March 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
“Testing, testing, one…two…”
I sat, bored, in the collapsible chair they’d set up for me in the middle of the room, trying to ignore the incessant buzz that was filling the room to its corners. Eventually, an impossibly cheerful woman whose name tag seemed to shout “Sarah” slid into the empty seat opposite me. I was vaguely aware that she was patting my arm, most likely offering the standard advice to “Just be yourself! They’ll love you!”, but all I could focus on were her gleaming white teeth. I’d never seen anyone smile that wide before, but she wasn’t the worst presence to have in my house.
“We are here today with Katherine Smith, world-famous runner and now the youngest coach of the national track team! Tell us Katie, how on earth does someone so young achieve all that you have! Most of us probably spent our adolescence watching too much television and listening to rude music!”
A soft murmur of appreciative giggles rose from the surrounding crew and Sarah herself was rocking silently at her coffee-table humour, all the while aiming her blinding smile at the camera.
“It’s Katherine, actually.”
A quick shadow crossed Sarah’s radiant face, but in the manner of a true professional, it disappeared in the same moment.
“Of course, Katherine. So is there anything you’d like to share with the throngs of young girls who look up to you? How can they strive to be as driven and disciplined as you?”
“Well, routine is important for any athlete. Early to rise, early to bed, with training and nutrition in between.”
“Easier said than done, right!” Sarah said, turning and winking at the camera. “Did you set that regimen up for yourself? Or did your parents have a hand in building that discipline? After all, parents influence so much of who we are, don’t they!”
“Not so much my father, mostly my mother.”
My mother was beautiful. Or so I’ve heard, from friendly, albeit somewhat nosy, neighbours.
She had a delicate appeal, feminine by any measure, with sloping shoulders and a cinched waist. Her oval face and pleasant features evoked inherent trust, and her coiffed blonde hair always looked perfect perched on my father’s arm.
Theirs was a fairytale romance, Tony and Cass, my father looking every inch the part of the handsome prince who had swept his fair maiden off her feet and into the sunset. They’d met in college, both business majors, both intellectually leagues above their classmates. To everyone who knew them, it only made sense that they fell in love, and it could only last forever.
From photos I’d found in their closet, their life before me had been unrealistically blissful with countless trips across the globe, sporting the same happy glow from Iceland to Rwanda. When I came along, they packed away their worn suitcases, balled up their effervescence, and decided to settle down in suburban Iowa. My dad found a stable job as an admissions officer for their alma mater – it forced him to travel more often, but “the pay was good”. My mother hung her degree above their dresser and set about getting accustomed to a new life of homemaking.
“So Katherine, as we see competition for Ivy League schools rise exponentially every year, do you think your active interest in running helped with your admission into Yale at all? Should other sporty youngsters be sure to flesh out their activities when applying?”
“Perhaps. It wouldn’t hurt.”
I watched, invisible, from the top of the stairs as my father came home exceptionally late one evening.
He hung up his coat and hat and disappeared around the corner into the kitchen, where I heard the clink of glass and a quiet cascade of alcohol over rocks of ice. I was just about bored of listening to the incomprehensible muttering when the lower of the two voices suddenly spiked in agitation.
“Admissions are getting more difficult, Cass. I’m telling you, things aren’t the same as when we went to school, alright? Katherine should be doing more, doing better, doing…something. I can’t baby her, I’m barely at home what with working my ass off to pay the mortgage and save up for her education.”
“But I don’t know the first thing about getting her ready for -“
“Then find out how! This is your responsibility Cass,” my father snapped, setting down his glass. “With your degree gathering dust you have enough free time anyway.”
There was a pregnant silence as his words hung in the air. I could only imagine my mother’s face and my father’s furrowed brow, stress and scotch numbing him to the tension in the room. I thought my mother would argue with him, but after what seemed like too long, a muffled voice poked through the quiet.
“Alright, I’ll take care of it.”
I might be wrong, but I’m almost certain this was not the first time my father hurt my mother.
“But how do you motivate yourself to keep going? Have there been instances where you’ve just not been able to get out of bed like the rest of us?”
“Of course, but there is always a reason to get up,” My eyes flickered around the room momentarily, searching for the “us” she referred to, but quickly returned to Sarah’s patient microphone. “I’d imagine it varies for different people.”
“Mom, it’s SO cold today,” I said as I watched my breath cloud just past the tip of my nose.
I crawled back into the warmth of my bed from the bay window, allowing the inky shadows of five o’clock in the morning to weave themselves back into my eyelashes and hair. Previously disrupted images of snowmen and frozen ponds were beginning to reform behind my eyelids, a gentle visual lullaby.
