When he strolled into his store, and Ndubuisi, his boy, called his attention to him, Mario was not pleased that his first reaction was one of automatic admiration of a man well put together.
Whether he cared to admit it or not, Chukwudi Udolisa was a fine man who knew how to clothe and carry himself. Even in smart trousers and a good collared T-shirt, Mario still felt scruffy beside his tailored linen outfit.
Once they had been friends. Not good ones, but they related well and Mario tolerated better his arrogant ways. But that was nearly a decade ago and nothing in this life would make him consider him a friend again, not even in the loosest sense.
Friend or not though, a man stayed polite to another man because he was man enough to be that way. That was Mario’s principle.
“Would you be needing medicine for some ailment as you are here, Chukwudi?” he asked, coolly amused at the almost scornful scrutiny the other gave the store.
“If I needed medicine, I would have been sure to get it from any of the pharmacies in Port Harcourt, not here, Mario.” Though his smile was friendly, Chukwudi didn’t bother to hide the sneer in his voice. “I still for the life of me don’t know how you survive on the earnings of a chemist store. It’s little wonder you still live in your father’s house.”
“I don’t live in my father’s house. I live in the house I built behind my father’s house. But you know that, and just like to pretend otherwise to make you feel superior.”
“A two-bedroom unit isn’t exactly a house, is it? And I don’t need to pretend about anything to feel superior to you, Mario. That you should know.” Leaning an elbow on the wood counter, Chukwudi jerked a nod towards the boy at the other end of it. “Send your boy off on some errand, I wish to speak to you.”
It wasn’t a request and Mario was tempted to ignore the casual order, but he wanted the man out of his store, so he obliged him. “Ndubuisi, go deliver Madam Grace’s drugs to her. Let her know the eye drop will come in on Monday.”
“You shouldn’t encourage those who mistake chemist owners as doctors and come to them for treatment,” Chukwudi commented after the boy left. “It’s illegal to do so and you might find yourself in trouble with the law one of these days.”
“Madam Grace is a diabetic patient who gets her prescription from her doctor at the general hospital, as do most of my customers. Her eye drop was recommended by the clinic she visited at Asaba, and I only provide it, and her other medications here. If you ever looked beyond your superior nose to see anyone else, you would know I don’t involve myself in anything illegal.” No, he would never again be a friend, and maybe he shouldn’t have been in the past. “Now, what is it you wish to talk about, I have a business to run.”
“Cally,” Chukwudi said, going to the point. If the man was too narrow-minded to take advice, then he would leave him to his backwater ways. “What are you doing with her?”
“Right now, nothing as I’m at work.”
The smart retort made Chukwudi snort. “It should be nothing, whether you are at work or not. She is mine, and you should know better than to trespass on a friend.”
“First, we are not friends. And second, she is not yours. You two broke up.”
“It surprises me that you say we are not friends, Mario. I know we are not equals, but I’ve tried–“
Mario barked out a laugh. “Did you just say we are not equals, you self-absorbed fool?” Laughing again, he shook his head. “But you are delusional, aren’t you, Chukwudi Udolisa? Listen, you might have your fancy job in Port Harcourt, your big fancy car and your fancy clothes, but none of these make you in any way better than the rest of us here. It’s not a social class here. It’s a small town, and most people try to respect one another.”
“And I have not disrespected you. I merely stated a fact.” Chukwudi flicked a hand, both to chase off the fly that buzzed close by and to wave off Mario’s pointless argument. “The important thing here though is for you to understand I want you to leave Cally alone. While I seriously doubt you two are in any form of relationship other than friendship, I demand that you back off now I’m home.”
“You demand that I back off now you are home?” Was the man so full of himself, he could not hear how stupid he sounded?
“Yes, I demand it. I would say that I am willing to share her with you, but I don’t share a woman, or much of anything else for that matter. If you like, you can wait to resume whatever it is you do with her after I’m gone.”
“Share her? Resume whatever it is we are doing–are you mad, Chukwudi?”
“Oh please, stop with the self-righteous indignation, Mario. We are alone here, and between us, we both know a woman like Callista Okoli is only good for passing fun. And that too, only if a man is willing to indulge himself.” Chukwudi shot him a sly grin. “Or you want to pretend you are with her for something more than a good lay?”
“You self-absorbed, pompous ass.” He wanted to hit him, but Mario didn’t know how he restrained himself from doing so. “That is all you ever saw her as, as a play thing, and even as that, you treated her worse than any man would.”
“I treated her better than any man thought to do,” Chukwudi corrected. “You made her your friend because she just wasn’t woman enough to be anything else, and I made her my woman. I paid her attention when no one would. I can even bet, and win the bet, that you chose to become her lover because you wanted a taste of what I’d had.”
“Oh now, it’s not about her, but about you?” His temper snapped, and Mario didn’t bother to get a hold on it. “This is about you now, you arrogant idiot?”
“It is about me; about what Chukwudi Udolisa have had.” Insults meant nothing to Chukwudi when they came from the likes of Mario Elue. “My cousin told me Gozie was sniffing around her months back, and I ask where was he before I bestowed Cally with my attention, eh? Where were you, for that matter, pretending to be her friend?”
“You bestowed her with your attention? Good gracious, Chukwudi, she’s a woman, a human being like you, not an animal.”
“She may not be an animal, but apart from that sweet hole between her legs, I see very little that makes her a woman.”
“Get out!” Rage, the kind that boiled hot in the blood and threatened to eat up all your senses, snarled through Mario. “Get out of my store, Chukwudi. And stay away, far away, from Cally. If I find you near her, I will beat that mad arrogance out of you.”
“You can do nothing, Mario.” Laughing, and totally unimpressed by the display of anger, Chukwudi pushed away from the counter. “I thought to politely warn you off, but since you’re being a hot-head, just know that she’s right at this moment thinking how to come back to me. You see, the thing with our Cally is that she’s crazy about me. Apart from that little detail, women will always prefer men like me to men like you. It’s why we go to cities like Port Harcourt to make the big bucks.”
Still laughing, Chukwudi strolled out of the store, promising himself he would never set a foot on the miserable place again.
“Arrogant fool!” Mario cursed him, then cursed himself because he should have dealt him a blow, right on that foul mouth of his.
He should have beaten him up, not sent him out of the store with an impotent warning. Why hadn’t he knocked the fool down?
Because part of what he’d said was the truth. Rage simmering in his gut, Mario acknowledged that fact and suffered a great amount of shame.
Chukwudi had been right, for while Callista was fine enough of face, she lacked other physical attributes that easily caught a man’s attention, which made being friends with her no hardship at all. He knew she was a resourceful, independent and good-natured woman, yet he’d never considered her anything other than a friend. He barely even noticed her as a woman.
Barely noticed her because she wasn’t the kind of woman he noticed. Of course he knew he didn’t find every woman he knew attractive, but he was completely oblivious of her to the point of careless indifference which he accused Chukwudi of.
Even with their game of being a couple, he only loosely paid attention to her. That, in Mario’s thinking, made him as guilty of somehow demeaning her as Chukwudi did. Guiltier, because he should be a better person; a better man.