She was blackmailed into an arranged marriage. She was forced to move to a different country. All she could see was darkness but all he could see was her.
She never thought she would have an arranged marriage. She always thought she would fall in love and then marry someone she wanted to be with for the rest of her life. She thought she would have a choice. But that's not right. She did choose this after all, didn't she?
Her immediate family was successful. Her mother was a doctor, a practicing dermatologist. Her father was a successful businessman, running a consulting firm for IT companies in California. She went to college. She got her bachelor's in microbiology. She minored in anthropology. She went to graduate school. She got her master's in virology.
That's when they started talking. Who was going to marry her? She hadn't dated in a while. She wasn't sure if she even wanted to get married. She was still trying to figure out her life. But the clock was ticking and time doesn't wait for anyone. They started searching for an appropriate groom. She wasn't opposed to this. She knew they wouldn't make her marry someone she disliked. They were better than that. They were more American than that. So was she.
She went back to the home country to look at more grooms. Now, the process had gotten boring and tiring. Astrology wouldn't match, personalities would clash, families didn't like each other. There was always something wrong. Until he showed up.
He was the son of a prominent government lawyer who worked in the internal revenue department. He had an engineering degree; he worked as a mechanical engineer. He didn't make a lot of money. He wasn't particularly good-looking. Average. Skinny. Short. His eyebrows were too thick. But she noticed the look on his face as she entered the room. She knew that look. It usually spelled trouble.
He asked to speak with her alone. Both families exchanged glances but her parents were Americanized and so they allowed it. He was frank with her, much more than she had expected. He told her that he thought she was beautiful. And he was interested. He had this feeling. He knew. She scoffed at him. He hardly knew her. So he asked her out on a date.
She was growing bored of the country. She wanted to return to the US. Out of boredom, she accepted the date and the families were thrilled. And so they went out a couple of times. Nothing fancy, nothing scandalous. It was a very conservative country, after all. A dinner here, a movie there. He told her about his job. She found it dull and boring. He did most of the talking. She normally pretended to listen while sipping a Coke.
She was seriously contemplating just ending it when he told her. "I love you," he had said, "marry me." her eyes grew wide and unable to bear it, she ran away. She didn't speak to him for three days. On the fourth day, his father paid her a visit.
She was the only one home. It was normally not proper for a man to enter a house if there were no other men present but the lawyer didn't seem to mind. She let him in, wary and suspicious, but courteous all the same. He asked her if she was going to accept the offer and marry his son. She bit her lip but her silence told him everything. And that's when he told her a story.
A story of a poor farmer from the countryside who kept borrowing and borrowing money from the government. He was in debt, deep debt. He also had seven children to feed. She knew the story already. The poor farmer was her uncle. And the lawyer put forth her options, plain and simple: either she could marry his son and have her family's debt removed or she could go back to America with her master's degree and her uncle would lose the farm.
Was there really a choice?
She returned to America after convincing her family she really was in love with him to woefully say goodbye to her friends, her old life. They questioned her sanity, asked if everything was okay. She had thought it through. She smiled and said yes. She left America quickly, knowing that the longer she stayed, the more difficult it would be to leave.
She managed to convince him for a couple of months before their wedding that it really was him she wanted. And on their wedding day, he beamed at her with a happiness she had never before seen in her life. She didn't care. She had given up everything.
She refused to go to him that night. She said she was tired. It was the truth. The quick flash of confusion on his face didn't pass her notice but he smiled at her. He was tired too. She climbed into bed with him that night, biting her lip and wondering how in the world she was going to keep him away without him getting suspicious or angry.
She told him the next day. He asked her why she was being so cold and she told him that she hadn't changed. He said that he had accepted her unenthusiastic and unaffectionate behavior before, thinking it was a case of pre-wedding jitters. She didn't need to say anything, he understood. He told her he would go back to the government, back to their parents, and annul the marriage. Or divorce her. She shook her head and tells him to give her some time. He asked her why she did it, if her family forced her. She couldn't tell him the truth. So she told him she was keeping a promise to her parents. He asked her if she loved him. She didn't need to think. She just answered and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt at the hurt in his eyes. But it passed and he gathered control of himself. She reminded him that she was still his wife and she would continue to be. Who knew what could happen? He nodded and felt a rising sense of hope.
