The birds never landed outside our windows for long. Nor did they stay permanently, build a nest or two in the tiny space behind our electrical water heater. It was as though the instant they approach our red and beige walled apartment, paints peeling off with rust underneath, the birds knew it wouldn’t do for a home; a nest was to be built somewhere they can weather through the seasons with chicks to nurture. The robins, crows, finches, sparrows, what have you, as announcement of arrival, vigorously peck at the windowpanes, closed perennially.
When I would look up from books or homework, the eyes would be met with the birds’ gaze and alas, the battle of holding out the longest, of not blinking or getting distracted. I was the winner. Sometimes it’s just one bird, sometimes a couple, prospective husband and wife—all the same, I stared into their yellow-rimmed, red or other times plaintively glass-like eyes, and I always held my steady gaze, my presence tethered, like an extension of the bedsprings.
I had never known if the birds stared out of mockery or plain boredom like prison guards, on whose hips keys dangle tauntingly, settling their eyes on the scums of the world. I wonder at the birds’ capability to know of their ancestral history, or their companions’ suffering, as thousands of years across the globe birds have been caged and divested of their winged freedom.
The birds, tapped by an all-knowing finger up above — time to go — flapped their wings, emitting a scraping noise as they scratched the windowpanes, trace lines of dust were all indication of their once-presence; they flew away like valiant warriors, or messenger with reports so urgent they have to reach their masters at once lest dire consequences incur. On they go with the search for a better place. I wondered why the birds pecked at the windowpanes. Did they want an audience for their show of care and attention in choosing a home—like chirp chirp! the matters of settling down would be no small business! So they landed, they pecked, they caught the inhabitants’ attention, they stared, and left, left the caged birds inside in more miserable state than before their exhibitory rejection.
The panes had been marred by scratches accumulated through the years, and I had long grown out of the habit of projecting my thoughts onto silly birds. While my old days consist of staring-contests with birds, my time now is filled with a different type of waiting.
“Wait it out.” It’s not a response I expected. I actually was looking forward to seeing her break open from under her porcelain mask, ripples of wrinkles forced by odd expressions forced by my delivery of the bad, fated news – they are calling me names. Then her cheeks would be injected with crimson colors pumped by her speedy heart, an urge of protectiveness emanating from her core, lurching out in the form of shrill cries, a hug, a kiss, stroking and smoothing of my hair, as if I’m a wounded creature in need of motherly affection. I was willing to lower myself to that position for her, for me, as I knew I could heal my own wounds. And no, everything went the other way.
Sharp words hung between us, attempting to chip away at my unfair expectation of her. Perhaps she knew all along, had been concocting the right words with the right amount to deal with me and my little problems. I didn’t know if it was unfair of me—I’d always heard of domestic circumstances worse off than ours, so I should simply swallow the dry toast in front of me and taunts thrown at me, and also, and also, smile at my mother.
But no, I caught the sharp words and threw them right back at her. “No, I won’t, and you’re going to see what I’m going to do.” With enunciation of the words followed by blossoming indignation on her face, I was satisfied. I pushed away from the large oak dining table, empty except for the two of us; the chair scraped hard against the floor, cutting through this space she demanded our meals to take place. I picked up my backpack—beside her purse from which I once saw a tube of lipstick, then she hastily closed the zipper, just like the time I saw a button that belonged to neither of our clothes appeared, by some cosmic magic, inside her room—and slammed the front door behind me. I took childish pleasure in the knowledge that her eyes were tracking towards my receding figure down the hall, only to be met with the immovable blockade, the heavy finality of the door.
I walked on, wishing I could fly.
That was yesterday morning. She lingers, now, at my bedroom door. I know her hand, balled, is raising, lowering, raising. Should she call me down like a normal parent? Should she rap the door and playfully joke that she’d call the school office for a sick leave if I don’t get my ass down by ten seconds? As in, reference every movie with a teenager in it, as in, she doesn’t know how to be a mother to me. I wonder if she knows I always wake at six thirty now, for yoga and meditation.
