My Country

There were the Christmas beetles, dirty brown, like bulbous baby cockroaches, that clustered around the holes of the school drinking fountains every summer. When we turned the faucets at recess, after playing tag with Tarik and Ahmed and Hussein and Fatima, we’d spray them right into our mouths and scream.

There were the lady beetles, cartoon-like in their colorful bodies, that the white kids said were a sign of good luck. A blondie named Crystal accidentally squashed one with her butt and spent the afternoon crying.

There were the crickets that looked like aliens, that gave me the shivers, but I wasn’t allowed to stomp on those because Mum said they were friendly, that she used to play with them in Saigon. You’d use chopsticks to tickle their antennae, she said, and they’d jump. It sounded like the most boring thing in the world. Didn’t she have Pokémon or Dragon Ball Z on TV? She had TV, she said. But it was to watch the famous singers belt their tunes. To watch the war around her in fuzzy black and white. But mostly to watch the tunes.

There were the Huntsman spiders, which grew to the size of a hand, a face, a toilet seat and were hairy all over. Those were all bark, no bite, some bloke said. Spiders don’t bark, I said. We were taught in kindergarten to cover them with a glass jar, slide cardboard underneath, and take them outside to be set free. I don’t know anyone who has ever done that. Maybe Crystal.

There were the venomous Redback spiders, which we were allowed to kill because it was them or us.

There were the Funnel-Web spiders, which I only ever saw in pictures. I read about them when I was nine, on the Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM. If you ever saw one in the flesh, it was the end of the world. Or something like that.

There were the Daddy-Long-Legs spiders, which were kind of a joke.

There were so many spiders.

There were the moths that ate our clothes, leaving little holes in our skivvies and undies, making us look like we were poor, because we were, but the moths didn’t help. They weren’t scary, but Dad said to be careful about how you kill them, because they might explode into a plume of powder. He never explained how you’re meant to kill them, though. They kept eating our clothes.

There were the mosquitoes that ate me alive, the ones Mum said were after either my sweet blood or my sticky skin.

There were the earthworms that Mum said were good for our veggie patch. There were the gut worms that Mum said made my brother and I too skinny. There was the time Mum asked me whether I had an itchy butt, and I blushed, because didn’t everyone? There was the candle she held to my exposed butt crack to lure out my maybe-worms, because they supposedly liked heat; like moth to a flame, like gut worm to a birthday candle. There was me yelling, “Too hot! Too hot!” There was the giant white tablet that the doctor made me swallow. If I did have worms squirming through me, that would do the trick. There was Mum’s inability to ever admit she was wrong, about the worms, about the candle, about what was best for me. There was my inability to stop apologizing, to stop compensating for her, for her, always for her.

There were the head lice she caught on Bidong Island, the lice that jumped from refugee to refugee, the refugees who bathed in sea water, shat in the sand, and used blocks of rationed tea as pillows. There were the head lice I caught in Year Five, probably from one of the girls who was stickier than me, probably from touching heads when we were playing Twister, probably from rolling on the carpet as we choreographed our Spice Girls dance. There was Mum threatening to shave my head. There was Mum patiently combing my hair for eggs.

There were the Christmas beetles that I found, years later, in my parent’s home. I was ready to kill, to smite the tiny cockroach-looking bugaboos, until I recognized them and remembered how mean we were to Tarik and Hussein and Ahmed and Fatima after the Twin Towers fell, because it was better them than us. As little kids, as adults, it is always better them than us.

There was the sunburnt country full of bugs that followed me, bit me, burrowed deep into my body. There was the urge to belong in a hostile place, where the mozzies guzzled so much of my blood that they must’ve known how I felt, and so must’ve their babies, and their babies, and their babies.

There were the bugs I combed from my blind dog; the blind dog that navigates my parent’s home from memory, because she has never known another home; the blind dog that I held as I cried and I cried, because this was home, yet how could it possibly be home?

There were the bugs that gathered outside my window when I was grown, when I had three gray hairs, the memory of me suspended in their tiny bodies, who shimmied on the other side of the glass as if to pay tribute. We remember you, girlie, they said as they criss-crossed and crawled all over each other. Guess what, guess what—they ascended into the sky carrying fragments of me, collected over time—we’ll remember you.

First published in The Penn Review, Spring 2019

The Things We Hide

When my Grandpa turned 80 he learned to make piñatas. I don’t know who taught him. He lives in Australia. He doesn’t know any Mexicans. He doesn’t know anyone who isn’t Asian.

Sitting at his dining table, he’d lay the SingTao Daily newspaper flat and slowly tear inch-wide strips from its pulpy pages. He’d put a party balloon between his thin lips and blow, pinching its opening between breaths, taking his time so he wouldn’t get dizzy. When the balloon was plump, he’d knot it. Gently, with the pads of his wrinkle-hugged fingers, he’d spread a thin layer of paste onto its rubbery surface. Then he’d press on the newspaper strips.

Layer by layer, a sticky shell of newspaper and homemade glue would hide the balloon.

