It’s been more than a year since I have seen my mother and father and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss them. We left things off in a way that’s sat uncomfortably in my stomach, a growing tumor of regret. Even if I do regret what was said, I know it’s what needed to be done if I want to remain the person I am now. I’ve changed so much, it’s clear even to me. Looking at myself in the mirror I am unrecognizable. My hair has gone curly. My glasses give my face a more mature, grown-up look. My cheeks have filled in. My facial features are smoothed out, jutting out less stubbornly than before. I look like an adult. Grown up, educated, and matured. I only hope my parents see me that way.
As I see their practical pickup truck in their gravel driveway up ahead, doubt crashes over me. Like an unforeseen wave, giving me no time to breathe or turn away, I am enveloped. I hit the brakes, hard, and bash my head against the steering wheel. The rain hits the windshield of my car like a ticking clock, and I wonder if coming here was a bad idea. What if all the progress I’ve made will unwind and shrivel up to nothing after retreating back into the sheltered life of my family? What if they convince me not to go back to school? What if I let their voices live in my head rent-free and try to change myself to fit their idea of a daughter like I always do?
This last year at a real school, full of real, genuine people who truly want me to learn, has been the best year of my life. Sometimes I walk into the library, and stand there in awe of all the books, all the knowledge at my fingertips, until the librarian tells me that I have to move. Education is a powerful thing. Maybe I will be able to convince my parents of that.
I put my foot on the gas again, slightly more confident now, and speed up their driveway until I am parked parallel to their plain truck. That truck gives you a basic description of who my family is and what they believe in. They are simple people, which, in it’s own way, is a beautiful, modest thing. The only exception being when you don’t want to live a simple life. Try growing up in a home like this and trying to be something, anything, different from what your parents want you to be. You cannot wear whatever you like, in an attempt to stand out and express yourself. You cannot go and get an education and try to change the world for someone less fortunate than you. You cannot stand up and advocate for something you believe in if it draws more attention to you than necessary. You cannot be yourself without having every little part of you modified, critiqued and simplified by your ever so loving parents. You cannot live your own life.
I climb out of the car, grabbing my purse from beside me, and my suitcase from the backseat. Little bursts of panic claw at my stomach like a caged animal. It’s like lifting weights each time I heave one my feet to get to the door. My muscles tense and loosen with every step, a pattern I repeat over and over until they cramp up.
Before knocking, I note every little thing about me that my parents will disapprove of. My purse has jewels studding the top of the bag, that are ‘too flashy’, my father will say. My dress doesn’t reach my ankles and I’m not wearing stockings under it. My earrings are more glamorous and flashy than just simple studs. My makeup is ‘excessive’, they will tell me. I reach up to take off my earrings, and then am angry with myself. This is how I used to think, how I used to act when my family still had this kind of power over me. This is old Alba behavior.
And so I knock, a confident, brisk knock that I hope will show them everything I’ve become. In a matter of seconds, the door is opened by my mother. She gives me one look, up and down. In these moments, I find myself critiquing myself as well, like I’m in her head noticing everything flawed about myself. She clucks her tongue with disapproval.
My father says nothing. Standing behind her noiselessly, his powerful aura impacts me even in his silence. The disappointment is vivid on his face. I feel like tucking my tail between my legs and scurrying right back where I came from.
“Eugene will be here Wednesday morning,” Mother says simply, then returns to whatever Christmas preparations she was doing before. Today is Monday. I sigh. Why couldn’t I have coordinated my schedule with my brother before I’d showed up? Eugene is my parents' pride and joy, and their most treasured child. When he’s here, the spotlight and critique is drawn off me and focused into praise for him instead. He goes to a school with a similar level of respect to mine, yet his education is praised, paid for, and acknowledged. My oldest brother has met my parents’ criteria too, along with my big sister. She got married to a respected man, and wastes her days away in the kitchen like my mother. It is only me, the oddball, who has let my parents down to this level. I am a disappointment. And so I stand here, in this home that used to be mine, with this family that used to be mine, and this person that used to be me. My dad’s somber eyes never leave my face, until he turns, slowly, and returns to his comfortable life without me.
Dinner is a quiet affair, which I despise. This person I have become is not someone quiet, who keeps their voice and opinions to herself like the quiet housewife she was born to be. I know this, and yet I’m still wordless. It is an awkward, sullen silence, that makes me wish for the morning when Eugene will arrive. Dad clears his throat uncomfortably, and attempts to break the uncomfortable hush that has fallen over us.
