||Husband and Wife
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|‘Shut Up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Go to the old age home. You’re old. You’ve taken the best out of me and left me with nothing. I won’t let you forget that.’
They stared at the ocean as if it could swallow up the tension between them, listened to the din of the waves, ate cold pizza, drank their warm soda which had lost some of its fizz. She picked the black olives and the pineapple off her crust and gingerly put it in her mouth as if it could cure her fierce depression, the bright, hot zone she was in now. If she was in those waves, she knew that part of her would feel intimidated by the youth that surrounded her. She knew she would still feel the heat of the day, dead in the sea, not just a half-drowning thing, wasted, her spirit slightly disconnected from the earth, her soul frozen stiff, her forehead cool. The sea itself was life. The only things they had in common now were their children. What was love anyway? It had meant separation, a near divorce, awakening to their personal needs, personal space. Did it not mean a happy phase, a shared vision, a power struggle, an aggressive team and gifts on birthdays, anniversaries, family get-togethers, Christmas, Easters?
‘You’re just like your mother, a liar. You ate your mother’s food so don’t expect me
to cook. If you two are bored watch TV but be quiet and don’t put it too loud.’
What had it eventually led to were their marked differences in raising children and the elements of weaknesses in their personalities being pointed out when they least expected it. Jean (not the marrying kind) was the oldest followed by Eve (skating on thin ice in the middle, cute as a button, sensitive, brilliant, traveler, left home for America on a Rotary scholarship where she ended up in Florida going to space camp in high school). Adam was the youngest. Wild, the namesake building walls of armor around him, never given a break from the hell that his parents and Jean, his older sister caused. He was the one who was always caught in the furore, wishing that there were no more reason to have thoughts on having just one more flight from fear, his blood boiling with rage and insecurity. He usually had sleepless nights as his middle sister cried herself to sleep at night, his parents arguing into the early hours of the morning about money, about how much they had and how much they didn’t.
‘Where were you?’
People break all the time, no lie there and when that wretched break happens something is usually lost, left behind confused or someone is hurt, a member of the family, a child, pure and innocent of the cruel world, dangerous adult men and women. And usually they need rest, to go on a retreat, be surrounded by a cure like quiet, nature and support, motivation or flowers. Once there were children coloring in books where fragile, sweet, loveable children were cast out like butterflies. A young Jean printing out her name in a reader for her English class, sprinting down the track with a victorious smile on her face on sports day. Eve and Adam reading Jean’s novels which were meant for a more mature audience, even older than Jean was when she started to read them. The television would be blaring her mother’s soap. Jean, Eve curled up beside her would sit on the floor eating crisps, licking the salty crumbs off their fingers, all of ten (Eve six), lapping the soppy, loving dialogue up.
‘I’m going to have a short nap now and if the baby cries don’t wake me, call your father. He has to do something around here, make himself useful.’
Jean’s mother would call it ‘feeling blue’, ‘daddy is tired, he must rest otherwise he won’t be able to work on his doctoral thesis for a few hours tonight’. She would flutter her eyelashes seductively, be lovely, on her best behavior for a few hours when he came home armed with sweets and suckers for the children and a box of Milk Tray for her. Jean, Eve and Adam would make a beeline for the chocolate treats in the box. The children would eagerly bite into Turkish Delight, caramel, peppermint and nuts. And all would be healed. Pots would bang on the stove. A miracle would happen. She would cook, sing hymns that she learned as a child in church, Sunday and primary school. But it would be a front. Calm waters before the storm hit, before the ‘ship’ (the house, the family) hit ‘land’ (a flurry of abuse hurled towards child and father, glasses falling to the floor in the passage, chipped, cracked, lying in shards that could draw blood, sheets stripped from beds, dumped in the TV room.
‘They’re not coming here. This is my house. I don’t want them. Take it or leave it, I don’t care. They’re your friends, not mine. Who’s supposed to cook, clean, me?’
How he tolerated her Dr Jekyll Mr. Hyde bizarre, no that was being kind, Jean often thought to herself as a child, growing up, no, her mother’s abnormal behavior, could have tested anyone. Jean was an Outsider, living vicariously through her siblings. She discovered at an early age that she was wired differently than other children at school, her nose in a book, shy and teased mercilessly by her enemies about her hair, her voice (that she sounded ‘posh’, ‘white’), her skinny frame. She found it difficult to make friends. While Adam and Eve happily seemed to fit, say the right things, follow the right path, collect trophies at prize giving, friends a dime a dozen, study and play hard, achieve, achieve, achieve. Adam delved into comics and his circle. Eve had her own friends. Jean performed poorly academically and on the playground she was too scared to stand up for herself, becoming more and more withdrawn, a shrinking violet as she grew older.
