YEAR OF RIGHTEOUSNESS,
YEAR OF CONFETTI
In the car on the way home from LAX, my father is driving and he and my mother are talking about how when the two of them go to the airport to catch a flight these days, these years, they have to call a cab. “It’s very expensive, twenty bucks, so forty bucks there and back,” my mother says. I ask calmly, “You can’t ask a coworker to take you?” “It’s a hassle,” she says.
Why is there nobody, is all I can think. I ask, “Well, has anything new opened in Irvine?” And so we talk instead about the arrival of new restaurants, new branches of large corporations, new buildings.
In the guest bedroom where I am staying are framed paintings and illustrations I did in high school that can pass as somewhat decent. I unzip my luggage and pluck out the bag of toiletries, leaving undisturbed the rest of the huge lump of clothing I’d forcefully compacted into the bottom half of the suitcase. I lie down in the bed. There are many decisions we make that lead to there being nobody.
In the morning, I am reminded by the light beaming in through the blinds that this is indeed Orange County, California, and I have indeed moved back in with my parents, and this is my life. In my bitterness, I grimace at the window, I accuse the sunlight of feeling clean and suburban.
The next week, it’s cold. June gloom. My feet are freezing and by noon, I’m still in my pajamas, unshowered, listening to my European playlists. I wouldn’t mind a cocoon for a room, boiled wool walls, white sheets, smoothly curved vertices. I would feel better about languishing if it were appropriately hot here. It’s not appropriately hot. It’s very cold here. There’s a lot of construction that happens, and construction-related sounds. Although the homeowner’s association ensures that it only happens during restricted hours, Mondays through Saturdays 8–6, none on Sundays.
I think about Budapest, Croatia, Romania, Berlin, Turkey, the bug in the soup I had in Sofia. I think about Morocco, and about getting konnichiwa yelled at me more times than I could have ever imagined, and I thought I could imagine a lot. I think about circling the Colosseum slowly, completing only about a third of an arc around its circumference, in the pouring rain. I think about other things I have done in the pouring rain: leaned over the railing along the river in Prague, walked home through the hilly sidewalks of Westwood from the UCLA campus, made out with a guy on a rock at a beach somewhere along the central coast of California. I imagine that in the pouring rain, my eyes look shiny, a stone fountain maiden blinded by water. I imagine that in the pouring rain, I disintegrate more slowly than usual, that maybe we all do.
Stuck at my parents’ house, I try to recreate a very particular atmosphere, playing French electro pop, in the tiny guest bedroom with its glass-topped desk and a cushioned swivel office chair digging itself into four tiny graves in the beige carpet. The music doesn’t sound right, against this glass desk, against the cracks of light coming in through the white window blinds, it doesn’t sound right with construction roaring monotonously.
I get a part-time job in retail, at an expensive women’s apparel and home accessories store. I have to look nice and put-together there, and emanate warmth and encouragement in the dressing room. I get to be the opposite of myself there.
“So what’s your story? Are you in college? Taking some time off from school? What’re you up to?” another new girl asks during training. Someone named Hailey or Heidi or Holly is giving us an overview of the company’s general history and philosophy, but I am really only looking forward to the part on protocol to follow if we suspect we see a shoplifter—there are code words involved.
“Oh, no, no,” I laugh good-naturedly, from deep within my retail customer service Bright Mode. “Done with college long ago,” I say, but I hope not in a mean, condescending way, not an oh-I’m-so-far-advanced-beyond-college-and-you kind of way, because that’s not at all what I mean. What I mean is, are you fucking kidding me, I’m Chinese and from Irvine, which means I graduated from a respectable four-year university when I was twenty-one, no questions asked.
While we are sitting there, in our training circle, one of the managers tells us she did voices for toys when she was younger. Everybody nods gamely. I am the only one who speaks up to ask, “Um, what does that mean, voices for toys?”
At my job in that store, dressed in narwhal-print silk blouses and palazzo pants and spouting all sorts of nonsense to women in the dressing room, I am suddenly outspoken. I will say anything to circumscribe this new opposite self into place.
It keeps me busy, being there.
The week before leaving for Europe was full of frantic packing. One night, I met up with Sam for drinks. The circumstances felt abnormal. To have known each other from work, and now, suddenly, we had to exchange phone numbers, and now, suddenly, I was straightening up my kitchen, my coffee table, and now, suddenly, he was calling because he was lost, and look, I was answering my phone for once, fascinated that this small event had officially started, and I slid my feet into my flip flops, ran out the front door, out the front garden, into the bright May dusk, the asphalt hill of my lovely palm-tree-lined street empty as usual, downtown high-rises stretching smoggily over behind the hill, and I took leaping giant steps in my miniskirt, in the middle of the street, around the curve.
This was what it was like, when you had quit your job, when you hadn’t started your new one yet, which was part-time anyway and in another country, and you had nothing you had to do but meet up with Sam and walk down the hill from your house to Sunset Boulevard and drink $2.50 margaritas that would surely give you headaches that unfurled like giant night-blooming flowers.