The layers dried into a chewy exterior. He’d take a safety pin to the exposed cranium of the piñata and pop the balloon, leaving behind a hole.

Through the hole, he filled the piñata with coins. He hid the coins in festive red envelopes. Other people fill their piñatas with candy, but not Grandpa. Grandpa was a practical man. With money, we could buy all the candy we wanted. If he could afford to, he’d probably have given us the one thing better than money: gold.

My grandma hid gold. She hid gold in paper envelopes, which she hid in my mom’s pencil case, which my mom hid in her backpack, in the basket on the front of her bicycle. Mom didn’t know what the gold was for. She only knew that she had to get it from point A to B, no stops in between, and give it to her aunt. She did this again and again, Grandma hiding more and more gold, Mom pedaling and pedaling, never making eye contact with the North Vietnamese soldiers who now filled the streets of her home town. She was never stopped because no one ever suspects the young Chinese girl.

Grandma had been planning. It was 1975. Saigon had fallen. The gold was used to buy seats on a smuggler’s fishing boat. It cost twelve taels of gold to smuggle one person out of Vietnam.

The night hid my mother and her sisters and her uncle. They climbed onto the crowded fishing boat. They climbed on and drifted out because of the promise of a life they had never seen, the promise of a place where, for a dollar, you could eat apples until you were sick of them. They closed their eyes and climbed on because of the promise of hope.

When pirates climbed aboard their boat, Mom hid a gold ring from Grandma in a capsule of Tiger Balm — the Vick’s Vapor Rub of Asia. The pirates couldn’t find anything on her, so they left her alone. She hid her fear in her stomach. Her stomach hid it in the ocean, along with everything else she threw up.

Dad’s family hid diamonds. The night the soldiers from the north came and took their home, his mom gave his sister a bag of diamonds to hide. If the soldiers found it, they may have raped for it, killed for it. His little sister hid it outside, by throwing it out the window. They were kicked out that night. They never saw their home again.

Dad hides gold, in a safety deposit box, in a vault, in a bank, underground, in Sydney, Australia. There’s not a lot of it, and there’s no end game. Mom likes to make fun of him about it, that he’s hiding it in case the government falls, then at least we’ll have the gold to buy us the seats on the boats, the seats his family bought with the gold they also hid.

When Dad turned 60, I asked Mom what I should get him for his birthday, and she said, Nothing, and then she said, Actually…, so I opened a savings account for myself and named it “Gold for Dad.” I saved $150 before my brain said, Really?, and I closed the account.

Mom doesn’t hide gold. She hides her memories in the chewy piñata of her brain. She hides how she felt, climbing onto that boat under the blanket of night when she was a teenager. She hides the fear she carried, a young girl separated from the rest of her family, a foreign language, a place called Oss- straaay-leee-yaa, with cheap apples that she ate until she was sick. She hides how much she misses her mom, who she never saw again, because grandma never made it to Australia — she died on the journey, a refugee. One time I asked her, Mom, do you miss grandma? And she said, Yes. And that was it. She hides it using the lie — or maybe it’s the truth— that she has forgotten everything, because it was so long ago, because maybe she never got to say goodbye to her mom, and maybe she thought they really would see each other again, and maybe she still dreams of ah ma, still perfectly preserved in her late 40s, with big permed hair, the face of a bossy Teochew lady, a Teochew lady who threw the best Chinese New Year parties, still planning, still hiding gold.

My parents hide their hurt. They hide their fear. They hide the versions of themselves that evaporated as they drifted at sea, under the unforgiving sun, so that my brother and I might never find, and never know, what was lost.

But we know. Of course we know. And we want to say, You did great! And we want to say, We’re proud of you! And it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.

We hide these words because we worry they’ll come out mangled. We hide how we feel because we’re afraid the enormity of our love will swallow us whole.

So we find other ways. We try to be good sports. And when Grandpa hangs his piñata on a clothesline, and Mom and Dad and our aunts and uncles gather around wondering, Who taught him to make that?, we shut up and get in line with our cousins. We hide that we think we’re too old, too cool for this. We grip the plastic cricket bat, we spin in circles, we hear our parents laugh, and we swing for the sky.

First published March 25, 2018 in the University of Texas at Austin’s Bat City Review.

 

Remembering Ian Hale, 1950-2017

Mr. Hale in his former printmaking workshop in Dundas, Australia.

Ian Hale died on Monday, Nov. 13. He was 67. He was my teacher, mentor, and friend.

No one, except maybe my parents, has been a bigger influence in my life than Mr. Hale.

Here’s one example: In twelfth grade, when I was deciding what degree to pursue, for a brief moment I’d put art school as my first choice.

“Don’t do that,” Mr. Hale, who was an artist and an art teacher, said. “You need to get journalism out of your system first.”

I took his advice, applied to UTS, got in as a journalism major, and, hey! As of this writing, I’m a Los Angeles Times reporter. Not bad, Sir.

Mr. Hale and I in his printmaking studio in 2006.

