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The first time I had broke into my grandmother’s backyard to smoke menthols and poison her flowers was four months ago, when the Arizona air was still hot with monsoon clouds that rolled in from the west, and the humidity felt like a rash in my throat. Outside it was hard to see past the clouds and make out the planes flying overhead.
My grandmother didn’t know that I came over and sat on the back patio next to the irises, amongst the deep purples, almost blue, the same flowers she used to cut in early spring for all my birthdays. The gate off to the side had a busted lock. Nobody else knew, but I knew, because I was there the day she asked my dad to fix it. And that’s how I got in. I slid the lock off the hook and pushed firmly. The gate budged a little in the gravel and I slipped through like a shadow.
The orchids were dying. The baby pink ones with little blossoms that look dehydrated. I sat on the white plastic lawn chair next to them and sprinkled the ash from my cigarette into the pot and gave it a kick. The whole thing wobbled and shook, almost losing balance, but I didn’t care. I wanted it to fall over, hard onto the concrete patio with a loud crash. I wanted to see sharp pieces of red clay broken and spread amongst the dark soil and white beads of fertilizer, thickening the air with the scent of dirt. But it didn’t fall, and it didn’t crash and I was disappointed at my lack of ability to follow through with anything.
I held the cigarette with two fingers, close to my face, and stared at the bright edge that looked like embers. It flicked and danced a pungent orange that turned dull and soft into grey, and before it went out I made sure to press that hot edge to a dying leaf and watched as thin strips of smoke fluttered around the dried kelp like stem. And I wondered if those stems had souls, too. And if I could see the soul as I burned the outer shell, if it would float up, unidentifiable. When the stem failed to catch fire, I twisted the butt against the side of the pot, marking my presence in ash. I wiped my hands down my skirt and over my black knee highs, pushing myself to stand up.
When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to the tower he worked at as an air traffic controller. Overnight shifts meant he worked from 9pm to 5am and sometimes he would take me along for sleepovers, we called them. He would talk to the planes coming in from overseas and they would talk in codes.
“CONTROL to capt, That’s a 10-4, ADT is 2200 hours. Roger that.”
And he let me eat vending machine food for dinner and draw on the plastic boards with military-grade wax pens. We sat on the floor coated in old military carpet, the kind that feels like thick felt pressed together with glue until it’s hard and can scratch your skin raw. We played card games and he quizzed me on planes.
“How can you tell an F-15 in the sky?”
“Two tails,” I said.
“Very good. How about F-16?”
“One. One tail.”
He nodded, and didn’t correct me when I called the vertical stabilizers tails. Because really, you can only expect so much out of an eight-year-old. And I could name every plane I saw, commercial or private, military or civilian.
My grandmother’s back patio door was connected to the kitchen and sometimes she forgot lock it. The door handle twisted and cracked, the whole door moved back, allowing me to enter. The screen door crashed behind me as I shut myself in. The house was overcast by the rain clouds and blinds and it made me want to lay down and sleep. Just close my eyes and fall into the black and neon coloured lights. The heaviness, the drowsy, I could hold onto that.
The room smelled like dust and floor cleaner, the kind you get off late-night infomercials – $19.99 guaranteed you’ll love it or you keep it with your money back – where a man looks at your soul through a television screen and sells you exactly what you need to put your life back together.
In the kitchen I found a white box filled with individually wrapped snack cakes tucked into the cabinet. The cakes were pale pink and white, cut into perfect squares. I unwrapped one and let my front teeth sink into the sugary butter cream. My front tooth ached on contact but I kept sucking on the soft yellow cake that melted on my tongue and stuck to the roof of my mouth.
I thought about how I wanted to look, eating pink frosted cake in my black knee highs and mini skirt, how I almost wished I had a lover there to watch me. Gaze at me. I wondered about all the things I would let them do to me there, in my grandmother’s house, amongst the old bone china that hung on the white washed walls and the little magnets of miniature dogs and English flags. She has this thing for English stuff. English teapots. English china. English food. English faces. English blood. It’s too bad mine is a half-Korean face – and blood. Lovers like that though, don’t they? My half-Korean face.
