by Ryan Phung
me and my mom, 3 acts
what is your nest made of
Friday was always the worst day of the week in middle school, since the library closed early and I had to sit at the curb of the empty parking lot for an hour, waiting for someone to pick me up. During winter trimester I probably looked homeless to any passerby, with the sky being a pale shade of black at only 6 P.M. and the only light shining on me coming from a single orange streetlight. I hated her. I hated how I always had to lie to my concerned friends that she would come in just a few minutes, how I had to sit in anticipation of a familiar pair of headlights, continuously on edge about the menacing stranger that would rest on a bench a few yards from me, how she wouldn’t leave her job early to pick me up as the rest of the library kids were leaving. I hated how alone I was in that parking lot, how neglected I felt, and how cold it illogically seemed on the outskirts of L.A.
It was only an hour, though.
is it grass, twigs, leaves? perhaps phở noodles, or bits of apple pie
The first step in solving a problem is to identify the issues. For years, I didn’t. I knew that I was miserable in that house, but never bothered searching for the source, mindlessly gliding on the frigid wind. I weakly accepted that she wouldn’t be the confidante for my emotional troubles, without realizing that I could at least urge her to try. So it was a glacial burn, the descent into dysfunction. Maybe I could have salvaged our relationship if I had gained clarity sooner. But why should a kid be the one to hold a family together? Where was her clarity?
The second step in solving a problem is to…
it could be crumbling mahogany brick, sturdy american steel, or even pure gold
Ignorance kept me spiteful. But even now, with the window right beside me and the clear sky outside, the ability to forgive is a virtue I don’t possess. Instead, I constantly reflect on the person I could have been. A person confident enough to start conversations with people instead of nervously waiting for someone to talk to him, who looks in the mirror and sees someone that wide-eyed middle schooler would look up to, who knows how to say sorry—he learned that from her. A person I’m not, yet one that I keep fixating on. Why?
whatever it is
If I forget the fire, would that make me him? If I pretend we were the perfect family of a Norman Rockwell painting, would that make me him? Even if I wanted to, I’ve dwelled on the dark for so long that I’ve forgotten so many of the bright memories. So how, then, will I remember her? What will her legacy be? Who is she?
it has always been your choice
Best for me, best for her.
We were on the way to band practice, me sitting shotgun in her Toyota SUV, when she suddenly asked me what career I wanted to pursue in the future. I responded with the “I don’t know” of any normal 16-year old. She then told me that she wanted me to support her financially later on in life; she even had the figure: $2000 a month. I kind of chuckled, unsure of whether this was some rare joke of hers, until I glanced over and saw a look of restrained apprehension in her dark, baggy eyes. The rest of the car ride was silent.
I didn’t think much of that incident until maybe a week later, when I noticed that she wasn’t yelling at me for things that she normally would, like playing video games for a few minutes which she assumed had actually been six hours, or not finishing a dinner plate to the very last rice pellet. At that point it slapped me across the face, a feeling that shouldn’t have felt so foreign. My future was determined, by forces out of my control. Choice was stripped from me.
I didn’t know then what I wanted to do in life, nor do I know now, but I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t be a novelist. I couldn’t be a playwright. I couldn’t be a film director. I couldn’t book a flight to New York and subsist on the raw creative energy of the city like some white girl in a rom-com. Not unless I wanted my parents to suffer working their 9-5’s for the rest of eternity. Not unless I threw away every last shred of my legacy and became reborn as some lost, heartless, plucked phoenix. So I was chained, wings not clipped but shattered, because “family matters.” She fed me, changed me, housed me for years, dealt with my horrendous mistreatment of my elders, worked tirelessly year-round to ensure that I had a nice bed and a nice computer and nice clothes, poured all her hard-earned money into me, for me, because of me. Me. Everything I had was from her generous, loving hands. Far too generous for a wild beast like me. Everything she did was the best for me, everything she did was for my sake, so of course she should get a return on her investment.
Best for me, best for her.
Maybe it would have been easier to swallow if I hadn’t grown up on the pristine ideal of the white, middle-class family, of parents that raise their children with an idea of love that involves affection or anything that remotely resembles positive reinforcement, of parents that would watch bittersweetly from their freshly-trimmed lawn as their son slowly reverses out of the driveway in his newly inherited beat-up sedan, with the dad’s arm wrapped around the mom as she leans her head on his shoulder, all while some cheesy uplifting music is playing like the end of The Breakfast Club.
