When she was here, Sam always wore the bomber jacket I bought for her. It was brown leather with an outer pocket button that was chipped in half. Besides the button, it was in good condition. It was seven dollars after all and made by J. Crew. I took her out to all the thrift stores in Sacramento that day. “I love America,” she said.
“It looks like a boy’s jacket,” I said. It hid everything except her fingertips.
“I like boy’s clothes.”
She wore it when we drove to Reno. I wanted to show her the snow. She told me that the last time she had seen it was when she was 14.
We drove with a blanket spread across the front seats and rolled the windows halfway down to take in the Sierra air. It smelled of roadside slush and pine trees. Every time I shifted gears she would pull the blanket back over her shoulders and though the heater did not work, we were not so cold then.
“She’s so pretty,” she said.
We stopped after seeing a sign that read “Sno-Park”. I looked at our clothes when we got out of the car. I wore a pair of jeans and Converses. She, a pair of leggings, a long dress and the brown jacket. I laughed.
“Look at ourselves.”
“Who cares. It’ll be fun.”
We checked the prices for lift tickets and ski equipment: $180 for the both of us. We looked at each other and bought passes for snow tubes instead.
We didn’t talk much on the drive back. We were too tired to make it to Reno and had Burger King for dinner. She rolled the windows up; we were going downhill now. She fell asleep when we reached the bottom of the mountain range — only dirt and trees there, no snow.
She wore the jacket a few other times: in San Jose, I showed her my childhood in the ghetto side of town: in San Francisco, where I said I’d buy a house someday and we’d live there together with our future cats. “No kids?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
On our last weekend, we rented a motel by the airport. It was next to the highway, a fifteen minute drive to San Francisco, and only sixty bucks for the weekend.
I went to the lobby to get some coffee while Sam napped in the room. I needed to be awake and sleeping was wasteful.
In the lobby, a mom was sitting with her daughter who fingered a bag of chips. A National Geographic documentary about the Sahara was on TV. It showed a close-up of a camel standing atop a sand dune. It blinked and a lone tear drop rolled down its hide.
I waited for the coffee to brew.
“Why do camels have weird eyes?” the girl said.
The mom looked tired. “It’s so they can see better in the sandstorm,” she said.
“Why do they have humps?”
“So they can have water to drink where there isn’t any.”
“Where can I see camels?”
“At the zoo. Mommy’s not in the mood to talk honey.”
The girl couldn’t have been more than three years old.
The girl’s went wide when the receptionist came in to sweep. She was old, her face wrinkled, and her back hunched over. Her loose khaki trousers and khaki blouse drooped across her body when she leaned forward with the broom. The girl put her hand over her mouth and hid behind the back of the chair as the old woman swept.
I loved children for their epiphanies. Sam loved them too but for different reasons.
Sam was in the shower when I got back. I noticed the crumpled tissues next to the lamp. I didn’t ask her why when she finally came out. Instead, I said, “Do you want to hear something about kids?”
Word of advice: Finding a workshop group that takes writing seriously as is one of the better things you can do. At the end of the day, it’s a craft and you need people and deadlines to push yourself.
Chris’ dad’s room was empty when we got to the nursing home. The room was small but typical. A TV hung from the ceiling near the far wall. On the opposite side, a potted plant filled the corner alongside an oak dresser. Next to the adjustable bed and pushed up against the wall was a desk and above it, the window. It smelled like grandma’s room—Vick’s VapoRub, tiger balm, stale cigarettes—when she used to live with us before we moved to Sacramento.
When we were kids, Julian and I used to sit on her bed and listen to her tell stories about Cambodia, stories about when she was young. She told us about the riches that the Vietnamese army looted out of Phnom Penh at the end of the war; how she was able to hitch a ride on the back of a convoy, the officer thinking she was Vietnamese, among piles of jade, gold, silver, and soldiers. Grandma said that she was lucky she could speak their language. Or she would have had to walk, with Uncle Gary, sick and just four, across the border and into one of the refugee camps. Uncle Gary would have died, Grandma said.
Or, they could have shot her, like they did all the other dark skinned people who begged for food and water. The entire city was empty. There were the dead in every single one of Grandma’s stories.
Before the war, Grandma had not been brown enough. That’s why she had to hide in the mountains. After the war, she was almost too brown and instead of the mountains, she hid in roadside ditches whenever the convoys came down the road.
“But they stole all of our things!” Julian had said.
“The Vietnamese soldiers.”
Grandma laughed. “None of it ever belonged to us.”
She rubbed her craggy palm against Julian’s hair.
“It’s not the same.” Julian said. He didn’t know the word for fair yet.
Grandma then told us a story about how in the mountains, the thunder and lightning during monsoon season was so close that she imagined the gods were in battle too. And losing. “Don’t forget what I tell you,” she said, half-warning-half-joking, when we heard Ma open the door and step into the apartment.
