Emma stared moodily out of her bedroom window into the darkness beyond. Her squared shoulders expressed the tension tightening every muscle in her body and then some. She focused on the sick sensation emanating from the pit of her stomach and swallowed hard in rapid succession to push back the streams of bitterness rising from within.
How had this happened? Her future had seemed to be so certain. And now? What lay ahead now, she asked her unsmiling reflection in the window. Did she really hold the key to all that?
“Who will you be in the next twenty-four hours?” Jonathan had asked her earlier in the evening. Emma could still hear his strained voice and see the searching look in his dark brown eyes.
Her own eyes now pricked with the tears she had been determined not to shed at the time, especially when Jonathan had reached out to stroke the ends of her glossy dark hair. He often did that when words failed him or when he seemed to wish to reassure himself that she was there; that she was real. Emma lifted her hand and tentatively twisted her hair around her fingers, feeling as Jonathan would have, the soft and springy strands. Jonathan had always admired her hair.
Always? How long is ‘always’?
Emma and Jonathan had moved within the same circle of friends ever since the first week of their arrival at university six years earlier. She had been so cowed by their orientation week activities; so frightened by the way some senior students shouted at them; so fearful of getting lost during the compulsory large gatherings of first years – especially at night. Once Jonathan had befriended her he had continued to look after her without ever making a big deal of it.
Even so, they had only become a readily identifiable couple during the last two years while both were putting in long hours as they worked on their respective Masters theses: she in South African literature, while Jonathan spent weeks at a time wading through rivers assessing the health of riverine ecology.
His field trips took him away a lot and always on his return they had taken pleasure in each other’s company. They had spurred each other on; read pages of notes to each other; had allowed each other the time and space to work undisturbed when words flowed onto their respective computer screens.
Jonathan’s progress had been hampered by a series of unexpected floods within his study area and when he had reluctantly admitted that he would require another year in which to finalise everything, Emma had readily taken up a part-time tutoring post in the English Department. He attended her graduation and took her out to dinner afterwards: just the two of them in a discreet corner of an expensive restaurant. She had been aglow with a sense of well-being and reached across the table to hold Jonathan’s hand. He made her feel so good. In spite of his set-back, life was treating her so well. Although there had been talk of her embarking on her PhD, she felt it could wait for a while.
The euphoria of her success evaporated when Jonathan squeezed her hand in return, leaned forward and asked gently, “What will you do now?” What would she do? The thought had never worried her because they had always made plans together. They had always planned to do things together; to be in the same place.
“Well,” she started slowly. “I am pretty sure I don’t want to do anything taxingly academic for a while.” She moved her wine glass around the damp spot it had made on the white tablecloth. “My Dad thinks I ought to find a teaching job – he’s worried about me earning a decent salary, I suppose.” They had looked at each other then and smiled in the knowledge of their togetherness that had kept all external threats at bay. Then Emma had shifted a little uncomfortably on her seat, refilled her wine glass and looked past Jonathan’s ear as she at last confessed to a long-suppressed desire. “When this tutoring contract is over I might travel a little to clear my head and –“
“With who?” The sharp edge to Jonathan’s voice was not lost on Emma.
“No-one in particular.” She had shrugged her shoulders and played with her wine glass, conscious that Jonathan had withdrawn his hand and was staring at her in an uncomfortable way. “Just travel. To get away a bit, you know.” She had looked at his sulk-infused face with a growing sense of disappointment. “Well, you’ll still be busy and I want to see something of the world before I look for what my Dad calls a ‘real’ job.”
Jonathan’s hug at the end of the evening had remained with her like a wet shawl. His kiss had been business-like and he had disappeared into the inky darkness instead of staying over as she had expected. Afterwards he had holed up in his lab for days at a time. She felt spurned; tossed aside; unappreciated.
“I’m working to a deadline, remember.” He would respond tiredly in answer to a suggestion that they go out for a pizza; that a short walk together would do him good; or to rebuff her suggestion of bringing his favourite take-away coffee to the bench in the tiny garden three floors below the lab where he worked.
