A cottage for sale

THERE IS ONLY one way to sing like Frank Sinatra. Keep your body straight, taut like a rope. ‘The deep vibrato will come from your stomach,’ my father always told me. Next, sip in little breaths from the sides of your lips. Tip your neck back and send out those long notes from the back of your larynx. Frank never sings in beat. ‘Tatim, it’s not cool to follow the beat,’ my father would say. He didn’t need instructions or a tuner. He could close his eyes and feel for the melody. I’d lie beside my father, head tilted to one side, listening to him inhale as he sang, a lovely sotto voce confirmation that two hearts were in solemn agreement.

Every afternoon that year, we would lie at the end of his bed, bellies down, the remote control pointed at the CD player in front of us, harmonising Frank Sinatra’s classics: ‘New York, New York’, ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, and my father’s personal favourite, ‘A Cottage For Sale’.

These little town blues: a hopeful legato confirmation that you can do anything. I often imagine this song as the soundtrack to the first time I walked into our new home in Bangkok – a house so large and empty I could cartwheel from one end to the other fifteen times without my feet grazing any of the walls. My father said the lyrics reminded him of when he and my mother, newlyweds, made a brand new start of it. ‘There was never enough space,’ my mother said about our old home, where they had settled after having me. When they argued, she would hide her tears and turn her back to him, cornered. But within seconds he’d wrap his arms around her from behind and say, ‘I’m sorry’.

‘Fly Me To The Moon’: composed of cheeky, passaggio prods that scale up and down pitches, like every step down the busy Witthayu Road right outside our new house. After we moved in, I followed my mother like her shadow as she navigated through narrow alleyways with beggars rattling bowls scarcely filled with coins, up larger streets busy with vendors calling for customers, their voices like gongs ringing at temples. My father, horizontal on the couch, waited at home.

‘A Cottage for Sale’ was a song that unwound from a spool. I remember its terrible darkness and my father wanting it to be the only song played at his funeral. He played it after every disagreement with my mother, who rolled her eyes the moment it came to The key’s in the mailbox the same as before, but no one is waiting for me anymore. ‘For him? I’d be waiting all day,’ she mumbled to no one in particular, ‘and everyone would go hungry.’

I loved that he lived in his striped pyjamas, unlike other fathers who came home at seven in gray suits and ties. He’d greet me at his door with a huge smile. My father rarely left his room and my mother went to work in his stead. He had done his time at the office, and my mother, well, he said, ‘That woman can never sit still.’ When I came home from school, Frank’s voice only became louder, a beautiful garden has withered away, and my mother could not help but exclaim, ‘Really!’ as though Frank’s voice turned her hair white. My father sang this song from a place deeper than dreams.

Every afternoon before dinner, we performed this ritual. My father, thin like a noodle, tiny stubble growing over his chin and cheeks, bare feet flat against the pillows, would order me to bring out the CDs. He always started with a story about how he and my mother met – he had spotted her in the garden, just outside her door, bending over to pick up the bag of oranges she’d dropped. This is how I came to know so much about their relationship. My father would then place the CD in the player and start singing. I joined in when I could. Later, I’d think of his voice when reading of Titans walking on earth.

Surrounded by the gloss of the hardwood floor, the sharp angles of the dresser, the marble side table, he looked right where he belonged. That’s where I wanted to keep him – happy. I believed our time together urged the walls of home to solidify. I never noticed my father growing weary. I assumed he aged at a reasonable pace, as fathers do when their little girls grow taller.

AFTER OUR SINGING, we’d join my mother at the dining table. We’d eat, chopsticks dancing across our plates, every bite full of steamed fish or pork knuckles braised in thick brown gravy or stir-fried choy sum in oyster sauce and rice – all of my father’s favourites – until we were satisfied. My mother always asked him how his day went, and he’d happily tell her about how quiet his life now seemed. No tour buses to furnish with petite water bottles, no tour guides to train and no trips to the airport. Then he would rise, whistling, put on his slippers and walk back to his room, every motion so clean and sure that I was convinced all was well in our world.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed, his faded pyjama bottoms rising above his ankles, he told me about Frank Sinatra’s life: the booze, the broads and brawls, the hat worn at a rakish angle, the jacket slung over one shoulder, the late nights in small saloons and even later nights in Vegas. He assumed a swaggering persona in real life yet revealed in his songs such an aching tenderness and vulnerability, a real man with a broken heart.

