"My Two Boys", by Emily Liao
I carry a picture of them in my wallet even though I have no right to. Their cheerful, fresh faces peer at me amongst the receipts and notes and credit cards, bright-eyed. In their gaze, I can almost hear them call for me. Mummy.
My two boys were four and seven when I walked out on them, thirty years ago.
It was the worst mistake of my life; I know it now and I knew it then. I had a list of reasons I used to recite to myself every night so that I could fall sleep. I was depressed. My husband was unfaithful. But even the alcohol and the pills eventually failed to fill the emptiness I had created, the bitter hole in my gut that I had cut for myself. They could no longer drive away the guilt that seized me from the inside and strangled me- still does- day and night.
Slowly, bit by bit, I forced myself to accept the fact that it was all down to me, every step I took away from them. Every tear, every nightmare, every regret, it was my entire fault.
To hide my shame, I moved away, changed my name so no-one could find me. I wanted to escape, and I wanted to do it properly. Under no circumstances could anyone I had known in the past recognise and confront me about my crime. I even remember feeling a sense of twisted euphoria, then, dreaming up fruitless fantasies of starting a new chapter in life. The memory disgusts me now. Perhaps it had not occurred to me, as I dragged my bags into the station that night, the full extent of what I was about to lose.
I live alone now, in a dingy flat half a mile from the city centre, working in a cafe for minimum wage. Life is boring, dull, gloomy, but at least it is busy. At least when you have trays to stack and tables to wipe, bills to pay and food to scrimp on, you have less time to think. In the midst of it all I can momentarily forget my pain, or even better, dream of an alternative reality where I am far away from this place. At home.
When I am at my lowest, thinking of their births calms me. My memories of them are so vivid; one in mid-August in the sweltering heat of summer, and the other in the crisp, icy air as winter had just broken through the surface. Polar opposites, yet equally full of hope and joy. I remember as each of them opened their eyes and grasped my finger with small, resilient fists, possessive. I remember imagining the endless possibilities; these beautiful babies, my sons, could be anything they wanted. They could do whatever they wanted with their bright futures ahead of them.
Futures that I would not be part of.
Thirty years on, I still repeat their names over and over, like a rhythm, a soothing lament. Hearing them makes them exist, ensures that they are real, material, instead of mere memory. Yet I cannot picture them any different from the rosy-cheeked wide-eyed children I had last known them as. I do not even know where they live now. What they do for a living. If they are married. Children of their own? Maybe.
But recently, something has changed- a shift in the way things are. I started to see the smallest glimmer of hope, something that I had thought impossible for all these years.
Last Saturday, I saw a family of four stopping for breakfast at the cafe I work at; so normal and yet so surreal to me. The father was telling his daughter that under no circumstances could she have whisky in her tea. The mother, with love in her eyes, had bent down to laugh at something her son whispered in her ear.
It occurred to me, like so many times before, that I could have had that life. But somehow, this occasion touched me more than ever before. After my shift, I sat in the toilet cubicle for half an hour, not crying, not even self-pitying. Staring straight ahead at the frayed advertisement on the door, knees tucked under my chin, I was finally able to see things from a new perspective.
A year ago, even a week ago, I would have called myself stupid, pathetic, sentimental. But this was different. The truth catches up with us in the strangest of circumstances.
I realised I had now, finally, arrived at a junction of life. It had taken me the best part of three decades but I was here. I could follow the path through which I could slave away in this deadbeat routine for the rest of my life, always regretful, always wanting more. But this path was safe, comfortable; there was only so far I could fall. Or, I could take the other path, the more winding, narrow, unpredictable one where I could begin to put the sins of my past behind me and work towards something new.
And so I made up my mind, that day, seeing the emptiness of my life compared to what could have been. I would find my children, no matter the cost, no matter how long it took. I could work past my shame if my sons had been forced to work past my selfishness for so many years. I do not deserve to know them, but they have a right to see me.
Truly, I cannot fix what I did all those years ago but maybe, just maybe, I can start to make up for them. The past owns us, but we own the present.
I have no right to expect welcome or forgiveness; I have no right to expect anything from them, not ever. But in my mind’s eye I still see it, unlatching that familiar green gate and seeing them standing there, taller than before but still the same, still mine. In my dream, we watch the past thirty years melt away as though they had never existed.
Oh, my beautiful baby boys. I am so, so sorry.
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