Find Part I here.
View this short story in the December edition of the journal here.
After waking up, I expected to see my father in the living room. Instead, I had another night to myself. At first, I was scared. It seemed as if the entire world had thrown itself into an eternal midnight. For the last two days, my waking hours mostly consisted of darkness. Sunlight was a fading memory.
The living room looked as if it were sprawling with shadowy forms, except for the coffee table illuminated by a single blue streetlight. I flicked the lights on and immediately noticed the dinner plate dad had left me. He had done the dishes, and I guess left to the bar for his routine. I called Yori and asked him to pick me up.
In high school, Yori and I were on the debate team. He was a year older than I, which gave him the paradoxical task of encouraging and defeating me. He had to keep his title, while also giving me enough wiggle room to grow. The Spencer School was respected for debate, and we went in understanding the centrality of the sport to our institution. Yori introduced me to the ropes of the art, and then showed me the various debating events I could choose. I originally wanted to do Lincoln-Douglas Debate, but our coach saw potential in us being partners in Public Forum and Policy. Indeed, we were unstoppable in either event. I’m sure Stanford was impressed by our national titles.
Aside from the accolades, however, there were nights where we would just stay up talking about life, gossiping about teachers and students, watching mindless videos for hours. We would always show up late to roll call in the morning, knowing that our coach couldn’t remove or penalize us. People eventually started calling us “Asian Persu–Asian”, and we carried that title with pride. We blasted through opponents, left with trophies and medals, and had secure spots as valedictorians in our respective classes. By all accounts, we were ideal students.
Unfortunately, Yori didn’t get accepted into any of the institutions he wanted. He had everything he needed to get in: a remarkable story, the academics, the accolades, the recommendation letters, but they all fell through.
Even after we had won the national title during my junior and his senior year, he looked unsatisfied. When we returned to our hotel, I was elated just to pull off my suit and toss the formal leech into the closet. Meanwhile, he was changing out of his outfit more methodically. He didn’t even utter a word or make a sound.
“What’s up?” I asked.
He turned and smiled, as if this gave me closure.
“What happened?” I demanded.
Yori leaned back on his pillows after removing his shirt. He then sighed away what little energy he had left, “I was around this group of girls today. We were the only guys in the out-rounds, remember? When you had left, they started talking about where they got into. The first one said, ‘Harvard.’ The second said, ‘M.I.T.’ The third said, ‘Princeton.’ And then I told them I was going to a state school. One of them chuckled and then they moved on. The next one was ‘Harvard.’ The other was ‘Stanford.’ It then occurred to me that the national title doesn’t mean anything. All the kids we beat still get their dream schools. They still get their ticket to greatness… Maybe this will mean something for you one day, Ren.”
I was too elated by our victory to digest his words. I nodded and pretended to understand his pain; but, in all honesty, I didn’t know what to say. I doubted there was anything I could say really. And then he continued: “I was trying to get a prom date this year. I always avoided going to parties and school outings, because I just never saw the use. Well, I asked this girl if she wanted to go, and she turned me down politely. I was sad, sure, but I didn’t think much of it. And then one of my friends showed me a screenshot of her group chat. They were joking about my size, the idea that Asian men are smaller.” He curled his body towards the window, away from me, “Everyone’s laughing now, Ren.”
My speechlessness started bothering me. I didn’t have any words that felt right for this moment. So, I grabbed a book and escaped to the lobby.
I sat there for about ten minutes, trying to read, before my team surprised me with a cake. One of them asked where Yori was, and I told them I would get him. When someone asked if he was okay, I said nothing back. And as that silence lingered, it began speaking more than I had intended.
