BITTER PERCEPTIONS: CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Doris

Best TV Presenter? When Olivia asked me to replace Ruth on The Doctors eight months prior, I hadn’t anticipated an enormous fan base or endorsement deals. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined competing with other TV personalities for significant awards. Olivia hadn’t left the venue empty-handed either, but I felt terrible for Chidiebere who had already hosted the show for five seasons, only to out to a newcomer on his first ever nomination. Despite the setback, Chidiebere remained gracious, assuring me I deserved the accolade. My cousin Anna, nominated for three blogger TRIs that year, won a Best Fashion Blog award for , but couldn’t attend due to her working holiday in Calabar with Chukwuma, Ngozi, and Chinwe, and I accepted the statuette on her behalf. Various showbiz reporters shoved their mics in my face, and champagne corks continuously popped into the air inside the winner’s lounge where uninvited well-wishers swarmed me with congratulatory words. Such a memorable experience, one I wouldn’t have changed for all the Häagen-Dazs strawberry cheesecake in the world, but after a persistent journalist kept pressing for details regarding my love life, I longed for the comfort of my cotton PJs and cosy bed, with a mug of chamomile beside me. 

     Zainab and her husband kindly gave me a lift back to my flat where I stepped down from my sparkly diamanté heels, slipped out of my red Ebonee Jade evening jumpsuit, peeled off my auburn wig (Femi’s latest creation), and cleared a space on the living room divider for my newly-acquired TRI. My phone kept ringing off the hook with felicitations from friends and colleagues, and I sighed wearily. Thanks, guys, but please let me sleep, I prayed, but not before I opened a link from Christian and Christopher. Social media buzzed with highlights from the TRIs, and video clips had already found their way onto YouTube. I sat up in bed, using cotton wipes and cleanser to scrub off any remaining residue, and watched my acceptance speech on my phone. Wow, had I really exposed that much cleavage in front of the whole nation? I’m dead when Mum sees this…

     “Thank you, thank you all so much. Wow, what can I say? I really don’t know what to say other than thank you, I really wasn’t expecting this. I mean, my first appearance was only meant to be a one-off, and I’ve only just grown accustomed to looking into a camera, how come I’m standing here now?” The amused crowd chortled. “Mum and Dad who are probably watching right now, thanks for being there, and for raising me. I love you both, thank you. My siblings Fred, Christopher and Christian, my sister-in-law/sister-friend Juliet, hi! The Anyanwu family, I really miss you now we’ve left Shell Camp, you’re all amazing, and a huge shout-out to our former friends and neighbours there. The rest of my family—Uncle Robin, Auntie Bernie, Uncle Roland, Auntie Akudo, Aunt Rebecca… My other family at LivMedia, especially Olivia…You deserve your Best TV Show award, you’re more than just a media practitioner, you’re an icon, people just don’t know it yet. You’ve broken down several barriers in your competitive field to become one of the most celebrated women in the industry, and I salute you….”  

      An embarrassed Olivia hid her embarrassment behind her hands, the audience cheering in recognition. “My co-hosts on The Doctors, I seriously cannot express my gratitude enough. You’ve been nothing but supportive, taking this clueless newcomer under your wing from day one, you’re all good at what you do. Oluchi Okonkwo, the designer we all know and love as Ebonee Jade, I’ve known you since the year 2000 when I walked your very first fashion show, and you still create the best designs, thanks for asking me to wear this tonight…” I stepped away from the podium to give a twirl, and a few cheeky spectators wolf-whistled. “Thanks to my mother’s former boss Dr. Kishore who put up with me when I was a five-year-old pest, big shout out to Future Hope, and to everyone at New Aggrey, especially Mrs. Justina Charles, you’re such a gem. The ladies at Cherry Blossoms, especially Remi Olusegun, I’m proud to be associated with you; your work is outstanding. Thanks to Dr. Ernestine Julius-Njemanze, wherever you are—your support was invaluable, and so are you.”

     Another round of applause followed, and I pressed the statuette close to my cheek. “I dedicate this to Cuthbert Duru, one of the most inspirational people I ever knew. He taught me dedication and perseverance are all it takes to achieve your goals in life, whatever the obstacles. He taught me you should always be proud of where you come from, because it will shape you for the future. He taught me that where you’ve come from isn’t always as important as where you’re going. I consider myself blessed to have had him in my life, and I’ll forever be honoured to call him my grandfather. Thank you, Papa, and rest in peace. Thank you everyone, and God bless. And to anyone out there who feels like they can’t go on, and can’t succeed because someone out there says ‘you can’t’, take it from me, you can. Even when people walk over you, gossip about you, turn their backs on you or whatever, there’s always going to be someone out there who believes in you. Oh, and Anna, if you’re watching this from Calabar, we owe each other lunch. Thank you!”

