Issue 35, Final Fringe

Word Perfect

by Kirstin Chen Issue 8 02.08.2007

On Friday evening, I come home to find my mother and my father in our living room. She has a Phillips screwdriver in one hand and she’s screaming and crying, flailing her arms and waving the thing too close to his face. But she’s thin as a twig and he manages to grab hold of a wrist. He pries the tool from her paper fingers and wraps his arms around her. She struggles against him for a moment, but he tightens his grasp, talking into her ear in a low voice. Then she goes limp, like her bones have dissolved, like she would melt to the ground if he weren’t holding her up.

They don’t notice me until I come all the way into the room. My father turns around. My mother does too, but her eyes are wide and blank as yolks.

“Watch out,” he says. That’s when I realize there’s glass all over the marble flooring. A wet darkness spreads along the Persian rug and the bitter smell of Hendricks hangs heavy in the air.

Cora, our maid, rushes out from the kitchen with the broom and dustpan. Folded into my father’s arms, my mother is small as a child.

“Let’s go upstairs and lie down,” he says, leaning her head on his chest. She closes her eyes; she lets him lead her away.

I’ve been living in my parents’ house for the past two months and have already witnessed similar scenes. I go up to my room and shut the door, reveling in how good it feels to have finally left the heat outside. It’s less than a half-mile walk from the bus stop to my parents’ home, but even though the sun has almost set, my blouse is completely soaked through with sweat. I unbutton it, scrunch it into a ball and throw it in the hamper for Cora to take care of. It still feels like living in a hotel.

This is not the house I grew up in; my parents completely redid it a couple years ago. Now it is a sprawling Balinese-style villa with tall windows, high vaulted ceilings, and cool tile floors, a style that is growing evermore popular in the exclusive neighborhoods of Singapore. When I decided to take the teaching job, my parents made it clear I could stay with them for as long as I wanted.

At seven o’clock it is time for dinner.

“Your mother is going to have her dinner upstairs,” my father says as Cora brings out stir-fried eggplant and okra, rice, and bak kut teh, the fragrant, spicy soup made by simmering pork spare ribs and a variety of mushrooms in a clay pot for several hours with star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and garlic. I’ve lived in California for the past ten years, and this is one of the things I’ve truly missed.

He instructs Cora to bring my mother a tray before sitting down at the table. As he fills his bowl, my father asks me how school is going. The steam rises, fogging up his glasses. Beads of perspiration dot his nose.

“Fine,” I say. “I’m still trying to get used to how quiet these kids are. They just sit there, frantically taking notes. I know that’s how it is here, but I’ve just gotten so used to those rambunctious Americans.”

“So call on them,” he says.

“I do, but it’s hard to get a discussion going when they won’t respond to each other.”

“You need to stop complaining about it and figure out a way to make it better,” he says. “Don’t forget Derrick was doing me a favor by giving you the job.”

I feel my face heat up and I’m about to snap back when the phone starts to ring.

“Goddamn it,” he says, thumping a clenched fist on the table. “Why do people insist on calling at dinnertime?”

Cora comes out holding the cordless phone.

“Tell them we’re eating,” he says.

“It’s for Gretchen,” says Cora. “Long-distance from San Francisco. Very urgent.”

I leap up, grab the phone from Cora – Damn it, Thatcher – and head to the study, shutting the door behind me.

“What do you want?” I say to my soon-to-be ex-husband.

“Hi, sorry, I know you’re having dinner and all that.”

“What do you want?”

“Look, I would have called at a better time but I’m heading to the airport in a few minutes.”

“Okay,” I say.

“You got a letter,” he says. “From Blue Mountain Review.”

“What does it say?”

“You want me to open it?

“Sure, what the hell,” I change my mind immediately after I say it.

I hear the envelope tear. Thatcher inhales sharply. I can see him purse his lips, squinting slightly as he scans my letter, in San Francisco, in the living room of our Russian Hill apartment, with its bay window view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I feel the depth of my longing, for my city, my life, like an ache in my bones.

“They’re publishing your story,” he says.

“Seriously? They are?” I say. A female voice calls for him in the background.

“Hey, I have to go. To the airport.”

“Where are you going?” I say, because I can’t stop the words from rushing out. “You and Yuki going somewhere this weekend?”

“Just Santa Barbara,” he says. “I have to go.”

“To meet the parents?” I say. My voice sounds louder than I expect. “Her folks want to meet the old man who seduced their little girl?”

