“Fighting the Demon of Despair” (Short Story: Fiction)
By May-lee ChaiWhen I was nine, I could no longer picture my father’s face. I never thought of our life before the war. Only the present seemed real.
Our town in Texas was very small; we were the first people from Cambodia anyone in it had ever seen. Sometimes boys drove by our trailer in pickups, slowly, watching my sisters and me play with our brother on the crabgrass lawn. We stopped whatever we were doing to watch them, too: their ghostly pallor or their unhealthy red sunburns, the rifles on the gunracks across the back windows.
Our sponsors at the First Baptist Church found a job for Ma cleaning motel rooms. The little kids stayed in day care. But my older sister, Sourdi, and I were bused to a larger town, ninety minutes away, where there was an ESL program.
Sourdi and I tried to keep moving on the schoolyard. It was harder to hit a moving target after all. We’d walk behind other groups of girls, the kinds who had lots to talk about and didn’t want to beat up on other kids. But sometimes they’d stop and turn, then seeing us, tell us to go away.
Then one day we didn’t watch where we were going. We were following a group of girls as usual when they turned a corner sharply and we found ourselves surrounded.
“Why are you always following us, huh?” one of the girls wanted to know. A girl with pretty curly brown hair that she wore in two pigtails on either side of her head.
“Yeah, what’s wrong with you! Find your own friends!” another girl smirked. This one with yellow hair that shone white in the sunlight.
“Can’t you talk? Are you retarded?”
They circled closer. I held Sourdi’s hand and she squeezed mine. She smiled as Ma taught us and so I smiled, too.
“We like be friends,” Sourdi said.
“What? What are you trying to say?”
“What language are you speaking?”
“I speaking English,” Sourdi replied.
The girls began to laugh. They turned their voices inside-out, making strange high-pitched noises, which was supposed to be Sourdi’s voice. “I speakee Chinese,” one girl sang. “I speakee Japanese.” They pulled their faces down with their hands until their eyes were mis-shapened, drooping, their eyelids stretched taut.
“We going,” Sourdi said. “We going now. Good-bye.” She squeezed my hand super-tight then let go, and I knew this was my cue to run.
We took off, Sourdi in one direction, me in the other, to maximize our chances of getting away.
But I was grabbed by two girls, much bigger than me, and the rest of the pack went after Sourdi.
This fight drew a crowd. The boys stopped playing ball, the kids by the swings ran over, there were shouts in Spanish and English. Eventually three teachers came, one blowing on a large silver whistle, but no one could hear it above the shouting. I was curled up on the asphalt like an armadillo, trying to keep the girls from punching my face or stomach. A teacher tried to unroll me herself and I kicked her in the ankle, not realizing it was a teacher. She hauled me up then, her hands under my arms, her long press-on nails digging into my armpits.
Sourdi was standing in front of me now. She had a nose bleed. The blood had splashed across the tee-shirt she was wearing, which was really mine. A pink shirt with a picture of Donny Osmond on it, now with a series of red splotches across his big white teeth.
“Who started this? Will one of y’all tell me just which one of you saw what happened?” one teacher was shouting.
Nobody said anything.
Then I saw one of the girls snicker, her lips curling just enough to expose her tongue. It was the girl with the curly pony tails.
I didn’t care if she was really the one who’d made Sourdi’s nose bleed; I decided she was the one who was going to pay.
The teacher holding me let go to blow on her whistle. Three sharp blows as if she didn’t already have everyone’s attention.
The moment I was released from her grip, I took off. I jumped right up to that girl with the pony tails and punched her in the stomach.
She bent over then, crying, and the other girls started to shout, and Sourdi tried to explain, but her soft voice was lost in the shouting. I pointed my finger at the groaning pony-tailed girl. “Hey, pendejo! I gonna kick you cajones! Tu madre es puta!” I shouted all the things I’d heard the tough girls on the bus say.
After that, Sourdi and I had to go to the principal’s office. The teacher said we were going to have to call Ma to make her pick us up from school. But of course we knew Ma wasn’t home and Sourdi said she couldn’t remember where Ma worked.
“Well, we’ll just see about that,” the teacher said.
The principal’s office smelled like disinfectant. Sitting between a tall bookshelf and his big desk, the principal appeared very small. He was a tired-looking man in a wrinkled suit, with no hair on top of his sunburnt head and a thin, graying mustache under his nose. He looked apprehensive when we came in the door and I thought I could hear him sigh.
