Fiction

Hold On, Sour Grape

There was no such thing as failure—only starting over a million times and then some.

We moved out of Bushwick not because we finally saved up enough money but because our apartment in Bushwick collapsed when no one was in it, and the reason why no one sued or anything like that was because we were living in this house that had been divided up into four apartment units, and the slumlord who owned the apartment only rented out to desperate people like the Cambodian family of eight that lived above us and didn’t have proper documentation, or the Cantonese ladies below us who ran a shady massage and hairstyling parlor in their living room, which my dad went to a few times for a shave and a trim, and once when he came back with a botched haircut, my mom cried and said, “You’re the reason why we suffer. You are the reason. You’re the reason we live this way. You’ve always been the reason. I can’t live like this anymore.”

The only good thing about our apartment in Bushwick collapsing is that after we loaded up our maroon Oldsmobile to drive to my dad’s former co-worker’s brother-in-law’s house to stay until we found another place to live, the three of us picked up the broken rubble from the street and hurled the pieces at the windows of buildings where we thought the hoods lived, the ones who assaulted our neighbor Mrs. Lili and were the reason why she moved back to Taiwan, and the reason why we were never moving out of New York, and even if we did move, it would be because we felt like it and not because we had to. I don’t know if we knew that then, but we must have, because why else did we stay? Why else didn’t we move down to North Carolina, where my aunt and uncle lived in a new house at the top of a beautiful rolling hill, where they took long walks at night and never felt afraid or watched, and kept their front doors unlocked during the day and left valuables in their car? Why else didn’t we pack up and drive down there to live the good life with them unless we were trying to stand our ground, trying to prove that we belonged here?

That must have been why we hurled the rubble at the apartment buildings where the hoods lived, the ones who stole from us every week, and the ones who beat up our friends, and the ones who broke all the windows in our car, and the ones who bent our steering wheel all the way until the top and the bottom of the wheel touched each other like a pair of lips, and that must have been why my dad yelled out, “Suck on your diseased dicks, cocksuckers,” and my mom said, “Fuckers, fucking fuck off and leave us the fuck alone,” and I said, “Eat shit, you motherfuckers,” and then, as if we had coordinated it, we all wheeled around and looked at each other. No one bothered to ask where the other had learned to talk like that because it was obvious. One day we would forget those words and only know words like “Would you pass the caviar?” or “Could I have another bottle of that $200 wine, and, yes, it’s OK to waste,” only it would be more refined, more natural, a way we had not yet conceived of and so could only crudely imagine.

We jumped into the car, laughing and scared, and my father gunned it, and we sped past yellow lights turning red and before any of us even had a chance to catch our breath, we were on the highway, and the construction on both sides felt to me like the old way rebuilding itself, even though I knew nothing would ever emerge, that 10 years from now, we would be on the highway again, and I would see the orange hats and the safety cones, and the sound of drilling and the same sad sight of the narrow lanes and the traces of the faded white safety lines that we were as dependent on for marking of the passage of time as scientists were dependent on the whorls in the trunks of trees to reveal the long history of what had been and what would now be.

***

My father wrote to his father and mother for help six weeks after our apartment in Bushwick collapsed. We were living up in Washington Heights again, with my dad’s friends Xiangbo and his wife, who said we could stay with them if we paid a third of rent, chipped in for groceries, and did all the cleaning. Ten days later, we received an invitation from my grandparents for me to come live with them for a year in Shanghai while my parents got back on their feet. “A child is a great expense,” they wrote, “and it’s unnatural for a child’s paternal grandparents to die without seeing all of their grandchildren. A child should go to a good school and gain high marks, and a child should come home to adults who have already prepared a warm snack, and a child should have dinner at 6:30 in the evening sharp every night, and a child should be put to bed by adults who love her before 9:30 every night, and a child should wake up to a family who will all still be in the house when she leaves for school, and a child should have many beautiful friends.” My mother read the letter out in Chinese and my father translated for me, although who knew what he was making up and what he was leaving out and what he himself did not have the words for.