Yori gave up on his dreams after that. He moved into an apartment nearby and just spent his days working in a warehouse. I would tell him not to waste his mind away, because whenever a topic filled him with passion he would speak profundities into existence. He still had his intellect, and his wit remained intact. And, in those ways, he would always be Yori.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes he made in his life was going to the gym. After a few months, he had toned his body into something wonderful. And, when I’d asked him why he was doing all of this, he’d tell me it’s for his mental health. But, I knew that answer was only partly true. On one hand, I knew exercising helped him stay sane. It seemed to be the only thing that kept him motivated. But then there was this other side of him I can never forget. That hotel room memory still colors my perception of him. I will always see him as that broken soul I couldn’t save, that older brother who drifted away from prominence and into dishonor. Indeed, after cutting off his parents and many of the people who truly loved him, I didn’t know who he was trying to impress anymore.
He picked me up soon after I called, and we sat in his apartment eating some sushi he had prepared, “You know, my grandfather was a sushi chef. He introduced me to the art when I was younger.”
I was more in love with his nigiri than his story, “How much did this tuna cost? This is insane!”
“Thank you, but I’ll keep the price a secret.” he wiped his hands clean and asked, “So, what are you in the mood for tonight?”
“Probably not drinking. I’ve been feeling drowsy lately. I don’t think last night helped.”
“Probably not.” he was cleaning his equipment now, causing metals to chime lovely tunes, “How’s your father doing?”
I made the drinking motion to Yori, and he understood.
“Ah. I see.” he paused then said, “You know, you should try rebuilding your relationship with him.”
“I think it’s fine.”
“No, I’m being serious. I know I’m not the best example, but… your father isn’t a bad guy. You shouldn’t blame him for what happened. She was going to smoke anyway.”
“Okay. I’ll take that into consideration.” I wanted to change the topic, so I turned the television on. There was nothing worthwhile except for the news and a few classic films.
“Before you go off to Stanford, you should go to the gym with me. I can show you what workout routine you should be doing up there.”
He finished his work in the kitchen and joined me in the living room. We were both trying to find a channel to settle on, but nothing compelled us. It took him some convincing, but I eventually got us to watch some anime. At first, he was appalled by the seemingly feminine overtones of the show, but then he appreciated its charm and aesthetic by the end. He was impressed by what I got him to waste three hours of his life on.
It wasn’t until after the binge session that I recalled what was on my mind. As he was gathering the bits of rice we had dropped, I told him about my dream and the real memories wrapped inside of it. He was silent throughout, from the beginning with Juniper to the end with my ominous self. That meant he was either perplexed or knew exactly what was going on. I waited to see his side of the dichotomy, and he did not disappoint.
“Your dream has no meaning.” he said bluntly, “It’s just telling you that you still feel guilty about the past. You still have feelings for Juniper, right?”
“It’s a yes or no question.”
“Then, yes. I still have feelings for her.”
“Why?” His tone roughened, “You had the chance to be with her, and you threw that opportunity away.”
“Women aren’t everything, Yori.”
“Look at you.” he shook his head as he went to the fridge for a glass of milk at midnight, “You said in your ‘research’ that women are essentially beautiful and that men long for something like that beauty. Men long to be ‘sophisticatedly desirable’, ‘unified with their bodies and aesthetic appetite’, as you put it. Next thing you know, you had the chance to be with someone beautiful and you–” he stopped himself, “Sorry, we shouldn’t be doing this.”
“You’re so sensitive, Yori.” I was ready to let him hear the truth, how I really felt about his lifestyle choices.
“No. Actually, I’m going to finish my thought.” he positioned himself upright just as he did during debate rounds, “You debunked your own thesis. You want to be beautiful; you want to create yourself into some kind of masterpiece or character; but when you had the chance to obtain the masculine ideal you so highly covet, you chickened out.”
“I could have never achieved that ideal, Yori.” I snapped, “I wasn’t her ideal. And, the harder I tried to make myself into that, the more I hated myself. You know, I’ve tried going to the gym; but it just feels like a cult of the body. It feels like I’m trying to make myself into someone I’m not.”
I was confused now: how did merely explaining my dream cause all of this?
“Sounds like a personal problem, Ray.”
