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Happy Birthday, Dad by Tammy Zhu


We are pleased to feature Tammy Zhu’s flash fiction piece, “Happy Birthday, Dad,” which explores the dynamic between a young expat teaching English abroad for the first time and her overprotective father who lives “two oceans and several landmasses away.” Narrated from the daughter’s perspective, the young woman expresses her desire for independence and adventure, however, soon finds herself overwhelmed as she tries to acclimate to a culture very different than her own. She misses her father and imagines him sitting on his porch awaiting not only her return, but also her mother’s after a twenty-year absence from their lives. In the July/August 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Benjamin Percy, our guest judge for the 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, wrote a craft essay entitled “Superpowered Storytelling” in which he shared the following quote by the writer Tony Earley: “Every story is about the thing and the other thing.” Zhu demonstrates this brand of layered complexity quite well. The surface story takes place in a discoteca filled with gritty music, sweat, and strange men. Yet, the undercurrent is firmly rooted in the young woman’s concern for her father, as well as her desire to go home. These two threads juxtapose and create friction with another, amplifying not only the arc’s tension, but also the trajectory the narrator’s mindset takes as she attempts to emotionally navigate both obstacles simultaneously. Filtering the father’s protectiveness through the daughter’s lens provides an intriguing perspective, especially when the roles appear to reverse themselves. We hope you agree. Please also make sure to check out Zhu’s author’s note where she discusses how the music of Clean Bandit and work by Joan Didion inspired her to write about parent-child relationships.  —CRAFT


 

The electronic beat pulses through my veins like a drug, and I shimmy toward the man. He takes my hand in his soft warm palm and pulls me close. “Guapa,” he whispers in my ear, his breath steamy. His scruff tickles my neck. I throw up my arms and let his hand fumble up my torso over my flowy strapless top. The discoteca starts playing a pop song in English about a single parent protecting her child. Today is my dad’s birthday, and I haven’t called him yet.

My dad lives two oceans and several landmasses away. The sun’s peak warmth is pouring over his front porch just about now. Over the years, the dry heat has eroded its sea-green paint. The salted air has splintered the deck boards, popping the nails loose. He and my mom built the porch before I was born. Dad and I used to spend Saturday afternoons there, swinging on the smooth acacia glider. My dad fiddled with his guitar that smelled like fresh pencil shavings. Whenever I asked why my mom left, he shrugged and said, “She didn’t say, kiddo.” Then he sandwiched my hands between his and stooped his face toward mine. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you and I are sticking together.” We watched the fiery sun dance across the sky. When it dipped behind the neighbor’s jacaranda tree, we chased after it to the beach. On the way, my dad clutched my hand as though I might stumble and fall if he didn’t hold on tightly enough. Now brush fires scorch the region, but my dad won’t leave. He says my mom might come back. “Dad,” I remind him, “she’s been gone for twenty years.”

Overhead on the speakers, steel drums thump into the foreground, matching the cadence of the strobe light. I look for my two coworkers from the American school, who still haven’t come back with their drinks. The man is now behind me, his hips thrusting to the beat. His fingers crawl into the front pockets of my jeans. The DJ scratches the record, and the vocals cut in and out like my voice the last time my dad called me. He asked why I was fading in and out. “Poor reception,” I replied. I wasn’t ready to tell him about the new life I had sought out. How little I had in common with my coworkers, the other expats, and the locals. How I couldn’t stand to eat another meal alone. How I missed him. How he was right and I shouldn’t have left at all. All that would worry him even more. So I stood in the cramped apartment building elevator with limited cell signal instead of stepping out. I heard my dad say, in spotty, broken bits, “Take care, safety first.” Now his words echo in my ears, drowning out the drums.

When I told my dad I got the fellowship, he blinked and asked, “Why teach English all the way there when you can teach English here?” I could have pleaded for his support, for him to be happy for me, explained that there’s not much going for me in this town with its dormant economy and ashy air. But what’s the point? I was leaving him behind, alone, and we both knew it. On the morning of my flight, my dad dropped me off at the airport, wished me luck, and even managed a smile—the first one since I told him I was leaving.

