A short story that speaks to the complications of family and to the amount of space the ghosts of all ancestors take up…
by: Patty Somlo
A few weeks after I met Howard Chang, something started happening with the lights.
“You know the light that burned out in the bathroom?” Howard asked me. “I just changed the bulb the day before. Ever since I met you, the lights have been burning out all over the house.”
It wasn’t hard for me to see why our relationship might have been short-circuiting the electricity. Howard and I couldn’t keep our hands off one another. We tried waiting — or rather I tried, since Howard saw no point in waiting — but within a week’s time, we were unbuttoning, unzipping, and kissing like each kiss was keeping us alive. We both were certain we’d found our soulmate.
Howard was my second Chinese-American boyfriend. Alan Lee had been my first. In fact, I was recovering from the end of my relationship with Alan when Howard came into my life. I thought Howard Chang was the cutest guy I’d ever met, with his black spiky hair, small, muscular body, and a smile I believed could knock plugs out of the sockets.
After informing me of the burnt-out lightbulbs, Howard went on to explain.
“It’s my dad,” he said. “He’s upset about you.”
“What can we do about it?” I asked, bracing myself for Howard to say he was ready to call it quits.
“I already talked to him. I told him I’m happy. I said, ‘I know you want me to be happy and I’m happy with this woman. It’s okay, Dad. Things are different now.’”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything. But I think he understands.”
Though Howard claimed to have talked with his dad, he had actually conversed with Chang Wing Hong’s ghost. Howard’s father had been dead for nearly a year, from complications following a massive stroke. Howard had fought with the family to honor his father’s wishes not to be taken to the hospital, but the family refused. Howard’s father was an herbalist, with no faith in Western medicine, for himself or his children. When Howard was sick, his father would study his body, gazing along the various meridians to find the source of the illness. Afterwards, Howard would be forced to drink a bitter-tasting herbal brew. As a treat, his father always gave him a small piece of ginger candy to suck.
Chang Wing Hong’s attitude toward relationships between Chinese and Caucasians was as unwavering as his feelings about Western medicine. He warned his American-born children never to get involved with “White Devils,” as he called us. He supported this belief by pointing to the terrible discrimination suffered by the Chinese after coming to America. Nothing but heartache could come, he argued, from a Chinese-Caucasian union, which would drain a Chinese man of his blood.
For weeks after his father’s stroke, Howard silently pleaded with God not to let his father die. One night, Howard studied his father’s face, noticing a purplish-gray shadow hovering underneath the nearly translucent skin. Wing Hong had always been a wiry man, with a strong body from long walks and daily tai chi. But he’d gotten so thin, he had the appearance of a fragile child.
Howard looked into his father’s eyes, cloudy from massive doses of morphine. He watched the jaw clench and the mouth grimace into a tight, bitter line. It was the first time Howard managed to see beyond his own pain and grief and accept how much his father was suffering.
Leaning close, Howard brushed his lips against his father’s sunken cheek. The skin reminded Howard of rice paper. He thought about long-ago afternoons in their two-room Stockton Street apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when light filtered through the rice paper shade. He remembered how strong and handsome his father was then, a real ladies’ man, and that his parents fought about his father’s affairs with other women and his drinking. Howard hated the fights but loved his father and wanted to be like him. Strong.
Howard kissed his father on the cheek, making sure not to press his lips too hard against his father’s skin. He moved his mouth up slowly and let it rest a breath away from his father’s ear. He knew what he had to say, and that once said, the words couldn’t be taken back.
“You can go now, Dad,” Howard finally whispered. “It’s okay. I’ll be alright.”
The next morning when the phone rang, Howard knew his father had died.
As Howard and I got to know each other, I began to see it wasn’t only the ghost of his father that hovered over our relationship. There was his ex-wife, Karen. Though ten years had passed since the divorce, she still hung around the corners of the master bedroom in Howard’s townhouse. Some nights, she slipped down between Howard and me, sliding her face over mine, so that Howard would get confused, thinking he was talking to her. Whenever Karen was in the room, Howard and I fought.
She had left Howard for a man she’d been seeing behind his back. He didn’t know a thing until the morning Karen told him she was leaving. Now, he understood the danger of not paying attention. Days we were apart, he called me three, and occasionally four, times a day. He wanted to know everything I was doing.
Karen wasn’t the only woman that came between us. His mother was there as well, sometimes fighting for space with Karen. Ng Mei Li lived alone, in an apartment atop Nob Hill, far enough from Chinatown to say she’d made it out, but close enough to arrive there in five minutes’ time by bus to shop. Even though we’d never met, his mother hated me for not being Chinese.
Howard was Mei Li’s youngest child, her final spitting of life into the universe. She had hoped another son would keep her husband home, away from other women, drinking, and the Chinatown gambling parlors. But as she put on weight, he went out more often at night and came home later. She sat in the sweltering, sewing factory where she worked, her swollen feet and legs aching, cursing Wing Hong for making her pregnant again, and hating the unborn child. Mei Li no longer cared if the child was a boy. She started to hope he would die.
The baby boy with the sweet face and dazzling smile arrived on a hot Indian summer afternoon with barely a struggle. She looked at the child’s purplish-red face framed by thick straight black hair and whispered, “Bad thing. Why didn’t you die?”