“The cold will make you stronger, sweetheart. Come on, it’s time to get up now.”
I ignored her purring command – her dulcet voice seemed to melt into the comfort of my wintry wonderment…and then there was a shuffling of leather, a swish of air, a deafening crack, and an excruciating pain.
Frozen in agony and shock, I heard her tell me to put on my running shoes and meet her at the gate through ringing ears, saw her leave quietly through the door with liquid eyes, and felt a warm, thick substance pool at my side with trembling hands. I didn’t need to turn on the light to know that my pyjamas were no longer blue, and my mother didn’t need to see my face to know I was wide awake. The room smelled like coins.
“Aside from skimping on beauty sleep, you mentioned that nutrition was integral to your routine. Care to elaborate on what we should and shouldn’t be eating to stay in tip-top shape?”
Sarah leaned forward, giving the impression that she had just posed a question of grave importance.
“Avoid the usual suspects – fast food, excessively sweet treats… oh, and no soda. Definitely no soda.”
“Katie honey! You look like you’re wasting away! We have to put some meat on those bones; you have to let me treat you to something. Ice cream maybe? Chocolate pie? Anything, darling!”
I looked to my mother and was met by pursed lips and taut cheeks.
“No thank you, Aunty June. I’m really not that hungry.”
“Come on Katie, at least let me buy you a soda!”
Before I could process my mother slowly shaking her head from side to side, my aunt had ordered for me.
The tall, luridly coloured confectionary drink arrived, and my mother sported an accommodating, measured smile, asking me to drink up, never faltering from her curated image of the perfect guest, the gentle mother, the inoffensive woman. But there was something in her gaze, a subtly scalding anger at being defied, indirectly or otherwise. Caught between impoliteness and disobedience, I lowered my head slowly and ingested my impending fate, sip by sip.
In the quiet of our home later, I learnt the importance of a healthy diet, as well as how cuts on the palm do not heal swiftly or painlessly due to the constant movement of flesh.
“Man, what a difficult creed to live by,” Sarah said, raising her hand to her sizeable chest in feigned disbelief. “But Kati – Katherine, I have to ask the naughty question that some of our viewers have brought up. Do you think your father being an admissions officer had anything to do with you being admitted to Yale?”
“No, my father would never have used his position to pull any strings. That would be dishonest. Besides, he wasn’t exactly around by the time I went to college. Not that he was extremely present the rest of the time either though, his work kept him fully occupied.”
My father’s job kept him busy flying across the globe to meet new applicants, but whenever he came home, he would go through the same routine of tousling my hair, giving my mother a peck and asking how my studies, running and social life were going – in that order.
My mother looked different now, only partially due to the cruelty of time. Her once silky skin had lost its plumpness, it was stretched thinly over perpetually tense sinews and her hair was streaked with salt and pepper strands. The most noticeable difference, however, was the new hardness in her eyes, offset by a smattering of fine lines around her face and brow that suggested growing frailty. Nonetheless, she would put on bright red lipstick and wear her most beguiling dresses to welcome my father home on a weekly basis, preparing a sumptuous feast of sinful home-cooked food, complete with streaky bacon, mountains of mashed potatoes and pools of syrup in crispy, cratered waffles – a cardiologist’s nightmare.
It was no surprise then, that I found my mother screaming and sobbing on the floor of their bedroom one morning, the day my father was meant to conduct one of the last interviews of the year. He had collapsed in the bathroom, toothbrush teetering on the edge of the sink, the mint stripe straining towards the porcelain.
As I watched the formerly-fair maiden cradle her dead prince, I found myself dispassionately wondering whether he had meant for her to train me the way she had been all these years. Whether the admissions process had truly called for such measures, whether the reason my mother made up stories for each scar and bruise was because it was wrong, whether it really was for my own good. Just as coldly, I realised the answer didn’t matter.
Later, while my mother continued to grieve in the darkness of the front porch, I found several documents in my father’s briefcase that suggested a second family – a pacifier, an unfamiliar set of keys and a few empty paper bags with hugs and kisses scrawled on them. I wondered what to do with this interesting, but largely irrelevant information, then considered the fact that my mother may have always known. After all, I knew firsthand that my mother was fully aware of what we should and shouldn’t eat.
I’m very sure that this was the last time my mother cried because of my father.
After answering a few more equally inconsequential questions, I gladly ushered Sarah’s smile out, along with the army of equipment, both human and inanimate.
I stood in the doorway for a while, looking at nothing in particular, recovering from the strain of being candid. As their van clumsily pulled out of my driveway, a breeze blew through the property, agitating the creaky floorboards and loose shingles on the roof, coasting downwards and rustling through the old tree at the foot of the garden.
