I find it hard to sleep. I always have.
When I was younger, when things were easier and nothing hurt, I would tiptoe over to my parents’ bedroom, fisting tiny hands into my mother’s blanket, complaining about nightmares as she made room for me under the covers. My father would ruffle my hair as he rolled his eyes affectionately at my mother.
Those days have long since disintegrated, replaced by fierce arguments, as insults are hurled across the kitchen, echoing off thin walls and ringing in my head. These days, I feel like I don’t belong in my family. These days, I shrink under my own blankets, seeking cover from the carnage in the form of stories. I would lull myself to sleep by piecing together the shattered fragments of my parents’ old happiness, using only their stories and the sheer desperate desire for the arguments–they slithered underneath my skin, made everything twist and hurt inside me–to be frightened away. With each shout, I’d curl into myself, counting on pale cold fingers, thinking, this is the one where, this is the one where…
* * *
[i. This is the one where–]
–my father wonders maybe, maybe, what if he didn’t give a damn, what if he tried to learn the shape of her lips by tracing them with a trembling finger, if he just reached out and clasped a slender wrist, if he could make those pretty mahogany eyes crinkle in laughter. Then maybe she’d finally look at him with a soft “oh,” like she hadn’t known how much he had wanted to hold her, like there was more between them than just a train ride to work together and computer codes and offered cups of bitter green tea.
He wishes he could crack open his ribcage for her and let all that heartache and longing that’s blossomed in his chest spill out between each twisted bone and pool around her feet, just so she could see how much he loved her or, at the very least, so this ache would go away. But he could never; he’s not brave enough, he’s afraid (he’s not afraid now though, not afraid of hurting her feelings now). For now, he’ll settle with her fingers brushing just barely against his as she, smiling, hands him a cup of tea.
* * *
[ii. This is the one where those first soft, curious buds of attraction start to bloom into something greater, fiercer, brighter.]
The first time my mother sees him, really sees him, is on a humid summer night. She tells me how the moths had flitted around the flickering street-lamps, how silky shadows had spilled down the sides of buildings and pooled in thin alleyways between little candy and nut shops…
Her ma-ma used to warn her that ghosts liked to cling to walls drenched in darkness, which is why my mother picks up her pace from a content stroll to a more urgent stride. She’s halfway home, when a man (“Dirty,” she says when she tells me this story, wrinkling her nose in remembrance and disgust) shoves her against hard cement and lunges at her bag.
“Give it to me!” the man roars in rough Chinese, spit flying from the corners of his mouth as his soot-smudged hands rip at the satchel; a fist flies at her face and slams into her cheek. She collapses to the ground, clutching her face as the man disappears behind an alleyway.
(“Brittle,” she confesses to me. “I was bent over with humiliation. I couldn’t even stand back up and continue home.”) My mother doesn’t know how long she stays crouched on the ground picking up the shattered bits of herself and piecing them back together, but when she feels feathery fingers on her back, she whirls around in a fright, hand already curled into a tight fist. A man–a boy, really–stumbles back a little, his eyes wide. She recognizes him from work: he’s the boy who sits behind her, whose long legs sometimes kicked the back of her chair accidentally. He’s the boy who always takes that extra cup of tea ma-ma makes for her.
“Are you okay?” he asks shyly (I wonder, shyer than me?), muttering it so quietly she has to lean closer to hear him. He lowers himself to the ground, sitting back on his heels and watching her anxiously. She forces herself to stop trembling, digging her nails into her palms and letting the pain jolt her back into reality.
“I’m fine,” she says tersely, already turning away from him when she stumbles a little, and he grabs her arm. She can feel him stiffen, but his grip is strong and warm. She leans against the wall and slides down next to him. They’re silent for a while, watching the flickering dance of moth wings, amplified by the warm glow of the street-lamps. She feels broken, but (don’t you feel broken right now), swallows her pain and hides her eyes from his.
“It didn’t even hurt me,” she whispers. He doesn’t speak, just simply drums his fingers gently against the ground and, for some silly reason, the hollow thuds of his fingers against the sidewalk ease a shuddering gasp out of her mouth that gives way to salty tears dripping down her chin. They bloom into dark flowers on the concrete. He ghosts his fingers over a bluish smudge on her cheekbone, his eyes–they’re so pretty, she thinks–searching.