I decided to let loose: “I see you working out every day, trying to perfect yourself, but we both know you could have been so much more. It’s a punch in the gut to see you living like this!”
“You’re right.” Yori was pacing around the kitchen, “I am wasting my life. I’ve embarrassed my parents, my family’s reputation. I had my whole life planned in front of me, and then I watched everything fall apart. Every institution rejected me! All the options left were pathetic. Now, look at you here lecturing me about how I should live my life. But, you got your dreams. You got what you wanted.” He set his cup of milk down and continued. “No one cares about what you did in high school. No one cares how much you worked, the mental health issues you got in order to be valedictorian, how you ruined your body for the sake of your mind and ‘academic development’. No one cares. And, it’s funny that Stanford admitted you. That institution has discriminated against people like us, but you act like you’ll change everything. Yes. You’ll finally set things right on Asian masculinity. No you won’t. They don’t want to listen to us. No one wants to listen to men talk about beauty. No one wants to hear men like us talk about beauty. You can publish your novel ideas in all the Ivy League journals you want, but no one will really care. You can try sharing these ideas to the community, but no one wants to talk. It’s a lie, Ren. It’s all a lie. So, go to Stanford. Enjoy those years, because they’re all vanity in the end.”
“What are you saying?” I murmured to myself as I walked out the door. Once again, I felt like I was locked in that hotel room. I had to escape. I momentarily had an inclination to return to him, maybe finish the argument or apologize, but I decided to call an UBER instead.
Throughout the day, people were complimenting me. I tried to pretend as if nothing had happened, but they persisted with the extraordinary responses. Some of my friends clapped and hollered when I stepped into class, and some teachers would even respectfully nod or shake my hand as I walked by. All of these little gestures were delightful, until Yori’s spirit struck right after: what if I’m really destined towards nothing? What if all of my dreams, my work, my passions are absurd? What if none of my thoughts cohere, and I’m just pursuing a non-existent ideal?
When I returned home that evening, my father had prepared a delectable meal, probably spending more than he should have. He had prepared Sashimi, Soba noodles, and Miso soup. Seeing the slices of raw fish in their colorful variety and all the work he had poured into the Soba and Miso were humbling. In fact, when he invited me to the dinner table, there was something different about his appearance. He had finally shaved and gotten a haircut. For once, I could see why people said I looked like him. There was a traditional handsomeness to his appearance.
“What do you think?” he asked with a smile.
Like any good son should, I praised and thanked him for the food, “This looks wonderful, dad. Thank you.”
“Well, let’s eat.”
We immediately dug into our food. Of course, we maintained appropriate table manners, but we were eating like starving men. I understood why my father was in a ravenous fit, he often forgets to eat, but I didn’t understand my appetite. I inherited my mother’s smaller stomach, but, for once, I was starving for my father’s cooking.
“I read your paper on men and women.” my father began lightly then proceeded further, “It brought back two memories.” he looked over to see if he had my attention, and I nodded, “Growing up, I used to plow the fields with water buffaloes. There was a day where I wanted to play a joke on my brothers. So, I ran and tried to hide in the bushes. I wanted to scare them. Apparently, the bushes had been sliced a particular way and, as time passed, the leaves had covered the sharp points. I tried hiding but ended up stabbing my legs. Instead of scaring my brothers with a joke, I walked out bleeding. I don’t remember what happened next very well. But, when I went to the hospital, I saw my father in the room with me. He looked poised even though he was covered in my blood. After what you wrote about, on masculinity, I wondered… What if we can only be masculine in our homeland, our culture? And, when we made the transition from there to here, you lost that identity?”
“Are you saying I’m not masculine?”
He had stopped eating now and examined me with honest eyes, “You don’t understand masculinity... And, I’m to blame in part. I thought about the movies I took you to see as a kid, about the sports I expected you to play, and how I never encouraged you in other areas. But, your mother, she was there. And she loved you. And, when you gave yourself to her, as she had given herself to you, you and I should have seen that as the masculine ideal.”
