Patrick is surprised how my family is still so rooted in Chinese tradition because I don’t even speak the language. Over dinner, I was telling him how we celebrated Ama’s eighty-fourth birthday in one of the three expansive Chinese restaurants in Manila that resembled banquet halls from the mainland. Thousands of circular tables draped in primary red tablecloths squeezed into a warehouse-like space, waiters pushing around steaming carts of siu mai and hakaw and glutinous rice wrapped in fragrant lotus leaf. Steam wafting through the air.
Ama wore a red suit and white leather loafers. She always wore a suit; she said it made her feel dignified despite requiring a nurse to feed her, burp her, and change her diapers. I wore an oversized red polo shirt like all the other men in my family with either an American Flag, an equestrian, or a funky alligator logo sewn onto the breast pocket. The women were dressed in the same red as the restaurant’s tablecloths, or silk in hues of orange, pink or purple. In the Su clan, women were allowed to be fun that way.
We, the kids, and aunties, were busy managing our digital avatars on our devices, refreshing our feeds by the second, pretending to be somewhere else. Dad and his brothers steered the table talk, shouting over the food like when they were younger and my Ankong was still alive. Their words skimmed the top of the birthday noodles. The vibrations from their voices rolled a quail egg off the Lazy Susan.
They spoke extensively about the increasing price of real estate, the situation in China, my single uncle’s hardware business, my other uncle’s toilet seat business, the bank where Dad worked, and the impending financial crisis, a real estate bubble about to burst.
Dad was an executive at the fourth biggest bank in the Philippines. No small feat for someone who barely passed math in high school. After lunch, after paying respects to Ama, his mother, comparing lives with his brothers, commenting on the fluctuating weight of my female cousins, and attempting to straighten the posture of my male cousins, he’d return home, settle into his sleek Herman Miller chair in his office and pore through the reports he’d printed out the night before, scribbling incomprehensible notes in the margins.
I begged off lunch right before the dessert of mango sago. Work, I explained. Then I kissed Ama on the cheek, and texted Patrick, I’m on the way.
Always working, Dad bragged. Just like me. His smile was so wide I could see the broccoli stuck in his teeth.
Your job. That’s how Mom and Lauren, my older sister, referred to Patrick.
How’s your job? They’d ask me every so often.
Are you going to work late tonight?
Whenever they used this nickname, I’d roll my eyes and suppress a sigh. They made Patrick feel like work. It’s a good thing I love my job.
We had to keep Patrick a secret from Dad. Even though Mom and Lauren reassured me that I’d be supported if I decided to tell him, I’d never wanted to. A simple exchange of words could shake up my entire world like the slow shifting of tectonic plates, cracking my life into floating disparate landmasses. I’d tell them, It’s okay, I’m not ready or he’s stressed out enough with work or remind them about his high blood pressure.
Since I was young, I could decipher bits and pieces of Hokkien, despite my parents’ insistence that I didn’t need to learn it. Dad called men he considered incapable a bue yam, which roughly translates to salt vendor, the lowest of all tradesmen.
He called men who were late to work and forgot to send their reports a bue yam. He called bad drivers a bue yam. He called men who couldn’t support their families, men who didn’t have jobs a bue yam. Men who walked with their hips swaying side to side; men with high scratchy voices and limp wrists; men who were into men. Bue yam.
He used the word like a five-year-old who’d just learned it, using it recklessly.
I am, in his terminology, a bue yam, and so is Patrick. The ironic thing is I met Patrick in the months I carpooled with Dad to the office. He worked in the same bank as Dad and literally sits two floors below him. They probably saw each other almost every day, an invisible string, unbeknownst to him, connecting them together.
Dad and I followed a similar schedule, leaving for work just as the sun rises and getting home late into the evening when Mom is asleep. He’d have a low sodium dinner waiting for him on the dark oak desk in his office and consume different variations of steamed fish with an ample serving of vegetables, heart-healthy food, while he rifled through e-mails and reams of printed out reports.
