After every meal Uncle Robert washed the dishes for two hours, brushing the cockroaches off the table with a broom. Weekly market trips required rubber gloves for doorknobs, which dangled from his wrists like obscene clowns’ hands, and upon each return to the house he perched on the doorstep and cleaned his battered canvas sneakers for two hours with warm water and an old tootbrush, scrubbing his hands with soap and water until the skin was split and red. “Crazy good-for-nothing,” Mother called out from her wheelchair, but she also swore and waved her cane at the kids who pointed and trailed Uncle down Nagtahan Street. When Uncle’s youngest brother and his wife visited from the States, Uncle handed them a bulging shoebox full of saved receipts. “A present for you,” he said. “Write me letters,” Wife urged, but he did not. Forty years ago Uncle had worked in a bank. He was twenty-two, in a suit and tie and teller’s badge, when he slammed an old lady into a safe and then himself into the window. Perhaps it had always been there, the bank merely a glorious burst. Or perhaps it had come slowly, a steady increasing fight, uneasy walks to work with a secret tucked away and folded over until it was so tight, so wadded, a ball that sat crouched and expectant. He screamed from the bank to the police station to the house. “Fucking shit fuck” (a pot at the wall) “Go to hell all of you” (cans books bottles Mother’s head missed by an inch). Then came the shaking, the stomping, the meticulously kept books of fabricated Accounts Receivables, neat columns of: 5454.2.1/4 HK DOLLARS + 43 NN STAR DOLLARS = 392. The shock treatments quieted him. He murmured “Yes yes yes” and “Thank you” and began cutting his own hair with nail clippers and when the hospital burned down Mother gave up the one vacation she ever had and booked the first flight home. With her friend Auntie Rosa in L.A., where Uncle sent her postcards detailing the weather and the number of mosquitoes he had seen that day, she had touched the sparkling aisles of enormous supermarkets that she knew Uncle would have loved, stores so clean you could eat off the floor. She framed the picture of Uncle in his cap and gown and put it on top of the radio, and when his old college buddies came to visit twice a decade they would look at it and then at him and then at the picture again, not even bothering to check their shock, although their faces were also nowhere near then. “We were in the neighborhood,” they’d shrug. “Catch-up, time, right?” They elbowed him too roughly, too intimately, in the same way that one apologized through overcompensation. Mother would bring out a plate of oranges and saltines, and they’d sit in a circle of folding chairs, her wheelchair parked at the periphery. “Remember the disco?” they asked. “The junior banking girls?” Uncle would smile, nod, smile, no signs of recognition. They passed him pictures of their kids: twin girls, a boy in university. When they left, he’d stand by the front window smoking cigarettes, staring into the soft dusk and into the evenings that had passed before it, blurred like a faded receipt or a defunct piece of currency.
If I had taken that sublet on Clinton Street everything would be different now.
If I had taken that sublet on Clinton Street? I would have been a more outgoing person, the kind of who took more chances, instead of dreaming of what could be.
I would have gone on that trip I was always thinking of going on, and I would have gone to that party, and I would have returned your phone calls.
I would have become a regular at that bar on Ludlow and I would have met a rich guy who had offered me a light. We would have dated, then gotten married. He would own his own apartment with a balcony and separate closets. I would have had two kids by now. We would host extravagant dinner parties, have a nanny. I would have never finished a book. I would work in publishing. I would not have to work. I would get mani-pedis. I would have quit writing, because who could bother with that shit?
I wouldn’t have met anybody, but that was because I was too busy staying at home, writing, in my own apartment, and by the time the sublet was over I would have finished my manuscript. I would have published two books by now. I would have bought my own apartment.
I would not have gone to California – I would not have mourned my breakup – I would not have taken that job that led to that other job – I would not have met that awful-for-me-guy – I would have not ended up here, back in Brooklyn, living across the street from the gas station.