‘A real gentleman,’ my father said. ‘A complex and complicated gentleman. I hope you will one day find one.’

Whenever I thought about gentlemen, I thought about Davey, a boy I loved to watch in my new school. When I sat next to him in Spanish class, he would ask me for an eraser and I would pass it back without looking. But I would keep my hand holding items a little longer, just so his warm hand would graze mine. And maybe I would catch his eyes, round and blue, and his smile, wide and friendly. Nothing like my husband now, who spends hours behind a computer screen, speaks Cantonese to my mother and has hair as dark as the night.

My father smirked when I told him about Davey. It was the first and only smile since we had left Hong Kong.

He said, ‘That’s not your complicated gentleman.’

We looked out into Bangkok’s red-curry sky. The city, built entirely out of traffic, one hesitant beep, then another and another until they reached full blares, was nothing like our quiet Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong we had lived on top of a hill in Ho Man Tin, just a short walk from the open-air market where fish peddlers and butchers manned their stalls. In the mornings, I had walked down steep hills bordered with ferns that folded when I ran my fingers down their spines. They crinkled, like paper being scrunched into a ball. I would wait for the school bus at the bottom of the hill, where the wind poured from the city through the trees. The leaves fluttered, and although I could not see up that high, I could hear them move, like the sound of burning paper, little delicate sheets toasted by the flames.

When I got home, I would sit with my parents in the living room where we’d listen to the neighbour’s son practising his piano above us, his foot tapping the pedals rhythmically. He would play slowly as we watched the news on TV. We talked over the sounds about our days, like a family of ghosts that had nowhere to roam.

MY HUSBAND AND I moved back into this Hong Kong house shortly after my father passed away. I’ve only spoken about my parents’ brief time in Bangkok once. We are very good at talking too – rotating between English, Cantonese and Thai. Between the two of us, we speak three languages. Thus we should occupy more space than my parents ever did, but half of the house will always be dark without my father. When he died, I thought I would regain a part of him by moving back here again. I thought of the wind. The length of our voices over the muffled grinding of piano pedals. The length of our laughter.

In Bangkok, rows upon rows of cars stood still on bumpy roads and tiny one-way alleyways. Combustion fumes sputtered from exhaust pipes, the deadly smoke joining the sky. Office ladies crossed streets while texting, heads bowed, shoulders rounded, fingers swiping their iPhones. Street kids carried homemade jasmine garlands and rapped on car windows hoping to sell them for a couple of baht. Hawkers, old ladies, washed their utensils and pots and pans in buckets straddled between their legs, foam and bubbles dribbling down their ashy calves. In our new empty apartment above, I’d watch my father, worlds away, in his even emptier room, swaying to Frank Sinatra.

For the longest time, I blamed my grandmother for my father’s unhappiness. A regal, unsmiling, ballooned-from-child-bearing widow, my mother’s mother. That year, in Bangkok, we lived next door to her and she would wait for me by her doorway on Sundays with bamboo leaves tucked under her armpits.

‘She makes the best dumplings in our neighborhood,’ my father told me. ‘My father wanted me to marry your mother just so we could have some every year.’

My mother’s mother filled her rice dumplings with two salted egg yolks and plump, dried shrimp. Sundays with her were enough for us all, daughters, sons, grandchildren, cousins, son and daughters-in-law. Every blood relative tolerated her in the kitchen so we could celebrate brunch together.

One Sunday, the maids, my grandmother, my mother and I were on dumpling duty. We sat bunkered in the kitchen, forming an assembly line of leaves, filling and rice. My grandmother was trying to teach me how to make dumplings quickly, scolding me when my lotus leaf came undone. Meanwhile mayhem reigned in the unsupervised living room. From my uncles and boy cousins, the sound of beer bottles tapping. In the dining room, my aunts shrieked over the latest gossip, flipping plastic magazine pages furiously. My girl cousins played catch with the chihuahua, squealing as the pup growled at them. Sundays at my grandmother’s were chaotic compared to all my afternoons with my father.

