Fiction / June 2016 (Issue 32)


The Art of the Nuclear Family (A Series of Vignettes)

by Rosie Lee

1. The Best Things in Life

There's a perfect family out there somewhere. Mama and Baba still together after more than thirty years. Two girls and one boy, all born with ten fingers and ten toes, nails like pink petals. Dinner as a family every night with soft laughter and softer voices. A lovely Mediterranean-style home along the coast with curving arches and windows like stained glass when the sun rises and sets.

When guests visit, they're shown the living room with its cream, linen chesterfields and lovely French doors that open up onto a balcony. They're shown the pool outside that glitters blue on breezy afternoons. The foyer where a dangling crystal chandelier hangs from a cavernous ceiling, casting dappled shadows like doilies on the walls. The breakfast nook where sunlight floods the open space and warms the veiny, marble floors.

"You've a beautiful family. What I'd give to live in a place like this," they tell us, and I want to tell them about how I want out, about the bedrooms they never see on the grand tour—one for Mama and Baba, one for Laura, one for Joey and one for me. We keep those doors shut when guests come by because behind each stately, shining, wooden door is just dead space, a vacuum that sucks you in, so you can't ever get away no matter what. I want to warn them about how the bestest, most beautiful things will try to swallow you whole and expect you to be thankful for it.

But maybe in another universe all those things are mine just the way they are—the dinners and watercolour windows, the blue pool and lacey shadows—pretty and easy and perfect, the doors always open.

 

2. Hotel California

When I'm old enough, Mama asks me to bring the tea set out to our guests. "Rachel," she says, "do you want to help serve the tea?"

Out I go with the tea to the living room with the spotless sofas and elegant, plump pillows. One saucer for each teacup, delicate china the colour of bone and eggshell thin to the point of translucency. It's a family heirloom that's been passed down for centuries, and under Mama's watchful eye and careful packaging, it's made its way over from Singapore to the golden beaches of California, sits clean and pristine and protected behind glass-paned, oak cabinets in the kitchen.

Laura is younger and sweeter than I am, offering sugar, cream and biscuits with a white smile. Joey, still in elementary school at the time, plays "Chopsticks" on the ivory keys of the baby grand piano.

"Rachel's so grown up now," says my aunt. "Almost sixteen!"

"Time to think of suitors?" teases my uncle.

I sink into the doughy cushions, listen to the adults laugh and to the cups clinking against saucers like wind chimes. The ivory piping of the French doors frames the ocean like a painting, the frozen expanse of it blue and glittering just like the pool in our backyard.

I stand up to refill the emptied teacups. I think about what would it be like to have the waves rock me to sleep, how nice to drift for a long while and float far, far away.

 

3. Glutton for Punishment

Joey's maybe a little chubby, but he's not actually fat by any means, even if he does refuse to participate in any sort of physical exercise. He's in sixth grade now, so he gets embarrassed when I hug him in public, but I like how he fits in my arms—solid and there—on the rare occasions that he lets me.

Mama gets concerned though. "Honey," she says, "you need to exercise." She squeezes his arm. "So much meat on your bones."

She takes him to the local high school track to run laps. I know she means well, but one night I go to get an extra blanket from the closet in the hall, and I hear him crying when I tiptoe past his closed door.

I don't go in because I'm a coward.

Instead, I bury my head under layers and layers of blankets when I get back into bed, try to convince myself I'm doing the right thing because he's in sixth grade and starting to go through puberty and I'm at least sparing him his dignity.

He starts eating real slow during dinner. I never catch him, but I think he balls up some of his food in napkins and tosses it out. Once, he excuses himself from the table to use the restroom, stuffing his mouth full before he actually gets up.

Baba laughs. Mama smiles like, Oh man, does our Joey just love his food or what.

When I go into the bathroom later, I find the Or What—an oddly flat layer of toilet paper in the trashcan. I don't check because I already know what's under there. My stomach twists in on itself.

