My gaze catches on the running stitches peeking over the vee of his hospital gown, and I understand my father is no longer invincible. The machines are humming, asserting the fact that he is alive. But the tubes in his throat breathe for him.
He shoots a glance in my direction as if to check the side mirror before changing lanes.
What do you want for dinner?
You’re not cooking?
Ma’s working late tonight.
Doesn’t matter, I say, but I know this means we’re going out for dinner because this is a rare moment where we get to pick the meal. We look forward to nights such as this. We plan for them: steaks, prime rib, butter and sauces poured liberally. He loves me too much.
Adrenaline flows heavy as I exit the mall, free and clear. Stocked up on fashionable stationary and shoplifted jewelry, I am invincible.
My father calls.
Twenty minutes later, I’m searching for the emergency room he swears is easy to find. What does he know? He came in through the back entrance.
Here he is, still in the gray dress shirt and linted black slacks I saw on him this morning.
Asking if he’s okay terrifies me, so I say, Does ma know?
She’ll get the message when she’s out of the meeting.
Oh. I look for a place to sit. On the chair is a blue plastic bag with the hospital’s logo. It’s a thick plastic- the good kind that will surely suffocate the landfill animals. I move the bag and take a seat, holding it in my lap. In it are his tie and the shiny leather office shoes he never lets my brother borrow. His jacket is draped over the back of the chair, as if someone had the care and peace of mind to place it there.
He nods at the shopping bags by my feet. Buy a lot of things? The words are routine, teasing.
Just a couple things. I do the dance with him, the steps familiar though they felt wrong. I dare myself to ask him what happened.
As he tells me of the EKGs, the ambulance ride, and the faceless strangers, he smiles the way he does when telling me a story that will surely make me laugh.
So now what? But my asking was not an act of bravery.
I don’t know. This, he tells me in Cantonese, the language of my youth. I read the uncertainty and the fear in his words as if they were spelled out in syrup.
The corners of his eyes crinkle, and I begin to comprehend what I have steadily ignored. He is human. He is aging. He will die.
We are not invincible.
Jokes and easy remarks of old friends are all we have between us because he is old, and he’s my first friend. He’s been my friend the second my baby hands grabbed his wide-knuckled fingers. But two jokes in, his face crumples. He doesn’t want to die. I turn my face away.
The nurse is male and British, and my father thinks he looks like someone on tv.
We have to take him in for another test. The look is reassuring as if the nurse thinks I’m going to cry the second he leaves me alone. Why don’t you leave your watch with your daughter? You can get it back after.
My father’s left shirt cuff is rolled up to where they took his blood. He unclips his watch and slides it off his wrist. I stretch out my hand, and it falls into my palm, warm from him.
Don’t lose it.
I’ll give it back to you later.
Later, not after. There is a difference.
I slip it on, studying the silver bearing small scratches of the everyday, the big, bold face. The roman numeral four has lost its place and now sits precariously on V.
The heart surgeon speaks to my mother in hushed tones. His words and hair are the texture and color of gravestones. His name tag makes me think he’s Irish. The green clover pin on his lapel better be lucky.
Guy Fieri moves in the television set hanging above a set of hospital chairs. He’s instructing us, the impressionable viewers, on the traditional techniques of breading onion rings. I don’t question where the remote is or what kind of god would force The Food Network on people in waiting rooms. Sunflower’s a tough color for a wall to wear in a room with no windows, leaning towards cheery and falling short of hopeful. It’s important to be careful and sparing with hope in hospitals. I tug a sleeve to cover my father’s watch, feeling the tick tick tick keep time with the beat of me.
The television set is silent, and I understand why. The voices would undermine the rootless emotions floating like ghosts in the room. I wish my thoughts came with volume control. The paint is more mustard now. Pictures of the city’s hills and peaks are the only windows. There is nothing to look at but the television. The hospital furniture was forest green and in need of reupholstering. My eyes linger on the face of the watch. It stares back at me accusingly, unwavering.
At nineteen, I’m at the age where parents are allowed to die on their children, as if it were merely punishment to the ungrateful. I am the daughter who is afraid to spit out an “I love you” as they wheel my father away. There is not enough evidence to convict me as ungrateful, but I could be incarcerated for two lifetimes- mine and his- for being a coward.
Has anyone else noticed I’d grown up?
Morbidly insensitive, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to wait for someone you love to be okay again. Now I know. Waiting is like being stabbed, sliced down the side like a fish and having to sit quietly as someone stitches you back together to close you up. Then they stop, mid-stitch, no warning, and walk away, letting the ends of the thread run with them.