Here’s another: In ninth grade, he took me and one of my peers to a student art exhibition held at Pymble Ladies’ College, or PLC. It was the first time I’d stepped foot into a private school. The place looked like Hogwarts. The exhibition was in their auditorium, but tens of thousands of dollars had clearly been spent on the installation of temporary white walls and lighting. Every artwork had at least three lights on it. They had catered hors d’oeuvres. I walked up to the snack table, picked up a large cube of food that I thought was tofu, and put the whole thing in my mouth. Turns out it wasn’t tofu. It was feta cheese. I’d never had feta before.

At Fairfield, our catering was the forty dollars Mr. Hale gave us to go to Woolworths to buy bread rolls and sliced ham. Our exhibition budget was zero. The lighting was always too dim. We mounted our paintings directly onto the auditorium walls and called it a day.

Standing in PLC, surrounded by incredible art and wealth, Mr. Hale, who had once taught at the school, detailed the resources the students had access to. It seemed like a completely different world from Fairfield. Except, Mr. Hale said, it wasn’t.

“These are the students you’re going to be competing against in the HSC,” he said. “These are the students you’ll have to beat.”

I’d already had an inferiority complex from not getting into a selective high school. Now I had to worry about rich kids, too?

I told Mr. Hale that I felt like I was screwed, and that I resented my family for not being able to afford private schooling.

 “No, no,” he said. I’d missed the point. It wasn’t about getting into a private school. It was about knowing the competition, and figuring out a way to compete on your own terms.

“Play to your own strengths,” he said.

If I had an inferiority complex, I should use it to push myself. If I had nothing to lose, I should take the risk. If I was handed a lemon, I should squeeze the lemon dry.

Mr. Hale cutting into the birthday cake my friends and I had gotten him in 2005.

Mr. Hale wasn’t just a well of wisdom, though. He helped us compete. He built canvas frames for us and stretched the canvases himself. He’d supply us with etching plates and show us how to submerge them in tubs of acid and brush away air bubbles using a feather. He let us hang out in the art studio at recess and lunch just so we had a place to go. He encouraged us to enter art competitions such as the Archibald, Wynne, and Sulman Prizes. It didn’t matter if we didn’t stand a chance against established, adult artists. He liked to quote Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man In The Arena.” I didn’t know who Teddy Roosevelt was, but I liked the quote.

When I entered the Wynne Prize in eighth grade, we didn’t have the budget to ship my painting to the Art Gallery of NSW, so Mr. Hale and I carried the thing to Fairfield Station, rode the hour-long train with it, and delivered the bulky painting from St. James Station to the gallery.

That same year, I told Mr. Hale I didn’t know how to get a foot in the door at Dolly Magazine, which was, at the time, my dream employer. He said, “Why don’t you paint their editor for the Archibald Prize?”

So I wrote a letter to the then- editor, Virginia Knight, asking if she’d sit for me. She said yes. A month later, Mr. Hale accompanied me to ACP where I met Virginia and photographed and sketched her. Two years later, I entered her portrait into the Archibald Prize and got an internship out of it.

Miranda (R) and I with her Archibald entry of Dawn Fraser. My portrait of Virginia Knight is behind me. Mr. Hale built every frame and stretched every canvas for us.

Look, I never won anything in any of the art competitions I entered. I was never even a finalist. I just wasn’t that good a painter. But it was never about the art. At least, not really. It was about ambition, the willingness to give something a go, not doubting yourself, because what did I have to lose?

“Your biggest enemy is self-doubt,” Mr. Hale used to say.

“Never accept mediocrity,” was another thing he used to say.

Oh, and there was also: “He was an idiot when he was alive and he’s an idiot now that he’s dead.” I don’t remember who that was about, but his own dad had said it about someone, and he liked it, so he relayed it to me. I liked it, too.

There were so many things Mr. Hale did for me. There were so many things he did for other students. On days when he wasn’t teaching art, he’d teach kids who had a hard time staying in class how to spar (he was a boxing trainer, too). When a student lacked confidence and said they couldn’t paint, he’d ask them, “Well, can you feel?” When the student inevitable said yes, he’d say, “Then you can paint.” (He got that from a letter John Constable wrote to Rev. John Fisher, in which Constable said, “Painting is but another word for feeling.”)

And that’s not even half of it. He hoisted us up, up, up. We were never too dumb, too poor, unworthy, or hopeless. I felt like the world was mine. Sometimes, I still do.

Mr. Hale and I in 2014.

The last time I saw Mr. Hale, I was back in Australia visiting friends and family. I was just about to start my job at the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Hale had retired. He took me out to dinner in Canley Vale and told me that he was proud of me. And then he told me about how he had just returned from a trip to Cambodia where he was teaching children in villages how to paint so they could sell their art to tourists, because, of course.

Then, like the time we went to PLC, he drove me back to my parents’ house. I thanked him for everything he’d done for me and told him that even though I was no longer his student, he was still my mentor, and I was his friend. He told me he was my friend, too. And then we said goodbye. And then we said see you soon.