About a month and a half later, his company transferred him to another location. The pay was higher but only slightly. He dreaded telling her. He knew that the only people she regularly saw were her family. But the pay was higher. He told her this, told her they had to move by the end of the month. She looked at him for a while, and then nodded slowly. And without question, complaint or comment, went into her bedroom to start packing. He wondered if he should comfort her and went into her bedroom to see. She was busy folding clothes, her demeanor uncommonly calm. But he did not fail to notice her red and slightly puffy eyes the next morning.
Months passed and her feelings had not changed. She was miserable. Her fluency in their native language hadn't improved much. She was fluent but she was still very much an outsider. She found it difficult to make friends. There was a language barrier and an even bigger cultural barrier. She went for several interviews at the beginning with no results. She gave up. And so she stayed at home all day, on the Internet, watching movies and TV shows in English, listening to music, reading, cooking, doing needlework. She fell out of regular contact with her American friends. The time difference was too difficult to manage with.
He made friends. There were dinner parties and potlucks here and there and they would go. He always introduced her as his wife and the questions would start coming in. when were they going to have a baby? Where did they go for their honeymoon? Questions too painful to answer. They hardly spoke to each other. She hardly spoke to anyone, often pretending that she was tired and would go home early with her car. He would drive home later.
He grew tired of his loveless marriage. He became angry. Why did she marry him if she did not love him? What did she promise her parents? Did he not have a right to be loved? He asked her these questions and for the first time in seven months, they spoke to each other for more than ten minutes. She could not answer his questions; she knew he was right. But he couldn't know the truth. And so, she stood there and bore his insults, his anger, and his frustrations, his yelling. She said nothing; her face held nothing and he found his anger rise even more. This was the woman he had loved? How could it be? Before she could answer, he stormed off and shut himself up in his room. He never saw the tears that flowed from her eyes.
The next day, a Sunday, she saw him when he came down for breakfast. He ignored her, got a bowl of cereal and sat down with it and the newspaper. Their normal routine included this. She would normally eat her cereal in front of the TV. But that day, she stood before him, already having eaten, and looked down at the floor nervously. When he looked up at her, she said it. She told him that if he wanted a divorce, she would give him one. She told him she was sorry. And as she spoke, one tear fell down her cheek.
That was enough for him. Without a second thought, he set down the newspaper and stood in front of her. She said nothing. When a second tear escaped her eyes, he took her in an embrace. She had not had human contact in months, her life was miserable, she was miserable and so, she could not help but feel comforted with his arms, anyone's arms in fact, around her body. And with that feeling, she sobbed into his shoulder, repeating the words "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" over and over again because she did not know what else to say. He said nothing in response and tried to ignore the great tension in his heart. This was the first time he had ever held his wife. But she was crying. Still, he would take it. He would take anything. And so, he held onto her for as long as he could. Finally, she quieted down and, much to his displeasure, removed herself from his embrace. And he could not hold in the words: "I love you and I will love you forever. I never want to be apart from you." she looked at him strangely after he had spoken but nodded and left the room.
He received a promotion at work and he was making more money now. More money, in fact, to plan a short trip to America. And plan, they did. He had never seen her so excited. She packed for three days, often putting something in her suitcase one day only to remove it the next. She hummed while cooking. She wore brighter, happier colors. Her nails were frosty pink, not black or navy blue as they Usually were.
When she ran into her mother's arms--a mother whom she had not seen in almost a year--he swore that she seemed to glow with happiness. When her parents asked her how life had been treating her, he was surprise to hear her speak positively of their marriage. She sang his praise; she bragged about his work, she told them she loved their location. All lies. But all spoken to keep his honor, to keep him as a man who could make his wife happy. And his in-laws were extremely pleased. They were slightly saddened to hear that she did not work but she assured them that she was keeping busy, visiting friends, taking care of the house and pursuing her hobbies. That much was true. She showed them a picture of a painting she had done several months before. He had never seen it before. It was beautiful.
It was his first time in America so of course, they had to go sightseeing. His in-laws would take them to most places but she did most of the talking. He had never seen her so excited, so happy. He had always thought of her as quiet, passive and a bit emotionally mellow. But she wasn't. She was talkative, she was enthusiastic. She would often grab his arm and drag him to different places of a landmark tour to show him her special sites. She would tell him stories about her childhood. He tried to pay attention to what she was saying but it was difficult sometimes. He would simply watch her, stare at her and find himself loving her even more.