“It did,” he says quietly, looking away then. She turns to him, startled, and for the first time, she notices the smooth curve of his shoulders, the edge of his jaw, the pale clavicles peeking out shyly from under his rumpled collar. He stands up, smoothing the front of his shirt down, and offers to walk her home. She declines, but watches him cross the street, leaving behind the makings of something frighteningly beautiful. My mother takes a shaky breath and runs home.
It isn’t until midnight that her hands stop trembling.
* * *
[iii. And this is the one where she finally lets doubts fade away into trust, and welcomes him in.]
When my father says “I love you” for the first time, he doesn’t say it the way my mother thought it’d ought to be done. No music, no romantic candlelight like in all those smuggled-in American movies, no flashing firecrackers in the background. They’ve only been on five dates, but she sees earnestness in his eyes and in the way he drums his fingers nervously on his hip. He helps her into a little wooden boat and they both can’t stop laughing because it’s rocking so precariously and his long legs don’t fit and the summer rain soaks through their thin shirts and, ha ha, they’re the only ones out here in the middle of a lake on a rainy night like this. When the boat finally tips over they both shriek, plummeting under the surface and watching each other’s hair and clothes billow up in a rush of bubbles. They surface, drenched, and when he finally kisses her, he tastes like cigarette smoke, and sunshine, and the thin undertones of uncertainty unraveling into fragile possibility.
* * *
[iv. This is where the story ends, cut off prematurely, frayed from being pulled taut too many times until it finally snaps–]
When my mother fondly retells these stories, her eyes misting over, I scrape my fingernails against my palms, squirming in my chair. This happiness, these cherished moments, are what I need. Not the insults, not the shouts that resonate throughout the thin corridors in my house, not the pounding headaches, not the locked doors, not the skipped meals, not the broken furniture, but this. I need this love, this laughter, to fill up the cracks and chase away the nightmares. I need this, so I can stop looking back and wishing, until my throat is sore and my head is swollen with unvoiced desires, for the past to replace the present.
* * *
[v. This is the one where I wake up and my parents are still fighting, and I, I–]
Sometimes when I wake up, I can’t distinguish the arguments from the dreams of moments when everything was easy and nothing hurt. I mix and mesh the stories they’ve told me with the words they hurl like daggers at each other, until my head is full of cacophony and dissonance and laughter and tears–
“–I don’t give a damn anymore–”
(maybe, maybe, what if he didn’t give a damn)
“–You’re so impossible, how could I not have seen, not have known, why did we even–”
(the first time my mother sees him, really sees him)
“–It’s all your fault. It’s always your fault–“
(picking up the shattered bits of herself and piecing them back together)
“–I don’t want to see your face, just get out–”
(leaving behind the makings of something frighteningly–)
“–I could have had anyone, and I chose you!”
(“It didn’t even hurt me.”)
There’s a silence hanging thick and static in the air between them, both of them panting and trembling, hands curled into white-knuckled fists, shoulders weighed down with desolation. Sweat drips off their faces and blooms into little dark flowers on their shirts.
My mother tells me later, among the demolition, that “It didn’t even matter.” I look away, and trace the fine wrinkles on her quivering hands.
* * *
I haven’t forgotten their stories, even when they themselves seem to have. Sometimes, I lie on my bed and arrange their stories in my mind, like a puzzle, behind closed eyes. This is the one where they had their first date, and this is the one where my mother bought her wedding gown, and this is the one, this is the one…But these stories have begun to flicker and now, I wonder if they had truly been beloved memories, or just pretty fairytales to lull me to sleep. So because these stories are filled with bitterness and regret, I will slip them in through the cracks in my skin and fill myself to the brim with them. I will replace the ones that used to carry me to sleep with my own.
This is the one where blood fills my mouth, hot and bitter, when I bite my tongue too hard to keep from breaking. This is the one where I ghost around the edges of the kitchen when they scream at each other, gripping themselves as if they were afraid their emotions would spill from eyes and mouths if they didn’t hold themselves tightly enough. This is the one where my father meets my gaze and there’s a fleeting vulnerability exposed in his tired eyes. This time, instead of ducking my head to avoid him, I lift my arms, reach out towards him. This time, I realize that my throat is thick not with anger, but with a love so strong for the two of them together, that it sweeps my breath away.
This is the one where I pull myself together because no one else will. It’s so incredibly hard to do at times, but I won’t give up on them or myself. This is the one where I’ll find a way, any way, to smooth those creases in their foreheads and wipe away the trembling tears, to do my best to patch up this strained relationship for them.
Anything for them.
Always, always for them.
Claudia Fang, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key