A date with a stranger

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Having kissed my fair share of frogs over the years, I can attest that dates can be quite horrible. Maybe even the worst. Luckily, bad date stories are supremely entertaining and very fun to tell. It’s what they call making lemonade out of the lemons life throws you. In most of these scenarios, the lemon is always some lady with standards higher than Kim Kardashian’s when they are actually a Tracy Ifeachor in comparison. The kind you only find in those EBRU TV shows. Where do those ladies get these standards?

That is not to say that a terrible date doesn’t leave you crestfallen. The worst ones leave you seriously thinking of renouncing all your worldly possessions and becoming a celibate monk who wears a hair shirt. But for those of us who are not too lazy for asceticism, making the most of bad situations helps and the value of a cringe-worthy story is a great pay off. So, cheer up because that evening you spent listening to a stranger talk about her reptile-hoarding proclivities makes you part of a great brotherhood, or sisterhood for that matter. Telling our epic tales bonds us to fellow bad-date survivors and somehow makes us feel less alone. And to that, I raise my single-person glass.

Having been to various dates in the last couple of years (am not so old), I’ve been finding them a little frustrating. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like dates end up having the same superficial conversations over and over again; conversations that do not really enhance our knowledge of the other person. And if they do, it’s only in a shallow manner. Not the way you would really like to know this person. Not deep enough. Conversations that do not really dig into the persons character which is what I find most worthwhile determining during dates. They mostly revolve around what we do for a living, our hobbies among other mediocre stuff people who are trying to establish a rapport ask each other on dates. I’m not saying these questions are useless. All I’m saying is that we can do better if it’s a deeper connection we are looking for.

Being the self-proclaimed philosopher that I always say I am, I had earlier embarked on a journey to find out how to do exactly that. I can’t be here complaining about how empty I find those conversations and then not find a solution. Be the change you want to see, right?

A few months ago, I had seen an ad somewhere on social media for some event meant to teach people how to fall in love with strangers. I was obviously curious. As I came to find out, the basic concept was pairing up random people and making them ask each other some questions. And these weren’t just any questions-they were ones designed by some two married psychology professors who literally study love for a living and aimed to create “accelerated intimacy” between strangers. I was going to a date with a stranger so you can obviously see why I would be interested in referring to my notes.

So here I was, armed with my notebook with questions specially designed by professors, waiting for her to show up. There was no way I wasn’t falling in love with a stranger today, not with the help of two professors. I was at a Java restaurant, seated at a corner table with a strategic view of the entrance, the counter and the back door, just like I learnt in the movies, sipping my kafuthino (Cappuccino) as my village people say. It was on a Saturday evening and the EPL had gone for a short international break. There being no games to watch, I had no qualms getting to our rendezvous point way before our scheduled meeting time. Until the next day when Kenya would be playing Ethiopia at home, I had literally nothing to do. Not even laundry would jinx this. I was in white khaki pants, a matching t-shirt, a black Harley-Davidson motorbike jacket, black loafers and my trademark black beret. Boy, I was feeling hot.

All this had started a day earlier. It had been one of those lazy Friday evenings after work where you feel like even keeping your eyes open is just too big a task. Tired and exhausted, not particularly of the day’s work but the football practice I had just been to. I dropped my small bag in the laundry basket in the corner and slipped out of my sweaty training gear and just laid there.In my ‘mansion’, on the floor reminiscing on how my week could have gone. What could have or what could have not been. Out of habit, I mentally go through my days, how they have been, what I did wrong or right and how and what to improve the next day.

I did a few push-ups and sit-ups until I was completely exhausted. I then took a fast shower and just as quickly got back to idling mode. It is the only thing in my ‘mansion’ that actually gets done in the shortest period of time. Everything else is dragged, from waking up, making my bed to cleaning (unless there is a girl child coming over of course). In that case, cleaning is done with the speed and efficiency of superman and flash combined. I laugh at the irony. If I applied only a tenth of the effort and vigor I put into cleaning my house when a lady is coming over to all other aspects of my life, I would be probably be in league of extraordinary gentlemen; Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Plato and company.

Still on my bed; hungry, exhausted and confused on what to do next, I turn my eyes to one corner of the mansion that acts like a kitchen. Everything is clean and in order, a sign that there has recently been a lady in the house. A lady kind enough to notice the deplorable conditions this boy child has been living in and decided to extend a helping hand. Washed the utensils; a task considered by the boy child harder than going to the moon on foot.

