Secrets are a terrible thing. And I have carried this one for long enough.
Dad sat at the dining table a bunch of papers in front of him, speaking on the phone. Mum worked on her laptop. Kimiko sat at the piano, softly playing. And I, I sat on the couch, my heart racing, fingers gripping the portfolio in my hand. Thinking about the secret I would soon divulge to my parents.
As I sat, waiting for Dad to get off the phone, I thought back to that conversation years ago. The one I hadn’t stopped thinking about. The one that had brought me to this place, readily prepared to face whatever Mum and Dad would throw at me.
It was way back in the middle school. I took my place at the lunch table with him. Sometimes I sat with my usual group of friends and other times I would sit with him. He was different from everyone else. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so sincere.
He looked up from his sandwich when he saw me and smiled.
“Guess what? I have my favorites today,” I told him, excitement exuding from my very being as I shuffled through my lunch paper bag.
He grinned. “I see you’re also brown-bagging it today.”
“Of course. That way I get to save money on some of these.” I brought out two packets of Oreos from my paper bag and held them up.
He laughed. “Jackpot!” He exclaimed.
I handed him a packet, pleased at myself.
A couple of kids passed by, taunting him. They poked him in the back, made faces and tried to imitate him. But he had become an expert at ignoring them. And I was proud of him. I scanned the noisy cafeteria for Kimmie and found her sitting at the far side, surrounded by a large group of friends, as always. Her eyes met mine and she gave me a look. She’d told me to stop eating with him. But as much as I loved Kimmie, I wasn’t going to stop being friends with someone simply because she thought being his friend would make me less popular.
I turned back to him. “I haven’t done my Maths homework. You think I still got time?”
“Totally.” He fished into his backpack and brought out a piece of paper. “You can copy off mine.”
I hesitated. “You don’t mind?”
He shrugged. “You’d do the same for me. If you want, we can do our Maths homework together next time. That way we’re sure to have it done.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks so much! You’re the best!”
I shoved some Oreos in my mouth and emptied my bag on the table, looking for my Maths homework. That’s when he saw it. That’s when he saw the notebook.
“What’s this?” He picked it up and examined it.
I froze. “It’s nothing. It’s silly.”
He stared at me. “Can I have a look?”
I hesitated. Then nodded. I had nothing to be afraid of. He would never make fun of me. He knew what it was like to be made fun of.
He slowly opened the notebook and found my sketches, looking intently from page to page.
“These are…amazing, Rae.”
He found the last page and met my gaze, surprised. “You’re doing one of me?”
I smiled and shrugged. “Of course. You’re my best friend. I was gonna give it to you as a surprise but now that you’ve seen it…”
I watched him stare at the sketch of himself, standing on a runway, an airplane siting in the distance.
“I know how much you love airplanes…”
He looked up, fixing his glasses. “Rae, you are really talented. You should be an artist.”
I laughed as if the idea was preposterous. “I can’t. I’m gonna be a lawyer.”
His brows furrowed. “Is that what you want?”
The question hit me hard.
I shrugged. “Mum says…” I stopped. “My parents say being a lawyer is great. People respect you. And when you’re the best, you earn a lot of money. Someday I’m gonna be the best.”
He said nothing and chewed slowly on an Oreo. “My Dad always says to do what makes me happy.” He looked into my eyes, a softness in his own.
I never forgot those words.
I was silent for a long time, staring at my notebook on the table. I forced the air out of my lungs. “You know, when I was little I couldn’t get enough of stories. And Grandma loved telling me stories she made up. So when we ran out of books to read she would tell me one of her own stories. It became a game and we started taking turns at telling each other stories. One day I got a pen and several pieces of paper and actually wrote my own children’s book with illustrations. It wasn’t very good but Gran treated it like gold and read it to other kids who loved it as well. I’ve been writing and sketching since.” I think I gave him a lopsided smile, out of embarrassment.“I guess, I’d like to tell stories one day with my own illustrations. Stories that make kids smile and laugh.”
He looked at me for a long time with clear brown eyes. “Hey, when you’re finished with the sketch of me, would you sign it? I’ll frame it and put it up in my room.” His sweet smile took its place on his face. I always thought he had the sweetest smile ever.
I grinned and nodded. “Of course.”
“But you have to make me a promise.”