It was $1100 a month which at the time was a fortune. I had no intention of paying it; I couldn’t afford it. I lived in Queens and worked for a magazine printed on actual paper. Answering sublet ads was something I did for fun. It was a sublet shown to me by a skinny white girl not much older than me. She was moving in with her boyfriend.
I found the sublet on Clinton Street through the Internet. It was 2000, and it wasn’t through Craigslist.
The street was hot and noisy. The apartment, up a flight of slanting stairs, was dark and large. The girl showed me the empty rooms – she had already moved out – with marked impatience. She needed to decide soon, she said. if I took the sublet it could be mine all summer long. I looked out the dark window. The air was heavy and stale. The girl watched me watching her apartment. She farted, silent and deadly, and this, too, hung in the air.
I went home and considered it. I thought of the life I would have. She emailed me twice, asked if I was interested, but I never replied.
When I was eight years old, I was in love with a dead man. His name was Robert Wadlow. He was the tallest man in the world.
It was the summer of 1984. My most prized possession was a copy of the 1977 Guinness Book of World Records, one of the remaining spoils from a neighbor’s failed garage sale. The pages were yellowed, the paperback cover half-torn. Still, I read it obsessively. My favorite entry was not one of the usual suspects that most kids raved over – the fattest twins, posing side-by-side on matching motorcycles; the man with the longest fingernails, curling up around his face like miniature snakes; the smallest woman, doll-size and perched on a coffee table like a figurine. Instead, I gravitated to the story of Wadlow’s short and tragic life. When he was eight, he was 6’2″ and could carry his father up the stairs of their home. Wadlow died at the age of twenty-two because of an infection developed from ill-fitting shoes.
I sat in the back seat of our Chevy wood wagon with my parents in the front seat, reading my Guinness Book as the car radio blared. My mother peeled oranges and passed me the cool slices, one by one. The radio stations kept playing “Here Comes the Rain Again” by the Eurythmics (Talk to me, like lovers do. What did lovers do? I wondered). The synth strings and the picture of the tallest man in the world made me shiver.
What if you were the tallest man in the world, I’d think, only to die because you couldn’t get shoes that fit you right? I even made a song up for him, in a minor key. When I swam in the town pool, my friends an I would play 1-2-3-Shoot at the eight-foot dock and I would think: “Robert Wadlow could be standing right here, but his head would be above the water.”
Every April we went to Canada, peeling north like lost birds. Suburban Toronto, nine hours away. My mother peeled oranges as my father steered our Chevy Caprice wood wagon along the bumpy New York Thruway. I got carsick and tried not to puke.
Every spring I counted down the days before Canada, where the speed limit wasn’t 55, but 80. Milk came in a bag. Words like center and kilometer were spelled centre and kilometre but pronounced exactly the same. Things were, inexplicably, in French. In my grandparents’ kitchen I’d read the undersides of Kleenex boxes and the backsides of cereal, decoding the French translations for nostril and riboflavin. There were no other kids to play with but it was a relief not to have to play with other kids, not to hear the older kids playing on my block and not be invited to join. This was before my cousins were born, when I was still Poh Poh and Kong Kong’s only grandchild.
They’d ended up there because of my mom, by accident. She had gone to New York first, her parents and younger siblings still back in Manila. She lived in Queens for a few years and worked in Chinatown and overstayed her student visa until someone ratted her out to INS. A Canadian visa came through at the right moment so she went north, then sponsored the rest of her family. At a party she reconnected with a friend of my father’s — they’d been friends in NYC — and a year later she was married and back in the States, the rest of her family on their way to Canadian citizenship.
In Toronto, Mom went out to to the hair salon, where she and my aunties got matching perms, then stocked up on groceries with Poh Poh at the Chinese supermarket. I hung with Kong Kong. We’d walk to the little video store in the Loblaw’s strip mall, afternoons lost in the delirious Betamax glow of Superman II and Time Bandits.
