San Francisco, California USA
This is what my dad used to tell me: when you were born you were small as cat, your auntie bundled you up in three thick layers of blanket and I carried you home in the snow. It never snows in Shanghai, but in 1983, it did, the whole city was celebrating. My mom has scared me off permanently from wanting a child. I used to ask her how a baby comes out of a hole so tiny, and also, it's just our vagina right? Because why the fuck is it referred to as the 'birth canal' in health class? Is it like when people say they don't like having a pair of eyes looking back at them when they eat, which why they won't eat lobster or shrimp with the head on, but they don't seem to have a problem eating a big hunk of pig as long as it's called ham, squid as long as it's called calamari.
My mom said that it hurts like crazy to give birth, and yes, it's just the vagina, and of course an entire baby can't fit through your vagina, that's why it rips and later after it's all over, the doctors sew it back together, and just to get a sense of how much it hurts, consider this: mommy didn't even need the anesthetic by the time the doctors got around to sewing up mommy's vagina because the pin of giving birth to you was so much worse, and the pain just lingers and overpowers the pain of having your vagina stitched back together, but you know what's so funny? Even though mommy felt close to dying after giving birth to you, the minute mommy saw you, it was all worth it, the happiness I felt when I saw you overpowered any lingering amount of horrible, unbearable pain that I thought would never go away, but actually went away the instant the doctors put you in my arms-you were so beautiful that mommy couldn't stop smiling.
I wonder if at some point in my life, I remembered being born. I want so badly to remember everything that has ever happened to me, and like most people, I have some sort of faith that there is symmetry in our lives, maybe I wouldn't be so scared to leave this world if I could remember what it felt like when I first entered it.
I was born in Shanghai and spent the first four and a half years of my life there. We lived in a house that Mao gave my grandfather because my grandfather ran the Revolutionary Paper of China, he was a loyal old-line Communist, and so was my grandmother. My grandmother was deaf and bossy, a crazy combination because it meant she had license to remember things differently from you. If you said something she didn't want to hear it, you could take a tiny blowhorn and position it right next to her ear and she would still have no idea what you were trying to say, and then again sometimes she made up the things you said.
"I said, I don't want to eat any more rice nainai."
"There's another bowl waiting for you, don't worry."
I think I was a passive child, or maybe just passive-aggressive. Sometimes, when my grandmother was cutting up tomatoes, I'd go up to her and say nainai, I don't have anything good to eat, and she would give me tomato slice and press my cheek into her apron. Two weeks ago, when I was in Shanghai visiting her, I noticed her wrinkles had deepened, her cheeks were fuller, and she was forgetful-putting her glasses inside her winter boots, making me the same meal two times in one day, sleeping on the couch by accident when the bed was right beside her-but she remembered things about me, like the tomatoes, and the time I said I loved her and wanted to live with her in this house forever, and maybe I did then.
My father left when was I was two and half years old, not because he didn't love me, and not because he didn't love my mother, but because the Cultural Revolution was over and Deng Xiaoping said that anyone who wanted to go to America could. Well, actually it didn't go down like that, but students who studied American literature could go to America, so my dad went to New York, enrolled in the Linguistics Department of NYU, and slept eight people to a room when it was warm, and twelve to a room when it was cold. I remember my family taking me to the train station, all of us, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents strolled down to the train station with a picnic basket and my dad took me with him to the train, and I said, Choo choo, lets go, and then the train conductor really did say, Let's go, ticketed passenger only, everyone else out, so my dad gave me to my grandmother who pushed my cheek into her shoulder, and I was so mad I wanted to drown everyone except me and my father-we'd rent a boat or something and paddle down the Yangtze River. The train left for Beijing, and from there he left for America, and from there on I began to forget my father and his wire-rimmed glasses that he wore when he told me stories at night, or when he was studying-what was he studying? Moby Dick? Joyce? Fitzgerald? The Oxford dictionary? I was two and half years old when he left for New York-I didn't have a concept of 'the world' or what it meant to be halfway around it, who cared, I had cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, my mother who had beautiful long black hair like curtains, and I would go to sleep between them, behind them, like taking naps in the afternoons, she was so beautiful and I wasn't the only one who thought so, when men saw her, they went buck-wild and chased her while she took me out for walks in Shangyang Gardnens.
The last time I went back to China, I noticed the garden walk was lined with men and women peddling fake LV bags and earrings, a Tibetan woman said to me, can't you just buy my necklaces, your people have only been oppressing my people for the past forty years, which is why I'm here in the first place, and god, I felt so terrible that I bought three necklaces on the spot, wore them to go dancing with my friends a few days ago, and clapped my cheeks when they fell apart immediately. The effects of guilt.
My mother left too. She left me standing on a stairwell. I had a fever and she cupped my cheeks, then put her head to my head-it was and still is her way of feeling how hot my head was when I was sick-told me to be good, and I swear, it was the only time in my life that I have ever wanted to paint something, record a moment in the most beautiful strokes I could manage with my clumsy, forever unsteady hands. I remember the way my mom walked down the stairs, the first time I saw a movie and liked it was when I saw Edward Scisscorhands, and I realized what it was, I thought my mom belonged in a movie, with her long legs, her bags filled with Chinese spices, pots and pans that my grandparents thought she wouldn't be able to find in America, and I watched her leave like an a photo half developed, the blur of her stayed in the stairwell, and I clung to my grandparents like static and slept through the winter.
