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Angela Tung A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

Recent Work By Angela Tung

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

My brother Greg has always been more daring than I am. When we were kids, he had no problem riding his bike up and down the highest hills, climbing trees nearly to the top, and taking the car out for a license-less spin at 14. But in many ways we’re alike. Shy, uncertain, afraid to try new things, afraid to fail.

 

We see faces in the mountains. An Indian chief with a headdress and war paint. Old men with long white hair and long white beards. Aliens, flat and unknowing.

Perhaps we’ve been looking for too long.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a man shooting up. He knelt at curbside as though praying, his skinny white ass peeking out from his too-tight jeans and too-short shirt. Thwap-thwap-thwap went his needle. We walked away before we could see him do anything. When we returned, he was gone.

In case you didn’t know, puking sucks.

Friday night, my boyfriend Alex and I picked up some food from our favorite Vietnamese place to settle in for a nerdy evening of Fringe and website designing. We feasted happily on our five-spice chicken, kebabs, rice with meat sauce, and imperial rolls.

I took a bite of a roll and knew immediately something was off. The meat was well, sort of pinkish, and the roll wasn’t as delectable as other times. But I dismissed my gut (so to speak) and ate it all, thinking, Even if it’s a little off, my stomach can take it.

Wrong.  Oh so very wrong.



Like Jerry Seinfeld, I’ve had a long non-vomit streak. Nine years ago was the last time, when I caught a nasty stomach bug that had me retching till I burst a capillary in my eye. Since then, somehow, I’ve avoided blowing chunks, even after feasting on raw beef, questionable goulash, and cod sperm sacs (of course not all in one sitting).

Sure, there’ve been close calls. Some bad stop-and-go taxi rides. Some stomach-dropping airplane turbulence. All that spinning in Black Swan. But nothing to actually induce the spew.

For Jerry it was the black-and-white cookie. For me: an undercooked imperial roll.



We finished eating around nine, and I went to bed at midnight. I was tired but didn’t sleep well. Weird thoughts whirled through my head. I kept thinking about my website. In my mind parts of it grew and shrank, like when I was a kid and took too much cough medicine and hallucinated that my curtains were one moment gigantic, and the next, far away, as looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Finally, at about three AM, I woke up. Something is very wrong, I thought, but wasn’t sure what. I had the chills and my belly was distended and felt VERY full, like when I had that stomach bug. It had been six hours since I’d eaten. By then I should have been hungry and fantasizing about breakfast (yes, I fantasize about breakfast).

Lying in the dark, I felt more and more wrong. I began to feel nauseous. Please don’t let it be that, I thought. Anything but that. My period maybe. Or maybe I’m knocked up. But I knew. I remembered my dinner and felt even worse. Maybe I can suck it up. C’mon stomach, just digest it. Digest, damn you, digest!

My stomach did not digest. I ran to the bathroom, and that was that. The beginning of the end.



Why is puke found on the sidewalk Sunday mornings always pink? Or else orange. Is it all those margaritas on an empty stomach?

Puke in movies seems to always be white (unless of course you’re possessed), with the consistency of clam chowder.  In reality, throw-up looks pretty much like a watery version your last meal.

Mine, however, looked exactly like my meal. Whole chunks first of meat sauce, then meat sauce and rice, and along the way, bits of the cursed imperial roll. It also tasted exactly like my meal, only, you know, disgusting.

The one time I was sick in China (don’t eat the shellfish), I disgorged a vertiable rainbow of the food I had eaten that day, in backwards order: bright yellow cornmeal, red cherry tomatoes, pink shrimp, and finally, the culprit, gray mussels.

This weekend my barf was far less pretty.



At four AM, Alex, the night owl, came to bed.

“I barfed,” I told him. “I think it’s food poisoning.”

He felt my forehead for fever. “Are you sure?” he asked. “We ate the same thing, and I feel okay.”

“Maybe it was the meat sauce.” He had skipped the meat sauce.

“Maybe.” He rose to get me some water.

Three hours later, he was running to the bathroom.



I’ve yet to mention the flip side of food poisoning. The other end, so to speak.

The runs. The trots. The Aztec two-step. Yes, diarrhea.

In China I had it coming out both ends. I had to choose: which was worse? There was no right answer.

There is never a right answer.

This time I was lucky enough to have to deal with just the mouth end. Poor Alex, on the other hand, had to contend with both, though, luckily for the both of us, not simultaneously.



When you’re nauseous, you don’t want to puke but you do. You know that afterward you’ll feel tremendous, albeit temporary, relief. While it’s happening, it seems it will never end. You will always be heaving, you will always be gagging.  You will always feel this insufferably bad.

Maybe after this wave, it’ll be over. Maybe after this one. Or this one.

Then when it’s over, you feel, finally, unbelievably good. You’re sweating. You’re shaking. But you’re no longer nauseous.

Till the next time.



For the entire day, we lay unmoving in our bad-pork-induced semi-comas, rising only to toss our cookies, or, in Alex’s case, crap his brains out, or, in my case, dry heave when I had nothing left to hoark.

At noon, we thought about getting up. “I’m going to try,” Alex said. He stumbled into the kitchen to get some water, and immediately returned, collapsing beside me. “Fuck that shit.”

The whole time, even as I fitfully slept, I couldn’t turn off my brain. I kept imagining the food I had eaten the night before, making myself sick again. I kept remembering all the other times I’ve been sick, in chronological order (when I was four and after having just finished a bath, turning to the side and neatly throwing up in the toilet; when I was 13 and got sick off a bad Italian sub; all the countless times I’ve had the flu and lay on the couch feeling queasy; and of course my bout with deadly Chinese shellfish).

I kept thinking about Mischa Barton’s dead-by-Pine-Sol ghost in The Sixth Sense covered in chunder and saying, “I’m feeling much better now.”

And that scene in the movie version of Flowers in the Attic when little Cory Dollanganger, unknowingly being slowly poisoned to death by his wacko mom, says to his big sister, “Cathy, I have to throw up.” (And by the way, have you seen this movie? It’s awful. I mean, really really bad. Yes, sure, take OUT the incest in the movie version of a trashy incest book! That’s why we read it!)

As well as that scene in Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade when Jenny slumps on the bathroom floor sweating after having blown her chicken dinner, and her mother comes in saying (guiltily because they’ve just had a fight), “Oh, honey, you’re sick!” and then her mother takes care of her till she collapses from exhaustion, and I kept thinking, I want my mom too.



Because with both Alex and me lying moaning in bed (and not in a good way), we had no one to take care of us.

No one to run out and get us Pepto-Bismol.

No one to mash up aspirin and put it in a spoonful of orange juice.

No one to refill our glasses of ginger ale.

Of course I haven’t lived with my mother in quite in some time, but I used to live in New York, just an hour’s train ride from my parents’ house in New Jersey, and now I live in San Francisco, three thousand miles away.

Normally, Alex and I are good at taking care of each other, but now we were both incapacitated.

“I’ll get you ginger ale,” he mumbled before passing out again.



Only worse than yacking, is doing so in public. I’ve only done so once (an ill-fated New Year’s Eve when I downed an amaretto sour after sangria), and threatened to do so once, on my first day at a boring internship with a literary agency, when my period was really bad, and the agent’s assistant said, “I hope it’s not because of this job” (it’s not all about you, dude!), and I thought it would be perfectly acceptable to lie down for five minutes in the middle of Broadway (I didn’t), and groaned unabashedly on the entirely too long subway ride from 23rd Street back up to 116th.

When I think about puking in public (as I often do), I think of Christopher Olson, the poor fat kid in my kindergarten class, whom we all made fun of, like the time my best friend Kristin and I pressed ourselves against the wall as we passed him, to stay as far away from him as possible, and our teacher Mrs. Gardner scolded us afterward, and she seemed really mad, and I didn’t understand why.

One thing Chris liked to do was lift his eyebrows up and down, Groucho Marx style. He did it often, especially at the girls, and once he did so at me during music class. He did his eyebrow thing, I turned away, and when I turned back, he had ralphed all over the carpet (it was white by the way, the ralphing, not the carpet).

From then on, I connected eyebrow lifting with ralphing, the way I connected my friend Kristin’s hairy arms with her being Catholic.

I also think of the second grade and my best friend Kari. One moment she was standing there perfectly fine, and the next she was red-faced beside a vomitous orange pool that smelled of Doritoes.



