My daisies stopped growing overnight.
They had been consistently blossoming for the past seven days; a full year after I planted them, which in itself was normal, except they were meant to start sprouting petals by now. Instead, I found when I measured both of them this morning and checked with my growing chart, that neither had grown a millimeter taller since yesterday. I huffed in frustration. They had to be ready by tonight. I needed them to be. Otherwise, I wouldn't have any achievement to talk about in the barbecue.
I had no experience with gardening. My father always said I didn't have a green thumb. Not just for cultivating, but for anything. So the first thing I did when I moved out was decided I would start a garden and planted these daisies. It was the slowest, least satisfactory method of rebellion I could have chosen given that gardening is such a long process. But after a year, finally, I was supposed to have done it. I had planned to take a picture of my fully-bloomed daisies and shove it into my father's face. "See? I can do something right," I meant to brag, as petty and insignificant as it sounded. I had to stop myself from planning to take my whole gardening pot back home so he could see it in person. I convinced myself a picture was enough, even though I could already hear him dismissively saying, "You didn't plant that, Mia."
But I had already prepared for that too. Even before planting the seeds, I knew everything had to turn out perfectly or else it wouldn't have been worthy of praise. So I had bought a copy of The Farmer's Almanac and read it front to back. I didn't want to take any chances, thus I chose the most ridiculously easy flower to plant so that nothing could go wrong. It had gone smoothly so far. My chart estimated they would be ready by this morning, just in time. Except they weren’t.
I could have deluded myself into thinking that in the six hours I had left before the barbecue, my daisies might blossom at last. I could have gone about my day, preparing myself and the food for tonight and then checked on the flowers. I could have just been lucky enough that they were ready by then. Instead, I grabbed one of my gardening pots and threw it against the wall.
I walked around the broken shards as I entered my apartment and got ready for battle.
I wore a red, white and blue speckled shirt. I had been accused of being unpatriotic in the past, for merely wearing normal clothes instead of an actual flag wrapped around myself. I wasn't that desperate yet, so the shirt had to do. I stopped on the threshold of my ostentatiously adorned childhood home and triple-checked I had everything my mother had asked me to bring. I was ten minutes early. I had timed it so that I was the first one of my siblings there and I could casually say: "Oh yes, mom, I purposefully came in before time so I could help you set everything in place for our guests." That would win me plenty of points with her. Not my father, however. If only it were that easy.
I rang the doorbell and the maid let me in through the spacious entrance foyer and the blindingly-white living room out into the garden, where decorations had been set up, ranging from hanging string lights to banners displaying red, white and blue designs, to various-sized American flags strung up throughout the space.
When she saw me, my mom offered me a small stick one. "Mia, how wonderful that you're here already!" she exclaimed as she hugged me in greeting. And then she got right to the point. "Did you bring the sparklers?" she asked.
"I did," I said. "I even got extra."
"Oh that's nice," she said, just as my father made his way toward us. He acknowledged my presence with a Hi darling and a kiss on my head. "What about this? Are these the ribs?" my mother asked motioning to the covered tray I carried just as my father went to stand at her side.
My heart skipped a beat. No, no, no. Somehow I had gotten it all wrong. Despite the fact that I had called my mother twice to make sure I knew exactly what she had asked me to bring, despite checking and double-checking with my list that I had everything I needed, I had made a mistake at some point and didn't know I was in charge of bringing the ribs. My father's ribs. He wouldn't overreact, he wouldn't scream or start throwing things around. He would just look at me sadly and with disappointment as if it surprised him a little I had forgotten but he knew there was no solution to my simple-mindedness.
He would jokingly say something like It was the one thing you had to do; buying food is practically foolproof and you can't even do that? My mom would laugh it off, I would give him an uncomfortable smile and then he would go on the rest of the evening making snide remarks about my inability to do anything right and how I had ruined his holiday by failing to provide his favorite dish.
I stared at my mom in horror. Two words. My dad had said all of two friendly words to me before I screwed up my chance to have a relaxed conversation with him for the rest of the night.
