FEATURED STORY: “YOU CAN SAY SORRY” BY PS ZHANG
You Can Say Sorry
They don’t come home for all sorts of reasons. Some explanations feel legitimate, others courteous; some are downright lies, but what are you to do? My daughter Jeanie was meant to come home last Friday, but she didn’t. She called saying she got caught up at work and didn’t have time to pack. Her clothes were dirty, and she needed to put them through the wash.
I said, “You know, home have laundry machine. You do laundry here. Like before.”
She said, “No, that won’t work. Don’t worry. I’ll be home next time.”
I said, “How ‘bout come home Saturday? Then you have time do laundry?”
She said, “Sorry, Daddy, but then it’d barely be for a day, and I have to get back early on Sunday. That’s not really worth it for me. You know, with the drive and all.”
I said, “I know.”
What would be worth it?
“Sorry,” I heard that a lot. Jeanie had promised to come home to North Carolina, next week, for five weeks now. It just didn’t seem to work out. Our schedules didn’t align although she works remotely as a freelance consultant, and I am retired. Young people get so busy these days. I think maybe their phones have something to do with it. She said it’s because she owns her business and can’t just step away. I understand. I was the same. I owned a laundromat for thirty-five years and never took an extended holiday though my kids begged me to.
They’d whine, “Daddy, are you really your own boss?” when I’d tell them I couldn’t take a week off and go down to Atlantic Beach like all their classmates’ families.
I’d say, “You be proud have so hardworking Chinese Daddy, take care of you and give you home and feed you. Keep you warm—bowl of rice every meal.”
One time, my oldest, Stephen, before his blonde wigs and green contacts, said under his breath, “Can you call it ‘taking care of’ if you’re never home?” He stalked off before I could respond and what type of father chases after his son to command respect?
Kids, they don’t get it. You have to wait until they have their own to get some of the appreciation you deserve. But my children all said they didn’t want kids, they said it was because of my wife, Zing Mui, though paint stained my fingers as well. Everyone makes mistakes, I wanted to say, aren’t your parents deserving of your forgiveness? Surely us, if no one else? Can’t you forgive us for giving you life but sometimes not knowing what to do with it?
Zing Mui worries I think too much. She said it was America’s fault our children came out so inconsiderate. “This never would have happened in China,” she complained in Cantonese as she huffed over pork and thousand-year egg congee. Her fingers gripped onto a page of the World Journal and flipped it with such strength, the sheets became clouds clapping a thunderstorm inside our modest kitchen. “America is land of the me-me-me. No one needs to respect anyone else, least of all their parents. If someone is ‘right’ that’s all that matters. Our children are American. Tin Leoi, this is not our fault.”
I nodded sympathetically though I didn’t agree. My wife was hurt. She had borne a son and two daughters and none of them could remember her birthday before she made it their debit card pin in college. Every parent knows their children’s birthdays, but most kids need Google to remind them of Mom and Dad’s. My wife and I shared an iPad, and I knew she texted our kids on my birthday to remind them to call home. They always texted back something incredulous, “I know, Mom. It’s on my calendar.”
I wonder if Alex, the middle, remembers when she forgot my birthday a few years ago, telling me, “Sorry, Dad, I had a notification on my phone but then I just got caught up at brunch with some friends and I forgot. I love you.” “I love you too, I just happy you call.” I had consoled her on my sixty-fifth birthday.
Or when Jeanie, the youngest, studied abroad in Hong Kong. “Sorry Daddy, my calendar is on Asia Pacific time and it reminded me in the middle of the night while I was sleeping. I really hope you had a good birthday without me.” “No problem,” I told her, thinking of the quiet dinner of salted croaker, lap choeng, and jasmine rice with only her mother and me. “I love you, I just happy you call.”
I will turn seventy soon—the last decade my parents both saw—and I must make peace with myself. In America, they say an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but I think even an old dog can learn not to ingest new poison, even if, at first, he thought it was a familiar food. Gratitude may never knock on my doorstep to greet me. I may pass through this world and never get to say, “Oh Friend, I’ve been waiting for you. Your tea is cold but let me pour you another cup.” Maybe I don’t deserve his visit.