"Do you think Joey hasn't been eating on purpose?" I ask Laura later that night. She's sweeping mascara on her lashes, getting ready to go to the movies.

She blinks at me in the mirror and quirks an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"

I shake my head, suck the words back into my mouth. "Nevermind." I'm afraid to say "anorexic" outright because we don't say things like that in our house, aren't allowed to joke about adverse hypotheticals or what-ifs because it's bad luck; saying it out loud makes it a curse.

Joey's weight drops slowly until one day, Mama asks him, "Why do you have so much money left on your meal card?"

"I don't like school food," he says.

She ruffles his hair. "You're getting too skinny."

When I'm finally able to drive passengers without supervision, I take him to restaurants and cafés after school. "I'm hungry," I always say. "Do you mind if we stop somewhere? Wherever you want."

He's so thin now. When it's just the two of us, I eat less than I usually do and nudge my plate over to his side.

 

4. Family Jewels

Caroline's been my best friend since the seventh grade. She says her grandpa goes to the bank every Monday and Thursday. He likes to open up all his safes and pore over the contents, running thick, meaty, ring-decked fingers over gold watches and diamond-encrusted cufflinks, polishing and polishing and polishing his dead wife's emerald earrings and limited edition Chanel pearl necklace.

He's old money, a Rockefeller-esque, 20th century trust fund baby. "It's all from the oil boom of the 1900s," Caroline tells me. "His wife used to take impromptu flights to Paris and buy dresses straight off the runway. So basically, he's elitist as fuck and completely psycho."

In the car on the way home from school, I tell Baba, "He keeps trying to set Caroline up with Ivy League graduates. How ridiculous is that? We're only sophomores."

"Never too early to start looking," he says. "Later you choose, less you can choose from."

"Well, I think it's because he completely disapproved of his daughter marrying Caroline's dad," I say.

"Why's that?" Baba asks.

I snort. "Because he didn't have enough money for the grandpa's standards."

"See?" Baba says. "It's not just us. You kids—and all your cousins also—think all rich people are crazy, that all us parents are crazy, but you see? White people are like this, too—think just the same as us. We're not crazy."

I don't tell him that Caroline's parents and brother all hate their grandpa. I don't say anything because I'm out of things to say. We've had this conversation a million times—over breakfast, lunch, dinner, in the car when it's going sixty-five miles an hour on the freeway, when we're up ten thousand feet in the air in a plane, when we're in the middle of the grocery store's cereal aisle.

He flicks on the turn signal and it tick-tick-ticks. "The Wang family has values. Just love cannot make a successful marriage. Maybe you're all too young to understand right now, but when you're older, maybe then you understand."

 

5. Kids Like Us

In eleventh grade, Lucas Stanley, who's apparently never been told "No" once in his life, is convinced we're in love—in-like at the very least. He's Chill, a real Cool Kid. I used to think that's what I liked best about him because it meant I could be cutting and terrible, and he would just laugh along.

But then everything gets ruined because he wants and I don't.

To my friend, he says, "I don't even want her anymore. I'd rather have a car."

To me, he says, "You're supposed to at least let me try."

And he says, "Why do you always have to make things so difficult?"

He says, "You knew where this was headed. Everyone knew! You're not stupid. Stop pretending to be."

He says, "Whatever, I thought you were chill. Like me."

Now I know what he really meant: everybody else is spineless and over-sensitive, caring too much about what others think of them and feeling too many things. But not him. No, Lucas is better and smarter and stronger because he's forever unaffected and indifferent.

Lucas with sandy hair tousled from soccer, who thinks he's special because he's athletic and an intellectual. Lucas who knows exactly what drinks I get when the weather is hot or cold, who stops sitting next to me in Chemistry, who tells me he likes me and gets angry because I don't know what else to say but "Thank you? I think?" Lucas who used to say he would never ever in a million and one years ever let anybody get under his skin because that doesn't happen to cool kids—only to weak people.

