My parents arrived in America within a year of each other. Ironically, they’d both attended the same school in Manila but they didn’t meet until they were both graduate students at Stanford.
Back home, their families lived within a mile of each other, in an enclave of homes patterned after American suburbia, with streets named after the signs of the zodiac: My father’s parents lived on Hydra, my mother’s on Leo.
In Manila, my mother had had two boyfriends. The first was the son of a very wealthy Chinese businessman: The boyfriend’s name was King Napoleon Yu, but everyone called him Inky because his skin was so dark. Inky’s parents expected him to study in Boston College, which was also his father’s alma mater. Shortly after Inky left for Boston, my mother quickly found herself another boyfriend. She had to tell Inky about it over the phone, and to her horror Inky cried: a few days later, his mother and father came over to speak to her. They told her Inky’s grades were plummeting, he was so depressed he was thinking of going back home. But my mother remained unmoved.
Her second boyfriend was Ronnie. He was the 9th of a family of 10 children. When my mother started going out with Ronnie, everyone was shocked because they thought Ronnie was going to be a priest. Ronnie was studying theology and was thinking of entering the seminary. His family called my mother a bad influence, and Ronnie’s parents refused to invite her for dinner.
After three years, my mother and Ronnie split up because my mother found out that Ronnie had been seeing another girl, a model named Carmen. My mother’s heart broke. She began applying to graduate schools abroad. The following year, she received acceptances from Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and Stanford. She picked Stanford.
My parents’ initial outings didn’t really seem like “dates.” They’d watch the Sunday flicks at Mem Aud. Once my father dared to bring my mother to see “Debbie Does Dallas,” which was showing at the Castro in the City. My mother watched the doings patiently, never flinching even from the most graphic sex scenes. My father was impressed. Years later he was still talking about my mother’s commendable lack of drama.
My father’s roommate was an amorous Spaniard who regularly brought women back to their high-rise apartment in Escondido Village. When my father started bringing my mother over, he’d make dinner while she sat on the green plastic sofa, nonchalantly leafing through a magazine. From the inner room, where the Spaniard would hole up with his date, there would emanate moans and grunts and thumps which my mother studiously ignored. She was a woman, my father once told me in amazement, of great and impenetrable poise.
In those days, my father liked to show off his cooking. My mother told me his specialty was sinigang soup, which he made with chicken and radish and spinach and crushed tamarind seeds. After he married my mother, however, he forgot everything he had learned about cooking and never set foot in the kitchen again. But my mother continued to make this soup, and in fact it’s the one thing I can say she cooked with absolute mastery.
I have terrible luck with women. For this I have my parents to blame. Their courtship was more of a non-courtship: it was, if one were to believe my mother, scrupulously chaste. They held hands, but they had apparently only rarely “deep-kissed” and they had never engaged in sex of any kind. Their sexual life flared briefly a few months before the wedding, and resulted in my conception. But by the time my younger sister, Connie, came along, two years after me, my parents were merely friends: my father spent his nights on the couch, falling asleep to the drone of the TV. I would find him there every morning, while I was waiting for my car pool.
I got the feeling that my mother hadn’t known what she was in for when she applied to Stanford. She was a straight-A student at the convent school where she graduated summa cum laude. My grandmother had an irrational fear that my mother would never get married. This was preposterous because I knew my mother had been pretty, I’d seen the old black-and-white pictures, my mother smiling shyly at the camera. But my grandmother constantly complained about what she referred to as my mother’s “excessive attachment to books.” At any rate, when my mother received her letters of acceptance, my grandmother discouraged my mother from accepting UCLA and urged her to go to Stanford. This my mother dutifully did. My grandmother wanted my mother to find a “nice” boy in graduate school, which was why she packed my mother’s suitcase full of shiny new blouses and skirts, and when it was time for my mother to leave for California, my grandmother accompanied her and stayed a week in the Cardinal Hotel in downtown Palo Alto. On days when my mother had a lighter class schedule, my grandmother would bring her to the Stanford Shopping Center. There she would buy my mother a quantity of diaphanous dresses and shirts, in multi-colored silk and chiffon, which I doubted my mother ever had the chance to wear.