‘How can he live in that house after all that’s happened?’ my grandmother asked my mother. She suggested I sleep in her guestroom instead, so that I wouldn’t be cooped up in my father’s bedroom all day.

My mother looked nothing like my grandmother, except that she had the same brown hair and huge blinkless eyes. She slouched like a deflated balloon, diminutive; unlike her mother, she was a complete nonentity. She was like a spectre floating around our new house, occasionally asking our maid to wipe down the tables. Before we moved, she had wielded a quiet sort of power in her own right that could sometimes be felt during dinners with my father. She had rested her hand on his thigh when he threw plates on the ground, yelling at our maid for oversalting the food. She had nudged him with her foot when he made me recite the ten-times table – over and over again – until our dinner turned cold and I almost wet myself. She never had to say a word. All of the sudden, my father would be recognisable – there’d be a twinkle in his eye, a smile wide across his face. I was never able to crack their language of love, even to this day.

‘How long are you here for business this time?’ my grandmother continued questioning my mother.

My mother mumbled, ‘A couple of weeks,’ and flattened a wet lotus leaf on the table, wiping the water off the stem. Her answer was deemed unsatisfactory by my grandmother, whose face said it all: scrunched nose, squinted eyes and a frown.

As far as I knew, nothing had been going on at home. Occasionally my mother would storm out of her bedroom, ordering me to go hang out next door with my grandmother. ‘He’s not feeling well today,’ she would tell me, her voice stern and unwavering. I recognised the tone, one that would not allow for questions. My grandmother would then come to get me, never once speaking about my father’s health when I stayed with her.

‘Why did you come back?’ my grandmother asked.

She continued to badger my mother for weeks. During the first week we arrived, my mother avoided the questions by unpacking. By the second week, my mother made up an excuse about how she wanted more space for me to run around even though in Hong Kong they had brought me to the park during the weekends. By the fifth week, my grandmother made it clear that she had booked weekend excursions with all of my cousins and I for the next few months since it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere

‘Your husband was always weak,’ my grandmother said, rolling the leaf into a cone. ‘He had the same thick glasses when he was courting you. I told you you’d be taking care of him for the rest of your life.’

I patted the rice into the cone and passed it to my mother. She shook her head, annoyed.

‘He gets more blind every year,’ my grandmother continued. ‘He lets you take care of him when he should be taking care of you.’

I remember wishing my grandmother would stop with her incessant probing and leave us alone. I see now that she was trying her
best to force my mother to rethink my father’s imperfections, angular with feeling.

‘Want to go to the mall soon, Tatim?’ my mother asked, her knees brushing mine a little longer as she inched closer to me. She shooed me out to call for more help in the kitchen.

AMONG OUR NEW house’s ghosts was the soul of my grandfather, my father’s father. One evening he had passed away broken-hearted, swimming in his sheets, cursing his last lonely years. My grandmother, his wife, my father’s mother, had leapt off the fourteenth floor balcony two years before that.

She had been sick in the head, or so I was told. She always dreamt that her final breakdown would be when my father retired and came back to care for her. What really happened was that my grandfather found her foetal on the bed, bawling with a noose made out of beach towels around her neck. All the little neurons had gotten together in her head, like a thousand devils with Tourette’s, pushing her into the grave. She took to the bed for months. Couldn’t string together sentences. Wouldn’t go to the hospital. Wasn’t sent any flowers.

One day, she peered over the aloe vera plants, the roses and the lavender, and thought, to hell with it. My grandfather never quite recovered. I think I slept in their room, but nobody ever confirmed that. The hospital-white painted walls had chipped, the oxygen gas tank was gone, the railings in the shower had been taken down, but glue and pale lines remained between the tiles.

He wasn’t a very demanding ghost. My father said Ah Gong would come and stand by him when he ate breakfast sometimes. In the early morning light, my father would stir his coffee and you’d know Ah Gong was there because the steam would start billowing to the right.

‘He blows smoke to get my attention,’ my father said. ‘Ghosts can’t touch things. They need to use their breath.’

‘What is he trying to tell you?’ I asked.

My father touched my forehead. ‘He wants to remind me that he’s here.’

The morning after we moved into the new house, my maid woke up screaming and sprinted into the living room.

‘A tall old man with grey eyes told me to wake up,’ she panted.

My parents and I laughed kindly.

