The Upset


What happens is that my stepfather, Jacob Hughes, is disgraced. His disgrace enters through the front door of our home and will not leave by polite or violent methods.  Mama feels it too. I have noticed how the curved bone at the base of her nape has begun to thicken, bowed by this new burden. When she is turned towards the sink or stove, I study the pale of her neck and the web of black hair loose from her clip, and I am reminded of malevolent spirits in horror films. I think of the way they cling to the shoulders of a woman or sit leaden on her chest at night. My family’s disgrace is like this, with all of us ignoring it, hoping that it will starve.

Jacob returns home at four in the afternoon holding his leather satchel under one arm and cradling a box of office appliances in the other. He has been officially fired from his role as Director of Operations at Williamson Logging. I know this because we have been waiting for it to happen. I follow him from the hall to the lounge, stopping in the archway as he drops his half full box on the ground beneath the window overlooking the yard. He pulls from the windowsill a jumble of trinkets accumulated over our family’s five years together. Picture frames, a plastic snow globe, Christmas cards from three months ago, a china dish of stones and shells collected from the beach. He casts these flimsy mementos into the box.  

Mama’s sandals smack the hard-wood floor of the hall behind me, and her robed shoulder grazes mine as she goes to join Jacob. She crouches on the carpet and angles her torso around the television with one hand resting on its screen for balance, and then there is the terse click-click of the plugs being ripped from their sockets. Mama and Jacob do not speak to one another about what will happen next. They only mutter commands like ‘hand it to me, Mercy,’ or ‘Jacob, put that one over here’. In their urgency is a narrowing gap of light.

They move onto the master bedroom. Tita May, Mama’s sister, is called from her work weeding in the garden to help with the packing. They labour through the wardrobe and drawers, lobbing balled up socks and folded underwear into huge black rubbish bags. In Mama’s hand is a white satin camisole, in Jacob’s, a black leather belt. They throw these things in the same bag. Tita May squeezes her torso under the bed to retrieve a box of old shoes, her knees digging into the carpet as she tugs with her backside stuck out and wiggling in the air. I idle at the doorway, fidgeting my eyes from the oak vanity to the curtain, lacing and unlacing my damp fingers. 

 ‘Gia, pack your clothes.’

Mama says this as she unhooks the thin strap of a dress from its hanger in the wardrobe. I ask where we are going. She draws the skirt of the dress towards her torso and her lovely, Tornatrás face relaxes into a thought, for a moment more Tsino than Hapones or Kastila.  

‘My old house,’ interrupts Jacob.

I might resist, ask something else to stall.

 ‘In my hometown,’ he clarifies.

When Jacob prunes his answers to stubs, it’s so there’s nothing to snag onto, to negotiate. I turn away and head down the hall to my room.

A wash of orange filtering through the windows meddles with the purple walls, and all I see for a moment as I pass through the door is an obliterating magenta. After my eyes adjust to this new brightness, I check to see if the day’s heat has loosened my posters from their place. On the right wall of my room, I have put up three; Apocalypse Now, for Marlon Brando, The God Father II, for Al Pacino, and Jennifer’s Body, for Megan Fox. I suppose that, like other 17-year-old girls, I should have music posters to show what cliques I belong to, but CD stores don’t give away their posters for free. That’s not the whole truth. Actually, Mama hates music in the house. I’ve never had the chance to foster an identity around bands or band members.

I lie back on my bed and listen to the soft rustling of plastic bags growing fat with my parents’ clothes. When I can’t see the things I hear, I fancy that I’m somewhere interesting. Someone is mowing their lawn a few houses down, and closer still is a dog barking. Now the bright, swelling sharpness of a bicycle bell ringing as it passes the window. If this were a movie, it might be The Goonies or Stand by Me. I turn to lie on my side away from the afternoon sun. My eyes settle on the books on my bedside table. In the first rungs of the pile are books I had planned to read over the break – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner – and at the bottom is last year’s school magazine with a few dog-eared pages. The folds index photos of people I like, of my string group, and of the girl who accused Jacob of raping her six months ago.

