Kasama

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - ALEXAN­DRA CHANG

See, the liv­ing room’s TV is on. It is al­ways on when the Tse­ung fam­ily is home—and some­times even when they are out—dur­ing, be­fore, and af­ter meals, which are the mark­ers the fam­ily uses to record the pass­ing of each day. Ev­ery­one is home now. The rice cooker is steam­ing. The chil­dren sit on the old grey couch, Jiějie and Mèimei sand­wich­ing Dìdi; they all wear their py­ja­mas and stare at the TV. It is be­fore a meal and the TV is on the car­toon chan­nel play­ing Dìdi’s favourite show, one about boys who col­lect cards that turn into holo­graphic mon­sters in a spe­cially built bat­tle­field where they fight one another for the boys’ en­ter­tain­ment. Dìdi col­lects the cards that the show sells and of­ten takes them out along with his crayons and coloured pen­cils, which he pre­tends are the mon­sters as he clashes them against one another in a messy spread, mak­ing ex­plo­sive noises with his mouth, his small hands whirling around him. His sis­ters of­ten make fun of him, though they se­cretly find his play-act­ing en­dear­ing. Dìdi has thick black hair that grows straight up, and his sis­ters love to graze the palms of their hands against the ends of his hair, which is what Jiějie is do­ing right now as they all watch TV. Māma, who is at the din­ing room table with the pa­per­work, wor­ries that her son is be­ing ex­posed to too much vi­o­lence. Māma knows her­self to be an oc­ca­sion­ally vi­o­lent person. The im­age of her younger daugh­ter curled up in her bed­room closet, and the sound of her older daugh­ter scream­ing, Stop it! flashes in her mind. She had found her­self there, kick­ing Mèimei, tears run­ning down her own face, think­ing, She needs to learn. It felt very far away now and, any­way, she can’t re­mem­ber the crime that had de­served the pun­ish­ment. The pa­per­work is in front of her, on the wooden table­top, and her hus­band is closed off in the back room, where there is a sec­ond TV. The Tse­ung fam­ily is a two-TV house­hold, a holdover from their pre­vi­ous life in the city, though they are no longer able to af­ford rent in the city where the chil­dren can each have their own room, so they have moved to a sub­ur­ban town where the chil­dren still do not have their own rooms—the daugh­ters share a bunk bed and the son sleeps in his par­ents’ room—but at least there are more parks and fields for them to play in and free pub­lic schools with good teach­ers. Māma stares at the pa­per­work and is

about to sign when she feels some re­sis­tance and be­gins to fin­ger the clear Bud­dha prayer beads on her wrist. Bàba is in the back room watch­ing a show about U.S. Navy lawyers in the Wash­ing­ton metropoli­tan area. It is one of his favourite shows and when he watches it, he of­ten imag­ines who he could have been had he been born in this beau­ti­ful coun­try and not across the Pa­cific in China. He could have been a judge ad­vo­cate gen­eral. He could have been rich. He could have been some­body im­por­tant. He could have been mar­ried to a bright, white woman like the blond on screen. He can still be these things, he tells him­self. Or, at least, he could still marry the blond woman. He is not so old yet. He won­ders if his wife has signed the papers. He will miss his wife, prob­a­bly, the way her thick, strong body moves from room to room. He wor­ries that he will never love another woman, that the rest of his life’s love will be ded­i­cated solely to his chil­dren. The worry passes, and he feels nour­ished by the thought; his chil­dren are ev­ery­thing. Then he looks at the TV, and he for­gets what ex­actly it was he felt so nour­ished by and projects those feel­ings back onto the TV woman. The daugh­ters want to be TV women. Not the car­toon women, of course—the real women. There is the beau­ti­ful woman who is al­ways the love in­ter­est. There is the woman who lives next door and likes to gar­den and read, and some­how, al­most mag­i­cally, be­comes the beau­ti­ful love in­ter­est. There is the woman who is a busy doc­tor, who is ex­cel­lent at her job, so, there­fore, is her boss’ love in­ter­est. At this age, they believe that not only can they be her, but that they will be her, de­spite a tick­ling, nag­ging sense that it is un­achiev­able. As they half-heart­edly watch the car­toon their brother so loves, they are dream­ing up their fu­tures, fu­tures in which they live in man­sions and travel to places with names like Cyprus and Cabo San Lu­cas and Boca Ra­ton, though they will later be­come con­fused about what they had dreamt up, whether the main char­ac­ters in their dreams are them or other women. Māma is no longer liv­ing her Amer­i­can dream. She stares at Bàba’s signed name on the papers that will end their dream to­gether. The papers seem to speak to her now and say, You failed at build­ing a good life here. If she failed at build­ing a good life in this coun­try that is so nat­u­rally full of good life, then is it she who is built for fail­ure? It has been more than two years since they lost the shop and have been liv­ing off of sav­ings, along with the lit­tle money Māma now gets paid for her first real job, a part-time book­keep­ing po­si­tion at the lo­cal gro­cery. Her hus­band has

