Photo Diary of a 2013, Part 2

At the beginning of April, I left the bustle of Asia and came home to this:

The road. 

I flew to New York to attend Columbia’s admitted student’s night and stayed with Albert, an architectural student from Taiwan whom I’d met many years ago through my cousin. He never slept and smoked like a chimney and was constantly complaining about his monumental workload, but ask him if he’d prefer to be studying anywhere else and he’d shake his head. “New York is where I want to be.” His apartment was my temporary home and despite it being dark, with critical windows facing brick walls, I could see how when life is full and you’re doing what you love (and hardly ever come home because you’re at studio), things like that matter just a little less.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” says Albert, “But I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or when I run out of cigarettes).”
I was, obviously leaning towards Columbia but two things helped seal the deal: 1. They gave me more money. 2. I found my dream studio, minus the nightmare of five flights of stairs and no elevator. Also, the passionate urging of others helped. “It’s New York! What the hell are you going to do in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere North Carolina or West Virginia! New York, Betty! New York!!! Every writer’s dream!”  
I have yet to set foot inside that building. 
With the minor detail of where I was to spend the next two years of my life out of the way, it was time to settle into a peculiar routine: three days a week I lunched with my grandfather. I would get to his house around 11AM, read for a half hour, then put together a simple meal while he watched TV or read the paper. We’d eat, chat about things – sometimes he would tell me stories, sometimes he would be quiet and shake his head, wondering what was to become of me. All the time he would think about his old half, my grandmother. Lunch was always short, a thirty minute affair at the end of which I would clear the dishes and ask him if he wanted dessert. 
“None for me,” he would say. But I would push and push and eventually he would share a pineapple cake or have a bite or two of ice cream. We would read for a half hour more and he would retire to take a nap. I would move to the couch and try to continue reading, but eventually, the whirr of the water pump in the fish tank, the breeze from outside and the warming afternoon sun would cause me to nod off and for an hour Grandpa’s house would be silent but for the slow, even breath of an old man and a young woman, an anchor and a sail. 
Because sometimes glasses just don’t cut it. 
And around these afternoons I saw friends… 
Coworkers who turned into great friends, Grace and Enny. 

 …family….

Babies galore at Lucas’s (on the right!) One Month Celebration held, where else? At Sam Woo’s in Irvine. 
May rolled around and I turned twenty-seven. A damn good age, if you ask me. 


I took a trip to Charleston to see Grace, a cellist who was playing in the Spoleto Orchestra (longer post to come). I fell in love with the south and southern food, but that was expected. I went to my first southern beach and wondered what the hell southern Californians were so proud of. We wore summer dresses. I let my hair down and played bingo and drank with classical musicians who were surprisingly raunchy when they weren’t playing classical music. We walked a lot, ate a ton, and I pretended to understand the opera she got me tickets to.

Woohoo, culture! 
Grace walking at Sullivan’s Beach. 
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with fried everything we were trying to walk it off.  
Like that one ride at Disneyland. 

And immediately after that, my mother suggested an impromptu trip to Kauai. She popped into my room one evening and asked, “How much are tickets to Kauai at the end of May?”

I looked for her, then asked, “Who are you thinking about going with?”

She seemed surprised, “Oh, you! Do you want to go?”

This is what’s called a no-brainer. So we went, just the two of us.

My mother thinks about her mother. 

On our last day there, we went swimming in the hotel pool, then my mother took a nap while I wrote a letter to my brother. When she woke, I asked her how she felt about barbecue. She said fine. I ordered it by phone and drove to pick it up. My mother stayed in the kitchen, peeling papaya and when I returned, I saw that she’d been crying.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

She started crying again.

“I was just thinking about grandma.”

“What were you thinking about that made you think of grandma?”

In hindsight, it was a stupid and insensitive question, but I think my mother understood what I meant.

“I am so lucky that my daughter can travel with me and we can spend time like this, but I can’t do that anymore with grandma.”

I hugged her, because you can’t really do anything or say anything but hug a person who misses their dead mother.

“Let’s eat outside on the balcony,” I said, and she agreed.

I poured us each half of the small bottle of wine we’d gotten from the airline and when everything was served, she raised her glass to me, something I’ve never seen her do. My mother is not a big drinker.

“I wish you a good happy life in New York,” she said. Her voice broke and her face crumpled and I choked up too, but did not cry. I said thank you. I said, “I already have a good and happy life.”

My mother thinks about me. 

At the end of June, it was time to return to Taipei. This trip was much shorter than the first, but no less fun. For starters, my cousin Karen and I returned to Hong Kong:

Traveling for business, obviously.  
Before our feet started to hurt. 
Do this panorama some justice and click on it. 
My brother got married (again, to the same Cathy), at the W Hotel in Taipei. He cried the whole time and Cathy, was like, “What is wrong with you.” It was very touching. 
Bubbles and my brother’s tears. 
Some Ho’s and then some. 
I spent some quality time with family in Taiwan, and it felt a little different this time because I wasn’t sure when I’d next be back. 
My uncle at the office. He looks at numbers, then reads Buddhist scripture, and is in bed by 9PM. Every. Single. Day. 
My cousin Melody was also home from Boston over the summer, taking a break from breaking hearts. Over Din Tai Fung, we talked about the elusive Mr. Right and the ubiquitous Mr. Wrongs.  
I ate Chinese food as though my life depended on it, unsure of what awaited me in New York. Pasta, it turns out. 
And a lot of the time, marveled at the fact that this guy was in a relationship with a girl who really really likes him. “I don’t know why either,” he says. 

I returned to California in the middle of July, hoping to return to a somewhat normal schedule, but it was crunch time. There was another trip to Vegas with the girls I go most often and have the best time with: 

Elevator selfie. 

A short trip to SF. First stop, two nights at Erica and Carson’s:

TPE – HKG – SF! Taxicab selfies are now a thing. 
I had lunch with Emily from Pearl’s wedding. She lived in SF and was trying to convince all her single girlfriends to move out there. 
“The odds are so much better for women in SF,” she said, “I heard it’s hard to meet someone in New York.” 
I nodded; I had heard the same thing. But a month later Emily would make it very easy for me to meet someone in New York. 
“What about POI? He’s offensive and so is Betty.” 

And the main event: Jaime’s Bachelorette party, which was supposed to be tame but ended up like this:

The bachelorette and a very drunk man who liked very much to “back it up.”  

My cousin Wendy’s baby shower:

Remember earlier in the year she was in Vegas! 
And a quick succession of hangouts before I had to leave town: 
I watched a lot of movies with this girl, equally as obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as I was until we realized he was probably gay. But we still really like him. 

