Breathing Underwater

August 2, 2008
By Linda Wang, Cupertino, CA

Earlier this morning my mother told me to keep the window closed and my body beneath the covers to avoid the chills, but the summer is hot and the wind is cold, so I keep my window open and wish fervently in my head that tonight I will have some peace, that tonight everything will be quiet and pensive and beautiful so that I can have a perfect night’s sleep and get to work in the morning. The weather man said it’d be beautiful tomorrow, but judging from today’s misforecast, I seriously doubt it. Something breaks and screams beyond the black plastic screen, but there’s nothing in my heart but a groan and mutter that translates loosely to (Oh please, can’t they just let it up this one night? It’s late, I want to sleep, and—)


Startled, I hiss. That was more than a little frightening.

They are at it again—my neighbors, the Wilkinsons. They are a nice couple with a nice couple of kids and two minivans in the driveway, one green and one silver, and though it annoys my dad when they park the silver one in front of our rose bushes they’re really not that bad. They have a twelve year old son named Arnold, and a little girl called Jessica, both sweet kids who tend to stammer my name during the awkward morning block meetings we have.



Ouch. I wince mentally for Arnold, knowing far too well the emotions he must be experiencing right now. Ever since about three months ago, when Arnold was finishing the seventh grade, the family has been fighting daily with each other, with the two most outspoken participants being Arnold and his father.

I know too well what that sort of pain feels like. I wish I didn’t.
I turn and bury my face into the pillow, hoping they will stop; when they don’t, I roll over and pull the window shut, a strangely nostalgic melancholy settling over me as I pick up the memories from the worn slopes of my years, the surfaces of which are polished as smooth as glass from constant reexamination.

It’s 12:04 in the morning, and I should really be doing something else.

It all started when I was eleven years old, fresh out of elementary school and into Junior High, determined to make a somebody out of this nobody and preferably make her COOL. I walked into the sixth grade an over-eager, selfish almost-teenager with low self confidence and no friends at all. Within two short months my three best friends all dumped me for more popular kids and I was left with people I hardly knew at all, kids who hardly cared for me out of the context of themselves. I was persuaded of many things, among which included the “facts” that Asian parents are always be mean and hateful, and that I was a fake nobody wanted.

I look back on the days and see myself in an old Chinese fable my mother used to tell. The story was about a frog living in a well—a deep, dark well in which it could not see anything more than a small circle of sky above it. With no idea of the world beyond its own, the frog was happy, believing itself to be the King of the world and the ruler of a most vast domain.

In my mind, however, the frog wasn’t really happy at all. In fact, as much as it liked being the center of its own universe, it soon grew tired of the darkness of its home. But when it tried to climb out, it could slip on the moss-covered slopes and fall back down, until it grew so desperate for a way out that it began to dig deeper in the well, until it was trapped so deep that it could no longer see anything at all.

Confused and tortured by my own loneliness and inadequacy, I turned my anger against the people I most loved. Since I was little, my parents have always spoiled me, against tradition and implicit parenting law. Mine were the parents everyone who knew me were jealous of, bemoaning constantly in my presence how lucky Linda was to have a mother would told her to stop studying and relax and a father who picked acorns with me to simulate Native American cooking rituals. My mother would reiterate over and over again how she’d always known that love would conquer all obstacles, and that the sheer power of her and my father’s immense love would be enough to overcome any spoiled-kid flaws in my character. Perfect love could only breed perfection, after all.

I’m not proud to say that I proved her wrong.

Starting from sixth grade, my personality grew more and more bitter and my temper more uncontrollable. Whereas before I had been an innocent if selfish girl who didn’t know better, now I did know better, but had convinced myself that I would always be right. I began to fight more and more often with my parents, both physically and figuratively. We would argue about the silliest of household philosophies—where to put the soap when you’re done, how to clean your room properly, and when to get off of the computer. Our fights grew more and more dangerous as I sometimes resorted to physical force on myself and my possessions, and while my parents finally took their friends’ advice and tried to punish me physically to teach me a lesson, it always hurt them more to have their ideals shattered than for me to bear the blows. We screamed the most frightful things at each other, using our intimate knowledge of each other’s weaknesses where it would hurt the most.

It was a year of nothing less than hell.

I became fully acquainted with the utter blindness of human emotion that year at the same time I became fully acquainted with the demons inside myself—demons I thought only existed in depressing novels and romantic films before. I began to realize the power of words to shatter the inside of soul through slow poison, and that out of all the different kinds of struggle, family struggle was the most tiring and painful. During those times, I could barely focus on schoolwork and future goals, living only in the present, in the presently flawed unhappiness in the world. Or maybe perhaps I lived in the past, seeing as the present consisted almost solely of wishing I could WILL myself back and simply CHANGE everything for the better.

But even as I continued to dig deeper and deeper into my own well of despair, gradually I became tired. Tired of continuing the battle, tired of being stubborn and inflexible and righteous. Tired of destroying myself.

I started to look for a way out.
Today, I’m not even sure how it happened. I know that somewhere along the line, I began to believe—really BELIEVE—that I was a bad person. That somehow, I was wrong. Somewhere between my mother’s door slamming and my father’s first tears the proudly ignorant child shriveled up and the repentant daughter took her place, determined to set things right.

