Before the end of my parents’ marriage, I couldn’t stop reading. I read everything—junk mail, Sears catalogs, magazines and textbooks, canned food labels, cereal boxes, street signs, and billboards. If it had words on it, I’d read it. I inherited this from my mother, who on road trips read mundane things endlessly. It was her way of passing time, of learning a language she feared. I understood my mother’s impulse. If you verbalized the word, it would gain meaning. So, I, too, read anything, until finally English made deeper sense. I felt as if I’d become one of the X-Men, a comic book series I read voraciously, and my new mutant superpower—reading—gave me control over my life. I no longer struggled with multisyllabic words like onomatopoeia or cornucopia or indigestible. My brain calculated the breaks in nanoseconds, and the tongue and voice corresponded just as quickly. I no longer found myself stuck between two languages—Thai or English.
Before this moment, I’d hit the language wall midsentence. This wall was like a magician placing a black veil over his trick, only he never took the veil off. I’d be stuck, sifting for the appropriate word in a given situation. At times, Thai slithered out unexpectedly. My white friends, Mike and Kevin, called these moments “Thai time.”
Thai time happened the day I confessed my love to Kristen Gildea, the new girl down the street. Kristen moved to Oak Lawn in the beginning of the school year and became every sixth-grade boy’s crush. She was pretty in the plain way and had a voice that was soothing, like the touch of velvet. I noticed her because I was riding my bike back and forth down the block, and she waved at me. A cute girl never waved at me. I tried to impress her by doing a wheelie, but I lost control of the bike and swerved into an oak tree. Her mother bandaged the scrape on my knee, and Kristen Gildea became a friend.
Each morning, Kristen and I walked to school together, both of us patrol guards, wearing bright orange sashes across the front of our clothes. We usually talked about TV, and once she laughed when I told her Moonlighting was my favorite show. “My mom watches that,” she said. “It’s kinda for old people, isn’t it?” I wanted to tell her it wasn’t. I wanted to tell her I watched it because of the love part, because of David (Bruce Willis) and Maddie (Cybil Shepherd) and their first kiss in a parking garage, a collision of lips. I wanted to tell Kristen Gildea that I imagined kissing her like that—in a moment of passion, no questions asked or answered. I imagined this often, as often as I imagined being a superhero.
Kristen became my first friend that was of the opposite sex. Something told me that I was slipping into a pattern of friendship with her. I could tell by the way we talked and walked, could tell by the casualness of it all. She began asking me about the other boys in class, where they lived, what they liked to do in Oak Lawn, Illinois. She expressed how she wasn’t all into the mullet haircut and liked boys who were clean-cut. “Kinda like you,” she said, which made my inside twist, “and like Matt,” which did not.
In the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I read a women’s magazine. My mother had gone in for a checkup, and I remember a bit of what the article said. Don’t let friendship ruin a possible romance. Get out of the friend zone. Pump up your game. I’m paraphrasing badly, and there were other tips like how to make it hotter in bed—which I assumed was a blanket-buying guide—but that article made me think that I indeed had to pump up my game, whatever that meant.
It was fall. The neighborhood was littered with leaves, and the Lake Michigan clouds were gathering over the neighborhood. Nerves made my hands tremble, my voice tremble. I bought a candy bar at the gas station and wore my Bugle Boy sweater with patches on the front—the new trend in late eighties’ fashion. I knocked on Kristen’s door, and she emerged with those dimpled cheeks I wanted to put my fingers in.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi,” I said.
“What’s up?” she said.
I thrust the candy bar at her with both hands, like an offering to a monk, and said in a rushed breathy voice, “I chaub you.”
Kristen’s forehead furrowed. “What?”
“Chun chaub you.”
“Chun like cune.”
“I don’t understand,” Kristen said. Her arms were folded across her chest. She waited for me to say something sensible, but I was fresh out of sensible. My brain flipped and reflipped words. Nothing connected. Nothing I could voice.
I did what I thought I should do in moments like this. I ran. I ran down the block. I ran home. I ran up the stairs and into my room, slamming the door behind me. There I stayed the rest of the night. There I ate the candy bar meant for Kristen. There I would stay for the following weeks, after Kristen agreed to be Matt Menegheni’s girlfriend. There, in order to forget the heaviness in my heart, I read.
In Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, Wright found himself confused and angry about where he stood as a black man in a white world. It was reading that unlocked his brain. “. . . I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.” Like Wright, reading connected me to place, made me feel less alien, less inhabited. With knowledge of words came knowledge of self-worth. I began believing in myself in ways I hadn’t before, began understanding the intricacies of the human heart, the complexities that existed in our lives. I wondered, for example, why my father did not return from work at the usual time, 11:30 p.m. I wondered why he no longer checked on me as I slept but headed straight for the telephone. I knew he was not speaking to my mother, who worked the night shift at Oak Forest Hospital, because of the playful lilt in his voice, the soft flirtatious whisper, followed, at times, by muted laughter.
