I waited outside Belinda’s compound in my car for a long while, going through what I wanted to say in my head. Things had a way of getting all jumbled up when I spoke to her; I could never get my words out fast enough, she always had a way of getting my back up so that even when I was not at fault I came out sounding defensive.
“Well, not this time,” I said to myself. For one thing I was at fault. I could not deny it any longer. I was at fault. I had done a very bad thing and the least I could do was suck it up and apologise and mean it.
The knock on my window startled me and I jumped. It was one of the watchmen. He signalled to me to open my window and I wound down.
“Good afternoon, sister,” he said, dark eyes giving me the once over. “Madam Belinda say make you enter if you dey enter.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I am just preparing some things in the car, I will be right out.” The man looked me over again and I wound up the window in his face. All the while I had been coming I was ‘Aunty’ now I had been downgraded to ‘Sister’ and Belinda was ‘Madam’. The insolence in his gaze gave me the push I needed to swing open the door and climb out. Instantly the guard’s flat gaze took on brilliance. As I walked into the compound and he closed the pedestrian gate, I heard him mutter to his college.
“You fit blame oyibo? With that kain bottom power, bodi no be firewood.” The guffawed to themselves, not caring that I could hear. I ignored them. It was the kind of thing that Greg would say ‘Pick your battles’ to. I was not here for them. I was here for Belinda. And she was coming straight at me.
“Well well, if it isn’t the Mighty husband-stealing Armpit Boils. What brings you to this neighbourhood? I thought you could never show your face here again.”
“Hi, Belinda, how are you?”
Belinda crossed her arms in front of her chest. “What do you want? Do you want to see if Wes is around for one last fling before we leave? Do you want to try your luck?”
“We need to talk.”
“So talk.” She tossed her head, flicking her fringe out of her eyes.
“Not here,” I said, aware of the ears and eyes of the guards and their earlier chortling. I had my back to them and knowing they were slobbering over my bottom did nothing for my concentration.
Belinda looked as if she was going to disagree but at the last moment she gave a curt nod. “Follow me,” she said. I followed her to the smaller living room which my Aunt Mabel pretentiously referred to as her ‘salon’, as if all reception rooms could not technically be called that. Belinda sat in an overstuffed pink sofa, folding one leg under her as if she was a talk show hostess. “I’m listening,” she said, leaving me in the awkward position of supplicant; should I kneel to beg or would that be too much? That wasn’t my style. I wasn’t there for theatrics. I needed to show how sorry I was without grovelling. I was here to be sorry. Now whether Belinda believed me or not was up to her, but I was not going to resort to theatrics to do it. I was all drama-ed out.
“Yes,” said Belinda again, tapping the one leg she hadn’t folded under herself on the floor. In that moment I thought how adequate that she chose this room, full of Aunty Mabel’s over-feminine touches; gilt and gold and pink and flowers everywhere. Belinda wore pretty feathered slippers and her skirt was preppie and proper. All that she needed was a twinset and pearls to look like an American conservative’s wife.
And it struck me how much I did not want to belong to her world.
“I am so sorry Belinda. What happened between Wes and I…it wasn’t supposed to happen. I am really, really sorry.” I licked my lips. Belinda watched me under her fringe with pursed lips, as if trying to decide if I was genuine or not.
“Yes, you’ve said that,” she said finally.
“But I am sorry Belinda, I really am.” I shrugged. “I can’t apologise for London however much you want me to because I didn’t know he was yours and…” Belinda was frowning. Why did I bring up London? This apology was becoming shambolic. “The point is, it should never have started again. I should never have encouraged his attentions.”
“Encouraged? Encouraged!” Belinda laughed a small laugh without any mirth in it. “Wes showed me the texts. I know you actively pursued him. It was your idea to meet in the hotel. It was your idea to bring the fake plans. Encouraged.” She laughed again. Her eyes narrowed. “I’d say you did more than encourage didn’t you?”
