Everyone Will Have Been Afraid

James Seals

When you live with your white-supremacist father, you learn to take a punch. You learn to watch as your Filipino mother and your half-Filipino sister take punches. At first, your father calls it roughhousing. “We’re just having some fun,” he tells you. Then he informs you that he’s preparing you for life’s woes.

“I’m toughening you up,” your father explains. “Stop being a baby.”

So you learn to suppress your anger and your hurt as he flings you across the room.

At the age of six, your family moves into a two-bedroom apartment. The floors are tiled white. You and your sister Cindy must share a room. Cindy chooses the bottom bunk. She doesn’t like climbing the ladder. She decorates her bed with pink sheets. A pink pillow case with a Disney princess, and she does not care about your objections. Yet, you sneak down into her bunk some nights. So she can comfort you.

“Can teddy bear can come down too?” you ask her.

It starts one Monday night. Your father turns on wrestling. WWF. Pops open cans of beer. Insists that everyone huddle around the tube. “Get over here now,” he demands. “It’s about to start.” The television is the centerpiece of his entertainment center. He surrounds it with his record player and his record collection. His VHS player. He forbids everyone from touching his electronics. You giggle at Hulk Hogan’s yellow Speedo, and his need to flex his “twenty-six-inch pythons.”  No one speaks as Andre the Giant easily throws his leg over the top rope of the ring.

Father shouts, “Kill him,” as Coco B. Ware dances his “nigger dance” in front of the Hart brothers, flapping his arms like a hawk. You are fascinated by the Birdman’s brightly colored pants. Father chugs his beer, ignoring Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, who parades his komodo lizard along the thoroughfare. You tell your friends that Ricky is your favorite wrestler, that he is Hawaiian. You wish for a lizard too.

You find it useless to struggle on Monday nights. You also learn that it’s best to try and conserve your energy and your breath. Your father says, “I just want to see if it works.” Then he wraps his arm around your neck.

“This is the Sleeper Hold,” he whispers, sending chills down your body. His hot beer breath tickles your ear.

You struggle. But struggling makes it worse. Your father says, “Close your little almond eyes, boy.” You do not reply. You conserve energy. You try to take shallow breaths. Your eyes blur. You go limp. You later awaken to an empty room.

The next morning your mother explains, “Your father tell us leave room. He yell, ‘Get out.’”

You tell her you understand. You tell your mother that it’s okay. Though you are six, you can see that your mother’s four-foot-eleven frame is no match for anyone. You want to ask your father why he choked you. Instead, you cry and hate Monday nights.

***

The year Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson are elected to the Hall of Fame you turn eight. You do not hear of Aaron’s or Robinson’s inductions. “They shouldn’t have been allowed to play in America’s game in the first place,” your father says. Instead, you and he watch Kenny Rogers win the Ninth American Music Award.

“Kenny’s a real hero,” your father says.

Your father lounges in his green recliner. Potato-chip bag on his lap. Crumbs on his shirt. You lay on the floor. Sprawled next to your father’s dog; an American Spitz. You have retrieved your father’s coffee. He likes it black. That’s the only thing he likes black. You ask if he needs anything else. He ignores you. You take your seat. Then you hum along as your father sings, “I tried chasing rainbows but all I got was rainy day.”

That same year your father learns self defense. He tells everyone that he needs to lose a few pounds. He omits the fact that he has been cheating on your mother, but you learn about his infidelities later. He searches for a knife-fighting school. He says that he wants the skills to be able to wield his pocket knife. He tells you that his ancestors, the English, were the best swordsmen in the world. “The Knights of the Round Table,” he says. “I’m a descendant of King Arthur.” That Christmas, you asked Santa for a knife, but your father was unable to find a knife-fighting school. So there is no knife under the Christmas tree.

Instead, your father settles for karate.

When you are eight, all you can think about are ninjas. Their swords. Their masks. Their throwing stars. Your mother rents Enter the Ninja and Killers Wear White and you dream of being Yi Tao Chang in The Blazing Ninja. You read Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Imitate the pictures. You continually repeat your new motto, “As you think, so shall you become.” Your mother finally makes you that ninja costume.

Your father buys red forearm pads. He rejects your requests that he let you try them on.

“You’ll ruin them,” he says.

And you agree.

Then your father grunts and yells “Hi-ya.” You think about The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi. His lessons: Wax on, wax off. You watch your father from an unused corner of the dojo. Sometimes standing barefoot on the cold blue mat. You karate chop the air. Slice with both hands. No one mentions your lack of coordination. Your father, though, soon begins complaining. His says that his muscles are sore. That you are creating a scene. That the “Buffalo Nigger instructor” is picking on him. Always using him as a punching bag.