In the sprint from her room to where Ma stood in the entry, one hand leaning against the hall, the other peeling off her flats, we did forget.
Walking through the halls in the nursing home, I wondered if it was really true that our minds returned to infancy as we aged. If it was, then this place was childhood and everyone was reimagining memories of being in grandma’s room again, listening to her stories about when she was young until they too forgot.
Julian told me that it smelled like old people everywhere in Asia. “Playing chess on street corners, sitting on benches, mean mugging people, smoking, reading newspapers. They’re like rat-birds.” Julian always called them rat-birds instead of pigeons.
He and Ma had flown to Hong Kong and Cambodia for a month while I was in summer school during the end of sophomore year. I didn’t want to go; besides needing to make up Trigonometry, I’d have the house and car to myself.
“How’s that different than here? That’s just like San Francisco,” I said.
“Here, they’re all inside. Like Grandma. No one sees them or gives a shit.” Julian was talking about places like San Jose.
“What’d you do while I was gone?” he said.
“Nothing. Just chilled.”
Chris hid a pack of Marlboro Menthols underneath his dad’s U.S. Navy cap that was on top of the dresser and opened the window halfway. “He’s not supposed to smoke but at this point it hardly matters,” he said.
The sound of rustling leaves and traffic made me realize how quiet the nursing home had been. It was my first time being in one. I expected dementiated folk in wheelchairs shouting at walls and phantoms, but except for the drone of the air conditioner, the halls were quiet. It was peaceful, orderly. The wallpaper seemed new and was unblemished. I sat down on a chair next to the bed and watched Chris straighten out the bed sheets. They were crisp and white.
“Why are you checking the sheets?” I asked.
“Making sure they’re doing their job,” he said.
I found the TV remote dangling from its cord on the side of the bed. Playoff basketball was on. I had forgotten it was Saturday. The Lakers were on an 8-0 run but my head was still groggy and I could feel a second wave of migraines coming on.
“Well, how are they?” I said.
“All good. You know, I came in a couple of weeks ago and there were shit stains. I’m not talking about a day or even a few hours, but like weeks old.”
“That’s fucked up,” I said.
Chris shrugged. “You want to wait for a bit or go out to find him? He’s probably out mackin’ on one of the nurses.”
Chris was quiet that morning. We almost sat through breakfast without saying a word. It would have been a first. Except for a phone call from his mom, he hadn’t said anything during the drive from Davis to Greenhaven either. I know, he said to her twice, I’m driving, can’t talk so I’m going to hang up now.
Even though we had been roommates for a quarter, I realized how little I knew about Chris’ life. Until yesterday, I thought all of his family was from the Bay—Chris said that he was from San Mateo. He did not say that he was born in Sacramento. He did not say that his parents divorced at sixty, after forty years of marriage, or that he was the youngest in his family. It seemed strange to know these things now. But then again, neither of us had taken time to really talk to one another or about one another in between our routine of party binges and all night study sessions.
At first, I thought Chris was angry for having to take care of me at Tracy’s the night before. I had thrown up all over the brand new velvet toilet seat cover that he bought for her as a Christmas/end-of-the semester gift.
“Keeping asses warm from 83 ‘till,” he said when Tracy unveiled it in front of all the other guests. I hid my face behind my plastic cup and was glad that I didn’t really know any of the people there. Tracy was one of our neighbors and I was sure she only invited us because of our proximity. I once came out to the balcony to look at the sky divers land in the open field across the street when she came out onto hers. She was stroking a silver cat in her arms. “Nice cat,” I said. She said thanks and went back inside her apartment and that was the extent of our knowing each other.
“That’s sick,” one of Tracy’s friends said about Chris’ gift.
It was a girl I had seen on the bus a few times. She was always in hospital scrubs. I remember thinking that she probably wore them to bed too. She was even in scrubs that one time that I jerked off to her, not because she was cute but because I wanted to see if I could. I found out that her name was Ophelia, some friends called her Ophie, and she wasn’t wearing scrubs at the party, but a green summer dress with jeans underneath. She looked good.
Chris was standing next to her. He smiled at me when he caught me looking over in their direction. Even if it was only just her cheeks, I never noticed that she had a little Jessica Alba in her. Chris glanced at Ophelia, then back at me again. His smile stretched even wider. Even though it was supposed to be a white elephant, we were the only people to bring a real one.
“Come on, Filipino people are hella friendly,” Chris had said when I told him that I didn’t want to go the party. “She’s your neighbor man. You don’t turn down your female neighbors.”
