BITTER PERCEPTIONS: CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Doris

      Ebonee Jade’s evening jumpsuit flew off the rack two weeks after her latest creation appeared in national dailies covering the TRIs, and the designer could barely keep up with the high demand. Fashion and style journalists gave favourable reviews, describing me as a modern-day Venus de Milo with twice the booty—if only they knew how many wires and ribbons had sucked my frame into shape that night despite my recent weight loss. Ebonee Jade decided to strike while the iron remained hot, and when she jokingly reminded me of some unfinished business from way back, I knew she was referring to the Enugu fashion show I’d turned down in 2000. Who better to feature in her upcoming TV commercial than the brand’s unofficial face? You could take the girl out of modelling, but who could take the inner Naomi out of this girl? 

     The Real Models or Role Models campaign showcased Ebonee Jade’s spectacular designs while giving prominence to diversity, and featured her models walking down a spacious white hallway in evening wear, strutting around a crystal-blue swimming pool in casual clothing, twirling our long skirts under the starlit sky, occasionally goofing around for the camera, with Mike Okri’s “Omoge” serving as the ad’s jingle. Viewers hailed the campaign as revolutionary, praising Ebonee Jade’s use of real African women instead of skinny minis, and I considered myself lucky to stand in the midst of these strong ladies who helped make history in Nigerian fashion advertising. 

     A week after shooting wrapped, I signed a ₦30,000,000 deal with Nettol antiseptic, becoming the brand’s official spokesperson for the next three years, and appearing in more TV commercials. My face adorned countless billboards along highways and other busy routes, and I could hardly go about my business without some mischievous soul humming the annoyingly catchy Nettol jingle, but Cherry Blossoms had received a considerable donation from the company, and I couldn’t complain. 

      “Wow, look at you, you’ve really arrived, haven’t you?” teased Juliet, sliding up to me on our old sofa inside the flat we once shared with Anna. She’d dropped in with Fred and Lucas, the congratulations already in order. Apart from my Nettol contract, Juliet had recently announced her second pregnancy, and her family had moved into a bigger place to accommodate their expanding brood, giving us plenty more to celebrate, although we settled for fruit juice instead of champagne due to Juliet’s condition. 

      “Yes, things have really changed ever since I won that TRI, but here’s hoping I remain the same,” I joked. “Especially now I’m thinking of leaving this flat.”

      “You’re looking for a new place?” asked Fred, shifting to property development mode.

      “I wish I didn’t have to because I’m so used to this area, but what choice do I have? Everyone knows where I live, and it’s not uncommon for total strangers to ring my bell at odd hours, asking to say ‘hi’. Now I’m the face of Nettol, everyone is going to think I’ve stacked millions underneath my bed, and we all know how ruthless armed robbers are. I’m thinking of buying property in a gated community, a secure housing estate where people mind their own business…”

     “And I can help you with that, you know I know people who know people. And you are right—this part of Ikeja is no longer safe for someone as rich and famous as yourself…”

     “Thanks, Fred, although I wouldn’t exactly call myself rich. Just because I’ve signed a ₦30,000,000 contract doesn’t necessarily mean they paid me all the money at once. I wish!”

     “Doris, I was joking!”

      “Whatever you say, Freddie.” I threw a cushion at my brother and ran before he could retaliate. Inside my kitchen I found more stewed beef for my guests, returning to the living room to find my sister-in-law waving her mobile.

      “That was Anna, she sent me an Indigo Lily link,” Juliet announced in a shaky voice. “Dee, I think you need to look at this.”

      “It had better not be one of those YouTube screamers,” I warned. “I got enough of that from the twins when they came to stay with me last year. I was too scared to sleep with the lights off for days, and we all thought Anna was the scaredy cat.”

      “Like I’m immature enough for that,” said Juliet. “No, a scary face won’t jump out unexpectedly, but like I said, you need to see this.” Almost as if she could read my thoughts, she quickly added “Yes I know, I can’t stand that Indigo woman, but for once she’s my best friend.”

      “Why, what’s happened?” questioned Fred.

      “Let’s just say Karma is a bitch…oops.” Juliet clamped her hand over her mouth, remembering Lucas was present. “Sorry Lucas, Mummy said a naughty word!”

     Juliet handed me the phone, and my mouth immediately dropped open.

     “GOT CLASS? DON’T STEAL CASH!