First published November 13, 2017

Custody Battle

Janine wanted full custody of Reggie, but that was absolutely out of the question. I had bought Reggie. I didn’t have the receipt to prove it, because I never asked for one, because I wanted him to feel like a forever-friend, like a member of the family, and not something bought at a store, like a can of baked beans or a tape measure. So when the store didn’t offer me a receipt for Reggie, I didn’t ask. I’d also paid for most of Reggie’s food, although I wasn’t exactly keeping tabs, because food is a basic right and I didn’t want it to feel like I had control over Reggie’s life, you know? I mean, in a way, I did. I absolutely did. I could kill Reggie — not that I would — but as long as I paid a vet to do it, and it was humane, I wouldn’t get into trouble. It’d be perfectly legal. But again, I’d never do that, of course. I love Reggie. Reggie is my best friend. Reggie never judged me, never gave me the stink eye — except that one time when I tripped over him after one too many drinks and he ran under the sofa and looked at me funny for the rest of the night. Reggie deserved all the friendship accolades, whatever those are. So no, I’d never kill Reggie, not unless I absolutely had to, but what are the chances of that, right?

Anyway, if Reggie could speak English, he’d say, without doubt, that I was his human. And if we were going to go off how much money I’d spent on Reggie, I had definitely outspent Janine by something like infinity. But Janine had taken him to the vet one time and when she was paying the bill she put down her name as Reggie’s guardian, and now she had that piece of paper from the vet, and her lawyer was arguing that she had grounds for full custody (the bone I have to pick here is that I was there, too, but I had gone to the loo when all this was happening, and who was I to pick a bone then? I’m not petty or anything). My lawyer said we should negotiate, but I said no, we were wrestling this one right out of her spiteful hands. Reggie was 100% mine. My lawyer said we’d have a better shot at joint custody — maybe me on weekends, her the rest of the time — and I was like, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” And my lawyer was expressionless, and I said, “It’s all of nothing, baby!” And he sighed. In court, I asked to testify, and the judge said, “About what?” And I said, “Against her!” and my lawyer looked horrified and was like, “No, no, actually, Your Honor,” and I said, “She’s not a fit parent for Reggie!” And Janine rolled her eyes at me, and I may have called her a name that made my lawyer throw his hands in the air, and the judge hit his wooden mallet thing and told me in legal terms that I needed to sit down and shut the fuck up or I’d be thrown out. Janine’s lawyer snickered, and I dropped my shoulders and pled to Janine, “Jan-Jan,” and her eyes darted away, and I could see that they were red. Then my lawyer loosened his tie and pat me on the back, as if to say: “OK buddy, we’re done here.”

First published May 11, 2017

Adventure Time

Dad retired eight weeks ago and went into adventure mode, which is remarkable for a man who spent decades wanting to go nowhere.

When my brother and I were teenagers, he taught us to drive not because he thought it was an important life skill, but because he didn’t want to drive us anywhere any more.

We rarely visited my grandma (his mom), even though she only lived 16 miles away, and when we did it was only after Mom nagged about it, and when we got there, grandma would nag him about it. When grandma died, we all but stopped seeing his side of the family. No grudges. Dad just couldn’t be bothered going out, going anywhere.

But now: Adventure Mode. Mom says every morning after dropping her off at work, he takes the car home, parks it in the drive way, grabs his back-pack — a freebie from the airline where he worked for the past 10 years — walks a mile and a half to buy the SingTao Daily, hops on a train, and goes wherever. Bankstown, Blacktown, Chatswood — pick a spot on the rail line, Dad will go there.

The last time he went on an adventure, it was forced on him. He was 30, boarding a boat in darkness with his two younger sisters. He had no bag, no newspaper, no home to return to. The boat chugged away from Vietnam to Bidong Island in Malaysia. It took five days, no food, no water. Everyone threw up, and when they had nothing left to throw up, they threw up some more. Pirates attacked, took gold, took women, took lives. Dad and his sisters made it, though.

They spent three months in Bidong living in tents and eating the same rationed tins of sardines every day until their skin itched and scabbed. Delegates from Australia came to accept refugees, and Dad and his sisters raised their hands like their lives depended on it (because they felt like it did). He’d never been to Australia, never even seen a picture, but he’d heard good things. Not as small as Hong Kong, not as cold as Canada, not as competitive as America. Australia was the key. He just wanted to be safe. He wanted his family to be together, to not be scared any more, to eat rice that didn’t have gravel mixed into it, to work jobs that didn’t make his hands bleed, to celebrate Chinese New Year with no Viet Cong coming to his house when everyone was asleep, pointing rifles into their backs and saying, This is government property now, out out, all of you.

He arrived in Australia, in Queensland, with his two sisters, and at the airport he had $US5 left in his pocket. He bought a postcard. He bought a postage stamp. He wrote to his big brother in Hong Kong: We’re safe in Australia — send for the others. And he’d immediately find a job in a metal factory, even though back in Vietnam he worked at a bank.