     ‘Boobage spillage’ aside, that red Ebonee Jade evening jumpsuit looked terrific. Who knew the designer and I would collaborate again after twelve years? She’d since earned her stripes as Nigeria’s most famous fashion designer, and owned several outlets across Africa, although she’d recently faced harsh criticism for ignoring the plus-size market. I couldn’t believe she still remembered me from our Enugu days, nearly flying for joy when she asked if I’d wear her latest design to the ceremony, a red off-the-shoulder evening jumpsuit with a crystal-encrusted bodice and flared legs from her newly-launched Real Women Collection. I still had my blonde low cut underneath those TV wigs, but Anna had suggested an auburn updo with red lips and nails for the night. Far from my usual style, but hours after admiring myself in my full-length mirror, I barely recognised myself on my phone when I returned home. No wonder those photographers couldn’t take enough photos on the red carpet where I’d spent several minutes posing in front of blinding camera flashes, or so I thought. Amid the glitz, glamour, and lights, and despite the struggles I’d faced to reach my current level, Papa’s words still held true. Dedication and perseverance had paved the way leading to this memorable event, and those who truly believed in me had helped me get there, bless them. 

    I clicked the ‘home’ button and snuggled underneath the sheets. Ever since I vowed to forgive those EU oppressors as Mum and Dad had implied, I felt lighter, freer, less angry. I hadn’t bumped into Jide since that altercation, but I hadn’t carried out my threat to report him to Chief Bassey either. I’d tried contacting him on Facebook a few times, but his account no longer appeared active, and his former secretary had no forwarding address. I’d already forgiven Jide in my heart, but he needed to hear those words from me. His actions from way back no longer defined me, and even if he never apologised personally, he could never hurt me again. And he needed to know face-to-face. 

***

     The last of my well-wishers left, and I leaned backwards, averting my eyes towards the ceiling and sighing deeply. For goodness’ sake, I’d only won a TRI award, not a bloody Nobel Prize, why the fuss? I was still Doris Duru, the Port Harcourt girl who worked her ass off to reach this level. I loved The Doctors, but the idea I’d metamorphosed into this huge celebrity seemed too funny to pass as believable. I still lived in the same Ikeja flat I’d once shared with Juliet and Anna. I still drove the same Hyundai I’d purchased after saving up for ages. I’d always prefered Mr Biggs’ meat pies to Casa Grande’s suya burgers (Juliet’s double-stuffed chilli pies were also the bomb, though). Only the fear of pesky autograph seekers had kept me from visiting the girls underneath the Ikeja flyover when I still had my long hair. I’d never get used to the crazy fans—now I knew how Chidiebere felt, poor soul—and even in this secluded part of the staff cafeteria, I couldn’t hide. I glanced at my watch again, wondering when Anna would finally arrive. Both of us had placed bets against each other, claiming the other would win a TRI. We both lost the bet, and now we owed each other lunch. Just as I was about to give up, I spotted her wild spiral curls from a distance. Finally. 

     “Doris! Having lunch already? Chukwuma took the girls out for the day, and while he’s having fun with them, I know exactly how I’ll spend my few hours of freedom—with my favourite cousin. And it’s not every day an award-winning blogger gets to enjoy lunch with an award-winning TV star. Congrats, baby!” I hugged her back, and she drew out a chair. “What’s the grub like here? You know hospitals—they have a reputation for serving their patients the worst crap ever, but since I’m not a patient, I expect some flavour at least.” 

     “Don’t worry, the food here isn’t bad. I used to be addicted to their coconut rice, but as you know, I’m trying to shift the LB’s.” I ran a hand down my side in despair. “All I have to do is take one look at my favourite foods, and the weight creeps on. It doesn’t help I’m still carrying more spare tyres than the Michelin Man around my waist while surrounded by those stick insect nurses. Still, I think I’m doing alright so far.”

     “Are you crazy? You looked absolutely gorgeous in that Ebonee Jade evening jumpsuit, people have been tweeting non-stop, asking if it’s still in stock. You’ve still got it, baby, you just kept hiding it. Oh, and you need to give me your plastic surgeon’s digits.”

      “Plastic surgeon?” I asked, puzzled. “What are you talking about, and what’s that grin for?”

