Mine went MIA. I didn’t look for it. I didn’t know I was entitled to one. Perhaps it was merely lost in translation, there being no corresponding word in Sinhala for the term. It was not encouraged nor discussed, this uncomfortable period between being cared for and learning to care. The word was thrown around sometimes by my teacher-of-English-Literature-and-Western-Classics mother, but more often by my also English-educated writer father, and when they did, it was communicated as something not to be tolerated. It was a sort of overly-spelled four-letter-word for stupidity.
“The minister was at the cabinet meeting today. Bloody adolescent.” Like that.
Neither my two older brothers nor I were inclined to be confused with that sort of behavior, whatever it was. Most particularly not I, the treasured one, the convent-educated only girl in the family; a special star reining over a galaxy of brothers and male cousins for the first decade of my life and in effect, for much of my teenage years as well. We soldiered on, non-adolescently.
But there was an added dimension to the premise of our youth, something that we suddenly noticed as being other-than what defined the three of us, this work we did to be child, then adult, nothing between: the bitter iteration of marriage that was our parents’ primary contribution to the exterior emotional climate which we learned to navigate, relate to and eventually recover from.
It had always been there, this constant tremor threatening earthquakes of discontent and vitriol flung every which way – even, in one singularly memorable moment, with a dish of curried pumpkin flung against a framed-without-glass oil painting of vegetables where, one small smudge, un-noticed in the frantic washing I did to restore appearances, still remains – but as we climbed over the peak of our first decade on earth, we saw, with a particular clarity that our lives were not to be showcased or diminished by their relationship but rather that we had a responsibility to protect and disarm while we prepared to sever and excuse ourselves. And them, too.
So perhaps it was not so much that adolescence was missing but that it was missed. My brothers made a valiant attempt to do the things that their peers did. The oldest, a gifted pianist, contrived to fail his final London examinations and then hide the results from my mother. The other brother broke into his high school to ring the school bell after dark and managed to get himself incarcerated for a night. But I, The Girl, had too much minding to do. I had no margins in which to scribble the usual small and large escapades of those years. I tackled the Leviathan from the innocuous nib of a biro and the page-a-day diaries that his secretaries gave my father, and which I hunched over in my pristine room. My pristine room with not a speck of dust in sight, with its shelves stacked with books whose spines stood exactly, exactly, exactly, together, going toe-to-toe with each other, with photographs framing my dressing table and fresh newspaper changed regularly to cover my desk, and a bed whose sheets I snapped into hospital corners, a clean swept room in which I went to sleep each 80 degree tropical night, wrapped from head to toe in various lengths of cloth – an old sarong belonging to my father, old shirts too, and socks, and a verti draped over my head and tight across my mouth, only my eyes showing – and all the knives in the house including the one butter knife, hidden under my bed.
What fears? What fears? Some, a few, all of them! The real, the surreal, the extraterrestrial, the inward, outward, flesh mangling, dream depriving things from which children are supposed to be saved. The things they are supposed to grow up and save their children from; after they’ve passed over that brief covered bridge of madness, this adolescence of disposition where the ringing of school bells, the truancy of teens, the sneaking into adult-only movie theaters, the inhaling of someone else’s cigarette, air guitars and colored hair, perhaps, in the extreme, putting up posters of Che Guevera for the most leftwing group one could find – another effort of an older brother – should be the only hesitation.
No, no, to all of it. I lived by daylight, wrote in the evenings, and slept light. Awake at the intimations of discord – my father’s drinks pouring into my mother’s cut-glass. My mother’s upper-caste rage pouring into my father’s silent frame. The telephone ringing. The dishes clashing. Some fight we children had got into. The discovery of that failed exam. A decision by a brother to switch from studying Physics and Maths to English Literature and Political Science. The lead up to elections. The approach of an almsgiving to remember a dead grandfather. The arrival of a bill. Or a death threat. Who knew? I was a child making sense without the inner quiet required to do so. With the burden of secrets withheld from parents who had unfolded into their own twisted uncomplimentary, divergent lives without noticing the underfoot.
