Litro #183: Place – Forever Sweet Sweet

Picture Credits: kazuo-ota

Iris waited at the edge of the Changhua bus station and scanned the narrow street for the bus that would take her and her father north, along the west side of the island to the Taipei airport. She fanned her black cotton sweater. What had worked so well in the air-conditioned offices in New York City felt clammy in Taiwan’s humidity. Although her father could afford a taxi for the two-hour trip, he had insisted on taking the bus. “Why show off?” he had said: this from a man who sported a gold Rolex and drove a red Mercedes convertible in the rural Virginia town where he toiled as the lone surgeon. But Iris couldn’t complain, since her father had paid for her trip. She was an aspiring photographer and writer who temped for a living. Vacations were rare. Normally, she was reluctant to let her parents pay her way or take money from them, for doing so would make her complicit in the life they wanted for her: doctor or doctor’s wife. But her principles made her doubt herself and the choices she made. So, when her mother suggested the week-long Taiwan trip, Iris accepted, rationalizing that she had never been to a Taiwanese wedding. She could reconnect with her father’s family who all lived in Taiwan, and who she’d only visited a few times. But perhaps most importantly, she’d represent her Cantonese mother to her Taiwanese relatives. 

Waiting for the airport bus, Iris photographed the Changhua scenes around her. Five-story walk-ups stacked side-by-side, lining the street as far as she could see. Bicycles and mopeds darting like mosquitoes among the cars on the road. Leathery workers in yellowed t-shirts and frayed work pants carrying bags of concrete and tiles into a raw storefront across the street. Grandmothers, wearing mandarin-collared tunics over loose drawstring pants, shuffled from the cài sì chǎng with fresh vegetables and fish for dinner. Blue and white uniformed school children flooded the sidewalk. Iris pictured writing a lyric essay to accompany these images. 

Pumped by her creativity, Iris shifted her lens to her family. Her father was posing for pictures with his sisters, Big Auntie Dà Gū and Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū, their Chinese monikers based on birth order in relation to her father, the sun, and, coincidentally, their physical size. Her favorite cousin and newlywed Jiě Jiě stood off to the side alone. The uncles and Jiě Jiě’s new husband counted, “yì, èr, sān,” before snapping photos of her father and aunts. They stood stiffly in a row, no smiles as was the Chinese custom, hands at their sides, in front of an inky Mercedes. The swanky import belonged to Jiě Jiě’s husband of two days, who had followed the Taiwanese tradition of ferrying her from her parents’ apartment to his parents’ apartment for the marriage tea ceremony. Iris’ aunties praised the sedan.

Iris could count on one hand the number of times she had visited the island that her maternal Cantonese wài pói still called Formosa: once when she was three, next at fourteen, then at age twenty-two, and now that she was thirty. What little she knew about her father’s family, who all lived in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese culture, she had gleaned from photos and these brief trips. And only now that she was an adult, she regretted her lack of curiosity about her father and his culture. When she was growing up, her father returned solo to his homeland every year, but rarely shared any stories about his past. Before his parents died, he went home alone every Chinese New Year. After they passed away, he returned every year to pay his respects during Chīng Míng Jié, the Day of the Dead. Iris’s mother who had grown up in Canton, China, then Hong Kong, then Metairie, Louisiana, had only made the journey to Taiwan twice for show. The shame of having four daughters and no sons kept her mother from crossing the Pacific. She was calculating and only interested in her financial foothold. Her mother ran her father’s medical practice with an iron fist, leveraged their equity, and invested in real estate. She slept alone in a king-sized bed in the master bedroom after banishing her cheating, abusive husband to the basement bedroom. After her parents’ countless explosive fights while she was growing up, Iris had asked her mother why she didn’t divorce her father. Her mother reasoned, “Why walk away with half?”

“Lái, lái, lái,” Iris’s father called for her to join the group. 

After more photos, her father, Jiě Jiě and husband, and uncles wandered to the other side of the Mercedes. Iris found herself pinched between her aunts. Recognizing her face in Big Auntie Dà Gū’s, she shuddered.

Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū handed Iris snapshots of Jiě Jiě at the wedding banquet. In one photo, Jiě Jiě wore a red satin chí páo hand-embroidered with dragons and phoenixes in gold thread. The dress showcased her slim hourglass figure. In contrast, Iris looked chunky and squat in a black shift dress. Iris saw that she had no waist and looked like a rotten potato. She knew that she would never look svelte or chic in a chí páo thanks to her diet of American favorites like chicken-fried steak, mac and cheese, biscuits and sausage gravy.

Her cousin’s long elegant fingers, thin wrists, and slender neck bore a bride’s war chest of 24k gold rings, bracelets, and necklaces. Hung from heavy gold chains were imperial jade pendants, translucent emerald green, hand-carved into a butterfly, a peach, and several . Imperial jade was the most precious wedding gift. Only brides from or marrying into prosperous families wore multiple pieces at their wedding banquets. Iris knew that there would be no imperial jade in her future; her boyfriend Jules came from a modest family who lived paycheck to paycheck. It made Iris sad that her Cantonese wài pói had gifted the family jade to her uncle’s wife. And because her uncle and his wife only had boys, her wài pói’s jade would end up around the fingers, wrists, or necks of strangers. It made her angry that her wài pói hadn’t gifted her mother any jade because the family disapproved of her parents’ marriage. They had wanted her mother to marry a man from their village in Canton, not an outsider from Taiwan.

In the wedding photo, Jiě Jiě’s hair was elaborately styled. Curls pinned and tumbled down to her neck. Her face was lacquered with foundation paler than her throat, rouged dramatically, with double sets of eyelashes and ruby lips. Iris thought Jiě Jiě looked artificial, melodramatic, like a Chinese opera singer.

“It’s your turn to marry,” Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū said in Mandarin, “Your father says your boyfriend is poor. He’s found you another.”

Iris tried to translate “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but her six-year-old vocabulary failed her. She understood more Mandarin than she could speak, a side effect of being American-born-Chinese. Iris wiped the perspiration from her face, faked a smile, and replied, “hǎo le.” She didn’t know how to explain that she didn’t want to get married. Marriage embittered her mother and she did not want that fate. 

“Marry a doctor and you will live a comfortable life. Like your mother. Like Jiě Jiě,” Big Auntie Dà Gū said and handed Iris a photo of her and her father standing beside the groom.

Iris couldn’t explain how sour her family’s life was, despite her parents’ achieving the American dream.

Iris studied the photo. It helped her see what she never noticed in real life. Her father’s moon face, flushed from one sip of beer. His hair thinning despite his self-prescribed Rogaine treatments. His glasses the same gold aviator frames he had worn since she was a kid. Except for a few smile lines here and there, his face was still boyish and appealing. Handsome even. To the community, he was a prosperous surgeon who, with his faithful wife by his side, had built a successful practice in a rural Virginia town two hours west of Washington, D. C., where they had lived for nearly three decades. To Iris, he was a cipher who missed piano recitals, band concerts, science fairs, and graduations; whose beeper cut short screenings at the local drive-in or movie theater and nights at the county fair; who always bumped her off the phone for a call from the hospital. But despite all of this, she still wanted his love and approval. Iris examined the groom’s face: broad nose, flat cheeks, wide set eyes, silkworm eyebrows, porcupine hair. She tried to find what her father saw in Jiě Jiě’s husband. 

“Good luck face,” her father had toasted the newlyweds during the wedding banquet, “Rich man’s face.”

“Your boyfriend is from a poor family,” Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū said, “He cannot take care of you.”

It was true that Iris was supporting Jules while he finished his screenplay, which he hoped to direct. He had been the breadwinner the previous year while she finished an ethnographic essay on female street vendors in Chinatown, and now it was her turn to provide. “That’s what modern couples do,” she had explained to her father over the phone.

“I can take care of myself,” Iris replied.

Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū said something to Big Auntie Dà Gū in Taiwanese, their mother tongue. She recognized the harsh tones from her father’s infrequent phone calls with his family in Taiwan and his medical school classmates who had immigrated to America, but she couldn’t understand it. 

Stupid girl, Iris imagined Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū said.