Why is it that as children, we can go from perfectly fine one moment to hurling processed cheese snacks the next? Are we simply not as aware of our bodies? Do we lack the experience to know, the way I did at three o’clock Saturday morning, Houston, we have a problem?



Finally, 15 hours later, we knew it was over. We had puked our last puke, had shat our last shit. We had convulsed our last dry heave.

We could string together coherent sentences. We could sit up and not feel as though we were going to die. We could take some aspirin for our dehydration headaches and down Gatorade and ginger ale. We were even, dare we say, hungry.

Though not for imperial rolls. Never again.



The next morning I called my mother to wish her a happy mother’s day but also, I admit, for some sympathy.

“We were so sick last night!” I said.  “We ate some bad food.”

“Oh no!” she cried.  “That’s too terrible.”

I smiled to myself.  Just what I wanted.  Then she went on.

“You know, you really shouldn’t eat out so much. You should really learn how to cook.”

Thanks, Mom.  I’m feeling much better now.

Falling

By Angela Tung

Memoir

It’s Friday night, and like every Friday night, we go to see Joe’s parents.

On the drive over, Joe calls: “What do you guys want for dinner?” Usually it’s Korean take-out, or occasionally Chinese, though that’s too salty. “Chinese people don’t know how to make rice,” says my father-in-law, no matter how many times I say that restaurant rice isn’t authentic. Tonight it’s Korean.

We lay the food on the table. I set up Joe’s mother’s bowl: duk mandu gook, dumpling soup, over rice. At this time, she can still feed herself, though she’s a bit messy. We don’t care that she’s messy, but Joe’s father fusses over every dropped grain of rice, every dribble of soup.

After dinner, we clear the table and do the dishes. Joe’s parents go up to their bedroom. Joe and I go down to the basement living room.  Joe’s parents don’t have cable so there’s not much to watch though Joe always manages to find some sports game. After an hour, I get sleepy.

In Joe’s old room, I change into my pajamas. There’s little of Joe’s childhood here. Some yearbooks, a few pictures. Mostly it’s his parents’ stuff. The room, like most of the house, feels crowded. His parents like to collect things. Jewelery, pocket watches, fountain pens. Vases, china, grandfather clocks. As the years pass, they collect more and more, and yet their house gets no bigger.

Soon Joe comes upstairs and climbs into bed with me. There are only twin beds in Joe and Billy’s old rooms. I try to sleep but I can’t. I’m squashed. I rise to go to the other room.

“You can’t take one night?” Joe says. He thinks that a husband and wife should always sleep in one bed, no matter how uncomfortable, the way he thinks of many things, that there is only one right way.

“Sorry,” I whisper, and steal down the hall. I stretch out on the empty twin. Outside a brook gurgles; somewhere a clock ticks. I sleep.




Joe’s father runs an acupuncture clinic on Saturdays. Some weekends, he has clients at the house. Once I met one, the daughter of his friends.

“What do you do?” I asked her before remembering she had been a trader on Wall Street before having a stroke at 35.

She bristled.  “I stay home with my daughter,” she said.

“That’s great!” I said. I’m not one of them, I wanted to say. I don’t care what you do.

By the time we’re awake, Joe’s father is already out the door. At Joe’s parents’, everyone showers and dresses immediately upon waking, even on the weekends. At my parents’, we lounge in our pajamas, drinking coffee and chatting, till almost noon.

While Joe picks up breakfast, I help his mother shower. I used to be afraid to be alone with her. I didn’t know how to hold her, and was nervous she’d fall. But now I know.

First, I take her feet from the bed and turn them to the floor. Next I take her by her left arm and hand, and lift her up to sitting. I shift my hand to her armpit, and help her stand. Then we walk.

When you walk, you don’t realize how you move. You don’t know you lift one foot while pushing off with the other, then again with the opposite foot, then again, and again. People with Parkinson’s disease get stuck, like cars revving in mud.

Joe’s mother is stuck now.  “C’mon, Mom!” I say. “One, two, three!”

She tenses. I know she’s trying. “Right foot,” I say instead, like a drill sergeant. “Right foot, left.”

Still nothing. She begins to drool.

“C’mon, Mom.” I nudge at the backs of her ankles, but she’s rooted. Instead of lifting, she pushes, digging deeper into the floor. All of her socks have holes in the same places.

I get in front and take her by both hands, the way Billy does.  Joe doesn’t like it. “She’ll fall like that,” he says, although Billy is a physician and knows these things. But Billy isn’t here now.

In front isn’t working. I inch her forward, but her lower half doesn’t move, which means she’ll fall. The last resort. I get behind her, line up our legs, and stick my arms under her hers. Then I walk her like a giant puppet. She doesn’t like this, embarrassed by the proximity of our bodies, though by that point I wonder how either of us can feel embarrassed about anything.

In the bathroom I attach her hands to the towel rack while I pull down her sweatpants and underwear. Then I sit her on the toilet. While she goes, I pull off her sweatshirt, undershirt, sweatpants, underwear, and socks. The whole time I keep my eyes averted. Her medicine had taken away her appetite so that she’s mostly bones. Her legs are broomsticks, her spine like dinosaur scales. Only her stomach is fleshy, a wrinkled yellow paunch.

When the water’s ready, I stand her up and get her in the shower. There’s always a moment of panic as she steps over the metal threshold. I’m always afraid her ankle will catch and she’ll cut herself, or worse, she’ll trip and, slippery and out of my reach, I won’t be able to stop her from falling. She doesn’t fall. She steps over the threshold, turns herself, and sits on her plastic chair.

At this time she can still wash herself. Later she won’t be able to. Later she’ll get so bad, she won’t be able to feed herself so that one of us will have to cut up her food, put it in her mouth, wait for her to chew, to swallow, give her a sip of water, then start again.

If this is what it’s like to have a child, I’ll think, then I don’t want one.



After the water shuts off, I return to the bathroom. I dry her off and get her dressed. I comb her hair. You can always tell who’s taken care of her by the way her hair is combed. The caretakers and I let it fall into its natural part and cowlicks. Joe and her husband part it severely and slick it back. Billy takes the time to blow it dry.

I bring her to the sink. She holds onto the edge while I brace my body against hers. My hands free, I can ready her toothbrush. I hand it to her and she brushes her teeth.

“Take your time,” I tell her. The longer she takes, the more time passes, and the closer we are to leaving. In the walls of my mind are taped the hours of the day. Twelve, eleven, ten, nine. In my mind I cross out each one. She spits and rinses many times.  Parkinson’s hinders swallowing so that her mouth is always full of saliva and phlegm. I wait.

I walk her back into the bedroom and onto her bed, easier now that her muscles have warmed.  I smooth moisturizer on her face, over and around, like a facial. I put lotion on her hands. I rub Ben Gay into her bad leg. Billy says this is no use. There’s no muscle there, only bone, but she says it helps. I wash my hands for a long time, the Ben Gay tingling the webs of my fingers.

I’ve bought a book on Parkinson’s disease. There are exercises to help keep limbs loose and supple, and I perform these on Joe’s mother after her shower.

“You should do these on your own,” I tell her, bending one of her knees, then the other. “You should get Wanda to help you.” Wanda is her caretaker during the week.

She shrugs, and I know she won’t, though she appreciates my efforts.

Joe comes home then.  I smell fresh coffee and fried potatoes. “Your wife practices damned good medicine,” she tells him. “My doctor said he could tell someone has been exercising me.”

I smile. But then Joe says to his mother, “You should have been exercising this whole time.” He returns downstairs.



I help her take her medicine. Joe thinks she takes too much. “You were a physician,” he says, “and you pop Sinemet like candy.” Sinemet is for stiffness. She does seem to take a lot, but sometimes she takes only half. Then again I don’t know what she takes when I’m not there.

Joe and his father are especially afraid she’ll take too much Valium, which is for extreme stiffness.  “I’m freezing,” she says moments before an attack.

“You’re not freezing,” Joe always corrects her, although that’s what my book calls akinesia. “Freezing is very cold. You’re just stiff.”

I recognize many symptoms from the book. There’s ataxia, or loss of balance. Dysphagia, difficulty in swallowing. There’s dyskinesia, that extra, involuntary movement from too much dopamine, such as that found in Sinemet. There’s the resting tremor I see in her chin right before akinesia. I often know that freezing is coming before she does. I can try to calm her down before she starts to panic.