Before this, we were a family of routine. I walked the same route to school, with the same people, and arrived at the same time. I ate dinner at the same table, in the same chair, utilizing the same plate, drinking water from the same Star Wars glass. My mother woke up at the same time and got ready for work at 8:30 p.m. on the dot, and she exited the house exactly at 9. I watched the same TV shows, brushed my teeth in the same way, went to the bathroom at roughly the same time. On Monday and Wednesday, I took Tae Kwon Do lessons. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, tennis lessons at the racquet club. My mother sewed at the same sewing machine, overlooking the same neighborhood, listening to the same Thai folk music cassette tape. She sewed only two types of clothes: nurse’s uniforms or elaborate Thai dresses. Change was something we did not take to well. It affected the rhythm of our day, my mood. This was how my immigrant family operated. We followed schedules because schedules were dependable, schedules gave us direction, schedules were safe.
Change, however, was the part of life I was entering. At Harnew, the boys stayed with Mr. Turek, our sixth-grade teacher, and the girls went with the school nurse. The boys watched a silly film about penises and vaginas, which we secretly giggled about but kept silent because Mr. T scared us with his overly husky voice and his ability to give detentions. The girls came back quiet and tight-lipped, faces pale as specters.
Change was also the thought of girls, like Kristen Gildea, creeping into my consciousness. Change was my voice. Change was the hair growing above my lip and other areas. Change. Change. Change.
Books eased me into this transitional time. In books, the world was different each day. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie siblings crawled into a wardrobe and entered a fantastical land, becoming kings and queens. Jack Torrance in The Shining transformed from father to deranged lunatic, trying to murder his family. Or Louis, the voiceless swan in The Trumpet of the Swan, laid hands on the trumpet that changed his life.
One night, my father came home at the usual time. I read in bed, leaning against the wall, Buddha above me. My touch lamp was on, A Wrinkle in Time, a book for school, opened on my lap. I was so caught up in the book I did not hear my father come home, or perhaps, I had become accustomed to another routine, one where he didn’t return.
“Boy,” he said.
I looked up. Smiled, surprised to see him.
“You’re up,” he said.
“You’re home,” I said.
He wore a magenta shirt and gray slacks, pens plugged into the shirt pocket. I noticed he hadn’t shaved, the fuzz around his face darker, fuller.
Yes, it was, but I couldn’t explain how good the book was to my father, how the characters used something called a tesseract to jump from one planet to the next, how the main character Meg Murry was falling for her friend Calvin O’Keefe. I couldn’t explain any of this because reading was a private act, something separate from my family. This was true, I would learn, for most people. It was the reason we sought quiet spots to ourselves—the lonely nook, the uninhabited couch, the empty room or park bench. In this way, we give ourselves over, letting go of the world we are tethered to, and allowing our brains to wander elsewhere.
“Chicken wings?” my father said. He raised a greasy paper bag; the room smelled oily and heavenly.
Friday nights were chicken wings with my father, a routine we kept from my mother, who would hate to know I ate after I brushed my teeth, hate to know I ate. But it was more than that. It was time with a man I rarely saw during the week because of work and school. It was time to be in his presence, to stare at him and think this is the man I want to become despite his oddities, to think this man loved me because he found time to buy chicken wings on the way back from work from a hole-in-the-wall dive on Archer Avenue, a neighborhood known for muggings and gang violence. And these wings, these wings were the best wings in Chicago, possibly the world, with their crispy coating, that audible crunch at first bite, the salt and pepper simplicity that assaults the tongue, the spurt of sizzling juice that steams the mouth. Oh, how I looked forward to them at the beginning of each week, reminding my father on his evening phone calls home to not forget, to buy more than the usual ten because I would be hungry. And when he returned home, I would have the TV trays pulled out in the usual spots—he on the Barcalounger, me on the chair my mother stole from the nurse’s dorm a decade ago—the napkins ready, two large glasses of water condensing. And there we’d sit in front of the TV, watching some bad cop show. There we’d eat, father and son, man and boy, and sometimes we’d talk, but mostly we’d be silent, enjoying this hour before going to bed, fatigue finally overcoming us, our fingers scented with chicken, our mouths messy with grease.
“No, thanks,” I said, and returned my eyes to the book.
Wright wrote: “But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing. . . .” It was Guilt that sat heavy on my shoulders that night, Guilt that blurred Madeline L’Engle’s prose into incoherency, Guilt like an accusatory finger. But this was also true: sometimes change hurts. Sometimes change defines what will happen, what is inevitable. Change, sometimes, is sacrifice of the thing we love most.
