Prose by Camille Lemire
Art by Enid Au
I always knew Dad was handsome.
When I was five, I remembered the fluorescent hazy lights of the television flickering before my eyes. I saw people who looked like the kids in my class, and sounded like them. Eing-lish. A language I didn’t quite understand yet. I remembered the softness of the couch, my mother’s nails combing through my hair, nibbling on a cookie I did not understand came from plastic wrapping.
“Look, it’s Dad,” my older sister said. Or at least I think she said. She spoke in another language that I once understood but no longer do, but I still remember her point.
Now, I know the wavering blob on the screen to be Jeff Probst, the host of the wilderness adventure reality TV competition, Survivor. Jeff Probst had crisp black hair and a pearly grin, wore cargo shorts and a colorful button-up shirt. He spoke in a loud, proud voice on a beach he seemed to melt into, like a postcard he lived in. I used to live near beaches like that.
“Is that Dad?” I asked, looking up at my mom.
My mother’s eyes were trained on the screen, her face lit up in the dark living room by the artificial sunlight leaking from the television screen. Under this light, her face relaxed, unwinding the wrinkles that lined her cheeks like the inner rings of a tree. I could imagine her on that beach with Jeff Probst.
“Mama?” I said, again.
Her black eyes snapped to meet mine, black like coal burning. “Huh?”
“Is that Dad?” I asked.
My earliest memory of my dad is him picking me up after the first airplane ride I remember taking to Canada. He wore a long beige trench coat and carried a small yellow box I would later recognize to be Timbits. He wore wireless glasses, with crisp black hair and the sort of pearly smile that you couldn’t help but trust. I could not understand a word he said.
What I remember later was the small smile toying at the corners of my mother’s mouth. “Yes, Cammy. That is Dad.”
I thought Jeff Probst was my father for three years.
The night I learned otherwise was a turning point in my life. I learned, at the age of eight, that you have to be so careful with some memories.
There are some you put into the scrapbook, and there are some you must hold onto delicately. Like a secret. Like the air is glass and if you move too fast, it will shatter around you. There are some moments that are just for you, for the few that you happened to be bound to by fate, by destiny, by whatever the fuck it is that brings us together in this world.
Let me set the scene: three years later, and my mom no longer spoke to me in Spanish because I found the grammar confusing. The kids at school told me that my skin reminded them of the damp dirt hidden underneath all the beautiful, stark white snow December had to offer. My brother and I replaced our rock pets with the cat our dad got with our second mother at the house we visited on weekends.
This was a moment where the air is glass, where the hourglass contracts around you to remind you that the sand is coming, coming, coming.
I woke up from a dream into a nightmare. My mother, leering over me like a ghost in the night, face squeezed with anger. She pushed me out of the bed onto the cold floor.
“Get out,” she insisted again. I didn’t move. She lunged at me. “GET OUT.“
I crawled out of her reach, rolling into the hallway. My brother stood, a dark silhouette, wailing. He wore Spiderman pyjamas and clutched the blanket he has had since before I was born. He was just as small as I am. The air felt so tight around us.
We were small and she was a monster crawling out of our picture books. She roared over our cowering frames, “You have ten minutes to pack and then I want you out. Out. OUT.”
I don’t remember much of those ten minutes. It was not the sort of moment you put into a scrapbook. Your mother’s angry tears. Layering winter coats because you knew it would be cold outside. Shoving your Hello Kitty suitcase with what you think are the bare essentials: your piggy bank, a change of clothes, some pencil crayons, and the first big kid book you are allowed to read. My sister’s radio, for some reason, blared in the night. Of all things, Neil Diamond’s Welcome to America played.
I saw the red and white stripes, the stars, behind my closed eyelids as I waited for my siblings at the bottom of the stairs, reminding me of a whole other day.
I waited for my sister to pick me up after school. I wanted to go across the monkey-bar set on the playground, but I wasn’t supposed to try without some help. Yet no one would talk to me. Quietly, I approached the eight-bar monkey-bar set I had been eyeing up from my lunch breaks in the classroom. Some of the kids in my class eyed me warily, unsure of seeing me approach their territory. But I knew I could do it. I jumped up to reach for the first bar and-
Fell spectacularly, head first, onto the snow below me. Blood pooled from my nose onto the snow, red stripes on white. My head blurred from the fall, spots of black and stars bursting before my eyes. White stars melting into the gray sky above me. I heard my classmates laughing as I laid there. They were always laughing.
Welcome to America.
“Let me call Dad!” I heard my sister plead from the top of the stairs. My brother cowered behind her sixteen-year old’s thighs, trembling as if the cold from outside had leaked within.