“Why don’t you talk about Shanali,” my mother asked one evening. Once.
“They don’t talk to me anymore,” I said, my heart pounding. Could this be it? The longed-for moment of intervention? After round two in a second school? “Nobody does.”
“They call me Black Forest,” I added, raising the stakes, “because of my hair.”
My father glanced up from the chess board that I had set up for him, that I set up for him it seemed, a hundred times a day, from the endless replaying of games by Russians with beautiful faces and long fingers and names that rolled in my mouth. He glanced up and said, in his slow, exegetical way, “Marvelous! You should tell them that the Black Forest is a famous forest in Southwestern Germany. It is bordered by the Atlantic watershed and the Black Sea.” He paused to frown at the board, to move a white pawn in some direction towards the black queen. “The people there grew rich from the wood, and the silver and the ore (his voice grew deep and mysterious for that word, dragged it out, orrre).” He nodded, adding to the gravitas. “Black forest gateau,” he added at last, a non sequitor, as I waited, completely under the thrall of this explanation. And then he went back to Kasparov leaving me to fade into the woven seat of smoothed-wood chairs that I carried in each night from the verandah before the front door was shut.
They weren’t bad people, they were flawed like the rest of them, just overly inattentive or perhaps haphazard in their attentions. My mother had set me up for success: I had learned to elocute, to perform on stage, to sing, to dance, to run, to swim, and also to play the piano. That last was so that I could have “options” when – not if – I married A Despicable Bastard or, more often, A Lousy Lout, who would keep me under lock and key and prevent me from gainful employment outside the home. I knew of nobody among my parents entourage of friends, all superbly eccentric, colorful and often gay, who labored in that kind of situation, but perhaps my mother felt this might be my lot. Perhaps it had to do with my flat chest, dark skin, and boy hair – I was a boy in my dream life, another of those unexamined penchants that could have helped the whys to come gushing forth – so unlike the curves and fair skin and curls that destined others for good marriages. She pictured me safe inside this potential tomb of deprival where I would give piano lessons to small children and earn a little something with which I would do what? What? Buy my freedom? Send the houseboy out for lollipops? Which is perhaps why The Maiden’s Prayer was my favorite piece. A learned-by-heart that I played with great reverence, pianissimo and mezzo forte coming from guts tied to fingertips, not pedals. Though what I prayed for was escape, and not with any man but solo. In a flat. An independent life during which I would fulfill my goals: to be a lawyer, to work for the UN, to write books.
My father, when he was not upset with America and/or the government, which was such a rarity I remember the occasions, was funny. I confided in a brother once that I would run away. He had no patience.
“So what are you waiting for?”
“If I had money, I would!” I said, convinced, to his back, turned away from me, working on his own poetry, a squish even then of Neruda and Marquez, a literary cocktail which has dogged him into two books of poetry and his professional writerly life as an adult.
My father, in transit between one refuge, the toilet seat, and another, the chess board, peeked around the curtain. “What would you do if you had money?”
“I’d run away!” I said, longing for a concrete enemy, a faceable, nameable one.
His eyebrows went up quizzically. “Then you won’t need money.” He pumped his elbows in slow motion, “you’ll be running.”
Perhaps he only meant to lighten the gloom he knew waited just under the surfaces of his house, never quite his home. Under the polished tables, the servants who sometimes came but who most often went, the odd accomplished-yet-angry children, the ceaseless reminder of an unloved wife, the gone-wrong life. Or perhaps public integrity had its personal price.
Yes, they were not bad, not intentionally unkind, but when they drew near, they merely brushed the air around my head, the rest left well alone.
