Sibling Parenting & Father’s Day by Shih-Li Kow
Ai Ping’s brother said women who habitually declared they found happiness in everyday things were the hardest to please. If a woman required x affirmations of happiness a day, each having an effect which lasted an average y minutes, then she must, in fact, default to a state of misery (1-xy) of the time. His algebra was explained in a growing-up talk when Ai Ping reached puberty. It was a matter of frequency and duration, he said, and for a moment, she thought he meant her period. She was twelve. She wanted her cramps to go away and her breasts to grow.
When he said he was engaged, she thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. Ai Ping asked if he loved her, this friend/girlfriend now fiancée. It seemed like a grown-up thing to ask, with a little frown of concern, “But do you love her?” He said, “Enough to marry her. There’s plenty of time to work on it after.” And Ai Ping thought of love as a slow thing formed with time, the x’s and y’s expanding within the embrace of the parentheses like a plant in a bottle garden.
When his fiancée left him, her brother thought it was a prank, but it wasn’t. An ungrateful woman who expected too much was a doomed, ravenous creature, he blustered. A princess-witch who wanted the big rescue, the fairy tale, and perfectly timed doses of small and shiny pleasures. He said Ai Ping would do well to decide which to give up—the prince, the godmother, or the golden goose—before she started believing she could have them all.
Ai Ping was fourteen now, old enough to know that he was bitter and full of crap. The more she thought about his (1-xy), the less sense it made. If only he’d stop bellyaching about how right he was, she’d tell him that a frog who spouted a bit of math was still a frog, and a girl could be an equation all by herself with just two X’s and no Y’s. She’d tell him alright. He’d do well to listen.
Every Father’s Day, Pa comes on a bus. We meet at the museum, planetarium, science center, bird park, or some public place. The year at the philharmonic concert, I said, Classical music gives me a headache.
We eat at the same restaurant every year. They have food quotes printed on paper napkins. Pa wipes his quivering lips with “Eat Well and Live Long.” “Love at First Bite.” The year he described his diseased liver, I left him at the table as though he belonged to someone else.
My perfect paint-by-numbers life has a three-room house and two SUVs; a wife who works in a bank and gets zero-percent mortgages; Ryan and Ethan, four and six; holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. When we meet, Pa’s filmy eyes dart around me hoping to see the boys. I don’t tell him they’re with someone else.
He brings movie tickets, theme park passes, lightsabers, and Lego kits. When he puts out a hand, I flinch. The reflex has not gone away and it feels like a victory to say things like, It’s too late for the toy store. The year at the zoo, I told him the last Sumatran Rhino in the country died in November. I told him that sometimes when things go extinct, nobody even knows they existed.
I don’t see his sallow sick-liver skin, the way his tentative feet feel for the edges of steps. There is a melted look about him and a defeated stoop in his shoulders. I straighten my back and I don’t see how much I resemble him. I don’t think about my boys on Father’s Day and how someone else is taking them to Toys “R” Us and explaining Star Wars the way I thought only I could.
SHIH-LI KOW is a former chemical engineer and mall manager. She is the author of a short story collection, Ripples and Other Stories, and a novel, The Sum of Our Follies. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Online, Clarkesworld, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Her short story, “Relative Distance,” was recently shortlisted for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Find her on Twitter @shihlikow.
Featured image by Harshil Gudka, courtesy of Unsplash.