There are many stairs I must climb to reach my son's home.
Perhaps, in the years we were apart, he overcame his fear of high places.
When I reach the correct floor and open the door, I see that the hallway
is carpeted and very quiet. The walls and the ceiling are white.
The doors are white. It appears antiseptic, sterile, and there are
no sounds to be heard, not even voices. My footfalls are
I reach the number that my son says he lives behind. It is locked, but I open it and enter into a short, narrow hall that is dark. I hear the sound of someone scrambling, then Peter appears. In his hand is a gun that is pointed at me. He immediately pulls it back and up.
"Jesus, Dad! Don't you knock? I could've killed you."
I tilt my head and watch as he reaches out of sight and returns with a holster into which he jams the gun. I am puzzled by his reaction; perhaps it is the habit of police to behave so in their own homes. I will remember to knock next time so I do not alarm him.
"So." He runs his hand through his hair. "You're here."
I remove my hat and hold it in my hands. "Yes."
"Well -- uh, come in. Oh, right, you're in, I know. I mean...come in farther." Peter reaches for my arm, but draws back without touching me. "Come into the living room. I'm just, uh, fixing dinner, but it'll be awhile. Take a look around."
I head forward. Peter is on my heels. I stop at the entry to the next room, and he bumps into me.
"Sorry. Uh...this is the living room."
"So I see." I lay my hat on a high ledge on my right.
"I'll take that! I'll take your coat, too." He slips the coat from my shoulders, then turns and opens a small door. He pushes the coat and hat inside while watching me. I see that they fall to the floor, but that will not harm them. He shuts the door. "What do you think?"
I face him. "About what?"
His face colors slightly, and he waves his left arm in a vague gesture. "My apartment. You like it?"
I do not reply. Instead, I turn my attention to my son's living room so that I may study it and offer an opinion. It is fairly small. There is a curtain covering a glass door. I wonder if Peter spends much time on the balcony.
In one corner, I see a town on a table. I walk to it. There is a train. There is false grass and tiny buildings.
"That's my train set," Peter says over my shoulder. "Annie and Paul got it for me for the first birthday I spent with them. I thought it was a dumb gift for a 16-year-old -- I guess they were still nervous about having me. But I played with it and kinda...got used to it. See? There are little people and everything."
I see it all. The miniature train station is crooked. I straighten it.
"Watch this," Peter says. He flicks a switch, and the train begins to travel in a circle on its track.
I do not see the point of watching the motion, and I wonder why my son obviously enjoys it. Out of politeness, I watch for a few minutes, then nod and walk to the left, inspecting the perimeter of the room. For the most part, it is unremarkable, and I find myself feeling a vague disappointment. Peter's personality is vibrant; why is it not reflected in his surroundings?
There are framed photographs on the wall. They are not of people; they are vehicles.
"Some of them are mine, but most of them I bought. You probably tell which ones are mine -- they're not very good." Peter's finger shoots past my nose and points to a photograph of a low sports car. "That's one of mine. And the one next to it."
"You own so many vehicles?" I tease.
"No, P--Dad. I took the pictures," he says seriously. "I only have one 'vehicle' -- my car."
"And your train."
He gives me a strange look, then laughs a little. "Yeah. Uh...so what do you think?"
I look back at the photographs. I do not understand why he surrounds himself with images of inanimate objects. There is no passion in the pictures; no secrets are revealed. I shrug and continue to the next wall.
There is a bookcase. It holds stereo equipment and green plants. I touch an ivy leaf; it is healthy and has been well tended. There is a philodendron with clean, glossy leaves. My son takes great care with living creatures, even plants. I am pleased.
"I like plants," he says at my shoulder.
I turn, and he is so close that he has to draw away to see me clearly. He blushes again.
"Your care for the plants well," I compliment him.
He smiles and looks pleased. I study the single shelf of books. It is only half filled. There is a book about trains. One about the care of plants. Several regarding law enforcement. One novel, Atlas Shrugged. A single, slim copy of the Tao, which I draw out and leaf through.
"I've had that a long time. It's illustrated."
I see that. It is a translation with which I am familiar; it is one of the better ones, and it pleases me that he chose it. I slide it back in its proper place. It is the single significant book he owns. He would benefit from others; perhaps I will barter for a book or two for him.
I move, then stop to look at a bowl of fresh flowers on the small dining table. Peter steps on my heel.
"Oops, sorry," he says.
I look at him. His hands go to his hips, then his arms fold across his chest. They unfold again, and he runs his fingers through his hair. I wonder when he developed this habit. Perhaps the novelty of having hair caused him to frequently touch it and comb it back.
"What?" Peter demands.
I say nothing. I was invited only to see this room; I cannot go elsewhere.
He hesitates a moment. "Uh...come and look at the spare room. The offer's still open, you know, if you want to stay here." He opens a door and flicks the light switch beside it.
I peer inside. There is no bed or other furniture.