Soon after receiving my acceptance from Yale, I’d found my mother hanging from that tree. It wasn’t dramatic – as her sole audience I had let out no gasps and even fewer tears. She’d left no further explanation for her untimely demise. No matter really, as I didn’t particularly think much more needed to be said. Both she and my father rest in what I hope is peace, successful parents by the world’s standards.
As I headed upstairs, I couldn’t help but chuckle quietly. There is such passivity in interviews: Sarah and others like her depend on whatever manicured facts their guests offer in response to their contrived, uncreative questions. If they had any semblance of true curiosity, and took the initiative to venture just twenty steps upstairs, they would have found my parents’ bedroom perfectly preserved, with their faded, smiling photographs painstakingly framed and arranged on the walls. They would have found the whip hung up neatly in the closet, with the pen knife on the desk. Mementos from my first coach, my personal trainer. If they were genuinely observant, if they were really doing their job well, they would also notice a faint, but recognisably metallic smell. As it turns out, parents do really have a profound influence on their children.
May 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
There is a vibrancy to be found in the simplicity of black and white photographs. It is in the lack of colour that we find exactly the hues we should see; nuances of life distilled into a fiercely beautiful grayscale, forcing us to use them as prompts rather than as handicaps, urging our memories to remember the breath, the brilliance and the truth of the experience. There is a certain grace in allowing the viewer the privilege of imagination, letting them decide for themselves whether a shade of grey could have been scarlet, or if a shade of off-white corresponded to an ochre yellow; to have faith in the image, letting it drip colour through its monochromatic pores, immutably vivid. If a black and white photograph is boring to you, perhaps there was never much colour to begin with.
Maybe today. running my hands through my hair, scratching my nose twice, I looked around my room for that brown briefcase – the one I so carefully hid away. Rolling my eyes at my own redundancy, I knelt on the floor, lifting the drooping ear of my blanket away from my carpet and peering into the darkness.
There it was, sitting there, insolent in its silence. Grabbing the handle and sweeping it into the light of the morning, I paused – uncertain. It seemed innocent enough, a perfect leather rectangle on the faded teal of my bedroom floor, dust motes dancing a ballet on its surface. The sun shifted for a moment, and a flash of an old memory glanced off its metal clasp, making my eyes water. It was definitely time.
It was lighter than I remembered. My forearms flexed gently and I smirked to myself as I strode down the hallway, the briefcase tapping on the backs of my knees to the rhythm of the tinny muzak blaring from the PA system. Waiting for the lifts, I noticed a couple to the right of me trying to decide where to go for dinner, both unwilling to assert their opinion, both aggressively seeking to give in. I glanced at their adorably interlocking pinkies before gratefully watching the steel doors draw shut.
I breathed in the thickness of the shadows. No need for illumination here, the dark shapes were familiar masses, part of the amorphous blackness but sparkling with a subtle clarity. Finding a surface, I gingerly laid the briefcase on its back, released the catch and emptied its rustling contents. Snakes of film wound themselves through my fingers, cool to the touch but red-hot with nostalgia, imploring me not to, to just let them be, you know delusion is so much more seductive than reality. I sniffed and disentangled myself from the nest of vipers.
After preparing the developing agent and maintaining the temperature, I leaned back, watching the film hiss at me from their basins.
“I melted that night,” he laughed. “You looked beautiful.” A hundred mega-watt smiles, a thousand stolen glances, proliferating instances of adulation. Kisses and whispers stretch across an expanse, shrieking with laughter and light. All that glitters is indeed not gold, instead running into cold pools of pure silver.
I raised the film out of its filth, acknowledging the glistening crystals formed on its surface. How pretty.
Where is that stop-bath?
With an inexplicably growing hysteria, my eyes searched and fell upon the old culprit, amused at my desperation. Placing the film into its coaxing depths, the smell of vinegar pierced the musk and shot through my reverie.
Gnashing teeth spewing bile that lands on my skin and blistering, forms snarling pustules. Quick and hellish, the beast unlocks its case of glass orbs. Seemingly tender, beast and spheres engage in a waltz, ravishing me with their eyes, stepping in three four time, nightmarishly measured in its execution. All at once, the metronome stops, the beast’s pupils dilate, and the baubles come crashing down, staggered, splintering, shattering.
Fifteen to thirty seconds is all it takes to neutralize, the acid is strong. The frenetic buzz in my head has faded to a tranquil hum and I blink for what seems like forever before removing the film.
Sipping water as I spectated the dissolving process in the fixing-bath, I could almost hear the whine of each silver-halide crystal as they disappeared; all of them sirens, often mistaken for a choir.