      “See for yourself. Looks like Cossy Orjiakor needs to watch her back, or is it her front? There’s a new boob queen in town, baby!” She rummaged in her Miss Dior handbag for her iPhone and swiped the screen. Neither Anna nor I were particularly fond of Indigo Lily, the millionaire big mouth who cashed in millions from poking her surgically-altered nose into other people’s business, people with actual careers. Backstage at the TRI Awards during the obligatory photo op, I’d triumphantly waved mine and Anna’s TRI gongs above my head in a moment of madness, and the press guys frantically pushed each other out of the way for the best angles, encouraging me to hold the pose. Despite having lost a considerable amount of weight since Christmas, I remained self-conscious about my remaining belly fat, but the corset underneath had done the job too well, making my frame slightly too small for the jumpsuit, pushing my already generous bosom even further. None of those photographers had bothered to inform me of my wardrobe malfunction, paying more attention to the free show I provided, resulting in the headline “DOUBLE JUBILATION: DR. DORIS SHOWS OFF MASSIVE PAIR OF WINS AT TRI AWARDS”. Tacky much? I grimaced at Anna who failed to control her giggles, nearly bursting. 

     “It’s not funny, Anna!” I sulked.

     “Come on Doris, cheer up. At least they think you have a nice pair, and they’re not fake.”

     “That’s not the point. Why this picture, and what’s their business if I decide to have some work done?”

     “What now, are you thinking of asking Dr. Chidiebere to feel your boobs on TV to confirm you haven’t had implants, like Tyra Banks did on her show?” 

     “Anna, behave yourself!” Trust Anna to act unexpectedly crude, even marriage and motherhood hadn’t mellowed her, and it still got on my nerves. “No, I’m not about to copy Tyra Banks, and even if I did, I wouldn’t ask Chidiebere, his admirers will send me death threats the minute it airs. Never mind my breasts, have you seen these?” I handed to phone back to Anna, her mischievous grin  disappearing upon reading the comment section.

     “At list Dr Zainab is happily married, she doesn’t have 2 get her boobs out lik dis desperate woman who is already 2 old 4 a carrier in porn #desperate”. They see a bit of cleavage, and automatically dismiss me as a porn queen way past her expiry date? At ‘list’ I could spell.

     “Oh goodness,” Anna exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I had no idea it would be littered with this poison—the comments were empty this morning—but you know what people are like.”

     “Telling me I should be ashamed of myself for getting them out in public when other doctors like Zainab are already married? Who do they think they are?” I seethed.

      “Dee, calm down, people are always going to put you down no matter what you do, no matter how much you achieve.” Anna tried to calm me, and my face slowly untwisted to natural settings. “Have you seen what they write about me? They say I’m not a real blogger, just a half-caste gold-digger who married Chukwuma for his dough. Should I care? Hell no, they’re just a bunch of jealous cowards who wouldn’t say that to my face, preferring to hide behind a computer screen in a rundown internet café instead.”

     “I guess.” It wasn’t my first time on the receiving end of scathing remarks in cyberspace. The online community site Nairaland still carried unsubtle references to threesomes involving a certain EU Med. student at the start of the millennium, and I’d quickly learned to avoid visiting EU forums in future. The moment I reached fame as a panellist on The Doctors, a great number of my former oppressors stalked me online, requesting friendship and asking me to attend upcoming reunions. Even Yetunde, my former EU flatmate, contacted me on social media shortly after my first TV appearance. The same girl who took sides with those rumour-mongers, congratulating me on my success, and asking when we could meet up? Like hell. I simply typed: “Aren’t you the same person who told me not to bring my dirty sex into your flat when you heard those stupid rumours? Bad friend, shame on you” before blocking her from future contact.

       “Who cares what those haters think anyway? You’re a good person, and that’s what really matters. They’re just jealous, but they’ll get over it. I know I did.”

       “Huh?”

       “Okay, not exactly to the point of leaving nasty comments on the internet, but I envied you when we were growing up in Port Harcourt,” Anna confessed, and I dropped my fork, startled at this shocking discovery.

       “You envied me?” I gasped. “Why? You were the Beyoncé, and I was just the Kelly. Everyone wanted to be your friend, or better yet, wanted to be you. I grew tired of all those jerks who pretended to like me only because they wanted to get close to you. Remember Tamuno-Tonye, the Shell Camp guy who attended Stella Maris College?” Anna chuckled at my bad impression: “‘Oh, hi Doris, sorry I can’t come swimming with you today because I’m studying for WAEC. Oh, by the way, is your cousin Anna coming round today? Let me know if she is, okay?’” I rested my chin in my palm and sighed. “How come nearly all the men I’ve known always use school or work as a lame excuse? And of course, you managed to land that job with The Guardian shortly after youth service because you had all those connections, then you met Chukwuma. I worked my ass off just to prove myself before I got the job with Future Hope, and as for the opposite sex, well, let’s not go there.”