I balanced on top of the chocolate brown couch, its upholstery as slippery and thick as a bear pelt, and pretended I was sliding down Niagara Falls, as Kong Kong snoozed in his beige La-Z-Boy, seat cranked back, footrest up. After lunch he taught me how to play rounds of Solitaire with glossy TWA playing cards, their edges worn down smooth, sanded by years of shuffling.
“Make a wish before you start each game,” he said, “and if you win, the wish will come true.”
I cut the deck and wish for my imaginary friends to come to life (my alter ego was named Christa Mackintosh,) but only so I could sit and watch them like they were in a movie. I wished for turquoise roller skates with Velcro fasteners and fat white tongues, for my own personal dragon. I wished that I could move to Canada and never have to go to school in New Jersey again.
“You need to make the right decisions for your future,” Kong Kong said. “It’s very important. Life is short, and you only have one life, so remember your future. How old are you? Seven? Nine?”
“Eight,” I said.
“You’re young right now, but you won’t be young for so long.”
A windy day in early April. I had tolerated Maypo oatmeal every morning for an entire winter in order to collect enough labels to send away for a free kite, a red plastic triangle the shade of the oatmeal logo with a frame as sturdy as drinking straws and an undersized plastic spool with yellow thread.
Kong Kong and I stood in a small slope on the other side of the cul-de-sac’s park, beyond the jungle gym and gum-dotted benches. He wore his gray Members Only knockoff and a teamless baseball cap with a generic white front, unrolled the string and placed the spool in my hands. When he went to work two afternoons a week, translating Cantonese into English and English back into Cantonese at the local courthouse, driving his powder blue Chevy Nova with a fishball compass mounted on the dashboard, he wore a baggy charcoal suit with pinstripes, the fabric pouching around his ankles. On his shiny scalp, over the sparse white hairs wafting above his ears in bristly fringe, would sit a matching gray felt hat with a miniature red feather.
“Toss the kite. Use force.” His voice was deep, froggy. A voice of hugs, electric blankets, forgiveness. Nothing would ever be more comforting.
His Canto-laced English lilted up at the end, as if each word punctuated with an individual exclamation point. The dots on the exclamation points were chubby hearts. Girls at school sometimes wrote this way, dotting their I’s and exclamations with bubbles, but it was only when Kong Kong spoke that I could feel hearts softly pulsing, dotting themselves in the air.
I hurled the plastic triangle towards the clouds, but the wind took it down quickly and the kite tumbled to the grass.
Kong Kong retrieved it, gently straightened its dented nose. I tossed the kite again, throwing it so hard my shoulders and arms pitched forward, and as I stumbled as the kite kicked up into the breeze, soaring, and hopeful.
I tugged on the spool, the string quivering as the kite batted against the wind. The yellow thread was so inconsequential. Could I really sew the sky?
Then I leaned back. The string snapped and the kite tumbled behind the trees, what seemed like miles — kilometres? — away.
The clock in Poh Poh and Kong Kong’s bedroom emitted a papery breath, the numbers flipping from one to the next. I paused in the doorway, watching time. Nine was my enemy, the most evil and threatening of numbers. At 3:58 I dared myself to stand by the clock, trembling, then ran screaming out of the room as the flip began to make its horrifying turn to 3:59.
The clock downstairs in the living room gave a stern, autocratic crunch with each passing minute, but had Roman numerals so I could ignore the looming Nine.
Ceramic sculptures of bald men and peaches. Eight-track tapes of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” and Neil Diamond’s “Turn on Your Heartlight” and Olivia Newton John’s “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” An oversized wall tapestry depicting three roly-poly kittens romping in a basket of colorful yarn. Kong Kong had a not-so-secret addiction to the Home Shopping Network, his desk drawers full of plastic cases from the Franklin Mint and gift boxes of semi-precious stone earrings, just in case there was an emergency birthday.
(Six years later, several weeks before he died, Kong Kong would send me a cubic zirconia pendant necklace, redolent with plastic, from this Home Shopping Network stash, and I would wear it to a school dance with a boy whose name I forgot.)
