SORRY FOR OUR
by Neobie Gonzalez
Our little girl has been learning that things break. You stepped on her favorite rocketship some time ago, and when she screamed I dropped a bowl. I know she saw me in the kitchen picking up its shards with my hands, an expression of mild grief on my tired face. But there was no blood or anything, just jagged porcelain and soap streaks, white at its untidiest.
Later, as I was cleaning up, she asked me if the pieces were shark teeth. I pretended they were and told her, “Yes,” but she didn’t believe me, not one bit, because where was the shark and how could I have pulled its teeth out?
She also refused to believe that you fixed her beloved toy. You gave it back to her crooked. One black wing was lower than the other. The glue wasn’t even completely dry. She handed it to me instead, but I was sure it would just shatter in my hands, or look like something else completely if I had tried anything on it. I didn’t want to, and said so.
As I apologized, I felt like I had to explain the impermanence of objects to her, how we can try but will always fail to repair them. She curled up to me as I stroked her hair, so much darker and longer than it was when she was born. I said, “Nothing reverts to its original state.” and believed it. She was right in front of me after all, a child who could never be a fetus again. I even pointed to me, a woman who could never be a child again, no matter how much she wanted herself to. She still didn’t get it.
To illustrate, however, I ripped one of your old shirts into two. It unraveled like a new morning, but I showed her how, when I sewed it back together, the stitches were still too obvious, rough frays were left behind. She looked like she understood, nodding at me, but after a few seconds she asked me what “revert” meant. She also asked me why we have a name for nothing when it isn’t really real. She has too many questions that I can’t answer. Neither can you, and you normally try harder than I do.
That afternoon, she wore your shirt around her waist like a skirt. She told me it was new and started swaying her hips to a song she heard on TV. I spun her around and we twirled together, getting dizzier and dizzier until we held on to each other for wobbly support. My hip knocked over a flower vase, water spilled and I slipped. She let out a little cry but I told her I was okay. Just a bump, nothing more. I jumped up, hugged her, then stepped on the porcelain remnants with the sole of my shoe. She did the same, and our feet crunched in harmony to this invented game. We giggled all afternoon. I don’t remember laughing that hard in my life.
She’s been at it for more than a week though. She’s broken most of our possessions already and shows no signs of stopping. The house looks hurricane-tragic. Fixtures are barely fastened, shelves are up sideways. Everything has been marked with the wild hands of destruction. There are, however, attempts to redo what’s been undone. I notice strips of duct tape over cracks in figurines. Fresh white glue drips from fissures in picture frames. Pieces of torn paper are all over the floor, red crayon check marks scribbled on those that have been stuck back together. She’s also used the same color to draw stitches over fractures in the walls, over the glass veins of mirrors. The first time you saw them, you asked me why I let her do that. Before I could answer though, she came running towards you and you scooped her up, whisking her into the playroom.
Her teacher tells me it’s just a phase. Sometimes, the appetite for disaster consumes us and we just have to give in. Sometimes we even hurl ourselves toward it, wanting more. Maybe she wants to be a surgeon, I told him, and hung up. I’ve never really trusted the guy. I even find him a bit peculiar, but you said he seemed like he knew what he was doing so I just had to trust you. It hasn’t been easy though, not with the eruption of fights when you came home late, arguments on those weekends we kept our voices down because she was within earshot. We’ve been doing what we can to stay together for her but it doesn’t seem to be enough. She still kicks legs off desks, bites off pillow fluff, and claws at anything she can get her hands on. She’s begun to resemble an untrained puppy, only with more energy, greater strength, and less drool.
I can’t figure out where her strength is coming from. Is it your genes, with their terrifying attention to detail and the tenacity with which you obey the rules? Maybe it’s from me, and the steadfast patience I’ve cultivated from your absences?
I like believing that she’s simply special, just as I’ve always known, and that there was little to do but accept her for who she is. Last week, I caught her carrying a hammer and our front door over her head. This caused a draft in the house, which I solved by taping sheets of cling wrap over the doorframe. I could barely move the plank of wood and put it back by myself; I didn’t have her stamina. Besides, she already nailed it over the hole she made in the ceiling of her room.
