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When I called 123_box_348x490_originalmy parents earlier this month, there was a sense of jubilation and relief when they answered: “You’re the only one who calls us regularly without having to be reminded.” (Which wasn’t exactly true, since I called in response to an email my mother had sent, asking us, the children, what we wanted to do for my father’s 80th birthday. Shall we meet in Houston or Denver?  I wanted to vote, emphatically, for Denver; Houston, in July, was a non-starter.) “We haven’t heard back from your brother, but he might be working in Malaysia.” my mother said. “And, as for your sister, well, we never know where she is.”

My sister splits her time between Saigon and San Francisco, with the majority of the split in Saigon. She goes incommunicado for long periods of time, and the family’s only knowledge of her whereabouts are what we glean from Facebook posts. Of the siblings, she’s moved the farthest away, both physically and psychically.

It wasn’t always this way. My brother moved away first, after college, to work in Midland, Texas, never to return; I left next, fleeing to the East Coast for college, though I moved back to Colorado periodically, in between jobs. But my sister followed the path that had been set out for her: living at home, teaching for Denver Public Schools, being the obedient daughter. Maybe, in that way, she was like Little Edie. The one who stayed behind. The one who put her life on hold. The one who deferred her dreams until they had congealed into an amalgam of love, guilt and resentment.

At times, I can sometimes understand that resentment. My mother gets stuck on an endless loop of worry—When will the University offer you a full time job? Do you have health insurance? When was the last time you went to the dentist? Despite her best intentions, she can be smothering, oppressive, a presence that demands attention.

Little Edie only left Grey Gardens once her mother had died. She went to New York, had a cabaret act, and, at 60, became the star she had always wanted to be. She burst forth onto the stage of Reno Sweeney for eight shows, enrobed in a crimson gown with a swath of red-painted plastic leaves on draping her shoulder like fire.

My sister, too, escaped. First into her own apartment, then into her soon-to-be husband’s condo. She decided: she’d get her MBA and leave the teaching profession all together. But on the way, she found a second husband, all the way on the East Coast, and, finally, Vietnam, and a possible third husband in San Francisco. And I see her, living the life she thinks she was denied all those years ago: the endless parties, the clothes that exude glamour and youth, the carefully constructed of her make-up and hair. And I see her still: parading in circles for the camera, picking the best costume to wear for the day, trying to keep the line between the past and the present.

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When my sister was in high school, she went on an Urban Experience. As a lesson about homelessness, she and her classmates were challenged to spend the night in downtown Denver with only five dollars in their pockets. They would have to sleep on heat vents or in homeless shelters; they’d have to know what it’s like to be hungry; they’d emerge from it chastened and humbled and wiser for the experience.

It was fun, my sister told me.

I suppose this was the drawback: there was nothing at stake. They only had to make it for a few hours, and by morning, they’d be back in bed, well-fed and warm. In other words, it was an early opportunity for my sister to spend an entire night out. As it was, by the time I got to high school, I had already planned how I would have spent my night, but the program didn’t exist anymore.

Years of city living has inured me to the homeless. I mistrust the men—and it’s almost always men, Caucasian—who linger on the devil’s strip near busy stoplights, where the traffic can back up a block’s length. Their clothes are dirty and sufficiently worn, though still serviceable, and they bear stubble on their face as proof of hardship. They hold cardboard squares with their lives’ misery condensed in black Magic Marker: got laid-off, Vietnam vet, foreclosed home, hungry family, God bless. They rarely speak. But they strike me the way William Powell strikes me in My Man Godfrey: There’s no way he could be homeless.

I wasn’t always so cynical. One evening when I was still in college, I was with my friend C___ and his boyfriend J___, hanging out in the gay neighborhood of Baltimore, Mount Vernon. We were all too young to go to the bars and clubs, but we were there to steep in the general atmosphere, reveling, as we were, in the then-new excitement of our community. We were at the base of the hill the rises towards the George Washington Monument, outside of The Buttery, a diner that would have been more aptly named “The Greasery.”

An African-American woman came up to us. She spun out her story—she needed milk for her baby at home, stuck in the city without bus fare. C___ and I, both still new to Baltimore, looked at each other, unsure of what to do. We could deal with homelessness when it was huddled in a corner, but never had it come up to confront us. As college students, we hardly had any money ourselves, though we must have had a few bucks between the two of us. We sputtered out our excuses, but she pressed on. My baby’s hungry, she insisted.

J____, from nearby Ellicott City, was getting more upset at us for engaging with her than with her for coming to us.

