My Father, The Hoarder
People say a genocide is a form of cleansing. But, my father still remembers. His memories are vivid. His fear of starvation is real. In the basement, he hoards boxes of spam and cases of water. When my friends visit, I tell them he’s preparing for the zombie apocalypse because I’d rather have them think he’s weird than know he’s suffering, alone.
Every summer, my father waters the yard. He tends to the peppers, squashes, and string beans, spending hours with the earth with only a sarong wrapped around his waist. After, he picks up trash the kids from the neighborhood threw into our gate.
“People like us,” he says, tying the trash bag, “we’re not wanted anywhere.”
My father is from the Mekong Delta, a trading post for the Chinese and Indians. At some point, he was told he had a Cambodian face, but a Vietnamese mind though neither country claimed him as their own.
In the afternoon, my father invites his friends over to drink. He places a round wall-mirror on top of a crate and pulls plastic children’s chairs with pictures of princesses and unicorns beneath the table. Over a meal served in chipped bowls and plates he had found in front of a neighbor’s sidewalk, he and his friends reminisce about everything except the details that keep them up at night.
Their slurred words weave stories from across the world.
My father, a man who used to be a monk, the type who wears saffron robes and collects alms, turned to the temple to learn his letters. His friends did too.
“I thought I was going to live forever in solitude.”
“But then you met the old lady.”
“If it wasn’t for her ….”
“You wouldn’t have had experienced so many adventures.”
My father smiles. As quickly, a frown appears as if he remembers all the smiles the war had taken away.
“The Vietnamese — we, they were strong. They captured all our forces. Taught us a lesson.”
This is what he always says. This leaves behind a lingering question: was he captured too — tortured?
None of his friends ask or offer specifics. Instead, they fill their mouths to conceal their thoughts while the princesses and unicorns watch their backs.
My father is a secret, the type that’s held together by time, distance, and language barriers. He appears happy to leave behind the war. Yet, he still dreams about it more than he dreams of his future in our new country. In his silence, he keeps the war alive, reliving and retelling it in nightmares, hoping, every night, for a different ending.
From his room, a gagging noise floats up the stairs. He sounds like he’s gargling water. Through his bedroom door, left open for airflow, he kicks the sheets off his bed, twisting and turning and sweating. Then he snaps upright, gasping. His eyes dart as if searching for a newt scrambling along the walls.
“Do you want water?” I ask, smelling the dark pool seeping down his thighs.
He stares. After a long pause, he lowers his head. “No.”
My father laughs and moves like he’s young, though his skin is weathered beaten like a fine leather and his face is pockmarked and chiseled like the faces in the ruins of our country. Only in flashes does he reveal bits and pieces of his nightmare. When cooking, he’ll hear the sound of a gunshot from the television and leave the kitchen. When driving, he’ll stop when he sees an emaciated, homeless person begging for money. When watering plants, he’ll disappear to the land he had fought for, and lost.
My father tells his doctor, “I have running thoughts.”
The doctor gives him medicine for his symptoms, never fully understanding their cause.
He’s non-compliant. “It makes me sleep too much.” He walks outside, shirtless, and returns to the garden. Outback, he washes an empty peach can beneath a spigot and strips off the label. He pokes holes on one end of the can with a hammer and nail. At the opposite end, he uses a knife and hammer and partially carves out the metal. He bends the flap back and hammers a hole at the top. He does all this slowly, running his fingers over jagged edges and punctured holes as if giving new meaning to the things people throw away.
“You already have one in the bathroom,” I say.
He pretends he doesn’t hear. He walks into the kitchen. There, he nails the can to the wall above the sink. He grabs the chopsticks, forks, and spoons and drops them in the can. Though functional, it doesn’t look like it belongs.
My boyfriend visits us. He brings us a box of mango, makes us a meal, and helps me clean up.
He’s observant. “Well, that’s new.” He points to the can. “How is he?”
I shrug. “About the same.”
“You’re giving up your whole life to take care of him”
“He’s my father.”
“He has other children.”
I raised my brows. “I can find another boyfriend.”
He wraps his arm around me and kisses me on the temple. “Don’t count on it.”
My father’s voice comes through the side window. In the kitchen, it sounds muffled. Down the hall, by the bathroom window, through the window screen, he grunts in agreement.
“My parents were born there, too,” my boyfriend says. “My father died in reeducation.”
My father turns away from the vegetables. He looks at my boyfriend for the first time in three years. He’s quiet, almost thoughtful.
When my father enters the house, my boyfriend follows him inside. He takes out a photo album and gestures for my boyfriend to sit beside him on the couch, still covered in plastic like his bed. He goes through picture after picture, memory after memory, face after face, smile after smile. A chuckle here, a laughter there, but no words escape their lips.
Outside, I say goodbye.
My boyfriend holds me. “There are a lot of pictures of you and your family.” He presses his cheeks against mine. “There’s a picture of you, standing with your mother and brother behind barbed wire. Under an umbrella, you’re squinting at the camera because the sun is in your eyes. Your father is inside the fence. Though he looks scared, he’s the happiest I had seen him in all of the pictures and, honestly, in my three years of visiting him.”
“Khao I Dang — it’s a refugee camp.”
“Maybe he hoards because he doesn’t want to forget.”
It’s more than just hoarding and forgetting. After my father works on his projects, I pick up after him and put the tools away. When he leaves the kitchen and returns to the living room, I turn off the gas stove as it burns the pan black. When he stops in the middle of the road, with cars all around us, I race to the driver's side and help him to the backseat. When he wakes, losing control of his bowel movements, I clean the plastic cover beneath the sheets.
I grip my boyfriend, hating having to give up everything to take care of my father.
Yet, I am here.
“Maybe he hoards because he wants to belong.”
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