In Toronto I made frequent pilgrimages to the basement, packed with folding tables with missing legs and broken clocks awaiting new batteries. I took greedy gulps of air, inhaling the odors of must and mold, the tiles cool and damp beneath my flip-flops. Breathing and breathing until I was stoned on hits of staleness. Cellar smell; succulent.
Outside the houses were all the same: brown brick inverted rectangles, skinny, narrow, and tall. Garage tucked beneath the kitchen, tall steps upwards to the front door. Kitchen and bathroom and living room and two small bedrooms upstairs and a basement in the back. One after another, soothing in their sameness.
The stairs were coated in thick corrugated plastic sheeting over mustard shag carpet. Busted folding chairs outside on a tiny concrete porch.
This house, which I haven’t seen in nearly 30 years, still pops up in my dreams.
Inside were glass bottles of Coca-Cola and envelopes of After Eight mints, the refrigerator endlessly stocked with leftovers. It smelled of Listerine (Original Flavor), Vitalis, and enormous Chinese mushrooms stewing away in a sweaty crockpot. The transistor radio on the kitchen counter, its volume knob sticky with caked cooking grease, heavy rotary phones, Poh Poh’s jet-black hair dye and Kong Kong’s false teeth, tins of Wellman’s Peroxide of lurid pink paste. Inside the fish tank on the kitchen counter was one lone black fish among the orange goldfish, one of its bug eyes missing.
I’d stare at this fish’s lopsided paddle, fascinated by how the skin had healed over the former eye site. “It got into a fight with another fish,” Kong Kong said, “and the other fish bit the eye off.” He made a snapping motion with his fingers, folding his hand in half like a closed jaw.
We ate fish eyes at Chinese restaurants, gelatinous marble pupils of steamed bass and trout. The eye, offered up on a serving spoon, was slippery and hot as it slithered down your throat.
Acceptance: that there are choices, and there are consequences. The narrative of your life may already be set.
That the desire to run is perhaps no longer the dream. (Was it ever, or just delusion?)
That there is nothing wrong with you for no longer wanting to, or being able to, stay out past last call, stay up until sunrise. No more lost weekends, no more benders.
It’s being on a precipice, a conscious and careful footing, placed between before and after. Everything that came previously, everything that is happening now, takes on a blaring quality.
Is settling into your life the same as settling, letting go of all of the things that a young woman says that she will never do, in her own pledge to be singular, different?
But still, the uncertainty!
I am taking a meditation course on dying. I am not planning on dying soon – as if death could be planned – I have no desire to. I am taking it because death terrifies me, the prospect of time running out. How can make sure that you have done enough? Our days are finite, but we don’t know how finite.
A quote I remember scrawling in a notebook in my twenties: Should you live as if you are going to die tomorrow, or as if you will live forever?
As an only child in a family whose favorite stories are of loss, regret, the fatal turns and wrong choices, I’ve always been scared of forgetting. So I’ve kept notebooks since I was five years old, when I first learned to write. Into these notebooks was the story of my life. It was a true story, something I could up as proof: I was living, truly living, and my reward was accuracy, fact checking; I could validate my experiences. I would remember them, and when I grew old, I could be satisfied at a life well lived, at being able to look back and recall. Here is what I did on that day, that month, that year. I made the right choices, after all.
The notebooks were more accurate than the lived reality.
In my thirties, the compulsion to record has skipped. I dropped out for six months during a tumultuous move, months I had no desire to remember. While I’ve gamely scribbled in my notebook for hours on vacations or at writing retreats, I often go for two weeks, or a month, without remembering to write anything down about my days, and then I have to scavenge – what did I do three Mondays ago? – checking my phone, email, and calendar for clues.
The notebook has become a lie, posthumous.
When I think of finally letting this habit go, no longer recording my days, the weeks and months spiraling into the ether, I’m afraid that without a record of my life, I’ll no longer exist.