Show me someone who doesn’t want to make their parents proud and I’ll show you a liar. Or, worse, I’ll show you a weakling who shies from hardship. Or, even worse, a heartless, ungrateful bastard. For it is a truth secretly whispered that, when parents bring a baby into their home for the first time, and the sleepless nights start, and the crying turns to howling for hours on end, one question keeps gnawing at their minds: Why did we do this to ourselves?
Strange as it may sound, no one puts someone else before themselves without expecting something in return. And what better way to make it up to one’s parents than to say one day: ‘Parents, your sacrifices were not for naught. I’ll make you proud.’
Such is the case with me. I can’t deny the fact that from an early age I had been burning with desire to make my parents proud. The seasons came and went, the years passed, and the conviction that only by accomplishing this task would I conquer my own happiness grew stronger. Then came the day when I stood before my parents as a young adult.
‘We haven’t raised you to be a heartless, ungrateful bastard, have we?’ father said.
‘God knows you haven’t,’ I reassured him. ‘No fancy talks about freedom of choice, living your life the way you want and such. Besides, mother is stunningly lifeless. There can be no doubt of my legitimacy.’
‘Or a weakling,’ he added.
‘Absolutely not,’ I said. ‘You must have noticed that, for a girl, I don’t cry as often as expected. And I’ve never –not once– fainted in my life or demonstrated excessive sentimentality of any sort.’
‘Or a liar.’
‘Every dictionary should have a picture of my face next to the entry Truth,’ I said. ‘Remember, parents, that every time you asked me how this or that went wrong, I always told you who was to be blamed. It’s not my fault that it wasn’t my fault but someone else’s.’
‘Then it’s payback time,’ father said.
‘Sacrificing yourself for your loved ones is the truest kind of love,’ mother said. ‘And cleanliness is next to godliness.’
I knew that making my parents proud wouldn’t be easy but, then again, how hard could it be? All I’d have to do was fulfill in their place whatever dreams they thought they had abandoned while playing the noble sport of bringing me up. At the same time, I’d have to not lead a life too different from theirs. Failing to repeat your parents’ mistakes is downright disrespectful.
It would be like adding salt to a dish without making it salty.
‘Parents, your sacrifices were not for naught. I’ll make you proud,’ I said.
And with that promise I went out into the world.
‘There is no such thing as boring mathematics,’ father had once said wistfully while watching TV. I was surprised to hear it. Until then I thought it was the devil who had invented mathematics, in the hope that people would get so bored by it they would have to sin in order to feel alive again. All the same father didn’t think so. Therefore I started thinking about general abstract nonsense; I became the monumental mathematician every newspaper in the world wrote about. I raised the art of numbers to such levels it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. And though I often felt stiff and close to tears, not once a blasphemous word escaped my lips.
Lying on my bed one night, looking at the stars from my window and adding up my monthly expenses to lull me to sleep, I realized it was time I reached higher goals. After exposing myself to grinding training, I was ready to defy my weakness –motion sickness– and become the acclaimed astronaut whose handshake with an alien the whole cosmos watched on their TV screens. And though I was often sick during my conquering space, I was proud to be shooting all over the stars.
The order of the universe passed through my soul, turning me into an aesthete. I saw beauty and wisdom in the composition of human laws; I found escapism in loopholes. I became the laureate lawyer whose court epics were repeated word for word by every respected magazine on the globe. And every time I had to sit down and produce some work, I never uttered an obscenity while trying to achieve suspension of disbelief for the public.
It was during my first semester in medical school that I met a tall, dark stranger.
‘You look like a woman of principle,’ he said.
‘I owe that to my father.’
‘You also look like a spotless housewife.’
‘I owe that to my mother.’ It goes without saying that I never started a day without scrubbing every surface in my home with maniacal virtuosity and polishing my cutlery, counting it at the same time to make sure they hadn’t left me for someone else. Then I would look over all I had made and see that it was very good, but next time I would do it better.
‘Will you marry me?’ he said.
‘Are you also rich or just handsome?’
‘I am the owner of the world,’ he said, not without the appropriate mixture of pride and humbleness.
‘In that case the answer is yes. My parents couldn’t have asked for a richer and better looking son-in-law,’ I said.
The wedding ceremony took place in a fairy castle located on its own island, in the middle of an enchanted forest, and left our celebrity guests with a gaping inferiority complex. Exactly nine months later I became a mother. The baby cried and howled for hours on end and I kept thinking: Why did I do this to myself?
It was time to go back to my parents and collect some recognition.
‘Your hair is uncombed,’ mother said, trying to rearrange it with her fingers. I pushed her hand away.
‘Parents,’ I said, ‘I stand before you today as an accomplished promise keeper. You must have noticed how much I have achieved and in how many fields of expertise – hell, the whole world has noticed. I now want to see some tears of joy and to hear that I have made you proud.’
Silence held the house, broken only by the ticking of the antique clock over the fireplace and the buzzing of a bee around a vase of fake flowers.
‘Did you have to drop out of medical school?’ father said.
I performed all the movements in a perfect succession of balance and contrast. My parents’ heads were units of a larger piece of work, but could also stand by themselves as an independent composition on the mantelpiece. There was one thing missing – salt. I threw handfuls of it over their bodies to create dynamic whiplash motifs.
These were my most sensational headlines ever. But once again I wasn’t very pleased with the photos. I had posed with the fire iron and the chef’s knife, standing tall and grinning from ear to ear, but somehow I managed to look mad instead of happy. Even though things would never be the same, my unphotogenic face would follow me in my new way of life. Oh, well…
Sometimes I replay it all in my mind, to see if there is anything that I could have done better, a chance for improvement now lost forever. But no. The prickling of a thousand needles on my skin, the sweat that never breaks but boils under it, the vise gripping my head, the nausea – they aren’t here anymore. I always see father’s eyes in wide open praise before his body collapsed to the floor as if it were empty. I always hear mother crying out her last words to me: ‘Kill no more than you can salt!’ How proud would she be that I took her lessons to heart.
I replay it all in my mind, and tears of happiness roll down my face. I taste them with the tip of my tongue and find them saltless. I’m always on my best behavior after that.
Basilike Pappa lives in Greece, where she doesn’t work as a translator, a copy-editor or a historian. When she doesn’t write, she reads, walks her dog and cooks without salt. She fights anxiety by singing in a loud, bad voice. Her prose has appeared in ‘Intrinsick’ and ‘Timeless Tales’, and her poetry in ‘Rat’s Ass Review,’ ‘Surreal Poetics’ and ‘Bones Journal for Contemporary Haiku.’ You can read more of her work on her blog, Silent Hour.