by Mia Sakai
My parents moved five times in the first ten years of their marriage. My younger brother’s birth was sandwiched somewhere between moves number four and five, four being the one that sent us sailing up the coast from Los Angeles into the San Francisco Bay, and five being the one that shot us into the landlocked heart of Southeast Asia.
Some of my earliest memories are of my brother’s birth: my father on the phone, coils of telephone cord looped around his hand as he calls the family doctor. His long, shaky breath, the words: everything’s going to be all right. If I think hard enough, I can even see the half-finished glass of orange juice next to my mother’s bed in the maternity ward. I remember the sight of bright IT’S A BOY! balloons bobbing overhead, gifts brought by Grandma Shig and Grandpa Roy.
A few days after Paul was born, my mother brought him home to Pomona Avenue in El Cerrito, where we lived in a tiny house with warm charcoal shutters and front steps that looked like they were smiling. To prepare for his birth, she had lined the kitchen drawers with new contact paper, repainted the interior of the house, and laid out a new carpet in what used to be my room. Two final memories: the strange new slackness of my mother’s belly and the curious smell: bleach, warm body, old milk, on her clothing after she came home from the hospital.
There is a tiny, wrinkly person without eyebrows sleeping in my bedroom. I am three years old and hiding under the crib. It is dark and smells like new carpet. My back hurts because I have been curled in the same position for so long, and since no one knows where I am I may have to stay here forever.
My brother begins to cry; soon I hear my mother’s footsteps in the hallway.
“Paul Boy,” she sings, “Paaaaul Boy…” Her pale feet appear in front of the crib, glowing against the deep blue of the carpet.
“Mommy?” I say. “I’m stuck.”
“Where are you, honey?” She sounds startled.
“Here,” I say.
I see her face peering at me through the shadows. “What are you doing down there, sweetie? Do you want me to help you get out?”
“No,” I say, and shrink into the wall. “I don’t want to come out.”
“Well, you come out when you’re ready,” she says, and disappears from sight. “I’ll be waiting right over here.”
My brother grows quiet, and the sound of my grandmother’s old rocking chair fills the room, a rhythmic crick-crick, crick-crick.
Before my brother was born, I told my parents it would be a good idea to name him Johnny, after Johnny Appleseed. I’m not sure they much cared for my opinion; in the end, my vote was cast aside and he entered the world as Paul. Paul like ball. Like bathroom stall. Like crawl and wall, and please don’t fall. I was disappointed, but since my parents were considering becoming overseas missionaries it made sense that they wanted to name him after the man who spearheaded the first century Christian movement. I should have seen it coming, especially since part of the reason I had been named Mia was because it translated so easily into other languages. Never mind that ‘mia’ means mine in Spanish and Italian, wife in Thai and Lao.
My mother admits that there was a time when she toyed with the idea of naming my brother Grey, a name I think would have suited him well. He is prone to bouts of creative angst, artistic genius, and mild depression, and as he matures into young adulthood, there are many times where he seems more like a Grey than a Paul. Moody, particular, wildly talented; when he started college he moved up north on a music scholarship, to the birthplace of grunge, Jimi Hendrix, and the Seattle jazz scene.
I’m glad I left the Bay Area, he tells me. I like it better here.
But are you ever coming back? I want to ask. Are you staying in Washington forever?
By the time my parents were ready to move to Laos, I had lived in four different places. Since I was too little to remember any of those moves, however, I was taken by surprise when my mother began going through my drawers and packing lesser-used items into boxes labeled MIA CLOTHING. She found all kinds of things in the back of the closet: broken toys, stuffed animals, a pair of purple tights with holes in the heels that no longer fit me. I learned that along with getting rid of old belongings and putting boxes in storage, unearthing old memories was all a part of the process.
Things we have forgotten: The precise location of the garden gnome that disappeared from our backyard while we were away. Exactly how long we lived in Southeast Asia. When we left America. The number of feet in a mile. Old phone numbers. Why we used to fly United. How many times we have flown across the Pacific, breathing dry, recycled air and counting the hours until arrival.
* * *
When we first arrived in Laos, Paul was a baldheaded little boy with a high-pitched, toothless giggle, and I was a stringy-haired four-year-old who put him in a headlock every time we posed for a picture. I felt it was my duty as an older sister to make sure he was behaving properly in front of the camera. Look at the camera, Paulie.