During the week that my grandmother was with her, my mother was introduced to a woman named Myra. Myra told my mother to call her “Tita”, and she and my grandmother laughed and talked in loud voices and seemed to enjoy teasing my mother. My mother found Myra mannish. She was taken aback when my grandmother told her that Myra was married to an officer in the U.S. Navy and had four sons. The youngest of these, Patrick, attended Stanford. Myra talked constantly about Patrick’s prowess at tennis. My grandmother made Myra give my mother Patrick’s number. But as soon as she was alone, my mother threw the paper into the trash, feeling intuitively that she and Patrick would have nothing in common and that their talk would be hesitant, constrained, and ultimately rather dull.
In spite of the two boyfriends, my mother was very shy. Her boyfriends had been shy, too, which was what probably attracted her to them in the first place. Contrary to what my grandmother continuously told her, my mother never believed that there was someone out there waiting for her.
When my grandmother returned to Manila, my mother was thrown into a kind of panic. She told me it seemed more important to do laundry, to have clean and nicely pressed clothes, than to study. After doing laundry three times a week and spending at least one or two mornings ironing, my mother couldn’t understand why she had so little time. She couldn’t talk to any of her classmates: the boys—most of them—wore thick glasses and long-sleeved plaid shirts and she didn’t find them very attractive. The women had unkempt long hair and wore Birkenstocks, sandals that my mother found so ugly she could never imagine herself wearing them. When my mother walked into the classroom, the women scowled at her and seemed to hate her.
One of the requirements of my mother’s degree was that she take 45 units of Mandarin Chinese. The texts were all from the People’s Republic of China, in a new simplified style of calligraphy called pinyin. Every day, after she made her bed, my mother would sit and stare at the wall. She’d get up only when it was time to go to class, but afterwards she’d bike straight back to the apartment, lie down and stare at the wall. Her first quarter, she got straight C’s. She was afraid. She hated herself. She didn’t know that the school didn’t send the grades to the parents. She didn’t know that she was the only one who knew how badly she was doing. She became even more withdrawn from her fellow classmates, her teachers. Once a week, she’d go to her department, just to collect her mail.
The Chinese language teacher was a man with an American first name, “Harold.” He was tall and kindly, and he never corrected her pronunciation; she suspected he was afraid of embarrassing her. Miserably she’d copy the Chinese characters onto index cards, which she brought with her to the pool. She’d go through them in order, whispering the sounds to herself. Though she was at the pool, she never swam, only sat on a little grassy knoll and watched while the swimmers went back and forth, back and forth, doing laps. There were little buoys that marked off the lanes. What my mother really wanted to do was to splash around in the blue water, or maybe do a lazy backstroke. But every time she came with her index cards and her towel, the pool lanes and the long white shapes, slippery as seals, moving back and forth in orderly lines dismayed her.
My mother recalled having to take the bus back to Stanford after seeing her mother off at the airport. She couldn’t find a seat and remained standing just behind the driver, sobbing as if her heart would break. Finally a man in the back felt sorry for her and called out, “Miss!” He gave her his seat and kept his face averted so that she could pretend he hadn’t seen her tears.
My mother said the Stanford campus felt empty, empty, empty. She couldn’t stop thinking of the story someone had told her, of the young wife who’d been raped and murdered in Memorial Church, where she’d gone by herself to pray after a bitter argument with her husband.
The area just outside the campus was a neighborhood of small, one-story Eichlers. The people who lived in these houses were as strange-seeming to my mother as beings from another planet. They were, nearly all of them, elderly. My mother had never seen so many streets filled with just old people, all together in one place. The men were stooped and dragged their arthritic legs around with painstaking slowness. The women had blue-white hair, teased or curled into beehives. On the few occasions that my mother ventured off campus, the streets were silent, empty of people. She was confused by the idea that this place, Palo Alto, could be considered a “city”, just as Manila, her home, had been a city. It was the silence that confused her. That and the almost complete absence of smells she could identify.
Once my mother woke in the middle of the night to a dead silence. She screamed and cried and her roommate began pounding hard on her door. My mother sobbed, convinced that the world had vanished. Her body seemed like something else entirely, a shell embedded in warm beach sand. She felt her ribcage, windpipe, and spine sink deeper and deeper into the yielding sand. And then, suddenly, she knew she was alive; she knew she must not sink any further. That was when she called out. After that, her roommate, an anthropology major from Tokyo, glanced at her askance and gave her a wide berth, always finding an excuse to cut short their conversations or to leave the kitchen if my mother entered it.
