by Alexis Yang
For most of my life, I believed that my daddy was the luckiest man on Earth.
I wasn’t entirely sure what luck exactly was or what constituted it, but my daddy had it. He always wore crisp white shirts, plain but freshly ironed. When I was little, he’d swing me to his shoulders when he got home from his teaching job at the local university. At New Year’s, he’d eat noodles for long life. He’d recount the happy memories from his childhood in Chinatown, but never his early years in Canton.
Now I was fifteen, preparing our New Year’s hot pot in our tiny kitchen. I was halfway through cutting up a head of napa when the knife slipped and red began to seep out of my hand, staining the Chinese cabbage.
I remembered the red stain I’d discovered in my underpants when I was eleven. I ran to Dad, screaming, but he only awkwardly told me to change and washed out the garment in the sink. Then he drove me to the store to buy feminine things wrapped in colorful, crinkly packaging.
“Red is lucky,” Dad had told me sometime in my distant memory, maybe in his perfect Cantonese, maybe in his soft-spoken, slightly accented, but always clear English. He spoke each word like he meant it, and until now, I’d believed every single one.
Pain began to well up behind the cut. I stuck my hand under the tap to let the stream of water wash the red away, wincing but careful to keep quiet. Dad was grading papers in his office, and I’d always made sure not to disturb him. It used to be out of privacy and courtesy—Dad’s prized values—but now it was because of much more.
I found a clean white cloth in a drawer and wrapped it around the cut. The slice was deep, deeper than I’d thought. A vague notion of antiseptic crossed my mind, but as I saw a splotch of blood blossom through the thin fabric, it was red like her lipstick left on Dad’s lips, red like her high-heeled shoes, red like Dad’s bloodshot eyes when he came home late.
I heard the squeak of his swivel chair in his office, the thump of his stuffed manila folder as it fell to the floor. If he came out now and saw my hand, what would he say? “Are you all right, Joanna?” or “Jo, how did this happen?” Would he fetch a bottle of antiseptic and dab the alcohol gently into the cut with gauze, soften my winces with soothing words?
I knew he would, and that nearly made me cry. My daddy would clean my cut, but he would also commit a deep, unthinkable injustice.
A few months ago, she came over for dinner. Dad prefaced the night with an inadequate explanation that they’d been friends before I was born, but they’d fallen out of touch. They’d found each other again on Facebook, of all places. When I tried to disappear into my seat at dinner, pushing my pea shoots around and watching her glance at Dad with her long black hair shining and posture upright and chopsticks poised, I knew that “fallen out of touch” and “Facebook” were code for something else.
After that night, talking with Dad pained me too much. His soft words transformed into the ones I imagined he crooned into her ear. When he made me scrambled eggs instead of jook, the Cantonese rice porridge that I despised, I imagined him making jook for her. His congratulations for my calculus grades became a reminder of how I’d grown to like math just because I’d used to sit through his lectures, loving the clacking of his chalk against the board.
Life had gone on like this for months, and now it was New Year’s. Dad would kiss my forehead and give me a red envelope with twenty dollars’ worth of lucky money, and we would eat to live long, prosperous lives. But this year, she was coming over for our celebration that evening, which previously was only reserved for us and my grandparents. “Daddy?” I called.
He didn’t respond. He never responded right away, partly because he was busy and partly because he wanted me to knock.
“Daddy?” I called again, and this time I walked to his door. When he opened it, I stepped back, clutching my bleeding hand.
“Joanna?” he said, his forehead wrinkling. “Did you cut your hand? You need to put some antiseptic on that.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but there were too many words trapped in my throat. Dad stood and began the quest for antiseptic, whistling to let me know it was okay. When he was armed with the bottle and gauze, we sat at the kitchen table and he unwound the cloth from my hand.
“I can do it myself,” I protested. He continued anyway, touching my hand gently, applying alcohol to the gauze.
“This is going to hurt a bit,” he told me in Cantonese. I wasn’t sure why he switched languages, and I thought that made it hurt more. Cantonese was his language, the tongue of his homeland. He tried his best to keep up with my American life, but he fell short—he suppressed his disapproval of my brown-haired boyfriend, failed to understand why I wanted to do my hair for school dances. When I was small, I wasn’t aware of his shortcomings. I studied his gait and tried to emulate it, found myself tapping my pen against my chin just like him, believed in good luck just because he did.
“Better?” Dad asked in English. “Yes,” I lied.
“Good,” Dad replied, patting my hand gently.
After the first time she came to our house, he’d invite her over and they’d sit in the living room drinking red wine. They’d laugh. They’d flirt. Sometimes she’d lower her voice and I’d strain to hear, sitting with my heart pounding in the adjacent room. Once when she was leaving and I was hiding behind a corner, she kissed Dad on the lips.