They keep the Valium where she can’t reach it – in my father-in-law’s study, on the top shelf.  Usually I give in, figuring five mgs is so little. But sometimes I resist.

“Wait five minutes,” I tell her. “Let me watch this show till a commercial, and then I’ll get your pill.” For the next five minutes, she moans. Sometimes she cries.

I don’t think I’m being cruel.

For now though she’s not freezing and doesn’t need her Valium.  I bring her downstairs.




Joe has already cut up his mother’s eggs, sausage, and hashbrowns. He studies the box scores intently as he eats his own breakfast.

I close my eyes and sip my coffee.  Soon I’ll feel better.  “If you feel like going out,” I tell Joe, “go ahead.”

Sometimes he buys groceries for his parents, or hits a few golf balls, or goes to an aquarium store. We can manage without him, and when he returns, he’s more relaxed and less angry. Besides, he comes to his parents’ again on Sunday, although his dad is around, and I do not.

“Maybe,” he says.

After he finishes eating, he stands and stretches.  “Maybe I will go hit a few golf balls,”

I nod.

When Joe is gone, his mother and I sit in the kitchen and finish our coffee. She often tells the same stories over and over, how people have wronged her – her siblings, her husband, her mother-in-law. When she’s clear, she makes sense. But sometimes she tells the stories in circles. She reaches a point, then says the same point again and again, like her foot digging into the floor.

Other symptoms I know about now are hallucinations, delusions, and dementia.  Before this, I believed everything she said, like how as a girl she often visited a beautiful garden, where once a strange woman gave her a red coat. Or how at her medical school graduation the same woman appeared, bearing a white rose, the woman who is supposedly her real mother, not the woman who raised her, several years’ dead, but a woman who gave her up during the war, wealthy beyond our imaginations, living in nearby Connecticut, ignoring her daughter while she’s been sick for some unimaginable reason.

I believed my mother-in-law when she said this woman called her one day out of nowhere, after years of no contact, to ask if she wanted to get together for a cup of tea. When she said she pulled up to their house in a limo in the middle of the night.

“Your father-in-law told me,” she said, and pointed at the window. “He was standing right there. He said, ‘Your mother’s here.‘”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It wasn’t a dream?”

She was crying. “It was real.”

I wanted to believe her.  It seemed possible, not like probing aliens or talking dogs.  Later I found out for sure.

“Do you know what she said?” said my father-in-law one night at dinner. “That her mother came here, in a limo! And that I was the one who told her!”

She glanced at me. I didn’t know if her look meant she’d been caught, or see, her husband was in on it too.

“You’re like my daughter,” she says now.  “You’re like me.”

I don’t answer.




We finish our coffee and return upstairs. I turn on the TV and find a cartoon we both like. Next we’ll watch a cooking show, and then maybe Antiques Roadshow, her favorite.

“That’s our cake platter!” she’ll cry, pointing a wavering hand at the screen. “That’s my ring!” In her mind, her wealth grows.

To keep my hands busy, I darn the holes in her socks. She falls asleep, and Joe returns with lunch.  I bring his mother down; we eat.  I bring his mother upstairs; we watch more TV.  She sleeps again.  I fold laundry.  She wakes up, chin trembling, and panics till I give her Valium.

Three o’clock.  Four.  When will Joe’s father come home?  We don’t know.  He never calls.  He doesn’t feel he has to.

Five, and it’s getting dark.  “Stay for dinner,” Joe’s mother says.

I feel the walls of my head closing in. I want to leave, to breathe, to be in my house with my husband.

“I don’t know,” I say.

Finally, Joe’s father walks in.



By the time we get home it’s almost eight.  I’m exhausted.

“I feel like going gambling,” Joe says.  He’s looser now.  We’ve put in our time at his parents’, and he can, at least for now, release his guilt.  “Wanna go?”

I don’t gamble.  “I’ll be bored,” I say.

“I’ll get us a room at the hotel,” he says.  “I have enough points.”

He knows that if I go, I’ll want to say at the casino hotel.  That way, I can wander the gambling floor and head up to the room whenever I want.  That way, I know he’s right nearby.

“You’re sure?” I ask.

He picks up his phone.  He’s smiling now, humming a tune.  In a few moments we have a free room.  “A deluxe corner,” he says.

I feel myself getting excited.  I’ll eat some bad food, watch TV, take a bath.  Maybe Joe will win some money, and we can go shopping the next day.

We throw together an overnight bag, and head down to the car.  As we get in, he says, “I love you, honey, I really do.”  He turns on the motor and we’re off.

This is why I stay.


Excerpted from the author’s memoir, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl.

The Road

By Angela Tung

Memoir

The turtle is the biggest dead animal I’ve ever seen.  I’ve seen plenty of birds – a smashed robin at curbside, a wren worn to its skeleton in our garden – but they were nothing like this. Shell smashed, each square outlined by orange flesh. I think of pumpkins, destroyed, on Mischief Night.

“Who’s gonna clean it up?” someone asks.

“The Russos,” Barbara says. “Or the Tungs. Since it’s in front of their houses.”

The Russo boy is only in kindergarten so he isn’t at the bus stop with us older kids, but we are, the Tungs, my brother and I. We’re there, yet the kids speak of us as if we aren’t.

“What do you think killed it?” a boy asks.

“A van,” someone offers.

“A truck.”

“A big rig!”

Another boys scoffs, “A big rig wouldn’t even fit down this street.”

“The Tungs or Russos should clean it up,” Barbara says again, definitively, as though she has final say.

Neither of us answers. We both hate and fear Barbara, and never talk to her.

Our street is small and quiet. You can roller skate up and down, up and down, and never worry about cars. Now we stand right in the middle and stare at the turtle till the bus comes.



“There’s a big dead turtle in front of our house,” I tell Noah.

It’s Saturday, and we’re at Noah’s house. We play together every week when our parents get together for mah-jongg, but we don’t go to the same school. I wish we did. “How big?” Noah asks without looking up. He’s putting together an elaborate race track for his Matchbox cars.

“Really big,” I say.

“This big!” says my brother, spreading his arms wide.

“And it’s orange,” I say.

Now Noah looks up. “Orange? Turtles are green.”

“Some parts are orange.”  I pause, then add: “I saw a fly eat it.”  This isn’t true but it could be.

Now he looks intrigued. Usually it’s at Noah’s house that we find something new. Atari, an expensive board game, the newest Star Wars action figure. Now it’s at ours.

“I want to see,” he says, then jumps up and runs into the next room. “Mom! Can we go to Angela and Greg’s house?”

“We can go tomorrow,” his mother says over the roaring of the mah-jongg tiles.

“No, now! ”

Ai ya, don’t fuss.”

He comes back pouting. “We can go tomorrow. Let’s play capture the flag.”



Noah’s backyard is vast.  Ours is cut off by a wood, which makes our yard seem small, but we like walking in the wood, pretending we’re in Narnia or Teribithia, emerging with our shoes covered in burrs.

In front of Noah’s house is a a highway. Cars drive fast, and in both directions. No one needs to tell us not to go there.

Whenever we go out to play, Noah’s neighbors emerge to join us. Billy is my brother’s age, and is both the tallest and dumbest of everyone. He looks normal but talks slowly, and has a hard time understanding the rules of new games. He cries when Noah yells at him.

Billy’s yard is divided from Noah’s by a chainlink fence. Beyond the fence, we can see his yard scattered with toys, broken bicycles, moldy-looking lawn chairs. Billy’s beautiful but dirty white husky, Sasha, follows us barking as we run up and down Noah’s yard.

“Careful,” Billy says whenever any of us gets too close. “She bites.”

Richard and Robert are brothers and Chinese like us, but their parents don’t play mah-jongg. They don’t let Richard and Robert watch TV during the week, only on weekends, and they don’t let Robert, who is hyperactive, have sugar. I think Richard must not have sugar either, he’s so skinny. He wears glasses and not only has to get straight A’s, he has to get 100%’s on all his tests, or else he gets into trouble.

Robert is less smart. He’s only six, but I can already tell. He looks and sounds like a monkey, chattering in a high-pitched voice I can barely understand. His nostrils are often plugged with green-gray snot.

We play all afternoon, stopping only to dash into our houses and scarf down dinner. We play until long after dark.

After dark we catch lightning bugs. Noah and I are both good at this. We pluck the floating lights easily from mid-air. My brother and Billy are medium-good, though my brother once almost swallows one as he’s running. Robert squashes the bugs dead, but still glowing, between his grimy fingers.