“Good bye, Gretchen,” he says. “Congratulations.”

I come back to the dining room and sit down.

“What did he want?” my father says, his tone sharp as a tack. Neither of my parents were overly pleased when I started dating a White boy, but while Thatcher managed to charm my mother with his impeccable Southern manners, dimpled grin, and vast knowledge of opera, my father remained convinced he was just “a little too slick.”

I say, “My story’s getting published,” wishing I could be happier about it.

“That’s good,” he says. “Which story?”

“Actually, it isn’t something you’ve read.”

“Well, we’d like to read it. Make sure you order a few extra copies for your mother to give away.”

“Ok,” I say. The story getting published is about a twenty-five-year-old girl who decides to give her boyfriend a threesome for his birthday. I don’t want my parents to read it.

“I’m going to go check on her,” he says, getting up.

I bring our plates to the sink, go back to my room and sit in front of the computer. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything substantial, really since I turned in my MFA thesis last May. It’s scary how easy it is to just not write. First I needed time to relax after three hard years at S.F. State, then time to adjust to being separated, time to recover from the rejection letters to all the fellowships I applied for, time to pack up the studio and come back here. And now it is March, and I am teaching literature to eighteen-year-olds, a job I got only because my father golfs with the headmaster.

I want to write a story. About Singapore and about people in Singapore. All through grad school, I wrote about girls named Chipley and Brittan and Kelsey, who went to New England boarding schools, joined Midwestern sororities, lived in Boston, Chicago, San Diego. I wrote about couples who worked as investment bankers and went to Paris and had affairs and developed drinking problems and got divorced. My fellow classmates eyed me with envy and suspicion. Write about Singapore, they urged. It’s such a great setting; you’re so lucky to have grown up someplace else. So now I will write about Singapore, about where I grew up and where I now live.

At nine o’clock my friend Amy calls. She wants me to come have a drink with her and her husband Jason. We were all undergrads at Stanford together and Amy and I were bridesmaids at each other’s wedding. Jason is Singaporean. Our parents are friends so we’ve known each other forever. We both went to Raffles Junior College, where I now teach.

I poke my head into my parents’ room before I head out. My father is reading in bed. My mother has her eyes closed, but she opens them when she hears me. The covers are pulled up to her chin.

“Hi, Mom,” I say. “You okay?’

She smiles at me and nods ever so slightly.

“She’s fine,” my dad says, looking up from his book. “You heading out? Have fun; be safe.”

They’ve picked the Alley Bar in Emerald Hill and they’re already there when I arrive. It’s pretty quiet for a Friday, and so dimly lit I would have missed them if not for Amy’s blond highlights, shimmering in a sea of black. She’s originally from Utah, and I’m amazed by how nonchalant she was about moving here with Jason, how quickly she has embraced this city.

They sit on squat rattan benches around a low teak table and struggle to get up when they see me. We exchange hugs, and Amy hangs on to my shoulders for an extra beat or two.

“How are you?” she says. “It’s been so long. It’s so good to see you.”

“So you’re back at Raffles,” says Jason. “How’s that going? Is it weird calling all our teachers by their first names now?”

I think about how I can’t look at those girls in their white and green uniforms without seeing that nineteen-year-old whore whom Thatcher thinks he will marry. Professor and Mrs. Thatcher Anderson. He was a lowly doctoral student when I had him. I watch the boys, too. Sometimes I catch one or two of them staring at me; I make it a point to blow-dry my hair and curl my lashes each morning.

“What are you guys drinking?” I say, holding Jason’s martini glass up to the light. A velvety thickness floats within the pale gold liquid.

“Chocolate martini. House specialty,” says Amy.

Soon I have lost count.

“I forgot to tell you,” I say, tipping my glass. “My story’s getting published. In the Blue Mountain Review. Thatcher called to tell me before jetting off to Santa Barbara with his child bride.”

They say congratulations, then no one says anything for a while, then Jason says, “Shall we?”

We say our good byes, promise to call, and I get in a taxi.

“Queen Astrid Park, please,” I say loudly to the driver over the blaring Chinese pop music.

Nodding, he shouts, “Nice area. Big houses. You just visiting? You not from Singapore?” My American accent has thrown him off.

I switch to Singlish. “No, no, Uncle,” I say. “I’m Singaporean. I just moved back. From the States.”

He switches from English to Mandarin. “You still can speak Chinese?”

