He was born the eldest of five sturdy boys and his parents were missionaries. He was born a torchbearer, the firstborn destined to bring his family to life. But looking at the past all these many years later, he couldn’t decide when he first felt truly and utterly indifferent.
Sure, he laughed and he ran without a care like any other nine year old. He caught butterflies and studied them with genuine awe and watched the fireflies dance in the forest behind his home as his family gathered for a night around the bonfire. He left home at six in the morning and returned at six in the evening all covered in a day’s worth of visions and stories he would later tell his little brothers. And when a breeze would hit his warm and welcoming face, he would close his eyes and think that this moment right here, this will never end.
He shakes his head because he knows that was all a haze, a childish haze, a brief moment of fabricated ecstasy to hide the truth that was always there. He was too indifferent to care; to care about the nights his parents would go on ‘religious fasts’ so that he and his three brothers could eat, to care about the bruises he sustained after a beating, to care about winning a national award for something he drew some time ago, to care about this girl who lived across a field from his house.
She was there when he caught butterflies as he told her to jump higher and be quicker. She would bring his family some cake or the other every week and he would end every meeting with a ‘thank you’. She climbed tall guava trees as he would holler from below, “that’s far enough,” and she would bellow, “trust me, the good ones are always closer to heaven!”
She grew up with three other siblings, the youngest of two girls. She was a good girl, the kind that smiles while doing the dishes and greets guests politely. And as she grew up, her good faith turned her into a beautiful young woman. She was the talk of the town and the next town over, the one that puts an instant smile on your face when she comes your way.
On the other side of the field, his childhood ecstasy abruptly ended at age eleven when he read a book he grabbed from the trash can in front of his house of pages filled with robots, TVs and blue jumpsuits. He became obsessed with books, all kinds of books and in each book he searched for an answer to a question he didn’t know yet. He would wake up many nights shivering and covered in cold sweat and wander off into the forest where he found himself the next day in a blanket of fallen leaves. He still would leave at six in the morning and return at six in the evening but he had no stories to recount.
While reading something quite atrocious, a novel that was meant for people his age which was seventeen, a sudden realization filled his body and mind. For the first time in years he looked. He saw the clear blue sky and the puffy white clouds like cotton candy. He saw the mountains around this small town and breathed in the exceptionally clean air that hit his face. He saw his dog watching him with a gently wagging tail and wondered who had been feeding him all these years. He went to bed that night disgusted by this clarity perhaps because it was the atrocious teen novel that brought it upon him or that he realized his own preoccupations and the stupor of indifference he had been floating in.
When he heard the doorbell ringing the next morning and groggily annoyed that no one else would open it, his clarity allowed him to see her. As she handed him a freshly baked blueberry pie, he noticed her perfectly symmetrical smile, her bright eyes, her perfect posture, her delicate hands, the curve of her hips where they met her long and thin legs…
She made him human.
She talked and walked in slow motion in his eyes. When she reached her arms out for a passing butterfly she would look like a painting in a museum somewhere. She still climbed trees which he tried once but he fell on his back humiliated so he swore to watch her silently. Besides, the view was better where he stood. He could watch her as she sat gracefully biting into a guava as nature nourished her and she nourished it back with her beauty. On the mornings he found himself in the forest, he would wake up to a snug blanket on his warm body and piece of cake wrapped in plastic beside him.
She’s good for me, he thought. So they got married after he passed a series of tests that said he could travel around the world. I will show her the world, he thought and when their son was born in an exotic island miles away from the mainland he felt his indifference shed from his skin. And when the second one was born, a girl, he realized he was only a means to the world, that she was the real world upon which they built their happiness.
And like a reliable old book, he took her for granted.
He made her wait at home working late, with a crying baby girl and a young boy who couldn’t sleep. Grand gestures and gifts turned into a rose and a manufactured card on Valentine’s Day. Cuddles turned into hesitation and kisses were awkward. He wondered now if she only chose him because of his favorable prospects, that he could literally sweep her off her feet and show her the world while the other men were destined to hometown careers. Maybe that was it. His one handshake with the new girl in his office turned into frequent meetings, always public meetings though.
She cleaned and cooked and fed her children. One New Year’s Day she received a diary and decided to write in it. She stopped around May. Flipping back through the pages, they were all one to three liners of her chores and the women she detested. She noticed her daughter was falling ill frequently and one devastating doctor’s appointment later, they bought a breathing apparatus for her. The little one hated the medicine she had to inhale every day. But the little one got better eventually, however, she did not.