Richard is best. He stands still and holds out his skinny arms, and one by one, the fireflies land on him. His hands and shoulders, even his head. They blink like Christmas lights.

“Richard!” a voice shouts across the lawn. Their back door opens, an adult shadow in a square of light. “Robert! Come home now!”

Richard shakes himself and the fireflies drift away. “Bye,” he says.

“Bye, bye, bye!” chugs Robert, running in circles before he follows his brother home.

“We should go inside too,” Noah says. We start up the grass, Billy close behind us. Noah stops.

“Go home, Billy,” Noah says.

Billy hesitates.

“Go home, Billy!” Noah says again. We rush inside and close the door behind us.

The bright lights and noise are a shock. I rub my eyes as Noah and my brother sit at the kitchen table and start eating potato chips. Cupping my face to the window, I see that Billy is still there. Lightning bugs twinkle around him, but none of them land.



Noah never gets to see the turtle. He’s forgotten he has soccer practice on Sundays, and by Monday, all that’s left is a greasy spot. Cars drive over it as though nothing happened, but we kids avoid it for a long time. For a long time, we remember.



I used to be friends with the girls at the bus stop.  Barbara, Michelle, and April.  They’re a year younger than I am, but I liked to play with them.  We rode our bikes or explored the wood.  Once Michelle and I found an old chicken coop.  Another time Barbara and I found a pumpkin field and, not knowing the field actually belonged to someone, helped ourselves.  We told other kids about it, who also helped themselves and would eventually get chased away by the farmer.

“He had a rifle,” said a boy on the bus.  He looked right at me as he said it, as though it were my fault, and for a moment I felt a thrill, as though I were famous.

Last year, Barbara and the others suddenly decided they didn’t like me anymore. They call me and my brother chink and ching-chong. Barbara especially, whose blond hair is always greasy and who has several dirty-faced little brothers who run wild through the neighborhood.

One day at school my brother tells Barbara to fuck off.  He’s going to the bathroom when he sees her.  As they pass, he looks right at her and says, “Fuck you fuck you fuck you.”  She stiffens and says nothing.

But nothing changes after this.  At the bus stop, Barbara and the others are the same.



Weeks pass. The days are the same, but not.

Noah tries to teach me chess. Each piece moves differently, and I can’t remember which does what, only that the pawn moves one space. Noah gets frustrated with me and gives up.

In the wood behind our house, we find a huge cocoon of gypsy moth caterpillars. We poke at it with a stick till it breaks open and caterpillar after caterpillar tumble out on long silk strings.

Noah gets cable TV. I see my first music video (“Freeze Frame” by The J. Geils Band) and my first movie with nudity (Looker, with Susan Dey). We watch Clash of the Titans again and again.

At our house, we discover our swing set is full of wasps. Somehow they have burrowed into the hollow metal tubes and laid their eggs. While we’re playing, they come buzzing out.

At our house, Noah falls. We’re walking on top of the edge of the couch, pretending we’re in the circus. Noah slips, tumbles, and cracks his head on the coffee table. He screams and all the adults come running. His parents hover over him while my mother yells at me.

“How could you let that happen?” she screams. “Why were you doing that? What were you thinking?”

It wasn’t my idea, climbing on the couch like that.  In fact it was Noah’s, but this is my mother’s house, and so somehow it’s her fault, which means it’s my fault too.

At Noah’s house, Robert gets hit by a car. He and Billy are playing together when their ball rolls into the highway. None of us are there. We’re still in school, or doing homework, or with friends. None of us are there to look out for Robert, the youngest. To yell, “Robert, stop!” and grab him by the scruff of the neck. Perhaps Billy said, weakly, “We’re not supposed to cross the street,” but no one listens to Billy and so he’s not surprised when Robert doesn’t either.

My mother tells me this one Saturday morning. We’re both in our pajamas. She has a mug of coffee near her face.

“Robert’s dead,” she says.

“Oh,” I say.

I think of the turtle, but I can’t imagine Robert like that. I can’t imagine Robert being dead. My father’s mother died the year before. Lauren Marcus’ father died that winter. She’s the only kid in class, that I know of, with a dead parent. She was gone for a long time. When she came back, she didn’t talk to anyone, just sat at her desk with her face against her palm, making doodles. Lauren’s father will never come back, and neither will my grandmother, and neither will Robert.

This is all it means to me, being dead. You don’t come back.



The news of Robert’s death is so big, it travels outside our world, beyond the ears of Chinese people.

“Did you hear about that kid who got killed on the highway?” someone on the bus says.

I’m surprised to hear this, the way I was surprised when the boy looked at me when he talked about the pumpkins and the farmer with the rifle. I’m always surprised when I discover I and my world are not invisible.



We still play with Noah. Billy still comes over. He doesn’t seem any different. No one says it was his fault. How can it be? Everyone knows how he is.

We don’t see Richard. He must be busy, we think. Soon he’ll be in junior high, and he won’t have time to play at all.

We see his parents once. We’re pulling into Noah’s driveway when they emerge from their own car. It’s a gray day, and the wind blows as they hurry into the house.

“There they are,” my father murmurs.

They look right at us: Please don’t see us seeing you. They shut the door behind them. We never see them again.



One night at mah-jongg, Noah’s mother and my mother have a fight.  My mother has won yet again.  She wins easily but never brags.  Noah’s mother, fed up with losing, throws her chips at my mother from across the table.

“Take your damned chips,” she says.

The silence is palpable.  Someone attempts a joke.  “You’ll put someone’s eye out with those!”  My mother and Noah’s mother don’t speak for the rest of the game, and for many years afterward. We don’t see Noah again for a long time.



I wish I could say Barbara and I had a confrontation. But we never do. The most that happens is that one day, she comes to our door. When I answer it, she looks nervous.

“I’m selling magazine subscriptions,” she explains.

My eyes narrow. I’m in high school now. I have a large circle of beautiful friends. We walk down the hall, side by side, an impassable wall of hair spray and Jovan musk. Barbara’s still in junior high. She’s gotten fat.

“But you don’t have to buy one,” she says quickly. “I’ll just put down that I talked to you.”  She scribbles on her clipboard, then runs off.

It’s in high school that I see Richard again, in the hallways, between classes. He’s an only slightly bigger version of his same skinny, bespectacled self. I should see Noah too, but now he goes to private school. The next time we see him will be many years later, after we’ve grown up.

I see Richard once face-to-face. My friends and I go to see the school play, Grease, and Richard is collecting tickets. I’m surprised to see him wearing a drama club T-shirt.

“Tickets please!” he says busily.

Will he recognize me? I wonder as we approach him. People don’t usually, even with my being one of only half a dozen Asian kids in the whole school.

“Tickets please!” Richard says again. Barely looking at me, he takes mine and rips it smartly in half.  Handing the stub back to me, he moves onto the next person.  “Tickets please!”

Without another word, my friends and I leave him.  We disappear into the darkness of the theater.  Over my shoulder I see Richard framed in the doorway, his T-shirt bright with light.

I’m thinking I need to start thinking so I can write a piece called, “What I Think About When I Should be Thinking About Nothing While I’m Doing Yoga.” I’m thinking I need to write this because while I should be thinking about nothing during yoga, while I should be focusing on the present, focusing on my breathing, I inevitably start thinking. I think writing about it will help me stop. Thinking that is.

The only pets I’ve ever had were hamsters. My friend Adam was the first to get them, a pair of fluffy teddy bears who did adorable things like stuff their cheeks full of food, run around in plastic orange balls, and sit calmly in Adam’s fist as he stroked their heads.

I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.

Not so with stories.

* * *

I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.

In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:

[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.

It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.

No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.

* * *

In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.

Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.

At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:

July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.

July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.

July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.

Six months later, I could only write about it in third person.  It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.

* * *

“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.

I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment.  One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”

In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well.  To see my life as a story and myself as a character.  I needed the grief to be outside instead of in.  My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.

But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.

Paying a visit to Bittertown.  Even after you leave, you still smell like it.

* * *

This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.

I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.

Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there.  I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.

When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.

For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.

As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).

Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.

I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.

* * *

But remnants of the bitterness remained.

Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.

Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.

A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!

HOORAY!

Yeah.

Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.

And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.

I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.

I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.

* * *

Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?

Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.

Gang Girls

By Angela Tung

Memoir

I was 20 and still a virgin the summer I met the gang girls.

