I remember being a child, surprised by pictures of my father when he was half the age. The sepia tone colors, faded edges; how the only wrinkles were on the photos and not his face. The full head of hair, emaciated body and bright smile.
The tragedy of each decade of life is how much of it is spent mourning the passing of the previous one.
I’m sitting in a bedroom of old memories; comforted by ghosts of young girl who once was. I told my therapist once that the sessions were like stepping into a room filled with filing cabinets I couldn’t see the end of. They were painful, random, hilarious, gut-wrenchingly sad, and deliriously happy.
When she told me she could no longer continue I felt the grief in my throat. Loneliness, darkness. The key to the filing room lost in the black, cavernous depths of my own overwhelming emotion.
You feel too much.
You shouldn’t let things get to you.
You’re a good-for-nothing crybaby.
Each decade they always regurgitate the same lesson in different dressing. The negatives of choosing to continue.
The past few years I took the advice. Slid most of what I could behind so many erratic sins. Folded the rough edges of myself into something unrecognizable; uncriticized, unremarkable.
My brother asks me over the receiver, “How do you feel?“
I breathe. Close my eyes so I can see his. Listen to his voice. The decades of memories I have attached to it make it so hard to lie. “Afraid, insecure, confused.” I am choking on my own words.
“How can we get Jenny’s groove back?”
All of what we are morphs into comforting laughter. Tears spill onto my neck, matting my hair to my face.
My sister in law asked me how old I was three times this week. I answered wrong every time.
Time feels nonlinear. Emotions and feelings trapped in stasis paralyzes perception.
I want to remember this feeling. Cling onto it and freeze the words, the moments, into letters across a page.
I want to remember the cold winter of my life. The brutality of confusion and daze mixed with aimlessness and abandon.
I want to remember each day of snow; of icy fingers and blurry eyes. The terrible feeling of immobilization and the crippling of my own mental sabotage.
I want to remember the long winters and the frightening nights. The cold, distant thoughts that come repeating, crashing and constant to shore. When I’m still, alone and quiet I can feel the rippling of all of my negative thoughts barreling in like water rising to a boil.
I want to remember this winter and all of the sober, throbbing pain.
I want to remember that winter comes to bring the spring.
I want to remember that even the iciest of tears will melt into the ground to regrow gentle, warm life.
I want to remember that ‘lost’ means possible to be found; and ‘sad’ just means capable of happy.
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.
When I lost you, to things I have yet to understand, I am repeating to myself, over and over, It’s better to have loved and lost than it is to have never loved at all.
I am sobbing. I am crying. Blubbering. Confused, shaking. Self-destructive. Twenty-six.
Insomnia eats at my mind. My therapist says that my body is being devoured by the withdrawal from the separation of yours. My mind understands. My heart has not. I am shivering. Feverous. Shaking.
It takes two minutes after I wake up for all of me to remember. For one minute and fifty-nine seconds every morning I have to convince my mind it was not a bad dream. It is a depressive reality.
I am no longer yours, and you are no longer mine.
I walk into our old home. A graveyard of memories from our best hits. The phantoms of your hands follow every square inch. I remember the first day we moved in. The mattress on the floor of the master. Fucking in the foyer. The two staircases, the rooftop, the shower, the floors.
The billion-and-one kisses. The bear hugs. The fleeting touches. The hand holding. The Bhuddists believe we live many lifetimes. I want to spend a million of them under the blanket fort of crocheted stars. In the stillness of your arms, the assuredness of your forehead kisses.
I want to remember us by that night, and none of the ones after. I was blessed by the polarity of your love. Two suns in a singular universe. Fights and fucking that shook the neighborhood, quivering galaxies.
I have never felt such vivid tenderness, sweetness, such eager rawness. I have never felt so connected yet so distant.
I loved you to distraction. I wish we could’ve loved to absolution.
I have made a million-and-one mistakes, but I am so grateful for the us suspended under the blanket of stars. The Off-white rosé, the polaroid camera, the market charcuterie.
I have made a million-and-one mistakes, but it’s better to have loved and lost than it is to have never loved at all.
Vietnamese is a tonal language. This means with a switch of the tongue or a stress in the throat, the simple word for Mother, Ma, in Vietnamese can turn into the word for ghost.
My mother was born well-off. A fancy fisherman’s daughter. The youngest girl in a family of six located on the beautiful beaches of Southern Vietnam. Maids in the house, silks on her skin, prestigious school books stacked on her desk and bounties of food in her stomach.
The Vietnamese war is historically a hundred years old. The Americans intervened and it quickly worsened. Her oldest brother was drafted. He was returning home after a long absence for a short, well-welcomed break. A few of his platoon followed. My mother adored him. She was younger than the age I was when my father died. He played with her on the sandy beaches, and doted on her like my oldest brothers had done endlessly for me. She told me he was the one who taught her how to hide mischievousness behind duty.
There was so much excitement on the day he returned. He paused in playing with my young mother to look over his shoulder. I imagine her laughter was an amplified, brutishly free version of what it is now.