‘He looked just like…’ she looked at the sepia-toned picture of Ah Gong on the mantle by the prayer room, the only decor in the house, above the pot of incense sticks.

‘He was waking up your lazy ass,’ my father teased.

‘Don’t make me give you a higher dose of that medicine,’ she looked at him with crazy eyes. My father, my mother and I giggled. There was nothing to be afraid of. With a swift turn she went back into the kitchen.

My father never got over his father’s death. Initially he just sat and stared at the TV, relieved that his father had gone to a better place and out of our world of pain. Once I spied my mother holding my father’s head between her breasts, asking him to say something – anything, as she kneeled behind him watching the flickering screen in silence.

‘He regretted not spending enough time with him,’ my mother told me. She sat by her dresser, setting her hair into rollers, ‘Ah Gong comes to let your father know he was never angry.’

‘Ah Gong’s not real,’ I said, ‘Because ghosts are not real.’

My mother stopped midway through one roller. ‘Sometimes you want those voices in your head to be real,’ she sighed. ‘Sometimes, when you hear them all the time, they become real.’

‘Ah Gong loved your father,’ she continued. ‘But it wasn’t like your grandfather to tell him that. To tell your father that there was nothing he could have done and that he still loves him.’

I sat cross-legged on her bedroom floor and looked up at her.

‘You should say it more,’ my mother said. ‘Tell him you love him before you don’t get the chance to say it anymore.’ Only she wasn’t talking to me.

One day, I came home at four o’clock as usual. I mentioned a girl in my class whose mother designed dresses for the royal family, with the Queen herself making personal orders. Every societal doyenne owned a frock from her, grabbing the newest dresses off the racks as soon as they arrived at the department store. I could barely squeeze one of my arms through those little holes.

‘Hi-So’s,’ I said, ‘stand for high society people.’

‘What’s that?’ my father sniffed. He took off his glasses, pinched his nose and put them back on.

‘Thailand’s richest,’ I said. ‘They’re the elites, and all the kids in that school are elite.’

He pressed play on the remote. Start spreading the news, accompanied by clarinets, flowed from the speakers.

‘My friend Davey’s parents own that big steel import business,’ I said, ‘that huge factory on Sukhumvit Road with private Gurkha security guards that carry their own swords.’

‘They must be ashamed of you then, daughter of a retired travel agent!’ my father said.

‘I told them about how you did tours for Michael Jackson, Pablo Escobar, prime ministers of Italy, Stevie Wonder–’

‘And no one dared to entertain the thought of how we did a tour for Stevie Wonder?’

If I can make it there, I’ll make it, anywhere.

‘Well, I’m sorry we’re not hi-so’s then, we’re so-so,’ my
father said.

He laughed, his shoulders shaking. ‘So-so.’

I smiled at his play on words. ‘So-so,’ I mimicked. ‘I’m not a hi-so or a low-so, I’m so-so.’

‘So, so very beautiful,’ my father kissed me on my forehead.

IN MY FATHER’S room the ceilings were high and the air was light with the sounds of swinging beats, all those songs jostling for air space. They suffered the brunt of his frustrations, his sadness and his paralysis. They were his vice. His weakness. His joy.

What is it about Frank’s voice that made him calm like morning tea in a mug? What made my father’s carefree nature so overpowering that he was able to slink into his room in the middle of a working day to belt out tunes with Frank? Each song was a lesson. Each one offered, the prisoner that was my father, penance. He had hardly finished the last note before the next song began playing and all he was left with was an insatiable need for yet another.

The day things went sour was when my grandmother’s driver drove my father, mother and me to the main department chain store. Mourn was a silent man with dark, tamarind-paste skin. The only thing he said to me there and back was, ‘Anything you want, little miss. I’ll carry it.’ He dropped us off in front of shiny-waxed floors, floor-to-ceiling glass storefronts glittering with chandeliers and bags and clothes on display.

‘Call me when you’re ready to leave, sirs!’

With a purse in one hand, a list in the other, my mother went straight for the suitcases. I followed her with my father, looking for ones with hard shells, ones large enough and bright enough to recognise at the arrivals belt when we landed.

‘We need three,’ my mother said. ‘One for each of us and an extra for the shopping.’

