Leaning on Empty
It was my turn.
The teacher’s footsteps came nearer, her hand holding out the white envelope. I took it, turned it round in my hand, stared at it, opened the flap.
Math: 70 in red, a failing grade. Once again. The rest was a blur. Only five points for a report card all in black; that card was still as distant as the moon.
The bell rang. It was the last day of school. Children flowed out of the classrooms like molten lava. I picked up my books, put them in my satchel and lifted it to my shoulder. I turned around, looked long at the blackboard, the polished desks, the worn-out chairs. It was time to go home.
Papa was waiting, in his chair. He held out his hand. I gave him the report card. “Humph!” a glance, a look of contempt and back to his newspaper. My report card on the floor by the coffee table.
I wanted to say, "I’m sorry. I tried. I did. I really did. My very best." But I had been dismissed.
Willing myself to keep calm, I went out into the hall, up the stairs and into my room. I put down the satchel by my desk, pulled out the chair and laid my hot face against the cool wood. I closed my eyes. Wet cheeks against hard wood.
The maid knocked on the door, called,
"Kain na. Time to eat."
I wasn’t hungry but if I didn’t show up I’d be in even bigger trouble.
"Andiyan na. Coming."
Down the stairs, careful not to make a sound. I slipped into my place and stared at the mound of rice and sauteed squid and vegetables on my plate. I took a spoonful, a sip of water, another spoonful, another sip of water…
Jeffrey, my brother was saying, "So, the teacher said, ‘And as usual first honor goes to Jeffrey Lim.’ The class clapped. I stood up, walked to the front of the classroom and received my certificate. I was so proud, Papa."
"And so you should be, you are a Lim, after all."
"Well done, Jeffrey," Mama said.
Then quiet fell. I concentrated on the crunch of the snow peas grinding between my teeth, drowning out the silence.
Jeffrey went on, "My science project won. They’re sending me to Manila for the finals. Won’t it be great if I can bring the trophy home?"
"Wonderful, Jeffrey, wonderful," Mama said.
"You will, my son, you will. A true Lim you are," Papa said, glancing at me.
I only had one piece of squid left. I speared it with my fork and put it in my mouth. I seized my glass, swallowed, wiped my mouth and stood up.
The eyes followed me.
As I was climbing the stairs, my father said, "You’ll be going to your aunt’s in Canton. Since you don’t seem to appreciate the expensive education I’m giving you, you might just as well stay in the village and be useful to her in her old age."
My step faltered. I looked at him but his attention had returned to Jeffrey. I went to my room, lay on the bed, closed my eyes.
My aunt’s village in China. A house with no running water. Dim, dank, dark. No toilet. An outhouse a block away. Fields fertilized with human excrement.
My aunt, an old woman at 55. Bitter, dried up, no dowry, no husband, no status, nothing.
I could not see myself with her. I refused to see it. Surely my father was bluffing?
I opened my door a crack. Jeffrey and Mama were rising from the table. Papa went to his study.
I closed my eyes, prayed to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, to Kwan-Yin, Bathala, Buddha, and Mohammed. "Go with me. Make him say yes, please." I crept down the stairs and knocked softly on the study door.
A loud and irritated "What is it?"
I opened the door, looked down at the floor. Papa turned his chair to face me.
I swallowed the rock in my throat. "I… I’m sorry, Papa. I try. I really do. I just don’t understand. I can’t help it."
"I even pay someone to tutor you. No Lim is thick. Every Lim is sharp, good at figures, business-minded. When I look at you, I wonder where you come from. Go, I have no more to say."
"Papa, please. Please don’t send me to Aunt’s. I don’t know anyone there. I can hardly speak Cantonese. She doesn’t even like me."
"All the better. You won’t get in trouble. You know enough Cantonese to obey orders. That’s all you need."
"Papa," I stumbled over the words, "my English teacher said my essay was really good, that she had sent it to a school in California, to see if it could win. First prize is a year’s stay at that school. Papa, please, I should know by this week."
I choked. I mustn’t cry. I mustn’t. He’ll despise me, think me weak. A girl, nothing but a stupid girl. I bit hard on my lip.
"Who told you you could enter this competition? It will only mean more money. If you win, Ha! if you win, who’s going to pay for the air fare, your living expenses? These people think I can spend money left and right. They don’t know how I sweated for it. No and that’s final. Now, get out. I have work to do."
I turned and saw that Mama had been in the room all the time. She had not said a word. She looked at me and turned away.
My knuckles shone white against the banister as I climbed the stairs. My room. My bed. I lay on it, careful not to disturb the bedspread. I wrapped my arms around my shoulders and brought my knees up to my chest. Cold and dry-eyed.
There was a knock.
The maid said, "Aalis na raw kayo." Time to go.
The nightly outing to the family restaurant.
Papa owned a restaurant on the top floor of the tallest building in town. He was proud of the Golden Dragon. He had built it from scratch, starting as a bus boy in one of the cheap restaurants in Davao, moving up to kitchen help, doing everything from chopping vegetables to scouring blackened pots and pans, until he had saved enough to start his own.
He liked to go to the Golden Dragon every night. We all had to go and see how well the restaurant was doing. Once he saw the full tables, he went to the office to check on messages. Jeffrey followed. Mama inspected the huge pantry and made a list of the things to be ordered from Hongkong. I slid open the glass door and stepped out onto the narrow balcony. A concrete ledge, chest high, ran along the whole roof. I wanted out of the freezing restaurant, the clanging and banging of pots and pans, the shouts of "Table 3’s bird’s nest soup. Dalian nyo. Hurry up!" I sat on the ledge, my feet dangling. It was hot and humid after the sterile cold of the air-conditioners but I liked the clammy feeling. I looked up at the black sky, no stars - too much neon blinking. In front of me, the sparkling floor-to-ceiling windows of the Golden Dragon and the waiters’ silent dance: the red and black uniforms gliding, weaving, turning, the arms going up, out, down, laying mounds of fried rice, sweet and sour pork, steamed fish on the table, then down, out and up again and into the kitchen. Papa, ready to go, waiting, frowning, seeing me at last.
It was my turn.
I looked at him, long and hard, until the ledge grazed the back of my knees as I leaned on empty.