As a young man, my father told me children are the responsibility of mothers. I thought this was an infallible truth until I had my own. My father was a distinguished type though he hardly had a formal education. He rose up the ranks of the Nationalist Army and I always feared him when he was home, choosing only to look at his eyebrows or the wired mustache above his thick lips. I wasn’t raised to think of him as anything other than a man I should be silent to and in agreement with whatever he spoke. When I had my own children, I foolishly believed they’d treat me the same.
Where did it all go wrong? Probably when I stopped heeding my own parents and married the love of my life, my wife. I can’t say we were arranged because that’s not factually correct. Zing Mui was arranged to me. It was her filial duty to comply. She was supposed to be grateful to have been chosen because I was going to America and could have had my pick of wives. Indeed, my younger brothers were tickled by the hundreds of letters received by distant relatives and friends of friends who knew a nice girl in a remote Chinese village looking for a new life in America. Years later, a politician was lampooned for saying he had binders full of women. My brothers gave me a call to laugh and reminisce; they did in fact each have a binder of old flames. Our mother put the photo albums together as a catalog to remind herself of the worthiness she had produced for the world, though we had done no great feat other than to be the sons of a political refugee.
When my mother was alive, she would occasionally show my children the albums, remarking that unfortunately their father did not have one of his own as he was disobedient and overeager. I always held my tongue, but I’ve wondered what my children thought or if they even understood my mother’s intentions. Yes, I did marry one of the first women that came my way (rather than honor my parent’s wishes to wait for better options), and yes, I did toss the other photos in the garbage, confident I knew what was best for my life. And I hadn’t assumed anyone would have wanted them, let alone my mother. Today, my brothers’ albums are stored with our younger sister, of all people.
My mother had scrutinized Zing Mui’s photo when the letter from her third cousin’s best friend’s niece first arrived. Ma, like many of her generation, believed in the mystical art of face reading. The pout of the lips, the position of the eyes, the length of the nose, all these attributes were not simply the basis of attractiveness. Instead, they were an indelible map into the character, personality, and soul of the individual. Good grief. Ma said Zing Mui’s photo indicated she was stubborn, argumentative, and headstrong. She would be a poor match for me as I would not be able to handle her. I couldn’t believe we were seeing the same face. I saw a woman with sharp eyes but a soft demeanor. She seemed elegant in her mauve blouse, leaning off to the side of an armchair, and her shy smile said she thought before she spoke.
If Ma could still stay with us now, I’d go to the kitchen where she’d probably be shaping rice cakes or pressing soybeans into fresh milk and tell her she got my wife wrong. Zing Mui isn’t lucky to have me. I’m lucky to have her. Ma would narrow her eyes daring me to say more. To which I’d immediately look down in deference. “Please forgive me, Mama. I spoke out of turn.” My mother would say nothing, expecting not simply an apology but a rectification of this wrong, so I’d meekly offer perhaps Ma was predicting the fate of my children instead, in which case, I’d wholeheartedly acknowledge how perfect her prediction had been. She’d nod in appreciation, then finally, I’d asked if she remembered how often she had relished that my children looked more like me than their mother.
I didn’t know I had made so many mistakes in my life until I was past fifty and my adult children were there to inform me at every turn. Sure, there was my wife who had occasionally reminded me to put the dishes away or tell me not to speak so loudly at our laundromat.
“Hey, you,” I had said to a kid in a hoodie and thick headphones hung around his neck. “Too many clothes in washing machine. You break my machine; you pay big money!”
“Ah, lou gung.” Zing Mui tried to soothe me in Cantonese. “Don’t be so rough. A little quieter please.”
