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Mean Little Women

by Kelly Ann Gonzales    

Althea Liban was five-years-old the first time she met the Pagkalumbay. At the time, it seemed harmless. It appeared to her in the form of a giant black cotton ball with red clown-size shoes and lanky arms, like a cartoon character from the Saturday morning specials she watched. She thought of it as a friend at first with its toothy smile and eyes that bore into hers.

    She didn’t tell her mother and father about the talking giant black cotton ball that came from the crawl space in her childhood closet in the New Jersey suburbs. She thought she could trust their secret friendship. After all, the new friend wanted to know all about her, and that’s what friends do. All it told her was that they were the Pagkalumbay. Her mouth stumbled across its name.

“Pa…pa-pa-what?” She blinked.

Another grin and it told her again, “I am the Pagkalumbay. I’m going to be with you for a long time.”

She didn’t tell her family or her friends, or anyone for that matter, when it turned into a moody large black boulder that rolled on the road next to her when she learned to drive at sixteen-years-old. She thought it was there to protect her and watch over her driving. After all, the old friend had been with her for over ten years already, and that’s what friends do. It told her that even though she was flat-chested and had a bad case of acne, at least she had a nice new car with Hello Kitty seat covers. Her mouth wailed.

“Is that supposed to comfort me? A boy won’t ask me out just because I have a nice car. They want girls with pretty faces and big boobs.”

    It threw its gangly arms up in the air, “Oh well. Is it so bad to die alone? Accept it. Boys think you’re too smart for your own good. They think you’re a mean little girl.”

    No one knew about the Pagkalumbay because Althea was the only one who could see it. She didn’t tell her therapist in fear of being hospitalized and locked away. She didn’t tell her college friends in fear of being considered an outcast. She definitely didn’t tell her parents because they didn’t come all this way to the States for their daughter to talk to big rocks with googly eyes.

    It was there when she met her husband, Yavor, for the first time in a midtown Manhattan café. At the time, he wasn’t her husband. He was just some guy she met on one of those online dating apps. She swiped right on him because she thought he was handsome and would be a decent one-night stand. Althea thought the Pagkalumbay was there to ground her and be the voice of reason. By that time, it turned into a ten-foot-tall monolith. It didn’t talk to her anymore. Instead, it hummed in the background, watching her closely but never saying a word.

    Yavor proposed to her on a rainy Sunday afternoon over fish, bread, onions, and grape brandy. The ring was made of diamonds, and in the center was a black onyx gemstone. After they made love on his bed, she walked back to her apartment to tell the Pagkalumbay she didn’t need it anymore.

    “Thank you for looking after me all of these years, but I will be okay now. I want to say goodbye.”

    The monolith stopped humming. It went silent for one second, two seconds, three seconds…and then it roared. She tripped backward. She fell onto the street and people looked her way but kept walking.

    “You will never get rid of me, Althea. I am the Pagkalumbay. I’m going to be with you forever. What would you do without me?”

    “Listen,” she hissed in a low voice, eyes shifting around to see if anyone was still looking, “We can’t keep doing this. I have Yavor now. He won’t like this.”

    “He won’t like this? He? Or is it you? You need me. You need to have me in your life. Who was there for you when Jeremy Stein pulled your pigtails and called you a loser in the 3rd grade? Who was there for you when you got into a car accident in high school? Who was there before Yavor came into the picture?”

    Althea narrowed her eyes. It was her decision to wear the pigtails, but it wasn’t Jeremy Stein the school bully who called her a loser. It was the Pagkalumbay who laughed and called her the loser. It was her decision to get in the car that night, but it was the Pagkalumbay who told her to keep driving when she should have pulled over to nap.

    Now it was her decision to have it leave her life, but it didn’t want to go. It was not a new friend or an old friend anymore. It was never really her friend. Her mouth turned into a fine line.

    “Accept it. Your soon-to-be-husband, if this marriage even lasts, thinks you’re too cold and detached for your own good. He thinks you’re a mean little wife.”

    On a sunny Saturday morning over espresso and almond bear claws, she and Yavor found out they were pregnant. She peed on two white sticks to be sure, and the two pink lines showed up on both tests. Althea told her husband she was just going to go to the roof of their condo to get some fresh air. She went to the 35th floor and this time, she threatened the Pagkalumbay.

    “Listen, you need to go. I asked you nicely before. I’m pregnant now. You can’t be here anymore.”

    “Oh, Althea—you’re making it about your child now? Don’t you see? You’re selfish. It’ll tear you and your husband apart. He won’t stay, and your child will wonder where Daddy went. Your child will grow up only to hate you and leave you. I’m the only constant in your life. You need me. I’m your everything.”

    It was there when she went for a routine checkup on a Tuesday afternoon at her ob-gyn office. Her blood pressure started at 143/95 at the start of her visit. When they checked again, it became 152/97. As her blood pressure seemed to creep up, her ob-gyn told her to go to the hospital because she may have to deliver her 35-week-year-old baby early.

    “No,” Althea shook her head, “I’m not due for another month. This can’t…I can’t…I have work tomorrow!”

    Althea’s head spun and the Pagkalumbay laughed at her, “Accept it. It’s your fault that this is happening. Now you’re going to take it out on your own child and they will know the truth, that you’re a mean little woman.”

