Post Road Magazine #12

Spotlighting

Ira Sukrungruang

Act One

He likes the stage, my father. Doesnít mind the blinding spotlight or the blush coating his dark brown cheeks, his skin like hardened cement. The makeup, the dancing doesnít affect his masculinity because he still bats eyes at other women dancers, other wives. He talks to them with a flirty lilt, smiles sweetly, and massages bare shoulders before the performance. The dancers gather in the dressing room, a suite in the Drake hotel in downtown Chicago. In lipstick and painted eyelashes, my father is transformed into a peasant boy in rags who falls in love with a red satin princess.

He is not a performer, but a low-paid tile chemist, working at a factory owned by the Kennedys. He fiercely protects his hands before the performance, keeps them in thin gloves and refuses to wear his wedding ring for a month, in fear of a tan line. Each year he volunteers to dance on His Majestyís birthday celebration. This year King Bhumibol Adulyadej has turned sixty, and in Thailand, he is waking up to the hot sun. But in America, outside, the cold Lake Michigan wind whips against the hotel.

No one, not the hundreds of Thais from Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, know of my fatherís former role. They do not know about his daughter, my half sister the lawyer, or his first wife in Bangkok. They do not know he sleeps with his sonís best friendís mother. Nor do they know that at home his new wife beats him for his infidelityówith a broom, a metal fireplace lighter, a five iron. Even I donít know my fatherís secrets, but hate how he spends too much time away from my mother, who tonight looks like the Queen of Thailand, the Queen of the Universe, beautiful in the dress she spent months sewing.

I am given a video camera to film the performance. The camera belongs to the red satin princess. She gives me instructions: this button to zoom in and out, this to stop, this to record. Understand? I nod. She pinches my cheek.

I find an open spot near the dance floor and look through the camera and find my mother at a round table, the two chairs on either side of her empty. She is smiling, her chin in her palm, eyes on the dance floor. It may just be the angle, but as I watch, her wedding ring catches the light at the right angle and reflects like a star.

When the music starts, the red satin princess slowly sashays onto the center of the dance floor, dropping flower petals from a woven basket. She does not move like a princess. Her steps are too hard on the floor, her arms wave like a tree in a violent wind. In the practices before this performance, the dance instructor said she was to move like an elegant

peacock, but she resembles a staggering pigeon. My father, however, when he enters, is the poor peasant boy. His hands rotate nimbly, fingers arching to the soft sounds of the saw, a Thai instrument that is played like a violin. There is need and urgency in his movements, of desperation and desire. The saw sounds like crying, and my fatherís eyes are wet and red. Around the dance floor, the peasant and princess travel, hands weaving in and out like twining vines. They embrace, and she pulls away. Embrace, pull away. It is a game for the princess, who leads this peasant boy to unrequited passion. In the end she leaves, and the peasant boy is left alone, staggering and lost.

After the performance, I take the camera to the dressing room and film my father removing his peasant shirt. He sucks in his stomach and sticks out his chest, trying to bulk up as much as he can, hiding the half moon gut heís acquired in the last year. The red satin princess sits on his lap and puts her arms around his neck. She looks at me, at the camera focused on her face.

Did we dance well? she asks.

I nod.

Did you see how handsome your papa is in makeup?

I zoom in on her small mouth so close to my fatherís face.

She kisses his cheek and moves off his lap.

My father smiles at the camera. Good boy, he says. Go and see mama.

I leave the dressing room. I film ashtrays. Close-ups of cigarette butts and gum. I stick the camera inside garbage cans. I film unfinished plates of foodómangled chicken, clumps of potatoes. In the bathroom of the Drake, I go into a stall and flush the toilet over and over again, zooming in and out of the hole, the water swirling and swirling, a mighty rush, a continuous roar.

It is fall when my mother confirms what I have known for months. Sheís in her pajamas, an orange silky gown that floats at her ankles. A blue sweater drapes over her shoulders. Her hair is in tangles, her face drooping. I donít remember the last time sheís smiled or laughed.

I am playing Karnov on my Nintendo, on the last stage of the game. My Russian hero fights a dragon with three heads. I press the buttons of the game harder, feeling my motherís stare on the side of my face.

Tong, she says softly, using my middle name. Tong, she says again.

My Russian hero throws fireballs in threes that W out at the dragon.

Tong, she says, your father is sleeping with her.

Fireball. Fireball. Fireball.

Please, listen, she says. Please, look at me. My mother sighs. This is as much as I can give her. I hear the rustle of her sweater as she pulls it across her chest. My thumbs ache, pressing the buttons so hard, pressing as hard as I can.

I followed him to her house, she says. He was supposed to go to work. But he was there. I saw his car.

My Russian hero dodges the lunging dragon. I have timed my attacks. The dragon sways like a cobra in a basket for three seconds, then strikes. This is its pattern. I jump over one of its heads and fireball the other two.

He wants to be your best friendís father, she says. Not yours.

Fireball. Fireball. Fireball.

