Featured Work: Logging the Mileage

SARAH WANG is a writer from Los Angeles. She is a contributing editor of Animal Shelter, an arts and literary journal. Her writing has appeared in Bad Reputation, Black Clock, Opium Magazine, The Last Journal, San Marino Tribune, Pasadena Weekly, and Ventura County Reporter.

Complete Work – Logging the Mileage

Stories my mother has recounted to me about my father (some of which have since become false memories of mine that I have shuffled into my real memory):

When my parents were still married, my mother went out of town, leaving my father and me alone for two weeks. My parents had a king-sized waterbed with a large mahogany frame. A dresser was attached to the headboard; shelves and drawers lined the space above where I slept with my father. Normally, I was not allowed to sleep on the waterbed because I liked to peel away the sheets and chew on the plastic mattress. For the two weeks my mother was out of town, I slept next to my father, eating peanuts out of an open drawer between our heads; he was afraid that I would get hungry in the middle of the night. By the time my mother came back into town, I had gained five pounds, which is a lot for a child. She says that he was very proud of this; that he felt like a good father for fattening me up.

The time he was caught shoplifting at Mervyn’s, how he hid stacks of folded button-up work shirts underneath my blankets in the stroller when I was a baby, the way the store manager followed us out to the parking lot and quietly asked for the merchandise back.

My father was incredibly industrious. He could withstand a great deal of suffering in order to make money and save money. These qualities were among the few that made my mother believe, at first, that he would be a good husband.

In addition to those qualities, he was also a liar. He was probably a good liar because he lied his way into becoming an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada, a suburb just north of Pasadena. In addition to his full time engineering job, he also worked the night shift at an insurance company. He would sleep for only two hours each day, and that was enough.

The first few years my parents were married, my father used to go dumpster diving for food. This was before security cameras and locked gates, when trash containers were placed out in the open. He figured out which grocery stores threw produce out on certain days, made a map, devised a schedule, and stuck to it faithfully. He would bring home cereal, milk, chicken legs and cheese, lettuce, crackers, sacks of oranges and potatoes, gleefully stacking produce in the refrigerator. He would stay up late at night figuring out how much money he had saved and showed it to my mother in the morning. After a while, he had to stop because the grocery stores began spray-painting the food on dump days and threatened to call the police. Children are typically potty-trained at two and a half years, but my father had me fully potty-trained at six months so he could save money on diapers. I asked my mother if six months is an exaggeration. She insisted it is not.

My parents had only been married a few years when my mother found a letter in the den from my father’s father asking him when he was going to divorce her already. Aside from keeping a record of how much money he saved dumpster diving, he also had a habit of logging the mileage on my mother’s station wagon. After he came home from work, he would calculate how many miles the station wagon had traveled that day and grill my mother about where she had driven. Sometimes he suspected she was lying about where she had been that day so he would get into the station wagon and drive to the post office or the department store and they would argue all night about the half or quarter mile that was not accounted for in his calculations.

He loved to get things for free. It wasn’t only about saving money; it was also about the thrill of getting something for nothing, like he had somehow cheated the world. There is probably a scoreboard in my father’s head, and it is probably marked heavily in his favor. I was born at the end of September. That Halloween – one month later – he drew a mustache on my upper lip with a marker and took me trick or treating, using me to get free candy for himself. He kept the bag of candy under the driver’s seat in his car and forbade anyone else from touching it.

My father and mother separated by the time I was five. Between the ages of five and eighteen, I saw him less than twenty times. I do not remember very much about him. I rely on my mother to tell me what he was like, about his family, where he is from.

These are the facts:
He was born on a boat in the Pacific Ocean.
He has a brother who used to be in the Navy.
He met my mother at the electronics factory where she worked on an assembly line. I’m not sure what he did at the factory other than read girls’ palms, which was in actuality
an excuse to hold their hands.
He is remarried with at least two sons. The oldest son is approximately twenty years old and the other is seventeen or eighteen.
He lives in Rowland Heights in the Inland Empire on a street called Walnut Grove. I know this because I looked him up on the Internet and called the phone number listed next to the address. I hung up after asking for him when his son answered. Often, I will forget his face. His voice: granular and dry. I’ll never forget that.

Five things. A father reduced to five anonymous facts, facts that could belong to anyone. One ocean, one brother, a factory, two sons, a street named after a coppice of trees.

When my mother divorced my father, she weighed ninety-six pounds. In photos from this era, she is always unsmiling, her mouth stretched taut, neither frowning nor smirking. Her eyes have a ghostly look, yellow with melancholy. Throughout the years, my mother has attempted to destroy every photo she is in from the period between the last two years of their marriage to about three years after their divorce. In the back of my closet, I have a collection of these photos – some taped together after being ripped in half, others I kept surreptitiously hidden in Highlights magazines after finding them in the attic during my childhood.

Things I remember:
The way his face scratched mine when I clung to his neck.
The time we went in the Jacuzzi late at night, just the two of us. I was eating a croissant
and could not finish it. He told me I had to eat it all, so when he wasn’t looking, I submerged it under the steaming water and was surprised at how easily the croissant dissolved in my hand, leaving me with an empty fist.
Driving around the San Gabriel Valley with him. Waiting in the car while he went in and out of buildings. Finding a glossy black business card under the mat in his car, which revealed his occupation to me: real estate agent.
Watching him through a large picture window walking down the narrow concrete path of our condo after he had moved out. His lithe body in cobalt slacks cutting through dark green shrubs, head tilted down, and the eucalyptus trees in the distance peeling bark.
Shopping at outlet stores in the high desert for back-to-school clothes.
Driving to Little Tokyo to buy high-top L.A. Gears, which he heard were on sale there.