Big Auntie Dà Gū replied in Taiwanese and Iris filled in the dialogue, Too old, too fat, no rich man will marry that!

Her Aunties’ cackled. Iris tried to quiet her thoughts, but reddened nevertheless. She reminded herself she was smart, funny, pretty enough, and still young enough to find another partner if Jules didn’t succeed.

“Wait too long, you will run out of options,” Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū said in Mandarin. She smoothed her hair and admired a snapshot of herself as the glamorous mother of the bride.

Jiě Jiě approached and pulled Iris aside.

“A gift,” Jiě Jiě said in English.

Jiě Jiě opened her purse and pulled a gold and jade necklace from a satin pouch. She fastened the S clasp around Iris’s neck. Iris gasped and fingered the cool jade pendant: an emerald butterfly. Iris knew she should give the necklace back, that’s what her mother would have made her do. But Iris wanted the necklace, oh how she loved jewelry. She dialed down the volume of her mother’s nagging voice in her head and dialed up her cousin’s storytelling in front of her.

In labored English, Jiě Jiě recounted the legend of the Butterfly Lovers: Liáng Shān bó yǔ Zhù Yīng tái. Long ago, in the late Tang Dynasty, when girls were not permitted to study in school, the ninth daughter of a rich man, Zhù convinced her father to let her disguise herself as a man to go study in the capital city. During the journey, Zhù met a male scholar named Liáng, who was also on his way to the same school. Zhù and Liáng traveled together, became close, and came to think of themselves as brothers. Zhù, who was disguised as a man, fell in love with Liáng, but Liáng could only see Zhù as a brother. Later, a letter from Zhù’s father arrived with news that he was very sick, and that she was needed at home. Zhù was a dutiful daughter and could not refuse her father’s request, since he let her go to school. Zhù was sad to leave Liáng. Before she left school, Zhù made Liáng promise that he would come visit her home. A while after Zhù was gone, Liáng missed his brother so much and left school to travel to Zhù’s family home. When Liáng arrived at Zhù’s home, he discovered she was female and fell in love with her too. Liáng begged Zhù’s father to let him marry her, but Zhù’s father had already arranged for her to be married into a rich family, equal to their station. So Liáng, who was from a modest family, took a job as a county clerk to be near Zhù. Soon after, Liáng died from grief. On Zhù’s wedding day, as she was ferried to her intended husband’s house, a strong wind stopped her from passing Liáng’s grave. Zhù paused and went to Liáng’s grave to pay her respects. At Liáng’s grave, Zhù mourned. She prayed to the heavens to be reunited with her true love. Suddenly, thunder roared and lightning cracked open Liáng’s grave. Zhù jumped in and died. Then a butterfly flew out of the grave. The locals say the butterfly is Zhù and Liáng joined together forever.

“A gift for when you get married,” Jiě Jiě said. “To inspire you.”

Iris panicked. How could she convey her feelings in Mandarin when she could barely articulate them in English?

Jiě Jiě asked in Mandarin, “Xǐ huān ma?”

Speechless, Iris grabbed Jiě Jiě in a clumsy embrace and clung too tightly. But her cousin pulled away, the Taiwanese weren’t comfortable with such displays of affection.

In Taiwanese, Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū’s shrill voice assaulted. To which Jiě Jiě replied in calm, soothing tones. Iris rubbed the jade butterfly. It was already emerald green, but if she wore it daily, the color would become even brighter as her Cantonese wài pói would say.

Iris had met Jules working at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers on the Upper West Side. He was finishing his MFA in screenwriting at Columbia and she was a freelance photographer, who mostly took photos of newborns and pets, and took writing classes through Gotham Writers Workshop. They both worked part-time for the money and the discount. Jules was half Chinese, half French Canadian and had grown up near Montreal. He was tall, and slender, and had a face like a Modigliani painting. She loved his face the moment she saw him. It was narrow and angular and if they ever had a child, his willowy genes would even out her moon pie genes. A few months after they met, they moved into a studio together to share expenses. 

Iris wanted to keep the necklace. She knew her mother would say wáng bā dàn for accepting such an extravagant gift, but she would stomach her mother’s judgement later. Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū lunged for the necklace but Big Auntie Dà Gū pulled her back and tried to calm her down. The airport bus lurched into the station.

