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Shortlisted for The Art of Reflection Competition 2022
As a child, I laughed at all the wrong things. I laughed when my mother fell on a mountain and lost her skis. She trudged down the icy slope, her fingers red raw and her lips frozen purple. I giggled because I didn’t know how else to respond to the knots in the stomach of my four-year-old body. What if she died and left me to figure out life on my own? What if it was somehow my fault? I recall a glimmer of hope that I would have my father all to myself. Maybe he would start coming home early from work to be with me. I started to imagine a life without being told off for doing everything wrong. It was easier to laugh than to unravel that morass of little girl feelings.
I laughed when my cousin Mark pulled a face at the gardener. I laughed even harder when my aunt told him that the wind would change and his ugly face would stick for the rest of his life. It was funny because it wasn’t my face. Even when Mark’s grimace became an angry scowl turned in my direction, it didn’t occur to me that my sniggering wasn’t funny. Not knowing how to respond to Mark’s punishing stare, I burst into fits of nervous, inaudible laughter.
I laughed when Mr. Craig, the old man across the street, came for dinner and a string bean didn’t make it into his mouth. I looked up to see the limp green vegetable dangling between his pursed white lips. His face suddenly turned red. His shaking hand was unable to push the bean inside where it belonged. As he hung his head over the plate, I chuckled. I knew I shouldn’t be laughing, but for once it wasn’t me who was doing the wrong thing at the dinner table.
I howled with joy when the neighbor’s dog chomped on my mother’s spotted pink begonia, shaking the plant free from the soil. When the frisky spaniel ran a triumphant lap around the back yard, it was nearly as funny as the time my mother’s Hermes scarf was inhaled by the vacuum cleaner. I remember the gleaming ribbon of blue silk slithering across the old Persian carpet and, suddenly, it disappeared in a single gulp of the machine.
“What are you laughing at?” She scolded.
“Your scarf was eaten by the vacuum cleaner … it just disappeared,” I responded, innocently.
“Don’t be ridiculous, it didn’t disappear,” she snapped. “It’s inside there.” She pointed to the back end of the vacuum cleaner.
My mother opened the machine and slowly extracted the fabric. It was like watching a magician pulling a never-ending scarf from his top hat. Only my mother’s precious accessory was transformed into a rag caked in globules of dust and dirt.
I couldn’t help chortling. I thought the mishap must be her punishment for being mean to me.
“Will you stop laughing. This is my best scarf,” she yelled.
I stood frozen in the doorframe.
As she fell into the nearest chair and wept uncontrollably, I felt guilty for finding the funny in her ruined scarf. I assumed that it must be my fault: both the mishap and her response.
As a schoolgirl, the laughter I expressed at others’ misfortunes eventually came back to haunt me. I laughed when Helen Halliday dropped her sheet music at school choir practice. In the kerfuffle to pick it up, I was blamed for the disturbance and sent to the
principal’s office. I was thrown out of the choir, and my singing career was over. What else was there to do but laugh? The headmistress looked over the top of her files, her bulging eyes warning of repercussions. I remember thinking that it was all a big joke, surely the scolding was meant for the one who dropped the music? There was no logic to her reprimanding me, and so I sneered and snickered. As the headmistress raised her voice, my attention was caught by a fly buzzing its way through the window. The fly hopped around on her heavily sprayed bouffant before finding a place to settle, perched on the kick of a curl.
I giggled when the girl next door wrapped her fingers and toes in cling film on account of her eczema. I experienced a queasy sensation at the sight of her broken and bleeding skin. I was afraid it meant that I might catch whatever disease she had in her fingers. And so, I laughed because plastic-wrapped feet and hands looked weird. I was twelve years old and had no idea of the nuances of empathy. When a rash on my own leg started itching, I scratched it raw. I made sure my neighbour never found out. God forbid she get the opportunity to laugh at me.
As a teenager, I laughed when my brother thought he was Evil Knievel. He constructed an obstacle course in the back yard. A path lined with metal stakes led to a patch of grass filled with electric saws, blades facing upwards. The danger was magnified by a bed of nails encircling the fully-charged saws. It turned out that my brother wasn’t Evil Knievel. He punctured his lung and broke an arm and a leg. The shock of watching my brother crash his way into a hospital bed slowly subsided, and I became a self-satisfied – sister. For me, the accident meant three full months without being beaten or bullied, first dibs on the shower each morning, and all the candies and cake I could eat on hospital visits.
In my late teens, I didn’t dare show how I really felt about my own tribulations. In fact, I worked hard not to feel at all. I laughed when I fell out of a car, imagining I would bounce from road to sidewalk without a bruise. I didn’t walk away, but I managed to have fun with my friends in the emergency room.
My parents were away at their beach house, working crossword puzzles and reading books on the balcony with its ocean view. I didn’t tell them I had fallen out of a moving car because I was enjoying our house in the city without them. Unfortunately, the accident made it into the local newspaper.
My father walked through the back door, ready to examine my wounds. My mother was close behind, screaming.
“You’re so irresponsible. How could you do such a thing? You’ve ruined our vacation!
And why didn’t you tell us immediately.” Her face turned red with anger.
“The car went around a sharp corner and the door flew open. It wasn’t my fault,” I said as a burst of incredulous laughter overtook me.
“You are a disgrace to the family … how did I end up with a daughter like you?”
I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. Antiseptic cream, bandages, crutches, and I was on my merry way. I couldn’t comprehend that other people might be affected by my adventures. How could I? Empathy was not in my emotional toolbox.
As an adult, I kept laughing. I laughed when the man I was dating stopped returning my phone calls. Silly him. I laughed when I didn’t get the job of my dreams. Silly them. I laughed when the boss in my part-time job accused me of robbing the till. Fuck him. And I was so scared that I laughed when I ended up in a Moscow jail cell.
I have never been good with emotions. Feeling, acknowledging, expressing, explaining all those sensations inside my body. Laughing is so much easier.
When my father announced that he was dying, I felt a gust of coldness separate him from me.
“Don’t worry! At least, we won’t need lights on the Christmas tree this year,” he giggled. “I’m so full of radiation that I’ll glow in the dark.”
I watched him fiddle awkwardly with the fork on his empty plate. I was unable to speak. I stared into the distance, imagining the festivities that I knew would be his last. Suddenly, I lost control. I covered my face with my quivering hands and burst into tears.