My father explodes when I forget to do my Greek homework, when I lie about practicing the piano. His voice is loud and strained, cracking. Hands shaking. Crimson face, furrowed brows, spittle escaping his lips. I sit feet dangling, arms crossed. In the kitchen, the green avocado phone hangs on the wall just beyond him, and I follow the coiled cord, buckled and bent. In the living room, I trace the patterned crown molding, around and around. I grit my teeth. Never cry or argue.
When my sister sits in front of him, I shrink at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping. Clutching my panda stuffie to my chest. His hand slams the table, rattling dishes. I recoil. My mother stands behind him, wordless. She will later envelop me, pressing her lips to the top of my head.
I am six. I am ten. I am sixteen. I am proud of my stoicism. When I become a parent and experience the challenge of children, I tell myself he did his best. Until then, I only know how to be silent.
The phone cord sways when I slam the receiver in its cradle. Fights with a friend over dating my ex, arguments with my parents about moving back home. Tightness grips my shoulders and chest. I tremble. I want to hit something. I do not identify this as rage. After university, I find a boxing gym online.
“Boxing isn’t for girls,” the coach sneers, face nearly touching mine, his shaved head and chipped front tooth too close. He roughly wraps my hands, binding, thrusting each one inside a glove, cinching the straps. My hands feel hot and confined. I can’t wiggle my fingers.
He grabs my hips. Drags me to the heavy bag. “Hit it!” I bite the inside of my mouth.
I throw a punch. Miss. He laughs and walks away.
My whole body vibrates. I clench my jaw, keeping the tears in. I move around the heavy bag as it wobbles, until I finally hear the thwack of leather against leather.
I leave and never go back. Never say anything. A decision I regret.
I adjust the laptop screen, take a quick breath, glance at the doorway. I’m surprised my boyfriend left his email up. My stomach grinds in the same way it does when he turns his phone over after I enter the room, or when his eyes shift telling me he’s going out after work. A floorboard squeaks in the other room. I look behind me.
I know what I will find before skimming his inbox, seeing her name, clicking on the email. I push away the sting of tears. I already know I will want to believe him so badly I will accept his stretched truths. Because it’s easier.
I will not cry.
for crying out loud . cry your eyes out . cry your heart out . cry on my shoulder . cry like a baby . cry baby . cry over spilt milk . cry me a river . cry uncle . cry yourself to sleep . cry wolf . a cry for help . cry it out. big girls don’t cry .
My daughter, almost two, twirls on her toes and flares her sparkly red tutu. She trips and falls. Her face scrunches, mouth opens, ready to wail.
“You’re fine. You’re okay! Sh-sh-sh. Don’t cry!” My father, her grandfather, shushes her. She stares up at him and slowly closes her mouth. He beams. “That’s a good girl.”
“You have to train them not to cry.”
I grind my teeth and stare at my in-laws as my youngest howls in my arms, and later complain to my husband while he stares at the blue-white screen of his phone, mumbling that they’re just stuck in their ways, so I slink to the bathroom seeking refuge, just for a moment, hugging my knees on the toilet seat, crouched small, sobbing, desperate to protect my daughters from learning from me, from feeling silenced. At bedtime, I hug them tight. I stroke my eldest’s hair until she falls asleep.
“I no like Myles.”
My eldest sits in the front hallway, criss-cross applesauce, pulling shoes on the wrong feet. I crouch in front of her, gently switching them.
“What do you mean, honey?”
“Myles screams and hits.” She pouts.
I’ve seen this at daycare before. Myles smacks or pushes her and the other kids. The daycare staff tell him to keep his hands to himself. They force him to say sorry. I parrot the lines back to him, uncomfortable with parenting other people’s kids.
Don’t cry, I tell her. It slips out automatically. I frown and look down, picking my fingernails, pulling at a hangnail. I don’t know what else to say.
My husband motions me out of the way. He squats before our daughter and lifts her small hands in his. Her pacifier bobs.
“Listen.” He looks her in the eyes. “Go ahead and cry. Scream.” He nods. “And if Myles hits you, you hit him back.”
I stare at him. Advice that would never have crossed my mind.
“She can learn,” he says, turning to me and shrugging. “She can learn to stand up for herself.”
Lina Lau is a mother, green tea drinker and writer based in Toronto, Canada. Her work can be found in XRAY Literary Magazine, The Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, carte blanche, and others. She writes during the in-between moments of parenthood. Follow her on Twitter @LinaLau_ and on IG @_linalau_.