And then the telephone had woken her before sunrise. She automatically felt the empty space next to her, registering with a heavy sadness that Jonathan had stayed away yet again. It was as if he was punishing her for having any plans that did not include him.
“Mike!” She pressed her cell phone close to her ear and listened to his cheerful voice barrel through the crackly connection as he enthusiastically described the sunrise in the Okavango Swamps. Emma listened sleepily to his congratulations on her Masters. “How did you know I’d finished?” she asked in awe.
“Africa is a continent criss-crossed with paths and bound together with an efficient bush telegraph.”
That familiar easy laughter and his cheerful voice recalled vivid images of a dear, undemanding friend, hovering comfortably on the fringes of her usual social circle and always willing to take her away or spend an evening with her whenever she felt down. They had regularly jogged together and Mike had introduced her to the joys of bird watching during Jonathan’s frequent long absences.
“With your Masters behind you, what will you do now?” The question carried a serious note.
That familiar lump of uncertainty dropped into Emma’s stomach without warning. “Have you a suggestion?” she asked lightly. When last had she spoken so teasingly to anyone?
“Join me,” Mike said simply. “I’ll be here for another six weeks at least. Bring your camera.”
It was a while later that the full impact of Mike’s words and her own positive response hit her. Emma phoned Jonathan straight away. “Deadlines cannot loom so large and so menacingly that you cannot even make time to share my bed Jonathan!” That is not what she had meant to say.
He was understandably taken aback. Emma was tired of hearing his mumbled, terse excuses about deadlines. “Dinner tonight at The Blue Gander. I’ll expect you at seven.” That is not how she had meant to throw down the gauntlet. She was already testing him without meaning to.
Jonathan had come. He had even dressed up smartly the way he used to whenever they went out on a special date. Emma noted the bruised smudges of weariness under his eyes that had sunken into the pasty pallor of his skin. She felt the tingle of his fingers touching hers and her heart ached. The words she had rehearsed all day remained locked in her brain.
In an effort to dislodge them, she asked playfully, “When you’re done, what do you plan to do?” Whatever it was, they had always planned to be together. Her cheerful smile froze at the sparkle of enthusiasm in his eyes and the unexpected lightness in his voice.
“Dr Telman has already suggested I join his team investigating the beaches – what he calls the ‘secret beaches’ that have remained relatively unspoiled. Of course it’ll mean weeks away at a time, but I have always wanted to explore our coastline.”
“Sounds good.” She gulped her wine, feeling the combined warmth and fuzziness shoot through her lungs, her heart, her brain and down to the numbness in her fingertips. “I imagine you’ll get a PhD out of it.”
“That’s the intention.” Jonathan’s face was aglow with happiness and a hint of excitement.
That was when he had reached for her hair for the first time in weeks. That was when she knew that he assumed that she would wait for him; that she would put her future on hold while he pursued his dreams. That was when she had pulled his fingers away gently and looked at him directly, willing back the tears that pricked at the corners of her eyes and wishing away the hot flush colouring her cheeks. That was the moment that she knew she had made the right decision.
“I’m going to Botswana, Jonathan.”
“Next week.” She tried to keep her voice neutral for she couldn’t bring herself to tell him about Mike and her decision, strengthened by his reaction, to stay on for as long as she and Mike enjoyed each other’s company.
He was shocked. Emma could tell that Jonathan had never expected her to leave him. She knew he hadn’t by the tightness of his voice and the searching look in his dark eyes.
“Who will you be in the next twenty four hours?” he had asked. ‘Who’, not ‘where’, not ‘who with’. She had shaken her head sadly, unable to respond.
Soon after, he had opened the car door for her and given her a mock salute as a farewell. No kiss. Had their years together really come to this?
Now Emma stared fiercely at her reflection in the darkened window as her tears flowed freely at last. Her hands had stopped shaking now that she had rerun the events of the evening over and over until there was no doubt in her mind that she was doing the right thing. “Well Jonathan Butler,” she addressed the dark outside. “I shall be a free woman, an adventurer, and one who might just fall in love with someone who really cares for her.”
Deep down, she knew that Mike had always cared for her.
She closed the curtains.