The Dreams of Peacocks
“Sorry,” my brother said. He’d snitched.
I ignored him.
We were sitting outside a small convenience store at a gray table eating breakfast, while my parents were inside still choosing what they wanted. It was our second day in Interlaken. My mom said today was supposed to rain, but the morning felt just as warm as yesterday. Of course, she had made my brother and me layer up so I couldn’t really tell.
I looked down and saw some birds pacing near us. Yesterday at the bus stop, I sat next to a Portuguese family and got to see the mother introduce bird feeding to her 5 year old. She took a piece of her sandwich and tossed it to the little brown birds, and he laughed gleefully as more flew from all over and plucked up all the crumbs on the sidewalk. He joined her soon afterward and laughed every single time the birds ate something.
Soon an eager flock had formed, including a large portion of street pigeons. Pigeons had always impressed me. They were like nature’s beggars but there was nothing pathetic about them, from the way their necks shimmered like oil slicks in the sunlight to how they deftly marched around on sidewalks and streets indifferent to the giants around them. And their fierceness, their internal sense of direction despite their seemingly aimless wandering, their self-assuredness- all of these made me envious and feel like there was a lot to learn from them.
I smiled at the memory and tossed the birds a piece of my marble cake. I hoped the boy would still break into that infectious laugh if he were here. One bird snipped at the block and then flew off. The others instead opted for the croissant crumbs my brother started flicking after watching me.
I went back to quietly eating. I thought about the meltdown my father had this morning because my brother had casually mentioned I was using my phone. My dad declared this an unforgivable offense on a trip devoted to “family fun” (which in no way felt forced whatsoever), and cut off my attempts to explain myself by calling me a “liar” and “mood killer.”
I never liked him. It felt like he was always more tough on me. Looking back, our relationship feels eerily similar to a Stockholm syndrome situation- him justifying his brutal whippings by claiming love, and me believing and forgiving him. Even though most of my bruises are long gone, I still shudder whenever I remember how he would chase me from one corner of the house to the opposite, how my screams and pleas for him to stop were eaten by the fire in his eyes, how I used to bawl in the bathroom afterward as I examined the reminders of his outrage all over my body, how I felt suffocated by the shame and dejection as I sat in class the next day, knowing other kids never experienced anything like this. Maybe it really was love, in a twisted way. But as I grew older, it really numbed me. I was thankful that most of his physical parenting was when I was younger, but bitter at the same time for crippling my capacity to really feel happy. And no matter how many times I tried to forgive him for all of it, I couldn’t help but think that I hadn’t done anything worthy of such punishment. I wasn’t a delinquent, I didn’t mouth off, I studied hard, I didn’t even go out much. So I just always ended up thinking, “I was only 6…I was only 8…I was only 12…”
My brother tapped me on the shoulder. “Look.”
I glanced to the right and saw that two brown birds had returned and started sharing the piece of marble cake I threw. I guess they liked it now. But then, right out of nowhere, this unpleasant white and black bird landed, flailed at the others, scooped up the whole chunk in its beak, and flew off maybe 50 feet away underneath a parked car to enjoy for itself. The other two just stared dumbfoundedly and then went back to hopping around. I thought about why they didn’t go after him, but I guess they had their reasons.
Interlaken was gorgeous. The first thing we were supposed to do was take a boat cruise down the adjacent Lake Thun, but the last cruise was at 3:10, and we got there 20 minutes after. So we hung around on the pier, my father trying to console my disappointed mother while my brother and I absorbed the sights. And they were really something to enjoy. The colors of Interlaken were so lush and vibrant, like a kindergartener had dug his crayons so deep into a coloring book that it bled through to the other pages. It was unlike anything I’d seen in America or elsewhere in Europe. The sun danced like ten thousand fireflies in that turquoise, and the grass looked exactly like the bright, candy grass in the chocolate room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Switzerland was easily the best looking place so far. Compared to Paris, I was surprised by Interlaken’s lack of graffiti, chipping walls, leopard-like tar spots over the sidewalks, and cigarette stubs. But I really liked Paris, mostly because I was amused by the decadence of Versailles and the surprising amount of good Indian restaurants, but also because they drove on the right side of the street. When we were in London before that, which wasn’t quite as dirty as Paris but had the personality of a ball of wet clay, they drove on the left, which really annoyed me. I don’t care what kind of argument you have, the steering wheel just doesn’t look right on the other side
My parents came out with croissants and cappuccinos in hand, and gestured to follow them to the train station. Today we were going to Jungfrau, a place in the Swiss Alps billed as the “Top of Europe.” It would take 3 trains to get there: one from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, one from Lauterbrunnen to Klein Scheidegg, and then finally one from Klein Scheidegg to Jungfrau. We waited for the train to creek to a stop, and then climbed up from the platform to our coach. My brother and I sat on the right side of an aisle while my parents sat on the left.
My dad leaned over into view and asked me, “You want a piece of my croissant?”
