Literary, Short Stories

Like a Fish out of Water

This story has been forming in my head last Saturday night when I was doing the dishes. But some stories take some time before they grow organically and take a life of their own. Some stories simmer a little bit longer than others. And then the plot reveals itself little by little as I am doing mundane tasks like cooking, cleaning, driving around the city, or taking a shower. This story is another one of those everyday-life stories that present the human struggle and the colorful characters as its main selling point instead of anything supernatural, or fantastic, or suspenseful. I’m drawn to writing stories that represent a “slice of life” because everyday life has its own magic if we only look hard enough. And if we can’t see the magic in our daily life then, I doubt we’ll be able to find it easily when we’re presented with a fantasy story. Let me know if you have comments or suggestions about it below and I hope you like it.

I’m going now, bye! I bellowed to my mom who was in the kitchen washing the dishes.

She was saying something but I didn’t quite catch what it was as the screen door swung shut behind me. I didn’t want to be late. I glanced at my wrist watch and I figured I still have plenty of time to make it. If the traffic isn’t that heavy, I reminded myself.

I arrived just five minutes before the arranged time and I found myself seated at my friend’s posh living room. The marble floors felt cold on my bare feet and it felt as if I were sinking into this marshmallow sofa with Victorian trimmings. I felt so out of place in this fancy and spotless living room. Sometimes there are no words needed for you to come into conclusion that you are poor. Sometimes all you have to do is to spot-the-not: does this expensive, ancient-looking, porcelain vase belong here? Yes. Do these glimmering, white marble floors that are polished once a day by a housekeeper belong here? Yes. Does this struggling, tiny, brown, pimply tutor belong here? No.

I looked at what I consider to be my best dress in my wardrobe, which felt too much and too grand when I wore it at home but now it feels like it’s too washed out and five years old. I looked at the sofa’s cloth and it looked more presentable than the cloth of my dress.

I brought you slippers so your feet won’t feel cold, my friend said as she entered the room.

Oh, thank you, you didn’t have to bother, I answered as I reached for the slippers.

Damn right, I need slippers. My feet are freezing, I thought to myself.

As I was putting on the slippers I happen to glance upon her left foot’s sole, which was showing a bit while she’s on tiptoe. My goodness, even the soles of her feet as as smooth as the rest of her skin! I thought in awe. Meanwhile my soles looked as dry and cracked as the Mojave desert.

That’s because you do laundry every Sunday by hand while you sit out in your backyard and the soapy water that runs down dries the soles of your feet, I heard my mother’s voice say in my head. I hid my soles to make sure that my friend doesn’t see mine while I was in her house.

My friend and I met in middle school and then we lost touch in high school. One time, our snot-nosed classmate– Tommy is his name is, I think, –made a survey where every one voted her as the ‘most ugly’. She cried during lunch period and I had to sit by her and comfort her, meanwhile feeling a bit relieved that I wasn’t the ugliest girl in the room. Now that I look at her, there are no traces of ugliness in her. Her skin has become so white and smooth, you’d think she bathes in milk just for fun. I look at her face and it’s as if God has dipped His pen into her face and made a masterpiece.

She led me upstairs so that I could finally meet her son. Her son is this cute, chubby, Korean boy, who makes peace signs with his little chubby hands every minute, in every pose imaginable. I was just kidding on the peace signs but it would’ve been nice if he did. Her son was just sitting quietly and waiting for us when we entered his room.

My friend, she married well. She married the nephew of one of Korea’s tech mogul. They own a brand name so popular, you can see it on every household. But I can’t tell you which brand it is because she asked me to sign an NDA when I agreed to take on the job. That’s how you know you’ve made it, you make everyone who works for you sign an NDA just so they won’t air your dirty laundry out in public.

I’m not trained to handle kids with emotional problems, I said to her a month ago, when she offered me the position.

He is not yet diagnosed with any problems but we bring him to a therapist once a week to figure out if there’s something wrong with him, she said. I want you to tutor him because all the others that I hired just gave up, and I heard from other moms in his school that you’re great with kids. Those soccer moms even call you ‘the brat whisperer’ in their group chat.