I’d rustle the front door, red-faced and sweaty from a long day at work, struggling to get my key into the keyhole. Whether I get home at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m., I’d find Dad hunched over the monitor, thick reading glasses on, chilled whiskey beside him.
One night, he called me in to join him. His idea of father-son bonding, I gathered. Two men winding down after a long day. I hesitated. My hair was disheveled. The buttons on my checked shirt were undone. I sniffed myself. I smelled like a dive bar—smoke, tequila and Patrick’s cologne. I felt like an imposter. Instead of reports, my night consisted of a thorough review of cocktails at a hip new bar and mangling the graphs and tables of Patrick’s body.
Dad’s office was sparsely decorated. Aside from his desk, there was a stained brown leather couch, a vintage turntable, a shelf filled with his professional awards, his record collection, and books he was gifted and never read like When Breath Become Air. I noticed, for the first time, a new picture frame with an old photograph of me and him at a golf tournament.
He used to sign us up for father-son activities like golf and basketball camps when I was young, and his time was not as in demand. My obvious disinterest in these endeavors never deterred his enthusiasm, but his lack of time did. When he got promoted, my summers were free to carefully watch Queer as Folk and Dante’s Cove on dial-up speed.
He fixed me a glass of Macallan, which he distilled with a mini-iceberg; he put a fresh album onto the record player. Instead of listening to Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, artists you’d expect someone his age to listen to, he prefers the pop stars and sex symbols of the Seventies and Eighties like Tom Jones and Neil Sedaka, loud, gregarious music that suits his personality.
He started a one-sided conversation in Hokkien. I listened in silence as he went on about platitudes and life lessons he believed I ought to know in my late twenties.
About work ethic: When you’re young, you become indispensable by doing what everyone else doesn’t want to.
About the future: You have to get a wife soon. You think it’s fun being like Uncle Fernando. He is my single uncle who has a ton of unmarried male friends.
About family life: All your mom does is spend money, but I let her do it anyway. It makes her happy. Your job will be to make your wife happy.
In my state of inebriated euphoria, I nodded intelligently. He made sense; he was right. My brain cells were winding down, choosing to expend their energy on thoughts about Patrick’s face and how it crumples when he kisses. How his body was perfectly entangled with mine like a 3D puzzle. I was glassy-eyed, and Dad was nursing his nth drink.
He slurred his words telling me about his giant responsibility framed in the context of hard work and fearless leadership while throwing shade at my less than authoritative leadership style of my small team at an ad agency. Angkong never stopped working, he boasted. A feat he yearned to accomplish himself.
The whiskey had kicked in and waned my already questionable control over my movements, teetering between the realms of consciousness and slumber. Concentrated, I pinched myself awake, careful not to slump on him and accidentally lay my head on his shoulder, obliterating the walls we prodigiously built up. Dad was catching his breath, a hand to his heart as if he was reciting the national anthem, heaving. Words, I bet, were scrounging to be the next one out of his mouth.
Peace, I thought. Finally.
Silence, our default.
Then a song he loved came on, he broke the peace, singing in his deep voice, projecting all the way down his diaphragm, it’s not unusual to be loved by anyone!
I woke up the next morning on his office couch. A blanket over my body. A cup of ice coffee on the table.
Mom told me dad was forced into early retirement. The bank had gone into a state of technological transformation. They aimed to target a younger demographic with a younger team. Patrick informed me of the office gossip—his salary was too expensive they said, his body couldn’t handle it they said.
At night, when I stumbled in, Dad was slouched in front of his computer, still in his Lao Fu Zi style reading glasses, as if what was on screen was the secret to eternal life.
He didn’t call me in. He didn’t even flinch from the loud thud of the front door, lost in the possibility of being lost.
The following morning, he asked why hair-growth shampoo commercials were everywhere. He had spent the morning rifling through the bank’s social media pages and newly released investment app. A showcase of his loyalty and resilience, doing work as if it still mattered in the bigger picture.
