Smoke & Mirrors
Written by Qaanitah Hunter and edited by Benazir Cassim
Adulthood has taught me many lessons. Some were gentle nudges but there were many, many lessons that came as a slap across my face.
One of the hardest adulting lessons I learned is that even people you consider your friends can be liars and cheats.
I don’t think I fully understood the metaphor of “opening a can of worms” until I started asking Nabs for records to back up the payments she made to me.
I always had a nagging feeling that I was being underpaid for campaigns and paid work. I would often go to events and some influencers with far smaller followings than me and with fewer paid gigs would talk about trips they’ve been on or their recent purchases.
Obviously, my spineless self couldn’t just be open with her and ask her outright if she was underpaying me, so I made up a remarkable tale of how I needed to file my tax returns and had to account for the money.
But she wouldn’t buy it.
At first, I was so vested in keeping the peace but then I thought, why should I be the better person when she is fleecing me?
I am also afraid of Nabs’s mean attitude. She can be a bully under the guise of ‘telling it like it is’. And for a long time, we vibed and didn’t have any issues because I didn’t believe we were equals. Every time she would transfer money to me it was like she was doing me a huge favour. And without her, I would be working at Icon, on my feet for 10 hours a day trying to sell overpriced handbags.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that she has been ripping me off
I left it for a day, but yesterday I reached out to one of my blogger friends that I worked on a lipstick campaign with to ask how much she got for that campaign. Thankfully, she wasn’t typically secretive and instantly told me that she received R39 000 from her agent, who took 10%.
WHAT. I got R11 000 from that campaign that had to last me three months! Even if Nabs took 40%, I was still short-changed. So I decided to email her, to be overly formal, and request a meeting at Sasha’s in Rosebank for today.
I’ve got a spine.
I have a backbone.
I am strong.
I’ve got a spine.
I have a backbone.
I am strong.
I keep repeating it all morning, but I still feel ill-prepared for the meeting.
I arrive 20 minutes earlier than Nabs just to calm myself and gather my thoughts so that I don’t fumble and make a complete fool of myself. The thing is, I do feel grateful for Nabs for giving me my career and paving the way for me to quit my job and focus fully on blogging.
Okay. Breathe, girl. Breathe.
I read on a stupid business website that in order to have an effective meeting, you have to go in with an agenda of things you want to speak about, a list of demands, and have an idea of what you are willing to compromise.
This stupid website also preached that in order to fully get what you want, you must be willing to walk away and not look back. Now, I don’t know if it’s good advice, but I don’t know what the hell I am doing trying to confront Nabs who is effectively the source of my income and not have a plan B.
My CV looks like this: matric, married for two years, divorced, worked inretail for two years, and been blogging for four years, two of them full-time.
Skills: I can take bomb selfies. I can curate an Instagram feed. I can do awesome flat lays. I can also swatch eyeshadow really well.
I HAVE NO SKILLS. I can’t go out and look for a job after this. I don’t think I even have it in me to start from the bottom again. But Nabs doesn’t have to know that. She should know that if she doesn’t come clean, I am willing to walk away.
My stomach is in a knot tighter than the bun on the top of my head. And I already have a headache from how tight I pulled it. I take a sip of free tap water as Nabs walks in with a ton of papers and folders in hand.
My throat feels constricted and I swear I can hear my heart thud against my chest.
“Hey,” she says coldly as she sits down across from me and immediately pulls out her laptop.
Girl, you are not intimidating me today. In the words of an Eastern Cape granny: Not today, satan. Not today!
“How’s it? How’s your day been?”
“Fine. Listen. I know why we are here, and I want to say upfront that I don’t need this bullshit. I was already successful at PR before you came along so I really don’t need you,” she says with as much attitude she can muster. The thing about Nabs is that everyone just accepts the fact that she doesn’t have a filter and very rarely do people give her a taste of her own medicine. She’s always being confrontational and ‘honest’, never giving anyone else a chance to say what they mean or think.
Not this time. I refuse.
“Absolutely. If you feel like you want to go back to the full-time job that you hated, sure. But that’s really a conversation for another time. I just want to do full recon so that I can sort out my financials. I printed out my bank statement and some emails… let me just connect to the WiFi so we can check other emails...”
“If you want to be so cocky why don’t we just pull the plug and go our separate ways then,” she tries to hit back but I refuse to take it lying down.
“We can ... as soon as I am done with this accounting,”
“What accounting? I was running your business for you...”
“You are my manager who took a generous 40% cut. I am just trying to reconcile all my income based on paid work to evaluate whether I want to continue blogging or not.”