At the end of the year, he marks up three whole pages of my yearbook, aggressively scribbling over other signings and leaving crude, stick-figure drawings. I don't say anything because I get it, because I used to be a cool kid, too.

 

6. Lukewarm Island

I catch the tail end of Mama's conversation when I walk into the kitchen. The setting sun bathes the room in a haze of orange and pink, and the patio doors are open to let in the summer breeze. Mama's sticking the chicken into the oven for dinner, the phone clamped between her ear and shoulder.

"It doesn't matter if she wants to go or not," she's saying, Mandarin flowing with an ease that her English doesn't despite her having lived here for the last thirty years. She shuts the oven door. "Take her to the doctor again. Yes, thank you. I'll call back tomorrow." She hangs up and rummages through the cabinets to make herself a cup of tea.

"Who was that?" I ask.

"Your aunt," she says, switching into English. With a heavy sigh, she takes a seat at the marble island and stirs a dollop of honey into her cup. "Your grandpa needs to see doctor, but won't go."

I sit down next to her. "What's wrong? Why does he need to see a doctor?"

"He has not been feeling good, cannot eat very much." She rests her forearms on the countertop, hands circling the cup.

"Why won't he go? He has to," I say.

The corners of Mama's mouth lifts in a tired smile. "One day you will say same thing to me. I am lucky to have good children. I did not a bad job with kids, huh?"

I think how Joey didn't eat much for a while either and feel a semi-hysterical laugh bubbling up. But then I look at Mama—and I mean really look—and for the first time, I notice the fine lines around her eyes, the weary set to her brows, the few strands of grey that her black hair dye didn't quite catch. I decide that for this moment, she needs her kids more than she needs to be a mom. I place an arm around her and lean my head against her shoulder. "Well," I say, "Grandpa's lucky that you're a good daughter, too."

My head shifts a little when she shrugs her shoulders. "Sometimes I think I am the least. My brother and sister are in Singapore, help him and take care of him, but I am here. All I can do is call. I do not do enough. They take care everything and never complain."

"Do you ever wish you and Baba had stayed there?" I ask, gentle and softer than I would've thought myself capable of.

Mama envelops my hand with hers, warm from the heat of the tea. "No," she says. "Baba and me, we are glad you grow up here. We wait to go back after you all in college."

"Well, I'll be in college this fall, so one down and two to go!"

She laughs and rests her head on top of mine. "We want to go back, but we do not want empty nest too fast. How about not go to college and stay with Mama instead?"

"Don't joke," I say, but I'm smiling. I give her hand a quick squeeze. "That's what breaks are for. You'll never be rid of me."

And so we sit, my Mama and me, holding hands in the kitchen, our backs facing the open doors, the red sun dipping below the horizon behind us.

 

7. Eat a Cheeseburger

The week before most of us start leaving for college, I sit through a late dinner with friends who try to warn me about myself. We eat greasy burgers and crispy fries, lick the salt from our fingertips and pretend we're not scared to leave this little pocket in the world that we call ours.

"You're kind of proud that you said no to Lucas, aren't you?" Clarissa asks, but she won't ask it like a question. She'll state it like some indisputable fact.

"Well, yes," I say. "Kind of. But something like that would've happened to him sooner or later."

"Yeah, but you're proud that you were the first."

"I guess so. Wouldn't you be?"

Clarissa takes a sip of her Coke and peers at me over the rim of her glass. "The first time you fall in love with someone," she says, "you're going to get torn apart. Don't laugh; I'm not kidding. I've seen it happen."

"Oh, c'mon."

"I'm serious. People like you? They never think shit like heartbreak will get to them. And then they end up experiencing the worst of it. I'm just giving you a heads up."

I laugh. "You can choose to not be sad over someone."

"Trust me, if you're not sad, you're angry. Either way, it's not something you have control over." She stirs at the ice with her straw and slurps up the last of her Coke.

