Warning: Racism, language.
Hab Dich Lieb
"Oh, look, it's Mr. and Mrs. Hitler."
"Hey, shut it!" I am so furious; I can barely keep my anger in check. Beside me, I know Mike has stiffened. If I am this worked up, I can't even begin to imagine his anger right now. It feels almost tangible. If I could, I would take it from the air and strangle Ron with it like a scarf.
It's amazing how much hate there can be in a small town like this. If hate were matter, they probably would've run out of space eons ago. It is things like these – heading to the grocer's to buy something for dinner and running into racist insults – that remind me of why I left in the first place.
"Fuck off, Nazis!" Ron is still laughing uproariously, like racism is a joke. I wonder how much of a joke he'll think it is when I punch him in his impertinent nose. I'm pretty sure the diamond on my left finger will make a pretty big indent in his face. I'm about to take a swing, but Mike grabs my fist and pulls me down the street. I am slightly mollified by the fact that he sort of body-checks Ron out of the way as he does so, making the other stumble to the side.
I wait until the white noise has faded out of earshot. "Why did you stop me?" I snap then, venting my anger on the most inappropriate person possible. If anything, Mike should be the one punching Ron in the nose. But he never does anything that serves him no purpose, and sometimes I hate that practicality of his. This is one of those times.
He's much calmer than I am, and even manages to open the door for me when we reach the grocer's. He clips out a few staccato words, one of which is "scheißegal" – a word that I have learnt is usually used in the capacity of an assertion such as not giving a crap. Well, I'm glad that one of us at least is so indifferent about this.
The grocer hasn't changed in the five years that I've been gone. The look he gives me when we walk in, however, has. His eyes barely flicker to my side, but I know he has heard all the rumors. Another downside to small-town life. Mike doesn't even hesitate before he walks right up and asks for some onions and carrots. His accent is incredibly obvious and I want to cringe at the look old Sherman is giving him. For a moment I'm afraid things might get ugly, but Sherman has never been the confrontational type. He does, however, direct the price towards me instead of speaking to – God forbid – the European. Mike simply shrugs and puts the money on the counter. Then he takes the bag of vegetables and walks out of the shop without another word. I can tell he's frustrated. I am, too, and I'm not even the one they're against – not really.
"That was rude," I say to old Sherman.
He gives me the look that he reserves for foreigners, "Run along now, girl." Gone are the days when he calls me "pixie" and hands me a free lolly, I suppose.
Mike and I arrived at Huntonsville yesterday, and I'm still not quite sure who was more horrified – my parents by the fact that I am marrying a European, or me by the horrendous treatment we have been getting from the townspeople. There's the unspoken sentiment that I should've known better than to bring an outsider with me, or marry one, or even skip out of town five years ago in the first place. Huntonsville has always been content in its isolation from the rest of the country, and the townspeople have always had an unreasonable something against foreigners, but frankly, I am disappointed by the behavior of the people I grew up around. They don't understand why I found the need to leave back then, and from the way they're acting now, they never will.
We've been here a day and I am itching to leave again. I tell Mike so, but he insists that we stay the full week that we were planning to. Maybe it's just his male pride talking, or maybe he really is serious about trying to establish good rapport with my parents. I could've told him not to bother if it's the latter; no matter what he does, my parents are always going to be prejudiced against him. It's probably not even their fault – they've just never been out of this town, never been exposed to anything other than this small-town life. They must think of me as the black sheep of the family. Over the past day I've caught my mother looking at me out of the corner of her eye in bewilderment, as if she suspects me of being an alien disguised as her daughter.
It took me all of five minutes upon arriving to realize one thing – I don't belong here. Not any more than Mike does.
I can still remember my parents' reactions to Mike. They'd stared warily the moment I arrived out of the blue with a boy they didn't recognize, stares which had morphed into frowns when I'd introduced him by name – "Mum, Dad, this is Mikael Fleischer," I'd said, knowing what would immediately jump into their minds. Fleischer is a German name. That pegs him as an outsider, but at least he's still Caucasian. It was only when he opened his mouth and said, "I'm your daughter's fiancé," in a clear German accent that the camel's back was broken. Not only is he a foreigner in town, he's also one in the country. And their daughter is marrying him. My parents' forbidding expressions said it all.
If Mike was puzzled by the civilized yet stilted reception he got from my parents, he wasn't for long. It's hard to be kept in the dark when the townspeople are shoving their prejudice in your face every five seconds. To say that I am ashamed of my hometown and the people living in it would be a gross understatement.
This feeling of shame rises up in me again when we get back from the grocer's and I stupidly tell my mum we ran into Ron on our way there.
"Ronald Finn?" My mother says, smiling for the first time since my return. "I remember the two of you used to be thick as thieves when you were younger." She casts me a look too quick to decipher, but I pick out the underlying note of censure in her tone. "He's grown up to be such a dear, sweet boy."