My mother cowered too, but I did not know why. “I do not care what you do. I just need you to get out. Get out of my house. Do you hear me? GET OUT!”
And I was eight years old and scared and I did not really understand English television fully yet. I certainly did not understand Survivor yet, or else I would not have said:
“We can’t call Dad, he has to run Survivor!”
My mother’s coal eyes focused on me. Their heat permeated through the air.
My older sister grabbed my mother’s arm. “Mom, Cammy is just a kid. She’s confused. She doesn’t understand that-”
“Seems perfect, doesn’t it?” Mom hissed, down at me. Spit flew from her mouth, the drops bursting like stars in the air, before falling. “I bet you imagine your dad being the host of some adventure TV show, off exploring some unknown part of the world. I can tell you what he used to explore.”
Tears streaked down her cheeks, like the waterfalls the contestants on Survivor went to for rewards. I wondered if my mom ever saw a waterfall.
Let’s pause for a moment. I know now that my mother’s words held a darker innuendo. I wonder if my dad thought of my mom as something he “explored.”
When I ask my dad about when he met my mom, he tells me that he went for summer break in Mexico during university and came back with a wife and the promise of a baby. I don’t know if he remembers exactly when he met my mother, or if she was just another golden- skinned vixen with an inviting smile.
Sometimes I want to pretend that my parents had some fantastical Meet Cute Love Story. I see the beaches of Cancún, faded with the ghosting breath of a disposable camera. I imagine that it was hot. I imagine my parents were hot. My mother with perfect brown greased thighs, the right sort of body to fill out a bikini, and perfectly poofed 80s hair. My dad with the smile of someone who has never been hurt and never will. I imagine her lying on her perfectly flat stomach on a big towel, fingers flipping through the glossy pages of an American magazine. I want him to approach her. I want him to say something kind to her, wax poetry about her smile, bring her flowers that remind him of her. Then I want him to fall in love with her because he’s amazed at her knowledge of 18th century literature or loved the smell of her cooking or admired her resilience in growing up without a mother.
Instead, I imagine he smirked at her over a beer he just finished chugging with a friend, the piss-coloured liquid splashing down his chin. I imagine she looked at my dad over the rim of artistically-shaped glasses and said something smart or funny or sexy. I imagine my dad took a picture with his eyes because my mother was like a postcard come to life. I imagine my dad like Jeff Probst, whispering about the wilderness and adventures, melting into the sand my mother laid on like it was the caramel surface of her olive-toned skin. I imagined he burped and instead of flinching, she laughed, because he was like one of the models from her American magazines.
But I don’t know. My parents were not careful with this moment.
Here’s another moment I was careful with:
I blinked at the sound of my name, or the French accented pronunciation of my name. I was four years old and in kindergarten class. My mother, wanting to encourage me to immerse myself in Canadian culture, placed me in a French immersion program for English students. The only language I spoke was Spanish.
A pretty blonde woman held up a book in front of me. She pointed at words and said more words to me. The only word she taught me: no. My classmates laughed around me, and my cheeks felt hot. I never understood what was funny.
“Lunch?” I said, because that’s one of the few things I could.
“No,” she snapped, and she suddenly wasn’t so pretty.
My classmates laughed again and I sank into my chair as they ran off for something I later understood to be recess. I was not allowed to join them.
I was alone in a classroom, with a monster crawling out of my picture book. She roared and I did not understand. I was alone, waiting for the minutes to tick by until I could go home.
This is a moment that was not careful with me, and it slunk around my ankles like seaweed in the ocean. A ghost breathing onto the back of my neck.
“Cammy,” the monster cooed.
Maybe this moment never ended.
“Cammy,” a monster coos, and I can still see my mother sobbing at the top of the stairs, my siblings trembling before her.
Here’s another moment I was careful with:
I remember the wrinkled back of my mother’s tee-shirt as she led me down the stairs. The faint aroma of the lemon dish soap that we used to wash our hands. The cool tiles of the kitchen beneath my toes, which were smaller than marbles at the time. My brother, tittering after me. Mom didn’t make me put on a coat, just ushered me outside onto our peeling white wood deck.
It was a rather insignificant winter night in Calgary. Our deck looked out upon our spectacularly shitty suburb, crawling with racoons and high teenagers. We heard them laughing in the distance, or maybe it was the coyotes howling. The air was bitingly cold, as if a snake had sunk its teeth into your flesh, only to have its venom turned to ice in your veins. My brother and I had lined the railings of the deck with pretty rocks we found to replace the pets we were not allowed to own.
“Look,” my mother breathed, her words like the sigh of a book as its pages flip.
