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If I Had Wings: A Short Story
My family and I came to America right after Jimmy Carter left office. My first American memory arrived at John F. Kennedy airport, where we landed. It was cold in America, I remembered that very well. What I don’t remember, however, was what the smiling, greeting new people were saying to my mother and father, just that there were more of them than us. The hands of the smiling new people, as they would take turns holding my face, were warm. As a gift, they gave me a Snoopy doll and that continued to keep me warm.
In the town next door to where we lived, there were many factories. My father had gotten a job in one where steel was woven into mesh. A few years before he was able to buy his red Chevy Malibu station wagon, he rode to work on his Raleigh bicycle. He went to great pains to provide for and even worked overtime on Saturdays which made it possible for our little family of seven to live.
My father’s callous hands were always soiled. Even after he washed them, there was always that bit of dirt underneath his nails where the soap and water missed. Some days, he’ll come home from work and ask me to pull out a steel thorn from the palm of his hand. “Your vision is better than mine,” he’ll explain in Lao. On his day off on Sunday, he would work on the garden of our yellow house, planting and harvesting crops for our dinner table. He used to tell us that his work in the garden was “relaxing.” We had all different kinds of vegetables in our garden then, like tomatoes, cabbage and eggplant.
The seven of us lived in the yellow house for less than two years. Afterwards, we would have no choice but to move. I missed living there, because there was a park next door, complete with a spiral slide, jungle gym and a big grassy field. Whenever I went down the spiral slide, I’d imagine that I was flying. When it was time for dinner, my mom would need only to stick her head out the window to call for me. There was Shopwell and an ice cream store across the street from the house. My big brothers would put me inside the emptied shopping cart and push me across the street, running and laughing whenever they did. It was warm there. It was everything an American kid could ever want.
I always had questions for my father and he would seemingly always have an answer ready for me. My parents would travel it seemed to me then, hours and hours just to buy Lao groceries. I asked my father then “Dad, why do we have to travel so far to buy food when there’s a supermarket across the street?” He would then answer me by saying, “They don’t have our food here.” On the weekends, my dad would keep us inside and have us study Lao. “Dad,” I would ask him, “Why can’t I go outside and play?” He would explain to me that, “American society makes us forget our culture. I’m making sure that you remember it.” But the problem is that I don’t remember it. As hard as I try, I cannot remember it. Sometimes I’m thankful that I don’t remember.
The kids I grew up with were not like me. They were much different. They didn’t dress like me, didn’t act like me. Their parents drove cars my parents didn’t drive. But that wasn’t it. Being around them brought home the reality of how far my family and I had come and how much further we have to go. They only spoke one language. I don’t know how it came to be that I learned two languages fluently. So much had gotten lost in the translation.
One of the warmest memories I have growing up is one of my earliest memories. In the home of one of the smiling people with the warm hands that greeted our family, I spent under the care of a nanny. Before and after kindergarten, my mother would bring me to their house before going to work. There, I would spend time with a certain little girl a year younger than I was (It was because my family and I came to America late that I was a year behind in my academics). She has blonde hair and blue eyes. Her and I used to watch Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood together. I remember wanting to ask Oscar the Grouch why he was so grouchy and if the Cookie Monster ever got thirsty for a glass of milk from eating all of those chocolate chip cookies. Those are just some of the things that didn’t make sense to me then. However, being close to her made perfect sense to me. Years later, after this certain little girl became a lady, I would ask her to dance with me at our graduation dance. During a slow song, I held her close to me, not ever wanting to let her go.
After Ronald Reagan left office, my mom left my dad. It seemed that their fighting ensued as soon as we had arrived. They had fought constantly with one another, usually in the privacy of their bedroom. They would close the door when they did, as if it would somehow dampen the tension between them. Outside, I along with my brothers and sisters would listen in complete silence, as the head members of our family grew more and more distant from one another. It was during this time that my nephew arrived. Through the cold of confusion and hostility within our family, he arrived like a warm breath of air. Unmarried, my sister stayed with a friend during her pregnancy. I used to ride my bike during the weeks leading up to my nephew’s birth to visit my sister and see how she was doing. It was hard to believe that I would be an uncle at the age of twelve. On the eve of his birth, I dreamt of making the acquaintance of another dragon.