I waved my wife off to confront the kid instead and made the international sign language for money, rubbing my fingers together like I meant to roll off dried flakes of school paste. The kid scrunched his shoulders, scurried to another machine with his back to me, and hurriedly shoved the clothes in, uncomfortable by the quiet woman who spoke something tonal he couldn’t begin to comprehend and the angry man speaking an English he didn’t want to comprehend.
Yes, I have my mistakes, especially those in a foreign tongue, but these are honest blunders. Would I really speak this way if I had more words to spare?
My children think so.
“Dad, this is Mom’s notification,” Alex informed me three weeks ago at my desk in the living room. “Why isn’t she asking me about it? Why are you doing her dirty work?”
“Not dirty,” I obfuscated. “For me too. Us both. I help her.”
“Fine, I don’t want to get more involved.” Alex scanned the paper and frowned. “How can y’all have lived in this country for so long and still not be able to read your mail?”
“I have my children help me,” I offered, leaning over and touching her shoulder.
“Okay.” Alex slouched away from my hand. “But I don’t really know how to explain this to you. It’s something about Mom’s health insurance.”
She hadn’t even attempted to decipher the letter but already my middle child was irritated with me. A pang of resentment climbed up my throat—it should be me who is irritated with her. “What you go to school for so long, not be able to help Daddy with mail? You have PhD, but not understand?”
“I have a PhD in chemical engineering,” Alex snapped back. She is my progeny. “I don’t know how to access your Obamacare. Can’t you ask Jeanie? You guys never ask Jeanie.”
“We ask Jeanie too,” I insisted. “She not pick up her phone. Always say she very busy. All of my children so busy.”
Alex gave me the look: If I kept these trivial requests up, soon she wouldn’t answer my calls either. I made a pleading face, like I hoped this letter was as important as the envelope appeared. I’ve been wrong before; sometimes it was only a clever advertisement and then I used up my goodwill for nothing.
“I only need a little bit of assistance. Normally, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you at all. I’d ask one of the nice girls at the laundromat. They are gracious with me, but this is personal information, I have to ask family.”
“What are you saying? Dad, you know I can’t understand Cantonese. I hate when you guys do this. If you have something to say, say it.” She stood up and looked for her coat. “And you know what, I’m busy too. You have to respect my time. I’m not here to answer your mail.”
“Okay. Sorry bother you.” I shuffled my feet and rubbed them with and against the grain of the oriental rug beneath me. “Nobody want to help Daddy. My children American. Not they job to help.”
“Oh god, not this again. What about Stephen? He still speaks Cantonese. Try him.” Alex pushed the office chair back under my desk.
“Stephen.” I took the paper away from Alex. She held onto it for a second as if she didn’t want to let go. Maybe she did want to help, but then with my tug, she released, and I knew I had probably imagined it. “Not talk to us anymore.”
“Can you blame him? And after everything y’all have put him through. God, this is why.” Alex began packing up. “Where’s my phone?”
“He still my son even if he not want to look like it.” I followed my daughter as she walked to the door. “Stephen first boy like me. Very important. He have my name. He the only one.”
“I can’t with you.” Alex looked past me at the Buddha on the fireplace mantle.
“Why on computer he have blonde hair and do contacts?” I asked.
“That was for a show—he’s just trying out something new, figuring out who else he might be. For the record, he wears blue and purple wigs too and big brown anime eyes, but he’s still Chinese. He’ll always be Chinese.”
“Not on the outside. Why he ashamed of us?”
“He’s not ashamed, Dad. This isn’t China. Just because he does things you don’t like doesn’t make him a bad son. I don’t know why you look at those old photos on the internet. He has black hair and brown eyes again now—are you happy?”
“Okay, but why he do that surgery? Why?” I pressed her.
“How do you know about that?” She stammered, surprised. “Anyways, sorry, Dad, something came up right before I got here. I have to head out.”
“Sorry. Yes. Sorry,” I said.
When Alex first walked through the door, she promised to have dinner with us. Open calendar. It’s amazing how kids today can get messages beamed into their brains without even needing to be notified by their phones. My second child leaned in and gave me an obligatory hug. This is not my way, not how I was raised, to dole out I love you, to touch and praise. Why does she want to hold me so close but can’t read a letter? Is she looking for something?
