BY ANGIE SIJUN LOU
Once, when I was very young, I asked Baba what he did when there was no school during the revolution. Baba laughed and said he mostly just fucked around. He had just failed his entrance exam to university and every sober night he was buried in the same dream. In this dream he comes to class late, his breath reeking of whiskey, and opens the door to an empty room. In this dream he runs down a long hallway, and the sky is a horizon of smoke.
Instead of telling Nainai about his test score, Baba put his textbooks in his backpack each morning and went to the abandoned lot to race cockroaches and eat watermelons soaked in beer. He sliced them into fat cubes and let the juice drip down his double chin. When he came home at dusk he said, xingku le, school was so hard today. There were still watermelon seeds stuck in his teeth when the men took him away to the camps. They put a bag over his head and laid him down in the bed of a truck all night, weaving between dunes, the morning dripping light like a sieve.
At the camps the air was dry and chapped his lips. They shaved his hair off so when he looked in the mirror he saw a shiny egg staring back at him. So shiny he could almost see himself in it. When the dry season came he put his bald head on the earth and prayed for monsoons. They took away his keychain of Guanyin and wiped down his knees, scabbed over with prayer, and handed him a shovel instead. Dig, they said, so Baba moved piles of sand around, in a tropical daze, until it felt like he had dug up the desert and put it back.
I thought of the suburbs in Cincinnati where we had our first house, how Baba dug up the sand in the backyard to put in a swimming pool. The sun flared over our no- bedroom apartment while Baba filled the pool with cold water, laughing as it overflowed when he sunk his beer belly into it. He watched television by squinting at it through the open window. The television spoke to him about money and girls while he smoked cigarette after cigarette, each one lit with the end of another, ashing into his bright blue oblivion.
When I was very young, I asked Baba what drowning felt like, and he said not everything feels like something else.
Angie Sijun Lou is from Seattle. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the American Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Hyphen, the Asian American Literary Review, the Margins, and others. She is a Kundiman Fellow in Fiction and a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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