Our parents were young, naïve, and painfully out of place among the thatched roofs and dirt roads of Sapangmoh Village, but they thrust themselves valiantly into the foreignness of Lao village life. Our mother got lost whenever she tried to drive home and my father asked for diarrhea one time at a restaurant, but they couldn’t be blamed for either of those things. In my father’s defense: though Lao is grammatically uncomplicated, it has five different tones which are easily confused and represent a wide array of meanings. In my mother’s defense: there were no paved roads, traffic lights, or street signs in the early days.
Our primary caregiver during those first few years was a young woman named Anita. My father’s boss had hired her to take care of our household because having a maid, we learned, was simply a fact of life in former French Indochina. Anita was a nervous, frail little thing when we first met her, and she burst into tears when my mother asked what her name was. I don’t know how we communicated because I spoke no Lao, she spoke no English, and Paul couldn’t talk, but somehow we got along.
As I remember it, my brother and I had a wonderful first year in Laos. We thought it was all a part of some fantastic jungle adventure dreamed up by our parents. If I dig deep enough, however, there are other memories: Paul running through the backyard with heat rash and dirty diapers, screaming in terror at the termite mounds, five-inch wolf spiders, and bright red centipedes bristling with tiny legs. His monsters didn’t hide under the bed. They lurked in the backyard.
It is early January and we are halfway through our first year in Laos. At the dinner table, my mother picks up a slice of lumpy carrot-covered dough and lifts it slowly to her mouth. Anita has been in the kitchen all afternoon and emerged with something halfway between a pizza and a Lao papaya salad: a birthday surprise for Madame. My mother takes a bite and starts bawling, elbows planted on the table, head in her hands, hair stringy and matted from the humidity. She is thirty-four today, and the strangeness of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is too much to bear. Anita rushes into the dining room, terrified she hasn’t cooked Madame’s falang dinner correctly, and my father looks around the room helplessly.
“Go get your mom a tissue,” he says, as my brother opens his mouth and starts wailing from his highchair.
I freeze. “A tissue?” I say, barely able to hear myself over the confusion. “From the bathroom?”
“Yes, from the bathroom. And Paul, please. Do you want me to send you to the corner?”
I swallow and force myself out my chair. Standing in front of the bathroom door, I shut my eyes, rush in, and grab blindly for the toilet paper on the edge of the bathtub. I am trying hard not to think about the cockroaches behind the toilet, even though they aren’t the only things in the bathroom that scare me. The sink came crashing down one time while my father was brushing his teeth, and I heard the porcelain shatter from the other end of the house.
I run back to the dining room trailing a toilet paper tail behind me.
“Mommy,” I cry. “Mommy, tissue!”
For a moment I hardly recognize her. Her face is twisted into an ugly expression I have never seen before, and she reaches out and pulls the toilet paper from my hand. Crumples it into a loose wad of rough gray fiber.
“This is not tissue,” she hisses, as Paul, barely two years old, sobs quietly in the corner. “This isn’t even toilet paper.”
Though I wish I could conjure up a sugary sweet childhood for my little brother, he didn’t get the picket fences and mother-daughter play dates I did, and I would be lying if I told him otherwise. Our parents were unable to lavish the same amount of love and affection on him as they had on me when I was a toddler. He grew up under such troubled family circumstances: abrupt international dislocation, parents struggling with cultural alienation, a mother shell-shocked by the horrors of third world poverty.
It’s not fair, I imagine him saying shrilly, you always get the good stuff.
I’m sorry, Paul, I want to say. I don’t think there’s anything I can do.
When we moved back to the United States, Paul began roaming the red and white-checkered hallways of his new school with a grim mug on his face, beanie pulled low on his forehead. High school sucks, he’d tell me over the phone in the gravelly voice he’d developed since moving to the East Bay. It sucks. I hate everyone. When things got particularly bad I would curl up in bed, phone pressed close against my sweaty ear, and clutch the bedcovers around my neck. I no longer remember the details, just the feeling of his words breaking against my eardrums and washing my face in clear tears that taste of salt and loneliness.