I patted her awkwardly on the back. “Okay, okay. That’s good.” I’ve given her everything I could.
I used to think I had the best kids in the whole world. For decades, they never gave me any trouble. They went to bed when I told them to. They did their homework. They got good grades and played well with other kids. There were rarely any fights or tantrums. The metamorphosis began when my youngest turned sixteen, then one by one, my kids transformed into changelings.
Jeanie had a boyfriend and a curfew. We thought we were being modern, cosmopolitan. Weren’t we even becoming American? Zing Mui and I never had these freedoms, and Stephen and Alex were raised without them. But they had said we’d been too hard, so we adapted and were easier on Jeanie. We thought so anyways.
“You let him make you late, you show him you not respect yourself. My brother say same to me and I twenty-five years old and engaged. I be home by 8:00pm every time.” Zing Mui loomed over Jeanie, who dug her nails into the chenille couch and gritted her teeth so tightly, I was surprised her back molars hadn’t rubbed to chalk.
“Times have changed, Mother.” Jeanie leapt up and barked, “My worth is not my virginity. I’m not a country cow.”
“Ah,” my wife screamed, circling the foyer. Her palms were suctioned onto her ears. “You not tell me what you do. I have clean daughter. Clean.”
“You’re obsessed with controlling me.” Jeanie shoved past her mother and called from down the stairs. “Why don’t you trust me? You guys are the only parents this insane. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I trust you come back home 10:00. You home 10:45. You wrong.”
“You’re crazy. Do you understand me? Loco.” She spun her forefingers around her ears and crossed her eyes. Did she have to do that? The door slammed shut like a bank vault and I hoped nothing cracked in the foundation.
“Young boys have sweet mouth. Throw you away once they taste.” Jeanie didn’t hear Zing Mui shriek this last bit, not that it would have changed their trajectory.
They fought a lot, my wife and Jeanie. Their ways were different than mine. Anything dreamt of, anything nearby, they said, a cobra to a mamba, venom on venom. Zing Mui was normally so mild-mannered, but the kids never saw her that way. They only saw explosives and a car on fire. They thought about the metal feather duster and the lashes she wielded, sore bottoms and purple welts. I told Jeanie everyone was doing this in China, for generations, maybe four thousand years. Discipline meant physical consequences.
Jeanie struck hard and her fangs sliced me open. “You should have known better,” she spewed. “I’d have done different.” What could I have said? I was silent; the venom burned through my limbs determined to reach my solar plexus. My heart bled meekly. The youngest, my only one that still called me Daddy, came back for another lash. “Don’t you know? You’re supposed to treat people the way you want to be treated. You’re supposed to love your children, not destroy them.” I was disoriented, slow breaths, vision blurry. I never asked God to smite me but by some unlucky fortune, apparently, I am the father to the only children in the universe who have never done anything so wrong as to be worthy of such discipline because, of course, children are all obviously the best arbitrator of their behavior.
After the howling and roaring, the promises to never be like the other, the undoing of their genetic relation, my wife came to bed and wept. There wasn’t much left of her, and she didn’t want to talk about it. She blinked and blinked, and tears pumped from her heart onto the pillowcase.
The last time Jeanie came home, there was another fight. They’re all kind of the same. Jeanie moved in with a man who is not her husband and who she has no interest in marrying. Zing Mui wants to know why Jeanie doesn’t love herself more. She wants to know where she went wrong. I knocked on my daughter’s door the next morning as I always did, to bring peace or do the dirty work, depending on who you asked. My children saw me as the garbageman of their and their mother’s emotional refuse.
“Everybody say Mommy Daddy not good. You healthy, you have good job. What we do so bad?” I wanted to sit on Jeanie’s bed, but I wasn’t allowed anymore. It was the collateral damage to taking my wife’s side too many times. Suddenly, you’re no longer Dad; you’re them, you guys, those people. I stood six inches into her doorway cognizant I wasn’t allowed any closer.
