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Redness Behind The Mask

I have been told before that my writing style is chaotic. So I shall try and give you some structure as you make your way through the tumult below. First off, the following information shall be crucial for understanding some of the happenings later on:

  • I was home alone for most of the week. Usually, there’s like one, two or more people around watching Ojo and Mama Ojo’s shenanigans as I’m chilling in the verandah (my studio space) working. This particular week, from the previous Saturday till the time I left the house for CBD on Friday, I was all alone.

  • I am a loner-introvert. The solitude was nothing short of magical

  • Being a loner-introvert, I am sometimes awkward in social situations. Especially after having been couped up indoors for a couple of days.

I see no issue with chaos anyway. In ‘The Art of War’ Sūn Tzu says:

“Disorder is founded on order; fear, on courage; weakness, on strength. Orderly disorder is based on careful division; courageous fear, on potential energy; strong weakness; on troop dispositions.”

And now the tale begins…


 

It was a unanimous agreement in The Clan of a Can that the stickers I had produced were fairly small. There was a certain satisfaction missing when looking at them. If only they were a little bit bigger.

I would have produced badges, keyholders and some fridge magnets too, but the other Clansmen were held up doing murals somewhere in Maringo estate. Getting them to tell me which artworks would be used where was a difficult process. So it seemed there would be another last-minute rush before Naiccon.

There was a line at the printing place. I was 5th or something, so I was told to come back after about 2 hours. Of course! That was the reason I left the house at 11am; so I could use my whole afternoon waiting on printers while ignoring the work I had waiting for me back home at the verandah. This rant would be a lot longer had I not had lunch before drafting this blog post.

The spotlight frightens me. Especially when it’s non-consensual. Therefore, I shan’t disclose the location of the restaurant lest you heathens go investigating. I wouldn’t want to put her through all that pressure. All I shall say is that the restaurant has a combo of large fries, a 500ml soda and a large shawarma roll at 550 bob. That is the lunch that has saved you from a long boring rant about printers. And the waitress who served me is to be thanked for this tale.

The wisest move I had made this morning was going back to grab my sketchbook as soon as I had set foot outside the gate. Instead of awkwardly looking around and checking non-existent notifications on my phone, I started sketching the sauce bottles on the table.

Peptang Green Chili Sauce (is chili spelled with one ‘i’ or two? They used one), Peptang Red Chili Classic…

“Unachoranga? (So you draw?)”

I look up to see a pair of eyes smiling at me. Her nose and mouth were covered by a black face mask.

“Eeeh, (yes),” I replied.

Then I proceeded to thank her for bringing me my cold Coca-Cola. The fries and shawarma would arrive a little later. Artists, I’m sure you’ve heard this statement enough times to drive you insane.

“Si unichore? (Why don’t you draw me?),” she asks.

I’m smiling at her. Of course I am. It’s a reflex when I find myself in awkward social situations.

“Sasa umevaa maaask… (But now you’re wearing a maaask),” I whine.

She chuckles and proceeds to wait the other customers. A white man is walking around speaking Italian or something. He is demanding answers for… something. A worked up waitress (she must be a senior waitress) is listening to him and rallying other waitresses to get him whatever it was that he was calmly demanding.

“Cheki, ebu mpatie pesa yake,” she says to a group of Somalis seated at a table to my far right. Beyond them is a small kitchen with a fridge, beyond which are the backrooms restricted to customers. It’s where they plan on how to put the chicken in headlocks before processing them to land on your plate inside delicious shawarmas. You just know they have trouble keeping one of their members from Central Kenya off the potatoes.

The senior waitress quickly loses her patience at the incessant pressure from the white guy. Soon she is yelling at the other junior waitresses. A delivery guy (from the looks of it, one who delivers via mkokoteni) tries to flirt with her. He gets yelled at as well. The senior waitress goes downstairs continuously yelling at him to not ruin her day any further.

“Nitakuja baadaye,” he says to her as she leaves. She yells back, “Ukuje wapi?”

The delivery guy sheepishly continues the delivery to the backrooms. I wouldn’t blame him, though. When passing by her as I left the premise, I clearly saw how pretty she was. She was probably prettiest when she smiled.

The cacophony of restaurant sounds resumes after she had left. I am now hatching in the sauce inside the sketch of the Peptang Red Chili Classic bottle.

The waitress who served me the soda comes back with the fries and shawarma. Yet again, we end up playfully debating why I should or shouldn’t sketch her. My point is the same: she has a mask on. How would I sketch her when she has a mask on?

“Siwezi toa mask sahii,”

“Mbona? Uko na homa?” I prod further, thankful that I am no longer the subject of conversation.

Her eyes look away into the distance for a few moments, then she says, “Niko kwa matanga. So hapa kwote niko red. (I am mourning. So this whole area is red)”

Her hand motions towards her nose and mouth hidden beneath the face mask. I mentally picture her light-skinned complexion all reddened from crying. Normally, I can maneuver social awkwardness to an alright extent. But I was faced with a new challenge I hadn’t yet figured out how to overcome: saying ‘sorry for your loss’. So instead, I say:

“Oooh. Okay. Ni sawa basi,”

Guilt overcomes me. How hard can it be to say ‘pole sana’? How hard is it to say such simple words? Why am I such a disappointment to myself?