The only place I wanted to be besides my room was the library. I had been there a few years before, part of a Cub Scouts field trip. I remember being surrounded by books, remember the hypnotic trance I was in as I walked the cramped aisles. The floor of the library was stained and moldy. The concrete walls were cracked; the fluorescent lights flickered. That mattered very little. What did matter was this sensation that took hold of me, the rush, the high of being around so many books. I carried this high with me, and at times I’d feel the overwhelming desire to be in a bookstore or library, to be immersed among paperbacks and hardcovers. I’d run my hand along their spines. My eyes would speed through titles and authors. And there’d be the smell: the musk of paper.
There was no better world than one filled with books—mountains of books, prairies of books, oceans of books. This would be the landscape of my dreams, a world in which there was a new story every day.
My father did not read. I do not count the multiple volumes of astrological grids for his side job as a fortune teller or the chemical equations in his notebook for the perfect floor tile. I don’t count the numerous times he flipped through a golf magazine, and even then, I’m sure he was only looking at the photos. A book in my father’s hand would have been as alien to me as seeing him in anything other than pleated slacks and golfing polos. He was a man who, when he wasn’t working at the tile factory in south Chicago, when he wasn’t at the golf course, could be found planted in front of a television, watching bad made-for-TV movies.
What an anomaly I must have been to him, this pudgy-fingered boy of his who buried his nose in books and would seldom respond to anything. This boy could spend hours without uttering a word, could be so absorbed by a book he wouldn’t even take notice the presence of his father, a man he so admired and loved, watching him from the couch. Don’t get me wrong; this boy loved TV, too, but at that time, he loved the written word a little more, needed it.
Which was why it was peculiar when I asked if I could get a library card that my father would want one, too.
It was Saturday, and my father walked up to the library counter, me trailing behind. The librarian was Kristen Gildea’s mother. My heart still hurt. Hurt when I thought of Kristen and Matt holding hands after school, Kristen and Matt trading lunches, Kristen and Matt etching their name on the park bench I liked sitting on. My cheeks flushed, my legs went weak. I felt like I would tumble face first into the library’s dirty carpet. I wondered if Kristen told her mother about that afternoon. Told her how I spoke an alien language and then ran away. Told her how the past week I walked to school without her and how I turned the other way when she said hello. I wondered all this, feeling that familiar urge to flee again. But I was with my father, who possessed a fearless way about him. It was why he was promoted to supervisor at the tile factory, why he had power over so many other men, why it didn’t scare him to speak to white people, unlike my mother. In many ways, my father was like Atticus Finch, the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, a man who didn’t run from adversity, who stood his ground no matter what.
Whether Kristen’s mother knew of anything, she did not let on. She just smiled, fingers laced in front of her. She didn’t look like other mothers on the south side, not the over-smoked, pudgy ones. Kristen’s mother looked like an older version of her daughter—luxurious brown hair that was kept in a loose bun—rosy cheeks on a pale complexion.
She knew me instantly. “Ira,” she said. “It’s so nice to see you.” She bent over the counter and offered me her hand.
My father accepted it for me. “You know my boy?”
Kristen’s mother smiled. “He’s in the same class as my daughter. We live down the street.”
“My son,” my father said and stuck out his chest, “he like to read. Smart boy. Smarter than his papa.” He laughed, high-pitched and echoing. It was like an alarm in the quiet of the library. I stood away from my father. I knew what he was doing. I knew he was trying to impress this American stranger in front of him, this pretty American stranger.
Kristen’s mother, taken aback by my father’s laugh, straightened a bit. I could tell, even then, that she wanted to shush him, wanted to tell him to quiet down so he didn’t bother the other patrons, but his jovialness, his apparent lack of understanding of where he was and the rules that existed made her hesitant. How do you tell a foreign man who wasn’t strong with English, a man who was doing nothing wrong but being happy, to quiet down? These situations happened often, at other places, and they were always awkward.
“Let me tell you something funny,” my father said, leaning in, as if imparting a secret. “I say to him, ‘Boy, want some ice cream?’ and you know what he say?”
Kristen’s mother played along and shook her head.
“He say, ‘I’m reading.’ Any other kid, they drop the book and then they messy with ice cream. Not Ira. He messy with books.” My father laughed again.
Kristen’s mother looked at me and winked, as if she knew exactly what I was feeling at that moment. Her smile, like Kristen’s, put me at ease, made me feel understood. Or perhaps she detected in my father’s voice pride, that, yes, he was boasting, but he was boasting out of love.
She looked at my father again. “How can I help you?”
“Ira, he want a card.”
