Breach of Silence
I have three stories at my disposal. In order of which lie would work best:
Hello, I was her patient and she took care of me from braces to cavities to wisdom tooth removal.
Hello, she always bought cookies from my niece.
Hello, I was doing part-time work at the convenience store and she was kind to me when my girlfriend got pregnant.
I have the newspaper clipping, and a grocery bag with packages barely poking out. Clad in my typical suit-and-tie, checking the street name again and again to make sure that this is indeed the right house and I won’t be interrupting anyone’s afternoon nap, I knock gingerly at the door.
I can hear murmurs inside. A pair of huge dark brown eyes peek out at him from behind the glass slat. They squint at me suspiciously, because no memory is triggered by my face.
“I was her patient,” I blurt out, first line of the story.
The door opens a crack—the incongruent smell of barbeque hits me—and I'm ushered in.
Our neighbors before were lucky. They had a son who followed right in his father’s footsteps of being an architect, and two daughters who became doctors. And what do I get? A husband who loses money the moment he lays his greedy hands on it. A daughter who sneaks around because she thinks I don’t notice, and another daughter who dashes off in the middle of law school to spend all of our savings on a whim of a business.
We hadn’t been under the same roof for ages, but I do phone them every now and then. They’re polite enough not to fake their numbers, at least. But all I can ask them is “How are you?” and they complain to me about politics, how the water in their house is leaking, this beautiful handbag they got from a bargain sale. Things too small and insignificant for us to argue about. Maybe I should just be content that they’re still talking to me, even though clearly no actual conversation is happening.
I wish I could take back all those times I yelled at them, but really, I’m still disappointed.
The sketches were in graphite, dulled with age, but I know her from the doe-like eyes and the cross pendant that she wears around her neck. The floral dress she’s wearing is terribly similar to what I expected. She tries to make polite conversation with me. She doesn’t ask much—seems like my patient cover-up worked—and she leads me to the threshold of a sitting area—red armchairs gathered around a coffee table with only a vase of chrysanthemum on top alongside half-drank glasses of iced tea, and two men talking to each other in hushed voices.
Her name’s Lara—although she prefers to be called Larry, to be a little different—and the other woman’s name is Lana. Larry is polite and slightly quiet, fidgets a little with her pendant: “We have an uncle over, so we’ll just go inside for a bit, but we’ll be back out soon enough. Thanks for visiting my mother.” She squeezes my shoulder in a gesture that’s warm, but I can’t help but think that it seems very practiced. “Make yourself comfortable—they’re also her patients,” she says, smiling a bit crookedly at the direction of the two men.
I nod, forgetting to tell her that I'm allergic to iced tea, then sits down next to the two men, both middle-aged and tanned, one with severely cropped hair, the other with sunglasses and hair that falls to his shoulder.
“Patient?” the man with cropped hair asks congenially.
“Yeah, a long time ago. You too, right?”
“Her extractions hurt like a bitch—” he keeps his tone down “—and she never smiled, but I stuck with her for almost a decade. Tough love works, eh?”
“Braces. Also hurt,” I say, hoping his teeth don’t look too contradictorily crooked. I look doubtfully at the glasses set before them. “Would she really have wanted us to have iced tea, though?”
Here’s my weekday schedule. I have it down to a science:
· Wake up at 5 AM because the world is so much more peaceful when nobody’s awake yet
· Read the newspaper and try to do the crossword while eating a light breakfast (usually bread and fruits)
· Go jogging around the neighborhood
· Pack up and go to the clinic
· Treat patients until 7 PM
· Go home, prepare dinner, anticipate the upcoming ending of whatever TV series I’m trying to watch
· Draw whenever there’s time
People are surprised when they realize how regular my days are. Unlike most, I actually do stick to my schedule. It prevents my nerves from acting up. A workaholic, they would call me, but if I didn’t drown myself in work, there would be too much time for thinking. Then I wouldn’t know what to do.
The doctor advised me to lessen my work hours, though. I think he was going to suggest that my retirement’s coming up, but I shushed him before he can even go there.
They hug their uncle goodbye, and the guests finally get their attention.
Lana is outspoken and prone to raucous laughter, much to his surprise given the occasion, and she’s wearing slacks and a white polo, an almost counterpart to my outfit straight from work. The two sisters sit across them, brandishing a plate of chocolate chip cookies that Lana said was a family favorite.
The men pay their respects, although they didn’t have too much to say because they never knew her as anything but their dentist. Sheepishly, the long-haired man asks, “What was her first name? It was always just Dr. Francisco outside her door.”