“It’s B’lin. How many times do I have to tell you? Stop calling me Belinda.”
The old me would have said ‘Stop calling me Armpit Boils’ but it was amazing how I was getting over that. It was part and parcel of who Belinda was. I couldn’t change her, but I could change me and part of that was in letting things go that I could not change. Pick your battles. This wasn’t one of them.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “B’lin.”
Belinda’s eyes widened. “Wow. You really are here to grovel huh? What happened? Did Greg say you couldn’t be his friend anymore unless you made nice with the big bad B’lin?”
I was surprised she had guessed that I had spoken to Greg but I knew I wasn’t doing this for him. I was doing this for me. I had to. I had to be better. I had to not let the nonsense between us matter anymore.
“Oh God,” she said when I didn’t speak up immediately. “It’s true isn’t it? He did ask you to apologise.” Belinda stood up with her hand to her mouth. “You don’t even feel sorry.”
“No Belinda, listen…”
“Oh my God. Was any of this even real? Do you even feel sorry for what you’ve done? Do you even care? Do you?”
“Belinda I was going to end it with Wes before you found out, not because of Greg and not because of me but because it was the right thing to do. Being with him again, it didn’t feel right and I know I should not have done it.”
“It’s B’lin you asshole,” she said. She was crying.
And for the first time in my life, her tears were real. Belinda was an ugly crier. Tears made a mockery of her face which was usually so cool and aloof in its beauty; her fake eyelashes looked like banana leaves fighting a losing battle against a downpour of rain. There was mucus dribbling down her nostrils and she was so breathless that she blew bubbles in her own spit. Belinda looked as if she was choking. She slid down to the ground, with her fists under her chin, crumpled down on the ground with her legs at weird angles. It was so painful to watch. My eyes teared up right along with her.
“B’lin. I am so, so sorry okay? Believe me I am. What can I do to make you know that I am sorry?”
Belinda’s body shook with sobs but she was quieting down. “I fucking hate you, you whore. You and fucking gobbling Greg and the whole lot of you in this tiny, fucking backwards town. You and fucking Greg with your secret code words and your smiles and all your ‘specialness’” And here she used air quotes. “I had to fight to get my own cousin to play with me, to share her friends and her world with me…”
“I didn’t have friends remember?” I attempted a joke, smiling through the tear staining my face. I wiped them with the flat of my hand. Belinda jerked upright, putting distance between us as if I was leprous and had attempted to touch her. She scrambled to her feet.
“YOU HAD GREG!” She screamed. “You had someone who loved you unconditionally, you still loves you even now so that you feel the need to put things right just to get back in his good graces.”
“B’lin, it’s not why…”
“Let me finish.” She raised a hand imperiously. “For godssake, let me finish.” She knuckled away her tears and tossed her fringe back into order. Taking a tissue from the ornate, carved box on the coffee table, she blew her nose in short, delicate bursts. “You have cast me as the villain in your little fairytale for so long that maybe I started to believe myself as a truly evil person, but you know what? You’re the evil person. You’re mean and you’re nasty and you’re insincere. You don’t deserve the life you have. You don’t deserve to have a friend like Greg who is so loyal to you and…and…so DAMN FAITHFUL…what do you have that I haven’t got? Huh? Answer me that. I couldn’t even get any of the bitches that I call friends to come for my fucking wedding.” She wiped away fresh tears before they could overspill. “Those fucking Terrible Trio whores making fun of me in Igbo like I don’t know they are laughing at me for losing my man to my cousin. I gave them everything…! What do you have that is so special huh? When do I get to have a Greg of my own?”
I knew she didn’t want me to answer the question; it was rhetorical. But could it be possible that Belinda really, truly believed her version of events? I knew my version was subjective as well but could she really not see that she alienated people? She said so herself; none of her friends came to her wedding. She had acquired her bridesmaids the same way she always did. Belinda saw and Belinda took. But could this not be my chance to say something? What if nobody had ever told her?
