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Christina Bencin

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Scott Parsons

Counting to Infinity

Short Story

Counting to Infinity

I remember that sunny Saturday afternoon. The bright light articulating the green leaves canopying the windows, the smell of the freshly mowed lawn, the taste of the warm, gooey peanut butter and jelly goodness, the sound of the children playing in the empty streets. I was sitting at the kitchen table, about three or four years old, licking the remnants of the peanut butter off of my fingers, and you were at the sink, washing off the bread crumbs and jelly that stained the white porcelain.

I watched you just stand there for a while after you had finished cleaning. You were silent, looking out the kitchen window blankly, your hands laying limply at your sides, clenched into fists.

I remember your hands most vividly-- smooth as silk, cold as stone, slim as sticks, aged as wine, your always painted nails adorned with painted flowers or something delicate of that nature. You had a sort of unique touch, light and sweet yet commanding and unforgiving.

You dismissively shook your hands out of those balled up fists upon noticing me watching you and rushed over to stand behind my chair.

"What?" I asked with a cheeky grin. You wore the kindest smile I had seen in a while as you threaded your ever so gentle yet demanding fingers over my face and said, "Close your eyes and count."

Count to what, I didn't know. You didn't say, so I didn't ask. I eagerly nodded, ecstatic to finally see something other than a frown on your face. As I counted, deliberately taking my time to remember the digits above fifty, I could hear your little feet pitter patter around the beige linoleum. I could hear you murmur and grunt as you struggled with the duffle bags, but I said nothing because I thought this game would make you happy and all I so desperately wanted was to please you.

I started to shout excitedly when I got to ninety, proud I had counted this high. I heard the creak of the kitchen door, the draft of the wind from the outside lifting my hair, but I ignored it for you. When I got to ninety five, I heard the car door slam shut. When I got to one hundred, I immediately opened my eyes and bolted out of my chair as I heard the car start.

But I was too late.

***

I could never fully grasp why you would leave without a warning, without an explanation. Every night when I was six years old, in a quest to get answers, I would ask Dad the same question over the second hand wooden table where you once placed those heavenly sandwiches for me on muggy Saturday afternoons, under the same dingy lightbulb that has continually flickered ever since you battered it with the broom.

"Why?" I would ask Dad insistently, as tears uncontrollably welled in my eyes. "Why did she leave us? Was it because of me?"

Every time, Dad would drop his chopsticks on his porcelain bowl and stare at the dry grains of white rice in silence, as if he was focusing on counting them. Then he would turn his head and comfort me by wiping the tears from my soft cheeks with his coarse, worked fingers, saying, "It wasn't because of you. I promise." And we would go back to eating the same over cooked rice in the same chipped porcelain bowls in silence.

After dinner, I would rush to my room and sit by the ink black sky, etching the constellations with my fingers, trying to count the endless diamonds in the expansive darkness. After reaching my limit, usually around one hundred stars, I would wish upon a star that you would return after a long game of hide and seek with that same beautiful smile on your face as to say "I was here the whole time" and ask if I had finished counting.

***

When I was ten years old, Dad got a promotion to a corporate position at his job, so we moved across the country where I was placed at a new elementary school, a less diverse school compared to my last school. It took me a while to make a friend, but once I did, we instantly started hanging out after school all the time. One weekend, after constantly nagging our parents, we went to the Hershey factory together. Dad, my friend Marley, Marley's mother, and I all took Dad's beat up Subaru Outback to the factory to see how Hershey chocolate was made. From the moment Dad extended his hand to shake Marley's, Marley didn't say a word. The whole car ride, she kept her eyes locked on the iPad we were playing on, to avoid looking at my father. On the way there, Dad and Marley's mother didn't talk much due to them having nothing in common.

Halfway through the car ride, I saw Marley's mother take out her phone and swipe into a group chat through the reflection in the window. Using my keen eyesight, I caught a few words in the reflection saying terribly untrue, racist things about my father.

But I said nothing.

When we got to the factory and strayed away from our parents to stand up front, Marley whipped her head away from the tour guide, looked me straight in the eye and whispered, "You're Chinese? I've never met a Chinese person before!"

"Oh, um, yeah, I'm half Chinese." I stuttered, staring at my maroon Converse high tops and counting the intersections of the laces.

"Hmm. Well, you don't look Chinese at all." Marley responded, turning back to listen to the tour guide.

Once she diverted her focus from me, I glanced at the conveyor belt of little chocolate squares and started to count them, thinking of all of the moments you could have filled the awkward silence when my friends' parents would meet my father, the number of times you could have defended your husband against people who talked badly about him behind his back, the plethora of my friends you could explain to that I had features of both you and him.