Over the next year his big brothers and sister and little brother and mom and dad and nieces and nephews would arrive in Australia after god knows how many months in Malaysian refugee camps, and they’d find their way to a townhouse in Cabramatta where everyone and their children would live. Dad met mom, and they married, and the house got even more crowded, but they were together, and the kids were happy, and they even celebrated Christmas one time, although no one really knew how that worked.

They saved up and moved out and my brother was born and they named him Sid, and then I was born and I wouldn’t remember the townhouse in Cabramatta, but everyone else would.

And Dad wouldn’t want to go anywhere any more (except for work and work and work), totally clammed up, rarely spoke, a man of no words. Dad and Mom bought a house near Cabramatta, and one time he came home with one of those big Panasonic box TVs and Mom was like Oh Not Again, and then our house was burgled but we only lost some cash and jewelry (they left the Panasonic). We built a big fence to keep out the burglars, which meant we could finally get a dog, and she was a jerk but we loved her, and then she had a son (mystery father) and we named him Humphrey.

And now Dad goes out every day, with his bag and his newspaper. He’ll pick a place on the rail map and go there, and he’ll come home in the late afternoon and vacuum and pick up dog poop. Then Mom comes home from work and she’ll make rice with meat and vegetables, and the rice will be gravel-free.

Then on Saturdays I Skype them from San Francisco where I now live and work because I had the choice, and Mom will say your dad’s been going on adventures! He goes everywhere! And I’ll ask her what he does and she’ll say I don’t know, you ask him.

First published March 26, 2017

We were best friends

I used to think a lot of things were not for me. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was a decision the Universe made and thrust upon me.

Sports? Not for me.

Theater? Not for me.

Having an out-going nature? Midriff tops? Big boobs? A sense of balance? Negotiation skills? Mascara? Not. For. Me.

I was never lacking, though. I had other things. I’m a well-put-together Asian woman with a 401K. Can’t say that about most people. I compensate. I compensate for all the things I don’t have, for all the things I can’t have. Tracey’s not fun, but damn is she punctual. I’ll embrace that, make that part of my identity. I don’t mind. But sometimes, I do.

I mind that — no, I’m scared that — the friendships I had when I was younger are not for me any more. I don’t mean coffee dates. I could fill a calendar with enough coffee dates to give myself a stomach ulcer. I mean real friends. I really mean Morgan.

By the time Morgan died two and a half years ago, our friendship had morphed beyond recognition. While a hopeful part of me believes that if he were still alive today we’d have rekindled what we had and be each other’s best friends, a much larger part of me knows that that would not have happened.

We hadn’t spoken in more than a year. We both irked each other. Seeing the other person’s posts on Facebook, we each thought the other a poser. That’s probably why we drifted — we weren’t willing to let the other person grow or change. And by “we,” I mean me.

I was insecure and intimidated. I didn’t want Morgan to make new friends, because if he did, maybe he’d realize he had so many options, and I wasn’t worth what he’d originally thought I was.

It was personal. I grew resentful. Of course it was all about me. He was enough for me. Why wasn’t I enjoy for him? I didn’t want to be his girlfriend — we never saw each other in that way — but I wanted my best friend all to myself.

For a while, things between us were great. I didn’t just have friendship, I had best-friendship. The universe winked at me each day: “Girl, physical flexibility and clicking with thumbs isn’t for you, but you know what is? Best-friendship!”

I’d wink back a Lucille Bluth eye spasm, and the Universe and I would chuckle like old friends, but not best friends.

Morgan and I started to really drift after we came back from studying in France. For a long time things between us were quiet. I didn’t know if he was happy or depressed or in love or lost. I was too proud to ask. He didn’t know, or maybe he did know, that I was sad. I felt alone. I missed him.

I walk through the city of San Francisco, a city in which Morgan once lived as a student, and I’m glad that I at least — if only by accident — get to retrace some of his steps.

Morgan was here. Tracey was here, too. They used to be best friends, you know.

First published July 18, 2016

A short story about using a bed pan

With all the experience I had pissing the bed (never intentionally, though), I was surprised by how hard it was to piss in a pan.

I’d just had spinal surgery, so I couldn’t sit on a toilet until I’d re-learned how to sit upright. And I couldn’t sit upright for another day or so, because spinal surgery is serious business. The kind nurses had removed my catheter earlier in the day, so my options now were to piss the pan or piss the bed.

When I asked why they couldn’t just keep the catheter in until I was ready to sit up, they said using the pan was “part of the recovery process.” Kind of like how you have to learn to crawl before you walk. Except, I didn’t understand how pissing in a pan was meant to help me better sit up and piss in a toilet. The two kinds of pissing have nothing in common. No one lies down with their butt across a toilet to urinate.

So there I lay, almost perfectly horizontal, as a nurse slipped a metal bed pan under my butt. The edges of the pan pressed against my cheeks.

“What happens if I piss the bed?” I asked.

“The pan is directly under you,” the nurse said.

“Yeah, but what if I miss?”

“It’ll be fine.”

I was skeptical. No one has perfect control of their urinary flow. What if I sprayed?