The thought of cleaning them again hurts more than being heartbroken by a broke slay bandit (slayqueen). I can’t. I’d rather walk miles in search of food than use them to cook. Don’t ask me what logic I’m using! This is my mansion! I run it as I see fit and the decisions made herein need not to make sense nor sound logical to anyone (pambana na hali yako!). So, I get up, put on a hoody and disappear into the darkness. I tread the dark alleys to a local food joint. The ones referred to as hoteri in this part of the world.

I place my order without uttering a word. The waiter from across the room asks whether she should bring “kawaida” (my usual) and I in return just nod and accompany that with a thumb up. And that’s it, order placed. In that instant, when my food gets to the table, I get a text message on WhatsApp from a new number.

“Sasa Cooper…”

For a moment, I think of those nosy neighbors who pop into your house in that exact moment when you are putting your food on the table like they were standing at the door waiting. Just after you have completed inspecting the guard of honor on that table, shirtless and given the go ahead for the gladiator wars to begin, bam!! There they are borrowing a matchbox which also doesn’t want to be found. It’s like it conspiring against you too.

If you know anything about how guys and ladies’ text, then you would also be in the know that no guy in his right mind would text another guy with ‘sasa’ before the name. That’s how my mind comes back to the issue at hand. It had to be a lady. I texted back, silently hoping that it was a lady which turned out to be just as I expected.

Her name was Samantha but she insisted I call her Sam which to me was awkward given that I have a male friend I also call Sam short for Samson. I couldn’t help but feel like I was calling her Samson. She explained that she was a big fan of mine. And with that said, I didn’t even bother to ask where she got my number. I figured that she must have gone to extreme lengths to obtain it given that my personal number is not in any public website. I mentally appreciated her efforts to find it. I also thought asking was in itself a way of giving life to those superficial conversations I’m against and maybe messaging just heightens that.

This self-described social experiment I was currently undertaking seemed like the perfect antidote to all the soul-destroying small talk. I wasn’t giving anything the chance to even venture into that territory.

When she walked in, I instantly recognized her from the photos she had sent me the previous night as we planned for this date. She was a goddess. This one wasn’t created, she had to have been molded. Every inch of her was perfectly curved. Her stride a confident one. She didn’t seem nervous at all. The conversation on the previous night had taken care of that. After all, this was all her idea. We hugged lightly, exchanged our hellos sat down in silence for a few seconds before I asked what she would take. She ordered juice. What flavor? I have no idea! I was so captivated by her beauty that those few moments escaped me.

I couldn’t wait to get the conversation started. By the looks of it, she seemed like a nice lady to talk to. I had already established that the previous night. I started with my questions well woven into the conversation so that it wouldn’t look like an interview. I also made a point to ensure that the notebook was out of sight. They were deceptively easy to begin with, asking things like: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? Would you like to be famous? In what way? Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

As we started batting answers back and forth (I definitely have a script in my head before I dial up and I feel like they might be judging me, I know it’s irrational), it became pretty clear that these were the warm up questions. The way the questions work is that they’re split up into three different sets of increasing emotional intimacy or difficulty, as I’d come to learn and they escalated pretty quickly. I don’t remember all of her answers or my own because I wasn’t writing them down, but I do remember when things started to shift.

I asked: If she could change anything about the way she was raised, what would it be? I answered first and said I wish I’d had had a mentor. Someone who would have showed me the way or advised what I should study and why. She told me very bluntly, “I wish my father hadn’t passed away while I was growing up.”

Even though I’d wanted a deeper connection with somebody, I was still pretty floored by how she quietly and unflinchingly told me something so serious. We diverged off script for the first time, sharing a real moment of connection as I told her how sorry I was and she explained how it had affected her life.

I struggled to weave the next question into the conversation as naturally as possible which was to take a few minutes and tell me her life story in as much detail as possible. On my part, it was just a boring clinical breakdown of where I’d grown up, what university I’d gone to (withholding the struggle and terror I went through beneath the surface), where I ended up working after campus and how I made it to where I was. She told me in detail how her life had changed after her father’s slow death from cancer, why she had chosen to move away from her mother and move to Nairobi and why she was here on this date.