“Amortia,” Larry says softly.
Lana snorts. “If we weren’t her children, we wouldn’t have known it, either. She’s a bit embarrassed by how old-fashioned the name is.”
And because she didn’t exactly get along well with her husband, I thought.
The two siblings seem like they’re fumbling for something else to add—a confirmation of the men’s testimonials—and I anticipate a sentimental story, maybe a childhood memory, something to add a bit of depth to the town dentist that everybody respected.
Larry wrings her hands. “To be honest, we were never that close to her because… of certain disagreements--” Her voice is carefully neutral. “—but she always called us every week, even when we were in different timezones. She’d send us care packages, too, and when we’d ask her how she was, she always said that she was doing fine.”
Lana leans back. “Mom was… you could say she was a very iron-willed woman.”
“What, like that time she freaked out so much about my date?” Larry sighs.
Lana chuckles. “Hey, I found that unexpected too.”
Small, random details spill out of them—she had a tendency to skip lunch, which was why she was so thin, and the wildest thing that she’d ever done was dye her hair a shade of brown too light.
“It looked less severe on her,” the tanned man said thoughtfully. “Suited her better.”
“That’s why she kept it until her death.” Lana shrugs, then smiles. “But it does suit her, doesn’t it?”
“Did she have any other hobbies?” I ask nonchalantly, even though I already knows the answer too well.
And I feel dread—the slightest sadness—settle in my stomach when the two sisters look at each other and slowly shake their heads. “I don’t think so,” Lana says. “She devoted most of her time to her work.”
I nod, the weight of the journal heavy in my satchel.
Two girls. I love them so much, or maybe so much that I chased them away. I’ll get around to drawing them, but I suppose I might as well write it down here too, simply because I want to think about them. They look quite similar, except that Larry likes to have her hair elaborately braided and Lana has always stuck to a ponytail.
Larry is younger by five years. She has huge eyes, too much like her father’s that when it’s dark and she looks at me I flinch because I remember him. Also a rather angular face that makes her seem older than she is. But of course, for all I know, she could be different now. I don’t trust photos, and the last time I saw both of them was ten years ago. And Larry looks so feminine, with her heels and penchant for necklaces, that I never thought she fancied girls. Until their principal caught them. I never could accept it. I’m doing my best now, but it’s still rather uncomfortable when she talks about her partner and all these new scientific methods of having children in such strange ways.
Lana, I think, has always wanted to look intimidating. She wears black, gray, brown, striking neutral colors. Loud voice, too. She won so many debate awards, which was why I assumed it would be perfect to send her to law school. But she hated it. Admittedly, she did tell me that before setting foot there. And yet I was so convinced that she would do well in it that I sent her there regardless.
She hated me for that. Both of them, if I’m honest with myself.
I couldn’t respond properly when she called me in the middle of my workday to say she was quitting law school and using her leftover tuition to start a flower business. I hung up without saying a word.
And now she’s richer than I have ever been, and I’m happy for her, even though she would never believe me, and steers me clear of any conversation about her work.
I was just doing it to protect them, I want to say. I just wanted them to be safe.
Those are my honest and… noble, heartfelt reasons, but it sounds like a horrible excuse when I even think of broaching it with them.
I can only hope that they forgive me eventually.
The two men say their goodbyes, but I stay put. Lana and Larry look at me questioningly, with that familiar undertone of shouldn’t you be going now?
“Here,” I say, getting the bag of groceries lying at my feet. “For you. A small gift.”
Before one of them can say you shouldn’t have and push it back to me, I go on: “There’s flour and sprinkles there for your cupcakes, Lana. And Chinese pears for you, Larry. She told me what you like.”
Lana squints suspiciously. Larry’s mouth is half-open, but she accepts the groceries reluctantly.
“Were you close to our mother?” Larry finally says.
“Not quite.” I laugh. “She draws, you know. She was a closet artist.”
In case they get the wild idea that she had turned cougar on him, I continue: “My girlfriend liked her sketches, too.”
And then I do what I came here for: I get the tattered spiral-bound notebook from within my bag, the kind that you could buy at any convenience store, with lined pages, ideal for students, and gently lays it down on the table. There is nothing on the cover to signify ownership, only a silly picture of Winnie the Pooh (she never did explain why she used that particular notebook).
“That,” I say, my heart heavy, “is her journal.”
