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MIND : Nature & Travel
JP-16 inspired by Tim O’Brien’s “THE THINGS THEY CARRY”

by JP-16, 13 June 2008

Spaghetti-Strapped Sweetheart

Over the weekend, I read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, whose intention was to use fictional short stories to capture the turbulent emotions one felt as a soldier in the Vietnam War. After being inspired by his unique writing style, I tried to emulate that style and write a short story of my own; but instead of being written about the emotions of a war soldier, it describes the emotions of teenagers growing up.

Teenage life wasn’t all pressure and stress. It wasn’t all dry emotion. Sometimes you could feel love. Sometimes you could feel alive.

Marie, Rob’s sister, was always somewhat of a plump kid. But she didn’t just carry her physical weight -- she carried an infinitely large reserve of love, a contagious storage of laughter, and a huge, heartwarming smile that everyone saw and everyone remembered her by.

Her mother despised it. To her, Marie came from a different mold. She was not disciplined, was not a natural athlete, and was not able to skip Kumon math levels just like all of her older sisters did. To her, Marie was sloppy. She smiled too much, ate too much, talked too much, hugged too much, laughed too much. Sloppy, her mother would say. Sloppy. Hopeless. What a pain. When Rob and his father would try to reason with her, she would simply mutter, you’re spoiling her, she needs discipline, sloppy, hopeless, what a pain.

Then she would leave the room.

When Marie was ten years old, she asked mother if she could buy her first dress. But Mother said no, you’re not like other girls, you would spoil it, make it dirty, and plus, don’t you think that you’re too fat to look pretty in one of them? Then, she said, rather rhetorically, that if Marie wanted one, she should buy one herself.

So she did.

Afterwards, every morning, Marie would brave not just the hot summer sun but also her fear of dogs and help the Chans, her neighbors, walk their two Labradors. Afterwards, she would go and baby-sit the Wong’s children and sell lemonade, among a wide variety of jobs. She barely ate, kept herself constantly busy, finding her own immense pleasure of aliveness through counting what she earned every night, and keeping it safely in her Winnie the Pooh piggybank.

After three weeks, at the school fair, Marie proudly bought her first dress. It was a simple summer dress– spaghetti-strapped, knee-length, white, with a ring of auburn floral patterns around the waist and the bottom of the dress.

When she showed her mother, Rob half-shut his eyes, expecting a disappointed scorn in response. But that didn’t come. Instead, a wave of happiness moved across her face. Her mother smiled. Marie smiled back with her banana smile. Her mother helped Marie put it on.

But as her mother began to zip the zipper, it got stuck about one-sixth of the way and simply refused to continue upwards. Marie was shocked, she knew why, and tears began to well up in her eyes. She wanted to look pretty and graceful for her mother, things she never knew she wanted. But her mother just clutched on to the zipper and kept forcing it upwards, allowing the back of the zipper to penetrate into Marie’s skin. As blood began to flow, Marie systematically made silent, ear-splitting. Persistence soon showed her mother that the zipper wouldn’t budge. Mother was furious, muttering under her breath, sloppy, hopeless, what a pain. She left, and returned again with a pair of scissors, and began to cut into the zipper.

Marie was screaming, sorry, sorry, I won’t buy a dress again, just don’t cut it, don’t damage it, sorry, sorry, sorry, but mother said this was bound to happen anyway, and in a fit of escalating fury, began to cut arbitrary snippets of the dress off. She cut a beautiful red flower off the side, then one spaghetti strap. She wanted Marie to hurt, to feel the burn, to feel her disappointment.

Marie continued to scream, stop it, she had small cuts with bubbles of blood where mother was careless enough to cut into her skin. But she didn’t even flinch. She endured it all, the blades, the screams, the tears, the sound of cloth – of hope – ripping, splitting. As if for the first time, she realized that what she loved best in this world might be lost. She carried a daughter’s greatest fear, which was the fear of being rejected.

Finally, her mother stopped, and stormed out of the room. Marie was left, standing there. The mirror’s reflection seemed to draw her in. She now had nothing more than a white rag on, with the once-pretty flowers all over the floor. She would force herself to sit. As if in slow motion, muscle by muscle, the world would follow – absolute silence, then voices of her own sobbing and her mother’s screams at her from outside. It was the burden of carrying her obligation to love. It was the burden of being alive.

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