“I guess I’m not a sentimentalist, then,” he’d laughed, tilting his head so that the light caught the almost colorless brush of lashes lowered over his green eyes. “I don’t hold with calling it The Big Day. Frankly, I think the big day is the Monday after the whole shebang gets over with.”
And everyone had laughed, and given Miercolette the kinds of smiles that indicated that they were sure they knew she and Alfred were a done deal, only the i’s needing dotting, and the wax to cool on the seal. He hadn’t asked her, but so many of his friends had made noises to her that it was ‘only a matter of time.’ They were as good as married to his crowd, and to his parent’s, as well, she soon found, as the invitation for a family vacation arrived a day later.
“Italy?” The intake of her breath had been only slightly louder than the pounding of her heart at finding an envelope in the post from his mother. “She wants me to go with you to Italy?”
“It’s our usual Spring jaunt,” Alfred had shrugged. “Mother likes to have a whole passel of folk along. Makes traveling with people less tedious, you know? Get sick of talking to someone, there’s always someone else.” He smiled, added, with his devastatingly dry wit, “There’s always someone else not related to you, at any rate. I think Mother tired of talking to us years ago.”
“Your mother wants me to go… what about your father?” Miercolette asked in a small voice.
Alfred shook his head. “Don’t worry about him. Don’t worry about any of them,” he said seriously, his ebullience for once subdued. “I mean that. Just — worry about me.” And then he’d grinned.
So Miercolette had found herself on a European vacation with a boy she sometimes felt she barely knew; dressing for a six course dinner every night, playing cultured games of Trivial Pursuit she felt were intended to ferret out just how smart she was not, and fending off questions from a group of well-moneyed, laconic, witty friends of his family’s. She was out of her depth with the heads of corporations and their trophy second wives and precious, precocious and perfectly attired toddlers. When the ‘young people’ were left to their evening’s entertainments, it was even worse; Alfred was good at the lightweight chat and socializing, but the longer it went on, the less Miercolette felt she had to say. Feeling naked and imbalanced, she started ducking and blushing and mumbling like an eleven year old. By the time they toured the underground monasteries, she was sick of herself and of the whole charade. Alfred would do well to look elsewhere for someone to marry — someone who could speak in complete sentences, for one thing.
There were all kinds of people in the tour groups passing by, and after a particularly embarrassing period of stammering silence between herself and a friend of Alfred’s father who was horrified to have already forgotten her name, Miercolette faded behind the crowd and slipped down a corridor. She found herself inside of a vaulted room, empty but for an altar table and some chairs. She more collapsed than sat, resting her hand on her head, trying hard to push away a pounding headache.
Mostly it’s all in your head, she told herself, fighting back the stinging in her eyes. It’s what you think you know about them that’s killing you, not what you really know. None of them has said anything awful to you, Mier, you just think they do. Alfie’s the only one who matters, right?
But another stern talk with herself wasn’t working. She felt panicked, like a bug in a jar, gasping away all the air, and angry because of it. Not with Alfie — he wasn’t putting her on display because she was exotic or odd — but with the voices in her head, she couldn’t be sure. “Is he maybe gay?” Anne had asked just the week before. “I mean, a year Colette, Lord. He’s been a perfect gentleman for a year?” And now this vacation, and her own self-doubt was overwhelming. He just wanted everyone to know her, that was why he introduced her to so many people, and sat her with a different group for dinner every night. He’d explained all that, and when he said the words, she could believe them. It was just when he wasn’t right there, saying them over and over again….
It was late in the game now, really late. She and Alfred had been seeing each other for almost a year, and now she’d met his parents. He must be serious, even if he hadn’t said so, unless he was gay…? But no… he wouldn’t have reason to lie like that, not to her. It seemed that this week was crucial to the both of them. She had to determine whether to go forward or back with this thing — to take the next step it seemed everyone was expecting her to take, or to go her own way. It would be so much easier if I knew what Alfred expected, she thought. He alone seemed completely ambivalent, as if he expected… nothing. Which was terrifying, in itself. She thought of Anne’s concerned, freckled face.
Be prepared. Make a choice. Be prepared. Make a choice. Make a choice... Miercolette practiced just breathing for awhile, until she heard shuffling footsteps. She swallowed hard and glanced up, expecting the tour group to have discovered her, and was relieved to see it was only a group of women in sweatshirts and jeans, entering from the other side of the cavern. They poured into the room, marveling in low voices at its size and at the echo of their voices. One raised a hand and sang a note in a pure contralto, and they stood in silence as the hushed reverberations of the note died away.
Miercolette found she was holding her breath as another woman sang, a song with words this time, but none that she could understand. It was a kind of round with one woman repeating a line of melody then abandoning it, while another took it up. The harmonics raised the hair of Miercolette’s arms, and she closed her eyes as the sound relaxed her mind, then her body. It took a moment for her to realize that someone’s hand lay lightly on her shoulder.
She opened her eyes with a slight frown.
“Miercolette,” Alfred repreated. “Are you …all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, feeling the same clutch in her stomach that she always did when she looked into his eyes. “I just wanted to listen.”
Alfred glanced over at the group and smiled. “Yeah, they’re great, aren’t they? We have about an hour before their concert begins. There’s a tea shop if you want to have a bite.”
“Oh, sure,” she said, standing quickly, glancing at the women in the middle of the cavern, reluctant to leave. “I shouldn’t interrupt their rehearsal, anyway.”
“You’ll hear that song again,” Alfred reassured her, touching her shoulder. “It’s one of their most famous. They sing most of their old music in Latin, for effect.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a prayer,” Alfred said. “It’s says something like ‘God help me.’ Seems like it has a lot more words than that, though.”
Miercolette smiled automatically, then genuinely. “A lot more words than that,” she agreed. “It probably also says ‘now,’ and ‘please’ as sort of an afterthought.”
Alfred laughed, a single bark. “A whole lot of please,” he said. “As in, ‘Please don’t let my mother scare off my girlfriend. Please don’t let me make an ass of myself. Please let me keep my miracle.”
Miercolette could feel her face going slack. “… Alfred,” she said, feeling lightheaded.
He shrugged ruefully, hands shoved in his pockets. “Well, it’s what I’ve been thinking. I’ve been wondering if this was going to be the beginning or the end.”
Miercolette shook her head, unable to trust her voice not to break. “Alfred,” she began desperately.
“No pressure, Miercole,” Alfred said, and touched her shoulder lightly again. “No pressure.”
And Miercolette’s heart sank. For just a moment she had seen beyond the surface, for a moment Alfred had been about to say something, to let them get beyond pleasantries and euphemisms, and just that quickly, he had retreated. ‘No pressure’ could mean too many different things.
They were within sight of the rest of the group, and in a moment were surrounded and swept toward the tea tables. Miercolette paused as if reading the menu, gathering herself for a moment, her stomach fluttering. “Miercole,” he called her. Miracle. She glanced up at him, smiling and sure, surrounded by his friends. Why was she hesitating? Surely there really was no other choice to be made?
He was looking over his shoulder for her. She chewed the corner of her mouth, took a step — and…
The inspiration for this bit of story comes from Should I Stay or Should I Go On, which comes from ilgattoelavolpe‘s photo stream. Published 9/17, just posted now because I forgot to previously… There are more stories — or there will be — from the usual suspects. Stay tuned.