By Patrick Sagaram
I began to bite other boys about the time when fights between my parents got bad to worse. It was the year of changes. We moved to a new home. I started secondary school. And my sister left to study abroad. Even if she was much older than me, it never seemed that way. My secrets, I knew, were safe with her.
To me, the problems my parents were having remained a mystery. Locked in their bedroom, their voices sounded urgent, but still low enough to never reveal anything even with my ears pressed close to the door. Months later, I'd find out the truth.
If you only saw how I looked back then. Pale, perfect skin, child-like fingers. Slim Jim.
I kept to myself most of the time in school. If we had to pair with others for class work, I was the last to be picked.
I really missed my sister.
I had already bitten two boys during P.E. lesson when they tried to yank my shorts down just for fun. Because they kept going after I had warned them a second time, I took one on his arm, the other on the blade of his shoulder. Surprise, shock on their faces more than anything else, I could tell. Bite marks, saw-like and light purplish appeared their skin. Enough to stop messing around with me for good.
But the first person I really used my teeth on was this half-wit bully. Many of us lived in upstairs-and-downstairs houses, parents who were 'businessy' and 'lawyerly' types, fathers and mothers who only drove German sedans, and dined at the Tiffin room but Jeremy's family threw money around like royalty.
He was also one crazy idiot. Who else could sneak a stray kitten in his backpack and keep a straight face while the thing yelped during Ms Rappa's class while all of us shook with laughter. Or have the guts to hide Mr Ong's briefcase until his face blotched in red patches from screaming at us. Held back after flunking his exams twice, you could hear him before you saw him, his heavy voice cracking along the corridor, a voice which made you think of old uncles and grandfathers.
I did well enough in my studies for my teachers to leave me alone, but what I enjoyed was taking photos, really I did. Many afternoons I spent by myself in the darkroom of the school's photography club developing film. My parents' threw lots of parties, nights of smoke, laughter and lipstick. My father tended the bar, did more drinking than mixing while I snapped pictures capturing moments of oceanic roars of laughter growing louder as the night went on, the house gradually filling with cigarette smoke.
My job was satisfying because I got close to the action. Bloated conversations of money, politics – and they were always talking about politics – and travels to places I've never heard before. It was interesting because I was invisible behind the camera preserving those moments of faces aching from laughter after somebody dropped the punch line, a joke about stiff ones pointing to drinks in their hands but clearly referring to things I was too young to understand.
One of the photos was of my mother in her red dress standing by the doorway, lips slightly parted as she stared straight at the camera. In day life, my mother looked Plain Janey, vague and absent-minded. She was always wandering around the house in a hazy blur. In my memory, she dressed in those dull, I-Love-Lucy dresses, standing frozen and trying to remember – you can see it on her face – what she was trying to recall. Keys? Laundry? Something left in the oven? It was impossible to guess what she was thinking or daydreaming about.
But the moment she put on her party dress, lipstick and landed on the crowd, my mother was someone else. She looked intense, her movements sharp, stylish and dangerously alive. She was everywhere at the same time, refreshing drinks, laughing at jokes, complementing a guest on their choice of jewellery. She listened to others, sliding between sharp focus and playful interruptions, her mouth moving from a sly grin to a chuckle of acknowledgement as each sentence came spilling out. Her attention burned brightly like the flash of my camera.
It was my camera which Jeremy has taken out of my bag without my knowledge. He could have had his fun, and returned it and things would have been fine between us. Even then I didn't see any point in making a big deal out of things. But, no. He wanted to see how far he could go. So he passed it around to other boys who continued tossing it with their sweaty, clumsy hands, that delicate piece of equipment, a gift from my parents.
Then came a dull, sickening crack. Gasps all around. Then everyone went quiet for a second. I collapsed into tears but he just stood there, smiling stupidly. But he wasn't smiling anymore when I lunged, my body leaving me as I dug my teeth at him. My animal teeth, tiny and sharp, biting down hard enough to lick blood off my lips.
I could see his drowning eyes. The pain must have come up hot and quick. But a bully never loses face. So he kept his mouth shut, making as if everything was fine and I left class with the impression a lesson had been taught.
They came for me, weeks later. At the school's back gate near the groundskeeper's quarters. He and two others, older boys, their heads glowing with fantasies of carnage. I wasn't equipped for what they were capable of so I was ready. Ready to be dragged across the concrete tarmac. For blunt knuckles to reposition cartilage. I was prepared to be stomped over and over again until my ribs cracked, the damage irreversible. I was ready for what only beautiful anger can do.
Except I felt it again, my body escaping me, my teeth doing its work. Even in my awkward slow-motion way, I was surprised by how much flesh you can chew out of a person's face with just enamel and bone mineral.
But still, it was three against one. In the course of a few seconds, I took a fist to the jaw. Elbow to the ribs. After I spat blood at the faces of one of the boys, he retaliated by butting my head so hard, my vision exploded into tiny stars. I fell backwards like a fan folding on itself, ready to be crushed like an insect. Looking up at their faces, I prepared myself for the worst. Here it comes, the full brunt of their beautiful anger.
Luckily the groundskeeper turned up when he did and raised the alarm. A teacher carried me in his arms back to the main office as blood seeped eagerly from my nose, dried leaves stuck in my hair. My parents were notified, the principal sat in his chair, weak with apology because he understood who my father worked for. But my father, always kind and gentle, never pursued the matter any further.
I stayed in bed for a week with pain drumming all over my body. My sleep interrupted by weird-coloured dreams. I woke up and felt dizzy, my room spinning wildly. I would limp-wobble over to the bathroom to wash my face. That weekend, my parents hosted another soiree but I was stuck upstairs thinking about missing out on the action downstairs. I could hear them, more people than usual maybe around sixty or seventy perched and milling around the lawn and first floor of my house that night, a few men on the patio while others gathered around my father's new stereo system, Elvis, heavy voices and hard laughter.
