This may be a first for PITNB, but I just have to share this short story with y’all. One of my fellow Sarah Lawrence alums shared her friend’s publication on Facebook the other day and I sort of casually clicked the link so I could get my hateration on. What I mean is, I’ve been known to hate on fellow published writers, lol. It’s wrong, I know! And immature. And unnecessary. But sometimes I do it. Mainly because, writer that I am, I’m totally jealous of people who are crazy good at creative writing, and– well– any kind of writing… lol. Yeah, I need help. Sometimes, however, I just cannot even hate because the writing is sooo good and I’m all like, See? You need to write more. You haven’t written a poem in months! This short story, A Messy Relationship, was one of those pieces. Titi Nguyen (who I’m just now finding out also attended Sarah Lawrence… holla!) wrote a brilliant, autobiographical piece of work that I have to share with y’all. It’s great fun filling our heads with images from new GQ photo shoots and Halle Berry‘s familial drama, but every once in a while y’all know I like to celebrate pop culture on another level. Click inside for more! You will love, I promise!
Titi‘s piece was published in The New York Times Townies series, a weekly series about New York life. I’m not even sure if we can share the whole thing here, but I just cannot pick out an excerpt right now! Every paragraph is that good. Hopefully they won’t mind… but you should also check out the piece on The New York Times site– there’s a great painting that went along with this story:
A Messy Relationship
By TITI NGUYEN
One November morning, four years ago, I received a call from my mother. Before I could say hello, she blurted her news: she’d just been at a client’s house. Their son, Douglas, was visiting, and was even more handsome than when she’d seen him last. And she had his e-mail address. Did I have a pen ready?
When I said I had no idea who she was talking about, she huffed and I huffed back. My parents work as housekeepers in the affluent towns neighboring their home in Quincy, Mass., and this wouldn’t be the first time my mother tried to set me up with their clients’ sons. But how could I feel affection for anyone whose T-shirts and socks my mother laundered?
After a moment I remembered that I had met this man, years ago, when I was 19. My parents had cleaned his parents’ home every two weeks for the past eight years. When my parents told them I was having a difficult first year at college in New York, they suggested I meet their son, a 35-year-old artist living in Brooklyn. It wasn’t matchmaking — only a sympathetic gesture to take me out of my school malaise. I don’t remember much about that day, except that I met Douglas at the four-faced clock in the center of Grand Central Terminal and that we visited a rare books store after lunch. I didn’t recall our conversation, the cafe where we ate or even what he looked like.
To appease my mother, but also because I was struck with the thought that it had been kind of him to meet with me years before, I e-mailed Douglas to express my condolences over his grandmother’s death — the reason for his visit home. After a few e-mails we made plans to see a dance performance.
To keep warm that cold night I waited behind the doors of the theater, watching through the glass for Douglas. That I recognized him surprised me, but he hadn’t changed much. He was slender, with deep-set brown eyes and dark hair that curled above his forehead. He wore a black parka with a turquoise knit scarf and held the bright purple book I was to identify him by. For a moment I watched him scan the crowd for me, then I pushed through the doors and walked toward him.
“Hi. I’m not crying,” he said, wiping his eyes. “My eyes water in the winter.”
Inside, a woman handed us programs. Douglas dropped his and the woman and I watched as he knelt to pick it up. “You nervous or something, mister?” she teased, winking at me. I tittered and at the same time, for reasons unclear to me, felt an overwhelming tenderness for this man. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or simply hadn’t heard her, but he looked for the aisle and led me to our seats in silence. We’d arrived so shortly before the beginning of the show that there was little time to talk.
“I think this will be really good,” he said to me, as the lights dimmed.
He leaned forward in his chair throughout the performance, mesmerized. I wanted to watch his face, to see him react to the movements we saw onstage. I tried to remember what his parents’ house looked like, if the few times I’d tagged along cleaning with my parents were enough to recall where all the trash baskets were — wedged beside a toilet, hidden under a desk or in a walk-in closet. I wondered if he’d ever forgotten that turquoise scarf on a visit home, if my mother or father had picked up and folded the soft wool.
My arm grazed his discarded coat, slung over his seat; I imagined it was his arm. He came from a small, hard place inside me, a jagged land of filial indignation, Clorox and dusting rags, and I was shaken by my attraction to him.
We saw more and more of each other. One night a few months later, in a diner booth in Astoria, Queens, Douglas told me two things: First, he really liked me. Second, he felt bad about liking me: “I won’t say that our age difference doesn’t worry me, and I know the situation with our families is very difficult. If we were to be together, I’d like to work through these issues with you.” Then he sat back, a stunned look on his face.
My mother’s reaction to our relationship was so enthusiastic that it roused my suspicions. I wondered if her excitement was linked to Douglas’s whiteness, his Americanness. Unlike most traditional Asian mothers, she encourages me to date white men. Surely someone who grew up anchored in American culture would be more financially and socially assured; certainly my American boyfriend would be able to navigate the culture that has confounded her for so long. She also believes that a white man will treasure me more than an Asian man, because I’m different from what he comes from.
In bed, my eyes trace the blue veins shooting through the milk of his skin, like eggshell cracks, then the prominent veins that stretch over the tops of his feet like nets. I’m fascinated by the differences between his body and mine — the skin underneath his alert eyes loosening the tiniest bit, the occasional gray strand in his dark hair. We don’t dare to talk about it, but it’s as tangible as the blare of car horns outside our windows: What will happen when he grows old?
I do the math: when I’m 30, Douglas will be 46; when I turn 35, he’ll be 50. More variables: if we have a baby when Douglas is 45, he’ll be 60 when our child is 15. Sometimes I feel cheated by time: if only we’d met sooner, if only he were younger. If X equals this, Y equals that. Y is always greater than X.
Other times, I don’t think of it at all. Our four years together have been happy. Our apartment is comfortably messy, and I don’t often clean — the 1950s red Formica table that belonged to Douglas’s grandmother serves more as dumping ground than a dining surface: unopened mail, pens, receipts, loose change, a lamp with a ceramic dog base, two electric toothbrush chargers, a spool of green twine. Coats and jeans drape the backs of the chairs. We eat our dinners on the living room floor instead. I stretch my legs out in front of me and he scoots over, leaning against me. He carefully trims the fat off the edges of his steak and transports the pieces to my plate, where he knows they’ll be savored. In these times, our differences recede into the background.
My mother and father still strip the sheets off Douglas’s parents’ bed, sponge the dried toothpaste off their mirrors, vacuum their rugs. Every two weeks, they dust the bedroom that was once his.
“Their son is an artist,” my father said to me years ago as we straightened the cushions on the sofa in the living room. “That’s him, over there.”
He pointed. Two dense pupils stared at us from behind the glass of the large framed drawing hanging on the wall. It was Douglas’s self-portrait, rendered in smudged whorls of charcoal. I didn’t care to look closer then. I’ve since studied the drawing, its intensity pulling me away from Thanksgiving dinners to examine the hollows and lines that I now know so well. He was 19 when he drew himself, the age I was when I first met him.
This story is powerful on so many levels. The author has pulled in a plethora of different issues– culture, class, age, corporeal and emotional connections– and still written a complete and beautiful love story. I really hated having to come up with a good headline for this post– A Messy Relationship is, obviously, so much more than just a story about interracial dating or age gaps (even as it is very much that). But I hope y’all enjoyed the piece and that you keep your eye out for more of Titi Nguyen‘s work!