It was the ease with which she flung insults “anu ofia!” “your fada!”; it was shocking and even more shocking was how much it thrilled him to watch her in her element. He’d been buying peppers at her stall every week for the past three months now and she called him “oga pepper”. She said the words like it wasn’t completely hilarious to call someone “oga pepper”. For some reason, he thought about the Dr. Pepper drink whenever she said the words. He was tempted to tell her about the drink, the unique flavor that left you sipping continuously, hoping to force your taste buds to grasp what exactly they were tasting. He wanted to tell her how it felt when he realized at age ten that the Dr. Pepper can was red and not green like he had thought it was. He had always known that it looked the same as strawberries and they were supposed to be red, but then again, so did the grass and he would never forget his mother’s face when he asked her why grass was the same color as strawberries. And so it began, the things the world said he could and couldn’t do because he couldn’t tell colors apart as well as others. The frustration of art teachers when he chose the wrong colors; painted grass red instead of green and later in his life blood, green instead of red. At the end, what was supposed to be a painting of “real” people became abstract. The artist Demilade was born.
He didn’t really drive anymore. He’d had too many near-fatal accidents and his mother had simply had enough of his stubbornness and employed a driver on his behalf. He’d rejected his new driver and started to use public transport. He didn’t really go to that many places anyway. He met her the day he lost his way. His friend Bamidele keeps making him come to places he doesn’t know well and ‘Bamibamz’ gives the worst directions. So there he was in front of the largest market he’d ever seen. Bamibamz would be there to pick him up in half an hour. He had only walked a few meters when he heard her voice, the bravado seeping through her words. She was shooing a tout away. Demilade had never been more shocked in his life to see the almost miniature creature from whom that voice had come out. She was at most five feet two and from his six foot two height, she was miniature. He realized he’d been staring at her when she said “oga wetin you wan buy?” And then he heard himself become “oga pepper”. When she’d asked what type, he said red. Damn that color.
Uche was irritated by this man’s staring, but her mother had warned her not to drive away any more customers with her brashness. So she asked instead if he wanted to buy something. She was slightly perplexed by the long wait before he said “red”, almost like he had a score to settle with the color. After he’d bought the peppers, he stood there, just watching. So she decided to say in proper English “Is there something else you’d like?” and the look on his face was priceless. He came back every week after that. Sometimes twice a week and he just stayed and chatted. He said he was an artist but he didn’t paint people. She told him she’d like to be a lawyer but she didn’t think her parents would send her to university. She told him that in her mind, she only had one parent because all her father did was drink and beat her mother when he came home. Then, she corrected herself and said he used to, but I made him stop and then she looked at him as she exhaled. He didn’t ask how.
She liked to call him “oga pepper”. She liked that she could see his lips twitch every time she said the words. He said he wanted her to know his name and when he told her, she returned the favor. Theirs was a beautiful friendship. It was healing and happiness and sharing and love. Uche thought it amazing that only he saw a side of her that was completely devoid of brashness. With him, she was all girl and only a tad spunky. He liked to watch her transform into a tigress when people tried to cross her.
Her happiness was boundless the day Demilade said he wanted to paint her.
He did not know what he had been thinking! He had not been thinking. Why else could he have offered to paint her when he only did abstracts? He did not want her to see this damage of his, this part of his senses that was not whole. So, he didn’t go back to see her. He did not go anywhere, for fear his legs would lead him astray without his mind’s permission. When he couldn’t get her out of his mind, he brought her out the only way he knew how to. After a dozen abandoned canvases, he gave up trying to make her “real”. He used whatever colors felt right to him and he worked from dusk to dawn, every stroke of his brush, caffeine for his soul. When it was ready, he took it to her.
Her stall was gone. He asked everyone of that “yellow” girl who sold peppers here, yes she was his friend, where did she go? They had some problems with the trader’s union; they didn’t sell here anymore. No one knew where she sold or if she sold anymore. He felt his vision grow duller with each confirmation of her relocation. It was like losing something he had never really had, but it still hurt almost like he had had it all, even if it was only for a second. Now, he had a dozen paintings, all incomplete versions of a girl and one that was his version of her.
He wished he had the real version.
Demilade has not come.
Demilade did not come.
Demilade will not come.
She doesn’t know what she did. She’d waited the whole day on the Saturday he’d said he’d come and the next day. Everyday after that weekend, she flinched when someone wanted red peppers. She saw his paint stained fingers in the mix of colors her red and yellow peppers formed and every time a sweaty tout came to their stall, she wished she was smelling his sandalwood scent instead. The day they left the market, she’d cried because now she knew she’d never see him again.
It’s been seven years and it’s almost as though she had imagined “oga pepper” because she doesn’t sell peppers anymore, thanks to the government scholarship exam she had written. She works in a law firm in an office whose view she cannot get over. She visits art galleries and tells everyone how much she loves abstract art. It’s not long before she sees the “A dozen plus one is not enough” art collection by Demilade Sowande. She is blown away by his depiction of her, the soft jaw, the high forehead, the fearless eyes. She doesn’t miss the fact that her favorite red ankara skirt is green in his paintings or that there are no red peppers at her stall here.
Demilade is shocked to see Uche when he opens the door to his flat. She is holding the thirteenth piece from his collection and he can tell she doesn’t sell peppers anymore. He had decided to sell them just last week.
“You didn’t tell me you have protanopia.” she says looking at him and then at the painting. “She’s so beautiful, it’s so beautiful. I guess you didn’t need me in person.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come. I didn’t want to have to explain why I can’t see colors like you can. I’ve always felt… damaged. Like I’ll never be normal; do normal things”
“You’re extraordinary. You were born for more than normal. Demilade, look at this! It’s phenomenal!”
And so he looked. At it, at her. At them.
“I’ve missed you. Tell me everything that’s happened in the last seven years”
“Look who’s been counting. Well, can I come in first?”
Uche, so much spunk. How had he lived without this for seven years?