They went hiking on a trail near her house one morning. It was just the two of them; the in-laws were still working. The view was spectacular. She was so caught up in it, in the feeling of finally being home that she did not notice the root sticking up from the ground. She fell and cried out. He was kneeling by her side in an instant. He wasn't a doctor but he could tell her leg was sprained.
She was in pain, terrible pain. She tried to get up and walk on one foot but with the rough terrain of the trail, it proved to be too difficult. And that was when he did it. He bent down and, without even so much as a wince, picked her up. She opened her mouth to object but one look at his face silenced her protests before she could even voice them. His face was full of determination. She wrapped her arms around his neck and let him carry her about half a mile until they came upon a bench and cell phone reception. Setting her down carefully, he took his phone and called for help before wearily falling onto the bench himself.
Her leg was sprained and she was bed-ridden for the rest of the trip. The change he saw in her was remarkable. Gone were the excitement, the happiness, and the glow. It pained him deeply. So on their last night in the US, he put her in a wheelchair and took her to the top of a nearby hill that overlooked her hometown. She was overjoyed. She took in the sight. He put out a blanket and helped her sit down. As they gazed down upon the city lights, she turned to him and whispered, "thank you". He smiled at her and not one more word was exchanged between them the rest of the night.
They returned to the US, her a little happier than before. Her leg was still sprained and he offered to take additional days off of work to tend to her but she refused and told him she would be fine at home. And for a while, she was. She continued to busy herself as she had done before. But she was unable to go anywhere, unable to drive and so the loneliness began to grow, the walls began to close in around her and she found herself sinking further and further into sadness. He noticed it. It was now worse than it was before for, for three weeks, she had been reminded of how pleasant life could be. But what could he do? He could think of nothing. So he did exactly that.
But her condition continued to deteriorate. Even when she was able to move around again, she did not for lack of enthusiasm. She was still without work, without family, without her friends. She went in for several more interviews. But the cultural gap was big, still too big, and she always came back empty-handed. She even tried volunteering, working at non-profit organizations but many of them had language requirements. Though she was fluent in her native language, she could not speak nor write. He overheard her on the phone once. She sounded miserable and that sound drove a wench through his heart. He knew it was partly his fault. He had taken work here. The town they lived in was not large. It was conservative. There were very, very few foreigners. While the big cities had numerous American tourists and workers and the small villages had numerous American volunteers for charitable organizations, the smaller suburbs had very little. She was alone.
It wasn't for lack of trying. He saw her dress up once--she looked gorgeous in the native clothes--and, with a basket of fruit, went to the neighbors. She was only gone for about half an hour. When she came back, her spirits seemed low. The neighborhood women and her had not clicked. He asked her what had happened. She gave him a small smile and told him that the neighborhood women were talking of recent films, actors and actresses, cooking tips, other things she had little interest in. he knew she only watched western films. She cooked little. He advised her to get to know her native culture a bit more. But she gave him a hard look and told him that she knew things, she just didn't like them. And she refused to change her interests just to fit in with the neighborhood women.
She wasn't religious, either. This, he disagreed with entirely for he was a firm believer in God. But she was an atheist and she was not afraid to remind him of the fact whenever they went out to pray. She went with him to maintain a good image but she never prayed. She merely cupped her hands and bowed but he knew she was not thinking of God. She still celebrated religious holidays and festivals. It was her duty as a wife to a religious man. Her heart was never in it. But it did not bother him. Nothing about her could bother him. She was her own person. And he prayed enough for the both of them.
Work was keeping him more and more busy and he was going home later and later. One night, he did not come home at all. Instead, he spent the night in his office after finishing his project at 5 am. When he wandered into the house, still sleepy, the following evening, he found her sitting on the couch, a stony look on her face and her arms crossed. She asked him where he had been. He answered her truthfully. She cast him a suspicious look; he knew she did not believe him. Too weary to argue, he helped himself to the dinner she had cooked--rice and vegetables--and sat down at the table. She went inside. Later that night, he was on his laptop when she knocked on his door. He opened it and waited for her to say something. She looked down at her hands, fiddling with her thumbs, before looking up and meeting his eyes. And she asked him, a hint of fear in her voice, if he was in love with someone else. He couldn't help it: he laughed. The idea was so ridiculous. But she did not see the humor. She repeated the question. He denied it. Then, with a small voice, she asked if he was still in love with her. But before he could answer, she shook her head, told him that there was no need to answer that question and nearly ran back to her room.
