He has to grasp his own hand to keep it from shaking. It is odd, the sudden intensity of emotions that plagued his mind. Perhaps it is his anxiety, the lonesome persona he has donned over the decades. Or perhaps it is not that fancy, just the fact that he is an anomaly, situated there in a plastic chair; his hulk of a figure towering over the frills and flowers. There is something about his appearance that causes a buzz around the hall. There is gossip about his hunched shoulders, his clasped hands, the fidgeting stature, these things that when mixed with his bulging arms and tattooed skin settled for a disruption. It doesn’t really matter to him, he tells himself, all he wants to do is to leave.
He feels the Lady’s gaze as an instinct. A sharp sensation that had been integrated into his mind. Like a chill that takes his spine. There is a tangy taste in his mouth, an apprehension that takes his bones, and he squirms in his seat.
A mistake that catches her attention. The round glasses sparkle under the fairy lights, and her almond eyes peek in astonishment from behind. He had not been blind to all the looks, the stares he has been getting. It’s not that he felt out of place, he was out of place, and this attention was not making this easier on him.
He prays that she ignores him. For a moment the sparkles glitter on the stage drawing his attention away, the frills sway, the lights glow; sparkling, shining, effulgent, and the little face peeks from behind. Her flushed face, the pink nose, her lips curled into a smile, but most importantly there is a sparkle in her eyes that captures him. For a moment it’s just him, leaning on his elbows, his gaze soft and shimmering and her being lucid, absolutely brilliant on the stage. She twirls and the scene shifts out of focus and the Lady, Miss Harper stands before him. He sees the curious shifting of her gaze, the astonishment at the softness that had lined his orbs, and his face hardens. She fixes her glasses and the moment is gone.
The nervous fidget takes his place. His tongue ties and his gaze drops. He yearns for the solitude of his home.
“Mr. Collins?” He inclines his head. She seems taken aback. His gaze is fixed on the stage. The pace has slowed down. The dancers are more vivid, showing a new act of grace.
A small smile graces the teacher’s face,
“I must say Elaine is doing exceptionally well.” He nods. Of course, he thinks, of course, she’s exceptional. He sees her jump, the graceful landing, the light arch of her body, No, she’s not exceptional. She is stunning, extraordinary.
The teacher waits for an answer. A moment later she speaks again,
“I..” His gaze flickers to her blues, “Well, where is your wife.”
His expression is clueless. It takes him a moment to gather his thoughts. Before he does so a horrified expression overtakes her face.
She hides it behind a smile, a small twitch of her painted lips. Behind the nervous spasm of her mouth.
“Her mother,” she gestures towards the stage, towards the little girl twirling there. Her movements were becoming evasive, “Elaine’s mother. We asked for the mothers on this occasion.”
His expression hardens. Eyes drop again to his hands; hardened and scarred by the years of labor. He tries to hide them beneath his jacket.
It seems that every word out of his mouth surprised her more,
“A single father,” she says, her expression softens a fraction, seemingly looking at him in a new light. As if his nervousness suddenly made sense. He sees a few ladies stiffen, their mouths halt, “Oh, that’s rare.”
There is a lag. The ballerinas on stage move towards the end. The play picks up pace, the finale arrives.
“How did it happen?” Miss Harper’s voice is a mere whisper, lost between the serenade blasting out of the speakers. He still hears it with his eyes fixed on the comely figures.
The flushed cheeks, the hollow flesh, the lost smile.
The cold eyes that didn’t belong.
The constriction of his chest. The need for survival, the desire for protection.
“It was love at first sight.”
The teacher’s eyes sparkled. There is an assumption in them. Two lovers, a first love, a small mistake, consequences till the day.
He wants to correct her. There are blasts involved, deaths involved. Two shattered souls involved.
Then the stage ends and there is a toothy smile bearing down on him, bright and fulfilling like the sun, and he realizes that the hollowness, the cold depths of Hazel that he had first seen were now warm and loving.