“Long time since I’ve used it. I need practice.” I answer in Mandarin.

“That’s good you haven’t forgotten. My kids speak Chinese very poorly. They don’t like it.”

“Young people,” I say, not really meaning anything by it.

“Young people,” he agrees.

Both my parents got their undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States. We speak only English at home even though they both grew up speaking Hokkien, a southern Chinese dialect. They wanted to make sure I would learn to speak “proper English” and not just Singlish like all my friends. My mother studied German Literature. She named me after her favorite Schubert lied; everyone in Singapore has trouble pronouncing my name.

Within six months of moving to California, I perfected my American accent, beaming with pride when people asked where in So-Cal I had gone to high school. I’m from Singapore, I would say triumphantly, watching with pleasure as their faces assumed looks of surprise.

The taxi pulls up in front of the gate. My parents’ house looms on the hill and even in the darkness, its opulence embarrasses me. I give the taxi driver a twenty percent tip and he thinks it’s a mistake and tries to give me back my money. I walk up the driveway and let myself in. It’s completely quiet and I tiptoe through like I did when I was fourteen, sneaking out to see my boyfriend. My father quickly figured it out – he installed an elaborate security system that was intended more to keep me inside then to keep anyone out. It had a device that recorded the time at which the alarm was disarmed and he quickly discovered I was turning it off at midnight and turning it back on when I came home at three in the morning. I was grounded through most of secondary school.

I kick off my sandals, strip down to my underwear and flop into bed. Jason and Amy married the year before Thatcher and I did. They hold hands under the table and stroke each other’s backs, and I saw them sneak a kiss when I was on my way back from the bathroom. I try to remember when exactly Thatcher stopped grabbing for my hand and started spending more and more time on campus, at coffee shops, away, working on his dissertation. The thought of him with that girl makes every muscle in my body tighten up so much it could pull itself apart, but when I close my eyes, I see us sitting at his parents’ dinner table in Louisville, Kentucky, my first visit to his hometown, and his father is telling a loud, awful story, with lots of fist pounding and fork waving, and his mother and brother and sister are screaming with laughter. But I can barely concentrate because Thatcher’s got my hand under the table, and with his index finger in my palm, he’s spelling out “I love you”, over and over again.

*

Three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, my father gets up early to take my mother to the hospital for dialysis. They’re in the car and out the door just as I get up for breakfast. This morning, they are running a little late, and I’m sitting at the dining room table, eating a hardboiled egg, when I hear the voices from their bedroom.

“Ting,” my father says, his voice hard and cold like marbles clinking against each other in a jar, “We just talked about this. Get up. We’re going to be late.”

I cannot hear what my mother says in response, but then they come out of the room.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she says when she sees me. She wears a loose linen tunic and matching trousers. “Come give your mother a hug.”

I reach my arms around her and her shoulder blades jut into the flesh on my triceps. She is so weightless her body could rise right out of my grasp. I try not to apply too much pressure, but still I feel her cringe beneath me and let go immediately.

“I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” I say.

She shakes her head.

“Come on. We’re going to be late. ” My father grips my mother’s shoulders and steers her to the door. “Have a good day,” he says to me.

Class is rough on Monday mornings. The kids are especially reticent, slumping in their chairs and staring up at me like they’ve been drugged. I like to start them off with a group discussion so I don’t have to push too hard to get them to talk.

As they work quietly, I look over the papers they just handed in – three-to-four pages on the Unreliable Narrator in Lolita. The one at the top of the pile is Brian Supramanyam’s. I glance up. He works with a group of three other girls, and he nods and writes things down, but says very little. He is quiet and introverted and seems to keep to himself, but he’s a good-looking kid: tall, with caramel skin and wavy hair, a perfect blend of features from his Indian father and Chinese mother. If I were being immature and petty, he is the boy I would fuck to get back at Thatcher. But I don’t even think he would care that much, and then I’d just be some crazy pedophile teacher.

Brian’s thesis statement is weak. It is not enough to just state that the narrator is unreliable, I stressed when I gave them the assignment last week. Right away I know it’s not going to be good, and by the time their twenty minutes of group-discussion time is up, I’ve read his paper and given him a “C”. Come see me to discuss re-writing this, I scrawl across the bottom.

The rest of the period passes smoothly. We go over the assignments for the next class, and then I’m out the door and ducking into the air-conditioned teachers’ lounge to escape the heat that’s begun to creep up the sides of the building with the rising sun.

