The duffel was light, but its waxed strap cut into my neck. The bank had gifted it to me years ago. It was probably ordered by an intern who had made either billions or babies by now. Maybe both. I dropped the bag and jiggled the key in the lock of my father’s apartment. There was a right way to lean into the brass and a shoulder wiggle without which the door would not open—a secret handshake that I could never quite learn. Looped on my wrist was a plastic bag with the quarter roast duck that I’d bought for our lunch. It slapped against the door as I tried again. Dad, with his tattered cartilage and wobbly hands, never had this problem. Yet, I struggled.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe door clicked open from the inside.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤA tall, white boy blocked my view of the apartment. His skin was so gray; it looked as if it had been rubbed over with newspaper. Crystals of eye-mucus glittered in the corners of his eyes. Not a boy. A man. He had a square beard. It needed pruning—loose hairs sprang from the sides.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Miss Liu?” he asked. “I’m Junior Pastor Enoch.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHe was hunched inside a blanket. My baby blanket.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Dad?” I called into the hall. I pushed past the Junior Pastor into the apartment. “Dad, are you okay?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMy father’s apartment looked as it did every Saturday. Cookies were arrayed on a blue plate in a butter-petalled daisy. The curtains were open, and the light fell in the slanted rectangle that, over decades, had bleached the carpet from beige to shortbread-yellow. The computer was wearing the pillowcase-shroud that my father claimed protected it from dust. He was really protecting himself from it.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI heard the slop of water being poured into a kettle. I saw the bend of my father’s back in the kitchen. There was no room for me inside—the kitchen was only a little bigger than a toilet stall—and so I talked to him through the door. “What’s that boy doing here?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Don’t be rude, Skipper.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe man-boy drifted back from the hallway towards us, the edge of my blanket trailing behind him.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’ve told you about Pastor Enoch. He helps me with my exercises after church.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAt first, I had not taken Dad’s conversion seriously. It seemed like a way of getting free food: every Sunday, there was breakfast in the Church basement. More than anything, Dad liked free things. Yet, there was a Junior Pastor in his house.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s Saturday,” I said, as though this would make the Pastor dissolve. I’d abandoned the duffel in the hall, but the plastic bag holding the duck still tugged at my wrist.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Pastor Enoch needs somewhere to stay. I have space.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch nodded, apparently content to be addressed in the third person. “Dad, there are things I need to talk to you about.” I wished that I spoke Chinese, that we had some code, some way of avoiding the Pastor’s intruding ears. “Private things.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Skipper, Pastor Enoch is a friend.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤDad offered the Pastor a cookie. He ate it in small bites, one hand cupped to catch the crumbs. “I’ll be out from under your feet soon. Very soon.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHe had not taken off the blanket. I was born in the year of the tiger, and quilted beasts prowled across the red nylon. I wished they would come alive and maul the Junior Pastor, but this was Queens, where rats were the wildest things.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“How soon?” I asked.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe apartment was not large. Dad once wanted a house, but his bookkeeping certificate hadn’t brought him wealth. His Shanghainese accent alienated Americans, Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders, and Cantonese Hong Kongers, alike.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Did you put him in my room?” I had been counting on that room—I had been looking forward to crawling into that bed ever since Sophy had said the word “space,” dragging out the last syllable with a sigh. She had asked me to move out. “Temporarily,” she said. Meekly, I returned to my father’s house, even though I had every right to rage.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Sir, I need you to leave. I can call you a cab.” Hell, I could book him a room. I could probably list the deduction on my taxes: donated room to wandering friar.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Skipper,” Dad said, “Pastor Enoch is staying.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch glanced at his feet, then up at the walls. “That’s you, isn’t it?” he asked.