I opened the fridge and could smell the olives even when the canister was sealed: pitted olives marinated in what smelled like garlic and sweat, served with blue cheese. I hate blue cheese, the deep veined rot, and green layered cultures that grow and move, the same type of bacteria that makes a foot smell like it’s infected with cancer.
Cancer – the kind that’s silent and unpredictable, starts small in his body, in some insignificant place like an atom, then a blood cell, growing – growing until it is a small mass, dark and lumpy, hidden from sight, but still growing.
When he was first diagnosed, my dad pretended he was fine. He kept saying things like “low risk” or “the doctors are confident.” Three months later when the doctors starting saying things like “serious” or “let’s start looking at all the options,” I started breaking into my grandmother’s backyard.
I took out a cigarette and laid down on the kitchen floor, looked up at the ceiling, and thought about the room caving in on itself. I considered what it would feel like to suffocate, laying down on your back. Suffocating on your back would be like dying from a nosebleed. Lifting your head back to stop the bleeding, only you’re really just drowning in your own blood.
And I thought about how one night my dad had come home from an overnight shift and his faced looked different. I had just woken up and was eating my cereal in front of the TV, when he sat down next to me, took my bowl, and had a bite.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi, Daddy,” I replied. I wasn’t interested in talking to him, I was watching cartoons.
“Guess what?” he asked.
“What?” I took my bowl back and stared at the TV.
“Last night, I saw a UFO.”
I dropped my cereal bowl, milk spilling everywhere, and looked at him. He had a strange look on his face like he didn’t know how to explain to me what that meant.
“You saw an alien?” I asked.
“No, I saw a UFO.”
“Yeah, like an alien.”
“No, like an unidentified flying object.” He stood up and made his way to the kitchen to grab paper towels and I followed him, asking every question I could think of.
“But what was it? Like, do you think it was an alien? How do you know? What if it was aliens, do you think they are good? or evil? Do you think you’ll see them again?”
And he just laughed at me.
The week after the doctors took him off chemo, my sister and grandma discussed funeral arrangements in the living room. What kind of flowers? What colour should they be, what do the colours represent, and how should they be arranged. I could hear them through the wall, and it made my skin itch. So I crawled out of my bedroom window and walked to the hospital.
When I got there I sat down in the plastic cushioned chair and stared at his face. I asked, “Dad, what’s your favourite kind of flower?” and the question confused him and his mouth went crooked and he nodded his head as if he were agreeing with me. That pissed me off. I asked him again, “Dad, what’s your favourite kind of flower?”
His eyes were large and glassy, almost thick-looking, like a swell, with his mouth contorted in a small smile, almost infantile.
And still I got mad, and I leaned over the side of the bed and grabbed him by his arms and tried to shake him, tried to grab that answer out of him, “What’s your favourite flower?” I pushed harder and harder, trying to move his large-framed body that was lying flat in the sterile white sheets that had just been changed that morning.
Still, he just moaned.
And I screamed, “Tell me. Tell me, now!” until my arm slipped free from the grip and swung backwards, knocking the water jug off the side table, sending it crashing to the floor. Water spread like a wave over my feet and shoes, until finally I let go and walked out of the room without saying goodbye.
I walked to my grandma’s house and tried pushing on the gate, only to find the lock had been replaced by a brand new brass hinge and bolt. I stared at it like it was an equation I needed to solve, to understand. That if I could understand it, then I could undo it. If I could undo it, then everything would be okay. Everything would be fine. When I couldn’t stare anymore, I pushed harder and hit the gate with my fists. Kicked at the wood and threw my shoulder into the panels. The gate stood and I shrunk to the ground with my back against the splintering paint. I took out my cigarette and lit the tip. I inhaled deep and watched the sky, looking for rain. The rain didn’t come but I watched two jets fly side by side, they were sharp and angular, a deep grey, my eyes were hazy and fogged, lines blurred together. I looked, but I couldn’t see how many tails they had.