by Margaret Guy
My dreams faded slowly at dawn, and I had nothing left that morning but the unbearable warmth of my bed, a bitter taste in my mouth and a restless fly buzzing on the ceiling of my room.
I wanted that morning to go by as quickly as possible. Yet, I knew that it was going to be a long, hot morning, just like all the other mornings we’ve had that summer.
It had already begun as usual. John, my brother, was burning the breakfast in the kitchen, my mother was bargaining with the produce vendor in the street, and two little boys were arguing in our front yard.
“Twenty drachmas,” the vendor’s voice entered my room through the open window.
“Fifteen,” insisted my mother.
“My father has a gold watch,” boasted the voice of one of the little boys.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said the other, “mine has one hundred gold coins. A million even.”
I got up and walked to the window. The air was filled with a warm smell of soap bubbles and over-ripe loquats. I stared at the big sign across the street of a huge hat with the suggestion of a smiling face underneath it advertizing a brand of Colombian coffee, and emptiness dominated my heart. One of the boys looked up at me, smiled and returned to his boasting.
“We are going to buy a villa by the sea.”
“Fifteen drachmas for this water-melon!” yelled the vendor outraged, “I would rather throw it away than sell it for only fifteen drachmas.”
He raised it up over his head and threw it on the ground; chunks of rubies on a dull pavement sparkled under the brilliant sun.
“Oh!” exclaimed the two boys in disbelief, their mouths agape.
My mother smiled with satisfaction at having managed to drive the vendor to a frenzy.
I detested the bargaining of the adults, the hopeless dreaming of the children. I wanted to go back to bed and lie there with no feelings, no thoughts, no familiar scenes, no beloved sounds. The sheets were too white and too warm. I couldn’t seek refuge under them.
John walked into my room and stood next to me by the window.
“I burned your breakfast,” he said.
I ignored his statement. I stared at my mother down the street instead. She was wearing my sandals.
“I must let her have them,” I whispered.
“You must let her have what?” John asked, puzzled.
He looked down at them. A strange look. He didn’t understand. He put his hand on my head and began an abstract play with my hair. I pulled away. I resented his assumed role of my protector. His possessiveness of me. Where was he when I was growing up alone on the other side of the world? My mother had let me go at the age of fifteen to the United States to study, and I had spent the entire time there wondering whether she had done it out of love or indifference. I feared to ask; she never volunteered to tell me.
I had returned home after studying abroad for several years. I needed to belong.
Alas, nothing was the same. Memories were dreams. Feelings were mere illusions. I wanted to escape.
Mama entered my room with her basket of produce.
“I bought you some strawberries.”
There were tears in her eyes. Whether out of regret for having let me go the first time or sorrow that I was leaving again, I didn’t know. She was losing me; the tears would stay with her, constant reminders of a choice she had made.
I wanted to say something nice, something comforting to her. A poem by Emily Dickinson sped through my mind too quickly to retain. In any case, it would have been of no use. My mother didn’t know English and expected no poems. Only an indication of love, a caring touch. This, I wasn’t able to give. Her decision had made me a stranger in both of my worlds. I could not forgive her. I skipped over my suitcases and walked into the kitchen to have breakfast.
I brushed my teeth longer and harder than usual after it. As if I had a race with the face in the mirror that stared back at me with tenacity. I got dressed, put the remainder of my things into one of the suitcases and sat by the window to wait.
Strange thoughts began to flash through my mind as I waited. Incomplete and nonsensical. To numb the pain. To erase time. “The sun rises always from the same spot… Black beetles are really not ugly… Butterflies are like little girls… but not all little girls are the same… White stands for purity… but somewhere in the world it stands for sorrow… white sheets… shrouds.”
In an attempt to escape from this odd reverie, I looked at my doll thrown on a chair, upside down. To hide her face. She was the only doll I had ever possessed. I had forgotten it outdoors on a hot summer day when I was still a child. The sun had cracked her face, and I had loved her even more than before because of this.
The doll could have remained the same at least. A sweet, sad, cracked face. My mother had given it to be fixed and repainted in my absence. To surprise me. To please me. It now looked like a strange, apathetic idol that had been brought from the Far East by a sailor with bad taste. I could not bare it. I took the doll in my arms and walked out of the house.
A little girl, making mud pies in the street, pointed at her creations with pride. I handed her the doll. The child stared at me in disbelief and took it. Her muddy fingers on the doll gave it an aspect of belonging. I smiled.
