Vanishing Father

Fiction

When Bing Hum got home late that evening from Harris, Smythe & Hum LLP, he found his fifteen-year-old daughter watching a movie-of-the-week that starred Lucy Liu in yet another of her “Asian slut” roles. Frozen in the doorway of Jade’s bedroom, he stared at the flat-screen TV screen where Lucy Liu, worse than nude in a half-bra, garter belt and stockings, lap-danced for a hairy-chested maintenance worker, her pinecone breasts thrust forward, her long waist undulating like the belly of a serpent.

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Bing stood there, a bag of takeout Thai from Golden Mango dangling from his fingertips. For an instant, he wanted to barge in and shut off the TV.

“Jade.” He spoke to the back of her head. The volume from the TV was deafening and she was sprawled on the floor, her chin resting on her palms. A laptop, textbooks and a highliter littered the rug. His custody agreement gave him Jade one week out of every two, but whenever he saw her now, she seemed a little taller than before. In her volleyball sweats, her legs looked almost as long as her bed.

After his divorce from Anne Marie, he purchased a lakefront condo, 
and he had tried to enthuse Jade by letting her decorate her bedroom, but she had done little more than choose a simple beige for the walls, hang a few World Wildlife Federation posters and purchase a bookcase for some unwanted copies of Harry Potter. Most of the time she stayed in her bedroom, playing her stereo or chatting on the phone. At dinner, she rarely looked up from her plate.

When, exactly, had she started to shut him out of her life? He had never been the type of father who wanted his child only when her diaper was clean or after she had been fed, wiped and burped. She had been an early walker and talker, and as she grew older, he was careful to practice active listening, fielding her rapid fire questions in English and struggling to answer when she chattered in the French she had learned from her mother.

Jade was leaning back against the tree trunk with her shoulders hunched and her arms crossed. Her gaze was hot and focused on a spot on the lawn, three feet in front of her.

He enrolled Jade in Chinese-language classes even though he himself had forgotten most of the Cantonese he had picked up from his own parents. Having grown up in Toronto, he knew that assimilation was both easy and insidious, but he wanted her to be as proud of her Chinese heritage as she seemed to be about her mother’s French Canadian side. Up until adolescence, she thrived in multilingual immersion, and she could shift mid-sentence from English to French or Cantonese, and even throw in the odd Mandarin phrase, a language whose rising and falling nasal tones were incomprehensible to Bing.

Now he rapped on the door and shouted over the TV. “Jade, do you hear me? I’m talking to you.”

“Dad, don’t freak, okay?” Jade started at his voice and sat up quickly, slip­ping a pair of tiny earphones from her ears. “I didn’t even hear you come in!”

“Turn that TV down!”

As she fumbled with the remote, Bing loosened his tie. He had spent the afternoon reviewing a stack of files and babysitting an obnoxious but important client. He had a headache and he was half-starved. All day he had been looking forward to spending some quiet time with Jade, but now he’d only been home for five minutes, and already he was shouting.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you,” he said when she dampened the volume. “But we already talked about what you should be watching on TV.”

“You’re totally overreacting! That movie isn’t even PG-13!”

When he and Anne Marie split up, he had thought that he would have little if anything to do with her ever again, but out of the cold ashes of their marriage they had found a reason to be friendly, if not exactly friends. Agreeing to make Jade’s well-being paramount, they had imposed homework hours and set limits on cell phone use and an allowance. They had hung tight during her “I want my own horse just like Halley has!” phase. Bing never badmouthed Anne Marie in front of Jade and he was fairly certain Anne Marie kept her end of the bargain. No matter what, they had resolved never to let Jade “play them off” each other.

Bing shook his head. “It doesn’t matter what that movie’s rating is. 
It’s not appropriate for you. It depicts women in very demeaning and self-abusive roles.”

Turning toward the wall, Jade drew her knees to her chin and hugged her legs. The pout on her face was exactly like the expression Anne Marie used to wear, and even her hair was now a rusty-brown, much like her mother’s. It had started to change when she hit puberty. Back then, Anne Marie had teased him, saying that her French Canadian genes were finally subsuming his Chinese ones.

Jade glared. “I hardly think you’re in any position to tell me what’s demeaning to women. Our community studies teacher thinks it’s empowering for us to watch women in strong roles.”

