Chapter 1: Chinese LanternsAnnabelle was only twenty-one years old when she first heard talk about marriage; her marriage, to be precise.
It was also the first time French-toast and strawberries made her wish she was eating lime tart instead. It would go better with the prognosis.
She was sitting out in the terrace enjoying an afternoon snack with her mother, Camille, who had lately taken the habit of turning the corner of her lips up in a futile attempt to seem cheerful; and her father, Riggo, whom would often lose his gaze into space as if something of much importance had been lost there -whatever “there” was.
That afternoon had not been any different until her mother brought up the subject of marriage, silencing everyone into a moment of complete awkwardness, from which neither Annabelle nor her father ever wanted to be awaken.
Ironically, it was also the moment Annabelle noticed fall had finally blossomed in their terrace.
And while the Chinese Lanterns had always seem beautiful to her, this time they looked devilish as if imposing on her, trying hard to convince her they were as harmless as they looked beautiful, when in fact they carried poison in their fruits.
Are they mocking me? She thought, and felt like yanking them all out!
Truth was, fall had never been a season of much peace for Annabelle, what with the start of the school year she always felt she was venturing into a new world from which she would surely come back as another person; now, whether that change was to be of improvement or not was the constant fear.
She often worried about disappointing her parents. Perhaps it was because they never seemed to agreed on anything concerning her education. They constantly argued about her future, although she had never heard them say anything about marriage until that day, but which kind of person she would turn out to be was the constant discussions between them, and Annabelle never really said no to any of their wishes so as to no provoke any more disagreements.
For her mother she was to study piano, and so she did. However, never really accomplishing much past one class; the teacher had said in an evident distaste for her student: “Atrocious, there is simply no ear for music.” As for her father, he had seen how much in love she was with books since a very young age and so he continuously pushed her to write, and encouraged her to read and learn from the masters; Hemingway, Wilde, Dostoevsky, Orwell… “Diversity, dear Anna. Diversity is the key to mastering your own style!” He would say dropping a stack of book on her lap. “Now, read. READ!” And she did read, and loved it. Literature was her truest passion.
Yet, there was one thing Annabelle had sworn to never do, and that was to marry. And she had both her parents to thank for that.
“I wonder if we can have red lilies as table decor instead of the usual wedding flowers.” Said Camille getting everyone’s attention once again; “they are such rare pretty flowers don’t you think?” Her question fell flat to the immense silence surrounding them.
After what felt like an eternity, Annabelle broke the silence and her voice was firm, but with the usual softness she carried when talking to her mother, as if not to brake her, “mother, I don’t plan on getting married any time soon. In fact…” she stopped before continuing, drew a deep breath, and spat out the words as if her life depended on it -and that wasn’t far from the truth, “I will never marry.”
Of course, Annabelle knew her mother would not be convinced with her gentle attmept at statings her feelings, and she pretended not to listen when Camille said -dismissing her own words-, “you will look gorgeous with a veil. I didn’t get to wear a veil for my wedding, but yours will be different. We can make it however you want it, I won’t let anyone pick for you.”
“Why don’t you start setting the example dear?” Cut in Riggo, and the three felt silent again, a usual event during any type of interactions where her parents were concerned.
Annabelle saw the hurt in her mother’s eyes, and any other time she would have jumped in her defense – she really disliked the way her father only had spiteful words to say to her mother, – but this time, her heart was not in the right place to take sides in their childish wars.This time, her future was in question like never before. Marry. Marry? What would happen to her if she did marry this young? She was not expecting it. After taking her first year in University she had learned what it was to be free. Free, the meaning of that word had been so unbelievable to her, it almost did not exist. And then she met Alain, and she had learned what it all meant. She had taste what it was like to make your own choices. Not to have someone looming over you, deciding your every move, telling you the color of the sky every time you opened your eyes.
No. She was not prepare to be married, and certainly not with someone other than him.
“Mother please? You have got to be joking!”
“No sweetheart, your mother is incapable of such amusement.”
“Riggo would you stop? You are not helping.” Begged Camille.
“Not helping you? No. I won’t help you make your daughter’s life miserable.”
Although her father seemed to agree with her -and in any situation this would have seemed like a victory, Annabelle was afraid this was turning to be something about them, between them, something they didn’t agree on once again, and not what it was. Her life.
“No she won’t dad! Because I’m just NOT getting married mother, simple as that.”
“Would you please just listen to me Annabelle? Is not what you think it is; is not like with your cousin Rachel, poor girl…” Camille shook her head slightly, she went on after a short sigh, “we are not going to marry you off to some stranger. Is Aaron Mellark. Remember Aaron?”
Annabelle moved forward on the table almost knocking the coffee over; she felt her stopped for a second, although she knew that was impossible; her hands started sweating, and her words were rushed when she managed to say:
“Aaron?? Aaron Mellark. Our cousin?”
“Your fifth cousin dear.” Corrected Camille.