I was too caught up in my own shit to notice Dad’s problems. I should’ve put the pieces together. I failed to notice how gaunt his skin had become. Up close, patches of age spots formed a constellation on his neck. Spit and whiskey showered my face when he spoke. Pen marks tattooed his fingers. A dangerously dog-eared copy of The Art of War sat on his desk. His eyes dried and burnt out as if in constant contact with the sun.
Ads target a particular demographic, I explained. The commercials followed him because of his age, location, and interests. Most probably, in the recent past, he’d searched for hair-growth products. And, if he wanted the ads to stop, he could pay a premium.
Is this what you do, Lenny? he asked, surprised by my comprehension of the topic. Make these ads? He’d never really taken a deep interest in my job; he simply possessed the knowledge that I worked hard long hours for a global ad agency. He emphasized the words hard and long hours.
Yes, I nodded.
He shook his head slowly. A sign for me to leave.
Despite his intensifying anger so present at home like the prelude to a storm, he was diplomatic at the farewell dinner the president of the bank threw for him at a five-star hotel.
The bank has truly been a home for the past thirty-nine years, he said in his concise speech. And all of you, my colleagues, were, are, he corrected himself, family.
He was trapped on stage as groups of bankers cycled to pose for pictures. Some of them even shook his hand, telling him how impactful he had been not only to the company but to them personally. He held a plaque that congratulated him for forty years of service, when in reality he was a few months shy of forty.
When he returned to the table, his left brow kept twitching, his palms were perspiring. He tapped a beat with his foot on the carpeted floor, his ribeye untouched as he was laser-focused on the man who’d be replacing him. A man twenty years his junior.
He went straight to the office when we got home and proceeded to leaf through reports on his computer, the eye-damaging glow highlighting the loose skin and liver spots on his face.
Just let him be, Mom said as she kicked off her heels.
He’s working! He put on a suit this morning and spent the whole day in his office. Mom was panicking, disrupting my flow.
Dad always wore the same style of suit to work—black and slim with cap-toe leather shoes just like Angkong did.
Are you sure it’s for the bank?
Yes! I popped in to bring him lunch and confirmed this.
Did you ask him why?
He said that someone might ask him for the status of a project. She trailed off, understanding how absurd the situation was.
Give it a few days, I said, ending the conversation, going back to the dismal charts on my screen.
I caught him one morning, as I was heading out, laying on the deck chair in front of our narrow lap pool in a bathrobe. The scene looked lush, and he looked well-rested. The palm trees, freshly cut grass, and bamboo walls framed him into a perfect vacation photo. He was reading what I thought were newspapers. A pile of reports stacked upon one another to the height of a toddler stood beside him. He analyzed days-old, then eventually week-old figures.
Want to get coffee? I asked.
I’m busy, he said as he lifted a file.
Irritable drag, Mom moaned over the phone. Her cry for help instead served as a warning to avoid home. I started sleeping over at Patrick’s place half the week. Waking up with him locked in my arms, my legs coiled over his body felt like I was in a real adult relationship. I didn’t have to set up a recurring alarm just to get home at an ungodly hour. We could simply wake up, wash our faces and head out to brunch as I guessed, regular couples did. A kind of evolution.
Our relationship was becoming more serious as we played house. We purchased dinner without splitting the cost via an app. We ate cereal from the same bowl. Patrick bought a car under both our names; something we owned, locking us in together.
The bank delivered the rest of Dad’s personal belongings. Old picture frames, plaques, rumpled clothes and bottles of wine, nothing that breached data protocols. The pictures of our family were from decades ago. My then bowl haircut wasn’t even up to his shoulders. An age he could still lift me over his head and spin me around and holler the helicopter is crashing down.
The remnants of his past life displaced in our living room triggered him into a long retreat. He stopped working and lodged up in the bedroom, watching the news, a broken record of CNN, ANC, and Al Jazeera, not really talking to anyone.
