Readers' Submissions

My bff :)




“Do you remember Thailand?”

My son is texting like mad on his phone. He can’t use his phone in school so as soon as he walks out of the building he begins to text the kids with whom he just spent his whole day. I haven’t seen him for a week, I want his attention but I could have asked him anything to get it. I have no idea why I chose this question. I’m driving him home from school, at the beginning of our weekend together. The latest of the maybe two hundred bi-weekly weekends that we’ve shared over the past six years. These days our weekends are spent for the most part with me in the kitchen cooking his favorite meals and him at my computer chatting on Facebook. My keyboard is gummy with the traces of those meals, which he prefers to eat at the desk. Friday nights he asks me to drive him to the mall after supper and pick him up when the mall closes. His Mom never lets him go to the mall. Saturdays he spends in his pajamas at the computer, all day long. His mother does not allow him computer time at her house. Sunday mornings I drive him back to his Mom’s house, and then, with the exception of the Boy Scout meetings on Monday nights, I won’t see him for another two weeks. My daughter does not come to my house at all.

He throws me a bone. “I remember the dog,” he says, without lifting his eyes from the phone.

“You remember Yoo-Yee?” I’m surprised; he was only three years old when we left Thailand and we never let him near the dog. She was an outside dog and had fleas.

“I don’t know what its name was,” he says to his phone, “but it was a white dog. I remember that. And I remember you had a green car.”

I look at my son when we stop at a red light. He’s fourteen years old, and getting taller almost by the day. Until he got to junior high he was always the smallest boy in his class, shorter even than the Chinese kids. When we came to Iowa I thought my kids would stand out in the schools and I worried about it, but more than half of the kids at his school were not born in America and nobody ever gives my kids a second look. Unless he tells people his genealogy they assume from his looks that he’s Mexican. His hair is pitch black, blue-black like Superman’s hair, stiff and coarse but with a tiny bit of natural wave. He has always been slightly built, but in the past two years apparently the Lithuanian genes have asserted themselves and he’s grown. He’s already two inches taller than his mother. But he doesn’t have the broad shoulders and pot belly of my family; he’s still slender, almost wispy.

“What else do you remember?”

“I don’t know.” Tap-tap-tap.

“Anything?”

“I don’t know.” Tap-tap-tippety-tap. Whatever the blood lines, he’s still a teenager.

The light changes and I drive. When we get home he’ll leave a trail of winter clothing on the floor from the garage to the computer: boots, hat, gloves, scarf, coat, sweater. I won’t badger him to pick them up. I spoil him. He’s only at my house six days a month; I don’t want to spend those days pushing him around. I want to be the fun parent. He looks good in his winter clothes, he wears them naturally, easily. After eleven years his mother still walks stiffly, hunched over, in her parka. There is no more depressing sight in this world than a Southeast Asian woman, clutching her coat closed at her throat, dragging her garbage can out to the curb through two feet of snow.

Something about my question keeps eating at me as we drive through the slush, past the barren trees, the piles of sand and trash left behind by the melting snow. It all looks so different from where he came into the world. The first time we had what might be called a conversation, it was a brutally hot day. He was about a year old. We were both lying on the cool tile floor under the ceiling fan, with twenty-foot-tall bamboo trees visible outside the windows. Peter Pan was singing in Thai on the TV, “bin-gan dai, bin-gan dai, bin-gan dai.” We can fly, we can fly, we can fly. Andy is contributing about as much to this conversation as he did to that one.

I try to catalogue his “Thainess” in my mind. He likes rice, with Maggee sauce and the dried salted fish his Bah Ying sends from Ranong. He pronounces it “Mack-KEE” with the emphasis on the second syllable, rather than on the first. He is so fond of fresh vegetables and fruit that other parents comment on it jealously, a trait that I perceive as Asian. But he also likes onion rings and root beer and hamburgers from McDonald’s. He could live happily on macaroni and cheese for the rest of his life.

He can speak only a few sentences in Thai, but he speaks those with impeccable tones and with a Southern accent. His log-in password on my computer is “lukkreung.” In English his hard “r’s” are pure American Midwest. On the phone he sounds just like you’d expect somebody named Andy from Iowa to sound, even when he is spelling his complete given name: “A-n-d-a-m-a-n.”