SHIRLEY B HUSBAND KILLED BY MAD MOB

     Shocking images of my longtime enemy completely naked save for the digital pixelation concealing his privates and bleeding profusely from the countless inflicted injuries across his body sent my heart racing. The article claimed a crowd had descended on him heavily after they caught the former TV producer and voice-over artist stealing money from a puff-puff trader in Mushin. Sources stated he’d lived in a single room with a suspected drug addiction, and had probably stolen to fund his habit. How had Jide fallen from grace to grass in spite of his associates and connections? I’d heard of his dismissal from Bass and the custody case, but stealing from a puff-puff woman? Through the mud, blood, and shame, I saw the desperation and despair etched on the face I’d disfigured not that long ago when I prayed he’d come to a bitter end never knowing peace. Be very careful what you wish for…

     “Jide is dead?” I gasped. “Dead?”

     “Dee, maybe there’s something you should know,” Juliet said. “A few days before the TRI Awards, Jide showed up at Africafé and asked to speak to me—Anna was there too. He made up some crybaby tale about how his life had taken a turn for the worst ever since he left EU, and said he wanted you to forgive him. Of course Anna and I told him where to go, and…”

     “What?” Jide had finally apologised, albeit in my absence? 

     “Yes, I refused to serve him when he tried to order, then he made up some stupid sob story about trying to make peace, but I could see right through him.”

     Oh. My. God. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded.

     “Come on Doris, we all saw how upset you were when that Emeka guy came to see us on Christmas day, and that was just the accomplice…”

     “That is no excuse, Juliet. Don’t you think I had a right to know?”

     “Come on, Lucas,” said Fred, sensing tension between his wife and sister. “Mummy and Auntie Dee-Dee need to talk, grown-up style. Let’s go inside, and I’ll put Road Runner on. Meep-Meep!” Fred stooped down to scoop his son in his arms, and Juliet waited until they were both out of earshot.  

     “We had a good reason, Dee. Do you know why he did what he did? Well, I’ll tell you—for some reason he got the impression you were born surrounded by enormous wealth when in fact Dad was only a Shell employee, and he was jealous. Sick, or what? Personally, I didn’t believe he was sorry, maybe he just tried to get on your good side in case you agreed to testify against him in court in case he tried to appeal. Good thing he lost, he didn’t deserve that poor kid.”

      I bent forward in my chair, hiding my flustered face in my palms for a few seconds. “Oh my goodness.”

      “What’s wrong, Dee? Don’t tell me you actually feel bad for that scoundrel.”

      “Juliet, I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t hurt, I’m not going to pretend I’ll ever forget what happened, but I’ve already wasted too many years hating him, harbouring all that bitterness. Now I have to let it go, I have to forgive him.”

      Juliet stared at me dumbfounded. “Why? What’s brought this on?”

      “Think about it, Jules. After what he did I turned into a different person, and it affected everyone. There’s a reason Fred was on the receiving end of my wrath when he announced the two of you were together years ago. My own brother, the brother I grew up with… I counted him as one of the scumbags, surely he’s told you about that phone call?” Juliet nodded solemnly. “I even turned away several good men because of one bad man. I was fine on my own for a while, but not for long. Then Anna got engaged, you got engaged, and that’s when I finally admitted I was lonely, despite everything I said at Anna’s bridal bash at Splish Splash…”

     “And we all thought you were still hung up on Harrison,” Juliet recalled. “But it runs much deeper than that.”

     “Exactly. We all know what happened two seconds later—Andrew’s son nearly drowned, his father pounced on me, I accepted his advances, and stayed with him for a long time even though he had no plans to marry me…”

      “Oh dear…”

      “I bumped into Jide at the National Theatre, he mocked my break-up with Harrison and implied no-one would ever love me. Because of all that hate, I wasn’t thinking straight, and I punched Jide in front of my co-presenters at Bass TV when I started presenting The Doctors. I don’t know exactly what happened in his life, but I hated what happened in mine, and after that confrontation on Christmas day I finally decided enough is enough. I couldn’t let what happened twelve years ago eat at me whether he apologised or not. Who knows, maybe he wanted to say sorry the day I saw him at Bass, but I turned him away.”

      “Wow.”

      “That’s why I now attend sessions with a private counsellor. Dr. Julius helped a great deal when she asked a friend of hers for help, but it ended after I left EU. I thought I’d be alright after I graduated, but I was wrong. Volunteering at Cherry Blossoms helped redirect some of my anger, but it still existed, still destroying me despite everything. The minute I made that vow to move on, I felt free, but I still needed to see Jide face-to-face and make peace with him. Show him what he did would never define me. I asked everyone at Bass if they knew his whereabouts, but no-one did. I tried his Facebook, but he appeared not to have visited his social media in weeks. I had no idea things were that bad in his life. And now I’ll never be able to look him in the eye and tell him ‘I forgive you.’”

