The Pursuit of Happiness
by Adrianna Tam
Preamble: Childhood on Morning Glory Drive
The school bus was cold and packed with loud children. I wore two turtlenecks, my grandmother's garment of choice. The paisley print clashed with the fluffy snowflakes frozen in a futile dance on my favorite navy fleece sweater, which settled comfortably in the warmth of a plain and one-size-too-big purple jacket. While the rest of the children squealed and played games on notebook paper that would predict their future celebrity husbands and how many kids they would have, I was busy drawing with my new magic markers. I was small enough to squat on the floor, using the bottom of my seat as a makeshift desk, but never letting a toe cross the line into the aisle. ("No feet in the aisle! Texas state law says I cannot drive this bus unless there are no feet in the aisle!") Outside the chilled glass window, bare tree branches and shivering shingled roofs, outlined by a blank slate of a sky, whizzed by, melancholy, gray. But inside that loud, packed school bus, I was paisley. I was navy blue fleece. I was purple jacket, and I was magic markers.
My grandmother carefully watches me get off the bus. She checks to make sure I'm still thoroughly bundled and haven't forgotten my backpack or my magic markers at school. Morning Glory looks not half as carefully at me, and not half as relieved to see me back safe and sound, either. Daisy Circle gives me a gray half-glance, and Primrose Drive eyes me through half-lidded window curtains. I bustle on anyway. I start distracting myself, belting "My Heart Will Go On" through my neighborhood's alleys and backyards, eager to get home in time to catch the end of Sailor Moon on Cartoon Network. I'm still wearing my bulletproof bundle, too, and just sufficiently warm.
PoPo is not that far behind me since I'm still only eight, which means that she is sixty-eight because she is sixty years older than me, and I remember that she is sixty years older than me because we're both snakes in the Chinese zodiac which repeats every twelve years and sixty is a multiple of twelve. I leave my light-up tennis shoes by the heavy front door, and Sailor Moon greets me in my parents' empty bedroom. BaBa and MaMa are at work, and my sister Allison is at high school. By the time PoPo has gotten home and settled into her favorite chair to read the Chinese newspaper through her large Jackie-O reading glasses, Sailor Moon has waved cheerily goodbye and the spell is broken.
Just opposite the hall from my parents' bedroom is my own bedroom, where the other night I saw Allison's long hair littered with tears and BaBa's comb-over electrified with rage. I creep down the hallway of empty bedrooms and remember standing behind the door that separates the hallway from the rest of the house—the door behind which I learn the art and value of silence. ("Allison, don't be like your mother! The floor is not a table! I'm tired of your mother leaving music all over the floor as if it's a table!") "Dad, please stop yelling. Anna can hear you," she says.
The hallway door is cracked slightly open and I can see Klimt's "The Kiss" hanging on our living room wall.
Allison opens the door, passing me and covering her leaking eyes as she hides behind her bedroom door. The hallway door is cracked slightly open and I can see Klimt's "The Kiss" hanging on our living room wall. It is Mom's favorite painting and takes the place of her father's portrait because PoPo, superstitious like the rest of my father's side, refuses to have a ghost looking down at her every time she passes.
PoPo always picked out what I would wear to school each day. She dressed me and fed me breakfast and tied my shoes and braided my hair and walked me to the bus stop every morning. Every morning I left home and went to school, and in the afternoon I left school and went back home. Home was always empty except for PoPo and Sailor Moon, and the shadows of the rest of my family. Allison was never home; she had a Camry. (Allison once confessed to me when I was older, "You used to hold onto my leg and cry, 'Allison, don't leave me!'") MaMa and BaBa had jobs; they had a Mazda and an Avalon. PoPo was the only one at home for me, the PoPo who would walk slowly and patiently behind me. PoPo and I shared a zodiac sign, but MaMa and PoPo didn't get along.
Article I: Impending Separation between Beckley Court and Highway 121
PoPo does not live with us anymore, and Allison is in college. We live in Colleyville now, where I have no real friends and no true protection. This is my third year living in a large two-story house that looks down on the neighborhood through enormous bare glass windows that make the house hard to heat during the winter. And because my father is so stingy we wear layers of sweaters and sweatpants and socks, and my fingers are like icicles when I try to play the piano. I am in eighth grade. I don't watch cartoons, but I do watch my mom and dad trying so viciously to argue silently ("Why did you buy these useless chairs when you have tax forms to take care of?" "Arthur, I don't want to talk about this right now.") that their facial expressions keep me awake late at night.
