I rolled down my window and watched the street vendors stroll between the stationary cars, tankers, matatus and buses. I had a strange impulse to drive straight into the car in front, just for the satisfaction of knowing I’d made an impact for once. I gripped the steering wheel.
Dilip and I were stuck on Mombasa Road driving to the city center of Nairobi from our offices near the Jomo Kenyatta Airport. We’d just passed the golf course on our left and the old East African railway station on our right. I fiddled with the knobs for the indicator lights and switched off the engine.
A street seller sidled up to the car carrying Kenyan flags of all sizes, the black, red and white fabric flapping around his face.
“Madam, do you need flags, sunglasses or a photo of the president?” he asked.
I shook my head and avoided his gaze to focus on the traffic ahead. He stooped to look into the car. I moved in my seat to block his view.
“What’s in the news?” I asked Dilip.
“Independence Day celebrations, Mandela’s funeral.” He turned the page. “Women activists angry about something or the other.”
I glanced at my watch. “I wish the traffic police would do their job. The shops will close soon.”
“No point in getting irritated, Resh.” He pulled off his shoes, loosened his tie, and covered his face with the paper.
The air was muggy and dense with diesel and petroleum vapors from the industrial neighborhood beyond the railway station and the four wheelers around us. My seatbelt pressed into my middle and cut into my shoulder. I unbuckled it and turned in my seat.
“Be my customer,” the seller said. He put on a pair of glasses and positioned the photograph of the president at arm’s length. “Life will be better with glasses.”
Dilip uncovered his face, yawned, folded the newspaper and laughed. “Here, kijana, have a soda.” He leaned across and handed him a note.
The man took the money through the window, “Asante, Mzee.”
Dilip adjusted his seat to lean back and shut his eyes. “I need a nap.”
“Madam, buy miwani.” The seller held out a pair of dark glasses with a fake Armani logo. “Life will be better. No problem, hakuna matata.”
“Oh fine, whatever.” I paid him and stuffed the glasses in my handbag.
Sharp police whistles; the vendor swore and, weaving in and out of the cars, disappeared into the bushes. A tout, from the matatu with blaring music parked next to us, leered. I closed my window and turned on the air conditioning.
The lights changed from amber to green. Nothing moved. I took the newspaper from Dilip’s lap; he didn’t stir. Activists were outraged, I read, at the amendments to the proposed Marriage Bill. I thought of the hire purchase loan Dilip had for the car and the mortgage on our house. If he died or I ever left him I’d be responsible for both.
At the roundabout a few meters ahead, a policeman walked over to a black Toyota and tapped on the window. He said something to the driver, who handed him what I assumed was a license. The policeman pocketed it and walked around the car, his fimbo under his arm, kicking each wheel. He stopped by the left front door, opened it, and climbed in.
“Oh my God.”
“What’s going on?” Dilip sat up and rubbed his eyes.
The driver, a woman in a mustard burqa, jumped out. She stood by her car, hands on hips, her dress billowing around her. The lights changed, cars honked, and those ahead of her started to move. I turned on the ignition, changed lanes, and as we crawled up beside the black Toyota I rolled down my window. “Do you need help?”
“He wants kitu kidogo, some small chaifor Christmas. He said he’s charging me for wrongful overtaking.”
“Let’s go,” Dilip muttered.
“He’s impounded my license,” the woman said.
“Oh no,” I said.
“Don’t get involved,” Dilip said. “Drive on.”
I moved the car forward and navigated the rest of the way in silence.
# # #
At the entrance to the boutique, I turned to Dilip. A shaft of sunlight shone on his clean-shaven head and on the green and blue snake tattoo that ran from his right ear to his shoulder. He patted the jacket pocket where he kept his wallet, phone and glasses.
“I know the dress I want,” I said.
“Sure.” He buttoned his tight-fitting jacket and, taking a tissue from his pocket, wiped the perspiration off his forehead and the back of his neck.
The boutique, designed like an African hut, had a thatched roof and small windows. On the walls were oddly shaped mirrors and watercolors of flamenco dancers. The clothing was displayed on wrought iron railings suspended from the ceiling by thick chains.
“Is this it?” he said. “It’s not what I expected.”
“I’ve seen something here that I like.”
He turned to the sales assistant. “My wife needs something appropriate for the Independence Ball.”
She looked me up and down. “I’ll bring you a selection.”
“And the black dress that was in the window last week,” I said.
She nodded. Dilip yawned and looked at his watch.
I went into the changing room and fumbled with the buttons on my blouse. The mirror accentuated the lines on my forehead and the traces of grey showing through my short, spiky dark hair. The assistant knocked on the door and handed me several gowns. At the top of the pile was the one I’d set my heart on. It was an off-the-shoulder in black chiffon, with tiny, sparkly, diamanté embellishment. I put it on, and the soft thin material fell smoothly over my hips and caressed my ankles. I stepped out into the shop.
“What do you think?” I asked Dilip, with a self-conscious twirl.
He did a double take and gave a low whistle. “Wow. You look, well, different.”
I laughed and swirled again.
He shook his head. “No good.”
I stopped. “What? Why?”
