I am going to see my father for the first time in ten years. Whether he commanded it or requested it, I don’t know, because the news came through my mother, as all news of my father has since I was thirty. A stroke.
When she first told me, the word didn’t register. It was tennis I thought of. Me, a nervous and wiry fifteen, waiting. Legs apart, knees bent, my upper body swaying from side to side. Watching my father. The ball flying, fear and movement—stumbling into position, yanking my arm back. Stroke. The moment of contact. Relief.
But now, sitting in my rental car outside the stone house with its white-columned porch, the word means something else. I imagine my mother moving from room to room, alone against the blue-scrolled wallpaper, cream carpets, and heavy furniture. My father bent and broken in their king-size bed. Guilt floods through me.
Around me, the car is damp with the vapors from my breath, chilly. I take my leather gloves from my coat pocket, stroke their smooth folds. The supple surfaces and pungent scent ease my nerves. Touching the gloves, I always feel an assurance; I feel the ease of quality and comfort and success, how those things can be shaped into something I hold in my hands. Outside, only the occasional car turns onto the street; the Friday evening rush hour is over. Dusk is deepening the color of the sky above the neighborhood homes, the quiet oaks and elms. The engine purrs. It’s only a rental car, but it’s the same model I drive back in London. I press down ever so slightly on the gas pedal. It seems I need the sound of a well-tuned BMW to tell me that I am a successful man.
In earlier years, I needed my father to tell me. Why else would I have let him drill me like that, hour after hour, day after day? Even now, those high school days come back to me. I feel it in my arms, legs, back—even my eyes. Hot sunny days, the shadows of the net and posts sharp against the surface of the court. “Volley! Volley!” he shouted. “Why don’t you run for it?” He sliced his racket downward. I swung and missed, cursed my muscles. The ball smashed into the ground beyond me and bounced on, fast and hard.
I kill the engine and jerk the door open. Stride toward the waiting house. I was determined then, and I’m determined now. But now I’m forty. I’m not cowed by him. I know this is just a weekend, not a match whose outcome will determine my future.
“Mi-chael!” my mother cries as she opens the door. “Already past seven o’clock. We were waiting.” She looks composed but fragile, a crown of white showing beneath the black hair that sweeps back and curls neatly under her earlobes. “Why are you so late?” she says. I imagine him in the dark hush of the family room behind us, listening.
“Work.” My eyes slide past her. A wood safety gate blocks off the wide, curving stairway. The Chinese-style urns are gone from the foyer. Meanwhile, my voice goes on as if things were normal, too loud for this subdued house. “You know the New York office. As soon as you get in from out of town, it’s meeting after meeting…” It’s true, but it’s also true that I didn’t have to arrange those meetings. “I’m sorry, Ma. You’re alone with him all the time.”
“No, the home help workers and the speech therapist, they come.” She unfolds a paper from her sweater pocket, touches an imaginary pair of glasses, and shifts into the stance of a stout, chesty woman. “All raht, Missus Kim, Ah’ve prepared a list of words your husband have trouble with. Ignorance, arguments, decisions…” She refolds the paper, and her stance returns to normal.
I force a smile. “That accent is great, Ma. And your body movements.” It’s a good thing she has her acting. I don’t think a subservient woman could have survived with my father, but my mother wasn’t like that—she headed the mostly-white PTA, organized fund-raisers for the local theater, even acted in their plays. Has this stroke taken too large a toll on her independence? I touch her arm. “This therapist sounds helpful.”
“Yes, very helpful, this Carol Beth lady,” my mother says. “I just do small things. Practice the words with him. English, Korean— Also I help him change clothes. Put everything on the right side so he will notice it. He has a little bit of left side neglect.”
Left side neglect. I imagine all the other terms I’ve never heard, a whole thick medical file of them. My mother smiles at me, her eyes still light inside their gentle folds of skin. “A few days ago I have to put special pads in his underwear—not exactly like the young, romantic days.” She covers her small, lipsticked mouth with her hand for a moment—just a fleeting second of vulnerability that makes me think, Korean wife—and then she slaps my bottom gently. “Go. You have been a bad son so many years. See if he has a plan for how you can make it up.”