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI didn’t need to know which frame he was pointing at. Each wall displayed a large photograph of me; some held multiple. It had been like living in a yearbook. I was always alone in the pictures—Alone eating ice cream, alone in front of the Liberty Bell, alone with polar bears in the Central Park Zoo. Dad had always been the one taking the picture, and my mother had always been dead. Only in my wedding picture did I have company. Given Sophy’s decision, there would never be another dark-haired, little girl in this house or on those walls.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You were cute.” Pastor Enoch’s smile reminded me of the branded water bottles the bank handed out—generic and designed to ingratiate.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI took a cookie and ate it in two crunches, baring my teeth. I was forty. Too old to behave like a frightened animal, especially to such a pathetic enemy.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Is Sophy well?” Dad asked. He always asked after her, even though she never joined me on my weekly visit.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“My wife,” I said wife loudly for Pastor Enoch’s benefit, “is well.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch began to cry.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤIt took me a moment to recognize the noises as sobs. He sounded like a dog barking underwater. On TV, Christians responded to marriage equality with poorly spelled banners and overly produced political campaigns. Weeping was unexpected.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“His wife left him,” Dad stage-whispered.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You have a wife?” I asked.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch’s socks had sharks on them. Insane that a human with shark-socks was a religious official and a husband.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤDad took Pastor Enoch’s hand. Pastor Enoch opened and closed his mouth, as if trying to talk. Water and snot dripped down his face.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Would you like to say a prayer?” Dad used the voice he’d employed when I was little to persuade me to just try the carrots.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThey lowered their heads, Pastor Enoch still sniffling. Their crosses fell out of their shirts and hung straight to the floor—golden plumb lines. Was the cross new? The only jewelry Dad had ever worn was his wedding band. When they married, my parents believed in nothing but the American Dream. My premature birth, a day after my mother’s boat landed, was perhaps a symptom of that excitement. She died that night from internal hemorrhaging.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤDad and the Junior Pastor prayed for long enough for me to read every new email on my phone and check if my Groupons had expired. Moments of stress and boredom always brought to mind everything that was expiring: coupons, my marriage, both of our ovaries, milk.
They prayed over lunch too.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Oh, Jesus Christ, thank you for this meal you have put before us.” The duck’s crispy skin was cracked to reveal crevices of soft flesh. I willed the prayer to finish. Finally, my father began to shred the bird.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Thank you, Ms. Liu. It looks beautiful.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s an honor to get second billing to your Lord and Savior.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤDad passed me a paper napkin. We ate on plastic placemats. Pastor Enoch got the flags of all the countries, and I got a human skeleton. They were relics of my childhood, from when Dad hoped that I might passively absorb all of the information I would need in America.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAgain and again, Pastor Enoch’s eyes panned over the food, over our heads, to some point over Dad’s shoulder, at some ghost in the room.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Do Baptists divorce?” I asked Pastor Enoch.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHe had just put a big shard of oil-crisped skin in his mouth. His lips twisted around it. His Adam’s apple pulsed as he swallowed. “We’re not getting divorced.”
I checked into the nearby Asiatic Hotel—I found a deal on my phone. It didn’t seem particularly Asiatic, but there was a large, golden horse behind the check-in desk. Perhaps, the blue track lighting in the hallways was Asiatic. On the plus side, parking and Wi-Fi were included.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤSophy hadn’t sent anything to my home or office email. I called once, but hung up after the first ring.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch had worn my blanket all afternoon, draped like a cape. I pulled the stiff, white, hotel sheets around my own shoulders. I did not feel comforted.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI called my father and told him that I would be attending service. I would pick him up around nine. If God was going to invade my home, I would storm His.