I found him one night, on the couch downstairs, his face buried in his palms, wiping his expression clean, smoothening the lines that time had brought upon him.
Mom enlisted the help of Uncle Sam and Uncle John, friends of theirs who were essentially retired but continued to work on passion projects. They came over once to woo dad with plans of golf and new business ideas. Dad refused to leave the bedroom, garbed only in underwear, an old domestic Tarzan, shaking his head violently in protest.
Mom was afraid to leave dad alone, so on Sundays, she hosted lunch at our house with Lauren, her husband Ted, and Patrick. An ostensibly chill affair. Dad was invited too but he chose to have food brought up to him as he ate in front of the TV.
Our conversation about nothing important was brought to a halt as soon as we heard Dad’s short and fast footsteps. He scurried to the kitchen for a second helping like a rat sneaking around, afraid of getting caught with a piece of cheese.
On his way back up, our eyes tracking his every movement, he stopped, paced back and slowly sauntered towards us, towards Patrick. My heart beat faster. The stress level of the group reached a boiling point.
I know you. You’re in the trading team of Mangahas. Dad pointed at Patrick’s face.
Under Sir Charlie, Sir. Patrick took out his hand for a handshake.
Dad shook it and looked around, loading what was going on and, with a blink of an eye, canceled the download of the situation and let things be.
So, what’s happening at the office? Dad asked, placing a hand on Patrick’s shoulder, a boss move.
Patrick gave him a play by play of some of the big projects, a trailer, a highlight reel. Dad’s eyes narrowed, his body stiff, lost in deep concentration.
And as soon as Patrick stopped, Dad said interesting then as fast he came down, he ran back up.
Mom called me in an incomprehensible state of panic, so I had to leave the movie halfway, abandoning Patrick alone in the upper right-hand corner of a mostly empty theatre. He understood my situation. He said the day after the movers emptied Dad’s office, a somber, almost skeletal mood wafted through the air, and slowly, after a few weeks, it dissipated into the atmosphere.
Driving home, I mentally recreated the kind of argument they must have had. Something vacuous like how he’d leave his trays of food outside the door for ants and cockroaches to devour instead of bringing it down to the kitchen.
This isn’t a hotel, I imagined Mom whining.
Well, Dad would say in a conflated tone of self-entitlement, I paid for it, he’d retort in a tattered t-shirt and skimpy briefs; a losing statement that unleashed the Kraken that lies dormant in Mom.
The house was eerily quiet, no shouting, no loud Seventies music, Dad’s office empty.
I stepped quietly up the stairs like a burglar, making sure not to creak on the hardwood floors with my loafers. I found Dad in my bed dead asleep. His hand sandwiched in an old photo album, bookmarking an ancient photo of our family at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. He wasn’t a big shot back then, his territory expanded across a single branch. I could count the number of people who reported to him on my fingers. I was hanging atop his shoulders, Lauren held in Mom’s arms, in one of those cheesy photo booths with unrealistic backgrounds. We were supposed to be riding on top of a humpback whale, acting surprised.
I took a long languorous shower, making sure to rub in between my fingers and toes, the back of my neck and my thighs, washing away any traces of smoke, of cologne, of Patrick.
Dad was drenched in sweat, his mouth hanging open, saliva dribbling onto my off-white sheets. I cleaned him off, propped him into a comfortable sleeping position, turned on the air conditioner and put a thin blanket over him.
I slept on the couch.
He has what Dr. Zhang called late-life depression. A lot of people have it, she said, pragmatically. It’s common especially for those who suffer from bereavement or have lost employment. Nothing to worry about.
She prescribed him a low dosage of antidepressants and for us, a list of rituals to be mindful of: listen attentively, ask questions, motivate him to exercise, be there for him.
He was initially against the idea of seeing a mental health professional. The word mental health and the need of this type of professional made him feel weak and incapable of handling his own faculties as God, he believed, intended. He only agreed to speak to Dr. Zhang because she is an old family friend and Mom threatened to tell Ama. The sight of his mother lecturing him about his sorry situation was the tipping point. Angkong worked till the day he died, Ama told us a few years back, when she was bed-ridden from an accidental fall, reminding us of the kind of work ethic you only gain from having been an immigrant.
