Half Life


She looked into her red pocket mirror, lipstick in trembling hand. Brows furrowed. Lips parted. Rose pink slipped out of the line. She finger-wiped it then reapplied. I watched from five feet away––watched and traced her facial lines in my mind. Creases on her forehead. Almost invisible flat nose. Curves that framed her round eyes. I inhaled and filled my lungs with her scent. Essential oils. Cough drop. Vanilla lotion. I wanted to, wanted to, wanted to remember this woman who birthed me.

My heart isn’t big enough for the love I have for my husband, for his dimpled smile I see first thing in the morning, for his straight nose so graceful and fine, for his wavy black hair I run my fingers through, for his sapphire eyes and loving gaze at night. Even eternity isn’t enough time to study, adore, and admire his chiseled face. My heart needs to be held outside of my body, for my husband, my Batman, my only delight.

Mama had just been discharged from the hospital the day before, July 3rd 1995. Weak and weary. Insisted on coming. Four-hour car ride from home to the Taipei airport. Vomited the entire way. Gagged and splashed. Moaned and groaned. Sour air. Silent tears. Bag in hand. Knees in chest. Head against window. Mother of sorrow. “I’m okay. I’m fine. Oh, why must we say good-bye?”

My Batman, a mere mortal without superpowers. Afflicted. Defeated. “Ulcerative colitis––new words for you to learn,” the doctor says, dropping his pen in his pocket. My love, a hump of six-foot-one outline on the bed. A pile of misery and pain. “Get the kids outta here!” he yells, “Can’t stand all the noises!” Hats, coats, gloves. Socks, boots, scarves. Three-year-old at my knee. Two-year-old on my hip. One-year-old on my back. Elongated shadows on the sidewalk. Noses running. Tummies growling. Eyelids drooping. I look back and see Batman’s pale face in the window. The babies are whining, all of them. “Mommy, cold.” “Mommy, hungwy.” “Mommy, nap.” But all I hear is the snowflakes falling and my beloved Batman sobbing.

The flight from Taipei to Texas is about 17 hours long. July 4th, 1995. I was a twenty-two-year-old college student on a plane, crossing longitudes and passing latitudes and arriving in Houston on the same day––even earlier than the departure time on my itinerary––as if time stood still, or went backyards, while I moved. What do they call this, time and travel? Time travel?

Mama dug in her red purse. Fished among pens, receipts, camera, insulin kit, business cards, dollar bills, makeup case, essential oils. “Go get a bottled water.” She handed me a ten-yuan bill. “Take water with you to a foreign country. Water from home meets new soil. That combination creates a harmonious click in your new life. You’ll adapt well.” I arrived in the new world. The promised land. Wide-eyed. Sweaty palms. Bursting chest. Forgot about the bottled water in L.A. airport. Stood before a vending machine. Cookies. Pretzels. Potato chips. No, no, no. It’s six o’clock dinner time. Time for wanton, chow mien, egg drop soup. Sprinkle salt, herbs, spices, too. Set the table. Bring water cups . . . I remembered. I, soil without water.

Batman plays volleyball. Surfs. Runs. Wakeboards. Climbs rocks. Lifts weights. Does yoga and all. He walked down the stairs to the basement one day. Sudden sharp pain jabbed him in the back, right side. He screamed, fell off the stairs, flat on the hallway floor. Emergency room monitor showed his heart rate at 55/minute. Fifty-five? Slower than tick-tock-tick? Will the monitor line go flat? In his sleep rose a deep, guttural voice. “Allison––Allison––Allison––” The nurse winked at me. “Noticed the rhythm? He calls your name with the beat of his heart.” In distress, am I his heart’s desire? Am I the heart he holds outside of his body?

A sea of people at the L.A. airport immigration and customs. Men. Women. Young. Old. A world of foreign languages. A world of chaotic noises. Excited gasps. Chatty laughter. Impatient whines. Exhausted complaints. Body odor. Stale perfume. Foul breath. Signs separated and directed the crowd. No mistake. Everyone had a line to stand in. U.S. citizens, permanent residents to the right. Visitors to the left. A uniformed officer looked over the top of his glasses at me. Looked down at my green cover passport with an embossed gold star. “Welcome to the U.S.A., Miss Hong.” He smiled and stamped on page two. Americans smile so much. I like. I like. I like. Passed the vertically-hung giant star- spangled banner. Out to the street. Cool breeze. Fireworks. Happy Fourth. “Welcome to the U.S.A., Miss Hong!” Americans, they sang and danced for me.

Mama was in hospice care. Diabetes. Alzheimer. Kidney failure. Her fiftieth birthday. No one visited. No one celebrated. No one remembered. She got out of the nightly bath. Red robe on. A nurse helped her take small steps to her bed. Mama must’ve smelled of lavender. Or Honeysuckle. Maybe citrus. Velvety serenity. Violent sweet. Vigorous sour. She shooed away “the men” in front of her only she could see, the nurse later reported. “Go away! I’m not coming with you––not ready to go home yet!” Mama beg-cried. Mighty invisible men. Come to take. No one escapes. Her knees buckled. Her body limp. She fell unconscious. Ambulance stuck in stand-still traffic. Heart rate line on the monitor slowed. Were the invisible men sitting on her heart? Hovering over her, yanking her spirit? What was the last image Mama saw in her mortal life? Loneliness? Betrayal? Sufferings? Mighty invisible men. Took Mama home. But, home, where?

I got lost in the fishing village. Biked up and down the street. Passed my childhood home. Once. Twice. Thrice. Didn’t recognize it. Stopped to ask for direction. Recited my home address. The almond-eyed woman stared. “What’s that accent you have?” I said I was from here. Said I was searching for my past. She pointed. I followed her finger. Found the house. Down the narrow lane. Run-down wooden shack I used to be embarrassed to let anyone know was my home. That centennial beach property. Built in late Qing Dynasty. Now museum-worthy relic. Chipped red paint on rickety cracked wood door. Lion knocker missing. Ankle-high wood threshold all worn out. Nearly a low stumbling block now. Boarded windows dusty and locked. And how was it possible the concrete patio I had to sweep every morning before school shrunk? Unfair! The flat rooftop where I watched sunrise and sunset every day. Blackened by rains, typhoon, and spray paint. The maggot-infested outhouse, stench erupted to high heavens. The green bunk bed I used to sleep with my sister, urine-stained mattress still there. The moldy kitchen where Baba and Mama fought. The cold corner I stood, wailing, howling, and watching my family fall apart. Twenty-two years later, today, I still don’t remember where Mama’s ashes are.

Half my life in Taiwan. Half my life in America. Dichotomy. I stand tall. I stand proud. A uniformed officer at L.A. immigration and customs looks down at my navy blue cover passport, then studies my face. “Welcome home, Mrs. Merrill.” He smiles. And stamps on page two.


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