Growing Pains

Sydney summers are bone-dry and oven-hot. In the thick of it, when the thermometer creeps up, life becomes about nothing but the heat, everywhere, and how to get away from it. The air itself begins bending in a kind of shimmer; squint hard enough and suddenly one becomes dizzy. Braving the external elements is like entering a blast furnace, a clean burn that purifies and blackens. If I ever ran outside of the comfortable AC, I would feel my flesh puckering in shock for the first few seconds. The sweat would immediately well up and trickle down my neck. I was always sure that some part of me was cooking.

It was on one of these days that my father called me to him, while I was playing outside in our yard. I was five years old, sitting in the lower boughs of the macadaemia tree in our backyard. I had an odd affection for this tree with its peeling bark and dry, crackled leaves, and I gave it a name – a name that I now forget. Nestled in these leaves were clusters of dark, creamy nuts that I would pluck off and try my hardest to crack. I was collecting them seriously, when I heard my name. I loved my father; I came running into the shaded, cool living room.

The blinds were half-drawn, to keep the room as cool as possible. My father was sitting at the long, wooden table, a tall glass of floating ice cubes nestled in one hand. He had been working on something; littered around him were piles of paper with black ink crawling over them, no more interesting to me than lint on the floor. I wish I had looked at his face in that moment. What had he looked like? I flounced towards him in one of the big-skirted things my mother liked to dress me in. He pulled me onto his lap, this tall, thin man who looked younger than he was and could never quite put on weight, and balanced me on his knee. I have never forgotten the feeling of his arms around me in that curiously cold room, how small I must have been to fit within them, how protected. We stayed like that for a few moments. Soon I fidgeted, wanting to go outside again, wanting to climb my beloved tree and go higher. I didn’t quite understand what was happening. But I said nothing. Even so young, I sensed a solemnity hovering in my father’s mood that was not to be disturbed.

“This is the last time I’m going to hold you like this,” my father said, after a while. “You’re getting too big now.”

He put his lips to the top of my head briefly, ruffled my ponytail and set me down. His fingers were still cold from the chilled glass. I ran back to the sunlight and the heat and the fun of the day.

A few days later, my mother came home from the hospital with my  red-faced, shrieking brother in her arms, and it was chaos for a while. My limbs began growing like watermelon vines, spiraling out in all directions. I had my first day of school, spending lunch periods tumbling around the schoolyard with new friends in make-believe worlds. I gave a boy at school an apple from my lunch box, not quite understanding why; not yet. I was first, a head taller than my mother, and then up to my father’s chest, shoulder, and chin. I was much too big now. I was talking about college in United States, pretending not to see the frightened looks my parents gave each other. Even three years later, when I turn at the security gate of the airport to exit the country yet again, my mother will pat my arm, and my father will place a hand on my shoulder, and that is what passes for goodbye in our family. We don’t speak very often; every two weeks, in the middle of the night after I give up on homework, I will click on the pale-blue Skype icon, and see my parents’ faces through a blur of of grainy pixels. Somehow, the connection is always bad. When my father says my name, I hear the edge of controlled excitement in his voice, and it steeps me in an ancient whisper, a distant clinking of ice cubes. Why had I not looked at his face?