I want you to know, she says. I want you to know the type of person he is.

The dragon bites my Russian hero.

Do you understand? she says.

The dragon bites again. Bites twice in one move. My Russian hero dies. Falls to the ground, his bare belly to the sky.

My mother doesnít leave. Sheís waiting for something. A nod. A yes. An I love you, Iím sorry, things will be better, I hurt just as much as you, I choose you over anything else in the world.

All I can muster is pressing the reset button on my game.

Act Two

In sixth grade, before the arguments, when my family was perfect, I tried to write a novel like Dean Koontz or Stephen Kingódark and edgy. It ended up being twenty pages. So really, it was a short story. I remember, however, calling it a novel. I was proud of it, prouder than anything up to that point. It was called Good Times.

I wanted to write about something that wasnít me, something completely foreign. I made the main character white, born in an imperfect family. The novel was about a boy whose father slept with his best friendís mother. Whose mother was enraged by it and took a lot of pills. The boy didnít know what to do. Save his mother (she ended up living in the asylum)? Live with his father (he got hit by a truck)? So he did the next best thing. Kill the best friend. The boy charmed his best friend to pizza at Chuck E. Cheeseís, a restaurant with a giant game room. After they shared a cheese, pepperoni, and bacon pizza, they played skee ball. It was a good time. Until, the boy chucked a wooden skee ball at his friendís head. Then another and another. Blood oozed out of his face. His eyes. His mouth. He stopped breathing. No one stopped the boy, not even Chuck E., the oversized mouse, greeting little kids. They just let the boy kill his best friend. With wooden skee balls.

The writing of this novel was like a prediction of whatís to come, as if the ink from the Paper Mate pen made things real. And when the fighting started, I thought that I had manifested this reality. That I had some power in creating all of this. That drama on the page had somehow transcended into my life.

*

These are Thai words and phrases never meant for my ears: ba, crazy; I-ha, fucker; kee mugn ma, fuck her like a dog; moong, bastard. When they fight, he sits quietly in the La-Z-Boy. She rails at him with fists and words. He absorbs her blows, expressionless. My motherís wild voice is not the one I hear before I go to bed. It is not the one she uses on the phone to tell her sisters everything is perfect in America. It is cracked with anger. High-pitched. Inhuman. So loud a pillow over another pillow over a teddy bear does not block her rage.

It is Sunday night. Downstairs, my mother says my father is a whore who sleeps with a whore who whored herself with another man before my father, and had three whore children. One of her whore children is my best friend who isnít a whore, but the gentlest friend Iíve ever had, a true Buddhist spirit. But their fights have pushed me into irrationality. Earlier in the day, at temple, I asked him why his mother liked to hurt my family. He cried, and his tears made me feel stronger, more powerful, made me take it one step further. Your momís a fuckiní bitch, I said. A fuckiní whore. And he cried harder, his tears glistening off the tops of his cheeks. Iím sorry, he said over and over again. Iím sorry. Sorry isnít going to stop my father from getting into your motherís bed, I said.

I watch my parents from upstairs, hidden in the dark of the hallway. My mother spits and points. Her finger is so straight it bends backwards. Her voice is hoarse. She wants to walk away, but turns to say one more thing. Sometimes repeating herself.

You are a terrible father, her finger shaking, her words spraying from her mouth. She turns, takes two steps, but then whirls back. A bad father!

My father stares at the golf trophies, at the flickering light bulb above the dining room table, at a picture of me dressed as a vagabond for Halloween.

Heartless, you are heartless. She turns away and then turns back. Heartless!

My father wants to say something. His chest rises. His mouth opens slightly. But he swallows whatever it is stuck in his throat. I wonder about the possibilities: Yes, Iím sorry. I wonít do it again. Or, You yell too much. Or, You are wrong. I never slept with her.

I cling to the last answer. My father isnít sleeping with her. He is a good father. Not heartless. He loves our family. He does.

His helplessness eats at meóhis sagging face and body. It is as if all the bones that keep him up have crashed down and crumbled.

I canít take his passiveness, her rage.

I run downstairs. Give them the middle finger. Scream: I hate you both, and bolt out of the house.

Itís cold because I can see my breath. I am running in my sleeping wearóa thin T-shirt and cutoff sweats. I am running as fast as my legs can

carry me. Down McVicker. Right on 93rd. I pass a few headlights, but donít care. I turn left on Lynwood. In the corner house, Mike, a friend from school, takes out the garbage.

Hey, Ira, he says.

I run.

Hey, what are you doing?

He begins to run alongside me.

Running, I say.

I know, he says. Youíre not wearing shoes.

I donít respond.

Why are you running without shoes?

Because my parents hate each other.

Mike knows about stuff like this. His parents split up a year ago. He doesnít seem affected by it. He says he loves his father more anyway, and thatís why he stays with him. His fatherís a hockey player, and sometimes he comes home with a black eye or a bent nose. He makes Mike breakfast every morning. Makes sure Mike does all his math problems. Checks his homework twice. Everyday, before Mike and I walk to school, he kisses Mike goodbye, and Mike hugs him tightly.