So I played normal at school. That was my challenge, the thing I needed to do to earn the right to grow up. A girl with not much parental presence at school events, parent-teacher conferences, sports meets, in private schools where parents – how they looked, where they worked, what they contributed – was everything, I became brilliant, so I would be an asset, and unassailable, so no slight could faze me. Yes, I would run in multiple races, of course I’d audition for the lesser part of Rosenblatt for the school excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, and I would debate, and I would sing Joan Baez ballads, and I would attend any extra classes held after school. Yes, yes, yes to everything. I would do everything so nothing about me could be questioned except, of course, the frightening intensity of a forgotten child with visible and verifiable parents who were wholly absent.
My classmates were busy doing their own growing up and it usually took the form of swapping boy friends and gossip, skipping classes and sometimes turning their attention to my peculiarity, specially when it smacked of something better than whatever they had.
“Where did you get that ocean pacific t-shirt?” someone asked me once at ballad-practice. I didn’t know what an ocean pacific t-shirt was. I had been given it, a metal grey shirt with a colorful strip of ocean creatures underlined by the letters for the brand separated fancifully by double spaces, by my host-brother, Cameron, an American exchange student who had washed up in our house against all odds. Two of them arrived on our doorstep that way. Perhaps something about the open-door, who-knows-whom-we-will-find-sleeping-in-the-house-by-morning, explosive, haphazard incorrect conduct of a household in an otherwise properly maintained former British colony in South Asia, appealed to these adolescents from America.
“Cameron,” I said, and felt for a fleeting moment the sweetness of superiority. Cameron, an American name signifying all manner of possibilities. Everybody at school knew of Cameron, who wore the long white trousers and short sleeved white shirt of all school boys and had to walk past the school to his previous host-family’s home. And Cameron had become “mine.”
Cameron and, before him, Daniel, had found our house through serendipity, that concept which the Persians once used to name my country Serendip. They met my brothers, fell in to chatting with them, went with them for chess tournaments that lasted till midnight and beyond, and camping at Horton Plains which meant a single tent and no sleeping bags in the freezing cold of the mountains having traveled for hours on the night-mail and walked up 7 miles. They did these things and suddenly they wanted to be in the family that my brothers were fleeing and I was fighting to survive! They came and begged my mother to call the American Field Service offices and petition for reassignment. She did. They came. They became absorbed. They loved us and we loved them. Cameron’s mother had left his father and become a biker chic who rode around with her biker boyfriend in the usual cliché. What parallels he found in our life I do not know. But it was years later that I learned the rest of the lyrics to the words he scrawled in my autograph book, subsequently, poetically, lost at Grand Central Station: freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. I thought he made those up. I thought he was so astute.
I also thought he made up the words he would sometimes sing tunelessly to me “don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do? Subtle innuendos follow must be something inside, tu-tu-tu-tu….” And I thought he knew there was something inside that wasn’t quite aligned right. Something unhinged and tainted and wrong. And he became even more remarkable to me, this 16 year old boy who had arrived from nowhere, unasked for, and settled in for a while, brought me prestige at school, words to live by and functioned as a boyfriend at the parties we went to together, slow dancing in a madly platonic embrace as we giggled and referred to each other as sister and brother. And somewhere buried under all the declamations against America and Americans and capitalism and star wars and Coca-Cola and conversations with my best friend that went like this:
Her: “I’m going to become an air hostess and find a blonde American, Ru. That’s what I want. I want a blonde American to get me out of this shit hole!”
Me: “Gads. I’d never marry an American. I need brown skin.”
Her: “Well, I can ask him to get a tan!’
Me: “But you’d have to sleep with a mostellaria first!” (we were beginning to read Plautus’ The Ghost for our Advanced Level examinations at the time; we called other people Kitchen Utensils and felt superior);
conversations which were followed by shrieks of laughter at how well we knew ourselves, beneath all that, what Cameron left behind along with the Ocean Pacific Shirt he had once pressed into my hands and his tears of farewell at the Katunayake International Airport, was a seed of belief, a small, porous, growing thing that must have whispered American boy, American boy to me until I grew up, and left for Maine with two suitcases carrying the bare essentials: dresses with puffed sleeves and bows on the back, high heeled pumps to wear to dinner, gifts for my professors, Orex ballpoint pens, Signal toothpaste and toothbrush and Samahan for coughs, colds, fevers or anything else.