With cousin Michelle in Venice, aping an ape. 
At plate by plate with Enny, whose outfit was pretty much the talk of the town. 
Billy’s dad salting seasoning their salmon during a random weekend at their mansion in Upland.  
With Angie and Lynn at a Phoenix International event. 
Getting In n’Out with Grandpa. 
With Auntie Linda, a few days before leaving. 
Pint-sized houseguests from Taipei. 
An impromptu mexican feast at Grace’s.  
Then, on August 17, 2013, I moved to New York. 
Well. Sort of. 
The early days. 
Grace and Charlene were there to help make things better. We went to HomeGoods and bought mirrors and lamps, you know, essential things. They helped me haul three giant boxes filled with Forever 21 crap up five flights, something the UPS guy failed to do. 
Best moving service ever 🙂 Way better than UPS. 
Then in my giant mess of an unfurnished room, we got ready for my first girls’ night out in New York. 
And it was never this messy again. 
Cleaned up and celebrating Charlene’s birthday belatedly, at Robert in Columbus Circle. 
And it was back to California for Jaime and Alvin’s beautiful wedding in San Clemente. I’ve known Jaime since middle school, when we met in science class and giggled together at the teacher’s giant armpit sweat stains. Four months later, she and her husband would fly through a snow storm and battle massive flight delays to visit me in New York. 
With bridesmaid Emy, also an old friend from high school and Jaime, one of the most low-maintenance brides in the history of brides. Emy and I always look like her bodyguards.  
I like to think that some of my photos were better than the wedding photographer’s. 
At the wedding, just as I was sitting down to dinner, Emily texted me. 
“Hey! I want to set you up with someone.” 
“I’m game,” I said, taking a bite of fish. 
A few minutes later POI texted, asking me to dinner sometime the following week. I’d let him know tomorrow, I said. First I had to eat cake and dance. I was at a wedding, after all. 
The next evening, I boarded a red-eye flight from Long Beach to JFK. And just like that, it was back to New York. For longer, for real. 

Photo Diary of 2013, Part 1

 At the end of each year, I go through my photos. This is what you do when you have a bad memory. I click through the folders, labeled by events or by season (big events – weddings, holiday parties, trips, etc., – have their own folders, while seasons, paired with a specific location, e.g. “Fall in New York” stand alone to represent the zeitgeist of the time). This year (and hopefully each year after), I’ve decided to share. It’s an effective way to remind myself of the people and places that matter and of that familiar paradox: how long a year is! And, how very very short.

Continue reading “Photo Diary of 2013, Part 1”

Thanks, Giving

On my flight home for Thanksgiving, I flew Southwest with a stopover in Denver. I sat next to a woman from Denver who had just spent the past month nursing her daughter back to health. The girl was in most ways, an independent woman. She had graduated from Tulane University, moved to New York to work for a luxury carpet company and had done well enough to move into her own $2400 a month studio in the Lower East Side. Her mother said these things proudly until she came to her daughter’s condition. Something about the girl’s heart. She had fainted the other day and cracked her head open on the sidewalk. She had a swift surgery and with the help of her mother, was now recuperating. The woman did not want to leave her daughter for Thanksgiving, but the girl assured her mother that she had several friends who were staying in the city and that she’d be well taken care of. She had, over the five years she’d been building a life in New York, formed a strong circle of girlfriends, most of whom were either from Tulane or from Colorado. 
“So aside from that,” the woman said, “My daughter is doing really well in the city.” 
I nodded, wondering how many yards of carpet the girl sold each year to cover the cost of living. 
“But,” the woman said, “She can’t seem to meet a man.” 
The girl had, upon first arriving in the city, gotten into a relationship that cooled almost as quickly as it had gotten serious. The boy turned out to be, in the mother’s words, “not a very nice man.” He had what are known as wandering eyes, and hands. And lips. It was not a good first year for the girl, but she bucked up, threw herself into her job, strengthened her female bonds and was soon living the life of an independent young woman in New York with a wealth of contacts, nights out, favorite wine bars and lounges she could confidently rattle off to out of town visitors, and a strong if slightly dull career path – she was selling carpets, after all. But after that first fizzled romance there were only a string of measly dates or worse, half-assed bar pickups and no follow through. 
“I don’t know what it is,” the woman said, shifting in her seat, “She’s a great girl. Smart, funny, athletic. And I’m not just saying that because I’m her mother. Her friends are all great too…but none of them seem able to meet anyone. It’s bizarre.” 
We talked about their hometown. The girl was apparently quite good at keeping in touch with her childhood friends from home, most of whom had opted to return to Denver after college and most of whom were married by now. A few of them even pregnant or with children. 
“New York is a little different, I know,” the woman said, “But goodness how could all of her friends in Denver have found men and she just doesn’t seem to be meeting anyone?” 
The girl’s friends now, when they spoke on the phone or got together over holidays, tried to convince her to move home. The girl refused. She loved the city and she was convinced that she would find someone. 
Would she consider online dating? 
“I suggested it,” the woman said, “But she’s against it. She thinks it’s unnatural. And I don’t think it’s the best way, but if she’s going out and being social and meeting people in person and it’s not working out…I just think, why not give online dating a try? But she’s so stubborn. She gets mad when I bring it up.” 
I thought about my own experiences with online dating, some good, some bad, none of which turned out to be anything. I though too about my present situation with POI, which came about because of mutual friends. 
“Yes,” the woman said, “I have asked if she has friends or coworkers who could set her up, but honestly, all her coworkers are – she lowered her voice – gay, and all her friends are single too. They don’t have two eligible single guys to mush together, amongst the five of them.” 
“Timing and keeping an open mind,” I said sagely, though in truth I had and have not the faintest clue.  
The woman nodded, “I know. I know, that’s what I tell her. I think she’s too picky, but at the same time, I want her to be picky.” 
The flight attendant came by with our diet cokes and waters. There was an hour left in the flight. I would spend it asking the woman about her own marriage to a man who built mansions in the nicer parts of Denver. They had met through friends. The man liked her immediately but the woman was not so sure. They lived close by however, and one day, after the man had left for a month long trip, she realized she missed him. When he returned they began to date in earnest and a year later they were married. He built his houses. She was a school teacher. They had two children, the eldest, a son, who was married last year to a woman he met online and the girl, Leah, who channeled Flannery O’ Conner just a few hours before the woman left for the airport, “A good man is hard to find.” 
“Shouldn’t be,” the woman said, “Especially in a city like New York.”  
“But it is,” I said.   
The view outside John Wayne Airport, Terminal C. 

My father, a good man, drove with my mother at his side to pick me up from the airport.

“Your father washed and changed your sheets,” my mother said, “He knew you would not want to sleep in old dusty sheets.” 
I smiled at my father’s reflection in the rearview mirror. 
“I bought you a new set of suitcases too,” he said, “They’re in the garage. Let me know if you like them.” 
I clapped my hands, “You are the best,” I said, “The very very best.” 
A month before, upon returning from London, I had complained to my father about how heavy my old suitcases were. He had gifted them to me when I graduated from high school and was bound for New York. They were a distinct deep maroon, recognizable on the luggage belt from far away, and I had stuffed them mercilessly for the past ten years, dragged them around the world with me. But they were bulky, heavy even when empty. In London, POI had carried the suitcase up and down the stairs of our bed and breakfast in Bath and in and out of taxicabs. 
“That shit is ridiculously heavy,” he said. And I nodded, dreading hauling the suitcase back up to my studio when I returned home. Whenever I did, without fail, my arms would always be sore for the entire next day. 
When I returned from London and called to tell my parents about the trip, I mentioned in passing that my arms were smarting. 
“What’s wrong,” my father asked, “Did you get hurt?” 
No no, I said, the suitcase was just too heavy. 
“Well, come home and we’ll go pick out some new ones.” 
But he’d gone ahead and done it for me. They were sleek silver Samsonites – a set of two: one large and one carry-on. Light as a feather and with four wheels on the bottom for vertical rolling. I would travel in style. My arms would be spared. 
At home I spun the suitcases around, then happily brought them to my room, where the bed was made and my room was left just as I had left it. My father stood in the doorway, his arms crossed. 
“Happy?” 
“Very,” I said. 
I guess I brought it with me (the rain, if you can’t see it). 