“Do you think school was a mistake?” he asks me.
I look up at him, a fire and passion in my eyes that I know, without a doubt, is completely and wholly the new Alba. I’m proud of this, but these feelings don’t last long.
When I open my mouth to voice the blind rage that I feel, no words escape but a quiet, practically inaudible sound that is exactly the response my parents were hoping for. The intimidating look in my dad’s eyes scare me into silence. My eyes lose their fire and return meekly to my plate.
“School isn’t where girls belong, Alba. They belong at home, in the kitchen, tending to their families.” My mother chides me.
I feel another wave of anger, so frustrated that my parents are stuck living in the early years of the nineteenth century, that they don’t understand that I am equally as capable of being a success as Eugene. But again, when I open my mouth to try and spit the anger I feel, my lips glue shut. I hate myself for this.
I go back to my food and shovel it angrily in my mouth. This isn’t the way I’m supposed to deal with my anger. I’m supposed to express it. I’m supposed to be the vocal one. At least, that’s what all the kids in my classes tell me. I am the one who asks the questions everyone else is afraid to ask, the one who voices opinions everyone else is too timid to share. The person I have reverted to, even in the span of one night, I would be ashamed to let my peers see.
The next few hours that pass are filled with questions and remarks like that, and every time, I make some stupid, uneducated reply that proves my parents right. Everything I do reminds me of my older sister and my mom. Their quiet demeanor, their quick, dull responses and simple actions that draw attention away from themselves.
“You eat like a savage,” my mother remarks at some point, coming over to my chair, straightening my back and adjusting my neck.
My father makes a comment that my makeup is distracting and unnecessary. I see the words he wants to call me flashing around his head, and the effort that passes over his face trying to restrain himself from saying them. I see disgust in both of their eyes when I wipe my mouth with my sleeve, and pick up my fork in a fist. And instead of saying something about how I don’t like their judging or standing up for my appearance, I say nothing. I sit meekly at the table, the way a quiet, weak-minded housewife should. The way I should not. That night, I wipe off my makeup and don’t reapply it in the morning.
Breakfast is waiting for me on the table when I wake up. A note sits beside it.
‘Father and I have gone out to get a Christmas tree. We thought you would join us, but clearly your schooling has made you lazy and you’ve forgotten punctuality. Fix up some chicken and vegetables for lunch. -Mother’
I sit down and eat my cold breakfast, dejected and alone.
I start making lunch at about ten in the morning, because I am so afraid of their opinions, so afraid of failing them that it becomes the only question I ask myself while I cook.
Would mother have cooked it this way? Would she have used these ingredients? Does dad like garlic?
Yet still, even if I made a lunch worthy of royalty, they will find something that could have been done better. I will never be enough. Not for them.
When the chicken is in the oven, I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the oven glass. I freeze, crouched on the cold linoleum floor that my parents have never bothered to update. I see similarities between myself and my mother that I’ve never noticed before. My glasses lay on the counter, revealing my dark, beady eyes, like my mothers. My hair is pulled back, and you can’t see it’s curly features from this position. The angular points of my face, the arch of my brow and the curve of my lips are revealed, all of them symmetrical to my mothers. Maybe I am as dull as my mother, meant to live my life as a cook and nurse. A plain, basic housewife. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a scholar and activist. Maybe I never have. I turn away, because it’s all too much for me to think about.
The chicken is done shortly before my parents return with the Christmas tree, and I cut it into thin pieces and lather it in spices I know my parents like. I lay it out onto three plates, and put sprigs of berries in pretty little patterns alongside it. And then I hate myself for caring about their opinions, so I take them off and replace it with chopped vegetables. I put the plates back in the oven and wait for them to come home.
The second I hear the door open, I stand quickly from my perch on the edge of Viola, my older sister’s bed, and bolt for the door to greet them. I stop in the hall to flatten my hair, and smooth my dress. I’m not proud that I have retreated into this Alba, this Alba whose only goal is to please her parents. Constantly trying to validate herself and comparing herself to other girls, her other siblings, everyone.
That’s not who I have become. I am someone whose actions are solely controlled by my own will. So why do I still run to his side when my father’s commanding voice calls my name from the dining room? Why do I run to the oven to present the lunch I slaved over for hours, and tell him and my mother I just whipped it up? Why do their opinions matter to me if I truly am who I think I have become?
