The things I carry: my purse full of objects, a cell phone, my wallet, my metrocard; my friends and acquaintances, my sun glasses, a world full of knowledge, a pair of earrings, my memories, my curiosity, a pen, my makeup, a book sometimes, my hopes and dreams, and other little things. I bear the burden of sadness, a cumbersome weight. A handful of hope eases the burden a touch. But the memories persist, a slippery load, some falling off while others take their place. What burdens do you have? Are they back-breaking like mine? Or do they appear light as snow and melt before touching your soul? What darkness do they bring? Or is light their only ware? My burdens are gray. They follow me in sleep and cloud my dreams. They orbit my mind and gather in my heart. They seep through my eyes and bury my smiles. They’re my burdens, just mine. I would trade them if I could but would I be trading my soul?
Monthly Archives: November 2013
Everyone has a story to tell. Some more than others but most have at least one. I’ve often looked at strangers on the subway and wondered what their stories were. A young girl with green headphones, torn blue jeans, and bright red lipstick sits opposite me, staring intently at her phone as if it contained the answers she’d been searching for. An older woman, perhaps forty, with her hair in a bun and tired eyes stared blankly in front of her. She must be a teacher. A middle-aged man sits with his leg crossed and a newspaper in hand. His dark gray suit made him remarkable in that eclectic subway crowd. His neatly combed hair seemed immovable. There were grays sprinkled along the edges and he smiled to himself. Maybe he was thinking of a beautiful wife waiting eagerly for him to return home from a long day’s work. My story is not unique, far from it. I am literally one of millions, alone, dissatisfied, aching for more, but more of what remains to be seen. I am a lover without love, a romantic without romance, a dreamer without dreams. Like so many others, I feel lost. The path before me lies in darkness and I must proceed with caution amid the other likewise lost and weary travelers. We all cling to a past that perhaps never was and look forward to a time that may never be.
My story began in a faraway place that memory has now colored with the reds and golds of nostalgia, leaving me all blue. I sometimes lay in bed thinking about the days of my past, searching in the tunnels of my memory. One tunnel leads to my childhood in Guyana. I seem to see myself a girl, innocent in the ways of the world but more than experienced in heartache. A household ravaged by anger, marred by fear, and sullied with the sneer of indifference takes form in a nebulous scene. I see the verandah where I first observed the world pass by while I remained frozen in my wonder. I see rivers of people flood past my vision, young boys in bicycles hooting at maturing females with coy smiles and defiant hips. I see my father cutting the grass in our front yard with a newly sharpened cutlass. The smell of freshly cut grass almost overwhelms me as I saunter by and note the glistening edge of the cutlass as it whizzes back and forth in his capable hands. I see my mother sweeping the gray concrete floor of our shop with a homemade broom made from the branches of our coconut trees. My sister is noticeably absent from my visions. I see her in rare moments like lanterns in a starless sky, like when we lay in bed stretching our arms to heaven for as long as possible to see whose would tire first. Or when we’d wake up on Christmas mornings to discover plastic bags filled with a medley of candies, fruits, and other delightful edibles that made childhood seem a happier time. I remember in particular a chocolate rabbit that my uncle sent from America. I’d nibble on it for days and days until there was nothing left but the hollowed out foot, which I savored knowing I wouldn’t have such another until possibly next Christmas. I used to melt the chocolate in my palm, make swirls in it with my finger, then lick it clean.
My sister was older and preferred reading Harlequin novels to playing in the backyard or watching television as voraciously as I did. Her nose would be buried in a book more often than not. It was her way of escaping from our life. I was too young to adopt her method. I had no friends or playmates my own age. My sole companion was my cat. She was a quiet vicious creature, well-versed in the art of stealing fried fish when my father looked away. He would chase her with his newly sharpened cutlass shouting expletives while her orange and white tail disappeared swiftly out the side door. She was known only as ‘the cat’ because in those days pets lived in the perimeters of human society, living off the scraps they chose to reward them, so were not given names of their own. She would often follow me to the backyard, the silent companion of my lonely wanderings.
I see myself walking with bare feet first on the warm concrete floor, past the zinc gate leading to the backyard, then finally stepping onto the cool, moist earth sprinkled with grass and fallen leaves from the towering trees. I used to skim the trees for fruits: mangoes, cherries, guavas, sometimes coconuts if I felt thirsty. A ripe guava more often than not tempted me to climb up the eight foot zinc fence that bordered our backyard. I risked life and limb more often than anyone knew for my parents were always busy with running our dry goods shop, inherited from my grandfather then living in Canada. They were both teachers but ran the shop in the evenings and on weekends, so they never had much time for us girls, and being girls, we were not allowed to venture outside of our immediate environs.
