Toby discovers that he loves tic tacs. He first found a small red box in Dina’s purse on his seventh birthday, and it was filled with little white beads that rattled when he shook it. Dina was sitting on the floor in the corner of his living room, crying into a crumpled piece of tissue. Her favourite “male friend” had moved to Afghanistan with a woman named Marie and left her nothing but a used Post-It as a replacement for an explanation. He wants everyone to pay attention to him again. They seem to have forgotten that it’s his birthday. When they smile too widely and show all their teeth, he knows that their forced joy means that they would rather he go and play alone in his room. When they cuddle him and give him kisses and tickle his tummy, he knows that he isn’t an accessory in a stilted conversation, but that he is wanted, even if just for five minutes.
When he holds the box of tic tacs in his palm, he is surprised by how light it is. The noises that it produces are far louder than its weightage. Mama doesn’t like it when he eats sweets without her permission, so he holds it carefully and tucks it into the pocket of his cargo shorts. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, she’s distracted. She hands Dina a glass of something red, a drink he sneakily tried once but didn’t like. From his bedroom, Toby can hear Dina cry loudly. She seems more comfortable now that he has left the room like she can let the volume of her hurt and anger increase in peace. He tries to feel anger at his birthday being ruined, but if there’s anything his seven short years have taught him, it’s that little children like him are always put second when women like Mama and Dina are in the same room.
He knows that Mama hates Dina. Whenever she knows that Dina is coming to visit, Mama’s movements are slower. She doesn’t seem to notice anything around her. One time, she tried to cook rice without water but let the tap in the sink run for three hours. When Toby went to the kitchen for a snack later, he quietly shut it off and waited for Mama to come back to herself; she couldn’t until Dina had left later that day. Papa doesn’t seem to care much about how Mama feels. He isn’t around that often anyway. Nowadays he spends time with Toby because he knows he has to and fills the awkward silences between them by hugging him a little too long or trying to get him to play football outside. Things are better when he isn’t at home. Toby has started to hate his father the way Mama hates Dina. Their two-bedroom apartment is filled with an invisible bitterness and unanswered questions, and over time, he has learned better than to ask any.
Dina visited them a year ago, just before his sixth birthday. When she arrived, Mama was in the bathroom, and she seemed to be taking longer than usual to bathe. Papa and Dina sat close together on the sofa, his arm resting on its back behind hers, her right hand on his left knee. The apartment was filled with laughter; an odd sound, because Toby hardly heard it otherwise. He was playing with the new Legos that Dina gave him that year on the floor of his room when he heard the water in Mama’s bathroom stop running. He ran out into the living room so that they would all be together when Mama came out of her bedroom. Papa didn’t hear his bedroom door creak, and as Toby reached the living room, he saw his father move away from Dina. It looked as though he was smelling her hair, but Toby wasn’t sure; the movements happened so fast. Mama saw him at the same time, but instead of going back inside the bedroom, she walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. Dina stood up and pulled her white shirt down, ruffled Toby’s hair, and left without a word.
Mama smiled thinly and served dinner.
He places a tic tac on his tongue and waits for it to dissolve like a sugar cube. He doesn’t recognize the sweetness immediately, but the orange flavour unpeels itself slowly. The odd candy reminds him of the smelly erasers Mama bought him last week when she was upset about Dina’s upcoming visit. It smells like an impersonation, like the person that his mother tries to be when her so-called friend comes to visit. He doesn’t understand why Mama hates Dina in secret but pretends to like her in person. If she didn’t want to be friends, why lie? The tic tac doesn’t dissolve in the way that he hopes it will, so he bites down and it turns into a wet powder. He swallows quickly and eats two more before Mama can come in and discover what he’s doing.
The conversation outside his bedroom doors sounds as though a blanket is thrown over their voices. The steady murmur of their voices reminds him of the way that Mama used to read to him before bed, stroking his hair with one hand and holding a book with the other. The stories always seemed as though she wrote them. She was no longer Mama, but instead, a weaver of magic. Whenever she read a story, he imagined that she was telling him a secret that no one else knew. He understands that secrets are just stories that are tangled with complexities, but they are ones that should be kept hidden from other people.
Their voices rise occasionally, but their words are tangled with one other and he can’t make sense of what they are talking about. Mama sounds like she is gaining pieces of herself back; Dina no longer dominates the dialogue that is passing between them. Toby is halfway through the box of tic tacs. The air in his room is beginning to smell the same, and he wants to go outside and smell the amalgamation of perfume and chocolate cake, and run in circles around their conversation.
When they hear his door creak, Mama and Dina stop talking. From the crack in the door, he can see that they are no longer sitting on the floor. Dina is in Mama’s favourite armchair and Mama is sprawled on the double seater. The tension that normally covers Mama like a quilt has been folded and placed in the bedroom cupboard. Her back is straight, there are no knots along her spine. He cannot understand why there isn’t the usual discomfort in the room, the kind that usually makes him wish that he was grown enough to understand it.
