December. 2018. Los Angeles.
He waves his hand in the air, half pointing and half waving at the little shelf by the kitchen.
I get up from the black leather couch and walk a few steps toward the direction in which he is gesturing. I stop and turn.
He points again with more intent.
I shake my head and continue to all the possible things.
There is the lone picture in a frame by the toaster. All the others are on a different table but this one is here. One of us, the two boys, with mom. We are in rain jackets, each one a different bright color. It was raining that day on that island in Korea. The cabbie took the photo. Dad wasn’t there. He was gone for two weeks.
I walk past the photo because I know it isn’t what he was wanting.
I pick up the Costco size bottle of fish oil. I hold it up.
He shakes his head.
I scan the shelving. Bread. Peanut butter. Goldfish crackers. A toaster.
“These,” I say, waving his pill box in the air.
“No,” he says, “and stop playing with that.”
I put it down and remain still. I can’t tilt my head back up. It feels so heavy. I can feel his stare on my back. It is heavier still. I place my hand on top of the Pringles tube. I tap on the plastic.
“I don’t know what you want,” I mutter under my breath.
I hear him. I hear him breathing. I hear him shuffling the blanket on his bed. I hear him.
I look up at the small calendar on the kitchen counter. Different dates marked up with different color pens. I’ve been doing it for them recently. I recognize my writing on Wednesday of last week.
Mom. Taken. 5:47am.
I turn and walk back, the Pringles in my hand, to dad, who is now staring at the ceiling, his fingers tapping out some secret code on the mattress.
I take a seat on the edge next to him with my back to him. I stare down at the floor, at my feet that no longer dangle in the air when I sit on my parents’ bed, remembering Sofia, 9 years old, sitting alone in our living room on her first thanksgiving after her father’s death from cancer, how she was staring down and I worried and I asked her what she was doing and she said, “Oh, staring at my toes. I like to stare at my toes.”
He touches my elbow. I hold up the Pringles. He takes the tube from my hand.
I hear him. I hear him digging. I hear him eating. I hear him breathing and choking on the chips. I hear him. I always hear him in the dark of my room, in the footsteps tapping out the night rhythm on the rain wet sidewalk, in the moments when I scream until wife and dog are hiding behind the dresser.
“Strange,” he says. I turn around to face him. There is crumble on his chest. He’s still staring at the ceiling, the fingers of his left hand digging in for more chips. My eyes focus on his left shoulder. It has become so small, so narrow and precious. “In all the years, all the times that she–when I’ve been here, when – I’ve been here–your mom. I don’t know. Don’t really know.”
When he puts his fingers on his cheek to wipe, I look away, looked at the tennis balls he’d put on the each leg of every chair to kill the noise against floor glowing so green in this space.
A deep breath. His. Mine. Somebody here.
“It’s just strange not being there to get her. To bring her home. I’ve always been there.”
“She’ll understand,” I say.
“You’ll be there, yeah?”
“You’ll make sure you bring her home. You’ll do that.”
His fingers, still strong, wrap tight around my elbow.
“Promise. You bring her home.”
“I got it!”
I try to tear my arm away from his grasp, but his fingers tighten harder when I pull. I keep myself from telling him to let me go, embarrassed to tell him that he is hurting me, that he can still hurt me.
I tug again and it’s like I have lifted him up, his torso rising, crumbs trickling down his chest toward his waist, until his face is close enough for me to smell his rotting teeth.
This—this is the release. This is when you can no longer hold on. This is about losing the tension of a life in holding. This is the room caving into the space vacated by contact that ends. This—this is my father letting go. This is releasing. This is his body returning to its position of waiting. This is my face turning away from love in its final chapter. This—this.
“Keep her warm. Take a blanket. Some crackers,” he says. “Just—she’ll be cold. Scared.”
“I know, Dad,” I say. I try to stop my hands from shaking by putting them on my knees.
At the vanity, an outfit for mom is folded up and waiting: pants, a shirt, a red sweater, a thick pair of socks balled up on top like a cherry.
I get up and move to the clothes. I touch the fabric, the sweater pilling and snagged all up and down the sleeves. I bend down and open the bottom drawer and dig through more sweaters and hoodies from my old schools. I grab the gray one with the purple and pink NYU MOM decal.
After pulling out and standing straight, I unfold and fold the sweatshirt again, place it on top of the pile except for the socks, which I lift and put back down on the very top. Cherry.
His hand. Waving.
I go closer and sit side saddle on the edge of the bed, my left knee folded toward him, close. This is a distance where there can be touch. And there is—his finger tips on tight skin of my knee.
“She’s lucky,” he says. “She’s lucky that you’re around and you can come get her, bring her home. Clothes there. I can’t do it this time, you know.”
My hand hovers over his. I can feel the heat from his hand. Or maybe I’m imagining. Maybe it’s my own body, from the fire that has never stopped burning inside, like the house in the Zone that burns forever, but this fire, this fire inside doesn’t have the power to heal. There is no magic in the flames that moves with the breaths I suck in through the nights without sleep.
“I can do it,” I say.
He turns his face away and looks at the green sheer that barely budges at the window.
“She got you. But you—one day what if your wife can’t be there. You got nobody. Who’s gonna get you? Me? Look at me. I can’t get anybody anymore. I’m not going to be here all that much longer anyway. Look at me. Only thing I really want—it will be over. End of it. For me I can’t do it anymore.”
“I can get myself home.”
He is laughing. My father is laughing. He laughs for seconds or hours or these days we lose track of until he winds down his laughter to a chuckle, then to silence. “Nobody can get back home alone,” he says.
“i have to go.”
When I was little, like most boys, I was told not to cry. So I, like most boys, did it in hiding, did it in my room, under the covers, knowing my brother would keep my secret. Even in high school, that night at the Chinese restaurant when I told my family that I was going to quit school and run away and we had to leave before the sweet and sour soup and slippery shrimp arrived, my father chased me into the bathroom at home not to tell me why I was a bonehead and should stop having ridiculous ideas, but to scold me for crying at the sink.
He had pointed at the mirror then.
“Look at that. Look at yourself crying,” he’d yelled. “You look like a damn girl!”
The gasps came, overwhelming me as I tried to stop my tears, only succeeding in making myself choke and cough, and I couldn’t fight back, scream back at him that I didn’t see the point of school anymore, a continuing charade to pretend that nothing was wrong, that we were just like every other family. I couldn’t fight back because he was my father even if our family was always a broken and temporary thing.
I am not pretending. We are not pretending. I am crying in front of him now. His hand is still on my knee. We are touching.
“They’ll want you to write about your journey. Your family’s journey. That’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re going to be a writer. Your journey.” He pauses. He swallows a strained breath. “I don’t know what you’re going to say. How do you write about your journey, about us, if it wasn’t really your journey at all? Our lives—it’s been more of an interruption of what our journey was supposed to be. We got robbed of ours. Ours. And then—this is the end of us, you know?”
“You. You’re the last one of us. Our family ends with you. The line,” he says. “Be grateful. It’s all coming to a close. But I’m telling you, son, nobody ever chooses to leave home, move to a land of strangers, suffer, so they can die, end, and disappear forever from memory. Nobody plans to die so far away from home.”
I am still crying. He is still touching me. In the scheme of things, all the years of our lives, this moment is not long, but it is happening. Maybe this is the journey, the beginning and ending of this moment with my father.
“Tell her,” he says. He whimpers. “Tell her I’m sorry. Tell her that.”