His knife cuts into the prime rib like butter. I slice my steak, rare and bloody, and offer a piece with my fork.
Put some fat on that. It tastes better with it.
I nudge a lump of the fat I had segregated with the lima beans on to my fork. He takes a bite of his own, nodding as he chews. Now you try.
I do, and I look up at him, the same way I did in a field of sunflowers.
I told you to trust your father, didn’t I? He grins, and it is like the sun- warm and bright and alive.
I smile back because my mother isn’t here to spoil this moment, to remind me to eat my vegetables, to nag him to stop eating so much red meat. I bear witness as he eats his sixteen-ounce prime rib, fat and all, without qualms. This is the way we love each other. When my mother is not present, we ensure the other gets what they want without guilt, without strings.
The nothingness of waiting hollows me. My eyes are dry, and I am voiceless like the people on the screen. It’s me, my mother, and her cellphone. In perfect silence, Guy Fieri instructs viewers on the methods of constructing the great American burger. My mother types with one finger and periodically steps out of the room. Desolation weaves silkily in the up and down inflections of her words. I don’t need to hear her to understand what she’s telling people. This is her coping: shoving people’s faces into her reality, fishing for sympathy and pity, talking to everyone she knows except the daughter who sits two chairs away with nothing to look at but a noiseless television set.
He’s not supposed to go first. I look at my mother, at her thinning hair and guarded eyes. She isn’t the one who does the taxes. She doesn’t know where our passports or birth certificates are hidden. He’s not supposed to die. This is the man who keeps up the pretense of knowing all, though we know better than to believe. He should have been invincible.
I sit on the cold hardwood floors by the closet where my father keeps everything important filed away. The scatter of photographs have me surrounded as they make six by four sinkholes into a past I am assured have happened. In one window is me, red and white checkered sunglasses, two ponytails planted on both sides of my head in the only style my father knows and my mother loathes.
Sunflower faces lift up to meet the sun. My head is turned to the camera.
This one’s nice, I say.
Do you remember this?
I look up at my father and shake my head.
He smiles, not sad or disappointed. There was a field near the park where we used to live by the lake. Don’t you remember?
I look at the green sweatshirt I wore, the way it blended with the giant green stalks of sunflowers. The memory gasps for air, but I make sure to drown it.
The room holds a disturbed stillness, a kind of quiet where ghosts argue in hushed tones, where no sound, no shape or shadow, was ever defined. It was purgatory with all the misery and none of the sin.
Guy Fieri studiously watches a woman fry chicken thighs. I think of the oils, the fats, the clogged arteries. My father’s arteries are clogged. I did this to him. Over and over again, he let me do this to him. I’d thought of my mother as the villain, the strict teacher in class who turns their back and you pass notes to your friend. But it is me who is the villain. I’m the one who’s been killing him with this selfish love my whole life. The only thing I could accuse my father of is loving me more than he should.
My mother lowers into a seat four chairs away. Her disdain is cold. Do you care what’s happening with your dad?
I don’t dare tear my eyes from the screen. Of course, I say.
You don’t look like it.
How would you know? You’re too busy to look. I look at her now.
She didn’t meet my eyes, and so she only assumed by the solid glass of my clear, unwavering voice. You don’t look worried.
How do you think you look?
Do you even care?
Go call someone else.
She opens her mouth, most likely to let me know what I am worth to her, but she hesitates as her eye catches on his watch on my wrist. Where did you get that?
He told me to hold on to it for him.
Her anger claws its way free of chains. Distracted by the watch, she doesn’t notice the tissues clenched in my fist. She says to me, I hope you can live without him.
It wasn’t hard learning to live without her.
We forget the other is not invincible either.
Her eyes are dark and hard, beady. My grandfather thinks I have my mother’s eyes. I hope he’s wrong, but I see what she sees. I blame me too.
He is not invincible. I have put that to the test.
I am four years old, and I am invincible.
Little Dumpling, where did you run? Where are you hiding?
Home to my ears, the cadence of Chinese tickles giggles from me.
Where did my Little Dumpling go? His head glows from the sun as he pretends to search for me in the field. I smile wide, my face posed as still as the flowers swallowing me.
Eyes on mine, he takes a camera from his pocket and points it at me. Shutters flutter with the wings of butterflies, but the meaning of what he had just done, stealing a moment, is beyond my understanding.
The sun stands behind his head, haloing him. He is the sun, bright and bold and warm. He is invincible, I think to myself, and I am a sunflower.
I grin up at him as the sunflowers do, faces bright and young and sweet. The field stretches endlessly. There is no horizon- only my father. Like the sunflowers, I don’t understand this can’t last forever.