She was in the year above me at St Mary’s, and wasn’t the kind of girl I had imagined could ever be raped. Her name was Carol Williamson, a well-heeled, unremarkable student who was part of the “smart girls” coterie. Everyone called her group that, even though only one or two of them were really “smart”. It was a title given less for their grades than for their general look of nerdiness. They were frumpy, awkwardly proportioned, with unstylish hair and a periphrastic way of speaking, as one of them might have said. Carol and her friends knew and used these kinds of words with pride. When scorn hurdled towards them – as it did every day – in the netball courts, locker bays, or halls, they were always somehow disbelieving that people could find them strange. 

I had only a few conversations with Carol during my two years at St. Mary’s. Once I was standing near the bus stop and she approached me to ask for the time – she had forgotten her phone – and I told her it was twenty minutes past three. This was when I had a chance to study her appearance properly. She was like an oversized, teenaged Shirley Temple, blonde and dumbly excitable, with a torso too wide for her blouse and an apologetic stooping posture. She had a pronounced overbite which her rich parents had not fixed for reasons of affection or, maybe, pride. They were of that class of wealthy, educated people who believe that appearances are the obsession of lesser minds. In movies, girls who are raped are mysterious and sexy – melancholic Iris Steensmas or vampy Laura Palmers – but Carol wasn’t. Everyone agreed behind her back that she was the ugliest girl of not only her year, but the entire 600 girl school. After her accusations against Jacob finally included rape, she stopped attending her classes for the rest of the term. In the 2015 yearbook, she carries the chess club trophy with a grin verging on laughter. 

And now, because of, Carol, I’m going to have to move – again – somewhere else. But I’m going to stow away my upset about this for a different time. I’ve always believed that, in difficult situations, you ought to see your feelings for the luxuries that they are. 

Tita May is vacuuming the hall. A self-soothing measure. It’s the most likely motivation for vacuuming the hall when there is a cleaner booked to come in tomorrow. God. I wish she’d stop. I curve my pillow over my ears to dull the sound. The presence of domestic chores being done puts me on edge. It makes me feel that a terrible event will soon take place. The clatter of a dish, the clack of a vacuum nozzle, or the hiss of walis each seem to me to forecast coming viciousness.  It bothers me how irrational this unease makes me. 

The vacuuming abates. There is a single knock on the door and Tita May enters, holding a rubbish bag. 

‘You need to wait before coming in after you knock, you know.’

She ignores, does not hear or does not understand this, going over instead to the dresser near the bedside table. Opening the first drawer, she begins to take my folded underwear in bundles in her hands to place them in the bag. I ask her whether we are going to keep everything, and she stares at me, uncomprehending. I repeat myself.

Are we going to donate things to a charity before we leave?

‘Ah!’ She nods.

Tita May is a little deaf, which means you must raise your voice with her. Naturally, it annoys some people. When they raise their voice, they betray a hint of what they’re like when they’re angry. They resent her for making them reveal something so intimate.

‘Joan Didion wrote about how when people die, you donate their things.’

I know Tita May doesn’t know who Joan Didion is. When I talk to her, she never troubles me with understanding or any of the prying, guessing demands that go along with it. She drags out from the drawer a long, unfolded pair of tights with holes in the toes. 

‘There is something around your Papa,’ she says.

She bends her knees and pulls open the second drawer, taking a pile of shirts and throwing them in the bag. 

‘You mean Jacob?’

Tita May turns to peer at me. I realise now that her eyes have been widened since the beginning of our conversation. She nods.

‘What kind of thing does he have around him?’

She pauses and rests her elbow on the dresser top, searching her brain which is overfull with chores that must be done, with laundry, dishes and weeds. 

‘Aswang. Mananangal.’

I mine the past for these words, but the memories containing them return in dream textures.

‘What do you mean?’

She comes to kneel on the floor beside the bed, clasping her hands together as if for prayer.

‘There is something around your Papa.’



Mikee Sto Domingo is based in Wellington.