Masochist: A Father’s Day essay for a dad who didn’t want me

  • The clearance rack feels a little lonely tonight. I would mark myself down by 10% every day for you, never hitting zero — hoping that you would finally choose me and my melted crayons over your cheap champagne and Heineken. But you never do.

Somewhere in downtown Brooklyn, my future father is ironing his only nice dress shirt and practicing pulling out the chair for a girl he hasn’t met yet. He thinks about calling one of his older brothers for some last-minute kissing advice, having never locked lips with anyone before, but ultimately decides against it. He has very little hope for his mother’s weekly arrangements anyway.  

***

Dad, it’s funny imagining you as an awkward 19-year-old who liked robots, supermarket claw machines and chocolate ice cream more than women. The very first time you told me one of your stories from your teenage years, nothing else ever grabbed my attention nearly as much. I wanted to know all about the Burger Kings you got fired from, your pet June beetle named Brian and your bleak dating life. I wanted to sit forever by your side in the small one-room Brooklyn apartment that we shared with Mom, drawing the three of us with crayons that were half melted because I had put them too close to the radiator. And when my bedtime came, I tugged at your sleeves, begging you to give me one last piggyback ride. You always said yes, joking that while I was up there on your shoulders, I might as well check to see how many strands of gray hair you had. 

The last time I checked, your diagnosis was a typical Asian father; a ghost-faint stain of your teenage years. You gave me a strict 9 p.m. bedtime and walked around Chinatown in a tank top, slapping watermelons at the local fruit stand and making me wave at random uncles on the street. Porridge and fried dough were your favorite breakfast, and sometimes you left to work an 8-to-12 in a sushi restaurant halfway across the country, only coming home on a random Tuesday night at 3:45 a.m. Come the summer months, you told me to turn the AC off and put my thinking cap on as you watched me work through the math homework you wrote yourself. 

But in my mind, your greatest talent of all was never that you could perfectly tell which lobster, which crab or which fruit had more meat inside just by knocking on the outside, or your ability to spot my arithmetic mistakes from a mile away. It was how your eyes were programmed to be on a constant patrol for a good deal, for percentages and the word “clearance” in even the tiniest crimson print. Do you remember when we would go inside at least three different markets before you decided where you wanted to buy your salmon filet from? And when I complained that my legs were starting to hurt, you would push me around the aisles in those red supermarket carts. The aunties called you cheap. I always called it a talent. 

Except I don’t know if I can do that anymore, Dad. 

Because earlier tonight, I caught your eyes glossing over the clearance rack, and I hoped that you wouldn’t miss the one good deal sitting on the very bottom shelf. 

But you did. 

This one doesn’t have a visible price tag, but he has your dark brown eyes and those crinkles on his cheeks whenever he smiles. A voice that also cracks way too much at the most inappropriate times, and a similar everlasting craving for chocolate ice cream. He’s no longer the shortest boy in class, and you named him after your pet beetle. He hasn’t seen you in years, but he waits for you by the door every Chinese New Year. 

***

Dad, the word “love” hangs at the tip of our Asian tongues. It’s here — we all know what it is — but it is a pendulum that keeps me awake at night. Sometimes, it feels close. Sometimes, it feels easier to say and sometimes it feels within reach, but right when I’m about to catch it in my hands, love tells me that it needs to go, swinging the door wide open and leaving only an Old Navy jacket behind. 

The disease runs in the family. Mom tells me that she loves me in 2 a.m. platters of sliced dragon fruit, in calendars marked with X’s counting down the days until I move home from college. A cool, damp cloth on my forehead when I have a fever. And you — you tell me that you love me in lies, always beating around the bush but never saying exactly what you mean. When I graduated middle school at the top of my class, you cried. You hid it, blaming your puffy eyes and red cheeks on allergies that don’t exist. “All these flowers making me look so ugly in the photos la,” you said. On the first day of high school you shoved cash in my hands, telling me that your boss had given you a raise. You didn’t know that I had overheard you telling Mom the night before that you were laid off  from your last job because of your arthritis. And when I was 6 years old, sitting before my plate of soup dumplings at Auntie Mei’s wondering where your own plate was, you told me that you weren’t hungry. 

You need to stop lying, Dad. You need to tell me that you’re hungry and that you need to eat. It’s okay to not feel good enough. It’s okay to not be good enough. You don’t need to feel embarrassed. I don’t. 

But above everything, you need to teach me how to scream the word “love” out loud so that I can stop writing about you. So that I can stop writing one-way letters, burying my feelings in strings of carefully crafted sentences and punctuation marks. I hate the version of myself who believes you’ll write me back one day, but it’s the version of myself that I live for. That I breathe for. It’s the version of myself who builds happiness from memories and superheroes from old drawings and broken claw machine toys.

I’m a masochist, Dad. I’m hurting, but my wrist keeps moving. My pen keeps moving. I’m scared of my pen, because every time I pick it up, I know that I’m writing about someone who doesn’t feel the same way about me. You’re in the back of my mind on every date, every hangout, every breakup, every meal with friends, because no one will ever love me more, make me happier, than my dad did. No one.