A week after the surgery, and we are going to my grandparents for Saturday dinner.
In the car on the way there, my father asks, Do your parents know?
No. My mother’s knuckles burn white at the wheel. Her voice is too soft, too yielding, the way it is when she’s after something.
He merely accepts it as fact not to be questioned.
So I ask, Why not? Why can’t they know?
My brother turns to me. He needs me to keep my mouth shut. But the black sheep never learns just how to do that. Or doesn’t he know?
Just don’t say anything. Her lips pinch tight and ugly. The sour acid of her words burns. I let it go.
She takes her revenge at the dinner table.
Give your father some vegetables. I don’t bother to look at my mother. With my chopsticks, I pick up the green beans and neatly drop it into his rice bowl. I look at him.
He’s pale. He’s lost weight. Who does she think we’re fooling?
Give him chicken.
Give him some soup.
My grandfather takes this as a cue and orders me to pour him soup too.
Enough, my grandmother snaps. Your husband is not an invalid.
But wasn’t he?
Blame is bright in my mother’s eyes as if I’d hinted at something to my grandmother, as if I had somehow manipulated her to say this.
I do not use my voice.
I ladle bone broth into the bowls. Heat seeps through fake china like water through a sieve. It burns hotter than my mother’s words, but I do not drop the bowl, and I make my way back to the table. My eyes do not give me away. I deserve this.
He’s a free man who’s escaped death and pushy nurses. The sight of meals that do not come preordered on a tray brings him to his knees.
The long scar down the center of his chest veers left. Each night I swab the zippered line, tracing the path of the scalpel, and he jokes how the surgeon must’ve been drunk, and now he’s stuck with a crooked scar.
He’s home with me, and the tv remote is attached to him like a fifth limb. When his snoring feels like thunder again, I want to be relieved.
I cancel my plans to take care of him the last month before school starts again. I am the one with the most convenient things to give up. My mother continues to go to singing rehearsals. My brother fits in three-hour workouts four times a week. I stay quiet.
And I continued to stay quiet when one week later, my father stands for a forty-five-minute Chinese opera show, singing a duet on stage with full capabilities. In my head, I turn the fact that he was supposed to die to be all about me. When I give him back his watch, he doesn’t see what it has come to mean to me in those five days.
There is no line splitting my sternum where a surgical blade had been. My ribcage is not held together with metal wire. My heart wasn’t fixed, but his pumps normally again, and mine is still shredded. I wish someone would take a scalpel to me too.
I didn’t cry, not once the whole seven hours we waited in that room. Does that make me cold or strong?
Sunday afternoon, my grandmother calls.
Does your mother think I’m stupid? Her Cantonese is rapid fire and sandpaper to the ears.
I pretend I don’t know what she’s talking about, but she knows I know. That is the nature of our relationship, grandmother to granddaughter. She says to me what she can’t say to her daughter, and I say to her what I won’t say to my mother.
Doesn’t she think we care about him too?
I let her go on, lecturing her daughter through her granddaughter, the only one left listening. At last she asks, Is he okay?
Yes, I answer, though it feels like a lie.
Never in all these years has your mother taken such good care of your father. Do I not have eyes? Can I not see for myself? She’s my daughter, isn’t she? And I am her mother. I see what she will do before she even thinks it.
Does she think I’m stupid? she asks again. This time, she sighs, exasperated.
It drains me to play the role of confidant.
She decides to make a special soup, just for him next Saturday. Before she hangs up, she makes me swear not to tell my mother she knows our secret.
Three months later, it is November- Thanksgiving weekend.
I glance over at him from the passenger seat. The sun puts him in sharp silhouette, and the clouds are soft yellow with dusk.
He grins. Everything is almost the same again.
What do you want for dinner?
Aren’t you cooking?
Your ma’s working late tonight.
Doesn’t matter, I say. Guilt burns its acid streak.
He loves me- too much.
Watching as he cuts into his piece, I comment about the fat. What I don’t say is that he’s stealing my father from me.
You know how they bypassed the clogged arteries?
Yeah. My heart trips.
Well, I felt it clog all the way the other day.
His fork scrapes over the pile of cubed carrots. He can’t meet my eyes.
I look down at the steak on my plate and pick up my knife.
When Had We Grown Up, And Why Haven’t We Noticed?