My mother didn’t want me to play football. I made the decision to play Pop Warner football on my own. It wouldn’t be until middle school, in the eighth grade would I be able to play on the High School’s modified football team. All of my friends were playing, so naturally, I wanted to play as well. “What if you get hurt?” she would ask me. The truth was that I played hurt all of the time, but I loved it. Only an injury would keep me from playing. Call it tough love. On the day I received my first jersey, I wore it to bed. My father, on the other hand, liked the fact that I was keeping myself busy. He had even gone to the trouble of driving me to practice everyday. Not once did he or any member of my family watch me play in a game. But that’s not what bothered me.
Coach had a problem with my name. He couldn’t pronounce it for the life of him. So, to aid him in his quest to find a name that would be easy on the tongue, I told him to call me by my nickname, which consisted of only one syllable: Dohn. Somehow, this had carried elsewhere. Playing football and going to school was not enough. I wasn’t quite complete. I had yet to attain my status as a quintessential son. My parents provided me food, clothing and a roof over my proverbial head, but I wasn’t content. I wanted better for myself. I wanted what my friends had, which was everything. And that’s why I began to work.
I was very busy and consequently very tired. I ran on a very precise, very compact schedule. Here’s what a typical school day schedule looked like:
07:45—Go to school
11:00—Lunch 10:30—Return home
04:30—Arrive at work
On Fridays, I would get out of work at about midnight. On Saturdays, I would work thirteen hours, Sundays, twelve. Everything was under the table. It came out to be fifty-four hours per week—fourteen hours more than what the average adult puts in. Coincidentally, my jersey number was 54. I had more money than I knew what to do with. It was more than adequate to buy everything I’d ever wanted at the time and more. My parents were good friends with the owners and I guess that had made it all right. On the bus rides after practice, my exhaustion would cause me to fall asleep, being so still after sustaining such constant motion. As I would fade into sleep, so would the pastel-colored house of the rich suburbs, slowly rolling by. As I rode further toward the murky city—home to the factories—the homes would turn into brownstones and co-ops, which were always a dull brown and red color. The trees would shrink and become parking meters, the lawns into parking lots, touched by an urbanite’s paintbrush.
My mother and father were proud of me. Not only was the youngest of their offspring getting an 87 average in High School and a star football player, he was earning his own living! My God, how is he doing it all? Determination, that’s how. When guests and relatives alike would come into our home, like on holidays, my dad had made it a family tradition to pull me out of hiding and show me off like a solid gold trophy.
Ah…Here he is; my son Dohn,” he would say. “He plays football (tough little guy) and works hard on and off the field.” Most times, I would be too tired to smile, let alone able to entertain my hungry audience with some intellectually motivated response. In the Lao culture (and Asian culture for that matter) it’s crucial that you were ahead of the curve. To win, you need only stature, through success. Success is measured through achievements. It was during this period that my father was winning. He was winning and I was losing. “Who knows,” my father would surmise, “with his brains and work ethic, he could well become a doctor!” I almost fainted after hearing this.
It wasn’t easy for me to have a social life. I lost a girlfriend because I couldn’t find any time to be with her. “Why did you ask me out if we couldn’t do anything?” She asked me. The cold hard truth was that my social life was nearly non-existent. So after blowing off my friend Mike for a few weeks to hang out, I had taken a night off and complied with his request for a sleep over. Mike and I were friends in grammar school. The money I made working put his ten-dollars-a-week allowance to shame. Mike had been the one to urge me to play football in the first place. His father was a doctor and his mother a teacher—well respected and well known in the close-knit community. Mike was envious of me and so were his parents. So much that when I went over to his house that night, a much-needed-conversation arose at the dinner table. Among the parents, it was Mike’s mom that spoke to me first:
“I hear that you’re quite the entrepreneur!”
“I do what I can,” I replied, obviously modest.
“How do you do it?”
“Time management, I guess.” That was when Mike’s father had turn to Mike, who had no older siblings to look up to and said, “What a role model! Maybe he could give you some pointers, Mike.” That’s when I almost lost it. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I pictured Mike working alongside of me—working in vain. I had the nerve to push him back to his reality. I really doubted that Mike’ parents knew the extent of the amount of hours I work, or the minimal amount of sleep I was getting. I would never put anyone through what I was going through right then. I wanted to tell Mike that his parents didn’t know what the hell they were talking about and that if I could, I would end it all. At least then I wouldn’t be so damn tired all the time.
Once, I fell asleep standing up while at work. Lucky for me, one of the customers had awoken me before the owners did. Speaking of which, my father used to tell me that, “Success has nothing to do with luck.” He believes that if I brought honor to the family, “Success is a conscious decision.” And I believed him. I put my best into everything I did, whether it was at the workplace, the gridiron or the classroom. But no matter how hard I worked, I didn’t think I was ever good enough. I always thought that I could do better that I could work harder, faster. The money I made, I practically gave away. Each bill was made with drops of my own drained blood. After accumulating so much of it, it began to seem useless. If I was a criminal, the money was my conviction, traces of evidence in wrongdoing. The work was finally taking a toll on me.
