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Suicide 1: N___ was two classes above me in seventh grade, while his brother, E___ was one class behind, in fourth.  N___’s curly hair was cut in a proto-mullet, with wavy lines shaved into the sides, and he maintained a light wisp of a mustache, so blonde and light that it looked like a trick of the sun. He wore neon-colored clamdiggers and short-sleeved shirts as though he were a California native trapped in land-locked Colorado. Whenever I visited his brother, who lived two blocks away, he regarded us with an indifferent air, the way a queen ant ignores the workers scurrying around her.

There was conflicting news of his death: some people said that it was an accident, that he had shot himself while playing with a gun; others said that it was deliberate. E___ missed two weeks of school, and when he came back, I treated him gingerly, with no mention of N___, even though N___’s presence hung over E___ like a bubble.

I was afraid of grief—not E___’s grief, which made him walk as though the floors of Parklane Elementary were pools of wet clay. That grief was evident, palpable. No, I was more afraid of N___’s grief, a huge, unknowable thing that could swallow a person up in an instant, in an irreversible contraction of the index finger.

Suicide 2: My cousin H___ was a police officer in the Los Angeles, and my family drove to California for her funeral: my parents, sister, aunt and uncle all crammed into a van. There was no stopping in Las Vegas for a run at the casinos, no pauses except at gas stations, where I was allowed to look at the candy but not buy any. H___, too, had shot herself. I remember her round face, her feathered, neck-length hair, and how, once, on a previous visit, I had slept in the same bed with her, and she advised me: if you fart in the middle of the night, the least you can do is lift up the comforter to let it out.

By then, though, I had been thoroughly brain-washed by suicide-prevention filmstrips; suicide I now considered the highest act of selfishness. The closest I ever came to suicide was holding a kitchen knife to my wrist and thinking, I could do it, I could, in teenaged high Romantic mode. But the practical truth of it, I knew, was more unbearable: a closed-casket ceremony, her fellow police officers sitting stiff-backed in folding chairs, her boyfriend gripping the brass sides of the casket so hard that it shifted on its base.

The question I wanted to ask E___, the question I wasn’t able to ask H___ was Why? But I suspect that even if they could have answered, it still wouldn’t have made sense. There is no why. There’s only the act. The doomed lovers in Double Suicide proceed to their fates with mechanical certainty, and the black-shrouded Bunraku puppeteers look on, anguished, as H___’s mother clutches a framed photograph of her, repeating, No one’s as beautiful as my H___. No one.


My parents are visiting from Colorado.   For dinner tonight, we ate a rotisserie chicken, and my Dad systematically stripped the chicken carcass of every last vestige of meat and sinew.  He used with his fingers, gouging out the secret protein tucked between the ribs or clinging to the sharp stump of neckbone.  He scraped the bones with his teeth to remove the tendons and fasciae.  He ate noisily, having reached the age where he no longer cares about niceties when eating at home.

Matthew didn’t blink an eye.  This is the same Matthew who, when we first started dating, had to look away when I ate fried chicken, as I had a habit of chewing the ligament between the drumstick and the thighbone.  When I saw him shudder, I knew that he’d heard me crunching away.

“It’s just not something I’m used to,” he said.

I have had meals with Matthew’s father, who eats quickly and voraciously (like fathers everywhere, I think).  Matthew has picked up very few of his own father’s mannerisms and habits.  Where do we learn proper table manners?  If not our parents, then who teaches us how  to hold a fork, which topics are appropriate for discussion during dinner, or how to sit up straight?

When my father spoke about the modern method of making nước mắm (caramel coloring, salt, water, mysterious chemicals), I didn’t correct his pronunciation of anchovy.  An-ko-vy, he said, and I imagined Leslie Howard, pointing his finger, saying, “No!  Do it again, again, again,” and my father, stubborn in way Matthew suggests I have inherited, refusing to say it correctly, just to spite Professor Higgins.  It’s not the child’s place to teach his parents what is proper.

Instead, my father has taught me the proper way to dismantle a lobster, how to slip a washer between the nut and oil pan when changing a car’s oil, how to tie a necktie.  Etiquette and proper manners; leave that for someone else.

After dinner, the conversation turned to the subject of living wills.  Mom told the story of an acquaintance of hers, whose mother has Alzheimer’s and a feeding tube.  The daughter, she said, quit her job and moved her mother into their house, where, everyday, she makes meals for her.  She stews and blends; she boils and strains.  And it all goes into the feeding tube.

“I think that’s cruel,” my father said.

Sometimes, my mother said, when her feeding tube clogs, the daughter will clear it by sucking the obstruction clear.  My mother made a horrified face.

“If I have to live like that,” she said, “you can just give me Ensure or something like that.”  But, I wondered, would this be cruel, as my father had said?  Whose wishes should I follow?

We sat quietly at the dinner table for a few moments, eating little squares of lemongrass chocolate.  “Let’s change the subject,” my father said.


Act I, Scene V:  Elsinore.  A platform before the castle.