“What is it?”
“Promise me you will always do what makes you happy. You can be a lawyer or anything else if it makes you happy. But if that thing is sketching and writing books, promise me Rae, that you will sketch your heart out and write great books.” I’d hardly ever seen him look so serious.
I nodded. “Promise, bud.” I tilted my head to the side. “And what do you promise me?”
He looked upwards as if thinking. “I promise to always be your friend when you need me.”
I beamed. “Good.”
And we shook on it.
That day I made a promise. And years later that promise still haunts me. I can’t keep my sketching a secret anymore. And I won’t.
That’s why the moment Dad hung up from his phone call, I spoke up.
“Mum, Dad, I need to show you something.”
Dad looked my way and smiled distractedly. “Of course, Rae-Rae. But right now, I need to finish going through these numbers.”
Mum didn’t even look up from her computer.
“No. I need to speak to you both right now.”
The sternness of my voice must’ve surprised them. Kim stopped playing the piano and turned around. Dad faced me. Mum looked up from her laptop.
“Everything OK, princess?” Dad itched the side of his bald head with a pen and studied me carefully.
“Does this have to do with your grades?” Mum looked at me knowingly.
“My grades are fine, Mum.”
“That’s the problem, they are just fine. You graduate high school next year. If you want to get into Yale…”
A sickening silence filled the room. My heart went for a sprint.
“Yale won’t make me happy, Mum.”
Mum and Dad exchanged looks and Mum slowly folded her arms across her chest, eyebrows raised suspiciously. For all I know, she probably feared I would announce something along the lines of pregnancy, getting married, or joining the circus. You never really know with Mum.
“There are other colleges, Columbia, Princeton.” Dad shifted in his seat, tension and discomfort overwhelmed his usually calm demeanor.
“You don’t understand.”
Dad got up and took my hand, he fixed me with an intense gaze. “Honey, what’s this about? You can tell us anything.”
I nodded. “I can’t explain. So I’m just going to show you.”
I set my portfolio on the table and opened it up to show the large sketches.
Mum picked up a replica of a picture of her and Dad that I had sketched. She stared long and hard at it. Dad picked up other pieces.
“You did this?” He looked up at me examining a portrait I drew of Kimmie. “The detail…”
I swallowed. “I’ve been sketching since middle school. I don’t want to be a lawyer. My dream’s always been to be an artist. Write children’s books and illustrate them.”
Mum put my sketch on the table. “You’re young, Lynn. Only 16. You have time to think about this.”
“I know what I want. I’ll go to college. I’ll gladly go to Yale. But I never want to go to law school. I want to study arts. There’s a really good art school in Japan. I’d love to go there one day, maybe after college. With a degree in Arts from Yale, I might have a chance of getting in and –”
Mum sighed very loudly and cut me off, impatient. “Honey, you don’t have to do law. You can do medicine or business like your sister wants to do.”
I looked over at Kimmie. She immediately dropped her eyes and looked away. This was her chance to also speak up but she refused to meet my eyes.
“I know what I want, Mum. I want to do what I love. And I want you to be proud of me, no
Mum’s eye twitched like it always does when she’s holding back emotion. She swallowed and nodded. She didn’t seem to know what to do for a few seconds, then hesitantly, she got, gently enveloping me in a hug. “I am proud of you, Lynn. Always. And your sketches are lovely. I’ve got a pretty talented daughter.” She pulled away and met my eyes.
Dad smiled and hugged me too, tickling me till he got me to laugh.
My secret was out in the open. And I felt free. I sketched all around the house. I asked Mum to pose for a sketch. Everything was alright. Our happy family remained perfectly intact. At least I thought. Until I started noticing a few things. Last week, Mum insisted Kimmie should focus on acing every class instead of spending so much time on the piano. She’s barely gone near the thing since. Yesterday, Kimmie even dropped out of a school play so she could have more time to study. The more pleased Mum and Dad are, the more Kimmie goes out of her way to please them.
I wish she had also spoken up that day. Maybe it’s my fault. I’m free. But it’s like she’s carrying a heavier burden now. That middle school lunch that day made such an impact on me. I guess being around the right person or people matters. Maybe one day Kimmie will find herself around the right group of people. People she won’t have to impress or seek their approval. And I hope she plays the piano again. So that I can follow the music.
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