My mom read the expression on my face and frowned. "They're not the ribs? What are they then?" she asked as casually as she could muster. My father looked alarmed. "They're not my ribs?" he asked worriedly.
"I... no. I thought you told me to bring hot dogs," I told my mother apologetically.
"Oh, you're right. You're right. I did tell you to bring hot dogs. I told Kate to take care of the ribs," she laughed.
I sighed in relief. Yet it didn't stop a voice at the back of my mind wondering why she had given my sister the more important responsibility of bringing what my father often called the best part of 4th of July. The only answer I could come up with is that they didn't trust me enough to do it. The thought left an ache in my chest. I didn't know why it hurt so much. I knew my sister was smarter and more reliable than me. I joked about it all the time to prove it didn't affect me at all. Maybe I had spent so much time away from my family I had forgotten the shame that came from being regarded as dumber than your younger sister. I couldn't even grow a daisy right.
I helped my mom bring the food out and place it on the table while some of the guests filed in. I said hi to aunts and uncles I only ever saw once a year, to cousins way too much younger or older than me to know them well from my childhood. My brother lived here still so he came from upstairs when my mother told him to say hello to our guests. My sister arrived just in time.
The moment she came in, my father started clapping. I knew it was because she had brought his barbecue ribs, but other people started joining in the applause thinking they were just praising Kate. She smiled good-naturedly and after a few moments of drinking in the attention, she went around thanking everyone. I resisted the urge to snort.
We had half a dozen picnic tables set in the garden. The easy part was having casual conversations with my grandparents or some distant family member while my dad and some of my uncles cooked on the barbecue. Some relatives knew so little, they asked me how I was doing in school. Sometimes I didn't bother telling them I was twenty-one and I had my own place and I just told them: School's hard but great!
The difficult part was when the food was cooked and my immediate family and I had a table for the five of us. My sister sat across from me, my father to her left and my mother and brother were on my bench, to my right.
"You know, Mia, I was talking to your cousin Lauren and she just came back from studying abroad in Thailand. She says she loved it. You should have done something like that when I suggested it to you last year," my father said in his booming voice so that anyone close to us who had a normal hearing ability could listen.
I bit my tongue to prevent myself from snapping back that he wouldn't pay for anything of mine last year because he was covering the expenses of Kate's acting university in Europe. Instead, I said in my best-trained voice, "Oh Thailand? I've heard it's beautiful."
I took a bite of my potato salad. My father eyed it disapprovingly. I feared he might start trying to convince me to eat meat again, but he just shrugged me off and asked Kate how her acting classes were going. I tuned them out and started calculating how much longer I had to stay before I could go back to my apartment. Not for another hour at least, until the fireworks display was over.
When I turned back into the conversation, my mother was praising my brother to our relatives on the table next to ours about how well he had done on a karate test last week. I heard someone ask unbelievingly, "So young and he's already a black belt?"
Jacob looked pleased with himself, as he should be, but my mother looked a little too proud. It had been two years since Jacob earned his black belt; she should be over it already.
My father joined in by saying, "Yes, we're very proud of Jacob. And Kate, who is doing magnificently in college. She recently won an acting award for Outstanding Solo Performance."
Oh, to think that if it were not for oblivious distant relatives none of the following would have happened. The old lady, who I believed to be my great-aunt, looked toward me and said: "Oh how lovely, congratulations."
My family was speechless. I didn't know how to explain to her that my father wasn't talking about me. People confusing Kate's name and mine happened often enough that it became normal, especially considering we were both girls and so close in age. But I think in this case, my aunt took in the blue tips in my hair and my somewhat eccentric fashion and assumed I was the actress.
"No, I'm... It's not me," I said curtly.
"Oh!" My great aunt said. She looked toward Kate in surprise and then embarrassingly at my parents.
"Yes..." my father said bitterly, "Mia doesn't go to college. Her last achievement was graduating high school," he said in his own twisted attempt to lighten the mood. My aunt laughed awkwardly and let herself be steered into the conversation at her own table.