He hated her tone of voice: the one that said he was a soulless dinosaur and that every word exchanged with him was like digging the road. When she was born, he had stood beside her crib, marvelling at her tiny sleeping face, tightly shut eyes and clenched fists. Remembering the sparse physicality of his own upbringing, he had vowed never to let a single day pass by without hugging and kissing and telling her how much he loved her. All through her childhood and adolescence, it had been easy to fulfill his promise—five, ten, twenty times over—right up until the time his marriage began to nosedive.

On TV, the movie had cut to a commercial, and a little Chinese man jabbered in pidgin English as he ladled sauce over a whole fish frying in a pan. On his apron were the words: “Wok’s up, Doc?”

“Listen. Let’s talk about TV later, OK? I’m starved. Why don’t we go down to the kitchen and have dinner? We’ll break out some chopsticks. It’ll be just like old times.”

She replaced the earphones in her ears. “I already had dinner.”

“You ate already? What did you eat?”

“I made myself a sandwich.”

“But you went and ate. Without me . . . ?”

“Dad. You’re late.”

The room seemed to tilt. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. A client wouldn’t let me escape from the office. But you can still have a bite, can’t you?” He lifted the bag in his hand. “I got some pad Thai with jumbo shrimp, and goreng basil chicken. It’s your favourite.”

She shook her head. “Pad Thai with jumbo shrimp is your favourite. I never eat shrimp.”

“I know that, but goreng chicken.” He smiled triumphantly. “You know you love chicken.”

This time when she looked up, he thought he saw a little sadness in her eyes.

“Oh Dad. I’m vegan now. Remember?”

  • • •

The next day he worked through lunch, cancelled his four o’clock, and was out of the office by four forty-five. He’d told Jade he would pick her up at school after volleyball practice, but driving north, he hit orange flags and a road crew taking advantage of the early spring to fill potholes left after the winter. For twenty-five minutes he inched forward in first gear, cursing the traffic and the road crew. His car stalled beside a bank that displayed an enormous billboard on which an Asian woman gazed lovingly at her white husband, the two of them grinning as though they had just scored the first negative interest mortgage in the history of home financing.

He checked his watch again. After his conversation with Jade last night, he had lain awake for hours. When had she become a vegan? How could he have missed that? A month ago, eggs and milk were still okay. Three months before, it had been no red meat only.

When he finally arrived at Miss Hannah’s and Miss Jane’s School for Girls and Young Women, the tree-lined street was empty and the school grounds deserted. After parking his car, he wandered for ten minutes over acres 
of freshly sod lawn, sweating and fighting a growing sense of trepidation. He spotted her in a cluster of teens beneath a tall maple.

Jade was in her school uniform: white blouse, too-short tartan skirt and navy-blue kneehighs, all under a distressed leather jacket and silk scarf. 
A backpack with a tiny teddy bear on key chain was slung over her right shoulder.

Beside Jade was Halley McNeil, Jade’s best friend, and the tallest girl in school. Slouching, she clutched her books to her chest. Both girls were on the volleyball team, and they would be playing in the provincial championship that weekend. Halley’s skirt was even shorter than Jade’s and he saw that she had outgrown her colt stage over the winter. He looked away.

More troublesome were the two boys. Blue-blazered and wool-trousered, they looked far older than Jade or Halley. At dances, Jade’s school was always matched with the one all-boys’ institution in Toronto that was just as expensive and even more pretentious, but until this year, the girls had towered over their escorts and their voices were often huskier. Unfortunately, these two had caught up. Their hair was blond and rakish, and one smoked with the unconscious indifference gained through long practice. As he watched, Halley leaned into the taller boy and draped his arm lazily over her shoulder. Then she plucked the cigarette from his mouth and transferred it to her own.

When had Halley started smoking? And who were those boys? Wasn’t there a rule against fraternization on school grounds? He hurried forward as Halley looked up. She started and stepped away from the boy. Confused, Bing wiped sweat from his brow. As he approached, he had sensed that Halley had been about to pass the cigarette to Jade.

“Jade! Where have you been?” Panting, he stood before her. Bing motioned at his watch. “Do you know I’ve been running all over the school looking for you? You were supposed waiting for me at the gates at quarter to six.”

