by Aimee Seu
I don’t know when I learned my father was a pastor who slept with the women in his congregation. Grief was a spare room where we put things.
Inherited memory of my father singing karaoke: O my love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch…the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody, deep untrained voice I reconstruct
from scraps in home videos—his figure like a rare animal sighting as he passes for a second into frame. Or says something from the background while my mother zooms in and out adoringly on our homely newborn faces. He was better than Elvis, one sibling swears. Years later, another says, Yeah right, he stumbled the words and slurred off the stage, shattering my little two-dimensional man.
In place of reunion’s rapture, imagine it sung to someone gone forever. And time goes by so slowly…The way my mother might have heard it after he turned to ash in her arms. I was five, lost him without knowing what I’d lost. The rich black cake of grief spooned into my mouth, tasteless.
At his burial, the sun splintered through a beaded door of rain, and during the tedious sermon, other children were allowed to play nearby. I fidgeted, watching them jealously: yards away in their bright plastic jackets, tossing a yellow umbrella. I tugged my mother’s black sleeve and asked, May I go play? She knelt, shook me by my shoulders, and pointed at the open earth.
Don’t you understand? That is your father. Do you care? Someone pulled her away, tried to hold her steady. As we walked to the car, a rainbow appeared, which everyone ignored out of respect.
I overheard my mother’s prayers in the night. They began, Lord God, if I must live…
Suicide became a horned bull she courted to raise four children alone. Time can do so much…
The time warp of sadness, depression’s expansion and collapse of hours. As the holy and repressed Gerard Manley Hopkins observed in his agony, O the nights, O the years. The way sadness can make each night last eternity. The way depression can be whole years of night. The thought like a planet’s gravitational core constantly pulling. How the mind winds up there without meaning to, irresistibly, over and over. Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea… Like treading water until it would feel so good to sink in…to the open arms of the sea…
There are no translations of his novels in English. My relatives refuse to tell me anything¾ something about lying dogs or letting sleeping dogs alone. Alphabet like broken Legos. Korean: blocky with little oculus skylights. I run my hands across the pages, feel nothing. Regardless, there’s really no recovering the information I seek. Time is a door that keeps locking behind us.
Daughter of the preacher. Now, I see all mystics as scumbags, priests as slumlords of the heart.
Who can blame my mother for the men in prison she wrote to, looking for love? Years after my father’s death, how she left for weeks without warning and babysitters had to bribe us to eat. She wanted a man held captive to her love. O mother, lying on the kitchen floor, writhing in unexplainable pain. At twelve, she asked me if it would be better if she were gone. Would you like that¾to live with a friend’s parents?
Children of cheating fathers play in the garden like widows. Come to their first loves donning gas masks. Infidelity, a word like a little flower coaxed alive by spring, opening imperceptibly slow.
When my menarche came, I let it in my hands a while, as if to say, Yes, go run from me. Do not give me the chance. The first time I ever really fucked, I gazed down at the 18-year-old beloved, all six-pack and snapback, thin chain and brave smile, all his vulnerable tenderness, the way he said my name then, like a prayer to no one. I could only think what an incredible weapon this was.
Years later, a girl lying in my bed would say, You know, you cannot be both. No one really is.
Like I was too white for my cousins / not white enough for the kids on the playground. Bi/racial/sexual/mutt/slut/belonging to/outcast of/many worlds.
In early photos: my father young in seminary, wearing a multi-colored diamond-knit sweater the color of rust sienna, army green, dark cerulean, a kind of faded jester; leaning against a tree, his burly arms crossed; then walking down the library steps in dull brown leather dress shoes. Sun-gilt like saints’ deaths in old paintings, my mother’s eye through the lens, drenching him in love. She always witnessing, he always aglow.
Videos of the monarch migration make me nauseous, remind me of the Jonestown helicopter footage, all those bodies laid side by side after travelling so far, wings folded. It’s sort of nice,
my mother says, how they all go together to die.
I was a monstrous teenager, scowling and screaming and bleeding everywhere. And no one felt my wrath like my mother. Her revenge was subtler: as I lay on the living room couch, stoned, every day after school, she’d walk around the house saying, Bad things are going to happen to you. God won’t bless you, you’re sinful and loveless. In the upstairs hallway on Sunday morning, looking calmly into my eyes, she said, Get behind me, Satan. And when I was too fevered to struggle against her, my immune system dismantled by my daily hour of vomiting, she came into my bedroom and anointed me with oil. Her boyfriend on speakerphone from a Texas penitentiary, both of them speaking in tongues. Sometimes I dream I’m there again, pinned to the sheets by heat and fear.
