Susan stood on the bridge in the middle of the road, arms folded across her chest, shoulders hunched defensively, looking steadfastly out towards the ocean. The once sunny day was darkening as storm clouds began to amass on the horizon where she was looking. The wind was picking up and had whipped her red hair into a flame that flickered behind her head like a threatening halo.
“Can we go now, Jonathan,” she asked in a voice that, while plaintive, brooked no argument. It was not a question, but a command. All around us, throughout the village I could see people, my friends and family, looking at us and wondering what was happening. Their curiosity twisted my gut.
“We just got here, Susan. We’re supposed to be here for several days.”
“I don’t care. I am not staying in this place. It is filthy,” her beautiful patrician face twisted in disgust.
“I told you what it was like, love.”
“I thought you were joking. I couldn’t believe you would actually bring me to a place such as what you described.”
I scoffed, “Why would I joke about a thing like that? I wanted you to be prepared! I know it’s not the sort of place you normally go, but this is my home. These are my people.”
“This is not who you are anymore, Jonathan. You’ve bettered yourself.”
“Bettered myself?” My voice was rising incredulously. “There are no better people on the face of this planet than these. I am still one of them and will always be and there’s nothing you can do to change that. You can pretend it doesn’t exist, pretend that’s not who I am, pretend that I’m one of you, but I am not and never will be and don’t want to be.”
Expressions flickered across her face like ghosts, quickly suppressed so as not to disturb the stoic implacability of her class: fear, loathing, horror, pain. I loved her, god help me I did, and a part of me wanted to reach out and stroke her face and assure her that I would whisk her away to safety on the instant. It hurt to see her shoring up fragility with illusion. But on this I was not backing down. My father always said, “Pick your battles.” I was going to fight this battle to the death.
“No.” I interrupted her. She broke her distant gaze suddenly, looked at me startled. She started again.
“Please!” It was nearly a wail, and her masks began to waver.
“Susan, you would be horrified if I treated your family like this.”
“I would be horrified if my family were like this!” I suppressed a sudden urge to slap her.
“That’s a completely nonsensical statement and you know it. Look, whether you believe it or not, you don’t have anything to fear here, and you might actually find that you enjoy the people and the experience, if you let yourself, but that’s up to you. What you will do, though, is stay here with me and spend this time with my family, and even if it is a pretense, you will act like you enjoy it. You will treat them with courtesy and civility, just as you expect me to treat your family.”
“I will not, Jonathan. I cannot. I am leaving here, with or without you.”
“Okay, then. Good-bye.”
“What?” Her eyes flicked towards me again with the first stirrings of real fear.
“Good-bye, Susan. The airport’s that way.” I pointed up coast along the road she was standing on. Around us there was a smattering of laughter which caused Susan’s arms to drop to her side in outrage, her fists clenched. She had no way of knowing that laughter was a common expression of embarrassment here. Nobody understood what we were saying, though they could probably read the tension between us pretty well. They were just trying to defuse the situation.
“How dare they,” she growled.
“How dare you?”
“You will arrange transport for me.”
“I will not. Transport’s already gone and it won’t be back for several days. If you want to leave you can walk.”
“Jonathan.” She stamped her foot, her voice rising imperiously.
I turned my back to her and began walking away. “Good-bye, Susan.”
The villagers trailed after me asking questions all at once like a flock of parrots. Susan was left standing alone in the middle of the road, the once love of my life, though I was too angry to remember it right now.
“Jonathan!” she screamed behind me. But I ignored her and kept walking back to the hut as the first fat raindrops masked the tears that I couldn’t hold back. Somewhere nearby lightning seared the darkness briefly into light and thunder followed almost instantaneously rattling the bones of the living. Susan screamed wordlessly behind me and all of the villagers around me stopped and turned back towards her. I kept walking.
After a few steps I suddenly felt a small, familiar hand slide trembling into mine. I could hear her sniffling and hiccoughing as she sobbed like a child, but I refused to look at her. I didn’t move my hand, though, and gave hers a gentle squeeze. By now the rain was coming down in sheets. She gasped, suddenly, and I looked involuntarily, only to discover that on her right side Miriam had come along side and taken Susan’s hand in hers, smiling encouragingly up at her. From behind gentle hands reached out to straighten Susan’s hair which now lay plastered dripping across her face and to pat her comfortingly on the shoulders. She smiled shyly at Miriam and then turned to look at me.
“I’m sorry, Jonathan. I,” she looked at the ground at a loss for words. She took a deep breath. “You’re right. I’ve behaved abominably and I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
My heart swelled with love and pride and it took a moment for me to be able to speak as my throat was already full. She looked up at me beseechingly and her eyes widened in surprise.
“Why, Jonathan,” she wondered, reaching a hand up to touch my cheeks, “are you crying?”
I nodded wordlessly.
I shrugged, helplessly. “I love you.” She smiled and it seemed to dispel the gloom. I took her in my arms and there in the deluge we kissed as if for the first time.