Karen was Chinese and from Queens. Yumiko was Japanese, beautiful, and cursed like a Brooklyn dockworker. They both smoked.

My first day, Yumiko hollered at her boyfriend Pip, who was Filipino and also worked in shipping: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!”

Pip jumped ten feet, and we all laughed, but still Yumiko said, when my boss came by, “I think I scared her.”

“You didn’t,” I said. Yumiko didn’t answer.

The truth was she and Karen did scare me, but not in the way that they thought. While I knew they could kick my ass from here to the Cloisters, I was more scared of what they thought of me, the suburban Asian girl with a voice like a newscaster’s.

I’d just finished my sophomore year, and was living by myself on campus. I needed alone time, lots of it, away from roommates, fighting friends, and nitpicking parents. In the evenings I’d run on our gym’s track, then have some sad semblance of a dinner concocted from the local market’s salad bar, toast, cream cheese, and canned sardines. TV-less, I’d write in my journal, filling page after page with daily minutiae, and I’d read the books we got at work.

My internship was in editorial. Everyone else in editorial was white. While Karen and Yumiko answered phones and click clacked through inventory on their green screen computers, we read dozens of books – or book jackets at least – and wrote pithy blurbs to go into little catalogs that went out to snobby bibliophiles once a quarter. When the World Wide Web came around a couple of years later, our little operation would be rendered obsolete.

Till then we worked on the same floor as the fancy schmancy New York Review of Books. Its one-armed editor was our editor too; the son of the poet Adrienne Rich was on its staff. Spotting him was almost like spotting a celebrity.

“Do you even speak Chinese?” Pip asked me.

I wasn’t afraid of Pip. “Yes,” I said.

“You don’t sound like you do.”

“How should I sound, Pip?”

He shrugged.

I was two when we moved from Oakland to Queens. We lived in Queens for exactly one year before making our escape to the suburbs of New Jersey. Now that I was going to college in Manhattan, I wondered how I’d have turned out if we had stayed in the city. I might have gone to Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. I might be tougher and less shy.

Or I might be completely sheltered, like my classmates from Chinatown who stayed on campus all week and went home every weekend, who had never been to the American Museum of Natural History or the Met.

“Never?” I squeaked. I’d been to each at least four or five times, between class trips and sojourns with my father.

They shrugged. School for them was about getting straight A’s and passing the Regents. Their dads were too busy working 24/7 to take them anywhere.

Karen and Yumiko weren’t in college although they graduated from Stuy, one of the city’s top magnet schools. Straight A’s weren’t their thing. Cutting class was, and dating Chinese gang members. The Ghost Shadows, the Flying Dragons. They recognized half the guys in the mug shots of a Chinatown history book I brought in. They knew someone who knew someone who knew the Uncle Seven, the Canal Street Godfather.

The boys in my high school played lacrosse. They wore pink sweaters thrown over their shoulders and loafers without socks. The girls were grade grubbers or cheerleaders. Some were grade grubbers and cheerleaders. One group of goody-two shoe Chinese girls who all ended up at Cornell had been dubbed “the Chinese mafia,” though they probably would have shat twice and died being anywhere near the likes of Karen and Yumiko.

* * *

The first time I heard the term “banana” was freshman year. I saw a flyer for a rap session: “Bananas: A White Man’s Best Friend?” I had no idea what a “banana” was or how it could be anyone’s friend, but it was hosted by a club called the Asian Women’s Coalition, which sounded pretty cool to me.

The room was packed. Apparently being a banana, or not, was a big deal. People argued about what it meant to be Asian – not just Asian, Asian American. What if you didn’t speak the language? What if you preferred dating white guys? What if you had a Texan accent like the Korean guy sprawled across the radiator? What about assimilation? Gentrification? Wasn’t this a melting pot? No, a mosaic!

I still didn’t know what a banana was.

Finally, someone asked: “I’m sorry but what is a banana exactly?”

The woman running the show snorted. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Someone else answered, thankfully: “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”

Ooooh.

Was I a banana then? In junior high I did wish I were white, but now I didn’t. Was I residual banana? Was that a thing? Would I lose points in the game of early ’90s Political Correctness? What would I get if I won?

* * *

There were girls like Yumiko and Karen at my college too, I realized. Like my friend Rosana who once when I playfully punched her on the shoulder, stiffened like she was trying her hardest not to knock my block off. Who hit the deck whenever she heard a car backfiring. Who told me, “I’d have beat you up every day in high school,” after seeing a photo of me with long straight hair, pearls, and a Laura Ashley dress.

Like her friend Mei who was 80 pounds soaking wet but still threatened to pummel my roommate Judy for always staring at her dyed blonde hair.

“You have to stop, Judy,” I told her.

“I can’t help it!” she cried. “What Asian has blonde hair?”

The kind who can kick your ass.

* * *

The more I got to know the gang girls, the less they scared me.

Like me, Karen was learning Mandarin. We discussed characters, drawing them in the air or on our hands. Yumiko spoke Japanese fluently, and her voice would go all soft and flowy when she talked on the phone with her mom. But while I felt I understood them better, I knew they still didn’t get me.

“Okay, Angela, I have to know,” said Yumiko one day out of the blue. “Do you only date white guys?”

I hadn’t dated any guys by then. Had never even been kissed. I’d been on two (disastrous) dates, both in college. At the end of the first one, the guy left me at two in the morning to walk the two blocks home by myself. The other was a literal blind date with a blind guy, who I wanted to like because he was a musician and poet, but in the end couldn’t get past his girth, the way his eyes rolled in opposite directions, and his long pale fingers that were always moving – on his beard, over the platter of Ethiopian food, across the table reaching for my hand.

I thought of mentioning my crush Bernard, an engineering student. Like me, he was an American-born Chinese from the ‘burbs – Long Island in his case – and till college had had mostly white friends. I called him all the time although my mother warned me not to be too eager. What I didn’t know was that summer he was courting a girl from Taiwan, a girl who always wore dresses, and never swore, and covered her eyes during violent or sexy scenes in movies. What I didn’t know was that to Bernard, I might as well have been another guy.

“Race doesn’t matter to me,” I said.

Yumiko exhaled streams of smoke through her delicate nostrils. I knew she didn’t believe me.

The truth was Bernard was the first Chinese guy I liked. Till then my crushes were Jewish, Italian, and plain white. To me, Asian guys were like my brothers, my cousins, kids I’d known since diapers.

Till Bernard of course.

* * *

I grew to like the smell of cigarette smoke. I filched one of Karen’s and tried smoking it in my room. I watched myself in the mirror. I liked how the cigarette looked in my hand, but plumes kept rolling uncontrollably out of my nose.

I kept calling Bernard. I kept writing in my journal. I wrote about something that happened that was so upsetting, I ripped the paper with my pen. I can’t even remember what it was. One of those random racist things from some guy on the street.

I told Bernard how I tore the paper getting so mad.

“That’s. . .scary,” he said.

We were on the phone. “What’s scary?” I asked. “What happened?”

“No,” he said. “That you got so mad.”

I snorted. “Didn’t you throw a glass against the wall once because you were mad?”

“Yeah, but I’m a guy.”

I twirled the phone cord. I should have said something – to Bernard, to the guy on the street. The gang girls would have. Karen, Yumiko, Rosana, Mei. They’d have flipped the bird at least. They’d have composed a cacophony of curses; they’d have thrown something, called up an old boyfriend just sprung from jail.

“You should get out more,” I said. Then I laughed. It was a joke, see? Maybe you’ll still like me. “So what else did you do today?”

Word

By Angela Tung

Appreciation

These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears. – William Shakespeare

The bird is the word. – The Trashmen

 

 

I love my job.

I love my job because it’s not my old job. At my old job, you were expected to dress, talk, and act a certain way. You were expected to be a team player.

First let me say that this is not a criticism of music writers or music writing as a genre. Far from it. To all of you music writers, I say, Rock on. Tons of people read your stuff, and will talk to you about it till the cows come home. But I won’t be one of them.

Not because I’m some sort of snob, or only read “literature.” (Please: I read celebrity gossip every day. Blind items revealed? Squee!) No. It’s because I don’t know shit about music. Like sports, most music is simply beyond my knowledge, so when you write about the best this or the worst that, or the top ten whatever, I’ll enjoy the writing, metaphors, and anecdotes, but I’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about.