He caught her staring at him from time to time. He could never understand why. But she did. And when he caught her, she would quickly turn away, blushing. He dared not dream that she was beginning to develop feelings for him. She couldn't. He was not the one for her. But her actions grew more and more curious.
One day, she approached him and asked if he could take her to a movie. It was an American movie, a political movie. He, of course, said yes. During the movie, he thought she would often avert her eyes from the screen and onto his face. But the theater was dark and it could have been his imagination.
A week later, he found her going through one the books for work. A bit amused, he asked her what she was doing. She told him she was just curious. That night, he explained the project he was working on. His team was designing a new, more energy-efficient engine for a space probe. The project was for the government. She nodded, understanding most (not all) of what he had said. She asked questions and they conversed late into the night. He was interesting to her now. He made engineering seem interesting.
They had another conversation two days later. She was reading an article about a scientific breakthrough in cancer research in a science magazine and he asked her about it. He could never understand biology. But she explained it to him. Before they knew it, the conversation had gone onto a completely different track: they were discussing women's rights. He challenged her beliefs in a way she did not think was possible; she had always thought her opinions were infallible. She got offended. He apologized. She accepted his apology but as she lied in bed that night, his words rang through her head. He had made her think.
He even made her laugh once. He had never heard a more beautiful sound. They had been watching a British movie and he tried to fake the accent. She burst out laughing and called his accent terrible. He challenged her. She failed, too.
There was a festival in a neighboring state one day and they went. A huge crowd had turned up, people dancing and jumping on the streets. They spoke a different language that he understood but she could not. He saw her face. She was uncomfortable. But he reassured her that he was there and, holding onto her hand, he led her through the celebrations. But something went wrong. People were pushing this way and that and somehow, he lost her hand. She disappeared. The crowd was getting rowdy. He called her name and frantically spun around, trying to get a glimpse of her but to no avail. For half an hour, he wandered the streets, panicked and imagining the gravest dangers happening to her. And when he finally saw her short, black hair and blue-green scarf, he sighed in relief and called her name once more. She turned quickly and he could see the change of expressions on her face as it went from complete, utmost fear into some intense form of relief. She ran to him and before he could do anything, threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. No one would help her, no one could understand her, she told him with a trembling voice. She clung to his arm tightly as they made their way back to the car. He was in a daze. She had hugged him. She had been so close to him. He did not listen to her stories of how frightened she had been but when she finally mentioned how glad she had been to finally see him, he perked up. But she fell silent as soon as his name passed from her lips.
When rumors began to spread throughout his company of a job opening in America, he knew that if it was true, he had to get it. He would do anything to take her back to the US, to see her happy and bright once more. Not to mention he liked the frosty pink nail polish that she never seemed to wear anymore. The rumors were proven to be true and he worked harder than ever before. When the boss called him aside and told him that he was among the three candidates for the US position, he was overjoyed.
He told her at dinner that night. Her fork dropped with a clatter and she stared at him. She asked him why he would want to move to America. He frowned at her. He thought she liked America? Of course she did, she replied. Then what was the problem? Nothing. He told her he would do whatever it took to get the job. But after a month of hard work and late nights, his body and mind was exhausted. When he did not get up for work one day, she ran into his room, worried, and woke him up. He felt dizzy, disorientated. Who was this angel before him? She called the doctor who told her that her husband had suffered from a nervous breakdown. Too much stress, too much work. She gently passed on the news to him as he lay in bed, sipping soup, and told him that he was not to work for the next week. He rejected the idea. He had to work; he had to get that job.
But she placed her hands on his shoulders and laid him down and told him words he will never forget: "Nothing is worth your health. Not even America." When he protested, she hushed him, took his head on her lap and ran her fingers through his hair. Sleep had never come so easily for him.