It rained on Thanksgiving day. Loving as my parents are, they had other plans for Thanksgiving dinner, and I found (or invited myself) to dinner at uncle Jimmy’s house. I picked my grandfather up at 6PM. He had not wanted to go, preferring (outwardly) to stay home alone. Thanksgiving was very close to his wife’s passing and was the first holiday he spent without her. But he came with me and was seated next to the youngest member of the family.

Grandpa, who is a fussy eater,  and baby Caden, who is not. 

My uncle Jimmy carved the turkey (from Lucille’s – a delicious deal if you’re not in the mood to make turkey).

Uncle Jimmy, the turkey, and his trademark grin. 

My grandfather had a shot of Jameson from a wine glass and began to giggle shortly afterwards. He was in a pleasant mood that night and I could tell he was glad to be there and not home alone.

“You talk too much, Betty,” is what he normally says. But on Thanksgiving, he simply said, “Cheers.” 
My uncle toasts his grandson. Good habits start early. 

The next morning, I woke to the sound of aerobic counting and found my mother, a family friend, Uncle Jimmy and my aunt exercising in the entryway. My aunt and uncle come over early at 7AM, as they’ve been doing ever since the summer, when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Uncle Jimmy takes her and a family friend who also has Parkinson’s through a rigorous regimen of exercises. The point is to hold off on medications for as long as possible, and uncle Jimmy, who eats like a horse and drinks like a fish but is at his core a doctor of eastern medicine, drives an hour round trip every day to do this for his older sister before heading off to work or to teach more classes. My father makes breakfast for them afterward and that morning, he greeted me with a glass of freshly blended fruit smoothie.

“What fruits do you want in it?”

“Anything,” I said.

“I know just what you’ll like,” he said, and he was right.

When he learned my mother had Parkinson’s he watched her cry for a minute then told her calmly not to worry.

“I will put your shoes on for you when you are no longer able to,” he said.

My mother nodded, recalling that as a young woman she had dreamed about marrying a romantic man who would walk through the rain with her. My father hates the rain, but still, she had found that man.  

At the breakfast table, my aunt stirred her smoothie. “Your father is the nutritionist.”
“And uncle Jimmy is her trainer,” I said. 
My mother, her cheeks flushed and glowing, her forehead shiny with the faint sheen of sweat, smiled at the good men (and women) all around her. 
“A good man (like me) IS hard to find,” my father says. 

I took a walk on the road I always walk on. It had not yet started to snow in New York, but on that road it would not be strange to ask, “What is snow?”

A street near my street. 80 degrees that day. 

In the evening the entire family gathered at the Orange Hill Restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner after Thanksgiving. My brother and his wife were not there, but they were moving back from Shanghai and would join us for Christmas. We took many photos together, including the one below of the girl cousins and one male cousin-in-law, Lawrence, a new father to a baby girl. 

We looked at the photo and nodded to each other and to ourselves. Adults? Kidults? Whatever we were, we had turned out alright.

Cousins. And who is that stud? 

The next day, the family assembled again, though this time all in black. We found ourselves at the same cemetery and afterward, the same vegetarian restaurant as a little over a year ago, when my grandmother passed away. It was the funeral of a very peculiar man, my uncle Louis’s father who had smoked two packs a day until he turned ninety-six and simply decided to quit. He died quietly at 100, battling nothing really, but time.

Mr. Yang, Sr.: Laconic, stylish, (almost) everlasting. 

Later that evening, I reunited with my childhood friends in a childhood home for an annual leftover party, in which we simply show up and eat Grace’s leftovers. It is infinitely more scrumptious than I am able to make it sound. Smiling, Grace baked me a pecan pie.

She may be smiling, but she’s thinking, “The Chinese middle class can suck it.” 
Friends with pie. 

After dinner, we took turns holding her nephew, a child of improbable cuteness, and above his soft, fragrant head, talked about life and other things.

Modern Family 
One of us was working and considering buying a house. Two of us were in school, one for science, the other for art. The other made music on a daily basis, in a city whose tanned denizens said things like, “What is snow?” One of us was nearing the eighth year of her relationship and one of us was just stepping into her first. Two of us felt similar to the daughter of the woman I’d met on the plane. Bellies full, we moved to the couch and watched Jeopardy and then played charades, laughing like the kids we’d been in elementary school, where we all met. And now we had all returned to the same small town, nesting temporarily in our roots, looking up at budding branches. 
The End. 

One Year

A year ago today, my grandmother passed away. The day would have gone by without my having given her or my grandfather a second thought had my mother not called me.

It was only 7:30AM back in California and I thought it strange to see my mother’s name flashing on the screen. She’s not one to wake too early, especially not on a Sunday, but I guess this isn’t like most Sundays. When the phone rang, I was standing in the kitchen, mid-sentence with a friend who had spent the night. We were talking about men and blogging. Things important to we the living. I picked up the phone and greeted my mother with the slightest impatience but became quiet when I could hardly hear her speak. She wasn’t crying and did not sound sad, but she seemed reluctant to let her voice rise above a certain octave. She was hesitant to remind me of something. She, along with everyone else, knows that in New York I’m having what is known as “a good time.”

I told my mother that my friend was visiting, hoping she would say, “Oh okay, I’ll call back later,” but instead she said a hollow, “Oh that’s nice,” and finally, after a soft “hmmm,” said, “You know, today marks one year since grandma’s passed away.”

“Oh my God,” I said, “It’s been a year.”

“Yes, so fast,” my mother said softly, “We’re going to her grave later, the family.”

I thought to my grandfather and asked after him, knowing that I would not under any circumstances call or speak to him today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow.

“He’s…” my mother hesitated, “he didn’t feel well last night.”

“How so.”

“He felt last night he couldn’t breath and complained of a stomachache. Your aunt Joannie went to visit him and she found him lying huddled on the couch. It made her sad, your aunt said. Just an old man in a cold house, lying huddled on the couch. He told her he felt very cold and very ill.”

“It’s stress,” I said, not sure if I was using the right word in Chinese, “Today is a terrible day for him and it stressed him out last night. I would probably feel sick too.” But I knew exactly which couch and how cold. The house had been warm in theory when my grandmother was alive and well and it was filled with the smells of her cooking and lots of bodies coming in and out to eat with them. But in the winter, when the stove was off and it was just the two of them, when they were napping or quietly playing solitaire, the house could get incredibly cold. It was two stories, the second of which they never ventured to, and possessed an old heating system that struggled against the high ceilings and thin, drafty windows. I often walked in on winter evenings to find grandpa wearing a cap, hands stuffed into the deep, fleece-lined pockets of a black puffy down jacket my cousin Andrew had passed down to him. I would sit and chat, fully aware that my fingers and toes were turning purple.