"So what are you supposed to do then?"

"Nothing," she shrugs. "Just let it happen, and yeah, it'll suck balls, but one day you'll forget to feel upset about it, and then you move on."

 

8. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year 

I come home for Thanksgiving break part way through my first year of college. I'm picked up from the airport and spend the next hour wishing I'd stayed at my dorm instead.

"Just let her try for whatever college she wants," I say, rubbing a hand over my face in the backseat of the car.

"Her SAT score not high enough," says Mama.

"Her score is perfectly fine. Her grades are great; she has good extracurriculars and leadership. Stop freaking out. She's going to get into a good school."

"But what if she doesn't?" Mama asks.

"She will," I say.

"You don't know that definitely," says Baba. "She's upset because she thinks we forbid her from going where she wants. But we're not. We're helping her not waste time on schools she has no chance with. We're making sure she's guarantee a good school."

"Oh my god," I groan. "You're completely missing the point."

"What?" asks Mama, twisting in her seat to look at me. "What's the point? Why she doesn't listen?"  

I close my eyes, feeling a headache coming on. "She's upset because she thinks you think she's not good enough!"

Mama's face scrunches up. "Why would she think that?"

"Obviously we are not saying that," says Baba. "Her reading comprehension is a problem. When we ever say she's not good enough? We never say that!"

"I didn't say you said that about her," I say. "You asked why she's not listening to you, and I'm trying to tell you why."

"We always say you go where you're meant to be," says Mama, turning to face forward again. "We are very realistic. We are not demand Ivy League."

I sigh. "I know. I'll talk to her. Just. For the love of god, stop telling her she's only going to get into one school out of her entire list."

"Did Joey tell you he join varsity basketball?" Baba asks after a tense beat.

"He grow so tall since you were gone," Mama chimes in. "Has to eat so much more now."

"Asks for double dinner," laughs Baba.

Something in my chest loosens. "Yeah, I've seen pictures. It's great," I say. "Really, really great. I'm glad."

The rest of the ride home is quiet.

Laura greets me at the door with over-bright eyes, shiny with unshed tears, her normally fair complexion blotchy and red. She follows me into my room, sits on my bed to watch me unpack.

"They don't think I can get into the schools I want," she chokes out once I've shut the door. Her lower lip trembles. "And they're saying they won't pay for my tuition unless I apply early decision for the school they want, but I don't want to go there."

"I heard," I say.

She bursts into tears.

I let her lean into me and pat her shoulder awkwardly. Crying is supposed to be a very private thing in our family.

"You know they just want you to go to a good school," I say. "They're trying to play it safe for you."

She pushes away from me, nose trailing snot. "Why are you always on their side? You're my sister. You're supposed to be on my side!"

I unzip my suitcase and start putting items on hangers. "I'm not on anyone's side. I'm just trying to explain to you what they're thinking."

"I already know what they think!" she says, wiping aggressively at her cheeks. "They think I just like to flirt around, that the only thing I'm good for is being a pretty face and getting married off to someone rich."

I stop what I'm doing and furrow my eyebrows at her. "That's not true, Laura. They know you're smart and independent and will have a great career."

"No," she says, bitter and acidic. "That's what they think about you. And even then, they don't think that's a great thing because they think you're going to have a hard time finding a husband. They're always contradicting themselves, like they have no fucking clue what they want from us."

"They don't want anything from us," I say, taking a seat next to her. "They just want for us to have a good, worry-free life."

"Yeah, because I'm just having the best time right now. No stress or worrying at all." Laura lets out a dry, wobbly laugh and stands up, shaking her head. "You know, just once, it'd be nice if you'd just listen and say, 'Yeah, our parents can really suck,' instead of trying to explain and justify everyone all the goddamn time."

I take a deep breath. "OK, fine, so it sucks. I'm listening." She sits back down.

