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.