She walked through the door and knew she was in for it.
“I’m home,” she called anyway, in her best cheery voice. Setting her jacket and keys on the dining room table, she made her way to the kitchen to look for something to eat.
Mom and Dad were sitting in the living room, silent human statues occupying the comfy beige sofa. She waved to them as she crossed the room and entered the kitchen. They didn’t wave back or even smile.
Miram was in the kitchen already, slurping at a mocha smoothie from the coffee shop down the street. When her sister walked in, she averted her eyes.
“No worries,” she assured the younger girl with a sigh. “It had to come out sooner or later.”
Miram’s voice was low, stained with guilt nevertheless. “It slipped out, Hannah. And then she made me tell her everything …”
“No worries,” Hannah repeated, opening the fridge to retrieve a Pepsi can. “I’ll take care of it.” At the dubious look Miram responded with, she smiled slightly and popped the can open. In the hollow silence pierced only by their voices, the sound seemed to ricochet off the walls like a Ping Pong ball that couldn’t be stopped. “Is David home?”
“He’s working late tonight.”
“Does he know?”
Hannah thoughtfully tapped her nose with a fingertip. Maybe I should’ve told him first after all.
Miram stiffened instantly at the harsh, gravelly voice that rang from the living room. Hannah’s eyes flickered momentarily to her sister’s face; worry and fear had once been familiar companions to all of the Tau children when their mother used that tone of voice. Now it only affected the youngest sibling, who had the misfortune to still be underage. High school graduation—and freedom—were still two years away for Miram.
“I think I’m the one in trouble here, not you,” Hannah told her before turning to leave.
“But I got you in trouble.” Miram hastily left her seat and followed her into the living room.
Mom’s hawk eyes were fixed on her older daughter as she calmly sat down across from her and Dad. Hannah met her mother’s fierce gaze without flinching and languidly sipped from her Pepsi can. Miram decided to linger in the kitchen doorway, but she ducked back into the other room when the matriarch turned the same Medusa stare on her.
Hannah smiled at her parents. “How was your day today?”
“Who said you could do this thing without asking us?”
She pretended puzzlement, raising an eyebrow at her mother. “What thing?”
“You know.” Despite her faulty English, Mom rapped out the words. “Miram tells us. You took a job outside of Pansen.”
“An internship, Mom,” Hannah corrected her. “It’s only for the summer.”
“That’s five hours away,” Dad spoke up quietly.
“Yeah, so?” A burning sensation tickled Hannah’s throat. They weren’t five minutes into this and already she was feeling edgy.
Dad cleared his throat. “I think we’ve been through this before, sweetheart. We can’t afford to pay your expenses if you go anywhere farther than Bakersfield.”
“I’ve saved enough money from my job to make it through the summer, Dad,” Hannah answered carefully. “And it’s a paid internship.”
“You not going.”
“I am.” Hannah stood. “End of discussion.” Who’s playing the parent now, huh?
Mom was immediately on her feet, breath coming out in a rush. “You not going!”
Hannah turned to regard the rigid woman glaring at her, hands clenched into fists at her sides. “I. Am. Going.” She turned her back on Mom and headed upstairs to her bedroom.
A door slammed in response, hard enough to shake the front of the house. Then the hollow silence descended again.
Hannah idly watched the stars poke their heads through the thickness of evening as she lay stretched out on her bed before dinner. The curtain-fringed window provided a panoramic view of the middle-class suburb neighborhood that she had called home for the last twenty-one years. Her lower lip curled in contempt as she appraised their neatly-manicured front lawn and the cute white-painted fence that enclosed their property. Can’t afford to pay my expenses, he says. Gimme a break.
She had not tried to venture outside of her bedroom since the afternoon. Not that she was scared of what her mother might say – she was just tired of hearing the same old thing.
A good daughter would not talk back to mother, Mom would icily inform her. As if she hadn’t heard this line a million times already. You break up family by leaving. Family should stay together.
Total crap. A wry smile tugged at one corner of her lips. How would her mother react if she said that to her face? Of course, she could think of more colorful ways to say it …
You don’t follow the old ways. You don’t dress like you should. You don’t have friends you should. You don’t do the dances. You not involved with group that honors our ways. You not interested enough in our beliefs. You not involved in church enough.
Not, not, not. Not anything. Not perfect enough for an old lady who only wanted to strictly adhere to the traditions of her people from a little island four thousand miles away. For cryin’ out loud, this is America.
And apparently, it was the wrong America for Mom.
She sat up when someone knocked on her door. “Who is it?”
“Guess who, little sister. And let me in before the hurricane gets me.”
Hannah chuckled and let David into her room. He only called her “little sister” because he was much taller than her now. Age-wise, he was two years younger than her. “She ain’t out to get you, bro. She’s on my case about leaving.”
“Leaving to go where?”
“Pasadena.” She smiled brilliantly. “I got the internship.”
“And the head of the household didn’t like that, huh?” David grinned back. “No surprise there.”
Hannah leaned forward to kiss his cheek. “Whatcha doing here?”
“Oh, a certain squirt called me up and told me what was going on. So I decided to invite myself here for dinner and wait for the fireworks to start.”
“You’re a brat.”
“And you, little sis, are a first-class rebel.”
She slapped his shoulder. “Thank you for the encouragement.”
Someone else knocked on the door. Before Hannah could answer, Miram poked her head in and grinned when she saw her older siblings. “Dinnertime.”
“Look who decided to join us,” David drawled, as Miram opened the door wider and crept into the room. “The little bird who couldn’t keep her trap shut.”