A few feet away his platoon mates were tossing a live grenade. The pin was pulled. My mother says he ran fast towards it. Yelled at her to run faster away from it. His whole body jumped on top, and his separated, scattered body, splattered away.
She told me this story devoid of tone. She told me this story when I told her I hated my brothers. She told me this story with her eyes afar and her voice even.
In our culture, every piece of the deceased has to be collected and buried, otherwise they cannot have safe passage to the afterlife. There is a window of time, starting from death, that their passage must be completed, otherwise their souls are stuck tormented on Earth for the rest of time.
This day was the day my mother found out how long it took to collect pieces of a favorite brother shredded by one, singular explosive. This day was the day my mother discovered that love meant picking up bloodied, squishy flesh between her fingertips.
His platoon mates lived. Everyone else on the beach lived.
Months to a year later her father traded all they ever had for safe passage on a docked American merchant ship. The conditions of this were that they could not leave until signaled, and that once signaled, theymust immediately leave.
My mother told me they waited weeks on the boat. Rationing. Restless. Her second oldest brother, now the eldest, decided at week three it was all bullshit. He left the boat, saying he would return shortly. He was a rowdy soul who missed running, playing, and the debauchery of chasing women.
Within three hours of her eldest brother leaving, the alarms sounded. The Viet Cong had arrived. The boat left port within minutes. The passage to America was long and arduous. It would be years until my mother would see her brother again, and even longer, still, until she would enjoy a life that resembled anything of her childhood before death.
Her father grew angry. Dissident. He was an old-world, hardened Vietnamese man, heavy on traditions and culture; transplanted into an ever-changing, ever-confusing American world. My mother was fighting a war for feminism she didn’t even know existed. She says if you look closely at her body you can still see the fissures of the bamboo that once struck.
My mother’s mother had lost all six siblings before puberty. Fought for her life, seeking refuge in a mountainside while she watched her own brothers and sisters waste away from famine. One night she fell asleep with a family, and the next morning crawled out under decaying corpses, an orphan.
I don’t know more of her story. But it seems, from my mother’s blood, we are women cursed with the loss of those who we chose to love most.
I was the fifth child my mother and father had. I was the first child my mother did not want.
Before I could remember, my obsession was words. By the time I started kindergarten I read more, faster, and with more vigor and interest than anyone my teachers had seen. I was a Vietnamese American child, speaking in two tongues but consuming only in one. By the time that I was seven I had amassed so many Accelerated Reading points they wrote my name in the newspaper.
I told my mother. It’s going to be on Sunday.
That’s great, baby.
The days before my parents got into a fight. She left home and returned a week later.
I never saw the feature.
My teachers used to write letters to my parents. Paragraphs that had to be stapled to my report cards to obsess over my excellency.
It seems, for every singular word my mother didn’t read about me, I had to read ten thousand more.
When I was nine I looked for a deeper connection to my beautiful mother. I snuck into her nightstand drawers. Found her Danielle Steele. Her collection of Scottish Highlands smut. I traced their embossed covers, studied the Fabio men, long-haired, willowy white women. I opened each book, fingered the spines and read faster than all the records I had beaten at school.
My face went flush. I could hear someone coming up the stairs. I shoved them back into the stacks they belonged. Ran into the master bathroom. Felt the porcelain of the toilet on my forehead. Perhaps a million or more words I had ever read by this time. But never those ones. My mother, too, was a reader. Like me. Different, but the same.
Nightly I would peak at what my mother was reading before bed. Wait until she fell asleep or forgot. Read all the pages. Attempted to understand.
Anything that was my mother’s curiosity was mine. An unperceived, perceptive child.
It is easy to say you love your mother. It is easier, still, for some to say they don’t.
My mother has done my hair a total of three times in my life. The first time I was six. She burned me with a curling iron three times: above the ear, on the side of my ear, and behind my neck. She was curling it because my father’s sister asked her why she never did it. She told me I fidgeted too much and lacked obedience.
The second time I woke up early, for the first time in my life, for the first day of third grade. I begged her. With tears in my eyes. She said no. I said, in front of my father, all of the other mothers do it. She yanked me up the stairs. Pulled my hair aggressively and taut into a pony tail. I can feel the memory of how hard she pushed the bristles into my scalp to smooth it out. Her upper lip was curled and I refused to look in the mirror. The redhead who sat next to me had a fishtail braid, tied with a yellow sunshine gingham ribbon. Her name was Lauren. I pulled my hair out before recess.
The third, and final time I watched her get ready for work. I was in sixth grade. It was the night before picture day. She had rollers in her hair. I told her she was beautiful. She was in a good mood. I told her I wanted to look like her. She preened. She took her leftover rollers and pinned up half my hair. Make sure you sleep still otherwise they will fall out. I nodded. Ok, you know how to do the rest, right? I nodded.
In the morning, we took them out together. I was so happy I could’ve cried. My mother and father told me I looked beautiful. A boy named Wendell told me I looked like a Castlevania character. I didn’t shower for days, trying to keep the feeling. My mother keeps this photo next to my brother’s Air Force one on her car dashboard.
I moved away at eighteen the second I had the chance. I felt vindication. Then guilt. Then shame. Then, only sadness.