When you arrived that night, you walked straight into the plastic film. You panicked as you got trapped in it, yelling for me to help you as you fought off the invisible snare. I ran towards you and apologized, what else could I do, even though I had already called you to say what your daughter did earlier that day. You claimed you forgot and berated me for not having a better solution. Why couldn’t I have used a beach towel? Or something less transparent? We started yelling back and forth until we heard something tumbling down the stairs. It was her wooden dresser, in chunks on the floor, a mess like a freshly chopped tree. You helped me clean it up but didn’t say a word. I didn’t either. She, too, had already stopped speaking, and communicates only in these tiny wreckages, telling us she knows what’s going on, but won’t acknowledge it verbally.
We’ve decided to separate for a little while. She threw a fit when she found out. We almost lost a bathroom that time; her hands turned the toilet into a pee fountain. Before she could do more damage, you kissed her and promised her you’d be back soon, but it’s been a while since we last saw you. You’re staying at your mom’s and, as far as I know, going to work everyday. You’ve also been hanging up on me constantly, even when I try to talk to you about our daughter, how the last time both of us heard her speak was a month ago. She laughed at some stupid joke you made about what I was wearing. I rolled my eyes and she mimicked me for days, seeing me do that for the first time. After that came the rocketship incident, followed by this new madness. I’m starting to miss her voice, really, but it hasn’t returned, not even when I coax her. Maybe she’ll get bored one day and break her silence. That’s usually how it worked with you.
Back when she was still learning to talk, she spoke 24/7. Ma ma ma or Da da da on repeat as if she couldn’t get enough of calling us. She only stopped when she was being fed or had fallen asleep. She would even talk through tears, bubbled up syllables in the bath and murmured constantly as we changed her diaper.
As we taught her more words, our house squeaked endlessly with her tiny voice. She named everything over and over, and it began to feel like objects didn’t exist until she wanted them brought to her. Her cup would come to being when she asked for it. Her doll would be by her feet as soon as she mentioned its name. At first we thought she had the power to have everything she wished for, but I think she was just a child who was too specific for her own good, brave enough to tell people exactly what she wanted. She seems to have lost interest in that now though, and refuses to utter even a syllable.
I’ve wanted to tell you so much of what she’s been up to, but you won’t let me. She’s redone the garden, yanking out flowers from the soil and planting in tools instead. She’s also broken pots and epoxied the pieces together, giving the new planters a shape I never thought existed. Once, she threw a ball right through her classroom window and it hasn’t been found since. The principal called her to her office, but she wouldn’t budge from her spot on the floor where she sat trying to repair the pane. It ended up being a different shape altogether: a small, perfect square with slivers of glass protruding from the center, much like the rays of the sun. Her teacher gave her a star for creativity, but informed me that he was starting to get a little worried about her. He even suggested having her checked by a psychiatrist.
He told me that she didn’t cry or blink from touching the sharp fragments. She didn’t bleed either, not even when she knelt on the debris. That’s how we both agreed that she didn’t need to see a doctor. Her body took care of her better than we ever could.
At a party for my friend’s two-year-old, she plays with kids like she’s as normal as they are. She chases and is chased by them all over the park. She rolls in the grass, hops over stones, chases the butterflies that flutter her way. She swings higher than the others though, slides down faster than anyone else. Later, she pulls the monkey bars down to her height, her four-year-old fingers gripping metal like it was modeling clay. She bends them into odd angles until she shapes them into a monkey, and it’s at this point that I start to wonder if she’s a god.
The children start crowding around her, curious. “Wow, where’d you learn that?” one exclaims. “Will you teach me how please?” another says. “Turn the see-saw into a pony next!” a kid pleads, and our girl grins at all of them, benevolent. Their guardians are more cautious though. They run to their kids’ sides, protective, wary of this blip in the course of all the fun. All their children ask them, “Can she come over and play tomorrow?” but they wince and say no, scared.
