My mother used to light apple cinnamon candles to sweeten the fishiness that lingered after cooking. She would make five course meals and scrub the kitchen spotless, light candles and tuck herself into the couch while the rest of us clambered through like hungry savages.
I remember so many nights with vivid clarity. Rarely yesterdays or previous weeks; but previous moments decades ago. I lived my childhood as my father’s princess: delicate, unused feet and alarming superstitiousness. My father and mother filled my head with stories of ghosts and spirits and the monsters that came for bratty little girls that didn’t listen to their parents. Fairytales of princesses and royalty protected by ancestral presence. Stories of magic that could exist in bloodlines and good people.
I remember it was the time between 3 and 4 in the morning. I remember my brothers snoring, the rareness of an unbridled house so quiet and so dark. I remember the coolness of the hardwood floors when I crawled out of bed and my tiny toes shivering at each step. I remember peaking out into the darkness of the hallway, tiny nightlights plugged into the wall like stagnant, watchful fireflies with dancing glow.
I remember peeking into my father’s room, his one leg out from under the covers and his arm wrapped around my mother. I remember their snores–the way my brothers and parents together sounded like an unsophisticated chorus even in unconsciousness.
I remember I was eight or nine or ten. I remember feeling clear headed, focused. Wide awake and out of place. Not like myself. I remember walking down smooth tiled stairs for the first time alone after midnight with surety that didn’t belong to me.
I remember smelling the apple cinnamon. The bright fire from the kitchen once I touched the bottom of the stairs. I remember walking casually, trepidation and fear at the edges of thought. I remember feeling the flames, the warmth. How the candle glass had shattered and the fire stretched across the bar counter, almost dripping down the sides.
I remember turning on the faucet. Grabbing a tall glass. I remember it took three or four pours, and a spray of the kitchen nozzle for good measure.
I remember the smell of the flames extinguishing over the marble. I remember walking up the stairs and back into my shared room. Tucking my feet carefully into my sheets. Closing my eyes and falling asleep.
I woke up the next day, late, to the sounds of my mom in the kitchen and my family awake. I remember believing it all to be a dream.
I remember walking down the stairs once more in the light, feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. The kitchen island was empty of candles or glass, my mother was washing her hands in the sink. My brothers were at the dining table. I sat on the barstool, staring at my mom, thinking of how to ask.
Then I remember my father. Coming from behind my mother, looking at my face, my eyes. “Did you break glass downstairs last night? There was water everywhere.”
“Yes. The candle caught on a big fire.”
“Good girl” I remember his Vietnamese. The excitement, pride in his voice.
I remember how nobody else was listening. I remember my father believing me, the silence of his smile that came after. No questions, no suspended disbelief.
I want to ask him if he believed in magic too. If his superstitions were only for luck or warding off evil. If he believed in guardian ancestors or dead fathers that could turn into watchful angels.
I want to ask him if he’s here. If he’s near. If it’s him I feel in the quivering darkness; in the pits of my loneliness. If it’s memory, or if it’s this reality.
I want to ask him if it was my fault for not saying Good Luck for the first time the day he died. I want to ask him if it was because I refused to talk to him on the phone the hour before he died, if I could have shared any kind of magic to keep him. I want to ask him if it’s a cumulation of these and more that have led me to be an unlucky girl in love and genes.
I want to ask him how not to be scared of the dark. How to drive a car, change a tire, smoke a cigarette or make a sports bet.
I want to ask him to learn how to swim with me, ride a bike, travel the world. I want to ask him to take me back to Vietnam. Ask him where he grew up, which tree it was where he broke his leg, what kind of soaps he made in Hong Kong that got him thrown in jail, the harbors he crossed, the journeys he traveled through.
I want to ask him how he was always so strong, how he became so confident, so charming. I want to ask him how to know which boys are bad for me.
Ask him how to stop myself from going back to the people and the things that hurt me.
I want to ask him to walk me down the aisle. I want to ask him for my first dance.
I want to ask him nothing and tell him a million things.
I want to say thank you, for the four boys he gave me to answer all of my questions, and the 12-and-a-half years of bouncing happiness.
To him, there were no questions.
To him, I was always magic.