Huh, ‘the brat whisperer’, I said while raising my left eyebrow, the only eyebrow that I could raise.

Please, for old time’s sake, she said with her face looking like she’s pained.

Must be nice to feel pained with heavy gold earrings hanging on your earlobes, I thought.

So I took the job not because I felt sorry for her but because beggars can’t be choosers, and this beggar is drowning in moderate poverty.

I’ve discovered straight away what the issues were: he has difficulty in concentrating, his blatant disregard for authority figures, and his stubborn decision to not speak.

Often times, I would look up from the book that we’re reading and I would see him looking out into the window instead of reading with me. We always start our lessons late because he doesn’t want to stop playing his games on his console. And whenever I would ask him a question, he just folds his arms on his chest and he would refuse to answer me.

One time, I went home to find two strips of masking tape forming an X on the seat of my black trousers. Imagine how mortified I was when I realized how many people on the streets and in the jeep may have seen the back of my trousers. Walking around with an X on my ass, that one’s new.

What are you doing? My mother asked me one night as she saw me in front of the living room mirror, parting my hair into sections.

Do you have lice? She asked me mortified.

God, no, Ma. I said, equally mortified. I am looking for gray hair. I saw on the internet that there’s a study that too much stress can actually give you gray hair.

My mother looked at me through her thick glasses like I’m the dumbest person at that hour, and then turned back to her telenovela on TV.

After a month, I learned that they were going back to Korea and that I will only have four more Saturdays to meet with him.

Oh he’s doing great! He’s improved significantly since you’ve tutored him, my friend exclaimed the week after the X-marks-the-spot fiasco. I chortled to myself and I was about to disagree with her but since she is in a good mood, I chose to forgo to tell on him.

As a last-ditch effort to form a connection with my tutee, I asked him to write a short note after every session. I asked him to write what he thought about the lesson, about how I teach, and everything he was thinking about at that time. I figured that writing it down would be easier for him instead of saying it all to me face to face.

He never submitted any of the notes that I asked. And in that last Saturday, I sat with him for a long time, saying nothing. We were both looking out at the window as the rain pattered on the window glass. And after our last tutoring session, I stood and outstretched my right hand to shake his and I told him that it was nice meeting him and that it was a pleasure to be his tutor. He took my hand and shook it, and looked up at me shyly with a small smile.

I never saw him again after that. I thought that I failed as a tutor and I kept comforting myself with the idea that maybe some kids aren’t meant to be helped by me; they may be helped by others, but not by me. Maybe I am not everybody’s hero and I should stop trying to be one. Or that maybe some kids are just beyond help.

After a week, a Fedex delivery guy knocked on our door and I received a package from my former tutee. In the small package were the four notes that I asked him to write and a short letter accompanying them where in he told me that his nanny helped him mail them, how good it was to be back in Korea, and that he hoped I was doing fine.

He said that he knows there is nothing wrong with him and that he wonders why his mother keeps saying that there is something wrong with him and why she keeps on sending him to therapists just to figure out what is wrong with him. I’m just me, he wrote. He apologized for the times he was being difficult and he said that he just wanted to play just like any other kid. He also thanked me for all those times that I spoke to him kindly. I think you are the first person to ever speak to me like I am someone to be respected, he wrote.

On my table, I laid the four notes that I asked him to write and I stared at them, and stared at them until it was time for bed. I read them and thought about how thoughtful his writing voice was. How he might have been forced to grow up faster than other children. I recalled he wrote that he felt out of place within his family because he was always expected to excel. But what if I’m just ordinary? He asked in his letter.

When his mom sent me an email a few days later and she remarked how well behaved her son has been, I didn’t disagree. I bid them good luck and hoped that we’ll still see one another soon. Which of course, will never happen. She didn’t know that her son and I connected– even though I wasn’t aware of it then– because we were somehow the same. Always feeling out of place and always asking ourselves what will happen to us if everyone around us finds out that we’re just ordinary. And that doesn’t make us any lesser.

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