As much as he hated to admit it, somewhere in his gut, in the intestines of his understanding, he knew he needed help.
I spent more time at home to be present, be there, as Dr. Zhang put it.
I got home one night before a time they considered late. Dad was hanging out in his office, which had been redesigned into a sort of man cave outfitted with a flat screen.
As soon as I opened the door, to the creaking of screws, he shouted Leonard!
Then through the glass walls of his office, he patted the seat beside him, calling me in to watch Narcos. He was in the binge-watching phase of having nothing to do. The severe business practices of the Mexican drug cartel industry fascinated him, so unlike the systemized machine he’d been in for almost forty years.
I settled onto the leather couch, he asked how’s your day? pouring me a gimlet of whiskey. Yamazaki. Japanese. Smoother, less abrasive to my throat and tummy. I recounted a meeting with Coke and the highly addictive ads they wanted to release.
He listened as I spoke, intermittently, half telling a story, half in awe of the firepower exhibited on screen, the battle for precious white powder and the spoils of green paper.
By eleven p.m., he yawned, his arms forming an outstretched Y above his head and said, let’s continue tomorrow.
We watched the rest of the season throughout that week.
My time with Dad evolved from golf camps to nights watching drug-centered escapades with designer alcohol. It felt like a natural evolution, the kind of expected father-son bonding for adults, a stage of our relationship I thought we’d never get to.
In between episodes, Dad turned to me and asked, like a curious parent, so are you dating anyone?
Nope, I laughed. It was unusual for him to be this kind of dad, interested-in-your-personal-life kind of dad.
He looked puzzled then, as if the gears in his mind worked overtime, came up with a solution. The daughter of my friend is single and really pretty, he said, taking out his phone to search her up on Facebook. A bit young though, but she’s very smart. I can set it up!
No thanks, I responded immediately. This, I thought, would be a ripe opportunity to tell him about Patrick and the easy four years we’ve been together. But I didn’t want to accidentally press the breaks on the good thing going on between Dad and I. Introducing Patrick just wouldn’t have meshed with my well-compartmentalized life.
I said slowly, recalibrating my choice of words, I don’t think I’m the marrying type.
Okay. I just want you to be happy. That’s my job now.
Well, single life will be fun. Just like Uncle Fernando.
Exactly. Like Uncle F.
It’s a universal truth that when one part of your life starts to go okay, another part crumbles to pieces.
Patrick was relieved Dad was doing better while he was cross about my casual neglect of our relationship. It’s like we took five steps forward and you took several steps back, he said as he was driving me home.
I’m just trying to be there for Dad, I retorted.
He parked by the curb and held my face in his hands, squeezing until my lips resembled that of a fish. Leonard, I love love love you, okay. And as I predicted, he asked me to move in with him. His voice ached. We can get a bigger place if you want.
And as he predicted, I said I can’t right now carefully, letting each word unfurl like a slow-moving tide.
He unleashed my face and put the car in drive. Silence permeated through the artificial air of the vehicle. He kept his head down, like a kid who realized what a selfish ass he was for asking for too many toys.
I massaged his shoulders and tickled his ears and played with his hair to lighten the mood.
He wasn’t in the wrong, nor was I. I knew he had a timeline, a methodical plan to follow. And I felt that if I continued in my current trajectory, happy with the way things were, wading in my own personal sense of familial obligation, with or without me, he’d move on to the next stage in his life.
I was overwhelmed with my oscillating perspectives on several things involving Dad, Patrick, Mom, myself. Couldn’t all the different fractures of my life reside harmoniously in their disparate floating islands?
The small interventions of Dr. Zhang lifted Dad’s mood and got him out of the house. His mornings and afternoons were spent playing golf with Uncle Sam and Uncle John. He put up a small practice, an army of one, helping new businesses get their finances in check, mostly restaurants and cafes put up by young people, he called them. People my age.
