By Mimi Wong
On Saturday, I saw my father for the first time since he had moved out. His old Mercedes idled in the driveway. He didn’t bother getting out to ring the doorbell.
Raindrops splattered against the windshield as we drove. His eyes stayed on the road, as I switched on the radio. I kept seeking, finally settling on a classical music station, something I knew he wouldn’t mind.
“Next time, when the weather’s better, how about you take the wheel? I’m getting too old to chauffeur you around, don’t you think?”
Twenty minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant in a different town, to a part that I had never been to before.
“They have a good lunch buffet here,” he said.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Lam!”
As we entered, a young hostess who knew my father by name seated us at a booth. We sat down opposite each other, only to immediately stand up again to serve ourselves from the hot lunch line. I eyed the trays of dried out sesame chicken and soft broccoli, wondering why my father had picked this place until I saw a flyer that read: $5.95 LUNCH SPECIAL DAILY. By “good” my father had meant cheap.
I brought back a plate of beef chow fun and egg drop soup. Meanwhile, my father had loaded up his plate with almost every item from the menu. He unclipped the Motorola phone attached to his belt and set it on the table before digging into his food.
“Not bad, huh?”
“How’s school?” he asked.
My father wiped his mouth with a paper napkin.
“I wish I could help you, but that’s your mother’s job now that she kicked me out of my own house.”
I remained silent. I didn’t want to spoil our day together.
“You know, I never finished high school,” he went on. “I took one look at the textbooks and thought, ‘That’s not for me.’ Besides, there wasn’t anything in them that I didn’t already know or couldn’t learn on my own. Your mother thinks she’s better than me because she has a degree. But I earned my Ph.D. from the streets!”
He chuckled at his own joke, one that I had heard many times before.
“She likes to call me a bum. But no one can argue with my money, am I right?”
After my father paid the check, we got back into the car. He drove down a residential street, where I noticed the one-story houses we passed were smaller than those in my neighborhood. He pointed to a remote clipped to the visor above the passenger seat. I pushed the button for him, and we cruised up the incline.
Inside the garage, splinters of wood protruded from the unfinished walls. I got out of the car and followed my father through a side door. We passed through a small kitchen and into a sparse living room filled with minimal furniture: an enormous plasma screen TV, a black leather sofa, and a desk with a computer on it. Streaks of brown stained the dull, beige carpet.
“That’s your mother’s handiwork right there,” he said. “Soy sauce.”
I looked at him.
“You should have seen the old one. I had to completely replace it.”
I tried to parse out what he was telling me. I stared at stains and felt ashamed, as if he had just accused me of being the one to break into his house and deliberately ruin his couch.
I followed him into the hallway. He indicated which was his bedroom, as well as a second room. I asked if I could use the bathroom. He pointed to the end of the hall. I heard the television switch on as I shut the door. The whirring of the bathroom fan drowned out everything else. After flushing the toilet, I rinsed my hands in the sink without any soap. I looked around for a hand towel but didn’t see one, so I wiped my hands on my jeans.
As I walked back down the hall, passing the spare room, I stopped and pushed open the door, which revealed a lone twin bed. I imagined the small, stark space as a happy alternative to the current living situation with my mother. Perhaps I could come stay here. But I wasn’t sure how to broach the topic. At lunch, he had made it clear that I was no longer his problem.
In the living room, my father sat at his desk.
“Watch anything you want,” he said.
While he worked, I lay on the couch, mindlessly flipping through the channels. I landed on Spring Break in Cancun. On screen, a woman dressed as a nurse hooked up a heart monitor to a man wearing only swim trunks. Meanwhile, another woman, this one in a string bikini, performed a lap dance. A male host announced that the man’s heart rate had jumped from 96 to 120. In the next contest, a male college student stuffed tacos into his speedo. With the tacos still in his suit, the contestant then waded into the ocean, came back, and ate one taco to win the bet of $10. For a hundred dollars, a female volunteer ate one of the tacos from the backside of his swimsuit. The audience cheered.
Later, before driving me home, my father led me to the front yard to show off his vegetable garden. It was smaller than the one he had planted at our house. But at least there weren’t any deer to worry about in this neighborhood, he said. He picked the ripe tomatoes and put them in a plastic bag. The rain had lessened and stopped completely by the time we arrived in front of the house. Parking the car at the bottom of the driveway, he handed me a folded piece of paper.
“It’s my new number,” he said, adding, “You don’t have to show your mother. I don’t want you to have to lie to her, but if you don’t have to say anything, probably better to keep it to yourself.”
I took the piece of paper, understanding my new role as a guardian of secrets. As I started up the hill, I could see my mother waiting and watching from the kitchen window. I clutched the bag of tomatoes as if it was a consolation prize.
Mimi Wong was born and raised in California’s Silicon Valley. She is Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine The Offing. Her writing on art, culture, and literature have appeared in The Believer, Catapult, Electric Literature, Hyperallergic, Literary Hub, and Refinery29. Her fiction has been published in Crab Orchard Review, Day One, and Wildness. She is an alumna of the Tin House Summer Workshop, VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation), and Anaphora Writing Residency for Writers of Color. Her work has received support from the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and she is the recipient of an Arts Writers Grant awarded by Creative Capital and The Andy Warhol Foundation. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.