Backstory: For Vicki
While I was downstairs, folding laundry in the basement, I heard my sister Vicki stomping upstairs to the room that used to be mine, slamming the door, and locking it shut.
I was a shitty older brother. And Vicki learned that action from me.
Then, I heard more footsteps. Louder stomping. And I knew, with certainty, it was Mom coming after her.
I'm not an omniscient narrator, so I don't know what Vicki does when the door is locked.
But I do imagine she is reading. Vicki’s been using her Kindle that Mom got her for Christmas. She adores Gillian Flynn and Suzanne Collins. She's starting to get into Philip Pullman which is swagger. I remember reading His Dark Materials when I was in elementary school.
The Golden Compass sucks you into that world, like during June when you're hitting a bowl for the first time and you're 17, late at night on Bethany beach with your childhood best friend, and the surf is curling against your toes, and the smoke is trailing away from the cherry, and you begin to realize that life isn't all about living in NOVA forever, because the world is more than NOVA, because life is bigger than this hole, that to some people believe is whole, and that's fine, that's fine because many of our parents came here from other small towns, and they wanted to do what we wanted to do, which is to pack up our stuff into the trunk of our presumably Asian branded car, and drive, drive, until they reach a destination that doesn't remind them of the good memories and the bad memories, until memory is mixed in with nostalgia, and nostalgia is mixed in with the past.
Maybe I'm dwelling on backstory, maybe you don't need to hear the backstory.
But I think you do.
Life isn't an eternity,
what I'm telling you is already known, known since there was a spider crawling up the staircase and your dad took the heel of his black dress shoe and dug his heel into that bug. And maybe I'm buggin’, but that bugged me, and now I'm trying to be healthier eating carrots like Bugs. Kale, red onions, and quinoa, as well. Because I want to be there for my sister, Vicki my sister. All we got is a wrapped-up box made from God, Mohammad, and Buddha.
Soon, I heard Vicki’s door handle being cranked down and up, up and down.
Mom raised her voice from a quiet storm to a deafening concerto.
Then, there was silence, followed by a door slamming shut.
Welcome to our life.
Later on, that night, Vicki sped out of our cul-de-sac in her silver Honda Accord—a gift from Mom to keep her rooted in Nova—and even from the front porch of my house, I felt a distance from her that was deep and immovable.
I sank deeper into my lawn chair and lit a jack, but instead of inhaling like I usually did, I held it out in front of me and watched the smoke billow out from the cherry.
I always smoked jacks when she was not there, because I didn’t want her to see me knowingly do this to myself, even as I was making huge changes to my life. It’s the one vice I have left, and it’s terrible for me, but I don’t know if she understands that I know both things. Maybe instead of caring about what jacks do to my body, I should care about what she thinks about what I’m doing to myself. This should be obvious to me, but sometimes things aren’t that obvious.
As we grew older Vicki and I forged a dialogue, an understanding. She confided in me and I confided in her, sharing secrets, details about our lives that were personal and private, as if we were two CIA agents working together to defeat a totalitarian government—our tiger mom.
But seriously our mom was and still is swagger as shit—rocks Michael Kors and flannel Pajama pants (If I told you that last article of clothing she'd probably pinch my cheek and call me a chipmunk. Don't worry I'm fine with a moderation of self-deprecation).
The other day Mom talked to me about Vicki and explained that she was upset and irritated with Vicki because of her attitude. I thought that was interesting, because I used to have the same exact attitude when I was my sister’s age and I got away with a lot more shit, being that I'm a guy and the first-born. I understood why she would shut the front door, exit our red brick bungalow, and speed away in her Honda Accord, going towards Clarendon, or Adams Morgan, spending her time with her extensive circle of friends on the weekdays and weekends.
Because being inside our house, life could get suffocating and depressing.
Our Grandparents live with us. Grandpa had a stroke and is trying to recover. Grandma has Alzheimer’s and agitates my mom for rides to a Vietnamese Church. Besides the caretakers, Mom, Dad, Vicki, and I are the only ones taking care of my grandparents.