“No,” I said. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said to my parents, banging my fist on the floor. “No, no, no, no, no, no no, no, no no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said, throwing the stuffed bear my parents bought for me in Williamsburg at Xiangbo’s living room window. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my mother explained to me the benefits of going away for a year, maybe less. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my father called me all of the sweet names of sour things that I loved so much. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my parents promised that I could skip the next full week of school if I would just calm down a little right now. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my mother begged me to stop hitting myself. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my parents each grabbed a hold of my wrists and put them down by my sides. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my father got down on his knees and prostrated himself in front of me and begged me to stop crying because his heart was cracking and it would break soon if I didn’t stop. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as I was crying myself into a terrible weakness, as my father picked me up in his arms and carried me past the kitchen to the living room. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my mother held my hand while my father carried me and told me that nothing was set in stone yet, that there was still a lot of hard thinking ahead of us, and that we would only do what was best for us as a family. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my father spread a blanket on the floor. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” I said when he went into the bathroom while my mother undressed me. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” I said as my mother put my pajamas on me and my father came back and lay down next to us.

“No, no, no, no—”

“Goodnight,” my mother said.

“No, no, no—”

“Goodnight,” my father said.

I tried to steady my breathing in the dark. We whispered our love yous and the next morning, I woke up thinking I was born sad.

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14 Comments

  • doikoon February 28th, 2014 3:13 PM

    When I saw that Jenny wrote this I gripped my school laptop my eyes went wide, and I swear I didn’t breathe for I like twenty seconds.

  • Hallie I February 28th, 2014 3:52 PM

    i mostly like this story, but i don’t really feel great about the cheap objectification of the latina women in Christina’s neighborhood- she came to admire them because of the deep-v of their asses??? i expected more from rookie and i’m not sure what purpose that was supposed to serve other than to compare “Those Women” with her milky white skinny mother (who i realize is also a woc).

    • Maryse89 February 28th, 2014 7:55 PM

      I think you have to consider that the perspective of the story is that of a little girl who has probably absorbed a lot of the ugly stereotypes surrounding her as she’s grown up (as most of us do to an extent when we’re kids…)

      I think the views of the author and the character are clearly separate in this case

  • ahowl February 28th, 2014 4:24 PM

    I’ve never posted anything on Rookie before but this resonated with me so much that I can’t passively consume it like everything else. This reminds me so much of my childhood, but you write about it in a way that’s never pitiful. Feeling alienated, sour, deviant in a my parents are trying to make rent every month while you’re preoccupied with going snowboarding over the break, not nice but not evil, full of misplaced pride and anger. As an immigrant child growing up in North America, you’ve validated all of these things that I thought I alone had to bear the weight. Jenny, you’re my hero.

    Just, thank you.

  • Jesss February 28th, 2014 5:07 PM

    Jenny I really love your writing! This was amazing, like, really amazing.

  • izzywayout February 28th, 2014 5:55 PM

    whenever i see a piece of fiction written by jenny, i know it’s going to become one of my favorites, and this was no exception. you are brilliant.

  • dumbpling February 28th, 2014 9:32 PM

    i havent even read past the first page but i was just so excited when i saw the name jenny at the top of the page. this sounds a bit strange, but i have seen so many connections to my own life in previous pieces that i almost feel like i know you, and everything you write just really resonates with me and its all so beautiful and relatable.

  • DianeK February 28th, 2014 11:07 PM

    You’ve managed to make a superficially depressing narrative into a very human, life-affirming story. Although this piece made me cry, I felt uplifted. It was cathartic.

    The ending was absolutely brilliant. Xie xie ni for transferring these undescribable, nuanced feelings into a story that feels so familiar.

  • eza_236 February 28th, 2014 11:08 PM

    This is unbelievably beautiful, it paints a picture of a place and time I’ve never known, but at the same time feel like it was my life she was describing.

  • marysilverbells March 1st, 2014 8:00 AM

    so beautiful

  • mangointhesky March 1st, 2014 12:46 PM

    This was such a good story!

    http://theconfettireport.blogspot.com

  • teafandoms March 1st, 2014 8:37 PM

    This really was superb, good job Jenny!

  • llamalina March 2nd, 2014 3:30 AM

    Jenny, you are, without a doubt, one of my favorite writers- not just on Rookie but in general. Your pieces resonate so soundly with me as an Asian-American teenage girl. This story was no exception and I found myself seeing parts of the hardships in my own childhood. It’s amazing how much I can relate to your writing, and how beautifully you can word the simplicity of a child’s perspective and the complexities of Christina’s situation. You’re an incredible writer and I will always look forward to reading anything from you.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • fluorescentyesterday March 2nd, 2014 9:39 PM

    I will never tire of Jenny’s work, and this piece was just too good.