I don’t help with dinner that night. Mom excuses me to spend time with dad. I’m relieved, but also humiliated. If my lunch had been any good, like Viola’s cooking, she would be begging me to help her in the kitchen. But instead of voicing my opinions like for the last year I’ve been training to do, I thank her, and scurry off to get my dad a beer.
We play scrabble, which is less fun with only two people, but still fun because I win the first round. I play the word ‘exorcise’, and my Father tells me I’ve spelled ‘exercise’ wrong, and laughs at my so-called mistake. When the game is over, and I’ve won by a great extent, he tells me what a disgust I am, trying to flex my knowledge to make him feel less important. ‘I’m the man,’ he tells me, ‘it's disgusting how you’re making up these words to belittle me.’ I look away guiltily. The next round, my first word is ‘cat’ and my father wins. He grins, his yellow-stained teeth showing, and tells me I had beginners luck. I smile weakly, and the afternoon passes slowly.
Dinner is delicious that night, and when I gobble up my plate and ask for seconds, I’m met with a shameful look, and called a pig. Only when my father finishes, moments after me, and asks for more, my mother apologizes for not serving him enough. I want to speak up, say that I’m hungry too, that there’s plenty of food for both of us to have more, but I don’t. I sit quietly until my father is done eating.
After dinner, we sit down in the living room, and have an adult-like conversation with wine and everything. Or rather, my parents do. They talk about economics, and the stock market. I even studied economics in my first year, only I can’t think of anything intelligent to say. After a while, mother looks over at me and says: “Look at our precious child. Just listening, like a respectful young woman should.” Mom smiles. I swell and blush, even though I have mixed feelings about her praise. She’s applauding me for keeping my thoughts to myself. Isn’t that the opposite of the image I want?
I go to bed that night feeling proud of what I’ve accomplished, but also with a hunger for more compliments, for more validation and praise. This unhealthy need to surpass their every need engulfs me, and I can’t see beyond it.
I’ll do even better tomorrow, I whisper to myself in a gushing voice. I will be the perfect daughter, even if just for a day.
When Eugene comes the next morning, I am relieved, but I also feel a pang of jealousy. There goes my spotlight, I think, and then am guilty about that thought.
He shows up in his glasses (much like the ones I wear) and formal suit. Mother and Father greet him with open arms, praising his mature look, his books and ‘exceptional’ grades. In truth, my grades surpass his by a landslide, but I say nothing, because outspoken women are disrespectful women. “Well,” my mother says to him, loud enough so that I can hear, “there’s a boy who strives to make his parents proud.” I return to my room.
I lie on my pillow for a while, until Eugene comes to talk to me. I feel like a child, who has had a tantrum and stormed off to her room, insignificant and immature. But then I recall that this is the way my family has always made me feel, and I don't understand why I have come back to this place that has such power over me.
Because you thought this year would be different, Alba. You thought you could make them respect you if only you’d showed them how much you’d grown.
I then realized my mistake. My family had never wanted me to grow. Not if it meant I outgrew their lifestyle.
“I heard you’re doing well at your school, Alba.” I shrug modestly, although Eugene’s praise was at least meaningful.
He stands thoughtfully, leaning back against the wall. “You don’t need to do that around me, Alba.”
I look up at him curiously. “Do what?”
“Be who you are around them,” he nods toward the kitchen and living room where Mother and Father are. “Act like you’re insignificant. Draw attention away from yourself. Keep your thoughts to yourself. I know that’s not who you are. Even my professor showed me a clip from the rally you spoke at in October.”
My eyes widen. “Did mother and father see it?” I ask, panic etching it’s way into my voice.
Eugene shrugs. “But who cares if they did. They need to get over themselves. You’re your own person, and you can go to school if you want. Heck, your grades are far better than mine. They pretend you’re some unintelligent housewife who should be bound to the kitchen, like Mom and Viola, sharing your opinions only with the broccoli and chicken. You’ve got a voice, Alba. Speak it. Don’t let them stop you.”
I have tears in my eyes when he’s done talking. I thank him and give him a hug. Then I make a decision that will change the course of the rest of my life. I pack up my bags and leave this controlling house, obliterating the power it has held over me since birth. I’m finally free.