That’s a lie but things went from 0 to 100 quick.
“So how do you want to do this?” she asks.
“First let’s cross-check payments for the last year from your account to mine.”
“It’s R201 837.”
“Give me a second to calculate on my side...”
“We have time...”
“What do you want Maariah? Huh? You want to prove that I robbed you?”
“Who said anything about you robbing me?”
“Then why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove? Do you think Firdaus is your friend? That she has your back? She just wants you out of the way so that she can have all the deals for herself.”
“There is no need to be so paranoid!” I say, half shouting, with all the confidence I can find in me. Life does teach you to get a backbone!
“The reason why I am doing this is simple. I got an email from BYZ makeup thanking me for the collab and saying they would love to do a future collab at the same price as the last. R15 800. Then I checked how much I got from that collab and you transferred just R4 800 to my account.”
“Well, who pays for all your shit! When we meet I pay for meetings. I pay for your makeup artists. I have travel expenses.”
“That’s fine. So, all I am doing is trying to account, so we both are treated fairly.”
“That’s nonsense. You think I steal your money Maariah. That’s how pathetic you are! You think I need you. When I found you, you were a miserable divorcee working retail and stealing clothes from your employer to take crappy pictures in.”
“No. No. I refuse to be intimidated by you. We are here to account and we will account for the last year.”
“Whatever!” she says like a character from Mean Girls. I thought we left that behaviour behind in high school but apparently, I’m wrong.
“Now BYZ makeup. How much did they pay?”
“I don’t have figures on hand!” she pushed back. I refuse to fall for her trap.
“Your laptop is right there.”
Nabs is angry and hates being put on the spot. She also is baffled by this assertive girl that’s sitting in front of her because she knows I’m a pushover.
“The amount is R15 800... but...”
“Okay, so let me check what’s 40% of that. Uhm, that’s R6 320. So, my amount should have been R9 480. There were no costs involved in that shoot so that was the amount that should have been transferred into my account.”
“Okay. My bad. Blame it on bad accounting skills. What? Do you want me to pay you back?”
For a moment, just a moment, I think I should ask her for an apology, and we should both go our separate ways. But the reality is that if she did this to anyone else, they would have demanded she pays them back.
“Yes, sure. It’s about five grand that you need to transfer.”
“Are we really doing this? After everything I did for you?”
“Nabs. This is not an emotional or personal thing. This is accounting that should have been done from day one. You just admitted that you were wrong now, let’s get to the bottom of what the discrepancy is and then we can work on a way forward.”.
“Are you really willing to throw your whole career away for a few hundreds of rands that I might have miscalculated?”
“Yes,” I say with a blank look on my face as my stomach shrinks further into a knot.
“It’s that guy, isn’t it? That stupid rich gym guy. You think he is going to marry you and you will live happily ever after, but you forget you are damaged goods."
If I wasn’t done when I entered this meeting, I am done now.
“Look. You are not going to sidetrack me. My estimates show you owe me in excess of R70 000. It’s probably more. If you want me to email every PR person or company we’ve worked with I am happy to do that and collate exact figures.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” she says in that tone of hers that’s a mix of condescending and arrogant.
“Oh. I have nothing to lose. My blogging career is already dead without you, right?”
WHO AM I?
“Listen... don’t be stupid. Let’s just work this out.”
“That’s exactly what I was saying.”
“Give me two days to calculate what I owe you. If I owe you anything. Like I said, I am not good at accounting.”
“That’s fine,” I say calmly — grateful that she has finally seen some rationality.
“Oh, and Maariah...”
“You have until the end of the day to move out of my house.”
WHAT THE ...
“You can’t do that! There are laws.”
“Of course there are laws, but technically you are not a tenant. You never signed a lease.”
“You are staying in my sunroom. I am subleasing to you. You have no legal power to stop me from throwing you out. I can’t live with someone who thinks I am a thief.”
“Don’t be crazy, Nabs. This is just business.”
“Of course, it is. And that’s why I want you out of my house by 8pm. If your stuff is not out by then I am selling it all.”
“You want to play this game?” I ask confidently yet my knees are knocking each other.
“You owe me over R70 000. If you want me out... pay me my money and then I‘ll gladly go.”
“How much do you want? Huh? 70K?” she rages as the waiter comes to tell her to keep it down for the second time, or they’re throwing us out of Sasha’s.
“Pay me my money,” I say calmly.
“Okay. I am done with you. You know what. You think I stole your money, which you know is not true. So, I am going to give you R70 000 right now. I am transferring it right now. And then we are DONE.”