“No.” I’d been telling him that I hate croissants for years, but he never remembered.
The train sounded like a guttural Gregorian chant as it crept up the mountains. My parents spent most of the ride taking badly angled selfies with the landscape. My brother and I didn’t really like taking pictures, so we opted for silent admiration instead.
As he came over for a selfie and bizarrely enough gave me a kiss on the cheek, I wondered if my dad understood just how much those years had affected me. He always said the same thing:
“Look, I’m a selfish father. You may hate me and curse me, but I don’t care. Me and Mom, we know your potential better than you. I want that future.”
Straying from his algorithm was unacceptable. He thought my silence was submission, and not a result of him stifling my curiosity, and he was oblivious to how his touch alone took me to the lonely, tearful nights etched into my memories. I considered blowing up at him with all the resentment I’d buried right before I left for college, but figured it wouldn’t amount to anything.
My brother kept falling asleep instead of looking outside, and after three or four increasingly angry requests from my father to stay awake, I decided to step in and wake him up.
“Here,” I said, handing him a water bottle from my backpack. “Chug half of this”
“Ok,” he mumbled.
I watched him gulp half of it down, and then look at me, his eyes already much wider than before.
“Wait 10 minutes and then chug the rest”
“Does this really work?”
“Yes.” I was making it up as I went.
My brother’s gaze turned to his watch, and mine back to the window. Even though I wished he would face my father’s wrath too once in a while, something, I guess my conscience, always stopped me from making sure that happened. I even devised some stupidly simple rules throughout the trip so he wouldn’t annoy my father (or other people for that matter).
Rule 1 was to keep right on the escalators. Rule 2 was to smile in photos (my brother had a perpetual frown on his face that I don’t think my parents understood wasn’t a frown, just his face). Rule 3 was to cough into your arm. And Rule 4 was to stop walking when tourists are taking pictures of something or someone in front of you. Obvious things that most of us know, but not my brother. I didn’t really mind, as long as he learned.
Three trains later, we finally made it to Jungfrau. To get to the top of Jungfrau, we had to navigate through a labyrinth of rocky, dimly lit tunnels, that lead to some pretty interesting rooms along the way. One had a jagged, panoramic screen hooked onto the walls showing a series of incredible shots of the Alps accompanied by dramatic orchestral music. My favorite room was the “Ice Palace”- this winding place was made entirely of ice (including the floor) and had these pens like a zoo with ice sculptures of bears and eagles and penguins.
Finally, we made it to the top area, which a sign informed us was at an altitude of 11,401 feet. We passed through some glass doors to the plateau itself. It was nice, but I couldn’t stifle that feeling of “Is this it? This is the top of Europe?” The wind was wicked and relentless as we walked around outside. Up a little, there was a Swiss flag that we posed next to for pictures. I wish I could say the view was incredible, but most of it was pretty obscured by clouds. And that was that. On our way back, we followed one of the corridors to a chocolate shop and bought some Swiss chocolate.
On the train rides back to Interlaken, for some reason I remembered this poem we had read in English a couple weeks earlier. It was talking about the fates of Italian immigrants who came to America and why so many turned to crime.
I kept thinking about this one part in particular that really hit me:
Was it only you
who got out at Ellis Island with
black scarves on your heads and cheap cigars
and no English and a dozen children?
No carts were waiting, gallant with paint,
no little donkeys plumed like the dreams of peacocks.
I always thought peacocks were dumb looking until I read this, and then for some reason I just clicked with them. The way I see it, pigeons root their pride in themselves, but peacocks root their pride in the richness of their tailfeathers. They grow up in flocks of masterpieces and pray they turn out just as beautiful, just as compelling. But peacocks with no tail feathers are just average, dull birds. Naked, nothing, nobodies. The immigrants realized quickly that the time for their dreams hadn’t arrived, so all they were able to chase were grim alternatives. But who wants to chase alternatives to their dreams?
This trip was supposed to be a “treat,” as my parents said, before I left for college. It did make me become introspective, but it’d left me with an uneasy feeling of, quite frankly, having no idea where the fuck I was headed. My dream to start a tech company that I’d had since I was 9, that I’d swore by, that I’d used as a north star to guide all my decisions, grew stale and was replaced almost overnight by more alluring yearnings to be a musician and fashion designer (strange detour, I know). A 34 on the ACT, 4.2 cumulative GPA, 150 hours of volunteering, and numerous clubs and leadership positions had resulted in nothing but a lackluster state school. Everything that seemed so certain had just withered away, to the will of God, or fate, or whatever you believe in.
I felt aimless. I thought of that poem again. Is this how those Italian immigrants felt as the more optimistic ambitions they had washed up with on American shores were crushed?
Is this how young peacocks feel as they stare at their reflections in the water, feeling like deformed ducklings, like mother nature is blue balling them from brilliance? And when they come back after their feathers have bloomed, and they stare again at their reflections, could they handle not liking the patterns handed to them?
Could they handle carrying those ugly plumes around, for the rest of their life?