I remember the first time I won an award.
It was for writing, for coming first place in a school writing competition, when I was eight or nine, and I was immensely proud. Receiving the award was a bad experience. I was lonely, standing in line with the others to go up on stage. The other children didn’t like me, they thought me quiet and snobbish, and now that I had won this award, they liked me even less, and I could feel it, their silent animosity, the way they laughed more raucously with each other to make me feel more alone. The social rejection was blindingly painful, and the loneliness was like a sword stuck in my chest.
When I went up on stage to receive my certificate, under those hot lights, before all those eyes, I could hardly breathe. My legs, my skin, my body, felt as if they were not my own. My lips and hands trembled. I was so anxious I felt like I would shake to pieces. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, because I had received an award—and for my writing, no less. In my imagination, it was one gold star, one step towards to becoming the author I wanted to be.
I wondered if my father would be proud of me.
After the award ceremony was over, my mother came to pick me up. My father hadn’t come to see me receive my award, I discovered; but my mother was proud, and smiling, so I wasn’t too upset. Back then, she still had reasons to be proud of me. We stood by the road running along the front of the school, in the warm night, mother and daughter, and I clutched my certificate. When a car drove past, its headlights flashing over us, for an instant it illuminated my mother’s face, and I saw it was contorted, when only seconds ago she had been smiling, and it was hard to tell whether she was crying, or had simply aged overnight. I was unsettled.
My mother didn’t have a car. Back then, she couldn’t even drive. Her husband, my father, had never let her drive his car, so even though she had a driver’s license, from lack of practise, she couldn’t have driven a car even if someone had handed her one. So we hailed a taxi instead, paying a total eighteen dollars for the trip, and I sat in the backseat, with my mother, in that strange-smelling car, with that strange man turning the steering wheel in the front, and thinking of the eighteen dollars that was now being taken out of the grocery money my father have given my mother that week.
It was one of those moments where the sense of wrongness is starting to grow so prominent you detach from reality just to cope. I stared outside the window, watching the streetlights and car lights stream past in a blur of reds and oranges. I imagined I was in another world, where people traveled from place to place on the backs of gushes of light, and ate gobbets of differently-coloured glowing lights for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and when they smiled, their teeth flashed red, orange, green, like traffic lights.
The taxi pulled into a small side street, close to the townhouse we lived in back then, jolting me back to reality. I felt sick. I felt like my heart was sick, like it was blackening and rotting like an apple left too long in the sun. I wanted the taxi driver to turn around with a gun in his hand, and shoot us both dead, then drive off; that kind of stuff happened in movies, after all, and this was a very dark street. But all the man did was turn around, smelling of sweat and cigarettes, and take my mother’s money.
Then we got out, onto the pavement, and he drove away.
When you have parents who early one demonstrate their complete inability to protect you from the world, and often were the ones who hurt you, you grow up afraid. Fear is constant companion. Fear rapes you in the night. It penetrates you until you want to die. I used to pretend my teddy bears were alive, not merely to play pretend, but so I could arrange them on either side of me and go to sleep with the illusion of protection. When I woke up in the middle of the night crying, or I was scared of the darkness, or scared from a recent movie I watched, I knew my parents wouldn’t comfort me, they couldn’t even comfort themselves, so I hugged my teddy bear close, and pretended it was rocking me to sleep. I hugged it like I loved it, fluff and synthetic fur. Fear doesn’t make you brave, it doesn’t make you stronger. When you have lived in a constant state of fear since as long as you can remember, any more fear that comes your way only makes you more scared.
So as we walked up along the street, up to the townhouses, I was hyperventilating. By this point, not even my imagination was strong enough to distract me. All I could think was: BAD. Something bad had happened. Something bad was going to happen. Something bad had happened between my mother and father, and I was going to find out, soon enough, whether I liked it or not. As we walked into the cul-de-sac, and neared the door, I broke free of my mother and ran away, down the street, into the darkness. I crouched down and huddled against a mailbox. My long hair caught in some bushes peeping over a nearby brick wall. I felt pathetic, hiding like this, I hated myself and my cowardice, but I didn’t want to face whatever lay back home. I would sit here, and rock myself until I forgot the world, forgot my life, forgot my parents.