The teachers’ lounge consists of a series of cubicles, one for each of us, and a small kitchenette with a sitting area. A few of the younger teachers sit around the small plastic table, drinking mugs of instant coffee and Ovaltine and talking about their weekends.

They turn around and a few smile when they see me come in, but they lower their voices a notch and keep talking. Quickly, I rinse out my mug, fill it with water, and leave. Andrew Donahue, a balding Australian who must be close to forty, jumps in my path.

“Gretchen,” he says in a loud, jolly voice. “How are you? How was your weekend? How are your classes going?” There’s a piece of gunk stuck between his front teeth.

“Fine, Andrew,” I say, without slowing down. As annoying as he may be, he’s the only teacher who has actually reached out to me. The female teachers think he’s sleazy. What abuaya, they say when he is out of earshot, did you see him buaya-ing the new teacher from California? The world literally means “crocodile” in Malay, and as he slinks around the wall of cubicles, looking for someone else to ambush, I can’t help but notice the resemblance.

I sit down at my desk and check the time. My mother should just be finishing up at the hospital. I call her cell phone.

“Hi Gretchen,” she says. Her voice is stretched tight as a rubber band.

“Hi, Mom. How are you feeling?”

“Everything hurts,” she says. “No one will listen to me and everything hurts. It’s not in my head.” Her breath comes out in little gasps; her voice waivers as she starts to cry.

“Mom,” I say. “Are you okay? Where’s Dad? He left you all alone?”

“He went to get the car. Oh, there he is,” she sniffs.

I hear my father in the background. He is saying, Who is that? Is that Gretchen? Why are you crying? I know, I know.

“Mom?” I say, “Are you there? I love you,” but the cell-phone reception is bad in the hospital and the line goes dead.

*

I want to write a story. About a girl who lives in Singapore, but left her life in San Francisco. She misses hiking the rolling foothills – green in the winter, brown in the summer – running through the fog by the bay, swimming in the icy waters of Stinson Beach. She misses romantic weekends in bed-and-breakfasts in Carmel, and wine-tasting trips to Napa, where eight of them would pile into a mini-van and all take turns driving. I want to write a story about this girl, and what she does now that all of that is gone.

The emails pile up in my inbox; friends from San Francisco writing to see how I’m doing; friends from Singapore whom I’ve run into or who’ve heard – about the divorce, about my mother, just that I’m in town. At first I read them all and star the ones I will reply to first. Now I just ignore them.

On Saturday afternoon, about a week after our last meeting, Amy calls to see if I want to have dinner with her and Jason. I know she worries about me, but I’m in no mood to watch them play footsie under the table, so I tell her I have plans. I put down the phone and go downstairs, stopping at the foot of the stairs. Although it’s the middle of the afternoon, my mother and father are sitting in the dining room. On the table is a plate with several slices of white bread, and my father picks up each slice and slathers it with butter before dousing it with sugar. He pushes the plate in front of my mother. She takes a bite out of a slice, and then another, then sets it down and scrunches up her face.

“It’s three o’clock,” she says. “We just had lunch. I’m not hungry at all.” She sets her hands firmly in her lap.

“You need to increase your caloric intake. Doctor Yeoh was adamant,” my father says. “Six meals a day.”

“Well, we all know it’s that machine that’s keeping me alive, so I don’t know what eating more will really do for me.”

My father doesn’t respond.

“And if Doctor Yeoh were really so concerned for my well-being, he should prescribe me some damned pain killers because that’s what’s really bothering me,” my mother says. “I’m so tired of that machine. I don’t want to do it anymore.” Her voice is brittle and dry as a bone, but her eyes shimmer like oil slicks.

“Well,” he says, “It’s your life. The rest of us don’t really matter, I guess.” He gets up from his chair and heads to the study, slamming the door so hard I feel the vibrations in the wall beside me.

She gets up, moves slowly to the glass cabinet above the bar and reaches for the gin bottle. I turn around and go back upstairs.

I want to get out of the house, but that would entail walking the half-mile to the main road, and then braving the weekend crowds on public transportation. Below my window, my parents’ twin silver Mercedes-Benzes sit idly in the driveway, my mother’s, in particular, rarely taken out. Just go take the basic theory test and get your license converted, she urges from time to time. The car’s just sitting there collecting dust. But after two months, the roads continue to criss-cross nonsensically over the island, the parking spaces seem too narrow, and I still occasionally try to get into the drivers’ seat, forgetting that here they drive on the other side of the road.