That is not to say it wasn’t hard; change doesn’t happen overnight, and as we fought time and time and exhausting time again, I found myself no longer believing that I could really create lasting change within myself. Each time I would swear to God and all the other deities I could think of that it would be the last time, the very LAST time, and that I would never be so cruel again. But it never was. I would then give up, like the rabbit after so many yards of already-lost tortoise race, only to pick myself up again feeling like it couldn’t hurt any more, like I couldn’t sink any lower. ANYTHING I did had to lead to something better than what I had NOW.

On those desperate school nights, wandering alone at 1 A.M. down that warm neighborhood street that had once filled my life with love and daylight, I would snatch up some wisps of thought from the imaginative part of my mind and weave up a picture of an all but perfect girl: beautiful, confident, heart-breakingly compassionate and tolerant of others, able to withstand the most breaking of insults and mend the most dire of situations with the warmth of her heart. I threaded adjectives like patient, sensible, optimistic, and unfailingly cheerful into a patchwork quilt of an admirable human being, one always able to consider any and all sides of a situation, yet remain sympathetic to all human suffering. I imagined scenarios in my head—how would SHE have dealt with my mother? With a kind word and explanation. How would she deal with schoolwork? With all her heart, but always understanding of the big picture. World hunger? Utilize her strengths and talents to find her path to making the world better, of course.

Of course, of course, of course. The perfect girl remained in my head as some sort of beacon—this was what I wanted to become. Whether in a class or a pool or an argument, her image would linger in my head, gently encouraging, always offering her two cents into whatever I was doing. I would think about and improve upon her whenever I wanted, in times of despair and times of overenthusiastic hope. I started to act like her, or at least attempted to, approaching day-to-day challenges from an artist’s point of view. I put on a daily performance and mask for my peers and family, and while it fit badly in the beginning, I was soon able to wear it with greater and greater ease and frequency, finding myself liking the sympathetic response I was getting from the loving gazes of those around me.

And with every new smile and healing touch, the well grew shallower.

It wasn’t until a good deal of time later that I realized that the Act was no longer an Act. Instead having to correct each and every one of my unnecessarily pessimistic thoughts into positive ones, I found myself looking to the brighter aspects of situations automatically—out of habit, if you will. Instead of deliberately cranking my stiff neck to look at dilemmas from each and every thinkable point of view, I found myself automatically approaching problems like a jewel dealer holding a beautifully multi-faceted gem—examining all sides, perhaps none too deeply, attempting a level-headed demeanor amidst senseless argument. I began to burst into laughter in the middle of disputes, leading my parents to question hotly why I seemed to find the situations funny, I myself hopeless to do anything but laugh and laugh as I finally saw with clarity how ridiculous fighting was to a family who loved each other so deeply and understood each other better than anyone else in the world.

Slowly, the fights grew more and more infrequent. From twice a week, to twice a month. From twice a month, to once every two months. From once every two months, to so infrequently such that no real pattern grew out of them. I began talking at length to my mother, telling her anything and everything I was thinking, relevant or not, finding that speaking my thoughts aloud bought me peace from their painful intensity and allowed me to sort my head and feelings out in a way without drowning in the waters of self-pity. Until I could see the vast ocean beyond the well of my own suffering, and the world shocked me into joy with its strange and fearsome beauty.

It still does.

Today, it has been more than two years since I have had a serious fight with my parents. Today, it has been three years since I’ve started feeling good about myself, three years since I’ve dreamed of something better and four since I’ve no longer had to lie about the bruises on my arms.

Sometimes, I am so deliriously happy that I cannot help but feel incredibly sad, not knowing how the future with turn out with its paved path winding so far ahead. I wonder if I’m going to change when I grow up, and by how much. I wonder what it’d take to bring me back down to that low point of my life in which I didn’t take pleasure in anything, though I know and hope I’ll always be strong enough to pull through. Sometimes, I want nothing more in life than what I have now, but that worries me too, because it also implies a self-satisfied complacency and total lack of ambition. But what I’m afraid of most is what I don’t know, of becoming a person I don’t know—of losing sight of what’s important and failing to recognize my own failings and forgive others for their own.

Sometimes, in between small talk and the Wilkinsons’ homemade pie, I’ll look at Arnold and his badly-concealed misery and wonder what it’d take if I could—for a just a moment—lift him out of his own grim and unforgiving well and bring him just a glimpse of the frothing white waves and glimmering blue expanse of ocean beyond it. I look at him and wonder if even a hint of that salty, stinging sea gale could at the very least distract him from his troubles and bring him a moment’s peace.

But then again, who am I to speak? I’m not Arnold, and worse than psychos, I don’t even have the luxury of definite voices in my head to guide me. Instead, all I have are ideas—theories, memories, solitary two-liners that overlap and relate, overcome and confuse.

…But sometimes, in that moment before the green light turns yellow, in that flashing moment of clarity, I’ll close my eyes and be plunged into an underwater sea of memory and deep meaning, awash by some innate understanding of the universe. Sometimes, I think that if I could harness even just one of those thoughts at a given time, I’ll be able to unlock the meaning of life. Like I’m breathing underwater, with ghosts of old memories and latent knowledge passing over my head like bubbles to the surface.

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