It’s been six months since I’ve updated my blog. I think I had to deal with my big revelation (from my last post) with a little bit of silence. I find that once you’ve said something big, it’s best to stay quiet for a little while after, to keep things in balance, and to get your grounding back.
Right now, I’m reading a book by Dionne Brand called What We All Long For. I adore this woman’s work. In my last year at university, I wrote an essay about her book of poetry Thirsty, which is a moving and rich work. Now I’ve moved on to her novels. What We All Long For really resonates with me. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but I can empathize with the main character perfectly: Tuyen is an *immigrant from Vietnam who produces avant-garde installations. The story hinges on her family’s struggle to find her missing brother, who was lost when the family fled from Vietnam to Thailand.
I understand her struggle. Although, I don’t remember much about the **Thai refugee camp that my family stayed in, I do remember mosquito netting, for some strange reason. I was born in that camp as a displaced person. It’s been 23 years since those first five years living in the camp. My mom has a lot of quirky stories from that time, but there are many stories that I sometimes wish I didn’t know. She told me some things about her life before meeting my dad, and what she told me inspired me to write this short story. I wrote it in my university creative writing class in 2010 (I think), and I haven’t revised it since. I wrote it to try to understand what she had gone through. I hope you enjoy it.
* Update (01/28/2013): Upon further reading, I discovered that Tuyen isn’t an immigrant. She was born in Toronto. Her parents and her two older sisters are immigrants from Vietnam (along with her lost brother). She’s the youngest of five siblings with another older brother who was also born in Toronto.
** Note (01/28/2013): My background is Lao.
Alice felt an overwhelming desire to reach over to her mother, grab her by the roots of her hair, fist the black locks at the base of her skull, and repeatedly slam her face into the dashboard. Her fingers itched as she rubbed them against her jeans. She moved the car out of the driveway and turned onto the deserted road. They sat together as the heat radiated and circulated within the confines of the car. The sun had not yet risen, and the darkness moved fluidly in front of the headlights.
She wondered how her mother felt: waking up in total darkness, trudging to her minimum wage job, exerting herself in repetitive, graceless tasks, and returning in that same darkness to their dilapidated house. Sure, she had a short lunch break between her endless hours of sewing, but how did it feel to move in perpetual darkness?
“All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t cut your hair,” her mother retorted, rummaging through her oversized purse. She removed a tube of lip-gloss from her scattered things and serenely applied it—her eyes intent on the mirror. “Why do you need to cut it? It’s beautiful just the way it is.” She rubbed the gloss onto her thinning lips as she spoke.
“I need a change, Mom. And anyways, I’m donating it to charity.” Alice’s right hand moved restlessly on her jeans.
“When are you doing it?”
“Today, I think.”
Her mother sighed heavily. In her periphery, Alice saw her mother looking at herself in the mirror, running her fingers through her hair, now streaked with gray strands. She remembered that same disappointed sigh from years ago.
Here, talk to your brother. She felt the receiver in her tiny hands as a voice spoke to her through the static of the phone. Frightened by the disembodied voice she had begun to cry softly. Alice realized that it wasn’t the voice that had scared her, but the strange feeling of disconnect to someone who was joined to her by blood—her mother’s other child. She sighed and took the receiver from Alice.
When Alice was in her mid-teens she had been told the whole story of her mother’s son. It seemed like a tale from another life; a story with no basis in actuality, but in reality, it was her mother’s story. She had left that little boy in the care of her ex-husband and had flown thousands of miles to Canada. Alice saw him standing among the rubble of his youth—abandoned. She wished that she could comfort him, but he was a young man now, much older than her. The feeling of estrangement wrapped itself around her and she was protected, but as his voice gave shape to his unknown form, a bond was generated between them. He could not touch his mother much like she could not reach this woman sitting beside her.
Her mother looked over at her. “Well, you don’t have to pick me up after work then.”
“What do you mean? How’re you gonna get home?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll find a ride,” she said as she shifted her glance to the road ahead.
“I don’t get it.”
“I just don’t want to see you, is all. I don’t want to see the mess that you’ve made… out of your hair.”