Around midnight, I woke up again feeling confused and nauseous. The doctor had explained to my parents this was expected after the injury to my head, and it would soon pass and there was nothing to be worried about, really. I got up and hurried over to the bathroom to splash water on my face and sat on the edge of the toilet seat until the sensation disappeared. I cut the light and clear moonlight leaked through the window. Draped in it, I thought about Jeremy and his goons and how to face them when I return to class, what kind of sadistic torture they had planned for me.
After a few minutes, my thoughts cleared up after I slapped more water on my face. I closed the bathroom door behind me and went into the hallway.
There standing in the thick moonlight was my mother with a man. A colleague of my father during his time at the Foreign Ministry, I found out later. They weren't even touching when my eyes connected with theirs. Except something in the language of their bodies alerted me. They seemed awkward and frozen like the Ice & Water games we played as kids in school. I had interrupted something forbidden, sinful even. I would never know for sure though it didn't require any stretch of the imagination.
She had on that red dress.
And then my mother cast her eyes at me, recognition arriving in one swift and strange motion on her face, like a cloud had been lifted away momentarily.
"Why are you up so late," she said.
I explained, as casually as possible to give the impression everything was normal.
"Let's go," she said, stepping away from him. "Off to bed now."
I could smell the perfume on her as she bent towards me, leading me by my hand, slowly, gently without panic. Ebb and flow of voices, conversations were carried up the stairs but the action was right here. As I turned to look, the man, my father's colleague, my mother's – I didn't know what exactly – wouldn't give me his face.
After closing the door to my room, my mother went back downstairs – to what, I don't know. Maybe to continue what I had interrupted with my unwelcomed surprise – or to dissolve into the crowd, a mass of swirling faces, smoke and laugher. Adult life suddenly seemed like a scary, awful place. And I thought about my sister and wished with everything in my heart for her to return because I knew no one else would understand.
By the following week, I was feeling much better. Except TV watching, reading novels and sleeping left me lethargic, sluggish and dreading school. But staying home with some new knowledge about my mother was equally worrying. This, after all was new mum, mum and her secret life she led out of everybody's light. I pictured the possibility of my father's colleague and my mum, alone. Their bodies pressed together in the dim twilight of our living room. It was on my lips, that piece of unsettling thought on the verge of turning into a question. But I also knew it was a can I didn't wish to open. She must have felt it too because an awkwardness, a silence had fallen on us. We were uneasy around each other.
On the day before I was due back at school, I lazed in front of the TV. Earlier my mother had left for Cold Storage, groceries and running the usual errands. No party that weekend, my father had to fly off at the last minute for some urgent meeting. I spoke to my sister on the phone, and talking to her I felt all the pieces in my life falling into place. I got up, stretched my arms and turned off the TV. I went upstairs towards my room about to enjoy the last of my thick afternoon naps. I passed by my parents' bedroom and stopped. Outside it was grey and overcast, a slow 4pm drizzle had started.
From the inch wide gap of my mother's closet, I caught sight of my mother's party dresses. Strapless one, off-shoulder ones. One looked almost identical to what Diana wore when she danced with John Travolta at the White House. Also, the red one. I slid open the door, felt the fabric against my fingers. I was all alone, nobody to see me or stop me. I put the dress on, feeling how soft it felt against my skin. My skin was softer than hers. In a few moments, I was all lipstick, eyeliner and high heels. I felt it again – that intense out of skin feeling I had experienced when I used my teeth on those boys. But now I think I understood what I was protecting myself against. In the mirror, my shoulders looked girl-sexy. The eyes staring back were cat-like, feminine. I was no longer Slim Jim.
She must have seen me because the bedroom door opened and closed but not quick enough for me to catch a flash of jewellery. What she might have seen was maybe no more than a peek of red, but it was unmistakable. I ran to my room in her dress – a stupid boy, stupid girl, whatever – wiping away make-up and tears and unpeeling those clothes as fast as possible, like shedding skin which puddled around my ankles. I closed the door and waited for her to find me. I waited in one corner of my room like a frightened animal for the door to open. I waited and waited. For my mother's face to meet mine.
She didn't come.
After 10 or 15 minutes, I went downstairs expecting to find her waiting for me. But nobody was home. I looked everywhere but there was no sign of her. Maybe an hour or so passed before the front door opened, and my mother stepped inside with bags of groceries in her hand.
"A little help, please James," she said. I took the bags from her and followed her into the kitchen.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked, opening and closing cupboards and drawers.
"Much better," I told her.
"Good," she said, throwing me this long, hard look before lifting her gaze.
The parties at my house got bigger, new faces each time. As I grew older, I stayed in my room surrounded by books and papers, not letting the faint muffled sounds from downstairs get in the way of my school work. In the morning when my parents were still in bed, sleeping it off, I would wander around the house like it was mine; the ashtrays full of dead cigarettes, glasses of wine strained with lipstick, dirty paper plates scattered in a random heap. I tiptoed through last night's wreckage, sniffing at half-finished drinks, the whiskey smell of my father in each of them.
I never saw him again, my father's colleague at our house again, ever. Despite everything, my parents stayed together all those years. But a wall of silence separated them, separated us. If a conversation was to be had, we kept it brief or spoke in codes. Full of unanswered questions, our world of burning silences. Both of them long gone now, their secrets carried with them forever. It is only my sister and I, and now that she's married with grown up children of her own, her family is the only one I have and possibly ever will.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022