Chris was standing over me in the bathroom. He had a trash bag stretched out in his hands. I thought he was going to sling it over my head but instead, he kneeled next to me and slid the seat cover off and into the bag, careful not to touch any of it—SoCo, rice and beans, Heinekens, pieces of chicken. “You really fucking did it this time,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Dude, you completely annihilated Tracy’s bathroom.”
“Yeah, you forgot to lift the lid.”
I remember trying to get up but falling sideways and knocking Chris over. He planted his hand, inside the bag, on the bathroom floor to keep from hitting the ground. It made a sound like squeezing a sponge.
He looked at his hand, it was completely Ghostbusters, and then he started heaving too.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Muthafucker,” he repeated.
Someone knocked on the door. “People actually have to use the bathroom you know?” It was Ophelia.
“I told you to eat nothing but pineapples this week John!” Chris said. He got up and ran his hand underneath the sink and cupping the water in his palms, rinsed out his mouth, making big slurping sounds.
There was a pause. “You guys are sick,” Ophelia said.
Chris and I laughed while we listened to Opehlia’s footsteps travel back down the hall.
“You are disgusting. I can still feel it on my hands. I’m going to hurl again just thinking about it.”
“I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life. We’re brothers for life now,” I said along with other things that I’ve forgotten.
Later on I woke up on the sofa to see Chris and Ophelia making out across from me. I closed my eyes and then threw up on myself for the second time. I just need to get my head in peace, I thought I heard myself say when he got up and helped me to bathroom.
During breakfast at Denny’s, I kept busy with a copy of the News & Review and a plate of soggy hash browns, pancakes, and scrambled eggs. Chris was working on a bowl of grits. He told me that he loved grits and ate them in heaping spoonful’s until I said that I was thinking about last night and wanted to apologize. I realized that I hadn’t up until that point.
When the waitress came by to refill our coffees she glanced at Chris, who had his sunglasses on. Wearing sunglasses inside a Denny’s at eight thirty in the morning, on a Saturday, is a sign that someone fucked up the night before. I didn’t doubt that she knew all about these kinds of signs so I wanted to know what she thought of us, two clean cut Chinese kids. We were in Greenhaven, not Mack or Florin. Must be rich kid problems.
I exchanged smiles with her when she started filling my cup. I assumed she was Mexican in the same way that she assumed we were Chinese. And both of us knew that we were probably right. We were sure of it, one hundred-percent. Knowing all that, watching her refill our cups made me feel guilty somehow. Maybe she was at the end of a graveyard.
“What’s up?” I said to Chris.
“Nothing,” he said.
He spooned the last of the grits into his mouth and washed it down with the coffee.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. It’s nothing, forget about it.”
“No problem. I thought you were pissed about last night.”
“What about last night?”
“You wanted to fuck her didn’t you?” he said.
Before he said that, I had planned to ask him why he would ask me to come see his dad with him. “Who?” I said.
“To be honest, I did.”
“But you really messed it up for yourself.”
“Story of my life. No hard feelings.”
We finished our coffees and split the bill. The nursing home was a few blocks away.
Even though Ma just lived on the other side of the overpass, I had never really been in Greenhaven before. It was a nice neighborhood. Wide and clean streets flanked by trees on either side, neatly trimmed bushes, immaculate lawns—Greenhaven was true to its name.
All the Taiwanese families lived in Greenhaven. Every other week, Ma cleaned their houses. Four bedrooms, three baths. Four bedrooms, three and a half baths, four car garage. Four bedrooms, three and a half baths, main and auxiliary living rooms, dining room. Five bedrooms, three baths, a backyard patio, backyard patio with a seventy pound Chow-Chow. I wondered what that was like, to be in the same church congregation on Sundays and then on Mondays, to wipe up their stains across the countertops and in their microwaves for sixty bucks. And then a few days later, have them refer to you as Sister. Ma might have cleaned Chris’ house too at one point. I would have to know more about him.
I thought about calling Ma and letting her know that I’d stop by since we were in Sacramento but then she would ask me why my voice was so hoarse and I always had a hard time lying to her so immediately after the fact.
It had been almost two weeks since I last came home. But Ma could never handle “just stopping by” so it was better not to. Besides, Christmas was a couple of days away and I’d have plenty of time at home during the winter break.
“You look like you want to hurl,” Chris said while I was looking out the window of the car. We were passing by the Tapioca Express where all the ricers hung out, Julian’s old crew, and I shut Ma out of my mind for the rest of the day.
“I’m good,” I said.
We found Chris’ dad on a bench in front of a rock garden. Just as Chris said his dad would be doing, he was chatting up one of the nurses. He was telling her how he had gotten rich smuggling illegal cigarettes into Taiwan when the Japanese occupied the country. “He tells the same story every time,” Chris said.
The nurse stood up when she saw us walking towards them. Chris’ dad held onto her hand. “Looks like you have some visitors,” she said, smiling at him.
