BITTER PERCEPTIONS: CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Author’s note: Bitter Perceptions is now in its final part, and will soon make way for my newest series. Chapter twenty-two has already been posted; be sure to check you haven’t missed it. And watch out for Chapter twenty-four later in the day. Thank you for all your support.

Doris

I made a generous dent in my Häagen-Dazs, each spoonful plaguing me with unbearable guilt. Sunday mornings normally meant another draining shift at Future Hope, or a rare day off attending church with Fred, Juliet and Lucas. This week I’d opted to remain indoors with my favourite ice cream for company instead for two reasons: a) my name hadn’t appeared on the schedule, and b) I’d spent the last few days shaking my fist at The Almighty following the recent showdown at Bass (I didn’t care if Jide and I both lived in the same state, why had He dropped that heartless pig back into my life?) Perpetual silence occupied the whole flat now Christopher and Christian had returned to Port Harcourt after spending the holidays at mine, and although they drove me up the wall with their mischievous pranks (Grow up, boys!), I loved having them around. I drew the line at sharing my ice cream on days like this though—no portion looked big enough in any lonely girl crisis. 

“If my young patients at Future Hope could see me now,” I groaned aloud, remembering the times I scolded parents who denied their children a well-balanced diet. Wasn’t I always the first to educate their kids on the dangers of Mr. Sugar? Yep, I’m a hypocrite, I agreed with myself, digging deeper into the tub, and catching a glimpse of the Nollywood flick showing on the TV I seldom watched. Oh well, at least I’m not aloneShan George’s man issues are bigger than mine today… No-one could criticise my early morning indulgence though. When was the last time a single girl got off her depressed ass to make herself a salad? And didn’t the word ‘stressed’ backward spell ‘desserts’?

Contrary to Jide’s cruel prediction, I had graduated from EU and maintained a career with one of the city’s most prestigious hospitals, but my story could have ended differently. What if Dr. Julius hadn’t stepped in? What if she’d dismissed me as a lazy student unwilling to put in any effort? What if I’d walked around campus with a swollen belly courtesy of a man who wouldn’t have known the first thing about responsibility if it slapped him in the face? What if those test results had read ‘HIV positive’? What if…? Tears spilled down my neck onto my PJ’s. Eleven whole years, and I hadn’t shaken off that horrid memory. Jide Okoroafor, on the other hand, had become a big shot in the media industry. For real? A heartless blockhead rising to a superior level because his father-in-law owned Bass? Screw nepotism—at least I’d earned my place within my profession through hard work and dedication. The man who’d never lifted a finger his whole life probably owned 10 Lamborghinis inside a crystal palace in the middle of the lagoon where topless virgins hand-fed him and polished his rapist penis till it sparkled almost as much as his rotten inflated ego? 

My new friends at The Doctors had shown overwhelming support despite having known me only a few hours. Zainab called to check on me, offering her valuable words of comfort (As an OB/GYN who previously praticed up north before moving to Lagos with her husband, she’d treated more than her fair share of rape and domestic violence victims, explaining her deep hatred for sex offenders). Chidiebere had offered to drive me home after that encounter, leaving me his number if I ever wanted to talk. Dr. Bayo Olumide later left a card on the receptinist’s desk apologising for his sternness round my workplace, and assuring me he only had my best interests at heart. I appreciated the gesture, but deep inside I knew the elderly paeditrician had talked sense that day. Why the hell hadn’t I controlled my myself? For all we knew, Jide had probably popped round with a sincere apology in his heart… Damn, who was I kidding! The same person who sneered “Boys will be boys” at the National Theatre during the Cherry Blossom fundraiser apologising? Indeed.  

And the injuries I’d inflicted on Jide… no regrets whatsoever, but how could I prove he wasn’t the perfect gentleman? I couldn’t believe my ears when Chidiebere told me Jide had married Hogan Bassey’s daughter (Great, another person tying the knot while Andrew dragged his feet). I’d loved my stint on The Doctors, but did I want my face in the papers if word got out? And Mum and Dad—how would they deal with such publicity?

