The Daily stands in solidarity with the Black community. Read our editors’ statement.

Poetry: ‘the return’

By

Editor’s note: The Reads beat is publishing short fiction, poetry and other creative writing pieces. Send submissions to scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

My father’s stories are not like your father’s stories.
Perhaps your father tells long tales of 
his childhood in Greece, of his little house in Athens which is only
a three-minute walk away from the lake, where
the water is the color of the flowers that grow around it. 
Perhaps your father tells tales of his bench-mate and
how he brought to school one day, in his lunch-pail,
a live salamander, and it ran around the room
and scuttled up the chalk-board, leaving footprints in the algebra.
 
My father tells a long, weighted pause
that began the moment of my birth and shifted
sometime when I was 20, and before then I learned 
to read my history in the way he leaned back 
on a chair with straight legs, I tried to learn 
who he had been by calculating the precise angle 
at which he was willing to lean back. 
How far did he shift his center of mass, 
how much did he trust the legs of this chair 
to hold his weight?
 
I fell asleep to his bedtime stories, which consisted 
of the sounds of his sleep apnea: a series of 
pause-gur-gles-pause-breath-wake.
In these pauses I tried to learn who he had been by understanding
the rhythm by which he fell asleep,
by creeping along the path he took out of wakefulness, 
and I listened to this staccato story every night when I was young,
learning to look for my father’s voice
in the pauses between his breaths, which stretched indefinitely
long, and I would count the seconds between them,
not knowing if another breath would come, only
knowing once it did, the story would end. 
 
I look for the silence before my father
responds to another white doctor, who tells him
that his daughter is sick with a sickness he needs
translating for, a sickness which his language has
no words, no holes, no vessels for. 
I count how long it takes for him to translate
a sentence, and measure the angle that tells
how direct his gaze is, and observe how quickly the pitch
of his voice changes, when he speaks to a white man.
 
My father does not tell me of the story of how
when he was 16, he slept on the floor of his English 
teacher’s apartment, who took him in because he had 
no place to stay. Instead, even though we now have enough
money to buy a bed frame, we all sleep together in one room,
my mother and I on a thin mattress, and my brother and father 
on a thick blue quilt, because, without hearing it, we all already 
know this story, which tells us that human backs 
do not need to be suspended very far above the ground. 
Had I been born then, I might have heard a story in the way
my father could not sleep on the hotel bed with my mother
while on their honeymoon in Florida, that he instead had to 
sleep alone on the carpet, legs propped up against the air-conditioner,
until he was comfortable enough to fall asleep. 
 
My father does not tell the story of how he 
crossed over the sea in a rickety little boat, from some 
country that has now died. He does not tell me 
about this land, because to speak of lost countries 
in the way you speak of your living ones 
would be to disrespect the dead. 
My father flinches when water splashes onto his feet. 
And yet when I was only four years old, he watched 
me learn how to swim breaststroke in the shallow-end — close 
enough to grab me, if need be, even though he cannot swim. 
Still he insists upon being the person
to place me gently in the water before practice,
to be the last dry hand I touch, before I push off the wall.
 
Once I worried of a death:
that he would not be passed down
in the dusty old tombs that your father’s stories will die in. 
And yet he holds more water
than a leaky boat, or a cracked sentence, ever will. 
 
Because my father cannot tell the story of how
his brother died in a concentration camp, he does
not tell it. Instead he cuts peaches into a little bowl for me,
cuts them into exactly 16 slices, peels them, and tells me
that they are soft, and I understand, without knowing 
of this brother, that my father once loved someone, who also 
loved peaches.

Contact Angeline Ai-Nhi Truong at altruong ‘at’ stanford.edu.

While you're here...

We're a student-run organization committed to providing hands-on experience in journalism, digital media and business for the next generation of reporters. Your support makes a difference in helping give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to develop important professional skills and conduct meaningful reporting. All contributions are tax-deductible.


Get Our EmailsDigest