A week later, she finally heard from her uncle. The debt was finally cleared and she felt overjoyed. For the first time in almost a year and a half, she began to see a shimmer of hope. Could she leave him now? But the phone call from her uncle was immediately followed by a phone call from her father-in-law. He had heard about his son's ill health and wanted to visit.
Of course, he was overjoyed. But she dreaded the meeting. What was going to happen? What would he say? What if he asked why he had no grandchildren yet? What if he discovered that his son was in a loveless marriage and threatened to harm her uncle even more?
He came. He was polite. He was courteous. She could hardly make eye contact with him. But he seemed not to notice. Her husband did not notice either. The visit passed in a blur. On the last day, the father asked his son if he could speak privately with him. They met at a hotel. She was so anxious, she could hardly sit still. What was going on?
The father asked his son what was happening, why his wife was so negligent of him. The son told him nothing of their marital problems. And then, in a wave of anger came out foolishly blurted words: "and I warned her". The son caught those words and demanded his father explain himself. They were already married and he knew nothing could change it so he told his son the truth: "her uncle was in debt. I told her I could make it go away". The son felt a wave of shock wash over his body and he spoke disbelievingly: "you...you blackmailed her to marry me?" the father immediately realized his mistake and tried to cover it up. "It was a slight push, slight persuasion! She would have said yes anyway!" but his son was not listening. Without another word, his son stormed out of the room.
When she heard the front door and open and slam shut, she stood up, afraid of what would happen next. He entered the living room, on his face an expression so intense and wild that it terrified her. He took several tentative steps towards her and she swallowed, her eyes wide and fearful. What had her father-in-law told him? He took a long, deep and shuddering breath before speaking: "my father...forced you to marry me?" she felt a whoosh pass through her stomach and her breath caught in her throat. She did not know what to say. He spoke again, his voice trembling. "I know. He told me. Your uncle's debt. That's why you married Me." it was not a question so she kept quiet.
He paced in front of her, still evidently in shock. "I'm sorry..." she began to say but he silenced and interrupted her. "No, I'm the one who's sorry. I can't even...imagine..." but he trailed off. She let him pace in front of her silently for several minutes. Finally, he stopped and looked at her, unmistakable hurt and pain in his eyes. And he told her what she had wanted to hear for over a year:
"I can divorce you. I can convince my father to leave your uncle alone. You can go. You don't need to do this anymore."
She did not feel overjoyed at his words. She only felt a sudden emptiness, an overwhelming emptiness, at the thought of forever leaving him. And so, biting her lip, she told him the truth.
"I...I don't want to leave."
His expression was unreadable but the intensity of what he was feeling was clearly evident. He took a step closer to her. What? She repeated the words and added some new ones: "You're...you're my husband. And I don't want a divorce. But if that's what you want..." She could not look him in the eye.
Without a word, he closed the distance between them, took her face in his hands and asked her a question he never thought he would ask her: "Do you love me?" Her eyes widened but her silence was enough. His happiness was tremendous, something he had only felt in the days before his wedding. He gave her a small smile before leaning in and gently touching her cheek with his lips. He heard her sharp intake of breath. And with a quick motion of movement, she wrapped her arms around his neck and brought his face to hers as she kissed him.
Several months later, they moved again. Though his efforts had not been enough for America, it had been enough to leave the small town. This time, it was back to the original city in which they had gotten married. She was now, once again, and closer to her family. And though she still missed America (she had a feeling she would never stop missing it), she began to accept her life in her native country, began to fit in with the slightly more westernized culture of the big city. Finding a job in the city was easier. It wasn't much but it was something. Of course, what made her happiest was the fact that he was with her, would be with her forever. She never understood how she didn't see it before. Yes, he was skinny and short with thick eyebrows. But he had loved her and cared for her, even when she told him she could not love him back. He had tried to make her happy. They fought more these days, but that was only because they spoke to each other more. It didn't matter. She knew he would never leave her. And he knew she would never leave him.
She had given up America forever. She gave up the freedom to walk on the streets late at night, to shake hands with a man, to curse, to announce her atheism to the world. She gave up her American friends. But she had a job now. And she had him. And with him came something not better but just as likable as her old life. She made new friends. They were different from her old ones but they were friends nonetheless. She still had friendship. She still had her family. She still had love.