‘You’re so fat, Jean. If you walk around the block in the evening with your father maybe you’ll lose some of that weight and to think that once you had a stick figure.’
It left relatives who were close to the family to wonder what would become of her if she didn’t grow a backbone or some willpower. Jean hated the whispering and the blushing at school. She hated ignoring, shrinking back from the stares in assembly or during break when she wandered by herself to the library or hooked onto a group of girls when she grew lonely. She knew they found her tiresome and boring but that feeling was reciprocated. She wasn’t really interested in anything they had to say. She couldn’t add anything to their brand of humor and conversation, their private jokes about their boyfriends or kissing, their congenial laughter and lively chatter. She knew she didn’t look like the other girls in her grade. ‘Mature, round, curvy’, with their gray skirts hitched up well above their knees, getting all that male attention and all the other girls were much more ‘experienced’ than she was with the opposite sex. They all seemed to have had dalliances, life experience.
‘She doesn’t have much of anything, does she Cindy?’ She heard somebody, a boy she knew by name only hiss in the line to class.
‘Jean’s an intellectual. Like father, like daughter. She has to be more positive about herself, work on her inner being. She thinks nobody likes her.’
Her mother snorted hard. When her mother said that to her, Jean didn’t feel that there was a lighthearted, playful tone behind it. The wall, the damage, the disaster of a relationship that lay between mother and daughter signaled red, grew brick by brick fast and furiously until she could feel the breath inside of her woven tight into a thread. She replayed her mother’s voice inside her head until all that remained of her spirit that she was conscious of, was a glimmer of a stain settling instantly in her consciousness. It wasn’t hard for Jean to think that other people; boys and girls her age thought the same thing about her. Eve and Adam were star pupils on the other hand. Both were perfect children, well behaved and on weekend afternoons the three would play quietly together, making their own fun by putting on plays, living in a world of make believe. Most of it was Jean’s make believe world of drama. She felt she had to protect them somehow from ‘hell’. Kisses the one-minute, scorn the next.
‘Go to your room. You’re being blasphemous. We prayed here. If you won’t punish her, I will. Out! Get out of here! The spirit is in this room. We don’t want you here.’
Jean began to keep journals as young as eight. When she was older she loved the stream of consciousness writing that comes from it, putting staccato-like pencil to paper. Her father was a storyteller (told her stories from the time she was very young as he put her to bed), took her out on long drives over the weekend in the car. They left Eve at home with her mother. He would buy her ice cream in a proper restaurant and read his newspaper while she ate it out of a pretty glass with a long spoon and smile at her as she scraped the bottom of the glass. She purged herself when she wrote. She didn’t know how to write about a human being without attaching introspection, pain (pain would dominate with a burning intensity), any physical form of mischief, spirituality, a poet/artist ‘burdened’ with imagination. She slowly and with determination built up, composed the lessons she had been taught since childhood, painting them and ghosts in words and landscapes.
It was the only way she knew how to communicate. Her mother drove her father to the doctor now (the psychiatrist). She sat waiting in the car outside, reading. Afterwards they would buy something to eat and she would drive to the beach. They would sit in silence, eat, make their way down steps to the sand and take their shoes off, roll up their pants legs and wet their feet. There’s something sweet, young and innocent Jean thought to herself when she saw her parents like that. She wished they could be like that all the time. She wished they could have been like that all the time when she was young. Mostly she wished that whenever her mother were mean, cruel or hurtful to her father. Jean liked to think that although her mother won the battle, God would eventually win the war in her household.
Diary, I tell you everything.
Perhaps families are not supposed to be perfect, Jean wrote in her diary. Perhaps the lessons that we learn from the people closest to us are supposed to inspire us to adjust to the world around us as we reach adulthood. How do we learn about the magical crossover between forgiveness and love if not from the relationships that mothers share with their daughters and fathers with their sons? And whether or not that gulf exists, that fragile feeling of loneliness that you remember from childhood, that flame you hope you won’t remember when you’re grown, everybody feels that way. It is just that nobody talks about it because it’s depressing, because it reveals your vulnerable side, perhaps you think that it makes you look like you’re weak and sensitive, an ordinary pawn in this cruel, sometimes vindictive game called life. Every family, every father and mother lives with regret, with mistakes they made in the past, the golden opportunities they missed out on in the spirit of youth.
