‘wake’ by Céline Chuang

19 July, 2016 0 comment

1

Rain is blurring windshields and spitting from streetside sewers the day Benoît arrives at the airport. His nut-coloured face floats abreast of the huddle of arrivals and when he sees me he smiles with almond eyes squashing upwards, showing no teeth.
“You’ve done something stupid with your hair again,” I tell him. I push my fingers through the garish blue stripe over the crown of his head, map out the bumps of his skull. His hair is soft and crinkly like old coffee filters.
“Yeah, I cut it.” He stoops to hug me, pressing his nose into my shoulder. He looks older, spine curved by the heaviness of long flights, bad posture, and the appropriation of grief as it has been handed along the family tree in portions. There are a lot of us, plenty to go around. Back in Vacoas, Poh Poh used to make rice balls with black bean sauce in the only pot she had and the thick charcoal-coloured liquid would seep into the broth as she stirred it. Rough wooden spoon in her sinewy little arm. There was always enough for dessert. Mangez, mangez! she would say, forcefully waving us over with the spoon. Dessert is like grief in this way, the way our family has doled it into bowls and fought over the rest with false martyrdom.
“Who did it for you?” I pull back a little to stare at him again, his fisherman pants and dip-dyed t-shirt. “God, you look like a hip hop dancer.” I wonder, too quickly, whether he picked out his outfit before or after he heard the news about Kung Kung. Then guilt seeps in, flooding the bottom of my stomach.
“A girl in LA,” he smiles. Still no teeth. “It’s good to see you, Addi.”
“You too, Benny.” I mash my face into the soft t-shirt fabric and fight the quiver. I always hated crying in airports. Benoît smells faintly like dry sun and sweat, California hitchhiking on his skin. We stand there as others mill around us going to the baggage carousel. I can feel my spine beginning to curve.

2

“Addi,” I can hear Benny yelling, “did you put my wool socks through the wash?”
I clunk through the kitchen with the laundry basket, stubbing my toe and swearing. “Yeah!” I yell back between muffled expletives. The apartment has shrunk with Benny here. There are shoes everywhere, in various cultivated neutrals and the occasional neon eyesore (high-tops). How these fit into his suitcase is a miracle of physics, or maybe a touch of Caribbean voodoo.
Creole syllables jumble under my bedroom door. He must be skyping his mum. Yi Yi Ah Lai’s Creole is less abrasive than the other aunties, you can hear echoes of her school-taught French in it. At family reunions the jabbering is all a pile of animated accents, the edges of French bitten off, chewed, and regurgitated over steaming curries and fried fish. Poh Poh looking on, bemused, chewing toothlessly.
Benny’s arguing with her about something. My Creole’s rusty, but when I hear my name amidst her rapid-fire chatter I retreat back to the kitchen and drop off the basket of clean clothes outside his door.
Back in the kitchen, the pile of dirty dishes teeters. It vaguely resembles an inukshuk.
I look around at the open pancake mix box and half-empty bottle of whiskey on the formica. My makeshift bed on the couch with its mess of blankets and half-open laptop glow. Outside, the rain falls thickly, catches on lashes of pine. In the silence, I am suddenly, awfully dwarfed by the magnitude of grief, of its stark wilderness. Afraid to breathe, almost, to move and dislocate myself completely from the pulse of voices down the hallway. What kind of vacuum would it be to lose track of myself and become part of the still life.
I wait, paralyzed, for Benny to emerge and offer to make me another homemade cocktail, or help me do the dishes. We could sink up to our elbows in bubbles and look out at the night like older, gentler winters when his family and mine were together for Christmas.
I wait until it’s almost dark. My right foot has fallen asleep. Benny’s room is quiet and the house is slanted with shadows. I turn off the stove light and leave the dishes.

Poh Poh and Kung Kung left their Hakka village in Southeastern China at the height of the Communist regime. They had a bag between them. Their slippers wore down to the straw. Poh Poh and Kung Kung walked miles in the dark, through mountains and rivers and the ash of their ancestors. Saving matches for the darkest hours and bickering about their choice.
“We will have many children,” Kung Kung said to Poh Poh, walking ahead. He didn’t hold her hand.
“Yes,” Poh Poh grunted, “and they will be safer where we’re going. We can do what we want there.”
“We don’t speak the language,” Kung Kung said. He carried his Johnnie Walker black label and a carton of cigarettes in his pocket. Poh Poh carried the bag, strapped across her body like a child.
“Who cares,” Poh Poh said. She pulled up the bag strap and walked on. “Our children will.” They slipped through the dark sheaves of long grass and thick summer air, tethered to each other by their parent’s alliance and instinct for survival. They would take a boat, she told herself, they would be rattled by ocean and stifled by heat but they would be free.