During this time I go to the Changs' house after school every day. Jennifer and I started out doing homework together, but now she doesn't like to work at the same table. One day she doesn't say a word in the car on the way back home. I talk about my day, and once we get back, she tells me that it's not fair. Her parents always compare my grades to hers, and it's not fair. "'Why can't you be more like Anna?' they say. 'Why don't you wash the dishes, like Anna?'" But the truth is, I hate doing the dishes. I only wash them because every time I come back from the Changs', Mom asks me if I helped out around the house, and I like to be able to say, "Yes, yes I did, won't you praise me?" And she says, "Good, be sure to wash them every time you're there. We don't want you to be a burden to them." If only Jennifer knew that I hate staying up late to make good grades, too, but one of the few times I ever hear anything remotely positive come out of Dad's mouth is after I give him my report card. Even then, it's a quick, "Oh, that's nice. Good job." Jennifer thinks I have it all with my straight A's, but I like to spend the night at Jennifer's house where her room is prettier and warmer than mine. (If only Dad would turn on the heat.) I sometimes compare our heating bills, our bedrooms, and our families. The Changs are a good Catholic family.
Mom and I go to Connecticut to visit Allison at college over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. We have so much fun! We stop by Wal-Mart before dinner and Mom lets me get Oreo's, my favorite, and we eat dinner at Applebee's—I've never been before—and we have steak, and the steak is good—medium-rare, just the way I like it, juicy and delicious and perfect. We even manage to grab a booth and the seats are soft and bouncy; I love sitting at booths. But even better than the steaks and the ambiance is the Oreo milkshake I'm allowed to order. We never order dessert at restaurants, but maybe it's because Dad isn't here that Mom is willing to splurge.
"MeiMei, I'm going to ask your father for a divorce." I'm drinking the straw wrapper and shards of the milkshake glass. My stomach is full, stuffed with cow fat and steak knives and 24-hour Wal-Mart fluorescent lights. I'm sitting on plastic cushions that smell sterile like the doctor's office where they put foreign objects down your throat and all you want to do is puke. All I can look at is a patch of the wall next to me, growing steadily out of focus. The waitress brings us our check.
My stomach is full, stuffed with cow fat and steak knives and 24-hour Wal-Mart fluorescent lights.
The last time I saw my mom and dad in love was when my mother came home and I hid behind the Morning Glory rocking chair and peeked between the weave to see my dad steal a welcome-back-home kiss.
The first time I felt like we would never be a family again was the night my mother lay down next to me on my Beckley Court bed. She didn't hold my hand or rub my back like she usually would have to say good night. Instead of feeling sleepy, I felt estranged, as if I were in someone else's body, staring up at an alien, dark ceiling. Then minutes later, the door to this alien bedroom opened, and my father walked in and lay down heavily on my mother's other side. I knew that I was the alien when all I could hear was his sigh, tangible and frightening.
Articles II-VII: Divorce on Highway 121, and Drawbridge Drive, and Windmill Road, and Fort Worth, and California, and Boston
When Dad is not around, Mom tells me many things I never knew—many things I never wanted to know. Like how he verbally abused her and wouldn't try marital therapy and wouldn't put her needs before his mother's and once was so unable to control his anger that he grabbed her by the neck and—Mom chokes on the middle of her memory. She cries late at night, mourning the ghosts of the grandfather I never met and of a young shy bride, dressed in a beautiful white lace gown, holding a full bouquet of white roses. I learn a lot during those years that my mom and I move out of the glass window house, floating from one transient box to another and still another. I learn about the landlady who helped do the alterations for my mother's wedding dress. I learn that PoPo was not there at the wedding, but in Hong Kong, living with a man who is not my blood relation. I learn about my mother's post-wedding discovery of my father's half-sister. I learn to hate my father.
I'm dating a Korean boy. Allison must have had to make the situation less dramatic when my dad called her; otherwise, he wouldn't have taken the news so well. I'm lucky Dad's shy, too. Perhaps the most outrageous thing he says is, "Teenage boys have hor-mon-ies." Really, it must be the Chinese in him. Is there even a Chinese word for "sex"? I don't think so, though there is a word for "intercourse". But even if there is one for "sex," I don't think my dad has ever said it. Anything related to "The ABC's of the Birds and Bees" is either implied or left surreptitiously in book form on the dining room table. I think Dad must have found said book (with free bonus companion, "Teens, Sex, & Choices" plus CD-ROM's!) at the church he's started to go to lately. I don't read it. Who is he kidding?! Well, okay, I flip through it a couple months later to humor him, and it's sweet, I guess, how he's trying to be an overprotective dad and has actually gathered up the courage to buy something with "sex" written on it…
We've temporarily settled on Drawbridge Drive. Our stone castle is fifty years old. The carpet smells like mildew, but the carpet is still warmer than the marble of Beckley Court. I'm not dating the Korean boy anymore, but Mom has started to see an ex-boyfriend from her college days, one of many white ex-boyfriends who helped her improve her English. His name is Charles, and he'll be visiting from California this weekend. I tell myself it's good that my mom is moving on, but I still don't want to see him. E-mails and telephone calls are fine as long as I can pretend they're not real. I'm spending the weekend at my Godmother's so I can keep on pretending, but fuck, I left my biology book at home.