Finally, fed up, he gave her a few dollars. “Here,” he said. “Take it.”

When she left, she seemed to skip, with what might have been glee. “She seems happy,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t she be?” J___ replied. “She got her money.”

111_box_348x490Bác Thu Dang was not a blood relative as far as I know. Vietnamese family trees are notoriously convoluted, with the farther branches of second uncles and cousins twisted and labyrinthine. But I suspect that his bác was an honorific, the way that some Vietnamese refer to Ho Chi Minh as Bác Hồ — Uncle Ho. (My parents refuse to speak Ho Chi Minh’s name in any incarnations — their version of the 614th mitzvah.)

I knew nothing of Bác Thu Dang’s life. My father told me, at one point, that he worked as a janitor. He spoke very little English, but in Vietnamese, he had a knack for puns: slight tonal shifts, switched consonants. When he came over for visits — once a week, it seemed – he and my parents played cắt tê for nickels and took sips of Remy Martin V.S.O.P. until they were red-faced from laughter and alcohol. My mother let me taste her drink (Remy and 7-Up) and sporadically explained what was so funny. I suspect that most of Bác Thu Dang’s jokes were dirty.

One Christmas, Bác Thu Dang gave me a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and I ate them all, except for three — one of each color: green, red, silver. I had a habit of hording candy — in a Sucrets tin, one of each flavor out from a bag of Jelly Bellys kept in a Sucrets tin; in a lidded jar, the accumulated cherry pieces from a Halloween’s-worth of SweeTarts. A few years ago, when I was cleaning out my childhood desk, I found those three Kisses, still in their bag, crammed in the back of a drawer. They’d dissolved into dust by then, eaten by something larval, their foil pocked with holes. This was my last physical reminder with Bác Thu Dang, but still, I threw the bag away.

I’m struck by how M. Hulot reminds me of Bác Thu Dang: the tall frame, the long face, the air of calm bufuddlement. I don’t recall ever seeing Bác Thu Dang without a hat, most often a droopy fishing hat that sat low on his head, much like the one M. Hulot wears on his holiday. The similarities end there: Bác Thu Dang also wore large glasses, and his front two incisors were nicotine-stained and slightly twisted, giving him the appearance of an overbite. But he was a familiar sight in our house, a constant presence in our lives.

Until he wasn’t. At some point, the visits stopped, I’m not sure why. There hadn’t been a quarrel that I was aware of, and when my parents encountered him, they were still convivial. But the level of closeness wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the friendship had simply run its course. The young boy in Mon Oncle never questions why his uncle is suddenly no longer a part of his life; he instead forms a stronger bond with his father.

For me, I know there’s must be another secret stash of chocolate somewhere.

109_box_348x490When I got a Mohawk over the summer, my parents reacted with horror:  you look like a punk, my father said.  A no-goodnik.  A Mexican.  I had once joked, as a teenager, about getting a Mohawk, and my parents said that if I did, they’d hold me down and shave my head all the way.  My mother pleaded with Matthew to convince me to revert to my old haircut.  “I can understand him wanting to cut his hair that was if he were young,” my mother told him.  “But he’s almost forty.”

I thought, There’s no way they would have let me have one while I was growing up.  I waged my follicular rebellions in secret.  One evening, when they had gone to dinner with friends, my sister and I mixed up a bowl of sticky blue dye, a color that could only been seen directly under light.  We smeared a protective layer of conditioner along our hairlines—Direct contact with skin may result in a burning sensation, the package read— and tried not to touch anything with our heads for two hours.  When we rinsed, we were disappointed to see the color:  most of it streaked the bottom of the bathtub, and none of it had stayed in our hair.  Our rebellion washed down the drain.

So, at the start of the summer, as Tomacina took the clippers to the side of my head, the revolutionary spirit rekindled.  The grey hairs fell away, a clearcutting of old-growth lumber.  My head felt lighter.  And when she had finished, the black nylon haircut cape was speckled with years of my life, shaved off.

Early in The Scarlet Countess, there’s a scene of Marlene Dietrich on a swing, playing the young Catherine the Great.  When the camera focuses on her face, it’s unmistakably her, though something seems off.  Let’s face it:  Marlene Dietrich is one of the screen’s greatest sexual icons, but she can’t pull off a teenager too well.  Her hair, a mass of blonde ringlets, can’t disguise the sensuousness of her eyes, and despite her attempts to play the ingénue, her sexual persona shines through.