Mom told me that she believes that Vicki uses the house as a hotel. Mom didn't remind me of a landlord, and I believe that Vicki doesn’t see her as that either.
I didn't believe Vicki was doing anything necessarily wrong.
She had her own life.
I had my own life.
Dad had his own life.
Mom had her own life.
I understood why she wanted to go out and party and hang out with her friends. Maybe she was like me when I was 21 and perceived living at home as a prison, wanting to have autonomy and freedom from Mom because she was attempting to make me conform to her controlled system with restraints. But as Vicki and I both grow older I believe that we see Mom not as an authority figure; but, just as Mom.
Vicky and Mom clash and clash and clash with each other, more than the Archer Queens of The Hero Troops clash with the witches of the Dark Elixir Troops.
They act like they were from different clans, but they're both on the same side in reality.
The apple does not fall far from the tree. And in this case the tree wants to hang onto the apple on the tip of its rough, and yet leafy bough.
Because the tree is rooted in experience and has been around for much longer than the apple.
But the apple is looking for more water than the tree can give it. So the apple dreams about a summer rain-shower that will give it a chance to have its own experience. A similar, but different one, to the darker apple that hangs from a higher bough, an apple that has been spoiled from having too much sun and water.
During Winter Break, Vicki scored me tickets to a game between the Wizards and the Bucks. From court side to the nosebleeds, the audience at the Verizon Center was chanting in cacophony and in tempo. Wall was injured. But Gortat crashed the boards, Nene' drained mid-range shots, and Beal drove up the lane like Ginsberg reading Howl.
Vicki and I both tried to talk to each other as much as we could; unfortunately, Voldemort—my ex-gf—sat in between us and was gossiping about the latest scoop with the Kardashians.
Nevertheless, Vicki and I still managed to drink and have an outstanding time. But I should have given her more attention and spent less time on my smartphone. I was spending bread on Papa John's Pizza and chain-smoking jacks during half-time, and even when there were time outs. When I would come back and sink into my plastic chair, I'd feel bloated and dizzy.
And I'd look over at Vicki and either she was talking to Voldemort, or typing away on her smartphone. I didn't mind it at the time, but now I wished I had been less of a concessions barbarian/used-car salesman chain-smoker, and more of an older brother. I should have asked her about her day and her friends and her interests.
But I didn't.
Because I was so concerned about indulging in my vices like eating slices of pepperoni pizza and drinking overpriced beer. There's nothing wrong with pizza or beer. But as we all know the old saying goes, everything is about moderation.
Vicki scrunched her nose and squinted her eyes when I would lean forward and try to maneuver around Voldemort, trying to talk to her about the game and the players in it. I imagine that when she smelled the cigarette smoke leaking away from my lips, that she believed I was inconsiderate and not self-aware.
After the game, we went to a bar across the street from the Verizon Center, and bought mixed drinks. Voldemort was D.D., so Vicki and I drank until our Asian faces got redder than women and men who go up on stage for public speaking for the first time.
I remember this older Asian guy was trying to hit on her.
I took in short breaths. Inhaled. Exhaled. I cracked my shoulder blades to push my chest forward.
And then, I patted him on the back and grinned. The Asian guy got the message. You don’t fuck with the bodyguard.
Vicki had and still has a great boyfriend named Matt.
I guided Vicki back to our table and laughed about the awkward situation with her.
The Asian guy craned his head toward me and did a short wave. And then he bought us coronas. Either, you’re still hitting on my sister, or it’s a kind gesture. She and I better not get... Or am I overthinking it?
But seriously, I wished I had been the one to spend money on her first—she had bought the first round of drinks. Because at the time, my job was challenging and low-paying. Or maybe I just wasn't being frugal enough and partying way too often.
I still remember the picture that a cool rando took of us, drinking the Coronas, and how I was happy to be a part of her life again. Our eyes were so Asian. I had my lanky arm around her small shoulders, like a proud Father. She had her cheek propped up by her fist, her smile, gigantic and beaming, as though she had just won Wimbledon for the first time.