In a different dream, I’m at the karaoke bar, my father lit from beneath by a discotheque stage. He comes to the crescendo, Are you still miiiiiiiiiiiine? and a man laughs at his thick accent maiming the words. I walk over to the bar and break a beer bottle over the man’s mouth—Strange how some nights I punch as if underwater and others I murder like batting my eyelashes. The glass and his teeth shatter so easily. I slip the tackle of two bouncers and, as the barfight breaks out, sprint toward my father. He is still belting¾eyes closed, brow furrowed, microphone to his lips, free hand in a dramatic fist, oblivious to the chaos ensuing around him. He sings, Lonely rivers sigh, tables flip in the brawl. Wait for me, wait for me. I scramble onstage and grab the pointed collars of his cheap white and gold sequined Elvis costume. I know this is my only chance to ask him. I open my mouth, but my voice is not my own. From my throat, uncontrollably, comes music. I need your love, Godspeed your love to me. He dissolves.
Once, in the long golden light of a 6pm beach, I dug a deep moat around a palace of sand. The sight of it made my mother weep, beg for my forgiveness. Now, in adulthood, I know the terror of those brief moments of clarity. We cannot bear them for long. Out of self-preservation, we plunge back into our familiar darkness and confusion. Sometimes when I feel them coming; reckonings that might expand my understanding of my own life, blow through my illusions or reveal my monstrosities, I get to the precipice of epiphany and turn away. I sabotage my sight with the same old tricks: Jameson’s sweet numb, the TV on while I sleep, eating and uneating until I collapse. They blindfold horses to keep them calm.
These days, my mother sends me money in hopes that I’ll call. Nearly seventy, she works two jobs while her husband shoots up in the shower and sleeps until 5pm. And I spend all of it. Quickly and on nothing productive.
I live in Virginia. Rabbits and spider crickets scatter as I walk home from the university in a fish tank of twilight. My partner is hours away. We’re separated by school and work, so separated by blessings. And still, at night, I think I can feel every centimeter between us, slack miles of telephone wire buzzing in the dark. Each separate roadkill¾the long-dead and desiccated stamped into the highway, newly struck animals gasping at the stars, entrails spread like wasted divinations. What oceans of loss did my mother pass over? Of hate and mourning. How do the nights measure when the person you love is completely gone from the world?
As a kid, I ran my fingers over the swollen chests where winter clothes were kept. Warped wood finished in dark lacquer and inlaid with intricate abalone carvings. Mountain scene with knotted winter tree, little figure plowing beneath tapering skyward rivulets of cloud or smoke or wind. Forest creatures in pairs; two squirrels, two bowing quail, little spotted deer, the male crowned in antlers. Inside, they were red and gleaming. I believe once I crawled in and fell asleep. They were conspicuously grand in our Philadelphia house beside the water-ringed table, faded Amish quilts and dollar store flipflops. I loved to imagine the exotic world where they were made. An expensive wedding present from continents away that no one wanted back after the affairs and the cancer. Something about bad luck, curses.
In the muted watchfulness, I pretend our souls are released at death. Can my father and I accept each other in a way we couldn’t if he’d lived? Sometimes I tell myself, We were spared one another. Traditional and strict, what would he say about my graffitied temple—flesh of his flesh cut open and ribboned with ink—my party trick septum, the heft of my body like a golden calf to melt down and drink, and the girl who dozed off in my bed all sapphire eyed with English ivy underarms. Can he be happy for me now, reveling in all my sin?
I caught a glimpse of my father once, in the reversed Hierophant, how his eyes sometimes seemed to wander from/sometimes seemed so transfixed by/God. I do not know whether to hope he was in love with his mistresses.
I find him other places, the mirror’s dark brow and moon jowls. Yes, my eyes are my mother’s. Deep in daydream, my first love told me. Always mostly somewhere else. But the unwrap of their lids, the steep climb of my face in profile, my pomegranate-bruise-colored top lip, in memoriam of a man I don’t know. The way my skin painlessly ambers in summer. And when I crave red broth and acorn jelly, seashells and dubu boiled in stone bowls, and delicate emerald paper of seaweed. Perhaps he speaks to me through my bones. After all, the first time I felt Percocet heat me up and lay me down, it was like a heavy Korean blanket in winter, like I’d been looking for the exact sensation of a memory. Him—a giant parental silhouette—covering me up and tucking me in. Did he ever? More likely, it’s all folklore, and I remember nothing of my own. Perhaps then I was seeking the dark opium den of his voice saying time goes by, so slowly…
Aimee Seu is a third-year Poe-Faulkner Fellow in the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing MFA Program for Poetry. She was recipient of the 2019 UVA Academy of American Poets Prize as well as the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize at Temple University. Her manuscript was a semifinalist for the 2020 Jake Adam York Prize. She was a semifinalist in the 2019 New Guard Vol IX Knightville Poetry Contest judged by Richard Blanco. She won The 2013 Undergraduate Poetry Award at Mills College. Her work has appeared or has forthcoming publications in Ninth Letter, Raleigh Review, BOAAT, Redivider, Blacklist Journal, Wildness Journal, Harpur Palate & Runestone Magazine. She is a Philadelphia native.