Things that never should have happened: International displacement. Hepatitis B. Paul dashing down the fourth floor hallway of Bumrungrad Hospital, IV stretched taut from his thin wrist, the metal stand rattling after him. Waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of my father barking GET OUT at the thief crawling into the window of my parents’ bedroom. Losing a string of best friends in quick rapid-fire succession.
* * *
Paul and I are older now, and more capable of holding conversations about our shared childhood in Laos, though he usually describes it as either a blank spot in his mind or a series of memories that are too painful to revisit. Every now and then, however, he lets something slip about Scotty’s mysterious disappearance, or Hamish’s shooter jets, or Blane’s American Embassy parents. I am flooded by bittersweet emotion when this happens—sobered by the gravity of his stories, grateful he has managed to hold onto something of our history. I have discovered that his natural tendency is to press blindly toward the future, whereas I cling fiercely to relics of the past. My need to recollect fragments of family history is an unrelenting obsession. My brother’s desire to remember is a faint shadow that disappears without a trace whenever a new dawn arrives.
Sometimes I wonder if we are simply operating out of a need to distinguish ourselves from each other. Is that why I don’t listen to jazz, play video games, or drive my parents’ car when I’m home? Is it because my brother does all those things? Is it because he does them well? Is it because we are jealously vying for a competitive edge that if one of us excels at something, the other refuses to show the slightest interest in it? I hate reading. Well, I hate listening to music. I hate lifting weights. Well, I hate swimming. Are we trying to maintain equilibrium in the constantly shifting dynamics of our family? Or are we simply different?
A jazz studies and percussion major, my brother deals exclusively in sound and rhythm. An English major, I spend my days crafting prose and mining the encoded meanings of words. Driven by manic overachievement, I injured my hands in college from overuse. Too many papers, too many grant proposals, too many art projects, and now, three years of carpal tunnel syndrome. So far he has spent most of his undergrad career listening to indie music and telling friends to just chill over coffee. I can’t sleep in a room if the furniture isn’t arranged in a way that feels just right. He lives in a state of constantly evolving chaos. I don’t know how we came to embody these oppositions, but it’s almost as if someone whipped out a pen before we were fully formed and decreed that if I was ever thesis, he would be antithesis.
When we were little kids in Laos, our mother used to throw us in the shower together to save time and water, hosing us down in one giant spray. My brother was always the one who squealed for hot water, I was the one who demanded cold. Later, when we were old enough to tend to our own hygiene, he became the King of Dirty and I, the Queen of Clean. It wasn’t until high school that I began wearing the same jeans multiple times a week and taking showers every other night rather than every day. That was around the time Paul began exfoliating his face and obsessively needing things like mouthwash, special skin toner, and pimple removal gel.
Things we have lost: Nerf gun darts, trapped on our grandmother’s roof. Chess pieces. Picture books from our childhood, donated to the library because we didn’t have enough boxes. Photo albums, eaten by Lao termites. Baseballs. Noon and Bubba, our two dogs. Micro Machines. Best friends like Scotty and Hamish. Grandpa Roy.
* * *
My extended family got together recently to pay our respects to the dead. Visiting cemeteries is something my brother and I never did as children because we never had any relatives buried in the same hemisphere. We grew up believing that the only certainty lay in uncertainty and that people didn’t die, they just moved away. We always approached people and places with the guardedness of the knowledge that this too shall pass. In our case, the end we feared was not death, but the end of a parent’s two-year term overseas.
Since relocating back to the United States, however, we have come to learn about things like roots and stability. With the exception of my college-bound cousins, none of our extended family members have moved in the past decade. Perhaps even the past two decades. While our life has been typified by constant change, all our relatives have known are quiet lives of dogged permanence. In recent years I have slowly become absorbed into the patterns of their life. I go to church two blocks away from the elementary school my grandfather attended in the early 1900s. I celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and oshogatsu, Japanese New Year, with complicated networks of extended family members. I accompany my grandparents to the cemetery every six months to leave flowers at our ancestors’ headstones.
The wind from the San Francisco Bay is rolling in quickly and my grandmother is having trouble making it up the hill to Grandpa Roy’s gravesite. “Don’t forget the deer spray,” she shrills from behind her walker. The wind picks her voice up, scatters it like white ash, bears faint traces of it up to the summit. “The deer will eat those roses right up if you don’t spray them good.”
