“And the valedictorian of this class is…”silence stretched across the audience. The parents were quiet. They were nervous, almost scared to disenchant this precious atmosphere. Chandeliers adorned the ceilings of the large conference hall, and festooned it with a yellow light that was dancing on people’s wine glasses just a moment earlier. The light seems to soften as the announcement was made. It too, was eager to know.
On the stage, the girls and boys, dressed in their formal outfits, stood in rows that faced the audience- those who were supposedly important enough to attend the children’s middle years’ graduation ceremony. There was a lot of fidgeting with the children’s hands. Some crossed their fingers. Others entangled their hands in a tight clasp with their neighbor. Tiny actions. But they were meant to wondrously change the odds in their favor.
“The valedictorian of this class is Christina Lee.” Almost instantly, the house burst into a loud din which consisted of applause, blow horn, compliments, extol, and discussions. The girl with long wavy hair amidst the rows of students stepped forward. She shook the headmaster’s hands, held her certificate, and looked up, almost timidly, at the boisterous audience. The girl searched the hall for row thirteen, and saw her eleven-year-old sister, who was clapping her hands dutifully. The two seats to her sister’s left were empty, and when her sister saw that she was looking at them, nodded her head, and mouthed, “I’m sorry”. Christina shrugged, and went back to her position.
“It’s not a surprise,” she muttered.
“Unbelievable,” a girl who stood in front of the choir commented scornfully.
The rest of the ceremony carried on like any other graduation ceremony. When it ended, students hugged goodbye, and went apart their own ways. When Sarah, the girl who stood in the front row of the choir earlier, climbed into her Lexus, her mother turned around from the front seat, “Hey,”
“You didn’t come first in class this year,”
“Not everyone is smart all the time, ma”
“Still, you would have gotten it if it wasn’t for her…”
“Mom, she got the award because she was better than me. Period.”
There was a long pause in their conversation, and Sarah wondered if she could ever get out of this hell.
“When expectations are part of the air you breathe in like carbon dioxide, you’ll choke to find little happiness, to search for that oxygen that’ll help you get by,” Sarah delivered the quote to herself. Her monologue became something lightly camouflaged as reminiscence. She stared blankly at the window of her car. It was not long before the hotels, shopping malls, and sky scrapers that were characteristics of the city, stayed behind as part of the trip’s past. “Even when I stole your book, even when I tore it, the honor, the real victory was always and has always been yours.”
“Sarah?” Sarah’s mom had been on the verge of telling her something all this week. Her face would darken, and she would lean forward, pressed her lips, then she would change her mind, “I think…” she’d changed it again.
Sarah elbowed the window of her car; her hand formed a fist and bench-pressed the weight of her head. She looked out, at the world on the other side of the car’s window, her mind treaded through the unfamiliar water of nothingness. Her eyes, oh her beautifully lined and mascaraed eyes, were so empty in emotion that it looked like it had been tortured with disconsolateness. From her hand bag, she took out her diary, and turned the pages in an attempt to relive a part of her past.
“August 15th, 2012,
Today’s the first day back to school, and well, I survived it. Linda’s old friend, Christina, has recently enrolled in, and she’s been hanging around with us all day. She’s almost too cheerful, to be honest, almost to the point that I wonder if all her smiling were an act. But I suppose, I don’t really have a problem with her.
Anyways, I’m in Mr. Price’s homeroom, 8P, same with that tall guy who plays tennis really well, John. He waved when I came in, so I nodded at him in recognition. We talked all throughout the first two periods while Mr. Price yammered on about our “responsibilities” as eighth graders. Mr. Price could be really boring when he tries! :O”
Sarah turned a few pages over.
“August 22nd, 2012,
We’re getting a load full of assignments lately, and I keep procrastinating till the last minute. Technically, it’s not ENTIRELY my fault. If only AXN had fewer and shorter intervals for advertisement, it wouldn’t take so long to watch one episode of NCIS. Okay, okay, I know I am not supposed to watch TV on school days, but I’ll have you know that the show is VERY interesting!”
A smile began to form on Sarah’s lips, she skimmed down the page.
“I have to admit though, Christina is quite a smart student. She grasps scientific concepts well, and is able to compute these long sentences in class. What I can’t wrap my head around though, is how she really tries to be close to Linda, MY best friend. Yes, they’ve known each other before, but that doesn’t give her the right to cut in. Maybe that’s just the thing with being new. You like to “belong in the crowd”. Again, I don’t mind her- she’s an okay friend, so moving on!
I think…I like John. It must be nothing, really. But I always look forward to the next time we’d talk, and knowing that I feel that way makes me feel downright pathetic. I hate that I’m letting a boy, not even one, JOHN, rummage through my head. Mom and dad would disapprove of it. He and I are close friends, so falling for him would be just weird… K
But he’s nice, and he’s quite good looking and I…he he :”)”
Sarah turned a chunk of pages over, almost embarrassed. She shook her head as she read on.
“December 23rd, 2012
Mom and dad fought today. They quarreled before, a few times, but not like this. Not at all like today.
