By DAN WONG
It was a chilly Christmas day in San Francisco. I was dressed in a gray
ski jacket and blue sweater. What I needed were Isotoners. I rang my grandma's
doorbell and quickly jammed my hands into my jeans, shivering from the ice
cold wind. Another Christmas, another visit to grandma's house.
No one ever questioned it. December 25th has always been synonymous with
a visit to grandma's. Sure, her being the "head" of the family
had a lot to do with it. But it was also her birthday -- her 70th. I didn't
mind that at all. What I did mind was who was going to show up. Namely,
my father. I didn't want to see him. Not after what he had done to me, to
my brother -- and most importantly to my mother. It was one and a half years
ago when it all began.
"Isn't someone going to pick up the phone?" I asked.
I placed my scissors on top of the gift wrap and walked toward the desk.
I had to wrap these boxes of ballpoint pens before my brother came home.
Lame college graduation gift, I know, but what could I do? I figured he'd
have good use for them since he had just gotten an internship at
an accounting firm in Denver. He's lost more pens than anyone I know.
Besides, I put
a $50 gift certificate to Tower Records in his card. God, I hope there's
a Tower Records in Denver.
"Hello?" I said.
"Who was that, Mark?" asked my mother on the other side of
my bedroom door. I had locked my door in case my brother came home while
I was wrapping his pens. I cracked open my door and saw mom holding a laundry
"Another hang up?" she asked, as she dropped my washed clothes
onto my bed.
"Yeah, that's the fifth one today," I said in disgust. "What
"You answer it this time!" I demanded.
My mother pressed the speakerphone button on my phone.
"Hello?" she said.
I placed my index finger over the speakerphone button to hang up when
a voice stopped me.
"Is this Mrs. Lee?" the woman on the other side of the phone
I looked up at my mother, who glanced back, with a frown on her face.
"Yes, this is Mrs. Lee. Who's this?"
"Why do you let your husband go out and fool around with other women?"
the voice questioned.
My mother dropped the laundry basket on the floor and sat down on my
"What are you talking about? Why would I 'let' my husband fool around?"
my mother said defensively.
"Don't tell me you don't know. Your husband has been seeing me for
four years now."
My mother sat in stunned silence. This was nothing new to her, though.
My father had been fooling around with other women even before I was born.
She wanted to divorce him then, but decided to stick it out for the sake
of her two children. She thought he had changed.
"My name is Maggie. I lent your husband $50,000. And I want it back
"Who are you to...," Mom began.
"$50,000?" I said in disbelief.
My mother, surprised that I was in the room, turned to look at me. Tears
ran down her cheeks. She quickly picked up the phone's handset and pointed
for me to leave the room.
As I walked out to the hallway, she slammed the door.
$50,000? What did my dad do to have to borrow $50,000? How could it be
true? My dad was a banker for Christ's sakes. But what if it was? We didn't
have that kind of money. All we have is this house. My grandfather bought
this Richmond District home in the residential part of San Francisco before
he passed away. It had three bedrooms, two living rooms, two bathrooms,
a dining room, a kitchen. It was a block away from Golden Gate Park and
a short 15 minute walk from Ocean Beach. Would we have to sell it? I had
lived in this house all my life.
Ten minutes passed and my mother opened the door to my room.
A gate slammed outside. My brother was home.
"You can't tell him," my mother urged. "Not a day before
his graduation. Not two weeks before he goes to Denver. I don't want to
I walked down the hallway, toward the front door.
"What good would happen if he found out today?" Mom said.
The door opened.
"Hey, dude," I said. "Guess what happened today?"
"What?" he responded in a tired voice.
I looked over at my mother who was glaring at me.
"I got an 'A' in my trigonometry test."
Three months later, my brother was in Denver, calling back every night
to tell us excitedly about his internship -- and update us on the number
of pens he's misplaced. Once in a while, he'd ask how things
were at home. We told him everything was fine, but we were lying. By that
time, Mom and I had pieced together the story of the $50,000: Dad had lost
some big money in the spring in a risky financial deal that went sour, so
he was forced to borrow money from his mistress. Soon after, their relationship
had also soured. Maggie found out Dad had a family. Thus, the phone call
to Mom. When told of the debt, mom and grandma borrowed the $50,000 from
family in New York to pay back Maggie. The $50,000 was just a drop in the
ocean. Overall, Dad had racked up at least a $500,000 debt.
It was a late summer afternoon. The sun shone brightly into the living
room. I grabbed my girlfriend's hand and squeezed it tightly. She glanced
at me and responded with a smile. I had told her all about it. I didn't
know where I'd be without her. Probably with a shrink, paying fifty dollars
We were sitting on the love seat, watching Sliver on videotape.