Jiě Jiě ’s husband grabbed the suitcases and limped towards the belly of the bus. Her Aunties swept her and her father to the front door. Cool, dry air spilled out of the bus and mixed with the diesel fumes. Their voices cawing, her father and relatives intoned their good-byes.

Big Auntie Dà Gū handed Iris bags of food and said, “Chīng Míng Jié, your mother should come home too.”

Hǎo le,” Iris replied.

But Iris knew that her mother would never come back to Taiwan. And she could see that her Aunties knew this too. They all pretended to save face.

Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū thrust another packet of photos into Iris’s hand.

“For your mother,” she said and pushed Iris on the bus, “to remember.”

Her mother would flip through the photos, curious to see how the in-laws had aged, then forget the envelope in a junk drawer. Iris decided not to pass the photos on to her mother. She would keep them for herself instead and turn them into an essay or short story.

Iris and her father sat together in the middle of the sparsely filled bus. Iris looked out the window and studied Jiě Jiě ‘s husband helping Little Auntie Xiǎo Gū into the front seat of the Mercedes. Big Auntie Dà Gū, Big Uncle and Little Uncle climbed into the back seat. Standing alone beside the sedan, Jiě Jiě adjusted her silk blouse and skirt, matching hat, and sunglasses, and started walking. Iris imagined that Jiě Jiě would soon tire of lunches with wives, shopping, dinner parties, and stave off boredom by teaching piano. Though she was a concert pianist with a national reputation, Jiě Jiě had accepted the matchmaker’s proposal for fear that at age thirty-six, her time was running out. The bus rolled away from the curb. Iris waved, but no one noticed.

The bus jerked along narrow streets lined with food carts. From the window, Iris photographed customers eating quick, cheap lunches. The dumplings, stir-frys, noodles, and lotus wrappers full of sweet rice made her hungry. A woman on a moped zipped alongside the bus. Like a surgeon, she wore a mask over her nose and mouth. She wore no helmet. The back of her pleather jacket read in English: Forever Sweet Sweet.

While her father flipped through the wedding banquet photos, Iris opened the bags of food. Inside were baked barbecue-pork buns, fresh soy milk, steamed lotus seed buns, and branches of lychee, all her favorites. It surprised her that her aunts remembered what she liked to eat after so much time and so few visits. She spread a napkin across her father’s lap and placed buns on top. Her father returned the photographs to her and opened a drink. Soy milk shot out of the straw and splashed the seat in front of him. Iris took the drink from him and wiped up the mess.

Her father thrust his midsection forward and massaged it with sausage-like fingers.

“Ate too much last night,” he said and laughed. “Abdomen distended.”

“That’s what happens when you stuff yourself like a pig,” Iris said. “Just say no.”

“Bad manners to refuse food.”

Her father grabbed the soymilk and slurped it down with big, happy gulps.

“For Chinese,” he continued, “food equals love.”

Iris patted his bulging stomach and teased, “Feels like you’ve had too much love.”

“Got to exercise,” he said and swung his arms like a jogger. “You and Jules exercise?”

“We have sex.” Iris said. “Some people call that exercise.”

Iris thought she sounded like her mother and immediately regretted the rancor. Her father ignored her comment just as he ignored her mother. Their weeklong trip would end soon and she had yet to truly connect with him.

Normally in their household, only her mother talked about sex, and only within the context of her father’s affairs. Since age seven, Iris had been the container for her mother’s despair and bitterness over her father’s affairs. It was hard for Iris to separate her feelings for her father from her mother’s narrative. She needed to hear his side of the story. But how to draw him out.

The bus cleared the city and picked up speed. Sidewalks gave way to the open road. Pedestrians walked on the dirt shoulder of the highway. The bus plowed past green soybean fields. 

Iris selected a pork bun, peeled the wax paper liner off the bottom, and took a generous bite. The savory barbecued pork and the creamy sweet bread spread across her tongue. Her father inhaled his food with quick breaths. His jaws ripped the meat from the bun. As a child, she had loved watching the way he attacked his food at the dinner table. Hearing the soothing sounds that only he made. It was his only unguarded moment.