“The heater…” I would say, and most of the time, grandpa would respond, “Such a waste. Just two people in a big house. We don’t need it.”

I didn’t know how to say ‘heartache’ in Chinese, or not the way I wanted to say it. I knew to say, “Heart hurt,” which was accurate, but for some reason, when applied to Grandpa, seemed just the opposite. It didn’t go with his tough-guy mien. But in any language it is apt, there is no better word for it. Still, I didn’t use it.

I could sense my mother nodding on the other end, looking off somewhere.

“He said he did not feel very good at all.”

“Are you guys going to take him to see the doctor?”

“I don’t know,” my mother said, “We’ll see.”

I looked over to my friend, who knew my family well and knew that my grandmother had passed away. She looked concerned, but I didn’t want her to be. There wasn’t much to be done from here, by either of us. I wanted to hang up and continue talking about men, about blogging, about the future.

“Well,” my mother said after a short silence, “Tell Angie we said hello.”

I said goodbye, almost adding, “I hope Grandpa feels better,” but stopped myself. It wasn’t a cold he had.

—————

Certain days in New York, when I’m walking down the street and see an elderly man or woman sitting alone on a park bench or shuffling slowly somewhere, I remind myself to call my grandfather to see how he’s doing. Mostly, I know. Or I think I know, in the general way you think you understand the feeling that comes with losing someone you’ve been married to for nearly seventy years. So I don’t know. I just know what he’ll say when I call to ask, “How are you doing?”

Ma ma hu hu,” he’ll say, the Chinese equivalent of “same old, same old,” or more accurately, “Whatever.”

Most days, he means this to be funny. My grandfather likes to play Negative Ned to my Positive Polly. It’s our special thing – he thinks I’m a ridiculous smart-ass ray of sunshine, mostly because he doesn’t read my blog and also because with him, I steer clear of certain topics that once broached would make me cry until I had no tears. I don’t always want to cry when I see him. Most of the afternoons we spent together were mild, happy affairs. I cooked a simple meal we would eat together, then I would ask him to split a dessert with me. He would say no. I would shrug and say, “Your loss.” He would chuckle, arms crossed over his chest and shake his head.

“You complain about gaining fat and you always always eat dessert.”

In between bites of chocolate ice cream or cookies or cake I would nod, “Very astute, Grandpa.”

And it went like that. I’d clear the dishes. He’d watch the Chinese news, read another article or two from the Chinese World Journal, and between 1 to 1:30PM, would stand up slowly, wincing as his bones creaked and say, “Nap time, nap time.”

I’d nod and say “Good night,” and he would roll his eyes because it wasn’t nighttime.

“It’s good afternoon,” he’d correct me.

“Good afternoon,” I would stand corrected.

He would nap for an hour. Sometimes, I slept too, lying on the couch in front of the TV with a book on my belly. Grandma used to nap here, and when she was here and I was here, she’d nap in the bedroom and let me have the couch. Now, Grandpa would wake before me and come back quietly to take his seat at the dining table. He would read like a literary phantom behind me until I woke and realized the time and turned to find him there, still and scholarly. An ancient man in a modern Chinese-American painting.

“I’ve been awake for a while,” he would say, and I would rub my eyes and yawn dramatically, kicking my legs out and stretching my arms past the edge of the sofa towards the garden my grandmother used to tend to but is now under grandpa’s care. I’d feeling comfortably childish like a granddaughter just risen from a warm delicious nap and who together with her grandpa, was waiting for grandma to wake too.

But it remained just the two of us for a good part of the afternoon. Grandpa would move to his favorite chair in front of the TV, turn it on in time for a travel-through-China show he liked to watch, and I’d read some more back at the kitchen table. Sometimes I would go to the garden and collect some snow peas, yam leaves or tomatoes and grandpa would be pleased, because he chose to keep watering the plants his wife had loved so much rather than let them wither. Sometimes I would vacuum and grandpa would lift the chairs even though it strained his back. Sometimes we’d talk, though hardly about grandma. And around two or three, I would get ready to go.

I’d stand up and start packing away my books and magazines. He would look up and say, “Going?”

“Going,” I said, “I’ll see you __,” whatever day I was scheduled to come next, though it was a self-imposed thing. I was unemployed and needed structure. Even more, I think, than Grandpa. I’d take my bag, wait a bit while grandpa rose from his chair to let me out, and I’d walk down the driveway towards my car, which was always parked across the street along the neighbor’s curb, beneath a shady tree.

He’d stand in front of the drafty old house, with its red brick and wrought iron front gate. The small, two door garage filled with old Chinese school textbooks and odds and ends from various points of their grown children’s and their children’s lives. Old Christmas gifts and filing cabinets. Large stock pots and steamers my grandmother had used during Chinese New Years’ past. There was a single rose bush near the living room window. There he would be, standing slightly stooped with his arms behind his back, a ballast of sorts, holding down this fort that was and was not his.

“See you later, Grandpa,” I always called out from my window. He’d smile and wave and, seeing my car wend around Sunshine Park and out of sight, he’d slowly turn and go back inside.

In those summer months before I left for school, I didn’t worry about whether he would feel cold. Alone, of course, but not cold.

This Is Not A Relationship

My cousin Melody is not dating a guy named Jim.

She’s not dating Jim, so he pretty much follows her around everywhere they, or mostly Melody, wants to go.

She’s not dating Jim, so he drives her to these places in his BMW.

She’s not dating Jim, so when she found an unpaid internship about a 15-minute drive away, she decided that rather than spend money she wasn’t earning on cab fare, Jim would work around his class schedule and find the time to drop her off and pick her up. Sometimes, on the way home, she’ll ask him to get her something to eat. He always does. He complains about this “abuse” she inflicts upon him but really (and everyone knows this) he does it to himself. He’s in love with her. Otherwise, he wouldn’t do it.

They take trips together, to New York, Montreal and Mexico. They eat at nice restaurants, go sightseeing, probably hold hands and kiss.

If there was a drug that made him feel the way Melody does, he would take it. I should tell Jim about Xanax.

But she’s not dating him. According to Melody, they’re just friends.

“Jim knows too,” she tells me, “I told him.”

And I nod, though as the words leave her mouth I am certain I can hear the sound of Jim’s heart tearing.

A few weeks ago Melody called to say she was coming to New York for a career fair. She’s a student in Boston, studying business something-or-other and sometimes the school suggests they go to career fairs in New York, where they’re supposed to network with potential future employers. But the networking events are dull, awkward and futile affairs and most of the students go with the fair as an afterthought. They mostly just end up meeting up with friends or, in Melody’s case, a cousin in the city.

I suggested afternoon tea at Bergdorf Goodman. It’s a girly thing to do. We’re both girls, Melody a considerably more accomplished one than I.

“Sure!” she said, “And I’ll be bringing my friend. You know, the boy.”

I did know, remembering a conversation we had during the summer, when we were both back in Taipei for my brother’s wedding. Melody had just finished her first year of graduate school and had not, as she put it, “met Mr. Right.”