I was wearing a white and blue Oxford shirt that she had gotten me for Christmas with a D.C. Rising hat. She had on a cotton scarf that resembles a tan striped tail of a powerful cat.
My face was chubby from the pizza. Her face was just right like the one house in Goldilocks. The limes in the Coronas were sitting just below the throat of the bottles, like old memories resurfacing the brain, to make the self recall, to make the self remember how to treat his family.
Or maybe this is just a brand new Corona ad geared towards the rising second-generation Asian American demographic? I'm playing around.
But end of commercial break.
Vicki pats me on the back and we clink bottles together. Voldemort is lurking in the background, as if she's about to photobomb the next picture. Sometimes I don't know if there's going to be a next picture.
Either we live in these moments, or make memories of them with our phones. And like sheep following an untrustworthy shepherd, we went back to our phones. She made emails and texts. I went on twitter in search of the latest news story.
Before Vicki and I opened each other's presents, I remember I blew up at Mom and Dad, and criticized everyone in the family room including Vicki. It was over something stupid and trivial, but it was also something that made me feel insecure and small. I was the black sheep and she was the sheep-dog.
I screamed. Vicki took in a deep breath and looked away from my glare, looked away to a spot on the hardwood floor that was filled with a fine blanket of dust and lint. I chattered. She rubbed her fingers around the lens of her black camera and shook her head in a manner that suggested annoyance and disappointment. I scoffed. She set the camera down on the coffee table and pressed the flat of her hand against her cheek, and glanced out the window into the backyard that was blanketed with slush and snow.
Drops of snow were plunging from the branches of the evergreen trees and plopping onto the patches of the ground, plunging, as though they were little toddlers cannonballing off of a high-dive.
She turned back and looked at me straight in the eye, so straight I thought she was searching for the answer to my own stupidity.
I cleared my throat and said, “I need a breath of fresh air.”
Vicki bit her bottom lip, sat down, and put her arms on her knees, a deep, contemplative look appearing on her face.
I stormed into the narrow hallway, slammed the front door back against its rusty hinges, and trundled down my front driveway, the cold from the ice and the snow dampening the soles of my tarnished boots. I lit a jack at the far end of the cul-de-sac and counted to ten. I watched the cigarette smoke rise, as the ashes fell on the snow, blemishing its purity and calmness. I inhaled. I exhaled. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach that Vicki knew I was having a jack to reduce my stress, stress that I had cause all by myself. I ground the jack against the snowy concrete, feeling the cold begin to numb my fingers that were shaking from the nicotine, shaking from the winter that had wrapped itself around me and my sister.
When I came back inside of the house, I told Mom and Dad I was being an idiot and that I didn’t mean to be such an asshole. I turned to Vicki and put my hand on her shoulder, squeezed it, and smiled weakly, telling her that I didn’t mean to upset her.
She nodded and said, “It’s okay bro.”
But her soft and icy tone made me feel skeptical; she didn’t believe me. I didn’t know if I believed my apology. Minutes later, I gave my present to her.
Her face brightened up with a smile. It was a gradual and cautious smile, a little too gradual and a little too cautious. She hugged me tightly, as though my earlier outburst hadn’t happened.
She opened the bank envelope and inside was a fat stack of cleanly, pressed bills that totaled a hundred. Being an arrogant, noob car salesman at the time, I thought it was going to be a pretty clever present. I could have given her a Benjamin, but I thought this would make her happier, because it showed my creative side in a different form.