Halley discreetly dropped the cigarette to the grass behind her back. “Hi, Mr. Hum.”

Bing nodded. One boy, whose eyebrow was pierced with three tiny silver rings, mumbled a polite hello. The other sucked his cigarette languidly, and flicked the butt a few feet away.

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Jade rummaged in her backpack for her earphones. “Dad, will you relax already? I was here. You’re the one who’s late!”

Bing took a deep breath, realizing that his voice had become high pitched and nasal. What had Jade communicated to Halley in that instant before turning toward him? An apology? A flash of embarrassment? The two boys were staring him with bemusement on their lips. He was suddenly conscious that his hair was standing on end and his armpits were slick with sweat. His suit, although smartly cut, was meant for a winter day.

“I got caught in traffic,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I cancelled two clients just to be here.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve been here all the time, talking with Halley.”

He removed his jacket and slung it over his shoulder. He reminded himself that much of her distancing behaviour was normal for a teenager, and Anne Marie had confided that Jade often spoke to her in the same way. “You’re right. I didn’t see you. I just thought maybe you’d forgotten.”

He offered Halley a lift home. When she declined his invitation, he turned to go. He took three steps before realizing that Jade hadn’t moved.

“Jade.” His voice trailed away. The afternoon light had drained from the sky, and the wind picked up, sending dust against his cheeks. His back was suddenly chilled beneath his sweat-soaked shirt.

The four young people stood in a semi-circle before him. The boys slouched, hands in pockets. Halley shuffled her feet, staring off into space. Jade was leaning back against the tree trunk with her shoulders hunched and her arms crossed. Her gaze was hot and focused on a spot on the lawn, three feet in front of her.

  • • •

“That was awful!” Jade’s eyes brimmed with tears. She and Bing were sitting on bar stools around the island in his kitchen. “I can’t believe you did that! I’ve never been so humiliated in my life!”

“What? What did I do?” During the car ride home, she had refused to speak to him, and when they arrived home, she went straight to her bedroom, slamming the door shut. It wasn’t until hours later that hunger drove her from her room, and he watched her wolf down a piece of naan, curried chickpeas and a vegetable biryani he had brought home.

“You embarrassed me in front of my friends!”

“I’m sorry.” At least she was talking to him now. “I was worried. You weren’t where you were supposed to be. I was afraid something might have happened to you.”

Jade forked another mouthful of peas. “How could you talk to me like that in front of Jason and Rob?”

He looked up from his plate. Her eyes were still puffy from her tears, and he resisted the urge to tuck a lock of her hair behind her ear. He wanted to tell her that smoking would ruin her health, but it hadn’t stopped him either when he was her age. He wanted to warn her about teenaged boys, and how he had been in high school. He wanted to say that he was sorry for what he had done to her mom, but he still needed to know about her friends because they were part of her life, and everything about her was of interest, and that no detail was too small. He was afraid she might lock herself in her bedroom.

  • • •

“You can’t keep Jade from watching movies on TV,” said Anne Marie.

Bing was speaking to her on the phone. He had met Anne Marie after his first year at law school when he travelled to Montreal for summer French immersion. Back then he was still plain old Brian Hum, but on his third night in the city, he chanced into a smoky bar on Queen Mary near the Université de Montréal.

For thirty minutes Anne Marie suffered his débutant French, smiling politely as he struggled to make small talk. Then she lifted a pool cue from the wall rack and motioned to the waiter for two more beers. “Why you call yourself ‘Brian’?” The intonation of her voice rose as she switched to an English light-years ahead of his French. “You don’t ’ave a Chinese name?”

No one had asked him that since the first grade and he moistened his lips to answer in his best Cantonese. Later when they went out, she insisted that they eat in Chinatown although she was disappointed when he had been unable to order off the “secret” Chinese side of the menu.

Now he cradled the phone against his shoulder. “I just don’t think those movies can be good for Jade at her age. They always portray Asian women as such tramps. What kind of role model does a Lucy Liu make?”

“Jade’s not a little girl anymore,” Anne Marie said. “She’s going to see all kinds of stuff in movies. And is that what’s really bothering you? You used to complain that those movies only showed Asian men as gangsters, delivery boys and losers.”

