Age -3 months. You have not yet been born, but your mother and father are already thinking of names. They sit at the kitchen table of their cramped and drafty apartment, and your mother smiles and rubs her swollen belly, holding your father’s hand as he reads off his own list he’s carried in his pocket even before they left the Philippines. Isaac, after Isaac Newton. Stephen, after Hawking. Albert, after Einstein, of course. All good names, successful names.
And Jane, if you’re a girl. But you won’t be—your father’s certain.
Age 2. Under the light of a dim bulb in your kitchen, your mother washes the dishes from supper (chicken adobo and rice) while your father sits next to you and tries to teach you how to read. He opens a first-level reader, which he found in the dumpster of the elementary school he cleans, and points to the words on the page. The sky is blue, he reads. The sun is high. You glance over, but it’s all lines and squiggles and makes no sense, and you continue to bang your spoon on the table. The sky is blue, he repeats. He points again, this time shouting. His voice is too loud and you start to cry. He yanks the spoon out of your hand. Focus! Try harder! The sky is blue!
You slide off your chair and run to your mother, who is now on the phone speaking in Tagalog. You wrap yourself around her leg and press your tear-stained face into the soft fabric of her skirt and inhale the jasmine perfume she always wears. She picks you up and marches over to your father and tells him to stop right now, she’s two, don’t make her do this if she doesn’t want. He protests, but your mother is adamant. Later that night, while your father sulks in the living room with a medical textbook, your mother reads you a bedtime story, and you fall asleep to the sound of her voice.
Age 5. During recess today, you stay inside and write another story. You’ve got construction paper and markers of all colors of the rainbow spread out in front of you, and you conjure up worlds and characters in your head as if by magic. Anything goes in your imagination: you create families of cats who can talk, girls who can fly. You plant yourself in jungles, deserts, and snowstorms as you scribble and draw. It’s a wonderful thing.
Because even when your father comes home late from work that day, still in his janitor uniform, saying what he always says about how he was a doctor back home but here he’s stuck cleaning toilets, you can always retreat to the refuge of your mind. That is, until he puts a sheet of math problems in front of you, as he does every night, and tells you that you can’t have dinner until you get them all right.
Even this young, you’ve learned not to say anything, especially about your stories. Because stories won’t help you go to Harvard and be a doctor. You’ve memorized his words like a prayer.
Age 8. Christmas is tomorrow! Your apartment is cold (and your father won’t let you turn up the heat, even just a little), but you bundle up in blankets and watch the snow flurries outside the window as you read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Your father sits at the table with a bunch of paperwork, muttering about ‘green cards’ and ‘immigration’ and ‘citizenship’ and other things you don’t understand. Your mother is still at her waitress job, but she will take her bus home soon. In the corner, the news is on, showing footage of icy roads and skids and pileups.
The phone rings. Your father pushes away the papers and answers it gruffly. But a few minutes later, he is only nodding along, eyes wide. You look up from your book. He hangs up the phone, kneels down beside you, and clumsily takes your hand in his. There has been an accident. Your mother is not coming back.
The TV drones on: blizzard of the decade.
You still believe that she is only stuck in traffic or something. But there is no denying the way your father kept looking away from you and blinking, mouth set in a hard line, as if he was trying not to cry. And your father never cries.
Later that evening, after your father has gone to bed, you’re still tossing and turning. So you tiptoe over to the Christmas tree in the living room. You spot several shiny wrapped packages. And when you read the tags of one of them—to Janie, from Nanay—your heart twists. Nanay. Mom. You unwrap the package. It’s a blank journal, with a fancy-looking pen. There’s a note on the inside: For all your wonderful stories.
Something bursts in you. Suddenly you’re sobbing. And sobbing. And sobbing.
Your father’s door bangs open. Enough!
You stop crying immediately.
Age 11. Today, you stay in the library after the final bell rings to teach yourself the quadratic formula, even though you haven’t been taught it in class yet. You have to stay ahead, you’re better than everyone else. Outside, the soccer team practices on the green field, shouting and cheering, but you keep your head down. ‘x’ equals minus ‘b’ plus or minus the square root of ‘a’ squared—wait, no. ‘b’ squared. That was it. Start over. ‘x equals minus ‘b’ plus or minus the square root of ‘b’ squared minus ‘4ac’ over ‘2a’. That’s it. A small swell of pride, but it doesn’t last long. You recite it again. And again. Until you have a headache. But that doesn’t matter. You do this week’s homework problems. Double-check them. Redo them. Do other problems not assigned, because you have to know it all. Failure is not an option.
Last week, you were handed back your algebra test, but almost dropped the paper when you saw the glaring red A-minus. Your hands started shaking. Your classmates were glancing over at you, but you couldn’t stop yourself. How could you have been so stupid? And they were dumb mistakes too. Forgetting to carry the one, graphing the wrong equation. Those were mistakes for everyone else, not you. When your father found out, he taped the test to your fridge, next to his brand-new naturalization certificate, not because he was proud, but because he wanted to remind you that this was unacceptable. No crying. You have to do better, he said. For your future.
And you nodded eagerly, drying your tears, because you believed he was right.
Outside, the soccer team gives out high-fives, chugs red Gatorade, and laughs at some inside joke. You shake your head. Next problem. Focus.
Age 13. You wake up one morning to find your bedsheets soaked with blood. For a moment, you panic, but then you remember the videos from school. You’re not dying, you’ve just gotten your period. You stumble to the bathroom, yank down your bloody underwear, and sit on the toilet. Deep breath. What now?
A forbidden thought enters your mind: your mother. You’ve blocked out her memory for the past five years. Your father has removed all photos of her from the kitchen counter, the top of his dresser, the coffee table in the living room. He never says her name. Every time you mention her, even by accident, he immediately stops whatever he’s doing, goes to his room, and shuts the door. You still have a photo of her, but you have shoved it, facedown, in the back of your closet.
Your stomach clenches with pain, and you double over. It feels like giant hands are twisting your abdomen the way your mother used to wring out a wet washcloth in the sink before using it to dab your frosting-covered face. The frosting—it was chocolate. It was your birthday. You were only three, but you remember. Oh, you remember. Why are you remembering? You shouldn’t be remembering. You shouldn’t—you shouldn’t—
Then you remember her jasmine perfume. Two light dabs, one on each wrist.
Her thick black hair in a long braid down her back.
The way she read to you at bedtime. The way she pronounced ‘f’s like ‘p’s.
You’re crying now. You’re sitting on the toilet and bleeding and bleeding, and she’s gone. Gone. Gone. She’s gone and she can’t drive you to Walmart and buy your first pack of pads, or dole out Tylenol to help with the cramps, or anything. Not like the other girls at school. They have it easy. Not that you ever talk to them anyway, you’re too focused on schoolwork. Tests. Grades. Everything that actually matters. You haven’t written a single story in five years, not since your mother—
You take a deep breath. You’d better stop crying, or else your father will hear you. Sniffling, you wad up some toilet paper and stick it in your underwear, then duck outside, walk to Walgreens, and buy the first package of pads you see (and have no idea if they’re the right kind). You hope that when you return, your mother’s presence will be gone.
But no, you can’t get her out of your head. You want to, you want to so badly. Stop it, you tell yourself, or you’re going to cry again. Stop it, you have Biology homework to do. Focus. But nothing works. So you pick up a notebook. And write the first thing that comes to mind: Make it stop. It feels clumsy at first, but slowly your pen picks up the pace to keep up with your thoughts, and you’re spilling them onto the page. You remember how freeing, how exhilarating, it feels to write again. You remember the journal she gave you for Christmas. How she displayed your crayon-and-construction-paper ‘books’ on her nightstand. How she was the only one who could get your father to smile. How she encouraged you to write.
You don’t stop writing for a long time. Until finally, you admit: I miss her.
Age 15. You are at your aunt’s house for Thanksgiving—the aunt who came here twenty years ago without a single dime but managed to marry an investment banker, the aunt who persuaded your mother and father to move here in the first place because it was so much better. There’s an entire table of food in the center of the living room, under a dazzling crystal chandelier. All your favorites – chicken adobo, vegetable lumpia (the egg rolls at the school cafeteria are nowhere near as good), and rice, of course. Too many dishes to count.
You let yourself close your eyes for a moment and inhale the ginger and garlic, the juicy roasted pork that you can practically imagine melting on your tongue. You think that these could be good details for a story someday – one of your creative writing how-to books (which you secretly checked out from the library) said to always use concrete, sensory detail. Specific is terrific. You want to take out your notebook from your back pocket and write down everything that you see, and smell, and hear, but your father is across the room. He’s wringing his cracked, wrinkled hands as he talks to one of your aunt’s friends, and he’s not even looking at you, but you know he’s watching all the same.
You grab a plate, fill it to the brim with food, and worm your way through the crowds of people, finally finding a relatively quiet spot on one of the living room couches next to the crackling fireplace. You lift your fork and start to dig into the pancit, but before you can even take a single bite of noodles your aunt approaches you. Oh, Janie, you grow up so fast! she says, how is school going? Is your dad okay? I keep offering him money but he always says no. You’re so tall, your hair is so long! Just like your mom. Do you have a boyfriend yet? You smile and nod, say all the right things.
She asks: What do you want to be when you grow up?