I bragged a lot when I was a kid. I had an aunt who no one liked and one time my grandmother kicked her out of the house and I begged my grandmother to let her in by wrapping my arms around her legs, and another time, my aunt took me to her room in the attic and the dust had made my eyelids bulge out and shut, and another time my aunt said she'd take me to the amusement park and forgot so I went for a walk with my other aunt and by the time my forgetful auntie remembered to come home and get me, there was no one there and years later my mother said she found my auntie slumped against the door and crying, and when I heard about this I excused myself to go to the bathroom and cried too.
There was a time when my parents slept on other side of me and I had eczema, but there was no such thing as that disease in China at the time, it just meant you had too much fire in you and it made your cheeks and skin red, so I asked my father to scratch my right leg and my mother to scratch my left leg and when I told this to my sophomore year roommate in college, she wrote a poem about me and everyone liked it, but no one in our class knew that it was about me. The first time, she wrote a poem about me was about how she imagined me wearing dresses and hopping from one bus to another until I reached my destination. It was such a good poem.
The two years I lived in China without my mom or my dad were really lovely. My grandmother took pictures of me with lipstick on, in a dress that trailed two steps below me when I went up the stairs. I called it my princess dress and cried when I realized my hair was too short to be a princess, but whatever, who cared, I got to wear lipstick, I got to pull up my dress as if it had a train. I got to wear lipstick on my second birthday even though it was 5 below freezing, and in those days, rooms in your house never had heat, not until I was 14, did my relatives finally get heat in their house, so it was 5 below freezing outside and inside, but nonetheless, my mom insisted I wear a dress because it was my second birthday and my grandmother agreed, so I did for forty minutes and then got a nosebleed and then caught pneumonia so the party was over, I went to the hospital for two months and when I got out, my favorite uncle bought me a red ball that was taller than me. It was my favorite toy until it fell off the roof of my grandparent's house. In the pictures my grandmother took of me with lipstick on my lips and also a dot of it on my forehead, I was always talking to my parents on the phone. I had small lips and it looked like it was pouting, but I think I was just telling them that I loved them, and that I had the most crayons out of everyone in my Pre-K class.
I boarded the plane with a strange man who five years later took my mother on a motorcycle ride into the sunset and I wondered if she was having an affair because she's told me my whole life: never ever ever get on the back of a motorcycle, and then the summer my mother and I visited Shanghai after five years of being away, she got on the back of a motorcycle and held the man who took me with him to America so tightly that I clutched at my heart, sorry for my father, who I loved and wanted to protect. Two weeks ago, I got on the back of a motorcycle and clung to a boy that I love so so so much, but was afraid to say so, so I pretended I was shielding myself from the wind, but really I was in love with him and wanted to hold him, I wanted to kiss his neck and ask him, Is this a dream? It must be, I'm sure of it, I've dreamt it before, you can't dream the same dream twice, it either has to come true or stay a memory.
When I was seven, I finally learned how to ride a bike and my parents let me ride my bike alone by the dead end corner of our street, Ash Avenue, and all I remember was that it was hot and I rode over a brick and I thought, ouch, my butt hurts from that, and the next thing I knew I was slumped over, face down on the granite and being carried by the neighborhood boy who found me laying on the ground. He carried me like he was in some movie, like I was his dead girlfriend, ooh maybe even dead wife, and he was the tragic her. In my mind, it was a beautiful sight, and when my parents opened the door and saw my bloodied face, my mother ran behind my father and looked away because she hated to see blood, especially on her own children, and my father took me from the neighborhood boy's arms, patted him on the head and drove me and my mother to the hospital. My mother told me when I finally woke up, I asked, "Is this a dream?" When I smile now I have one front tooth and another that is slightly smaller because I actually only have one front tooth, the other tooth is my side tooth pulled over by three years of wearing braces. At the ER the doctor said, Where is your tooth and my mom said, It's lying on the street, so we had our upstairs neighbor, who had a dog named Leon Leon, look for my front tooth on the street and then he found it and ran red lights to get it to me, but it was still too late, the doctor said if he had driven with the tooth in a glass of milk then it might have worked, but unfortunately you only put it in a napkin so now it's probably rotted but well, lemme try shoving it back in her mouth anyway, which was what he did, and it rotted for two years and then a really sweaty dentist yanked it out, which is why I have some funny looking teeth.
The other time, a boy saved me was when I was five and just starting kindergarten. I only knew one word: bathroom, my parents taught me after a summer in Mexico. Apparently, my parents' visas were expiring and we were going to get deported but there was this trick where you could go to Mexico and enter back with a new VISA, so we boarded a Greyhound that smelled like diarrhea, and went to Chihuahua, slept next to cockroaches the size of baby slugs. I was so scared, I didn't understand English or Spanish, and every time the bus made a pitstop my mother would want a soda and I thought the bus was going to leave without us, and one time it did leave, in the middle of pouring rain, my dad was two people away from getting my mom a Pepsi when the Greyhound boarded and neither my mom nor I knew any English so we just shouted and watched from the back of the bus as my dad ran in the rain towards us with a Pepsi can in his hand, oh my, I loved him then, I loved him so so intently because I thought I would never see him again, he was always leaving me, I'd remember him, then I'd forget him, but he came back, he caught another Greyhound and caught up to us and I was so mad at my mom that I said, no more sodas for you and she said, you can't tell me what to do, if mommy wants a soda, mommy will ask your daddy to get one, and you mind your own business. Sometimes, I thought my mom was selfish and didn't understand that she was an adult, I was a kid, she was supposed to indulge me, she was supposed to let some of them go, but she never let anything go when it had to do with her.