Cut. Her mother’s words like a moving blade. Alice’s hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically as they strained against her self-control. They itched to feel the satisfying percussion of bone on dashboard. Breathing in deeply, she glanced at herself in the rearview mirror.
An unmoving face stared back at her. Never show people how you feel. Never show them that they’ve hurt you, her mother had advised her when a fellow student had spit in her face. She felt the weakness of emotion take over, and consciously hardened herself. She was impenetrable. No one could touch her. No one could cut her.
“Fine,” she said and looked away from the mirror.
To distract herself she wondered who had the better deal: herself or her mother’s son. In his mind this woman could be anything. Maybe he fashioned his own story about why she had to leave him. In his mind, he must have seen her as a driven woman who aspired to greater things, to a greater self. She left him because she needed to escape poverty, he told himself. Then she’ll come back and find me, and once and for all, I’ll know that she really does love me.
They finally reached the factory, and her mother exited silently. The morning light grew faintly in the distance.
Jane opened the door of the factory and blinked repeatedly. The light—harsh and glaring. Her daughter’s words like a moving blade. Why did Alice continually challenge her? Why was her daughter so much like her? They were both two silent, brewing storms unable to release their deluge. She seated herself at the station where they sewed button holes. It was tedious and time-consuming, but she had perfected the task and did it skillfully and without thought. The press of the machines droned on. Her hands moved ceaselessly, productively impotent. At these moments she felt her mind moving forwards and backwards, oscillating between past and present. Years ago, before Alice, Alex used to cling to her hand as they made their way through the busy market. Bicycles clinked past, carts sped by, and the harsh sun floated above a pulsating haze.
Mom, I’m hungry.
I know, Alex. We’re almost there. We’re going to see Papa.
Where has he been, Momma?
Oh you know your Papa. He has to work a lot. He has to make money to feed us.
That day was a scar on her mind. Cut. She began to bleed again.
She saw his little form. She always made sure that his hair was combed. He was wearing a clean, blue shirt that day. It had been washed the day before along with all of his clothes. She placed the duffel bag beside him. He sat on the front steps while she kneeled in front of him. They were at her husband’s house. He hadn’t been living with them for over three months.
All right, Alex. You stay here okay? Your Papa will be home in ten minutes. Here’s a watch so you can tell. When that hand gets to the two he’ll be home, but here’s his work number if he isn’t home by then. There’s the phone right there. She pointed to the nearby phone booth and placed a coin in his small palm.
Don’t worry. Here, let me show you. You put the coin in here, and you press these numbers. He had laughed. It was a fun game for him.
Where are you going?
I have to go and buy some food. Make sure to call Papa if he’s not back when the watch says.
Ok, Momma. I’ll wait here for you.
“Shit,” Jane felt the blood on her fingertips. The needle left a small bloody pinprick.
He’s waiting for me, she thought. Alice is waiting for me.
Alice held the long lock of hair and in the mirror—a different person. She relished the lightness and the freedom of this new look. The heavy curtain of blackness was pulled back, showcasing herself—explicit and raw. Stray strands littered the floor. Blunt and chopped black ends. There was nowhere to hide now. Her cell phone rang.
“Can you pick me up?”
Alice paused. “Okay.”
She pulled into the parking lot. In the light of the half-open factory doorway, she saw her mother standing there. Her outline silhouetted against the dimly lit backdrop of the factory interior. She stood there with her oversized purse and lunch bag—a figure in the darkness. In the muted light, her mother looked down at her hands, hands that had moved skillfully and ceaselessly beneath the press of a sewing machine. In her creased and worn grasp, she had held a young boy and a young girl. Now these hands grappled with thread and needle and nothing else. Her mother quietly seated herself in the passenger seat. The car door creaked on its hinges and closed softly. They drove in silence. The darkness outside matched its morning brother, and cupped mother and daughter in its softness.
“I thought you didn’t want to see me,” Alice began.
“I know what I said.”
“What changed your mind?”
“I don’t know, Alice. I’m sorry. Your hair cut looks good.”
“Do you really think so?”
The car moved forward into the darkness. Asphalt lit by the moving headlights. The heat emanated from the radiator.