I will tell you a story about how, not long ago, I locked eyes with a stranger, a man, and we proceeded to share a brief but intense and revealing moment.
It started with me wanting to make a smoothie. I’m from the school of thought that a smoothie has to have a banana in it. Otherwise, why bother? I hear there is a small tribe of primitive humans who hate bananas. I’m lucky I haven’t run into one.
I wanted to make a smoothie because my eating habits have been deteriorating sharply of late and we all know that you are what you eat, and going by that adage, I am a glutton. It doesn’t help that in this dying and jaded era of COVID, the fridge seems to follow me everywhere in the house like a house dog. Notably, I have recently greatly increased my intake of chapatis. I have taken to folding three chapatis at a go, which isn’t so bad if I was feeling remorseful after. And that’s dangerous, when you stop feeling guilty. When you stop giving a toss.
There was a night I was watching the final two episodes of Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” and although I had eaten dinner two hours earlier, I impulsively put the kettle on and threw in half a chapati in the microwave to warm. I ate that and felt no guilt. After ten minutes, I started thinking about the half chapati I had returned to the fridge. I just felt like it was a bit pretentious and insincere to leave that half chapo uneaten. It’s not like it would cause diabetes, I thought to myself. After a long (64 seconds) sober debate I figured I wouldn’t concentrate on the final episode of that series with that chapo still in the fridge. And Jordan deserved better. So I warmed and ate that too.
That’s been happening a lot lately, chapatis just tempting me and me not resisting them. We are talking three or five chapatis a day. I can’t be left alone unsupervised in a room with a chapati. I don’t fear COVID, I fear what chapatis are turning me into; weak-willed and gluttonous. And it’s starting to show around my gut area.
So I started making smoothies to distract my body. To lessen the guilt. To fill a disturbing hole of inadequacy that only a chapo has always filled. I set on a path to be a better man, a momentous task faced with the temptations of chapos. And from making smoothies I made a discovery; that if I emerge with a skill from this COVID season, it’s my adeptness at making smoothies. I didn’t know I had it in me. The trick is to throw in a banana, whatever it is you are making. A banana is the elixir of smoothies. And good health. But a word of caution; don’t overdo it…to say, don’t go bananas. Just one or two bananas is fine. Then you can throw in other things; baby spinach, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, almond milk, pawpaw and maybe a mango. (I don’t particularly care for mangoes).
This material day I needed supplies.
I drove to Quick Mart, Lavington. There is a reason why the first thing you see when you enter that store are bananas, of course over and above serendipity. A ripened, yellow banana exudes joy and warmth – a ripe avocado could never hold a candle to that. Or ripened pineapples. No matter how ripe a pineapple is, it will always feel like something that can prick you. Like a porcupine. You don’t want to make a smoothie from a porcupine now, do you? I don’t care how ripe it is.
This time – hanging at the entrance – were some very old overripe bananas with dark underbellies, like they were crawling under a tunnel. If bananas could get stretch marks, those bananas had a lot of them. I stood there and bowed my head somberly, like you would at a wake. Thankfully, there were some more bananas arranged below. I picked a beautiful bunch while acutely aware of how hard it must be to be a fruit. Think about it. Shoppers come and look you over, inspecting you to see if you are worth their time and money. You have no choice in this as a fruit. You are a slave in a market. To be a fruit you can’t afford to wear your emotions on your sleeve. And you can’t take it personally because your whole life is spent being chosen or discarded and being taken home even by people at the very bottom of the food chain; people who still wear briefs.
You have no hand in this process. The only thing you can be is the best fruit you can ever be. The rest you leave to the gods of nutrition. We shall never know how fruits that have not been chosen feel at the end of the day, when they have to be discarded, their whole lives ending up in a bin where, I’m sure, conversations about “purpose” must happen in earnest.
I also picked some baby spinach, a tender name to give a vegetable. But the thing with baby spinach is that they never grow up. While they weighed my fruits, I heard a low psst psst and looked up to see a pawpaw looking at me. I had forgotten to pick one so I went over, picked the pawpaw and whispered, “Don’t do that. This is not Koinange Street.” It wasn’t the best looking pawpaw; bruised in certain areas and looked like it had led a very rough childhood. A loveless pawpaw. Only reason I picked it was because it was proactive. Some fruits, especially the very good looking ones, normally just assume they will be picked because they look good. It’s shallow. But then most of us city dwellers are shallow.