The guilt abates as I dig into my fries, now with a generous coating of the Peptang Red Chili Classic and Peptang Tomato Sauce (it was hidden behind the Green and Red Chili bottles in the sketch). When hungry, I tend to blow things out of proportion. Overthinking, overanalyzing, irritability… This is how I know that I’m hungry. It was never this complicated when I was a child. I wonder what happened…

The seemingly gargantuan task of sketching the waitress suddenly became the easiest thing to do. The formula is always the same, anyway. Draw a circle, then two lines following the curve of the circle horizontally and vertically…

If I wasn’t bold enough to say sorry to someone who was grieving, I would do what I do best: sketch. Then I would transfer the words I wish I had said somewhere on the paper. Also, sketching was a way to help me slow down when eating. I always eat fast. Ever since I learned how to do it in high school, I have not been able to un-learn it. Anytime I appear to be slow eating, my internal anguish is at its loudest.

I manage to kill about an hour in total through sketching while eating. Halfway through, when most of the foundation lines were done and one could clearly make out what I was sketching, she comes back to hand me my bill. Hiding my sketchbook from her appeared fishy. So I calmly let it lay on my lap. Sure enough, like the first time, she peeked at the sketchbook. She chuckles. Maybe it was because I couldn’t see her mouth, but her eyes seemed to laugh loudest.

The element of surprise was no longer a valid ingredient in my alchemical concoction that would save me from having to say, “I am sorry for your loss.” For some reason, I had noticed that all the wait staff at the restaurant were women in their twenties. I think it was the white guy’s idea. From his presence and the authority he displayed over the senior waitress, I believe he was the owner of the restaurant.

Some things shouldn’t be scary. But if you’re a loner-introvert and there is a chance of waitresses in their twenties screaming and oogling over a sketch you made of one them, terror is a guarantee. Immediately, I started crafting my escape plan.

First of all, I would ensure I had paid my bill. And then I would time the last sip of my Coca-cola with the moment she starts walking towards me from the stairs. Then I would place the ripped sketchbook page below the bill and tell her that I had left something meant for her eyes only. As she proceeds to check it out and clear the table, I would have gained ground on her. The exit would be less than half a dozen steps away. By the time the screams and oogling start, I would be at a safe distance to casually go incog-negro somewhere on Muindi Mbingu Street.

But the plan had flaws. For one, I needed to write the M-PESA payment code and time of payment on the bill. And I still had to write some uplifting words on the back of the sketch for her.

It was during my writing of the M-PESA code on the bill that she came to clear the table. The perfect plan completely ruined! While searching for the Till Number on the bill, I noticed the text ‘You were served by Sylvia’.

Eerily enough, Sylvia is one of the main characters in my comic book, Hsykal. Curious… With the plan now all foiled up, I figured it would be wiser to ease into handing the sketch to her with some small talk. I asked if there was anything else other than the M-PESA code and time of payment that I was supposed to indicate on the bill. (This is all filler. I was there the previous week and knew very well nothing else was required). People seem to light up when you draw them. I’ve never gotten the appeal of being drawn, but I notice how much joy it brings. The amount of warmth and joy carried in her response was satisfying to experience.

“Hapana. Ni hizo tu,” she responded.

The moment to give her the sketch had finally come. But first, a quick chaos break.


 

Have you ever been so patient that it unsettles people?

I am currently at the print shop as I write this. From the look of things, I might finish drafting this whole blog post here (I didn’t. But I completed about 95% of it). The said 2 hours has stretched to 4 hours and counting. Naturally, I should be cussing out the lady who attended to me from the desktop station. I should be seething. I should grabbing people by their lapels. I shoulda coulda woulda, but I couldn’t be bothered. I’m in too deeply engrossed in writing this blog that I barely even noticed I’ve been standing for close to an hour and a half.

Anyway, the lady has been harrying the guys in the finishing section to conclude the cutting and lamination ASAP.

“Huyu kijana amesimama hapa sana,” she insists as she shoves my sticker papers and art card papers at them. Back to the main blog.


 

I hand Sylvia the bill with the required details scribbled on it. Then I pull out the sketch from underneath my thigh (I had to think fast and hide it from her as she approached) and hand it to her too.

“Si basi, hii ni yako pia,” I say as I hold out the folded paper to her. I’m smiling. But everything’s awkward now. I’m unsure of what I’m doing and I’m unsure if I’m doing something socially unacceptable by showing her this weird awkward smile.

The warmth in her smiling eyes is tainted with a sliver of confusion. I wouldn’t know how to react either if I was in her position.

“Thank you,” she offers. There is a sparkle about how she says it.

“You’re welcome,” I mumble, that bizzare smile still doing de ting.

Sylvia scans the text I’d written on the back of the paper.

“Thank you,” she repeats. There is an even more pronounced sparkle in her mannerism.

“You’re welcome,”

At this point I’m getting uneasy. There aren’t that many “You’re welcomes” left in my arsenal.

She begins walking away, but stops for a moment to read the text on the back of the paper again. It read: “Thank you for your amazing service, Sylvia. I hope all gets better soon.”

I watch her descend the stairs. She wipes something from below her eyes with the back of her hand.



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