There are few things in my life I have found more complicated, more confusing or more painful than the relationship with my mother. I have written one hundred and thirteen letters to my father. Less than a fraction to my mother.
There are always less words to the living.
My mother and father never taught me how to ride a bike, drive a car or race a scooter. There was no participation in bake sales, open house nights or parent teacher conferences. Your report cards were your own secret and dinner was a possibility.
Family time was waiting until 3am when dad came home from work, and attempting to not fall asleep before school.
My mother and father taught me ingenuity. Creativity, strength, the power of sheer will and belief. The lengths a child will go for time and attention.
My mother taught me charm. The magic in the right outfit, the sparkle in a proper lipstick on the right night. She taught me how to make men happy, and, conversely, without control, how to drive them insane. The latter, still, twenty-six years later I struggle with.
My mother taught and guided my sexual spirit. My mother taught me that anything that was not an astounding YES was a resounding NO. My mother taught me that a boy who wanted to dry hump me at seventeen was not a boy who was to be kept or kissed.
My mother taught me that her love for me as a whole was confused, but her need for me to be protected, vigilant, and strong were unquestioned. My mother taught me that my sexuality was mine alone to explore, and there would be no person who could stop or press it. My mother taught me that a colorful life will be lived in between shades of various grey, and that people have varying palettes.
My mother taught me that loss is life, and not living is weakness.
My mother may not have taught me many things, but her lessons were the foundations of thousands more. My mother taught me that, despite her best efforts, if she could not break me, nobody else could.
My mother did not teach me how to be a girlfriend, a wife, or a mother. My parents did not teach me how to be in love, or how to be loved. Only how to stay. How to fight. How to make the walls shake. How to make love. How to scream. How to cry. How to laugh. How to be impulsive. How to break plates. How to buy many fancy cars. How to make a lot of money and do many grand gestures.
My therapist is teaching me how all of these, individually or as a whole, does not equal love. My therapist is teaching me how all of these, individually or as a whole, is not the epitome of love.
My therapist is teaching me how, my story, and my mother’s, does not have to end without love.
My therapist is teaching me how my mother has taught me one of life’s most important lessons: what was once loved can never be lost. That the child can still live, even while the adult forgives.
Why don’t you write more? Everybody always asks me the same question over and over and once more for good measure and once again when they’ve remembered how long it’s been since they’ve asked it last. It’s flattering and kind. It’s sweet, with undertones of wanting, complementary, but naturally so and not forced so–all of the things I’ve ever wanted anybody to say about me. To feel about me.
It’s hard to write this because I don’t really want to, but there is a deep, high-pitched voice in the back of my head that tells me I need to.
There is nothing more unreliable than memory, and nothing more valuable. We are a compilation of stories constantly crafted and rewritten by the second. Walking, unstable machines plagued with the consequences of emotion.
Every person has multiple versions of themselves: our own personalities are split into multiple directors commanding the narratives of who we actually are, who we want to be, and who we believe we are.
Some men are going to look at you and wonder about the others before him. Some people will look at you and summarize the entirety of who you are to the people who’ve touched you, kissed you, fucked you.
I grew up surrounded with the idea that the more of me I shared, the less of me there was left. That I was some kind of pie or cake or confectionary made for consumption. A math problem about how many pieces I could be cut into before there was nothing.
The mark of growing older is the realization that everything you want is just an echo of something you used to have.
People come to me after their loved ones died–looking for solace, asking for comfort, wondering how to reallocate grief.
How do I tell them that there is no answer? That at twelve, the only solace was found underneath damp eyelids and soaked pillows? That the only comfort was the belief in the unconsciousness; that the only allocation of grief was from my heart to my mind until I forced my own, sick, manic responsibility for your death?
There is no refuge for your only fear; there is no answer to your own mortality. One day your heroes will die and become your memories. One day your heroes will die and lay beneath the soil you’ll watch strange men bury. One day your heroes will die–and you’ll be the only part of them left living.
The way you held me the morning after; how you forgot the night before.
I like to pretend that I’m OK–that I’m better now; that what you were was a burn that scabbed and bled but eventually healed.
I can feel the slow palpitations in my heart when someone says a name that sounds like yours.
They remind me of the ones that once echoed into your chest. The ones you used to touch when they surfaced through each of my ribs. The ones that you cultivated in your hands; with your lips–the ones you bred from inside of everything I had once though was mine.
The ones that still belong to you.
So I wonder now: the parts of me that you took; the me that didn’t return.
I’ve been different. Less lovely, less impressive–less in love. More eager, more helpless, more obsessive–more lost.
I remember San Francisco. I remember New York; LA, Miami, but how it’s Toronto, still, that has the you I can’t forget and the me that I could never find.
If I had done nothing wrong, how could we never be right? Which part of me should be thrown away? Which part of me made everything of me worth forgetting?
I want to tell you there’s been nobody after you. Nobody that mattered. Nobody that felt significant. Nobody that reminds me of the 5am through your eyes. The 6am through your lakeside balcony.
The 7am me in your mouth.
Nobody that feels like you at night
and smells of me in the morning.