Case in point: a conversation I had with potential roommates many moons ago in Boston:

    Roommate Seeker: We don’t want someone who will be blasting Molly Hatchet into the wee hours.

    Me: I won’t do that.  I don’t even know who she is!

These are the top 10 most played songs on my iPod:

  • Hombre, MIA
  • My Love, Justin Timberlake
  • SexyBack, Justin Timberlake
  • All Nite (Don’t Stop), Janet Jackson
  • No Hay Igual, Nelly Furtado
  • Lose Control, Missy Elliot
  • Hollerback Girl, Gwen Stefani
  • Clocks, Coldplay
  • I’m a Slave 4 You, Britney Spears
  • Yummy, Gwen Stefani

In addition to being several years old, my most played playlist runs the gamut from dance music, to dance music, to whatever Coldplay is. I could make the excuse that I switched computers and haven’t had a chance to update my library, that I usually use my iPod for working out, that, I swear to God, I also have the Black Keys, Elbow, Corinne Bailey Rae, and tons more Amel Larrieux, but what it comes down to is: 1) does it have a good beat and 2) can I dance to it?

Like picnics, flip flops, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, music is something I know I should be into, but I’m just not. When I say “into” I mean really love. Can’t live without. I like music, and am appreciative to my iPod for drowning out inane/crazy conversations on the train and bus, but I’m not into it. I don’t worship bands. I don’t go out of my way to see anyone perform.

I could say I like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but really it’s just that one song. Ditto the White Stripes. I couldn’t tell you if Meg White is a good drummer or not, and I don’t care. I can’t tell you anything about the chick from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, except that she’s part Korean. Like a blind baby bird, I consume what MTV and the airwaves feed me.

I’m lazy.

I played piano for eleven years. This doesn’t mean I know about music. I can read notes; I can tell major from minor.

My boyfriend has four guitars, a bass, and a bass six. Oh excuse me, I mean a bass VI. He has two ukeleles and several harmonicas. He’s the one who bought us the keyboard. He went to music school after losing his job in the financial meltdown. He loves music. He remembers lyrics and tunes decades later. For instance:

    Well I guess it would be nice

    If I could touch your body

    I know not everybody

    Has got a body like you

Not exactly some-lyricist-who-writes-interesting-lyrics, but I sure as hell can’t remember lyrics like that, at least not for a song I haven’t listened to since I was 14 and wore my belt on the outside of my shirt.

He says, “Listen to this, I’m getting so much better,” and plays some notes. I nod and smile, and say, “Yes, you’re so much better,” but really, I can’t tell the difference.

“Listen to this amp,” he says. “Listen to that one. Which sounds better?”

I have no idea.

“These guys are bad ass!” he says of some band I’ve, yet again, never heard of, and I say, “Yes, they sure are,” but I can’t tell the difference.

We go to Amoeba Records – The World’s Largest Independent Record Store! – and he walks away with five to seven to ten CDs every time, and I’ve never bought a single one. I wander the aisles, looking for artists I know. Look, the Eurythmics! Ace of Base! Kelly Clarkson!

“Maybe there’s something in classical you’ll like,” the boyfriend says, since I am after all, “classically trained” (ha!) and I shrug and smile, and wander down those less crowded aisles, and while I recognize the composers, I can’t remember the names of their songs. I don’t cream my jeans because so-and-so is the solo flautist for some performance though apparently she’s a famous enough flautist to warrant a glowy glamour shot for the CD cover. I don’t get all emotional over a particular performance, like a guy I once dated who played me Glen Gould’s “Goldberg Variations,” and kept murmuring, “Listen to that, isn’t that amazing? Well isn’t it?” and I’d feel at once inferior and annoyed because although I could tell, yes, that’s pretty, and maybe, that’s some phrasing! I didn’t feel moved enough to say, “Yes! That is amazing!” because worse than feeling like I should be into music is being told that I should be into music, which is the same as being told how to feel about anything, like when the same guy thought I should be upset when he “confessed” that his ex-girlfriend was half-Chinese, and I’m Chinese, so surely I should think he’s only dating me because I remind him of his ex, which I didn’t till he mentioned it.

Anyway.

As far as I can tell, music writing seems to be about not just music but the experience of it. My life changed the night I was at this bar and heard this band! When I read a sentence like that, my brain goes to sleep, because not only is reading about music boring, seeing it live is boring too.

Live music is boring.

There! I said it! I am officially uncool!

Unless I have my keister parked in a comfy seat, the show starts on time, and lasts no more than an hour (two’s okay with an intermission), I’ll be annoyed and bored. There’s nothing worse than standing around forever in some bar, waiting for a show that starts late, and then it’s really really loud, and it’s some band I never heard of, and you can’t talk because it’s so fucking loud. And I can’t even drink that much because I’m allergic to alcohol, which means I get really red, really hot, and have to pee all the time, and God knows, I don’t want to stand in line with a bunch of barely dressed girls who’re young enough to be my daughters (kill me now), and then pee in some pitch black bathroom that may or may not have something disgusting on the seat.

Someday if my boyfriend is ever in a band, I won’t be one of those cool groupie girlfriends, hanging on the edges, black lipstick, black nails, grooving coolly to the jams (is that even a thing?). So cool I’ll know about all the bands he knows, I’ll know the rehearsal schedule and their set (I’m pretty sure that’s a thing). So hip I’ll be able to argue who’s better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. No, I won’t be doing any of that because I’ll be too busy yawning my brains out, not because the conversation is boring but because it’ll probably be late at night, way later than I’m used to staying up. And I won’t even hear the conversation because I’ll be wearing ear plugs. I’ll be in my Gap T-shirt, Gap jeans, no makeup, picking the sleepy crud out of my eyes and wishing I was home in bed reading Gone with the Wind.

Don’t judge me.

It’s not that I hate music. It’s not that I don’t have an emotional connection. I do. Certain songs still prompt a visceral reaction in me: “The Tide is High,” putting on lipgloss with my third grade best friend Jennifer Harris; “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” riding home from school with my beautiful ninth grade friends, feeling very non-beautiful; “Wonderwall,” driving with my ex to aquarium stores all over wintry New England; “Shine,” walking alone up and down Park Avenue those first several months after my divorce.

With every song, give me a story. Better yet, give me dancing. Give me, yes, here it comes, a musical.

    I have a love, and it’s all that I need,

    Right or wrong, and he needs me, too.

    I love him, we’re one;

    There’s nothing to be done,

    Not a thing I can do

    But hold him, hold him forever –

Huh? What was I saying? Ah yes. Musicals.

Chicago!

Rent!

West Side Story!

Wicked!

Les Mis!

Showboat!

The Color Purple!

Oklahoma!

I’ll take a musical over a rock concert any day. I get tingles. I bawl my eyes out. I’ve seen Chicago five times (once with Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, and James Naughton!), and I’d see it again.

Those of you who don’t know anything about musicals have no idea what I’m talking. Bebe Neuwirth? Wasn’t she from Cheers? Who’s Ann Reinking? James Naughton? Who cares if I saw them in Chicago, live on stage?

Because they’re the original cast, mofos! Ann Reinking coreographed that shit. That’s like seeing some band that used to have these members but now have those members play again with the original “these members.”

Whatever band that might be.

Give me a movie soundtrack to a movie I’ve seen. Movie soundtracks make my music library seem cool.  Pulp Fiction. City of Angels. The Wackness. The Secret of Roan Inish. Jerry Maguire. Into the Wild. The Piano. Juno.

    If I was a flower growing wild and free

    All I’d want is you to be my sweet honey bee.

    And if I was a tree growing tall and green

    All I’d want is you to shade me and be my leaves!

Cue harmonica.

So while you cool kids are listening to live music, or reading about it, or debating it, I’ll be over here watching The Sound of Music for the billionth time, sitting on the edge of my seat as dancers “dance for their lives” on So You Think You Can Dance, and telling my boyfriend I can tell the difference between his bass and his bass six. I mean, VI.

He leaves his imprint on me still, six years later.

Laundry for instance.

I still toss socks and underwear in a pile, to be folded last. I still tie long socks into a knot rather than roll them in a ball since rolling them in a ball stretches out the elastic.

Ghosts

By Angela Tung

Memoir

“Cancer,” my father’s voice whispered in the night.

I rolled over on the mattress on the floor. The light was on in my parents’ bathroom.

“Cancer,” my father said again. “Now it’s in her bones.”

Nai-nai, I thought as I drifted off back to sleep. He was talking about my grandmother.