His eyes were beginning to swell with a canvas of memories. He wiped them away and then used a napkin to clean his face, “When I read what you described as the feminine ideal, it didn’t sit well with me. It reminded me of when I was a younger man. After the war, things were more liberalized. We didn’t have arranged marriages so much anymore. So, I had the chance to pick and choose. In fact, I had a girl before your mother, and she was beautiful. She could have been a model. But, I thought about her, and then I thought about your mother who was just my friend at the time. The woman I was dating was certainly beautiful and, in some sense, made me feel like a ‘man’. But, I didn’t want her to know me. I didn’t want to be weak around her, and I always made her have to earn my humor and vulnerability. She also complained she never felt truly present around me. On the other hand, your mother, my friend at the time, she knew me. And, I reasoned, if I am going to be a man, then I want to be loved. After all, things that are loved become beautiful over time. And, I reasoned further that if I am going to be loved, then I want to be known.”
He paused to look at me again and then bobbed his head a few times. That was his way of preparing a confession: “Your mother wasn’t the embodiment of some feminine ideal. She wasn’t even my ideal love. In the end, she was my only real love.”
He cleared his throat, then closed with, “In America, you were raised to pursue ideals but not reality. In Asian culture, we are willing to sacrifice ideals for real beauty. As your father, I failed to see that. I didn’t know how different American culture was, so I assumed like my father and your grandfather that you would grow up like us, believing what we believed and adopting our traditions. I never cared to articulate them. I just lived them out without knowing them fully. And that’s when I began taking things too easily. I stopped doing little things for your mother. I took her for granted. Soon, I started smoking to cope with my sadness. I couldn’t articulate my emotions or my traditions. And then I passed it to her. She picked up that horrible habit from me, and the more I abandoned her, the deepest she fell into it. You are now my last chance, Ren. For so long, I was afraid of acknowledging this reality. I wanted some ideal where I was absolved of responsibility. But, now I see, son. And, I am sorry for what I have done and failed to do for you.”
I looked at my plate, the delicate Sashimi slices napping at the center, and excused myself. I had never heard a confession before from my father, and I didn’t know how to confess my back.
His confession brought a cleansing pain over me. All of my distorted images of masculinity, beautiful, and power were ripped away. These ideas that I had clung to and that, like leeches, were draining my peace, were gone. I was finally human again.
In revealing himself to me, my father had exposed my core predicament: I don’t want to be known.
The more I meditated on my father’s apology, the more I realized I had been finally granted agency over my beauty. My father’s apology placed the onus of change in my hands, and it frightened me. For so long, I had assumed the possibility of change, especially radical change, was nonexistent. But, my father had introduced a paradigm shift to my worldview. Beauty is not something for me to achieve. It is something I already have, something I have the opportunity to give and make more of.
And that’s when I thought about Juniper, about talking to her.
I didn’t want to talk again because of some existential quest to prove my masculinity, my legitimacy. There was a genuine warmth, one I had never felt before, to make amends and let the truth flow out of me. I wanted her to know how sorry I was. I wanted her to believe in the possibility of me changing.
But, I knew it was an absolutely ridiculous idea and that the likelihood of her picking up was zero – until that myth was dispelled. Her voice emerged on the other line, and our worlds intertwined again.
“Hi… This is Ray.”
“What do you want?” her voice was tough, and rightfully so.
“Let me be honest. I’ve thought about how I treated you, and I know nothing I can say will change the past. But… I am sorry, and I accept my fault. I hope you can forgive me, or at least let me earn your forgiveness.”
She was silent for a few moments. And then those moments extended into what eventually felt like forever, until she split the chain of infinite silence, “There’s a coffeeshop on Windsor street. You’ll go there first. If I choose to show up, then I’ll give you a chance. If I don’t, then that’s my right. Saturday at 9 AM. Capeesh?”
“Ren… I really hope you’ve changed.”
She ended the call and left me speechless.
[…] Jump to Part II. […]