Then, a month later, your father starts straight-kicking your chest. Telling you to stand still. “This should come natural to you,” he says. “To you Japs.” Then he elbows your ribs. He blames “your people” for Pearl Harbor. He forces your mother to watch as he karate chops your arms, your legs, your ribcage. He laughs. And you think about hyenas from the Wild Kingdom.

He declares his strikes Atomic Bombs.

You want to remind your father that you are half-Filipino. That you are half-Caucasian. But you don’t. Because you are eight and you are pretty sure you’re not a Jap.

***

Four years later you learn the power of curse words. You start by secretly calling your father a bastard. Then an asshole. Progressing to the more severe words. One day your father overhears you. He sends you to his room. Tells you to pick out a belt. “One of the leather ones,” he commands. Then he beats you, saying, “You can’t flee like that stupid Filipino president did.” Yelling “Marcos, Polo” with every hit.

Welts form on your legs, your arms. Sitting hurts.

Your father has been promoted, and he has bought a four-bedroom home. A nice yard. A middle-class neighborhood. Your mother is the darkest person on the block. People stare. You have been given your own room. Granted permission to cover the walls with pictures of muscle cars, players from the Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame and the Boston Celtics. Teams that your father has approved of.

“They’re real Americans,” he says.

You do everything to avoid your father. But he gives you chores. Chores that force you out of your room. He watches you mow the grass, clean the garage, wash his car. As you grumble, your father listens closely. He baits you. He says, “Got something to say, boy?” He stares into your eyes. Jumps at you. Pretends he is going to smack you.

So you learn the Tagalog curse words. From your sister, who learned them from her friends. Then you call him a anak ka nang puta. He orders you to speak English.

He shouts, “We don’t talk that bock-bock shit in my house.”

You reply, “Kainin mo tae ko!”

He again beats you after your mother is forced to translate: Eat my shit!

***

At twelve, you are excited about the coming Thanksgiving. You have your first girlfriend, and this year’s holiday party is at your house. Your father stands over your mother, complaining. He wants cranberries and sweet potatoes. You watch, cooking rice. He argues with your mother about the pig’s head and the pig’s blood in the freezer.

You smile.

But your mother acquiesces. Like always. She throws out the head and the blood. Your father’s complaining persists. He refuses to eat the few Filipino dishes that he permits your mother to cook: egg rolls, kare-kare; her “Gook food.” Instead, he eats the turkey and the mashed potatoes. Foods that he told your mother to cook.

Your father again drinks too much. “It was a holiday,” he’ll later explain. He shouts across the room. Beckoning guests here, then there. Aimlessly waves his arms. Insists, “You, you have another drink.” Those standing around him, however, have no idea who he is talking to. He spills white and brown sauces down his shirt and onto the cream colored carpet. He continually tops off his drink. The drinks of others. He fills his dinner plate to the brim. Along with the plates of his second and third helpings.

Later in the evening, you hear her cry for help. Your father says, “I just want to talk to her.” You force your way between your father and your girlfriend. She says that he tried to take her upstairs. She claims that he grabbed her behind. He again states that he just wanted to talk.

“About you,” he explains. “To make sure she was giving in to your every need.”

Your girlfriend cries. She asks for directions to the bathroom. Your father wobbles. He reaches for a wall. He throws his empty beer can at your head.

You say, “Mapoot ko sa iyo!” Firmly hating him from that day forward.

Your girlfriend breaks up with you.

***

During your freshman year of high school, you make the varsity football team. You begin lifting weights. Feeling confident. You grow taller than your five-foot-nine-inch father. You take a job at a burger joint. You work late into the night. You begin asking girls on dates. You finally have some spending money. You pay for your girlfriends’ dinners. Movies. Buy them popcorn.

Your father allows your white girlfriends into his house. He plays the gracious host. He asks them about their parents. Offers them alcohol. Winks at you. He encourages them to attend family dinners. Gives you cash to buy Valentine’s gifts.

He ignores your one Korean girlfriend. He makes slant eyes behind her back. Mimics Charlie Chan’s speak, “Mind like parachute – only function when open.”

After work you wait in the cold. Your father had promised to pick you up. He arrives late. He ignores your questions: Where were you; what have you been doing? You see the beer bottle in the console. Neither of you talk during the drive home.

