Minh Vu

© Copyright 2018 by Minh Vu

Photo of a cigarette burning in an ash tray.

Childhood memories of my father are hazy. They remind me of the cigarette smoke that filled the car every morning on the way to school. These swirls would always dance to my finger’s conducting, then slowly evacuate through the tiny window crack. I thought these swirls were what wind would look like if it weren’t invisible.

Unlike most recollections of childhood, I can’t pinpoint concrete moments to savor. There was really no punctuation growing up—everything was elided, a bunch of smoke wisps obscuring my line of sight. What I remember instead are the gaps between the supposed moments immortalized in the scrapbook of me. I don’t remember any first days of school, just the disappointment of starting the car early but then having to wait for my father to finish his smoke and eat his microwaved Eggo waffle. I counted time by watching the Vietnamese coffee drip. Nor do I remember the names of my teammates or bandmates, just the buzzing silence of watching my father speed past through what he called “orange lights.” I grew very fond of the whizzes of passing cars, because each one meant I’d be a little less late to practice than I already was.

This sort of twisted, distorted sense of time I carry now was instilled by my father and his compulsion to gambling. Growing up in the heart of Atlantic City, casinos and pool halls were second homes. I went every weekend, and how mesmerizing was it to take that step from the drab, real-world concrete and onto the royal carpet—the dangling chandeliers, the singing slot machines, the rattling of poker chips that looked like tasty chocolate coins. For me, the casino was paradise.

But for my father, the place was a prison. Whenever our family went to the boardwalk, he’d drop me and my mom off at the door and comfort us with a fake promise of his hasty return. I was numb to these lies, as I’d watch him turn around and spin through those wretched revolving doors again, knowing I wouldn’t get my dad back till next morning. When my mom and I would finish, we’d walk through the casino to stop by and “cheer our man on” before going to the valet. I saw the same cycle of pain each time: the eye rubs, the dangling tuft of dry yellow hair, the overheard lights re-dying his hair white. I witnessed it—the reflections of rolling slot numbers flashing through his eyes, the acquiescent murmurs to my mom about being home early, the tipsy 5 A.M. stumbles onto our couch—the loss of my father. Like his promises at the boardwalk, the casino was a vacuum of lies and decay. I watched my father slowly suffocate in that place, like I suffocated in his cigarette smoke.

Whenever my dad forewent his babysitting duties and conspired with me to not tell mom, I spent most of my days in my grandma’s room. We’d lie on her bed which smelled of Salonpas, and stare at the patches of water stains covering her ceiling. As if they were stars. She told me stories of a young boy from Vietnam:

He was a beautiful boy with lavishly long hair and a dapper smile that made grandmothers in bamboo hats swoon as he strolled down the street market. He was a shrewd boy too, an excellent tradesman who’d purchase groceries for the house but then tell the clerks that his mother would cover the tab later so that he could pocket the money. He used this extra cash to buy pet bugs which he’d tie with string and make fight in the wooden cage arena he built himself. He was an icon in town—always singing and dancing, performing for his neighbors, so loved that food vendors gave him free bowls of pho, his favorite meal that he ate three times a day. He always dumped the plate of garnishes into the hot broth—Thai basil leaves, Vietnamese coriander, jalapeños, bean sprouts, hoisin, Sriracha, a squeeze of lime, and even the wedge itself—so that the broth overflowed over the brim of the bowl. That’s how he liked things—aggressively complex and vibrant. Spicy and crunchy. Bursting with life. He’d play ragtag soccer games in alleyways, swiftly darting through the yellow sand and destroying his friends. He’d double their defeat with his precision in games of marble shuffleboard. His favorite and lucky marble was a bright egg-yellow one named ngôi sao. Star.

I hope you can go see Vietnam one day,” my grandma would smile.

I hope so too. I want to meet this boy, the dad I never got to meet. The boy who promised permanent love and fortune for my grandma. The one my mom tells me to just “let live his life.”

When I see my father over breaks, he talks to me a lot about death. He tells me how sad it is that I never got to meet my grandfather, but how it’s okay because I can always find him by looking at the stars and praying to them. He tells me how lucky I am to have had him alive for so long, and that soon he’ll be joining his father in the astral heavens. But what’s sad is that when I look up to the interstices of the sky, I don’t see any stars. I just see water stains blotting the earth.

My father’s unraveling began when he moved to America, shortly before his father died. He was caught in this quandary of transnational displacement and personal tragedy closing in on him. He coped with the pain by trying to slow down time, picking up his father’s smoking and gambling habits, popping ecstasy pills, and chasing the high with tequilas and beers. He thought that his moment of devastation could be reverted. Only it couldn’t, so he continued self-obfuscating to the point of nothingness.

And he’s been nothing for a very long time. It’s empty in there—there is no sign of life. I’ve knocked time and time again, but all I hear is hollowness.

We skedaddled a lot throughout my childhood, evading the debt and hitmen who are still chasing him today. We ended up spending a couple of years in the quiet town of Manchester, New Hampshire. I remember laying atop our punctured purple air mattress as the world around me disappeared. My father was a desperate man who unclasped the heirloom off my arm and pawned it while I was asleep. He was a conman who befriended other Viets and leeched off their money, only to never return it. He was a scared man who feared life and smashed my mom’s wedding ring when she wouldn’t have the abortion—of me. He was a no-one man who would intermittently disappear for weeks but then show up at the front door at 6 A.M. with expensive gifts and a ride to school, but who would then disappear and never show to pick me up after the last school bell. He was a ruthless man who punched holes in the walls and told his son to clean up his crumbles. Though, the Walmart plaster didn’t look so bad besides the smoke-stained wallpaper.

Growing up, I didn’t get to know my dad but was rather stuck with a stranger by blood.
I see a lot of my father in me. I am just as delusional, a zombie blinded by casino lights and endlessly rotating slot machine numbers. Like how my father convinced himself that he would someday win the jackpot, I’ve managed to trick myself into believing that I can forget all of this by blowing away all the smoke I’ve inherited—believing that I could erase my paternal history unlike my father who was unable to. Only this smoke becomes a part of you after two decades of closing the car window, letting the smoke build up, and inhaling it because that’s what you were used to, because the haze was comfortable. I was never the innocent boy who my father used to be. I am the man who he turned out to be—the replication of a replication of the man he never wanted to be. I too smoke. I too drink. I too pop pills. And my taste buds have gone numb. Primogeniture is a pretty screwed up system.

My father will die of the same lung cancer that killed his father. This cancer is undiagnosed, but our entire family can feel it. It’s that inexplicable, looming dread one feels after throwing in all his chips with a bluff hand in an act of regrettable desperation. I know this feeling well; my father’s told me about it hundreds of times—“You won’t believe how close I was to winning that jackpot.” And I too will die of this lung cancer.

My brothers are growing up with my mom now, and when I go home for breaks, we talk a lot about life:

“Minh, do you know who lives in the sky?” my five-year-old brother Khang tests.

“No… I don’t. No one’s ever told me about anyone who lives up there. Why, do you know who?” I replied.

“Yeah! I do! It was on TV!” he shouts with excitement, his breath unable to keep up with his imagination, “Dragons live up there! They swim in outer-space, sleep on the moon, and, and they eat stars!—that’s how they can… they can breathe fire! You don’t know from your books?!”

“Sorry! Sorry! I do read a lot, but not about things important as the stuff you’re watching. You’re probably right about the dragons, Khang,” I smiled, believing a man for the first time in my life as the fog clears and I can finally see the starry earth.

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