Girls are a commodity. Ten forty-two on a Tuesday night- October- and we invade a plastic booth in the corner where no one will dare eavesdrop on the three of us. We squeezed ourselves in shorts that are too short, but we don’t care, not like we did in middle school or high school. The legs attached to us are just limbs and skin is just skin, so we bare ourselves- not carelessly but more as an afterthought. They look at us, up and down and up and down, beady eyes and wide eyes and drunk eyes raking, but we know that now. We wear sleeveless and strapless and tie our hair up any way we like as long as we remember not to ask people for more than we are worth.
She talks of the weekend she spent back home with her boyfriend, who attends city college but is probably going to transfer- of course- and how she hadn’t told her parents about being back for the weekend. Twirling the greasy fries with ringless fingers, she starts to doodle on a bleached-white napkin with ketchup, getting antsy and excited in the retelling of how amazing it was to know what being turned on felt like when he felt her up last Saturday in the backseat of her car, which had been parked away from streetlamps along a deserted park near his house. She wears no jewelry because she would rather spend it on the anniversary jacket she bought for him. Shaking her head, she denies wanting him to buy something for her in return. She has no idea what she wants anyway, and he still lives with his parents, so it’s not like gift-giving is a luxury he can afford. She waxes poetry under grimy fluorescent lights about his well-conditioned hair and well-practiced smile, leaning forward unknowingly to give anyone a glimpse down her shirt at above-average cleavage. The adjectives and verbs and adverbs tumble past her chapped lips as she reveals to us all the secrets she learned that night and Saturday night and Sunday night and most of Monday when they had gone at it for six hours before she drove back here in time to miss all her classes. Unanimously, we agree her new boyfriend was much better than the last, who had mistaken the location of her vagina twice.
The older man sits in the booth behind us, and I wonder whether he’s listening and watching as she makes crude gestures with her hands and fingers in demonstration. I wonder if our conversation turns him on. He’s our only audience as we give one another lessons in growing up, in how to get a guy to eventually fall for you if you give up everything you want, everything you have, and give him whatever he asks.
Then her turn is over, and the second girl speaks. Cute, delicate, and bordering on annoying, this one talks in flutters. She wears diamond studs exactly half a carat and a six-dollar gold pendant that sits between her pushed-up breasts. She nibbles on her chicken nuggets, reminding me of squirrels chewing on electric wires. In a voice soft like angel’s breath, she explains how she doesn’t have a thing with this guy, but maybe there could be a thing. Maybe he wants it to be a thing, but she’s too in love with this other guy she fell in love with two summers ago, and this new guy’s giving her anxiety. Her butterfly hands flap up and down and up and down as the sound of her words whisper like air beneath paper wings. She flips long, pin-straight brown hair over a bare shoulder, exposing frayed black spaghetti straps. The new guy is inviting her to a New Year’s Eve concert, and that means he wants to kiss her- maybe.
And none of us knows what that means in translation. So I listen and nod and sympathize, wishing half-heartedly I had the foresight to bring a light jacket to combat the harsh air conditioning.
She goes on, showing us a picture of him. I think how funny it must be that he, too, has well-conditioned hair and a well-practiced smile. Her voice twitches as she explains how she isn’t stringing him along- really- but he sees it that way anyway. Maybe this new boy will leave her just as she is, three-quarters in love with the memory of some other guy from a summer of cannonball dives and bleached hair.
Quiet descends with the precision of a hawk, chasing after our stories. The three of us already know that without being given a reason to stay, boys will choose to leave through the door they hadn’t bothered to close. But how do other girls learn?
The girl who let her boyfriend of two weeks push his fingers inside her because his penis wouldn’t fit no matter how they rearranged themselves in her cramped backseat nods along too. The spotlight trains back on her. She parts her dry lips to comment on how he makes her feel. It’s as if she’d been reborn during the weekend in the fury of heinous acts.
It takes me forever, but I manage to spit out the word “love” and ask her if she feels that way about him.
Yes. She draws her brows and folds her hands. The nod is somber. They both love each other. He hadn’t pushed her, she says, back in that ominous dark of backseats where girls lose the desire to stay naïve, and she swears that makes her love him even more.
When had we grown up, you ask? We speak of sexual favors like how to cook chicken and salacious techniques like explaining directions to the grocery store, yet we speak of love like it is a dirty word.
I hold the soft-serve ice cream cone in my hand with the care of a four-year-old. It glares at me in bleached-white vanilla, too clean and too pure for the conversation. This is the age where virginity fits like a potato sack and vanity like jewels. Our youth is spare change, and time is sand dragging at our feet. I speak of no boys because I’m one of the deluded ones- a dreamer after more than the simple affections of a boy. I tell stories, ink on paper, which I have time for because I do not have a boy. They turn to dreams of petunia beds in well-watered lawns because they were born girls, and girls can only want to be settled.
