The white electrical fan whirred next to me as I leaned back in my chair, my ears filled with the classical music flowing out from my white earphones. It was summer; the air swelled with an unseen wetness that seemed to encase me in solid matter, so that the fan’s blades were moving in slow motion. The sweat seeping through my thin tank top and khaki shorts glued me to the chair; my hair hung in limp, damp strands from my scalp and clung to my cheeks. The clattering of dishes and the wonderfully heady aroma of garlic floated up from the kitchen; a few moments later I hear a muffled call for me to “come down to dinner now.”
I clomped downstairs in my plastic slippers and sat down at the antique redwood table, tracing the intricate carvings absentmindedly with my index finger. My mother, her face flushed from the heat even though she was only wearing a t-shirt and a billowy skirt, bustled through the dining room door, carrying three steaming bowls of rice in her right hand and three pairs of wooden chopsticks in her other. She plopped down into the seat across from me, not bothering to take off her apron, and poured herself a glass of ice water. My grandmother, in her eighties and with chin-length silver hair held back with bobby pins the same way as my mother, followed shortly afterwards, bringing the steamed fish with ginger and scallions and the chilled cucumbers with garlic. She slowly eased herself into her chair; after a lifetime of bending over the kitchen stove, she had developed a large hump.
We began to eat, three women chewing in silence and listening appreciatively to the crickets chirping in the dusk. My mother separated the fish meat from the bones with her chopsticks and gave the choice pieces of flesh off the back to my grandmother. She dropped parts of the fish stomach and the fish eye in my bowl (apparently she believed in the traditional superstition that what one eats will improve that part of one’s body, and she was determined to fix my eyesight lest I continued to squint to see the blackboard in school), finishing off the spine and fish head herself. I watched her carefully arrange the scallions in her bowl. My family was three generations of females, independent of male influence and instead relying on our instinct and each other; we would have been labeled as examples of the “new woman” in 1950s Communist China.
I stabbed at the rice inside my bowl and wiped away the beads of sweat trickling down the sides of my face; the ceiling fans, old and creaky as they were, did not help the situation. I took another piece of cucumber and was bringing it to my mouth when my mother spoke:
“Ling-ling, you should write to him tonight, while you still have time during summer vacation. You’ll be too busy once school starts.”
I stiffened. I knew she was talking about my father, who had left her for another woman seven years ago, when I was nine. I knew his relationship with my mother had been strained: they frequently had violent fights, screaming at each other in the middle of the night and throwing pots, books, the remote control, whatever they could get their hands on. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore and began a relationship with a recently divorced female employee in his office. A full-blown screaming match ensued when my mother found out; she couldn’t understand why he’d done it, but he said that there was no space at home, no room to breathe. They divorced a week later. Ever since, I’d had only a few letters from him, none of which I replied to, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know how. I was a little girl back then, my innocent heart torn between loyalty to my mother and love for my father and all the other intermingling emotions of confusion and fear and solitude; but maybe now, as someone on the ver
ge of womanhood, I could sort out my feelings. Yes, now was the time.
“Mother, I will. Don’t worry,” I said quietly. She gave me a slight smile, reached across the table, and squeezed my hand.
After dinner, I lethargically climbed upstairs, turned mechanically to the left at the top and opened the first door. I turned the lock and stood leaning against the door for a moment, surveying my messy, paper-strewn desk with no clear purpose in mind. I sat down, turned the fan on, and placed a piece of lilac stationery, the kind I used for holiday letters, in front of me. I uncapped a black pen and twirled it in my fingers. Where would I start? I realized that I knew so little about his life. I rummaged around in my junk drawer and found the stack of letters, bound together by a rubber band. I read them through twice, trying to decipher his messy Chinese, finding details I had never noticed before, details about his new wife and their son, their new apartment in Manhattan, celebrating his son’s fifth birthday and buying him a puppy. I laid the letters down and hesitantly picked up my pen again. I considered writing in English, but decided that Chinese would be more intimate, not only because it was our mother language but also because his new wife wouldn’t be able to read what I had written.
How are you? I am doing well. I’m sorry that I didn’t respond to your letters, but I get busier each year and I really didn’t have time. I hope you don’t mind.
How are Helen and Shawn? I hope they’re still well. Is Shawn a kindergartener now? What school does he go to? I think I might want to visit him sometime. Does he look like you? I hope he got your straight nose and strong jawline.
I turned and looked at myself in the mirror behind the door; I noticed that I’d inherited more of my mother’s big eyes and small chin than his angular features.
Do you look older now? The last time I saw you, you had a few gray hairs at your temples but looked fine otherwise. When I was little, you told me that you would dye your hair when it turned white because you wanted to stay young forever. Maybe now you’ve realized that it’s better to move on than to dwell in past glory.
I don’t know if you want to hear this, but Mother and Grandmother are doing well too. Mother has her own clinic in Flushing now, where I help out on the weekends. Grandmother stays at home and cooks for me when my mother stays at the office to finish paperwork. We still live in the house that you bought us, even though it’s stifling in the summer and freezing in the winter. I think that there’s a connection to it that we all don’t want to leave behind.
Father, maybe I shouldn’t be the one to say this, but perhaps you misunderstood Mother. She is independent and sharp-tongued, but she really has a knife for a tongue and tofu for a heart. (This is a saying in Chinese describing those who have sharp words but soft hearts.)
I think that she misses you sometimes, because occasionally I hear her crying in her room when she thinks I’m asleep.
I paused and glanced outside my window. It was dark outside now, save for the full moon in the starless sky.
Dad, she’s a woman too, and no matter how strong she can seem, in the end she will need someone to be there for her. Dad, I’m not asking you to come back to us, and I doubt you would anyway if I were, but just please understand that everyone is human.
And I think I forgive you too, Dad. I know that you were for an exit when there was none, that one of the basic functions of all animals is to run when threatened. I used to hate you for leaving me; I was so jealous when I saw my classmates crawling into warm sedans when school was over, their fathers kissing them affectionately on the forehead and handing them cookies and hot chocolate to eat on the way home. I don’t know if you ever realized how much you hurt me, Dad. Did you think I was just a little girl, that my mother would lie to me that you were away on a never-ending business trip? I used to cry under the covers at night and think that living was so hard, but now I think I’ve realized that I won’t ever be able to forget the feeling of not having a father in my childhood, and that all I can really do is try to live with it and hope the pain will go away with time.
Dad, I think the best memory I have of you is playing the piano with you on winter evenings. I remember your long fingers stretched elegantly over the keys, waiting patiently as my stubby ones stumbled along. We always played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” back then, mainly because I couldn’t keep up with anything else. A lot has changed since, hasn’t it? But you will always be my father and I will always be your daughter, at least biologically. And I will always miss you and wonder what would have happened if you were with me right now, but I guess time will go back no matter how much I want it to.
I sat for a moment after I finished my letter, wiping away tears that I hadn’t known had formed in my eyes. I copied the address from one of the envelopes of his old letters and stuffed the letter inside. I tiptoed downstairs, barefoot, and placed the letter on the coffee table to be mailed the next day. Then I crawled under the covers and spent the night awake, staring at the alarm clock on my bedside table and counting the seconds until morning.
Age 13, Grade 8
Hunter College High School