Winner of Mediaminer's mini-Autumn/Winter Contest 2007.
Summary: A mother and daughter choose different paths for (un)happiness.
The Elusive Illusive American Dream
There's a lot to be said for living alone. Sure, sometimes I get lonely, but I've been living on my own for a few months now and I have my job to keep me busy during the day and my pet cat to snuggle with during the night. Weekends are spent running errands and catching up with friends and family. No boyfriend yet, but it's really not a bad life at all.
And after years of kicking my brothers in the groin, biting their arms, pulling their hair, and other tactics employed during fights over the television, there's nothing like the peace and quiet I now enjoy - to be able to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it. Tonight's plan was to settle down with a large plate of Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese (best brand, for real) with broccoli (to make it seem healthy), and a diet Pepsi (to be calorie conscious).
I placed my soda can and dinner plate on my coffee table (no placemat or coasters, who cares about the rings, just position your plate and cup in the same place each time), sat down on my plushy sofa (decided to get one big enough for 3 to 4 people instead of a single comfy recliner for myself, even though I rarely have guests thanks to my cubicle size apartment), picked up the remote, turned on the TV, flipped to my favorite show, and I was all ready for a relaxing evening.
This was also my cat's cue to jump on my lap. Mei-mei had already eaten and was also ready to settle down for the night. (Mei-mei means little sister in Chinese. I've always wanted a little sister, but my mother was unable to comply with my wishes and instead disappointingly had another boy when I was four, so my older brother won out.) Before I had my dinner, I gave Mei-mei a rub down, running my hands through her soft black fur, from the top of her head to the tip of her tail, then in reverse. She purred in contentment and closed her green eyes.
I carefully balanced my plate on my cat who didn't mind being used as a lap desk. She helped keep my dinner and my body warm in the cold apartment. It seemed the landlord was loath to turn on the heat any higher than the minimal amount required to keep the pipes from freezing, despite the early winter frost forming on my window.
Ahh, " American Idol" with American comfort foot, American health food, and American diet beverage, who could ask for anything more?
Then the damn phone rang. I could have ignored it, but the constant ringing interfered with the next wannabe pop star's horrendous audition, and hanging judge Simon's caustic remarks. How could I afford to miss that? I quickly placed my dish back on the table (missed the watermark), pushed poor Mei-mei off my lap and onto the cushion next to me (she yowled in protest then went back to sleep), grabbed the VCR remote to record the show (even though it was a repeat and new episodes weren't due for another month), got up and finally picked up the phone on its eighth ring (no money, no answering machine, no caller ID).
It was my mother. All hope for a nice quiet simple non-stressful evening vanished faster than the crying monkey girl after Simon's insult.
"I called to remind you that I have a doctor's appointment next week," she said directly, without a polite "Have you eaten yet?" (the customary greeting among the Chinese).
"Yes ma, I remember. I'll be there," I said, trying hard not to sound annoyed. The next audition had twin blondes, both with huge breasts, and both dressed like the Swiss Miss girl on my hot chocolate box (the sugarless version). They started yodeling. Possibly drug induced spacey judge Paula hung her head in despair. Possibly stomach stapled dawg judge Randy's eyes rolled up until only their whites were visible. Simon looked as if he were on the verge of destroying the twins' dreams of success with a single quip. I really, really wanted to hear it.
"How's your apartment? Do you have enough heat?"
My attention was drawn back to the phone uncomfortably cradled between my left shoulder and chin. Finally, some parental concern. "It's fine. The heat is okay," I lied. If she knew I had no heat, she'd be on another lecture about how I'd get sick, how I should report the landlord to the police, and how I should never have moved out.
"Your father and I had a fight yesterday, and now he has a cold. He always gets sick after a little argument. He does it on purpose to punish me, so now I have to take care of him."
So much for parental concern. I already knew where the conversation was headed. I sighed and sat down again by my now cold dinner. I gave up on following the contestants' antics and cynical Simon's snarky comments and turned off the TV. Instead I tried to figure out how having an argument could possibly lead to a viral infection.
"He wouldn't get sick so often if he lost some weight. He keeps gaining weight and I keep losing weight. I have to do all the cooking and cleaning while he just sits there and watch TV ( so that's where I get it from ). When I ask him to do a little shopping, all he does is complain about how much money I'm spending. I'm just spending money on food for him and you know how much he eats - three times as much as a regular person."
"Uh huh," I said as I scooped the cold macaroni and congealed powder cheese sauce into my mouth. It just wasn't as good cold and without Simon's company. And not anywhere near as good as mom's cooking. I really miss her seafood pan fried flat rice noodles.
"And he never cleans up after himself. The bathroom stinks and the floor is sticky. A two year old can piss better than him!"
"Uh huh," I said as I forced myself to eat the broccoli despite the disturbing imagery. (I try, I really try to eat vegetables, but let's face it, green stuff is for cattle and cattle is for human consumption. We're on top of the food chain after all.)
"He's always telling people how badly I treat him. Me? How badly I treat him? I've taken care of him for thirty years (It's actually twenty-six but who's counting?) and I treat him badly? He's never so much as boiled a can of soup for me when I'm sick."
That's another exaggeration. My dad has made soup from scratch for her. But she has to give him step by step instructions every ten seconds.
I was done with my dinner, but she was still going at it. I took a sip of my soda. It wasn't flat yet. Thank God for little things.
"So we fought because he blamed me for his misplaced keys. He accused me of taking them. I told him I didn't do it! Why would I? I have my own keys in my purse where I always keep them while he leaves them all over."