I wonder if she ever noticed how thin Joey got. I wonder if she's noticed that he finally looks healthy again. But I know she probably hasn't. Some days, I think all Laura knows is how to take. And I hate that I get upset and jealous of her for that—that she's brave enough to take what she wants and needs without apologising.

Laura is lucky because she's pretty and popular and loved, but sometimes I think she's not like us, that she tries extra hard not to be the kind of person that comes from a family like ours. Out of the three of us—me, Joey and her—she's the only who wants wings so badly, she'd cut us loose for the room to spread them. And I don't always blame her, especially on bad days like this one. On bad days, I'm glad for her.

 

9. What It Is and Isn't About

"It's OK if you don't get married or have kids," Mama says.

"But we just worry, understand?" says Baba. "We want you to be happy."

"I can support myself," I say.

"It's not just about money," he says. "Character is important, too. We don't want you to one day wake up and feel alone. Or look at other parents' kids and regret."

"I have you and Laura and Joey," I say. "I can get a dog. I'm OK with it."

Mama puts her arm around me, pulls me close. "But one day we won't be here. We love you how you are, of course we do, but we want you to have best. Will you try for us? So parents don't worry?"

I think she means for me to try to be softer, to smooth off my rough edges and sharp corners. I know sometimes she talks to Laura, asks her if boys are scared of me, if they're intimidated by the metal hardware on my leather jackets, if they're wary of trying to handle someone like me—"Do you think she's too authoritative?"

I don't like seeing Mama or Baba anxious, so I nod OK. OK, I'll try harder to be the kind of person someone would want, the kind of person a nice, well-bred boy could fall in love with. I'll try harder to be the kind of person who wants things like that, who wants to find The One and be with him till death do us apart.

 

10. Of John Hancock Proportions

Spring break finds myself spending most of my waking hours in a lawyer's office. When all the paperwork is finally signed and filed away, every "t" crossed and every "i" dotted, I make my way out of the imposing office and over to the gleaming elevator bank in a daze. Baba takes his time bidding farewell to the receptionist before joining me.

"Wait," I say, when an elevator door dings open. "You and Mama can't go back for another five years after we've all left for college? You have to keep the house for longer, so you have to stay here?"

"Yes," says Baba, stepping into the elevator. "It mean we just have to wait a little longer than we plan before."

"Five years is not 'a little longer,'" I sputter, following after him.

"Five years very short," he says with a smile. "We rather stay than worry you do not have enough."

I pull a face. "It's not worth it. You don't have to worry about us."

"No 'have to' or 'don't have to,'" he says dismissively as the doors slide shut. "We just do it. We already sign, so no more to say. What do you want for lunch?"

 

11. Bottomless

Ours is a family of giving and giving and giving until all of us are nothing but baby-bird bones and hollow cavities—Mama who loves so much and so hard that she would have her children resent her if it meant they would one day have the best of the bestest best there is; Baba who works and works and thinks bank accounts are bubbles and if he could somehow fill those bubbles up to the brim, we would be kept safe from everything wrong in the world; Joey who still sometimes associates both eating and not-eating with shame and once felt like a bundle of sharp angles in my arms; Laura who wants to just give us up completely.

And me who wishes she might one day not have to keep putting out fires, who wishes Band-Aids could somehow bridge chasms deep as canyons, who wants to scoop everyone up, rock them back and forth like babies, say "It's all going to be OK," and know she is telling the truth.

 

12. The Genetic Lottery

Except for Caroline, most of my friends don't really understand the way my family functions. I've been friends with Sophie for almost ten years, and she still says things like, "Who cares if your parents don't want you to travel? Just go anyway. You're almost done with sophomore year of college; you're almost twenty-one; you're an adult!"

"Yeah, that's not how it works in my family," I say, shifting in my seat. We're having breakfast at The Blue Kettle, a local café that used to be a high school favourite. The cracked, orange-brown leather of the booth squeaks a little.

"Just lie then."

"We don't lie to our parents. It just—we don't do that, OK? We can't."