My mother ran down the street after me, angry and upset. What are you doing? What are you doing? I said, I said, I don’t want to go in there. I don’t want to go, I just want to stay right here. She said don’t be stupid, it’s cold and it’s dark, we need to get home. I said I didn’t want to go. She said don’t be stupid, you stupid girl, and she grabbed my arm and yanked me up, her grip like iron, and together we walked, at breakneck speed, towards the house, as if we were late or something. We walked up the front porch steps, in through the door.
My mother, as she always did, tiptoed up the stairs, and listened at my father’s door, listening for the usual grunts and moans. There were none. I went up the stairs, too. My sister and brother were sleeping in the room they shared. My mother saw me watching her listening at the door, and she said, give me your certificate, I want to show your father what wonderful work you have done. I gave it to her, and she held it and she opened the door.
Inside the room, my father sat at his computer, watching a movie, wearing headphones. He didn’t turn around when my mother walked in. I walked up the stairs and stood in the doorway, curious in spite of myself, wanting to get a good look at my father for once.
He was a pitiful sight. He made me feel disgusted just to look at him. He was sitting in his chair, surrounded by high-tech gadgets, a state of the art sounding system, topless, rake-thin, with a oddly large paunch that folded downwards towards his crotch in flabby layers. He wore only underpants.
In his photographs, as a youth, he had been handsome. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, tall, a real gentleman. They told me I got my looks from him. Now he was balding, and his face was pallid, and ugly. There was a toilet roll sitting on his desk, surrounded by countless wads of scrunched-up tissues, and I was at least five years too young to know what they signified.
Here, my mother said, her voice pleading, as she sat down on the bed and held out the certificate, here, look, look what she won, this award, this certificate, she came first, she was the only one. She shoved it at him. She was pushing it against his stomach. His eyes were heavy-lidded, and he was looking at my mother but trying not to see her, unresponsive, cold, cold, so cold, indifferent. He wasn’t just ignoring my mother, and the certificate. It was like he was a teenage boy being forced to admit he had raped a little girl before thousands of people, not wanting to show anything, not wanting to show any guilt or shame, his eyes heavy-lidded.
I wanted to crush his head open with a mallet. Aren’t you proud of me, Daddy? I didn’t say it. Don’t you care? I want to kill you, Daddy. I’m so lonely and sad, Daddy, and I want to fucking kill you. I hate you too, Mummy, for acting so desperate and weak whenever you’re around him, never standing up for yourself and giving into his every whim, as though he’s some god. You pray to him for love. You make obeisance to him every morning to gain his favor. You still let him into your bed, even when you know he is cheating on you. You have no power at all, and you have no brains. I hope you die. I hope you rot. I want to mold the both of you together like plasticine people, until you become a shapeless blob, and I never have to see the both of you again.
He turned back to the screen. My mother started to cry, angry, hot tears, and then she started to scream, yell at him. My father stood up, and told us to get out of his room, this was his house, he was paying the rent, if he we still wanted to stay here, then we better leave. I left. My mother didn’t. She kept on screaming at him. All the screams buried inside of her from the late nights and long days were coming out, and her screams were so stupid and loud I wanted to slap her. She was so pathetic. She was a little girl, railing against a big, bad wolf who was now interested in nibbling other little girls who liked his big eyes, and his big teeth. Eventually, fed up, my father wrestled her out of the room, then slammed the door shut in her face.
I went to my room. I sat on my bed. I didn’t even know where my certificate had got to, in all the kerfuffle. Maybe it lay on my father’s bedroom floor. Maybe, when he turned on the webcam later on, and started to talk to the person on the screen while pleasuring himself, he would use it to wipe himself when he was done, grimace a little at the rough texture of the paper.
Two seconds later, my mother came raging up the stairs. She was gone, I could see that now, she was hysterical, stupid, childish, hysterical, and I hated her so much I could barely breathe. In her left hand, she held a kitchen knife. I thought she was going to use it to kill my father; I was already imagining my father dead, my mother behind bars, my siblings and I orphans. Instead, she came into my room, threw the knife onto the bed I was sitting on, still screaming, still yelling, hysterical, now, so hysterical it was both terrifying and irritating, and told me to kill her.