“I don’t even know where to begin.” She stared at the ceiling and the old glow-in-the-dark stars we’d put up together. Some of the adhesive had dried from age. A few stars had fallen down and been thrown away. Only their white outlines remained. “You know, I don’t like talking about this stuff with you guys.”
“We good parents. Only problem is you not listen,” I said.
“See this is the issue. You guys always want to blame but you never want to take responsibility. You don’t know how to communicate.”
“We talk good. Only you not speak Chinese.” It was disappointing to have had so many conversations where no one looked at the other.
“And whose fault is that? Where are all the Chinese people I’m meant to be speaking with? You isolated us. You saw us suffering but never did anything. Just hid away at your laundromat like an obedient little immigrant—everything is fine. We so happy in America.”
I stuck my toe out another six inches from where I had stood and rubbed the beige carpet. With and against, with and against. “We protect you. We keep you safe. We feed you and give you clothes. We let you use car. We pay for your school. You have good life because of us.”
“Not because of you, in spite of you,” she said, deciding now was the right time our eyes met. “You’ll never know what I went through. I could have killed myself in high school. All I thought about was dying. Every day, just ending it.”
“What?” I took a step forward. “You not tell nobody.”
“Yeah. There’s a lot going on with me. Stuff you guys will probably never know because you never ask. You don’t care. It wouldn’t have even made a difference. Look at how y’all’ve treated Stephen.” She turned away. “Because he wanted to be himself.”
“I care. I ask,” I said to the side of my daughter’s face.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Her hair fell in front and I could no longer even see her cheek. “Just give me my space. I need to be away from everyone.”
“Okay.” I turned to face the door. I had been through this before. My daughter was in our house, but she wanted us gone. It was time to leave. I wished she was still my little girl, her bottom on my foot and her pudgy arms wrapped around my calf. Daddy, Daddy, you’re home. I missed you. She had nuzzled at my cheap khakis from Roses. You smell like soap. We had the same language then.
“Are you guys ever going to say sorry?” Jeanie quivered.
“What?” I turned back.
“You never say sorry.” She came to the foot of her bed and leaned forward. “Maybe if y’all said sorry when you messed up, things could be better.”
I wanted to tell her, I say sorry all the time, every day. I respected my children’s wishes. I did what they told me. They said we hurt them too much, now we let them hurt us the same and we say nothing, just like them—but still we are human, and we mess up. “You not say sorry either.”
“See.” Jeanie flopped back and hid into the sheets. She was still a little girl; she just couldn’t admit it to herself. “This is what I said earlier. Blame-blame-blame.”
“Okay, Jeanie.” I held my daughter with my eyes. Sure, my children had apologized before, and often. Sorry, I forgot your birthday; sorry, I can’t come home; sorry, I don’t have the time. But what were those apologies worth? What could I do with them? “Sorry,” I said.
My youngest clasped her hands together like a schoolteacher. Her eyes bulged. “No, say it like you mean it: I am sorry.”
“What you mean? I mean it. I sorry.”
“No, you don’t. Are you sorry or are you not? C’mon, I’m really trying here. Can’t you do the same? Speak correct English, I know you can. Don’t do that laundromat thing where you pretend not to understand.” She waited a moment; her face softened, like Zing Mui. “I am sorry.”
“I,” my voice caught, “very sorry.”
“This is hopeless.” Jeanie covered her head with a pillow and wore it like a bonnet. “Please close my door when you leave.”
I don’t know why Americans love sorry so much. What does sorry change? Where I’m from, we don’t say, we do. When I first came to this country, I was a waiter at a Chinese restaurant. The owner was a white man whose wife was from Shanghai.
“Tony,” the owner motioned for me to meet him in the kitchen. I stopped rolling the cutlery and jogged quickly to the wet station. “When you get the order wrong. It’s okay, just put the new order through and tell them dessert is on us.” He could tell I hadn’t quite understood the last part. “Free dessert,” he said with a gentle smile, “if you,” then he pointed to me and laughed, “mess up.”