Another time, while I was working inside one summer, I heard in the distance some bells ringing, getting closer and closer. Not until the small, white truck had turned the corner did I recognize the bells to belong to the ice-cream vendor. Kids of all races flocked to him, running and laughing when doing so. Their smiles had said it all: It reminded me of the yellow house our family used to live in, with the grassy park just next door and the ice cream shop across the street. I remembered it all too well. But it hurt to remember. It hurt that it was once upon a time so real to me.
Coming home late one weekend night, I got locked out of my dad’s penthouse. I just began hanging out with my own kind as of late. “Birds of a feather stick together,” I once heard in some English class. It was almost ironic. My parents had approved of my friends who were, on the most part, white-bred Americans. In turn, they objected to my friends of late, who were Lao—just like me. There weren’t many of us in the area, so I guess you could go as far as saying we were an endangered species. We were also nocturnal, going out only at night.
I knew that if I knocked on the window to wake up my dad, I would be asking for it, big time. I was able to peer inside and see him sound asleep. I could faintly hear the hissing of the steam heater nearby. It was warm in there. He would likely knock me up the side of my head for coming home so late if I woke him. I had walked over to my bedroom window which, at times like these, would crawl through to safety. Finding my bedroom window to be locked, I figured that my father didn’t want me home. My father hadn’t given me a curfew, trusting my judgment of which hour is appropriate to arrive home. But no more. Outside the penthouse was an accessible roof landing. I decided that it would be best for me to sleep o the roof for the night. Never mind the fact that it was the dead of winter and that football season only ended just weeks ago. I thought it safer to endure the cold than the heat of one enraged father.
In the distance, I could see the city where my father and I worked in our separate places. From where I was standing it was so peaceful, so tranquil. In the city, the electricity of the night burned, humming with its wide-eyed people working the nightshift. Here, it was lights out. I believed every soul was asleep but me, as empty as I was feeling. It was just too cold to sleep. I felt like I was drowning. More and more often, I was cutting class and not attending school all together. Don’t forget to grab the ‘unexcused absence’ letters before He sees it. If he does, he’ll flip, I thought. It was getting harder and harder to go on these days. One wrong turn led to another. Over the edge, I could look down at the alley below. The dark sight was like looking down a long barrel of a gun. I can almost touch the ground…I thought…Then the pain would subside…You won’t hear a thing. In disgust, I backed away and shrunk into a fetal position. I leaned against the wall and began to cry.
Heavy with guilt, I still managed to go to work. I feared that my parents would find my dark secret of missing so many days of school. It would be devastating had they found out. Somehow, I had to keep it a secret until I got back on track. In a morbid way, I was enjoying not being tied down. Working had provided the funds to go out. Certainly, I couldn’t lose that. Besides, when my sister ran into some speed bumps, I would provide her with some of my money—especially if it were for her son, my nephew. I took great pride in buying him diapers and formula. Whenever my sister couldn’t find a babysitter, I would step in, enthusiastic in the matter.
One night while I was babysitting, I’d fallen asleep on the couch. Before I did, I left some money on the coffee table for when the pizza delivery guy came. With my eyes burning, I awoke to find my nephew choking on a bill. He had thought it to be food. Hysterical, I flew to him. His eyes were tearing from lack of air. With my first and second fingers of my hand, I dug deep inside his small throat. Feeling for it, I felt the damp money and managed to fish out a corner of it, then another, then bigger than the first. He had tried to swallow it wide-sided. Oh my God oh my God oh my God…In all of the frustration, I began to cry uncontrollably. I cried because he was looking right into my eyes and saw me. He saw right through me, with his helpless eyes, which squirted a tear or two with each cringe of pain. With his life in my hand, I was losing fast. I felt exactly what his had told me—helpless. Just, please! C’mon! C’mon! C’mon! And then, Kaaaawwwhhh! And out it came. I was crying even harder now. For all I was worth, I wrapped my clumsy arms around his narrow torso. Upon my knees as he stood, I held him tight. “Why are you crying, Uncle Dohn?” he asked me. “Why are crying?” Except that wasn’t what I heard. What I heard might have sounded like that but wasn’t at all. “Why are you crying, Uncle Dohn? Why are you crying?”
—Circa Spring 2000