After convincing myself there was no point in worrying about my dignity, given that two different nurses had already given me a sponge bath and my mom had brushed my teeth for me using a special toothbrush hooked to a wall that has a built-in suction device so you don’t have to gargle and spit (it literally sucks stuff out of your mouth as it brushes — a real technological marvel), I decided to just do it.

The nurse drew the curtain around my bed and stepped out to give me privacy.

And then I… couldn’t pee. It just wouldn’t come out. I knew I needed to go – I hadn’t gone all morning. But lying down, with a pan under my buns, my bladder gave me the side-eye and said, “Nope!”

You see, by this point in life, my body understood that pissing while in this position meant I was certainly wetting the bed, and that was not cool. So, like an evolutionary safety mechanism, it just… wouldn’t let me urinate.

It took 15 minutes of lying there, coaxing my bladder to do an Elsa (“Let it go!”), before there was any movement.

There was a trickle. And that was it.

“It’ll get easier,” the nurse said when she took away the pan.

And it did! By the next day, I was a pan-peeing pro. I was pushing the button to summon nurses to bring me the pan several times throughout the day. I had some of the best pees of my life.

“Why does anyone even bother sitting on a toilet?” I thought. There was something luxurious about peeing while lying down.

On day three, they told me I’d have to poop in the pan, and that was when I finally sat up. It was a real Christmas miracle.

First published March 26, 2016

A short story about heroin

Cabramatta in the 1990s was known for two things: 1) Being home to the largest settlement of Vietnamese migrants to Australia, and 2) Being the country’s heroin capital.

The two were not necessarily related, although the former occasionally made the most of the latter (more on this later).

My family lived close to Cabramatta, and both my parents started working downtown in the 90s.

While neither were involved in the heroin trade (Cabramatta did, believe it or not, have an economy outside of heroin (and, FYI, most people in the 90s would have chosen to believe “not”)), both had stories from the height of the drug boom.

Dad had tales of tripping over junkies (“They were everywhere”). Mom had tales of tripping over mounds of heroin (“It was everywhere”). They made it sound like Cabramatta was in the midst of a perpetual snow day.

In the local government’s words, it was an “epidemic.” People were scared of Cabramatta. No one wanted to visit.

This didn’t seem to worry my parents, though.

My dad worked for a travel agency, and locals were still booking flights to Vietnam, which meant, epidemic or not, he had work in Cabramatta.

As for mom, who rung up customers at a pharmacy, the heroin addicts, or “xì ge,” as they’re called in Vietnamese, didn’t scare away customers. They were the customers.

***

Most pharmacies in Australia are small and stock only medical and personal care items. You won’t find anything to the scale of a Walgreens or CVS.

Dang’s Chemist, where my mom worked, one-upped every pharmacy in Cabramatta when it came to intimacy. The hole-in-the-wall establishment was claustrophobic, and for good reason: a smaller store meant cheaper rent. It was the same reason the store, despite its booming financial success, never renovated or turned on the A/C in the summer. A bean not spent was a bean saved. This philosophy made the owner a literal millionaire.

In a town dotted with pharmacies, Dang’s was the local favorite. It knew its market better than anyone else, and was more determined to capitalize on it than anyone else. According to mom, this was “Asian Smarts” at play. If a competing pharmacy priced a bar of soap at $3, Dang’s would price it at $2.90. If a customer came in claiming they’d seen some antibiotics elsewhere for a lower price, Dang’s would price match.

To the average Australian, these things didn’t matter. But the residents of Cabramatta weren’t average Australians. They were largely migrants from Vietnam who understood the struggle of building a new life in a foreign land. They weren’t about to piss away 10 cents if they could avoid it. Asian Smarts worked for both sides.

So when heroin came to town, Dang’s saw an opportunity.

To shoot heroin, a person needs a syringe, water with which to mix the heroin, a spoon in which the heroin and water can be dissolved, and the heroin itself. Dang’s couldn’t sell heroin, but it could sell everything else. The syringes used to inject heroin were the same used by diabetics to deliver insulin. The pharmacy sold tiny pods of sterilized water that were used to flush IV drips. Throw in an alcohol swab — the kind doctors swipe against your skin before a vaccination — and a plastic spoon from a bulk goods store, and you had what was essentially a heroin injecting kit.

Dang’s packaged these kits in small homemade envelopes constructed from junk mail, so even the envelopes themselves presented a cost saving (Smarts on Smarts!). Each kit sold for $1.50.

Could a heroin user buy each of these items in bulk for a lower price? Sure. A box of 100 syringes sold for $10. Bulk packs of plastic spoons were available at grocery stores for $2. But the thing with heroin is it takes away your ability to plan for the future. Dang’s understood this. And because it understood its market, it capitalized on it.

***

There are certain drugs that make people scary. Heroin is not one of them. Addicts enter such a deep state of euphoria they barely function.

When I was 10, I used to regularly drop into the pharmacy to wait for my mom to finish work. I sat behind the counter, where Dang’s stashed hundreds of its home-brewed heroin kits. Addicts would come and go, asking for “a pack.” Those who didn’t have the $1.50 for the whole pack would often just buy “a needle” (50 cents) or “a spoon” (20 cents).