"Why don't you just divorce him," I suggested for literally the hundredth time. (I think the first time I suggested it I was six years old, so seventeen years times six times a year is a hundred and two, minus a couple when I was too sick to talk.) She had always said she stayed for the children and did not want her kids to grow up without a father. I guess she felt it was better for kids to listen to three hours of fighting every night and to learn every Chinese swear word. (My brothers and I don't have an extensive Chinese vocabulary, but we do know several names for the various private parts and their related actions.) I was curious to see what excuse she would use now that her three kids were grown and all moved out.
"Divorce? Well, a couple of my friends about my age and even one in her sixties have gotten divorced. Their husbands were even worse than mine. At least your father doesn't gamble or drink."
"But you're miserable. Your blood pressure is up due to stress from living with him. All you do is complain about him. Maybe you should just separate and live apart." I regretted my suggestion immediately. What if she decided to move in with me? Maybe she's allergic to cats. One can hope.
"I'm not moving out. This is my apartment with my name on the lease. And he won't move out." She paused for a moment as if she were seriously considering her options.
I took advantage of the break in conversation to get up and rinse my dishes in lukewarm water before the macaroni and cheese hardened to an impenetrable crust. Mei-mei woke from her nap and wound herself around my ankles, purring and looking for more attention. At least my feet were warm.
"No, no divorce," she finally said. "If I were to divorce him, he would go back to China and marry some young gold digger." (Gold digger? My father received a fixed income, social security only. The poor girl would be in for a very rude awakening.)
She continued after a slight pause. "Even a man his age can get someone with the promise of US citizenship. But a woman.a woman my age is worthless. I'd rather stay with him and make him miserable, as miserable as he makes me. No, no divorce, I'll take him to the grave with me if I could, rather than give him a minute of happiness. He's never given me even that much."
So there it was. She'd rather have the two of them guaranteed miserable than take the chance that he'd be happy. There was no chance that she'd be happy. That was not among her calculations. She was so used to being miserable.
My dishes were done and so was most of my favorite show. But my mother was not. "Have you found a man yet?" she abruptly changed topics, so typical of her.
"I haven't been looking. I'm too busy with work." It was a lie and she knew it.
"Don't be a fool and marry someone as lazy and selfish as your father. (I knew the conversation would somehow turn back to her complaints.) I had many boyfriends. But my mother wanted me to marry someone who could bring me and eventually the rest of my family to America . Look what I great choice I made. I should have stayed in Hong Kong . I could've been successful there. Not like here where I barely know the language. But everyone wanted to come to America where the streets were paved with gold. It was all a lie. I had to sell all my gold jewelry to keep us clothed and fed. I had to work six, seven days a week because his job didn't pay enough. And now all these years later, what do I have to show for it?"
"Umm, three healthy, employed kids who are self-supporting, drug-free and not in jail?" I suggested. We were all good students and law abiding citizens, but we knew she was disappointed in us. Not one of us became a doctor or lawyer. How could a mother hold her head up?
She scoffed at my comment and sighed. "It's fate. There's nothing to be done. I'm not long for this world anyway. The doctors say my condition is from stress from working all my life. I told them it's your father."
"The appointment is Wednesday, right? I'll be there," I interrupted, hoping she'd get the hint.
"Yes, don't forget. It's getting late. You should be going to sleep soon - you have work tomorrow."
"Yes ma, goodnight."
I finally hung up the phone and looked at the clock on the VCR. My show was over. Not a record for her though - she's able to continue her ranting for three hours. This from a woman on thirteen heart, high blood pressure, and diabetes medications who claimed to have labored breathing problems.
I turned off the VCR, turned the TV back on, and flipped to another channel. (I'll watch Simon and company later.) The reception was off. I had to wiggle the wire to the cable box (pirated cable, no money, not a licensed box) and accidentally knocked off the single framed forced family photograph taken ten years ago. It fell to the floor. The glass cracked with the line running between my parents.
I picked it up and looked at it closely, which I hadn't done for years. There we all were, with my parents sitting in front, my brothers and I standing in the back. We were dressed in our best (only) suits and dresses. Not one person was smiling.
She never loved my father. She married him for a better life. But for all his faults (I have to agree with my mother on most of them), I think he must have loved her in the beginning. She claimed he pursued her, not realizing all she wanted was an opportunity to come here. Yet she could have left him. All these years she's stayed with him. Was it really for the children? Was it really to continue to make his life miserable? Can anyone be that crazy? No, what she was afraid of was being alone. That's why she holds onto him; that's why she calls me and my brothers several times a week at home and at work. After all, it's better to be miserable with company than alone and miserable. But neither was a desirable choice. One was an angry, stressful misery; the other a sad and empty misery.
People who pursue the American Dream, who are willing to sacrifice anything, even humiliate themselves on TV for five minutes of fame, were they happy? I was determined to marry a man I loved and not settle for anything less, no matter how old I was or how poor. Someone who would help me with chores and clean the bathroom if he missed. Someone witty and handsome like my dear Simon (but less rude).
And if I couldn't find that man, I resolved to be happy alone. Alone with Mei-mei (or future cat replacement), Simon (or future celebrity obsession), and my TV (ideally a 52" LCD HDTV with picture-in-picture, digital cable, and TIVO; not my current barely color 19" which is no longer produced or my old VCR on its last rewind), in a nice warm apartment.
One can always dream.