“No. This is about Jade. She’s hanging out with some older guys at school. One had a pierced eyebrow. The other was sharing cigarettes with Halley.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Was Jade smoking too?”

“No.”

“That’s good, at least. And I think I know the boy you’re talking about. Jade says he has a crush on her, but they’re just friends. Give her a little room to breathe, Bing. Admit it. You don’t like those films just because they show Chinese girls only dating white guys.”

He took a deep breath. “Is that what you want for her?”

  • • •

High in the stands, Bing watched Jade’s team play at the provincials. They had won their first two matches and were in tight against last year’s champion. The night before he sliced two dozen oranges and packed them into plastic baggies for her team. At breakfast, he prepared her favourite pre-game drink: strawberry-banana-kiwi shake, with a spoonful of flaxseed.

As always, he sat away from the other parents who cheered en masse from behind the team bench. When he was climbing into the stands, he’d paused 
to say hi to Halley’s mother. Turning away, he heard her whisper to the woman beside her, “I’m always glad when Halley is out with Jade. Those Asian girls are always at the top of the class.”

Jade was playing well. As a teen, he had been tall and gawky, his height never translating into anything approaching athleticism, but he loved to watch his daughter run and dive and jump and roll. Sometimes he would shut his eyes and imagine it was him there on the court.

When her team scored a third consecutive point, a wild cheer rose from the stands, and Jade’s coach, a young man who looked like a Californian lifeguard, pumped his fist in the air. Behind him, Pierced Eyebrow and his buddy high-fived each other. Neither was wearing his blue blazer, and they tried to flirt with Jade and Halley between every match.

On the next point, Jade and the opposing team’s player jumped at the net, reaching for the ball. In the air, the girls jostled, and Jade landed off-balance on the other girl’s foot, turning her ankle. Jade and Bing cried out simultaneously. The gym fell silent as she collapsed on the court, writhing in pain.

Bing went cold. Shaking, he stumbled down the stands, stepping on peoples’ hands. As he neared the bench, a scrum of players blocked his view. Through the forest of legs, he saw the coach lift Jade’s arm over his shoulder and help her up. Her face was drawn and white, and her lips were trembling, as if she were about to burst into tears. As she hobbled to the bench, he stepped out of the stands toward her. Then the crowd began to cheer, and her mouth steadied. She took deep breaths. She looked him back to the sidelines.

  • • •

That evening he ate at his favourite ma and pa barbeque in Chinatown, ignoring the provisional “PASS” posted by the Department of Health in the window. Jade went for dinner with Halley and the boys. She had a mild sprain, and he would take her for X-rays tomorrow, but tonight she wanted pizza.

As he carried her through the parking lot to Pierced Eyebrow’s car, she gripped his shoulder tightly, her face inches from his own. He remembered a time when he carried her six blocks after she had fallen from her first bicycle, scraping her knees badly. She was weeping uncontrollably, and there was a lot of blood, and even though he knew she would be all right, the sense of cold panic had been no different from today. The same prayer had come to his mind unbidden: that God might take away her pain and give it all to him.

Setting her gingerly into the backseat of the car, he recognized the faint scar on her left kneecap. He looked up to find her staring at him intently, and he felt her breath, warm against his chin and cheek. “You sure you’re okay?” He smiled.

She opened her mouth to speak, but Pierced Eyebrow gunned his engine. As the car sped away, Jade’s face, pale and round, appeared briefly in the rear window.

Much later when he got home, the house was dark. Music drifted down from Jade’s bedroom and a sliver of light leaked from beneath her door. He climbed the stairs and was about to knock, when he hesitated. She was fine. He had already told her to ice her ankle. He had told her to elevate it. Anne Marie was right. He should give her room to breathe. Feeling suddenly exhausted, he went downstairs for a cup of tea.

He flicked a switch and the kitchen was flooded with stark light. After placing the kettle on the stove, he rummaged in a cupboard. On the 
marble counter Jade had left cutlery and a dinner plate covered by a pot lid. When was she going to learn to clean up after herself? Tugging open the dishwasher, he tossed in the cutlery. Then he picked up the dinner plate and lifted the lid.

He stared down at what she had brought home. A double wedge of thin-crust designer pizza. Untouched. Garnished with tomato sauce, mozzarella, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and jumbo shrimp.


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