***

For a long time, up until now, I couldn't remember-- or rather I had blocked out this memory to preserve my belief that you were good before you left-- but a few days before you left us, we went to Dad's friend's house for Lunar New Year. We didn't visit Dad's friends very often when I was a child, at least not as often as we met yours, but I was excited whenever we did meet them. I loved to learn more about the culture of my other half, all while getting to see Dad comfortably speaking Chinese and enjoying his rare treat of hot pot. While Dad and his friends were talking a storm, you took me outside to play, thinking that it would be boring for the two of us to just sit there listening to a foreign language. But I wanted to stay inside and impress them with my (very limited) vocabulary. I wanted to ask them if they could share their stories and teach me how to make 四川 (sichuan)* style 麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu)* and introduce me to the art of 京剧 (jing ju)*.

As we sat out in Dad's friend's garden, you cupped the February lilies in your hands while I kept myself as distracted as possible from your words by counting and tearing off the petals. But I could still hear you complaining to me about Dad and his friends-- unfortunately, as per usual. You said their overly strict parenting style was crass, that they were too humble and polite to the point that it annoyed you, and many more extremely hurtful, judgemental things. You stopped for a while, releasing your hands from the flowers to stroke my hair with one hand. I yanked at the stubs of dead grass and counted how many I had torn from the soil with tears in my eyes, trying to forget all that you said.

At around 9:30, Dad called us in and his friend handed me a 红包(hong bao)* and I bowed to receive it, thanking him very much for the generous gift. You donned an insincere, razor thin smile as I took it from his hand and after we got in the car, you tore it from my hands and slid it into your purse.

***

The next day, during dinner time, I asked Dad if I could go to Chinese school. It was an innocent question, really, and it was expected for a biracial child to want to experience both sides of her heritage. I could tell it made him happy to hear, but you, you would have none of that. I saw it in your eyes, right before you plastered them to your meal the rest of dinner.

After you tucked me into bed, I shut my eyes to count sheep so I could go to sleep. But I couldn't because downstairs, I could hear you yelling at Dad at the kitchen table, blaming him for exerting his "Chinese-ness" on me. You violently battered the kitchen light so that the glass skeleton broke and the filament dimmed. When he asked you to be quieter, for me, you moved him to your room and heaved books at the walls and smashed vases on the ground and fiercely complained about his friends all while Dad said nothing.

Around 10:30, after your fit of rage, you went to sleep and I heard Dad softly sobbing. I counted. He sobbed for 17 long minutes and I stayed up, the sheep disappearing from my thoughts, for another 24 minutes.

***

The first time after so many years this horrific memory played through my mind, suddenly Marely's words of not looking like my father rang through my head. Marely was truly right: I don't look like Dad.

I look like you.

Yet I still wasn't enough for your liking, was I?

Why did you marry Dad and have a child with him knowing the child would be Chinese, that you would have to hang out with Dad's friends, that your child would one day naturally want to learn more about her other half?

Why did you commit to this relationship with us if you knew you were going to leave us for a "better" man and a "better" child?

***

In all honesty, I would do it again, count, I mean. I would count years on end for you to learn and grow and love your husband and child despite their race. I would count until my voice became raspy for you to come back and truly apologize for the years of sadness you have caused and for your irrational anger and racism toward us.

I would count to infinity and beyond for you to become a real mother.

*四川 (sichuan): Southwestern province in China known for its spicy food, pandas, and for holding a section of the Yangtze river

*麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu): popular dish from Sichuan province made with tofu, spicy sauce and beef

* 京剧 (jing ju): Most popular form of Chinese opera (also known as Peking opera or Beijing opera) which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics

*红包(hong bao): a red envelope to contain Chinese New Year money in


Her Inner Beasts

Personal Essay/Memoir

Her Inner Beasts

**Disclaimer: this content briefly mentions sexual assault.**

***

Ding.

"bro where r u"

Ding.

"R u coming?"

"No, because in short, I'm a fucking disappointment. Sorry."

Delete.

"No, some super last minute thing came up. Tell Penny I'm so sorry and that I hope she has a great birthday!"

***

That girl who laughs the hardest, with her signature exaggerated throw of her head and the crinkling of her eyes as tears of joy spill out at every little remotely funny thing you say, cries the loudest-- that is, when she's alone in her bathroom for one, two hours, sitting on the damp bathroom mat in utter darkness.