It surprised me that she was being so open just a few minutes into meeting me, but this was exactly what I’d wanted. I felt stupid for joking around and falling into the same trap I’d fallen into on previous dates; throwing out funny quips and giving answers that didn’t mean anything at all, that had no serious emotional attachment. And here she was taking my experiment totally serious, patiently waiting for me to give her something back. Out of curiosity, I asked why she felt she could trust me with all that. Her response startled as well as it marveled me. She said my insight into things could only be inspired by a trouble past, like hers. A past painful enough to make one change their perspective on life and people. A past I didn’t live in anymore and which I skillfully avoided talking about. Her profiling skills amazed me. I had never met anyone who could read other people so well apart from myself. I had finally met an intellectual equal.

That marked the end of my first set of questions, so I decided to take a break and grab another drink before starting up again. My cup was already empty and I didn’t know what to order next. I asked for warm water. You can never go wrong with water. Many glasses of water, juice and cappuccino were had that evening, I can tell you that. As the evening wore on and the conversation continued, I decided to throw myself into the deep end the way she had.

“If anyone or a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?” I asked. She responded without giving much thought into it. Almost as if she knew what I would ask and had the answers at her fingertips. And then it was my turn.

“I’d want to know what happened the night one of my best friends passed away,” I told her, fighting through my anxiety. “I was in my last year of high school at the time, he was admitted at some hospital in Nakuru when it happened. That was seven years ago.”

Instead of apologizing immediately the way most other people do when faced with other people’s grief, she nodded silently and didn’t tear her eyes away. For the first time in a long time, it was refreshingly bittersweet that I was sitting here with somebody who didn’t have to say anything. I could just tell instantly that she understood the weight of that statement. It felt like I’d arrived at the cliff edge she’d been waiting besides, ready for me to throw myself in with her, and now I finally had.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the things Sam and I talked about because first of all, there is too much to tell. Second of all, there was something sacred about those few hours we shared. And third, this might just turn into a book when it was just meant to be an article. After a while, it started to feel like we were handing parts of ourselves to one another. Our worst moments: “carrying my dying father on my back” she offered. “When the principal announced at the parade that my friend had passed,” I returned. Our dreams: “I want to run my own business,” she told me. “I want to be remembered as one of the greatest philosophers of our time,” I told her.

It was like these floodgates had been opened and yes, if you’re wondering, there was a romantic undercurrent to all of it. I mean, she was beautiful of course and we definitely flirted a little, but it almost felt like there was this hunger on both of our sides to find out as much about one another as we could, for as long as we had. By the end of the date, I felt like I knew her better than I knew some of my childhood friends. It came up again and again on both our sides where we would give an answer, then realize in surprise that we had just told one another something we’d never shared with even our closest friends, family or other people we’d been in love with before.

If you asked me now what color her eyes were, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Her beauty was blinding. But I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that Sam was easily one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. She’s woman who doesn’t hold anything back and pours herself into her love for other people, even when and especially when it comes at a cost.She’s incredibly generous and sees the potential in others, working tirelessly to raise up small businesses and her friends (at one point, she even calmly asked me why I wasn’t working towards my own goals and how we could fix that).

I know what you’re wondering. You want to know if we fell in love. I can’t speak for her, but I think I did. Not in a romantic, I want to spend the rest of my life with you kind of way. But more in the sense that I was so in love with her as a person, with the way she had been shaped by the weight of her life and the way she had invited me into it without thinking twice.

We got one final drink together after we finished up, then walked out together to where she had parked her car, a black Lexus sports car. She offered to drop me off but I kindly declined. Not because I had other important things to do but because I didn’t want my boys back in the hood to see me being dropped off by such a car and start wondering where they missed a step themselves. I did not want them to see me in another light. We hugged each other for a long time and then parted ways.

You’re not always going to get what you put into your relationships. Sometimes it’ll be frustrating like a bad date, or at its worst, you’ll realize the other person will never give you what you’re looking for.It’s terrifying and sometimes devastating to give so much of yourself to other people, but that doesn’t mean you should stop doing it. There’s going to be somebody out there who’ll sit across from you at a tiny table, unmoved by whatever is happening in the background and in that moment your souls become one. Connected in ways you never imagined possible. And if you haven’t met that person yet, keep on looking because you never know what magic is waiting around the corner.

©C. J. NJOROGE

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About Cooper Jose Njoroge

Is a great thinker, writer, philosopher, poet, photographer, footballer, a student of life and politics, an aspiring mathematician and soon to be physicist. He is imaginative, analytical and highly unconventional. Tells as it is and sees things for what they are rather than what they would rather be.

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