“This dress isn’t us.” He folded his arms.
“It is. This is me.”
“It’s definitely not.”
The assistant looked up from folding scarves. “Is there anything else in particular you’d like to try on?” she asked me.
“Don’t ask her,” he said. “I’ll decide, that’s why I’m here.”
I retreated into the fitting room and unzipped the black dress. I pulled on a red satin bubble one with long sleeves, a high neck, a belted waist and an elaborate bow on the left shoulder.
“I need a dress,” said a female voice.
I peered through the keyhole and saw a woman in a mustard burqa. I emerged from the changing room.
Dilip nodded. “That’s more like it.”
“This is annoying me,” I said, pulling at the bow.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said.
“Hello there! Fancy meeting again,” the woman in the burqa said.
I turned to face her. “Hello. Did you sort things out with the policeman?” I patted the bow, trying to smooth it down.
“He refused to leave my car,” she said, “until I showed him my wallet. Then he took everything from it.”
“Oh no! How terrible,” I said.
She took off her sunglasses and scrutinized me. “That’s a nice dress,” she said. “It suits you.”
“I think so too,” Dilip said, glancing at her. “Doesn’t she look perfect?”
“I don’t like it,” I said.
The woman looked at me. “Well then, get what you like.”
“I like this one. It’s just the dress for you,” Dilip said, staring straight at me.
I went back to the changing room and took off the red dress. The assistant tapped on the door. “I’ll take whatever you’ve tried on,” she said.
I handed her the black and red dresses and put on a minty green one with a cowl neck and butterfly sleeves.
“Well, what about this one?” I walked toward Dilip.
He stroked his chin. “Nope, never. That’s not for us.”
“What’s wrong with it? Surely it’s more flattering than the red one?”
His gaze shifted and I followed it. I wouldn’t have recognized her without her burqa. She was as petite and slim as me, but in her early thirties. Her complexion was clear, and her hair, which was curly and long, had auburn highlights.
“That’s my black dress,” I said. “I’ve just tried it on.”
“Have you? Isn’t it beautiful? I love the diamanté.”
“That’s my dress, that’s the dress I want,” I said to Dilip. But he was staring at her and did not respond. I waited for a moment and then rushed to the changing room and slammed the door. I sat on the small stool and covered my face. Tears stung my eyes; I brushed them away. This time I wouldn’t cry.
I heard voices. I peered through the keyhole: the woman was adjusting the black dress under her arms, looking at her reflection in the mirror. She pouted and twisted to look at her behind. Dilip was watching her. I went down on my knees to see more clearly, but she moved, and only Dilip was in my view.
“That dress looks very nice on you,” he said.
She gave a throaty laugh. “Why, thank you. I think so too.”
Dilip loosened his tie and ran a finger around the back of his collar. The woman was near him again, still preening. She tossed back her hair and smiled at Dilip. He smiled back.
“Do you think I should get it?” she asked.
A man entered the shop and walked over to her. He was wearing a white baseball cap, faded blue jogging pants and a baggy red T-shirt. Clapped to his ear was a mobile phone. Without interrupting his conversation, he pointed at her, then at his watch and went to the far side of the shop. She looked at Dilip and smoothed the dress over her hips. I got up and changed back into my jeans and blouse. When I exited the fitting room, Dilip was paying the assistant. The woman was standing by the till, still wearing my dress. “Are you going to buy it?” I said to her.
“I haven’t decided.” She headed to the changing room.
The assistant handed Dilip the dress wrapped in tissue. “Enjoy the party.”
Dilip’s mobile rang and he answered it, walking toward the door with the shopping bag. He nodded at me to follow. The changing room opened and the woman came out in her mustard burqa. She placed the black dress on the counter and pulled her veil over her head as she tucked away her straying curls.
“I’ve decided,” she said to the assistant. “I’ll go and speak to my husband.” She walked over to the man in the cap, tapped him on the shoulder and held out an empty palm. Without breaking his conversation, he pulled out his wallet and gave it to her. She brought it to the till.
“Excuse me,” I said. “If you wouldn’t mind, could I please have that dress?”
“I don’t understand?” she said. “You already have the one your husband likes.”
“I know, but I want this one. I tried it on first, before you.”
The woman was quiet for a moment. “No. I’m sorry, I’m taking it.”
I looked at the assistant who was concentrating on wrapping the dress. The man in the cap came over. “Did you get what you wanted?” he asked the woman.
“I did.” She tilted her head in my direction. “But she didn’t.”
# # #
In the parking lot, I noticed a black Toyota parked right behind us. Dilip was leaning against our car, chatting on the phone. I rummaged in my handbag for the keys and noticed the sunglasses from the vendor on Mombasa Road. I put them on and looked around to check for the couple. They were still inside the boutique.
We got in the car and I turned on the ignition. Dilip was laughing at something his caller said. I began to reverse and the car beeped. In the rear-view mirror, I could see the front bumper of the Toyota. I pressed my foot on the accelerator. There was a resounding crunch and a splintering of headlights.
Dilip dropped his phone and yanked the hand brake. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Serves her right. She was badly parked.”