Claudia took Michael to one of her favorite cafés near the Seine. She loved this place for the old photos filling every inch of wall space, for the well-worn tables and the clients lingering over small coffees and glasses of wine. But Michael seemed blind to all this and focused instead on the price of a small espresso and the drifts of cigarette smoke that irritated his lungs. He sat perpendicularly to the table, staring blankly across the room. Claudia sipped her espresso and studied her cousin’s profile. It was so familiar to her, and yet in this context it seemed foreign.
“Tell me about Thailand,” she asked, after waiting for him to break the heavy silence.
“We were developing irrigation systems in rural areas,” he replied with a tired voice.
“Is that what you did the whole time?”
“Well, I was part of a team. We were doing a variety of development and education projects.”
“Like what?” she pressed.
“Various irrigation projects for rice farmers, resources… that sort of thing,” he replied without looking at her.
Claudia was annoyed at his dismissive tone. “So who invited you to Thailand,” she challenged.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, did the villagers say, ‘Come, help us, teach us your great western knowledge?’”
Michael caught the sarcasm in her voice and his face darkened. “The government invited our organization. It’s part of international trade and third-world development.”
“Third-world,” Claudia sneered. “I love that. Like they’re third class people.”
“Claudia, you know I don’t think that.” Michael swung abruptly in his chair to face her. “International aid is complicated; even the best of motives are never pure. So don’t give me some cliché criticism. You’re a photographer, you should know that nothing is ever completely black or white.” He stood up quickly and went to the bar to pay.
Claudia sucked in her lip. She had wanted him to see that she could think for herself, that she was learning to challenge ideas she had previously held. Instead she knew she’d come across sounding stupid and trite. She reached in her bag for a cigarette and lit it quickly, anticipating the look of disapproval on her cousin’s face.