I push against the idea of ripping the door open, until she backs down and gives up trying to do what can’t be done, after I’ve already exhausted myself waiting. Today, I decide to be kind.
Last night, I was torn between being exceptionally cruel or kind, in face of she exhausting her efforts trying to patch things over breakfast up; her actions weren’t at fault, her intentions and the sickening subtleties of them were. When we were seemingly watching an old movie on TV, her brain really was churning out words, movie time was really an excuse to check up on me—does she need me to be a mother again—cogs and wheels were turning, as she stole furtive glances at the monolith of a daughter next to her. She didn’t know that was a pretense of mine, so when I finally gave in and melted into her strategy, she’d be grateful for having such an exceptionally wonderfully perfectly understanding child. I had once wished for those adjectives to sprinkle on me like rainbow on home baked birthday cakes or doughnuts.
“You know I’d been in love with you dad for so long.” She pretended her slender neck could support her heavy hand no longer, and leaned ever so slightly towards my shoulder, square and angular, I never slackened to ease her landing. I didn’t want her to think “there you are, there is my daughter, sweet and understanding,” I wanted my bones to cut her.
What I had meant was a how, a question word demanding descriptions for what the other person committed, not the reasoning behind. I wanted to gouge her eyes out, put them into my own sockets and see for once what she saw in father, and what she stopped seeing that prompted her infidelity, not once, but multiple times.
She didn’t answer. We let the muffled voices of The Women drone on and on, Joan Crawford, all angular face with cheekbones held high, twirling fluidly in an unabashed show of her womanly curves in front of Mrs. Haines, whose husband she had, taking advantage of those curves, lain in bed with. Her eyes level with Mrs. Haines, she seemed to have need to breathe at all. She wore her disregard on her sleeves, on her unwrinkled skins, her drawn-on eyebrows, arching. I wondered if Crystal, the character Joan Crawford played, married at all, if she ever had kids. And Mrs. Haines, herself a vision albeit mellowed by years of motherly duties, won all audience’s votes with her holy mother aura.
As tension between the two women boiled up, my mother’s small frame curled in on itself until it was a rigid statue; or, a compressed spring with a painted face, harboring malicious intention, and let out the box, began swinging, swinging, back and forth as the child scuttled away, bawling. She was waiting. Just as the big moment arrived, Joan pulled herself tall like a ballerina in front of Mary and delivered some lines, but my mother’s voice drowned them out.
She whispered, “He was lovely as a bird.”
My mother has a smile, her muscles wake up languidly, silent waters void of ripples, until someone would settle their gaze on her, then, waves would break through. She wants people to believe her strength— for taking up a job when she didn’t need to work since she was a girl, she wants people to believe her vulnerability within her tenacity. Maybe on that fateful night, she also waited for father to understand her quiet tenacity, her graceful way of dealing his abandonment, so she didn’t cry out, or beg, at all.
The air shifted differently that evening, stillness in spaces where movements of my parents used to be. I was waiting, half-expectant and half-terrified. There was always some part of me that craved change like a giddy child. And change arrived in its most violent form.
There were shouts, arms flinging, spittle flying. The likes of which I was used to absorbing in the tiny square of television and not the expansive panoramic view of reality. Perhaps if I’d shouted in my room where they thought I was—deaf to the commotion he was starting to create—obediently revising or cleaning the scrapes on the outside of window-pane, the birds’ scratches; perhaps if I’d pretended I’d almost fallen out of the window doing that, then they’d have rushed in and they’d have stood together inside my room, rift between them once again closed in, if only for a tiny bit. But I did none of those things. Unsure of my own importance to them, or afraid I’d be dragged into their seemingly inevitable changes, like tides, like waves, I do not know. Maybe I had thought at the time that she would have done something to make him stay. It must’ve been her fault; I arrived at that conclusion when I saw her face, calm and ripple-less, without remorse, regret, untearful. Did the vacuum with which she cleans so docilely, every single day and only when Dad was home, come to her aid, and vroom vroom away all her tears? She took in shouts as if they were her prideful children coming home for Christmas breaks. Her spine straighter as his spit arrived at her face as if finding their destined place. She didn’t bother wiping them away, or she was so focused on generation of a defiant expression to present to him, she didn’t think to wipe them away. Then, her apple cheeks jutted out in high defiance; I always thought they were pretty, when I looked at myself in the mirror I observed those same cheeks, protruding in portrait or in profile, in happiness and contentment, so my classmates would know their name-calling, their stealing of my notebooks once they figured out my mother’s work schedule so they could find her and look at her like a biologist in search for endangered species, have a look for themselves — the whore, the mom who sleeps around too much – I used my smile to let them these were nothing to me, did nothing to me, I smiled while seconds ticked by, waiting for confusion to sprout in their puny brains, and eventually, they walked away.
