NONFICTION – Pinhole by Jinny Koh

They had met at a mutual friend’s party. It was 1978 and my father was twenty-two with puffed-up hair, Presley-style. My mother, nineteen, had donned a red dress dotted with flowers that showed off her narrow waist. Over the blare of rock and roll music, past the small plates of curry chicken and fried rice, under the red and yellow disco lights, their eyes connected.

*

My mother stood over the kitchen sink, gutting a silver sea bass for dinner. I stared at her profile: callused hand wielding the knife, wiry gray hair overwhelming her chubby face, fat bulging, stretching even the most flattering clothes into a shapeless mass. Every part of her body—from her eye bags to her cheeks, from her bosoms to her kneecaps—sagged, a physical collective sigh from under the weight of life’s sorrows and burdens.

*

When I was a child, my favorite part of my mother was her hands. Smooth and velvety, they were softer than anything I’d touched. My mother never kissed me, nor was I allowed to kiss her. I tried once, but she pushed me away, afraid that I was going to catch her germs. I longed for those hands to brush against my skin, to smooth down my hair, to hold me.

*

We used to eat together as a family. My mother felt it was important for us to share our lives over dinner. That was until the conversations started to get sodden with tension, until behind every word dragged a stone of judgment. The pauses got longer and the tone more strained. Dinner ended even before it began. My father started coming home later, preferring to have his meals alone after work.

*

My father, with his face full of lines, seemed older than his age. If you looked close enough, you could see a slight dent on each of his temples, as if those dents bore testament to a worried man who had rubbed his temples one too many times.

*

My pocket money from my father was budgeted down to the very cent. He would count the cost of each meal I ate in school, multiply it by the number of school days for that month, and leave hardly any extra for other expenses. Each time I took a bus to school, I would have to bring home the ticket as proof. If I lost it, he would not give me the money. Once, we went to the supermarket and I put a bag of chips in the basket. After paying, my father checked the receipt and demanded that I fork over the dollar twenty.

*

The first date with my husband was at a Japanese restaurant. We sat on wooden chairs in a private corner partitioned by a beige folding screen. Beside us hung paintings of slender white cranes with long black beaks. He ordered my favorite salmon roe and yellowtail sashimi, and our laughter, like our conversation, was easy and light. When the bill came, I insisted that we split it, but he shrugged me off with a small smile. That night, I couldn’t sleep, worried that he had secretly minded paying for the meal.

*

Once, my parents quarreled over a loaf of bread that was sitting on the dining table. It was half-eaten, and my father was the culprit. Since she bought it, my mother insisted that my father return her the money. Out of anger, he grabbed the miserable loaf and threw it across the floor toward her.

*

My father used to bring us to fancy restaurants every week, splurging on all kinds of delicacies – geoduck, lobster, and my mother’s favorite: chili crab. After eating, we would trot to the nearby arcade where he would hand me a fifty-dollar bill and let me play as many games as I wanted. He really wanted to us to be happy. But when the economy crashed, so did he.

*

In my dream, my father was faceless. His head was a block of wood, light brown and flat. I sat in front of him and began carving his features with a knife. I was delicate and slow at first, shaping his eyes and nose to perfection. But then, I got angry and started stabbing the wood. Splinters flew into the air. I stabbed and stabbed until the anger subsided, until I felt nothing. Then I woke up.

*

After watching lovers hug and kiss on the TV, it occurred to me that my parents weren’t like that. So while shopping, I would walk between them and mesh their fingers together when they weren’t looking. At the restaurant, I would ask my father for a kiss but duck my head so that he would peck my mother’s cheek. I thought I was so clever with my tricks. It didn’t register with me that anything was wrong until I was much older. Then I realized how futile those efforts had been.

*

On their wedding anniversary, my father bought a large bouquet of white lilies for my mother. After searching the house for the best spot to place it, he nestled the bouquet on a chair facing the front door. I hopped around in excitement, eager to see the look on my mother’s face at this rare gesture of romance. My father, standing beside the blossoms, beamed and waited. When my mother came home from work, she took one look at the flowers and gave a tight smile. Later, she revealed to me that she thought they were a waste of money.

*

I was eight when my mother asked me if I would live with her in the event of a divorce. I said yes, not because that was what I wanted, but because that was what she needed to hear. She told me that of the two parents, the maternal role was far superior. That it was the mother, not the father, who cared for the children. She claimed that every kid would choose their mother over their father in a separation. Over the years, she sought confirmation of my allegiance to her. My father never asked me this question. I think, deep down, he knew the answer.

*

We were moving houses again. I wanted to take my Barbie dolls with me, but my father refused. I had six different dolls and a boxful of colorful gowns in soft velvet and layered tulle. I pleaded with my father to let me keep them, but he yelled and said our new house had no space for old stuff. He threw them down the garbage chute and promised to buy me newer and better dolls in the future. He never kept his word. I stopped playing with dolls after that.

*

I remembered the dead guppy. Its tiny skeleton had sunk to the bottom of my fishbowl, bits of discolored skin fraying at its sides. Its once luscious tail, a beautiful blue hue and twice the size of its body, was reduced to a dull shade of grey. It was my fault. I was the one who had introduced another fish into the bowl thinking that the guppy could use some company. I thought they would live happily ever after. I cried that night, not because my guppy died, but because the other fish ate it up.