Dad had trouble getting into Sophy’s Land Rover. It was too tall. I had to hold him up by the armpits. Pastor Enoch had taken an early bus to set up, so there was no one to help. Dad’s pits were damp, the way soil is in spring. Although I was standing behind him, and there was no way he could have seen my expression, I turned my face away.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤDad pointed the directions to the Church. “They’ll see that I didn’t invent you. I have a real daughter,” he said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Sorry I’m not here more often.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Mrs. Chung’s son comes to Church every week, but last month he got a ticket for public urination. The boy was peeing in the street. Not even on the sidewalk. In the street. Mrs. Qing’s son hasn’t had a job in ten years.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI was a quantitative financial analyst, a.k.a. financial weatherwoman. I watched the numbers, measured their currents, and calculated the flood-risk.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Still I should visit more,” I said. “Keep you company, it must get boring.” I almost regretted that I was going have to eject Enoch from his life.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I keep busy, I’m slow. There’s so much to do. By the time I’m done, I’ll probably be dead.” He patted my elbow to show he was joking.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWe moved on to our usual argument about Meals on Wheels. His angle: they were a dollar-fifty. Mine: they were disgusting, and I made enough for him to order from the classiest restaurant in Flushing seven days a week.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Just put it in a fund for your kids. Someone at the bank must know a good fund. You should ask Sophy.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWith my savings, I could have put the Swiss Family Robinson through medical school.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWalking in, I felt strangely nervous. I held tight to my father’s arm. The woman at the door gave me a big smile, clearly believing that I was holding him up. I’d expected suits and hats with flowers on them, but the congregation was uniformed in fleeces and khaki pants. They sat on bleachers, as if all the uncool kids got trapped in the school gym and neverleft.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤA live band played the opening hymn, Pastor Enoch tooting along between a drummer and acoustic guitar. Three jagged wrinkles carved into his forehead, but it was impossible to know if he was just concentrating or if he might burst into tears.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI fiddled with a piece of pink paper I found on the pew; it offered Spanish and Mandarin alternatives. Dad, in an effort to improve my Americanness, had refused to speak to me in any tongue but English. Oh so slowly, I began to tear the paper in half.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤA projector screen came down from the ceiling, and Pastor Monty took the stage. He wore a rolled, black turtleneck. Haloed by the white PowerPoint, he could have been at a tech conference. This was the man I was looking for. My father might leave out the Junior in Pastor Enoch’s title, but I did not. He had a boss.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe sermon was about praying better. I had never considered praying to be a thing you could be bad at. It wasn’t softball or dancing. As Pastor Monty spoke, members of the congregation sighed and made sweeping hand-motions of assent. Dad sat quietly, his head lowered in prayer. The gold cross was tucked under his maroon sweater. Brighter red threads stitched up snags at the wrists.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAt the end of the service, I grabbed a sleeve and pulled Dad back from the exit and towards Pastor Monty.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤUp close, I saw Pastor Monty’s turtleneck was strained around a wide belly.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Your employee has moved into my father’s house. He’s eating my father’s food. My father eats Meals on Wheels five days a week. Five! Applesauce comes on every single tray. He hates applesauce. Dad always eats it.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s not a problem,” Dad interrupted. He’d caught up with me, and had wrapped an arm around me pulling me backwards.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Not a problem?” I said. “This is taking advantage of the elderly.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’m not elderly.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Do you or do you not use your senior discount?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Skipper.” Sophy did that too, used my name as a rebuke.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Monty frowned, as if we were letting him down, and pronounced, “Hebrews 13:12—Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAngels do not snivel on your baby blanket.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I will sue you and this church.” I didn’t shout. I spoke in a clear voice to show him that my intention was a fact. “And before my lawyers strip your collection plate of its silver, I will find out every bad thing you’ve ever done. Every tax you’ve ever dodged, every parking ticket gone unpaid, every gay kid you’ve ever harassed. It will, all of it, every last bit, be online.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤEach word marched towards this fat man. I felt good and clean and free. His belly swelled, but cleft in the middle, like a chin. Pastor Enoch, behind the Senior Pastor, tugged nervously at his beard. It was pathetic, really. I wondered if that was how I looked to Sophy. Small, easy to take down.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Skipper!” my father said. He pulled my hand. He didn’t understand that I was doing this for him.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Miss Liu, this is one nation under God. Under God means that lawyers, whatever they think—” Pastor Monty said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch cut him off. “I’ll find somewhere soon. I have a sister upstate. I don’t want to cause trouble.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMy father put his hand on Pastor Enoch’s arm. “Skipper. It is my home. Pastor Enoch is my guest.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You people are no better than a cult, and that pledge of allegiance bullshit was invented by a flag manufacturer. We’re one nation under capitalism, and I work for a goddamn bank.” As I spat out the K in bank, I realized that no one was listening to me. They were looking over my shoulder.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe clip of shoes on terracotta tiles echoed through the room. I turned. Down the empty aisle sped a small body on short, sturdy legs. A girl, judging by the pink sneakers. Her hair was short and black and flapped bright as a starling’s wings. She seemed to be running straight at me. I put out my arms to catch the small body.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤShe swerved towards Pastor Enoch, stumbling at his feet, hands grabbing at and missing the cuff of his suit.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Miki,” he kissed her small knee. “Where’s your Mom?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki didn’t say anything. She just shook her head.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Miki, where’s Mommy? Does she know you’re here?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe child shook her head so hard that her hair swung over her face.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“We—My wife lives a mile away. A mile. Actually a mile and a half.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHe looked up, addressing God as much as any of us.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Monty’s nostrils expanded. I wanted to tell him that if he took in any more air his shirt might burst.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤA woman in a red pantsuit coughed and said they needed to set up for the Spanish service.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“She can wait with us at home,” Dad said. “I bet you like cookies. My little girl always liked cookies.” Dad’s posture was terrible; he always stood in a kind of half bend. But he craned lower still towards the child.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHow far was a mile? Not how many meters or how many blocks or how many Starbuckses, but how far had it felt on those little legs?