All my life, he had lied to me. He told me that his marriage to my mother was happy. He told me that she was a wonderful person, that she loved mornings and despised walnuts. After she died in a freak car accident when I was one, I never doubted him. His claims were like the facts of our life: eggs for me and jook for him, no opening doors without knocking first.
“You lied to me,” I blurted. Dad blinked. “Lied to you?”
“You knew her when you were married to Mom, didn’t you?” “Yes,” Dad answered flatly. “We were friends.”
I couldn’t believe this. A month ago, Dad and I had placed flowers on my mother’s grave—dark, deep red ones that ruffled in the breeze. I hated this part of my father I’d never seen before, this man who lied to his daughter’s face but still cooked her scrambled eggs as if he didn’t wish she’d eat jook instead, who pretended to accept her boyfriend, but judged him based on his skin.
“Stop lying to me,” I burst out. Each word came like a crackling firework, a Chinese invention and an American tradition. “You were cheating on Mom, weren’t you?” More fireworks—red exploding in his face. “I talked to Po Po. I got it out of her.”
I visited Mom’s parents often. Po Po always hugged me tight and told me I had Mom’s chin; Gong Gong always gave me hard candy to take home, even though I’d outgrown it. Last time I went to their house, I was crying. Po Po put her arms around me. I asked for the truth, and gently, she told it to me.
“You call yourself lucky,” I continued, tears welling up in my eyes. “But what kind of luck creates a head-on collision? What kind of luck brings a woman back into your life, someone who you haven’t seen in years, who you’d rather have married instead?”
“Joanna. Let me explain.”
“But you couldn’t marry her. You couldn’t because you were already married to Mom and she was pregnant with me.”
“Joanna, your mother—” “My mother what?”
Dad paused. He often paused, musing over the right words to say, leaving me waiting patiently for his response. I typically never minded waiting, because he could capture anyone’s attention even with silence. But today I couldn’t stand to wait.
“Tell me,” I prompted. My voice was sharp like the knife that had sliced my hand, the knife that had been preparing our New Year’s meal. “My mother what?”
“Didn’t want children,” my father murmured.
My eyes dropped to the white gauze. There a tiny patch of red seeping through. Didn’t want children. My mother, the woman I didn’t remember, the woman I referred to as Mom. My mother, the woman from Hong Kong, the woman who loved mornings. Photographs flashed through my mind—Mom standing on a dock holding me, a small baby in her arms. Mom and Dad sitting on the front stoop, smiling. Mom in some city, beautiful in her heels and dress.
Didn’t want children. I pressed down on the gauze with three fingers until it hurt. “Stop that,” Dad scolded. I pressed harder. Dad looked away and stared at something—Mom’s teapot with the little blue flowers on it, maybe. “I loved her,” Dad murmured, speaking with his head turned away from me. “She loved me.”
“Not always,” I answered, my fingers digging hard into my flesh.
Dad didn’t respond for a long time. I stared at a tuft of hair sticking up on the back of his head and kept pressing. “Not always,” he whispered.
I released my fingers. The red splotch was bigger now, darker. I thought Dad would sigh or shift his weight, but he sat completely motionless, his face still turned away from me. “I met her at the grocer’s,” he said quietly, “in Chinatown. Your Gong Gong owned that store, and your mother used to work there. I’d visit every day.” He raised his hand to his face, maybe to wipe away a tear, maybe not. “A little under a year later, we found out that she was pregnant.”
He turned to face me. His eyes were dry, but his face was pained, like a thousand knives had sliced his hand. “We loved each other, Joanna,” he said. “We had to get married, and we did. But the love didn’t last.”
“For you or for her?”
“For both of us.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. “I remember the fighting. Eventually we couldn’t stop. Couldn’t be in the same room with one another. It just got so bad, so fast.” He drew in his lip, and I noticed that it was trembling. “I’m not lucky, Joanna. I just wish I was.”
I focused on his trembling lip, dared him to let his sorrow free and send tears running down his face. But he was my father. He was the daddy who used to carry his sleeping girl over his shoulder and tuck her into bed. He was the dad who always waited patiently through his daughter’s teenage moods. My father hadn’t let me see him cry in fifteen years, and today wouldn’t be any different. “Did you ever want me?” I mustered, my voice breaking.
“I love you,” he said.
I tried to fight back the growing lump in my throat, the tight ache that swelled until I thought it would burst. “But did you ever want me?”
“I love you,” he responded in Cantonese. “You’re my daughter, and I love you always.”
“So, you didn’t want me,” I choked out, English words fighting through the sticky lump in my throat. “You and Mom didn’t want me, and you didn’t love each other, either.” He couldn’t answer. I tore the gauze off my hand, revealing the ugly red slice that had stopped bleeding, but was still ugly, nonetheless.
“Aiya,” my father exclaimed, reaching for more gauze, but I shook my head. My entire body was shaking.