Apparently, I was on the same plane as the person who was my best friend for 15 years-Hanzhi Chiu and his mom, Zhou Qihui, from Hunan, they were on the same flight and a few months later, we all met through a mutual friend. Hanzhi was 9 months younger than me, and we were a good match. I thought he had a big head, and he thought I was a slow runner, which I was. We used to climb the tree in my backyard every day until we found a spider trapped in a bubble that neither of us thought we blew, so we were scared. We nicknamed the adults bad guy names, like Diarheea Daddy and Constipation Papa, and we pretended we were a husband-and-wife team of FBI spies, CIA spies, who knew what was the difference, we were on a honeymoon and we carried really great guns, we shot at bad guys and never missed, we hid in the basement, we pretended to eat food but we were really carrying out surveillance, we found a hole in the neighbors fence and ran inside but were swarmed by grasshoppers and we both shrieked and ran out and felt itchy all day, even after a change of clothing and a shower, and sometimes we pretended to lie down and sleep like a married couple who fought bad guys all day sometimes needed to do, and in the middle of a pretend nap we'd actually fall asleep and we'd sometimes wake up to a bunch of adults looking over us and saying how we looked so angelic when we were asleep. So did this mean we were beastly when awake?
I loved reading books, and there was no one home in the afternoons when I was growing up, except the dog Leon Leon who was really harmless. The worst thing that he ever did was eat a rat and leave a trail of diarrhea down the hallway. So sometimes I went to the 7-11 ten minutes from my house and buy candy, or a hot and sour soup from a Chinese take out place, Panda Express I think, or go to McDonalds's and eat fries and then go to the library and check out 30 books. It took me five days max to read 30 books, sometimes only one day, but that would be if I skipped school. No one knew if I skipped school because I was the last one to leave the house and the first one to return, so all I had to do was hide in the bathroom all day long because sometimes the nanny who lived with our upstairs neighbor would come down and use our kitchen because it was much nicer than the small kitchen upstairs, and in the afternoon, I'd come out of the bathroom, totally dazed, feeling like I had offended God, even though I didn't really know what God was, and I would take out my mom's jade miniature statue of the Guanying Buddha and kneel in front of him and cry and cry and cry until I actually did have a fever and then I would tell my mom that I had a fever that day and didn't go to school. I was eight years old and so forgetful. Sometimes I would go to school and realize that I forgot to bring my bookbag and then I would run home, my feet on fire from running so fast, especially past the crosswalk guard who raised her eyebrows at me. I got bullied a lot when I was a kid, but I think I was too stupid to notice at the time. A few times, I would go to the library first and then bring my books to McDonald's and eat fries on the counter and the middle schoolers from JHS 181 would say, what are you doing you little piece of shit, we're going to kill you if you don't give us your fries, and I was really, really timid, but also stupid as fuck, so I just wouldn't do anything, I would keep eating my fries and read my Sweet Valley High book (my favorite one was the one where Elizabeth decided to be wild, and the rich guy Bruce calls her a slut and feels one of her boobs) and the junior high girls would go buy large fries and then hurl them at me, one time a girl tried to hurl a brick at me and she missed and got bored. I didn't care though. I don't know why I didn't care.
When I was six, my grandmother who was deaf and bossy came to live with me, and she slept with me in the same bed. I taught her English and laughed so hard because her accent was bad. We stayed up until midnight and I yawned my way through first grade. I never paid attention, sometimes we went to bed at two in the morning. Sometimes my grandmother wouldn't go to bed at all, especially after I taught her how to Pacman. Man, she'd bang at the keyboards all night long, and my mom would have to come down from the attic and tell her to sleep. She had to leave New York and go back to Shanghai because my grandfather wrote her a letter every single day telling her that he was going to die if she didn't come back so she went back and it turned out he was just fine. He played mahjong everyday and smoked a few packs a week. I cried when she left because I didn't want to go to a babysitters. My babysitter was a nice woman who had horrible sons. One of her sons was in my class and he said he wanted to kiss me. I wanted to kiss a boy named Car who I no longer went to school with because I moved after kindergarten to a neighborhood in Queens called Flushing where it felt like Shanghai because everyone was Chinese or Korean, but the Koreans all drove church vans and spent their time in churches or hanging out outside of churches with babies, and the Korean kids in my class slapped each other and spoke to each other in Korean and laughed more than the Chinese kids did. I used to have to go to my babysitter's house which was ten minutes from my house, but I begged my mom to let me go home after the time her son Eric sat on my bookbag and refused to let me have it back unless I touched his butt, and his older brother, I forget his name, wore gold chains and would say things like, Yo, little bro you kissed that chick yet? She's not even fucking worth it, and he would drive around in a beat up car with his high school friends and I was so so so scared of him, so I begged and begged and begged my mom to let me stay at my own house, I wasn't afraid of being alone, and I promised to close the blinds so that no one would see that I was alone, so my mom let me do it, and from then on, I only had to be picked up by my babysitter, and walk with her home, and my parents gave her ten dollars a week, and for five minutes each day, my babysitter would try and get me to say mean stuff about my parents, like she'd say to me, Wow you're skin and bones, bet your parents don't let you eat meat and fish, huh? And I'd say, Actually, I eat like a pig and I'm just naturally thin. And she would shake her head disbelievingly, and I thought whatever, that family sucks.