I used to insist that my house was haunted.  Once, while going into the basement, I swore I saw a blue figure walk from wall-to-wall, passing through them as if they were open doors.  It was a tall gentleman, wearing a top hat and Victorian clothing.  He seemed in an awful hurry.

Granted, at the time, I read as many books on supernatural phenomena as I could.  Well-worn books with black-and-white photographs of famous monsters:  Patterson’s shot of Bigfoot, Surgeon’s shot of Nessie.  And ghosts — so many pictures of ghosts!  Perhaps they were just double-exposures and fissures in the emulsion, but to me, they may have well have been rips in the mortal veil.  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

My brother played a trick on me.  He knew I had this fascination with ghosts, so he waited until I was headed down to the basement.  And there, at the bottom of the stairs, he had draped a bedsheet over himself, with holes cut out for eyes.  It was the cheapest, most generic ghost you could imagine, and yet, when I saw him, he yelled, “Boo!” and I screamed and ran back upstairs.  I later learned from my sister that our mother was mighty angry that he had ruined a perfectly good sheet.

Act I, Scene II:  A room of state in the castle.

The basement is now my father’s domain.  My mother banished him there ages ago, because no one could sleep once he started snoring.  We lived directly under the flight path of Stapleton Airport, so we should have been used to the noise, but even a floor away from the rest of the family, we heard his nighttime rumble crawling through the air vents, his restless spirit taking revenge on the rest of us.

But he prefers it down there.  He has his computer and his home theater.  He reads in his waterbed or blasts his Vietnamese pop music through the surround sound until my mother complains that it’s rattling the upstairs windows.  He also runs a one-man Vietnamese media service, burning compilation CDs for his friends or ripping movies borrowed from the library into his own library.  He makes custom covers for them, has them stacked nicely by the fireplace.  He even rips movies from my collection.

But, Dad, I tell him, I own them.  You don’t need another copy.

Just in case, he says.  Just in case.

In case of what? I wonder.  He’s in his mid-70s now, and I worry that the stairs bother him.  He gets cortisone shots in his back for a fused disc, my mother reports, but now his knees have been acting up.  But, you must know, your father lost a father; that father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound in filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow.  I know the time will come — perhaps soon — when he can no longer live in the basement with the ghosts.

About twenty minutes into watching Henry V, Matthew pulled out a Wordsworth Classics edition of the play and tried to follow along.  I didn’t even know we had copy in the house.  He flipped the pages of the thin paperback; there was still residue on the cover where the price sticker had once been.

“Hey,” he said.  “They’ve taken stuff out.”

Yes, I told him.  And not only that, but they added stuff in as well.  During the death of Falstaff, we skimmed the pages to no avail.  Falstaff isn’t even in the cast of characters.  What?  Messing with The Bard?  Who in his right mind would do that?  Laurence Olivier, according to Bruce Eder, trimmed approximately 1500 lines from the source material.  Entire scenes have fallen away; in their place, a mounted knight duel, a flurry of arrows, a bravura tracking shot of horses going from a trot to a full gallop.

Honestly, though, Shakespeare’s histories and I — we don’t get along too well.  Comedies, yes; tragedies, yes; but I’ve never found the histories that compelling.  What? I hear people saying.  And you teach English literature? Indeed, but I never claimed to teach all of English literature.  The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sixty-plus lines recounting Henry’s lineage might be incredibly informative, but it’s also incredibly dull.

The genealogy craze has exploded in the past few years — two television shows in the last year alone — but I find it less than compelling.  Being a recent immigrant to the United States (1975), the wealth of information available to others who have been here longer — church records, immigration papers, employment lists — isn’t useful.  Friends of mine have made pilgrimages to small rural towns to check parish records, to thumb through yellowing, water-stained pages, to glance through stocks of microfiche to track down the various branches of their family tree.

And, in any case, listening to someone else recount his ancestry is like watching a vacation slide show:  they get to relive their history, I get to live my own boredom.  It’s not that I’m not curious about my roots, but that I’m willing to accept the version of history that my parents have passed down to me:  I’m descended from royalty.  It’s every eight year-old girl’s dream, and it’s something I accept as a matter of faith.

Despite my misgivings, I typed my name into an family tree website but got no further than my parents’ names.  I realized that I didn’t know my grandparents (except for my maternal grandmother), beyond seeing their pictures on the altar in our living room and sporadically burning incense for them.  I didn’t know their ‘real names’ — I only knew them by the functional Vietnamese words for grandmother and grandfather:  ông nội and bà nội (ông ngoại and bà ngoại for the maternal grandparents).  They were a continent away and decades removed.  I could piece together snapshots of them from family stories — my paternal grandmother’s fiery temper, for example — and that makes them real enough to me.

Would it be so terrible to discover, further and further back, that I’m descended from a stablehand or a rice farmer or a drunken French colonialist?  Not at all.  But it doesn’t help illuminate my own person, even if, as Henry V proposes, it entitles me to a nice piece of property across the sea.