“Why did you marry Ma?” Iris asked, hoping her father would open up.

“She was real nice.”

“You knocked her up.”

Iris was twelve when she calculated it out for the first time; women carried babies for nine months in the womb she had read from Dr. Spock’s paperback in her mother’s nightstand. Her parents were married in November, she was born the following May… And so she counted backwards. “Your father told me to have the abortion,” her mother had replied when Iris asked.

“Why are you still married?” Iris asked her father.

Again, he ignored her and countered, “Your mother says you won’t marry Jules.”

“Why ruin things?” Iris replied. “If things don’t work out, I’ll move on. What’s mine is mine; what’s his is his. 50-50. No lawyers. No fights about money.”

“Good girl, do not marry him until he has secure job, makes more money.”

“Our relationship is not about money.”

“Of course, not about money. He has none. You have none. You live in one room apartment smaller than this bus. You cannot raise children there.”

Iris didn’t know if she could mother a child while struggling to be a photographer and writer. She had gone against her parents’ wishes by majoring in English, moving to New York City and living with an aspiring filmmaker. She cultivated her own life, and yet, still craved their love and approval.

She grabbed a lychee, peeled off the pebbly skin, and popped the juicy translucent fruit into her mouth. The succulent flesh exploded. Juice sprayed from her lips. Rotating the slick, brown seed with her tongue, she snapped off the meat, then spit the seed into the plastic bag. She peeled another and handed it to her father. He bit into the lychee and drops of the sweet clear juice dribbled onto his shirt. Iris moistened a napkin with her tongue and dabbed the spots. 

“You do not have health insurance,” he continued. “New York City doctors will let you die in emergency room with no insurance.”

Iris forced a laugh. “If we’re lucky, we’ll die on the way, then we won’t have to pay for the ambulance.”

Her father was silent.

“Nothing bad will happen,” she continued, her voice stubbornly optimistic, “Jules will succeed, trust me.”

“Private school, piano lessons, braces, summer camps, tutoring, college: just to be a temporary secretary,” he said.

Her father had no faith in anything but science. Jules’s first movie would be “astonishing,” his professors had said while he was in film school. Indie producers flirted, but wouldn’t commit. His agent couldn’t land him any gigs. He couldn’t even get work as a production assistant. The abandoned screenplays and storyboards around their studio apartment teemed with roaches. She told herself that even the most gifted artists languish in obscurity for years. Her parents had conditioned her for success not failure.

Iris surveyed the other passengers on the bus. An old man sat a few seats in front of her reading the newspaper. A couple, two rows behind and across the aisle, napped. An American dressed in army fatigues sat alone in the back. He was snapping pictures of the countryside.

“I spoke with Philbert’s daddy at our medical class reunion last month,” her father said. “Philbert would like to see you.”

Philbert had been born a few months earlier than she had at the same Manhattan hospital. They had been playmates until her parents moved to Virginia when she was three. Her mother said that Philbert’s mother prized a photo of the two infants. Their parents hoped that they would marry one day.

“I’m happy with Jules,” Iris said. The word “happy” sounded hollow. She didn’t know if she was happy, but she was too stubborn to admit it.

“We’re artists,” she tried again, “living together works.”

The last time she had seen Philbert, they were fourteen. It was at the annual medical school reunion their fathers’ classmates held in northern New Jersey. He was a better tennis player than she was and slaughtered her on the court. That night, while the other kids watched The Sound of Music on TV, he kissed her in the bathroom. He tasted like grass jelly. His tongue felt like a slug in her mouth. In her head, she hummed along with the Von Trapp kids: me, a name I call myself  /  fa, a long, long way to run. He mistook her stillness for encouragement and pressed the knot in his shorts into her. A sharp knock on the bathroom door saved her. The following years, she made sure writing camp conflicted with the reunions.   

“You are thirty, life not stable,” her father said. He peeled another lychee. “Time to plan for future.”

Outside the bus, paddies lined the highway. Bare-chested workers in rolled-up pants and triangular bamboo hats crouched and weeded the rows of short grassy plants. Their feet disappeared into the shallow water.