When I was nine, I had three boyfriends and also my brother was born! He was born on the same day as me, Christmas Day. My mom joked that maybe this year for my birthday, my present would be a baby brother, and I said what about a baby sister. In fourth grade, I dated a boy name Jason and kept it a secret from my parents. I totally failed at that because he called me on the phone and said that he wanted to take me out, and in class, we did a survey around the room on what we like in the opposite sex (who knew heteronormativity begins in elementary school) and Jason said, I like girls who are pretty, and then everyone oohed at me, and I was embarrassed and tried to hurt him by saying in front of the class that I didn't like boys who were short, and Jason was not only short but shrimpy short, and then I dumped him at the Sock Hop. No one forgot about it for the next two years of elementary school. In fact, in sixth grade, Yun-hee Kim read an entry from her journal reminiscing about the past six years of school during one of the last weeks of school and one of her top favorite memories was the time Jenny dumped Jason LIKE HELL right after the dance. She kept saying that I dumped him like hell, and I really didn't appreciate that.
After my brother was born, I so happy and spent all my time with him. I dressed him up like a pirate, like a milkmaid, like a turtle, like a fish, a unicorn, a leprechaun, a wood elf, the Amazing Hulk, all sorts of things. My grandmother and my grandfather came back to live with us when my brother Johnny was born. My grandfather took me to school everyday, and sometimes these kids from another block would come to us to and cuss us out-I pretended I didn't hear and my grandfather didn't understand English and he thought they were really friendly. One time my grandfather slipped on some ice and my grandmother laughed when I told her. That was when I started to hate her. I hated her even more when she announced she was going back to Shanghai and taking my brother with her. He was six months old, and we were so poor that either my mom needed to borrow money from, from who? To pay for childcare, or my mom needed to quit her job, go on welfare and take care of my brother. My grandfather hated it in New York, and he wanted to go to Shanghai and begged my grandmother to come with him. My grandmother wouldn't go back unless my brother went with them. She told me privately that they'd raise him until he was twelve and then bring him back here and I said that was the stupidest thing I ever heard of, you can't keep him in China for twelve years, how will he learn English, do you even know what it felt like when I was five and didn't know English and all the kids made fun of me, I would have gotten beaten up by the older kids, or taken advantage of if it weren't for Leonardo, this kid who had been left back two times, and he was big to begin with and he told everyone in my class that if they messed with me they had to go through him first, and everyday after school he held my hand and brought me to my mother who said thank you Leonardo. Last week, on the phone my mom asked me if I remembered him and if maybe I should look him up and thank him, but then we both thought, no those things are best left up to fantasy. What if he's a bad guy now, and knowing that will ruin your perfecxt memory of him, so I'm not going to call him. Maybe one day, I will want to know what he turned out to be like. Thanks Leonardo, you saved me.
But anyway, I was mad at my grandmother for taking my brother to Shanghai with her. In a matter of weeks, our family went from 6 people to just 3, me, my mom, and my dad. I wasn't going to get to see my brother take his first step, his first word, so many things that I was looking forward to seeing and wanted to see, I would never see. I learned how to masturbate after he left, and felt so guilty that I prayed in front of the Guanying Buddha again. My whole life, I have always wanted someone to save me. I wrote in my diary that I believed my brother was going to save me, but he just had to come back.
It's hard for me to remember what my life was like in the two and a half years my brother was gone. I had some friends who sometimes thought it was funny to wrestle me in the middle of a traffic intersection, and I had some friends who wore high ponytails and swished them around. My friends and I played cops and robbers with boys and if you liked a boy you had to let them chase you and then catch you, one boy who really liked me spit on my seat and then said, Now sit, and after that he fought another boy to be my boyfriend, but I was already over him. I was part of a club called the Crystal Club where my friend with the high ponytail was diamond, and my friend who was short and sassy was Ruby, and my quiet friend was Emerald, and my other friend was Amethyst and I was goddamn, cruddy Pearl. IS PEARL EVEN CONSIDERED A CRYSTAL????
My brother came back on a plane with my uncle when I was eleven. We drove down to North Carolina to pick him up and when he came out of the gate, he was red, small, and so beautiful, but he wouldn't stop crying. He fell to the ground and kicked the ground and then kicked me and my mom. I was really crushed. I saw pictures of him in Shanghai eating cookies and pretending to dig up dirt, or maybe he really was digging up dirt. My grandmother told us that he regularly headbutted his nanny, who she hated, so she found it delightful and clapped her hands together whenever he headbutted her or kicked her-a few times, I think he might have spit in her face.
My brother was sort of turbulent for the first two years that he was back with us. We used to live with a couple named TJ and Ashley, those were their English names, and they were lovely to me and they had a son named Daniel who was 6 years younger than me, his name in Chinese was the same word as the word for egg, so we said, little Egg eats an eggy. They moved to Brooklyn, and then later to Boston, and then later to Seattle. Ashley had a mother who sometimes lived with them upstairs, and one time, I found them fighting with butcher knives. I saw my father and mother holding Ashley's mom back, and Ashley were bent down on her knees begging her mom to forgive her, and TJ was standing with his arms outstretched and he was yelling, what do you want me to do, what do you want me to do, and my mom was crying because she cried whenever something bad happens, even if it's not to her. Later, that couple moved out, and the mother eventually died. Their son grew up to be thin and sickly, and he stayed at my house for a week and wailed the whole time, literally wailed because we didn't have a long-distance phone plan and he missed his mom, who I once called Auntie Ashley, but she was in New Jersey, so he wailed and howled and woke up the entire house.
The next couple who moved in after TJ and Ashley moved out were friends of my dad's, and they were a funny couple mostly because they hated each other, but the wife was really nice, she was sort of fat and was from Taiwan and not the mainland like most of my parents' friends and sometimes she angered my mom by saying loudly that I should go on dates and go to sleep-overs and do all the things my mom had tried to prevent me from doing and wanted to prevent me from doing for another 10 years at least. The husband sometimes also had his parents come stay with him, and the years when they did were lovely years because they would babysit my brother when I was at school, and soon they started a babysitting business. My brother was violent, and once time he pushed a girl down the stairs, and another time he punched her right off this rocking horse and got on it himself, but even though I knew this, I still tried to protect him. I yelled at other kids when they didn't let him have a turn playing video games, I pushed a little boy out of this toy car so that my brother could get in and so that I could push him around, I let him win at every game and when I said, hey you're so good at this, he would say, I know.