There was a point in time when Dina was just another faceless person that Toby’s parents talked about when the dialogue between his parents wasn’t limited to a stilted interview about how a day had been when they allowed cups of tea to grow cold on the coffee table. They used language instead of mere words to communicate, but eventually, a shared vocabulary that was beginning to limit itself was the least of their concerns. On days when Papa travelled and Mama locked herself in her room, Toby assessed their family life, reveling in the silence that glided through the cabinets and shelves. Love tended to store itself in reused jam jars on the bottom shelf of the pantry, but Mama spring-cleaned when recyclables caused too much clutter.
Dina stepped in and out of Mama’s life whenever her moods shifted. Toby was used to the impression of her body disappearing from their sofas as quickly as she had arrived. She would put him on her lap each time she came to visit, pull his hair, and tweak his nose until peals of laughter emerged from his body. Her black leather handbag would always be carelessly flung next to the front door on top of her brown pumps, and she would rifle through the layers inside and pull orange wrappers and pink plastic toys out and present them to him with a flourish; he’d thank her and run away. Toby knows that when people travel, their bags usually have multicoloured airline tags haphazardly wound around the straps and handles. Hers always looks brand new, her makeup always clean and spotless.
Mama would watch them silently each time she played with him. As she leaned against the kitchen door jamb, her face always contained a concoction of feelings that never made complete sense to him when he tried to understand it. Wasn’t Dina just being nice? She always had time for Toby, and Papa too.
A few weeks before his birthday, Toby heard his parents have another big fight. He breathed evenly and lay flat on his back, with his right arm draped across his tummy, faking sleep when his mother peeked into his room to check on him. As soon as he heard her footsteps recede, he slid off his bed and sat on the floor, using the shadows in his room as a blanket that hid him from the hatred outside. He was sleepy and didn’t pay as much attention as he hoped he would. Dina’s name was being tossed around, and eventually; Toby understood that Papa had been talking to her over the phone for a few months. Even though it wasn’t the first time his parents fought about a woman that Papa spoke to regularly, there was something about this fight in particular that made Mama much angrier than normal. “How could you?” she shouted, over and over, her voice trembling, “You told me that you had stopped talking to her, and you promised me that she would never come back into our home.” His father whispered an excuse in response but made no effort to defend himself.
Lately, Toby was realising that his father talked to Dina more than Mama. He peeped through the keyhole on his door and watched as his father pulled out a chair from the dining table and sat down, his face lined with tiredness. His tie was loosened and his cufflinks were flung in the fruit bowl. In that moment, his father looked as though he wanted to be separate from the life in front of him.
Every time he thought back to the numerous conversations his parents used to have about their friends, Dina’s name was always one that popped up only after they assumed that Toby had fallen asleep. She taught him how to eavesdrop, and how to keep secrets. The first time his parents fought in front of him, Dina was getting ready to leave after showing up unannounced. She was about to step into the corridor outside their apartment when their words turned into beasts that knocked over vases and bookshelves, as Toby tried to shut out the fear that drummed in his ears. As the argument reached a crescendo, Dina enveloped his body with her own, shielding him from the bitterness his parents threw at each other. After the fight, but before she left again, she told him to listen carefully to their next argument, to pay close attention to the words that sound funny and use them to make himself laugh, holding them inside him like a secret. Mama taught him what secrets were, Dina taught him how to not let them spill.
Toby stops himself from eating the last four tic tacs. He doesn’t know when Dina will come back to visit again, so he tucks the tiny red box into the gap between his mattress and bed, to save it for later. As he gets off the bed to get ready to cut his cake later that day, Toby realises that Dina is the reason his parents fought so often. He wonders if the bubbling pot of their marriage boils over every time a relationship ends in Dina’s life, and she turns to Papa each time for help.
He tunes out of the murmur of conversation, only vaguely aware that their voices are beginning to rise and fall more frequently.
(Mama loves him very much, but she doesn’t seem to love him as much when he cries. He feels guilty for realising that he sometimes loves Dina more than his mother. As he has gotten older, he realises that Papa too smiles more whenever Dina is around.)
He pops a tic tac into his mouth.
Toby opens his door and steps outside in his new clothes and sneakers. Mama is no longer tense, but she is upset. He knows this because her nostrils are flared. Dina is still sitting on the armchair with folded legs, picking at the chipped nail polish on her left hand. Papa has gotten home from work and is drinking a glass of water in the kitchen. His briefcase is lying on its side next to the front, along with a large suitcase. Toby’s sudden appearance breaks some kind of awkwardness in the room. Most of the lights are switched off, except for the yellow lamp in the same corner that Dina was sitting in when she arrived earlier. In the kitchen, Toby hears the fridge being opened, a grunt as Papa lifts his cake out and a sigh when he places it on the counter. A match strikes, and he knows that seven candles are being lit. His father calls out to no one in particular, asking them to switch off the lamp. He begins singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as he walks into the dark room. Dina joins in, Mama doesn’t. (She ruffles his hair, and stands up.)
Toby grins; he is glad that they remembered he existed after all. He assumes that Mama’s anger will be tended to later, and blows his candles out as the song ends.
Silence pours into the room. As his eyes adjust to the change in mood and lighting, he notices that the suitcase near the front door is missing. When he turns around, Mama is gone.
He thinks tears might spring to his eyes, but there is only a lump in his throat. He tries swallowing it; there is only half a tic tac under his tongue from before.