     Juliet nodded slowly. “Wow, I never knew you felt that way. If I had, I’d have acted differently when he stopped at the café.”

     “It could have been worse. His friend Mex Orlando was a cult member, they could have killed me instead, but I’m still here by the grace of God. I won’t lie, I still have days when I hate both of them—forgiveness isn’t always easy—but I have to remain strong, and move on.”

    “I see.” Juliet placed an arm around my shoulder, drawing me closer. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I didn’t want you getting upset like you did on Christmas day, and Anna felt the same way. I did what I did because we didn’t want you to hurt anymore…”

     “It’s okay, I understand.”

     Jide, dead? 

***

      Hundreds had gathered at the National Stadium for the Abuja leg of the 2012 Nettol Roadshow. As part of my deal with the company, I headlined the promotional tour alongside various celebrities in an extravaganza packed with comedy, drama sketches, presentations, talent contests, and the all-important demonstrations and health discussions, although the crowd seemed more interested in the free samples, complimentary t-shirts, and photo ops. Two days had already passed since my 34th, but the MC still urged the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” despite my protests. Three more cities remained before the Nettol team returned to Lagos and I returned to Bass Communications for another season of The Doctors. What a crazy life I lived—from the consulting room to the TV studio to ‘playing’ a whole stadium surrounded by my own security guards. At the end of the event I parted ways with the actors and singers accompanying me on tour, promising to catch up with them in Jos, and asked the Nettol driver to find the nearest restaurant where I could grab something to eat after standing on stage nearly all day. The car stopped in front of a small African eatery, and I chose a booth in the back corner in case I got recognised. Not that my plan worked. 

      “Doris.” I raised my head at the tall brooding figure standing in front of my table and dropped my menu. No way.

      “Harrison?”

      Apart from a thicker pair of glasses and a grey sprinkling at the temples, Harrison looked the same albeit with sorrow in his eyes. Twelve years ago Harrison had taken sides with EU’s gossip folk, and while we were no longer an item, I never expected betrayal from the man who had promised eternal friendship whatever the situation, but that had happened years ago. Surely I could act civilly for a few minutes before he left me in peace? 

      “Hello, Doris. How are you? You’re looking good,” he murmured with a thin smile.

      “Thank you,” I replied, forcing a false smile of my own. Please don’t ask me to shake hands with you. “You live in Abuja?”

      “Yes, I’m with Asedet Pharm, you’ve probably heard of them.” I nodded. “I’ve been with them five years. Marketing department, would you believe it? I used to work in a hospital, but my role wasn’t exciting enough, then Asedet came calling with a promising career, and six years later, here I am now having a business dinner with my colleagues. Looks like I studied in the wrong department at EU.”

      “Well, that’s life for you, it takes you to places you never thought possible…” I began, stopping short of adding “…like me, for instance. No-one ever believed I’d reach this level after all the shit you and your friends put me through,” but replied, albeit drily “Good for you, congratulations.” 

      “Thanks. You look better, you haven’t changed at all. He’s a lucky man, whoever you’re with.”

      At least he’s not you, I thought savagely. What gave him the right to ask about my love life? “Thank you.” 

    “So much has happened since we both graduated,” Harrison remarked. “Did you hear about Jide Okoroafor, the guy in Education who got expelled? He married Hogan Bassey’s daughter, but he was killed when he was caught stealing money after living in poverty…”

     “Yes, I know, I saw it on the internet.”

     “So sad. And your friend Yetunde, she married an army general, and she lives down my street…”

     “Excuse me, but did you come here to remind me of enemies of progress I’d much rather forget?” I snapped. “I’m having dinner.”

      “Aren’t you going to ask me to sit down?” I’d hoped Harrison would continue on his merry way as soon as the awkward greetings ended, but he drew out a chair and sat in front of me instead. Make yourself comfortable, why don’t you? “Doris, aren’t you even going to look at me?”

      “We dated during university, I know what you look like,” I muttered. 

      “Doris, are you still angry with me? Because I’m sorry…”

      “Okay, let’s get real.” Wow, this forgiveness thing is much harder than I thought, but he deserves some home truths. “I’ve been trying to forget everything, but how can I? Yes, a part of me is still angry with you. Some stupid EUquirer story does the rounds on campus, and you believe everything. ‘Doris Duru takes it from both ends at once…’ Were you there? Was Mad Dog there? I thought you knew me better, but no, you only saw me as a sex object, and nothing more. The EUquirer opens its big mouth, and you go with the flow when the whole school turns its back on me, how gullible can you get?”