    The Pagkalumbay showed up in the corner of the examination room, coolly dressed in a black button-down shirt and dark denim. It looked like the antithesis of Yavor. While Yavor had dark eyes, short dark hair, and was broad, the Pagkalumbay had the opposite of his features. It had stark white eyes with no pupils, white hair past its shoulders, and was stretched thin to the point that she could trace the outline of its gaunt cheekbones and ribcage.

    She thought that she could trick the blood pressure monitors into thinking she was cool, calm, and relaxed by daydreaming of being on a beach with a fruity drink in her hands. 155/98. 159/99. The nurse at the hospital asked her if she felt dizzy. No. Lightheaded? Shortness of breath? No. No. I’ve never had this problem before.

    “Ms. Liban, we found protein in your urine. All signs point to pre-eclampsia.”

    The nurse wheeled her upstairs and asked if her husband was around.

    “No,” Althea shook her head, “He’s at home. This was just supposed to be a routine checkup. Should I call him?”

    As Yavor settled into the recliner chair in the hospital room, Althea spread her legs for the doctor to induce her labor with prostaglandin. The doctor told her it would feel like a little balloon inside of her was softening the cervix. Althea was on a drug cocktail of cyclic fatty acids and beta-blockers.

    Their daughter came a month early to the delight of the Pagkalumbay. At the time, Althea didn’t have time to process the emotional cocktail of joy and grief. All she could see was the ten fingers and ten toes of her daughter, still gooey and slightly blue. Althea didn’t even remember passing the placenta, a whole organ, through her. After birthing a child, another organ was nothing.

    The nurses and doctors hovered over them, knowing that Althea’s new motherhood ecstasy could soon turn into anything and everything else, to the delight of the watchful Pagkalumbay. The ecstasy wore off after a few hours. When the doctors asked her how she was feeling by handing her a white questionnaire form with ten questions. She looked down at the paper and then up at them while she curled up with her swaddled baby in the white blanket with the blue and pink stripes.

    “I haven’t been able to laugh or see the funny side of things, not so much. That’s not so out of the ordinary for me, though. I think I’ve just gotten used to being unhappy and having difficulty sleeping that I think it’s normal.”

    “Ms. Liban, it’s okay to get help.”

It showed up in the corner of the postpartum room, still coolly dressed in a black button-down shirt and dark denim. Its stark white eyes were no longer staring at Althea. She saw it kept starting at their daughter. Its long white hair stood up on its ends, floating and hovering above their family. 

    Yavor was asleep on the recliner chair. Althea nursed her daughter and held her closer to her chest.

    The Pagkalumbay smiled, “Oh, Althea—you’re not still scared of me, are you? Don’t you see? Your daughter is a part of you, every sad, bad, mad, screwed up part of you. She’ll tear you apart. She won’t stay, and you’ll wonder where she went when she leaves you. 

    “Don’t worry. I’ll be there to look after her. She’ll need me. I’ll be her everything, too.”

    Althea clutched her daughter, wrapping the hospital blanket tighter around her, “No. She doesn’t need you. She needs me. I am her mother. You are the Pagkalumbay.”

    Althea Liban was twenty-eight-years-old the first time she called it by its name. At the time, it seemed confused. It simultaneously snuck around her and pervasively invaded her life at every corner, at every insignificant and prevailing moment. It was there in all forms, tricking her into a dull, amicable comfort.

    When she wanted joy, the Pagkalumbay didn’t allow her to laugh or see the funny side of things. When a cute boy made small talk with her, when she got her first car, when she knew she was in love with Yavor, the Pagkalumbay taught her to look behind her back at all times because where there was happiness, there was sadness right around the corner. The Pagkalumbay wanted her to think that all she was made of was a 5’2” rope of anger, sadness, anxiety, and guilt. But she was made of air, water, and blood, and of joy, happiness, and forgiveness, too.

    Althea opened her eyes. It didn’t matter anymore whether it was Jeremy Stein or the Pagkalumbay who thought she was a loser. It didn’t matter if it thought she was a bad daughter, bad wife, or bad mother. What mattered was, when all the other voices quieted down, what her voice said about herself. Did she think she was the loser? Did she believe that she wasn’t sweet enough to be a daughter, dutiful enough to be a wife, or woman enough to be a mother? And why did she even want to stuff herself into these boxes in the first place? Sometimes she was a mean little woman, yes, but she was and would always be, a woman.

    “Thank you for teaching me about lies and pain. After all of these years, I forgive you. I forgive myself. I am ready to accept you, Pagkalumbay.”
   The white-haired and white-eyed Pagkalumbay stepped back and turned into the humming ten-foot-tall monolith.

    She told it, “I’m ready, Pagkalumbay.”

    It turned into the rolling black boulder. Her mind flashed back to her car that hit the tree, an engine up in flames, the sound of screaming, but she took a deep breath, gulped down the air, and told it, “I’m ready.”

Her mouth smiled, ever briefly, as she laid back on the hospital bed. She sunk deeper into the thin mattress and counted the ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes of her newborn daughter. The Pagkalumbay positioned itself as a small black marble in the corner. While it would always be there, whether as a marble or a monolith, she knew it was only a part of her life, not everything anymore.

Kelly Ann Gonzales