Cultural Divide

Cultural Divide

Henry revisits the guilt he feels over his betrayal of Danica, a foreign student from the same birthplace as his mother.


Literary fiction


Alex Ambrozic (Canada)

Cultural Divide

We didn’t possess the frames of reference needed to understand Danica Lepa’s lack of self-consciousness. She wove in and out of our logo-laden crowd unfazed in her drab, homemade dresses and ran to bear hug her custodian father during recess as he took our trash to the dumpster. I envied the relationship she had with her father because he saw her as she needed to be seen and he loved her, even adored her, as she was. They had the same dark hair, dark eyes and dark complexion. And, in their darkness, they were wholly formed as authentic people and they elevated one another like a gentle breeze lifts a kite.
After school, on rainy afternoons, Danica’s father would unlock the gymnasium doors for us and present the pitch darkness beyond them with outstretched arms. At these times, the gym embodied the excitement of possibility for me: It was a cavern of ancient tombs, each storage room and change room door an entrance into an enchanted space replete with its own unique, unfathomable treasure; it was a descent into the centre of the earth; it was a walk in outer space; it was a place where the imagination reigned. Once the doors were pushed open and the lights turned on, we were ushered into a different world, one that was more personalized and intimate than the one we had to share with others. The gym always felt smaller then, like an insulated bunker protecting us from the dark and threatening world outside. In this world, we had everything at our disposal, from the giant-hooked, out-of-place and rarely used jai-alai scoops to the parachute and musty-smelling theatrical costumes we put on to assume different, more striking personas.
Sometimes we’d turn off the lights and play hide-and-seek in the dark. In these games, I always found Danica quickly and am now quite sure it wasn’t because she lacked imagination or passion for the game, but because she didn’t mind being found. She didn’t possess my love for hiding (she revelled in being tricked) and didn’t feel it a personal affront to be outwitted. Often, I wouldn’t hide at all, but would follow gingerly in her footsteps behind her, feeling strangely empowered by my invisibility.
During school hours, I was much too visible and was never strong enough to admit to our conditional friendship that began at the end of each school day and terminated every morning. Without understanding the subtleties and significance affiliated with national and cultural identities, I was nauseated by the fact that she came from the same small, backward country my mother did and, even though she was of an entirely different generation, I was convinced she came from the same era as my grandparents. She didn’t seem to mind my ignorance and often volunteered to help out at the library during recess, or opted to sit with her father and Mr. Murphy in the custodians’ office at lunch to avoid wandering aimlessly around the schoolyard. I have often thought how alone she must have felt and how conscious of her foreignness at a time in life when the desire to be accepted is conventionally at its peak.
I knew the world in which Danica grew up only in the abstract. I didn’t (and still don’t) know real hunger, or what it might be like to fear for your life and the lives of those you love. Given the struggle it must have been to divine the courage she needed to greet each day and that she came from a culture of impoverishment and fear, she was especially light-hearted. But underlying that light-heartedness was an unspoken, unutterable weight. It went virtually undetected, except when she saw other children with their mothers. Hers, as far as she knew, would probably never be found. Danica hadn’t seen her mother for a full year before she came here and suspected she was either killed or still being held captive. God only knows the impact of such worries on one so young.
It is well documented that love can fade over time. People change, as do circumstances. Maybe the love my wife and I once felt for one another just wasn’t intense enough, urgent enough, lasting enough to endure to the end. Now I know I became more of an annoying friend to her than a lover, an irritant rather than a salve. Each time she berated me, indirectly chastised me for not being who she wished I was or who she needed me to be was like a slap in my face for not seeing in Danica my true counterpart. Never was my egregious breach of perception more clear than when Danica ran up and hugged me in the schoolyard out of the excitement of hearing from her mother. “She’s alive and well,” Danica kept repeating through choked tears. “She’s alive and well!” I didn’t reciprocate her celebratory embrace, but went limp in her arms, mortified by the thought that she was hugging me in public. When I pushed her away, hard enough so she fell to the ground, I saw her emotional wound morph into a look of helplessness marked by questions of abandonment: the lasting imprint I have of her and my ultimate betrayal.
I don’t remember the contours of that look with any element of acuity, nor can I recall the fine features of her face with any kind of accuracy. That look, though, has transformed into an abstract cyst in memory, my very own emotional ulcer pushed out and formed by gnawing, aggravating guilt. It has become for me a symbol of not only my betrayal of her but that of myself. Maybe the lack of accuracy in memory reflects that the depth of my feelings of disloyalty cannot properly manifest themselves in the visual, but only in the hollowness that the hardened bubble of anguish both houses and protects.


“I heard what happened at school today,” my older sister, Bernie, blurted out at the dinner table. “I heard what happened, Henry, totally not cool.”
I tried to feign ignorance. “What do you mean … I mean, what did you hear?”
“That you pushed Danica Lepa to the ground. That you pushed her down hard, knew she was hurt, but still walked away.”
“Where did you hear this?” my mother chimed in, both riled and concerned. “Was she hurt badly?”
“Well, what I do know is that she had to be helped to the Nurse’s Office. After that, your guess is as good as mine.”
“Is this true, Henry? Did you really push Danica to the ground?”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean to. She started hugging me and stuff … in front of everyone. I pushed her away because I didn’t want her to.”
“That doesn’t sound like Danica, that she would just start hugging you out of the blue in public. Why was she doing this?”
“I guess ‘cause she just found out her mother is alive.”
Oh my God, Henry,” my mother whispered just before her cupped hand clasped over her mouth, her eyes wide. “She’s alive! What wonderful news! Danica must be overjoyed, so relieved, so over the moon!”
Then, her excitement abated and virtually disappeared as she revisited the other side of the story, the shameful side, the side I wished didn’t exist. “Now, let me get this straight: This poor young girl shares with you the most wonderful news of her life, that her mother, who was thought to be dead, is, in fact, alive, and you, you respond to that news not by rejoicing and sharing in her absolute joy, but by pushing her to the ground because you’re worried what your friends might think? ... Are you human, Henry? … Did I not teach you anything at all about being a human being? Tonight, you’re going to call Danica and apologize, make sure she’s alright, and then tell her how happy you are to hear of such great news. Then, tomorrow, you’re going to present her with flowers at school.”
“But … Mom … .”
“But … Mom … nothing. Get calling. We’re going to the florist after you talk.”
As I went passed her to get to the phone in the basement where I thought I could have some privacy, Bernie looked at me with disgust. “Don’t be an ass, Henry. … Be accountable. Be a friend.” Her eyes bit into me.
When I called Danica, there was no answer and when I came to school the next day with a bouquet of flowers I paid for with my own money, Danica wasn’t there to receive them.

Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1



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