Friday, 28 October 2011
Thursday, 20 October 2011
The tides kept coming in, endlessly, like when Kath was a child, spinning in her full-circle ruched skirt. The pink ruffles flew around her, engulfing her as she spun and spun, faster and faster, then slower and slower, until she came to a complete stop and laughed as she tumbled down in her mother’s arms. It was a day in the field. Elaine was out there collecting flowers to take home to add in her catalogue of plants.
Her mother was long gone now and these weren’t those tides that took Kath to her happy place. These weren’t those tides.
The tides started in the morning. The first wave only brushed her toes and ankles. That was when Glyn woke up abruptly and complained why Kath hadn’t woken him up. The second one came when he refused to stay longer, just four minutes, for a boiled egg. It would only take her four minutes to gather her nerve to ask him the question and get his answer or tell him the statement and get his reply. The third wave came when they were at the door and, even after stalling him a bit, she still couldn’t conjure up her courage to say what she felt was needed to be said. She stopped short, suddenly wary of her insignificance but didn’t know how to assess nor confirm it, how to analyze it the way Glyn did. So she let him drive away.
The fourth wave came when she was washing the dishes. She dropped Glyn’s coffee mug and it fell into pieces. A ceramic shard cut her finger as she was picking up the debris. No, this can’t be happening to me. I can’t even do things right. Then she walked to a teak table, to a telephone that was on it, picked up the receiver and dialed a number. There was a pulsing tone on the other end.
Julia? Hi, this is Kath! Splendid! Listen, are you available to go to the pictures tonight? They’re showing something and the paper gives it rave reviews and… Oh? Oh, I’m sorry. I hope he gets better. Oh is that him crying? Alright, no, that’s fine, really. You take care and say hi to little Chris. Yes, ciao, darling!
And that was the fifth wave.
Kath put the receiver down. She had nothing to do. For the first time in her life, she really had nothing to do and no desire to fix the situation.
She went to the back porch and looked at the garden. The flowers, the plants, the landscape, they were all Elaine’s ideas. How Elaine had enthusiastically offered her help in designing Glyn and Kath’s square garden, and now, on the first autumn day, the bougainvillea was swathed in tiny pink blossoms, the red roses were swaying, dancing under the whispers and the blows of the cool wind, and the cherry tree Kath had planted earlier that year had grown. Elaine went berserk when she found out about the cherry tree. “It is out of place! It completely doesn’t match! The shades won’t give the roses enough sun they need when it grows tall!” she said, but Kath was determined and it was one of those rare moments when Elaine surrendered.
Kath sat there for hours. Looking at the garden. At the flowers. At the squirrels darting to and fro, collecting provisions for the upcoming winter. At the pigeons resting before flying to some place warmer. Then she went inside to the telephone. She knew she had to do it. If she couldn’t do it face to face, then she would do it using the phone. She would. She had to. So she dialed.
No answer, and the pulsing, promising tone gave way to busy. She dialed again, still the same. And again, and again, until…
Hello. Yes, this is Kath Peters, is Glyn there? No? Alright. No, that should be quite alright. In fact, no, could you just tell him that I called and if he could call back? Thank you. No, that’s it. Goodbye.
When she hung up, she felt the sixth wave coming in, this time sweeping up to her knees. Through the windows, she could see the short cherry tree. The tip of some leaves had started turning bright auburn, agreeing with the season. She dialed another number.
Hello, Sonia? Hi, this is Kath. Is Elaine there? Oh, when do you suppose she’ll return? Oh, alright. No. Sorry? Oh, no, just tell her I rang and if she could call back. Thank you. How are you? Oh, busy? I say. The garden is just lovely! Funny you should mention it. I was just looking at it and I thought I would give Elaine a call to say how it has turned out even lovelier than in summer. No, I can’t tell, but they look healthy. No, no hole in the leaves or anything, I suppose. Oh? Which one are those? Oh, the little colorful ones? That should be nice, I’ll look it up. Sorry? Oh, no, not at all. Well, thank you, Sonia. No, just tell her that. Yes. Alright. Goodbye.
The seventh wave reached up to her hips as Kath replaced the receiver.
She hung her head down and pressed her palms on the teak table. Then Kath turned her head towards another room, and walked to that room, toward a landing cupboard in the corner, the one stacked high with papers and what Glyn called low-use materials. She opened the cupboard, took a chair and placed it in front of the cupboard, and climbed on it, reached to the back of the top shelf. Her palm was slit repeatedly by the thin edge of the papers until she felt a folder. She pinched it between her index finger and her thumb and drew it out from its papery siblings.
Kath knew exactly what was inside the folder and so she didn’t open it. Instead, she took a pencil and with a few strokes, wrote a message in thin, capital letters on the front of the folder. Then she replaced it inside the shelf, safely hidden behind the papers, climbed down from the chair, and closed the cupboard. By this time, the eighth wave was already scooping in, covering her up to her stomach.
I can’t call Mary. I don’t need her affirmation. I know how she feels. Just like how Polly feels. But I need to know from Glyn. I need to know from Elaine.
Kath returned to the kitchen and saw the glass bowl stacked with fruit. Apples.