Iris scribbled a note to follow up with the literary journals where she had sent her ethnography.

“Jules will make his movie; I’ll publish some photos, some essays, maybe even stories.”

Her father spit a lychee seed into the bag.

“Stop dreaming,” he said. “No one cares about Chinese women.”

Breathe deeply, slowly, her CBT therapist would say, count backwards from 100 to 1. Her father knew nothing about art, literature, or culture, she reminded herself. No one loved her as much as Jules did. Jules brought her flowers every Friday. He cooked dinner for her most nights and washed the dishes too. He bought Havarti with dill, tapenade, and a crusty baguette from Fairway’s every Saturday, which they ate in bed while reading The New York Times’ Sunday paper on Saturday nights. Iris fingered the necklace. In the air-conditioned bus, the icy jade butterfly felt like a stethoscope. 

“Plain people must work harder,” her father said. “You should have gone to medical school.”

Iris snapped, “I flunked organic chemistry three times.”

“Not too late, family practice will still take you for residency. Not as much money as surgery, but you can still have good life.”  

“Can we please change the subject?”

“Law school?” her father said. “Faster, only three years, no residency.”

“How much longer to the airport?” Iris asked. “I have to pee.”

“Bathroom in back.”

“It reeks! I can smell it from here.”

“Malpractice law,” her father said. He methodically peeled another lychee nut. “Big money, comfortable life. You can marry whoever you want.”

Iris closed her eyes. She didn’t want to go back to school, but in the dead of night, as Jules slept beside her, she worried. If she couldn’t make it as an artist, life as a secretary would be unbearable.

When Iris woke, about an hour had passed. She felt groggy and unmoored. Outside the window, fields had yielded to tile houses and high-rise apartments. A billboard read Sing Sing Karaoke. A helmetless man riding a motorcycle beside them blew his nose with his bare hand. He checked the traffic over his left shoulder, then shot past the bus. Soon, the bus pulled into the airport. The passengers rose and hobbled toward the door, stretching and dislodging wedgies.

Her father struggled onto the sidewalk with their heavy suitcases. Iris steadied the metal luggage cart and helped her father push the bags on top. Winded, he rested his stomach against the cart. Iris grabbed their carry-ons as her father wheeled the cart inside the airport. His metal belt-buckle, a bald eagle in flight, clanged against the cart handle. They circled the check-in area in search of a bathroom. While her father waited, Iris ran inside, squatted, and relieved herself in the tiled hole in the ground. No matter how hard she tried to aim, she always splashed her ankles and shoes.

After check-in, Iris and her father perused the made-for-tourist merchandise at the duty-free shop. They browsed through coral flowers, carved wooden animals, landscapes made from butterfly wings, electric hair brushes, and wooden ear scratchers. Suddenly, she realized all the trinkets her father had brought home from his many trips and given to her throughout the years, were from airport gift shops. She wasn’t special, just an afterthought. Her father picked up a laughing golden Buddha.

“Rub his belly for prosperity,” her father said and held out the statue to Iris.

She glanced at Buddha’s mountain-like tummy and compared it to her father’s.

“No thanks.”

“I buy for your mother,” her father said and massaged Buddha’s belly. “Bring her good luck.”

“She’s a Christian,” Iris said. “She wouldn’t want a Buddha.”

“Okay, I buy for you and your sisters.”

“We’d prefer t-shirts.”

But her father wasn’t listening. He grabbed five Buddhas and got in line to pay.

Iris worried at the jade butterfly. She tried to analyze Jiě Jiě’s telling of the Butterfly Lovers legend. Had Jiě Jiě given up on true love to marry into a wealthy family? In the end, even though Jiě Jiě had had success as an artist, she was still the dutiful daughter who followed her parents’ wishes and earned their approval.

Iris and her father boarded the plane for San Francisco and found their row in the back. Iris stored their carry-on bags in the overhead compartment and offered her father the aisle seat. He cocooned himself with thin airline blankets and flat pillows. Iris arranged her notebook, pencil case, CDs, Walkman, and the wedding banquet photos in the seat pocket in front of her. The afternoon sun warmed her face.