“Tell them to come back another time,” Chris’ dad said.
He looked like he wanted a chance to end his story, get to the finish, where he took off his fedora, held it over his chest, convinced himself that country was more important than business, and spit on the Japanese officer who busted them, telling the officer and his soldiers, in their own language, to go fuck themselves, sayonara, I imagined. Grandma told us lots of stories about Japan and China too, when she was even younger.
“It’s Chris and he’s brought a friend,” the nurse said.
The old man’s grew soft and placid. The story had dissipated back into the ether. He stroked his chin and licked not his lips but his entire mouth. Without teeth in the way, his tongue moved as if it was alive. “Oh! My son. Yes! Yes!”
The nurse shook our hands. “It’s so nice of you guys to visit,” she said, “Your dad was just telling me some stories about the war.”
“I know. It’s the same story every time right?”
“Well, it always changes a little bit,” she said, still smiling, but just out of earshot of the old man. “I’ll be leaving you guys alone then. Let me know if you need anything.”
I watched the nurse walk down the stone path and back into the building. She had on the same light teal scrubs that Ophelia always wore on the bus. They probably shopped at the same scrub place. The nurse didn’t look that much older than us.
Chris leaned across his dad’s walker.
“How are you? Did they give you breakfast yet?”
“Good! Good,” the old man said.
“This is my friend and roommate, John. I told you about him last time remember? He’s Chinese too.”
The old man laughed, it sounded like a leaky tire valve, and shook my hand. A firm handshake. “What’s your Chinese name?” he said in Mandarin.
“My name’s Long,” I said. It had been a long time since I used Mandarin.
“The one for Dragon or the one for Bright?”
With his lisp and asthma wheeze, he was even harder to understand.
“The one for Dragon,” I said.
“Is your family from Taiwan?”
He noticed my accent. Our teacher at the Chinese school was an elderly Taiwanese woman. It was two hundred dollars a month for Julian and me. Ma dropped off us at ten in the morning; we stayed in class until eleven, when recess started. We ditched the last hour for Sunset Riders and Lethal Enforcers at Chuck E. Cheese’s. None of the teachers cared.
“I was born here but my parents are from Cambodia” I said.
“Lot of Chinese people in Cambodia. You must be Teochew. Teochew, Taiwanese, we’re all the same people. We’re all Minan people.”
He then switched over into the dialect that my family used, “Our own people!” and “Eat something,” he said.
The old man laughed. Other Chinese always laugh after saying “Our own people” to us in our own dialect. I could never tell if they were mocking it or if they were pleased with their own knowledge of its existence. Why would they laugh? I don’t know.
“Mom called to say hi too,” Chris said in English. Chris didn’t know Chinese.
“What did she she say?” Chris’ dad said.
“Jenny’s flying back in on Monday with her husband and kids.”
Chris’ dad’s eyes lit up. “Kids!”
I gave Chris a worried glance: dude, you’re going to kill your dad, but Chris went on.
“Two of them actually. I told you about them last time.”
“I see. I see,” Chris’ dad said.
He licked his mouth again. It reminded me of a serpentine version of James Earl Jones. Feeling that I was intruding, I told them that I was going to get some coffee and asked if they wanted some too.
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll have Jacky get some for me.”
I found Jacky and asked where the cafeteria was. She told me she was on her way and that I could walk with her. She smelled like baby powder. “There are cups over there,” she said, pointing at the table on the other side of the room.
Old people everywhere, reading, knitting, gossiping, watching the basketball game on TV, or staring vacantly into their food or at the wall, the ceiling. I grabbed a cup and found an empty seat next to a woman with fish bowl glasses, and said “Hi.”
“Hi,” she said without looking up from her magazine. She was reading Reader’s Digest. “You’re a new one. Who are you here for?”
“No one in particular,” I said.
“Yup. Sounds about right,” she said.
We heard a crash from across the room. Someone had dropped a food tray, dumping a glass of milk and oatmeal across the floor. “Oh dear. That must be Lisa again,” the woman said. She dog eared the magazine and set it down. With her chin down and her eyes peering over the rim of her glasses she said, “Now really, who are you here for?”
“For a handful of pebbles and my father’s sharp profile, my mother left home and never truly returned. Picture a handful of pebbles. Imagine the casual way he tossed them at her as she was walking home from school with her girlfriends. He did this because he liked her. Boys are dumb that way, my mother told me. A handful of pebbles, to be thrown in anger, in desperation, in joy. My father thew them in love. Ma says that they touched like warm kisses, these pebbles he had been holding in the sun. Warm kisses on the curve of her back, sliding down the crook of her arm, grazing her ankles and landing around her feet in the hot sand.”
-li thi diem thuy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For