She recalled her conversation with Oliver that day as Polly was picking up windfall apples in Elaine’s garden. My heart is not broken. The thing is to move away. Before they change their minds. The ninth wave went up to her chest.
When Kath was a child, her mother told her a story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. How Snow White ran away from her evil stepmother. How she ended up in the cabin that housed seven little people. How her evil stepmother, always hot on her trail, gave her a poisoned apple and eventually put her to sleep. How she was awakened by a prince, a passing prince who snobbishly and presumptuously roused her with true love’s kiss. Snow White had never known the prince and the prince had never known her. He was only attracted by her beauty. The prince had never known her, and therefore had never loved her. He was only attracted by her beauty. But Snow White loved him till the happy end.
That story did more to Kath than just refusing Jenny as her father’s new wife. Yet the deepest effect of that tale had been obscure to her, until this moment, when the tenth wave swallowed her up to her chin.
Kath stared at the red apples, stacked and piled one on top of the other. If only I could sleep.
She hadn’t eaten ever since breakfast but she didn’t feel hungry. She felt the emptiness inside her stomach, but not hunger, no, she felt barren. Snow White had the seven dwarves. Kath pressed her right palm on her stomach.
The autumn sun had set two hours ago and Kath was back in the bedroom. She was holding thin lozenges, as red as the apples, but smaller. She had given enough time for the two people to whom she had given everything, but the phone never rang back and Kath knew she had finally received their affirmation. Then, with a rare determination, she swallowed the apple-red tablets, one by one by one, and by the time Glyn came home twenty five minutes after that, Kath had long been swept into the sea.
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
I was still on the phone with Mama during my on-line search for an airplane ticket back to New York. I was able to keep her on the phone until I had entered my debit card number on the airline website and secured my round- trip tickets: the earliest flight to JFK on Friday and the last one back to SFO on Monday. Then I told her the exact dates I was going to come and there was an even bigger smile in her voice.
The week went by faster than I had expected and then Friday came. Through the bus ride and the BART, I was smiling to myself, feeling the familiar ache returning to my cheeks, replacing another ache that had been haunting my heart and mangling my mind. Then as the BART reached its final destination, I hauled my backpack and my sleepy body off my seat and hopped off the car onto the platform.
The first real pangs of yearning to go home began when, in the waiting area of the gate, in one of my rare moments of warm-heartedness towards children, I giggled silently to myself when I heard a mother attempting to tell a joke to her son and proceeded to tickling him when he didn’t laugh. He finally relented. My wandering thoughts were suddenly plucked and plunged into a cabinet full of memories, and I landed in a folder of that day in the car.
It was snowing outside. In the backseat, I saw Mama and a boy, he couldn’t be more than four years old. I didn’t know who the boy was at first, but then I noticed a scar on his right leg. I knew that scar. I still had it, though it had faded. I still remembered how I got it: a little prancing along the edge of a gutter and a little slip followed by a loud wailing and Mama came rushing out to rush me inside the house and put iodine and bandaged the wound.
“Mama, I’m bored!” the young boy said in that irritating whiny tone that all children make.
“Daddy will be out soon, sweetie,” she replied with a smile, then looked out of the window. I followed her gaze and saw a church. I remembered that church. It was where Dad and Mama got married, where Ben and I were baptized, and where Ben and I went for our confirmation. It was one of those Wednesdays when Dad gave his legal service for free at the church.
“I wish he’d come out sooner,” the boy replied, still whining. Yet Mama looked back at him with an even wider smile that slanted her eyes into short back lines.
“Would you like to play a game?” she asked.
“Would I?” the boy said. They giggled at his enthusiasm. Mama took a worn gray blanket from the back compartment.
“I’ll be the mother hen, and you’ll be the chick,” she spread the blanket on the boy, covering him from head to toe. “This is you inside the egg, what do you feel?”
“What do you hear?”
“What do you see?”
“Nothing! It’s dark!” the boy replied.
“Would you like to see the light, then?” she asked.
“Yes, please!” the boy said.
“Alright, but you will need to let go off the warmth for a bit. Follow my voice and come out of the egg,” Mama replied. I could see the boy’s body wiggling underneath the blanket, and slowly his head came out, then his arms, then his body.
“Mama, it’s cold!” he protested.
“Then come here, come here under my wings!” she said, and the boy scrambled into her arms. “Oh, no! Look! There’s a nasty hawk up there!” Mama warned. The boy let out a muffled scream and ducked his head under her armpit. I giggled. “But you don’t have to worry, for you are safe with me,” she said.
“I know, Mama. I will never, ever leave you,” said the boy as he kissed her cheek.
The boarding announcement whisked me back to the waiting area of SFO. I got up and defeated the deadening burden of my backpack. Then I realized that in that car, in that moment, that young boy hadn’t had the slightest idea that he would’ve ended up thousands of miles away from the safety of her mother, ducking for cover every time hawks attacked him, over and over again.
Then, with a determined stride, I braced myself for the joys of budget flying: a six-hour flight in a cramped seat, hopefully next to someone not too obnoxious.