“No, we are not Nabs. We did a ton of collaborations in Cape Town and I know you believe in an upfront payment. So, pay me for .. the hotel, the two restaurants, and the two flatlays. Oh, and don’t forget the bikini collab. Pay me my 60% this time — and then we are done.”
Nabs hates losing. She hates it. Had I taken the 70K and gone, it would have gotten her off the hook. As she logs on her computer in haste to transfer the 50K to me, I glance over at her balance. The balance in her bank account is R267 981!
WHAT. Do you want to know what my bank account is after the Cape Town trip? R831, 62!
For now, I am her only real client. I have been her only steady income for the past two years. Our expenses are similar. In fact, she pays more rent than I do, and she pays for a car and insurance.
I should have let her calculate how much she owed me and not agreed on the spot to that R70 000.
“Listen. I just sent you all the emails from Cape Town. I owe you just R11 000. There’s the money. R81 000 should reflect in your account soon. Now go home, get your shit and get out before I get home.”
“Uh, sorry Nabs. There are still two outstanding invoices. You emailed me about it. You said Savoy PR hasn’t paid for the two videos yet. That’s another R2 000 or so.”
“You are disgusting Maariah. Look at you chasing money like you are entitled to it. I hope you know you are where you are because of me. When you’re a has-been on the internet you will think of me.”
I had to laugh a little at ‘has-been on the internet’. That’s clever. But I am not ready to become that. I have been knocked too many times in my life; I know what resilience means. If it means I have to start afresh, so be it. But I refuse to be bullied by Nabs, who is clearly in the wrong but is trying to deflect from her own mistakes. I’ve always been the peacemaker in my life, the one who puts out flames and never stokes them. This time I am lighting my own fire to fight back. I refuse to be a better person. I won’t be. Not this time.
“So, is all my money transferred?” I ask cheekily hoping to drive home a message that I was nowhere near defeated.
“Yes. I transferred all your stupid money! Now I don’t want to ever see you again”.
“This didn’t have to end like this, Nabs. All I asked for was what was due to me.”
“Listen. I haven’t got any time for this. When I get home at 8, everything must be out,” she says, and leaves in a huff, almost knocking over the guy that was sitting behind us.
The moment she left, all the adrenaline that had been keeping me going swiftly leaves my body. I start feeling ill. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe I should have just ended the working relationship and remained friends with her?
Was the money worth it? Now I don’t have a place to stay, again! But... Nabs stole from me. How do I stay friends let alone business partners with someone like this?
Simmi can’t help because I don’t want to put her in the middle of me and Nabs.
Imagine going back home to Nelspruit now? That can’t happen.
I have nine hours to pack my things, find a place to stay, and move out. This feels like my divorce all over again because I have no friends to help and moving back home is not an option. Well, on second thought... I do have Adil. I mean, I don’t really have Adil. He is nothing to me. But, I mean, I have him... I can ask him. At this point, I have nothing to lose.
I call Adil for the first time since I got back from Cape Town two days ago.
“Adil...” I say when he picks up the phone.
“Hey, how have you been?”
“I need your help urgently.”
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I will explain when you get here...”
“I can’t come immediately. I have a meeting at 1:30 with my contractor. What’s up?”
“Nabs and I had a huge fight. She is chucking me out.”
“Is that even legal?”
“Well, I don’t have a lease.”
“How are you so stupid not to have signed a lease with her!”
“Ads, now’s not the time. I just really need your help.”
“Okay, listen, let me call Ayesha. She may be able to come to help you with our helper.”
“I will appreciate that. I don’t know where to start.”
“Where are you Mar?”
“I am at Sasha’s.”
“Okay ... go to the delivery entrance and ask them for as many boxes as possible. Then get an Uber home. Ayesha will come as soon as she can, and I will be there by 2.”
“I am so sorry to trouble you.”
“Shut up, we will talk when I get there.”
I hang up and walk to the delivery entrance in a daze, thinking how the hell did I allow someone to pull the rug from under my feet again! You would think I learned my lesson from my divorce when I left with nothing, although I was the one who was cheated on.
The vibration of my phone ringing interrupt my self-pity.
“Hey babe. It’s Ayesha. Adil just called. He said you’re in a pickle and need help packing and moving out by the end of the day.”
“Hey. Yes please.”
“Okay, thankfully I am not office-bound today so I am going to get Percy and her husband Joseph. I am leaving home in ten minutes, I will be by you in about 20 to 30 minutes. Do you mind if I ask Sarah to come with?”
I do mind, but beggars can’t be choosers. Now’s not the time to be catty. Not when I am about to be homeless in under nine hours.
This is fiction
No, really. It is fiction. All characters are made up.