Kissing My Father
BY RENNY GONG
When I was maybe five, I wrestled my father to plant a kiss on his cheek.
On the living room floor, my still-pudgy fingers gripped and prodded his body. I puckered my lips and jutted my chin out, reaching with my mouth for his cheek. I struggled until my face was red and plump—head pounding, bones dense. I had to take off my shirt, drenched in sweat from the effort.
It was the only time in my life that I could really remember using all of my strength—naked feet, hardwood floor, shoving, jostling, writhing, pushing, knees, elbows, broad shoulders. Sometimes, I would fully be on top of him, flabby belly to flabby belly—a conjoined twin, father and son—both of us completely spent and panting, but even then I could not kiss him.
I thought about Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King, pinned under a mountain for five hundred years to learn patience and humility. This is my mountain, I thought, with my head pushing uselessly against my father’s palm. A mi tuo fo.
This would occur dozens more times. Sometimes, my mother would watch. She would also be out of breath, but from laughing. “This again?!” Sometimes, she would pull up a chair and eat a persimmon. We had a persimmon tree. Sometimes, several loquats. “Baba! Just let the boy kiss you!”
Now, my father drives me to the pink house—so shrill it is putrid, smack among a row of beige cookie cutters. Daffodils and other less obvious narcissuses line the front of the pink house, forcibly inserted into this lifeless concrete neighborhood. There is no symmetry here, only the loud drilling of something somewhere and the offputting entrance of this pink pink house.
On the drive there, my father says nothing—I have never met anyone else who is able to sit so perfectly in silence. He has never desired accompaniment—not music with his drives, not ketchup with his fries, not even water with his food. “How can you not drink water when you eat?” I asked him once. I think about the cumin, chili powder, and ground peppercorn coating the inside of his throat and get thirsty just watching him eat. I’ll drink enough water for the both of us.
In a trance, he turns and spins, looks back and looks back, the monotony broken only by the click-click-click-click of the turn signal. We drive through shades of gray and silver-colored-skies and an ale-colored river that cuts so sharply through the town as if to say, “you will not forget my presence.” And indeed it is this diseased river that poisons everything, the riverbank filled with blue bottle caps and dead fish.
And yet, there are those that worship this river, like the eight hardy men in the boat pounding and pounding away at the water until they puke or drown. The river cuts their hands open until they are bleeding and pus-oozing, but that’s alright, because the river makes them men. And my father loves this river too, and the people in it, the men with crying hands, the slender boats. “Look at that one,” he says, pointing through the car window at a boat on the river that is unmistakably Princeton. It is the only thing he says all car ride, until we pull up, as we always do, in the Stop & Shop parking lot across the street and I walk across the traffic to the house. By the time I get out and close the car door, he has already lowered his seat all the way down and closed his eyes. My father, more than anyone I know, can fall asleep on demand. I look at him through the window. He sleeps so openly, like a little boy—face wide, mouth open. It is the only time when I can really see his face, when it does not know it is being watched. He holds his glasses in his hands as he sleeps, both hands over his chest, clutching the glasses like a kid clutches a stuffed animal.
Inside the pink house is white, white, white. White walls, white ceilings, white white-noise devices peaking through every door. Unblemished, blinding, porcelain white. Even the inside of the bathroom is white.
Someone calls my name. An indiscriminate white door opens. The room I enter seems to be made of cushions. I sit in a couch lined with at least a dozen pillows. It sinks uncomfortably low and I feel every sharp and angled bone in my body. And then, the usual—I jibber-jabber and huff and puff while the therapist sits there and mhmms. She asks me questions that are more noises of encouragement than actual questions—her job is primarily yawn-suppression. It is until I can no longer hear myself, only the haahhhhhhhh of those circular noise-cancellation devices, that I up and leave.