Innocent rape victims never wavered their anonymity in the media, and with good reason. Who could forget those Abia policemen who dismissed a university student’s case after her gang-rape video went viral? Hundreds of students accused the victim of tarnishing the school’s image, and the authorities banned protesters from marching publicly in support of the victim for fear of igniting a riot.  I could only imagine the poor girl still harboured hatred towards those who stood against her. The same hatred I poured into a letter my EU counsellor encouraged me to write during one of our sessions, claiming the built-up tension would ease after I tore up those words in her presence. The same words I poured into another letter eleven years later. I’d asked the receptionist at Bass to deliver the note to Jide when I returned to collect my Hyundai. Those counselling sessions at EU had helped me through the rest of my course, but old tensions still flared up at least once a day, food serving as my reliable comfort blanket…

My ringing landline jolted me back to earth, and I reluctantly lifted the receiver, muttering a weary “Hello?” and holding the receiver a few inches from my ear upon hearing the familiar growl on the other end.

“I can’t believe you agreed to appear on that TV show despite everything I told you, despite everything we agreed…”

“Nice to hear from you too, Andrew,” I replied sarcastically. I hadn’t agreed to anything regarding The Doctors, what was he talking about? “How charming—I don’t hear from you in weeks, then you call me to criticise my job?” The show still hadn’t aired on TV due to post-production—maybe he’d seen the publicity photos on Bass TV’s Facebook page. Judging by the reception’s clarity, he’d recently landed in the country, but for how long? Had he breezed in from New York days ago without informing me, only to make my miserable morning even worse?

“Don’t piss me off more than you already have, Doris, TV is not your job. Start behaving like a doctor instead of chasing the celebrity status you’re already too old to claim…”

Excuse me? “Do not insult me, Andrew. Yes, I am a proper doctor, hence the show’s title The Doctors, and as a doctor, I did my job, only this time on TV. Why can’t you be happy for me? Or are you just jealous? No surprises there.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Let’s get real here, if you had your own way, I’d be imprisoned at home 24/7 because you never want me stepping outside the house. Even when I tell you I’m off to see Anna and Juliet, you get stroppy. I’m fed up with your attitude, I really am,” I shouted back.

“You’re my woman, and I don’t like it.” Was he aware of how childish and sexist he sounded? “Does Dr. Smiley know you’re not single?”

Whoa! It only took a fraction of a minute to guess which of my fellow presenters he meant. “You leave Dr. James out of this! Dr. James is a co-presenter, and that’s that. By the way…” I paused, debating over whether I should bring it up or ignore the matter on my mind, then spit it out. “I’m surprised you remember we’re together because the way you’ve been acting lately tells a different story. I’m supposed to be your girlfriend, but I don’t receive a call or email for weeks. Two weeks! Then you pick up the phone to yell at me because of a TV show I guest-presented with Chidiebere. Why can’t you…”

“Oho, so it’s ‘Chidiebere’ now? A moment ago it was ‘Dr. James’. Wow, first-name terms already. Have you slept with him yet?”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. “Don’t change the subject, Andrew. We’re supposed to be a couple and I’m supposed to be your fiancée, but I’m tired of being a mere fiancée. I have patiently waited for our wedding, but you come up with all these excuses concerning your business in New York. Are you the only person with a business? Quit playing games with my heart, if you can’t come over here, why can’t I move over there?” 

“If you really are interested in becoming my wife, why are you inviting random guys back to your flat?” I nearly dropped the receiver upon hearing this bombshell. Who was feeding him this false information? 

“What, is this some kind of  joke? If you are not interested in getting married just say so, and stop stringing me along…” My mind was full of angry words, but Andrew cut me short before I could express them.

“You know what I’m talking about. Your Dr. Chinedu, or Dr. James—whatever his fucking name is—entered your flat a few days ago. Am I lying?”