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch nodded. “If it’s okay with Ms. Liu.” He was still holding his recorder, but it dangled between his fingers. At any moment, he might let it go.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s fine,” I said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Monty started to say something, but Miki smiled up at me. Each tooth was so white they almost looked blue.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch called his wife.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThere was silence in the Land Rover. Miki sat strapped into the middle seat, her whole body slanting towards her father. There was something strangely familiar about the child. I had plenty of time to examine her in the rearview—despite the Land Rover’s abundant horsepower, any nag could have wended through traffic faster than our car. Her eyelashes were very short, but thick, as if her lids had been rimmed with velvet. Her eyebrow hairs were thin, revealing the white brow-bone beneath.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Do you plan on kids?” asked Pastor Enoch.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤA rude and personal question at the best of times, but who would ask a forty-year-old woman, especially a gay one?
ㅤㅤㅤㅤSophy and I were going to adopt a little girl, just as soon as work at the bank slowed down. Just as soon as Sophy got the promotion she wanted. Just as soon as Sophy ran her first half-marathon. The last hope of that had been lost in this car. Sophy and I had driven upstate to see the fall leaves. It had rained the night before, and the foliage looked more like sweet potato soup than the living bonfire promised by our hotel’s website.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You think that I’m a bad person,” Sophy said. Once again, I had to reassure her that she was not a bad person. Though I was beginning to wonder. There weren’t a lot of blond, blue-eyed infants in the adoption pool, and the waitlists were so long that I worried we’d orphan the child all over again. She’d rejected the idea of an older child, or one who didn’t look like us at all, on the grounds that she just wanted this one normal thing. This one thing that every teen-couple in Alabama with one dick and one vagina between them could have. She wanted to know, was it crazy to want a child who looked like only one of us? By one of us? She meant herself.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I can’t help it. I just think a Chinese baby would love you more. I mean, I want our baby to love you. But people in restaurants would look at us and see a family, plus friend.” She was driving, but she took a hand off the wheel to slap her chest. “Plus friend.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“What’s so great about families that look alike? The Kray brothers looked alike,” I said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤSophy ignored me.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“And you look just like your mother,” I continued.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI’d met Sophy’s mother only once, just long enough for her to throw a glass of water in my face. Sophy’s face took on a bedraggled expression, but I was fountaining rage.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You know, pretty much every type of guy is willing to jerk off into a cup. I’m sure we could find some Asian dude to knock you up. Then would the kid seem yours?” I asked, although it was late in our careers, late in our bones and organs for either of us to get pregnant.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤIt was that not-child whom Miki reminded me of. Her serious expression was just a little bit like Sophy’s “I’m-thinking-this-through” face. Her hair was milk-chocolate creamy, but her round face could have been hung in our living room, indistinguishable from any of my marshmallow-nosed school pictures.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAt the door of Dad’s apartment, Miki undid the Velcro on her Dora the Explorer pink sneakers without being told. I wanted to ask Pastor Enoch: Why does this girl look like she could be my daughter? Instead, I made a space in the shoe-row next to mine.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch stood in the doorway, his fingers hiding inside his beard. He seemed not to know what to do. His phone blared. Meep. Meep. Meep. He looked down at the display.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s time for your Tai-Chi, Mr. Liu.” Pastor Enoch smiled and blinked. His eyelashes moving so fast I was surprised they didn’t begin to whirr.
