I wiped my face with a paper towel to remove the streaks and spots of foundation, mascara, and lipstick. I was ten years old, helping my brother, Victor, plant evergreen trees in our backyard alongside the tarnished wooden fence.
Victor burrowed his shovel into the ground and grunted. His hands were caked in sweat and dirt. In that moment, everything he was doing seemed right, and I never could forget my brother.
He dug five holes, tossing grass and dirt to the side. I dropped in the evergreen seeds, and then I covered it all with clumps of soil. Victor and I hugged and he put his arm around me, and tousled my black hair and said, “Don’t be a girl, Van.”
We were Vietnamese-American, and we did everything we could to blend into white-American culture. We were born in Fairfax, VA, and grew up in a middle-class suburb. We lived in a red brick house. Yet we still got asked: So, where you from?
“Fairfax. Virginia,” I said.
“Oh, I didn’t know you from here.”
If we acted “Asian” we wouldn’t be accepted, there.
Even at that young age, Victor yearned to be an insider. He followed his friends, like a puppy, copying them. They listened to Kanye West, smoked Marlboros, and wore Abercrombie hoodies. So, he did the same. At one point, he bleached his hair blonde and his friends nick-named him, Goku.
Once, at Fairfax Skate park, I watched Victor puff up his chest and extend his arms, keeping his head raised. “I’m a Super Saiyan,” he yelled. Paul and Joseph, his white friends, cackled and clapped, and egged him on. “Keep powering up Goku,” they said in unison. Victor grinned as he coiled his upper body, crossing his right arm over his chest. He lowered into a squat, and cupped his hands together, and said, “Kamehamehaaaa.” He aimed the imaginary energy blast at me and I collapsed on the floor and played dead.
“Good one Goku,” Paul said.
“That was baller,” Joseph said, raising his hand for a high-five.
Victor stepped up, but Joseph pulled his hand away at the last moment, and laughed. And Victor staggered forward. I saw the hurt in his face, but he tried to play it off cool and punched Joseph lightly in the shoulder. “Just messing with you,” Joseph said.
“He’s too easy,” Paul said. “Fight back next time, Goku.”
Victor clocked him in the jaw, pushing him to the ground. “Don’t you ever call me that again,” he said. His eyes were popping out of his face. Blood coated his knuckles. Victor turned around and raised his fist at Joseph, but he backed off. From then on, I was scared of Victor. My older brother had made a statement: Don’t fuck with him.
His other friends were also white and they had names like Chad and Johnny, and they would sometimes pick on him, casually-calling him “chink” or “jap” behind his back. This was 2008 and it felt normal to have white people think of you as an other. At the time, I didn’t think much about the poor treatment Victor received from his white friends. I thought they were just busting his chops. He never really took it out on me, either.
Victor bottled everything up, and when he was triggered with anger, he would shake uncontrollably and his face would redden, and his armpits would sweat so you could see the stains on his shirts. But even when he got embarrassed, I stood by Victor and idolized him. He was twelve. I was just happy to spend time with him.
Dad usually wasn’t at home. He worked at a government defense job to support our family. Mom had passed away after trying to give birth to our youngest brother Michael. And then he passed away from a heart defect. Victor and I were used to death. It didn’t really affect me. I felt a numbness whenever I thought about Mom and Michael. But that went away, as I distracted myself with Instagram and Twitter. I liked seeing pictures of happy people, food, cats, and it was fun to read tweets and see memes on the internet. After hours of browsing the internet, I didn’t feel so alone anymore, I felt connected to the world.
Victor and I were alone. I followed him everywhere he went, like an understudy, like a smaller shadow, eager to learn. He looked at me from time to time, as though he were wondering why I was trailing after him. We explored the nature trails behind our neighborhood, swung from swings in the playground by the rec-center, rowed canoes across Lake Accotink, and climbed the trees in the forest. Life was simple. And then at the end of the forest trail, Victor’s friends were standing at the end, waiting for him. “Hey, sorry about earlier,” Paul said, putting his arm around Victor and ruffling his hair. Joseph jumped up and high-fived Victor. “Yeah, we didn’t mean it.” Victor turned back to me, frowning, as he said, “Get lost Van.”
Victor turned fifteen and I was thirteen, and in the backyard our evergreen trees had grown tall and strong and straight. They towered over our house. Yet, one tree stood out; it was shorter than the others, lopsided at the base and the trunk had crooks and crags in the bark. The leaves were orange-brown, instead of green. But I loved that tree the best.