My father had a plan for everything, which was forward, upward. Forward and upward, faster and harder. Direction and discipline had gotten him from his father’s stationery store to medical school to a country club membership and the most respected surgical practice in Fairbridge, Connecticut. He was a solid man with a heavy chest and shoulders, a man who got up at five each morning to do a hundred push-ups and swim a mile. I was a caterpillar before the force of his breath and will. Despite the demands of his practice, he drilled me in spelling and math and the butterfly stroke, tennis and calculus and the SATs. I still remember those drills. Hour after hour. Serves, volleys, drives, backhands. The sky darkened and the wind cooled while I sprinted for the ball, trying to make out the yellow-green smudge in the falling dusk. Afterward I labored under the glow of my fluorescent lamp, working math problems in blunt pencil on the rough paper of the SAT prep books. My father sat beside me with a stack of medical journals. I felt his heat and bulk, breathed the muffling odor of kimchee and beer. Sometimes fatigue filled me like hot air. I struggled to hold my eyes open. Then a loud snap shocked me awake: my father slapping the desk with his journal. “Concentrate! Keep working!” I stared at the page, my eyes watering. Mute anger and obedience roiled inside me. I was numb; I was a soldier stumbling forward. My father was a force that could not be stopped.
But a body is a machine. And it can only be pushed so far.
In the family room doorway, I pause. A twin bed and dark TV have replaced the sofa and mahogany coffee table, the Korean-style writing table that sat along the far wall. Only the lacquered altar and leather reclining chair are left. Silence lies over the room like a husk. I can barely look at the circle of lamplight in the corner.
“Mi-chael?” My father’s voice cracks the stillness.
“Yes.” I step forward, and the habit of respect bows my head. At the edge of my vision I can see his feet propped on the reclining chair’s footrest. He wears gray hospital socks with non-skid stripes across the sole. To the side I see the thin metallic legs of a walker. I think of the strong thighs that carried him across the court, bounding to whatever spot I sent the ball.
“Well. So now you final-ly—” The sounds are slack, yet also forced; his muscles have struggled to make the sounds. “You finally come to your father,” he says. I force myself to look at him.
He is wrapped in a blanket. Above it, his face pokes out. He is ruined, I think. He is a proud Indian chief with black eyes that stare out from beyond a paralyzed droop of skin. His hair sticks out in gray and white tufts.
“I’m sorry, Dad.” The words come from my mouth before I’m aware of them. Sorry? Is this what I feel, when he insulted my wife and said my son should not be born? Even the word “Dad” sounds strange, wrong for our formal, removed relationship.
“No,” he says.
“No? What do you mean?”
He shakes his head. His mouth tries to form a word. He struggles to shape the necessary muscles, then lifts his hand in a short, dismissive wave.
“Come on. You have to explain what you mean.”
His eyes look out at me. Nothing.
“I don’t understand.” Does he mean, No, you’re not sorry? Or, No, I do not accept an apology? I have come all this way, I am not even sure I want to talk to him again, but he cannot reject me without saying why. If this is a rejection. “Dad, I don’t understand No.”
Anger fills his unblinking eyes. The same anger that burned across the court when I screwed up a shot.
“Dad, tell me!”
His mouth tightens. Nothing. He will let me feel the full weight of his stare; he will let that No hang there, a force I can’t counter.
“Dad!” I put my hand on his shoulder and shake. “You Have To Tell Me. I. Don’t. Understand.”
I whirl when I hear my mother’s voice. Drop my arm in shame.
“What are you doing?” There is shock, disbelief—disappointment—in her eyes.
“I was just trying to understand him. He was saying something—”
“Do you understand that your father is sick?”
“I do. Of course.”
She looks at me as if I’m someone she doesn’t know. I drop my eyes and turn and walk from the room, defeated.
I know this is not the way to return. Whether I want to vent a righteous anger, undo the things that happened years ago, or seek absolution, I have not done it. And cannot, like this. I never knew how to deal with my father. I could stumble along and do my best to keep time with his onward press, but I could never leave the forced march. Of course, I had my own hopes. During my sophomore year of high school, I wanted an after-school job to pay for a car, gas, dates with the girls I would take out in my car. I had never before succeeded at swaying my father, but this time I was determined. I laid out logical arguments, pointed at the straight As on my report card, mapped out schedules to show that a job would not interfere with my studying or my sports.
He brushed it aside: “Don’t waste your time. We provide for you. Anywhere you want to go, your mother will take you. You concentrate. Study hard.”
I didn’t let up.
“You are ridiculous!” my father exclaimed, looking up from the spread pages of my calculus homework. “You put a job and a car ahead of everything. How can you succeed in life? You aren’t even serious enough at tennis to be good.”
I stared down at the handwritten equations. “I’m getting better,” I insisted. “I am.”