Several times a day, various addicts who had just shot up would come in, stand near the counter, and sway back and forth; their eyelids drooped, their sentences slurred. Most didn’t even know where they were. They were harmless, but annoying. After all, Dang’s was a claustrophobic place even without customers.

According to mom, there was an easy way to get rid of these people.

“You say to them, ‘Hay! HAY!” she said, “You want me to call you an AMBULANCE?”

And just like that, the addict would snap out of their high, assure her that they were fine, and promptly leave the store.

***

By the early 2000s, Cabramatta had cleaned up. The establishment of legal drug injecting rooms and needle exchange programs drew users away from Cabramatta. There was probably some kind of disruption to the heroin trade, too. Before long, the drug had gone out of vogue.

This wasn’t a problem for Dang’s. It had identified a new opportunity: selling baby formula to Chinese nationals.

Cabramatta today is a thriving cultural center. You can pay to join Cabramatta food tours, where guides take you to Vietnamese restaurants where you’re guaranteed to get ripped off. The target market is white people who don’t know better. The Smarts really are everywhere in this town.

Despite the hard evidence that the city implemented strategies that effectively curbed the use of heroin, people still had their own theories about what happened.

According to my dad, heroin is now another city’s problem. All the addicts moved to suburbs with injecting rooms.

According to my mom, heroin is no longer a problem. All the addicts are dead.

“No, they’ve all gone to Redfern because there are injecting rooms there,” said dad.

“They all died off,” said mom.

“NO, they’re in Redfern!”

“Yeah,” mom said. “All dead.”

First published February 8, 2016

A man named Sam

Under his many layers of clothing, Sam was frail. I’d offered to help him out of his seat; he’d been struggling to do so himself. I’d assumed he’d be able to get up on his own, and my “help” was really more for show, like when you offer to help someone off the ground and, taking your hand, they manage their own way up without you ever having to pull.

As I forklifted my arms under his, it became apparent that if I didn’t hoist him up, Sam wasn’t going to budge.

I could feel his ribs pressed against my arms. I was afraid if I squeezed too hard, he’d turn to dust.

Sam’s face was etched with the lines that map a hard life. At 63, he estimates he’s spent at least eight years homeless. It may have been longer. Sam doesn’t remember the numbers clearly. Having suffered three strokes, his memory is fuzzy.

Born in Trinidad, Colorado, Sam grew up in a mountain town. He was a love child, “which is a bastard,” he said. His father was Native American, which accounts for Sam’s dark, thick locks, now sprinkled with strands of silver. His father wasn’t around for most of his life. Sam and his older brother and sister were raised by his mom. While caring for the three, she went to school. She was the first of her family to graduate high school, but she could never shake the stigma in a small town of being a single mom.

Drawn to San Francisco’s liberal and free-spirited culture, Sam moved to the city in the early ‘80s. He took odd jobs as a cook, then later as a bartender. He rented a room in one of city’s many single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, which often consisted of kitchen-less bedrooms with a communal bathroom down the hall.

In the ‘90s, while working at a bar, Sam lost his job. Like many in the city, he’d been living paycheck to paycheck. Within a month, he was homeless. He was 45.

“I had no savings,” he said. “No one encouraged me to have savings. I was paid under the table a lot. I alway told myself it was by choice, but it really wasn’t. I talked myself into believing it was my fault. It just wasn’t a situation I was prepared for. I wasn’t prepared.”

Sam stayed with friends when he could. A lot of them were sick, though. It was the height of the AIDs epidemic, and one by one, Sam’s friends were dying. Among his friends, they called it the plague.

He went through a cycle of moving in with friends and caring for them through their last days. When they died, he slept on the streets. At times he washed buses in the city’s Dogpatch district. He earned enough money to rent another room in a hotel, but not enough to buy food. Sometimes he washed dishes in cafes. Around this time, he met his partner, Kurt. They lifted each other’s spirits. Together, they felt less alone. They took care of each other. He got a job at the Macy’s in Union Square.

Kurt had Huntington’s disease, and his motor functions deteriorated over the years. In 2001, Kurt died.

“I went into a tailspin,” Sam said. “I was with Kurt for almost ten years. He was my heart.”

Sam doesn’t remember the following years well. After Kurt died, he suffered his first stroke while stacking shelves at Macy’s. He became blind in one eye. Once again, friends took him in until they moved or succumbed to illness. Sam doesn’t remember his next two strokes.

He avoided homelessness because local San Francisco charity St. Anthony’s stepped in to help. They secured him a room in an SRO. He now receives social security payments. Every Thursday, he meets with his caseworker, Sarah, at St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin. He describes her as his guardian angel.

He’s on a waiting list to receive permanent affordable housing. Once he gets that, he wants to help people living in aged care facilities. He wants to care for people like he once cared for his friends, like his friends once cared for him.