On my way out, I use the white bathroom. My father is in there. We stand face to face, backs against the walls, both of us kind of crouching (it is a small bathroom). I am inches from his face. His shirt reeks of tobacco, but my father doesn’t smoke. He is my age and in love. Back home, someone is waiting for him, pregnant with a baby boy that will look just like him. He is thin and gaunt, with long shaggy hair and big framed glasses like all the handsome men of 1989. His cheek is smooth and un-stubbled and every day his smile becomes more wry and detached, the smile of someone who has nothing to lose. Nothing, except for the boy—the boy he must stay alive for.
It is early in the morning of June Fourth. He has dropped the makeshift flag he made from his bedsheet, from the dorm he shares with 7 other men. He is running through a sea of scattering bodies as the troops and tanks pour into Tiananmen Square. The live fire is indiscriminate; a woman falls from a balcony; a man drops flat, kneecapped. Cars that are tanks without turrets roll over barriers with a smash. There are fires burning everywhere, all of them flapping uselessly in the warm wind.
There is a man in a white shirt and green shorts, sweating, panicking, pedaling a crumbling bike. Attached to this bike is a wooden plank on wheels. And on this plank is another man, a man whose own white shirt is drenched in blood. He is lying down, his eyes closed. It is dark, except for the occasional blur of a flame or a flash or a flare, so the color of his bloodied shirt shifts from red to black to red again. So, the man whose white shirt has not been reddened yet pedals fast, going somewhere, anywhere.
My father runs and runs through this concrete field, and there is no exit, but he keeps running. Stay, you fool. Stay, you will be happier with a bullet than with America. In that bathroom, I watch him as he watches the smoke rise up from the debris. I watch him break his run into a walk and then sit down on a bench. He is all alone now and the hunger spreads in his stomach like a bullet-wound. He can’t remember the last time he saw a face that he knew, much less the faces of his roommates, those 7 other men he calls his blood-brothers. In the dark, all he can hear is his own shortness of breath and the automatic gunfire in the distance, still ringing. In front of him, he sees a pink house, so shrill it is putrid. He enters, this time with no derision. He walks down the narrow hallway and pulls open the white bathroom door. Inside, bodies pile high.
I burst back out into the steamy, too-bright world. The daffodils are still there, swaying in the wind. My father is still sleeping in the car. I rap my knuckles against the window. “Baba? Baba? Unlock the door, please?”
He awakes, shakes his head, rights his seat, unlocks the door, and I get in.
“Was it okay?” he asks.
“Was what okay?” It is the first time he has ever asked me such a question.
He points across the street at the pink house. He does not look at me, but instead down at his glasses, still in his hands. One time, when we were on the floor, sweaty and crazed, I somehow got past his line of defense. No, I did not get to kiss him, but my face rammed into his face, bumping against his glasses. They flew off his face and landed on the ground, not broken, but perhaps there was damage done. He stood up, pushing me away, with real force now, and said, “Okay, enough.” He left out the back door and stood there in the backyard for quite some time, tinkering with his glasses in the light.
“Yeah,” I say, looking at his glasses with him, “I think so.”
And this seems to put him into a fantastic mood, like nothing I have ever seen before. He puts on his glasses and reaches for the keys.
I keep looking at him while he drives. I want to talk to him about it—the midnight-flare, the dazibao that stretches for miles on walls, Operation Yellowbird, my mother back home, the AK-47s, the tear gas, but instead, he talks. I keep thinking I’ll open my mouth to say something, but he talks. He talks about Warren Buffet and the beauty of waiting. He says words like “Object-orientated” and “Polymorphism.” He says that the housing markets in Atlanta and Houston are “on the rise.” He says that Princeton is much easier to get into than Tsinghua, but you knew that. He praises the river.
When he says these things, I look at his cheek, the one I wanted to kiss—tough, bristled, dry, craggy.
When he says these things, he just goes. He says more words than I’ve heard him speak in a month, and there is a light in his eyes that I find strange and off putting, so I stop trying.