Mom finally began to enjoy his retirement. They took couples ballroom dance classes and even planned a trip together, no kids. A second honeymoon where he wouldn’t be tied to his laptop and smartphone. He could breathe better, and his protruding eye bags flattened. Retirement agreed with him.
Dad had moved past his binge-watching phase and stepped into the itchy-hands-and-feet phase in the search for what’s next, which, inadvertently, gave me time to settle into my old rhythm with Patrick—dinners, group workouts, and sleeping over at his apartment.
I went home straight after work because Dad and I planned to watch the Narcos series finale. I even brought over a bottle of Olmeca to celebrate the occasion of having endured almost twenty-four hours of watching prestige television together.
The lights were off in his office and all I heard was the blare of reality TV coming from my parents’ room.
He’s out with Uncle Sam and John, Mom said, her eyes still squarely focused on the screen.
Is he coming back soon?
I don’t think so. He just left.
It was a good sign, Dad going out. He was back to his busy-body self and didn’t need to be dragged out of his room in his underwear anymore. They were probably out on another boys’ night, somewhere sinful and illicit, stereotypical for men their age. I smiled at the thought.
I texted Patrick and asked if he wanted to check out the new hotel bar he’d wanted to go to, then I changed into on a new whimsically patterned shirt, denim jacket, and leather slip-ons. Patrick had been really patient with everything over the past few months. I reconsidered my decision about moving in together, which was becoming more of a possibility since Dad seemed to be doing just fine.
The hotel bar aimed to recreate the underground hangouts of the Prohibition Era. The dimly lit space was decorated with a shoeshine chair, vintage microphones, leather couches, and a green-leather walled interior; a mid-1920s speakeasy vibe with patrons who could have been born in the mid-1920s.
We took a booth behind a small fig tree and created our own hidden den within the hidden den. I had a Right in Kisser, essentially a G&T, and Patrick ordered a Clean Sneak, a concoction of peppermint, elderflower, and champagne. Heart-thumping Jazz played in the background.
We were tugging at each other’s fingers, a sort of foreplay while waiting for our cocktails. In the low light, I could see him smiling at me, so I smiled back then he smiled even wider. It could have been the result of our aged companions at the bar, we both felt an undercurrent of maturation in our relationship like we knew after that night, we’d take another five steps forward.
Lenny! What are you doing here? Dad asked suddenly, his figure coming out from nowhere, his feet bouncing. A sign he’d already had a few rounds.
We unclasped and hid our hands under the table.
Dad, who’re you with? I was nervous watching Dad side-eye Patrick.
At the bar, with Uncle Sam and John. You guys have to try their homemade Gin. The best I’ve had. So good. He kissed his fingers and blew the kiss into the air.
Sam said he saw my son walk in, so I needed to see it for myself.
Yeah. I’m here. My glib expression vanished.
Can we join you? He gestured to the empty booth seats.
I looked over at Patrick who nodded cautiously.
Wait, let me get them. Right as Dad went off, he paced back.
I remember you, he paused. Patrick. He looked Patrick straight in the eyes.
Nice to see you again, Sir.
Don’t call me sir. That makes me sound so old. Call me Greg. Uncle Greg. Dad held out his right-hand.
Patrick shook it tightly and nodded firmly like a boy scout.
When I get back, you need to tell me all that’s going on in the office, he said loudly. I want to know everything.
Dad left and we finally relaxed. He had a spring to his step, a lightness to his energy. And it was only then, as he was pulling Uncle Sam by the collar, I noticed that he was dressed in his standard slim black suit and cap-toe leather shoes.
About the Author:
Kenny Chua was born and raised in Manila, Philippines, and is currently a grad student in New York. His writing can be found in Scout Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, Centrifictionist, and Re-Side. Find him on Twitter: @_kennychua
Feature image by Josep Martins/Unsplash