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.