Mike gives a little cough and I almost choke on my spit. "Are we even talking about the same person?" I demand, before I can think better of it.
The censure in my mother's eyes shines a little brighter this time. Her gaze moves to Mike and I can practically see her labeling him as the instigator of my dislike for Ron. I want to shout out the truth and make her see some sense, but I can't. Because she's just like Ron, just in a less provocative way. They're all… just like him.
"Sometimes I feel like I don't even know you anymore, Lila," she sighs, as if this is all my fault. I clench my teeth in an effort to bite the words back. There is a light touch on the small of my back and I know this is Mike's subtle show of support. My mother has noticed too, and she's looking at Mike's arm like it is a poisonous snake.
"May I help you prepare for dinner?" Mike asks, a little too politely, if you ask me. I admire his self control when my mother visibly recoils from him. I, on the other hand, simply can't believe my eyes. I can't believe my own mother is shrinking away from my fiancé in the way a rape victim would shrink away from her attacker.
"No, that's fine, really," she says, suddenly formal, and takes another step back. "You're a guest here."
I see a tick in his jaw and I know that Mike is pissed. Still, he manages to nod congenially and say, "Thank you for putting up with us, ma'am." Then he turns and walks up the stairs, his footsteps echoing throughout the room. I watch his awkward gait and feel the pressure in my eyes.
"What has he ever done to you?" I whisper. I am so angry that I'm almost crying. I'm angry at my mother, angry at the townspeople, but most of all angry at myself for coming back and subjecting the man I love to such unwarranted treatment.
"Lila," my mother sighs again. "I just wish…"
But I don't know what she wishes, because right then I turn and walk away. And I remember that day five years ago when I turned and walked away and never looked back.
I dated Ron Finn back in high school.
It is perhaps not the nicest thing to say, but I must admit I got bored of him within the week. He was just too… common. Ordinary. Too much like the rest of the boys in town, close-minded and arrogant. I was seventeen and I wanted new and exciting. Still, I stuck with him because breaking up with him would entail having to endure the adults' disapproving stares for the rest of the year. For some reason, the adults all thought we made the cutest couple ever.
The day I left was the day I graduated from high school. It was also the day I had the biggest fight with my parents over Ron. Because earlier that day Ron proposed to me… and I rejected him.
In my own defense, I'd never done anything to lead him on. Other than, well, not breaking up with him when I should have. But he'd known I wasn't satisfied with our relationship. He knew I wanted more. He knew I wanted to get out and see the world. And yet he'd still presented me with that ring anyway.
Apparently, it was a family heirloom his father had handed to him the night before graduation, and all he was doing was fulfilling his parents' wishes. Our parents' wishes. I'd pushed the ring away and run the whole way home, only to be greet with a huge "Happy Engagement" banner hanging over the front door. They'd all taken my response for granted.
My parents and I got into a bitter argument.
I was eighteen, I still had the rest of my life ahead of me; I didn't want to get married yet.
But my parents had gotten married straight out of high school as well. It was just the natural thing to do in this town.
Well, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life stuck in this town and stuck with someone like Ron. I wanted more out of life!
I needed to get those naïve ambitions out of my head, because this was my life whether I wanted it or not.
What were they going to do, force me into marriage? I was legally an adult; I could make my own decisions.
Apparently not, because all I'd been doing my whole life was to make mistake after mistake. What had they done to deserve a daughter like me?
I left that very night.
I never realized until later that they all thought I was dead. It was only three years later, when Mike had managed to persuade me to get in touch with my parents again, that I phoned my mother and heard her scream like I'd risen from the bottom of the lake where I was supposed to have been buried.
At that time, I was a little more preoccupied with the idea that I actually had my very own gravestone lying in the town cemetery to be concerned with how much they must have worried about me.
If it hadn't been for Mike, I would never have thought of calling. My current relationship with my parents – the fact that it even exists – is the result of an irony they will never grasp. But I'm not too grateful for that, because I know it was Mike's way of fixing me. He can never leave the past well enough alone.
This thought angers me just as I walk into the room and see Mike smoking, his face braving the cold air as he blows smoke out the window.
"It's freezing," I say. The tip of his nose is red from the cold.
He shrugs. "So?"
"You only smoke when you're miserable."
Like all males, he takes offense at this. "I am not miserable."
"Yes, you are," I say, a little accusingly. "I wish we never came. Everyone hates us."
"They don't hate you," he corrects.
I almost laugh at his ridiculousness. "Where have you been? Living under a rock for the past two days?"
His gaze sharpens, as if he knows this is going to escalate into a fight. He puts out his cigarette on the windowsill and sits up straighter, like he's welcoming it.
Funny how he'll walk away from every other argument except for the one with me.
"They don't hate you," he repeats.
