Happy Burden

 

The moment I sat at the computer to write about the day, add significance to it so as to make it more meaningful, less resentful, I heard its strained whisper. I saw it. I watched it as it stretched like a sleepy cat inside the hands and feet of my mother and father after my brother and his wife, and his dog, had eaten their share of the birthday cake that was so cyclic so as to bring back memories of the one from last year, and left. I overheard it in the indistinct babble floating like a cloud above the background TV music and coming from the kitchen at the far end of the hallway. I sensed it in the way mother was loading the dishwasher, and in the way father sighed. That silent expectancy, the hope that had been, at one point in the past, sentenced to death and was now inching closer to the scaffold.

There had been no candles, no pictures were taken, as if, deep down, we didn’t wish for the moment to be memorized in any way. The cake was a proof of that. None of us seemed to have the emotional energy to light the candles and watch father make a wish before blowing them out. What was there to wish for anyway? When a toast was finally given and the glasses clinked my sister-in-law sighed and I knew what she meant by that. I didn’t say anything, just raised my glass, brimming with still water, and pushed it against the other glasses and hoped to be covered by the sound of their good wishes. I knew perfectly well what she meant by that when she got out of the kitchen to grab her coat and her eyes were glassy and slow, as if she had cried or was about to. She sighed again and whispered something about shitty lives while she lovingly stroked their panting, carefree dog.

It was then that I suddenly felt huge and disgusting, incapable of acting, and I felt I was being blamed for something. Not something I had done personally but something I was a part of, something I had unconsciously condoned. I knew she was condemning us and, by extension, I knew she had tutored my brother into blaming us as well. I saw it in the way he took the money when it was handed to him by my father, in the way he told his usual stories this time calibrated to a nervous tone, and punctuated by nervy bursts of laughter.

And somehow I understood them perfectly well, and I was aware of the things that were not being said, the way a child is aware of his parents’ lying. But I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that understanding had I been asked to do it. It was then that I wanted to make my disgust apparent, turn it into a knife and threaten all of them, my thirst for blood and vindictiveness dancing playfully at the back of my tongue. There it gurgled like the beginning of laughter and descended into my guts only to heighten my nausea. It had been pacing back and forth ever since that morning.

It had nestled there and yet every morning I chose to ignore it. But that day, when me and my mother sat at the kitchen table to chop the boiled potatoes and the carrots, and the pickled cucumbers, I had vowed to it that I was going to finally release it. I told it that the day had finally come and that it wasn’t too selfish of me to do it on that particular day. It felt as if I had irrevocably decided to make an offering in the shape of a birthday gift to both my parents: a truth wrapped in the showily expensive paper of disappointment.

There, at the kitchen table, a yellowish potato in her hands, mother had talked of death and the weight of solitude, and of past kitchen adventures, and that whole speech felt like a landing strip on which I simply had to parachute myself and hope for the best. But I kept swallowing the words and pushing them back, and shoved salad and mayonnaise down my throat to muffle the moans. Then mother started peeling the mushrooms and cutting the prosciutto into small chunks and I had to remove myself from the room and pretend I had some work to do on my computer. When I got back to the kitchen mother began her usual speech about my brother and his wife and their financial problems. About the bank loan that had gone unpaid and had been forgotten for more than eight years. About the admonitions one of the bank managers had issued during my brother’s last visit to the bank, and about the trip to England my brother took to meet a woman he had met online. The money had been spent on that trip but, my mother assumed, my brother was too ashamed to confess it to his wife. Nothing had come out of that long-distance relationship and women from the past had to stay in the past. That particular woman, who had in fact spent a couple of days during Christmas at my grandparents’ house, stayed in the past but the forgotten bank loan kept returning, ever more threatening.

I wanted to tell mother that I would never do something like that. No women would loom over and threaten our domestic contentment, not only because I had never made any bank loans to appear financially stable, but also because there had been no women in my past. There were no such men either. This last bit of information was an essential part of the argument I had prepared for the day. Yes, something was off in my case, something was wrong, but I had chosen not to act upon that wrongness. I had not indulged my craving for the bodies of other men, I had not promised my love to anyone. There was no boyfriend, no love affair. Tentatively, I also wanted to add to it the promise that I would never ever indulge that craving because happiness was not something I saw myself attaining. It was something I could live without. This final part felt like a closing excuse, I knew it, one last attempt at preparing them for the transition, pacify them, help them sleep at night.

The words returned when my brother left, after all the sighs had been uttered, and they lingered there on my tongue, watchful, their eyes gleaming like those of an animal in hiding. The taste of them made me walk around the apartment. They made me sit on the chair for which there was no space at the kitchen table. They made me follow the edges of the wooden cupboard in the kitchen with my fingers. Even long before that, while the men were still chatting over beers and the cake looked even gloomier, my prepared speech came back bulkily, furiously, screaming at me when I had finished that last cigarette and I was getting back into the kitchen from the balcony. And while my right foot was still suspended over the threshold I had a vision of their future faces: mother would look like she was about to burst into laughter, my sister-in-law would be smiling, and both my father and brother would be frowning, deeply, a frown akin to that necessary when tedious work was performed. They wouldn’t know, of course, that maybe I had built a life around this ultimate shedding of light, that I had built a career around it, that I had carefully avoided all of those classic mistakes so that no reproach could be issued when the time came.

Yet, once I was back inside, the speech subsided, or rather it was covered by all those sighs and the knowledge and the guilt that came with them. There was still time for certain words to be spoken. Phone calls came in between, additional birthday wishes, and mother filled the silence with a conviction I came to recognize as not her own but an echo of my father’s. A conviction tinged with negligence almost, and a blind faith into everything my father said and did. Somehow, I knew they wouldn’t react, and I was almost sure that in their solitude, or when I wasn’t in the same room with them, they would smile at the thought, at my inappropriateness, at my unspeakable transgression. And maybe, later on, when the bitter medicine settled on the bottom of the glass, they would reconsider my brother’s transgressions, and think that maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

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