The Art of Denial

prison bars

The Bordirtoun Pongs have long been known for being artists of denial. To be such an artist, one must be nearly developmentally disabled at heeding the advice and/or warnings of others. When Millmore’s co-workers repeatedly told him that bridge construction was in no way safer than building railroad tunnels, my great-great-granduncle simply nodded and went on his merry way. Probably because, by most accounts, he didn’t understand much English and was partially deaf thanks to his repeated exposure to dynamite blasts. When Parris Pong was told by his most loyal customers that he needed to stop bruising his prized prostitutes, he agreed and slapped them face-side instead. Before Francisco Pong was interned, members of his congregation had warned him that his own congregants were questioning his ethnicity. But he persisted, insisting that God saw no color, and all His children would be able to distinguish between Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans. Of course, Saul was warned numerous times by Nolan Bushnell himself to stay away from his wife, a warning left unheeded.

Since I’ve started writing these pages, I have found myself becoming attuned to the patterns of denial in my fellow inmates. There’s a wing of sex offenders at Bordirtoun Correctional who have pled not guilty, who spend group therapy sessions maintaining that they did not go over to that teen’s house with sexual intentions, never mind that they had condoms in their pockets.

What about my patterns of denial, you ask? Well, you will soon read that once I found myself in repose, in Bordirtoun, for an extended period, certain truths about my character began to assert themselves. Truths I had long ignored, and soon, I would find myself deeper, embedded. You will find that I am similarly skilled at this Pong-ian art of denial. After all, I was the one who came halfway around the world, assuming that my father was telling the truth, knowing full well that he was a world-class liar and cheat.

When I came to, my father was hovering over my bed, his eyes small with examination. He was staring at my right arm and tried to stick a pen in my hand. “The doctor says you are going to stay awhile.”

“No,” I mumbled. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

I felt my father closing my fingers over his pen.

“I said no!” I sat up, wincing, feeling the stitches below.

My father pulled out my meal tray and laid down a clipboarded stack of papers. “Initial on the ‘X.’”

“What is this?”

“Building permits.”

“No.”

“Work can start while you’re recovering.”

“I’m not signing anything. You’re trying to trap me.”

“Trap you? Is that what you call our family love?” He clicked the pen. “Sign.”

“No.”

“What if I paid you?”

“No!”

My father sighed loudly; his mint-masked old man’s breath made me turn away. “Fine.” He snatched the pen. “Maybe you should tell Momma you don’t want to stay.”

Saul took the clipboard and stormed out of the room. I expected Momma to come in after him, waiting outside as his plan B. But she didn’t show, so I fell back asleep. When I woke, Momma was teetering at my bedside. She was much older, thinner, and shorter than I remembered, her hair a crew-cut white. Her deeply set eyes and bulbous nose were like my own, as were the prominent cheekbones (at least like the ones I’d had before I ballooned). She reached for me, and in my haze, I reached weakly for her. We had both seen better days. Then her fingers curled, and her talons sunk into my arm.

“Momma.” I winced.

“Why don’t you exercise?” she yelled in Cantonese. “I’ve always told you to exercise but you don’t listen, and now you’re so fat, you don’t listen, just like your father—”

“I exercise—”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Momma said. “Speak Chinese.”

“Dad tells me you’re not well,” I went on in English.

“I’m not well?” she said, pointing at her throat. “I’m not well?”

“Dad told me—”

She gripped my arm again; this time she pulled. “Let’s go. I’ll show you who’s not well.”

“I just got out of surgery!”

She sat in the chair by my nightstand. Her face pinkened, and she began to cry.

“I hate you for being away so long,” Momma said. “You are a terrible son.”

“Momma—”

“How many years have you been married?” she said. “Ten? Fifteen? Where are my grandchildren? When will I get to take care of my grandsons? Why won’t you let me see them? What’s the point of getting married if you haven’t had children? You haven’t had them yet, have you?”

“No, Momma, I don’t want to be a father,” I said.

“She can’t have them, can she?” she said. “She’s not even a real woman. She’s dry and barren, barren and dry.”

“Stop, just stop!” I said. “This is why I don’t come back.”

“And you don’t call. If I died, you wouldn’t even know.”

She kicked the bed with surprising force. My stitches throbbed.

“I’m sorry, Momma, okay? Is that what you want to hear? I’m sorry.”