The year my father’s mother got sick was the same year I couldn’t sleep. I was nine and had seen The Exorcist at a friend’s house by mistake. I didn’t know it was scary till the girl started flipping back and forth on her bed, her eyes rolled up, and her throat swelled as though by a bee sting.

“Maybe you shouldn’t watch this,” said my mother, who was playing mah-jongg with the friend’s parents. But it was too late.

Shortly afterward, I came down with the flu. Weird thoughts of demons and shaking beds mingled with my fever. Too much cough medicine gave me hallucinations – the curtains in my bedroom shrank and grew, shrank and grew – and the jitters. I had ringing in my ears and could only sleep where there was noise – in the living room with the TV on, in the den with the clock radio, anywhere there was someone else so that I could hear their breathing. On bad nights though, nothing worked, and I’d sit snuffling on the stairs, long past midnight.

I was already an anxious kid. I worried myself into stomachaches over book reports, was terrified of situations with lots of people I didn’t know, and broke into tears over any harsh word. But now I felt nervous all the time.

One night when my father came home from work, I threw myself into his arms. I was crying uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” I sobbed. “I can’t help it.”

My parents worried silently, as they did about everything. Our grades, the mortgage, the kids on our block who called us ching-chong. My father kept his concerns about my grandmother quiet too, whispered only to my mother at night.

He rarely talked about his family. It was my mother who showed us the black photo album hidden in the closet, the tiny black and white photos of Nai-nai, older and younger, but always the same. Her hair in a bun, her face bare of make-up, her large bucked teeth protruding over her lips.

“You don’t want teeth like Nai-nai’s, do you?” my aunts on my mother’s side said when they learned I was still sucking my finger.

No, I didn’t. I wanted to look like someone pretty in my family. Everyone said my brother resembled my mother’s handsome baby brother. I told myself I was the spitting image of my father’s beautiful sister.  I knew I actually wasn’t, that I took after my father, who had Nai-nai’s smallish eyes, her peasant cheekbones, and thick coarse hair.

“Your grandfather didn’t want to marry Nai-nai,” my mother told us. “It was an arranged marriage.”

I gazed at the photos of the handsome young man. He had big eyes, round black glasses, and favored natty suits and ties. When the Communists took over China, Nai-nai and her two children fled to Taiwan while my grandfather stayed behind. I wasn’t sure why. He worked for the government and couldn’t get away. Or he underestimated the situation and thought his family could return. Or he saw it as a chance for escape.

Whatever the reason, he’d eventually marry the widow of one of his colleagues, and would raise the widow’s daughter as his own.

At nine, I didn’t think too much about my grandmother, although I knew she was ill. I wasn’t close to her the way I was with Puo-puo, my mother’s mother. Puo-puo was loud and fat and cooked constantly – dumplings, scallion pancakes, and steamed buns. During the summers, she taught us Chinese, and quizzed us like a real teacher. My grandfather, Gong-gong, would watch game shows all afternoon with the volume turned high.

“Come on down!” he’d shout with Bob Barker.

The several months Nai-nai stayed with us was like living with a specter. She mostly stayed in her room, knitting vests and socks from brown scratchy wool. She’d make sudden appearances, once to present to my brother and me origami animals she had folded from pages torn out from old magazines (we weren’t impressed). Another time to scrub pots and pans with the same torn-out pages, which for some reason, made my father mad.

“We have perfectly good paper towels!” he yelled.

When the weather got warmer, she emerged again to wander in the wood behind our house with a scythe. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do. Clear weeds, perhaps. Sometimes she returned with flowers; once she came back with poison oak.

My father was so angry, he couldn’t even say anything, just shook his head. My father rarely lost his temper. If he did, it’d be for a second, then over, unlike my mother who was a storm that raged on and on. A nurse came to help with Nai-nai, and it was my mother who sat with her and translated.

Nai-nai was always nice to us, in her quiet way. She was always smiling. But I was glad when she returned to L.A.

* * *

My nervousness continued through the rest of the school year.

Scary things followed me everywhere. Commercials for The Elephant Man on TV. I didn’t know what Joseph Merrick looked like, but what I imagined was far worse. The two-faced man on That’s Incredible! UFOs and aliens.

When my language arts teacher didn’t feel like teaching, she read us Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe. We fourth-graders listened with horror at The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sometimes I was able to tune out, but then somehow I’d catch the scariest parts: a man peering through a keyhole to see a troll-like creature drain a woman of blood. At night I’d lay petrified, wanting but not wanting to peek through the crack of the door, in case I saw the same thing.

My father came and went, came and went, to Los Angeles. He’d always leave in the early morning and return in the dead of night. Finally, that spring, Nai-nai died.

“Bow to Nai-nai,” our mother told us gruffly. We’d just run in from playing. A large picture of Nai-nai, embossed inexplicably in a porcelain plate, sat on the kitchen counter.

Did my father know? I wondered stupidly as I bowed once, twice, three times. He was watching television in the living room. He had no reaction.

I wasn’t sure if I believed in ghosts, but I wondered if Nai-nai’s was with us. The creaking in the room where she stayed were her footsteps, the heater click-clacking were her knitting needles. I stopped sleeping in the den, which was where Nai-nai had slept. I bunked in my brother’s room till he got sick of me. Finally, over a year later, I moved back into my own room.

* * *

I once asked my father about his father’s second wife. I was in the 7th grade and had a family tree assignment. My question was purely pragmatic: Should I include his father’s second wife and daughter in the tree?

My father’s face darkened. “Who told you my father has a second wife?” he asked. “My father doesn’t have a second wife.”

Confused, I felt my cheeks burn. “Mom said – ” I started.

She appeared in the doorway. Without looking at her, my father asked, “Did you tell her my father has a second wife?”

Her mouth dropped open. “No,” she said. “I didn’t say that.”

It would be a long time before I asked my father about his family again.

* * *

My junior year in college, my grandfather died, and only after that could my father display his portrait. Only then would the black album appear on the shelf with our other photo albums, and in it pictures I hadn’t seen before. My grandfather and two young men in 1930s New York. Decked out in suits, fedoras, and long winter coats, they posed on top of the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue.

I was amazed. How was he able to go? Did he ever get to go again? Did he think, looking at the snapshots my mother secretly sent him, me on Columbia campus, at Rockefeller Center, in Central Park, Now my granddaughter is there too, where I once was, so long ago?

“My father was very handsome,” my father says now. “Of course I look like my mother.”

I don’t know if my grandfather’s second wife is still alive. His stepdaughter is. Does my father ever think about seeking her out on one his annual trips to China with my mother? His stepsister would be able to tell him all about his father. But would it be too painful, knowing how much he had missed?

My father is now the same age as Nai-nai when she came to live with us. She had already seemed ancient at 70, as though I might break her if I sat on her lap. My father walks three miles a day, and sings karaoke and plays mah-jongg several times a week. He reads two or three books at once, and paints constantly.

But he’s aged suddenly, in the past five years or so, since his retirement. His hair is grayer, he’s a bit more stooped. He can’t hear as well. He’s not a grandfather yet, and I want to make him one, not an easy task now that I’m 38. Some nights I lay awake worrying about this. What if I never get pregnant? My boyfriend and I could adopt but would that be the same? I don’t want my father’s lineage to die out.

I’m not ready yet for my parents to be old. I look for obituaries of people ten, fifteen, twenty years older, and somehow that makes me feel better. I don’t want them to be breakable, then gone, then mere ghosts. I can hardly bear to imagine walking through their empty house, only traces of them left in hollow clothes, untouched books, the places in the bed where they once slept.

For now, I remind myself, they’re real. For now, it’s not too late.

In sixth grade, the kids in Gifted and Talented went to Sandy Hook every week to look at sea life.

I was not in G&T.  “Didn’t you take the test?” people asked.

I hadn’t.  It seemed my window of opportunity to be either gifted or talented was gone forever.

Our teacher usually let the handful of us left behind do whatever we wanted, which sometimes meant free reading. One week, I grabbed from the dusty bookcase, The Moon By Night, by Madeleine L’Engle.

Till then I had only read Paula Danziger and Judy Blume. While I loved their books, the characters always seemed much savvier and outgoing than I could ever be.  Now in Moon By Night, I met Vicky Austin, shy, awkward, and spacey – two teachers had called home about my daydreaming (maybe that’s how I missed the test?) – just like me.