Kristen’s mother gave my father a form to fill out, which he handed directly to me without even looking at it. It was a standard form, asking standard information, making sure I understood late fees and renewal restrictions. I signed it, and within a couple minutes Kristen’s mother handed me the first laminated card I ever owned. Having a card made me feel like I had broken into the ranks of adulthood.
“What book would you like to check out?” Kristen’s mother said.
I looked around. There were so many books. That book high was returning.
“Would you like a suggestion?” she said.
Kristen’s mother took out a book from the return bin. “Just came back today. It’s great.” She handed me the book. It had a picture of a dog on the cover.
I read it. “Old Yeller.”
“Classic,” she said.
My father said, “I would like one, too.”
“What?” I said, and covered my mouth.
“You read?” Kristen’s mother said. It was a presumptive question, I realize now, that a man like my father, a Thai man who spoke English with missing verbs, could read. But I like to think Kristen’s mother was onto my father, that she recognized at first glance that he was a talker and not a reader.
“I read everything,” said my father. “Ira get reading from me. I teach him.”
I tried not to shake my head. To say anything contrary was to make my father lose face in front of an American. To lose face was to lose dignity. To lose face was a sign of vulnerability.
My father eyed a few books on the shelf closest to him. He strolled over to one and picked it out. I don’t remember the name of the book, but I remember the thickness, the girth and weight that made my father use two hands to put it on the counter. I liked to think it was War and Peace or Ulysses.
“You would like to check that out?” Kristen’s mother said, titling her head. I, too, was titling my head, tilting it so far the world looked sideways.
She stamped the back of the book, hesitated before handing it over to him. “Three weeks and then you have to return it, OK?”
“Absolutely,” my father said. “I bring it back in three days,” which he didn’t. He never brought the book back, never opened it, never touched it for four years. It was part of the things he left behind, like much of his clothes, his photos, his buckets and buckets of golf balls. When I cleaned out his closet after he moved out, I found the book. Dusty and heavy as a cinder block. I returned it. I paid the fines, which was more expensive than the book itself.
“Beauty of whatever kind,” Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “. . . invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” I was that sensitive soul Poe described. I remember this. I remember this because my mother a couple of years ago reminded me how hard and long I cried about everything. In her childhood stories about me, I’m always crying, always hyperventilating, my cheeks tear-streaked and stained. “Sensitive boy,” she’d say with a hint of wistfulness. I wonder whether she tells these stories to embarrass me or because she wants to remind me of who I was and how I responded to the world I did not understand, whether she misses that boy and his tears, the boy who came to her for everything.
I stopped crying when my father left. I detached myself from feeling, like him, who I remember during the worst of my parents’ arguments sat motionless, while my mother berated him for his infidelity. I carried an invective against tears. I was quick to point out how crying never truly conveyed hurt. What were tears, I would say, but a biological reaction, a way of protecting eyes from debris? Good actors can produce them at will. Slews of high schoolers cry in melodramatic fashion in the hallways of OLCHS. But if asked for what they truly felt, they couldn’t form any words. They were empty. They were fake. Tears, after all, were not language.
I missed that boy my mother spoke of, though. I missed him because he felt so easily. He did not trap things inside. He wept with the force of a storm.
I recall watching Little House on the Prairie when I was five or six. I don’t remember what the episode was about. I didn’t understand what was going on—the English too fast, the content too difficult to comprehend—but the music, epically orchestrated, ripped at me. The images on our old Zenith—swaying golden grass and expansive blue sky filled with bulbous white clouds—and of the characters—remorseful faces streaked red, faces pulled down with sorrow—sat heavily on my chest. The combination of these things put sadness, like a rock, in my heart.
Or the day I finished Old Yeller, reading it as soon as I arrived home from the library.
Imagine Sensitive Boy reading this novel about a dog. Imagine how he flipped page to page, in love with the writing, with the simplicity of the sentences, in love immediately with this dog, even though he is not described as handsome at all. “He was a big ugly slicked-hair yeller dog. One short ear had been chewed clear off and his tail had been bobbed so close to his rump that there was hardly stub enough left to wag.” And yet, the boy could not find fault with this dog because he felt he understood this dog and his imperfections. Sensitive Boy was not a handsome boy. He was never described as such. Sensitive Boy was described as sensitive, as Chubby, as Fat, as Gook, as Oriental, as Chink. Sensitive Boy loved too easily, and in the midst of this love, his heart breaks too easily too. Because of this, Old Yeller became real. Sensitive Boy could feel him under his hand, his coarse fur, could feel his wet nose. Old Yeller rescued Sensitive Boy, like he rescued Travis Coates and his family.
Sensitive Boy needed to be rescued.
My father was upstairs, watching golf. He came to check on me, my nose so close to the book.
“Boy,” he said, “back away a little bit.”
“Boy,” he said, “are you crying?”
“Boy,” he said, “why are you crying?”
I did not have an answer.