Hurt momentarily flared in the teenage girl’s eyes before she jutted her chin out stubbornly. “Better ‘n Hannah sneaking off and not telling the Witch of the West at all. I hafta stay here and listen to all her complain, you know, not you.”
“Be nice,” Hannah chided her brother. “She’s right, after all.”
David drew his younger sister close to plant a placating kiss on her forehead. “So sensitive.”
Miram stood still in his embrace, then punched him in the gut and darted away before her older brother could grab her to offer his retaliation. “So mean!”
“I could think of worse things to call you,” Hannah grinned.
“Shut up, you.” David draped an arm around her shoulders and dragged her along with him out the door. “I know somebody who could kick our butts when it comes to name-calling.”
Hannah smirked, shrugged. “Hey, it runs in the family.”
There wasn’t as much banter at the dinner table. The anger radiating from Mom made the whole meal an uncomfortable affair. Dad and David talked in hushed voices about work and what was happening in the news. Miram kept her eyes fixed on her plate as she wolfed down her food; Mom didn’t bother to chide her about her sloppy eating habits. She stared stonily at Hannah while her oldest child ate and acted as if nothing was wrong.
Hannah chewed on a piece of marinated chicken and was surprised they weren’t having their customary Tuesday dinner: taro, palasami, rice and canned corned beef or tuna. Mom had insisted that they eat at least one “Islander” meal a week – not that Hannah had a problem with that. She loved baked taro with her palasami.
No, it wasn’t the food that was the problem at all. She swallowed her mouthful and lifted her eyes. Mom was staring at her, black eyes wide and intense, her brown, weather-worn face scrunched up with animosity.
Mother and daughter appraised each other in silence. Everybody else had stopped what they were doing to watch, though they pretended not to.
“Is there something wrong, Mom?” Hannah finally asked politely.
“Why you doing this?”
“Leaving. Leaving me. Leaving family.”
“Lordy, you make it sound like I’m—”
Mom slapped her hard across the face. “You not take God’s name in vain!”
Hannah slowly touched her burning cheek. Her mother still watched her, breathing coming out in slow heavy puffs. Dad, Marim and David stared at Mom, their expressions ranging from shock to fear. Then Dad turned his head to look at Hannah. Swearing was not allowed under his roof.
“Apologize to your mother.”
“To hell I will.” Hannah pushed back her chair and rapidly walked towards the stairs.
“Hannah, come back here!” Now he sounded angry. She turned around to see him rising out of his own chair, his darkly-tanned face redder than before.
“I’m sick of living with her, okay? I’m tired of being criticized about everything in my life. I’m tired of having to live up to your damn expectations—”
“Don’t you swear in my house, young lady!” The veins in her father’s neck stuck out like thin velvet cords that had been permanently glued to the tender flesh.
“You don’t think I know it’s your house?” she threw back. Her eyes slid to Mom, whose jaw twitched with every vile word that came out of her daughter’s mouth. The older woman sat stock-still in her chair, staring straight ahead. “Don’t you mean hers? I’ve had it with this crap! I’m my own person, okay? I think I have the right to make my own decisions once in awhile—”
“Not so long as you live under my roof,” Dad shouted, his eyes ablaze.
“Don’t gimme that – you’re just a puppet to Mother!”
Her father’s face immediately closed. Hannah stood near the stairs, chest heaving, fists clenched so hard that her knuckles seemed to protrude of their own accord through the thin membrane of skin that covered them.
The way her mother’s had that afternoon.
Miram sat at her chair with her head bowed, barely able to keep her tears in check. David looked at the platters of food in the middle of the table, pressing his hands to his blushing face and not meeting her gaze. He didn’t look like he was enjoying the “fireworks” at all.
Mom slowly turned in her chair and faced her older daughter with an immobile face. “You hate me, Hannah?”
Hannah heard the strain in her voice and suppressed a bitter urge to lash back. Good job, girl. Make everyone else in the family think you’re the enemy now.
She looked into her mother’s eyes again. No animosity now, just a bleak and strange sadness that seemed very uncharacteristic of the woman Hannah was familiar with.
Unsettled, she left the room without answering.
She didn’t respond to the tap at the door later that night. Neither David nor Marim ever knocked that softly when they wanted in, and she was usually the one who knocked on her parents’ door for something, not the other way around.
The door quietly opened and closed, and then her mother shuffled towards the bed where Hannah was curled up among her pillows, staring at some emptiness beyond her walls.
Neither of them spoke right away. The silver glimmer of the full moon streamed through the window. Hannah shifted slightly to peer at her mother through the corner of one eye; with her stooped back and slumped shoulders, Mom’s profile was distorted in the faint blue light. She looked more like a shadow of a lumpy bag of potatoes than an actual human.
“You hate me, Hannah?”
She brushed her hair away from her face with a trembling hand. Why does it always have to come to this?
“No,” she said finally. “I don’t hate you.”
“You … no leave, then?”
Hannah watched her mother’s silhouetted profile, swallowing a sudden lump in her throat. “I won’t go far.”
Mom did not speak for a long moment. The silence stretched to become a chasm that separated their worlds.
Then she felt leathery fingers touch hers, which had been made soft by lotions produced in this ever-changing land.
A shadow land to one. The Promised Land to the other.
Hannah tentatively covered her mother’s hand with her own, fingers wrapping around the gnarled and too-dry palm as her mother did likewise.
Mom’s shadowed shape shifted form again. The faint outlines of a nose and puckered mouth materialized, the drooping eyelashes, the thinning wisps of hair. Suddenly she seemed more human than anyone else Hannah had ever known.