I dreamt a universe in that backyard, replete with ghosts and demons and wildlife, even if it was just the cat staring at me with flashing golden orbs hidden amongst green and yellow leaves high above the common earth. She liked to haunt high places and observe the doings of men from a distance, a feline goddess passing judgement on her all too human subjects. She was the only god I worshiped and I was the only subject whose caresses she would tolerate. I paid my obeisance through such worthy gifts as pieces of shrimp that my mother left me to guard as they dried on a sheet on the roof or pieces of fried fish my father would cook to ‘chase’ his liquor with. She’d nibble on bits of bones on the worn and dirty white linoleum floor while my father chewed on bits of bone on the worn and creaking green rocking chair as he watched an episode of his favorite television show. “Three’s Company” never failed to excite howls of laughter from my father as he watched yet another antic from his favorite, Jack Tripper.
My mother was often cooking rice or roti or any assortment of vegetables, bhagi, bora, or my least favorite, pumpkin. I see her bending over a bucket filled with soapy water, sitting on a low wooden stool, washing our clothes and then hanging them up to dry with wooden clothes pins on lines hung in the yard. I’d be no help. Instead I would follow the cat as she searched for prey, like a lizard basking on the trunk of a tree in our yard, or a bat flying out from under the roof in the warm dusky evenings. Sometimes she’d find frogs to harass, ugly croaking things with bulging bellies that glistened under the florescent light of the shop. They’d hop hither and thither and she’d swat at them every once in a while or sit and stare at them for long periods of time, as if trying to figure out what exactly they were and if they were edible in any way.
Our shop contained two long rectangular glass cases in which there could be found anything from freshly baked bread to caramel candy to chips and loads of other goodies that my sister and I would steal on days we pretended to be sick so that we could watch cartoons all day at home instead of going to school. We had three channels on the television, my favorite was HBO. I watched a lot of movies on that channel, most of which I remember being horror stories. I used to be afraid to venture alone upstairs at night lest blood-thirsty monsters or soul-sucking demons with glowing red eyes and razor sharp claws grabbed me in one of the many darkened corners of the house. Those corners were the locales of many daytime adventures but nighttime was too menacing for games of that sort. On weekends I’d build forts out of seat cushions, climb the rails and counter-tops that speckled the house and hop from one room to another since the ground was fraught with such dangers as snakes or scorpions or streams of lava and I would perish if I fell. There were many niches to hide in and roofs to clamber in that enormous house; many secret places haunted by a little girl with long unruly black hair and ancient eyes.
As I grew up books, formerly in the background, became the center of my life. I started reading my sister’s Harlequins and dreamt of finding my future husband on a lonely sheep farm in Australia or on a plane that was hijacked by terrorists, or in a jungle somewhere in Africa. I was a kidnapped princess or a dowdy secretary or a spoiled rich girl humbled by the man she loves. My life was lived vicariously in the lives of fictional characters that I dreamed of someday becoming. They were a far cry from reality.
Reality was being locked in a closet for an immeasurable period while the screams of my mother and father, as they hurled abuses at each other in a game of verbal ping pong, reached my ears muffled through the wooden door and the fleshy fingers covering my ears. Some days she would lock him outside of the house in his inebriated state and my throat would tighten and salty warm tears would roll down my cheeks as I listened to him call my name, begging me to open the door for him. He would scream and shout and the filthiest curses would fall from his tongue like so many drops of rain dripping onto my memory. After a while he would quiet down, mumbling every once in a while before finally drifting off to sleep on one of the wooden benches outside. With the departure of night, so would the memories of his behavior the night before fade and he would complain of a hangover, appealing for sympathy for his onerous sufferings.
Sometimes he’d be locked out for days and my mother would stuff us with treats from the shop to appease our sorrows. Sodas and cookies and chocolate galore to sweeten the sour days and long, bitter nights. Sometimes we would run away from home, to a neighbor’s or friend’s house, three wanderers dependent on the kindness of strangers who understood and sympathized with the plight of my mother. I discovered Little Women during one of these expeditions and fell in love with the German professor as Jo did. I remember a hammock and a black cat that hissed at me when I grabbed its tail. I remember the pitying looks of the woman we stayed with, even though her own husband was a drunk, though not the abusive kind. Once my father went away for a month and when he finally came back he charmed his way into our hearts once again. It’s easy to forgive, not so easy to forget.