I loved him and sometimes I worried that maybe I would eventually kill him. I burned his hair with a lighter and it smelled like popcorn. His hair bristled up and whitened. It looked like someone had dumped a bunch of blond pubic hair right on top of his mushroom head haircut. I pulled out the burnt strands and hugged him until he stopped shaking. I threw a chair down the stairs one time because I was angry and chipped the paint and some wood off the front door and broke the leg of the chair. Sometimes, I would run up the stairs and slam the door and because the lock was broken, I would put all my might against the door until he got tired of hitting it, or until that one time he kicked a hole right through it, big enough to crawl through, which was just what he did, and he said, See, you can't keep me out. We took naps together and I taught him to close his eyes. I told him he was being too good, and encouraged him to lie to my mom and dad but he was terrible at it.
Once he broke a pan and the first thing he did when my parents came home was run up to them and say, I didn't break a pan in the kitchen today. It didn't happen. And then of course my parents were like, You broke a pan? Once, I chased him down the stairs with a fire poker and he was so scared of me, he thought I was going to split his head in two, so he picked up a yellow plastic baseball bat and he said I'm a power ranger, you can't kill me, and I said oh yeah, watch me, and I raised the poker high above my head and was going to pretend to slam it down, and the plan was to stop an inch away from his head, but instead the fireplace poker got stuck in the ceiling. I forgot we had low ceilings.
When I was twelve, we moved from Flushing to Glen Cove, Long Island. There were no Chinese people in Glen Cove. Our new house was five times bigger than our old house, and we didn't have to share it with anyone. At the time I was reading this story that was written in a boring but compelling way, sort of like watching Mr. Roger's Neighborhood on PBS, about a girl who was poor but finally had a chance to move into a big new house, and she was so happy to have her own room and even get to paint it the color she wanted, sunny sunny yellow, but oh crap, her dad lost her job and they had to rent out her bedroom and another room to a family, but it all turned out well in the end because they were two big happy families sharing one big house. I didn't want my own fate to turn out that way, I already knew what it was like to be two big happy families in an smallish house, but I was excited by the book. I remember the first time my parents drove me to see the new house-it was winter, it was dark, and I thought it was so exciting, like going into a forest. The house looked so big. My room used to belong to infant twins, so it had a strip of wallpaper that was a bunch of bears eating honey and having a picnic. I put up posters of JTT and the Hanson brothers over the strip of wallpaper and I laid the floor with my legs and arms outstretched.
My brother sometimes slept with me in my room, and sometimes I was mean and told him he couldn't, but then I would take it back and let him sleep in my room. Sometimes we slept together on the floor and I would push him down so that his head was by my stomach because during the night he would always move up until his head was a feet above my head and I hated that for some reason, so I made him sleep by my stomach and when we walked he looked up at me with his beautiful long lashes and sometimes it made me cry to think how cruel I was to him. For six years, I had to come home before 3pm to pick up my brother and take care of him until my parents came home. I liked to make him omelettes and sandwiches, and sometimes I used my allowance to buy us candy from the corner store, Kay's Deli. Kay was Korean but had a Spanish accent and spoke fluent Spanish. He loved me and my brother and gave us free candy. There was one time when he hid behind the door and waited for my brother. When we walked in, he jumped out and barked like a dog and my brother staggered back two steps. Sometimes, I got so sick of taking care of my brother that I would pretend to eat a piece of paper and die. This paper has poison, I would tell him and then against his protestations, I would pretend to swallow a little piece of paper and then I'd drop to the ground, make a choking sound and say, I'm dying, now I'm dead and lay there on the floor. My brother was four or five, and he had the capacity for cry for hours. Other times, I would get mad at him for needing me-he needed me to pour him soda because he couldn't reach the cups, because he had really soft hands that were too weak to hold up a liter of soda, he needed me make him sandwiches, to teach him how to write his first name, then his last name, to help him with math, to get him to take a nap without crying, to hold him high into the ceiling so that he could touch the fan, to make him a peanut butter sandwich and take out all the whole peanuts, to make him ice tea, melt butter for the popcorn, pop the popcorn, help him rewind the video of Home Alone Two, to chase him around our backyard and let him win everytime, to teach him how to hold a baseball bat, to throw a tennis ball at his baseball bat and try to catch it in the air before it hit a neighbor's window, to help wipe his butt after he pooped when he had a lot of poop, to let him sit on my lap when all I wanted to do was look on the internet and see if the boy I liked had written me an email yet, and sometimes I would get so mad that I'd say, fine I'm leaving forever, and guess what else, the police called and mom and dad are dead, so I guess you are alone, bye Johnny, and I would walk out of the door and hide behind the trash cans. What was wrong with me?
How come sometimes we were just playing, I'd put him on a countertop and we'd play duck duck goose with our fingers, each finger was someone we knew, and the thumb was the ugliest so it had to be someone we hated like Master Jing, a girl who followed me around and her brother sometimes hit my brother with a lego box, and then suddenly, I would get bored and I'd just walk away and say sorry Jon-jon, you'll have to sit here until you're tall enough to get down. Who knows, how long that will take. Months? Years? Forever?