My father shook his head. “We have a guest.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch inserted a DVD into the television. Tai-Chi had been recommended by my father’s physiotherapist. It was not something he’d had the leisure to learn in China. He was still suspicious of it.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch stood in his socks. There was a hole in the left one. Both had a dinosaur pattern. He rubbed one foot over the other. When he spoke, it was in a bright infomercial voice. “Miki understands exercise is important.” He emphasized both syllables of her name.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Miki and I can entertain each other.” Somehow my voice was just as perky, but sped up like that bit in the ads where they warn you about sudden death. I moved my mouth into a smile and then readjusted to hide my teeth. I was going for good witch, not evil stepmother wattage.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤOn the table, two thirds of the cookie daisy was still on the blue plate—half-plucked. She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me. Perhaps the sorrow of adulthood lay in understanding the odds long before all the petals were yanked away. I plucked Miki a cookie. She slid it into the rabbit-shaped pocket on her shirt.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s okay, you can eat it.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤShe shook her head and pulled her small lips closer together as if to show me that she would not take a bite. So, I ate one. They were orange-blossom shortbread, dense and so buttery that the taste cloaked my tongue even after I swallowed. Miki turned her back on me to look for her father.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch and my dad stood side by side in front of the TV. A white woman was wearing a white tai-chi costume with silk knotwork buttons. On the screen was written: CALMING THE WATERS, and in smaller letters: OF THE HEART.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe TV said, “You’re gathering in, gathering in, and releasing, releasing.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch lip-synched the words, “Releasing, releasing.” His arms arced up.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMy father’s motions were stilted. They fell further and further out of time with the white lady. His bottom lip curled with the effort. His hips shifted, and he winced. He’d had his left hip replaced the year before, but I wondered now if there was something wrong with the right. Subtly, I let my hand curl around the soft flesh that bubbled around my bones. Who would do Tai-Chi with me in my old age? Dad, as if he had seen me watching, turned and winked.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki ignored him, and she ignored me. She slid the cookie out of her pocket and took it in both hands, ignoring me, and walked towards her father. Miki held up the cookie to the Pastor; her father bent and took it. He put it in his mouth, clenched it between his teeth, and returned to the routine.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe doorbell rang.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe door was far easier to open from the inside. For a strange moment, I thought it might be Sophy and wondered how I would explain this scene to her. Of course, it was not. It was an Asian woman wearing a peach dress with blossom-shaped buttons. She wore small, white earrings. Seed pearls? She gave me a thin hand and introduced herself as Miki’s mother.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Skipper Liu,” I said. I always felt stupid introducing myself. Dad had let me choose my American name myself. One of the girls in my preschool had owned a Skipper doll. The plastic face looked so happy.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki’s mother did not give her name. “Where is she?” Her voice was calm.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki, seeing her mother, shouted, “Kaa-chama.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe woman bent and spoke quickly in a language that I guessed was Japanese. Bright, quick, syllables; lots of vowels; unintelligible as bird song. Not my child. Of course, not my child.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe cookie was still between Pastor Enoch’s teeth.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Move your hands down now, lower, sink into your stomach, into the ground,” instructed the TV.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPastor Enoch trembled, and new crumbs fell to the floor.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe woman crossed her thin arms.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe thing about having a dead mother was that my parents never fought.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Hey sweetie, I have a present for you,” I said. Miki looked up at me. “But it’s in that room.” I felt like stranger-danger. Come on, little girl, take a candy and step into my white van.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki looked back and forth between her parents, but neither was moving.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤIn my room, the aloe vera plant was lush, indifferent to my absence. A Bible sat on my bedside table, and I had to fight the desire to knock it off. I looked for something to give her.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki was shifting from side to side, looking at the door. I could hear the Pastor’s voice. “How did she… She could’ve been… What are you mad at me for?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe mother’s words did not carry through the wood.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI’d read that children have far better hearing than adults do, and that is why some malls use high-pitched alarms that irritate teenagers but are inaudible to older shoppers. Perhaps Miki knew what was making her father wail.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“How old are you, sweetie?” I had no idea what was an appropriate gift for someone of her height.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Four.” She paused. “And a half.” She was a tiger year. The tiger blanket was spread across the bed.