He has upper eyelid folds, which his mother and sister do not, and he has a long, graceful nose like an Ayutthaya Buddha. His skin is barely darker than mine this time of year, but by August he’ll be darker than his Mom. He is graceful in his movements, the darling of his soccer coach, and fast as hell. Nobody can catch him on open ground. It broke the football coach’s heart when Andy’s Mom forbade him to join the team. She was afraid he’d get hurt, but she almost broke his elbow trying to teach him Thai boxing in her living room.

He’s brilliant. Scary, spooky, weirdly, wonderfully smart. He plays nine instruments, and he’s an intuitive savant in math, and maybe that’s the Asian genes, but he’s also wildly curious and inventive, and that comes from somewhere else. Out of 600 students in his school he placed third on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills this year, but the two kids who beat him are nerdy, nervous, friendless kids who spend every evening hunched over their homework and spend their weekends with tutors. Andy never does his homework; he never studies and has never had a grade below 95% on a test in his life. He’s only five badges away from being the youngest Eagle Scout in the troop’s history. He is popular and athletic and he’s got two girlfriends. “I’d have three,” he told me once, “but at the movies you can only have one on each side. There’s no room for more.” I’ve never been more proud of my son than I was at that moment.

We pull into my driveway. Andy gets out on his side and walks into the house, never looking up from his phone, his thumbs dancing over it like spastic wookpeckers. I watch his back disappear into the house and I know that in a moment I’ll follow the trail of winter clothes and this will be the last I’ll see of him until I deliver his dinner to him at the computer, and that will be the last I’ll see of him until he mumbles “G’night Dad” over his shoulder on his way to bed.

And I wonder what he would have been like if we’d stayed in Thailand. I wonder if there’s an alternate universe somewhere, in which he’s come home from school wearing a uniform, on a tiny little motorcycle with six other kids. In that universe we would still be living on Phuket, an island without a public swimming pool, without a Boy Scout troop, without art or music in the public schools. An island where Dad has a soapbox in the newspaper every Sunday from which he can shout his peeves and petty insecurities to the entire Kingdom, where he spends his evenings in bars full of pretty women and says “It’s my job,” where maybe his marriage didn’t implode under the weight of snow and culture shock and poverty. An island without decent hospitals, without honest cops or sympathetic courts of law, with prostitution and drugs and gang violence as commonplace as lizards on the ceiling. An island where Dad makes his living day to day and word by word, where Dad only gets paid if the advertisers pay the magazine, where Dad has no insurance and no retirement plan and there is no college fund.

An island where a beautiful, slender, graceful teenage boy needs to learn to ignore the comments thrown at them when he and his white, fat, Western Dad walk down the street.

When I come into the living room to hang up his coat he turns from the computer and says, “Hey, Dad, who’s this?” On the monitor he’s Googled an image of Keanu Reeves, with fake hair piled up in an inverted cone on the top of his head. “It’s Keanu Reeves, but what have they done to his hair?” I say. “No,” Andy says with a sly grin, “it’s Spike. They’re making a live-action movie of Cowboy Bepop.”

There was a time when Andy and I would spend our weekends camped out on the sofa, ordering pizza on the phone and watching endless hours of Japanese anime. My hands-down favorite in those days was “kauboi bebopu.” I loved the show because the soundtrack was classic American jazz, the women were all stunning and barely clothed, the violence was graphic and elegantly choreographed, the scripts were intelligent and the jokes translated well. Andy liked it okay, but it didn’t have enough giant killer robots with laser beam eyes for his taste. Still, he’d sit through it for me.

And now he’s grinning like a chimp, knowing he’s tossed his Dad a piece of information that is guaranteed to be the highlight, the single shining unforgettable moment, of his day. We haven’t talked about Cowboy Bebop in years. I didn’t know he even remembered the show. But he does, and he remembers that I loved it. They’re making a movie of Cowboy Bebop. I will think about this every single day until the movie makes its way to the Cineplex at the mall, and my son and I can go see it together. When he heard the news he must have thought of me, and he’s been waiting for how long, an hour, a day, a few days, to drop his bombshell and watch my face.

And it suddenly no longer matters what of Andaman is American, and what of Andy is Thai, what of him belongs to me and what of him belongs to his mother. Because I belong to him.