By James Yeh, originally published in 9/16/10 (2010)
This was around the time my favorite aunt, Imelda Yeh, died. Because Imelda was my father’s sister, and because I had very little money, my father, not a typically generous man, offered to pay for my flight to the funeral, and I accepted his offer without hesitation, because I loved my aunt, and because I also wanted go somewhere different than where I was, to feel that lost and alive feeling when you wake up someplace that is not your own bed.
It was mid-September. The cool air made me nostalgic. I was twenty-six. For work I moved heavy objects for rich people, a shitter job for a shitter time. I would consistently find myself in the middle seat of the three-seat moving truck, riding to and from jobs. I asked for a week off and booked a flight with my father’s credit card number.
The funeral was in San Francisco, the city I used to live in and have spent a good deal of time trying to describe for you, its air, and hills, and loneliness. At the viewing my mother cried very loudly. It made my cousin, Imelda’s daughter, start to cry too. The crying was infectious; I think it was the forcefulness with which my mother cried. It surprised us. We had known what everything would be like and my mother’s loud and forceful crying was not this. It was too absurd to be fake and I think we realized that. Everyone, it seemed, was now crying. I started to cry too. But I was crying because I felt guilty for not visiting Imelda after her stroke and because now there was nothing I could do to apologize or make up for it.
I was crying for myself.
My sister and I went up the open casket and we stood there quietly, heads bowed. Imelda’s face was a deep pinkish color because of all the makeup. Imelda’s hands, folded across her stomach, looked wrinkled and small. She looked very beautiful, there, surrounded by flowers and photos, beautiful and a little grotesque. My sister and I stood for a while, bowed again, and then returned to our seats. My father was next and I watched his back as he stood quietly, head bowed. I do not believe he cried; in fact, I’m certain of it, as I’ve never seen him cry. His shoulders remained square and his head unmoving. The rest of the procession followed, my cousins, my other aunts, my mother, who was now trying to quiet down. She pulled out tissues from the small Ziploc bag she carried around in her purse at all times, because that’s the kind of person she is. She blew her nose.
I looked through the memorial pamphlet I had picked up earlier. “IMELDA YEH, 1942-2009. Cherished mother and sister.” The pictures inside were striking. My aunt had once been an appealing young woman, the kind I would find attractive at a coffee shop or standing in a line—of course I had never really known or realized this, while she was still alive. The Auntie Imelda I had known had been a mostly unlikeable little woman with messy thinning hair and an unexpectedly loud voice. She spoke little English and spent most of her days criticizing, in Mandarin, her younger sister. She seemed to derive a certain exuberant pleasure from bossing around my mentally disabled cousin. Every night she watched Chinese soap operas with the volume up too loud, punctuating her viewing with hoarse laughter and a variety of scoffing sounds and mutterings. Once, during dinner, she had told me every grain of rice I left in my bowl would be a “pockmark upon the face of my future wife.” Imelda and her husband had gotten divorced at an early age and she did not remarry. I never saw her talking to anyone who she wasn’t related to. Her romantic and sexual life remains a mystery to me.
In that way, she is preserved, beautiful and slightly inhuman.
My mother came up to me and held my arm. Still crying she said how Imelda was her good friend and how they didn’t like each other at first—in fact, they practically despised one another and had had frequent and loud disagreements over, among other things I would later discover, me, how my mother was doing me a disservice by not teaching me Chinese, by not forcing me to attend Chinese school—but then my mother and my aunt Imelda grew accustomed to each other. They had reached an understanding. I nodded and hugged my mother and then the viewing was over and we were led outside by the funeral director, a stately black woman with long gray braided hair.
At the graveside two men in dark windbreakers with work gloves jammed into their back pockets fastened a series of belts onto the casket. Officiously one of them pressed a large red button (it seemed as inappropriate then, as it does now) and the casket began to lower, noiselessly. A light rain began to fall and my father and a few of my cousins placed their memorial pamphlets over their heads, to keep out the rain.
To be honest, I had viewed the whole thing with sadness, but not without a certain amount of anticipation. That I might see a side of my father I had never seen before, that I might get to know him a little better. We were getting older, I knew, and each time I saw him, over the holidays, or during times like these, I felt a growing sense of urgency to understand him. How did he feel? I tried to talk to him about it, a few days later, while we were driving around in the rental car, toward dinner.
It’s sad, I said.
It’s not sad, my father said quickly, but without emotion. It’s just the way it is.
But don’t you think— I was about to respond, but then I realized there wasn’t much I could say. It was how it was. But wasn’t that sad, how things were and how there was nothing you could do about it but figure out how to accept it? I looked out the window as we passed the southern part of the city, its open land and foreign-looking houses dotting the hillside, how it looked nothing like the rest of the city. I felt sunshot and full, imagining some large vague South America.
And then the feeling was gone. My father didn’t say anything else, although I was aware of his presence, of his attentive listening. We drove on without speaking.
When I returned to Brooklyn, where I now lived, in a noisy room above a bar and beside an elevated train, I found that things remained pretty much the same, the way things usually remain pretty much the same. My father I did not talk to. My mother would call me on the phone and I would press ignore and she would leave a message and I would check it, several days later, while standing outside a restaurant. Jem, she would be saying. How come you never turn on your cell phone? Irritable. Mommy need to talk to you. Mommy love you. I would laugh and feel very strongly for her and then forget it.
At work I volunteered for tasks that offered limited supervision—packing things, assembling bed frames—and then, if reprimanded for being slow, I would find the heaviest thing I could lift and ferry it to the truck, refusing any offers of help. Man, you’re going to kill yourself lifting like that, said one coworker, a drummer in a band I didn’t like, and I would grunt and struggle on ahead, or smile unattractively. After work I was seeing a few different girls, of wildly varying appearance and presentability. One would go away and another would take her place, just as I would go away and someone like me (or not at all like me) would take my place. It’s how it was. This bright feeling. I just wanted to feel and care for someone and be OK. I remember one night pacing my apartment, taking great pleasure in feeling the soles of my bare feet against the smooth and, in certain spots, mushy floor. My windows were opened as far as they would go and I could hear the sound of the train and of people talking in the street. The air felt cold and tense, as if something important would happen right then, some unknown thing I knew would pull me forward to some other thing: perfectly shiny and round, like an enormous ball bearing. I covered my mouth with my hand and made as forceful of a sound as I could manage.
And then I began to feel afraid.