A Birthday Surprise
EMW9WJYNBAKN The moment I alighted the family station wagon that sunny morning of the 6th of October 1982, I had no choice but to succumb to the senses of hearing and touch in order to access clues to my environment. I allowed my feet to take my body in the direction I was being lead and became conscious of the stony gravel crunching under the soles of my sandals. Some even managed to slip through the gaps in the leather between my toes where dusty sand began to gather. A warm sea breeze played cheekily with my hair, which flipped about in a pony tail tied loosely at the back of my neck. Excited tones of children’s voices lapped at my ears and my heart rose in my chest with the anticipation of all that was to come.
My inner voice was particularly audible in this moment, perhaps due to the loss of one particular all-consuming sense that otherwise took centre stage. The presence of the blindfold, a thick woolen scarf that was successfully meeting its obligation of blackening out the scenery before me, suddenly gave permission to that inner voice to leap forth in my consciousness.
“Just be prepared, alright…that’s all I’m saying”.
I swallowed hard. I knew it. I knew this was too good to be true. There was always a catch….always a let down. Where there was enjoyment, the claws of disappointment lay waiting for it’s prey. Me. My stomach was in knots by now. The ride was over. Metaphorical kicks landed in my gut…pound, pound, pound.
“Why did you allow yourself to feel it?”, the inner critic scowled at me like I was a silly child.
Well…I was a child…a child excited at the prospect of a surprise birthday party organized by her parents.
“Gee, sorry for wanting some well-intentioned excitement to materialize in my life!”, I retorted despondently.
After all, I hadn’t been completely naive. Nagging thoughts had plagued me that something was not right with this scenario unfolding before me, ever since it was first suggested by my mother a couple of weeks earlier. I had simply shoved them to the back corner of my mind and dumped a few piles of hopefulness on top to keep their muffled screams stifled for a while. A kid’s allowed to have some fun surely!
Even whilst I meticulously addressed each hand written invitation to the eight or so children I had mustered up the courage to invite to my seventh birthday party, I had watched my hand become uncharacteristically shaky as it swapped between rainbow colored scented pens. Reality was never really far from the surface despite my longing to slip into a world of Brady Bunch like contentment. I could not help but ask myself the questions.
Why was she doing this, I pondered with bewilderment and awe. Why would my mother be acting with such sickly sweet generosity ? I gave up long ago on any attempts to decipher her motivation behind such uncharacteristic behaviour. This time she had suggested that she would arrange a birthday party at a surprise location and that I may invite eight of my friends. The laughter filled hub of activity that now surrounded me was materializing as the unidentifiable location, and I was terrified. It felt as if one more step forward on my behalf would be all that was needed to smash though the trip wire that I knew was an inevitable obstacle in my path.
It was time. I felt hands maneuvering behind my head as the tightly bound scarf was given reprieve from its task. I chimed in on the tail end of its’ own sigh of relief, however once my eyes focused on the scene before me, my breath escalated to a high-pitched gasp. I covered my mouth with my hands in shock as my eyes darted over to my mother in disbelief and then back again to make sense of what lay before me. All the other seven-year-old children who were gathered around squealed in delight and giggled in response to my reaction. I could not share their enthusiasm.
Before me stood the tallest, most ominous looking slippery slide I had ever seen. Standing at the base it towered above me, its’ rainbow coloured paint-work shining rapturously in the bright morning sun. But I knew, just like the colourful costume that clowns wear, this was simply a façade that served as an entrapment to an unsuspecting child as they raced up the stairs clutching their heshen sack. I however, saw straight through to the harsh metal base, the perfect conductor for the brutal Australian heat. It glared down at me, causing a chill to run down my legs that were now wobbling beneath me like jelly.
My eyes darted back to my mother and I stared at her intently in disbelief. Then I promptly burst into tears. They knew I was terrified of slides. She knew I was terrified of slides. All slides…any slides…anything to do with slides. Even the local park variety of slide installed within me the greatest terror. I’m not sure how the fear originated but I do recall even as young as four years of age, crying and attempting to resist the coaxing of my older brothers to join them on a water slide at a water park we were visiting during a family holiday. At the time, the thought of the combination of height, speed and rushing water was just too much to contemplate, and in hindsight, understandably so. However, my participation appeared to be a mandatory clause I had somehow overlooked when signing on for this family, and so my father forcibly sat me on his lap and down I went. Once was enough. Apparently this was all that was needed to ingrain the terror in me a little deeper.
