Stepping into Step-fatherhood
April 9, 2012
I had never seen brick inside a house before. In Wenzhou, houses were grey and made of smooth, cool cement. This house had red brick on the inside and outside. The fireplace and one of the walls were laid unevenly with waxed bricks, some deeper in color and stained. They were separated by an inch of coarse taupe cement. The brick was the first thing I noticed after walking into the florescent interior of my new home in Queens, New York: right before I was introduced to my half-siblings, James and Dina.
I must have been a forgetful child because I don’t recall the initial shock at meeting my mother’s other children. My parents were still new to me too—I had not seen my mother for five years and I had just met my stepfather a week prior. I blamed the situation on those I felt comfortable with—my grandparents, who had failed to inform me of the other children. It created a gap larger than the seven thousand miles separating us afterwards. On the phone, I ached to tell them I wanted to go back home to the nail shop downstairs. But instead a knot the size of an egg swelled in my throat. I twirled the white cord around my index finger and waiting for the long distance call to end before I let myself swallow.
I was aware of the differences right away. I remember my mother doting on James and Dina; she gave them the best part of the ginger and scallion steamed fish while I got the scaly tail, she brought them brand name clothes and sewed mine at the factory; she bought them treats I pretended not to want. My half-siblings sensed the inequality even if they didn’t understand it; James learned to snicker and enjoyed the privilege, and Dina learned to be elusive.
By the decorative fireplace we never used, I witnessed my parent’s first party. It was a couple of months after I arrived in New York and, in fact, it was in my honor. After my father had passed away, my mother had come to the U.S. to begin a new life. She married the owner of the sweatshop she worked in, had two kids, then came back for me. She had not only succeeded in making her American dream come true, she had also managed to bring her seven-year-old daughter with her.
Everyone at the gathering was from my mother’s side of the family and spoke Wenzhounese, our native dialect. They were aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen for years. They asked if I remembered them and looked disappointed when I shied away, unable to say either way.
My mother gave a guided tour of our duplex house. My aunts awed over the size and the convenient layout. They noticed the feng-shui of the windows and the doors.
“What did he say?” my older aunt asked. She wore her hair chin-length and naturally black. A thick beauty mark sat on her right cheek just like the one my mother and I had.
“He said we should move our door. Otherwise, the garage across the street—that one—will bring a lion right into our front door when it opens. Our good luck can’t get in.”
A lion? I tilted my head. I had no idea what feng shui was but the women all nodded under the weight of those words.
My uncles were most impressed by the front lawn—grass in Wenzhou was rare and only artificially landscaped around monuments and government buildings. My mother paused at the right places, collected the compliments, and when it was all over, gathered everyone in the living room.
Two aunts and five uncles and I couldn’t figure out who was married to whom. I sat down on the freshly waxed leather couch. I was bored. I had no one to talk to.
“Let the guests sit first,” my mother hissed.
Children were to move when told, speak only when spoken to and always be obedient. I was being retrained. As a child in Wenzhou, my grandparents let me spend the day playing with the neighborhood kids, acting like a tomboy and growing wild. It was now my mother’s job to straighten me out.
She followed me with her eyes as I got up. I walked around and tucked my bare toes under the couch, leaning against the wall. Her lips pulled into a thin, taut line before her eyes reluctantly turned back to the party.
My stepfather, or Dad as I was told to call him, was fiddling with the knobs on the black box sitting behind the glass door of the entertainment center. He flipped through the channels until the T.V. turned a vibrant blue. It took a few seconds before loud music blasted from the speakers and the T.V. flashed to a couple holding hands, walking down a pathway. Brown leaves and pink cherry blossom petals cascaded around them like wedding confetti. Bubbly words appeared on the bottom of the screen that slowly changed color.
“Who wants to sing first?” my mother said in a cheery voice. She held the slender microphone toward my uncles. Her bright auburn hair was blown out and hair-sprayed to a compliant bob. Her navy dress clung like the skin of a fruit, conservative around the collar and a little too high above the knee. A pair of powder pink slippers covered her feet.
“You go,” my oldest uncle, the one with long bony legs and goofy glasses, said.
“No,” my mother said in a don’t-be-silly tone.
“Sing a duet with your husband!”
No one reached for the mike and she gently rested it on the coffee table. She picked up her champagne glass between two fingers and slipped into the kitchen. By the middle of the second song, the uncles were sharing the mike and the aunts were singing chorus.