We tell stories with every word we utter, with the way we dress, and the choices we make. My parents chose to leave our home in Guyana, the only life they knew, when I was thirteen and my story changed. No longer surrounded by the familiar faces of my childhood, I lost myself along with my accent. Brown water became blue, brown earth became white sand, and friends disappeared. I lived on an island with my parents as my sole companions since my sister left for New York after high school. I see the vast ocean spread before my feet on warm sunny days or clouds of grey heralding a coming storm during hurricane season. I see the little neighbor boy running with bare brown feet, heedless of thorns, a happy youth named Pietro with a sister called Gracias.
A portrait of pastels greets my vision as I travel further down the road of my past, pinks and yellows and blues, a bit of green here and there, a dash of red to spice things up. I see a diet of crabs, coconuts, and conch upon which the islanders subsisted. My father would fish on weekends. I see him standing motionless in the crystal clear water, laying in wait for his defenseless prey. I see the shimmering colorful bodies gasping for breath on the sun-baked sand and hear squeals of delight from Pietro as he ambled back and forth between my father and me. For me, life on an island meant daydreaming of cities and crowds, of lights and noise and love. For some it meant comfort, for others an unnameable longing, a game of dominoes on occasion, a touch of infidelity on the side. Such was my new life, a life bereft of television and friends, with books to keep me company. I read the stories of others and lived in them as if they were my own. I felt the sorrows on the page, partook of its joys, understood its sufferings. I had no story of my own then. My story has yet to be told, but in the meantime I make up stories, about the girl with the green scarf and oversized sunglasses who faintly smiles, perhaps as she recalls a fond memory.
Most nights he’d come home drunk, stumbling in the darkness, singing at the top of his lungs some old song from some old Indian movie. He had a bushy beard and eyes as dark as the devil’s I sometimes thought. His white teeth shone in the dimly lit downstairs living room. My mother would unbar the door for him while my sister and I cowered upstairs in our beds our hearts beating so loudly we could barely hear anything even though listened intently in the inky blackness, fearful lest he should call our names, deathly afraid of what the night had in store for us.
On nights when my mother couldn’t persuade him otherwise he’d rouse us from our often feigned slumber, violently if necessary, and force us to join him in a late night repast, even though our bellies were full and all we wanted to do was sleep. In the semi-circular arc of light shed by the oil lamp he’d crack jokes if in good humor or rant about some imagined insult to his pride if not. But some nights, some nights he’d talk about the days of his childhood, about the days of hope. We would sit, my sister and I, beside him at the small wooden table in the living room while he ate and remembered.
“I never had shoes growing up,” he’d begin as he dipped his dark fingers into the bowl of rice and curried fish. “I lived in the bushes and walked with my bare feet three miles to school everyday.”
My father was from a large family, one of eight children. It would have been ten but two died before they reached the age of four. His mother was kind, always with a smile on her brown yet rosy face. She was plump but constantly on the move, sweeping the two-storey wooden house with a broom made from coconut tree leaves, feeding the ducks and chickens in the yard, cooking roti or dhal in the kitchen, or washing clothes in the wash basin and then hanging them up to dry in the yard. Her husband was a butcher and a fisherman and sometimes illegal distributor of moonshine. He would travel from house to house peddling his wares in the wee hours of the morning, up with the rooster at dawn, returning late at night in a fierce mood aroused by the alcohol he had been ingesting all day. He was an alcoholic who physically or verbally assaulted his wife every time he was drunk. But that’s not the story my father told. That was common knowledge. Most of the men in our family were drunks, and not the nice kind. Their wives bore the brunt of their unfulfilled dreams and their latent desires. No one thought about what the children may have suffered.
The story my father would most frequently tell happened when he was a boy of thirteen. He never had a toothbrush growing up in Black Bush. There they used sticks from the sage tree to brush their teeth. There cows and goats, chickens and ducks, alligators and snakes would wander freely in backyards that were like jungles. There were spaces cleared for small gardens but most of the vegetation grew wildly, unhindered by human interference. Past the village there were endless fields of rice paddies where many of the men in the village also worked and fished. They would tread in the muddy waters that sometimes rose to their waists, with woven baskets hanging on their hips to hold the fish they’d catch. Some would carry flasks of alcohol to ease the tedium of a long day’s work. My grandfather apparently made his own. He was a bootlegger and made extra money doing that, amongst other things. I never met him. He died when I was nine days old. He died before reaching forty. My father always feared he would also die as young as his father did.
When he was thirteen my father broke his right wrist. He stumbled on his walk one day and injured his wrist so that he couldn’t write. This was a problem because in less than two weeks he had to take an exam, one that would determine the course of his future. But he didn’t know this at the time. All he knew was that he wouldn’t be able to take the test, given his injury. But fate had other plans it seemed. When his old English teacher, Sir Austen, found out he refused to allow this accident to disrupt hopes for one of his favorite and best students. My father protested that he had no choice, his own father didn’t have enough money to even pay for him to take the exam.