“You should be.”

I sighed loudly. “Can’t you just say ‘It’s okay?’”

“It’s not okay.”

“Dad said you went to the doctor, and he said you were having problems,” I said. “What exactly did the doctor say?”

“I didn’t go to any doctor.”

“Excuse me?”

Momma shook her head. “I went to the dentist last month.”

“Don’t lie to me,” I said. “When Dad came to Europe, he told me you were sick. He told me you were depressed.”

“Depressed?”

“Yes, depressed. It’s the only reason I came back.”

“I have to be depressed for you to visit?” She slapped me on my leg, and I cried out.

“Look, Lene is upset at me for leaving her.”

“Who’s Lay-na?”

“My wife.”

“What kind of name is that?”

“Danish.”

“Where’s that?”

“Denmark. Where I live.”

“Why is she upset that you visit your mother?” she said. “Why is she so important that you have to live so far away that I never see you?”

“She’s my wife,” I repeated.

“Your wife I’ve never even met!” Momma shouted. “All my life I waited for you to get married. I dreamed that you’d get married in a church or on a cruise ship. I waited and dreamed, and you got married and didn’t even invite us. I know it was her fault. I know it would never have been your idea. I will never see my only son get married again.”

The familylessness of my wedding had been very much at my insistence. Momma had been against my decision to stay in Europe, and she had called every few days to leave messages about the three or four documented cases of Nazi persecution of the European Chinese Jews during World War II. She begged me not to become a citizen of what she called “the white continent.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to invite your parents?” Lene had asked while we addressed the invitations.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said.

“They’re going to blame me, you know that, right?” Lene said. “Don’t you think you’re being too cold?”

Too cold? Was there such a thing? I paused and replayed Momma’s messages in my head. I imagined a wedding day of Momma blabbering that Lene was too tall and old for me, and Saul groping the bridesmaids. I did not believe in their capacity to support and respect my life decisions. They have, even to this day, shown no such ability. At the time, I didn’t even pause to consider how they might blame Lene. After all, why would I? I had planned to keep them at arm’s length for the rest of our lives. At least, until their health began to fail, and by then, they’d need me, and I’d shut them up once and for all by dangling the blade of the nursing home guillotine over them.

I know this does not make me an ideal son or husband. In any case, I told Lene that I felt quite appropriately cold.

Lene shook her head and shrugged. “Sully.”

“No, thank you,” I replied as if Lene had been asking me whether I wanted a glass of milk.

“That woman has broken up our family,” Momma said, interrupting my recollections.

“She has done nothing of the sort.”

“You’re just protecting her.”

“She doesn’t need my protection.”

“Then come home!” she said. “Every day your father says he doesn’t have enough help. ‘If only Sully wasn’t in Europe.’ ‘If only Sully came home.’ And you know who he blames? Me! ‘You drove him away, you cunt!’ ‘He doesn’t want to come home because you nag him!’ That’s simply not true. Not true, is it, Sully?”

“I just came home to make sure you’re healthy,” I said. “And you’re fine, right?”

“Don’t I look fine?”

I didn’t answer.

“Well, I am fine, Sully,” she said. “I’m very fine.”

“Fine, Momma,” I said. “I’m glad. Despite our differences, I still wish you good health and a long life. I really do.”

“But you won’t come home,” she said. “I don’t need your well-wishes from so far away.”

“Momma.” My voice reverted to a whining tone I hadn’t heard in decades.

“What if your father divorces me? What will I do? I don’t work. I can’t work. My English is terrible. I’ll end up in Old Town. And then you’ll be sorry.”

I grew heavy in my immobility. I could not help feeling that I could have done more, if I had truly wanted to. But she had chosen to stay with Saul all these years, knowing full well the man he was. Dare I say she was getting what she deserved?

Momma tugged lightly on my sleeve. “Don’t go, Sully,” she said. “Come home. Sleep in your old room. I am so alone.” She held my hand. I allowed her, but did not close my hand around hers.

“Just for a few days, let’s be a family again,” she said.

The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong

Leland Cheuk’s novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong was recently published by CCLaP Publishing. He is a MacDowell Colony fellow, and his short fiction has appeared in publications such as Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Lunch Ticket. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and lives in Brooklyn.

Copyright © 2015 by Leland Cheuk from The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong. Reprinted by permission of CCLaP Publishing.

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