"That's so dumb," Sophie says. "I get that your parents pay for almost everything, but I'd rather not have any money and do whatever I want than live the way you do. I mean, it's suffocating. Don't you hate it?"

"I wouldn't put it that way," I say, concentrating hard on cutting into my omelette. "I get frustrated, sure."

"You know, it's really not uncommon to feel hatred toward your own family," she says. She spears a potato with her fork and gestures at me with it, the point of her elbow resting on the yellow tablecloth. "Especially when they try to threaten and control you with money."

"It's not about money," I say, dropping my silverware with a clatter. "And they're not trying to control me." She's white and middle class, so she doesn't get it. And I don't even mean that as a dig; it's just fact. First-generation Americans, kids of immigrants, don't have the luxury of saying "fuck you" to our parents. We're too busy trying to prove to them that coming to this country was worth the risk, was worth their having to live so far out of their comfort zones.

"It's OK to say you hate your family," Sophie says, salting her potatoes liberally.

I frown at the salt-shaker in her hand. "No, I love my family. I just don't like them all the time."

She laughs. "I mean, we don't exactly have a choice in the family we're born into. Fuck what they want. You don't owe them shit, especially not your parents. They chose to have you. You didn't choose to have them."

"You're wrong," I say, cutting and sharp, visceral in my defensiveness. "I do choose my family."

I don't how to explain to her that I choose them because of my childhood, because of acceptance, the guarantee of unconditional love, values so deeply ingrained in me that sometimes I can't even tell if they're organic or not. I choose because of blood, lineage, expectations. I choose out of respect, gratefulness, duty, out of so many things sometimes it doesn't even feel like a choice anymore. Sometimes it feels like a goddamn obligation to love them. But it's still my choice. I choose them. Every day.

"OK," she says, voice slow and drawn out like warm molasses, sticky with barely repressed judgment.

"I didn't mean to—I just—" I cut myself off, flustered, cheeks heating up, angry with Sophie for making me feel flustered, and angry with myself for letting her make me feel flustered. I let out a frustrated breath. "Fuck, I don't hate my family, OK?"

Sophie takes a delicate sip of her coffee. "OK, fine, whatever you say."

 

13. And On and On and On

Instead of being home the week of Christmas, I'm stuck in traffic in the back of a taxicab on the other side of the country, stress like metal pliers picking at my very seams until I feel like I might just fly apart, have my guts plaster the windows and leather seats.

On the phone, Mama's telling me, "We love you, we love you, we love you." Her voice is soft in my ear, and if I close my eyes, I can pretend I'm five again, think back to when Mama and Baba were my whole world, were the only things I knew.

Inexplicably, I feel my throat tighten, pressure pushing behind my eyes. "I know," I say, letting my head thunk back against the headrest. They love us, of course they do; of course I know.

"OK?" she asks.

I swallow hard, blow out a breath. "Yeah," I say when I'm certain my voice won't come out shaky. "Yeah, love you, too."

I used to imagine what our home could've been—maybe one of those red-yellow-blue bouncy castles, so we wouldn't ever have to worry about things breaking when they fall. Buoyancy on land, everything soft rubber and rounded edges. No fine china or hard crystal. No pool that looks like a sheet of glass when the air is still. No marble floors like ice in winter. No doors, only open archways that flow to the next room and the next and the next and the next. No windowpanes, so the breeze could come and go as it pleases, the sunlight unfiltered and pouring in by the bucketful. 

But on nights like this one, home is a phone call in the back of a taxicab. And it doesn't feel like trying to escape quicksand or walking in wet cement. It feels like enough.

 

 Born and raised in Southern California, Rosie Lee is a Taiwanese-American and currently an undergraduate student at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business, pursuing a double major in operations research and information systems as well as a minor in creative writing. Before attending college, she was a competitive figure skater and enjoyed backpacking. Though she plans to establish a career in business and technology, she hopes to continue writing in the future. 

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