My cousin Lana came to visit me in Marseille during her winter break, and we decided to go to Paris for New Year’s. It turned out Sam was going to be in Paris at the same time to interview someone for his dissertation. I tried to explain to Lana who this friend was. “A work acquaintance from home, from L.A. Well, a friend. But you don’t know him. Actually, I don’t know him that well, I’ve technically hung out with him once, and that one time, I slept with him.”
Lana and I were staying with Alex, my supervisor’s son who lived in Paris. He had a sort of intense, smoldering stare that I felt like I had seen more on Frenchmen than elsewhere, but it’s possible I am just myth-building. Most of this staring was directed at Lana. She had no idea. The first chance we got to ourselves, I asked her what she thought of him. “I think he likes you,” I said. Nobody made much of this, but I knew it. I had seen his gaze, hovering mid-air, meeting nothing, falling short, emanating from one side only, lots of times. It made me slightly sick, slightly sympathetic. I didn’t say anything else. But I didn’t have to, the way the weekend continued. I felt vindicated, more and more. In life, I was often wrong, but the more time passed, the more I was sure I was right about this one thing.
For New Year’s Eve festivities, Alex invited us to his friends’ house party, and I invited Sam. Not too long into the evening, it was visible even to the naked eye of any drunken innocent bystander how hard Alex was trying to hit on Lana, and how uninterested she was. For much of the night, I sat slouched in the crummy depths of a red couch next to three girls playing a Wii game that involved cooking, using the Wii gadget like a beater, or like a frying pan handle, or cracking open eggs. I was eating imitation crab sticks which were all the rage in France—they ate them like potato chips. Or rather, I ate them like potato chips: plain. They ate them like crudités: with a white sauce dip. Sam came over and sat down, not bothering to gesture for me to give him room, just wedging himself into the narrow space between me and the armrest at one end. He held out his hand. I looked down, clearly, clear-eyed, feeling not quite cold-sober, but seeing the hand, and seeing myself see the hand. I placed my hand, open, to meet his, just for a moment.
I looked around warily, expecting to see Alex hitting on Lana in some lurid corner. At the same time, I had to deal with other things. I couldn’t fucking blow that balloon. I was allergic to the unseen cat. I couldn’t stop eating those surimi sticks, even though they were covered in confetti I had to pick off before I could eat them. I really wanted to start smoking cigarettes, and there was no one to stop me.
Sam stuck his head into the space between my shoulder and neck, his long moppy curls feeling cool, and he leaned in closer, sticking his hand out again. I couldn’t see his face. Or, I made sure not to look at his face. I stood up, headed out to the balcony.
A week after my re-entry into the U.S., my mother and father and I pick up my grandparents and take them to lunch in Hacienda Heights. I help my grandma in and out of the car, and I help her buckle her seatbelt. Afterwards, my father asks me if my grandparents seem to have aged a lot this time, after seeing them for the first time in a year. “Yes,” I say, and don’t say anything else, even though he leaves room there for me to say something else. But I don’t. I don’t know what to say. The room that is there has never before been big enough for me to jump into, leap into its depths, and it doesn’t change now. When the time has passed, he just nods, too. Actually it is more he and my mother who feel older to me, their bodies fragile, small as if I am seeing them from far away.
People move or travel abroad and then return home a new person, transformed—this happens all the time. The first shower I took in my parents’ house was a revelation. The water pouring out of the showerhead was insanely pleasurable, extraordinarily abundant. I could barely handle it, the unwavering heat and force and density of all of this water, rushing at me. But after three days, I no longer noticed it at all.
I could feel it, I could see it, the dotted line diagram, the indicator arrows, showing me desire and directional flow. I was standing outside on the balcony, it was the New Year, it was 1 a.m. and it was motherfucking cold, but I would have rather been in the motherfucking cold than been back inside inhaling the cat dander allergens that had been kicked up from all the hard-partying Frenchmen with their confetti-blowers and noisemakers. Sam pulled open the sliding glass door, I heard it rolling like so much machinery coming to life, he stepped out, his black coat’s collar cutting black wool angles on either side of his cheekbones. He had a cigarette wobbling between his lips, and his eyes hit mine for an instant, before he turned to push the door shut, and then stepped over to the far end of the balcony. Something rustled way down below us, near the train tracks. Where he was standing, in the corner, there was no glass, only the wall after the glass of the sliding doors had ended.
In one moment, a million synapses were firing in my brain of brains, mind of minds, not the heart, the threat of hearts. On that balcony, we spoke like this, fifteen feet apart, in the coldness, the darkness, the newness of the new year, about what, about things I was always desperate to speak about, especially in the cold, the dark. About the newness of life, about living near train tracks, about people and travel and what they do and what it does. But then, finally, I was too cold, and things were swerving, the universe, its intentions, its will—it was incredibly strong, wasn’t it? And I would never be able to resolve or reconcile pieces then or later, but when I had made the tiniest degree of a movement toward a decision, when I was headed inside, Sam was calling me over, to the corner, where nobody would be able to see us, and I might have just disappeared and left friends and obligations and righteousness behind in a flailing, falling pile, which, if you just worked your hand into the bottom, and flicked your wrist, the pieces would fly up, weightlessly, and would take such a sweet time to float gently back to the earth.