It’s two in the afternoon when I get back from my shift at the diner and Benny’s room is still silent. I look at the stratum that has accumulated from one week and feel the hot, peppery surge of anger boil up despite my mental efforts to quash it.
When I bang into his room without knocking he’s cross-legged, meditating.
“Oh, come on.” I kick aside a pile of crumpled clothes. “Will you help me clean up the kitchen or what. Since when did you do yoga?”
“Since two weeks after I moved to LA,” he snipes. “You wrecked my vibe, I was trying to nurture the positive. Can you please knock next time? If you’re so upset just tell me goddammit. I could hear you banging around the kitchen all yesterday.”
“I was banging around because of the mess.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry you’re so worried about organization right now.”
“You would think for someone so trendy and LA you would care more about feng shui. You’re like a hobo with a hoarding addiction, God.”
Benny stares at me. “The fuck got into you? I’m here, I’m staying out of your hair.”
“That’s what you always do. That’s what you did, you know, you never were at Vacoas, you were off in Portland or Toronto or LA and everyone thought that was ok.”
“If I came to all those family things I’d go crazy for God’s sake. You agreed with me, remember we talked it about it over the phone. We sit around and eat and Kung Kung would never even talk. He would watch his TV and smoke and drink and occasionally yell something at us in Chinese.”
“I know, I visited him!”
“So did I. So did I, Addi, so what the hell is your issue? Why are you crying?”
“Why are you here then?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why–” I stop, and the word hangs there. “Why are you here. If you aren’t going to.” The rest of the sentence gets lost somewhere and dangles horribly in the empty air. I swipe at leaking eyes, refuse to let myself look at the ground.
Benny looks at me carefully. “I’m here,” he says, as clearly as he can. In English, and then Creole. He stands up, still wary, but with a softness around his eyes. “Come on, let’s make rougaille for lunch.”

3

Poh Poh and Kung Kung moved into Vacoas, a small town by both Chinese and Mauritian standards. They bought a house, put up fences, bought guard dogs and chickens and clotheslines. Poh Poh had eight children, including Benny’s mum and my mum. Because they were the poorest in the middle of having all their kids, mum is the smallest. If you lined up all eight aunties, their heights would form a V. Poh Poh sent all of them to school, where they were taught in French. Outside school, neighbours, storekeepers, and friends spoke Creole. None of the aunties, the Yi Yis, can speak Chinese of any kind. Poh Poh and Kung Kung learned some Creole, grudgingly, painstakingly. Enough to say mangez, enough to say hurry up, sit down, go to sleep.
“Eight daughters,” Kung Kung said to Poh Poh in Hakka as she cooked dinner.
“Yes, and they are strong.” Poh Poh didn’t look at Kung Kung. When he was sitting in his TV chair with his striped pyjamas on he was extra stubborn.
“Eight daughters,” he repeated. “Was it too much to ask for one son.” He changed the channel. “I should have gone to the temple more. I didn’t pray enough.”
“The ancestors can’t change what was in here,” Poh Poh said, patting her stomach. She was lean again, having shed pregnancy like the new outfits she could not afford. “Get your feet off the table.”

The house on the island creaked and bent at the seams with eight girls, all craning their necks for a glimpse of the world. Eventually it became too much. The house stayed, but the girls went. Mum and Benny’s mum and our oldest aunt, Yi Yi Ah Fin, held out the longest. Yi Yi Ah Fin still lives with Poh Poh and brings her milk, settles her into bed, and watches soap operas with her between breakfast and lunch. She straightens the photos of all the cousins on the wall. We’re right below a cardboard icon of the Madonna and Child. Poh Poh goes to the Temple but likes to keep the icon on the wall just in case.
Benny’s dad was a good Mauritian boy, Creole and casually Catholic, not well versed in pop culture or poetry. But he could work a fishing boat and a catamaran over the reefs with one hand. Yi Yi Ah Lai stayed with him as long as she could, but university––and the Beatles––were calling. Dad was a British lawyer who’d attended a wedding in Port Louis where mum was catering. When Mum woke up she looked at Dad and said, damn, found myself my own grand blanc. Later, in one of those improbable rom-com-cum-real-life moments, she found him in a coffee place in London. Benny’s mum and her had jumped ship from Mauritius when we were around seven or eight.
I still remember waking up to heavy fog and honking horns and wondering if Vacoas was something I made up. All throughout middle school I would dream of palm fronds combing blue skies, sugar-cane breezes and Poh Poh’s sweet black bean soup, the sharpness of overripe mangoes in the marketplace. Searing sunsets that lingered on the rim of the ocean as if the world were ending every night. Sometimes I still have them, sudden and bruising, wake up sore like I’ve been underwater and struggling to surface.
Benny and I visited Poh Poh and Kung Kung after the move, but not together. I hopped a plane to Vancouver on the way to a boy I thought I was in love with in Prince George. Instead, I never left the city. Benny eventually ended up in LA, writing music reviews. Apart from occasionally cruising his blog, I never saw him. We became Benoît and Adelaide again. All of the Yi Yis gave their kids French names.