One little boy speaks up though: “Monkeys are stupid. I want the bars back.” Our girl frowns and shakes her head. She also rips the hem of the kid’s shirt in an attempt to explain what I’ve told her about change, except he doesn’t listen and makes faces at her instead. He pushes her by the shoulders and she falls backward, but on the grass she’s sticking her tongue out at him, her fists up, her eyes wide, and it’s then I decide to intervene.
The boy’s mom sees them too. “What is your kid’s problem?” she asks me, rushing at him and picking up the strip of torn cloth from the ground.
“It’s nothing, really. Her teacher tells me it’s just a phase,” I say.
“You better teach that girl a lesson,” she retorts, and walks away with the teary-eyed boy, who also sticks his tongue out at our daughter. I don’t know where she’s learned revenge, but she retaliates before I can stop her, throws the metal monkey towards him. She misses and it lands on the food table, right on top of the birthday cake. It bursts on impact. Dollops of frosting scatter and stain cloth; wax cartoon figures are squashed and malformed, turning into monstrous versions of themselves. The children panic and their parents try to calm them down, but they’re panicking too. The birthday girl’s wails pierce through the afternoon, and all I can do is apologize for what our daughter has inadvertently done.
She starts to cry too, confusion taking over, embarrassment. I take her in my arms but she wriggles free from the hug, her face all red and puffy.
I am worried that through this, she has discovered anger. She races around the park, unable to control herself. Her every stomp cracks the cement pathways. Her footprints look like spider webs, reaching farther and farther away from me and out through the gate, towards the sidewalk, past cars and buildings that I’m sure she’ll later ruin. She reaches her small hands out to them and I can tell she’s eager to see them crumble. It’s in her eyes: she’ll be the world’s downfall in sneakers and a frilly white dress, and she won’t even know it.
I try calling you at work but you’re not picking up. I’m left to deal with her by myself, and she’s getting worse by the minute. I apologize to strangers every time something goes wrong, even though it’s not her fault she’s this way. I’m guessing it’s yours, for leaving when you obviously wanted to stay. I should’ve convinced you harder. I should’ve said something as you packed, she and I peeking through a slit in the door of our bedroom. She was braver than I was, because she walked right in. You took her in your arms and placed her on your suitcase, asking if she’d like to go with you. But she chose me. She gave you her teddy bear as a keepsake, and I couldn’t give you anything, not even a word when you said goodbye.
Now I can only watch her, follow her around as she tucks her knees into her chest to do a little egg roll, her body crashing, smashing into the wheels of a parked truck. No one is hurt though. She doesn’t even bruise. She has completely ceased crying, and seems to have forgotten the concept of repair, too. She no longer tries to fix what she’s destroyed, instead leaving a trail of broken things behind her. She’s fast, faster than I ever can be. I call out her name but she doesn’t turn back to look.
It’s when she stops to snap a lamppost in two that I catch up. She swings it in an attempt to break things further, but it whacks me on the abdomen as I try to grab hold of her. I double over from the pain and drop to the pavement, which is when she finally sees what she’s done. The ruined city, its people, each one gawking at her for her outburst. She runs to me and lifts me up. I can feel her tiny body shaking under the weight of mine, and this is how I know that our daughter has learned regret.
I want to tell her that I’m okay, that things can be forgiven. But instead I pass out from the pain and end up doing nothing.
When I wake up, I notice that she’s carried me home and tucked me in. She’s calm when she comes to see me that morning, but I’m sure something’s bothering her.
“Are you okay, dear?” I ask her, and she shrugs at me like a sulky teenager. I notice the slouch as she leaves me to look over my bruises, but it’s her I’m more concerned about. On the way to school, she slowly tears open her seat. She flings small clusters of fluff all over the back of our car. They resemble clouds and, sitting in the middle of it all, she looks like a sad little wingless angel. She still won’t speak or look at me. When I drop her off, she doesn’t kiss me goodbye. I wave but she doesn’t wave back.