I knew better than to watch a Sharon Stone movie with Mom around, but what
could I have done? The only other VCR in the house was downstairs. It was
hooked up to all my dad's fancy stereo equipment. Half of which I didn't
know how to operate.
Then a loud, shrill female voice screamed out, "Mark!"
Energy filled my body as I quickly leaned forward to grab the remote
control from the coffee table and stop William Baldwin from having sex with
The movie -- and Baldwin -- would have to come later.
Mom's small-framed body in a bright, red jogging suit appeared from the
adjacent dining room.
"She here yet?" she asked.
My mother was referring to Maggie. The homewrecker had called my mom
from the hospital that morning. She had tried to commit suicide by consuming
a bottle of aspirin last month. I guess she thought she could kill herself
by eating a ton of Bayer. Unfortunately, the bitch didn't die. In fact,
she was getting out of the hospital this afternoon and was headed toward
my house. She told my mom that she had given my father an expensive jade
necklace that she also wanted back.
My mother found it after digging around my father's desk. Mom wanted
this episode in her life to be over, so she agreed to give the jewelry back.
Maggie should have been here twenty minutes ago. She said her daughter
would come with her, too. Oh, great. Not only would I see Maggie, I was
gonna see her fucking daughter, too.
"No, ain't here yet," I said.
"It has been a while already, hasn't it?" my mom said. She
glanced at the golf game on the television. "You guys finished watching
the movie already?"
"Oh, no, not yet," my girlfriend replied. "I asked Mark
to stop the movie since I had to go to the restroom."
She winked at me as she got up and disappeared into the hallway.
"She's a very nice girl," Mom said. "Smart, too."
Just then, the doorbell rang.
"I know," I said as I picked up the manila envelope containing
the necklace from the red carpet. "It's probably them. You wanna do
it? Or me?"
"Can you?" my mother pleaded. "I really don't wanna see
whoever is at the door."
Like I wanted to.
I pulled myself off of the sofa and headed towards the wooden front door.
I turned the knob to the right to open the door and saw a Chinese girl around
my age and height wearing a tight, black dress waiting patiently. She was
two years older. But it was definitely her. Angela from junior high school.
I managed to croak out a "hello" before I handed her the manila
envelope. She had a similar response and only replied with a "hi,"
followed by a "thanks" before she turned away and walked toward
the waiting Ford Aerostar. A lady wearing sunglasses gazed in my direction
from the front seat.
I closed the door -- in shock. Christ, I thought, Dad was fucking my
classmate's mother. Mom and my girlfriend looked at me, expectantly. I didn't
know what to say, so I stayed silent.
Family life improved over the next few months. Despite Dad's infidelities,
Mom chose to stay with him. Dad said he was wrong and begged her for forgiveness.
He said he needed her by his side, especially with his economic troubles.
He said he had a new job with some new bank. He was making enough money,
he said, and had a plan to cover his debts. Blindly or not, mother believed
him. She wanted to believe him. So did I. He was never much of a father
to me. Some kids grow up with dads who take them fishing, to baseball games.
You know, normal father-son stuff. Not me. Not my father. I basically grew
up without a father. Unsurprisingly, we never communicated much. A typical
discussion with him lasted about 30 seconds, usually when he came home at
about 11 p.m. He'd come into my room and ask if I was getting all A's. No
matter what my response was, he'd say, "You have to study harder."
He "worked" 16 hours a day, he said. That's why he was never
home, he told me. Now I knew the truth. Mom estimated that he'd had about
10 other mistresses since they were married. Those other women were more
important than me.
I poured myself another cup of tea.
"No, not yet, birthday girl," I told mother.
"That was yesterday."
"So, how's it feel to be FORTY-five?" I asked.
"Stop that," my mother quickly said, knowing I was kidding.
"I'm not that old."
I looked up and smiled at her. Goodness. The past half-year really had
taken its toll. I saw the stress and the worry in my mother's face as she
stared absent-mindedly out the window of the South of Market Vietnamese
restaurant. My brother and I had urged her to divorce dad, but she refused.
"I haven't tried everything I can to save your father," she
There was always an excuse. She struggled to save her marriage. I guess
after 25 years, no matter how good or bad the relationship has been, she
had grown attached to him.
Mom was a typical traditional Chinese mother. Think of yourself last,
but do everything for the family. She insisted that she still loved him.
God knows why.
Our family used to be fairly close-knit. I was still living with Mom
and Dad at home. My brother found a job in Marin County and was living in
Corte Madera. Communication with father, believe it or not, worsened.
For my own sanity, I tried to ignore him.