My wallet still holds my California drivers license, the photograph taken when I was eighteen, the last person in my freshman dorm to learn how to drive. A year after that, I talked my parents into buying me my first car – a shiny tomato red Jetta I drove around Campus Loop for three years, collecting parking tickets, before taking it up to San Francisco with me, where I wore out the breaks driving down hills and collected still more parking tickets. I sold it on Craigslist right before this move, a mere eighty thousand miles after nine good, long years. Thatcher and I started dating in the middle of our sophomore year and married on my 25th birthday. We separated two years later. My relationship with my Jetta outlasted my relationship with Thatcher by six whole months.

My American-Chinese girlfriends warned me about guys like him. Stay away from him, they’d say, he has a total Asian fetish. I dated him anyway. Once, at the beginning of our relationship, I casually asked why so many of his ex-girlfriends were Asian. After all, he was from Louisville – a city that didn’t exactly have a large Asian population. I don’t really know, he replied. My first girlfriend in high school was Korean, and that seemed to work well. Besides, you and your girlfriends all date white guys. How is that any different? In Singapore, the girls who date the American, Australian and English expats are called SPG’s – Sarong Party Girls. They hang out at the bars on the beaches in bikinis with their brassy highlights and affected accents, waiting to get picked-up.

I decide against trying to go out. I get in bed to take a nap, but start to masturbate instead. I picture Brian Supramanyam standing behind me with his lean, muscular arms encircling my waist. His skin is warm and smooth, and I’m grateful for the weight of him on me like I’m grateful for a rail to grab onto at the end of a steep climb. I’m at it for a long time, feeling the tension build and then build some more, but nothing happens. Thatcher and I always had great sex. I picture him on top of me, but I can’t without hearing her voice. Thatch, honey, we’re going to be late. Thatch is a stupid nickname. I push Thatcher off me and out of my head, and am surprised when Jason fills the empty space. Amy is with him too. Kiss her, he urges, biting down on my earlobe. I grab Amy by the hair and pull her face to mine. I feel Jason’s mouth on my neck, his chest on my back, and that’s when the release finally rolls through me, starting in the pit of my abdomen and exiting out through my toes. I lie with my limbs splayed like a starfish, wondering how that would fuck up Jason and Amy’s happy marriage.

Several years ago, I flew from San Francisco to Singapore to see my family. My parents upgraded me to business class and I was seated next to a young Wall-Street type who told me his wife was Singaporean. The flight attendant came around with newspapers, and, after requesting a copy of the Herald Tribune, I was surprised to hear the business man ask for the Straits Times, the local, state-run newspaper which bore the brunt of the overseas-educated Singaporeans’ jokes. He flipped straight to the editorial section and started to chuckle.

“They just don’t get it,” he said, turning to me. “They really just don’t get it.”

I laughed, too, from behind my Herald Tribune, beaming that somehow, within five minutes of meeting me, this man had caught on, that while most Singaporeans didn’t get it, I certainly did.

I want to write a story. Set in Singapore. About a girl who never felt like it was home. Who always felt different from everyone around her – her German name, the way she talked, the way she thought. Who moved away and thought she’d found home someplace else, but now realizes that the someplace else only felt like home because she was in love with a boy who made it home.

*

The following week, three copies of the Spring/Summer issue of the Blue Mountain Review containing my story are delivered to my parents’ house. In the tropics, where the climate is characterized by uniform temperatures and high humidity, the seasons are hot-and-wet or hot-and-dry. Here, spring and summer mean nothing at all.

My mother is lying in bed. She tells me to prop her head up with a pillow so she can listen to me read her my story. And I do, even though my face reddens and my voice trembles when I get to the part where the girl and the other girl go down on the boy at the same time.

When I finish reading, my mother puts her hand in mine. The skin is flakey, like tissue paper that could tear beneath my fingers.

“That’s a good story,” she says. “You’re a good writer, but don’t show this to your grandmother.”

Then, with her hand still in mine, she closes her eyes. I hear her breath move in and out; I feel the blood trickle through the purple-blue veins in her tiny hand.

Kirstin Chen

Kirstin Chen

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Then: A graduate of Stanford University, Kirstin recently moved to Boston where she is pursuing an MFA degree at Emerson College.

Now: Kirstin Chen’s debut novel Soy Sauce for Beginners is forthcoming in November. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she currently resides in San Francisco.