My grandmother feels strongly about many things, and deer spray is one of them. Because our family comes from three generations of Japanese American rose-growers, flowers are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Quit dawdling. Get those roses in boxes and ship them out. Hustle hustle, hurry up now. Those roses are your college education. I follow her up the hill to my grandfather’s grave, pulling my windbreaker close against my body and pressing into the wind. My grandmother’s walker jerks across the patchy grass in starts and stops, a slow, painful journey that takes several minutes to complete.
“Do you have the deer spray?” she asks, after catching her breath.
“Oh no,” my Auntie Marge says, turning to her sister. “I think we forgot the deer spray.”
“Oh, Marge,” Eiko says, pulling a few strands of hair from her mouth. “How could you?”
“Wait here,” Auntie Marge says, and presses her armful of chrysanthemums and lilies into my icy hands. I watch her run down the hill to check her car. Her husband follows quickly behind her.
“Don’t forget the deer spray!” my grandmother calls after her.
Auntie Eiko reassures her that Marge will find the deer spray. We gather around the graves of our grandfather, great-uncle and aunt, stripping long-stemmed flowers of excess leaves and snapping the bottoms off. I stand to the side and thread ferns through my fingers, just for the thrill of it.
“How’s Paul, by the way?” my aunt asks, picking the wilted petals off a peach colored rose.
“Paul?” I say. I twirl the feathery tip of the fern against my palm. I spoke with him on the phone two days ago. He was sick with a low-grade fever and had been tossing and turning on the eighth storey of his giant concrete dorm for a week.
“Paul’s fine,” my mother says. “He’s doing great. He loves Seattle. He misses everyone, though. He wishes he could be here.”
“Is he coming back for Spring Break?” my aunt asks.
“But I’m going up there to visit him for my break,” I say, just as my other aunt returns, deer repellent in hand. I’m trying to keep this family together for as long as possible, I add silently. We’ve gone through too much to pull apart across the miles.
“Got it, got it, got it!” Auntie Marge says breathlessly.
“Okay good,” my grandma says, from behind Grandpa’s cemetery plot. “Spray it good and hard. And don’t get it in our faces.”
Things we miss: Each other. Everyone living under the same roof. Driving around town on Daddy’s motorcycle, the two of us sandwiched between our parents on the slippery vinyl seat. Family trips to the zoo. Feeding tiny clusters of banana to the elephants. Sticky rice, eaten at breakfast with peanut butter and jam. The thrill of landing in San Francisco after twenty hours of flying. Disappeared friends.
Later that afternoon, our relatives gather around a table at our favorite Italian restaurant. My artist uncle, the retired high school teacher, asks me if I still miss Laos.
“It was almost home for you, wasn’t it?”
I swallow the mussel I had been chewing the past few minutes, grimacing a little at the dirty dishwater taste it leaves in my mouth.
“It was home; back then, at least. I’ve started feeling so at home in the States, though. I just get used to places quickly, I guess.”
“I just remember this one time when you guys were back for the summer, I heard your little brother say he wanted to go home and I thought wow, he still remembers that house on—on—”
“Yeah, that house on Pomona Avenue. The one with the shutters. He was just a little guy when you guys lived there.”
“He wasn’t even two.”
“And then I realized,” my uncle feigns a look of amazement, “I realized he meant he wanted to go to Laos. And I thought, now isn’t that something.”
I shrug and stab at my linguine.
“Isn’t that something? He was talking about Laos, and I thought he meant the house on Pomona. I thought that was really something. Seemed like he didn’t think America was home.”
“That’s about right,” I say. America never was home; not for Paul, not for me, not for my parents either, after fifteen years of living overseas. I turn to the vegan cousin sitting on my right. Too much talk about my family’s fractured history makes me uncomfortable.
“What did you look like when you were born?” I ask. My eldest cousin has just had her first child, and our grandfather’s memorial luncheon has been dominated by conversations about colicky babies and breast pumps.
“Well,” she said, “my mom said I was stringy. Long and stringy, with a big head.”