The next Saturday you tire of waiting for your father. You take the bus. Your mother asks, “Where your father,” as you walk through the front door. You tell her that you don’t know. He was supposed to pick you up. She contends that you should have waited. She shakes her head. You explain that it was cold. You were tired of waiting, again.

That night your father bursts through the door. He wakes Cindy.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” he yells.

Your mother begins to cry.

“I wasted my time driving out there,” your father shouts. “You will pay me back.”

You reply, “You were supposed to be there three hours ago.”

You father throws a jab. You duck. You lunge forward. You use your new tackling technique. Your father loses his balance. You slam him into the wall. The plaster caves in. Your father crumbles to the floor. Shields his face. You stand up tall. You draw back your arm. Your hand is balled. You want to punch him.

Your mother shouts. She hits your back. She slaps your arm. You barely notice her. You do not punch your father. You just stand over him. Your mother wraps her arms around you. She squeezes tighter and tighter. Pulling you away from him. You give in. Because you are tired.

She says, “You go. You leave now.”

In the morning your clothes are on the lawn.

A friend’s father brings you back to your house. You are sixteen. You are drunk. Your father grabs your legs like a wheel barrel. He jerks you from the van. He does not wait until the doors are entirely open. He does not turn to see where you land. Someone catches your head, preventing it from smashing against the concrete.

Your father pulls you to your feet. Pushes you toward the house. The night air is warm. The neighborhood quiet. Everyone hears your father as he begins shouting, “Who am I?” You are unable to answer his question. You can only mumble, incoherently. Weeks later, neighbors will admit that they heard your father’s palm smack your face. They heard you crash against a wooden fence. They smelled the flowers that were torn from the wet soil. But that night, no one comes to your rescue. No one is seen peeking out of their window or door. No one turned off their porch light.

Everyone will have been afraid.

When you awake the next day, your eye is black; blood has hardened on your lip and your pants are grass-stained. You wonder where your new polo shirt is. You are cold and shaky. You notice your father standing in the doorway. One arm akimbo. Steam wafting from his coffee mug. You see your mother lingering in the background. Her arms crossed. She has a worried look on her face. A wooden cooking spoon in her hand.

“Are you okay?” you hear your father ask.

You do not know. You remain quiet. You wonder how you ended up in your old bed. You wonder why your father even cares.

“Once you can get up,” he says. “I’d like you to leave.”

That evening Miguel tells you that your father kept picking you up. Then hitting you. Watched you fall. Then picked you up. Then hit you. Then watched you fall. Miguel explains that you swung at your father. That your punch went high. That you spun around. That the force of the swing caused you to stumble and fall, then your father picked you up.

You ask, “Why didn’t you stop him?”

Miguel replies that there was nothing he could do. He was drunk. He had been drinking with you. You say, “Oh yeah,” but you are unable to remember him at the party. Miguel adds that your mother asked your father to stop. That she threatened to call the police. Miguel tells you that your father said, “If you do, you’ll be next.” Miguel says that your father walked over to your mother. She stood fast. She did not flinch.

“Your dad slapped your mother, man,” Miguel says.

You want to cry. But you cannot. Because movement costs you.

***

You visit your mother when you turn eighteen. She reveals that she is divorcing your father. “Finally,” you say. She asks if you are hungry. She says that your father has been cheating on her for years. She microwaves some leftover rice and noodles. She says that Cindy caught them. During her high-school lunch hour. He was in your mother’s bed. With a white woman.

“He say it my fault,” your mother tells you. “Because I Asian.”

Your mother states that your father beat her. That he beat Cindy. You notice your mother’s bruises. She tells you that it’s okay. She says, “I go. You no worry about me.” You demand to know where your father is. You want to kill him. She says she doesn’t know. You do not believe her. You storm into the house, looking for evidence of his whereabouts. You see your mother’s suitcases. You calm down. You feel sad.

“Is Cindy going with you?” you ask. But you already know the answer.

Your mother tells you that she knew your father chased girls. She explains, “Your father touch my friends.” She says that your father called her single friends prostitutes. That they were in America to find white husbands.

She says, “He call me pimp. He say I girls’ mama-san.”

Your mother’s eyes tear up. She asserts that she was just matchmaking. That she wanted to help her people find better homes, better lives. You sit dumbfounded.

Your mother calls you her Little Angel. She pinches your cheek. Asks you to carry her suitcases to her car.

“You always good baby,” she tells you.

#

James Seals earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and English from the Southern New Hampshire University. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction from SNHU. James’ stories have appeared in Forge Journal, Amoskeag Journal, and Rio Grande Review. His poetry has been anthologized in Measuring Twine: Poetry with Strings Attached.