And in America I met real adolescents, not like Cameron. These ones swept, carefree, through the corridors of my dorm, getting drunk in the lounge, twitching pens and looking confused in my classes, gagging over the fantastic meals in the cafeteria of an expensive liberal-arts college I felt wildly, euphorically, thrilled to be at. These versions had no time for me, no time for songs.
It all seemed shameless to me, this discarding of their origins. As Parents Weekend drew near, my friends rolled their eyes and cursed and I marveled. I would have given anything to have my long-misplaced parents visit the campus then. Anything to see them at dinner. Instead I went out for Greek food with a beautiful girl named Phoebe and her gracious mother and articulate father. We had a mostly silent dinner where they asked me questions. I felt as though I had been the entertainment. Perhaps I had. At the time I thought it was lovely of her to include me in a private reunion with her parents. Years later, she grew up and married a South African boy she had met while she had been a high school exchange student. The world did not turn so much as it returned to an older story.
But watching those friends, I rediscovered my parents’ aversion to adolescence. It was not a period of time, I swore – still swear – it was an indulgence in stupidity. Who had the right to be so unconcerned with other people? With me? With Palestine? Who could be so uninformed as to believe that if people who couldn’t place Kuwait on a map and had their own cars on campus marched around the college pond with candles, there would be no war on Iraq? I blamed all this on the condition of adolescence. I could spit that word out with the same contempt my father once had. He about his colleagues, and sometimes about America, I about my peers. I also learned to infuse every political piece I wrote with that same derision. Adolescence was, I felt, an absence of intellect, something to be ridiculed and disassociated from. In an effort to distinguish my unique perspective on adolescence from that of my parents, I changed their ‘bloody’ to ‘fucking,’ or, for more panache, ‘bloody-fucking.’
Still, despite this new effort to lay a claim to an advantage, a dirge of sorts to that lost time in my own life, the things that Cameron, that once heroic, now near mythical sage from the past had said, came back to me repeatedly until I realized that I had, indeed, left my long-term, much beloved, wholly brown skinned boyfriend, and sung Joan Baez into the heart of another American boy. Another who, like me, had experienced adolescence in the absent-presence of parents, his father the son of a Veteran, his mother a devotee of The Feminine Mystique, a member of MENSA, between Yale Business School and IBM.
And now, safe in an American home – where I do not intend to give piano lessons though I intend to, and do, pay for them – where I sleep unafraid, facing upward, naked if I feel like it, even in the midst of a nor’easter, where all the sharp things spend the night in the kitchen and the underbelly of my bed collects dustballs, where the past has gone to where it should be left, a place for harvesting small diamonds, little treasures to be bartered for stories like this, for the longing poetry and truthful fictions that I write now, I have no fear of adolescence. It waits in the form of all of my daughters, in their half-American (adolescent), half Sri Lankan (lost/hidden/denied adolescence) hearts. This lack of fear, it helps me write. The political notes that people love for their seeming courage, their unforgiving sight, the pieces that help me rid my head of problems: bombs in Beirut, the ruins of the national library in Baghdad, the hijacking of the presidential elections, or the awarding of Oscars to misogynistic lyricists. But mostly it helps me write the stories that recreate unseen places, unknown times, a milieu in which The Girl could have been any girl, any child.
And that is the sweet and lifelong gift of harsh legacies: the ability to plunge our hands into the cauldron of lost things and come up with only those memories which can be turned into art.
“I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, an Adolescent” was originally published in Crab Orchard Review.
Photo source: The Damsels of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka for 91 Days