• Lijing Cobb

Just another day in hell

Dinner’s on the table. Dad sits on his chair next to his bedroom door, mom sits opposite of him. The only other available side of the table is occupied by my older sister to the left of me, closer to our dad, and I’m next to mom. I always take the seat closer to mom in case my dad gets angry in the middle of the meal, which is often. Then at least my sister is between us. I’m safer that way.

Dad’s got his bowl for rice wine, and so does mom. Before dinner I had walked the empty bottle to the convenience store about 5 minutes from my home to fill the bottle. 19 cents for that bottle of red liquid that will make my dad’s face go pale and his blood boil. This bottle now sits on the table right next to dad. Two dishes my mom made just a few minutes ago, still steaming a bit. Two empty bowls for rice for my sister and me. 4 pairs of chopsticks. I’m super hungry as usual.

My dad opens the wine bottle and fills his bowl. When he sets the bottle down the thud was a little too loud. My mom hesitates, then takes the bottle and pours herself half a bowl. My sister and I go to the rice pot and fill our bowls. My sister is 5 years older than me, but as long as I can remember, she never eats more than me. My bowl is full, and I’ll be getting more. Her bowl is only 2/3 full.

I survey the situation. My dad’s face is cloudy. My mom’s tightlipped. My sister’s hanging her head as usual. My heart gets heavy. Please, for one day, let us have peace and finish the meal without any disturbance!

My dad lifts his wine bowl to his lips, signaling the start of the meal. I wait for him to put his bowl down, pick up his chopsticks and take a bit of the dish. It is now safe to eat. I skillfully scoop a big mouthful of rice into my mouth, suppressing the urge to get even more in, chew, and then get as much of the steaming dish in my chopsticks as possible without seeming greedy. Finish chewing, then repeat. My dinner lasts about 5 minutes before my allotted portion moves house into my stomach in the slow and peaceful way my dad expects me to eat. It would take me just 2 minutes if it were up to me. Then as my sister and I leave the table, dad and mom will continue their meal. Mom will finish in about half an hour. Dad will, well, it’s anybody’s guess, but that entire bottle of rice wine needs to move house too.

3 minutes into our meal, I hear the familiar sound of inevitable doom. The slippered feet are ascending the stairs. My dad’s body stiffens, and his dark eyebrows knit into an ominous knot. The slippered feet move about upstairs carelessly, dragging its way hither and thither. I match the feet with one of the two possible culprits, the tall man with a whiny voice, or his short wife with a lisp. It’s definitely not their son, whose steps are much more rambunctious.

Out of the corner of my left eye I peek at my dad. He is still sipping his rice wine, but I imagine that the noise of the slippered feet on hardwood floor is like a cat’s claws scratching at his nerves, priming it to respond most unfavorably against the attack.

I hasten my chopsticks just a bit so I can be done faster, but not so much that I draw attention to myself. As I swallow my next bite the slippered feet dredge up my anger as well: why is it that they have to choose to come up at this very minute, every day without fail, to disturb our peace? Haven’t we made abundantly clear that my dad objects to that noise? Hasn’t my dad tried to talk to them once like civilized people with a peaceful request to reduce the noise? Haven’t we shouted at the top of our lungs enough times insults upon insults that could have shamed the most thick-skinned person on the face of the earth? Haven’t we banged our sticks up against their floor to let them know that misery begets misery?

A spiteful family. A very inconsiderate family. We all agreed on that.

My dad’s anger rises. I can sense it because the air around him stopped flowing. I can tell from the way he tightens his jaw. He looks up at me, and I’m ready.

“Stop it, you idiot!” I shout, my head turned upwards towards our invisible but audible enemy. It feels good to break the tension with some sound.

A pause. Then more pedaling of the slippers. It’s my mom’s turn.

“No more, you bastard!” Mom shouts. She’s louder than me.

More chaotic shuffling. What on earth could they be doing up there except to create misery just for us, poor people who are just trying to eat in peace, for once?

But the footsteps move left, and fade. The bastard is gone. For now.

My dad’s face is steely. His bowl of wine is almost gone. He has barely touched any of the dishes. Clearly he’s having a bad appetite day like he usually does. My dad doesn’t eat much. His stomach is always bothering him.

I finish my rice. “I’m done.” I announce, the thought of getting another bowl annihilated by the unhappy incident just now. I take my bowl and chopsticks to the sink, set them down, and go into the little room where my sister and I sleep together on a cot. The day is still light outside. It’ll be a while until we can go to sleep. I sit down on my bed and wait.