And for a day he forgets everything but that child, his child shining, glimmering, absolutely shimmering on that little stage.
(6 years ago)
There are blasts all around him. There are cannons fired, their sounds reverberating in his ears. The guns working, his finger functioning periodically. It is pure chaos, it is loud, resonating, a mess of shrill screeches and screams of mercy. It is hell.
Then there is nothing.
There is a barren wasteland. There is a tangy smell of blood that lines the streets, the rotting innards that splatter the walls. There are death and decay. There is misery, hopelessness, and his battered body stumbling through this shit hole.
It is by accident he sees her. The small kid scooting behind the wall, her skeleton like the body, shivering, tucked away and balled into itself. She stiffens at his steps. Her face turning around in dread. There are no screams when she sees his towering figure, no cries of help and mercy, there is just a resignation, a cold hollowness in those hazel depths that constrict his heart.
His body is battered. He is beaten; bleeding and bruised with wounds old and new. Even with his disoriented perception, he knows that that expression; that hollow resignation doesn’t belong.
It is not an expression of a four-year-old child.
The wetness pools his eyes, flowing down in a stream of regret. Perhaps it was meant to be humiliating. This old, towering man, with his bulging muscles and tattooed arms weeping in front of a composed child but he doesn’t care. All he feels is remorse. This all is the result of their own idiocy. This is a war that they had started.
The weakness makes him stumble and he hits the ground. Then there is a black depth. A sweet nothingness that speaks to him. It is disrupted however when there are drops on his lips. He is forced to swallow. He opens his eyes to the small girl squeezing the remains of water into his mouth. There is a desperation in her gaze that he had not seen before.
The expression of her gaze is haggard, tired and full of misery but with a start, he realizes that it was not one of hate. Not even one of terror.
He is surprised. It is her kindness, her silent plea for help that causes him to stand.
It is those few drops of water, and that old cashew, ragged with dirt and foliage, from the girl’s pockets that makes him trudge through the streets to their base.
And it is the small smile of gratitude that she gives him after a cup of water that makes him start over.
Back in America, there is no Sergeant major Dorris. There is the lumber Mr. Collins, a man who does all the odd jobs, and his little daughter, Elaine, whom the man insists takes after her mother.
On their kitchen table, there is always a jar filled only with the best-roasted cashews.
He has never been good at these functions. But it is his daughter that is graduating, so he stops by the expensive shops and buys himself a suit. A luxury he has never taken the time to yearn for.
He wriggles in his black suit. His slick shoes are tight, and his combed hair uncomfortable. His hands curled around a champagne glass itching to run a hand through the gelled mop on top, his subconsciousness trying to hide his numerous scars. There are pompous people here. Dressed in their finest, laden with their jewels and luxuries, and he has never felt more out of place.
But then she is on the stage. Dressed for her convocation, her smile bright and promising, shining down at him with all its radiance.
He has always insisted that she looks like her mother, he has never said she was adopted and no one has ever raised a brow.
Today he hears that she looks like him.
The parents chatter amongst themselves, their smiles polite and endearing.
Then he sees it, the similarity he has been desperately searching for, so blatantly clear to him.
It’s her smile, he decides, the crinkle of her eyes that resemble his. It is her confident manner, yet the nervousness situated in her orbs. It is her politeness, her manners. It is the way she talks, also the way she slurs.
But most importantly, it is the way, even in a crowd of a thousand, her sparkling gaze always manages to find his own.
They ask how it happened. He smiles and says, “It was love at first sight.”
This time when he realises that they’re making up their own stories, hears their curious murmurs, he doesn’t even want to correct them, because with the smile beaming at him, and Elaine running towards his arms, he realises it doesn’t matter.
They say that a parent falls for their child at first sight. It must be true, he muses, because she was and always will be his only true love, his one and only daughter, his one and only child.
His one and only, ‘Love at first sight.’