Sunday, 16 October 2011
Friday, 14 October 2011
Thursday, 6 October 2011
I wiped the steam off the bathroom mirror. The fog from it was the only thing that stood between me and my reflection. I felt the coldness of the steam changed to water as it clung to my palm and the underside of my fingers. I always tried to avoid looking directly at my face, afraid of seeing the familiar flaws, afraid of discovering new ones, afraid of the idea that I’d run out of clever lines to deceive myself into believing what I want to believe during the internal pep-talks.
So it was only natural that I let my gaze fall a few inches below my chin, and there it was, a cinnabar red pendant, square, with a hole on each side that was fastened to a strand of hemp string that met at the back of my neck. I touched it and felt its texture. In the mirror I saw my finger tracing the pendant, agreeing to every curve, every crevice. It was of a pig.
“You were born in the year of the boar,” my mother said two decades ago as she tied the pendant and the string around my neck. We were sitting in her room, and it was just the two of us with me in her lap. My father was out in the park with my brother Ben and our dog, Rosie. I looked in the big mirror in front of us, at my mother and the similar red pendant around her neck, and then at mine.
“What does it mean, Mama? Will I end up on the dinner table at Uncle Tang’s?” I asked with genuine fear, remembering the big feast at the restaurant we had with the Chinese community from church every Christmas. The suckling pig would be the main dish that everyone was waiting for. Uncle Tang’s was famous for it.
My mother smiled, her narrow eyes became even smaller and looked like two strokes of paintbrush dipped in charcoal black. She gently brushed my straight black hair with her palm. “No. That means you’re honest, patient, and tolerant,” she said. I smiled widely, and she, understanding my vanity, said, “But be careful, for Boars can be caught up in the past and lost in your dreams.” I stared at the eyes of my mother’s reflection, without the slightest understanding why being lost in dreams or in the past could be a bad thing, but the tone she used was so ominous that my grin disappeared instantly. The tone haunted me even after she kissed my head and took my hand downstairs. The tone haunted me even as we were preparing dinner for my father and Ben. The tone haunted me for years to come.
Still, I swore to guard the pendant with all my might, and this I did even after the strings gave way to age; this I did even after a white boy from school grabbed my necklace and tore it away from me as he screamed, “Fag!” and I received detention for punching him in the face and breaking his nose. My mother simply replaced the string with another, sturdier string. The pendant survived the swimming competitions, the college, the job hunts, the multiple boyfriends, the moving-outs, and even dying relatives. I wore it when we buried my father, the Caucasian American my mother married a few years after she arrived in California. No one would have thought that a budding young lawyer would fall in love with a young Asian immigrant who spoke little English and made a living by washing his clothes in a drycleaner near his apartment. I wore it when we attended Ben’s graduation day as he received his bachelor’s degree in biomechanical engineering from MIT, when I met one of his professors who became my first boyfriend who had the privilege of being the first man to break my heart.
Then I remembered that as the months became years, my relationship with Mama became distant. Her early bout with arthritis stopped me from climbing in her lap and sitting there, even way before I became too old and too heavy. Every year she became smaller, diminishing as I became taller. Then I moved out from city to city, promising to write to her as often as possible, but the Internet took over my generation and left hers behind. I always found excuses to not send her a mail, a birthday card, a Christmas greeting while she was never late in sending me checks. I always found excuses to not give her a call on Mother’s day or even to return her call when I found her number flashing on my cell phone screen and left registered as a missed call on my birthday.
How many Christmases have it been? I asked myself. I was still stroking the red pendant. I thought I had lost it several move-outs ago. Perhaps that was one of the reasons of my hesitating to visit Mama. Perhaps I was afraid that she would think I’d stopped loving her. Perhaps. I had found the pig pendant hidden in a paper bag a few months ago when I was rummaging through the boxes. I had been too preoccupied with my new job and new apartment that I only acknowledged it with a half-assed, “There you are!” and put it around my neck with no thought other than catching the bus and arriving on time for my first day on the job.
Is it fair to love someone but pretend you don’t? I thought. Then I cringed at it, realizing that I knew the answer very well.
I dared myself to look at my face. I was so caught up in the past that I loathed every sign of time passing. I was so lost in my dreams that I would forgive no one, not even myself, for not achieving them. My gaze traveled from my chin, to my lips, to my cheeks, to my nose, to my eyes, to my forehead, and to my hair and remembered my father’s sister, my aunt, telling me, “You are the split image of your beautiful mother.”
Then on impulse, on momentum, I threw myself out of the bathroom, grabbed my bag and cellphone to punch in the number that I had memorized by brain as well as by heart. I heard the pulse, the tone, then a familiar voice at the end of the line, and I said, “Ben? Hi, it’s me, Craig. Is Mama there?”
I had intended to create this from the perspective of Craig's mother, as she goes into his room (he's moved out from the house, obviously) to search for something (a sewing equipment, perhaps?) and then calling Craig where Craig will answer the phone, which is a strange thing to do. Then I thought against it because I had introduced another point of view (Tux's), and that will complicate things further.
This isn't really so much a Lively piece, because it came out more Faulknerian. It sounds almost identical to The Magpies.
Moral of the story that everyone agreed in class: Call your mom!