I remember planted there in my room, pigtails I had braided myself in the morning unraveling, I remember thinking whether she and I were so much more alike than we realized — qualities I have so wilfully overlooked over the years — how she also craved change.
I’m surprised she lasted six years — the years I’d so foolishly thought of her as this can-do-no-wrong innocent person — before being found out by Dad, who had not so much as looked at me before he went, his daughter, framed by a craze of fly-aways, wide-eyed, staring at him, as defiant as her mother.
Now as I observe this woman in front of my bedroom, I wait.
She is standing there, with her blow-dried, thinning and raspy auburn hair, unlike what it used to be, voluminous and shiny, inside her work clothes of high-waisted lined pants, flaxen in color like a patient’s pus, and her white plain top, sharp against the blue veins showing blatantly on her neck; her lips, thin and pale. She has on the pretense of readiness, but the deliberate leaving out of make-up signals something to me. I don’t tell her to go put on makeup, to get her hair done in salon, to do yoga.
My mother has got her own ways. I envision her putting on a completely different demeanor, a charm that separates people’s perception of a mother and the woman before them — forty-something, flirtatious and seemingly still enjoys attention like a schoolgirl; I imagine her even applying makeup, hard swipes of lipstick, back and forth, while picturing me at school, eyes fixed to the chainsmokers lingering at the school’s front — afterwards she’d smile at her coworkers at the accountancy firm, even the tramps she sees on her way to lunch. My mother, smiling her languid smile. Then she would swipe the lipstick or the blush or the eyeliner off as the clock announces five, and she’d come home to me, unchanged.
She knows I know, she knows I blame her all these years, and I scoff at these subtle, idiotic mind games that I’ve been participating in.
My self-important listing of her faults is drilled deeper, every time, I look at her face; meanwhile, this disgust reinforces the certainty of things that I’ve mauled over during the night.
It’s when beads form over and over, no matter how many times I swipe the back of my hand across my perspiration-dotted forehead, that I realize how much I hate sweating. As if nothing in my body answers to my brain, sweating is demanding, like showcasing your disgusting natures to strangers.
I’m racing towards the place I’ve called home all these years. I can stay still no longer inside this house, bearing the cross of no repentance, no return payment and no sympathy.
The wind pushes at my eardrums, echoing the thrumming of my heart, my rhythm, my march to an end.
“Is that you?”
Now that I’m inside the foyer, I see shoes strewn, a sneaker flung over, landing atop my slip-ons; she’s never taught me how to tie shoelaces.
The flurry of it all is contorted into knots of memories inside my brain—I figure, as I recall those moments, stretched thin, with faint impression of pulling and tugging—I pry her fingers from my sleeves, she’d pull me down, she’d turn me into her—imploring and threatening, her shrill voice condemning me and my future daughters. I almost hoped she’d break into her smile just so I’d be reminded once again how, how much I wish to destroy that.
History repeats itself, often the what, seldom the how.
It all blurs into a blob of willful nothingness, as I sit on the ferry, a bulging backpack besides me—the ebb and flow of slow tides bringing me closer towards a place birds cannot follow. It’s in this moment whereupon something I read flashes across my mind—love is all but imitation; if it is so, if I’m destined to fail at it, and come up short every time I grope in the dark for something solid to steady me, then, I predict with a smile, faint on my young face, hoping against hope, one day, the eyes of the unsympathetic and ignorant will fall upon the protrusion of my wings.