“Hah. You think that is good enough?” He picked up my latest test and slapped it down in front of me as if to say, Only a 92. “At tennis I can beat you straight, no points for you.” He stared at my stubborn face. “What do you say about that?”
I flushed. “You’ve had more practice!”
“Practice, then. You practice until you can beat me—with no points for me. If you can, I let you get a car and a job. Provided your grades don’t drop.”
I practiced all fall and winter. I stayed after school to use the courts and spent hours at the concrete backboard down the road. I remember leaves skittering across the asphalt, the sting of wind against my curled hands, evenings when I tasted the first snowflakes before I quit. In the winter, I moved to the Y. Forehand drives, backhand slices, volleys, drop shots, rushes to the net. I practiced serves, topspin lobs, hitting the same spot five times in a row. Icicles melted, and water trickled from the eaves. I enlisted the tennis team captain in my mission. By March, I thought I had a chance. In April, the first blossoms appeared on the trees by the school, and I beat the tennis team captain for the tenth time. Finally, at the end of April, I faced my father on the court.
There he was, the man who had been setting the standards all my life. He was all solid chest and arms and thighs. Thick locks of hair pushed past his sweatband. My body seemed suddenly made of wrists and oversized feet. He bounced a ball with his racket and laid down the rules. I had one game to beat him. I would have the first serve. As long as one of us won consecutive points, we would keep score as usual. But, if the other took back the serve, the score would reset: love, love. We would play until someone lost.
I nodded, turned my racket in my sweating hands.
I can still feel those moments. I toss the ball up. My racket connects, and the ball cuts through the air, a direct line to the spot I want. My father’s eyes widen, but he reacts, returns the serve. The ball comes to me and I stretch out to meet it. My racket carves the air, clean and strong, and thwock—the ball sails back across the court. Once, then again, and then once more. Perfect placement, every time. My father runs, pivots, leans for a shot—he plays as well as I’ve ever seen him play. But I win the point.
“Fifteen, love,” I say. I try to keep my voice calm, but inside I’m leaping and bounding. You see, you see, you see how I’ve improved. I can do this, you know I can.
We play, and the blue sky comes down to meet the court. My muscles open, my arm hums with power, the ball sings through the air.
“Thirty, love,” I say. And then, “Forty, love.”
Game point. The day shimmers around me; we are playing on a game board perfectly balanced at the top of the world. Behind me, the hours of practice slope away. Ahead, the future rises to meet me, and I can see my car, my girlfriend, my life. I look at my father. He is strong, tan. He is the best doctor in the county, and I love him. Then I see the nervous way he grips his racket, the way he swipes at his brow. He is afraid, I see. And proud, so proud of me, prouder than he has ever been. But still, he is determined.
Something in me twists. I don’t think I can bear it, to see this man who stands so proud, who came from Korea to work in his father’s store, who pulled himself through college and med school and pulled his whole family with him—I don’t think I can bear to see this man defeated.
I gather myself in and toss the ball. But this time my racket wavers, the ball lands just beyond my intended spot. Still, I play well. I play with all my skill, all my body. But my father wins the point. And the score resets: love, love.
From there it is downhill. I win back the serve. I win a point, then another. But I can’t keep it going, can’t keep my father from coming back. We are fifteen, love. Thirty, love. And the score resets. The score resets, again and again. The sun streaks the sky with brilliant color and sets. The sky darkens. I ask if we should go home. No, my father says, keep going! You want this, you can’t give up. I begin to hold my arm between points. And despite the deepening chill in the air, my throat is so parched it’s hard to breathe. Dad, I say. I want to stop. Can we try this again another day? But my father serves the ball again. Where is your willpower? he growls. Where is your will to succeed? I hit a backhand. Another. I try to slice and my racket veers; the ball smacks into the net. Please, I say. I can see by my watch that it’s 9:00. Only a lone streetlamp casts light in our direction. I picture my mother alone at the table before the untouched bowls of kimchee. My father is indefatigable, invincible.