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Did you know there is a great tiger spirit that protects tiger girls?” I improvised. I flung the blanket on the floor. “When my father had to stay out late at work, I crawled under here, and the tiger spirit protected me.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI tented the blanket over my shoulder and drew her inside. On the other side of the door came a noise, as if Enoch-the-dog was giving his final, wet yelps for life as his master held him underwater. The light poured through the blanket’s red fabric, bathing us in pink lemonade.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Can you make a face like a tiger?” I asked her.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMiki curled her fingers and opened her mouth in a silent roar. I made a tiger face right back.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤOutside, her father was begging. I knew no games and no stories, nothing that could distract the child. What could I do? I tickled the tiger-girl flesh. I wanted her to laugh so loud there was no space in her memory for whatever was being said on the other side of that door. She wriggled and kicked. The blanket flailed. Triangles of white-light splashed as the blanket flopped above us.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPerhaps my fingers were too blunt or the blanket fell across her mouth because soon my tiger-girl was not laughing. She didn’t weep like her father. She was a police car, her scream bright and clear. Her face seemed to grow larger, the skull itself bull-frogging bigger and bigger, tipping back on her neck.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Hey, hey, sweetiepie. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHer mouth was slimy with sorrow. Snot popped around her delicate nostrils.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Shh, shhh.” What had Dad said when I cried? I couldn’t remember. “What’s wrong? What did I do?” I reached out to touch the child. Her skin was hot, and my touch felt strange. I let go. I tilted my head back and willed myself to yowl, to match her wild noise of loss. If I could not comfort her, perhaps I could join her. I did not yowl, only stared at the lights and realized that I should change the right-hand ceiling bulb before I left.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe door swung open. It was the mother. She moved straight to her child.Through her beige tights, I could see that each toe had been given a French manicure. Pastor Enoch rushed in behind. Together they knelt. Miki stopped crying and grinned. The tears hadn’t dried off her cheeks, but she was jolly as a diaper commercial. She laughed, her nose still wet with snot.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Yes, this is Daddy’s home now,” said her mother. Her accent was American with a slight LA up-tilt. She did not need to speak to the girl in Japanese; it was just a choice. A secret language.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Daddy, home.” The girl grinned showing all her little teeth.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Now it’s time for us to go.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No,” said Miki.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No,” said Pastor Enoch.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No?” said the mother, “Are we going to live here now?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤNone of them were watching me. The mother took Miki’s hand. Pastor Enoch took her other hand. If I hadn’t seen their faces, it would have made a sweet tableau. The mother tugged her daughter’s arm. There was nothing in our apartment that I found worth wrestling from Sophy.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“She can stay,” I said. “If she wants. She can stay.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI’d seen a little bed with carved posts online. There was a little desk with a matching, red, rattan chair. They could arrive in two to five business days.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe mother looked at me. “Can we do this later?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe blanket lay curled on the floor, the fabric humped as if another child was hiding inside. Miki’s parents were still holding her hands, although neither was pulling. Their grips were different. The mother wrapped her whole hand around the small one. Pastor Enoch took only the very edges of the fingers.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Sundays aren’t your day.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No day feels like my day,” he responded.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Don’t be pathetic.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤEnoch let go of the hand.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“We’re going now.” She seemed to be speaking equally to her daughter and husband.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Wait,” I said. I folded the blanket and pressed it into Miki’s arms. “Her present.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤEven folded, it was as long as her whole body. Her mother took it, pinning it under one elbow. The curve of a tail waved just under her capped sleeve. We followed them to the door, down the stairs, to the building’s door, watching, as, hand in hand, they walked away, down the street.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThey paused at the bus stop, their backs to us. Each of them was just a musical note, round black head. One stem long. One stem short. The white tiger tail was too small to be seen.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“My wife might be leaving me,” I said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤEnoch put an arm around my shoulder. The sweater smelled of my father’s home, and I leaned into it. His other hand hung onto the door, fingers curled around the brass handle.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI don’t know how long we would have stood there, but Dad reached over Enoch’s shoulder and shut the door.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Skipper,” he asked, “Do you want to join us?” He pointed to the TV. The white lady was paused, her eyeballs rolled halfway up their sockets, looking not the least bit spiritual.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBetween Enoch and my father, I swirled my hands, tilted my foot, and all three of us—off kilter and out of time—calmed the waters.