“Oh thank you for making it clear, I was beginning to worry there for a minute. Now I can be calm, and rejoice in the thought that I could be the next Elizabeth Bennet. Every Mellark girl’s dream.” Perhaps she should have seen this coming, it was so evident. Although not necessarily with Aaron Mellark, but any other cousin would have been possible. Being in a family of traditions, in which every other generation someone was arranged in marriage to a far relative. Just as her parents had been, and what a mistake that was!
“Are you being sarcastic?” she asked, wondering if Annabelle had ever been this forward with her emotions, and realizing that she liked this side of her daughter much better.
Annabelle shrugged her mother’s question by taking a mouthful of her French-toast soaked in syrup, and to her surprise, it amazingly taste it of vinegar. Some wishes do come true, she thought.
“Answer me Anna.”
“What do you think Camille? Of course she is. Don’t you see you have taken her… taking us by surprise with this issue that was not supposed to come to light but for many years to go.
“Can we please let her live her life for now? There is plenty of time for her to marry Aaron later.”
Annabelle almost shocked on a strawberry. “Dad?!” she jumped on the chair; the fork fell to the floor, the French-toast socked in coffee spill.
Riggo let his head hang in shame, “honey I… I’m sorry.”
“I thought you were on my side dad?”
“Oh so that’s what we are doing now? We are picking sides? I suppose you -Riggo -are the good King, and Annabelle is the enchanted princess.
“Lucky me, I get to be the evil witch!”
No one said another word. While Camille kept her insecurities to herself, Annabelle thought as though something should have been said after such a cynical remark, instead she busied herself with her silhouette on the terrace floor.
Shadows were as deceitful as Chinese lanterns. In her opinion, they were nothing more than a fake image hanging to the real thing, trapped in its own world; just like her, pretending she was strong and capable of standing on her own against her family, but the truth was she wouldn’t dare raise the red flag on them, not even on this matter. Something had to change, she just wasn’t confident enough…
Abruptly she stood, and said: “I won’t be having dinner tonight.”
As Annabelle walked away, Camille felt herself shrinking in that terrace, among the Chinese lanterns that were so graciously watching her as she became less and less important to the world, as if suddenly she had no right to be in it.
If only she could make her understand that was the best choice considering all other matters?
“Evil witch? Really, Camille.” Laughed Riggo bringing her out of her thoughts.
“What is wrong with you Camille? How can you bring the subject of marriage so soon?”
Camille gave her husband a weak smile, she was well aware of his overbearing attitude where it concerned her, but still she did not blame him for it, she hadn’t always been the most honest wife. As miserable as he tried to make her, she could not bring herself to hate him for that. On the contrary, she often blamed herself for Riggo’s misery, and in an attempt to make him happy she hardly every opposed any of his decisions, she would smile and be in agreement, but this time something was different. She could not let him take control of this situation, this was about their future as a family, moreover, this was about their future as Mellark’s of Sunset Valley.
“Please Riggo, I wish you would support me this time. I really need your help in convincing Anna. Instead, you have turned this into a battlefield.”
“Excuse me? You mean to say, I should be in agreement of all this? Not anymore. I asked you to give more time, yet you stubbornly decided to complicate things more. Now it is too late.” He rested his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes with his hands in a frustrated gesture. “I swear, for the life of me… I can never trust you to do things right; at least not where it concerns our daughter.”
“You are being highly unfair Riggo. Yes, things didn’t go as I intended, and you know I never wanted this to happen…” Camille bit her lips not sure she had the same strength and resolution to go on anymore.
“You know what? That’s the problem. I don’t know what your intentions are.
“Damn it Camille!” Screamed Riggo, “I asked you to not do this now Camille. You have ruined, perhaps forever, any chances at happiness our family ever had.”
Camille looked right into her husband’s eyes, holding back tears. Her strength now completely gone; her heart a whole mess of mixed emotions. She wanted to say the words, she wanted to tell him she only wished the best for her family; for him, it was all for him. But somewhere in the middle of pretense and honesty, she doubted if it was really for him and not for her.
“Where are you going?” she asked fearful to lose yet another fight without even given an opportunity to make her feelings understood.
“I have to get away from you so that I may think clearly.”
“Riggo,” she started to say hurriedly, ” I wish the best for our daughter, for this family-”
“Do you really want our daughter to become like you? Marrying her off to someone she doesn’t love. Having to put up with hurtful words from him because his ego can’t let him accept the fact that his wife has never loved him!” He cut her off, asking softly at first, and gradually raising his voice like the volume of an old radio that needs tuning.
“Shut up! I don’t want to listen anymore.”
Camille watched as her husband walked away; just as her daughter, he was turning his back from her.
She remembered when it had started, that Riggo had become so spiteful towards her; and she tried to understand him… in the twenty-eight years of marriage they had shared together she always tried to understand her husband and place herself in his shoes. But never had she heard him speak such cruel words before.
“It isn’t me the one who does not love you; it is you Riggo, the one who does not love me.”