The principal gestured for Sourdi and me to sit down on the two chairs in front of his desk; they were cushioned and covered with a slick vinyl. I had to brace my feet against the floor to keep from sliding off.
The principal gazed at us tiredly, his heavy eyelids fluttering over his eyes. Then he did sigh. He said some things about getting along, and making new friends, and “a difficult tran-ziss-shun.” Finally, he even tried to smile, his lips twitching back from his gray teeth briefly before falling back into a straight line. He talked to someone on his intercom. Then the school nurse came in and gave Sourdi an ice pack for her nose.
I couldn’t understand most of what the principal had said, but I realized now that he wasn’t going to make us call Ma and I felt better. The principal wasn’t going to do anything about the girls who tried to beat us up either, but at least Ma wasn’t going to get angry at us.
I looked at Sourdi then and she smiled back at me, faintly, as best she could with her nose beginning to swell up.
“You look funny,” I whispered to her in Khmer.
“You should see yourself,” she shot back.
I touched my face then and everything hurt anew.
“You’ve got a black eye,” Sourdi whispered. “A big one. What will Ma say?” I gasped, but then Sourdi pinched me on the arm to let me know that she was only teasing.
Ma wouldn’t have understood about the fights. Ma was pleased that we were going to school in America. She told us she expected us to do well, to get all A’s, to make her proud. She told us we should obey our teachers, we should do as we were told, we should smile and be pleasant and helpful and make friends.
Ma herself was trying her best to follow her own advice, which meant smiling at work at the other maids even when as a result she was always the one who ended up cleaning the toilet bowls.
That night in the trailer court we could hear the other families fighting, parents screaming at their kids, men shouting at women, glass breaking, voices crying. When people were unhappy or afraid or bored or lonely or exhausted or hopeless, they fought.
Then a gunshot rang out. My sisters and brother and I clambered to the windows to see better, standing on the edge of the sofa-bed, but Ma made us come down and move away from the glass.
She herself stood in the door, however, watching, her arms folded over her chest, her lips pressed together tightly, until the police finally came, their sirens wailing unhappily. Standing before the sagging screen, Ma didn’t move. She was bathed in the light from the police cars. The red light made her face look angry, and the blue light sad.
She stood there watching as the police dragged the man and the woman apart, both still shouting, and then drove away. Long after the police had left and the rest of our neighbors had gone back into their trailers, Ma continued to stand in the open door, her arms crossed over her chest, staring into the dark.
The next morning, Ma looked older. As she made our breakfast, padding around the sticky linoleum of the kitchen in her worn pink slippers, I thought she moved a little slower than usual. She stared out the window without seeming to see anything at all.
Sourdi said Ma was merely tired, it was only the shadows under her eyes, but I saw the way Ma’s mouth turned downwards at the corners, the way her skin pulled away from her bones. She was being taking over by something. A demon. And only a changeling would be left in her place.
I was scared. I knew I had to act fast or Ma would leave us forever.
At breakfast I spilled my Tang on my head, I gargled the ramen soup in the back of my throat until it had cooled then blew it out again through my nostrils.
“Nea, what’s gotten into you?” My mother put her cigarette down to watch me clearly, no smoke obscuring her sight.
Instead of replying, I jumped off my chair and scampered around the linoleum on all fours, hooting and screeching like a monkey.
“Hoo hoo, hee hee!” I grabbed a browning banana from the countertop, threw the peel over my shoulder, and stuffed it lengthwise into my mouth.
My mother stared round-eyed at my antics and then she burst into laughter. She laughed until her shoulders shook, until her face blushed crimson, until she had to cover her eyes and her mouth and her nose with her hands.
My brother and sisters and I pressed close around her then, touching the hem of her shirt, her arm, her thigh. It was as though we thought her laughter were contagious, something we could catch and pass among us as we had chicken pox and pink eye and bronchitis, one after the other.
Ma laughed on and on, her entire body trembling in her chair. She laughed until she hiccuped and tears ran from her eyes, and then she was crying for real. Loud, gasping sobs, howling sobs, sobbing sobs.
My brother and sisters and I held our breaths. I clutched Sourdi’s hand tightly. Then we all sat down on the linoleum in a circle around Ma, quiet as stones, until she stopped. ### First published in The Weekender Magazine of The Jakarta Post, March 2010
©2010May-lee Chai Illustration by Lucynda Gunadi ©2010The Weekender Magazine, The Jakarta Post