“You sound like an old married couple!” his sister told us, when she heard us alternately bickering and bantering.
“Ha!” I replied, ever the nerd. “At one point in Green Card, Lauren tells Brontë and Georges exactly that; ‘You sound like an old married couple’. Déjà-vu, ha ha!”
We were at the Emergency Clinic at hospital. Xanthe had fallen off a ladder (long story!) and we had driven her to hospital.
By ‘we’, I mean Matthew and myself. He was, literally, the boy-next-door. We had virtually, and literally, known each other since before we were born, and our mothers had been classmates.
We were more like siblings than… lovers. We sauntered in and out of each other’s houses and stayed for lunch without any invitations being necessary.
But the temptation to pretend we were the latter and not the former had been too strong.
It all began when a local television station offered two Scholarships at the University / Universities of choice, as a prize to the couple who garnered the most votes in a series of tests, to be undertaken.
At the time, I was a Save-the-Earth-from-Climate-Change-Apocalypse-Scenario activist. So, immediately, I imagined myself Brontë Parrish (Andie MacDowell), the horticulturalist and an environmentalist in the aforementioned Green Card. Not quite the Green Guerrilla like her – but close enough.
Except for the spaghetti-like hair, Matthew was as unlike Georges Fauré (Gérard Xavier Marcel Depardieu, to give him his full handle!), as could be. He had inherited his Irish maternal grandmother’s weird dark teal eye colour, and you could practically cut your fingers on the high cheekbones he had got from his Taiwanese father. I suppose you could describe him as unconventionally handsome, striking, even. At least that’s what our friends said, but I only saw him as my not-brother.
In the film, Georges was an undocumented immigrant from France; Matthew, of course, had double Taiwanese and Maltese citizenship, so that issue was never a problem for us.
In the film, Brontë uses her ‘marriage’ certificate to rent the apartment of her dreams, and says Georges is in Africa, doing scholarly research.
So… Matthew called my plans a hare-brained scheme. I told him that having Scholarships fall on our lap was no match for having to work at fast food diners (Georges was, in fact, a waiter) to earn enough to be able to go abroad to study. I nagged him and nagged him until he sort of agreed with me, and we applied.
At the auditions, to impress the Selection Committee (that’s what he said later, anyway) he put his arm loosely over my shoulder; it felt so weird that I laughed.
I dove headlong into the role of Girlfriend. So realistically did I do it, that my mother gasped when she saw the clip on television… because, of course, we made it past the initial try-outs since we had, ahem, “an interesting camaraderie”. I rolled my eyes, and smiled enigmatically. I refused to be drawn into a discussion, though.
The tests were a cinch; one for each programme, for a total of ten; half the votes were allocated to the Judges, and half to viewers. The studio audience had no say in the matter, because, as we all know, some contestants where this is the praxis, are wont to stuff the ballots, as it were, and invite their eighth cousins once removed in order to determine their position.
Just for fun, I made Matthew sit through Green Card, twice, with me. I stopped the DVD each time I considered a scene to be a salient point in our preparation for the Challenge.
We already had reams of photos together, growing up, so faking them was not necessary. However, we took some more, alone, without our circle of friends, and wearing different clothes, with different backgrounds (just like they did in the film), to make sure that our pseudo-relationship looked doubly-so “cemented”.
One of the tests was How well do you know your partner?
Unlike Brontë and Georges, who had precious little time to get their ducks in a row, we had lived in each other’s pockets, so we knew what the other person had for breakfast / the date of birth / the names of the grandparents / the favourite subjects at school / the shoe size / favourite ice-cream flavour, and so forth.
Another test involved cooking together without getting on each other’s nerves. Well, that posed a bit of a problem, because we both considered ourselves a better cook than the other. Yes, we had often taken over the Youth Centre kitchen to make lunch for the monthly meeting of the elderly of the Parish (both of us were into voluntariat), so we resolved to do it without the usual acerbic insults and caustic invectives and biting sarcasm, which might not go down well with the Judges, who were not used to this kind of attitude.
In the film, Brontë reluctantly invites Georges to move in with her; I had no need to do anything of the sort, thankfully. I didn’t want to spoil a brilliant relationship by sleeping with my soulmate! And besides, our fervently Catholic parents would have had kittens if we had gone off to live together.
The competition was fierce; it was clear that the other couples had been doing their own version of preparation… but some of them came over as stilted, and as trying too hard.
Each week, one of the couples was eliminated. Each week, we crossed our fingers and toes, hoping that it would not be us. And it wasn’t.
We sailed through the What does your partner think about… section, which was done in the split-screen manner that is a mainstay of so many such shows, reminiscent of when Brontë and Georges were questioned separately. This had been George’s undoing!
Of course, I knew what he thought about local politics, the environment, fast food, the wearing of fur, keeping pets, the occult, facial hair, Christmas, religion, racism, and tattoos! Brontë would have been proud of me!
Matthew had taken to hugging me and kissing my forehead before he left our house or before I left theirs.
I noticed subtle changes in his demeanour, too – he actually began opening doors for me, and pouring my fizzy water before he poured his. I noticed, also, that his hair was no longer all over the show; he was making an effort and keeping it (relatively!) tamed.
Truth to tell, I was developing ‘feelings’ for Matthew; but I scolded myself and repeated you are only in it to win it a million times, to persuade my heart that what was happening was solely the opposite of an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” matter.
I kept going over that scene where Brontë asks Georges whether he still has their wedding rings. He does, and he pulls them out of his pocket. They exchange rings again, laughing and kissing… but Georges has to leave with the immigration officer. I wept buckets, each time.
But… but… Matthew was my not-brother. End of story.
Came the night of the semi-final, and it was us against another couple. The woman had, I noticed, been flirting with her eyes with one of the judges. I was riled, but I remained outwardly nonchalant, knowing that if I let my tongue run away with me, it would ruin our chances of winning.
The final round, as was to be expected, was a series of questions about why we wanted to win; why we deserved to win; which University we would choose, and why; and what we would be reading, and why.
Matthew and I had practiced this, and we had the answers down pat. We managed to make it sound as if we were thinking out loud, though, and this of-the-cuff manner no doubt gained us even more Brownie points.
The answers of the other couple were staid and bland. They wanted to expand their family businesses; they wanted to get a degree because their parents had one and they wanted to emulate them; they wanted any future children to be proud of them… blah, blah, blah.
Nonetheless, I bit my nails to the quick, as sweat ran down my backbone, while we watched the votes being tallied, in the five-minute slot allocated for the home audience to cast their votes.
It was by a narrow margin, but we won.
When the result was announced, Matthew dug deep into his jeans pocket, and pulled out a couple of rings.
“Will you marry me?” he asked.
The judges gave him a standing ovation, and the studio audience erupted in a tide of clapping and shouts of “Hooray!” Xanthe, one arm in plaster, siting in the first row, blew millions of kisses with her free hand.
I said “Yes!”
That was fifty years ago.