“Okay, Boss. I do that.”
“Good, because if you keep messing up, eventually, I’ll have to take the dessert out of your paycheck.”
I had been confused by all the dishes at the restaurant, having never once seen them in China. The menu was extensive, and I had to remember over eighty dishes by heart. I took a Pepper Steak to a customer who had ordered Mongolian Beef. I didn’t know what either was supposed to look like and grabbed the first beef dish without having confirmed it with the chef.
After my conversation with the owner, I asked the line cook to re-fire the Mongolian Beef and when it was ready, I marched industriously over to the table. “Mongolian Beef,” I announced proudly to the young couple. “Free dessert for you because I mess up your order. I won’t make same mistake.” I nearly skipped back to my waiter’s station, what good luck. Free dessert for them and a new lesson for me. Out of the corner of my eye, the owner waved me back to the kitchen. He had been watching me.
“Tony, you have to say sorry when you give them their correct dish.”
“Yes, in America, we say sorry when we do something wrong.”
My eyebrows were busy. “But I fix the dish and I give them free dessert. A lot better than sorry. I show them sorry.”
“Yes, I see your point there. Well, we still say sorry because then people know you care, and you have remorse—you feel bad about what’s happen.”
“Feel bad? Just Chinese food. No big deal.”
“Just say it, Tony,” he leaned against the industrial steel counter and folded his arms. “I don’t make the rules and I’m not here to write you a book about the rules.”
“So, if you say sorry because you do something bad. People happy and everything good?”
“Too easy,” I sniggered. “Not feel real.”
“Don’t get me started. Wife says the same thing.” He pointed across the dining room. “Table four needs you.”
“Okay, Boss. Sorry.”
He patted me on the shoulder and sent me off with an approving thumbs-up.
I found out later, apologies aren’t so simple. They take you to the nearest exit but won’t deliver you to the destination. When I turn seventy next month, it will be another year with an empty seat.
My oldest blocked our phone numbers and emails, returned postcards and letters back to sender, changed addresses, and told friends and relatives never to mention us. Did you know you can disappear from your child’s life? Just poof, gone. Did you know your child can choose another family? Are there more painful words than those—chosen family—as in I would have never ever chosen you to be my parents. You are not my parents. These people who did not raise me, who did not sacrifice for me, who did not suffer for me, they are my real family, and you are nothing. You are no one. We are not blood or bone. I wanted Gratitude but even Forgiveness won’t see me.
“How did you find me?” my eldest interrogated in Cantonese through his brightly lit vanity mirror. I wasn’t worth turning around.
The elaborate makeup had been wiped clean from most of his face. His short black hair spiked through the net cap. Long glittering fake lashes sat stored in a pink leopard case. I said, “When Alex was home, I distracted her with a letter and your mother downloaded the messages from her phone. The passcode was her birthday.”
“You’ve really gone to new lows,” Stephen muttered. He shut the lashes case and placed it in another drawer. “Did you bribe someone to get back here too?”
“I didn’t have to. I’m the only other Asian person here. They assumed you knew me.”
“Of course. This is still the south.”
“On stage, you were different,” I said. His voice had been a harmony of Jeanie and Zing Mui but more purposefully melodic. I wondered, what else had changed? What else did I not know? I did not recognize my firstborn behind costume and makeup but even as he sat in the dressing room, naked face, he had changed. Flesh had been taken from his eyelids and his nose. Before, our faces used to be almost the same—hadn’t we been almost the same? The same narrow eyes, rounded nose, and square jaw. At family banquets, they used to say, “Well aren’t you just like your Daddy?”
I coughed. I was too nervous and had forgotten my medication that morning. How could I read his face now? This new person had double eyelids and a straight angular nose. He was and was not my son. “We called everyone looking for you. Jeanie wouldn’t come home, but we knew Alex had your whereabouts. You are my only son, my first child. In China, that is everything. And you came into this world perfect. All your fingers and toes were there and your hair, it was so black and long. You were just like me.”