I was doubtful. From her Facebook photos it seemed like she was constantly being swarmed by guys, most of whom I was sure harbored not-so-secret crushes on her. And then there were the photos she posted of her many excursions outside Boston in which she was the only one photographed, smiling sweetly into the camera from across the table at a fancy restaurant or in front of some tourist attraction. In my experience, girls traveling together usually take photos together. Couples traveling together even more so. It’s weird not to. But when you’re traveling with a guy you’re not exactly dating or even considering dating, taking a photo together is weird. So Melody’s photos were snapped by some adoring fanboy who didn’t mind taking multiple shots from multiple angles and who, at least in theory, didn’t mind not being in the photos.

Click. And the heart tears a little more.

“Really?” I pressed, “You’re not dating anyone?”

“Not really,” she said, shrugging.

“Melody. C’mon.”

“Well, there’s a boy,” she said, using the Chinese term for “younger boy” or “little brother.”

“A boy?”

“Yeah, he drives me around. Nice guy, but just a boy. Seriously, it’s not serious. We’re not dating.”

I laughed, unsurprised and already getting the gist of things. The photographer was the boy was Jim. But still, I wanted specifics. Melody is sometimes a treasure trove of feminine mystique.

“He drives you around?”

“Yeah. He has a car. He’s nice, comes from a good family who does real estate like ours, but I’m almost two years older than he is…” she shrugged and twisted her hair, jutting her chin out in the half-pout she has when she’s mildly dissatisfied with some person or situation, “…I just don’t date boys.”

“So you’re not dating.”

“No no. Not at all.”

“So you’re just friends with this ‘boy.'”

“Yeah.”

“Is this the guy you went to Canada with?”

“And a few other places, yeah.”

“Just you two?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s in love with you.”

She shrugged again, “I told him we’re just friends.”

“And still he just drives you around.”

She nodded blandly, “He doesn’t seem to mind.”

“Amazing.”

René Magritte,  La Trahison des Images, 1929  Oil on Canvas    Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Melody, despite her euphonic name and sweet nature, is a hammer head attached to a scalpel. She hits these poor fellows with her long limbs, pretty face, and care-free nature then slices their hearts open with the deft hands of a gifted neurosurgeon. But imagine a neurosurgeon who doesn’t know she’s a neurosurgeon. She’s a particular breed of female who always, wherever they go, leaves behind them a river of tears, like that Justin Timberlake song, except less spiteful. The tears are not Melody’s but rather those of young, ideal-driven men who’ve been dumped and told to stop calling but who still follow her around like crack addicts with empty pipes.

Girls like Melody don’t merely break hearts. Love is never simple, and neither is lust. Melody’s MO, blithe as she is to it, is thus: she fills these hearts with promises she never makes but subconsciously hints at by merely glancing, smiling, chatting benignly with these guys – all these little, meaningless interactions point, in the lust-struck brain, towards more substantial promise: the promise of Melody’s undivided attention, of requited love and adoration and somewhere down the line, of a relationship.

It feels like love, it feels like attention, it feels like affection, but the hitch of course – and isn’t there always a hitch? – is that the feeling is always one sided. It’s a dense, heady mist upon which the love story the guy wants to see is projected. But at some point the film stops rolling, the mist dissipates, and he’s standing alone in the cemetery holding a can of soda she wanted but didn’t drink, amidst the remains of other deflated hearts that crackle like empty Doritos bags.

But being objective, I see, as I’m sure you do, that the guys do it to themselves (as does everyone else who’s dumb in love). Melody is loved and in return, she mildly likes, with no particular ill-intent. It’s always, if you ask these girls, kind of an accident.

It’s like taking a walk after a spring rain and coming across a snail or worm on the sidewalk. They don’t really noticing and step down lightly though not lightly enough. Melody always hears the crunch beneath the soles of her Havianas sandals (her footwear of choice as she’s nearly 5’10) and she’ll look down and say, “Oh shoot.” But like the rain, the moment passes and she shrugs. “Nothing to do about it now.” She wipes her feet in the grass a bit and walks on.

So Jim, whom she is not dating.

They’re not dating, so Jim drove Melody all the way from Boston to New York for a career fair only she signed up for. He told himself he could visit friends while Melody (and the two other people whom Jim also drove from Boston at Melody’s behest) went to the career fair.

They’re not dating, so when Melody told him he was going to afternoon tea with her and her cousin, he nodded sure even though he hates tea, hates sandwiches, and hates sweets. He hates those things doubly when he’s hungover, as Jim is when I meet him.

They’ve arrived at Bergdorf’s a few minutes before me, and are sitting across from each other. Melody has her back to the window that faces Central Park and a full view of the dining room. Jim faces Melody, so that she’s the only thing he sees, her pretty face glowing by the light of the window. Seeing me, Melody calls out, “Hi!” and Jim turns around. He looks as though he’s just woken up.

“I’m Betty,” I say.

“Jim,” he says.

“The boy,” I think, and take a seat next to Melody, but not before raising my eyebrows at her in a knowing way. She smiles at me. She knows what I’m thinking, but mostly I’m feeling sorry for Jim and marveling, as I do, at Melody. Another girl would have thought the situation awkward and avoided inviting Jim altogether – why bother with the explaining? – but Melody, and this is part of her charm, tells it like it is. We are not dating, her eyes tell me, this is just afternoon tea with my friend and my cousin.

So this is Jim. The boy. Dressed like a boy. He’s wearing a striped Abercrombie polo, the polo shirt of choice of guys from Taiwan his age and of a certain mindset, which is, “what everyone else is wearing/doing/dating.” He’s more tan than most Taiwanese boys, though this could have more to do with his heritage than actually spending time out in the sun. His head and all the features on it are round. Round eyes, nose, mouth. I can’t decide if he’s cute in a homely way or homely in a cute way. He’s certainly no Adonis, but there’s something comfortable and non-judgmental about his open face. Still, he’s obviously scored a trophy in not dating Melody. And, a few additional points for Jim: he’s more sturdily built (though far from built) than most Taiwanese guys, who all seem, at least when I visit the island, to be on some culturally induced famine.

Despite being only twenty-four and still a graduate student however, Jim seems to have already sunk one foot into middle age. It’s an affliction of young, wealthy Asian men who have too much money and as a result, too little motivation to do anything but get away from overbearing, nagging mothers and find respite in girls like Melody, who don’t nag, not really, unless you’re late picking her up. In which case, you’re in for it. But for the most part, Jim is never late. Jim’s going soft around the middle and probably, in the brain. I guess his main ambition in life at present is to keep Melody happy.

I look at Melody, who despite her easy, languid smile, seems merely content in the specifics of the moment, still a few steps away from happiness.

We look at the menu, though really there’s nothing to think about since we’re here for the afternoon tea, which comes in a set. We just have to choose the tea.

“I’m not big on sweets,” says Jim, thrusting the menu towards Melody, “My secretary can choose for me.”

A comedic attempt to assert his dominance, which Melody quickly shuts down.

“It’s tea you’re choosing, my dear chauffeur,” the hammer says, “The sweets are set.”

Jim is hungover from karaokeing with friends the night before. Melody and their other friends stopped drinking early on and Jim felt it was his duty to block for Melody the alcohol that seemed to keep on coming. But apparently Jim wasn’t as drunk as one of his friends, who was smoking a cigarette and then when he turned to exchange some slurred words with Jim, stuck the cigarette in Jim’s face. Which explains the odd-looking birthmark right under Jim’s left eye.