“We’re throwing people away,” he said, referring to San Francisco’s homeless who are often ignored and uncared for. “Nobody should be thrown away. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be thrown away, or my mother. People think homeless people are violent. They’re not violent. They’re scared.”

Sam steadies himself with his cane and begins his slow walk to meet with Sarah.

“I look forward,” he said. “I can’t look back. The back is too dark and scary. I have hope. I look forward.”

First published June 5, 2015

Remembering James Morgan, 10 March 1989 — 7 January 2014

My friend James Morgan was in a car accident on December 22, 2013. His life support was turned off on January 7, 2014. He was 24-years old.

When I found out, it felt like someone had poked a hole in my chest and vacuumed out my soul. The tears came so suddenly they surprised me. Over the next two days, it would be a surprise when they stopped. I have been desperately trying to hold onto every memory I have of him. I’m afraid of forgetting.

James was the first friend I made at university. We were introduced at an art show a few weeks before semester started. Our mutual friend Lanelle (who would later become his girlfriend) wanted to connect us because we were both majoring in French at the same university. I had never had anyone be so excited to meet me. “We’re gonna go to France together!” he said with wild hand gestures. “This is awesome! I’ll see you in class, French friend! Team France! We’re going to France!”

I had known this guy for five minutes and he already made me believe he was my best friend. That was the magic of James Morgan. He had a knack for making everyone feel like they mattered. When he spoke to you, even if it was for the first time, you couldn’t help but feel like you were the most important person to him.

We ended up in the same French classes for the next three years. We would rearrange our schedules and pick up night classes just so we could take French together. During lectures, I’d teach him how to write swear words in shorthand. Somewhere in one of my textbooks is the shorthand for “dickbag” scribbled dozens of times.

When it came time for us to put in our university preferences for our year of studying abroad in France, we filled out our forms together and attached a note. The university typically assigned students to host universities based on availability. If too many students applied for a particular college, they would pull names out of a hat. On our note, we asked that the faculty send both of us to the same university, even if it meant assigning us to a less popular region like Caen or Poitiers or that university located in the town that was leveled during World War 2 and now looked like a Walmart parking lot (we think it was Caen (we looked it up on Google Images)). We explained, without getting too sappy, that we started learning French together three years ago, and it would mean the world to us if we could continue our education together in France.

We both got our first preference, Bordeaux. I couldn’t have been more relieved.

What I didn’t write on my note to the faculty was that James was my source of courage. It was because of him that I was able to meet the people I met, make the friends I made and have the adventures I had. I was painfully reserved. I was so quiet I earned the nickname “That One,” because whenever James mentioned “Tracey” to people, they wouldn’t know who he was talking about — he’d have to point to me and say “That One. Tracey is That One right there, the one who hasn’t said a word all evening.”

He gave everyone a nickname. Our friend Emily became “Elbows.” In early 2010, we were at a bar in Bordeaux talking about anatomy when James said that elbows were the least erogenous part of the body. “You don’t hear about porn sites called Amateur Elbows Dot Com,” he said. “I AM Amateur Elbows!” Emily declared. And so she became Elbows. James would later tell people that Emily earned her nickname because she once got a guy off using only her elbows. We would all agree that this was a gross fabrication.

James made life fun for everyone around him. I think he made a lot of people feel that they were invincible. He was always able to convince me that everything would be OK, no matter the situation we were in.

During our winter vacation, we took a train from France to Germany to visit our friend Sophie. Sophie worked in Bonn. She suggested that we visit a nearby town called Bruhl. “It’s very scenic,” she said. So that morning when Sophie went to work, James and I took a train to Bruhl. We got off a few stops too early and, instead of waiting at the station for another train, James figured if we just walked in any given direction we’d eventually get to Bruhl. Because James is James, I agreed to it.

We didn’t know what we were looking for. All we knew was that Bruhl was “scenic,” as per Sophie’s description. We spent the next two hours looking for Scenic Bruhl. If I were on my own, I’d have been terrified. I would have stayed at the train station. I probably would have gone straight home. But I was with James, which meant we were going to take the adventurous path, and we were going to be OK. We walked through dirt fields. We were the only people for miles. We didn’t understand any of the signs. This was before we had Google Maps on our phones.

Somehow, we found Bruhl. We stopped and had lunch at what we later concluded was a budget bistro for senior citizens. We took some pictures. We caught the right train back to Bonn. That was adventure #1 of many more we’d have that year.

The last time I saw James was in March of 2012. After we got back from France, he went to study in San Francisco and Sacramento. When he returned, it was my turn to move to San Francisco. We didn’t keep in touch. I thought he would always be there. We could pick things up later. One of the last times we hung out in Sydney, shortly before he went to America to study, we both went to Footlocker and bought matching rainbow running shoes.

James Morgan was the best person that ever happened to me. He made me laugh, he made me smile, he made me angry, he made me resentful, he made me feel loved, he made me feel accepted, and he made me feel like I was the most important person in the world.

James Morgan, even if I wanted to forget you, I don’t think I could. What an incredible human. Fire up! I miss you. I love you. I love you.

First published October 18, 2014