A Daughter Writes a Letter
Remember you said there is something clement about the sea? You were wearing a sundress for the beach. We steeped our toes in and saw the ripples dotting behind us. Magical eyes, you said, peeking from beneath the secret vastness.
Amicably, the sea greeted you. Its white crests rippled gently ashore, bringing seaweed tresses and driftwood to our picnic. The air carried the melody of sea gulls. They would perch near the pier, where the shell pile settled, shaped by the tides, currents, waves and winds of the gulf. I would squeal at them, before they fly to the rolling clouds.
I am here again. It is high tide, and the moon dictates my presence. The water is incessant and inviting. It crashes in a foamed whisper, a sweet violence that drags sand and my good sense. The ships send bokeh signals from the far horizon. The sun reaching its nadir, swallows them. It is evening and cold and salt seeps into my pores. I am writing to you. The sea is the umbilical cord to where you rest. I must cut to suture my heart.
My first heartbreak was when I left you in the moment of throbbing anger. When I heard that grunt, cunt, and lacquered teak furniture being pushed, I knew by osmosis that that wasn't you and your husband redecorating. He pinned you to the wall, like a badly hung photo frame. You scratched it. Chipped orange paint in your nails as you inscribed shame or maybe hurt or maybe sick pleasure at that moment made my head ache. My fingers lost the proprioceptive sense to clench. I pushed the door open. Said my last words: I'm leaving this home.
You said, choose a man who tucks you in bed. Who spreads and folds a blanket around you, keeping your toes snug through the frigid night. On the sharp contour of your cheekbone, he would plant a kiss. You would stir. Then he reaches for the lamp switch. With a touch of the button, the room falls benighted. Your ideal man. Your husband? He is a deviation of that man. The only thing he nursed to sleep was the bottle. The clanging and burping kept you awake. Even after he was asleep, the clock ticked ominously, as if an incorporeal being has inhabited the room, tapping by the side of your bed.
I brought the papier-mâché photo album we made. In it: photos of you in your romantic heyday, maybe to immortalize your rosy youth. Of me when I was your child, a matter of ignorance than innocence. And of a distorted picture of a figure, the last vestiges of a father I have never met. That album, a trunk of clothes, raked savings, and vague conscience. In the bus to the next distant state, rain pelted against the window. I saw the flapping sea gulls, the empty pier, long jetty and setting sun. The rain smudged them away, effacing a present to past, in this interim, resolved.
I remember weaving through the new streets. For first few months, it was adventure. Freedom is bliss is brief is futile, as I grew tired, hungry. It was one enclosure after another: a masculine home, a 13-hour shivering bus ride, a squeaky hostel bed, a lingered breakfast, a dank alley, a roach corner, the underbelly of an abject immigrant. It rained again. On my luggage, I hugged my knees. Soiled clothes were the haphazard patchwork of a blanket. I watched the fallen leaves skittering like plane origami we used to throw in playgrounds. I wondered if trees would uproot easily. Conjectured in the dark if they were secured to the ground by a thickened trunk aged well and wise, by deep root hairs and fungal kinships. In this distraction, I slept. I woke up days later in a bed, to a bowl of soup.
The shelter was bright. In the corridors, lined a shrine of yellow smiley porcelain figures, fuzzy teddy bears with charming ribbons, cat statues in various sleeping positions. The bathroom has another kind of kitsch: a laminated poster with the emblazoned 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars'. By the sink counter, a scented candle quivered into waxen stalactite mess. Shelter for displaced souls. Role of optimism. Challenging but fruitful lives.
The social worker came. I asked for a woman but he said, We're in short supply, but I'm high in demand. He smirked; saw my unflinching face, then cleared his throat. How would you like me to help? sounded cryptic. I heard I was 'at-risk'. Weeks and months we discussed 'key components for life-skills training', ideas that free-float and disappear above my head. I passed anger management, budgeting skills and goal-setting with flying colours. Scored full marks for coping with loneliness. You are actually normal. He peered into my eyes. Why are you stranded here? Again, cryptic. He set up my individualized care plan — visa, employment, housing, de-crisis. A year later, he went beyond his call of duty.
