The goal of love is to disappear the body. More noble to be devoted to an idea, an eternity. I learned to love my father through the curvature of his absence, through the way fractured sunlight trembles on the altar where his photograph sits next to Bodhisattva, both their faces obscured from spirals of incense smoke. I love my father the way one does a stranger who sleeps underneath one’s skin, as a ghost, an invention, a hearsay. As one who has never met him. My father taught me how to love others by disintegrating the corporeal. I am the most loyal of lovers because I know how to love my father, how to go on loving him, the dead. My mother loved him for many years before he died at the age of thirty from a collision with a truck—he was on a moped. She loves him still.
Even when he was alive, he was gone. In a month he’d only see my mother for two days, sometimes less. He worked on a commercial ship that purchased merchandise and took it from one place to another. He was proud to be able to buy two underwear for my mother. He wrote this in a letter, a list of items and, next to each one, the price. He apologized for not being able to do more, give her more things, for not being there when she went to the OBGYN, then for being unable to make it to the hospital when my mother gave birth to my older sister, and then for missing his daughter’s first words, first laughter. My father wrote constantly from his bunk on the ship. He worried about his sailor friends’ incessant drinking, their gambling, the brothels every time the ship docked. It was the Christmas of 1985. He wrote words about the rumbling of the sea, how he had to crawl to his room due to the rocking of the ship that churned his stomach, and his longing for my mother and sister. Five years later he was dead and I was born. There’s nothing left of him but this bulk of letters.
My mother gave me my father’s letters on my twenty-ninth birthday. It was overwhelming to confront his voice, his thoughts, his longing, his expectation that he and my mother would grow old together. It took me a long time to open the first telegram. His descriptions of looking into the sea almost drove me mad because I felt I could have written them myself, as though a time portal had opened up and it was, in fact, me writing through him to my mother. I felt so acutely his soul working in my own. His romanticism, his sea-sickness, his writing. My father would not have dreamt of being a writer, but he was one, so evidenced in the way he sung his love through an absence of flesh, through words. When I read his letters, I understood my mother’s insistence on being alone years after he passed, and alone still in her spirit and her soul.
Words of the dead are tricks, phantasm, yet they conjure the soul, resurrect. I feel him beside me. I ask myself how things would have turned out had he been alive. Perhaps I never would have learned English, never felt the pain of displacement because our family never would have left Vietnam. Perhaps I never would have loved anyone the way I do, with such clinging desperation, with an eye always toward where the road drops off into the irrevocable. Dreams of funerals.
Long after my father’s funeral, at mealtimes my sister still demanded that my mother set the table for three. She was only five then, a mere child, and yet she intuited the meaning of love—it doesn’t cease when the object of our affection does, but persists and persists beyond our immediate senses. Physical absence is only an illusion, the eye’s failure to grasp at the eternal. My father is nowhere and everywhere. Had your father met you, he would have loved you more than anyone. You’re just like him, my mother said to me. I trust these words more than I do gravity.
I’m preoccupied with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation—a different reality in which my parents could be together. And because I also believe in symmetry, karmic balance, I imagine that they might not be as happy, as in love, or they may have lost something else in exchange. In my second novel, Constellations of Eve, I put two lovers through multiple trials as their souls migrate through three reincarnations. In my mind, they might change fundamentally as people, but their love transcends time and space. I wonder what debts they would have to pay before arriving at peace, together, wanting nothing else. As with all literary projects, I thought I was doing one thing, while really doing another. I believed I was creating fiction out of my own relationship with my fiancé, and yet, the novel has grown beyond my immediacy. The way one loves is always informed by how one has loved. Three reincarnations, one love story, I wrote with the hope that love may transcend death, that my parents will meet in another lifetime. I also wrote it with the trepidation of losing the person I most value to death, a roll of the dice. I killed him in a story to preserve him in life. I killed and resurrected him with words. Words are tricks, phantasm, and perhaps bargains with the universe. While writing, I’m pleading to God, I understand how things could be, so there’s no need to test us, allow me this happiness. Allow me this love. I make wild promises.
“You’re too loyal for your own good,” a palm reader said, stopping me on the sidewalk and gripping my wrist to prevent me from joining the rest of the Manhattan pedestrians. I was too flustered from the unexpected touch of a stranger to register her words until years later. She’d let go of me after a few seconds, but her message had not. As a writer, I make it my personal duty to notice the abundant symbolisms in the world around me. Truth is a diagram to be deciphered. I see answers and suggestions to my inner inquiries in synchronicities, cloud patterns, deliberate silences. I wonder if the palm reader and I had met in another lifetime, if we would meet again. In Vietnamese culture, there is a belief that brief encounters indicate enough magnetic force from a past life (or lives) to draw two people together. But these two people have paid off each other’s debts, therefore it’s unnecessary for them to remain friends or lovers in their present reincarnations. Debt is the nucleus of all relationships.