      “Please listen to me…”

      “No, you listen to me, because I’m not finished. Even before that trash was printed, you hurt me deeply. Yes, I refused to have sex with you because I wasn’t ready, that’s the way it was.” A couple seated at the table next to mine raised their eyebrows at the mention of the word ‘sex’, and I lowered my voice. “Just because I was twenty-two years of age didn’t mean you had the right to poke it in, but you made your true feelings clear when you started dating Nike immediately after you dumped me. You say you want more time to study because it’s your final year, then you parade Nike at the Millenium party under my very nose, no consideration for my feelings. And you sit there at my table thirteen years later, ruining my meal with your presence, trying to pick up from where we never left off. What did you expect, open arms?”

      “Doris…”

      “Also, say what the hell you want about me, but leave my family out of it. How dare you call my dear mother a prostitute…?”

      “I said no such thing!” Harrison snapped.

      “Yes, you did, you said I came from a family of high-class hookers, and Nike was better than me in every way—almighty God as my witness, you did say that. How could you?” Noticing the other diners still staring, I brought my voice down a couple more notches. “It took ages getting over you, but no matter how many times I played “Ocean Drive” on a loop after you sent that breakup letter, the hurt lingered. Hell, I now hate that song because of you. You’re a very vile person, Harrison, that is all.” I sipped my club soda, praying he’d get the message and leave at once. Not a chance.

      “It was Jide, wasn’t it?” he stated after an awkward silence.

      “What?” 

      “It all makes sense. Yetunde mentioned a study session at Mex’s that day, but thought nothing about it until I read that leaked letter. The victim said she’d been invited to study at the rapist’s house. And who else lived there? That’s right, Jide.”

      Whoa! How much did he know? “It wasn’t me,” I lied. “I don’t know where you get your information from, but it wasn’t me…”

      “We used to date, Doris, I know a lot about you…”

      “You know nothing!” I spat. “You don’t know anything about me, that’s why you believed those liars…”

      “Okay, okay, I was wrong, but do you have to be so cold?”

      “What do you expect?”

      “Listen to me, please. Remember those love notes we used to leave each other? I know your writing, Doris, your actual handwriting, not the doctor calligraphy I’m sure you’ve developed…”

      “Whatever. Look, it’s been a long day, I’ve been on my feet all day at the Nettol Roadshow, and I need to be alone right now, so could you please leave…?

      “No. I know the person who wrote the letter was you, and considering how naive you were in those days, it wasn’t your fault, but yes, everything that campus mag printed about you was false. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Mad Dog posted a video on YouTube, I saw it on the EU alumni Facebook page. Apparently, he’s become a born-again Christian, and he’s ashamed of the way he hurt people through The EUquirer. He’s apologised to anyone he offended when he published all those false stories…”

      News to me. “He did?” I asked, my eyes lighting up.

      “He apologised for the hurt he caused when he smeared your name after his girlfriend accused you of stealing her spot at that fashion show, and regrets any damage it caused.”

      The fact Maduka Udogwu could issue a public apology presented him in a new light. “He tarnished me badly, but I’m not going to sit in a corner stewing in venom, what good would it do?” I mused. “Okay, maybe I spoke harshly just now, but I’ve moved on, and I’m happy with everything I’ve achieved despite all they did to pull me down. Including yourself,” I added for good measure.  

      “You want me to admit it?” he said, his voice a thick mixture of frustration and aggravation. “Okay, I’m a big fool, I should have respected you, I should have trusted you, I should have believed you, I should have been there for you as a friend, but please don’t leave without finding it in your heart to forgive me. I think about what I did every day, and it fills me with grief.” His voice began to crack, touching my heart instantly. “I’m sorry.”

       My days of swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die had passed, and if Jide’s death had taught me anything, I learned to listen before judging, an opportunity I denied Jide when he saw me at Bass. Who knows, If I’d given him a chance and forgiven him when I had that chance, he probably wouldn’t have been driven to depression. He’d probably still be alive today. I’d once loved the man sitting in front of me, a rare love I’d never felt with anyone else, a love I’d probably never find again. The Harrison who dumped and insulted me had treated me terribly, but the Harrison I’d known before he called it quits had treated me better than Andrew ever did, the same Harrison who tried apologising via Facebook. With my life and career moving in the right direction, did I need all that hate weighing me down again? I had to let it go, and now was the time.

      I looked deeply into those forlorn eyes, reached across the table, and took his hand in mine.

© 2019 Okoko Dedeh, Tami. All rights reserved

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