“What? Have you been spying on me?” I raged. “His name is Chidiebere, Dr. Chidiebere James, and he gave me a lift because I left my car at Bass TV. I was unable to drive that day because I wasn’t feeling too well, and by the way, he didn’t even enter my flat, he stopped at the door.” No lies told—I never allowed random people into my abode at will, especially men. As for the illness part, coming face-to-face with a rapist could drive anyone to nausea. Andrew refused to accept my excuse though, and came up with another taunt.

“What sort of doctor can’t treat herself when she’s ill? You fall ill straight after hosting a health show, how convenient.”  

“Okay, that’s it. I’ve just had the week from hell, and you’ve just made it worse by being unreasonable.” I answered, tired of his pointless whining. “I have a career, I have a life, and I’m not going to pack it all in on account of your pointless jealousy. You said you wanted us to get married, but how long is it going to take you to finalise those business plans in New York before you come down here permanently? My brother Fred is married to my best friend Juliet, my cousin Anna has been married five years, everyone around me has settled down, but all you do is nag, sulk, and criticise while I wait alone…”

“Alone my ass, I know you’re enjoying yourself over there with that Chinedu guy, thank you very much. Goodbye, see if I give a shit.” The click on his end finalised his ridiculous outrage, and I stormed into the kitchen in outrage. Apart from regular visits to Fred and Juliet’s a few miles away, I spent most evenings curled up on my sofa munching on a sweet treat. Yes, I still had several admirers—husbands and fathers whose wives and children I’d treated. Married men asking me out for a drink at 11PM to “thank me properly”? In the words of P!nk, keep your drink, give me the money. No-one ever believed me when I mentioned my invisible boyfriend, and I’d overheard two nurses’ make scornful remarks on how stuck-up and egotistical I behaved when it came to men. Really? Whatever gave them that impression? Couldn’t these gossip merchants stick to the job they’d been paid to do for once? 

I threw the empty ice cream tub into the bin, slamming down the lid with a mighty clang before swinging my kitchen cupboard open for more naughty but nice goodies. After her son Lucas’ birth, Juliet grew tired of sitting for hours in Lagos’ traffic every day, and could no longer cope. During our Shell Camp years, no crumb went to waste when friends and family sampled her cakes and bakes, and Juliet spent most of her free time testing new recipes, occasionally sending me a batch. Fred had even agreed to help develop her business plan, a African-themed cake-and-coffee shop with internet access, lucky girl. I bit into a sprinkled vanilla cupcake piled high with vanilla buttercream icing and oozing with a strawberry centre, and licked the red gooeyness off my lips. Why couldn’t Andrew take a cue from my brother and show more support? Everything single thing I did, wore, or said faced criticism (“We’ve already spent all day indoors, and staying here all night won’t kill us… Must you wear those heels?… Flirting with him in my presence, have you no shame?… Just because you have a degree in Medicine doesn’t make you a genius, it just shows you don’t know shit…”)

My James Bond theme ringtone interrupted my thoughts. Great, another bout with Andrew ‘Big Boss Man’ Amadi, just great. Still enraged after our earlier bout, I braced myself for Round Two, and exhaled with relief at the monochrome photo with Juliet on her wedding day flashing on my screen.

“Hey Jules, thought you were someone else, but you’re not, thank God.” I cheered up at the sound of her voice. “How are you, what’s up this morning?”

“Afternoon, you mean,” Juliet corrected. I glanced at the wall clock behind me and gasped. Had I really spent a whole morning slumming it out with ice cream and cakes in my PJs?

“My goodness, you’re absolutely right. Didn’t go to church today, woke up late. How did it go?”

“Dee, I can’t believe you’d keep something major a secret from me.” Juliet sounded disappointed, making me nervous. “Me and Fred found out after the service, and everyone here is talking about it. A friend of ours even knows Dr. Bayo Olumide, and he’s confirmed everything. I must say, you’re really good at keeping stuff to yourself…”

Oh. My. God. Dr. Bayo had broadcasted my encounter with Jide at Bass ? How could he? Hadn’t he heard of confidentiality? Juliet had every right to show upset, but would she understand?          