No words. A few minutes later my sister stands up and goes to the sink, but she doesn’t come in. Maybe she’s washing some clothes that needed to be washed. From the crack in my door frame I peek out at the table. Mom is trying to make conversation. She talks tentatively, but I hear her every word. My dad doesn’t respond, so she keeps going. One sip of wine after another, her bowl of wine is almost gone, and her voice is getting a bit louder. She’s telling my dad how she had made the most parts in her work unit that day.

“Enough.” My dad says, and shoots my mom a contemptuous look. “You think you are so clever, but you are so stupid. Do you know that everyone’s laughing at you?” He sits back in his chair and turns his body and head away from my mom as if to show her how everyone is thinking of her right at that moment.

“I’m stupid? Yes, I’m stupid.” My mom drops her eyes but doesn’t cry. She’s been here thousands of times, but it still hurts. She stands up with her empty wine bowl, rinses it quickly, gets her bowl of rice, and sits back down. Her words have dried up. She eats.

“You’ve always been so stupid! Everybody laughs at you, and you don’t know. Your own sisters and brothers, you own parents. They think so little of you, do you know that? And here you are, bragging about making more than quota. What has that ever gotten you? What’s the use? You are useless and stupid!” His voice is getting louder and icier. I know the tirade has just started.

“My family’s no good to me? How about yours? What’s your family ever done for you?” My mom is launching her counterattack. Oh crap. This is only making it worse. “You give so much money to your mom, and she turns around and uses it on your little sister. Your own brothers throw cigarette butts at you and cut you with a broken bottle! What good are they to you?” My mother’s aim is true. She’s not stupid. She knows where it hurts.

I know where this leads. Back and forth they will go, the same accusations of each other’s families. Nobody is good. Everybody is bad. My dad loves his mom too much, and my mom’s only skill is talking nonsense. I’ll tune out now. It’s time to shut down.

Suddenly the bickering stops. Eerie silence, as the slippered feet, now even heavier, ascend the doomsday steps. The volcano is about to erupt.

I hear more shouts of insults, but I no longer try to decipher what is for whom. I know I need to stay quiet in my head, otherwise my heart will explode.

The front door is yanked open with a loud bang. My dad rushes out, my mom chasing after him, “Don’t go!” She pleads loudly, frantically.

I stay in my room, rooted to my bed. What am I supposed to do? I’m thirteen, or maybe eight.

Maybe my dad is finally taking care of it once and for all. Maybe that tall man with a whiny voice and his short wife with a lisp would finally listen and not add fuel to fire and make us mad every day anymore. Maybe this is a good thing.

I pray this is a good thing. A good thing to put an end to a nightmarish episode on repeat day after day. An end one way or another. A change. Any change. Any change!

My sister runs back in. Hurry over, dad needs help. I follow her to the evil house whose upstairs has to land on top of our home. Through the narrow door and corridor I can see a confused scuffle. There seem to be a crowd, definitely more than just my parents and the offending couple. Loud voices everywhere, lots of pushing and shoving, heads bobbing around. What help can I give? What can I do? I am thirteen or maybe eight.

Let there be an end to this now, I pray to myself, and retreat back a few steps, my eyes unblinking, my heart numb.

A loud yelp. The crowd falls away. A man is on the ground. The noise stops. My mom falls over the man’s body, “the bastard has chopped open my husband’s head!” She wails.

My dad’s head? Open? What? I stay rooted in my spot. I can’t move.

The crowd starts moving again. One neighbor brings over a bamboo cot and they move my dad’s body onto the cot and carry it away. I see the tall man with the whiny voice, a big chopping blade in his right hand. Maybe he had used the same blade to chop his meat and vegetables that night, and now it’s dripping with my dad’s blood. I hear his whiny voice say, “he groped my wife. My wife said so!”

I don’t remember how I get back to my own bed, or how the next few days go by. I visit my dad in the hospital. He’s still alive, with a big white bandage around his skull, resting. His eyes are closed. He has no energy to shout at anyone now. For a moment I wish he would stay like that forever.

My dad gets better and comes back home. When he walks in the door and sits down on his chair, I realize that nothing has changed. Even his scar is covered completely by his hair. Every day I still get his bottle of rice wine. The evil couple are still spiteful and shower misery liberally over us through their heavily slippered feet. The police had decided that the man acted in self defense against a drunken man invading their home, so my dad’s head had to be chopped at. My parents still fight and exchange the same insults. And I still live in fear and trembling until I tune out.

Are you waiting for a happy ending? Me too. I'm thirteen or eight.

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