The discoteca smells like cologne and beer mixed with slippery decisions. The man and I dance into a corner. The drums bounce back into the song, picking up the tempo. His mouth hovers closer to mine. The drink in his hand sloshes over the rim of the glass and onto my wedge sandals. I stare into his dark eyes. Where are his parents? Do they live close to him? Are they together? I turn away and watch his blotched suede boot tap in rhythm to the beat. His lips brush against my ear. “Venga, vamos a mi casa.”

My dad is probably sitting on the glider, a cigarette nestled between his bulged fingers, reading the news on his iPad—awaiting but not quite expecting my eventual return. Like my mom before me, I’ve released myself from his grip. Since I moved away, he has resisted calling me too often or asking me to come home. Nowadays the news delivered on his iPad is the closest he can get to me. He devours it like religion. He reads articles about the riots, burglaries, and hate crimes happening where I live and reminds me to be careful. He blames himself for driving my mom away; he is afraid to do the same to me. He doesn’t know that I want to come home.

I think about telling the man I have to go. I have to find my coworkers. I have to say goodbye to them. I have to go home. I have to call my dad to tell him happy birthday and everything else. Instead, I take the man’s drink and pour it into my mouth. It tastes sharp and corrosive and crackles down my throat. The nightclub explodes with a regalia of confetti, and I hope my dad isn’t buried under a pile of ash. Smoke fills the room, sweeping me away. I pull the man’s mouth to mine. He leans in with his tongue. It tastes like salted peanuts and cigarettes. I whisper, “Vamos.”

 


TAMMY ZHU is a writer living in San Francisco, California. She enjoys writing stories about family relationships and immigrant experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brilliant Flash Fiction and Popshot Magazine and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. When she is not writing, Tammy enjoys singing, dancing, and sharpening a host of other skills she was not born with.

 

Author’s Note

I was listening to Clean Bandit’s “Rockabye” on repeat and reading Joan Didion. One line struck me in particular. In the aftermath of her daughter’s death, Didion wrote, “When we talk about mortality, we’re talking about our children.” The sentence struck me because it’s true, and I suddenly realized how my parents see the world. It explained why my mom texts me to be careful every time a robbery happens in her neighborhood (which is 400 miles away from mine) and why my dad sent me a yellow safety vest last year to wear while taking evening walks. It made me want to write a story about a protective, caring parent, but told from the point of view of the child.

I put the child—a young adult—in a not-so-safe situation and asked: How does her parent’s protectiveness filter through her? How does it affect her decisions, if at all? Though the narrator says she’s released herself from her father’s grip, can she escape it? We have a good sense of how an average parent would feel about the narrator’s situation in this story—concerned and anxious. But how a grown child would react in the same situation is less obvious. This dilemma is what the story attempts to explore.

The story is the product of countless choices. In earlier drafts, I made the man more unattractive, shady, and disgusting—to heighten the sense of danger and to show that the narrator turned to the man only as a means of escape rather than attraction. I toned that down because the man was overpowering the story. In earlier drafts, the narrator was more passive. The man sidled up to her, hit on her, kissed her. Eventually, I decided that the narrator should make the first move, and she should be the one to initiate the kiss. That’s her way of finding a distraction, her attempt to forget the thing weighing on her mind. In earlier drafts, the story included a couple switches in point of view. The paragraph starting with the dad on the glider was narrated in a third-person close point of view on the dad, intended to be the narrator imagining her dad’s longings and fears. The last paragraph switched to a second-person point of view, meant to put the reader more directly in the narrator’s shoes. But these switches got messy.

One thing I knew I wanted was to write a story set in one place but whose narrator is distracted or troubled by something else in a separate time and space. Dan O’Brien does this beautifully in “Crossing Spider Creek,” as does Minyoung Lee in “The Tiki Cabana.” A story about crossing a dangerous creek is actually about a character’s longing for his wife. A story about finding a pen on a beach is actually about the narrator’s remorse about his wife’s death. I find these stories so captivating, moving, and real.

 


TAMMY ZHU is a writer living in San Francisco, California. She enjoys writing stories about family relationships and immigrant experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brilliant Flash Fiction and Popshot Magazine and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. When she is not writing, Tammy enjoys singing, dancing, and sharpening a host of other skills she was not born with.