I chose my words carefully. “Belinda, I know you aren’t expecting me to answer the question but has it occurred to you that you are not a very nice person?” I was not angry. I had to make her see and getting angry; delivering the words with any sort of vehemence would make her shut down.
She looked as if I had hit her. “Of course I’m nice. Everybody knows that.”
“No, you are not. You just admitted as much yourself. You…”I shrugged. “You just aren’t nice.”
“Bullshit, I’m not nice. I am the nicest person you know. I was nice to you even though you excluded me at every turn growing up.”
“You told people to call me names, to spread rumours about my parentage.” I rubbed my eyes. “Did you even have to confront me in front of everyone, plan it as you did? Why didn’t we just have it out between us?” I sighed. We were on familiar terrain again. The problem with familiar paths was your feet are so used to taking them that not only do you no longer notice them but that they always lead to the same place. “Look, I came to tell you how sorry I am. I am sorry. I can’t tell you…”
“If you’re really sorry you’ll let me do anything I want to you.”
“What?” I was startled.
“If you are really sorry, you will prove it.”
“Prove it.” Belinda crossed her hands in front of her chest again. I knew there was no way she would let me get out of it without her proof. And I wanted her to forgive me.
“Alright,” I said. What do I have to do?”
“Nothing stay right here, I will be right back.” Belinda rushed out all traces of her former sadness erased. When she came back she looked positively gleeful. “Close your eyes,” she said.
I gave her a hard look and obeyed. I could feel her doing something to my face, around my eyebrows. My skin tickled. “What are you…?”
“You can open your eyes now!” She held out a mirror in front of me unable to keep the smile twisting her lips.
Belinda had shaved off my eyebrows.
“Okay,” I said slowly examining the damage. What the hell was wrong with her? “Does this mean you forgive me now?”
“No,” she said flinging away the shaving stick in her hands. “I will never forgive you, Otito, not now, not ever. What you did hurt not just my heart but it hurt my pride. I just have always wanted to do that you your stupid face since we were kids. I hope you like it. You look like the snake that you are.”
I sighed and stood.
“Here’s what you and people like you will never understand,” said Belinda talking very fast, as if she sensed my exit. “Wes and I, we are flawed, but we love each other. I know that he doesn’t want to marry anyone but me. I know he doesn’t want anyone else to bear his children but me. And he knows that sometimes I can be high strung,” she waved an arm in the air. “And a little spoilt and he is good with it too. He keeps me sane and I keep him grounded. Nothing can come between what we have, not you or not other women with fat asses. Loving someone that way takes courage and that is where you and I are different. You have had a man in love with you since we were children for chrissakes!” Her mocking laughter took me unawares. She shook her head and continued.
“And yet you cannot begin to comprehend how you are worthy of such love. I on the other hand have taken charge of my life with a man who loves me in whatever shape I come in. And that is how I have won and you have lost. You are a loser and I will never forgive what you tried to do here.”
I studied her, this girl that was my cousin. I would never be able to figure her out and yet I could tell she had been honest with me twice since our conversation started, when she cried and just at that moment with her long, hissing speech.
What I could not figure out was everything in between. Had she really been acting for so long that she had simply forgotten how to be? Even the bits I thought were the real thing I couldn’t be sure of and it confused me. But I was certain of one thing; I was done. I was done with this and I was sorry. Sorry I had started with Wes. Sorry I had let Belinda and my mum and my aunt and all the people in town define me for so long that even after I left I was currently looking back to see if they were far enough away. And in doing so I had left the one person that was always there for me behind, because I wanted to forget. Because I wanted to be different. But you can’t really grow until you trim all the dead branches and pull up all the weeds so that the real crop could grow. It didn’t matter whether Belinda forgave me, because I was really sorry, I was willing to pay for what I had done and most of all, I had forgiven myself. It was time to move on.
“Goodbye, B’lin,” I said. I walked out into the sunshine, praying in my heart that my cousin would know what it was to be content and wishing her all the best in the world.