My mother sat down next to my stepfather. Neither had had a chance to sit since the doorbell started ringing at five. His face was beginning to maroon around the temple and cheekbone, thickening like leather as the evening progressed.
“Ok come on, it’s your turn,” my older aunt said, bringing the attention back to my mother.
“We’ve all sang,” my younger aunt who was still older than my mother chimed in.
“Here, take it,” my second uncle said, his Mandarin beginning to slur. My stepfather reached out and accepted the mike. My mother gently leaned in to him.
My aunt handed the disc cover to my stepfather. He scanned the list of Chinese characters on the back and punched in the numbers on the special remote.
A light fluty song started and a new Chinese couple came into view. My aunts clapped and my uncles gave loud approving whistles. It was an old duet.
I hadn’t seen my mother for five years, not since she had left me months after my father passed away. I recognized her voice from our bi-weekly phone conversations, but I had no clear memories of her, only stories told over and over by my grandparents until they were blurry and subliminal.
Her cheeks flushed a few shades darker than her blush. Her forehead was shiny. She seemed girly and uncharacteristically insecure. When her voice finally came through the microphone, it rang sharp and off pitch, like she was raising her speaking voice. My stepfather’s voice came in smooth and thick like the glass of cognac in his spare hand. He caught the beat and carried it in the right places. He sang her parts until they were singing all the lyrics together, against what the red and blue colors on the screen dictated. His side-swept hair leaned into her bob as the song came to an end. The light from the T.V. screen illuminated and held them still as the music faded out.
The women decided to clear out of the tight living room after the duet, leaving the men to smoke, drink and talk about the things men talked about. They gathered in the warmly lit kitchen and sat around the oval glass table with cups of flowering Oolong tea. In an oscillating platter were loose pistachios, hard candy and watermelon seeds surrounded by plates of freshly sliced cantaloupe, square-cut watermelon and pears in naked quarters.
There were no other children; my one-year-old half sister and two-year-old half brother had been put to bed hours ago. I wandered back and forth between the men and women, feeling restless and out of place.
In the living room, my stepfather was sitting in his leather armchair, the one he often snored off in after dinner. My uncles had fallen back into speaking Wenzhounese with one another, forgetting that my stepfather didn’t understand the dialect. He didn’t interrupt though. He remained courteous and aloof. Sipping his cognac, he caught my reflection off the T.V.
“Anna,” he said, in Mandarin. “Come here.”
I hesitated while he reached over and placed his drink on the corner of coffee table. He motioned with his hand and I walked over.
“Do you like it here?” he asked, leaning in over his growing beer-belly and pressed grey slacks.
My mother had warned me not to bother my stepfather. He worked all day and he needed rest. He was the reason I was able to come to America and live in such a nice house.
I felt shy all of a sudden. I wished my mother was there; she was usually next to me puppeteering what I said in Wenzhounese. I was just beginning to feel comfortable speaking Mandarin, the language spoken in this house.
I shrugged my shoulders and looked down at my right hand resting on the soft brown leather. It was warm; his hand must have been on the same spot. We hadn’t spoken much, but I always thought he smiled at me with his eyes.
“Do you understand me?” he asked.
I nodded. It was strange to have a father but not a father. I was to call him Dad, but he was really my half siblings’ father and not mine. I didn’t have the same rights to him that they did but I thought, maybe I had a little right to him.
“Are you happy here?” he said, his flushed face so close I inhaled a wave of Remy XO. His deep-set eyes were bloodshot and smaller than usual.
I nodded, looked away and added, “Hmm.”
He put a hand on each side of my shoulder and pulled me to his body. I remained still and then wrestled out, and backed away.
Wenzhounese people are hard-working and focused on survival—affection is a privilege we didn’t waste time on. The only physical contact I had with my mother was when she dragged me across Main Street in Flushing, bruising my forearm all the way to JinSan, the Chinese supermarket.
It took me a second to get used to the bright light in the kitchen again. Needing to be near the women, I gravitated to the circle. My mother turned and I realized I had put my hand on her thin arm.
“What?” she said.
I shook my head to say nothing.
Her large almond eyes narrowed to a sliver and looked through me, just the way they did whenever she knew I was lying.
“He …” I thought about what happened. “He hugged me.”
“Who did?” my mother said, more concerned than I thought she’d be. She put her arm on my shoulder.
She blinked and looked at me as if there was something smeared on my face. I suddenly felt embarrassed. Why was I telling her this?
She stood up, the legs of the wooden chair scraped suddenly against the tiled floor. My aunts looked up, pausing their conversation about how to make homemade fish dumpling soup the way it was made in Wenzhou. You couldn’t get food like that here. My mother walked through the door to the living room. I paused and then trailed behind her.