Swarms of people made it impossible for us to see what was what, although I could tell which brand was unpopular by the empty spaces in front of those sections.

‘Something light, but sturdy,’ my mother said.

‘But we will be dragging them on the streets in New York,’ I said. ‘Don’t we want something that’s fashionable like all the ones New Yorkers will carry?’

‘I’m sad I can’t go with you two,’ my father said, ruffling my hair.

My mother reminded him that he promised to look after the business for a while. This little getaway was a girl’s trip.

‘Tatim, you can get all the Nike shoes you want!’ she said to me.

‘Let’s get this one,’ my father stopped at a set of orange suitcases.

My mother looked at him sheepishly.

‘To hell with it,’ he said, ‘Let’s get all of them.’

‘Dad, we only need three,’ I said.

I watched as he ran back and forth from the set of orange suitcases, dragging back some blue ones, knocking over mannequins and display cases full of bags. A crowd began to form around us while my father carried on like a lunatic, shouting for the saleslady to please get the leather rubs, all sixteen cases of them, and extra waterproof lining too!

‘You can have all the Nikes in New York,’ he told me, rolling ten suitcases to the checkout stand as the saleslady tried to hide them behind the counter, ‘but you’ll need to put them in something to bring them back.’ He sounded shrill, like a seagull squawking before plunging down for a kill.

I wish that everything I remember about this was imagined. I can see myself, watching my father, my real father, for the first time, outside. The twelve-year-old girl I was, with straight black bangs, in leather Mary Janes, standing in front of my mother who had bulbous eyes, a mouth tightly pursed and hands frozen beside her. I want to take her by the hand and lead her into the crowd where she could
be faceless beside them, wiping off her features so my father would not see that we recognised him. That we knew about him. That we judged him.

My mother begged him to slow down, to please stop causing a scene. The spectators were now staring at the tug-of-war between my father, piling suitcases on to a plastic mountain, and the saleslady, carefully taking them off one by one and standing them on their wheels. My mother balanced herself by holding my shoulders, her fingers digging into my arms, and I believed that if she let go, she would drop straight to the floor.

‘Your mother thinks we’re in a sticky spot right now,’ my father ran blurring by, pulling enormous duffle bags to the pile. ‘Sweetie,’ he said to her, ‘I just haven’t found the right time to spoil you both!’

My mother turned pink with embarrassment, hot tears like a flurry of hail streamed down her cheeks. She never said it, but I knew she wanted to tell him she was sorry. She never meant to humiliate him, to make him grow older than he already was.

He almost knocked us both over by dragging the suitcases to the checkout counter and running back to line the rest up so he could pay. I was relieved when he slid his credit card and thanked the saleslady, watching the onlookers leave. Mourn came and pushed two shopping carts of thirty bags away.

SIX MONTHS LATER my mother told me about love. How she fell into an ocean of it. Grew gills, fins and a tail. She was just a young girl when she met a merman, my father. She gave up two legs. She gave up oxygen. She gave up her family. Swam far into the warm embrace of the water, its hold silencing the doubts that surrounded her.

‘We are not just lovers,’ she told me. ‘We are also best friends.’

She had tried to swim back to land, to her mother, her sisters and her brother while bringing back my father the merman, in a tiny mason jar. She had modelled our new home after a fish tank, and plunked my father in the middle of it, hoping the water would hold him still and silence the doubts in his head. She went to work. Made sure we only served him food that he liked. Cancelled all my after-school activities so I saw him more. My father never stopped saying he loved her. He said it before he tucked me into bed as she watched from the doorway. She told me this as though all you had to do to prove your love was to say it. You had to say what you mean and if you said it again and again, you might actually make your actions mean something.

When they talked about whatever they wanted to tell me, they were together. I saw my parents, on the sofa, matching striped pyjamas, watching TV late into the night. When I told my mother to leave me alone, swatting her like an irksome fly, my father would get angry.

‘Don’t talk to your mother like that,’ he would say. My mother would flinch. My father’s mood swung like a pendulum, going up and down like the melody of a Frank Sinatra swing song.

When my father was angry, she blamed herself.

Once my mother asked me if I remembered anything from that night. ‘What night?’ I asked, though I knew. How could I forget? The evening began with my parents arguing, over my father’s behaviour at the store.

