My brother and I were on our way home from our cousin Daniel’s wedding. We were both dreading the coming week. He had a red-eye flight that night back to his MBA program in Pennsylvania, class the next morning – no long President’s Day weekend for him. And while I did, it was to be spent on a seven-hour drive back up to Berkeley, where a slew of assignments and interviews awaited.
The 91 freeway was loose and I sped past slower cars, wondering if I had always driven so fast.
“That was a nice wedding,” I said, and from my peripheral vision I could see him nodding, his right elbow resting against the window.
Then I said what I always say after a cousin’s wedding: “I can’t believe So-and-So is married now.”
My brother nodded once more.
“It’s strange though,” I continued, “The more weddings I go to, the farther away the whole thing seems for me.”
At this my brother broke his silence and I was surprised to hear the relief in his voice, as though he had been waiting with bated breath to hear this.
“I know,” he replied, “I feel the same way. I’m so happy for Daniel, and I had such a good time – but I just can’t see that for me right now. Not anything close to it.”
Now I was curious: what couldn’t he see? Getting married itself or the obvious happiness written over the married couple’s faces? I suppose whatever alienation I felt, he felt it ten-fold. Daniel was the same age as my brother.
My brother had been in charge of the slide show, which he lovingly put together with dozens of pictures of Daniel’s childhood, replete with snapshots of a happy youth filled with cousins and trips to National Parks. At the center of this was the trio: Daniel, my cousin Andrew, and my brother – all three boys born in the year of the rooster: Andrew in January, my brother in July, and Daniel in August. Andrew was married too, this past August, to his childhood sweetheart in a beautiful ceremony by the sea. Towards the end of the slide show there were photographs from that wedding as well.
The progression is thought provoking – not just of the physical size of the people, the broadening of shoulders, the gaining of height, weight and sense of self – but the aura captured in these photographs: of a carefree past filled with bright, young faces. All of them beaming at a beautiful future.
The boys weren’t smiling for nothing. The childhood photos were surprisingly vivid despite being taken so many years ago: here they are standing in a row wearing matching denim jackets, a glorious, thousand-year old mountain range standing almost protectively behind them; here, the boys hovering excitedly over a birthday cake from Honey Bakery in our old house in Cerritos, where my grandparents now lived; and here, the boys laughing gleefully in the snow, hands outstretched to peg someone (probably Kathryn, the littlest in the family) with a poorly made snowball.
And then came photographs of Carol, Daniel’s wife and my new cousin-in-law. It had been startling for me, sitting there in the dark, to see how far apart they had started out (Carol was born in China and did not emigrate until her late teens) and then to look over a sea of relatives and spy the two sitting peacefully at the same table, now sharing a family, a name, a future.
Alienation in a most subtle form: we welcomed Carol to the family just as we welcomed the others who were no longer others but ours. And yet in some twisted way I felt I was one being slowly edged out. The core family, as I had always known it, was expanding.
In a fitting moment for an English major, I thought of Yeats’ “Second Coming”:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…”
But it was preposterous for me to think this, to compare one of my cousin’s happiest days with a poem about uncertainty and some other themes I didn’t – I don’t – quite understand. My family was certainly not falling apart but growing, as all healthy families must. And I was happy to see it grow. But now the festivities were over and I was driving back home and then to school, but how much longer would home be home? How many more precious weeks did I have in the cocoon of school, where one ostensibly goes to learn and grow but also, to stand still?
I imagined something overgrown, grown over, a network of people so grand, an entity so massive that none of my relative’s houses could contain it. And in this physical sense, it was true – the center was not holding, and our recent family holidays were a testament to this. The night before Daniel’s wedding was Chinese New Year’s Eve, normally a boisterous affair with the entire family packed into my aunt’s house. But there was a wedding the next morning and it took priority, along with Carol’s visiting family. They stayed at their house while my parents hosted a separate dinner at ours. It was strangely quiet for a family party and I, out of an ingrained hostess’ habit, walked from room to room, expecting each threshold to burst with noise and cheer, but was encountered with but a few faces.
Cousin Andrew came alone – Caroline was at a wedding – and during dinner he too, sensed the gaping social hole left by our absent family members.
“Where’s Wendy?” he said, “Wendy will come, right?”
I shook my head more sadly than I meant to.
“No, she’s probably celebrating with Daniel and Carol’s relatives.” Then the obvious occurred to me: cousin Wendy had recently married too. “Or she might be with Lawrence’s family.”
And what is all this division between “our” family and “their” family – the old-fashioned, Asian-thinking: a woman marries into another family and belongs to the other. So backwards and anti-feminist! No one asked cousin Wendy to agonize over whose family to spend the holiday with, and she didn’t have to. She chose his family. At least this New Years she did.
At Daniel’s wedding, I asked Lawrence how his Chinese New Year dinner was.
“It was great,” he said, shrugging, “we spent it at my parents’ house in Temecula.”
I nodded, but inside felt narrow and resentful. This guy taking my cousin Wendy away. As if on cue, Wendy sat down at our table to chat with cousins Hoyt and Lynn, the eldest couple, the first to marry.
“Babies?” Lynn asked Wendy.
“Not anytime soon.”
Two years, they both agreed. Two more years of blissful just-you-and-me married life before children ought come into the picture. And even then, I thought to myself, perhaps two more years. I found myself split down the middle: intrigued yet losing interest, wondering if and when such questions would apply to me.
I continued to speed down the 91, making a list of all the things I had to do once I returned to school. I wondered if my brother was doing the same. I had a few part-time job interviews and two English papers due, all things I was ill-prepared for. The interviews especially.
But what was my sudden rush to get a job? To make “progress” towards the future and establish what? Stability? A stepping-stone to stability, more like. That was all I could ask for at this point.
My brother too. I glanced over. He had shut his eyes for a moment. I expected his lips to be pursed but he seemed suddenly relaxed. Was he looking forward to flying back or did he want to stay at home, as I did? To wake up in our childhood rooms, eat breakfast in the sunny kitchen, putt lazily about the house, reading magazines, surf the internet and wait for our parents to cal us to dinner? And after dinner, to sit on the long black couch and watch TV as my dad checked email and read the newspaper nearby? And then, my favorite part of every day, to go to bed with a book in our childhood rooms? The schedule of the nuclear unit I had known for so long had been spinning apart for the past few years as we, the children, left for longer and longer.
And how much longer? Would we come home again after graduation? Would we get married soon and have our own children and move far away and back again and far away again?
We were no longer on the freeway. Suddenly our house came into view. I pulled into the driveway, parked. I have no boyfriend, no job, no idea, I thought, except to know that marriage and everything else seemed very far away. But facing the house I grew up in, I realized that home too, felt very far away.