And here I found myself once more, with the same urge to run and nowhere to go. Backing out was not an option, despite the copious tears that drenched my party dress. I looked up at my parents in disbelief. Why would they plan this knowing full well of my fear? How could this plan ever be envisaged as the perfect celebration to brighten my birthday and fill me with joy and delight? Oh, that’s right…ofcourse…This was the catch. Again I stared intently into my mother’s eyes and recognized the signs of satisfaction…almost glee, that she seemed to obtain from orchestrating another’s heart-ache. Forgive me if I am sounding melodramatic, but this terror was real and demonstrated previously on countless occasions that made it impossible for anyone who knew me closely, particularly my parents…to deny. And here I stood in a dusty suburban theme park, having been lead specifically to the Magic Mountain of Slides. To me, this was no “Fun Park”.
And then I also had to contend with being confronted by the shame and embarrassment I felt in this moment as my peers and their parents stared at me in confusion. This was a scenario that would haunt me in similar social situations throughout my childhood as I found myself caught in the predicament of rationalizing my responses as my parents stood perfectly composed, presenting their well-rehearsed middle-class niceties, seemingly bewildered by my behaviour. Unable to explain my distress through muffled sobs, I was left looking like a spoilt little brat who was not pleased with her birthday surprise. As my mother tightened the grip on my arm whilst still smiling through her red lipstick, she lowered her mouth to my ear and in inaudible tones to the rest of the gathering, she ordered me to join the other children on the climb to the top of the stairs.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
The mirror at the end of the hallway is old and disused. Smudges of finger marks and sprinklings of dust sit comfortably in the crevices of the gold leafed frame, almost smirking with a self-assured confidence that they will not be disturbed.
I’m tall enough now to see my whole head and shoulders in the reflection, although it’s dark here at the end of the hall way. The tacky timber panelling along the wall shrouds the mirror like an ominous shadow. It appears as if to swallow the creamy carpet up below and branch up through the ceiling above. I reach for the light switch near the door that leads to the kitchen and glimpse over my shoulder to check the sliding door to the living area is closed. The familiar tones of a news program slip through the gap under the door to escape down the hallway towards me. Click. A golden hue illuminates the space.
I am eleven.. twelve… thirteen. The face before me is ever changing. Loosening the hair tie, my long auburn hair falls with relief around my shoulders. Tucking strands behind my left ear, I think of the girls at school who always look so radiant and bouncy. I wanted to look relaxed like them but as much as I tried, I couldn’t. I always felt tight inside, my insides bound by a knot that wound together the nerves connecting my chest and stomach. I suffered from constant attacks of hiccups and was forever attempting to drink a glass full of water with my head tipped upside down. It was a major feat this magical hiccup cure, which usually eventuated with half the water gushing up one nostril and the rest of it running down my shirt. Or sometimes, the tension within me would creep even into my lungs and I would actually forget to take a breath and have to gasp for air. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even notice the short, sharp breaths until someone sitting next to me at school would comment, “Are you alright? You’re breathing funny. “
Leaning slightly closer to the mirror, I acknowledge that my skin is quite nice …bright and golden. I run my finger down the bridge of my nose, landing on the silky smooth tip. There are no signs of the bumpy oiliness that oozes forth inconsiderately from many pre-teen pores. My friend’s mother used to say it was because I drank plenty of water. Her words made me feel good. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but her acknowledgment felt so comforting. My cheeks filled with a warm glow and my lips opened to expose a grin that beamed so bright, my friend squinted back at me, shrugged and left the room. She didn’t understand. Couldn’t. I wanted one like that…a mother who would notice my clear skin and commend me for drinking lots of water. I wasn’t asking for much? Was I? Some people seemed to manage to get one like this. What did I do to be given such a raw deal?, I used to think.
Combing my fringe to the side with my fingers, I wondered if I was morphing into the kind of girl that a boy would look twice at. I stared into her hazel eyes seeking to lose myself, if only momentarily into a place over the rainbow. Here a Johnny Depp look-a-like would ride in on his motorbike, offer me his leather jacket for protection and burn off into distance as I draped my body around his in complete and utter surrender. I tell myself to quit being ridiculous. No-one will want to look at me that way. By the time I was sixteen, my visions had darkened somewhat to paint escapism scenarios of a different kind. I imagined stepping out into the path of a moving car or wading into the ocean until it covered my head.
With a sigh I reach to towards the light switch but it is too late. My mother steps through the kitchen door. In one swift movement I scoop up my hair pulling it tightly back into a pony tail. She seemed to have an uncanny ability to always know where I was and what I was doing.
“What are you looking in the mirror for ?, she sniggers, “Think you’re some kind of model do you?”
“No”, I mumble and retreat back into my bedroom, shutting the door behind me.