“At least you weren’t red and wrinkly,” I chuckle, thinking of all the times in Laos I scoured the molding pages of our old family photo albums for a sense of home. “That’s how Paul came out. We were looking at his baby pictures last summer, and I told him he looked like he’d been beamed down from outer space.”
My cousin laughs and forks a naked leaf of lettuce into her mouth.
When Paul left for college, I didn’t expect to feel sad, mostly because my family is so well versed in the art of leave-taking. Leaving is normal. Leaving home is something we have practiced over and over with dogged persistence. Leaving extended family is another; we have had a lifetime of practice. Over the years we have become so good at saying goodbye that it has become mere formality. We experience the faint clench of fingers around our heart as a vague unnamed emotion; little more than a twinge. It does not register as sadness, merely a sign that there is something new ahead.
Bidding farewell to Paul, however, was an iron fist that curled around the heart and refused to let go for days. We were not used to that feeling. During the long drive from Seattle to San Francisco, my mother cried in the front seat. My father drove in stony silence. I sprawled out in the backseat and stared out the window; as we made our way through the city and crossed the Bay Bridge I counted the taut iron cables that held the bridge suspended in open air, wondering when the goodbyes were going to end.
Things we wonder: Is this worth saving? Do you think we’ll need that? Where did this old thing come from? Who forgot to label this box? How long until we move again? Why are we doing this again? Are we ever coming back?
* * *
When Paul came home last year, our parents decided it was a good time to move. They had been planning to move back to the Pomona House for several months, but the tenants had taken longer to pack than expected and my mother wanted to repaint the walls before settling in.
A few days before Paul flew back to Seattle, the four of us filed into the house with mops and brooms. We immediately set to work cleaning up after the last tenants, a mysterious biracial couple that dropped the rent off on our doorstep without knocking, and then disappeared without a trace. The only things they left behind were a cracked ceramic vase, a mug with the handle broken off, and three mysterious rolls of Chinese brush paintings hidden on top of the china cabinet.
“Give me a hand in here,” my dad calls from the master bedroom, his voice muffled by the noise of the vacuum cleaner.
My mother leaves us in the living room and disappears into the bedroom. We hear her voice echoing down the hallway, “Are we keeping this dingy blue carpet?”
“Hey, give me a piggy back ride,” I say, reaching for Paul’s shoulders. “Come on, genius. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun for you, maybe. Do you know how much you weigh?”
“Shut up, genius.” I swat at his face and launch myself onto his back as he staggers around the room, crashing into walls and bookshelves.
“Yeehaw. Hold on tight, little sister!”
My laughter fills the house as we careen around the room. Paul pauses for a moment to catch his breath and we hear our father moving into the hallway with the vacuum cleaner, sucking up dust and leaving swaths of naked floor in his wake.
“The vacuum is coming, the vacuum is coming,” I shriek, and Paul takes off at full speed, jostling me roughly. “Stop—running—so—fast!” I gasp through desperate peals of laughter. “I’m going—to—fall!”
He starts turning tight circles in the center of the room, spinning faster and faster until my legs are splayed out like propellers and the world becomes a blur.
“Paul!” I scream, and suddenly, without warning, he stops.
Later, we gather in the empty living room and survey the bare shelves, the swept floor, the single lamp standing in the corner. The lines of the house are clean and spare, and we stand measuring the dimensions of our home, lost in silent worlds of private thought. Much has happened since we last lived here. In my mind I test the weight of this home, the first house we lived in as a whole family, against the memory of all the others that followed.
Our parents move toward the door and step outside. Paul follows soon after, mop and broom in hand. I am the last to leave, and as I turn to take a final look at the dark interior of the house, my father says behind me, “We have a lot of work to do here.”
I turn around with the words, “How long do you think—” on my lips, but the breath is caught in my throat before I can finish. I fall silent at the sight of my family standing luminous against the purple sky. Their faces are open, waiting.
Things we have saved: Ba Ba, Paul’s once colorful baby blanket that is now mostly gray flannel. The Chronicles of Narnia. Monopoly. The fear of moving. The uniforms we wore in middle school. My sixth grade teacher’s address. Photos from our parents’ wedding. Belief in God. The house on Pomona Avenue. Memories of us running barefoot through the dusty streets of Sapangmoh Village, dodging stray dogs and marveling at the strangeness of it all.
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