But especially not telling their children enough how much they were loved and wanted, how they were born and created in love. If I ever cried about losing you, Eve it was because it hurt being away from you, being ignored, being relegated to second, third place. I was not the namesake, the pretty, beautiful, loveable, clever one that had everything coming easy. You not loving me the way I did you, you not worshipping me the way I have done all my life changed me in a negative way. You have lived and achieved your goals and dreams. I have not. I have struggled, struggled to survive, struggled to commit myself to my beliefs (faith and God), to hold onto them when I most needed to, until my spirit became my enemy. You were not there in any shape or form when I spent nights tossing and turning in a hospital bed when I couldn’t fall asleep. My reality blurred, twisted and wired weirdly, bizarre until I couldn’t tell the real from dream or surreal nightmare. You were not there.
Never stretches out for an eternity in memory. If I was lost, you were the chosen one on the right path. Never losing track or sight of where you wanted to go, what your destination was, your journey, your road was an open one. You held the sun in one hand and the moon in the other. I have changed. Not one iota of selfish ambition left within me but you’re the same confidant and headstrong being you’ve always been. The one that was waiting to be let out, waiting for the perfect moment until you left home. You leave your more human side for the ones you are loyal to, the ones you respect, drink and party with, ‘the wolves that snap at my heels’, ‘the healthy specimens’. Their faces hard with laughter, sophistication and higher learning, minus me because you decided long ago that I was not good enough to fit in with your crowd and scene, your country. This is my story. I would like to say, what’s yours Eve, but we have never had that kind of close, endearing relationship.
It might not be extraordinary to other people how we have drifted apart over the years. People drift away from each other, apart all the time. There is no law against that. I’ve missed that relationship, feeling the weight of that brightness like a star. All I see is you, what you’ve become, what you possess, own, claim, your kind of superior intelligence, your life inexperience. You, Eve are not mine. You do not belong to me. You never have and you never will and although for most of my adolescent and young adult life this statement has driven me insane because I couldn’t understand what sublime dream couldn’t put us together again. You are music and I am dirty noise. You are put-together-perfectly head to toe and I’m living with a fractured heart and the suicidal-hot, schizophrenic mess of mental illness. It is not as if I have waited too long to tell you what is on my mind, what I’ve fantasized telling you, how much I have loved you, missed you, missed talking to you, confiding in you.
I miss the way you laugh, Eve. Your lovely face, the way you posed for family photographs and copied everything I did, the way you crinkled your nose and slurped your juice as you ran after me with your dolls and your ‘blankie’. Your cherished blanket from your crib that covered you when you slept that deep safe dream-sleep of a newborn. But you’re not here. You’re starting to make a habit out of that. First it was India, Mumbai and now it is Thailand, Phuket. You called on New Year’s, landed in January and me and mummy went to fetch you at the airport. But I irritate you, upset and annoy you and work on your nerves. You want your space, creep into bed beside mummy and shut me out, out of sight, out of mind in your outer space. It’s not hard to imagine what you’re thinking when you look at me. I haven’t ‘fulfilled my potential’, ‘lived up to your expectations’, so you have learned to anticipate nothing from me, share nothing with me. Perhaps all I have of you is the illusion of you.
We’re grown, you said once and the only responsibility we have is to ourselves, to live our own lives. For all my life the illusion of you has been bleeding into my subconscious, my dreams. I’ve tried to ignore the truth of that and I am no longer quite as confused about it as I once was, but as I grow older it has also grown with meaning. And in the end the monster is not you but me. But monsters are extraordinarily nightmarish creatures, ghouls with no heart and no soul, flawed and perhaps when you little, a small girl with a head full of curls living in her already fragile world, that is all you saw of me. Mental illness could do that to a person. Strip you to the barest elements, a losing form (truth), extended stays in hospitals with visits from our parents (truth), shapeless pajamas (truth) and an unkempt, unruly head of dark hair (truth). You were the favorite (fact of the family matters), I never missed that, it was understood and I was the lone black sheep. How quickly children grow but they never forget.
