A Girl Who Grew to Be Too Tall
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While entering the car with mom and dad, she noticed herself having to bend further down to get inside, and how her knees hit the back of the seat—a significant change for a girl who comfortably sat cross-legged in almost every chair just one month ago. It would be forty minutes until they arrived, so Marie admired the billowing clouds against an intense blue sky above the road. She always found herself gazing at the tall mounds on the wide open freeways of California for long uninterrupted amounts of time; her favorite route was from home in Hayward to grandma’s in Pleasanton. Though it was never truly as vibrant, through her eyes, it looked just like the Microsoft Windows default wallpaper, Bliss. The stretch of landscape was usually the only thing that gave Marie the space to put her worries aside and daydream about her life once she graduated high school. Her eyes began to blur as she observed the lush green hills along I-580, which began to resemble the curves of large humanlike figures, stretching and relaxing under the blue blanket. But now, seeing everything from a higher vantage point exacerbated her normally mild car sickness, making her turn away from the scenery. It only added to the persistent uneasiness sitting under her skin as she would soon have to encounter judgements about her growth. She shut her eyes until they finally parked.
Marie helped carry the adobo and pancit they packed in the trunk of the car into the kitchen where an array of more food, carefully prepared by her father’s brother, was set on the countertops. Her mother didn’t tell her to stand up straight like she typically did. Her extended family’s eyes followed her as her head passed just a foot under the top of the door frame as she walked into the home. Marie kept her eyes fixed on the topography formed by the wrinkles on the tinfoil that housed the food in her long arms. She questioned her choice of attire, and wondered if they all noticed that the sleeves of her button-up only reached her forearms and her pants fell above her ankles. She would have worn one of her dresses, but they all fit her as if she’d bought them at the age of thirteen. If it was possible to skip greeting everyone, she would, especially her aunties who considered their judgements as loving gestures. Before she was a teenager, Marie’s aunties adored her and brought her on to their laps and held her close. They loved that she didn’t say much, unless it was to say “please and thank you,” and she didn’t cry. As she started getting older, started getting acne, picking out her own clothes, disagreeing with their opinions, and looking different, they began to get more critical. At every family gathering, Marie anticipated her aunties’ usual comments about how she must not eat or how little food was on her plate. Now they asked her what she’d been eating, telling her that she was eating too much, and how she needed to slow down. When Marie left the room, they whispered amongst themselves about where she must’ve gotten her height from, and how she would be less desirable from then on.
“Sayang, ang ganda niya dati,” what a pity, she was so beautiful, one of her aunties said. Her mother, standing near them, said nothing, head bowed almost as if she was grieving what her daughter could have been: perhaps, a nice wife to a loving and successful husband. Marie rubbed the frustration from her face, and sighed. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that; her aunties said the same thing when one of her older cousins, Reyna, got an eight-rayed golden sun tattooed at the top of her spine. They also said the same thing when that same cousin started dating a girl. When Marie was four or five, she remembered gazing up at Reyna, unable to let her radiance go unacknowledged. What they said hadn’t mattered; Reyna looked free, and that made Marie gravitate toward her cousin in a way she couldn’t to others in her family. Members of Marie’s family had always attempted to make her laugh, especially before she became a teenager, but they were rarely ever successful. Marie remained tight-lipped, and her gaze was often distant to most individuals who approached her. But when Reyna was around, she sat by her side and whispered in her ear. Their aunties would ask what tsismis the two of them were sharing, but Reyna respected her role as a confidant and would put her index finger to her lips. As Reyna would braid her hair or cup her face while they talked, Marie would be brimming with laughter. Reyna had stopped coming to the family gatherings eventually, and none of their family had seen Marie’s true smile since.
The phrase her aunties directed towards several of the women in their family had always made her heart tighten and the back of her neck heat up. Whatever craving she had for the homemade food subsided, and she pensively complied with their advice to eat less. For a minute or two, she picked at the chicken, but her paper plate ended up face down in the trash can, concealing the rest of the uneaten food.