Wavering emerald green and electric blue silk unfolded through the night sky, consuming the stars as if they were grains of sand, of time, that could be reclaimed. It was as if a bolt of lighting had streaked through the sky only to come to screaming halt—to let its magnificent rays of pure power charge us. I felt my skin electrified, brought to life.
“Did you know we are as old as history?” my mom inquired, her eyes locked on the colourful beams dancing above us.
I knew she was talking to me. I knew the story she was about to tell—it was one I had heard dozens of times before. But I do not remember her telling me it before this particular night.
“We are from Me-hee-co,” my mother mused, like she often did. “We are from a land that has a history before there even was history. In you and me and your brother and your sister resides the blood of people who have existed as long as people were meant to exist.”
“What people were that?” I asked, because I always asked.
“The Mayans,” she told me. She went on to tell me fantastical myths and tales of the Mayan people, which I later found a little too conveniently on Wikipedia pages. My mother always said, “We are true Mayans, descended all the way back to royalty. Our bloodline has never been tainted.”
The moonlight washed out all the colour in the world. I looked at my tiny hands, which were white under the liquid glow of the night sky. Like they are when we watch Survivor on TV. Like catching your reflection in glass, or a hazy mirage.
“We are as old as history,” my mom said, again, still looking at the sky.
And here is the last moment I am careful with:
“Look here,” my sister said, once. We were fifteen years older. We had found a box full of pictures of our parents when they were young, when they were still in love, or at least pretended they could be.
She held up a picture of my father from when he was only a couple years older than I am now. The picture was a snapshot of a hazy summer night, of a wilderness adventure from long ago. He was the only colour in a blurry, inky sky, his feet melting into dark sand. He wore a boxy mid-sleeve shirt, unbuttoned to show a few curls of chest hair, with mid-thigh striped shorts.
The picture is all too familiar for me. From the couch of my youth, of a screen I only one day came to understand. I said, “He looks like Je-“
But my sister laughed. “Wow. Dad looks like the villain out of an ’80s teen movie.”
I laughed, too, because it felt right. Because she was my sister and was ten years older and she somehow always knew better than I did. I laughed because I was stupid for ever believing that my dad was the host of some cheesy reality television show. I laughed because I imagine that this is what my dad looked like when my mom met him, and sometimes you have to laugh so it doesn’t hurt.
We looked through these pictures, all hidden away in a box like a secret. An alternate reality, a different version of our parents, tucked away in some closet we only go through when we move. People put pictures like this in scrapbooks. These are not scrapbook memories. These are postcard memories.
Let’s un-pause now.
Here is the picture again: my mother, a tired immigrant, sobbing at the top of the stairs in front of her three children. I’m not sure how long she had been tired for. I wonder if it started watching Survivor with her kids and realizing the host looked like her ex-husband when they fell in love. I wonder if it started on a beach somewhere in Cancún, over beers with my dad, who laughed too loudly over my mom. I wonder if it started long before she was born, when she was a mere idea, stirring in the womb of a grandmother I would never meet.
My mom used to tell me fantastical tales about the people who came before her. People from out of time, out of time like me. People who died and their story was about dying. I imagine my mother dying in a postcard like our ancestors died in history books. I can’t tell you a story about another dying Indian.
This is the sort of memory hidden inside the box in your closet, a scratched postcard no one should ever see. The dark sand rising from the image, crawling out like a monster from a kid’s book. This is not a memory, but a story. A story with multiple narratives: an immigrant who never belonged. A mentally-ill woman taken away from her family. A mother who had no means to support her kids besides a husband who never could understand her.
“I’m … Oh, god. My babies. I’m so, so, so sorry,” my mother suddenly whispered.
She knelt to the ground and wrapped her arms around my brother first. I saw him flinch
beneath her touch at first, before melting into her arms like toes into sand. I bet she felt warm
like a beach under the sun, like those beaches on Survivor.
I could not stop myself from running up the stairs. My sister stared at me with wide eyes, too knowing of all the pain and torment that stood before us in my mother’s arms. I did not know—I still don’t. All I knew is that I wanted a hug from my mom.
I wrapped my arms around her and my brother, and her cool tears hit my neck. Eventually, I felt my sister’s arms around my shoulders. It felt like a surrender. I did not know what we were surrendering to yet.
I wish I could tell you what it was. I wish I could tell you so much more. But the truth is, I grew up with a postcard mother. A woman as beautiful and exotic as the beaches my father met her on—but she was so much more than that, and no one saw. No one sees. We do not understand.
I want to say something cool. Jeff Probst probably would’ve said something epic, though.