“It’ll scar,” I said, showing him a cigar burn on my right forearm which I got from my freshman roommate at NYU. She wasn’t drunk. We were walking and she was smoking a cigar and she put it down rather carelessly right where my hand was swinging. I forgave her.

“I did it for her,” he said, pointing indignantly at Melody.

She shook her head, “You did it to yourself.”

He looks at me in mock-protest, “See how she abuses me?”

I laugh, shrug, then launch into the barrage of questions I ask everyone when I first meet them, especially when they’re not dating my cousin: Childhood, schooling, parents, siblings, professional aspirations, general philosophies.

Jim’s father passed away when he was in the fifth grade and his mother raised him and his older brother, though they have a huge family on either parent’s side, so his mom had a lot of help. She sounds like the typical over-bearing Taiwanese mother-in-law, every other word out of her mouth attached to a nag. The last time Jim went back to Taiwan, he changed his flight and returned to the States earlier than he’d planned. In the States, he’d gotten used to not having to hear his mother’s voice all the time.

Jim has an older brother also in the States. According to Jim, they have very different personalities. His brother is an introvert. Doesn’t like partying or drinking or, I’m guessing, chasing after pretty girls.

“My brother loves to say, ‘Please, not now. Please just do not bother me.'” Jim says puts his hands up and grimaces in an imitation of his brother, “We are very different.”

After high school, he moved to the US for college in Hartford, Connecticut. His English is pretty good, but could be better considering how long he’s been here, but then he’s made friends with pretty much every Asian person in Hartford and now Boston, and through a few key acquaintances, many more friends in Flushing, NY.

“He knows a lot of people,” Melody says almost proudly, then pauses, “Well, actually, he knows like this one really fat guy who knows all the Chinese people.”

Jim nods as a matter of factly, “Yeah. I do. That one fat guy.” Jim points to the cigarette burn, “He gave me this. But he’s a good guy. Good times.”

And grad school? He shrugs, assuming I already know the answer. I do. Kids like Jim (like Melody too and to some extent, myself) go to grad school because it’s a.) what everyone else is doing – like wearing Abercrombie polos, b.) supposed to bolster your job prospects c.) a safe haven or one last hurrah before you’re actually ready to start working in the real world. Jim has never worked before, and this is something Melody has an issue with. Even she has spent two years toiling away at a Taiwanese bank after graduating from college.

“I’m into real estate,” he says, “That’s my family business background, and I’d like to learn more, but honestly, trying to find a job or an internship here is so damn hard, and it’s really easy to lose motivation. That’s when I admit to myself that yeah, I’m just another spoiled kid without too much drive.” He chuckles as he says this, and I find myself nodding along to his honesty.

“But,” he continues, “I do want to learn more. It’s the one thing I’m pretty much consistently interested in.” (Besides Melody, I want to add).

“Why are you so good to her?” I say jokingly, when he’s listed all the things he does for her on a daily basis, most of them involving driving and waiting and driving some more.

“I’m good to him too!” Melody protests, “I do his homework for him!”

I look at Jim, so this guy’s getting something out of it too – if not a girlfriend, then perhaps better grades.

Jim nods like he can’t argue with that.

“I’m no good with numbers,” he says, “She definitely has a better grasp of all the projects and stuff we do.”

I stare at Melody, unable to hide my surprise. She’s not exactly known as the brainy one, but then again, when your older sister placed first in the nation for the grueling college entrance examination and then graduated as the top electrical engineering scholar at the nation’s best university (things like this are a huge deal in Taiwan where test scores pretty much predicate your success as a human being), it’s easy for the rest of the world (and to some extent, the family) to remember that you have a brain at all.

“So you do all his homework?”

“No,” Melody says, “But if we have a project, which is all the time, we divide up the assignments and I’ll just take on more of the work load because – (she waves dismissively at Jim, who shrugs like “What can I do?”) – he just takes forever and the quality of his work is not as good.”

Interesting. I look at Jim and think, “Well, you drive her around and she makes sure you don’t fail out of the program. Sounds like a fair-ish trade.”

He shrugs and rolls his eyes, but smiles, “Haha, I guess.”

Then I ask the cruelest question of all, but I feel like we’ve reached that point where it’s okay. It’s probably not okay, but something tells me Jim can take it.

“So,” I look at Jim, “You drive her around. And you,” I look at Melody, “Do his homework for him. You guys take a bunch of trips together, and spend most of your time together, studying, hanging out, whatever.”

They nod. Yes, yes, yes.

“But you’re not ‘together.'”

They shake their heads, Melody slowly, and Jim more jerkily.

“So you guys have some kind of agreement.”

“That’s right,” Melody says.

Jim is about to say something, then stops. He breaks out into a sheepish grin, having decided, I think, that he can be honest here. He’s in a safe place: the sunlight dining room of the Bergdorf Goodman restaurant, seven floors above the swarm of tourists, half of whom are congregating outside the Apple store, lining up for the new iPhone.

“She doesn’t love me, ah,” he says, “She doesn’t love me so that’s the agreement. What can I do about it?”

I am surprised and not surprised by this honest declaration, and my fondness for the boy grows. I look at Melody, who rolls her eyes but in an endeared way, if that’s possible.

“Oh shut up,” she says.

“She always complains that I’m ruining her game,” he says.

“You are! How am I supposed to meet Mr. Right if I’m sitting in your car all the time.”

“I’m driving you places!”

She laughs, “True, true.”

“Besides,” Jim says, “You’re ruining my game too.”

“But Jim,” I point out, “Melody is your game.”

He thinks about it for a millisecond then concedes, “She is, she is.”

He looks fondly at Melody, who can’t help but smile back.

Jim smiles a lot, a weird confident thing. He’s not afraid of losing her, I realized, at least not outwardly so. There’s nothing careful or uneasy about him. He doesn’t tiptoe around her nor does he shy away from my questions which can come off as prying because they are. But thus far, despite their ambiguous (unstated) relationship status, Jim takes them all in stride. None of them seem too personal for him to answer, and he does as a matter-of-factly, with a wry smile. His father’s death, his mother’s reaction to his father’s death, his odd brother, his vague career plans, the cigarette burn mark on his left cheek, and the fact that Melody doesn’t love him back. These are all facts of life.

But Jim is smarter than he looks and more self-assured than how I first imagined him. He’s playing solitaire for now, hoping she’ll one day see him in the light he wants her to see him in. And Melody too, is far from brainless. She likes Jim, I can tell. Despite her reservations about his age and the fact that they’re roughly the same height, she likes that he’s not a pushover, and that he’s open. She hasn’t met his family but from the sound of it, they’re not too different from ours. This sort of thing matters in the long run. And lodged somewhere in the chords her fine-tuned feminine intuition, she knows he’s a good guy with potential. She’s waiting for Mr. Right, but if she’s lucky and if Jim is smart, he’ll become Mr. Right. They’re both playing the long game, just using different investment techniques.

A server in a white coat comes by to replenish our tea, but they need to be heading back to their hotel soon, to pick up Jim’s car and the two other people they came with. Jim is feeling less hungover – he barely ate any of the sandwiches but already he’s wondering what he wants to eat for dinner. Something more substantial than tea and small sandwiches.

The check comes and Melody pays for Jim’s portion.