I’m not sure why my mother told me all this, and am even more puzzled that I remembered so much of what she had described. It’s become a compulsion of mine, this recording of my parents’ courtship and marriage; only when I know the ending can I be completely healed.
My wife was my first serious girlfriend. We met at UC San Diego: she was an English major, of all things, stuck in a university where her department was always going to be the poor step-sister to the sciences. I watched her with her friends on the beach: how free she was, how joyful in her skin. I watched her every chance I could, until one day, when I was reading my chemistry book in a quiet spot well back from the water, I saw two slim feet come to a dead spot right in front of me. When I looked up, she kicked sand in my face and I spluttered. She ran off laughing. That was how I first knew that she had noticed me.
My own marriage wasn’t happy. Why else would I be writing this, embarking on this excavation of what can only be described as painful? Only recently did I realize that my parents’ courtship had actually been very strange. My mother said she couldn’t remember if my father ever treated her to a proper dinner. They ate at Arby’s, or had take-out from Kentucky Fried Chicken, the one on El Camino.
Perhaps my parents felt pressure to pair up as everyone around them was pairing up, too. My parents and the other Filipino graduate students at Stanford would gather in the house of a woman named Marites, who’d been married to an American and had a teen-ager named Brian. They used to gather there, with a couple of nurses from the Stanford Medical Center. I remember my mother telling me their names: Eleanor, Lia, Rina. My mother said they were very gay and lively, and she knew right away that each of them had a crush on my father, because of the way they laughed a lot in his presence, and did things like touch his hand or smooth his hair. This made her pay more attention to him—though she hadn’t found him attractive, not in the beginning. Her type was more the pale, Chinese-mestizo type, someone who looked a little bit like her. And my father was dark. And not as tall as my mother’s other boyfriends had been. He was also skinny; he’d never enjoyed sports, though even back then he was already crazy about American football. My mother didn’t drink, and neither did my father, at least not then. The other Filipinos at Stanford were much older than my mother and much more sophisticated, and she was a little afraid of them.
She wasn’t, however, afraid of my father.
My father was one of the few Filipino students who had a car. This, too, increased his desirability in my mother’s eyes. (How was she to know that, back home in Manila, my father’s parents drove a 20-year-old VW bug, without airconditioning? In Manila’s heat, that would have been a sure indicator of the family’s eccentricity. But how would my mother have known this? She couldn’t.)
My father had friends studying in MIT, Harvard, and NYU. Twice he took my mother east to visit his friends in Boston and New York. My mother loved Boston, Harvard Square, Cambridge Circle, the subways, so different from New York’s, so clean. I’ve seen pictures of my parents hanging out with my father’s Harvard friends. My father’s favorite attire seems to have been a pair of loose khaki shorts. His legs were muscular and hairy. My mother is dressed demurely, in pants and long sleeves. She has a hopeful smile; you can tell she was reserved.
My mother told me that was a happy time in her life. With my father cooking for them both, and driving her wherever she wanted to go, she felt cared for. It was almost, she said, like being back home.
In the end, it was my mother who asked my father to marry her. And it was my grandmother who wanted to hurry the wedding along, who could hardly wait for a date to be set. My father must have been taken aback. He tried to stall; he explained that it would be better to wait until he had graduated and found a job. But my grandmother said there was no question of his finding a job, what with the Stanford degree!
They were married in Memorial Church. My mother cried. Both my grandparents attended the wedding. In the wedding photo my grandmother looks proud and happy. She’s wearing a top of gold brocade, and a white skirt. Her deep black hair, which she never had to dye, was arranged in a high beehive, the fashion of the times. Standing next to her, my mother in her white bridal gown looks girlish and young.
It took my father over a year to find a job. First he and my mother lived in a tiny apartment in East Palo Alto. On the corner was a Mexican restaurant with an orange and green sign saying Taco Grullense. My mother began to look for a part-time job. She found one in a doctor’s office, transcribing patients’ medical records. My father stayed home but scanned the papers every day, looking for jobs. Every other day they had to deal with the phone calls from my grandmother, who demanded to know why my father still had not found a job, or landed at least an interview. My mother wouldn’t allow my grandmother and father to talk to each other. Every time the phone rang, my mother jumped for it. That became the pattern of their lives: my mother hated conflict of any kind.