I don’t bother cleaning up her mess. I already know she’ll make a new one, and I wonder what might come next as I drive away. Outside, a woman stops to tie her shoelaces. Signs on glass doors switch from “Sorry, we’re closed” to “Please come in.” Grass is cut and scattered.
The moment I get home, the phone rings. I pick up and it’s her teacher again, telling me our daughter has just hit someone’s kid. He wanted to borrow her pencil but she didn’t want to share. She’s also started chewing her nails, a bad habit I used to have, which I quit in high school, when my own mom threatened to feed them to me for lunch. But she’s been tossing the gnawed-off pieces at her classmates instead, making crescent weapons of them. At least she’s original.
“We’re very disappointed in her behavior,” her teacher tells me.
“Hold on, how’s the other kid?” I ask.
“He’s with the nurse,” he says. “She broke his nose.”
I don’t know what else to do, but he keeps going. He explains how this incident led our girl to destroy most of the classroom, and they could do nothing but watch her. She stomped on walls, ripped up all their drawings with her teeth. Toys were cracked and picked apart.
“It’s like we’re dealing with a rabid animal.”
I tried to come to her defense. “She’s just a kid.”
“She also bit part of my ear off.”
I didn’t think it was that bad, but couldn’t say so. “Do you want me to pick her up then?” I offer instead, hoping it’ll be over when I talk to her.
“She’s asking for her dad.”
I still can’t reach you, after how many calls, and tell him about it because it’s the truth. He sighs, relenting, having no other choice but to deal with me again.
When I arrive at the school for the second time that morning, I am told that our daughter has run off again. “Escaped” is the word they use, which makes me wonder what they could’ve done to her, if they kept her prisoner, or if they made her stand in the corner to shame her. They show me all the damage she’s caused – the slashed bulletin boards, the severed heads of dolls, teeth marks on toys that are now beyond mending. I want to take them all for myself, thinking they could be clues or keepsakes, but there are already too many of them to carry. I also suspect there will be more.
“We’re sorry we couldn’t stop her,” they all say, as if there’s anything they can even do.
“Just please tell me which way she went,” I beg them. Everything else doesn’t matter. I just want our daughter back.
But the principal doesn’t know what to say. Her teacher has no clue either. I leave you eleven messages but you still don’t respond. Maybe she’s come to you and you’re making me worry on purpose. Maybe she’s mad at me and wants to teach me a lesson. Maybe she went away to blow off more steam and doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt. I’d like to believe she’s learned compassion and kindness somehow, though lately there hasn’t been much of it between us.
I recall the time we almost lost her in a mall once after watching a movie about babies who save the world. She and I went to the bathroom after, but she ran out before I did. I couldn’t tell where she went. We were only separated by seconds. I hurried to find you and I quickly did, and we split up to look for her, covered all the floors. You blamed me the entire time. I blamed myself, too.
We were scared she had been kidnapped, or worse. We had already asked all the guards, showed them her pictures. I almost lost it but you stayed by my side, though I knew you were also trying to keep it together. Soon, night fell and the crowd thinned out. She still hadn’t resurfaced. The mall closed and we headed out to our car, which was where we finally found her, trembling under the seat.
“I’m hiding from the bad guys, mommy,” she said, which is why I worry she isn’t strong enough for any of this. She spent that week in fear of everything. Flies, doughnuts, even her clothes were ghosts that were trying to smother her. Eventually, she forgot about it, but her terrors returned upon seeing a floating white bag, which the wind blew straight at her face. She learned almost choking, and living through it.
These things have a way of coming back, I say to myself, and believe that she’ll do the same. I sit in my car with the windows rolled down. I whistle the tune we once dizzy-danced to, tug at the clumps of fluff she left and tear them into tinier pieces. I check my phone for any sign of you, though I know there will be none. Instead, I’ll wait for our daughter for as long as I can, until she remembers she needs me, or until I learn not to.
Neobie Gonzalez is from Manila, Philippines. Her works have appeared in Kritika Kultura, Juked, Used Gravitrons, and others. She is also co-editor of the online prose journal Plural.