      Anna sat in silence, taking in everything I’d uttered before she finally spoke. “Doris, I’m really surprised you’re telling me this, I had no idea, but the truth is I always envied you. Still do, actually. So what if those stupid PH boys weren’t interested in you? You dodged the bullet, and now they’re history…”

      “Don’t worry, I got over them ages ago…”

      “Tamuno-Tonye was trash anyway, you were too good for that loser. Seriously though, you were one of the super-smart Durus, always obtaining the best scores at school, and you made it look easy. Dad would always scold me, asking why I never got the same grades. I tried getting into Law the same time as Juliet because I saw it as the most lucrative career path for an arts student like me, but I didn’t quite make the cut-off mark, and settled for English Language after my second attempt. You, on the other hand, passed your JAMB exams with flying colours, and I always wondered why I wasn’t as brainy as you or Jules. It took a while before I realised a legal career wasn’t my calling. When I first walked into the offices of The Guardian, I knew I was home, and I loved my job because I love writing. Besides…” She ran her hand through her bushy spiral curls and grinned. “How would I ever fit this mop underneath a lawyer’s wig?”

     “Stop being hard on yourself, you are not a dullard,” I scolded. “And not to hurt your feelings, but I can’t imagine you as a legal eagle, you’re not boring enough.”

      “Well, thanks for quoting Legally Blonde just to cheer me up. Remember when I used to dream of becoming the next Miss Nigeria? Yeah, right. No pair of stilettos were high enough, and I wasn’t allowed on any catwalk either, although I did do a few ads as an extra. Always in the background, never taking centre stage.” Anna sighed. “I auditioned to become the new face of Delta soap, but they chose Lilian Bach instead, and my heart sank when I saw the commercial. You know, the one she did with the bus passengers. With you, it was the opposite—you turned down the opportunity to compete in MBGN when they asked you, and of course, there was that model agency you signed with…”

      I raised my palm. “Can I stop you right there? Modelling in 1999 wasn’t what it’s become now, surely you know that? I didn’t accept that many jobs because my studies always came first, my agent was a pimp, and it was too competitive,” I argued, my mind transporting me to the bad old days when Ese Agofure ostracised me. “You’re lucky to have such liberal parents. My father was angry when he heard about the catwalk show, and Mum had to assure him I wasn’t stripping off in public. Even now, I don’t even want to think about what he’ll say when he sees this boob flash.”

      “Just tell Uncle Ru the truth—your arms went up, your dress came down, and the paparazzi are pigs, problems solved. Wow,” she exclaimed with a smile. “We spent all this time envying each other? Unbelievable.”

      “And look at us now—I’m a doctor, and you’re the country’s top blogger.” I smiled back.

      “You’ve got it going on, baby—brains, height, bigger boobs…”

      “Okay, okay, can we please stop talking about my cans?” I pleaded. Thank God He’d created only one Anna Agu!

      “Alright. As I said, someone is always going to want what the other person has, and vice versa, we just have to make the most of what we’ve got and support each other. When I started secondary school in PH, girls were really nasty, always picking on me because I’m fair-skinned, because Mum’s white… Couldn’t they have worried about bigger issues, like war in Iraq?”

     “I know, right? People at school picked on me too—they’d laugh at my height, and even teachers had a problem with me because I stood a good few inches higher, but was that my fault?  They never let me forget I was born in London either. How stupid, considering I don’t remember anything about the place. My mother’s relatives were no better, that’s why we hated visiting her hometown when we were kids. We love her only sibling of the same mother dearly, it’s the rest of that backbiting tribe we can’t stand. My cousins were the worst, they called my brothers and I Pitakwa coconuts, how cruel…”

     “What have coconuts got to do with it?”

     “Dark on the outside, white on the inside. They called me a white girl because I lived in Shell Camp and spoke English? It took a while before I realised they were just jealous—Mum achieved what most of her half-siblings never could, and they took it out on her children—but they forget her good fortune nearly never happened because of their father’s stubbornness. Mum’s a very forgiving woman—if I ever found myself tied up and forced by my own father to marry some dirty old polygamist, there would be war, I’m telling you. The funny thing is years later my grandfather would frequently demand money from Dad despite the horrible things he said about Papa.”