“Jules, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“Ha ha, don’t mind me,” Juliet chuckled. “I guess you wanted to surprise me. And guess what—it worked, well done.”

“Huh?”  

“Your stint as a presenter on The Doctors. We saw the photos on Bass TV’s Facebook page, and you know Fred loves that show, as does Mum,” she answered, referring to the woman she now called her mother-in-law. “Imagine how proud Lucas will be when he sees you on BassNet. Auntie Dee-Dee, now a major TV star!”

“Hold your horses, Juliet!” I protested. “It was just one episode, although I did sign a contract…”

“You signed a contract without consulting me, your lawyer and best friend, first?”

“Chill, I read it through, and it clearly stated no more than one recording a week, which is fine,” I replied, grateful I no longer had to reveal any details of my hidden past over the phone, although I secretly cursed myself for signing that deal, which meant I could run into Jide at any time.

“Doris, is something wrong?” she asked calmly. Juliet possessed the rare ability to sense the darkest of moods hidden behind a cheery persona, even during a phone call, and what did I have to lose if I shared the burden weighing me all morning—or at least half of it—with my best friend/sister-in-law? “I didn’t see you in church today, and right now you don’t show much joy regarding your TV debut. Spill.”

“Andrew called this morning, and it wasn’t pleasant at all…” Juliet listened patiently as I gave a slightly edited version of my row with Andrew, omitting his jealousy over my friendship with my male colleague. “I’m fed up, I really am. Why can’t he support me instead of criticising me and making false accusations?” I threw myself onto my sofa angrily. “Why hasn’t he come to see me yet? Why didn’t he call to say he’s landed in the country instead of yelling at me on the phone? On top of that, he appears to have his spies everywhere. Big Brother is watching me, even in my own yard?”

A silence fell on both ends before Juliet cleared her throat. “Doris, I’m going to ask you one question, although I think I can guess the answer. Are you happy?”

“Well, we’ve both had our ups and downs, but has any relationship ever been a perfect fairytale set in Candyland?” I managed to blurt out.

“That doesn’t answer the question. Even the most loving couples argue, but they make an effort to compromise. Apart from the proposal, what other effort has Andrew made to prove he’s serious about you? When was the last time you both discussed it? How many times has he seen your family apart from Fred and myself?”

“Well, I know he’ll never be friends with Anna, he thinks she’s too loud and opinionated, but I did invite him to spend Christmas at ours this year—Dad has finished building that house, so there’s plenty of room. Uncle Robin and Aunt Bernadette are also travelling home, this year and it would have been the perfect opportunity for Andrew to meet them. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to…”

“Let me guess. Business?” Juliet didn’t even wait for my detailed explanation. “Is he the only one with a business in the whole wide world? I used to be a barrister, and we both know just how jam-packed my schedule was, but as long as I planned properly, I always found time away from the chambers for Fred. You’re not just a girlfriend now, you’re a fiancée, a future wife. Is this behaviour of his a glimpse into that future when you both tie the knot, if indeed you ever cross that bridge?

“Juliet!” Despite her humble personality, she was known for her outspokenness, but this was below the belt.

“Honey, I’m being honest, I don’t think he’s serious about you at all. Five years? If he can’t move his business over here, you could move there, but has he even suggested it? Are you sure he doesn’t have a wife hidden over there in New York?”

“Of course not!” I retorted heatedly. “I follow him on social media, and there has never been a trace of another woman. Trust me, I’ve left no stone unturned making sure I’m not with a married man because I’ve seen it happen many times with long-distance couples. He really is a busy businessman, but yes, I can’t take this anymore. I’m tired of Mum asking me about the wedding plans every time she calls, and I’m running out of excuses.”