When I got to the other side, my parents were standing and facing each other. The T.V. behind them silhouetted their faces in profile. My mother was screaming with her hands inches from his surprised and sobering face. She pointed at me without looking in my direction and I shrank back involuntarily. I had never seen her this angry with anyone besides me.
“I didn’t!” he finally yelled.
Someone turned the lights on. I felt my aunts come from behind me. They slowly walked to my mother, turned and looked at me.
“What happened?” my younger aunt said in a hushed tone. She looked at the men who were just as surprised. They shrugged.
“You know children,” my older aunt said, sensing it had something to do with me. “Come on, this is a happy occasion. Don’t ruin it.”
She touched my mother’s forearm and tugged. My mother jerked away.
“Don’t be like this.”
“He hugged her!” My mother suddenly looked ready to cross her arms and stomp her feet.
My stepfather’s face drained to an ochre yellow at the public accusation. All the eyes in the room were on him; my uncles had stopped their chatter and my two aunts, each at one of my mother’s elbows, were speechless.
My older aunt cleared her throat.
“I’m sure that’s not it. Children don’t know what they’re talking about sometimes. You know that.”
“Come on. Forget it,” my other aunt smiled like everything was okay. “Kids don’t understand these things.”
“Right, Anna?” my older aunt asked me. The center of her brow dimpled.
I took another step back and felt the fireplace behind me. The coarse brick felt cool and comforting against my perspiring hands. I pushed a hand against it until it dug into my palm.
I was causing trouble; not being obedient. The tension in the room and all of my aunts’ and uncles’ eyes on me made this clear. It was my fault. I looked from my mother’s accusing eyes to my stepfather’s glossy ones and thought back to when their heads were pressed together, their faces illuminated in a bluish hue.
I nodded, cutting my hand on blood brick.
“See? Everything is fine.”
“Come on now.” My aunts led my mother up the stairs like bodyguards.
“Kids these days,” one of my uncles mumbled after they were gone.
After the party, my mother set a precedent for how things were going to be. Her dark eyes grew piercing and seemed to always be watching. I couldn’t read them but I felt their pressure. When my parents came home from work, I wanted to disappear into to the uneven brick walls.
Pull the hair back from your face. Don’t slouch. Don’t lean. Straighten up. Don’t just sit there. Why are you standing there? What have you been doing while I’ve been working all day?
When I had first started elementary school, my stepfather taught me the alphabet. Before or after dinner, he wrapped his warm, tanned hand tightly around mine and showed me how to curve my “S.” I would sit at the kitchen table, swinging my heel against the legs of the chair, copying the letter in my black and white composition notebook. After I had traced half a page, he’d come back and show me again. The letter had turned into a mirror image along the way.
After the party, he no longer traced my letters with me. He scanned the page, nodded briskly and say, “okay.” He avoided looking at me directly, like I was a temptation set out to test him and get him into trouble.
One day, when I brought home a permission slip my mother said she would sign it.
“But you don’t know English,” I protested.
“Don’t talk back,” she snapped, tugging the permission slip from my fingers. “I want to learn. I’ll look at it overnight.”
Early the next morning, she came out of their master bedroom in her quilted pink robe with matching slippers and gently closed the door behind her. Her hair resembled a rooster’s comb, dented on the sides from sleep. She handed me the starch white paper. It was filled out in slanted, handsome handwriting.
“Why are you wearing that shirt?”
“You look fat. Go change into the blue one.”
“Okay,” I answered, still looking at my stepfather’s signature.
The following week, I had a slip for lunch money. Unconvinced that my stepfather no longer wanted to handle my affairs, I waited until my mother was hovering and micromanaging the maid’s salty cooking.
He was reading his Taiwanese newspaper at the head of the living room table. I unzipped my red and yellow backpack, pulled the crumpled paper out, slid across the smooth wood floor on the heel of my socks and stood in front of him. I suddenly wished the permission slip were less creased.
He turned the page and noticed me. He looked as uncomfortable as I felt. We stared at each other for a moment, before I remembered why I was there. I held out the paper and stared at it hovering between us.
“Go bring it to your mother,” he said over the rim of his glasses. He straightened the newspaper and flipped the page.
Anna Qu is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She has been published in The Sound & Town Report. “Stepping into Step-fatherhood” is the first story in a collection of personal essays. After she graduates in May, she plans to spend the summer in Spain.