Over the summer, I paid careful attention to other Mohawk-bearers.  We were a secret brotherhood, I thought, until I realized that my brothers were, on the whole, much younger than I was.  The Mohawk was a bit of play-acting on my part, something I could pull off for a short time, but not convincingly.  Maybe it’s better to let Marlene be Marlene and for Viet to be Viet.

My hair grows quickly, so it only too about a month for it to reach sufficient shagginess.  The new school semester was about to start.  I returned to Tomacina, and she asked what I wanted.  I repeated what I’ve said to her at least a hundred times now:  one-and-a-half on the sides, longer on top, kill the sideburns.  She ran her fingers through my hair.  “You’re a mess,” she said.

My across-the-street neighbor, S___ came home yesterday, and everyone along the block knows:  she has come home to die.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last December, and although she was responding to treatment, a week ago, her condition deteriorated, and, since then, her house stood empty.  Her husband’s cars were nowhere to be seen, except, probably, at Christiana Hospital.  Then, yesterday, a van pulled up to her house, and a triangular sign warning visitors about in-use oxygen appeared on her front door.

Weeks, I understand.  A few months at most:  her platelet count is down to 40,000; 100,000 is the minimum necessary to continue chemo.  The other day, her grown daughter swept out the living room, preparing to convert it into a bedroom; S___’s mother was also there.  They are the start of it, the parade of friends and family paying their respects, as if their presence can make her more comfortable.

Death, in Cries and Whispers, is both frightening and horrific.  Agnes, suffering from an unspecified cancer, has long fits where she can’t breathe.  Her torso contorts as she gasps.  She clutches her skin from the pain.  Her sisters, emotionally distant and self-absorbed, are unable to cope and refuse to comfort her.  The visuals themselves are uncomfortable:  the scenes are drenched in a hyper-sanguinated red, a color which, to Bergman, represents “the interior of the soul.”  The walls: red.  The window treatments: red.  The carpet: red.  The screen fades to red.  When death comes, Bergman seems to say, everyone’s soul is laid bareIsn’t that what you’ve come to see?

The drapes covering the living room window where S___  sleeps were once red, but, after years of constant battle with the sun, are now vermillion.  Paper cut-outs of numbers and letters are taped to the glass, reminders that S___ once ran a daycare out of her house.  Those, too, have faded; no one can remember what color they once were.

“I’m at peace,” S___ said.  “A lot of children have been in and out of my house.  I’ve touched a lot of lives.”  She still had hair when she said this.  When I last saw her, her head was wrapped in a bandana, and she was bloated.  She didn’t seem to be in pain, but this was what I saw on the outside.

Cries and Whispers ends on a note of grace:  Agnes, in her diary, describes walking with her sisters and coming upon a swing, the three of them together again, and happy, for a moment.  So I end with this moment with S___:  a summer night, when she had just finished a ride with her ladies’ motorcycle club.  The smell of exhaust dangled in the humidity.  S___ sat on her stoop with her then-neighbor and motorcycle buddy, and when the two of them saw Matthew and me returning home, they called us over.  They had an iced pitcher of margaritas at the ready.  And despite the insects swarming around our exposed skin, despite the obnoxious cruisers zooming down the street at unsafe speeds, we were, for a moment, happy.

Opening shot of Written on the Wind:  a sports car races across a barren Texan landscape.  Oil derricks rise out of the ground like metallic spines, upright.  The sky is a blue that exists only in the movies — a day-for-night shot — bright as electricity, deepness as evening, and the starkness of the sky makes you think that Texas is always like this:  empty, endless, illuminated.

When I was young, my father brought home magazines from his visits to our local HMO.  National Geographic for him; Reader’s Digest for my mother; Ranger Rick for me.  I asked him to buy me a subscription, but he said no, that these copies with the address label ripped off were good enough.  One issue I recall featured pictures of the decorated pumpjacks in Luling, Texas.  They struck me as odd and beautiful, how they simultaneously mimicked nature and denuded it.  One was a smiling Monarch butterfly, its wings attached to the pump arm.  Another was made up as killer whale; the third, a zebra.  My brother had just started his degree in petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.  He would, I thought, soon be working with these strange creatures.

Douglas Sirk describes the oil well as “a rather frightening symbol of American society,” a symbol of emptiness, of loss.  Rainer Fassbinder points out how the golden miniature oil rig that the scion of the family holds in his portrait “looks like a penis substitute.”  The presence of oil is ubiquitous:  after Lauren Bacall discovers she’s pregnant, she leaves via the back alley behind the doctor’s office, and, in the upper-left corner of the frame, a grasshopper-green oil pump drains the parking lot.