“Do you want me to fix it?” Yes, I do. I beseech you, please. But how? Whose limbs are those? Please repeat the question over the sound of your word, unkept. Raise your voice louder, above the din of your uncharacteristic inebriation and roaring hypocrisy. Shout above the screeching pain that has come skidding into my heart and wipe away the marks of burnt rubber, I beg of you. I know whose legs those are. Actually, don’t speak, all I hear are cymbals. I hate cymbals.
Water, the great equaliser. It’s been an arduous process, but the chemicals must leave no trace, no scars. Washed and dried, I laid the film next to a pair of blunt black scissors that someone left behind. I picked them up, fully prepared to begin cutting the squares of film, but a wave of disgust crested in my stomach and in one swift motion, I retrieved my own pair of scissors from my bag and stood back up. Why was my heart beating so fast? Was it pounding or stuttering?
It was pounding.
One snip for kindness,
One snip for pride.
One snip for all the times I fought not to chide.
One snip for the good,
One snip for the cheers,
One snip for your complete disregard of my fears.
Two at a time, I’m picking up speed,
To think all this time I was standing knock-kneed –
Don’t ever forget, forget to remember,
The biting frost of that fateful December.
I tucked my hair behind my ears and collected the entrails. Sifting through my spoils carefully, I scooped them into a small ziplock bag.
The briefcase was near weightless, its gravity resting mostly in the soft leather of its body, but nothing more. Holding the ziplock in one hand and my new friend in the other, I nudged the door open with my hip and stepped out. I hurtled down the stairs – the lift seemed sluggish – and was met by the noise and effulgence of a lobby at noon. Slightly bleary-eyed, I pushed through throngs of merry families, loitering teenagers and yammering pantsuit-clad men and women.
As I walked home, a melancholy rumbling started in the hollow of my chest and unfurled itself through every strand of hair on my head; I could feel it rippling in the air behind me.
It took a darkroom to give me what I’d needed – a set of carefully curated negatives.
I still haven’t decided whether this photograph bores me.
April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
Written a while ago, it came to mind again after hearing this beautiful cover of La Vie En Rose, which coincidentally serves as beautiful accompaniment.
Eyes glinting in the golden shafts of 3‘o’clock sunlight, sparkling with a hint of teasing wit; hair flying behind her like a cape of fluid mahogany, whipping across her cheeks as she whirled with breathless glee; this was how I remembered her.
I knew her from the house across from where my family would summer, and as the parents chatted about “how things were”, the children would be released into the capacity of freedom, and as our feet moved and our hearts started pounding, we knew that the holiday had started.
The first summer I met her, she was barely 15, dewy complexion and lithe figure, beckoning us to “run faster, faster!” as she tore through the field on the way to our swimming hole with absolute fractiousness.
One night, as I was passing by her house, I could just about see two figures swathed in the shadows of her porch. Hesitant to look for long, I quickly averted my eyes and concentrated on the fascinating crunch of gravel beneath my feet. Footsteps, however, barely masked the cacophony of giggling and heavy breathing that was gradually fading into the darkness.
The next summer, her hair was short. Beaming, she explained her new “punk look” as I nodded and smiled back. Playing chinese whispers with the younger ones, I smelled hints of smoke and brandy on her breath, but held my tongue. Perhaps I should have noticed her hems inching upwards, or the slow descent of her neckline, but in the moment, all that mattered was her presence.
Walking back to my room, I noticed her parents in our living room, eyes wide and fingers clutching glasses of champagne, animatedly describing something to mine. Later, I heard my mother come into my room, but only to stand in my doorway and sigh.
The following summer, everything had changed. Going swimming was “Whatever”, playing with the kids was a “Hell no” and her once engaging blue eyes seemed like glaciers of indifference. Peering at everyone from behind purple bags under her eyes, snarling when touched, this was not the same girl I’d met so long ago.
I asked her, once, when she’d want to die. Turning to me, her angular cheekbones formed a beveled v-shape to her thin red lips. “I want to die,” she said slowly, “when I am still beautiful enough for them to grieve.” To me, it seemed like this was past, but perhaps there was beauty in her youth, or some vestiges in her cliched decline into an adolescent stereotype.
The next morning, as I walked past our old haunt by the swimming hole, I wasn’t surprised to see her lifeless body hanging from a tree. I stood and stared as the wind swayed her torso and whistled through her hair, almost as if prompting her to get down and laugh.
Through the howls of her parents and the tears of both families, I realized that I only remembered her in all her childish glory, and that nothing that happened in the wake of consequent summers would change that. Cigarette smoke could only stay for so long, but she truly was a thing of beauty, and a thing of beauty is a joy forever.