     “Yeah,” agreed Anna. “I saw him once when we came to visit you at Shell Camp, and he frightened the living hell out of me, Juliet said he used to be scared of him, too. Dad heard the racist things he said about Mum, but chose to ignore him. That’s our world for you, but I don’t always have Dad’s patience. When I bought my first car, the Mitsubishi I later gave my brother Alphie, people branded me a whore—I know this because before social media took off I used to visit chatrooms. There was no way I could afford a car that expensive on my salary from The Guardian, they said, but what did they know? I’d already saved some money, Kevin chipped in, Marie sent money over from the States, and the car was second-hand, although I paid more to have the colour changed from black to red. Single girls aren’t allowed to buy cars? I guess the guy who sprayed it did his job too well, and I suffered as a result…”

     “Wow…”

     “Even after I left The Guardian, tongues continued to wag. My blog is read all over the world, I earn a commission from promoting other people’s products, companies pay me to advertise, the whole blog is monetised. Yet no-one believes I actually make money from my work. Instead they label me a gold-digger because of whom I’m married to…how stupid is that? My friend Sade saw Emenike’s mother in D-Line a few years ago. Remember Emenike, the guy whose mother didn’t approve of me because I’m mixed? She made an idiotic remark about how her son dodged the bullet with me. No, I dodged the bomb with him, baby, but I’ve already left her son for her, why can’t she mind her own business? Some nasty person even started the ‘I Hate Anna Agu’ page on Facebook, and I’ve got to say, some of the things I read there really hurt.”

     “Touché. I experienced the same thing, except I had the vile words screamed at me, no Facebook in 2000. Even when I graduated two years later, people were still nasty.”

      “You mean the way you felt when those EU people spread those rumours after…” Anna abruptly ended her sentence upon realising she’d brought up a sensitive subject. “Sorry.”

     “It’s okay. It’s happened, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, but I’ve been attending sessions with a private counsellor, and it’s really helped,” I stated.

      “Private counsellor?”

      “Yes. I did that when it happened all those years ago, and had the support of someone who believed me and listened to me when everyone else turned the other way. Isn’t it weird how I’ve encouraged the girls at Cherry Blossoms to attend our sessions when I secretly kept my own dilemma bottled up for years? I feel like such a hypocrite.” Anna reached the other side of the table and gave me a squeeze from behind.

     “It’s okay, Dee. I’m sorry you had to go through that alone, I wish you’d told me, but I’m so proud of you, you have no idea…”

     “Hey, thanks cuz. I’m sorry, there were times I nearly confided in you, but didn’t have the strength.” (Not exactly—Anna couldn’t have kept a secret from anybody if her life depended on it.) “I’m not as strong as you think, but somehow I battled on, and it wasn’t easy.”

     “Actually, you’re the strongest, bravest girl I know. Look at you now, doctor/TV presenter/model…”

     “Brand ambassador, actually. And we’re still negotiating, nothing’s set in stone yet.”

     “Brand ambassador? It’s still modelling to me…” argued Anna.

     “It’s Nettol, not Versace. And you’re a blogger/wife and mother.” I smiled back.

     “Yep. As I said, someone is always going to want what the other has, and vice versa, you just have to make the most of want you’ve got and support each other. You’ve put each and everyone of those scumbags to shame. I really am proud of you. And still envious.”

      “Thanks.”

      “All that remains now is finding some special dude to sweep you off your feet…”

      “No…no…” I waved my hands at her suggestion. “I’m not even sure I want to go there again. Yes, not all men are like Harrison or Andrew, but I’m happy where I am now.”

      “Doris, you made a mistake with Andrew, but you could try again…”

      “No, really. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for love and marriage, and anyway, who would want me at my age? I know twenty-five years olds who are considered too old, and I’m 34, what’s the point? I support myself, and I’ve finally learned to love my life…”

       “But what about kids?” Anna asked. “I’ve watched you spend time with Lucas and my girls, and I know you’ll make a good mother. And what about Aunt Clara? She’s been pressing you to get married for ages…”

       “I have my nephew and nieces, and you know the best thing about being an auntie? When they drive me up the wall, I can always give them back…”

      “Doris!”

      “Anna, I’m joking! I did dream of being in a long and prosperous marriage once upon a time. You know, like Sonny and Betty, Tunsy and Wumsy, Charles and Di…”

      “What!” Anna nearly choked on her Fanta. “You wanted a marriage like Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s?”

      “No, I meant the Oputa’s, Charly Boy and Lady Diane,” I clarified. “Seriously though, my experiences have taught me who my real friends are, and as long as they’re there, I’m happy.”

      This was all that mattered to me—family and friends who truly cared, and would always be there. As long as I had my strong support system, nothing else mattered. Not even a million TRIs.

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