In a way, it seemed like I didn’t actually have to do any thinking, or move even the tiniest degree. Sometime in the last few years or so of my life, a change had been made, a decision was formed and dispatched, and it was in my blood, you see, and I laughed, loud, free, and shook my head, no, no, leaving Sam to understand, to turn his head back down to look at the tracks below, and finish his cigarette in the sharp, black cold.
Back inside, both on the couch, his eyelashes looked like stars, as if wet. I had thought, before seeing him in Paris, about the wild mess of hair he’d had that night in May in L.A., when we were swimmy with margaritas, but it had been cut, and it only charmed me more, that it was cut shorter on the sides and in the back, and left longer in the middle, the longest portion falling forward in waves into his eyes. It looked cocky. It made me laugh.
I’m not sure which one of us was thinking this, because we both turned to each other and laughed, in the same way that made me think—realize even—that either one of us could have been thinking of the same thing, or if not of the same thing, the same sentiment, and what did it matter what the thing was if it made you feel the same way?
“I think that’s important,” I heard myself saying, “laughing about the same things.”
“How do you know we were laughing about the same thing?” he asked teasingly, and I was struck by the fact that he was able to say this teasingly, and how this validated me, and how sometimes you are right, but that doesn’t save the day, much less your world. I pushed him. I had learned this from someone three someones ago, pushing, pushing to get what you want, even if it meant pushing yourself into the moist brown soil in hopes of hiding and growing something at the same time.
When I think about Sam now, I think about the fluttering energy of skin and skinniness, the fervid bright, the feverish insomnia, the constant stream of charge and compulsion. I think about the squawking inhalation of his laughter, like raucous dragging gasps, grasps at air. The steady hum of isolation and being by yourself, an only child. The wandering, fumbling, the mistakes, the blundering, the rashness. I think about how he called me sweetheart, and how I allowed myself to like it.
“You don’t have to isolate yourself so much, you know,” he had said that night of margaritas and sex. I probably said whatever. I probably rolled my eyes. But what he said had turned me transparent, for a moment. For a moment I didn’t have to say anything, and he could see me. I wanted to disappear into the couch cushions, but he was sucking on my lips. I said, “Yeah, so you know me, so then what?” I said it in a way that indicated I did not care either way. I couldn’t be bothered. I could only be seen for a moment, lit up, a blinking-open like a firefly, and then gone, changed back into a normal gray-black insect body vibrating lightly in the air.
One night, my mother makes braised short ribs for dinner. She tells us that she can never get them quite right, that she doesn’t know what the secret was to my grandma’s version. My grandma used to cook feasts on the regular. My grandpa used to take hundreds of family-gathering photos and edit with two VCRs hundreds of hours worth of home-video footage. They don’t do these things anymore, but still they seem ceaselessly happy. Even in the oldest photos of them that I’ve seen, they are already in their twenties and married. I am only able to imagine them from that point forward, their war-torn childhoods are nowhere to be seen.
It was time to leave the party. After five hours of inhaling invisible cat, my lungs felt scraped and hollow and my cough sounded like metal, and Alex’s unwanted advances had proven too much, and Lana and I both desperately wanted out. For a while we seemed free to leave to go back to Alex’s place without him, and then suddenly, maybe brought about by one glimpse of a confused expression, one second of instability, one utterance of less-than-100% knowledge, Alex changed his mind. His mind, his pace, he was getting ready, putting on his jacket, there was no stopping him, despite all our protests and assurances, he was going to walk us home to his home, and whatever happened once that happened, I knew it wasn’t going to be exciting. There was no way out.
We walked in silence, and then prepared to part ways with Sam. Hugs, lackluster farewells, I felt embarrassed for all of us, for finding ourselves in this situation, this version, in which not one person was promised a happy ending. Sam disappeared down into the entrance of the metro station, and we turned to continue on. But then suddenly Sam shouted back, was racing back up the steps, the metro gate was closed, it wasn’t running after all, and in the next instant Lana was turning toward me, whispering about not really wanting to go back to Alex's place and how uncomfortable it was and in a crucial moment of chaos, a flurry, that single second when something can happen, when the window is slightly cracked open and things are free to fly in either direction, I said calmly, quickly, “Hey, it’s a sign. I think we should go to the Eiffel Tower.”
So we went. Alex came with us, but still we went. The journey was full of dazed silence, but we made it. We got out at the Trocadero stop on the opposite side of the Seine, walked up the stairs out of the station, and found ourselves having to go downhill, and up again, and everything was covered in trash and broken glass from New Year’s revelry hours prior, but then, how high and solidly the tower rose, and how with even more certainty, it disappeared into the clouds.