Nine-thirty passes, and then 10:00. I trip and see my elongated shadow stumble across the court. We aren’t even stopping to rest between points. I’m sore and tired, hungry, angry; I don’t care anymore. It’s 10:45; the score has just reset once more. I don’t know how to end this; it’s clear I won’t get the car or job or anything else I dreamed of, and I just want a way to go home. I wonder if he is doing this to end the bet, to make sure I never stand up for myself again. Please, I say, one last time. Let’s go home. My father stares at me as if he hasn’t heard and serves the ball. And then I do something I am ashamed of to this day. I stumble forward and hit the ball into the net. What was that?! my father roars, but I don’t look at him. Your serve, I say, and toss him the ball. The ball comes smashing towards me. I can’t jump out of its way—I can’t be as blatant as that—and with that thought I swing, wildly. The ball bounces off the side of my racket and rolls into the fence. Love, thirty. Love, forty. This is it, my father shouts. The ball flies over the net, bounces into the service court, and rises towards me. My father has run to the net; he is holding his racket as he stares at me, slack-jawed; and I know that a quick turn of my racket will put it where he can never return it. I run toward the ball, raise my racket in surrender, and watch it sail past me, out of bounds.
My father said nothing as he watched the ball go. Then he dropped his racket arm and shook his head. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me as we left the court. I have not played tennis since that day.
In the morning I make myself hurry down to the family room. My mother is standing by my father’s reclining chair, balancing a plastic basin on a small side table. I stop. My father is rubbing his face with a washcloth. With his glasses off and his eyes squeezed shut, he looks vulnerable, like a boy. I feel the air leaving me and drop into a chair beside him.
My mother takes the washcloth from my father, then lifts the basin. Her shoulders sag forward. The suggestion of fatigue makes me ashamed. I stand up to take the basin from her. I will be the dutiful son. I will get through.
“No, I am okay.” My mother stops me with one hand and takes the basin away.
I lean over to pour my father a glass of water. “Do you need anything?” I ask.
He lowers his head towards the side table. I pull a tissue from its box.
“This? No?” I move my hand toward his glasses. “These? The phone?” He shakes his head. “Or this?” The soft cloth for his glasses. The TV remote. A device made of a breathing spout, a tube marked with millimeter lines, and a squared-off handle with a smiley-face lodged inside. “What do you want?”
My father lowers his head further and gestures beneath the side table with one hand. I bend down and see a translucent plastic container with a round snap-on lid.
“Yes, yes. This,” my father says, and I pick it up.
“What is it?” I say, but he doesn’t answer. He makes another gesture, impatient, and I give it to him. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I say.
Behind me, my mother says, “He doesn’t want you to look.” My father is already lifting the sheet draped across his lap and sliding the container underneath. I flush with shame and turn away, not knowing whether I should take the container when he finishes or pretend it doesn’t exist. I turn the TV on and flip past golf, a cooking channel, some Saturday morning cartoons, trying not to hear the sound of liquid streaming against plastic. Then I feel callous and turn back for the container. My father ignores me and hands the container to my mother. I occupy myself with rearranging the items on his table. From the powder room comes the sound of liquid pouring, then the toilet’s flush. When my mother comes out, she has a pink flower in her hand.
“For the big man,” she says, holding it out to my father.
“A cripple,” he retorts. “Not a big man.”
“Your father is a temporary crippled crank,” she says to me, but she is smiling. She kisses him on the mouth and slips the flower into his hand. She isn’t wearing her usual pink nail polish and rings, but her nails are neatly clipped and glossed. Her stretchy jacket curves in neatly at the waist. Three weeks of helping him, and she still looks so composed. Pramila would have locks of hair straggling around her ears, a stained sweatshirt that went with her hangnails but not her Lady Rolex. Pramila squeezes dozens of accomplishments into each day, but she is rarely organized.
“Silly,” my mother says to him as she straightens up. My father’s lips twitch, and he struggles to smile with both sides of his mouth. He stops, self-conscious, and puts the flower behind his ear. When her eyes meet his, he bows slightly. My mother flushes and raises her hand to her mouth.
They love each other. In all these years, I have never truly seen this, too distracted with cars and jobs and my own choices in life. I feel a twinge: Now it is too late for me to absorb their wisdom and good habits. I will go back to Pramila, the friction of our lives, the distance that’s widened into a decision to divorce. In sickness and in health, we vowed. But I have failed. Pramila will never take care of me like this.
We were married overseas. Pramila and I were posted in London the year I was thirty. I knew the time was right: We had been together for a year, the main office gossip mill was across the ocean, and her London family had given me the nod. But before I proposed, I wanted to call my father.
“I thought you might decide this,” he said. “But really, I do not think it is good.”
“Listen, Dad. Just come out and spend the holidays with us.” I had a vision of Pramila stepping into the candlelit entrance of an old church, snowflakes on her eyelashes, laughing and glowing from the cold as she pushed back the fur-trimmed hood of her coat; and I ached with wanting my parents to see this too. “Pramila’s like you in a lot of ways—intense, driven—”
“I’m sorry, Michael. We have many things to do here.”
