My friend Shawn is a lovable, flavorful character. A mouthful sometimes. A potentially annoying mouthful.
He’d traveled to Namibia to visit his in-laws whom he only got to see every few years. Several women were in the kitchen wrapping up dinner – there’s nothing quite like a kitchen full of African women. Kwaito music was bumping rhythmically in the background and they occasionally paused their stirring to join in a catchy refrain or sway their hips in choreographed harmony, then burst into laughter, omwikos flailing boiling stew in the air.
Shawn sat in a small living room with 7 other guys at his brother-in-law’s new house. The overstuffed, extra firm couch was almost completely covered with colorful handmade doilies that kept falling to the floor and having to be retrieved. They were arguing loudly about politics, talking over each other, and laughing. Any tentative statements made were promptly challenged and severely scrutinized.
Shawn, a rather verbose character, was the only American in the room, surrounded by locals. Shawn talks. A lot. He has few verbal filters and is bold beyond belief. Admittedly, he had been on good behavior, afraid of being the ugly American. The men kept asking his opinions and he was careful, as his wife had tutored him, not to take center stage and pontificate, which is his preferred mode. Topics flitted from one to the next and he presently got distracted. If he wasn’t the center of attention, he got distracted.
He was looking around the stark room in the house whose construction was almost complete. He could still smell the cement and the single coat of pale yellow paint on the wall, painted at the last minute to impress the guests. He thought long and hard about this set up and didn’t notice the entourage of women walking into the room bearing food. He proclaimed absently, studying the walls, “I’m not a fan of yellow.”
His words fell like a giant catfish jumping out of murky waters and flopping onto a muddy beach with a splat. Everybody gasped and swallowed hard in unison. Eyes grew to the size of small plates, extremely embarrassed, and in utter disbelief. Hearts sank and no one dared to look at Mike, the heretofore proud home owner.
The strained, stunned silence in the room was pierced by Joe slamming his bottle onto the glass table as he choked over spewing beer. He had warm beer coming out his nose and eyes. He didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. He had argued for days with his brother Mike to not paint the room and just yesterday, Mike had spent what felt like hours at the local hardware store deliberating over what color of paint to buy. Never mind they only had 6 selections. Like a keDecember Boss, Mike had ridden his bike proudly toting 2 gallons of “Egg-yolk Yellow,” dodging muddy pot-holes, garbage, and mangy dogs on his 30 minute ride home.
Shawn’s wife Maureen narrowed her eyes and inhaled deeply and then her distressed, heavy chest sank in slow motion and just kept sinking. Her eyes told his that he had erred greatly and that he was a dead man sitting. If she wasn’t holding a tray of food she would have hurled her high heels at him and clocked him right on the bridge of his crooked nose. She shook her head slowly and narrowed those eyes further. Her lips began to furl tightly, controlled by an unseen drawstring, and to quiver with rage.
No one in that room will forget those moments till the day they die. There was no recovering from this one, even for my astute friend who can normally extricate himself from just about any situation with his oratory skills. It changed the mood of the entire rest of the vacation and the trajectory of Shawn’s life.
Fast forward 3 years and her family is bursting out of the vehicle after travelling across the world to visit Shawn and Maureen in the States. It was a glorious fall afternoon and the foliage was stunning to behold. Joe was the first guest to get out of the car. He yawned dramatically and inhaled the crisp air, then shivered in the cold breeze. “You guys said it wasn’t cold! You mean it’ll get colder than this? Mxm!” He exclaimed. His brothers shuddered in agreement as they streamed out of the car and stretched their cramped legs. Along with the others, Joe hastily grabbed a random suitcase from the trunk, flicking a stray welcoming leaf from his shoulder. They all raced into the house, certain a blizzard would sweep through at any minute.
No sooner had they stampeded indoors and dropped the suitcases in a tall pile, than Mike blurted, “Etche muntu! I thought you are not a fan of yellow, man!” He held his arms out defiantly circling the yellow room. Everyone else, rubbing their arms vigorously to warm themselves, burst into laughter.
“What are you talking about?” Shawn asked, cocking his head curiously.
“What is he talking about?”, choked Joe incredulously.
“What is he talking about?”, gawked Maureen.
That set the tone for the rest of this visit, and my poor friend Shawn spent a pouty fall feeling picked on; while Maureen juggled the fine line between letting him face the consequences of his often tactless speech and helping him preserve some semblance of dignity among his in-laws.