* * *In the beginning, life had seemed idyllic when Manjoula and her family emigrated to Southern California from Pakistan. Her father ran an engineering firm and her mother looked after the family and their large home on Lake Mission Viejo. Her parents and six older brothers treated her as a princess but as she approached her 18th birthday she found their attentions tiresome. She was tutored at home in English and all subjects by a young woman her family had hired in hopes of keeping her away from the bad influence of American culture. She was not allowed to have a phone or watch TV or listen to radio and she was required to wear hijab in public. But a deep and secret friendship developed between Manjoula and her tutor, Angela Norris, and that friendship opened the world to her. Manjoula was a good student and progressed rapidly. She loved biology but she confided in Miss Norris that her parents would never let her go to university like her brothers and that soon their studies and their friendship must end. She was promised in marriage to a man she had never met.
“How old is he? Where does he live?” Angela asked.
“Pakistan,” Manjoula whispered. “He is a prosperous businessman.” She took a photo from her desk and showed it to Angela.
“My God, he looks to be at least 50.”
“Shssh, “ Manjoula cautioned. “They must not hear us discussing such matters.”She quickly tucked the photo back in her desk drawer. “I do not want to marry him.”
Angela hung her head.
“In three days there will be a large reception, a picnic, in our home for the families to meet and negotiate the wedding contract. I have asked my family if you can attend as a farewell for all your services. They have agreed. You will come, yes?”
Angela nodded. “I will be so sad to say goodbye.”
“I always believed that my family loved me until I protested this marriage. They said I would be dead unto them if I disgraced them by refusing the marriage. It’s not a figure of speech—dead unto them. My uncle killed his daughter for defying his will and trying to run away with a boy she loved. They don’t know I know this, but I have insatiable eyes and ears. I know there is a world out there waiting for me if I can only be free.”
Angela wiped a tear from her cheek.
“Will you help me?”
“Help you what, how?”
Manjoula’s dark eyes pooled with tears. “Do you love me?”
Angela stammered. “Of course.”
“If I give up my family and life to be with you, will you give up yours to be with me?” It was the question that hung in the air between them as the day for the picnic approached.
On the day of the picnic, a lavish meal was laid out on tables in the shade of the grape arbor. Musicians played exotic music. All the women were dressed elaborately and decked out in all their finest gold jewelry. Angela Norris felt out of place in her plain dress and uncovered head. Her eyes fell on Manjoula. They kissed each other on the cheek and embraced. “How beautiful you look, Manjoula.”
“I have a farewell gift for you, my friend,” Manjoula announced rather too loudly. “Will you follow me?”
Angela nodded and followed Manjoula inside. The house was swarming with people and the noise of conversation seemed to fill every room. No one noticed as they slipped out the front door, holding hands, and anxiously making their way to Angela’s car.