“I’ll figure it out with you later,” she says quickly, motioning for Jim to put his card away, though I know she won’t.

As we step out of the restaurant and wait for the elevator, I turn and realize Melody is also wearing a shirt from Abercrombie. And white cutoff shorts. And her Havianas sandals. Jim is wearing shorts and sandals. She’s tall and he’s not-so-tall, so they’re roughly the same height, and there’s something about their expressions, the two of them standing easily side by side that seems picturesque in the most stereotypical, young Taiwanese couple sort of way. But they’re not a couple. They’re not dating. The elevator comes. We step in, go down, step out. I hug Melody and, just for the hell of it, hug Jim. I may never see him again because Melody might decide to pull out of the game. She might meet Mr. Right at a gas station on her way home, or in her next class or at her next real job – a lot can happen. Jim could get tired of driving, though I think the former scenarios are more likely. But we hug and make vague plans for me to visit Boston.

“I’ll see you then,” Jim says, “We’ll go out with my friends.”

“Thanks,” I say and find myself wanting to add, “Hang in there, Jim. Because you never know.”

I wave them out and watch as they walk past racks of expensive handbags towards the revolving door. Watch a boy and a girl wearing Abercrombie shirts and sandals, holding hands and stepping out into the city. You never know. You never know.

Fat Cat Is Dead

On Sunday morning, my cousin Karen in Taiwan Whatsapped me a single line.

“Betty, Fat Cat is dead.” 
That was it. There were no emoticons or explanations, just a simple declarative sentence that conveyed a history that spanned some sixteen or seventeen years and a loss just short of devastating. The statement itself was something inevitable, but very hard to imagine. 
I typed back quickly, saying that I was sorry and that it would be okay because Fat Cat had had a good life. She didn’t respond. 
I thought back to a conversation we had on the sixth floor in my cousin’s room, probably around midnight some years ago.
“I will be very sad when Fat Cat passes away,” my cousin said, “I know it’s right around the corner.” 
At the time, Fat Cat was still fat, but not decrepit. He moved slowly if at all because he was lazy, and only sped up when one of my cousins walked into the kitchen, towards which he would suddenly charge, drawing upon the generous but seldom used reserves in his flabby belly. When I visited, which was often, Fat Cat followed me when I strolled into the kitchen, hours after my cousins had left for school or work.

“Meow,” it would say, and rub against my ankles, “Meow.”

In Cat-speak, this means, “I will love you for the next five seconds if you’ll take some canned cat food and put it in this here bowl.”

But I am not one to feed fat things, and so very rarely was Fat Cat ever nourished by me.

My cousins Karen and Larry, my aunt, and even, in a more removed, hands-off fashion, my uncle, had been very good to Fat Cat, a pale yellow and white tabby Larry had rescued many years ago when he was in high school. Fat Cat was such a hit amongst the members of that sixth floor nucleus that a few years later, Larry brought home a dark-furred stray that would aptly be named “Little Cat.”

With a master named Larry, one could hardly argue that his pets ought possess names with more flair.

Compared to Little Cat, Fat Cat was obviously much larger, less active, more blasé about life because he had a few years on Little Cat, was rescued first, had seen things Little Cat could only imagine. Little Cat was much scrappier than Fat Cat, who though born in the feline slums of Taipei, harbored an innate  and perplexing sense of entitlement. It was as though upon setting foot into the 6th floor apartment, he washed his paws of his past and developed almost instantly a taste for expensive canned foods. None of that pellet crap for him. Perhaps in a past life he had been the obese Queen of some weird tape worm tribe because Fat Cat definitely had something odd going on in the gut. He was never ever full and would have, had my cousins allowed it, eaten himself to death. A poster cat for the grossest sin of gluttony. But still, he had his moments.

I have a picture with Fat Cat when he wasn’t fat, and was just “Cat,” because he was the only one. I am about twelve or thirteen, wearing a worn-t-shirt and baggy athletic shorts and hair in a messy ponytail, strands framing my young, open face. During later summers, when I too was Fat, Fat Cat and I would pass each other in the cool hall of the 6th floor and I would think, turning to glare at his quivering haunches then down at my own, that “Fat Cat, you and I have both seen better days.”

But in the photograph, taken in the same summer of Fat Cat’s arrival, I am athletic, bright-eyed, an animal lover. I’m clutching Fat Cat close to my cheek, grinning at the camera while Fat Cat, in a slender and more awkward version of himself, looks unamused. His front legs are splayed out awkwardly and his legs are dangling uncomfortably above my crossed legs. His expression states quite plainly, “What the f***.” It was not his best photograph, but he needn’t have worried, for my cousin Karen made certain to photograph Fat Cat at least one thousand times a year, so that nearly his every non-movement is recorded for all eternity. Here is Fat Cat lounging on the chair. Here is Fat Cat lounging on the other chair. Here is Fat Cat sitting on Karen’s bed. On the other (my) bed. On Larry’s bed. Here is Fat Cat with Larry in college, who physically, is going the way of Fat Cat. Note the look of tenderness and adoration on Larry’s otherwise, at any other moment, dull and inexpressive face. If Larry loved any one thing more real than Star Trek, it was Fat Cat, upon whom he showered with slobbery, affectionate kisses that would make even his girlfriend cringe.

Here is Fat Cat in a mess of blankets because it is cold. On the floor, paws skyward, fleshy white belly undulating like a water bed because it is hot. Under the kitchen table, like a pervert. Peeking over the kitchen table, tiny pink tongue lashing out above the class, tasting about for my aunt’s broiled fish, which she inevitably, at meal times, will debone and put in a tidy little pile for him to lick up. Here he is looking up from the kitchen tiles, because he is expecting to be fed. And here, utterly full in gluttonous splendor, sunning himself on the balcony in the small woven basket he barely fits in but somehow still does, rolls of fur spilling over the basket’s edge.

Is he comfortable? Seems like it. Fat Cat Fat Cat Fat Cat. Click click click. And each year, he gets a little fatter, a little fatter, his eyes though, stay the same blank roundness. No questions, this cat. His hunger is literal. His philosophy is food. Sleep. Food. The occasional cockroach, killed with a sadistic remove, much to the delight of his cockroach fearing master, Larry. Click click. Fat. Cat. One need only to check my cousin’s Facebook or hack into her phone to realize not all cat ladies live in musty apartments and knit in their spare time.

But that is beside the point.

My own dismal track record with pets makes me an unlikely candidate to memorialize Fat Cat, even casually. On my watch, multiple generations of Russian Dwarf Hamsters, two chickens, a kitten who barely lived long enough to open its eyes, an insipid turtle, and a fish or two have perished. Most of these I buried or, as with the hamsters, when they became too numerous and their deaths too frequent, tossed in the trash with a simple prayer (I was always careful to wrap them in some sort of tissue or paper towel, but of course wearing rubbermaid gloves). The chickens were eaten by coyotes, the kitten dead before I came home from school. I found my mother sitting silently in the kitchen with the kitten still in her arms, her eyes rimmed with tears. She buried it the next day underneath an avocado tree on our back hill, and it seemed soon, the tree too was dead. If it did bear avocados they were usually small and withered and reminded me of the kitten itself.

