Stuck on a Train with Our Family Secrets
The train is lost. Halted in the middle of a grassland, it seems no one knows where we are. Ma says the clouds have shot the sun so it’s hard to tell the time of the day or the direction. I gaze at the string of rail cars disappearing into the horizon as if searching for their beginning. Ma raises the glass window, coal and sand on the sill. Papa’s standing outside on a grass patch next to our coach, the smoke from his cigarette blurring his face. Ma flings her hand through her long hair, knots it into a bun, raises a bottle of water to her mouth.
We are back from Ma’s sister wedding, where everyone dressed up and group danced. Papa drank with the men and chewed on roasted cashews and chips. He shrugged a lot as if he didn’t want to upset anyone by having an opinion. Uncle and aunts who resembled Ma and who didn’t patted me on my head–oh how tall you are now, or we saw you when you were a baby or what grade are you in, beta?
I want to grow up beautiful and gloomy like Ma. Everyone pays attention to you when you are lost in your world. At home, Papa keeps following Ma, and she goes about her day like it’s nothing. I watch the water disappear in the tunnel of her neck, the fake pearl necklace (because we’re traveling on a train) shifting on the edge of her collarbone.
A hawker comes by with packets of biscuits and cold drinks. Perhaps he got on the train at the last station. Ma signals him to go away but he stays for a few seconds, a cola bottle condensing in the grip of his fingers. Ma shakes my shoulder and I immediately regret staring at the cold drink. She has this way of looking at me that I feel I must apologize for wanting. In distance the clouds are shape shifting. Switchblade light and sound explosions. A few seats away, a little girl keeps bubbling her saliva.
Outside, the light dims quick like fast forwarding a movie. Mostly I’m waiting for the train to move, the first push that will startle me so my fear of being stuck here forever remains unspoken the way Ma doesn’t talk about the names she picked for the baby who didn’t live. Papa says at idle times like these we leaf through all our failures. I stare at his silhouette in the darkening day, trying to understand what it means. If he’s thinking he should have married someone other than Ma. If he’s forced to love me no matter how careless I am like when I lost the LED from his circuit board or spilled ink on his research paper. Ma peels an orange, its rinds curled at the edges. Her fingers tug the white strands from the slices, dig the seeds out like a secret. How snug and odd this betrayal–the way things separate from what they’ve known and protected all their life.