My upbringing and education in Eastern tradition gives me something tremendous: the idea of the eternal, the circularity of soul migrations, love’s power to transcend time and space. But not just love. The Curse of the Four Kumaras from Bhagavata Purana tells the story of the four guards who disturb the sleep of the god Vishnu, the object of their love and worship. The Kumaras are condemned to earth as a result, but Vishnu gives them two options: in the first, they will be reincarnated seven times as devotees of Vishnu, while never being able to grace his presence (devotion from a distance). Or the second option: they will be birthed again three more times and live three lives (but as his enemies). The strength of hatred perhaps outweighs that of love. The Kumaras will have fewer lives if they loathe their god instead of loving him. They chose the second option, to be his enemy for a shorter penance. One must not underestimate the love of an enemy and the hatred of a friend.
Perhaps in another life, my mother turned from my father. (Might that have saved him? Would he have avoided that fatal accident?) As a young woman she almost did, at first seeing in him nothing that stood out. A quiet man, and not much else. It took her years to have the courage to look into the face of his love. And perhaps, in yet another life, both of them had the privilege of old love but never knew what it was to be parents. In a conversation with my mother when I was eight, I asked if she would be willing to give up everything in this life to resurrect my father. Her answer was a resolute yes. Even though the everything included me and my sisters, I understood and agreed with my mother’s choice. Love, once tasted, makes all alternatives unbearable.
Last year, having read my writing, my mother apologized for my lack of a childhood. She wondered what had caused her to lose her mind and treat her children the way she had. My mother is not the type to say sorry to anyone, even when she’s at fault. I nodded and accepted this brief acknowledgment. Then, in a moment of rage, she eviscerated her own apology: “I regret—because I loved him, I didn’t abort you as your grandmother suggested after your father passed,” she screamed. She now expected gratitude for having kept me in her womb. Like my mother, I also immediately catastrophized the conversation. I thought of asking her why she hadn’t slit my throat when she still could. Then I wouldn’t have had to grow up and realize what Mother really means. I wanted to flirt with dark street corners, find a thin blade materializing in the hand of a stranger who’d sink its point into the flesh of my stomach. I would have thanked this stranger for being kinder to me than my mother, I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I submitted to silence, that of my father’s. Quiet the way he was in life and after life. Though my mother’s delivery of the words was different, the sentiment wasn’t new. If she could make a transaction with God or the devil, her children were included in the bargain. I wonder, now, if my mother is Vishnu, and I her guard. I wonder, too, which sentence I have chosen: the one of love or of loathing.
Writing is an act of hope. In prayers, I thank my father for aiding me in holding my tongue during moments of rage, for helping me weigh my words carefully. I make myself a promise that I’ll hold my tongue, but never my pen. Despite the difficult characters that populate my writing, I’ve never written about anyone I didn’t care about deeply, and I believe I never will. Love can be as simple as interest. I’m interested in the full humanity of all those I love. A Literate Passion, a collection of letters between Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, chronicles the budding friendship of two writers, which transformed into a passionate love affair, and eventually settled into a more mature, accepting friendship. While I read, I was aware of being witness to their love for each other, therefore their deception toward everyone else. I was grateful for the reservation of their correspondence, their affair, and, at the same time, felt a pang of solidarity with their partners, who had endured such anguish. Writing is risk-taking. It is barbarous. Yet we continue on, “erecting a monument to past sorrows,” as Henry Miller wrote in his letter. Writing is how a writer loves.
Alternatives make a succulent playground for fiction. Writing fiction gives me the chance to erase myself from my parents’ story. A part of me believes this is what it takes, the cost of being debt-free. How fortunate we are to be tethered to one another, to serve each other, to betray each other and ourselves. How lucky to be blessed with no other pain but this one, this specificity, grief as singular as an individual pearl. The palm reader was right about me: I am stubbornly loyal to the person I choose, grateful for the debt I alone am granted to bear. After all, it is harder to love the living than the dead. It requires courage.
All marriages are ridden with sorrow. Can it be that such sorrows are also the lifeline of love, because the alternative is nothing, nothing at all. In one version, I see my parents sitting next to each other, their fingers interlaced, the lines on their palms fusing together—love’s expression through the body. They fall asleep. They never open their eyes again for they have arrived. After so many lifetimes, so much loss, they are finally as they should be.
I see myself, too, growing old with the person I love. A possibility.