‘You forgot to take them, that’s all,’ she said. I had said goodnight earlier and pretended to walk towards my room. Instead, I kept my ears on the wall next to their door.

‘I thought I could handle it,’ he answered. I tried to become one with the wall, fusing with the wallpaper.

‘If you don’t like it,’ she said, ‘We can try other ones. I’ll go with you this time.’

My father decided not to press on. I imagined him crawling onto the bed, pulling the covers over himself. He did the same thing to me to signal that our time was up. Switches clicked, and the reflection of the light under the doorway turned dark. I crept back to my room and dived under my sheets. I watched the covers go up and down, breathing slower so that they stayed still, as though I had always been there.

‘DO YOU HATE me?’ my mother asked me after our visit to the mall.

‘Why would I?’ I said. ‘We left because we had to. We would’ve died if we stayed.’

‘We wouldn’t have died.’

‘Are you getting divorced from Dad?’

My mother looked at me, eyes narrow and crinkly. ‘Where did you learn that word “divorce”?’ she asked.

‘Davey’s parents got divorced and he lives in two homes,’ I said, not sure whether or not that meant he was lucky. ‘Can I live in the Hong Kong house then?’

‘My baby,’ my mother clutched my hand and guided me to her bedside. ‘I love your father. Only people who hate each other get divorced.’

I could see little estuaries of moments erupt from her ducts. She had kept her thoughts dammed inside of her for too long. They leapt from her eyelashes, jumping sideways, and for a moment I almost cried too.

That night, I returned to my room and pretended I was asleep. Once I was under the sheets, ‘A Cottage For Sale’ came on. Seconds later, my father’s voice, smooth and tender, like worn velveteen, swept through the house. I mouthed along with him, the end of our story is there on the door, my own girlish voice, an octave higher than his, joining Frank’s to keep him company.

Outside my father’s room, I crouched against the wall. When I stepped forward and looked, I saw my mother running to my father on the bed. He was lying on top of the covers, out of his pyjamas, as if thrown down and dragged there. His knees folded into his chest, the crown of his head burrowing down. His back was hunched over and I could see his spine, little bumps on his skin.

She was crying, pawing at my father. He seemed loose, deranged, as if everything in the known world was ending right there. I remember crying out, ‘Goodnight Dad, I love you.’ He did not turn around to face me. ‘Dad, I love you,’ I said.

The song blended into a low hum in my ears that grew louder and louder and blotted out my father’s cries. I could not make out a word he said, if he said anything to me. There were loud guttural sounds, but I don’t remember if they came from him or me.

My mother came flying out the door, seizing me by the armpits. Everything became wet: her body, my face, her hands. She soothed me with words I could not understand because all I could hear was Frank Sinatra’s laugh, his handsome, streamlined voice like a hand slathered in cold cream. The CD had finished and continued emitting a continuous whir, or so I believed. This scene in my mind bursts into a million white pieces every time I try to recall it.

The next day, my mother took me to my grandmother’s. I waited at the dining table and watched my maid painfully serve me breakfast. Her hands trembled as she poured milk over my cereal, the cornflakes rising slowly to the top.

Nobody said a word to me, not even my father. I went knocking at his door. I even warned him that if he slept all day Ah Gong would come find him. His back was turned towards me the entire time, but I caught myself staring at him through the reflection on the TV. I saw him through his bedroom door that kept him on the other side of me.

I OFTEN TELL my husband that when we have a daughter, if we ever have a daughter, I want her to know everything about us. If we are arguing, I want him to look down and remind himself that we made this beautiful child and that this child will not care who’s right or who’s wrong, who’s sick today, or who’s fine. All she will care about is that her mother and father are there.

We didn’t end up going to New York. In fact, that year, we never left my father alone in the house. As always, four o’clock came around and I would get off of the school bus and go into the house, knocking on his bedroom door. Only then, my mother greeted me too. I would go in his room and tell him about my day, ask him for blessings on my tests and kiss him on the cheek.

‘He only has to hear your voice,’ my mother would say.

My father, still thin and unshaven, tiny little stubble growing over his chin and cheeks, couldn’t see me, but my mother assured me his mind was perfect.

‘He remembers your name.’

Frank Sinatra was gone. She would ruffle my hair and ask me how my day was.


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