“Just the holidays, Dad. Some family time. Christmas.”
“I don’t think so.”
I tried to swallow and leaned my forehead against the window. Across the street, two Pakistani teenagers were waiting outside the kebab place. One of them stood with his shoulder sticking out, vulnerable. The pose reminded me of Pramila’s youngest brother.
“Then we’ll come visit you,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I do not want you to. I cannot—what is the word?—condone this marriage.”
“You can’t—” I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. That he would be so direct. That he would not even give it a chance. “I’m getting married. And you don’t even want to meet my wife.” My voice was flat. “Okay, then.”
There was silence, and then my father spoke. “Michael. Believe me.” I could hear the emotion in his voice. “I am thinking of you.”
He was thinking of me. If only he could understand. “Dad, I hear you. But listen to yourself. You’re being racist.”
“No. Of course we would like if you marry a Korean, someone with the same background.” He paused. “But if you don’t like Korean ladies, I prefer you marry a white.”
“That’s enough, Dad.”
“Michael, I know your emotions are involved. But I have experience, I am an outsider. I tell you, society is not so simple—”
I hung up the phone. My hand was shaking. I needed some air. I pushed the window wide open. A constable came out of a coffee shop and glanced at the Pakistani kids. They slouched defiantly; he gave them a warning look. I turned away. I detested politics, but it was clear. The British were a bunch of bastards high on their feelings of superiority, and the Americans were just a friendlier version of the same thing. You only had to remember the condescending way soldiers had talked about Korea when they returned from the war. How could my father take part? The phone rang, and I grabbed it.
“Listen, Michael. I know you don’t like what I say, but I say it anyway. It is not just that your wife is darker, your children will be darker too.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“You know what I experience in America. I’m sure Mommy tell you—”
“Thanks, Dad. But I don’t want to hear how my kids with Pramila shouldn’t be born. And I don’t want them hearing that from their grandfather.”
“So you have already decided. You don’t even ask my opinion.”
“Believe me, no one has to seek your opinion. You’re ready to volunteer it whether we—”
“Michael, don’t talk to your parents that way. Your mother and I—”
“Leave Mom out of this.”
“Mommy is my wife.”
“And Pramila’s going to be mine,” I say.
It was after this conversation that I decided. He was an insidious growth seeping from my bones, taking over my muscles and my blood. Some things have to be sliced out. Sometimes it’s incredibly painful. Sometimes you think you’ll die. But it has to be done.
How, though, do you remove someone from your life? If they’ve shaped you so deeply, they are everywhere. In places, in situations. No matter how far you go.
“Oh, Mike, look. Wouldn’t a game be perfect now?” That was Pramila as we were walking one afternoon. Our son had just turned six, and we had left him with a baby-sitter for the first time. Our first full day alone in years. She turned to me, her eyes dark and shining. “The weather, Mike. Look. The sky. And look at that court.”
“Pramila. You know how I feel about it.”
“Come on, just a few strokes. Nothing serious.”
She eyed me. “I’m telling you, you really need to talk about your father. Get it out.” She pushed a few wisps of hair from her face. “I’m here, you know.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Sure there is. You can’t even walk onto a court and swat a ball back and forth.”
“I’ve analyzed all that,” I said. “I just don’t play tennis anymore.”
“Fine.” She shrugged. “Don’t clear up the things that stunt you.” She turned from the court and began striding down the sidewalk.
“Stunt me?” I said, angrily. I caught up to her. “Look, if you’re going to insult me…” I felt stupid hurrying alongside her. “Listen, you’re the one who’s with such an emotionally stunted husband.”
“I know,” she said.
Caring for a stroke survivor is work that goes on and on. I drape a towel around my father’s neck. My mother hands me the electric razor and I shave him, trying to cover all of his cheeks and jaws and chin. I imagine the razor vibrating against the nerves on his left side, loosening the fibers that thread back into his stubborn brain. My father winces and I jerk the razor away, guilty.
My mother sets the basin in front of my father again and hands him a toothbrush; he brushes. Thank God he’s right-handed, I think. My mother brings a tray laden with round white bowls: soft rice, salted seaweed, marinated soybeans, golden mushrooms steeped in sesame oil, green onions in hot sauce, anchovies. He mashes spoonfuls of food against the inside of his bowl before bringing them to his mouth. I’m relieved to see that he eats by himself, but it’s hard to watch his efforts.
