Sometime last year, I watched the animated Netflix series “Arcane” on my laptop with my feet perched on an office chair that was adjusted a touch too high, just as I liked it.
“Is there anything so undoing as a daughter?” a man being undone by his daughter mournfully proclaimed to a statue of a man that had been undone by his daughter.
As someone daughter-identifying, I wasn’t sure what kind of “undoing” effect I may have had, apart from undoing my father’s gallstones. Pulverizing them to dust. Dust to dust. That had been a fun toy. But acquiring it was… not completely so.
I shook the small glass bottle like a snow globe, two black stones ricocheting off each other and their cylindrical confines. As more motes of ashy black chipped off, I giggled; this was my favorite inane toy. From the look of the picture on our fireplace mantle, this was apparently not my first inane toy, either. Sparsely curly-haired with a gap-toothed grin and peeking over my father’s shoulder as he cradled me close, I held an empty juice bottle in my grubby hands.
I don’t know why you wanted an empty one, my mother recalled when I had asked about the picture.
That day at dinner, I locked eyes with my father over the dining table as my mother ranted about the soupy vegetables – chopped, not diced, Simon, I told you this – and rolled my eyes. His mouth was still set in a straight line, ever the stoic first son of his family, but his eyes twinkled behind his wire-framed glasses as he lifted his bowl up for another bite. Less oil, less sugar, less salt. Such were the woes of a man without a bile-storing gallbladder to emulsify the fats of his favorite New York cut of steak.
The Disappearance of the Gallbladder was a story that began even before my birth. In the year 2000, as I was separating my webbed feet in my mother’s womb, her name was drawn from a green card lottery held in Taiwan. A chance to immigrate to America with her family, the elusive Promised Land of Better Life. They thought of declining it. Then I was born.
See this; Scene “The Beginning: Before Immigration” in Taiwan was fuzzy in my memory. I remembered learning to brush my teeth at a preschool, being picked up by my grandfather and his chauffeur (yeah, my grandparents had it pretty nice), waiting for my mother to come home from her cushy secretarial job. Living in an apartment of three generations in the middle of Taipei, everything was easy access.
But we wanted more for you, my father said.
Scene “The Next: After Immigration” memories were most vivid at Woodview Apartments, where I cried about cute mice poisoned in our kitchen traps, where my mother was no longer working the cushy secretarial job and was instead a stay-at-home parent, where my father worked long and late hours at a thankless entry-position job in a bank for a shot at the American Dream.
The scene following was blurrier, a memory of the hospital. Blue curtains drawn around the bed, faux privacy in a shared room. My father with his belly swollen from the gas of minimally invasive surgery. My mother with pinched lips, pulling his covers up to his neck. Me, swaying sleeplessly. At 11 p.m. on a school night, I sat on a nearby chair, gazing blankly at those blue curtains as my mother whispered in low tones to my newly gallbladder-less father.
My father later came home with a freshly acquired jar of tiny black balls of rolled cholesterol. They looked like Chinese herbal medicine pills. My mother made faces of disgust, but I was fascinated by the tiny calcifications that caused my father so much pain as he worked without rest.
My gallstones. He grinned with that twinkle behind his glasses.
I remembered that in Chinese myths, some of those balled herbal elixirs could even grant immortality. But Chang-e didn’t become the immortal goddess of the moon from ingesting the pills just to have their look-alikes extracted from the Gallbladder of Overworked Man. What ironic lumps to remove.
Years later, I went home for winter break after the first quarter of college. My father had fished the glass bottle containing his gallstones out from the white office drawer. They’d seen better days, whole and cultivating invasively in his body before a laparoscope plucked their entire incubator out.
“We should display it.”
He looked at me drily.
“I’m throwing this out. Who can even tell what this was?”
Oh, only just a physical manifestation of haste and despair in pursuit of the elusive promised Dream of success, prosperity and better lives.
I smiled sheepishly. “Nooo, don’t throw it out! It’s like a memento.”
As he moved over to the trash can, lined by the Asian Household Staple of a 99 Ranch Market bag, I was seized by an impulse. A compulsion of destruction, like cats batting sitting-duck-mugs off a coffee table.
“Wait!” I rushed over to him, arms poised at ninety degrees for maximum paternal annoyance.
“I told you not to walk like that,” he said, frowning.
I waved him off, eager to grab the bottle he was about to dispose of. “Too late, everyone’s seen me do it.”
A final parting for my beloved, inane toy. My dusty, not-so-hardy stress ball. Gripping it in my hands reverently, I turned around – and shook vigorously. The perfect “As-seen-on-TV” Shake Weight demonstration. My father made a bagpipe-adjacent noise, but I ignored him. Turning around and flashing him a saccharine smile, I dropped the dusty remains of his time as a pseudo-oyster into the bin.
That was the last time I had an inane toy. Such physical things were all replaced by electronics in this digital age, really.
On screen, I watched the man being undone by his daughter reverently whisper to her an affirmation of her existence.
“Don’t cry, you’re perfect.”
He says this in lieu of a goodbye because to him she was. It didn’t matter that the world saw them as two lunatics racing toward destruction. Despite her mistakes and crumbling psyche that led him to the end of her smoking barrel, sprawled and dying in her arms, he had watched her grow and raised her the best he could in the cruel underbelly of their society. In her grief, the daughter pulled out her gun, fingers staining the toy with her adoptive father’s cooling blood, and became the pulverizer of the world that had shunned them both.
Mug empty of water, I set it on the desk and chewed slowly to savor the watery piece of chopped Napa cabbage. Less oil, less sugar, less salt.
Featured image: “Hospital” by Ralf Heß is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
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