We sat in the car for what seemed like hours. He drove in silence with me beside him, in the passenger seat. The silence was filled occasionally by the wandering melodies of oldies from the radio.
"You’re an oddball," my dad said abruptly.
I raised my eyebrows. I wanted to ask him what had triggered this sudden, for lack of a better word, declaration. I didn’t.
"Er, yes I am," I replied.
He started talking again, both of us looking at the long and dark stretch of road ahead of us, not looking at each other, while he went on and on, as if we had been talking for a long time, as if I knew what he was talking about, "I shouldn’t have married her. I shouldn’t have made that mistake. I am careful now, too careful, because I wasn’t careful enough then."
"Why is she a mistake?" I asked. It seemed that we both deliberately avoided addressing her with names, such as "your mother" (as he often called her), which might potentially wreck the suddenness and outspokenness of this conversation.
"Because I thought she was intelligent," he divulged.
"Yes but I thought-"
I took the liberty to interject and elaborate, "-Trouble was, she was far too intelligent for her own good. I think when you’re too smart, you want too much, and you think too much."
He went on, "I should have married someone simple, you see? Someone who would support me and listen to me. Someone who would not give me so much trouble and so much debt. Someone who wasn’t so… crazy, that you don't have to play mind games with."
"Would you have been happier?"
"I don’t know. Because you seem to equate simplicity with... Brainlessness?"
"No, really..." I continued, "You think that you would have been happy with someone who was less complicated and more predictable, but you don’t know for sure. Because what you’re telling me is, essentially, that you should have picked someone typical. Like those super boring housewives who cook and clean all day and who obey their husbands... You might as well have married a maid, or a slave, someone who will do exactly as you say."
"Doesn’t mind. Doesn’t mind. Would have been so much easier." He waved his hand and shooed my words away, the other hand still on the steering wheel.
He likes to say that, "doesn’t mind", and instinctively, I corrected him, "Doesn’t matter..."
He snorted, "You see? You’re using big words, and talking like an adult with all those Shakespeare language and you expect people to understand you and like you when they just think that you’re such a showoff, trying to put them down and prove to them that you’re like one level higher than them."
My jaws dropped and I slipped into Singlish, the way I do when I stop thinking ‘seriously’, when I stop chewing and mulling over the sentences that those around me spill, and stop mixing them with my countless glorifications of useless theories, "I where got use big words?"
"You do!" he insisted.
"No I don’t!"
"You think you don’t, but you do. People don't like the way you speak and they try and do something funny to you like bully you. And sad to say, this is not America, where you and your friends can speak perfect English and all the 'thou', 'thee', 'friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears', and be successful. Here, you have to speak their language in order to go places.”
"I speak their language what. I speak Singlish all the time. My English is not say very good."
He changed the topic instantly, without my realization, "And I tell you, you better be more… Practical. Don’t just learn, learn, learn, then don’t pass exams in life. Not in school you know. In life!"
"Why can’t you do both? Learn and pass at the same time?"
"Cannot! You want to learn, you learn when you go out and work. What can you learn in school? Study, study, study, but come out, nothing. That's why when I was in school, my lecturer asked me, 'You want to learn, or you want to pass? You want to learn, you learn after you pass, when you got plenty of time. You want to pass, you better do something easier, but maybe not so interesting.' And he was right!"
I sighed with resignation, "Right..."
He mumbled, "Don’t know why none of my children are like me. Not practical want. And why are you so afraid of numbers? Huh? See a little bit of maths only, cry already. I tell you, last time, I always fail my technical drawings in Poly. But you see, I struggled, and I made it!"
"Okay, okay," I whispered.
He drifted into another topic again, or perhaps, it was the same topic all along- his urgent need to recall his life and relay his wisdom to his child at every chance he had, "You must be strong, you understand? Go all out and fight until you die! Don’t make mistakes like me. In life, there are some mistakes you can make, but some mistakes you really, really, cannot make. Like marrying the wrong woman."
"I know lar. I’m 20 years old. Believe me, I'm not so stupid can?" I retorted softly.
He took his eyes off the road for one split second and stared at me incredulously, "Cannot! You look like small girl, how to believe?"
I burst into laughter, "Ya, I look like this, what to do? Also not my fault. But my brain, at least, doesn’t look like a small girl, right?"
He paused for a moment and seemed to think hard before sighing in exasperation, "You're an oddball. Just like your mother."
I caught myself smiling with amusement, without knowing why. And then without warning, despite the lighthearted humour that comes with the effect of broken English, I felt this incredible surge of affection for him and an uneasy tinge of sadness and guilt, for all that had gone irrevocably wrong, for all the ravages of time and all those beautifully, tragically, frail, seeds of human decisions and actions that had spiralled out of control. Where was my part in this? Why did I hold on to feelings, feelings one would have had for an old man who talks incessantly about how good, how brave, he used to be, and how well he used to do, as he gives out boiled sweets to little kids who doesn't want them, or him, anymore?
When I realized why, I was already in the midst of articulating it to him, "I’m an oddball. Not just like her. Just like you too."
I'm a product. Of two people who were filled with so much zest and raw youthful dreams and promises, the product of something that had somehow, failed, dragging the weight of all those syrupy imaginings of what could have been down with it. I wonder if parents know how important they are to their children, how their indelible fingerprints not only taint, but colour, minds, bodies, and the air that their children breathe? And is it enough that we do not repeat our parents' mistakes? Does the cycle come to an end? What if we make new ones? Do our children have to bear them subsequently? And what are we then, as a whole? Children of another generation, of another generation, ad infinitum, carrying hope along with the remainder of unfulfilled visions as we create staggering new ones for the next in our line?
Why, why the hell am I expanding something out of nowhere, like all those other intangible theories? Oddball. Your head is always up there in the clouds. Always talking and thinking as if you are an adult. Be more practical. When does a child ever become an adult? Never? Never in the eyes of a parent, certainly. But how do you stay a child, when your bubble world ruptures? When you feel as though you are neither here nor there, you wonder if you have ever really left those teenage years of angst and emotions behind. Never? Maybe we are all children, throughout our entire lifespans, helpless and naive and always in the process of growing up. And I wonder, if, if we ever grow up, will it be too late, will it be time to die?
I wonder if he heard what I said, or if he took offence and decided to ignore me. I wanted to say, "I'm sorry." For everything. For the life he wanted, for the life he might have had, for all the years that slipped through his fingers like sand. What was he like, when he was 20? It could have been worse, I once told him. But what do I know? It could also have been better. But I guess we will never know. I wanted to say, "Thank you." For everything. It comes so easily, gratitude, even sympathy, when you realize that the lives your parents lead could easily have been your's.
I didn't say a word, because it was awkward and felt curiously absurd to be uttered aloud. He went back to driving in silence, sporadically frowning to himself, while I stared out of the window, at passing cars and trees and dark shadows, as if we were separate strangers lost in our own worlds, coincidentally placed in the same car together.