I was born six months after the wedding. In family photographs, my mother looks tired but happy. She holds me proudly in her arms, displaying me for the camera. In some of the pictures, my father bends over her, a secretive look in his dark eyes. He doesn’t smile. His hand is on my mother’s shoulder. She sits as if she doesn’t know it’s there.
I was a large baby: almost eight and a half pounds, my mother told me. She said that the nurses on the maternity ward had decided she took the prize for the largest baby born that week.
“And you’re such an itty-bitty thing!” a nurse called Dolores told my mother. “How did you manage to produce a baby that big?”
My mother’s doctor said that he’d often seen that, in his patients who were from Asia. American milk made the babies grow big and fat in the womb. But the Asian immigrant mothers had small hips. It was, my mother’s doctor told her, a condition known as cephalopelvic disproportion. It was not a disease, it was simply the condition of having fat babies, fat American babies.
One rainy afternoon, my girlfriend Wendy and I decided to skip HumBio. The rain, the heat of the apartment, the feeling of time passing and decisions having to be made, made us reckless. We hadn’t even bothered getting completely undressed. Afterwards, we lay back panting and spent. I got up and switched on the small TV on my bureau. We watched the news for a while without speaking. We learned that someone named Leona Helmsley had died. Wendy, who was from New Jersey, told me that this woman was famous for her cruelty. The Helmsley Palace in New York had been named after this woman’s husband. I’d only been to that city once, when my sister was married.
Wendy touched my face with the tips of her fingers. I looked down at her.
“Where are your parents now?” she asked.
“They died,” I said.
She got up on one elbow and looked intently at me. “Both of them?” she asked.
I sat up. I nodded.
“How?” she said.
“My mother of breast cancer,” I said. “My father of a stroke, four months later. He was depressed. He’d been drinking a lot.”
Wendy began to rub my shoulders. “Don’t,” I said, shrugging her off.
“Let’s just sit here, quiet? Not talking? Is that all right?”
“They weren’t happy,” I said. “They loved each other, but they didn’t know how to make each other happy.”
“Show me a picture?” she said.
“Why?” I said. Some secret space was starting to curl in on itself, beneath my ribs. I looked at her.
“Just because,” she said. “Don’t you have one?”
I stood up. There was a small picture in my wallet. I took it and showed it to her. She gazed at it for a long moment.
“You don’t look like your father,” she said.
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
“You don’t look much like your mother, either,” she said.
“Maybe I’m adopted?” My voice was thick. I had sometimes thought this.
“No, of course not!” she said. Her voice was hurt.
As a matter of fact, I do look like my father. Just not like the father in the picture. This I know because of a letter my father left me, shortly before his accident. I received the letter in the spring of my sophomore year. The date on the letter was some months previous. I imagine my father writing it, a martini on the desk beside him, the TV blaring (He hated the silences of our empty house. But he had no one to keep him company except for our old cocker spaniel, Molly, who’s gone now, too.) Perhaps he was ashamed to tell me, perhaps he thought I would think him weak, his manhood somehow compromised. It took him almost four months to mail the letter. I wanted to tell him he shouldn’t have worried. As far as I was concerned, he was my father, I have no other. I didn’t get the chance to tell him this. Two weeks later I got the call that said that there’d been a car accident, my father hadn’t survived.
My mother’s Chinese Professor, Harold Chu, was married and had a newborn son. His wife was from Taiwan. He’d met his wife when he was doing research at the National University of Taipei, one summer. She was a shy woman, but very pretty. The female students at the University knew Harold Chu as “the handsome one.” He had brilliant blue-black hair. He was tall, or at least taller than the average Chinese man. His mother had been an Iowa beauty queen who’d married the town’s only Chinese doctor. He was a mesmerizing teacher. All the young women giggled behind their hands when he strode by.
He married his wife in a Buddhist ceremony and took her home with him to Palo Alto. They moved into a wood-shingled house in one of the city’s quiet streets. He gave his wife an American name. He told her, from now on, I will call you Katy. He would practice calling her, “Katy! Katy!” and if she didn’t come right away he would begin to yell, at the top of his voice: KATY! Their only child, a son, was named James, after Harold’s dissertation advisor.
