(Read the previous chapters here.)
Wasting no time, Kehinde called me later that same day and asked me to go out the following evening. I had wanted to go out earlier around six or seven, but he had a business meeting that was bound to run long and so, he said, “If you can keep your eyes open,” it would need to be closer to nine, but no later than ten. I wasn’t in the mood for a lot of back and forth, not over what was bound to be nothing more than chopped sirloin and a desiccated bake potato. I also reminded myself that whatever he thought was going to occur, I was there to offset the $175, which was totally outlandish for a meeting that took no more than half an hour. Still, if I played my cards right – right dress, right hair, makeup, nothing too overdone – I felt sure I could steer the conversation to get better advice than I had received thus far. Offering $10,000, only to pray that the Minnesotans have pity on me? Not remotely happening.
Kenhinde arrived at exactly ten. I thought perhaps if he was really interested in me that he would have rang my doorbell, bouquet of flowers in hand, but no. He was on time, well-dressed in sport jacket and tie, not so much smiling, but appearing open to bestowing a smile if given good reason.
“Thank you, you look nice, too.”
“Well, yes. It’s my way.” He laughed.
It was going to be that kind of a night. He walked me to the passenger side of his car, a 1970 Dodge Challenger, green, my favorite color. “A Challenger, not what I’d expect,” I said, standing, waiting as he opened the door.
“So, you know cars?”
“No, my step-father had one. I spent many weekends washing his “baby.”
“Umm,” he offered. “I got this one off a client as payment. I guess the trade was worth it – if it meets with your approval.
I knew this wasn’t a question. And so, I didn’t remark to this or any of his other bits of conversation, all of which seemed better suited to a conversation one would have with one’s self than with a dinner companion. After about thirty minutes of driving, clearly no longer within either Baltimore’s city or close county boundaries, I yawned, and asked, “So, where are we dining tonight?”
Not looking over at me, with only the lights from the dashboard to show that he was indeed smiling, Kehinde answered, “A nice place, one I eat at often.”
Before I could ask for more information, he had turned down a street riddled with several strip malls, one after the next lit up only by signage of mom-and-pop shops, including a hair braiding shop, a pawn shop, and several Chinese restaurants. In a nutshell: one low rent establishment after another.
Without warning, short pops of gunfire echoed down a back street, where then a young woman sprinted past the Charger barefoot, wearing only a purple micro mini skirt, her tube top held up with one highly ringed hand, which allowed the other hand to hold tight to the auburn and blond streaked wig that threatened to fly off. Kehinde hit the breaks hard. I turned in my seat to see who if anyone might be chasing her, but there was no one, just a man standing in the doorway of a carryout, looking up and down the street to the commotion too.
“And, we’re here,” Kehinde announced, passing yet another series of storefronts, pulling into a near empty parking lot, an area that looked better suited for a successful car jacketing than fine dining. I looked up, staring; blinking even, not sure if I was saw what was clearly before my eyes.
“The Olive Garden?” I mumbled, not looking over at Kehinde. I did not think this was remotely funny, but all the same I would not give him the satisfaction of complaining about not being able to eat pasta or anything with gluten, especially since I didn’t fancy the idea of either waiting the forty minutes to three hours it would take Benny to fetch me, or spending the fifty to sixty dollars for a cab to cart me back home. I had been trumped, again, royally. I sighed, not bothering to wait for Kehinde to come around and open my door. I could go hog wild and gnaw away at the bottomless salad to my heart’s content, even if that meant I had to pick out several hundred croutons.
I headed for the restaurant, high heels clicking away on the asphalt. I looked back to see Kehinde walking at what seemed an awful leisurely, Saturday Evening Post pace.
“This is us, right?”
I wanted to say, “Okay, bucko, then com’on, hop to it. That pasta’s not going to order itself.” Instead, I slowed down, taking a breath. “So, how’d you find this place?”
He seemed to take this not as casual conversation meant to keep me from kicking off my heels and pummeling him upside the head right there in the Olive Garden’s all but empty parking lot, but a serious query worthy of serious consideration.
“Well, that’s a long story, which if you can wait–be a little patient until we’re inside and properly situated, I’d be more than happy to indulge you with the details.”
I had been at this particular abyss many times in life. So many that it was as commonplace to me as looking twice before stepping off a curb. And, here now, with this man, the sound of his voice, a cross between a bored yet indulging father and an ultra cool Tone Loc, only heaped with tons of condescension, I had no other choice but to be still.
Lips poked out, I walked through the door he held, saying only, “Sounds like a plan.”
He laughed out loud, close to a roar. “The night is still young, just chill – if you can.”
I stood purse clutched at my side, seconds away from hitting him across the head, when a rotund man in a white jacket came from the back of the restaurant, smiling broadly.
“Ken, man, I was about to call it a night. Turn out the lights,” he said, pulling Kehinde into the standard man on man embrace – hands clasped, quick pull to the chest, no contact below the rib cage, quick release. He turned to me, extending his large bear claw, “But, I’m glad I didn’t – God, you’re gorgeous.”
Kehinde smiled as if the man had paid him the compliment, “That she is…but, hey, we’re here now, and hungry, right, Estella?” I smiled, “Yes, I’m hungry.”