“But this man,” he proudly related, “he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He knew I was intelligent and had more faith in me than even my own father did.”
Sir Austen promised to loan him the funds but he would have to do the rest. So my father made a decision. He would take the exam and repay his mentor for his belief in one way or another. So my father, in those two weeks, practiced writing with his left hand. His tenuous scrawls became legible letters, fully formed words, and finally entire sentences. In those two weeks my father became ambidextrous and was able to sit for the exam. Naturally he passed with flying colors, for my father was indeed a smart man.
Once his arm healed he knew he had to pay his teacher back, and since his father refused to hand over his own hard-earned money, my father arose early every morning before school and sold meat door to door to neighbors and friends. It took him six months but he finally made up the money and repaid his teacher.
“But, a debt like that can never truly be repaid,” he would avow almost in tears. “His belief in me, a poor boy from the bushes, is something that is more valuable than money. If not for him, this man who held me to a higher standard than I had yet held myself, I would not have been a teacher. For because I took that exam, I became qualified to become an apprentice teacher. It would be three years later, at sixteen, that I would reap the benefit of that faith.”
Here my father would pause, lost in the visions of a past life that I would never know or understand entirely, just as I would never really understand him. I have seen my father at his best and at his very worst, I have seen him bring smiles to strangers and tears to his own family, I have seen him teach and love and hate and laugh. But this story, the one he told repeatedly in my childhood, is the one the one that I remember the most because it is who he was at his best, when the world tried its best to stifle him, he rose above it all, with the help of a man who made teaching seem a higher calling.
She started feeling strange one winter day while she was sitting in the office in her little cubicle. It was one of many, set up in rows with little aisles in between for the passage of human feet. Her back was to the opening of the cubicle. Her desk took up most of the space in the three walled hole she sat in from nine in the morning until five in the evening Monday to Friday. She felt a sort of numbness in the middle of her back. She thought it was the way she sat, hunched over as she typed endless emails or answered innumerable phone calls. She straightened up and sat erect for all of five minutes before reverting back to the accustomed hunch. She continued typing emails and answering calls and soon got used to the numbness.
She noticed that it seemed to get bigger, this numbness in the middle of her back. First it was the size of a quarter but it slowly grew. Each day she could feel it spread in diameter. Sometimes she thought she felt it move too. Slowly upwards. It seemed to gather breadth the further up it moved along her back. It started to tingle. Some days she forgot about it and toiled on with the mundane task of living. She sometimes went for lunch with a friend from the office and talked about nothing until she went back to work and spoke more assertively about nothing. Nothing seemed to be the subject on everyone’s mind. Nothing interested her.
Soon the tingly feeling became more noticeable. She went to a doctor. She sat in the musty carpeted room where the receptionist sat in a glass cubicle, partitioned off from the other humans. She answered phones and responded to patients in a monotone voice, barren of empathy. The tiny room in which the doctor examined her had silver instruments for prodding the animal flesh, for squeezing arms and listening to the pump inside our bodies, for hammering knees and blinding eyes. The doctor touched her more than anyone had in over a year. He examined her body minutely and indifferently. His fake sincerity and mocking laugh confused her. He found nothing wrong. It was all in her head.
She left not feeling any better than before. Some weeks passed and the numbness was still there. She drank to forget but it followed her everywhere. All she could think about was the numbness. Soon it took over her life. All thoughts revolved around it. She wanted to scream with frustration, she wanted to bawl from unhappiness. She wanted the numbness to leave her alone but it kept spreading. Now it reached her neck and spread to her ears. The entire bottom of her head became numb.
One day sitting in her office she noticed that her computer seemed further away than usual. She looked down on her hands but they were getting further and further away from her. She seemed to be growing but yet wasn’t. It took a few minutes before she realized her head was floating above her body. It got detached somehow. She was aghast at this turn of events. Her body was mechanically completing tasks. Her hands were typing furiously away. One of them picked up the phone and held it to empty space. She didn’t understand what was happening. She tried to move her floating head to see if she had control of it. She couldn’t. She could turn it left and right as usual but it continued to float above her body idly. She tested her voice. She could still talk. She felt no pain, in fact she felt nothing, not even fear anymore. Her friend stopped by and asked her to lunch. No one seemed to notice her head floating just above her body. She soon got used to it. She was no longer frustrated, she no longer wanted to bawl from misery and unhappiness. Instead she typed endless emails and answered innumerable phone calls.