These were technically my “pets” but in a way, they were never my pets. It was a polite label I assigned them because I did not understand what it meant, as a young child, what it meant to make something your pet. But can you blame me? Size matters. Just as I have trouble befriending people who are too short (midgets – oh I’m sorry, little people need not approach me) because I don’t like looking down so much, the little pets are hard to hold in high regard. Their needs, though quite real, seem small because they are small. I never cried when any of those animals died, only sighed and thought, “Again? Damnit where are the rubber gloves.”

But the larger animals that lived with my relatives and were, from the moment they arrived, treated like members of the family, I remember quite fondly, and it was from their interactions with these lucky animals that I learned what it means to be an honest-to-goodness pet owner. I should like to think the affection I saw doled out to these furry members of the family rubbed off on me too. At least, the lens through which they saw their pets, even if I only wanted ever to borrow their glasses for a minute. The warmth of their fur, the sound of their soft footsteps or their graceful movements bounding from chair to sofa to floor – those sounds and sights no less familiar to me than those my late grandfather made (indeed my grandfather spoke to me about as often as Fat Cat mewed to me).

Even before my cousins in Taiwan brought home Fat Cat, there had been Holly, my uncle Jimmy’s dog rescued some twenty years ago from the pound, a mix between a chow chow and something else, so that the violence of the chow was subdued and he had neither the lion’s mane nor any distinct attributes of the other breed and was simply, Holly. He had a tail that was shortened, so the length of his body ended abruptly in an adorable nub, and his coat was a dark, glossy ambery honey-wheat. If that is a color. Holly was just another member of the family and I said hello to him just as I did to my cousins, aunt and uncle each time I entered their house. Holly passed away while my cousin, the youngest in the family, was studying abroad in Beijing during her junior year of college, and her parents, wishing to spare her the pain, did not tell her until she moved back home and saw that Holly was gone. It was a strange feeling that day for me too, when I visited their house and realized a few minutes after walking in that Holly had not come bounding out the door to sniff around the door, making sure I was a member of the family and not some hood rat gangster from the neighboring city.

The sadness that comes is not overwhelming, but it is genuine. I’m never as close to the pets as their masters, but over the years I too, have become accustomed and on certain occasions, even fond, of their presence. It will be the same strangeness again, when I return to Taipei next year and am greeted only by Little Cat, who though more aesthetically pleasing (more cat-like, rather than walrus-like), has the odd, distasteful habit of pissing on dirty laundry and keeping quiet about it. I will, a perpetual student/unemployed person, wake up much later than my more productive, salary-earning cousins, my busy-body aunt and wander into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I will open the fridge and feel an unfamiliar chill about my ankles, hear only the sounds of the city entering late morning. No mews, no plaintive if feigned stares, no nips around my achilles tendon. Just me, alone in the kitchen, on the sixth floor, because Fat Cat is dead. 

Forwarded Humor

My mother told me two jokes yesterday. I was eating breakfast in the kitchen and she was using the computer in the dining room, which she has rechristened as her office. She sits at one corner of our long table where she uses her computer, corrects homework assignments, and Skypes with my brother. For anyone else it would seem a massive, lonely work space, but my mother manages to cover most of it with papers, Chinese workbooks, random notes and the occasional bowl of half-eaten oatmeal with an egg cracked over it (not very appetizing, if you ask me). This is also where she gets most of her information from the outside world, in the form of long-winded mass emails forwarded from friends and my father.

She knows better than to pass this cyber trash onto me. I have long since exiled emails from my father to a separate folder titled “Dad” but which could also aptly be called “Horrendously Time-Consuming Bi-lingual Junk Mail,” because for Dad, that’s the purpose of email. He still uses AOL, which is the digital equivalent of the Pony Express. He takes each email very seriously, as though it were a hand-written letter from a relative in China. Before, when he asked me, “Did you see that slideshow/essay/lengthy health report/etc. I sent you yesterday?” I would shake my head and say, “No Dad, stop sending that crap to me,” to which he would respond with an expression of hurt and indignation.

“I only send you the very best emails,” he would say, “They’re always informative or thought-provoking. You should take the time to read them if I’m taking the time to send them.”

I would tell him that I had better things to do. My father would become angry and petulant.

“Well I have better things to do too, than come home and make dinner for you” (if he came home to make dinner that day). And I would give him an odd look, because really. Really?

But I became tired of these arguments and sought to eliminate them from my days. I set up a separate folder: a small, Gmail Siberia reserved expressly for my father, and began to lie to his face. Now I always nod and say, “Yes yes, it was very interesting,” when in fact I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s referring to. It’s okay though, my father invariably provides clues. If it was a slideshow, he will say, “Those were some great photos right?” and I will nod, “So great.” If it was a report of some sort (usually warnings regarding the latest gang tactics – Asian parents love passing these around, even though they and most of their friends live in Newport Beach, Irvine, Cerritos or some other sterile, virtually crime-free city where their Benzes and Bimmers are more likely to be crashed by their Asian wives than vandalized by gangs) he will say, “Did you know that the gangs do this?” To which I will widen my eyes and say, “No! But now I do. Thank you.”

My dad never wants to discuss any of the emails at length. He just wants to make sure I see them. Hearing my response he will smile and nod, satisfied that he contributed somewhat to my daily intellectual digest. And saftey.

“See? I only send you the very best emails.”

At the end of the week I open the folder, give it a quick scan to see if dad sent messages specifically to me (there almost never are; if he has something really important to ask or tell me, he will call) and click “Delete All.” It gives my de-cluttering tendencies the slightest satisfaction.

My mother however, operates differently. She also takes those emails very seriously but rather than bombard my inbox, will call me into the dining room, disguising her intent with the same tone she uses when there is something wrong with the computer.

“Betty! Come quick!”

I usually put down whatever I’m doing and rush to the corner of the dining table. My mother is quite impatient when things don’t work (“Everything is doomed,” she likes to say, when really Gmail just needs refreshing).

But more often than not, the urgency of her call doesn’t match the urgency of what she wants me to see.

“Look at this adorable monkey!” (it was a slideshow of cute baby animals dressed up like human babies).

or:

“Look at this woman in China with no arms and four children! Look at her wash her face! Look at her gather vegetables from her field and wash and cook them!”

She will lean back, click to the next slide and sigh in wonderment, “Isn’t the human spirit amazing.” And there, the next slide will say in Chinese. “The Human Spirit is Amazing.”

As I am already there, at the corner, I can only nod and say, “Yes…” and wonder what it is that prevents me from taking the time to sit through these slideshows while my parents can raptly digest dozens a day. Is it a generational thing?

Sometimes though – and I’m learning to do this more often than to simply rush over like the idiot who believed the boy who cried wolf more than twice – I’ll simply pause what I’m doing, tilt my head and call back, “What is it?”

And my mother, knowing that what she wants to show me is not very urgent but if she doesn’t show me now, she’ll forget it and her daughter will somehow be at a unforgivable disadvantage, will say nothing.

I’ll say, “Mom? Mom?” And start to rise from my chair when voila, there she will be, in the doorway.

It won’t matter if she broke my train of thought – it’s more important that she keep hers. She’ll walk toward me and say, “I just now read a wonderful email…” and I’ll know that it’s story time. Forwarded email story time.