Because Prof. Chu was so kind to her, and had offered to help my mother with some of the translations she needed to complete in order to pass the class, she met with him frequently. He helped her with the translation to a Mao Dun story, a translation that earned her an A for the course. Harold urged her to try and get it published, but my mother demurred, feeling it hadn’t been her work, she knew she wasn’t that good. She was always completely honest and clear-eyed about her capabilities.
I don’t know when they moved to something illicit, but I do know that it was some months before my father noticed. Perhaps my father noticed the flush on my mother’s cheeks, the reddening of her neck when she’d rush breathlessly into his room after biking “like hell” she said, to his room from the quadrangle where she had her Chinese classes. My father didn’t confront my mother; he wasn’t that way. But he would have found a way to let her know that he knew.
I picture my mother, bent over her notebook, copying with painstaking care the sure, firm strokes of her teacher’s calligraphy. I picture my father—I mean my biological father—bending close to her. Perhaps he brushed her cheek with his hand, or tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ears lovingly, the way a father might. Perhaps my mother told herself he was simply being kind. If he kissed her, she would have been surprised, she would have struggled against her feelings. Eventually, however, she did let go. I know because I am here.
At one time, I tried to search for him. I found that he’d retired from teaching and had moved to southern California. I didn’t know if he was still married.
I found men with his same name in cities like Bakersfield, Long Beach, and Visalia. There must have been at least 50 Harold Chus in the Pacific Bell phone book for southern California. Finally, however, I found a Harold Chu who had once been a Stanford professor. I tracked this man down to Diamond Bar, in San Bernardino County. But when I wrote to him, a postcard came back in the mail, almost immediately: “I am not the Harold Chu you are searching for.”
I scattered my father’s ashes in the blue-green water of San Francisco Bay. I went by myself. My sister had her hands full with a new baby. That, at least, was her excuse, but I knew it was something else: she and my father had never been close. In fact, she’d turned her back on him during her teenage years, and since my sister can be cruel to those who she feels have wronged her, she never once answered his letters or invited him to visit her apartment in Manhattan.
If my mother were alive, she wouldn’t have permitted such disrespect. But my mother isn’t alive. Whenever I remember this, I am always startled.
Wendy left me long ago. We were married for a little over three years. In the end, she took everything from our apartment: She even took the dented pots and pans, the rooster alarm clock, my set of R. A. Salvatore novels. In the last conversation we had before she left for good, she kept repeating that she wanted to be happy, she deserved to be happy. She said this to me as we sat across from each other at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. She had on a grey sweater and jeans, and her bag was a leather tote I’d never seen before. There was something else that was new in her face.
“I’ll be in Italy in a month,” she said.
“By yourself?” I asked.
She sighed. “No.”
I found the courtesy to say, “I hope he is good to you.”
I think of my parents. I wished they, too, had felt they deserved a simple happiness. There was so much they denied themselves. When I think of them, I am sometimes angry, and at other times sad. But there are things that are simply beyond one’s control. I suppose my parents did the best they could, under the circumstances.
I keep everything in my apartment in good order. I hope one day to be rich, and what little leisure time I have is spent making calculations that tell me where and how much I should be earning, at this stage of my life. I constantly search out means by which to amplify my pleasure or enjoyment. For example, anyone looking into my closet can tell at once that my wardrobe consists almost entirely of fine Italian suits and soft cashmere sweaters.
The weeks just before Wendy left, I wondered if she might have been pregnant. She would be queasy in the early mornings, and once I caught her vomiting into the toilet bowl. I put my hand on her back, and she shied away, as if stung. She wiped her mouth brusquely with a handful of toilet paper and threw the soiled tissues into the toilet before brushing past me.
She says I’m always making things up, that my life is a fantasy, a narrative of my own invention. She acted angry, as though I’d made up that stuff about my parents as a way to elicit her pity.
I told her she was wrong, I told her I wasn’t afraid of happiness. I told her that joy was important to me, that I too could give and receive pleasure.
She said, “You’re afraid of so many things. You’re even afraid to feel.”
Last Christmas I drove to the City. I wanted to see the big tree in Union Square. There was the odelisk with Lord Nelson, and the words commemorating the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine. All around me were couples, holding hands, lifting their shining faces upwards, marveling at the colored lights. I looked up, too. I felt something inside me give way. Why is it so hard to love? It shouldn’t be so hard. I whispered, I wasn’t sure to whom: Perhaps, I thought, this was the beginning.