They tried again but by then her love was transferred elsewhere. She loved her children and she loved herself. She collected many paintings, vases, figurines and silverware from all over the world and everywhere she travelled, her home was furnished with all her love. She opened a bank account for her children’s education and they grew up good, one into a fine gentleman and the other into an independent woman.
He was content at home and at work. He was content everywhere he went. He saw her appear better and he thought he didn’t have to worry anymore. He was so indifferent to it all. He watched her wear her finest clothes and finest jewelry for dinners and parties and he watched her shine in a room of rotten gems. He would receive enthusiastic praise and compliments and his friend circle grew. He was content when the men would converse with cigars, pipes and cigarettes filling the parlor with smoke and ash while out of the corner of his eye he watched her in the next room, the most radiant, the most well-spoken. And he was so indifferent to it all.
She made him appear human.
When their children left home, they were forced to confront each other. He would read a book while she spoke of all the things that filled her thoughts. He would look at a computer screen while she texted her friends. He would eat dinner at nine o’clock while she ate at eleven. He would fall asleep after sex while she wondered if she should go shopping the next day.
One Saturday afternoon, he was sitting in the dining room with his laptop on the table, tapping his feet to an old folk song. She was cleaning the house and nagging about the mess. She always nagged about the mess with questions after questions. Why don’t you ever clean up after yourself? Am I your servant? Do you think I will live long with all this stress? If this is how you live now, how will it be when I’m dead? And he scoffed and he thought maybe if you weren’t so paranoid.
He lost his humanity.
He was so indifferent. The first thing he did after work was open his laptop and tap his feet away. He read a book every night and went to sleep content with himself, his day, his life. He didn’t realize it but every day was the same; from the bread he ate at six in the morning, to the smell on his clothes by six in the evening, to the contented state he slept in. Everything he did was the same but she was the difference.
She nagged. She didn’t listen. She spoke continuously for hours. One day he listened and he did not like what he heard so he went back to his books and laptop. By this age, he decided the question he had been asking himself as a teenager was this: What is it all about? And by the time he hit fifty-three, the answer was indifference. Of course in his head it was music and books and culture and life but deep down something dark and innate still lurked. He didn’t know it yet but he did not care about the things he thought he cared about.
She knew they were drifting apart but he didn’t.
She did not leave him.
The skies are a clear blue and the sparrows sing a particularly sweet melody as he stands in front of a gravestone covered in moss and weeds. He is a grandfather now and she is up in the clouds somewhere, eating the juiciest guava, he thinks. He cleans the gravestone and waters the flowers around it. They would have looked lovely in her hair.
He walks home alone and alone he is. He goes to his bookshelf that covers an entire wall full of knowledge from every place he visited. But the one book that is not completely covered in dust – he should clean, he thinks – is a leather-bound journal. As he starts on page one, he reads every single angry and frantic word, illegible at times from the urgency of the writer. Every so often he comes across a list of things to buy, things to do, things to give family and friends, the clothes that a then strapping young boy and a cute little girl needed for school, dates for school events and dates for church donation drives. When he reaches the middle of the journal, he finds himself smudging the ink from something hot and wet that falls from his eye; they are one to three liners of a day’s work from cleaning, cooking and gossip. And then there appear numbers on the pages, pages and pages of numbers calculated and solved, borrowed and paid. He used to be happy to spend his salary on food, a few good CDs and a good book but the amount he reads on the pages are amounts he knows nothing of; many zeros on the right with accompanied subtitles: school fees, electric bill, gas bill, water bill, grocery for the month, tithes.
As he nears the end of the journal, the writings suddenly become erratic and vivid with mentions of many different medicines some orthodox and some unheard of. He feels the writer’s pain, frustration and anger, so much anger, and it all transfers into him as he reads. This was catharsis unlike any he’d ever read in old English plays or contemporary Japanese novels.
He takes a breath for the final blow. Written in the last page is the answer he had been searching for all his life.
I have loved and loved too hard. I say this a lot but it’s true, I love my children more than God loves them. I loved my life, the years of travelling, the many things I saw that one could only dream of, the friends I met along the way and even those I lost. And most of all, I love my husband. It was because of him that I got to see the world; he offered me the world. Despite the rift that was building between us, I never left him. My dear, if you are reading this, know that every word I said, every time you thought I was nagging, all the mistakes I made in your eyes, they were because I loved you, too much to realize I had been swallowed by my own love.
He reads it again, repeats it in his day and goes to bed with it.
She made him human again.
This story is dedicated to my parents who will be celebrating their 26th Wedding Anniversary this coming Tuesday.