*

We were on the bed, my husband’s body curled up like the whorl of a shell all ready for slumber, when I asked, “Are you angry with me?” He gave me a puzzled look and said no, what gave me that idea? I didn’t reply. Instead, I turned my head to the ceiling and watched the fan spin, its whirring blades softening the midnight air.

*

It was the time of the night when the whole world was so silent that even the cats that scour the streets were asleep. My mother stood against the wall, hidden in the dark. The lights from the street lamps cast a shadow on her, feathering the edges of her silhouette so that for a moment, she was once again soft and beautiful.

*

On her way to the coffee shop, my mother fell into a large ditch. My father carried her back home, his forehead glistening with perspiration as he hollered at me to take the first aid kit from the shelf. I’d never seen him so anxious before. Blood trickled from the deep gash on my mother’s shin. My father cleaned and dressed her wound, all the while murmuring words of comfort while she sat there crying.

*

When I was a kid, my father had a special way of tucking me into bed. First, he would fling out the blanket and gently drop it onto me. Then, he’d push the sides of the blanket underneath my body, cocooning me in my own warmth. I’d burst into a giggle, delighted to be wrapped up, tight and secure. After kissing me goodnight, he would turn off the lights and close the door behind him, leaving just a gap so that if I needed anything, all I had to do was shout.

*

It started with my mother asking where the TV remote control was. My father started yelling that he didn’t use it. The simple question spiraled into a quarrel about trust and money. Soon, they were shouting at each so loudly that I was afraid our neighbors might call the police. I went to the living room and asked them to tone it down when, just then, my father blindly kicked the black hassock in anger. It flew across the floor, stubbing my toe.

*

I found myself asking my husband the same question over and over again. “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you still love me?”

*

My science teacher came to class with a shoebox-like object in his hands and declared that he was going to show us something wonderful. We waited in anticipation as he dimmed the room lights, poked a tiny hole on the narrow end of the box and held it against the open window. Everyone stood in awe at the image projected on the other side of the box except me. All I saw was how easy a world, filtered through a pinhole, could be turned upside down.

*

My mother often complained to me what a bad husband my father was. Whenever I did the same, she would frown and say, “Don’t speak of him that way. He is your father.”

*

In one of our family videos shot by my father, we were at the zoo. There were tigers, monkeys, peacocks, and giraffes. The little girl clapped her hands in excitement as she called out, “Daddy! Daddy!” The pretty, slender woman holding the girl’s hand was smiling, narrating the day’s events to the camcorder. I played the video several times over the years and wondered where this family had gone, and if they would ever come back.

*

I moved out of my parents’ apartment when I got married. Three days after the wedding, my husband and I visited my parents as part of the Chinese customs. My mother, particularly chatty that afternoon, had prepared sweet rice vermicelli with hardboiled eggs for us, saying, “May your marriage be sweet-sweet and may you bear a child soon.” When we left, she waved goodbye to us at the gate. It was only when I glanced back at her from the elevator that I realized she had started crying.

*

For ten years my parents promised me a trip to Australia during the school holiday. We collected stacks of brochures stamped with pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, the Twelve Apostles, and the MacKenzie Falls. Every night we discussed how fun it would be to see those koala bears and kangaroos. Each December, we found ourselves in a cheap local chalet instead, the trip postponed to the following year. When I turned twenty-one, I emptied my savings, bought a ticket to Melbourne, and stayed for three weeks.

*

There were mornings when I woke up and wondered if my father really loved me, or if I was just errant debris in his shoe that he had accidentally picked up along the way and could not wait to shake out.

*

I suggested to my mother that she got a divorce. My mother used to lament that she was in this marriage for me, to give me a complete home. I never saw how a home so broken could be considered complete just because we were living under the same roof. I told her that I didn’t mind a divorce if everyone would be happier. She gave me a rueful look and said nothing.

*

The bunch of watercress had withered into a sticky mess in the corner of the crisper. I had forgotten to use it and now they lay wasted in my hands. I showed my husband the shriveled greens and asked, “Are you angry with me?” He smiled and folded me into his arms.

*

I accompanied my mother to the temple but did not follow her in. I had seen how the gods of her youth had treated her. How they had toyed with her faith and unwavering belief, trampled her dreams, crushed her ambitions with their mighty hands, and ridiculed her sincere offerings of joss sticks, flowers, and roasted fowls. I no longer trusted them.

*

The bus shuddered and stopped at the red light. It was midnight, my favorite hour, when time crossed from one day to another. I turned my head to the window and watched the cars zoom past me on the highway, their twinkling lights flying diagonally across the window like stars falling.

*

We screamed and darted across the living room, trying to avoid the flying cockroach. My father, the only brave person, rolled some newspapers in his hand, stepped on the couch and beat the life out of that vermin. We cheered and clapped our hands as he tossed the carcass into the bin. He was our hero.

 

This piece was previously published in The Round (Issue 12, Spring 2015).

Jinny Koh, born and raised in Singapore, now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. She was the Fiction Editor at The Southern California Review while pursuing her Masters in Professional Writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 2 (Epigram Books), Litro, The Round, The Conium Review, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, among others. She was also a finalist in Potomac Review‘s flash fiction contest.

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