***

Or maybe it’s because I don’t deserve that kind of “happy.” It makes sense. I know I disappoint. I wish this essay were different, that it could tell you that I made it somehow. A success story of some sort. A renaissance. A degree from medical school, a Newberry medal-winning novel or an invitation to a red carpet. I wish this essay could serve as a get out of jail free card from your 16-hour work days and medical bills, a sign telling you to finally come back home. I wish this essay could be as warm as coffee cups and as much of a pleasant surprise as the gifts in Father’s Day magazine specials. 

But Father’s Day doesn’t belong to me. Or to you. Or to us. Father’s Day belongs to those who have earned the right to speculate about the best of fatherhood, not to two hypocrites who can’t say aloud how much they love each other. It belongs to the orphans who won’t ever get to greet their fathers again, to the husbands and boyfriends who can’t conceive and to the children standing outside jail cells on the only day of the year when they get to see their fathers. It belongs to the newborns who haven’t yet developed the concept of a father, laying in hospital beds waiting to be taken home. 

***

I don’t get to speculate, even if I do it all the time. I wake up every morning knowing that my dad is still out there somewhere, remembering that I lived having known and seen him at his best. I don’t know where he is right now or if he is all right, but I wish him more snow boots than sneakers with holes in them. I wish him more homemade dumpling wrappers than store-bought ones. More stomach butterflies and kind women than loveless, arranged marriages. More straight sons than masochists who sleep with other men, even if there is no love between them. 

I don’t have the right to celebrate you today, Dad. Instead, I get to miss you and I get to hate you at the same time. I have the right to do both. Today, we’re not friends and we’re not strangers. Today, I don’t want to pick sides. Today, I’m choosing not to remember what you wouldn’t want me to remember. The nights I hid underneath my blankets whenever you and Mom started to look more like wild carnivores than my parents. Your gnashing teeth, the claws, the blue candy and the neighbors who finally had enough. I don’t want to remember what New York in 2013 felt like either; the fast white cars with their red-blue sirens, the exposed, raw skin and the icy cold streets that welcomed me home. My type of masochism thrives on the pain I feel in your absence, on the pain of remembering the little moments we once called our own —  not on the pain you made me feel when we were still close enough to touch pinky toes. 

So this means that I have two options today. I can either remember Father’s Day as a day to speculate what could have happened and what should have happened between us — which I don’t have the right to do — or I can remember it as just a day. The 170th day of the Gregorian calendar and 17 days away from my 19th birthday. I’m choosing the latter, Dad. It hurts more this way because it keeps the show going, this cycle of me missing you — us — 365 rehearsals of the year. Today is just a day, and just like every other day, my face gets a little pink when I see fathers drop off their kids at the nearby elementary school. Sometimes, all I see when I walk into my college dining hall is your face. Everyone looks like you, everyone sounds like you, everyone feels like you and I pull my hood over my head so no one sees me. Crying doesn’t mean sadness, Dad. Crying means that I loved something so much I don’t know if I deserved it, or if it’ll ever come by my door again. It means I believed in something. You promised me that you would change, and I always believed you. 

I still believe you — in the sense that you are a good person — but I wish that I could say the same about the two of us going back to normal. The future doesn’t believe in recharting the past, and I can’t go against the future. The future has always been better at running than me, and if I dropped everything to chase after it, that would be unfair to all the people who stayed behind with me during all those years when you were gone. Mom. My friends. And myself. 

***

These past few years, I stood right before you in my worn sweatpants and my shirt short of a button, but you still couldn’t see me. The clearance rack feels a little lonely tonight. I would mark myself down by 10% every day for you, never hitting zero — hoping that you would finally choose me and my melted crayons over your cheap champagne and Heineken. But you never do. I stay half alive. I collect dust, trying to spell out four letters that I now throw around with everyone but you. 

So on June 19, 2022, I’m going to kick my feet up, sit back and relax. I’ll keep writing you letters, creating the illusion of a breach into the future without ever actually touching it. I’m going to remember us in what we once had and in words strung so tightly together they sound like slam poetry. 

I’m going to look back on our better days, Dad. On those days when I would sit on top of your shoulders, dandelion tufts in my hair and waving goodnight to the city on the other side. Laughing together under blue Brooklyn skies and carrying cups of dark chocolate ice cream. No sprinkles, of course. 

On Monday afternoons walking home from school and screaming “Dad! Found an empty soda bottle, and look, it’s a two-liter one!”

On trips to Times Square, looking up at two stars so close to each other they appear to be one, even if they’re thousands of light years apart. They shine like the diamond rings I would pluck off your finger and Mom’s, hiding them under my pillow until you bribed me with Shin ramen.

On Saturday evenings at Coney Island Beach, feeling the sand between our toes as we rush into the sea. You would always tell me that the ocean sends back its love in origami rocks and hugs, but I never saw any. When I squint my eyes and look really, really hard, I only see seashells and lots of tall waves with foamy vanilla crests. 

On train rides to downtown Brooklyn on the R, dreaming about a house and a husky and a hero to call our own. It’s the last stop, but we don’t get off. 

I keep sitting on your lap, watching the wide-open doors and pointing to the chirping sparrows outside.

I keep drawing you with half-melted crayons, hoping you will tell me to put them away.

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