Mike keeps in stride with me. It is comfortable to have someone with me. It makes me realize that I am running in the cold and not wearing shoes. It makes me recognize the ridiculousness of it all.

I stop. Because my lungs burn. Because my feet hurt. Because I donít know where to go.

Mike says, That sucks. About your parents.

Itís the perfect thing to say.

Totally sucks, he says. We stand on the sidewalk in front of someoneís house six houses away from Mikeís. Itís dark. I canít make out his features, only the outline of his body, his face, his spike hair. Everything else is black. I gotta go, he says. My dadís probably waiting.

I want to say, Stick around, please. I want to ask, Was it this hard? After a while, will it stop, this hurt in my chest? Instead, I say, See you later.

Mike nods and heads back, as the headlights of my fatherís minivan round the corner.

Act Three

The most popular type of drama in Thailand is the khonóa mix of classical Thai dance and melodrama. In the khon, characters wear elaborate papier-m‚chť masks in the tradition of Indian temple rituals. The most popular khon is the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana, the classic battle between good and evil. In the early 1800ís, an entire reenactment of the play (311 characters & 720 hours) would take well over a month.

After the accusations, my mother and father settled into a different kind of coexistence, staying together for another fiver years, distant and quiet. They slept in separate rooms. She worked nights. He worked afternoons. They pretended they were happy. I pretended I was happy. We were holding on to something we shouldíve let go.

I am Jacob. Father of Egypt. Dressed in multicolored robes. My son Joseph has the ability to interpret dreams. His brothers hate him, envy his gift, his predestined path to greatness.

Jacob is a minor lead in the high school musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I have one solo, which I practice over and over. Josephís mother, she was quite my favorite wife. I never really loved another in all my life. And Joseph was my joy because he reminded me of her. Though these are the only lines I utter, I am often on stage, making sad faces and crying when Joseph disappears, his Technicolor dreamcoat found coated in sheepís blood. I do goofy twirly dances with the other cast members, travel on a wooden scooter I painted black and red.

The week before the performances I try to stay in character. I am Jacob. Old, wise, brokenhearted Jacob. The rest of the cast calls me papa. I say, Ah, my wonderful white sons (though a few of my sons are played by girls with big breasts): Joseph, Rueben, Benjamin, Levi, Judah, Zebulen, Napthali, Simeon, Issachar, Asher.

At home, I tell my mother to address me as Jacob.

She canít pronounce my name correctly. She hears Cob. Cob, eat all your vegetables. Cob, study for the algebra test. Cob, Iíll buy a ticket for every performance.

In the weeks leading up to the performances, I learn that theater people cry and overact even in real life. After practice, someone is always in tears. Iíve cried a few times myself. Once because I couldnít find my costume. Once because I flunked an algebra test. Once because the director chewed me out for missing my solo cue. Once because the girl I liked had sex with Joseph in the prop room. Once because my father wasnít coming to any of the performances, even though I pleaded with him.

During the matinee on Sunday, Judah says, Your dadís out there.

Iíve told some of the cast about my parentís loveless marriage. Iíve told them about his infidelities with my ex-best friendís mother. They understand. They have similar stories.

No, I say. I canít believe heís here.

Potiphar sat him right in front, Benjamin says. Some of the cast members are also ushers.

Dude, I didnít know it was your dad, says Potiphar.

I hate him, I say.

Are you going to be OK? chorus girl three asks.

The tears start to leak. Slow at first. Calculated. I want this to be my greatest performance. I hold it in. Raise my hand for a dramatic pause.

Donít cry, says Asher. Youíll ruin your makeup.

Shut up, says Josephís wife. You can cry if you want. Go ahead. She opens her arms and I sink into her purple robes. Press my face into her chest. Hear the thump of her heartbeat.

I canít believe heís here, I say. I let it all go now. The crying.

The cast gathers around us. A thirty-three person group hug.

Someone on crew says we have two minutes.

I raise my tear-streaked face. Letís make this the best damn performance ever. Iíve got something to prove today. Someone says hell yeah. A few people clap.

Letís kick ass, says Joseph.

The truth: I want my father here. There is no better news. He will see me on stage, the spotlight shining off my cheeks, my robes. When the band begins the overture of the musical, I will look for him, but see nothing but shadows. Is that his foot tapping to the music? Is that the outline of his body? I will be ready, my ten wives behind me, my sons gathered at my feet, my Joseph center stage with his shimmering coat. And I will sing, my voice loud and clear, and he will hear a different song, one that does not drive him away in the months to come, one that will hold our family together. I will sing like this is the last song on earth. And then I will take my bow, let the weight of my body fall forward to deafening applause. ē

Ira Sukrungruang is a first generation Thai-American born and raised in Chicago. His work has appeared in Witness, North American Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and numerous other literary journals. He is the coeditor of What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He teaches creative writing at State University of New York Oswego.

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