“This again? Why do you need me to be like you—look like you? When are you going to let this obsession go? You can make your children into what you want.”
“I don’t want that anymore. I just wanted to see you.”
“Oh yeah. You love to see me like this.” His hands slapped at his face and ripped the wig cap from his head. It felt as if he had hit me. Memories of me scolding him. Telling him what a man would not do. My cruelty taking me under. “Your son. You love your son.” He looked down and began to sob. “Every time you’re near me, you make me hate myself. You make me ashamed for who I am. Fuck. I don’t know how I’m doing this with you again.”
“Please. Can you tell me? Why did you do it?” I touched my eyes and nose. Stephen refused to look at me. I thought my strictness had raised him to be strong and resilient instead all I had accomplished was to deny my son the love of his father. I panicked to explain. “This generation, you move so fast and how can I, a man descended from country farmers keep up? I ran and ran for my children. Give me a safe home and food on the table but shirts are only $1.50 a wash. Read English yourself, never mind you have only a foreign middle school education. Let me lie with others though you were betrothed innocent like a lamb. Can’t you be patient with me?” Still my boy refused to acknowledge my reasons. I said to the concrete floor, no carpet to buffer my strides. “You don’t want to see me when you see yourself. You changed to be someone else—isn’t that what you mean, I made you wrong? I failed before you even began?”
He looked into the mirror and then at me. He blinked his eyes and tugged his nose. “Tony—” he tried to interrupt me. “I’ll run myself into a grave,” I said, “but it won’t matter because I always mess up. I never seem to get it right, but I tried. I will always try, doesn’t that mean anything?”
“You had so many chances. I can’t feel bad for you because life was hard. Life is god-awful hard for me too. It’s no excuse. Fuck, Dad, surprise visits ever few years for your change of heart—Tony, this is not healthy for me.”
“Stephen, please, you’re the only one who understands us anymore. The others can’t hear me when I speak. You don’t have to be anything, just come home. Be yourself. We love you.”
“You say these things and maybe you do care. Maybe you have changed.” He paused for a moment. My heart swelled in that brief vastness groping for hope. “But it’s no longer worth it to me. You’re going to fuck up again and it’ll hurt too much. I can’t let you do this to me anymore. Just be grateful you have Alex and Jeanie. They’ll never know your words.”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I am so sorry. Jeanie said if I say sorry, things can get better. Please. Let us be your parents again.” I begged like a baby crying and tugging at my child’s feet. “Please can I be your father? My god, I’m sorry. Can my only son finally come home?”
“Dad. Don’t do this.” He looked up from the bureau into the mirror as his eyes bore into mine. “You can say sorry but that doesn’t mean I forgive you.” He got up and went through a door marked with the words I had seen every day at the Laundromat. Authorized Personnel Only.
“No. Don’t go.” I cried and tried to pursue him. I pulled on the door but it was locked shut. “Please,” I wailed. “I’ve changed. I’m trying. I’m sorry.” Staff came, they couldn’t understand me. I tried to make them comprehend, but they wouldn’t hear. They escorted me out of the building instead.
My parents never taught me; I had to learn on my own. Children are from you, but they don’t belong to you. They are missing pieces of your heart, climbing and breathing, jumping and falling. I told myself early this morning as the tit gun jam steeped and my joints reawakened, my children weren’t supposed to come back. Some failures are permanent; some acts are unforgivable. I must make peace with myself. I’m nearly there. I take what I can get whenever it comes around.
Wai, sik jo faan mei a? Hi, how are you? I love you. I’m just happy you called.
PS Zhang was born and raised in the American South. Her work can be read in Southern Humanities Review and Zone 3, where she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Further work is forthcoming in New South, where she placed second in their 2021 Prose Contest, [PANK], and Washington Square Review. She is an alumnus of the Iowa’s Writers Workshop Summer Program and a finalist for One Story’s Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship.