I’m nine the first time I hear her voice on the phone. She sounds like poison and lipstick smeared on front teeth. She asks me where my father is. I confuse her for a telemarketer so I tell her I’m not sure.
“Don’t lie to me,” she says, and I can hear her Shanghainese accent poking holes through her Mandarin, “fucking cunt. Give the phone to your dad.”
In hindsight, I should’ve hung up. But instead, I suggest to her that he could be at the supermarket. Something not too far from the truth. He’s actually outside having a cigarette.
There’s a pause on the other end before I hear the dial tone.
When my father comes inside, I tell him what happens. He stares at me with this perpetual look of apathy on his face and mumbles something like, “Oh. I see,” before he picks up the telephone and spills his apologies over the dining room table.
My mother is angry when she finds out. I fabricate some details and tell her I’d said something like: “Speak English. I can’t understand what you’re saying, you ugly bitch.” It’s not the truth, it’s not my style, and had I said those words under any other circumstances, my mother would’ve taken a broom and beaten me until my back turned a gradient of blues and purples. But in the moment, it makes her laugh, so I laugh too.
That laughter doesn’t last long because a week later, my mother is lying on the floor smelling like rice wine and vinegar. I can’t remember what she’s kicking and screaming about but I remember her teeth wrapping around my father’s hand, and his scream when she bites down. I start crying because I think my mother will eat me next.
My father spends half the year in Shanghai. My mother doesn’t divorce him. He feels trapped. And so, like all trapped men, he loses the women he loves—the Shanghainese woman—to time. But she’s already taken everything—his business, his money. She runs. And my father becomes the ghost of the man he thinks he is.
I turn thirteen when he finds another to replace the first woman. This time, she’s twenty years his junior. He starts to spend the whole year with her. At some point, he marries her and stops coming home. My mother divorces both of them when I turn eighteen. She tells me I shouldn’t hold too many grievances against him, that he hasn’t done anything wrong to me, that he isn’t a bad person, that I should make more of an effort to keep him in my life. He is my father, after all.
But I know the words she doesn’t say out loud. You didn’t matter to him as much as her. I keep my mouth shut and this becomes some stupid secret I bury inside myself.
My mother becomes more forgiving the more she falls in love with someone else. When my father makes plans to move to America, she offers him the guest room in our house as a temporary space until they move into a new apartment. Our house becomes unbearable; I begin to suffocate.
My father’s new wife breaks one day in the living room; and I hear from the staircase fragments of a fight that wants to turn into a war.
“I don’t need to be with you,” she tells my father, “you fucking old man—you’re sixty-eight. Why the fuck should I be with a senior citizen? I hope you fucking die.”
She leaves and my father has this half-look of despair and helplessness on his face; he turns to my mother, who peeks her head out from the kitchen. He tells her, “I’m sorry,” and—a pause, “I’m useless now. I know. I’m sorry.”
I cry when I hear because that’s the only thing I know how to do.