You freeze. At that moment, your father walks into the living room, and he makes his way over to you and your aunt. You can feel the spine of the notebook in your back pocket digging into your skin. What do you want to be when you grow up? your aunt repeats. Your father’s gaze zeroes in on you, bags heavy under his dark eyes.
Writer, you want to say, writer writer writer, but he’s watching, and his hands are so dry and cracked and wrinkled, and it’s the first time in a month you’ve seen him without his janitor uniform, and in your apartment the medical textbooks he used to read are now collecting dust on a shelf. He’s watching. Waiting.
Doctor, you manage to spit out. I want to be a doctor. An anesthesiologist. Just like your father is. Was.
Your aunt nods, impressed. Your father then reaches out and puts his hand on your shoulder. That’s my Janie, he says. I knew there was a reason to be proud of you.
And then you can’t help it, you stand up straighter and feel a warm glow in your chest. He’s proud of you. Has he ever said that before? He’s proud. He’s proud. He’s proud.
But of what?
You look down at your plate, but you aren’t hungry anymore.
Age 17. You’re sitting at your desk during third-period AP Calculus, being lectured at about the Mean Value Theorem. Or something like that. Your head is bowed, and you’re scribbling down everything Mrs. Dunbar writes on the board, but your mind keeps drifting somewhere else. Focus! Focus focus focus.
You write: Suppose f(x) is a function that satisfies the following three criteria:
Your father lost his job. He told you this morning, calmly, as he was spreading cream cheese on a bagel, like he was talking about the weather.
1. f(x) is continuous on the closed interval [a, b].
You weren’t surprised at all. He’d been skipping work at least once a week for the past three months, and almost every day this past month. He’s barely left the apartment, and you’ve come home from school every day to find him in the same grubby t-shirt watching trashy TV with the sound off.
2. f(x) is differentiable on the open interval (a, b).
Some days, he hasn’t even gotten out of bed by the time you get home from school. Some days, he barely talks to you. He hardly reacted when you showed him your rejection letter from Harvard. And Yale. And Princeton.
3. f(a) = f(b).
Only two more months until graduation. Then (and you feel guilty for even thinking this) you’ll be out of here. No more coming home to a dim, drafty apartment. No more having to do all the cooking and cleaning while your father is zoned out in front of the TV. He’s pathetic, okay? Pathetic. There, you said it. You know something’s wrong with him but it’s too much for you. Him and his pathetic stained sweatpants and unshaven face and wrinkled hands.
Then there is a number c such that a < c < b and f'(c) = 0.
Does that make you a bad daughter?
When you get home from school that day, your father doesn’t answer (as usual). His door is closed. The counter is sticky, you notice (from what? You don’t want to know), and you go under the sink cabinet for cleaning supplies. And then, you see it: Two bottles of Jack Daniels whiskey. Your father never drinks. Did he buy these today?
Immediately, you take the bottles, one in each hand, and dump them down the sink. You will not let him do this. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t. You think, what’s going to happen to him when you’re gone? You’ll be gone, you will be. You can’t stay. You can’t take this anymore.
Your hands are shaking. You run to your room, close the door, and open your journal. You write and write about the life you’re going to make for yourself once you graduate. You’re going to a state school in the fall, which is fine with you. You have scholarships. It has a good creative writing program (not that you’ve told your father). It’s three hours away from here. Two months until graduation. Five months until move-in day. You can do this.
Your mother’s photo studies you from your desk. You take a deep breath. You try to picture what she would think of all this. You run your finger along the spine of your journal. At least you have writing. You’ll always have writing. You imagine her smiling like she is in the picture, or putting her hand on your shoulder as you think about your father and how pathetic he’s become. Of course, if she were here, none of this would have happened. Everything would be fine.
Tears brim in your eyes. You pick up the photo. You want to hurl it against the wall. You imagine the glass shattering, your mother’s photo falling behind your tall dresser. Your fingers clench around the frame. But you think better of it. You set the photo back where it was. Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.
Five months until move-in day.
Age 20. It’s Christmas Eve, and a blank Word document stares at you as you sit in your dorm room. Everyone in your building has gone home for break, but you’d rather stay here. It’s better that way. On your nightstand, your mother’s photo, faded with age, smiles at you, her long black hair spilling over her shoulders. You don’t have any pictures of your father. It’s better that way.
When you first got here, you used to call him, every two weeks or so, just to make sure he was alive: Hello, how are you? Good. How are you? Fine. Stale, empty words. You didn’t ask anything you actually wanted to know: how long has it been since you left the house? Are you working? How many bottles have you gone through this week?
It’s Christmas Eve. A month ago, you called your father and (deep breath) told him that you declared an English major. He blew up, as expected: English? After everything he did for you? Did he clean toilets for twenty years just so that you could throw it all away?
You wanted to scream back: what about you? You’re pathetic, lying around the house and expecting me to do everything you say. You think you can force your twenty-year-old dreams on me while you watch TV and collect unemployment? Can’t you see me for who I am? Will I ever make you happy?
But you didn’t say any of that, back then. Instead, you swallowed, dried your tears, and hung up. You haven’t spoken to him since.
It’s Christmas Eve. You drum your fingers on the keyboard. Your mother died on this day, twelve years ago. Died died died, you think. It’s not so hard to say anymore. Last year, you even practiced repeating it to yourself in front of the mirror – Mom died, Mom died, Mom died – until the words didn’t even sound like words, only jumbles of meaningless sounds. Now it’s a fact. A simple statement. Mom died. You can finally accept that.
You know she’d be happy with you. She’d be happy that you’re devouring books like candy and writing every day without fail. She’d be proud of you for excelling in all your creative writing classes. She’d be ecstatic to know that you have friends now, for real. She’d be relieved that your hands no longer shake when you get an A-minus, and that you don’t beat yourself up every time you make a mistake, academic or otherwise.
It’s Christmas Eve. A story is forming.
You put on your headphones and start to type. You are a sculptor now, working with clay. You chip away, rearranging a sentence there, adding in words there, chopping off and adding paragraphs. A shape slowly emerges. The clock strikes midnight. You can’t stop now. You keep working. And finally, you’re done. One look at it and you know, you just know, that it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. You can’t explain why. You just know.
In moments like these—finishing a good story, getting back a high test grade—a small piece of you wishes you could show your father. He’d be proud of you. But you shove that thought down. You don’t need him.
You open a new email. You type in his address. Attach the file. Press ‘Send.’ Close your laptop. What’s done is done.
But it’s Christmas Eve. You pick up your phone. You dial.
A second later: the number you have reached is no longer in service.
Age 22. You are sweating under your black cap and gown as your name is called. Under blue skies and a blistering sun, you walk across the stage, trying not to trip in your heels, and shake the dean’s hand as she hands you your diploma. You turn to face the sea of black robes.
And then you see him. In the stands.
You squint, but there’s no mistaking your father, his downturned mouth, his dark, wrinkled face, his gray hair. He’s sitting stiffly, away from the other families, but he’s watching you. You make eye contact.
You don’t return to your seat. Instead, as the speaker continues to read off names, you climb up the steps to the bleachers, trying not to wobble in your high heels. Now, this isn’t a movie. You don’t break into a run and smother him with a hug. You don’t cry. You approach him, calmly, disbelievingly. Why is he here?
Your father, wearing a heavy jacket despite the heat, says nothing. He reaches into his pocket and unfolds a neatly folded stack of papers. Your eyes widen. You recognize this. It’s your story, the one you sent him a year ago. You were certain he wouldn’t read it. But here it is: the pages are worn, as if he flipped through them multiple times. A few coffee stains dot the margins.
He hands the story to you, still making eye contact. You realize that he looks like he did when he told you your mother wasn’t coming back, when you were eight: like he’s trying not to cry. His mouth is set in a hard line. His eyes glisten.
The story in your hand is the best one you’ve ever written. You glance at the first line: My mother wore jasmine perfume every day, no exceptions.
Your father says, I’m sorry.
You don’t forgive him right there. No way. He’s not getting off that easily. You take a step back, thinking of all the times he made you do math problems in exchange for dinner, grounded you for every A-minus, made you cry and shake and panic for not being good enough for him. You know you’ll always remember that.
But you think of him, how he almost slipped away. You think of what it must have taken him to show up here today. When he had been so far gone.
It would be a lie if you said everything became fine at that moment. Showing up is not enough. He still has to prove himself. In the end, it will be up to you as to whether you want him back in your life.
It will be years, decades even, before you two are ‘fine.’ There will be bumps, misunderstandings. Rehab. Relapses. Recovery, eventually. After that golden graduation ceremony, you will not find a job for three months. You’ll file papers, wait tables, and yes, clean toilets. At times, you’ll wonder what you’re getting yourself into. He’ll slip up and remind you occasionally that you could have been a doctor, but you’ll just shrug, take a deep breath, and work on editing the current chapter. You know you’re doing what you love. When you finally sell your first novel, he’ll be ten years sober. And no matter what happens with him or what he says or how you get along, you know that you’ll be a writer for the rest of your life.
Right now, under the blistering sun, he steps closer. You shake his hand, cautiously, and notice that he’s wearing his wedding ring again.
He says, She would be so proud of you.
You can’t help it. You smile.
This will make a good story someday.