I came home from school, and I’d heard the argument from the kitchen. I didn’t really understand what they were shouting at each other though. The few words that I managed to make out were, “another woman… irresponsible…father…you’ve changed… what about Sarah…her low grades…because of you”. Then I heard a loud noise of broken glasses, and I ran upstairs to see what happened. The scene was dreadful. Mom’s flower vase collection was on the floor, shattered, sharp, but powerless. I saw her crying, but I stood outside the door, and did nothing.
In my hiding spot, I watched the fight, and miserable to the realization that they really hated each other. Dad saw me. He turned away, and asked me to leave.”
“December 30th, 2012
A lot has been on my mind lately. The fights occur more often now. I’m used to it. I guess. Occasionally, I wonder what it means to be a father, what are his responsibilities, I mean. So I’m making a list:
- 1. He should be funny, and joyful.
- 2. He should be handsome
- 3. He should love my mother.
- 4. He should be kind to everyone. (I would insert a happy face right here, but it seems almost childish now.)”
More pages were turned.
“I’ve got a few more things to add to my list:
20. He should teach me like Atticus Finch teaches Scout.
21. He should care about his family
The list reminded Sarah of someone she knew, Christina’s father. Nostalgia for her childhood rushed back to her. She remembered waiting to get picked up after school with her friends. Christina always got picked up first. Her dad would be waiting for her just outside the school gate, in his blue electrician uniform. When she’d seen him, Christina would briefly say goodbye to her and Linda, and climbed on his old motorbike. Sarah looked out the window, “I would give anything to get picked up on that old vehicle by my parents, than being in a car alone with my driver”.
Sarah bit her lips, and resumed reading.
“February 10th, 2012,
- 22. He should love me for me, not some ideal me.
At dinner today, dad had discovered about my C in science. It is my first time to not report back low grades to him, so you can imagine that he was quite furious. Well, he told me I was a disgrace. That’s not the end of it. He told me I should be more like Christina. “
Sarah paused reading the page there. For her parents, plans for her future were very simple. She was to get good grades, go to good colleges, and become a good scientist, mathematician, or engineer. It had to do with being Asian. But Sarah rejected that future, or she rejected the security of that world. She liked her, what they called, her “wild” treks into unfamiliar areas. And the moment she came home with a grade lower than her average in Science and Honors in Drama, her dad took it as a sign of rebellion.
“Sometimes I wish I could live Christina’s life. She has a father who actually cared about her. She has the grades, and the personality. She has it all and she doesn’t even realize it. John likes her, you know? My dad likes her…
What am I saying?”
“March 28th, 2012
I tore Christina’s science notebook.
I was just angry.
After dad told me how he thought of me a month ago, I shut down.
I, I was just mad, mad that…that that things goes so easy in Christina’s life and she’s not even satisfied with it. Mad that while I am going to flunk the science test, she’s probably revising my English literature notes. Mad that mom and dad will quarrel some more because I’ve failed to be her. She didn’t even think about helping me with science when she always asks for my help with English. Mad that I’m being taken advantage of. I hate her. I hate that my own parents wants me to be someone I’m not, and I hate it even more that I also want to be her.”
Sarah closed her last diary entry.
“Sarah? I think it’s best for you to know that your dad and I, we’re going to get a divorce,” her mom finally said what was on her mind.
Back at the conference hall, Christina wiggled out her high heels, and was putting on her trainers.
“You okay?” her sister asked, “Wanna run?”
“Lilly, you think running will solve everything,”
“Maybe it doesn’t, but it helps you to stop thinking about it.”
Christina shrugged her shoulders, and went on tying her other shoe.
“You know, I didn’t say this before but, congrats. You’re valedictorian for middle school,” her sister said maturely.
“Hah, thanks,” she replied sarcastically.
“Really! How did you manage to pull that off? After,” Lilly hesitated, “you know what.”
“A lot of revising for science before the test, I guess,” Christina answered,” Well, I’ve got one award down, one more to go. Lucky me.”
“Speak for yourself. Mom and dad will kill me if I don’t get the valedictorian next year,” Lilly laughed nervously.
Christina cut in, “Are we going to run home, or not, buddy?”
“Race you there!” Lilly shouted, and she speeded ahead.
Christina looked up at the top of the electric posts on the street. It has become a habit for her to do so. Many times, she’d explain to her full-of-questions sister that it reminds her of how much dad had sacrificed his comfort for her. And even if he shouts at her, even if he doesn’t attend her Awards nights, that habit helps her stand firmly, and believe again that her dad cares, and is doing what’s best for her. Christina lifted her heels, and started running.
The motorbikes and the shops became part of the trip’s past. What were still there, in her heart, were the memories. Memories of a distant past that haunt her when she thinks of making new close friends in the future. “I never really understood why you’d tear my science notebook, and then anonymously rewrite it for me. What happened, Sarah?” she thought of the questions she never had the chance to ask.
“When expectations are part of the air you breathe in like carbon dioxide, you’ll choke to find little happiness, to search for that oxygen that’ll help you get by,” she recited the old quote. She sucked in her breath, and let out a long sigh, “I’ll get by”.
In the city, that night, her other best friend whispered, “I’ll get by”.