I recognised the car flashing its headlights at me as my uncle’s Jeep. When the window came down Wes was in the car alone. He had on his wraparound sunglasses. My heart skipped a beat but I recognised in it an emptiness of feeling; my heart was merely doing what it had been conditioned to do, rather than as a result of any true emotion.
“Hi,” he said. “What the hell happened to you?” he gestured to my eyebrows. “Did B’lin do that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied.
“Abby, we need to talk.”
“I don’t think there is anything we need to say to each other.”
“Yes we do, I know you’ve been wondering why I didn’t answer any of your texts that night. If I was you I’d wonder too, but after I came back and she confronted me, she took my phone and I just panicked…” he ran his hand through his hair and took off his glasses. His grey-green-browns almost shimmered with intensity.
“So you knew what she was going to do? You knew?”
“Yes, I knew, I just didn’t know she was going to…don’t look at me like that Abby, com’on. It’s me. Wes. You know me, you’ve known me since before this whole mess…”
“This whole mess is my cousin’s life, and yours too and who knows whoever else if impacts… mine. My family.” I swallowed. “And I don’t know you.”
“I know, I know. Abby,” Wes looked around him. “Let’s just drive somewhere and talk. We can figure this out you and me.”
“Figure this out?”
“Yes, we can figure this out. I can say sorry and…God Abby, I’ve been going out of my mind worrying about you and how you were doing and whether you hated me. I’ve fucking missed you, girl.”
I looked at him. His eyes irritated me, the way he used them, used his body. It was as if that was all there was to him. Tell a guy you admire something and he feeds you with it constantly. I was just fed up.
“I’m not the one you should be saying sorry to, Wes,” my window went up and I gunned it out of there, leaving a trail of dust in my wake.
The radio blasted out a tune I had been hearing for a few weeks and I don’t know why it caught my attention; maybe it was sitting in traffic, maybe it was being sad and liberated and feeling like crying or maybe it was thinking about being kids and Greg and happier times, but I listened.
Comin’ back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along
It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
My head was full of images and thoughts and sounds and smells of Greg; laughter and the way he wore his jeans and his biceps, the way he slept under the bed with me when we were kids, teaching me how to kiss so that I could have the boy I wanted, giving me the stone through Eke; ‘Slay the giant’ that was the message. At the time I thought it was Belinda. But I see now that he could have been talking about me, my issues. Greg. It always came down to Greg and I was too stupid to see it, to accept it.
I lowered the volume and pulled out my phone to dial. It started ringing in that same instant.
“Hello?” I said breathlessly.
“Hello Young Lady,” said Charles.
“Oh,” my spirits sank a little. “Hi, Mr B…Charles.” I couldn’t bring myself to call him ‘Mr Big’. It didn’t seem right. It was as if the thought of Greg obliterated all feelings and desires for anyone else the moment I admitted to myself that… Suddenly nothing else was as important. “Can I call you back? It’s only that I am driving and I need to keep my phone free…I need to call someone.” I said, not wanting to bullshit him.
“This will only take a moment. I didn’t get the hotel. Someone else beat me to it. Funny I’d never heard of the company before the day before yesterday but yeah, it’s sold. Apparently it was a quick, hush-hush thing. I didn’t stand a chance. I am sorry darling.”
“Oh.” My spirits sank even lower. Karma wasn’t done with me it seemed. I wanted to bawl my eyes out. “Thank you so much for trying Charles. I’m glad you acted so quickly…and…” my voice was going.
“It’s okay. But don’t let me keep you. You sounded so disappointed when you heard it was me that I don’t want to keep you from who it is you truly want to speak to.” I could hear the laughter in his voice.
“No, no. It’s not like that.” I sniffled. I was close to losing it.
“It is. And Abby? I’m glad that I did not ruin you after all.”
“It’s Otito,” I said. “My name is Abuotito.”