Victor told me we should cut it down for firewood. He grabbed an axe and marched over to the tree, axe slung over his shoulder. I rushed in front of the tree and said, “C’mon let’s keep it. Yeah, it has flaws, but that just means the tree has character. Please don’t cut it down,” I said.
Victor laughed and shook his head, but he let go of the axe. “Okay, but only because you’re showed some guts today.” Later that day, I tied a red ribbon around one of the branches of the tree and named it Michael.
During the summer, Victor built a wooden garden shed in the corner of the backyard, and when I was done with homework, I would always climb up the shed and soak in the sun while sitting on the shingled roof. Early that fall, I got in trouble at school for kissing a boy on the lips. At home, in the family room, Victor punched me in the jaw, dragged me by my hair onto the back lawn, and shoved me inside of the shed, locked it. “You need to learn to be a man. This is a lesson. Boys don’t kiss boys.”
I sobbed and pounded my fists at the doors, and sobbed. But it was useless. “I am a man. I’m sorry. I thought he liked me.” Tears streamed down my face. There was a single light bulb shining, but the brightness waned. The shed smelled rotten and dusty. Bugs crawled on the dirty wooden floor, and I sat there for hours, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong.
After I had fallen asleep, I woke up in my bed. Victor must have unlocked the door to the shed and picked me up and carried me inside to my room. Was it so wrong to kiss the boy that I liked? I was confused. I sat against the wall and stared at the ceiling fan, watching it spin around, whirring its hum. I heard Victor downstairs in the living room watching Sportscenter. I went downstairs, past him. He didn’t acknowledge me. I opened the fridge and got out orange juice. I poured myself a glass and asked him if he wanted some. He yawned and ignored me. I threw the glass against the TV and the screen shattered. Juice spread across the carpeted floor. “There’s nothing wrong with me. You can’t tell me what to do anymore.” But Victor didn’t even move from the couch, his eyes never left the screen, even as it crackled and buzzed. We didn’t speak for the rest of the month.
During spring break, I got contact lenses, and felt better about myself. I wasn’t the Asian-nerd anymore. My classmates still asked to copy my Calculus homework, but they didn’t call me four-eyes anymore. I grew taller too, now I was 6’1, instead of 5’8. My clothes were different too, sweatpants turned into fitted jeans, and hoodies changed into cardigans, tennis shoes morphed into dress shoes. I was still a quiet person, prone to reading Joan Didion essays and Mary Ruefle poems, but there were times when I cracked jokes and told witty anecdotes. I forgave myself, all my nuances.
I had lunch at a pho restaurant with Dad. He took a bite out of a spring roll, and looked me up and down and smiled. He swallowed. “You happier than usual. So when am I going to meet this girl?”
I chuckled, a little annoyed. I dipped my spoon into the hot bowl of pho, held it in front of my face. I said, “Just working on myself, dad. But I’ll let you know when I meet the right one.”
Dad drank his beer and his face brightened up. “You’re a man now. Any girl would be lucky to have you.”
I nodded. I was glad that Dad seemed happy, even though he didn’t know the real me. He didn’t know that I was confused by my sexuality. But I knew it was not a good idea to tell him about my mixed feelings, about women, about men. After we had lunch, we went back home and sat in the living room. Dad drank more beer, and gave me one. I sipped on the beer and spat it out. The TV was still broken. But Dad didn’t notice the pieces laying on the carpet.
He slapped my back and laughed, and said, “Drink up. It’s a vice, but a good vice.”
“Did you drink in Vietnam?” I asked.
Dad nodded, and crushed his beer can with his hands. “Let’s not talk about Vietnam.” He tossed the can into the wastebasket and leaned back into his seat. “The past is the past. We can’t change what happened decades ago.”
“I understand,” I said. Although, I didn’t really understand. I wanted to learn more about my roots, my culture, where he was from. But as I looked at him, and saw the wrinkles and his cheeks flushed, I knew it was better to not say anything.
“How are things with you and Victor?” Dad asked, grabbing another beer.
“They’re good. He’s doing well. I’m doing well. Things are good,” I said.
“He told me something different.”
I drank my beer, this time holding it down. “Yeah? What’d he say?”
“He said that you two got into a fight. And that you kissed a boy. That this probably wasn’t the first time.”
“He’s lying,” I said. My stomach tensed.
Dad belched. “About the fight? Or about kissing a boy?”
“Both. He just wants to start drama.”
“See that doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe Victor would want to fight with you.”
“All he does is starts fights. He’s impulsive.”
“Maybe with his classmates. But not you. You’re his brother.”