But I had grown up on that. They hadn’t.
Maybe she wasn’t a bad mother, just not the one I envisioned, rather one that treated affection as a luxury to be saved for a special occasion like a bottle of expensive Chardonnay. Sometimes I wonder if I was mad at her, or the fact that she worked her fingers to the marrow six days a week and barely made enough money to support her family, the fact that this was the best the supposedly greatest country in the world could muster for a poor immigrant reaching towards The Dream™. She cared about me, I think, so that’s already better than some mothers out there. But the notion that Asian love is simply a different kind of love, one that says “I love you” in a myriad of different, silent ways is utter bullshit. Looking back and realizing that she had been telling me she loved me all my life in ways I didn’t understand does not undo the trauma. At the very most, it makes the idea of shelling out $2,000 a month for the rest of her life slightly easier to stomach. A verbal “I love you” once in a while might’ve been enough to save me from years of teenage dejection, because even if I needed it not to at the time, family matters. And there’s nothing good that can come out of not knowing your family cares about you.
I wish that at some point throughout all the clashes, throughout all the screaming and misunderstandings and crying, we just sat down and talked. Maybe we would have both realized that we weren’t who the other wanted us to be, and maybe we could have both changed for the better.
Best for me, best for her.
Every Sunday at 9 P.M., my phone lights up with a notification, “CALL PARENTS.” Often I’ll ignore it, too exhausted to deal with any scolding or interrogating. The times I do find the willpower to call her, I quiver, as if the possibility of yet another verbal brawl transforms me into a recovering alcoholic. Whenever she picks up, there is, without fail, that one question.
“Why don’t you want to come back home?”
To say she cried when I moved into my college dorm would be an understatement. Tears were streaming down her face when we got in the car, and they were pouring even harder when we arrived. By the time we had finished unpacking and I was trying to free myself from her grasp to explore my new world, she was a sobbing mess. Even a few hours later when she got back and fully registered her nest as empty, she was still crying, at least according to our brief phone conversation when she reminded me yet again to call every week. My face was dry.
I thought I would feel electrified about the prospect of living without the constant fear of her barging into my room and berating me for some meaningless atrocity I committed. Yet as I laid on my new mattress, staring at a new white stucco wall, it seemed like I was still caged in that decrepit house.
Her home always felt foreign to me, even though I spent by far the most time there out of anyone in our family. Her home was the stronghold of my most cherished memories, like drowning out their aimless arguments with video games and music, or the blaring silence of yet another afternoon with no one to greet me at the door. Her home was small, far too small to hold my soaring dreams and starry-eyed fantasies. Her home was a perpetual reminder of a childhood gone to waste, of teenage years wrought with frustration and uncertainty, of two adulthoods with nothing but endless toil and weary hope. Her home was everything she had worked for, so I could lead a far better life than she would ever be able to, yet it wasn’t enough.
Her home never felt like mine. I’m not sure any place has.
Forgive and forget. It’s probably easier to do when your little brother cries and frames you for physical assault, or when your friend “accidentally” tells your crush that you like her. But how do you even begin to forgive someone who molded you into a mess of a person, someone who shattered your wings and ordered you to fly? Despite how many times I’ve tried to console myself, “She tried her best. She couldn’t be there for you, but she tried her best,” the bitterness always remains. Even when we’re on good terms, it still feels as though so much is missing, as though the stars and planets could have formed between us. Part of me always wants to push her away, as if to remind her that I molted into a decent person not simply without her, but in spite of her. But I always come back, for I grew up because of her.
No matter how much I may covet that pristine white ideal, I cannot and should not forget the helpless hours. But I should pretend I can, for her sake. The journey to the person I am today was not a ship smoothly sailing off from the harbor, but neither was hers. Every single time she and I fought, it killed her just as painfully as it did me. She suffered, in her aching bones, her baggy eyes, her tired spirit. She knows she was far from perfect, and she’s trying desperately to make up for that now. I have to at least let her try. Maybe as the clock ticks by, we can begin to balance the dark memories with new, pleasant ones, picking up the forgotten and reimagining the old along the way.
I want to come home, but first I have to find it. For now, I wait by the window, gazing out at the open sky from a nest of pale-green jade, by my own choice.
It has always been my choice.