“You fed me lies, Dad,” I said, my voice raw and quaking. “I looked up to you, you know. In first grade, our teacher gave us a project where we had to illustrate our real-life superhero. And you know who I drew? You. I drew you.” I crumpled the gauze in my hand, not caring that it was staining my palm red. “The other kids at school, they said their mothers were nice outside the house, but mean inside of it, and they said their fathers threw things, and I always said, ‘My daddy is nice no matter where he is.’ But you cheated on her, Dad. I don’t care that things turned bad. You were married to her and you cheated on her, and now she’s dead.”
My father’s face fell apart before my eyes. It shocked me, and I shut up right then, with that gauze wadded tightly my fist. He didn’t cry, but he looked hollow inside, like I had just stripped away every smiling photograph and good luck dinner from him, dismantled his entire being until there was only one person left. At his best, my father was the shy, quiet professor who left work to pick me up from school after my Math Olympiad meeting. At his worst, my father was a liar and a cheat.
“I try my best for you,” he murmured in Cantonese. “Everything I do, I do for you. I try my best to raise you well. I know you don’t like my ideas sometimes, but I do what I think is right. I only want the best for you.”
I swallowed and nodded, tears clouding my vision. I hated my father for cheating on Mom, and I hated him for lying to me, and I hated him for kissing her goodnight. But I still loved him more than anyone on Earth, even if he wasn’t the luckiest. I struggled to keep from sobbing at that table, wrestling with these different versions of him—Daddy, Dad, and simply my father.
“Okay?” he said.
“Okay,” I replied, but nothing was okay.
He rose and retrieved a tissue box from the counter, then returned and placed it in front of me. I sniffled and blew my nose messily. I was wiping at my eyes, knowing that it was useless because I would only cry later, when he offered in English, “Should I wrap your hand again?”
I shook my head, leaving two crumpled tissues in a pile with the balled-up gauze.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and reached out to hug me. I let his arms wrap around me for a brief moment—just long enough to feel his familiar warmth, faint yet comforting. Then I wrenched myself away, grabbed the roll of gauze, and flew up the steps into the bathroom.
The cut was opening up again. I wrapped the white gauze around it one, two, three, four times, far too many than needed. When I raised my face to the mirror, a thin-framed girl was staring back at me, her hair curled like an American’s. I studied her chin that supposedly came from her mother. Her cheekbones that came from her father. The faint birthmark on her jaw, just below her ear. Did my father once kiss Mom like he kissed that woman? Did the sight of him once make my mother’s face flush? After they married, did they ever speak about what they wanted me to be like, what they thought I would be like? Did they picture this girl in the mirror?
I thought my father was one way, and he was another. I had seen him in a million mirrors, but I had never seen the depth past the glass.
A thump came from downstairs—my father throwing the head of napa in the trash can. I took one last look at myself in the mirror, and I remembered that it was New Year’s. There would be many New Year celebrations after this one, with me and my father and Po Po and Gong Gong, and maybe with her, too. Maybe someday I would accept my father for who he was; maybe I never would. Starting with today, things would never be the same. But I knew that now they were real.
I walked down the stairs, wiping my tears away, and found my father chopping vegetables in the kitchen. I stood motionless with two big words aching in my mouth. He sensed me watching him and turned.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Then the doorbell rang, and he set down the knife. When he opened the door, she stepped into the apartment and kissed him on the cheek, wearing a deep red dress and red lipstick. Her cheeks were rouged, and she was tall, a little taller than my father in her heels. She was beautiful, but not as beautiful as my mother. I kept a distance with my arms crossed behind my back, and then I noticed the little boy behind her.
He was around five years old, with thin limbs and soft-looking black hair that stuck up in the back. He reached up and took his mother’s hand, glancing shyly at my father and then at me. When he looked at me, I recognized that face. I couldn’t breathe. My father welcomed his guests and told them to place their coats on the couch. The little boy followed his mother and left his small puffy jacket on a couch cushion, then hid behind her. He seemed afraid of my father, so he looked at me instead. Our eyes met, and I knew those eyes. I knew those cheekbones. I knew that shy gait and those narrow shoulders and those spindly limbs. I had those same cheekbones and shoulders, and my father had all of this little boy’s traits, every single one of them.
I met my father’s eyes as he led his guests into the kitchen. He knew that I knew. He mouthed something—Cantonese words—but I couldn’t read his lips. “Wait,” I said in Cantonese, but she was asking him a question, and he was answering.
If he noticed my tears, he didn’t mention it. He said nothing as he continued cooking, nothing as we ate good luck foods with Po Po and Gong Gong, nothing as he laughed with her. Nothing. I watched the soup boil in the pot with tears filling my eyes. The little boy noticed me crying, and he watched me with his chopsticks stuck in his mouth.
Then everyone had their glasses raised. My father was giving a toast, and everyone else was listening. I blinked away my tears and tried to forgive him.
“Gong hei fat choy,” my father said. Happy New Year.