How You Solve a Problem, Like Maria (Short Story)

The sky started raining the very moment Maria stepped on the ground floor. Maria sighed as she climbed up the stairs back to her room to get her umbrella. It had not even been full two hours since she woke up, but Maria felt like she was at the end of a long day. Her emotional state that morning had transformed from elation to disbelief, to confusion, to sadness, and now to irritation.

As Maria snatched her umbrella from the windowsill, she saw through the misty window her bus approaching the bus stop across the street. She panicked and immediately dashed toward the door and slammed it. As she skipped down the last flight of stairs, she realised she had forgotten to lock her apartment’s door. Angry at herself, she decided against going back up and convinced herself that having nothing worth keeping equals having nothing worth stealing, too. I must text George to lock it, thought Maria, Oh, no! He worked overtime yesterday, he will sleep until noon. I’ll better call him.

George. George had always been in Maria’s life as long as she could remember. He taught her to put the thermometer on flashlight to fake a fever. She taught him how to whistle. He was there when her father went into coma after mercury poisoning. She was there when his mother gave birth to a stillborn sister. Both tragedies could be traced to every drop of toxic chemicals dumped by the gigantic factory residing in their hometown.

They went to high school. They dated. They became adults and moved in together.

Maria almost slipped and fell when leaping on the bus. She exhaled, relieved that she would make it in time for her class. When she slumped into an empty seat, she realised she was drenched. In her haste to chase the bus, Maria had forgotten to use her umbrella. She cursed audibly.

“Miss Rainer!” a syrupy voice startled her, “You said a bad word!”

It was Maria’s student, a ponytailed girl who often took the same bus as Maria to the kindergarten. Maria had asked her parents several times, rather accusingly, as to why they would let a five-year-old ride the bus alone, regardless how close the kindergarten was.

“Oh, Liesl, good morning,” said Maria, patting the empty seat next to her, “Come sit here.”

Liesl hesitantly moved closer to Maria. “Sorry you heard me cursing,” Maria smiled, “I had a bad start of the morning.”

“That’s okay,” Liesl grinned widely.

“Not entirely okay,” Maria quickly added, “You should not follow my bad example, promise me.”

Liesl winked, “Okay, Miss Rainer.”

Maria patted her head lightly. They sat in silent for a while before Liesl took out a coloring book from her backpack and started flipping the pages. Maria took this opportunity to take out her cellphone to call George, gave up after ten rings went answered, then texted him. As she saw his photo next to his name, one of her earlier emotions came rushing back. A pang of inexplicable sadness hit her.

Tonight, George will propose to her.

She found out accidentally. Waking up too early, Maria suddenly wanted to wear her old mustard-colored dress for their date night. She grabbed a flashlight and went to storeroom to find a box of her old clothes. When she turned on the flashlight, she noticed the strange way the light beam shot, as if there was an object inside the flashlight blocking the bulb.

It was a ring.

George must have really run out of place to hide it.

Disbelief. Confusion. And inexplicably, sadness.

“Miss,” Liesl’s voice brought her back to reality, “What are we doing today? Because it’s raining.”

Maria almost cursed again. She had promised the kids to spend sometime in the playground and sandbox today.

“Hmmm,” Maria frowned slightly, “I know! What do you think about watching film instead?”

They will sit in silence and I have some time for myself. To think.

“Great!” exclaimed Liesl joyously, “Which film? Can it be cartoon, please?”

“Sure, why not,” Maria answered, “What about Beauty and the Beast? We haven’t watched it in class.”

Liesl, frowning and pouting her lips, said, “I hate Belle.”

Huh, that’s new, thought Maria. “Really, why? Doesn’t she love books, Liesl? Just like you.” She let out a little laugh when she looked at Liesl’s coloring book, “You even have Beauty and the Beast coloring book.”

Liesl concentrated hard and finally explained, excitedly, “Hmmm, I don’t fully hate Belle. I hate her at the end. I like her at the start when she go around town and sing and like get the book from the old man and Gaston was like, I will marry Belle but no, she wants adventure.”

“I see,” agreed Maria, almost giggling, “But what’s so bad with her at the end?”

“Belle didn’t get her dream at the end,” Liesl said confidently, “Cinderella and Snow White and Aurora want to marry and they get it. And, Ariel, she wants to be human. But Belle, she doesn’t want adventure anymore, she even sings it! She says her dreams were childish or something. She gave up. I hate her.”

Enthusiastically, Liesl opened her coloring book and pointed out how she had colored all Belle’s gowns in blue instead of yellow, including the famously yellow big gown. “Because when she was wearing blue, she still wants adventure,” Liesl smiled, “Oh look! We’ve arrived.”

Maria was speechless throughout the walk from bus stop to their classroom.

As she let the children watched Aladdin, she checked her email and opened the first one that she had seen that morning: a congratulatory email from a university across the country, accepting her into their law school with full scholarship. Elation. Elation like never before.

Her mind drifted back to the memory of her hometown. Her father, being comatose for too long, lost his job. Her friends going to college.  A group of environmental lawyers, showing up too late. The ongoing lawsuit. Her childhood dream.

Maria closed her eyes and made her decision.

That evening when she and George went out, Maria was wearing a new navy tube dress instead of her old mustard-colored dress.


 

I took the characters’ names from Sound of Music, just for the fun of it. March being a Women’s History month and all, I got reminded at how cringe-y I feel now, in my adulthood, when I listen to some of the musical’s less-feminist songs. (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen” was the major offender. Of course, I sang to the tune countless times as a child)

And I intended this story to center around a woman, thinking and weighing and making an important choice. I think Maria in SoM was supposed to embody free spirit and finding her own happiness. But given the period she existed and the prevailing gender notions then, her happiness, her adventure, was defined solely by eventual her marriage to the Captain. (“Gone are your old ideas of life. The old ideas grow dim. Lo and behold you’re someone’s wife. And you belong to him. You may think this kind of adventure, never may come to you.”)

She’s so similar in this regard to Belle in Beauty and the Beast: (“And I– I never thought I’d leave behind. My childhood dreams but I don’t mind. I’m where and who I want to be. No change of heart. A change in me)”. What’s with this notion in the past that a woman’s idea of adventure changes shape completely upon marriage? And typical adventures in faraway places or whatever were dismissed as ‘childhood dreams’?

I deliberately left the ending vague. I like to think multiverse-style: in one, she rejected George’s proposal; in another, they work out a long-distance marriage / prolonged engagement and her studying; in another, George moved; one universe has Maria postponing her enrollment. Whatever it was, I like to think that her choice will matter, the conversation she’ll have with George will be mature and respectful, and her dreams will not be undermined.

That’s my kind of happy ending.

 

Jumbled, sleepy, and yours,

M

 

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