That girl who you call "emotionally stable" or "so in control of her life" is quite emotionally unstable-- her moods seemingly volatile and actions even impulsive at times. The reason she looks so put together is because she squeezes her emotions tight into neat, little bundles and bottles them inside her heart until one day the pressure is too great and her deep resentment, crazy sadness and infinite regret spill into a lava with more venom and passion than she thought was humanly possible.

That girl who you every so often ask if she checks people after she mentions having a hockey game gets penalties for brutally slashing opponents with her broken stick and screams colorful profanities at teammates pulling her away from swinging a punch at an opponent.

That girl has had more things happen to her than you could imagine because all she does in your presence is make you feel just a bit more joy in your life by acting artificially happy. So many of her Christmases have been ruined by miserable bickering and intense guilt laced with bitter, bitter truths imposed by her father, so many days have passed where she doesn't talk to her mother in a bout of uncontrollable passivity in face of her mother's red hot anger, so many of her weeks have passed where she deals with her bullies' shit and yet, with you, she always appears to be the carefree, playful class clown who is slightly narcissistic and ever so immature because not sharing her true feelings with you or anyone is all she has been taught. And it kills her, not being able to share her feelings, it really does.

That girl doesn't know how to do anything except act passive, submissive because she is too scared, too cowardly to correct her vices. That girl is a broken, torn up, bastardized version of her old self.

That girl is me.

***

In fourth grade, I sat next to a boy named Jack and everyday he would incessantly kick my legs and shove pencil tips into my arms and pinch my waist.

"Haha, very fun, Jack," I laughed at first.

Without a reaction, he continued.

"Jack, stop it or else I'm going to tell Mrs. Lerner!"

"Yeah right."

I sulked. He knew me too well. I could never tell Mrs. Lerner. I didn't want to cause her trouble.

"He keeps kicking me," I complained to my parents one dinner.

"Punch him in the nose," my father suggested.

"Lance!" my mother said angrily.

"What? That's the only way bullies will learn, when they are fed their own medicine. He'll stop then."

I didn't end up doing it but I was going to one recess. I had my fist curled up in a tight ball of power but then a little voice in my head said that this was stupid, that I shouldn't make impulsive decisions or else I could get expelled. And so I didn't end up punching him in the nose like I so badly wanted to and without an action to stop him, he continued hurting me until the last day of school when all I could do was cry in my teacher's pillowy arms.

***

I took up hockey just a year after fourth grade. I think a big reason why I took up hockey in the first place was because I wanted a way to get stronger so I could defend myself against people like Jack. Maybe I thought that by playing such a physical sport I would gain some assertiveness in my life.

Shortly after I started, I looked at hockey as less of my passion and favorite sport and more as a coping mechanism. At tournaments, I would get fed up easier on the ice than anywhere else, because I let myself feel emotion. I thought my frustration would fuel a powerful performance and for a while, it truly did, but eventually, it grew to inspire dangerous thoughts and risky actions.

I am not myself on ice. I am a monster.

***

I've noticed that my mother bottles up her emotions, like me. Maybe that's where I learned how to be passive and self contained from. But upon recent fights, she's shown to be a warning sign of what happens when you don't understand and control your emotions and let them control you, where you let rules of passivity and fear indoctrinate your life path.

A couple weeks in advance to my friend's birthday, I had informed my mother about a full day of fun with my friend, Kate, who was turning 18. She said that was fine since I was miraculously free that day to do what I pleased. For the weeks leading up to her birthday, because Kate is one of my closest friends, I was struggling to decide what to get her-- I wanted to give her the best birthday gift since this would be our last year of school together. A few days ahead of the party, I knew what I was going to get and told my mother I was off to get the gift.

And then the bomb inside of her exploded.

At first, it was about getting a gift way too late, that I would look bad if I got her a last minute gift. Then it was about how Kate's parents paid for everything we did together so I had to get Kate an expensive gift, even though I knew Kate wouldn't be a big fan. And then, it was about my math competition coming up and how that day was the only full day I had and that I had wasted it for a friend.

And then it was about the finals in two months and about the importance of junior year and how I needed to do well on my standardized tests because that's the only way the school would recommend me for scholarships or Harvard and suddenly, I was in a dark place of extreme guilt and self-hatred. She was lecturing me about how she had kept this all from me to try to not stress me out and here she was, overwhelming me with everything stressful about this year, screaming and stomping and jiggling my locked bathroom door and here I was on the bathroom floor, paralyzed with… with passivity, fear, and tears. I didn't want to feed into her anger, but I so badly wanted to yell back.

The tiny voice came back. Don't be impulsive, don't be stupid, just keep the resentment to yourself and watch it grow, let it grow.