After graduation, my brother got a job with Atlantic Richfield Company in Midland, Texas, and, for a while, my parents only bought gas from Arco stations on the assumption that they were somehow supporting him.  One summer, the family piled into the van to pay him a visit.  I remember the long stretches of flat, empty road, where land just seemed to fall off the horizon.  From afar, the oil derricks looked like spindly saguaros, and it wasn’t until we got close that I could see their exoskeletons.  If it weren’t for them holding the state down, it seemed, Texas might have just blown away.

The final scene of Written on the Wind, as described by Fassbinder:  “Dorothy Malone, as the last remnant of the family, has this penis in her hand…. The oil empire that Dorothy now heads is her substitute for Rock Hudson.”  Oil, the film suggests, is no substitute for life.

Of the three siblings in my family, my brother is the ‘successful’ one.  He works for BP and flies to Aberdeen, Scotland, to plan where to plant off-shore oil drills off the Vietnam coast.  He owns a large house just outside of Houston (just being about an hour’s drive), where he lives with his wife and daughter.  His wife, who also went to the Colorado School of Mines, also works in petroleum.  My parents constantly (still) worry about my sister and I, but him — his life is set.

Matthew and I were visiting the father of one of his friends who owned a condo near Vail.  Neither he nor I skied, given our combined income at the time.  Vail Village can make you feel very poor very quickly.  Women in high heels navigate the cobblestones with effortless ease and whisk into shops with names that sound like aspirations:  Fantasia Furs, Jewels of the West, Worth Home.

At the Wedgwood storefront, I said, “Okay, let’s each pick a pattern,” because it’s a sure harbinger of doom when two gay men can’t agree on a china set.   But we concurred:  Persia.  We went into the store, were ignored by the shopkeepers, and walked back out.

*

The Wedgwood teapot (Jasperware, white-on-pale blue) that the Cary finds in All That Heaven Allows is a sure symbol of her materialism.  She’s drawn to it even though it’s in broken, and her love interest, the rugged Ron, takes it out of her hands and tells her that it was there for a reason:  it’s in pieces.  She looks at him, slightly embarrassed.  It’s only a god damn teapot, after all.

That teapot, nowadays, with its body restored, could probably fetch anywhere from $250-500 at auction.

*

Every year, Matthew’s relations in upstate New York ask him what he wants for Christmas.  They take the holiday and gift-giving very seriously, and his protests that he don’t need anything fall on deaf ears.  One year, I offered to help clear the table and stack the plates (Lenox, Eternal Gold-Banded) after dinner and was told, in no uncertain terms:  “We do not stack the plates.”

So we asked for our own china set, and not soon after, received place settings for eight (Wedgwood, India).

“One of these days,” Matthew says, “we’re actually going to use them.”

*

Ron repairs the teapot and surprises Cary with it.  It’s his invitation:  come live with me here, in this restored barn, in the forest.  But she can’t; she’ll miss her comforts, her standing in the community, her solid upper middle-class reputation.  As she gathers her coat to leave, the edge catches the teapot and it falls, breaking again—this time, irreparable.  Ron gathers the fragments and tosses them into the fireplace.

*

Yesterday, Matthew and I were in TJ Maxx, the sub-bourgeois discount store, stopping in just to stop in.  While I was deciding whether or not I needed a new tea strainer, he came up to me:  “Look what I found.”

A Wedgwood teapot (Notting Hill).  For $35.

“It can’t be real,” I said.

He turned it over.  It was, indeed, stamped Wedgwood.  He traced his finger along the platinum band ringing the teapot.  “Oh,” he said, “that’s why it’s here.”  The porcelain had a flaw, a dimpled acne scar on its side.  After Wedgwood emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, the company closed its plants in the UK and moved almost all of its production to Indonesia, where labor is approximately 85% cheaper.  At that time, as well, unemployment in Britain jumped almost 2.5% from a year earlier.

*

so much depends
upon

a blue Wedgwood
teapot

glazed with English
Breakfast

by the wood-burning
fireplace

This is my sister’s first Halloween with her older brother. She’s heard of trick-or-treating, of course, perhaps from some of the other children at Fort Chaffee, but that first October after they had arrived at the National Guard base was too confusing. Many of the other refugee families came with nothing, so there’s nothing to give out, and this is not home, this former POW camp. Who goes door-to-door in a barracks?

No, her first Halloween is in Carbondale, where the family’s sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, live. The Lees are elderly, religious, and that Sunday, when the family trots off to church on Sunday, she leans against her father, who has closed his eyes in a good approximation of prayer, and naps.