Having broached the subject, my father was not about to back away. "It's been two years and you've done nothing, Mia. What do you plan on doing? What have you been doing? Aside from working at a frozen yoghurt shop?" He said that as if I was a stripper at a local club. "Do you have any hobbies? Your sister has singing lessons after her acting ones... Jacob-"
"I'm gardening," I blurted out without thinking.
He laughed and looked at me incredulously. "Gardening?" he asked. If he didn't even like the idea of me gardening I didn't want to imagine what he would think when he found out I couldn't even do it right.
"You know, all the times I said you didn't have a green thumb... I wasn't kidding," he said.
"Peter," my mother chastised him but made no further comment.
"I've been growing daisies for the past year," I said as proudly as I could manage.
"And how's that going?" my father inquired with mock interest.
"It's going great," I lied.
My sister snorted "You? Gardening?" she laughed tauntingly. She didn't do it cruelly; we messed with each other all the time. But I knew on the inside she did look down on me because she had more achievements than I did. And achievements were the measure of success. I gave my sister a mocking smile nonetheless.
My father wasn't amused. He looked at me severely and said loud enough for most surrounding people to hear, "I'm just disappointed. I expected more from you."
Something inside me broke like the shards of the gardening pot that housed the imperfect daisy I had nourished, cared for, grown and then killed earlier today merely for not being good enough.
I was so frustrated I was at a loss for words. I felt my cheeks heat up not just from embarrassment but anger. I had so many hateful truths I wanted to spit in his face that I couldn't form them into sentences fast enough. How dare he, after years of belittling me and demoralizing me through jokes or side remarks that ate away at my confidence more and more until I myself started to believe I could never be good enough... how dare he say he expected more when my whole life he had been slowly convincing me I could never amount to anything?
I suddenly saw myself as he must see me. An unstable, practically unemployed twenty-one-year-old with no college studies, no experience and practically no prospects. No future. I was a failure and he was ashamed of me and my life choices.
I must have been so physically and mentally exhausted and so angry that I remember thinking: He thinks I'm unstable and unhinged? I'll show him unhinged.
I stood up and exploded in rage in front of all our immediate and extended family during a holiday that celebrates our country's independence. I don't remember exactly what I said, but there were instances when my father started yelling at me. I didn't register what he said. For the first time ever, I didn't once stop talking when he interrupted me. I recall the look on his face though. Outrage and mortification. That was all that I saw reflected in his eyes when he looked at me.
Naturally, I also remember the most embarrassing part of my outburst. Just before I was done, I was telling him how tired I was of him constantly comparing me to Kate which went something like:
“-because Kate is so perfect! She is perfect and I should be more like her. We all should be- Let’s just all, let’s all be Kate. I’m gonna go buy ribs and be smart and do whatever the hell she does that makes you love her so damn much more than me!”
And on those last words, my voice cracked. My confidence and recklessness dissipated. The garden was in complete and utter silence. I stood up and left. No-one stopped me.
The night air was crisp as I went out into my balcony. The sounds of the city celebrating dulled my senses. There were fireworks in the distance. I faintly wondered if they were my family's, but I couldn't imagine them enjoying the fireworks after the show I had just given them. I could only picture them still sitting in shocked silence.
I heard a clink as I took a step and looked down. I hadn't bothered to clean up the daisy’s broken pot. My eyes followed the shattered pieces until I saw the dead flower on the floor. It was bent and broken and had started to wither. I looked to the other daisy, still intact. The one I hadn't taken my frustration out on. The one I had allowed to grow, if only for a little longer. It had blossomed.
I had planted both flowers under the exact same conditions. They had grown together in the same environment. But I didn't give them both equal opportunity to come into their own. I had put one down because I saw something about myself in it that I didn't like. And that was the difference.
I looked down in regret at the dead daisy at my feet. I cried until morning.
At exactly 8 AM, I measured the remaining daisy and recorded it on the chart. I watered it and moved it closer to the sunlight. So that it could keep growing.