Kill me! Go on! She picked up the knife, pointed it at me, at my hand, waggled it, kill me, why don’t you, kill me! I started to cry. I was so frightened. I was so scared. I was so overstimulated, overloaded, anxious. My breaths came so quick and fast, and through streaming tears I begged her to put down the knife. Kill you, she said. Kill me. Then she stormed out of the room, dropping the knife. Gingerly, I picked up the knife from the carpet, went into the bathroom, and placed it, edge facing outwards, on the windowsill, where hopefully my mother would not find it again.
Thirty minutes later, I was back in my room, trying to read a book, getting ready for bed, when I heard the sirens. The sound tore through my brain. Lights flashed through the verandah door, blue and red, and then there was a knocking at the door, and my mother went down and opened it and there were two police officers, strangers, more strangers, standing there in their uniforms, hands on hips. A neighbour has reported some screaming, he said. Domestic violence. Can we take a look around, ask some questions? One walked up the stairs, and barged into my room. I was only wearing a crop top, and my undies. The policeman, this great, big bulky stranger, looked at me, at my half-naked form, and told me to put on some clothes and then he would come back and ask me some questions, and then he walked out. It was the first time a stranger had seen me like that, wearing my own clothes at home, bedraggled and unkempt. I felt excruciatingly embarrassed, and somehow, suddenly, excruciatingly ugly. I saw in my mind’s eye my father, sitting in his chair, wearing only his underpants. Put on some clothes, he said. Look at you, your body is disgusting, put on some fucking clothes. You’re so pathetic and ugly and disgusting.
I put on some clothes. The policeman came back, a stranger, invading my private sanctuary with his bulky form and strange smell and uniform, his unfeeling eyes. Tell me what happened. He had a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. Tell me what happened. Who was screaming? Did your father hit your mother? Did your mother threaten you? He repeated that question when I started to cry. Did your mother or father use any weapons? Knives, hammer, anything? I thought of the knife lying on the windowsill, in the bathroom, only a couple of metres from where the policeman stood, and I said, no, they didn’t, she didn’t. And then somehow it was over, and the policeman were gone. It was like a dream.
My father left soon after that incident. My mother got a job. She lost weight like nobody’s business, once a beautiful woman, slightly on the plump side, now a haggard, irritable crow. My siblings grew more fretful after his departure, though they were still young, and they hadn’t seen or known the things I’d see and known. I lost my father, that night, but I also lost myself, and my belief in myself, and my love for myself, and my fear and self-loathing multiplied a thousandfold, and now, each day, I grit my teeth and try to heal the wounds on my own, bit by bit.
I never got that certificate back. But I guess I should count myself lucky—my father once threw a birthday card my brother made for him down the bin seconds after my brother handed it to him. He spent hours on that card; it was a pop-up card, decorated with glitter glue and plastic googly eyes; my brother cried when my mother fished it out of the bin, and I wanted to kill my father that time, too.
But my father didn’t throw away my certificate, because that certificate—well, I threw it away myself, Dad, when I handed it over to my mother. I didn’t need that certificate to tell me what I knew in my heart was my true calling. I didn’t need that certificate to affirm my creative talent. I didn’t need the other children to like me to affirm who I was. I didn’t need you to smile and congratulate me for receiving the award. The certificate was nothing, just like you, Daddy, just like everyone who has misunderstood or mistreated or underestimated or overlooked or subjugated me, just like every tiny, excruciating self-loathing thought that has ever crossed my mind.
I am strong. The loneliness, social rejection, self-hate and pain I have experienced over the course of my life constitutes more suffering than you have experienced in your fifty years on this planet. I was born sensitive, not that you ever bothered to find out, sensitive and strange. I’m broken, very broken, a doll left on the shelf, collecting dust, porcelain limbs cracked—you can’t be strong without being at least a little broken, too, I’ve learned. But I’ll get the gold star. I’ll get my dream. I’ll stand up on a stage again. And I won’t be thinking of you the next time I do.