“You can believe him if you want. But I’m telling the truth.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You look upset.”
“I said I’m fine, Dad.”
He finished his beer and got up from his seat. Dad stepped up to the window and looked out, and then he turned back, and said to me, “In Vietnam, if you were caught kissing another man, you would get beaten to pieces.”
“Do you know that from personal experience?”
Dad lunged at me and grabbed me by my shirt collar. I smelled the alcohol on his breath. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t look him in the eye. “Van, I’m trying to help you.” He let go and I dropped on the floor. “I’m only looking out for you. This world is not as forgiving.”
A week later, I sat in my therapist’s office. I took in a deep breath and folded my hands in my lap. Margot clicked her pen and wrote something down on her yellow legal pad. I looked around the room. There was a computer with a thin layer of dust clinging to the screen, a desk cluttered with sticky notes and children’s picture books, a broken clock, her degrees were framed in glass and hardwood: The University of Chicago, Loyola College, Princeton. My chair had a leg that wobbled, even though there was a folded piece of construction paper under it. Her chair was leather and black. She wore a blue cardigan that was wrinkled on the end, and white pants, which seemed expensive. Her ballet shoes were scuffed up and the burgundy color had faded. The window had been cracked open, and a breeze streamed in. I had on a black t-shirt and shorts. I fidgeted in my seat, goosebumps ran up and down my arms. “Do you want to talk?”
“No,” I said.
“The floor is yours.”
“I like your pants.”
“Thank you, anything else?”
“Well, it’s hard to share.”
“I can imagine.”
“I’ve been having trouble at home,” I said. “With my brother Victor and my dad, to be specific.”
Margot nodded. “What’s going on with your family?”
“I’ve been fighting with them. Or rather, they’ve been fighting with me. A lot, actually.”
“Verbal or physical fighting? Both?”
“Both. I don’t know what’s worse though. I guess their words seem to sting more than the physical confrontations.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do the confrontations happen frequently?”
“They’ve happened twice. Once with Victor. Once with my Dad.”
“What made them want to hurt you?”
I looked down at my hands. They were shaking. “This is between you and I, right? Like it’s confidential?”
“What’s said in this room, never leaves it.”
“I’m just apprehensive. I’ve never really talked about this with anyone. If I have to be honest, I’m scared to talk about it.”
“It’s normal to feel scared. Can I ask what you’re scared about?”
“I’m scared about being honest with myself. I feel like I’m hiding from the truth.”
“That I’m confused.”
“About whether I like men or women.” My stomach felt less tight and I breathed easier. I looked out the window. A ray of sunlight was gleaming through it.
“That sounds difficult. I appreciate you sharing with me. Is this something you think about often, Van?”
I nodded. “I just wished I liked one or the other. But it’s not as simple as that. Victor found out I kissed a boy at my school. And then he locked me up in a shed. I was there for hours.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“It’s okay. He let me out eventually. But I felt torn inside. Like everything I was doing had a stain on it. Later, my dad told me that Victor had said to him that I liked men. The conversation I had with my dad was intense. I thought he was going to kill me.”
Margot wrote something down. “Do you think you’re in danger at home?” She looked serious. She was holding her pen still, but her hand shuddered, as though it were cold.
“No,” I said. I was probably lying.
“You’re safe here, Van.”
“Thanks. I believe you.”
A light rain fell on the windowsill. In the distance, thunder boomed.
When I got home, I went to the backyard and saw that Michael’s tree had collapsed, torn in half at the base. I put both my hands under the trunk and tried my best to lift it up, but it wouldn’t stand up straight. I let go of it, the tree bent, then snapped apart. The branch with the red ribbon fell into a puddle. I walked into the puddle, my shoes caked with mud, and I untied the ribbon from the branch. I looked at it, curled up in my palm. The ribbon was frayed at the ends and the color had faded. I closed my hand over it and looked at my house.
Victor watched me by the glass sliding door. He pressed his hand against the glass.
I nodded at him. I wanted him to accept me, to love me, to spend time with me. But I was still struggling to accept myself. I went into the garden shed and grabbed the axe.
I walked back to Michael’s tree, axe slung over my shoulder. I raised it up high and chopped through the trunk, and chopped again, and again. Bugs and sap flew out of the cracks I made. After I was done, I gathered the pieces in my arms, and walked inside. Victor was gone. I opened up the fireplace and threw the pieces of wood into it. I poured lighter fluid onto the pile, struck a match, and tossed it in. The wood caught the flame, and engulfed with heat. I smelled the burning, a cloud of smoke rose and filled the room.