After that, I devoured everything by L’Engle. Meet the Austins. A Wrinkle in Time. A Wind in the Door.  One of my favorite memories is a winter Friday night, snuggling in bed with the comfort of no school the next day and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third in the Wrinkle in Time series. I thrilled over the story of Mad Dog Branzillo. Would he turn out good or bad? Would there be war or peace?

I didn’t know I was reading about chaos theory. A butterfly beating its wings in one universe could cause an earthquake in another. Charles Wallace had to give Prince Madoc the rune (by way of Gaudior, a time-traveling unicorn) to prevent the Might-Have-Been – or possible reality – of fighting between brothers, which would eventually lead to nuclear holocaust.

I wrote similar stories in Mrs. Williams’ seventh grade composition class.  The survival of the universe depended on the bravery of one girl! Writing was easy, unlike algebra.  I stayed up late scribbling about outer space, time travel, and unicorns.  I decided then, like Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light, that I wanted to be a writer.

* * *

I’ve seen L’Engle once in person. I was going to college in New York (partly because L’Engle’s characters did) and L’Engle guest lectured for one of our religious studies classes. We never-took-a-religion-class, Vicky Austin groupies packed the room to its gills.

L’Engle perched on a desk at the front of the room in long flowy clothes, her hair in its familiar gray crop.  Someone asked something about reincarnation. L’Engle smiled.

“I’ve always wanted to be reincarnated as a dolphin,” she said.

We squirmed with excitement. Dolphins! Like the ones Vicky communicates with in A Ring of Endless Light! Someone else asked about Vicky and her love interest Adam.

“What’s that?” L’Engle asked.  “Adam and Eve?”

“Adam and Vicky,” the girl repeated. “Do you think they’ll get married?”

L’Engle’s smile disappeared. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said.

She was here to talk about theology, not some kids’ book, even if it was her own. But we all wanted to know: would Vicky and Adam end up together? Would she live happily ever after? Would we?

* * *

I met my husband Joe senior year. We were at some party downtown, and when I first saw him, thought he was someone I knew. Later, I wasn’t surprised when he asked me to dance.

It was easy at first. We fell in love; he was my boyfriend. He’d drop by my dorm with little gifts: chocolate, a stuffed bear, kiwis. He admired my wish to be a writer, to already know what I wanted.

Then it was difficult. His parents preferred a Korean girl. My mother just didn’t like him. He had trouble getting into law school. I saw his moods, the beginning of his anger.

But it was fate. Joe was the one; this was how it was supposed to be.

* * *

To the consternation of my parents, I still wanted to be a writer. After a short stint in publishing, I applied to MFA programs. The one in Boston gave me a free ride.

My dreams were coming true. Not only was I going to writing school, I was going for free, and in the city where Joe was in law school.

Joe wasn’t as excited. Law school was a lot of work, he said. He might not have much time for me. I turned to my classmates. But I didn’t fit in. Woefully underread in comparison – Tolstoy who? – I fell behind in conversations in bars.

“What are you all talking about?” I asked one of the guys, a beautiful and brilliant poet.

He regarded me through his thick fringe of lashes. “Babel,” he said. “Isaak Babel.”

“I know who Isaak Babel is,” I said, or at least I had heard of him. But my classmate had already turned away.

During class I was mostly silent. I still wrote by instinct, imitating the voices of my favorite authors. The piece that got me a scholarship was an Asian American tough girl version of Holden Caulfield. But I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about other people’s work. I suspected the head of the department regretted giving me the scholarship.

I’d escape into Barnes & Noble. When I wasn’t writing in the cafe, getting fat on mochas and lemon squares, I was hiding in the children’s section, reading The Giver and other YA novels. I bought Troubling a Star, the fourth in the Vicky Austin series.

“Why do you want to read that?” Joe asked.

“She’s one of my favorite authors,” I said.

He didn’t answer, derisively eying the YA sign.

I was disappointed by the book. Vicky and Adam are both in it, but rarely together. I didn’t care about Antarctica or icebergs. I wanted Vicky and Adam to frolic with dolphins again, to carefully fall in love, to save each other from the stench of death.

* * *

By May, Joe and I had broken up. The pressure from his parents to date Korean women had grown to be too much. At first, we had a hard time staying apart, but after he graduated and moved back to New York, it was easier. Then he suddenly started asking about getting back together.

I was nearly over him by then. I had a wicked crush on a co-worker I had only talked to on the phone. David had a great voice, deep and sonorous. When we weren’t talking about work, we were flirting. Having no idea what he looked like, I conjured up the ideal guy: tall, lanky, and dark-haired. Vicky’s Adam in the flesh.

The summer I finally met David was the same one Joe proposed. David had finally come to Boston, and when he walked into the office, I was sorely disappointed. He was neither tall nor lanky. He was barrel-chested gone to chunky, pale and balding.

That August, when Joe asked me to marry him, I said yes.

* * *

I continued to write. While weekends were taken up with caring for Joe’s Parkinson’s-stricken mother, I managed to work on stories and novels at my “dumbhead secretary” job (as one of my co-workers called it).  I looked for an agent and entered contests.  While I never won, a magazine published two of my stories.

Still, Joe wasn’t satisfied. “What are they paying you?” he asked.

Nothing, I said, like most literary magazines.

“Your job has no upward mobility,” he told me. “It’s not a career.”

“What about my writing?”  Then I said what I had been suspecting: “You wish I’d give it up.”

He didn’t answer.

Without my writing, what was I? Someone who cared for a sick mother-in-law, who walked on eggshells because of her husband’s temper. Without my writing, I’d be nothing.

* * *

Of her marriage L’Engle said, “In forty years, we had something like four perfect minutes.”

This is shocking to me. The families in her books seem so perfect. Mr. and Mrs. Austin at most playfully bicker. The Murrys literally go to the ends of the earth to save each other. Love always wins in the end.

L’Engle’s husband was apparently an alcoholic who had had multiple affairs over the years. Her children supposedly hated her books and their mother’s depictions of them. Her only son, Bion, upon him Charles Wallace is based, died at 47 from complications of long-term alcoholism.  She never wrote about any of it.

After A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, Charles Wallace disappeared from L’Engle’s books. In A House Like a Lotus (1984), it’s mentioned that he’s “off somewhere on some kind of secret mission.” L’Engle herself has said she doesn’t know where Charles Wallace has gone.

* * *

Four years into our marriage, Joe had an affair. Not only that: the woman was pregnant.

He begged my forgiveness but wanted to raise the child.  I couldn’t forgive him but couldn’t leave either. For months, I vacillated. Stay and be reminded every day of what he had done; leave, and be alone.

I took a writing class, but couldn’t write about what was happening. I wrote about the time I spent in China, my family, a hellish cruise vacation. But where was I? everyone kept asking. Where was I in my essays?

Finally, a year after Joe’s affair, I decided to leave.

* * *

That summer I began writing about Joe and what happened. I wrote about his mother, her illness, and caring for her. I wrote about Joe’s rages, the devastation upon learning of his infidelity, the weekend his child was born. I described how I fell apart, how I tried to hurt myself to bring him home, and how even that hadn’t been enough to keep him.

Unlike L’Engle, I had to write about it all to be rid of it. But also unlike L’Engle, I was no longer in the marriage. I had no children. While married, I had convinced myself that everything was fine, or would be very soon. Once we had more money, once Joe had a better job, once his mother had a special operation – better was always just on the horizon.

* * *

In 2007, L’Engle died in a nursing home. She was 88 years old.

We’d never know if Vicky and Adam would get married, or if Charles Wallace would return from his secret mission. We’d never know about any other Might-Have-Beens.

What would have happened if I hadn’t picked up The Moon By Night? If I were at Sandy Hook looking at horse shoe crabs instead? Would I have decided in Mrs. Williams’ composition class that I wanted to be a writer? Would I have gone to college in New York? Would I have met Joe?

I’ve imagined my own Might-Have-Beens. If I hadn’t said yes when Joe asked me to dance, if he had lost my number, if I hadn’t gone to the club that night.

But I wasn’t sure I’d have gone back and undone it. I knew more now because of it. I knew who I wanted to be with and what I deserved, the difference between compromise and losing myself. Undoing my marriage would have undone all that as well.

Did L’Engle ever wonder if she shouldn’t have written her books? Might her children have felt differently about her? Perhaps she simply couldn’t help it. She was a writer; telling stories was what she did. Without it, she’d be nothing.