Marie only kept growing taller. For weeks, she remained in her living room, until one day she grew so large that exiting through the door frame could damage it. No one was ever sure of how tall she grew to be since she was not able to stand up straight. The four eggshell colored walls of the living room encased her, and she’d no longer be able to leave it without tearing the whole home apart. So Marie sat uncomfortably still amongst the furniture and framed family photos, collecting dust. The corner of
the TV poked her left calf. Her right leg lengthened through the living room entryway into the main hallway, left elbow bending awkwardly into her lap, left hand hanging limply onto her opposite shoulder, and right arm stretching into the entrance of the kitchen. She ached horribly from being forcibly hunched over by the confines of her house. Laying her face on her shoulder, she faced the corner of the wall dedicated to her grandfather’s altar. Above his portrait was Jesus on the cross, whose open heart and wounds had frightened Marie at night when she was young.
Mother didn’t look at her. Though Marie’s contorted and trapped body ached, the guilt and shame she felt for inconveniencing her family was more unbearable than any of her physical pain. Mother would slam the door to their room, and the empty halls would echo the words of her aunties: Sayang, ang ganda niya dati.
Tears dripped from her chin on to the several eight by ten foot blue tarps that were the only things large enough to cover her body. It was difficult to sleep because her neck was so tense from only having her shoulder to rest it on. She’d try to relieve it every so often by lifting her head slightly, but it’d hit the ceiling before reaching an upright position. The sofa she’d sink her whole body into after getting home from track and field practice was plush and vacant and inaccessible, tucked under her legs. Her soft bed sheets were just above her, upstairs in her bedroom, along with the white blouse with lace trim that she sewed herself but would never fit in again.
The street light from outside cast a vast shadow in her home, but it slipped through a gap in between her arm and torso, illuminating her grandpa’s portrait on the altar. His eyes were fixed at something beyond the camera. She wondered if her grandma was in the background, and that was why he looked like he was trying to capture an image of his own and savor it. The gentle upturn of the corners of his lips offered her solace, as her mother’s whispered pleas to God seeped miserably through the walls. She was praying for her to be the same daughter who received the award just a few months ago, but Marie knew this was inescapable. The itch on her skin flared up. Her body trembled from the ache in her back. Her mother’s desperate prayers carved cavities into her chest. The air was disappearing from the room. Marie tried to take in long deep breaths. But the words of her aunties echoed once again, sayang, ang ganda niya dati.
“I am still your daughter,” Marie cried out. Her voice thundered through their home, making the figurines around the TV and on the altar shake like in the midst of an earthquake. As her voice reverberated through the walls, she heard her mother gasp from another room as if she were about to choke. Shocked at the force of her own voice, Marie fell silent, awaiting her mothers’ response. Each of her mother’s footsteps felt as if they were occurring minutes apart. She crept into the living room, and stood in its stillness momentarily, before lifting her gaze off of the carpet. Maybe it was the redness where the whites of her eyes should be or the way her eyelids couldn’t open fully; but when her mother’s eyes met Marie’s for the first time since she became trapped in their home, they welled with recognition, finally. Just barely, her mother nodded.
She then walked away, and a few minutes later, Marie could hear rummaging upstairs.
Her mother removed the curtains from their windows, their bedsheets from the rooms and cabinets, and their tablecloths, and spread them out through the backyard. She worked throughout several days and nights to stitch together the fabrics constructed of their home, which replaced the rough, plastic, tear-stained tarp. When she finished, she rolled the quilt enough to fit it through the door from the backyard into the kitchen and then into the living room. As she unrolled it, Marie recognized her bedsheets were a part of it. She moved her left arm carefully to not hit the wall behind her, and lifted the quilt to her shoulders, wrapping it around her, and releasing the blue tarp. The quilt helped soothe her skin and the cavities in her chest, and for a moment, she remembered what it felt like to be her mother’s daughter.
Pauline Castillo loves her Lola Polly and hopes to be just like her.