It was the day after Boxing Day. I heard my parents talking, the television in the background, my mother quiet for once and in a relaxed state of mind. My father was eating meat prepared on Christmas day, what was left of the gammon, roast chicken and beef with creamy potato salad, beet stains on his T-shirt, his feet bare, his belly hanging over his swim shorts. They were both watching the cricket. He scratched himself up on his legs. They were in love once. They shared a first kiss, held hands, held onto each other in the dark at the drive-in, dated, wooed each other, wrote love letters. My father sent postcards from the continent as he traveled through Europe on holiday from his studies at London University. Now he washes the dishes, cleans his bathroom, sweeps out his bedroom (my parents sleep in separate beds now and after this Christmas Eve they now have separate bedrooms). He mops and dries the tiles. To see my father like this is disconcerting.
Of Adam during his formative years I remember very little when I look back at ‘our lives’. In pictures as a boy he is smiling, pulling a wooden wagon, wearing a cowboy hat, dressed in his Scouts uniform but grown up, receiving his degree he is serious. I don’t know in which phase of their lives they were when my brother and sister stopped believing in God, only that He didn’t feature as prominently as He once did when we were children in Sunday school and Youth. God simply faded into the background like our toys, into the distant past. And the memories of Sunday roast with pudding and custard. Along with our competitive natures, being a child in the eighties and teenagers in the nineties, going to Model C schools and nurtured in the art of being wholly different from other children your age, bullies on the field and where all sports were taken seriously. Am I too serious, Diary? What else is wrong with me besides stating the obvious, that I am following head on into my father’s footsteps? When my father was sick to death of life and his own was colored with pale sadness and illness, he too went to the hospital for ‘a rest’. My siblings and I played on the thin, grassy part of the garden at the clinic (there wasn’t much of it). Under neatly trimmed hedges and trees in Port Elizabeth, we watched our parents cross-legged talking under their breath to each other in hushed tones.
I will never forget those whispers the three of us were not supposed to hear of grown up talk. I (the little, impoverished bird) have improved now that you’ve gone away, Eve. I no longer trail in your wake wondering what the ending to this drama is going to be like. I can still smell your hair as if it was an elixir. I can feel your child body’s magical space where it left its warmth. You could not stop my flight into mania, me bolting into the blackest dark of the futility of the art of depression and what was at the heart of me. I wanted you to possess all of fragile me, see a picture of the hell that I went through but you wanted no part of that cutout of the ocean-sea inside my head. Your silence from those years, the year you wrote the Matriculation exam still cuts through me like a knife. My territory has slowly but surely multiplied. Your journey as a goddess has finally ended.
I am a child again. I watch girls wearing swim suits and bikinis and want to be older, grown up. I watch them as they tease their friends. The ones who seem like they can’t swim just put their feet in the water or sunbathe. Girls watching the boys, the boys watch the girls. My mother hisses at me to do something, to stop staring and why on earth did I bring my doll to the beach. I am going to lose her, silly me. I have already lost the safe world that my brother and sister seem to inhabit. I am a nuisance, a pest, despised by the adults around me because I am a know-it-all. If my mother says these things to me, then other people, perhaps even children must also be thinking it. I don’t feel anything now. It is becoming easier and easier to feel that way in my mother’s presence. I can almost feel my heart in my chest. I don’t feel the heat of the day anymore. Instead just a pressure flooding through me that feels like I am on the verge of tears because her words are hurting me. They feel like pins and needles.
I am hurting. The tears don’t come. They don’t have the guts to anymore. I know that if I fail at that, it will mean the death of me. This is South Africa so we never expected snow. Snow only came in winter, June. Children and even the adults made snowballs and played in it on the news but all I could think about were the poor in the location and shanties. I can feel beads of light behind my eyes. The soft, bewitching, pink mouth that parts in the grotto is not mine and the shiny hair, curls soft to the touch do not belong to me. The young girls and boys that leave hollows behind in the sand this festive season I have nothing in common with, (always, always, always). I remember watching girls as they ‘disappeared’ with ‘nice’ boys at the beach as a child and wondered when it would be my turn. Nothing was hot anymore. Not the sand, my bronzed skin, the towel sticky where the ice cream dripped off its stick, the white rays of the sun that seemed to connect with every fiber, cell and fire of my child being.