4

I wake up in the night shaking the couch with sobs, my body wrenching itself in half. The moon is low on the horizon and the tears on my pillow look dusty red. I am convulsing so hard I can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t name where or who I am. Only slowly and inexorably being crushed to the sheets by the darkness just outside the window, pressurized into white noise, lost, languageless. The air is hot, suffused with a sweetness that sticks to my tongue. In this moment I suddenly know, wildly and with the clarity of a gunshot, that I was wrong in the airport. Familial grief is not portioned and passed down out of duty. It sinks through branches in the family tree like blood and varicose veins and rears, ugly and tidal, where the limbs end. At the generation just learning to walk out of its grandparents’ shoes. I taste salt, bite my tongue. My feet twist uselessly in blankets, my mind blank, my eyes filling and filling with tears that aren’t mine.
Benny’s here, without being called for, rolls into the onion layers of blankets like he belongs. He finds me under the reddish light and curls his body around me. Just like cousin sleepovers in Vacoas when one of us had nightmares after a scary movie. I smooth into seaglass stillness. The distance between continents yawns open again, the static ceases. The image of Poh Poh rocking back and forth in her chair, hands clasped tight, fades.
It’s Benny’s turn now. I used to be the stronger one. When we were little he would paw at my face during scary movies and ask is it real Addi? Is it real? and I’d say, no, it doesn’t happen in real life and turn him in my arms, tuck him into me until he fell asleep.
Now, he doesn’t say anything, but shakes out his portion of the sorrow. I flip us and hold him and fall asleep against his back. He smells clean, like laundry and open skies, the barest hint of nutmeg. For the first time, he smells familiar.

5

Benny and I sit on the coach with our feet up. He’s wearing his wool socks.
“I can’t believe you bought me an herb garden,” I say. I’m looking in disbelief and slight admiration at the shallow silver basin on the counter with its burst of leaves overflowing from dark soil. “All I said was that I needed basil. You could have bought the dry stuff.”
“That stuff is shit,” Benny says. He’s polishing off the coconut curry with shameless slurps that make Yi Yi Ah Lai would proud. “Plus now you have some of the real stuff for the future.”
The fridge starts whirring. The kitchen, lit by light, looks less sterile with the coffeepot half-full and the piles of inukshuk dishes. I don’t need to be told I’ve acclimatized to the clutter. It will all be put away later. And the invasion of bare counter and empty space is a relief, proof of company. I’ve never been so glad to have my landscape marred.
“When are you leaving?” The words feel sticky and clumsy as I work them through my gums into the air. I look sideways at Benny. He puts his bowl down and pulls me sideways into him. I rest my cheek on his shoulder and try to swallow. Outside the apartment, the skytrain hums past and everything moves an inch to the left. The curtains flutter with yellow glow, and the dishes shift and sigh.
“What was the last thing he said to you?” I ask, almost under the noise.
Benny pauses, licks mango chutney off his fingers. “Pass the peanuts,” he says.
I laugh, startling him. He jumps, then grins. The night glimmers with white teeth and the promise of a fellow passenger into the labyrinths ahead. No longer solitary, chasing what the water leaves behind. Fifty-two years ago, a boat bumps the shore. Poh Poh and Kung Kung step onto smooth sand and red rock, holding hands.


Céline Chuang is a multidisciplinary creative and proud, if often culturally confused, descendent of the Chinese-Mauritian diaspora. She slings espresso by day, freelances graphic design by night, reads voraciously, and sleeps in whenever possible. She lives in Vancouver.

Featured Image via Shutterstock

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