We bring him a shirt from the closet and help him put it on. The shirt is a soft flannel; all the buttons have been replaced by Velcro strips. I turn on the TV, help him shift when he’s uncomfortable. My mother directs most of these things, and I am thankful, because at least this way my ignorance is obscured. I’m reminded of how Pramila directed me in taking care of Philip. He was so small I was afraid I might hurt him just by touching him the wrong way. I remember feeling he was so much mine, so much ours—I would shelter him, feed him with my body if I had to. There was none of the ambivalence I feel with my father. And still, this is the son I brought to tears.
He was eight years old, and he had had training wheels for two years now. Far too long, in my view. So I took him to the park. Pramila came with me, something she’s rarely done of late.
“Today’s the day,” I said. Philip looked at me, scared. He knew what I meant, and he watched with wide eyes as I unscrewed the bolts and detached the small wheels. As I removed them, the wheels seemed sad and vulnerable: for a moment, I wondered if I were doing the right thing.
“All right, Philip. Up you go.” I watched as he straddled the seat and stretched his legs and toes to touch the ground. “Right. You can let go now.”
Pramila watched silently.
“Go,” I said. “Philip, go.” He looked at me, scared, then glanced at Pramila. She smiled encouragement. He screwed up his face. I could tell he was gathering courage. I held my breath. He picked up a foot, then pushed off.
Yes, I thought. I closed my eyes, grateful for the whir of spokes in the breeze.
“Philip…” Pramila said. Her voice was high, strangled. My eyes popped open. There was my son, running in strange tiptoe fashion, swaying from one toe to the other, the bike pulled along beneath.
“Philip!” I shouted. “Stop it. Put your feet up. There’s nothing to be scared of!” But my son kept toeing his way down the road. “Philip, goddamnit. Pedal! Pedal!”
When he stopped, my son was in tears. Pramila gathered him in her arms, turned her back on me, and began walking in the direction of our flat. And I stood there squinting into the afternoon sun, burning with anger and fear, and love.
During my father’s midafternoon nap, the phone rings. My mother answers.
“Oh,” she says. “Nice to hear from you. Did you two finish dinner? You must be so busy, take care of everything by yourself.” I stiffen. My father is blinking awake. Pramila and I live in such thick silence, I’m shocked she’s even called. Perhaps it’s for my mother’s sake. The two of them have always tried to build a normal in-law relationship, and over the years they’ve gotten fairly close, though knowing each other almost entirely through phone calls has put a certain formality into their conversations. I try to read my mother’s body language, her words. Is it possible Pramila is changing her mind? My mother knows about the decision; maybe she can magically bring Pramila back. Maybe with me far away, Pramila will remember how much she likes my mother, how she wouldn’t want to lose a mother-in-law.
My father struggles to readjust his blanket. He frowns at me. Surely he’s wondering why Pramila keeps talking to my mother, why she doesn’t speak to her own husband. My mother has promised not to tell him, but still—what has he figured out? What has she let slip? I move towards my mother, trying to signal subtly for the phone. She smiles at me and continues talking. She nods at something, laughs, waves for me to wait. I stare out into the room, then realize I am tapping my foot. I stop myself, give my mother another significant look.
“Well, I think Michael is ready to talk to you,” she says. Then, “Oh. Not even for one minute? Oh, of course. Of course you must be very busy.”
Heat rises in my face. I can’t even look at my father. How can Pramila do this to me? For the first time, the divorce begins to seem real.
I can barely look at my mother when she hangs up the phone.
“She is just so busy,” my mother says. “Going crazy. She just want to find out how Daddy was. Or maybe she is paying you back for so many business trips.” My mother smiles. “In the past I think of doing the same thing to your father when he stayed at the office too long.” She pinches my cheek affectionately. “Spend more time with her.” I smile and try to make it look real.
“Right,” I say. “Maybe I have to make an appointment to spend time with her.” I wonder if our joking has covered up anything.
“Oh!” my mother says. “Speaking of appointment.” She glances at her watch and looks around for her purse. It takes me a moment to realize what she is doing.
“You’re going out?” I try to conceal my horror.
“First time in three weeks!” My mother smiles. “I need a break from this old man. I have to color my hair so I don’t look like his old wife.”
“Mom, you can’t.” The naked urgency in my voice shocks me.
“Oh, Michael. I give you and your father a chance for a reunion.” She touches my cheek: a joke, a reassurance, a piece of motherly advice. Then she leaves.
