Housefire


May 1, 2022 / Kelly Wei





Father was an artist before his father set fire to the paintings. Much of this history eludes me, but the way he speaks of the event — brusque and aversive, between spoonfuls of soup at the kitchen table — is enough to suggest some part of him still grieves the loss. Actually, I am not even sure it was him who told me this story. Maybe I heard it first from his younger sister, a wry and peculiar woman who came to visit us five summers ago.

I don’t even know her name. It never came up all summer. But I remember she gave me $500 (because it was the most amount of money I had ever held in my hands) and a suitcase full of her old designer stuff, these delicate pieces in XS and XXS that resembled dolls’ clothing, all of it ornate in a girlish, old worldly way. I liked her immediately.

She herself was reminiscent of some waifish, mid-century city girl, and though she was well into her forties by the time I met her, there was a liveliness to the way my aunt moved and talked that made her seem much younger. I could see the girl in her, a nervy and long-limbed librarian type who smiled quickly and ducked her head. She wasn’t beautiful, but I drank in the jaunty sway of her body when she went for morning walks, her china-white skin, the swath of long dark hair tucked behind a pair of reading glasses she kept atop her head like sunnies.

We were awkward with each other, and that summer in general was memorably miserable — harsh sun, exhausting New England road trips, my coldish attitude a source of tremendous unspoken tension between my father and I the entire time — but I recall sitting with her one evening to salt edamame at the kitchen table.

“He was really quite good,” she said. “I mean, our mother called him prodigious,” I noticed something rueful to her tone here, an old echo of sibling rivalry. “Only 10 years old and they were hanging his oils in the town hall.”

“My dad doesn’t seem like the painting type.”

“Not anymore. Our father made sure of that.”

She could have said more, but it felt like a moot point. Better to lose some paintings by your family’s hand than your life by gossiping neighbors. That’s how it was “back then,” when everything could change by the bat of a single man’s hand. And my father, a talented and industrious man, turned out fine in the end, albeit nothing close to an artist.

“So Dad was popular?”

“He was adored,” my aunt said, and flashed me that glancing smile of hers, gone as quickly as it’d come out on her pale, fluttery face. “Always the pride of the family.”

For a moment, I saw their resemblance: both high-cheeked, with serious eyes and a cool, absent affect that never entirely disintegrated, even when they were trying to appear kind.

I never saw her again after that summer. My father himself had been exiled to the fringes of my life by any family member with half a say in the matter, and even less grace was afford to “the likes of his sister.” Those were someone else’s words, not mine. From what I could gather, she seemed to everyone in my family like a black hole: sucking the air and life out of happy homes, upturning the furniture, threatening people with kitchen knives and leaking her thick, pitchy woman juice all over the place like a dog.

To me, she was rather like a cold, pure, and distant star.

***

Men, men, men. My aunt grew up in a house full of them. To the dismay of her family, she had emerged, like a pale and slim crack, from an otherwise unruptured line of snub-nosed boys. In her youth, she could have passed for one herself: flat-chested, hard-jawed, tall, good at school.

I would like to think there were at least some good days, when her gender had not yet erased every other aspect of her identity.

The summer we spent together, I followed her out of artexhibitions and into gift shops, touching all the little trinkets after she touched them, these sparkly coasters and puzzels, magnets and tote bags. I learned later that she made a living designing gift shop souvenirs for Chinese museums. 

“She was not abused,” my father insists. This is the preface he gives me to any further explanation of my aunt. “My grandma loved us all. And that girl was constantly making things worse for herself.”

I’ll bet. I don’t know that girl and yet I do. It only takes two or three vignettes for the bigger picture to begin putting itself together. The crude parties, the finite money, the men. Always the men.

***

After his PhD, my father marries unhappily and settles down in a north Texas neighborhood, where land is cheap and the school districts highly rated, as most of us are wont to do when we run out of dreams to chase and so begin the ordeal of actual living. He’s not spoken to my aunt in five years when, one night, his pregnant wife picks up the landline, hears a man howling a name over and over on the other end, and shouts down the hall for him.

My father pokes his head out the door of his office, and, seeing the look on my mother’s face, reluctantly shuffles out. It’s 12:28 a.m.

“Didn’t hear it, sorry.”

She only gives him the phone and brushes past him to go back upstairs, leaving my father to put a hand over the receiver and call after her. “Who is it?”

Sound of overhead footsteps. Slam of door. That translates to, Who else? Deal with her!

But it’s not her. It’s a man, and he lays at my father’s feet a list of grievances that seemed and sounded a mile long, but in end, could really be boiled down to just three things: He’d gone and fallen in love with a long-time mistress, eloped at last with her to Venezuela three months ago, then came to on New Year’s Day alone and hungover. She, along with 13 million bolivares—about $30,000—had disappeared overnight. And she’d left nothing behind but some cheap jewelry and our home number on the nightstand.

I am no longer interested in asking women whether they are good or bad. Nobody levels that question on my father, booking a one-way ticket out of Texas with his tail between his legs after the divorce papers are finalized, nor about my father’s father, dumping gasoline over a child’s oil paintings to kill what little softness we bring into the world. We assume it was complicated. We trustfall into cultural and sociological excuses. We blame recession, revolution, a darkness from which the secret pain of men emerges, one that women may never access or understand — as if we did not bear it first when we pushed them out of us. As if our bodies were not the original fallow wetness from which darkness first sprang.

My aunt, constantly making things worse for herself. My aunt, aquiline nose pressed to the airplane glass, her suitcase and a future wadded up in the overhead bin. My aunt, bookish and boyish and not that pretty, a charmer and a thief, hoisting herself through grimy windows to start the engine in dead of night. My aunt, knowing exactly what she’s doing.

You simply cannot find an open door into a woman like that. ■





By: Kelly Wei

Layout: Juleanna culilap


View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.

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