I continued down the street, along the creek, to kill time. The trees on the banks seemed dusty, thirsty, their branches sagging, as if once they had looked up, had been disappointed and had decided to look down again, to the known, the safe, only to discover that there was no relief from their thirst there either. The creek snaked lazily under the burning sun.
Memories of my childhood friend Tula and me walking along this creek in the evenings after our music lesson, many years ago, flashed through my mind. We would reflect with the lights of the cars shining in the water, and laugh the carefree laughter of children, dream the naive dreaming of youth.
She and I had corresponded all the years I was away. Our letters had been a haven for us. In them, I had relieved the loneliness I felt in the foreign land and my longing for my country, described my life with a childless, misery and abusive guardian, and expressed pride in my academic achievements. Tula had lamented over her arranged marriage to an air force colonal, old enough to be her father, and described the disappointment in a honeymoon shared with her mother-in-law. She had written of her pain over her inability to conceive and the chastising she tolerated over it. We had detailed all the sleepless nights we had spent on tear-soaked pillows, mourning for unrealized dreams, for hopes gone wrong, for youth cut short. We had both been thrown in deep water when we didn’t yet know how to swim. I had surfaced through mere determination; Tula was struggling not to drown.
I called her the moment I had returned.
“Meet me at Le Papillon,” she had said over the phone. Le Papillon was a popular café in the business section of the city. A good tourist café. We met there, drank iced coffee, and chatted about the heat, the German tourists, theprice of grapes…
Gazing now at the creek, I began to go over our conversation at the café, trying to understand our reluctance to exhibit the trust we had shown in our letters. Was it to elude the realization that the comfort and joy of being together were things of a spring-time gone? Or, was it the knowledge that fate had destined us to tread on different paths? Perhaps, both.
“I have hardly unpacked my suitcases, and John is already arranging a marriage for me,” I had blurted, amid our flippant conversation.
“I am suffocating,” I had continued. “I detest my mother’s resignation to life and abhor my brother’s overbearing protectiveness of me. It’s all wrong.”
Tula had looked at me with tear-flooded eyes.
“Go back to America,” she had said with resolve.
The tears, round and clear, had run at even intervals from her long lashes, down her cheeks and onto the marble table top.
I had handed her a tissue, stroked her hand gently and become silent. I had loved her once with a pure, white passion. Even that had changed. I felt only empathy for her now.
* * *
I let my body relax in the back seat of the taxi as it sped through the congested streets of the city on the way to the airport. The wind blew on my face hot, full of car exhausts. The heat formed ripples in the air, making everything appear hazy and gray in spite of the bright sun. I shivered at the thought that what lay ahead of me was similarly unclear and tried to convince myself that its uncertainty was pregnant with possibilities.
My mind raced to Tula as I checked the time on my watch. Five o’clock. She was probably serving her husband and mother-in-law their afternoon coffee, in pretty demitasse cups, on their vine-covered veranda. A dutiful wife. Completely insulated from her spirit.
I glanced at my mother sitting next to me. As always, she was dressed in black, her dark wavy hair pulled back into an austere bun. Obedient to the unwritten laws of her culture, she had worn black and had never remarried after my father’s death, many years ago.
She never wore jewelry, but, at that moment, the ever-present teardrops on her olive-color cheeks shone in the sunlight like precious stones. She was silent and sad. I wanted to be sad too. I wanted to cry. I wanted to show her that I loved her. I could neither be sad nor cry, and felt no love. Inside my rib cage, a bird fluttered to escape to a place where things had been and would always be strange, where I had been and would always be a stranger. I t was so much less painful than feeling encaged among people and things I had known and loved.
“Good-bye,” said John at the airport. “You can still change your mind and stay with us.”
My mother said nothing to keep me. I kissed her quickly and hurried toward the boarding gate. I never looked back. I could not have known then that many years later my mother would die alone and that I, miles away, would lose part of my self along with her.
Seen from the tiny window of the plane, the people on the deck of the airport building appeared restless like ants at the edge of their nest disturbed by a careless boot. Dark against the bright sun, they had lost identity. Whether my mother and John were there, I couldn’t tell.
As the plane took off, I looked at the bare rocks along the coast and the sickly pine trees that grew on them. They were there, rooted to their destiny. Like Tula. Like my mother. They had no choice. I did. Suddenly, I had the answer to the question I had feared to ask.
I rested my head on the soft cushion of my seat and closed my eyes. At last, I could cry.