My parents promised they would involve me in every decision, they promised that there would be time to figure out other ways, they promised me a yellow room with painted flowers and a living room filled with green plants for my mom, and an all-white office with wooden floors and only a single desk and chair for my father, but we were broke and eating food that we found in dumpsters outside of Chinese bakeries—the mayo and the dried pork gave my stomach seizures, and once, I ate a fish sandwich that my dad found in its original packaging and broke out in hives. My mom stopped getting her period because she was so stressed. I saw her sitting on the toilet, clutching her stomach.
“There’s something in here that wants to come out, but it won’t.”
“It’s OK, my tart.”
My mom applied to 20 jobs and my dad applied to 12. There was one day when he came back with his hands in the air, telling us that there were no jobs in the newspaper today, but we knew he was seeing his Taiwanese slutmaster, and my mom slapped him across the cheek in front of Xiangbo and his wife, who later told us that we ought to find a new place to stay as soon as possible because the house was too small and her children were easily frightened.
This was how I pictured it happening: We were going to pay off our debts, and all of my parents’ friends would forgive us for all that we had asked of them and were forever unable to repay. My father would tell his girlfriend to go take a hike. My mother would find a job where she could better her English skills and be as good as me and my dad. As for me? I was going to go to school four or even five days a week, and we would rid ourselves of the toxins that surrounded us.
“Push harder,” my mom said, putting her hands over my mine and pushing the car with me. Earlier that evening, our maroon Oldsmobile broke down while we were driving on Harlem River Drive. We all knew it was going to happen one day, and in fact, we were surprised our car lasted as long as it did. It was the middle of the night. We had no idea where we were going, we just wanted to spend time together as a family, away from everyone else. We had to push the car off the road, all the way down to the riverbank. My dad decided we had to dump it in the river and run. We didn’t have the money to tow it to a junkyard.
“It’s not even moving,” my mom said.
“It’s moving. I can feel it moving,” my dad said. It was the moment when we felt the car starting to move away from us, when we realized we could let go now, that I suddenly couldn’t bear to leave it floating alone in the Harlem river with all the junk and debris and foam and the smell of urine and garbage and shit and decaying stuff. I flung myself into the water, climbing onto the car and shaking my head no and my dad leapt in after me.
“I told you I didn’t feel like driving out tonight,” I said.
“Oh tartberry, you said you wanted to spend every night this week together. You said you wanted to see the city at night,” my mom shouted to me.
“Don’t make me swim,” I said. I jumped off the car and back into the water and swam away from the sinking car. I looked back at my father, who was swimming after me. “Don’t make me swim away from you.”
“I won’t, my sourest apple,” my dad said. “I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to.
“Don’t make me go,” I said as my dad pulled me onto his back.
“Just hold on very tightly to me, sour grape,” my father said, swimming us back toward my mom.
“Don’t make me go, Dad. Don’t make me go,” I said, looking at my mother, who was crying and holding her arms out to me, and I let her pick me up, even though I was too big and she was too skinny, because I knew how brief these moments have always been and always will be, and if there was still a chance to be in my mother’s arms, I was going to take it, I would always take it.
“It’s temporary,” she said, stroking my wet hair. “It’s only temporary, it was always only temporary.”
“It not temporary,” I said. “You said we’d always stick together. You said you’d never give me up.”
“We aren’t, my sourest grape,” my father said. “You will always be our darling. Our Christina.”
“That’s not enough,” I said. “I want to stay here. It’s not enough. Don’t give me away.”
“We haven’t given you up,” my mother said. “It’s only temporary. It’s only going to be as short as possible. It was only ever going to be a very small amount of time.”
I felt her shivering, and I felt myself fading out, feeling like it was remarkable that on this night, of all nights, my mom and my dad and I were huddled together, promising each other things that could never be.
“Take care of us,” I said, shaking my fist up at the sky as a plane flew overhead. “Watch over us,” I said to the people in the plane, who must have seen me, because everything went white for a moment, and when the colors of the world came back to me, I was on my father’s back again and my mother was a few feet behind us, and when she caught up to us, I told my father to put me down and let me just stand there for a minute. We stood there and did not move. What I would have given to know what they were thinking then, the graveness of our thoughts suddenly becoming petty when we realized the car had risen back up again, floating on the Harlem like a monster of our own creation, and we knew it would take nothing short of a gargantuan effort to push it back down to the bottom of the river. ♦
A version of this story titled “We Love You, Crispina,” was originally published in the literary journal Glimmer Train.