My brother and I also had some good times. Once we were playing Monopoly and he put an ice pack on his butt and hopped around because his butt was 'on fire.' That made me laugh. Another time, we went on a boat together with a woman who was a friend of my dad's and she was dating a white guy who was rather old, it was kind of her thing, and he was really nice. I think his name was Ted. He was so nice and he let me drive the boat, I was twelve and terrified of driving, and he told me I was good at it, and then he let my brother drive the boat too, my brother was three and he got to play with the steering wheel too, and I think sometimes that maybe when my brother was growing up he didn't have as much encouragement as I did, or maybe he naturally was more pessimistic about himself than I was, because I can remember sharply and clearly how we all gathered around him, my mom and my dad and me and my dad's friend and my dad's friend's white boyfriend, and we said, Oh Johnny you're a natural, and all I know is that everytime I took my brother to the playground behind our house, the one that we had to walk through a fenced off path to get it, he would always want to run up to the top of the monkey bars and play with the steering wheel.
I swear I've been boy-crazy since the age of four and half when I started kindergarten and met a boy named Car, and I thought oh yeah baby, I want to drive him. Fine, I just thought that now, but I was crazy for him, and he was so short that he always had to be at the head of the line, because I think when you're a kid in elementary school, they always line you up by size and gender, and so I prayed I could shrink an inch so that I could be at the head of the girl line, but it never happened, although once we were hallway leaders which meant we lead our class to the lunchroom and I told Car it also meant we had to hold hands, so he held my hand. Oh Car!
In high school, I date a boy who I nicknamed Lemonhead, and I wasn't allowed to date him, so it was a secret, and his kisses disgusted me, although actually the first time we dated, I was only 13, and in ninth grade, so we never actually kissed on the lips, although I had plenty of practice kissing my pillow, also humping it, just for fun. For our first date, he wanted me to go with him to his church youth group and my mom said no way I could go anywhere on a Tuesday night, and of course, I lied and it said it was with my best friend Kym and not with Lemonhead Pete, so we ended up breaking up mostly because I was sort of disgusted with him in the first place, and also because I felt embarrassed to date someone who wore X's on his wrists, and talked about how no girls liked him even though he clearly already had like 10 girlfriends before me, and also because he had a small head, (a lemonhead!) and because he walked me home once and he said, "You're so cool. And I'm not. Actually you're hot. And I'm not." And I thought it was just so insipid, and then after that we would always say hi to each other in the hallway, and I thought to myself, I wonder when we can stop saying hi to each other in the hallway, maybe I should take another route to Math class, but then that dilemma solved itself when one day he gave me the finger, actually he gave me both fingers and said fuck you really crazily, and then the year after that we dated, and he apologized and wrote me a letter saying that he love me.
The first time we dated was around Valentine's day, and he gave me a rose dyed black and I gave him two carnations, which my friend Angela said was the sort of thing you do at a funeral, and I was pleased, and also I wore a brown skirt with a dragon on it, it was tight, and showed off my butt, and I wore thirteen ponytails in my hair and I felt tough, and around that time, I was also getting sick of people making fun of me. In middle school, after I moved to Glen Cove and transferred to Glen Cove High School, I started to notice that people were generally quite cruel and took great pleasure in it. There's no sense rehashing it, but it was sort of a sad time, and I would come home everyday and cry and then sometimes I'd play with my brother, and sometimes, I'd do kind of desperate things like rip up all my posters and ruin my mom's lipstick by using it scrawl curse words all over my things, and the time I hid in the basement in the morning so that I wouldn't have to go to school and got a fever because our basement wasn't heated, and it was the middle of winter, and the other time I took a bus by myself to Flushing and walked into my old backyard and found that the tree my friend Hanzhi and I used to climb was cut down and I thought I was sort of romantic for feeling so desolate and lonely, but it turns out that everyone feels like that, at least everyone I like has felt like that.
I dated Lemonhead Pete in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade. It was really too much, and anyway I had a crush on another boy in his band-it was a hardcore band and supposedly after the second time I dumped him, or he dumped me, they played at this local club called Ground Zero and he said he'd like to dedicate this next song to the bitch I dated last week.
My parents were strict and didn't let me do a lot of things. I asked once every six weeks to go to the movies with my friends and my dad always said, "What, again? Is this a party life to you." My whole family got really thin when I was in high school because we were always fighting at the dinner table. I hate seeing people crying while eating. My friend Tony showed me a website called cryingwhileeating.com and I said that I wanted to cry, and he laughed and said, why it's supposed to be funny. Once my brother came into my room, this was back when we lived in Flushing, Queens, and I had my own room for the last two years of living there because my dad converted our front porch into a little mini-room for me with sliding wooden doors. I love my dad-he's done everything for me, like the time he got his first paycheck, something really measly and not enough to buy groceries, just ramen, but he still saved it up and combined it with his second paycheck to my mom a necklace, and me a little electric keyboard that was waiting for me on stop of a black stand, next to a huge stuffed Bear in the first apartment I ever lived in America. It was in Brooklyn, and we moved out the next day. It had three layers of metal bars in front of the doors, and also in front of the window, but that didn't stop burglars from robbing it the same night I arrived. But I didn't care, or I didn't understand even what it meant to live poor and dangerously, I was just so deliriously happy to have a keyboard, and also a life-sized Teddy bear that I could hug, and I was so happy that my dad loved me and bought me things, like the time we went to Jamaica to go to the Immigration Bureau and I saw a bicycle in the window display and started crying because I wanted a bicycle right that second, but my dad only had the fifty dollars in his pocket that he was going to use to pay the Immigration official, so he had to drag me away crying, and everyone must have thought he was trying to kidnap me because I cried so loudly and with such force, and then he told this to our upstairs neighbors TJ and Ashley, and he said that he told me I had to wait until my birthday, which was still four months away, before he could afford the bike, and then the next week TJ and Ashley came downstairs with a brand new pink bike that I loved.