One night when Howard was telling me a story about a trip he had made to China with his mother a few years back, I saw Mei Li enter the room. In China, Howard told me, he and his mother stayed in a hotel where he struck up a friendship with a pretty, young desk clerk who had dreams of one day visiting California. At the end of the stay, Howard stopped at the front desk to say goodbye and give the young woman his address, in case her dream of travelling to California became a reality. After Howard walked across the lobby to where his mother was waiting, he could tell by the way she had wrapped her arms tightly around her chest that she was mad.
“What are you talking to that girl for?”
She spit out the words, as if they had an unbearable taste.
“I was just giving her my address,” Howard said. “She wants to come to San Francisco one day.”
“She doesn’t want to visit you. What girl would want you?”
As Howard told the story, I watched his mother’s bitter expression fall across Howard’s face. The suntanned skin of his cheeks turned pale.
“She always used to say to me, ‘I wish I never had you.’”
Mei Li’s hatred of her youngest son only seemed to bring Wing Hong and Howard closer together. This made her resent Howard even more. As soon as Howard was old enough to walk, Wing Hong took his son with him all around Chinatown. He even had his son accompany him when he visited his women. What Howard remembered is that each woman gave him a different kind of treat — this one an onion cake, and that one a piece of ginger candy. All the women looked at Howard and pinched his cheek, saying what a beautiful boy he was, but Howard knew they were wrong. The woman Howard most wanted to love him — Mei Li — didn’t think he was beautiful at all. Howard understood that each of his father’s women wanted to get on Wing Hong’s good side. They knew the way to do that was to flatter his favorite son.
During those years when the anger and bitterness wrapped themselves tightly around her chest, something happened to Mei Li. People stopped listening when she spoke — her children, her husband, and even the other seamstresses. So, she started to talk to herself. Since the world felt she should be ignored, Mei Li chose to live in a different world, populated by invisible, angry women like herself. Those women understood what it was like to raise six children who didn’t appreciate what their mother had sacrificed. They had husbands who found other women more appealing than them. They also saw the world as a dangerous, evil place.
As Mei Li got older, her world shrank. After she retired from the sewing factory, her life was confined to the ivory-painted walls of her apartment and the bus ride to and from the shops and restaurants in Chinatown. Technically, Mei Li was still Chang Wing Hong’s wife, but she slept in a separate bedroom, that is when Wing Hong came home to sleep at all. He had pared his list of other women down to one. If he had been a man who thought nothing of bringing shame down on his family, he would have divorced Mei Li to marry this other woman, whose skin felt like the smooth oily surface of a pearl. With little other diversion and no one to take her outside herself — except for the occasional visit and phone call from one of her children — Mei Li constructed a world in her mind of neighbors, politicians and shopkeepers bent on doing her harm.
It was Howard who answered Mei Li’s desperate call the night she was hearing too many voices and seeing too many things that weren’t there. He made the decision and signed the form to have his mother committed. And out of all Mei Li’s six children, it was Howard who cried when he looked in his mother’s bewildered eyes, as the kind, uniformed men led her into the ambulance.
Whenever Howard and I went to eat at Lum Yuen, our favorite Chinatown restaurant on Stockton Street, we imagined seeing Mei Li step inside. We tried to guess her reaction at catching her least favorite son with a Caucasian woman. Some nights Howard would order tomato beef with noodles, wonton soup, and a special spicy prawn dish for us to take out. We would wait for the food outside, in the thick light that embraced San Francisco on rare summer evenings absent of fog. I would watch the old Chinese women walk past, their backs curled like damaged fork tines from too many years bent over a sewing machine. The women were always dressed in bright red, gold, and green brocade jackets, the fit a little too snug, and black polyester pants that never quite covered their ankles. Gray-flecked black hair was thinned to wisps at the top, and their small feet carried them forward in black knock-off Nikes. They carried large white plastic bags, covered with red Chinese characters, their bodies as weighed down as the parcels must have made them feel.
Each time I found myself standing with Howard in Chinatown, I imagined that one of those small, stooped women was Mei Li. I pictured her stopping to stare at me, but then looking right through me, as if she couldn’t bear it. This must have been the way she acted seeing one of Wing Hong’s other women on the street or ordering pork in the market, where the bright red slabs of barbecued meat danced in the window. This was how she observed those women — their good figures, painted fingernails, and stylish clothes — but didn’t let them know she saw. Then, she took the anger and bitterness and wrapped it like a long bolt of silk around herself, pulling the smooth shiny cloth tighter, until the pain took her breath away, and she was able to forget.
I saw Mei Li in the sullen sideways glances of old Chinese women as they passed. I heard her bitterness in the unspoken thoughts I could see in their faces.
The night Howard told me he needed to get some distance from our relationship, I knew this wasn’t what Howard wanted. It was the ghosts of Howard’s family crowding in between us.
Much later, I came to understand the amount of space the ghosts of all families take up. When a man and woman meet, word travels fast and the families come, without ever being called. One family member might fiddle with the lights, while another instigates arguments. The space soon becomes filled with old familiar smells and the feel of a mother’s fingers on one’s skin.
The night after Howard ended our relationship, I had a dream about a man who was a combination of Howard and my previous boyfriend, Alan Lee. We were in bed together when Howard’s parents suddenly walked in. Seeing his parents, this Howard-plus-Alan man quickly got up from the bed and left the room. I looked for Howard’s parents, trying to understand what they had said or done to make him leave. But no one was there.
The next morning when I answered the phone, I was greeted by a nearly forgotten voice. Like a ghost coming back to hover around the corners of my room, it was Alan Lee, as if he had never left. Or as if, like the ghosts of Howard Chang’s family, he had been there all along.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest and in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.