My mother’s father favored his sons over his daughters. There are three boys and two girls in the family. My aunt is the oldest, meaning my grandparents favored her over the rest. And since boys ruled over girls, that left my mother at the bottom. All of her siblings have had terrible luck in love. My aunt’s ex-husband had mistresses all over the world, another family somewhere. He squandered my aunt’s money in foolish business ventures and beat his sons when they were toddlers. My eldest uncle has been married three times. The first time he was married was to his college sweetheart, who divorced him after he went bankrupt. His second wife was a mail order bride in her early twenties. In less than two years, she managed to move her entire extended family to Los Angeles and got them green cards. Not long after, she left my uncle. What did he expect? My mother tells me that he and his current wife stay up for days on end fighting. They stay together because they think that it’s better than being alone. My second uncle was only married once. My mother says he left her because she had unbearable body odor. “Couldn’t she wear deodorant?” I asked her.
“That wasn’t enough,” she said.
“Didn’t he realize she smelled bad before he married her?”
“Of course, but he thought that he could put up with it.”
“Wasn’t there some kind of operation she could get?”
“Not back then.”
“So he left her because she had body odor? Everything else was great?”
“No. She left him. I think he used to hit her. He has a terrible temper.”
“That’s not what you said. You said he left her because she smelled.”
“Well I said the wrong thing. I’m old.”
My mother’s youngest brother’s wife died of cancer. He never married again.

Things I remember:
The time he came back from a trip with his hair permed. The circumference of his head had expanded to double the previous size. I later learned that he had gotten this perm for his wedding. At the time, I had no idea he had gotten married, or that he had been dating anyone.
Watching “Three’s Company” with him on the brown velour sofa he bought at a garage sale. Sliding to the floor next to his tube-socked feet, gently smelling them.
The thick tortoise shell glasses that covered half of his face.
Lying to kids at school about what my parents did. “My dad is a businessman,” I would say. In reality, I had no idea where my father was most of the time. This was years before I had found his business card in his car.

He got out of paying child support by quitting his job and filing for unemployment. My mother has no college degree and could not make enough money to support us. We received aid from the state of California. She obtained odd jobs where she was paid under the table so we could still get welfare. She cared for a ninety-year-old woman for a few years, changed her diaper and cleaned her house, worked in an indoor swap meet in El Monte selling boots made of pleather and plastic high heels, sold necklaces she made from fishing wire and crystals at a booth in front of a grocery store, baked muffins to sell to the coffee shop down the street, held yard sales every month. Most of the time, I try not to think about what my mother had to do in order to support me.

Questions I have for my father:
Why did he marry my mother?
Why did he stop calling me after he remarried?
Does he ever wonder where I am or what I’m doing?
What are his tastes in food, music, film, art?
What is his side of the family like?
What kinds of things does he remember about me?
What does he think of me, of what kind of person I am?

My parents were divorced when I was five. For the next ten years, my mother and I were inseparable. We did everything together. She had sworn off men forever and was starting over. We drove to Yosemite for the weekend, camped on Catalina Island in the summer, stayed up late playing cards and board games on school nights, crocheted side by side while watching movies, ate junk food, held hands while roaming through the Arboretum in Arcadia where wild peacocks screamed from the rooftops, did anything we wanted anytime we felt like it. After being controlled by my father for six years, she was finally free. And for the first time in her life, she was not being told what to do by her parents or her husband. My early childhood was spent living it up, my mother beside me every step of the way. Her newfound freedom combined with a horde of guilt for subjecting me to my father’s abuse resulted in overcompensation. Sometimes I’ll glance at the car driving beside me on the highway and believe I see my father. I’m afraid I’ll run into him at the bank, like my mother once did, and not recognize him. I think about him dying and debate attending his funereal, skipping it, wondering if it would make a difference, if anyone will even contact me when he dies. I imagine a reunion, repentance in his eyes as he embraces me, the wiping of our slate, some scene appropriated from a movie I once saw. When my mother dies, I’ll have no one, no familial ties to this world but the bloodless ones I forge myself. Longing for the day when there is no longer any place for him in my meaning making, not even in death.

Things I remember:
Calling his house, asking to speak with him when his wife answered.
Calling his house, his son answering the phone. Hanging up.
Calling his house, upon recognizing my voice, he said, “I’m not interested.” Hanging up.
The time he visited me in the hospital when I was fifteen. How I was unable to speak, how I could not sleep after he left, rolling a smooth pink pill in my palm the doctors gave me that night to help me sleep.

The last time I saw him:
On my mother’s porch when I was eighteen, feeling awkward about giving him a hug, the cursory exchange about my plans for college, standing inside the house while he stood on the porch, closing the door and laying down on my bed, getting a bloody nose, holding a porcelain bowl under my face to catch the blood, watching it drip and thicken in the bowl, thinking I could let myself do this for a long time.