"Okay," I said, as I picked up the tea cup. "Ready to
fight with all those last-minute Christmas shoppers?"
She snapped out of her dream state at the sound of my voice.
"Sure," she said. "Too bad your dad couldn't come. He
said he had to close some important deals today."
"Didn't he say that yesterday?"
Damn bastard. Yesterday was his wife's birthday and he didn't even make
it home for dinner. How "important" can these "deals"
As I drank my tea, my mother placed a $2 tip on the table.
"Let's go," she said.
I grabbed my jacket off of the chair and walked outside the restaurant
onto Second Street.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Well, downtown is that way," my mom pointed to her left. "But
I need to go to the ATM first. Do you mind? I barely had enough money to
pay for lunch."
"Nah, I don't mind."
"My credit union is only a few blocks away," she said. "Let's
go this way."
She pointed to her right toward Mission Street.
As we walked closer to Mission, my mom said, "I don't really like
walking around here."
"Because you-know-who used to work around here and your dad used
to pick her up from work," she said, referring to Maggie. "While
I worked only a few blocks away and took the bus home."
"Maggie worked around here?" I asked.
When we reached the sidewalk, my mother pointed to the right side of
the busy street.
"That's the building over there," she said.
Mom stepped down into the crosswalk when I noticed something familiar.
A Mercedes Benz. Silver. The license plate was 1MRVO21. Sure enough, it
was Dad's car parked in a red zone in front of us.
"Hey, Mom, there's dad's car over there!"
She looked around and seeing nothing, continued walking.
I jumped into the crosswalk to catch up with my mom.
"Mother! Over there," I said pointing straight toward us.
My mom looked again, this time seeing the car. We were in the middle
of the crosswalk, and my father's face was clearly visible behind his tinted
windshield. He waved. I waved back.
"I thought you were joking," Mom said.
"Why would I joke?"
"Let's go in," she said.
My mother rushed to the car as I scrambled to follow her. Mom opened
a car door, disappearing into the back seat. I quickly followed and closed
"Wow, great timing," I said, as I looked at Mom.
She didn't reply. She was clearly as exhausted as I was. She looked straight
"Hi, Dad," I said.
Right then, I noticed something I had not realized before. Something
I could not see from a distance when I was standing in the crosswalk. Someone
was sitting in the passenger seat. Someone I had seen only once before.
"Hi, Mark," my father said as he started the car.
I stayed quiet.
"Such a coincidence," Mom said as she peered at the person
in the passenger seat. "So, Maggie, how are you?"
"Fine. How about you?" she replied.
"Couldn't be better. Fancy seeing you two here," Mom said with
a touch of bitterness in her voice. "Where were you going?"
We went down First and turned left into Market.
"Oh, we were planning to have lunch at Japantown. Would you like
to join us?"
Join them? Yeah, right. Anyway, Japantown is the other way, isn't it?
"Oh, no, we wouldn't like to intrude," my mother said sarcastically.
"Mark and I just had lunch."
"I'm not too hungry, anyway," Maggie remarked. She looked at
my father and said, "Where are you going? Make a right turn here. You
can drop me off at I. Magnin. I'll go shopping."
I. Magnin? I had window-shopped there before. Never bought anything from
that store. Too expensive.
"You said you weren't seeing him any longer," my mom said suddenly.
"You said everything was over between you two."
"I wasn't lying," Maggie said. "I haven't seen him in
a long time. He called me up for lunch. That's all. Lunch. Yesterday and
My mother grimaced. Yesterday was Mom's birthday.
"You've got guts, mister," Mom said to Dad, as we approached
I. Magnin. "Take someone else out on my birthday? What am I to you?
How can you treat me like that?"
The car stopped next to a fire hydrant near the sidewalk. Maggie opened
her door slightly and put one foot on the pavement. I expected her to get
out, but she was hesitant. I opened my door halfway as if I were going to
C'mon, dad, I thought. Who is it going to be? Her? Or us?
Maggie slowly rose from her seat to exit when my father turned toward
us and broke his silence.
"Didn't you guys want to go shopping today?"
I rolled my eyes.
"Let's get out of this fucking car," I said.
Maggie crept back into the Mercedes and shut her door while my mother
and I stepped onto the sidewalk -- and slammed the door shut. The car sped
That was a year ago. I had not seen him since last Christmas. I thought
about skipping out this year. But that would be unfair to grandmother. I
couldn't miss her 70th birthday. When I felt like I was about to lose all
feeling in my face, the front door opened. And a familiar head peaked out
"Merry Christmas, Mark," he said as he opened the gate. I took
a half-step, but hesitated.
Father held his arms out to embrace me.
"I love you," he said.