Eating dinner, a fish bone, swallowing and swallowing, cutting the inside of my throat each time, tears, my grandfather, I call him 公公, offering his back. I am five years old, climbing on, continuing to sob, which does nothing to dislodge the bone. Darkness around us on our walk, but with shadows flickering, dancing with the light from illuminated apartments in the buildings that line the way. In all likelihood there was a dark grove of trees, perhaps just outside the perimeter of the apartment complex, their swaying, weighty branches loom over the edges of this memory. I have always told people this is my first memory, after a think, it was what I came up with to place first, before other vague flickers to come.
I didn’t notice the moon. Perhaps I did at the time, but don’t remember now. Memory works this way. Which is to say, memory doesn’t work because of this way, we forget so much more than we remember, always fail to memorize memories. A beguiling taunt each time I easily summon an equation never needed beyond a test, or instantly recall lyrics I never needed.
My cousins have an island, passed down through their mother’s side, so the island is not mine, but once or twice I’ve gone and pretended. Their father has my father’s eyes, I see them and startle. I went to their island, which her grandparents bought, though before they bought the island it was owned by no one, once, when I was eight. I think I’m eight because in the pictures taken there my hair is short and my chest flat. I look the same as my third grade class picture. I look like I could be a boy like them. That week was the first time we’d met that I could remember. The first time since I was a baby and they were toddlers. On the island was a cabin and inside the cabin was a stereoscope, brown, wooden. I could say dusty to add sensory detail. It may have been dusty the first time I picked it up from the bookshelf ledge. I remember holding it to my face, its weightiness. I remember this as I remember viewing the slides. Some things, viewed together combining like a reel, vaguely sepia. Flipping through a picture book too quickly. A home video, missing sound or muted, of a woman who has died tragically, putting her hand up like no please don’t film me, laughing in early morning light by a lake in winter or on a hill in spring. Frames of a video taken with an app purchased for $4.99 in the app store. I watch my memories like this.
I stop crying in the hospital lobby, because there I am confronted with companions in wailing I cannot compete with. Women crying, squeezing snot from their noses with their thumb and forefinger and flinging it at the ground. Men lying on the floor wearing blood stained clothes and holding their home bandaged appendages close. Maybe just one man like that, but the years have multiplied. My 公公, but inside my mind I call him grandfather now, has a back that feels wide and strong, warm, and I tuck my chin against it, or maybe my chin is on his shoulder so I can see what he sees. His hair would have been gray only at the temples then if there was gray in it at all. In the recollection of him that is a composite of years of recollections, I somehow know I am too big and heavy to climb on. I am the size I am now.
This would have been the summer I spent in the stark government issue apartment where my mom and 姨妈 were raised, next to the factory my grandparents spent most days of their adult lives in, yelling over the machines they were near. My 婆婆 has kept the apartment, though it is usually empty now. I don’t know why I was sent to live with my grandparents. I have no other memories of these months.
What I can remember is my 婆婆 telling me she that every morning that summer she braided my hair, that for weeks I refused to eat sliced tomatoes, chilled and sprinkled with sugar, but after I finally acquiesced I began asking for it every night, that I cried and begged for black hair like hers so she mocked her own hair and called it ugly and mine pretty until I believed her, until I called her hair ugly and mine pretty. At the end of the summer I cried and didn’t want to leave her. I remember none of these things, but when she tells me, every so often, each time as though it is the first time, as though we are exchanging something, I watch her eyes and there comes a moment when they no longer see me as I am now, in front of her. She holds years of me that I don’t. She looks at but sees through me when she talks about the years she holds that no one else is alive to hold for her. The sister she remembers only as a foot peeking through a shroud, almost drowning while crossing a river on her way to school, her 后妈 chasing her around trying to bind her into tiny shoes, but unable to catch her on her own tiny feet. I know so little about her, don’t understand many of her words from years spent living in a language far from her. I watch her from a window as she walks down the street and disappears around a corner to buy only the fruits she knows I like, my chest clenches as I think that someday she will remove from my sight in a way just as natural, but permanent, even more impenetrable than a language barrier or an ocean. I will never be able to go on without her, I think.
My father is not a part of these stories any longer. When she began telling them, he was a character in them, on the periphery, showing up in the form of phone calls, mentioned in unison with my mom. Now he can no longer remember loving her. I never did, he says, not even just in front of his new wife, even when we are alone walking to his car after getting coffee to catch up. I regretted marrying her the night of our wedding. The last time your father told me he loved me was the day before he asked for a divorce, my mom says. Neither can remember how they first met. Sometimes it was through a friend. When I was a child it was because my father caught a glimpse of my mother dancing, through a window, through an open doorway, from across an open outdoor square. I don’t think either of them are lying to me. They’ve replaced what they remember with other things they remember until what they remember only suits them. All I wanted from her for years was for her to love me like I loved her, my dad says one night before the years aged him into a stranger.
I dream about him all the time, my mom tells me. My 婆婆 has gone to bed in the next room, and the two of us lie on the bamboo mat meant to cool the mattress in the summer heat. Our visit is ending in an airplane tomorrow. She lies on her side, facing me and I watch a tear drip from her left eye. Gravity pulls it up and over the bridge of her nose and so it doesn’t land in her other eye she closes both.
I see my mom as a little girl, as I’ve seen in her in the only photo of her that exists as a child. It’s a family photo, captured in stillness, she is in motion, hasn’t settled yet, isn’t looking at the camera, her mouth is slightly open, her hair in shorted braided pigtails. Her father stands behind her with his hand on her shoulder. My mother says she can remember the photo being taken, that she can remember his hand there, forcing her down into her seat. She remembers it as a comfort.
Do you remember him at all? she asks, opening them again. It’s a tender interrogation, intimate with pain. Her grief and guilt. He was just so healthy, a common refrain. I gaze at her after she asks this. Suddenly it strikes me with such force that I almost stop breathing. A synaptic pulse of understanding, he was already ghost that summer. He could not have carried me that night.
Years of her telling me to be careful whenever we’re eating fish. I got a fish bone stuck in my throat as a young girl, I imagine her saying. Me too, I imagine my reply.
But can’t I remember so clearly the trees, the night, the sting of a bone in my throat, the safety of embracing the body that carries me? Is my body remembering other nights spent walking past the apartment buildings with their lights, willing my mind to remember? Is my mind remembering what my family wishes I could? Who do my memories belong to.
My beloved mother, black and white, is lifted from an image onto her father’s back. She feels safe, anchored. In this moment I haven’t been born yet. Maybe in this memory I never am. What emerges from this arcane spectacle of her as a photo self and a figmented other, she is being carried by a back that is none other than mine.