Thursday, 6 October 2011

let them eat fruitcake: the pig

We're finally moving on to another book now, or rather, two books. We're reading The Photograph by Penelope Lively, which is an exciting leap from William Faulkner, yet as a classmate pointed out, "Anything is a leap from Faulkner." Another one is sort of a textbook about creating time in fiction, called (obviously) The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber.

So, the assignment for Thursday, 6 October, was to create a two-ish page scene where a character discovers an artifact left behind by another character, like Lively's Glyn discovering a photograph with Kath in it and a revelation follows suit (I can't tell you what, you'll just have to read the book, but I love it as it rings close to my experience several years ago).

So, here it goes.


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!

No comments:

Post a Comment