The landscape tilted as the plane entered the sky. Soon, the ground disappeared and the plane straightened above the clouds, flying into the in-between. 

“Philbert finished residency,” her father said. “He is cardiologist at best hospital in Philadelphia.”

Iris struggled to loosen her seat belt. She reached for the wedding pictures and flipped through them. She stopped at a snapshot of Jiě Jiě and her husband accepting hóng bāo, a red envelope full of cash. Iris imagined herself and Jules accepting hóng bāo. The burgundy velvet chí páo she’d wear with a corset after a starvation diet. Jules in a tuxedo, his black hair longish, slicked back with Brylcreem, styled like Chow Yun Fat in A Better Tomorrow. Him calming her down. Making her laugh. Whispering jokes in her ear about her mother’s make-up—too pale for her tanned face—her father popping out of his suit. The tacky golden dragon and phoenix on the restaurant wall with flashing eyes, a golden double happiness character for good luck. Dressed in periwinkle dresses, her sisters Rose, Violet, and Daisy would trail the couple with Jules’ cousins, from table to table to greet their guests and accept their toasts. Iris would introduce Jules to her relatives as the award-winning director/screenwriter he had become. The jealous daughters of her father’s medical school classmates would whisper to her: “What a catch.”

“Philbert will give you easy life,” her father continued, “You can be photographer, be a writer. Stay home. Hire nanny for kids. Have fun, relax, be happy.”

Iris imagined her and Jules living in a brownstone on Nora Ephron’s Upper West Side, decorated with street finds. A darkroom in the bathroom, a desk in the bedroom where she would write.

“Philbert will be in New York City for medical convention,” her father said. He grinned, giddy as a schoolboy. “Let him take you out for fancy dinner.”

He pulled a handwritten slip of paper out of his wallet and offered it up to her: Philbert’s phone number. 

Iris studied her father’s face, so boyish, so happy, like the Daddy she remembered when she was six, before his affairs, before her parents’ fights, before the domestic violence. Coming home at a reasonable hour and swinging her high in the air. Asking her about her school day. To be seen and adored—loved even. Iris wanted that more than anything. How to prove her worth?

She reached for Philbert’s phone number. “I suppose dinner can’t hurt,” Iris said and rationalized she hadn’t betrayed Jules yet. She shoved the slip of paper deep into her pocket. “It wouldn’t be a date,” she said and stuttered, “Just dinner with an old friend.”

“Yes, yes, dinner with old friend,” he replied, “Good girl.” He patted her hand.

Was that her reward as the dutiful daughter? Could she survive the cost of her father’s love? Could she survive the cost of Jules’s love? True love might be enough in legends, fairy tales, movies and stories, but in real life? Nah, the cynic in her thought.

Iris flipped through the wedding banquet photos. Steamed fish for riches. Noodles for a long life. Lotus seed soup for many sons. Gold. Jade. Mothers. Fathers. Aunties. Uncles. Cousins. Kids. A bride. A groom. A toast. A kiss.

Iris put her headphones over her ears and pretended to turn on her music. Her father took his Walkman out of his bag and put on his headphones. He shuffled through a bag of medical tapes, selected one, and put it in the Walkman. A monotone man droned above the plane engines. Her father leaned back and closed his eyes. His breathing became steady and deep. Soft snores rose and fell. Iris thought she saw a smile on his face.

About Susanna Horng

Susanna Horng (she/her, pronounced HONG) is a Clinical Professor at New York University in Liberal Studies, where she teaches writing, documentary film, and cultural studies to undergraduates. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Bennington Review, Global City Review, La Libreta, and Minerva Rising. She has received support from Catwalk Art Residency, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship in Fiction from The New York Foundation for the Arts and a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow in Literature from the Jerome Foundation.

Susanna Horng (she/her, pronounced HONG) is a Clinical Professor at New York University in Liberal Studies, where she teaches writing, documentary film, and cultural studies to undergraduates. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Bennington Review, Global City Review, La Libreta, and Minerva Rising. She has received support from Catwalk Art Residency, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship in Fiction from The New York Foundation for the Arts and a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow in Literature from the Jerome Foundation.

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