How exactly do you tell people you loved so long ago, people who look like strangers to you now, people who have done things for you that you don't remember anymore, except through stories other people tell you, how do you then tell those people that you love them, you were lucky to have known them, you want to do something kind back, not just something, but everything in the world that is possible to do, you want to do it, but first you need to find their address, recall their faces, and muster up the confidence to even say, Hi, how have you been?
But, there was one time when my brother came into my room in Flushing, and I was really irritated at him, even though he was looking sort of cute and sad with a big slice of ham in his mouth. My mom was always worried that he wasn't eating, so she would made him eat huge mouthfuls of food, he always looked like he had the humps, is that a real sickness, because he always had these hard round conglomerates of food on either side of his mouth, and I always felt bad for himself, sometimes when my mom wasn't looking, I'd put my hands out beneath his chin and tell him to spit it out, and sometimes he would, and sometimes he would ignore me, but this one time he came into my room with ham in his mouth, I was mad at him and we started to fight and I ended up slapping his cheek, and whenever I slapped him, he would open his mouth and started crying. Seeing half-chewed ham in his mouth, and so so many tears rolling down right into his mouth made me feel so low. I don't even know what word to use. I don't think I've stopped apologizing for that. Sometimes, we'll be playing monopoly and I'll just blurt out, I'm so sorry about the time I slapped you when you were eating ham, please forgive me, please please please and my brother just says, what are you talking about, I never even felt that day.
I like when my brother says I never even felt that day, like the time he I slapped him, or when he sees a picture of us, and he is hugging me really tight and my mom says it's her favorite picture because it looks like he is really enjoying me and then my brother will say, but I never even felt that day.
I used to sneak out after midnight because my parents slept really deeply between the hours of eleven pm and 3 am, after that they usually had to go to the bathroom, and I would sneak out at midnight and come back at 4 in the morning to see boys. There was one boy who listened to the Deftones after they got soft, and he had a CD player with the kind of earphones that you could share between two people. He had a bike that was so small for him, it made him look monstrous and he would jump out of his bedroom window, slide down the roof, onto the ledge of his living room window and jump right onto his bike and bike to the playground behind my house. In the summers, we laid on the grass and listened to the Deftones, but we never held hands until one afternoon when we went to the park and beach five minutes from my house and we stood underneath a white trellis sort of thing, I don't know the exact word, and there's not enough time to look it up, and he kissed me and showed me how to kiss with tongue, and we made some embarrassing sucking sounds, and he said that I was the kind of girl he could take home to his mom, even though his mom was an alcoholic and thought all girls were sluts, no matter what, so it was actually a shallow statement, and he took me for a ride on his bike in the middle of the night, and told me used to be angry and would bash in car windows with a crowbar, and I thought he was so dreamy, and I thought we were dangerous, but then that same night, another boy named Pete who was much older than me and already in college decided he liked me, and he took me the beach and we kissed and I said I loved his nose, and then the next day I told the other boy that actually I just wanted to be friends, and oh dear, what a fucking asshole I used to be. A selfish, self-involved, humorless asshole.
In a few minutes, my friend Vauhini, who I love so much, is taking me to Sonoma, and we are going to research do-it-yourself spas, and I've packed my ugly purple 1970's bathing suit, and I'm broke, but I don't care, because in a few more weeks I'll be in New York, I'll have left this city that I hated all last year, and loved all this year, and will have to give up in less than a month. I'm packing up all of the things in my apartment, and who know that memories took the shape of inanimate objects. There was a time when my boyfriend and I came home to an apartment that was all floors. All the furniture had been moved out, and we had nowhere to sit, so we sat on the floor and I realized that I loved him but that one day we would not be together, and I was reminded of my room in New York and how I loved laying down on the carpet.
Before I went to school in California, my old best friend Hanzhi gave me a card and wrote on it please do not open until five years have passed, and then please read it over a steaming cup of coffee. A year ago, he had told me that he loved me and I thought maybe I loved him too, but it turned out I just loved him in the way that I love all the people in my life who have been so good to me, and it was a sort of intangible love, it was romantic because I was boy-crazy and he was a boy, and I happened to love him so much, but it wasn't the sort of love he was talking about, and just two weeks ago, I was back in New York after spending a month in Shanghai, and I thought of the card. I'm 23 now, he gave me that card when I was seventeen so I took everything out of my drawers and put it on the floor. It's funny looking at ten years of your life all spilled out and crushed and strewn on top of each other on your old bedroom's floor. I found his card and I thought, did I even know you then Hanzhi? Did I really ever know you, because you wrote me this card that was so eloquent, and beautiful and perfect, you had these insights that I haven't even considered, not even now at age 23, but you had them when you were sixteen, and I was seventeen, and do you remember the time we were both in college and both had serious relationships and we went to a family friends' gathering and all the parents made us tea and cookies and then turned out the lights and went to the back porch and left us alone, and we were so silent, just listening to them giggling, and when I was in Shanghai my auntie revealed to me that my mom and your mom had been scheming for us to get married, and I thought how silly, but maybe in another tiny world that swirls around us when we sleep, we could have lived our lives together, not even in the coupled way, but just that I'd be in the same physical location as you, and we would be the kind of friends we used to be, it would be continuous and persistent, and just lovely.