been out of work, his body shrink­ing as he spends more and more time alone in the back room. She be­gins to worry about his health, but as her anxiety builds, it leads her to the usual place, that fa­mil­iar whirlpool of money wor­ries— it’s run­ning out, it’s run­ning out— that seem­ingly end­less fear that drives her sur­vival. There is shared air in the house­hold, and Bàba is taken by a par­al­lel, si­mul­ta­ne­ous fear. He is fear­ing life. How when­ever he fails there is noth­ing to cush­ion or catch him, how he thought he’d made it, only to lose ev­ery­thing again. Next to Bàba is the pi­ano, another relic, some­thing too pre­cious to have sold, an up­right ma­hogany Stein­way with its fall­board closed. On top of the fall­board there is a crack in the lac­quer from an evening when Jiějie had gone to the back room to prac­tice her Hanon ex­er­cises, but it was in the after­math of a fight be­tween Bàba and Māma, and Bàba, in his resid­ual fury, slammed the TV re­mote against the closed lid, yelling, Why can’t you prac­tice ear­lier? Why can’t you ever leave me alone? The pained, con­fused look on Jiějie’s face be­fore she fled the room is re­mem­bered in that crack. Bàba will flee, is his an­swer. He will go far away. Find some­where new and fresh. Find work. Find a dif­fer­ent life. His plans are still bits of fog and dust, but soon they will form into some­thing solid, a ve­hi­cle to trans­port him away from this place that has bro­ken him. There is a part of him that be­lieves he de­serves his lot, that God—what­ever Bàba means by God—has made his life full of hard­ship for a rea­son, like He did for Job. But Bàba is not like Job. Like Bàba, Dìdi has in him a con­stant de­sire to es­cape. Dìdi has run away from home to wan­der the nearby streets, to hide be­neath the weep­ing branches of the neigh­bour­hood mulberry trees, pre­tend­ing he is wild and with­out fam­ily. Now, he sits be­tween his sis­ters, feel­ing the warmth of their bod­ies, Jiějie’s hand graz­ing his hair, and finds their pres­ence both com­fort­ing and suf­fo­cat­ing. He wants to push his sis­ters off him but knows he will get in trou­ble. He re­mem­bers the time when, out of frus­tra­tion dur­ing one of his pre­tend mon­ster clashes, he broke his blue plas­tic ruler in half, and when Mèimei found him there with a piece of ruler clutched in each of his hands, she grabbed them from him and ran out of the house. I buried the pieces, so no­body will find them, she said when she re­turned. Mèimei in­structed him not to say a word about the bro­ken ruler to Bàba or Māma, to say that he didn’t know any­thing about the ruler if they ever asked, though they never did. Dìdi feels some­thing akin to grat­i­tude and now won­ders whether any­thing has sprouted from the ground where the ruler is buried.

The real trou­ble for the Tse­ung fam­ily is only be­gin­ning on this late Satur­day morn­ing. The fam­ily’s money will di­min­ish; four of them, mother and chil­dren, will move out of this two-TV house to a much smaller apart­ment with no TVs; they will strug­gle in their own pri­vate ways and they will oc­ca­sion­ally erupt at one another in their hot frus­tra­tions. But none of this has hap­pened yet, and on this Satur­day morn­ing, Bàba takes another sip of his beer and, in this story we tell our­selves, he looks out­side and he sees that the grass in the small fenced yard is wild and over­grown, that some blue flow­ers, pretty weeds, have sprouted in the cracks of the stone walk­way above that same patch of ground where Mèimei buried Dìdi’s bro­ken ruler. The veil is slowly lift­ing for Māma. She be­gins to un­der­stand that she can­not rely on any­one but her­self. She is about to put her pen to paper and sign her name so that she can be di­vorced from this life that she wanted to be made around her, and she seems to take a sub­stan­tial step to­ward learn­ing how to fail. And us? We will get older, learn our place in this world, our in­vis­i­bil­ity and our in­abil­ity to con­trol the sit­u­a­tions around us. How des­per­ately we will al­ways try. But in this mo­ment, we sit un­aware and mo­men­tar­ily happy. We sit there smelling the scent of freshly cooked rice waft into the liv­ing room.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.