“Mm…” Juliet sighed. “I’m not surprised. And the way he criticises you day in, day out? Fred is a wonderful man, but if he had ever nagged me the way Andrew does, believe me, we would never have made it up that aisle…”

“But you and Fred fought like Itchy and Scratchy back in the day, remember? He was always teasing you, and vice versa,” I reminded her.

“Yes, but we were kids at the time, then we grew up. Your fiancé, on the other hand, appears to be throwing his toys out of the pram for the flimsiest of reasons, which is really childish for a man pushing forty. To me, Andrew sounds like the macho man who has to be in control all the time, regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong. Remember how he snapped at you when you offered to help his nephew at Splish Splash, and when you told him you’re a doctor?” I nodded, realising how much sense my friend made. “He might have apologised, but nothing has changed. Has it ever occurred to you maybe he’s intimidated by your success, and he’s trying to smack you down when he feels you’re growing too tall for him? And I’m not talking about your physical height.”

“Don’t worry, I know exactly what you mean, but Andrew already has two degrees from NYU, he’s a highly-educated professional himself. Why would he feel intimidated?” Was I really in a fake engagement with a jealous player? I hoped not…

“Easy, you’re the only one in the relationship who uses the title ‘Doctor’. Just be honest with yourself, honey. Of course, the decision is all up to you, but you can’t keep living like this. It needs to be sorted, and the old Doris I’ve always known can make a comeback and find a more deserving man, not this time-waster.”

If only she knew how the old Doris had died over ten years ago. “Thanks, Jules. You actually have a point, and I’ve had enough. Time to get it sorted.”

“Attagirl. I’m only a phone call away if you need me, as usual. Oh, I hope you liked the cakes I sent you.”

Finally, another subject. “Yes, those cakes were amazing,” I replied, hating myself for gobbling down three sugar-laden cupcakes at one setting before I’d even showered. “You need to serve them at the café when you open for business, no question.”

“I will, and I have other ideas, too. I’m testing new recipes for local snacks, like the ukwa rock cakes I learned to make at school, and I might even try udala or papaya jam. Pretty unusual, I know, but as long as my customers don’t die laughing, I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure they’ll survive. I always knew those Food & Nutrition classes you took at Elelenwo Girls would one day come in handy.”

“It’s not just F&N. Remember when Papa came to stay with you in Shell Camp, and he taught us how to cook jollof rice? To this day my father thinks it’s the best he’s ever tasted. I’m thinking of serving it as one of the few main meals to attract the lunch crowd, and I’ll name it after him.”

“That would be so cool, and that café of yours is going to be a huge success, I just know it.”

“Thanks. I’ve got to go now, Lucas is crying for his Mummy, and I have stew warming on the stove, but take care of yourself, okay? We’ll talk later.” 

“Okay. Say hello to my brother and give my nephew a kiss for me. And thanks for everything.”

“Anytime.”

“Take care, Jules.”

“Later, Dee.”

Andrew and I, over? Good riddance. Of course this new development meant my sudden return to the single girl club, but at least I lived on my own terms without some insecure cry-baby barking orders down the phone from another continent—I’d hadn’t worked my ass off at med. school for anyone to pull me back down. Even Jide’s abuse hadn’t stopped me from reaching my goals. Jide… He’d tried to destroy me, and failed. As long as we both breathed the same air at Bass, he could never bring me down again. Yes, Bass TV. Olivia had asked me to consider filling in for Dr. Ruth Gyang on a permanent basis, and not only had I enjoyed my stint as a presenter, I’d established an excellent rapport with the other doctors on the show. The way they rallied around me when Jide burst into Studio 4 had touched my heart—those EU fake friends could have learned a thing or two about loyalty from them. I had a life to live to the full, and no man could stop me from being me.

Time for me to make that call and tell Olivia I’d accepted her offer. After another cupcake…

© Okoro Dedeh, Tami, 2019 All rights reserved

Author’s note: Watch out for Chapter twenty-four later today!

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