I remember my mother’s floppy hat and how she shielded her eyes keeping her eyes on the waves. People didn’t wear sunglasses in those days. All I could think about was how pretty I wasn’t. It is only then that I imagine myself in love, when I am brought to life by the familiarity of a fantasy life built, stored up extravagantly in words. When I see them as fossils, as bones, that I have to map out; find a location, category and title for every one. I am immune to the labels, to winter, to the other seasons that come and go with infertility. I am a woman now, growing older and I must learn to endure everything. Beneath my skin my heart beats faster and faster. I have often wondered what the diagnosis is. Perhaps it is both a fear of being found out that I am so desperate to be loved and accepted. The confusion of my childhood played itself out with the older sky above me. Hell down below me where I was a guest treated like royalty because of my mental illness.
The cat was warm, inspiring me to sleep too this afternoon. Sleeping in the middle of the day is a sure sign of depression. I covered my body with the sheet and blankets, rest my head on the cool spot on the pillow but I could only see a dark forest that smelled of dew when I closed my eyes and an outline of a woman who wore a red coat in the moonlight. I could not make out her features, this witch, was she a ghost with her hands covered in blood? Was she a Lady Macbeth spiced up in disguise? An accomplice to something much more sinister, her own death and why was she bleeding? I pulled the covers over my head like a veil. You’re dreaming, I told myself. You’re watching a frame. I could have screamed. Instead, I kissed her on her cold mouth to comfort the poor thing. She seemed so unfulfilled, lost like I felt. I didn’t want her to leave me. She kept me company, gave me the feeling of making me want to live.
Dreams are curious things. It’s the nightmares that keep you awake or afraid to fall asleep again. The ocean-sea inside my head tightens itself around me, grips me and its hold feels like metal, a picket fence and a grid. And in the water it attached itself to me with its invisible hooks and I could feel myself flying through the air. I was a good girl again, young and free, holding onto my father’s hand, watching him smile at me. In a split second I was grown, a temp in a city with a man who worked across from me who had a beard staring at me. An older man who had a wife, grown up children touching my head, smoothing my hair and telling me how pretty I was and how didn’t even know it. I played dumb staring at his hairline. White hair as white as flowers. And that night they bloomed magically from nothing inside my head like Adam’s rib or whalebone. For a moment I was filled with a waving rhythm of shame and then just as swiftly as it had come it was gone like passing gulls.
It was gone like grains on the hollow song of the wind, slipping into a stream filled with rings of the stench of rotting, decaying waste, sinking into a drain where it lost itself in the blue wild, in spells of tides. Where it lingered in brown-golden yellow-red wilderness and then as I flew higher into the rays of air I became a young woman again who was a plaything half-drowning in delirium amongst women who tasted like of things like my mother did. Honey, chocolate, tuna fish sandwiches, all of fish, sardines on crackers, salt, the dim, dim candlelight of dinner parties where the grown ups drank too much cabernet, ate far too much chicken, potatoes, pudding. I sprayed scent like a saga a little too anxiously, left the porridge burnt at the bottom o the pot that morning; oats. Now I am swimming for my life while my sister in another city reaches for her umbrella next to her front door. I can smell the rosemary chicken but I don’t want any feasts.
And so in the end we will have to re-consider the truths of life which we were so religiously brought up to believe to be the truths of life and our very existence.
There’s a kind of feel-good chemistry in eating and when I’ve purged all those bubbling molecules inside of me I feel a sense of freedom, as if I am the only unique in the world. The pain I feel inside, that I sometimes feel I will harbor forever, that and my mother’s voice goes on and on. It connects everything within me, the internal to the external. Outside, there is the glimmer of sanity that I am insanely holding onto but inside I am disconnected from the entire human race, jealous of those who do not have to live the way I do. I have to keep away from people because I am not good for anybody. In rage, when I feel murder racing through me, when I feel the pressure of being manic, blue or darkness visible. I am too good at making you see what you want to see. At least I am good for something. It has been hard my whole life to make that picture seem so perfect. The perfect daughter in the perfect family who was after all not so perfect. There was again only the illusion of what outsiders wanted to see.
The perfect parents who raised children, everything about them flawless except for the one who inherited mental illness from her father’s side of the family. So, I dream of ghosts, the weight of water against my limbs, its push and pull, the secret code my mother carries imprinted on her soul. There is only signs of fate, rust, only the fact that someone or thing has been here before me in history. Perhaps it was the dew, state of abstracts and the flecks that mirrored the diamonds in my mother’s eyes. Like the wide hollows of eyes marked in cathedrals of stone that left me half-perplexed as a child. A self-portrait of an innocent in this organic of ephemeral societies. Then I know I will be able to flourish viciously. That’s the trouble with remembering. You begin to wish.
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