarm water. Nyamwezi nodded and Ma watched on as Lewis pulled out a beautiful brown wallet from the inner pocket of his blazer, the wallet had loose change in one compartment and a wad of fresh 100s in the other. Nyamwezi caught a glimpse of his gleaming wedding band as he pulled one out and handed it to her. He was left handed and married.
They didn’t even notice when she walked away, they were in their own conversation, giggling at jokes only they could hear. Nyamwezi bought the coffee and when she returned there was a huge man in a blue work suit doing professional things to the car. The mechanic was evidently one of the cards Lewis had up his sleeve. She tapped him and handed him the change but he graciously refused it. They both knew he wouldn’t take it but it was the Zambian way to offer it so that it could be refused. She had to give him the chance to demonstrate his generosity. Ma looked on and sipped the coffee zealously and whimpered when it burnt her, “This stuff is delicious but it has burnt me, I won’t be able to enjoy food all week.” She said in the baby tone.
“Oh sorry sorry sorry eh…” Lewis said rubbing her back and intently looking at her lips that showed no signs of damage.
It was like a light bulb went on in Nyamwezi’s head; her very own eureka moment. She immediately recognised the tone. It was the same one she used every now and then when she needed Uchi to show that he cared, when she needed to feel like a safe little girl. It was the back rub that reminded her of the things she knew so well. She bumped her pinkie toe into a wall once and Uchi rubbed her back and called her Moon baby because her name literally meant born with the moon. He only called her that when she needed it. The back rub didn’t ease the actual pain, it soothed and showed affection. The excessive care and eagerness to help that only lovers shared. The simple fact was laid bare, only one obsessed and in love could stand outside on a cold windy night, soothing an old woman who had been scalded by her latte. Like dominoes everything else started to fall into place. Ma looked at Lewis with the same pride that Nyamwezi looked at Uchi with when he showed generosity, when he displayed just how manly and helpful he was. It was a look that said, “Look at this man, this man is mine.” Lewis wasn’t out in the wind in his beautiful blazer because he liked helping widows with breakdowns, he was there because he was in love.
Ma quickly forgot she was singed by her latte and went back to giggling and looking helpful by Lewis’ side. Nyamwezi took the position of spectator and felt like she had interrupted a romantic date. Her curiosity was quenched, it was more than clear what was happening. More than the cold wind beating against her cheeks and her icy fingers, she was convinced that her mother was just human and Lewis the Jeep man was just human too. Love was for humans, just like sin was. That conclusion was simple enough. After the mechanic finished, the engine of the Toyota Land Cruiser roared back to life and Nyamwezi went back into the car, leaving Ma and Lewis to bid their farewells.
“Thank you so much Lewis, you really are a life saver.” Ma said.
“Anytime, will I see you tomorrow?” Lewis asked in the same way that suggested that the answer was yes because it was always yes.
“Yes.” Ma said.
The drive home wasn’t silent. Ma turned on the radio and hummed along to any song that played, she was afraid of the silence because in the silence it would be clear that they both knew what they both knew.
Related country: Zambia