Tuesday, August 03, 2004

fiction: into the morning

Katrina suspected that, like her, her mother hated going to the family reunions. An outsider would never know it, not from observing her mother: her face was made up in the same meticulous way, eyebrows primly penciled in MAC Eye Kohl, her hair done up with the usual exaggerated care that was meant to look accidental, and her coordinated St. John ensemble of beige and lilac projected unhurried elegance.

But at twelve, Katrina knew her mother more than any other person, more than her nine year-old sister Lexi, and definitely more than her father, who wordlessly drove their golden SUV down the mostly-empty provincial highway. Katrina had learned to read her mother when she was four years old. After a disastrous incident involving a cherished vanity mirror, Katrina began an ardent education in her mother’s secret language. Before long, Katrina could pierce the meaning behind her mother’s signifiers: the flicker of pursed lips, the quickening of an iris, the wiping of invisible sweat from dry palms, the deliberately misused word, the subtle variations of laughter, the underlying color theory of her mother’s select palette of cosmetics.

Katrina had only been to family reunions twice, both on her father’s side because her mother’s family was thin and dispersed across three continents. She had looked forward to the first time just after her eighth birthday, dimly recalling her father’s rare stories of his large extended family. But when she arrived, Katrina was struck by the cacophony of strangers, numbed by the countless embraces and pinches and unfair questions (“Don’t you remember me? I held you when you were born”), and terrified by the way she was expected to experience familial love at first sight. By the time lunch was served, she could not be found. Hours later, one of the hunting parties led by her disheveled mother found her curled up on the floor of the back seat of the SUV, semi-conscious and dehydrated. Her mother did not scold her then, but from what Katrina’s dazed vision relayed, there was a tempest that intimated devastation on the way home. It never occurred. Her mother was occupied by Lexi’s explosive temper tantrum, a mad conglomeration of mercurial demands and tears only a five year-old could orchestrate.

Her father exacted a promise from her to behave before they left for the second reunion. Katrina agreed and quietly settled into the backseat, already itching in her black tulle funeral attire. She did not want to upset her father, who was mourning his father’s loss heavily. At ten years old, Katrina considered herself a little adult and respected her father’s sorrow. Her mother, and even Lexi, gave him wide berth, and the long trip was conducted in arduous silence. Katrina wished that the day and night would pass at super speed but her desire seemed to prolong the journey instead. Her mother just looked blankly ahead at the unfolding highway, unblinking despite the drying effects of the air-conditioning. When they arrived, Katrina was shocked to discover a range of exhibited emotions, ranging from the caterwauling of her grandmother to the raucous gambling tables headed by some of her uncles. There was a reprise of the painful greetings and impossible questions that she somehow managed to endure, drawing strength from her stoic mother’s firm smile. But when Katrina realized that she was expected to kiss her dead grandfather, she abandoned all commitment to her vow to behave and promptly fainted. She came to in her mother’s arms and listened with her eyes closed as her mother fielded a thousand invasive questions and a barrage of unsolicited advice. She tried to apologize to her mother, but ended up crying instead, tears that were interpreted by many as genuine grief. On the way back, Lexi leaned over and called her a bitch, which did not surprise Katrina in the least. Lexi had a foul mouth and was a child, after all. Katrina chose not to tell her tired mother and instead turned away from her younger sister and watched the coconut trees roll by.

But now, on the road again to reunite for someone’s homecoming, the last thing Katrina expected was for her mother to speak up.

“I’d really rather not go,” her mother said, the suddenness breaking the immaculate silence with the force of a gunshot.

“What?” her father asked, shifting into a higher gear. He had decided to leave early to make better time, and no one gainsaid him.

“Can we, could we go back?” her mother asked. “Or we can go somewhere else. Tagaytay, Los Banos, we know people in those places.”

“Are you crazy?” her father said, sparing his wife a sharp glance. “We’re expected. We do this every other year. What – what sort of stupid thing is this?”

“Don’t call me stupid,” her mother said calmly.

“Don’t act stupid,” her father said, increasing the SUV’s speed.

Katrina listened to entire exchange with a sick feeling in her stomach, like her pre-dawn breakfast had turned to worms and stones. Lexi, asleep on her side, was oblivious to the entire conversation, and Katrina entertained the notion of waking her up for no other reason than to break the spell of discomfort that had settled on the once-again silent trip.

“Stop the car,” her mother said, in almost a whisper.

Katrina watched her mother’s face through the side mirror, angled away her father. It looked to her as if her mother’s eyelashes were burdened by the enforced curls of Estee Lauder’s Illusionist. A tooth exposed a smudge of Clinique's Moisture Sheer. Several strands of hair were conspicuously out of place. To Katrina, a student of her mother’s tongue, language surfaced and receded on her mother’s face.

“No,” her father said, flicking the lights on and off in the early morning gloom.

“Let me out, Gerry,” her mother said quietly. Katrina saw the darkness that thrummed beneath her mother’s request and tasted the bitterness that circulated in the air. She wanted to tell her father to stop the car but could not speak.

“No,” her father repeated, flooring the gas, jolting everyone.

As Lexi stirred from her disturbed sleep, Katrina and her mother exchanged an accidental look. In that instant Katrina felt the weight of her mother’s fatigue and drowned in its depth and immensity. Her expressionless face exhibited the rhetoric of goodbye.

Please, Katrina spoke in their secret language.

Forgive me, her mother’s dead face said, as she opened the door of the golden SUV with a precise and wounded economy of motion, and jumped out into the morning.

Before the door slammed close again, the fresh provincial air invaded their climate-controlled environment - forcing Katrina to close her eyes - and dispersed the lingering scent of her mother’s perfume.


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