After the door closes, silence takes over the house. My father hitches himself forward. I can feel him looking at me.
“Well,” I say. “There must be something better on TV.” Professional wrestling has been playing silently for the last half hour.
“What is the situation?” my father says. I ignore him, turn up the sound with the remote, but he raises his voice. “Your wife does not talk to you?”
A commentator yammers into the space between us.
My father pushes his chin forward, as if he has to stick his neck out to raise the volume of his voice. “You know, in marriage there must be flexibility.”
On the chair arm, his hand is still wide and tanned. Once it could grip a tennis racket and squeeze until I hurt looking at it. This man knows nothing about flexibility. I restrain myself from talking.
“Look at me,” he says. “You have no respect.”
Respect, I think. He had no respect for me. His will washed over me, and neither my body nor my mind was strong enough to stop that wave. Now I have become like him. I have drowned my wife and child.
“I know what you are thinking. Blaming me.” The old force is in his voice. “You are shortsighted. Why struggle with me? My life is over. I did my job in the world. Now this has happened, maybe some people say, a tragedy. I say, what tragedy? I finished my job. Can you say the same thing?”
Tears come to my eyes. I can’t look at him. I can’t cry in front of him. I cross the room and press my forehead to the cold window. The sports announcer goes on and on, then abruptly mutes.
Behind me, I hear my father’s rasping breath. Then his voice. “I am not your enemy. Face your life.”
There is a long silence in which I pray for this moment to disappear. Finally it is too much.
“Excuse me,” I say into my chest. I duck out of the room. It’s wrong to leave him alone; even the thought of it burns shame into me, but I keep hurrying down the hall. I pause only to yank open the closet door, reach in, and pull out the thing I know will be there.
I speed down the road in my BMW. The sunroof is open, and I am driving under a high spring sky. Only treetops break the blue sky far above. My friends and I used to call this a tennis sky. I round the curve of the road, accelerate up the hill, and let momentum carry the car through a turn. Then it’s into the gravel parking lot, where I brake and yank my high school racket from the back seat. The old backboard is there, the same dirty white concrete with a crooked crack running down to the asphalt. A scruffy tennis ball, gray with neglect, sits half-buried in the grass along the asphalt’s edge.
I serve the ball high and hard, making myself run when it shoots back on the rebound. It’s a dead bounce, without that sweet spock of sound, but I make up for it by smashing the ball back extra hard. It’s me and the wall. I slam the ball, again and again. My arms thrum with the force of my strokes. I can’t get it out, can’t drive the feeling out of my gut. I swing and hit again and again. Until finally the ball smacks against the wall, half-bounces and dies in midair. I run for it, fall and skin my knee. The ball rolls into the grass.
“Shit!” I fling my racket. Aluminum clangs against concrete. “Fucking shit to hell!” I drop my head to my knees, shuddering, almost sobbing, under the spinning sky.
When I open the back door and edge inside, the house is silent. My ear strains for breathing, voices, footsteps. Nothing. I summon my courage and walk into the family room. My father is on the floor. Curled there, motionless, one hand stretched toward an overturned bowl of food. A cry rises in my throat, and I bound across the room.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I pull him, drag him up, lift him into the reclining chair. He is incredibly heavy, as if his bones were filled with all the weight of my heart. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. The other words push against my chest like a river: I am bad, I was weak, I have not learned how to do it either. Help me. Please.
But all I can say is “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I know. Forgive me.” I run my hands over him, frightened, pleading to the gods that there be no bleeding, no broken bones.
My father says nothing, but his eyes are dark and wet. When I finally settle him back in the chair, we stare at each other like two men who have never learned to talk.
Then we hear the garage door opening. A moment later, the back door opens and my mother enters the room. Smiling, glowing, her hair a burnished coppery black. She stops, looks from me to my father.
“What happened? Is something wrong?”
I look at my father, waiting for his sentence. He looks back at me for a long moment. Then he looks down at his lap.
“Nothing,” he says.
“Nothing?” my mother says, staring at the fallen bowl, the spilled food. “What do you mean?” She looks at me. I shake my head. My father keeps his eyes in his lap. Finally my mother bends and picks up the bowl.