It appears to be a storeroom of sorts. There is a bicycle with cobwebs
on its wheels. A tennis racket leaning against a wall. Several
basketballs. Three suitcases of varying sizes and shapes. Skis and
ski poles. Two baseball gloves. Ice skates. Everything is covered
with a thin coating of dust. The only item that appears to be frequently
it a shiny machine that is obviously meant for multiple types of exercising.
"Uh...it's my workout room, really. Sort of. I mean, I don't show it to anybody, that's why it's sort of...dirty." He grabs my arm, and I allow him to remove me from the room. He snaps off the light and pulls the door closed, smiling. "My room is next door. Take a look."
The room where he sleeps is red. I am surprised. The color reminds me of my childhood home in China.
There are more photographs of vehicles, but the wall that faces the foot of the bed is empty. In the morning, when my son opens his eyes, he sees red but nothing else. It is interesting.
My eyes scan the remainder of the room, but there is nothing else of significance. He has a traditional Western bed, which is to be expected. I nod and turn to leave. Peter is right there.
"Sorry," he says, stepping aside. "So, what do you think?"
I stop. My lungs draw in the aroma that lies heavily atop the air. "I think that something which is being cooked is being...burned."
"Oh, shit!" my son exclaims and races to his kitchen. Though I have not been invited, I follow him.
Damn!" He grabs a towel and removes a large pan from the oven. Smoke follows it. "It's ruined -- damn it!" He turns toward me.
The disappointment and anger on his face remind me of Laura. Her culinary skills never developed beyond the most elementary, but she frequently accepted the challenges offered by more difficult recipes. Peter's expression matches the one I often saw on her. I open my mouth to tell him so, but I am interrupted by a high-pitched whining sound.
"Oh, hell -- the smoke detector!" Peter races into the hall. I follow. He opens a round white door and pulls out something. The noise stops. He glares up at the thing, then looks at me and grins. "What next?"
I consider his question. "I will look at the dinner," I decide.
"Well, looking is all we're going to be able to do," he says as we return to the kitchen. "Sorry, Dad. I've made a mess of it."
It is chicken. I carefully pick off the burned crust and see that there are still areas of fresh meat inside. I do not eat chicken, but my son obviously does. "I will make a casserole of this," I tell him. I begin opening the canisters on his countertop. I find coffee, sugar, flour...but not what I search for. "Where is your rice?"
Peter is using a magazine to fan the room, trying to clear the smoke. "Dad, I don't have rice. I have instant potato flakes, how about using them instead?" He grabs a red box from a cabinet and hands it to me.
I study the list of contents. "I do not believe this will provide you with the proper nutrition. Potatoes should be eaten in their natural form. The ingredients in this box include many things that I do not believe are edible."
"I've been eating them for years and they haven't killed me yet," he snaps. He takes the box out of my grasp. "I'll do it. You go...sit down or something."
I take the box back. "I will do this. You tend the vegetables." Whatever vegetables they are, the pot that holds them is covered. I can hear the water boiling inside and know that their nutrients have been depleted. I do not say this to my son, however, for he appears to be annoyed.
We work together in silence. I add water to the flakes, and they turn from flakes into a pasty consistency. Peter reaches over me and adds milk and a large wedge of butter to the bowl. "Now throw 'em in the microwave," he says, turning to the sink to drain the nutrient-rich liquid from the pot. "Three minutes."
I know what a microwave is; many times I worked in diners and restaurants and saw microwaves operated, though I have not operated one myself. I stir the paste again and slide it over the counter. I locate the button that opens the door and put the bowl inside the microwave. I close the door and look at the panel. I choose the middle number, '5', and hit it three times. I see a button that states 'start', so I press it. There is a thunderstorm.
"Da-ad!" Peter yells, pushing me aside and pressing buttons. "You fried it! What the -- you left the spoon in! What's the matter with you -- don't you know you can't put metal in a microwave?"
I have behaved improperly in my son's home. I bow my head. "I ask your forgiveness."
"You -- oh." Peter bends over and looks into the microwave. "Don't worry about it -- looks okay. Sorry, I.... Of course, you don't know about microwaves. I should've told you. Sorry."
I shake my head. "It was my error, not yours."
Peter removes the spoon from the bowl and replaces the flakes in the microwave. "Let's give it a try." He pushes three buttons, lays his finger on the 'start' button and moves back as far as he is able. He turns his head away. "Here goes nothing." He pushes the button.
There is no thunderstorm. Peter straightens. "Phew. Thank God. I couldn't eat without that thing."
I look at him quizzically, but he does not continue. I watch as he sets the table with plates and silverware. He places a candle next to the flowers and smiles shyly at me. "You want to do the honors? You're the candle man."
I take the matchbook he offers and strike a match. I light my son's candle and stare into the flame. He dims the overhead light. "Ambiance," he explains, then hesitates. "Or do you think it's too romantic? I mean -- this is what I do for -- for -- well, uh...never mind."