Hervey was chef and owner of the Olive Garden, West Plattsville, a franchise agreement his old college friend had hammered out for him that provided him the benefits of being part of the franchise, but also allowed him more latitude than most owner operators.
“We all grew up together in Lagos, and ended up going to University here in the U.S., though not all at the same time. Hervey and Taiwo left while they were in their teens. I was well into my twenties when I decided to go West,” he laughed. I remembered Taiwo had said that though identical twins the brothers had taken different roads upon leaving their village.
“But even so, like most from our village, we found each other, and so… ” Kehinde explained, pouring me a glass of the Veuve Clicquot Champaign he had brought, what I knew Taiwo must have told him I preferred.
“So, what made you decide to leave?”
“What makes any man do things that are not in his best interest?”
I shook my head, not knowing the answer.
“A woman, Most Lovely Estella, a woman I dare say like no other – Well, certainly the only one I would stay still for,” he nodded, gesturing toward my wine glass.
“Thank you.” I took a sip, nodding my appreciation. “Kehinde, Taiwo, those are traditional Nigerian names?”
“Yoruba, yes, but especially so for twins.”
“And, who’s older?”
“Ah, therein lies the rub,” he said, taking a sip of his wine.
“Rub? What, were you both delivered at the exact same time?”
“No. Not even remotely, matter of fact, our mother said that the village midwife was so busy delivering not only us that day, but also another set of twins, that in her back and forth efforts there was a twenty minute lapse between my brother and me, with him arriving first.”
“Ah, so, Taiwo is older. This seems right,” I said, smiling.
“Well, not so fast. If we’re going strictly by biology, then yes, Taiwo is the older by those twenty minutes. But if we’re talking in a spiritual sense –Yodou – then I am the eldest twin.”
I smiled, pushing my empty glass toward Kehinde, “Do tell.”
“You see, Yoruba tradition dictates that when twins are born, the parents must consult a Babalawo.”
I raised my eyebrow.
“It means father of mysteries, Estella.”
“For Yorubans, the first twin born is almost always named Taiyewo — which means ‘first to taste the world,’ or in my brother’s case, Taiwo, while the last born is named Kehinde, which of course means ‘the last.’
“Okay then, you are the youngest by biology and by Yoruban custom.” I said.
“The rub is that, it is Kehinde who tells Taiyewo to go out, so to speak, see what life has to offer, and then come back and tell if what lies ahead is worth the journey. So, if going only by Yoruba folklore, then since Taiwo did only as I bid him to do, he is supplicant to me, and I am firstborn, if not by act, then by will.” With this, he drained the last of the wine from his glass.
“Of course, there are some, like our mother, her sisters, their ilk, who believe that Taiwo, who admittedly is, how shall I say, more the statesman, has and will continue to be more successful, but it’s not for me to speak on these things.”
“And why not,” I asked, for the first time more curious to this answer than to anything else he had had to say thus far.
“Because Most Lovely Estella, I am not an old fish wife with nothing better to do than spin dusty tales,” he said, taking my hand in his own, kissing it lightly.
The evening from that point on I hoped would be as lovely as the caress of his lips on my skin. Once a few stragglers left, we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. Kehinde had left the preparation of their meal to Hervey, who prepared a menu focused on seafood, without even a trace of gluten. The main course, what Hervey called Efo, a mele of fish, crab, lobster and spices over rice reminded me of paella. There was salad. Nothing I had to worry about filling up on, it was a light accent to the Efo that shared center stage with a huge Dungeness crab, drizzled with drawn butter, flavored with garlic and nutmeg.
I sipped the last of my wine. Emitting a small sigh to say, that the meal was good which clearly pleased Kehinde. He sat back in his chair, a smile on his broad, dark face, looking very much like the cat that swallowed a very tasty canary.
“You’re pleased?” he asked.
Under any other circumstances I would not have given him or anyone else the satisfaction. Here I was, somewhere out in the boonies, with this man who if not fully taken with himself, then who was certainly supremely confident, gazing at me like he knew all my secrets, but still wanted to know more.
“This was nice. Thank you,” I said, laughing, “But perhaps I should reserve my comments until I’m safely back home.”
He tsked. “Safe. If you want to ensure your safety, then, perhaps, we should bypass your neighborhood although, and I’ll take you straight to my house. I dare say you’d be afforded more protection.”
At this I straightened, resisting the urge to tell him to screw himself and the burro, or whatever it was Yorubas ride in on. I took my napkin from my lap and patted my lips, saying only, “This was quite nice and I very much appreciate us being able to settle the $175 with this meeting.”
“It was nothing,” he said, letting this hang in the air.
I nodded my agreement. “Well, it was certainly acceptable, especially coming from a second born twin – a good job, indeed. I dare say the ladies of the village would be well pleased with your efforts.” With this, the evening was over.
Kehinde stood up, gestured to the waiter who remained behind, pulling the young man close, whispering in his ear as he handed him several dollars. “Shall we?” He said, motioning toward the door.
I followed him to the car, the whole while yawning, hoping that I would not fall into too deep a sleep on the long drive back home.
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.