I remember seeing her spread the dollar bills out, as if the bills were a Japanese Paper fan. Vicki told me not to post the picture I had taken on insta or Facebook. I smiled faintly and nodded, stuffing my smartphone back into my sweatpants pocket. I understood what she wanted, and I listened to her, respecting her wishes. But I also wasn't sure if she was embarrassed and ashamed of me. And maybe I was overthinking it. But again, maybe I wasn’t overthinking it. Social Media, whether we like it or not, is a part of life. And in that moment, I actually wanted social media to display this single story in our lives. I wanted to show people that Vicki was the most important person—besides my parents—in my life. Because I was so concerned with how people viewed me and because I lacked confidence, lacked security, and lacked respect for myself
Vicki's present to me was a sleek and blue tie, a box set of mini colognes, and refreezable-ice-cubes. I think she called it the car salesperson kit. But I knew and still know she was trying to turn me into an honest and non-sketchy car salesman. And you know what, I was genuine, but I also couldn't retain any information about the cars features—to reiterate my Grandma has Alzheimer's, my mom writes down constant notes to remember everything, and I forget my journal almost every time I leave the house.
After Christmas I wore the tie to work a few times, but the mini colognes and ice-cubes never got used by me. They stayed in the trunk of my Toyota Avalon. I should have used the colognes and the ice-cubes, but I was too careless, too self-involved, and too ungrateful.
Back in the 90’s, when we were around 3 and 6 years old, Vicki and I shared the same room on the far-left end of the hallway in our house. She had a small bed, and I had a bigger bed, obviously, because at 6 foot 1, I was a genetic freak for a Vietnamese guy. I read Harry Potter and Redwall like crazy growing up, and I would try to invent my own stories to entertain her. Every night she would listen to me tell my yarn, and it made me feel that my voice was significant and strong, even though many times I felt my voice was weak and soft, lacking in inflection, or intonation.
I had a speech impediment and I had to take classes at Canterbury Woods to fix my perceived problem. I wanted to fit in, blend in, and have friends.
Back then Vicki was not only my sister, but my best friend. She used to have short, black bangs; chubby cheeks, and a dot-sized nose—don't worry she didn't get sucked into the grocery tabloids and get rhinoplasty. She wore her red pajamas with a tank top over it, so she looked like a mini-red ranger, and her slippers were blue and fuzzy as a cluster of caterpillars. She and I would take large white bedsheets and build forts in our room, from my bed to her bed, using rubber-bands and our bed posts to secure the tarpaulin.
I read her library books from—Harry Potter to Red Wall—using a flashlight to brighten up the crinkled pages. I did my best to speak like the characters: badgers, mice, and otters; mudbloods, animagus, and half-Giants. As I read Vicki's face perked up: her smile growing in width and height, her teeth showing like tiny, white candy-corn, and her hazelnut eyes expanding like a microscope lens.
But sometimes, she would open her mouth agape, and press her hands against her cheeks as though she was Macaulay Culkin. Or, pout her lips, and cross her chest with her arms like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen in Full house.
I took in deep breaths, inhaled, and exhaled, trying my best to control the pacing of the story. Before she got too sleepy we would leave the paper-thin fort and I'd take the flashlight, set it up on top of the books, and then create bunnies, baby chicks, and butterflies with my hands.
She'd squeal and giggle, clap her hands rapidly, and jump up and down, as though the carpet were a moon bounce. I'd teach her how to high-five, go dead-pan with her face, and shake hands firmly. Communicating through shadow puppets and literature, allowed us to form a solid and honest friendship.
Now we talk to each other through smartphones and kindles. I’m nostalgic about our old modes of dialogue, but I'm also proud of how she has grown up. She doesn't need my help like she used to.
She’s now 21 and I'm 25. For years, during high school and college, I had remained distant from her. I wasn't a good and older brother. I didn't look out for her, or give her advice. For example, I was the last one in the family to find out that she had been dating her boyfriend for two years. I know I was fucking oblivious haha. But seriously, I wished she would have confided in me.
Because I wanted her to share her own stories with me. Like what was it like for her team and her to go to states—she being the No. 2 female tennis player for Woodson—and fight for a championship? Or what was it like to be voted Prom Queen and get drunk with your friends in a hotel room while in high school? Or her experience as being voted class clown superlative? I know she did all of these things, but she never told me the stories. I don't need every detail, just the ones that are important and paramount to her. Because I love my sister; she’s one of my best friends, and most importantly, my blood.