The end of October air is brisk. The Lees’ church provided them with some cool weather clothing, but no costumes, and so she wears her everyday clothes. She feels conspicuous. She is nine; her brother is twelve.

The sun has disappeared under the horizon, but orange light still suffuses the sky like fire. Jack o’lanterns exude the odor of pumpkin from jagged mouths. Her brother rings the doorbell, and they hold out their plastic grocery bags.

“Trick or treat,” he says, and she echoes it a moment afterwards.

Puzzled, the homeowner reaches for the candy bowl. He speaks very slowly, as if they can’t understand.

“Halloween is tomorrow,” the man says.

Her brother whispers to her in Vietnamese: I’ve got it covered.

“It’s a school night,” he says.

This is my sister’s first Halloween with her younger brother. He’s heard of trick-or-treating, of course, since he’s spent most of his life in America, and now that they’ve moved to Aurora, Colorado, Vietnam seems further away than ever. This is the suburbs; they have their own furniture (not new, but new-ish), and even their parents know to turn off the lights to discourage people from coming to the door.

She’s long outgrown trick-or-treating, but her little brother seems excited by the promise of free candy. Each year, Halloween grows larger and larger; Vu Lan and Tết Trung Thu seem distant, like days that appear on the calendar, but nowhere else. Tonight, she will take him door-to-door.

Snow starts to fall; the first snow of the season. Her brother has refused to wear the plastic frock that came with his Smurf costume; he only wears the mask, but he complains that it makes it difficult to breathe.

“You don’t have to wear it all the time,” she says. She is fourteen; he is five.

He has started to make friends with other kids on the street; she has her friends at school. Her other brother is looking at the School of Mines. Next year, he will not need her to accompany him. She tells him to use a pillowcase, and not one of those tiny baskets the other children use. “You can fit more candy in.”

He looks at her for tips on sugar acquisition.

“I used to trick-or-treat the day before Halloween,” she says. “Then again on Halloween.  Twice the candy!”

 

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.

 

For Christmas one year, my sister bought my mother a copy of Brigette Bardot’s biography, Initiales B.B. In French, no less.  I sort of knew that my mother was a Bardot fan, the way I sort of know her birthday and sort of know about her life before we moved to the United States.

What I know for sure about my mother:  she keeps all the books we gave her on the headboard of her waterbed; she likes Sidney Sheldon novels; she watches adaptations of Sidney Sheldon novels on the same television where, every evening, we watched the news and, on Wednesday nights, Dynasty, and, once a year, the Miss Universe pageant.

When I was young, I scoured the TV Guide, looking for her favorite movie.  I found it once — the listing so small it was an inky smudge — showing in the wee hours, and I was so excited I wanted to stay up and watch it with her.  But I fell asleep during a commercial, around the point where the heroine falls off a mountain during a ski race, breaks her back, and is paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Years later, of course, I realized the movie my mother liked was The Other Side of Midnight and not The Other Side of the Mountain.  But she watched with me anyway.

I don’t know if my mother saw And God Created Women.  She would have been about 24 when it was released.  She still lived in Vietnam then — or she could have been at Southern Illinois University, I’m not sure which.  What I know of Vietnamese history of that time includes:  1) the French being driven out of Vietnam; 2) the Geneva Accords splitting the country in half; and 3) the mass exodus of Northerners fleeing southward, bringing phở with them.

Had my mother already met my father by then?  I don’t know.  In the dining room back home (Aurora, Colorado, not Vietnam), there’s a black-and-white photograph of my mother.  She wears a white áo dài, like a schoolgirl’s.  Her face is tilted down towards the left, and the soft light picks out a luminous feature.  Her nose.  Her cheekbone.  She’s possibly as young as Bardot herself when she starred in And God Created Women.  Director and then-husband Roger Vadim writes of Bardot:  “She comes from another dimension…. That’s down to her presence, which comes from outer space somewhere.”

My mother calls regularly, and I return them irregularly.  She calls with news, with gossip, or just to talk.  Her voice reverses time:  here we are watching Alexis and Krystal getting into another catfight.  Miss Venezuela wins again?  But the conversation now veers towards different topics:  her weakening knees, the regimen of capsules and multivitamins that she dutifully splits with a plastic pill-cutter.  As she speaks, I imagine her sitting up in bed, phone extension in hand, leaning against all the books I’ve bought her:  intergenerational Asian mother-daughter sagas, Vietnamese novels in translation, poetry — the unread stories in our lives.

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