“I don’t know what you’re doing, but you look amazing and should keep it up” is what my mother meant to say — and how it would have sounded if her stubbornness to hold on to the last bastion of her Korean identity wasn’t confusing the ever-living hell out of everyone she encountered, each day, for the last 40 years of the life she has spent here in the United States. I wonder now, if she knew, if she’d feel the same way. There’s some part of me that believes that it would bring her greater peace, or at the very least, less discomfort for me to be thin and a heroin addict over just being fat and normal.
I had heard it since I was a child, but it never really stopped stinging. I am, at this day, 5’7” and I looked my “best” according to my mother, at around 113 pounds. My father would often joke that if I had to “haul ass, I’d have to make two trips” and my mother would sigh loudly and say things like “you know, stomach crunches would help you get rid of that tummy” or “you’re so beautiful, but you could stand lose some weight in your thighs,” which she would pronounce “thigh-its” and I would think “I’ll lose some fucking weight there when you learn how to speak goddamn fucking English.” I remain, a healthy 150 pounds, at this time.
I imagine the conversations I would have with my father, if I were ever honest with him about my addiction, “Mom basically just told me to keep on shoving needles in my arm, so long as you can continue to see the bones in my chest plate – I’m clearly paraphrasing.” He’d look up at me from a book, over his drug-store glasses, on his big Greek nose, with his classic German sense of sentimentality and say “She’s a banana,” as always. I never knew if he decided on that particular piece of fruit because they were both yellow and I didn’t care to hear the manifesto on it, so I’m just going to give his (and our family’s) world-acclaimed wit the benefit of the doubt.
The reality of the situation is that they were both bananas. Being born in the early 80’s to a couple in their late 30’s was relatively unheard of and perhaps for good reason. They were also both unequipped to handle just one child as curious and, eventually, sullen as I was. There were days where I dreamed of a sibling to share their laser-focused neurosis that hung in the air like old cigarette smoke in the only home I’ve ever known. Other days would go by and I couldn’t imagine wishing that kind of punishment on anyone.
Absent in their own ways, my father was, for lack of a better term, a professional grifter that went on fishing trips three months out of every year just to get the fuck away from both of us – and for that matter everyone who wasn’t a fish. He managed to somehow be both a world-class gemologist who could take one look at a piece of antique jewelry and tell you everything about it, but couldn’t figure out not to wear the Ed Hardy shirt that my mother had misguidedly given him as a Christmas present because she found it on sale at a Marshall’s.
“What the hell are you wearing?” I’d ask him the first time I saw him in it, after coming to stay with them, for as long as I could handle, between Philadelphia and a doctoral program, Pittsburgh and establishing a home plan for my boyfriend who was in state prison for two years, and a vehement promise to myself that their home would never be my home again, after I left Central Pennsylvania, at the age of 17. “What? This?” He said, pointing to the skull with a snake coming of its eyes, with two sequins for eyes of its own, and just loads of douchey attitude. “Yes, that, Dad. I’m used to the stone washed jeans, orthopedic shoes, and silver-studded, Navajo belt. Are you having a mid-life crisis or something?” “No, I just like the pocket,” he replied and continued wearing the shirt likely to this day because who was he kidding, nothing in his life was a crisis.
My parents met in the 70’s while my father was living in a van, driving from Albuquerque to the great expanses of the United States, selling Indian jewelry from a vendor he knew in New Mexico named Phyllis.
Phyllis was terrific. From when I knew her, in her late 60’s, to her dying day she was kind, calm, and funny – everything that my parents were not. To top it off, she looked exactly like the giant turtle from my favorite movie The Neverending Story and I would sit and talk with her for hours – another luxury that was never afforded to me at home. She’d do the driving and selling and living out of a van herself, but she opted for a motorhome and she actually took her son along with her, something my father would only do on special occasions, perhaps when he’d sense that my mother’s overbearing nature was starting to spread fissures across my personality. I was an accomplished pianist by the time I was 5, yet my mother continues to remind me to brush my teeth to this day, and I am in my mid-thirties. There are stretches where I will avoid detnal hygeine, strictly out of spite, and my will teeth feel like they have sweaters on when I glide the tip of my tongue across them.
My mother was working at a beauty salon at the time called Head Hunters. You can’t even make that kind of stuff up. They probably only hired her because she looked like she was fresh off the boat from Jakarta looking for round-eye melons to lop off and shrink in her hut. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t Indonesian, in a place like Mechanicsburg, everyone in a 60-mile radius was either white, or not. Head Hunters was one of the many stops on my father’s route and though he claims to have disliked her immensely upon their first meeting, she was only 5” tall, 86 pounds, with C-cup tits, which was apparently enough for him to swing back around in a few months and take her on a date. I’m not fully certain how she ran until she was 8 months pregnant, or, for that matter, managed to stay erect and upright long enough to do someone’s hair.
I have the first three pieces of jewelry that he sold her, a giant ring, cuff, and squash blossom necklace with huge turquoise stones, hand-signed by a jewelry-maker that no one will remember, but me. I recall being 18, searching in a forgotten kitchen drawer for a cheese knife. Finding jewelry instead, I asked my mom about them. She was constantly squirreling things of value away in strange places. It pains me to think about going through their house after she dies – not because she would no longer be on this earth, but because I will literally have to tear down walls and go through every sweater and Ed Hardy pocket in search of gold kurgans, diamonds, and car titles.
“Would you like to have them?” she asked, not because she was being sentimental, or because she was the kind of person who would give anyone anything if they ever so much as looked at it in a positive way for more than 30 seconds, which she is and was, but because she didn’t wear them anymore. I was in a bit of a nuevo-hippie phase at the time, with dreads and patch pants, reeking of patchouli, and turquoise fit the bill, so I happily took them. I didn’t know then that I would look at those pieces later and think “This is where it all started.” This is where the pain and the anguish and the anger that became my life started, with porous rock that osmosed the oil of the skin of its wearer to the extent that it would change its very color, and expertly wrought silver, made by someone who cared enough to write their name on it, but will never be remembered. It started there. I started there.
I still have all three pieces, but I broke the singular stone in the ring. I keep that piece the closest and I don’t hide the rest in strange places, as if I had a pet raccoon. In my practical jewelry box, filled with my father and mother’s discarded silver, is my beginning, but it won’t be my end. Though my story starts with turquoise, it ends, as so many stories do, with the beautiful, unconcerned pale of dope.