The last thing that has been on my mind recently is the time I went to Paris when I was eighteen. I thought I was going to India to volunteer at a rural school, but then the State Department issued a warning against all overseas travel to India because they were apparently gearing up to nuke Pakistan. Never happened, but the trip was canceled by my school, and I ended up studying French in Paris instead. It was a beautiful time, I bought high heels and learned to walk in them for more then two blocks. I met a girl named Anne-Marie who I thought was elegant and we lived in the same dormitory in Cite Universitaire. I started to go the bookstore Shakespeare & Company where travelers and artists stayed for free. The store had beds and benches right up against the books, the owner was eighty five, and he loved girls, one time a boy who I was madly in love with asked him, "George, how many women have you been in love with in your life?" and he said, "Oh, each and every one of them," and then he pointed right at me, "and she's the last one!" He was testy too, and one time he yelled at me for handling the cash register wrong. The first time I was in Paris, I was in love with everyone, and especially a Swedish boy named Nels who told me he walked on hot coals and then we never talked again because he left, and because I was shy. In Paris, I met John Mark Carr, although at the time he was just John, and I thought he was sort of weird, but I also indulged the bad part of myself that was just excited by the attention he was giving me, and he called me his little sweet Jenny, and wanted to pet my hair, which was also weird. I also sort of loved the boy who worked the night shift, he had blond hair and he moved around a lot. He was so fast on his feet.
The second time I went to Paris, I actually fell in love with the boy who worked the night shift. He was still fast on his feet and one time I remember I acted out the part of myself and the part of him, and I pretended he was infatuated with me and wanted to kiss me and I shook my head no and said I can't I have a boyfriend. Then a few days later, he actually did want to kiss me, and I think I said, I can't I have a boyfriend, and then he kissed me anyway, and we danced and kissed and he swooped me up and wrote me a note with his phone number, and he called me Jennifer sometimes, which was lovely because before that only my one favorite uncle ever called me Jennifer, and one time he murmured his sleep, Jennifer, you're wonderful, and who knows if he knew what he was saying, or if it was just dreamy mumbling, but I knew for sure I was in love with him, and maybe even more because I knew I had to leave Paris, and those are the situations that make you love someone even more, there was barely even time to figure out his flaws. We went to Nice together and the South of France. I didn't wear a bra and I wore the same white dress throughout the trip. We climbed up a tree, or maybe just he did, or maybe we just leaned against a tree and watched a projection of Terminator 3. It was a decent projection, would have been better if we had paid the forty euros or whatever it cost to actually go inside and watch it properly, but who cared, I was in love with a Scottish boy with blond hair that was soft as water in July, which is the softest thing in the world.
Last year my mom turned fifty and I found her looking through her old modeling pictures. I remember she used to be more beautiful than me for much of my life, and sometimes I was jealous and sometimes I cried when my mom put on make up because I didn't' want her to be so beautiful, but she couldn't help it, she just was beautiful, and now she is still beautiful to me and my dad, and even strangers on the street, but she is fifty now, and I am growing into a woman maybe, or maybe I'm staying the same, but I remember when I was sixteen and my brother was seven, she said I wish you two could stay this way forever, and I could forever take care of you. And then when she turned fifty, we were standing on a platform waiting for a train to take to us Manhattan, and she said, I wish I could seventeen again, and I laughed and said why mom, and she turned to me and said, these are the very best years of your life. The years to come are beautiful too, but these years are magical, you look magical, everything feels magical, and you should enjoy every bit of it. I don't know why, but the things you want to say are always the things you end up writing down instead. Like this little autobiography that lacks chronology, good grammar, or structure.
Last thing: when I was ten, I called up my mom on April Fool's Day and told her that a bird had unloaded a shit right onto my face when I was walking home, and she cried out, Oh my god, are you okay, do you need me to come home, and I said APRIL FOOLS! And she said, what the heck is that, you're a crazy nut Jenny, you really are.
Actually, last last thing: the first job I took when I finished college was with a labor union. I was really fucking mad all the time when I worked at that job for a bunch of reasons, and one of them was how ridiculously racist everyone was even though 80 percent of our members were people of color, and how ridiculously sexist everyone was, even though 60 percent of our members were women, and more things, but I did enjoy working on the strike line. When our union went on strike they sent out to work with the Filipino CNA's at the California Pacific Medical Center's Davies campus, and they were lovely. I wore a black beanie and fought with a security four times my size when he tried to punch one of the workers for getting too close to him, and they showed me this really erotic song that was popular in the Philippines, they showed me the dance, and this one woman had silver hair and always walked arm in arm with me, and another woman wore this weird hat that made her look funny, it was a AAA Motor Club hat, and she told me she won over her second husband by breaking it down on the dancefloor, and damn she was hot, even though she was about 4'6 and shaped like an egg, but a hot egg, and she had lost her first husband because he died of leukemia because he polished furniture with this substance that was later found to be carcinogenic, and he died when she was seven months pregnant and we all cried, even the women who never smiled, they cried too when she told this story. One man told me he wanted to commit suicide, he wanted to go back to work, he was two thousand dollars in debt, another woman told me she didn't understand anything about the strike because she only understood Chinese and there was no Chinese translation, so I tried to explain to her and then she told me that I should quit this job and find a job that actually pays, and we hugged on a slanted slope in San Francisco. Now, when I drive past the hospital, I think I feel a slight fluttering in my heart, like maybe I house tiny butterflies and blooming flowers right in the center of my chest, and when the wind picks up, they start moving about making me feel like Spring is coming early this year, oh I can't wait for Spring.
11:54 AM. Feb 12, 2007.