He hurries back into the kitchen. "You want coffee with dinner? Or afterwards?" he calls. He turns to look at me, but I am behind him.
"I do not drink coffee."
"Oh." He turns around, biting his lip. "I might have some teabags someplace."
I do not flinch. "Water will be fine."
"That I've got!" He grins. "Straight or on the rocks?"
He fills two glasses from the tap, adds ice to one and carries them both to the table. I assist by sliding the limp green beans into a bowl. Gingerly, I open the microwave door and inspect the potato paste. Peter walks around the dividing wall and snatches it from me. "Needs more butter," he announces without looking at it. "And lots of salt and pepper. It'll be fine, you'll see."
I shrug and return to the chicken, shredding with my fingers until it is fine strips. I drop it on top of the paste while Peter watches. I go to his refrigerator and open the crisper. There is a soft green pepper and nothing else. I look at Peter. He looks at me and lifts one shoulder. His grin is infectious, and I find myself smiling back at him.
"I eat out a lot," he offers in the way of explanation.
"Ah." I remember what he said to me several days ago. "Hot chili and cold beer?"
"Sometimes." He grins and begins to whistle as he folds the paste around the chicken. He opens a cabinet and pulls out several small packages. After looking at each one, he puts them back in their place. "Too bad I don't have some gravy." He looks into the pan where the blackened chicken crusts remain stuck to the bottom. "Think you could make gravy out of this?"
"I could not."
"Oh, well." Peter carries the bowl to the table. I follow him. He looks at me. "You do eat chicken, don't you?"
I shake my head.
"Oh." He sighs. "What about the potatoes?"
"But you'll eat the green beans, right?"
They are totally without nutrition and will serve only to sate my immediate hunger, but I nod.
Peter sits down and gestures to me to do the same. "I got some great ice cream for dessert, though -- Seven Heavens Chocolate. I picked it out because it sounded sort of Chinese." He looks anxiously at me. "You can eat that, can't you?"
I smile and nod and resign myself to a large serving of his ice cream.
"Good," he says with relief. "Well, dig in."
I spoon limp green beans onto my plate. Out of curiosity, I add a small helping of the potato mixture, carefully eliminating the remains of the chicken.
"Wait!" Peter exclaims. He lowers his voice. "Sorry, didn't mean to shout. Uh...how about a toast?"
My son has retained the sweet sentimentality that marked his youth. I gaze upon his face as we raise our glasses of water.
"To...finding each other again," he says awkwardly, and his eyes suddenly grow bright.
I wish to reply, but my throat tightens and I cannot speak. Peter taps his glass against mine, and we both take a drink. I watch him closely. When he puts his glass down, there is a faint tremor in his fingers.
I reach across the table and lay my hand on the side of his warm neck. My thumb rubs his cheek. His skin is very soft and smooth...like it was when he was a child. His lashes flutter, and he suddenly looks to the side, pulling away from my touch. My hand hovers in the air, uncertain, then I return it to rest on the table.
I study my son's profile. He bites his lower lip and blinks several more times. His head turns and he looks at me. "I, uh...missed you," he mumbles.
His pain is palpable. I feel a distant echo within myself, from the deep hole where I keep my grief buried. I do not know what to say to him, so I nod and pick up my fork. I feel his gaze burning me, and I cannot eat. I lay the fork aside again and meet his gaze. It is troubled.
"Did you...miss me at all?" he asks sharply. "Or was I just a pain in the ass you were glad to be rid of?"
I cannot allow myself to touch my sorrow, for there is anger there, too, and I must control it. I think of Ping Hai and the reasons for his action. He was our friend and his intentions were honorable...but I think the price we paid was too high. Yet his actions kept my son alive, so I cannot blame him for what he did. "The years were difficult for you," I begin slowly, "but Ping Hai did what he believed best for both of us. You must learn to forgive, my son."
Peter is very still. "That's not what I asked."
No, it is not. But I cannot touch his hurtful words. I cannot yet consider the pain inside him that allows him to speak such words. Can he be so unsure of my love? My son, the baby I helped deliver, the child I held and rocked and diapered, the little boy I grieved with when his mother died, the youth I nurtured and protected...and ultimately failed to protect.
I draw a heavy breath and force myself to speak feelings
that I have not spoken in fifteen years. "Peter...I have wandered
for a very long time. When I lost you, I lost the meaning in my life.
Finding you again...my feelings are as yours are. My heart is filled
with both joy and regret." He starts to interrupt me, and I raise
my hand. "Never was I 'glad to be rid' of you. Please, do not
think such a
He looks down at his plate and nods. He uses his fork to play with the green beans. He looks up suddenly. "I forgot the rolls." He stands to walk to the kitchen, but stops by my chair. Leaning over, he plants a kiss on the top of my head. "I love you, too, Dad."
I smile a little and follow him with my eyes until he
returns to the table. I think that this occasion defines the miracle
for me. At this moment, I do now what millions of people take for
granted: I have dinner with my son.