Mom picks me up in her car and Charles is in the passenger seat. I refuse to look at him, but he's not making it easy; he talks the whole way home. Sounds a little tipsy. Sounds a little stupid. He talks about useless things and asks me what's wrong and why am I so upset. He tries to console me in Chinese. What the fuck? You're not fucking Chinese, you fuck face. Don't think you can worm your vocal chords into my eardrums just because you're speaking another fucking language. It's not even yours. Fuck you. It's my fucking business if I want to curl up into a ball in the back seat and cry like I'm dying and throw the car door open and want to punch you in the face and never look you in the eye and lock myself in my room. Get the fuck out of my house. Fuck. You.
She cries late at night, mourning the ghosts of the grandfather I never met and of a young shy bride, dressed in a beautiful white lace gown, holding a full bouquet of white roses.
The chair is square and its wooden legs are stiff. The room is a tight cube. Diplomas decorate the far wall and colorful self-help books stuff the bookshelf while a lone cactus graces the windowsill. Martha looks like a nice lady who might teach your Sunday school class, or the kindly old neighbor who orders chocolate turtles from your choir fundraiser. I know why I'm here, but I don't know how I got here. I think I should be talking about how I don't want to keep going anymore, or how once I thought about lying down on the street until a car ran me over, but I'm Catholic so I can't commit suicide. I think I should tell her that my parents are divorced, but that simple fact means nothing on its own. I am sitting motionless in a room where I should be explaining what went wrong with my life, but even after I've used up an hour in trying to pour out all the right, relevant memories, all I remember from that first day with Martha is the red display of her digital clock.
No one outside of my family knows about Martha. Not even my best friend. Lizzie just thinks I'm sleeping more than usual and a little sad every now and then. When I talk to Martha, it is just me and Martha in that little room, and when I leave her cube, I leave her behind. She is a secret.
Lizzie and I often e-mail each other late at night when we're procrastinating. We write parodies of poetry we learned in English class, bemoaning Mr. Webber and his love affair with euphemisms. We pretend we are in the CIA, and on occasion, we write serious e-mails. That was how I told Lizzie everything. She replied, quickly, reliably. As soon as I read, "Your e-mail made me cry," I was crying, too. Crying it out, wringing my body as tight as possible until all of the tears were out.
Lizzie's 6th-grade brother, Jimmy, worships Brady Quinn. He eats vegetables for fun and shoots a basket for every minute of sunlight there is in a day. He runs laps in their small backyard so often that the lawn has surrendered to his path. The path gradually grows deeper as he runs and as his small tennis shoes carry away particles of dirt. When it rains, the Kleins have a moat in their backyard.
Jimmy is always running forward, dribbling in concentration, the intensity and focus alight on his face speaking louder than his few, shy words. He eats dinner every night with his family (a father, a mother, a brother, a sister), and his handwriting is terrible. He can play "America, the Beautiful" on the trombone with only two noticeable squeaks during the high parts of the refrain, and his greatest worry is making the football team. He grins sheepishly every time my mom brings Chinese food to their home.
I'm wearing a tacky red robe. I think if I tried hard enough I could use it as a flotation aid.
Jimmy, the rest of the Kleins, and thousands of other normal people fill the convention center. I'm wearing a tacky red robe. I think if I tried hard enough I could use it as a flotation aid. I speak into the microphone, and one of the things I say is, "Our parents may not be perfect, but they love us"—even when they're stupid and crying and drinking away their troubles and angry and nowhere to be found—and I'm positive that my mom and dad are silently crying somewhere up there in that convention center. I wonder if I can find their faces among the crowd, but I haven't found them just yet. In my red robe, I look like everyone else. My parents' faces are lost in the crowd. I haven't found them yet.
Amendment: Accidents on Memorial Drive
A year ago, I couldn't find it in me to say, "I love you, too, Dad," probably because I didn't want to admit it. It must've been years since I sat on Daddy's lap and took out his jar of extra change and asked him for all his pennies and then traded my pennies for his nickels and asked him for all his pennies again and so on until I had all of his change and he called me Tricky Tang and I would kiss him on the cheek. It must've been a slip of the tongue when I said, "I love you, too, Dad" on the phone, walking back to my dorm. And when I saw him after my first semester of college, I must have tripped on my shoelaces and accidentally strangled him in a bear hug at the airport.
It also must have been an accident when my mom visited me in Boston and met a younger man in the Hotel MIT lobby who hit on her and freaked her out, and was rescued by another much more reasonable (and much older) man's conversation. It must be an accident that this man is a widower and very kind and doesn't make me cry when he visits my mom.
It must be an accident how I ended up at the school where my parents met. It must be an accident that I go to Mass in the chapel where they got married and walk the same paths they walked forty years ago.