***

In one game just recently, my team was losing by a landslide. As I was sprinting with the puck along the boards, just about to shoot, a defenseman explicitly slammed my head into the board by grabbing my helmet with her hands and pushing it at the glass. We both fell onto the ice, me on top of her. A sharp pain pulsed through my head and the arena was shaking around me momentarily and suddenly all became clear as the referee's sharp whistle penetrated the dull clamor of the crowd. He had called it and she was rolling her eyes as she prepared to get up from under me, but something vengeful, even chaotic, flowed inside of me. I looked down into her bored blue eyes and this incredible feeling of anger took over me and I struck her leg with my stick using all the force I could muster.

"You deserve it, bitch." I screamed before my teammates could pull me off of her. Whistle. Two minutes for me and one very disappointed coach.

In that same game, I kept getting triple teamed because the other team noticed my speed and ability to take the puck down the ice. The girls triple teaming me did so illegally, so to say. They held their sticks against me and pushed me into the boards and, driven by frustration, all I could do was check them as hard as I could. As I rammed them in, sprinting past them, all I could imagine was their falling bodies and a smile of evil crept onto my face.

***

Around a month ago at the first hockey tournament of the year, my teammates and I decided to go to a haunted house (more like a haunted building complex with five "houses" within). It was all fun and games, at least for me, up until the end. After being at the front of the line for the four other houses, I decided for the last house that I would sit back at the end so I could get the exhilarating experience of finally getting frightened by a chainsaw man.

When we were in the middle of that haunted house, I started to lag behind my group of friends to observe all of the props and effects when the group behind us (a few teenage boys who had previously tried to cut our group) got closer to me. Then this kid, around 14 or so, started… started rubbing himself against me. Multiple times. Multiple times I pulled away, sort of running away from them and trying to squeeze in tighter with my group. The whole situation was extremely disorienting, hard to take in, surreal even-- there was a bunch of screaming and fog and flashing lights and it was dark and it was late and I was tired and terrified and confused.

As we continued forth, he wouldn't stop. He kept doing it, additionally making sexual comments and complimenting my body.

"I'm gonna fuck her," he said and his friends all started howling with laughter. I was humiliated and shocked and self conscious and I felt my legs carry me to my friend for help. She took my arm and pulled me ahead of her and the same kid grabbed a hold of my shirt several times and I desperately swatted his hands off a few times but he kept his hold.

Our group was suddenly out of the haunted house and it was just me and her, holding hands, as she defended us and confronted their behavior. The boy let go of me once and for all and we ran from them and the chainsaw man appeared and I couldn't hear anything except for the chainsaw and

I was suddenly out.

Out of all the scary things in that haunted house, I think that boy was the scariest.

***

The second time I mentioned a friend's birthday party was today. I had gotten an invite for Penny's 17th birthday and a few weeks back, my mom, again, said it was fine so I RSVPed. But as I got into the car to drive us home on the day of the party and asked if I could drive myself to the party, she went ballistic.

She started talking about how the four hours I would be there would turn into twelve and how I sacrifice all of myself and my time for everyone as I waste hers, the time most generously given to me. She guilted me with her sacrifices, the ones she offers so readily everyday, going to her bed to watch her Chinese history shows at nine to leave the office space for me, staying in a hotel lobby like a fool for two hours over a hockey tournament weekend so I could do my math test preparation which ended in an impromptu, 15 minute executive team call she so happened to walk in on.

She screamed about how I am spoiled and how she needs to stop getting her hopes up because everytime I get excited and plan for things, I let her down. I let her down and I cry and cry for my failures and they are just quick tears of pain.

I felt sad. I knew that I required a lot of time and energy and I was always grateful for her and all of the mentions of her sacrifices made me feel ashamed.

But she continued talking, putting words and thoughts in my mouth and I wanted to tell her that she knows nothing about me because she never lets me talk. I wanted to tell her that I still hold what she calls "quick tears of pain" deeper inside my heart than she could understand and that it is so deeply burrowed in that I've been in a constant state of grief since those failures started to occur and that it is easier letting it eat me from the inside because it is much more painful to let a whisper of that hurt out.

They aren't quick tears of pain and her words aren't just words.

My fingers turned the volume all the way up and rolled the windows down so that I could feel the fall air nip my hot cheeks, but mainly so that the idea of passerbyers hearing her would make her stop. She reached over and I let her roll the window up. Once more, in an act of rebellion, my fingers pressed on the button and the window was down and a vicious look spread over her face and my fingers defeatedly rolled the window up.

***

I used to let some hint of emotion out occasionally. I used to fight back now and then. But now, I never throw up a hand or scream or make a scene. I certainly never cry because… because I can't.