I find this repetition incredibly annoying. "Yes, they do!" I shout at him, as all that pent-up aggression hits its boiling point. "And you know why?" I don't give him a chance to answer. I'm pretty sure he knows it's a rhetorical question anyway. "It's because I brought you here! I brought an outsider into the inner circle! I should never have done that. You don't belong here."
"And you do, evidently, very much," his accent is now thicker than usual. He is glaring at me. If I were water, I'd evaporate from force of that stare alone.
My tongue suddenly feels clammy. "I'm not doing this," I mutter, turning to leave.
"That's right, run," he says, forcefully. "That's the only thing you're good at."
I feel my heart still. That was a cheap shot.
I hear the screech of the chair legs against the hardwood floor and know that he has stood up. "You can blame this all on me," he stops beside me, "but you know that nothing, not even me, could've made you come back if you really didn't want to."
I press my lips together. This is his fault. I only came back because he persuaded me to, and now he's turning the blame on me.
"Think about it," he advises, and leaves the room.
I hate it when he's being so fucking patronizing.
Someone once told me, when the living pisses you off, you should seek solace in the dead. I'd always thought that was crappy advice. That thought doesn't stop me from doing just that now, though.
I try to find my own gravestone. It's an odd feeling, searching for your own grave. It makes me want to lock myself in a dark, dark room and delve into the intricacies of the thin line between life and death. What happens when someone goes missing and you never find the body? Does constructing an empty grave make them any less alive in your mind?
I don't find my grave, but I do find the last person I would prefer to see at the moment.
Ron straightens up from the grave he was bent over from. He looks around for someone to insult, and, failing to find Mike, says, "Where's your…?" He grimaces in place of the last word.
"What's it to you?" I glare at him.
He smirks. "Trouble in paradise?"
I am deliberately obtuse. "This place could hardly be called paradise."
Ron narrows his eyes. "You should never have come back."
That, I can agree with.
When I say nothing, he continues on. "We'd all have been happier thinking you were dead, than being sullied by that–" and then he says a vulgar, local word solely used for referring to foreigners.
Then I do what I have been wanting to all day. I slug him right in the nose.
Nothing as dramatic as blood spurting occurs, but Ron does let out a satisfying howl and grab at his nose with both hands. I just stand there, massaging my knuckles absently and basking in this glorious moment.
He glares at me, one hand still on his nose. It doesn't look broken – I admit, punching people hard enough to break their noses isn't exactly my forte – so I don't know what he's whining about, really.
Physical wounds heal quickly, after all.
"You've changed," Ron says. His voice hasn't yet lost its hard edge, but now with a tinge of fear mixed in. Poor Ron. He never has been good at dealing with prey that suddenly learns to strike back.
"And you haven't," I reply, but it's more of a factual statement than a retort.
"What are you doing here?" he asks, sounding braver now that I seem to have lost interest in committing more violent acts.
I look around the cemetery, at the headstones littering the ground. Maybe my name is on one of these headstones – anonymous, hidden among all the rest. And – maybe – that would be fitting. Maybe some things are meant to be left dead and buried.
"Don't worry," I scoff, "I'm just leaving. There's really nothing here anyway." I say this last sentence pointedly.
Looking at the irate expression slowly blossoming across his face, I laugh. "And for what it's worth," I add, already starting to turn, "I hope you have a nice life."
As I leave, this time – it feels surprisingly good.
I'm sitting on the hood of the car when Mike comes back. He is on his way to the front door when he catches sight of me. He gives me a half-smile, and I know our argument from before has done no lasting damage. He walks over. "What are you doing?"
"We," I emphasize, "we're leaving."
He looks like he's been expecting this. "Running away again?"
"No," I say, "I'm not running away. I'm leaving, for good."
I take a deep breath. "You're right. I wanted to come back. Call it curiosity, whatever. Maybe I just wanted to reassure myself that leaving was the right thing to do. And now that I'm back, it's so obvious. I'm a better person when I'm not here. I'm not running away this time. I'm making a conscious choice to end this chapter of my life. This was my home for eighteen years, but it's not anymore. There's nothing left for me here." And I know I'm right. If my own parents can't even pretend to be happy about my impending marriage, I'm not sure that I want them there at all.
Mike stares at me for a long moment. I think, in a way, this is what he was aiming for when he first persuaded me to pick up that phone and dial my parents' number. Closure.
Now he lifts his face up to the sky and exhales loudly. "Thank God," he breathes. "This place is driving me crazy."
A/N: Hi, so I went back and edited this story. Major changes are in the second-last scene, because I felt that it was too short the first time round. So... hope you liked that.
Also, for first-time readers - "hab dich lieb" is basically a platonic "I love you" in German; I think some dictionaries translate it as "I am fond of you" (not a direct translation, note).
This piece was written as a response (or more like a venting outlet) to being called a Nazi some time last year for absolutely no reason. Such things sicken me.
Well, please review. :) No flames, though.