The Strike (Part II)
She felt like snapping the laptop shut. He always took to insults when he couldn’t reason his way out of an argument. When she didn’t answer he looked apologetic and spoke more softly: “So this strike tomorrow — today — in the morning, for you, whenever, are there gonna be protests and stuff? Marches, barricades, sit-ins? All that stuff we hear about Greece ‘n’ France ‘n’ places?”
“Sure are! We’re all having a sit-in in the university here first thing in the morning. Which reminds me I must get some sleep soon! And then we’re going on the big march — la gran manifestación — later on.
“No way! You godda be kidding!”
“Yes way! It’s gonna be awesome! I’ve never done anything like this before. When we were doing up banners yesterday, I really felt like I was part of something. A lot of the gang are involved in the 15M movement. Today, is gonna be a totally new experience for me. And like the gang say, every single person out protesting tomorrow is a voice the government can’t afford to ignore.”
“I just cannot believe this!” He shook his head wildly. Ruth noticed that his hair stayed perfectly in place. “You’re not going on any march tomorrow or any of that crap! No way, hon. Are you crazy? You’re on a visa over there. If you’re arrested, you can be deported. Or imagine if you come back home with a criminal record. You’re marked for life!”
“Fuck James. You so much have turned into the real little Republican in the last few months. What’s happened?”
“The only thing’s happened is you deciding to go native over in Europe. I know about Spain. I’ve been reading up on it. They changed the right to free assembly lately. It’s close to being a police state, which is understandable; it’s only been a democracy for, like, twenty years.”
“More like thirty-something years.” This was an area on which she was definitely the greater authority. She eagerly anticipated his repost.
“Whatever. But those cops we see on TV in Athens ‘n’ places. They don’t take any crap. I saw ’em beating the crap out of people with their batons. Old people included.”
“So whatcha want me to do, James? Stay off the streets today? Lock myself in my room ‘n’ watch daytime TV?” She threw an angry look of challenge into her laptop’s tiny, built-in camera.
“Well, you could do something more productive than watching TV, but, yeah, I’d stay away from the barricades if I were you.”
“Stay away from the barricades, huh? That’s real manly advice, James. Thanks a heap!”
“Speaking of manly. Who’s that guy beside you at the gig, in the photo you tweeted today? Coz he looks like a real man — he’s like a Yeti, he’s got so much hair going on!”
“Oh, that’s Roberto! He’s a sweetie. And he’s so cool. He was camping out in Sol last year for, like, weeks. He’s the real deal. A real smash-the-system advocate.”
“And he’s “one of the gang”? This Roberto guy is holding down a place at school?”
“Actually, Roberto is doing a Ph.D. He tutors us on a module called “The Language of Political Discourse during the Second Spanish Republic.” It’s fascinating stuff―”
“Sounds like BS to me.”
“—and he’s a real interesting guy to be around. He’s turned me on to a lot of things I’d never even thought about before. He’s so clued-in on politics and spin and the language used by the political elites to pull the wool over the people’s eyes. He’s taught us how to analyse official government press releases; to identify the tricks they use to camouflage their lies. It’s amazing! Most of what the government here tells the people is nothing short of propaganda, basically. And I guess back home too.”
Ruth could see that James was barely listening to her, was looking impatiently beyond his laptop, perhaps looking out the window or at a muted TV at the other end of the room. She arched her eyebrows and smiled wryly into her camera waiting for the silence to snap him out of his reverie. After a few seconds he looked down again and said: “That’s not the first photo I’ve seen of both of you like that — hugging and laughing. You mightn’t have noticed it, but you seem to be posting a lot of pictures of the two of you together.”
“Oh my God. You are totally being a jerk tonight. If you could hear yourself! Whatcha think I’m doing over here? Sneaking round seeing people behind your back?”
Ruth saw James stiffen. “I never said that. I just commented that you seem to be spending a lot of time with this Roberto.”
She, in turn adjusted her own posture, making the laptop bounce on the bed. “What then? What are you saying? That you want me to stay in here all day waiting for you to Skype? That I’m not allowed to talk to other boys? Don’t start trying to control me from the other side of the world, coz it’s not happening, James.”
“No one said anything about trying to control anyone. It’s just . . . I dunno. Since you’ve been over there I feel like you’re becoming a different person. All this new stuff you’re doing. Your blog. Your Twitter. Those photos with all your new friends. Your hair, your clothes. Everything about you is different. It’s like they swapped my Ruthie for a stranger somewhere over the Atlantic two months ago.”
She was about to ask him how he dared, to give him a piece of her mind, unleash two months of stored-up grievances, click the ‘end call’ button and go to bed, when she was pulled up by a torrent of thoughts, as if James’ half-accusatory, half-baffled statement had broken a dam in her mind. The realisation hit her was that he wasn’t wrong; she was a different person to the girl who had boarded the plane in JFK Airport at the start of September. From the superficial (haircut, clothes, diet) to the profound (language, politics, circle of friends) she was changed. The act of transplanting herself to a foreign country and throwing herself into the language, the culture, the noise and the dynamism of that place had altered her. On the contrary, James had remained unchanged and in a sense, without her day-to-day moderating influence he had become more himself than ever ― almost a cartoon version of himself ― hence tonight’s regression to the free voicing of opinions he must have known would rile her. She studied his features on the bright screen. He was scowling slightly, biting his lip, waiting for her to speak. There was something impossibly all-American to the way he looked, with his orange-brown shiny skin, finely-drawn eyebrows, sharp cheekbones and regulation strong chin. The scowl, however, lent him an air of frustrated, teenage petulance. She’d had thought about it before, but now she knew for sure that he must be feeling left behind, that they were acting out that great cliché of the couple on the rocks because of one party leaving for a new school, city or, in this case, country.
“Listen, James, I better go to sleep. I’m pooped. But we need to talk seriously, real soon. We can’t go on bickering like this. How ’bout tomorrow? The usual time.”
She knew now where all his anger was coming from, the snide remarks, the requests for cyber sex: he was afraid of losing her.
“OK, hon,” was all he said, his voice dry with disappointment. She watched his head grow larger as he leaned forward to cut the connection and then, for a few moments, she stared almost mesmerised at the blackness that followed. She closed Skype, turned off the laptop and walked across the room to leave it on her study desk. On her way back to bed she looked out the window and was taken by surprise by the lack of traffic on the normally busy street below. While there were plenty of bunches of high-spirited students returning from the many bars in the area, not a taxi, nor a bus, nor a car passed by. She stopped thinking about James and what she’d say to him tomorrow and remembered the general strike. Going for her smartphone, she took a picture of the traffic-free street and was about to tweet it when she instinctively thought: “James won’t like this” and hesitated. Her fingers hovered over the phone’s screen for a moment, on the brink of closing down the camera menu and putting it to sleep for the night.
“But you’re breaking up with him tomorrow night,” she told herself. “After you come home from the march.”
The beginnings of a smile on her face, she jabbed the screen and with a few deft touches shared the photo of the empty street with all her friends.
Copyright U. Cronin