That evening I sit in my old bedroom. I feel the walls of the house around me like an empty box, and I wonder, what will it be like after my father’s death? I see my mother sitting in the living room while dust falls around her like ash. See myself in England, wandering through rooms filled with strong leather couches, glass-topped tables, and my father’s heavy-muscled ghost. He will be with me for the rest of my life. I stand up suddenly. This will not go on.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I close the door that leads into my father’s sickroom and pick up the phone. I dial. And wait, gripping the hard plastic of the receiver. I brace myself for her irritation, her voice rising in anger. It’s 3 a.m. here—couldn’t it wait? The phone rings. I imagine its shrill insistence in the dark rooms, Philip whimpering in his sleep, Pramila pushing hair out of her face as she gropes for the phone. I can almost smell her warm, sleepy body. Suddenly I miss her so much it aches. I take a breath. The machine picks up. Startled, I hang up.
Stupid! I pound my thigh. Of course the machine picked up. It’s 3 a.m.
I take a breath and dial again. Surely she will pick up this time. The phone has awakened her; she will know a call at this time must be urgent. I ready myself. One ring. Two. What will I say? The machine picks up, and Pramila’s clear, confident voice tells me to leave a message. The machine beeps, high-pitched and efficient. Fear closes my throat. There’s an empty hiss as the tape unrolls on the other end of the line.
“Pramila,” I croak. “Are you there? Pramila.” She does not pick up. She must be awake. “Pramila.” I raise my voice, then glance nervously at the door to the sick room. “Pramila, look, I—” I have no idea what to say. I was not raised for this. “Pramila, please. It’s me.” My voice cracks, and I fall silent. I am suspended on the line. I imagine her playing the tape back, listening to all my awkward pauses. “Pramila,” I say one last time. And then the silence is too much for me and I hang up.
For long moments afterward I stand in the kitchen, staring past the rectangles of moonlight on the counter. The apples in the fruit bowl shine faintly. In the microwave’s glossy surface, I glimpse myself, tense and unhappy.
From beyond the front of the house, a distant siren sounds. I turn towards it half-consciously, walk across the room. When I ease the door of the sickroom open, I see the glow of the corner lamp on my father’s closed eyelids. I let out a sigh of relief and move closer. The siren fades until the only sound in the room is the whistle of my father’s breath. I stop by the bed. In the dim light, he looks old. His muscles are set in tired folds. I touch the edge of his sleeve. His arm is splayed out against the sheet so that I think of a hospital room, IV needles, a deathbed. I sink into the leather chair, suddenly drained. All the emotion has run out of me; there is nothing left. I sit there for a long time.
Sunday afternoon. In high school, when I still played tennis, my father and I used to watch matches together on Sunday afternoons. Today I have turned the TV on, and we are watching again.
“Look, Dad. It’s Michael Chang.” Another Michael. An Asian-American who has survived the swells of advice and expectation, who rides the wave of success with strength and balance. Still, what do I know about Michael Chang’s inner life? What do I know of anyone’s? We watch him return a serve with ease. My father nods slowly, noting the moves, the technique.
“Great backhand,” I say.
“Yes…it is good.”
Even Michael Chang can’t get an unstinting compliment. Michael dashes across the court and sends the ball flying into his opponent’s far corner.
“Strong legs,” I say. “He runs down every ball.” I glance over at my father.
He blinks, struggles with a word. “Strong will,” he says.
I nod. We watch the game. From the kitchen, we hear my mother’s knife against the cutting board, her voice as she hums a low tune. Behind us, the clock ticks. The men on screen hit the ball back and forth.
My father gives a low whistle of appreciation. I turn. His eyes move rhythmically from side to side; side to side they move, with the ball. The motions are so tiny and perfect, so easy. I am so moved I want to cry.
“Dad, I think he’s going to win, don’t you?” There is an almost absurd joy in my voice, just barely suppressed. The simplicity of my father’s eye movements, the controlled ease of Michael Chang’s strokes, the sun slanting onto our laps—it’s almost too much to bear.
“Bachennfurth,” my father says.
“What, Dad?” I lean in.
“B-back,” he says. “Back and forth.”
“Back and forth,” I repeat. In front of us, the game continues. We watch the ball bounce back and forth. It takes me back to childhood, to afternoons when I walked into the room and stopped to watch my father watch the games. Across the small screen two people move, and in between, a speck goes back and forth: Click, then clack. Click, then clack—it makes a V so shallow and wide, I always think it will fly off the screen. It’s hypnotic, I think—if you forget the details and strategy and results, it’s almost meditation. Together, we sit. In front of us, the ball bounces from one side to the other. Back and forth, back and forth, like the ticking of a clock.
Copyright 2003 by Emmeline Chang