You would like him. He had kind eyes and small ears. I talked his ears off. It was easy. He loved many things: the baked scent of laundry in the dryer, two tea bags in a cup, engraving initials on vapoured mirrors, and snails on the sidewalk.
There was a moment where we felt a part of the cosmos. Cliché, I know, but it does not mean it wasn't grand. On the roof, we counted disparate stars, opened stellar realms with our tracing fingers. What do you see? I saw dusky roses. What do you see? Sheep that glitter. And. Maybe a beacon. What else? A house with lit windows.
His body descended from mine and his head nestled between my straddled thighs. His hand was on my rib. I thought it was rude to watch, so I continued painting dream figments onto the night sky, letting them belong with luminaries. By the time I closed my eyes, his face reached mine. With the roses, sheep, beacon and house behind him, his face appeared a simulacrum of something I perhaps long desired. His lashes swayed to the lightness of our breath, a hushed wind. I found his shoulders. I brought him closer.
His existence had eclipsed you, and in a way, I was happy. It was a week after our wedding when he saw a picture that had a striking resemblance to yours. In it, I was in a slip dress, a messy hairdo, talking on the phone, probably making last-minute arrangements. Yours in the album looked similar. A slip dress, messy hairdo, and on the phone maybe with a friend or aunt, wearing night slippers. It was as if you reincarnated, through a picture or maybe me. I had your chin, cheek and eyes. He asked how you died. I said, well, you drowned yourself.
He and I had a good run. Four years, one fraught with unexplainable slumps. He tried doing everything, but I was bored, sad, just needed to be detached. Him scheduling with marriage consultants, psychiatrists, sexologists made me very put off. I did not see anything wrong with anything, and found compromises cheap. Yes, cheaper to give in than to visit experts. He gave up on me. And by the time I changed my mind, he left. The second heartbreak.
I swore that my life is for him. The sweet words in the dictionary, all for him. I am handicapped in the way I can't speak affections like he did. He said regrettably I was a mistake. I was a lost puppy in the pound brought in only to shit on his bed. He wished he could take back all his generosity. I think he did.
When he left, he did not know what he left. A life growing in my womb came the surprise. Shock, at first, and horror. I did not think I had the maternal instinct to raise a child. By myself. My own conceit. In all my failed strivings, the baby is my last chance.
I vomited a lot. I slept in the bathroom for convenience. Dragged my feet to the sink. Saw gunk in my hair. While washing it off, I felt terribly alone. It was debilitating to decide if I should call him. I heard he has a wife. I missed running my finger against his stubble.
The baby kicked. I looked at my swelling belly. I sang a lullaby. I saw my dirty belly button protruding. I laughed. I ransacked the kitchen to find marinated anchovies.
Your granddaughter arrived early. My lower back had wanted to collapse, then pain moved to the front of my belly. My cervix and eyes dilated to the countdown of her birth. Breathing right was not easy.
After the exhaustion, I held her swaddled self in my arms. She cooed and showed her toothless grin. She stretched and let out a fart. Gave a contorted face that made me shriek.
The cosmos tried to ruin me again, three years later, when the doctor told me she is dyslexic. I robbed my daughter speech and intellect. It had to be my fault. It seems always my fault. But when she stared at me and gripped my finger, I was somehow redeemed.
She grows up. Reads letters. Knows how to count to fifty. Observes rain and growth of her plants. She asks, Mommy, can we measure love? I hug her. That's 6 points. I hug her tighter. 10 points Mommy! I want to see her world, in colours, textures, all the nuanced grains. I promise to love her as passionately as I did to her father. And tenderly as her father to me.
And I am here in our special place, by the sea where we ate and played. I am brimming as the sea in high tide. I pitch my joy in the plainsong of stars, let it scintillate on the bodies of seawater, rippling restful as your soul.
Diyana Sastrawati is a sociology student in Singapore. She works as an editorial assistant at Junoesq Literary Journal, and volunteers at Boys Town. Currently, she is studying abroad at University of Texas, Austin. She hopes someday to finish writing a collection of short stories.