On page 13 (she rigorously put numbers on the pages, even had a table of contents at the start): a quick sketch of the various succulents (or that was what I assumed them to be) around my office. Then a tiny scribble: A patient gave them to me as a Christmas gift, and I grew to like them.
On page 19, various attempts at a woman’s face, with all of them marred by angry strokes meant to erase. They don’t cover each sketch entirely, so I could still make out the glasses, the sharp nose, the eyes big like her daughter’s. Drawing myself simply will not work. Looked at photos, stationed myself in front of the mirror, even made an imaginary idealized version. Not proud of any of them. Maybe it would wound my pride less to commission someone.
On page 30, a girl made out of thick pencil lines: she looks fifteen. She’s wearing an empire dress with floral patterns, but she’s frowning, arms crossed, wispy strands of hair escaping her loose braid. She could be startled, or defiant. The cross pendant around her neck is huge, seeming to weigh heavy on her neck. I think I got Larry mostly correct, but there’s still something off about the face that I can’t identify. Still, I’m satisfied with this. Got her angry expression, at least.
On page 31, right across, an older girl with almond-shaped eyes, in an austere black suit, but she’s beaming, and she’s struggling to carry a pile of books. Her heels are sharp and high, like her smile. I'm almost amazed at how realistic the drawing is, the grip of the hand on the books, the legs straining. Lana looking stunning as a lawyer. I’m certain she wears heels that tall, and can even run in them. She’s prone to buying books, but I wonder if she manages to read all of them. I don’t think so.
On page 34, a page that’s almost blank except for a line at the bottom: You left on August. I never bothered to remember the date.
It’s Lana who picks up the notebook first, slowly, as if it might swallow her alive if she got too abrupt with it. Larry merely leans in, and there is silence as they pore over the entries together.
“Pages 30 and 31, for both of you,” I say, trying to be helpful.
Lana’s fingers tremble, but eventually they reach the right place. She lets out a strangled cry, tosses the notebook to Larry, then rubs her eyes furiously, breathing a little too hard. Larry puts her arms around her sister to comfort her, but her gaze is hard and glassy and the notebook is left disheveled on a corner of the sofa.
“This is the first time I’ve cried ever since her death,” Lana mutters. “She cared about us. She actually cared about us.”
“That didn’t change what she did,” Larry retorts.
“She was sorry, Larry.”
“Still—you think she could have said that so easily over the damn phone—”
“But those drawings are beautiful, aren’t they?” I interject. “I knew both of you the moment I saw you.”
Then I adds: “Maybe that was the safest way she knew how to love. To draw.”
“But she didn’t have a sketch of Dad, did she?” Larry’s expression crumbles from barely contained anger to dismay.
“Why don’t you look for yourself,” I say gently.
“Not right now.” Larry’s voice is barely above a whisper.
“I don’t understand,” Lana repeats like a mantra, face now buried in her hands. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I don’t understand—”
I answer the question they forgot to ask. “Believe it or not, I found it at a train station. Would never have known who owned it if her name wasn’t embossed on the inside cover.”
Lana is too distracted to pay attention to his words. Larry looks at him squarely in the eye: “How did you find us?”
“The obituary. The name just clicked. It’s only been two years since she lost the journal. I’ve been trying to return it ever since, but I couldn’t find her on the internet.”
“You knew her better than us,” Larry accuses.
“More like what I know of her and what you know of her are two halves. The whole remains elusive as ever.” I sigh. “I’m not even sure what her face looks like, because she wasn’t proud of her self-portraits.”
I wish they knew.
I pray for them every night, and pray for myself too.
Larry pulls out a frayed photo from her wallet. “Here’s a fairly recent shot of her,” she says.
The old woman has the same pair of glasses sliding down her nose, and her mouth smiles hesitantly: the teeth look healthy and almost blindingly white. She’s sitting at a dining table, with papers spread out in front of her. A pencil is tucked behind her ear.
Even though her frame is thin to the point of being bony, she does not seem fragile or breakable. She seems like she can spend eternity waking up at the wee hours of the morning and poking around at her patients’ teeth.
I think, whatever invasion of privacy I committed when I opened your journal, I hope I made up for that.
Lana ruthlessly tears out the sketch of her. “I’ll keep this.”
Larry closes her eyes, massages her forehead at the incoming migraine. “I think I’ll give the other sketch to my partner. Can’t stand to look at it.”
They’ll keep your sketches, and isn’t that close to absolution?
Ima Ocon is currently a college student from the Philippines, and is terribly interested in writing, the workings of the human mind, and Eastern philosophy.