I look to the two of them sitting across the table from me. Their revealing tops bare the flesh of their padded breasts. I tell them I’ll probably die alone because nobody wants me, and they wave away my concerns like pesky flies. You don’t need a guy, they say. Really. Bambi eyes glow earnestly.
They go on to complain of how their homework is piling up and how they can barely stay awake in class since they fought off exhaustion until five in the morning talking to their boys. It occurs to me that I have to get up at six for class the next day, but I stay glued in the plastic seat, stuck in their narratives. This is the youth they tell me to grab on to, that this is what I’ll remember as the concrete footings are poured for the wooden posts that will have me surrounded like rows of tombstone teeth.
I ask if he plans to visit for Halloween, and she tells me with averted eyes that she doesn’t want to ask and seem like she needs him.
“Clingy”, we learn, is a humiliating adjective. I finish my ice cream and feel a hollow chill at the back of my throat. When had we grown up? When was the exact moment it had happened, and why hasn’t anyone slid a note under our door to let us know?
They tell us this is the best time of our lives. This is the peak on the graph before the inevitable plummet. No one cares about girls like us with our breasts half pulled out from our too-thin tanks and legs exposed in shorts that might as well have been underwear. So we are out on a school night, and still no one cares. No one looks at us because youth is too crude for direct eye contact.
They decide to leave at a quarter past midnight. The lights of the fast-food signs glare steadily and accusingly. I find my way to the backseat and try not to think of what the polyester seats witnessed that weekend. The song of the week comes through fuzzy radio waves with a merciless beat.
We pull out of the dingy parking lot, wheels rolling over faded white-chalk lines. She drives and dreams maybe they will get married and that maybe they will have a happy ending and how maybe they will last.
She goes on ignoring for at least another week how his friends are immature and how his best friend- who is a girl and whom he speaks of quite frequently- has recently professed her love to him over typed words. I think of how the girl who almost did it with her boyfriend has a roommate on a rugby team sprinkled with lesbians and how maybe I should try going out with girls instead. Then I wonder why girls don’t hit on me either, and I think maybe I’m not the appealing type or the pretty type. Maybe I’d be better off settling for some well-conditioned hair and a well-practiced smile.
When will we grow up and realize we no longer belonged to ourselves, waking up to find that we are priced as a discounted items, bottom-shelf, and someone had bargained for us at an even lower price than we’d been marked? We’ll play out all the storylines, beautifully and tragically. It’ll end only one way with blackened mascara tears staining bleached-white bathroom tissues. Some girls have always belonged to someone since twelve when they’d kissed boys in locker rooms. They doodle boys’ names on lined notebook pages in the middle of Advanced Calculus and tell me I’m the smart one. When, I ask, had we grown up?
I think back to the boy who, when he unbuttoned my shirt with quick fingers, had winced and not even grasped for an excuse, however fragile. He had turned away at my scars then explained to me how it didn’t appeal to him to put his hands on girls like me, the kind of girl who will never be close to a size two, who rarely takes off her dark-framed glasses, who wears a cap of flat brown hair. My face had burned in the light of his desk lamp, a spotlight of its own, as I scrambled and fought with the tiny buttons to cover myself. When had we grown up? Girls starve themselves as incentive to make them stay, to make the boys want them for a little while longer. Maybe, I think, maybe I should try that, and he will touch me sober.
I run into him in the bookstore and turn my face away. When had we grown up, and why don’t you care? Do you wonder if we’d been born this way, to know these things? Who gifted us our shame and humiliation? In the fear that we are worth much less than we imagine, we walk ourselves to the sales buns without giving anyone the chance to do an appraisal. We are the girls you don’t see, too broken and unloved to be valuable, and wondering whether we deserve more is not a luxury we can afford. “Love” is a dirty word we are too careful not to use. We are the girls you can’t notice, asking only to be wanted. You’ve learned to understand the weight of happiness, but we throw it out like stones in the fear that they will add up and sink us to the bottom. Because we are restless, we can’t recognize freedom at face value and recklessly give it away like loose change for nothing in return. We don’t know regret. We don’t dare.
When had we grown up, and why won’t anyone tell us?
But I will tell you the lesson is this: We give them the things we hope we won’t need. Then we convince ourselves we can’t survive without them. Watch. They will take all the things the girls we used to be knew we needed. We will give them ourselves, and no one will care enough to tell us the gravity of what we had done.
Steffi Sin: "I am a Chinese American, recently graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a major in Landscape Architecture and a minor in English Literature. I am currently finishing up my second novel and working to get the first one published."