Take oranges for instance. Oranges are the most deceptive of all fruits. They are always bright and in good spirits but often you get home and peel one only to discover how bitter it is inside, a bitterness that comes from deep-seated issues. So I’m always very careful with oranges, because what you see isn’t always what you get. If an orange had a twitter handle it’s bio would read; people say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.
At the grains section I stared at the groundnuts a little too long. There is this myth that groundnuts are powerful grains that make a man virile. That we should all keep some in our pockets, nibbling on them throughout the day. I decided that I didn’t need it. Besides, groundnuts bloat me. So I looked up at the lady seated behind one of those drums bearing the nuts and smiled at her. “Sasa?” I don’t know if she smiled back behind her mask but I saw her eyes narrow, which could mean that indeed she smiled back or she grimaced. I inquired where I could get almond milk. She pointed.
At the till, some guy in a jacket at high noon stood too close to me even though there were clear markers indicating social distancing. I’m used to people like this. Most people don’t bother to read anything; signage, instructions, traffic lights, dosages. I could hear him chew gum right behind my ear. The whole store could hear him chew gum.
My phone rang and I stared at it for a while before picking it.
“I thought you were going to look at it ring and ignore it,” the caller said. “That would have been awkward because I can see you.”
I chuckled and looked around. He was paying at a different till.
“I see you grew a beard,” I said.
He stroked it proudly, like you would stroke a favorite cat. We men are so uncomplicated, really small things thrill us. Like a grown beard. Or a new pair of tyres. I bought this fancy silver measuring tot in a Remy Martin gift shop in Cognac, France and it’s the only thing I can save in a burning house.
“How’z biashara?” I asked.
We had the usual phone conversation people have now; quarantine, e-learning, lack of business. We asked about each other’s children (“I gave away mine,” I told him. “Last in first out kinda thing”), then we promised to meet up after COVID. I then took the staircase to the rooftop where I had parked just near that place which refills milk, I think. It was one of those very hot afternoons that the sun bounced harshly from the bodies of parked cars.
A car away I could see a fellow standing outside his car with a small child who must have been three or four years old. The only reason I noticed them was because of that child, a little baby doll wearing socks in that heat and snub-nosed pink shoes that made noise when she hopped playfully on the spot.
As I popped open my trunk I heard a female voice; a harsh-edged voice, matronly voice, displeased, harangued and urgent. She was castigating the man, saying something to him about him not having “brains” for bringing the child out in the hot sun. “I don’t even know how you think sometimes,” I remember her saying. I caught a glimpse of her as I closed my boot, she was loading a bag of shopping into the car. As I made my way to the driver’s door, I happened to look at the man standing there taking the heat and that’s when our eyes met. Normally, we would have both looked away but for some reason we held each other’s gaze. This moment might have lasted three or so seconds but it felt forever because of – what I would learn later – was the significance of that non-verbal exchange.
I drove away.
I thought about him on my short drive home. I thought about him as my blender whirred and churned, the ice-cubes crashing and rattling. And over the following days the man and that child would occasionally cross my mind. I remember his silence, his resignation. It sounded loud in my head, like an echo in a cave. His silence, it seemed, had somehow normalized his situation, at least from that brief moment we interacted in that parking lot. I wondered what was on his mind as he got a hiding. Was he thinking, “This too shall pass?” Or “Silence is the best medicine.” How thick had his skin become? How thick can one’s skin become? I narrated this story to a friend of mine and he said simply, “that man knows his escape.”
Sometimes I picture him at home sitting in the living room in as small a ball because the smaller you are the less a target you become. He’s hiding behind an old newspaper, his tea losing its heat next to him. I wondered what occupies his mind when he’s in bed. Where he gets his validation. What makes him feel good about himself? I also wonder about that little girl, if one day she will grow up and remember that hot day in the rooftop parking; the fire on her mother’s tongue and the resounding silence of her father. I wonder what adjectives she will use to describe her father when she’s 12. Or 20. “Stoic.” “Wise.” “Calm.” “muted.” “mousy”, “faint.” And how that incidence might shape her view of a man.
Mostly I think of that look we exchanged, strangers, yet brothers. That intense look that evoked a strange feeling in me. I felt shame for him and embarrassment for myself. Shame because I saw him in his most vulnerable state, in his weakness, in his nakedness. The one language that we share as men is ego and pride, and he had none at that moment he was getting an earful in public. He was clothed, but his nakedness was stark. I intruded on his vulnerability and was embarrassed to be a witness.
I still think about him occasionally, almost a month later. And if he’s reading this, I hope he never lowers his chin.