A Millennial Odyssey: The Prologue

The sound of heavy, shuffling footsteps stirred me from my sleep. I drew the covers over my head in annoyance and turned away from the distant sounds in the hallway and towards the safety of the wall, uncertain whether I was dreaming or not. In a state of grogginess, the sounds seemed to get louder and louder, and I couldn’t distinguish whether it was because I was slowly coming to awareness or if indeed the noise was growing in volume.

I rubbed my eyes, letting them adjust to the darkness around me and turned back to face the bedroom door. A glowing, incandescent stream of light seeped through under the crack. The hallway light was on. Odd. What time is it, anyway? I looked over to my Mickey Mouse alarm clock and saw that the hour hand was somewhere around 2:00 in the morning.

In spite of the footsteps and disturbance, I felt safe, and if this were indeed a dream, it didn’t feel nightmarish. I slowly sat up on the bed, with the comforter tightly wrapped around me, regaining a little more consciousness every second, trying to listen for clues as to what was happening outside of the safety of my room.

More shuffling footsteps. Heavy footsteps, and I gathered from the light and moving shadows under my bedroom door that there were many pairs of feet, wearing boots, by the sound of it. Muffled, deep, manly voices. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but it sounded like they were speaking perfect English, which was strange seeing as how my father was out of town and it was unlikely for my mom to host a couple of American men this late into the night.

As curious as I was, something kept me from moving towards the door and opening it. Maybe it was self-preservation, I’ll never know for certain. Then I heard a familiar voice, and while she didn’t exactly sound like herself, it put me at ease. It was Ella, a Chinese college student who had been renting our spare bedroom for the past several months.

She sounds… tired and worried. Maybe I should go outside… or maybe I can make out what they’re saying if I move closer to the door?

I moved slowly and quietly, tip-toeing my way towards the door, even though with all of the noise and commotion in the hallway, I doubted an 11-year-old girl’s footsteps would have alarmed anyone. Pressing my ear to the cold, hard door, I could now tell that there were at least four different voices, not including Ella’s. All of them male. Two of them, whoever they were, were just on the other side of my door, and Ella, based on my pretend sonar abilities, must have been standing next to them, because I could hear her conversing with them in rushed whispers. The third man’s voice fluctuated in volume, but I was able to place him as being near the front door in our living room. The last man, his voice was distant, calm and soothing, unlike the others who sounded vexed, impatient, like they didn’t want to be here. His voice seemed to be coming from the room directly next to mine, my parents’ room.

My parents and I lived in a small apartment in the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco, next to some of the best Asian restaurants in the city. The neighborhood had, and I think, still has a significant Chinese immigrant population, though I’d hardly ever noticed it until I left.

Our apartment was located on a fairly quiet, residential street a few blocks south of Golden Gate Park, alongside many old Victorian houses. Our complex, however, was one of the rare non-Victorian set of structures, constructed in the late 60s/early 70s during the asbestos era. The complex consisted of two buildings that faced each other and ran parallel deep onto the other side of the block.

In other words, you could enter the complex from 5th or 6th Street. About halfway into the complex, there was a little open “zen” garden, complete with a deteriorating fountain encircled by a small, stone pool right in the middle of it all, much like what you mind find in a riad in Morocco, but not nearly as elegant or sophisticated. The kids would sometimes gather and play in the garden during the late afternoons and early evenings. Countless pennies had been thrown at the fountain and now found their home at the bottom of the pool.

From the front, our two buildings looked like two ugly twin brunette boys with the same mushroom cut popularized by Jonathan Taylor Thomas in the 90s, with windows for eyes eyes gazing out onto the street.

Both buildings were three stories high, but the ground floor didn’t have any units, as that was where the car park was. The front doors of all of the units on the first floor, which was where we were, faced the other building so you could easily see across into each other’s living rooms. I liked the closeness of it all; it forced adults to greet each other while they awkwardly walked along the narrow path to their respective apartments after a long day, only to find themselves standing across the way from each other, no more than fifteen feet apart, anxiously jiggling their keys into the keyhole in an attempt to open the door and relieve themselves from awkward small talk.

Our unit, #304, was the fourth unit of the building on the right as you walked in from 5th Street towards 6th, and to get to it, you had to climb up eleven steps to the outside walkway that connected unit #303 with ours. Our apartment had no entryway; the moment you opened the front door, our living quarters, dining room and kitchen were all fully exposed, like one of those fake room displays at Ikea. It wasn’t the most charming or well decorated of places, but it was home.

This was the only place I’d ever felt an attachment to, the only place I’d ever felt sad to leave. My bedroom door was the first door a guest saw once they entered our apartment because it faced the front door, and because it was always closed. My room was connected to Ella’s room via an adjoining bathroom, which we shared, and her room doubled as my father’s work den depending on the year. From a birds-eye view, Ella, my and my parent’s room created an L-shape that wrapped around our communal quarters, with my room at the corner of the L.

I liked living there, but I got the feeling that my parents didn’t. My best friends all lived nearby; Gia was just around the corner from us and Sadie was four-minutes by rollerblade away — we timed it once. I liked our neighbors, too. There were three boys who lived in the unit diagonally across from ours whom I’d sometimes babysit, even though I was only two years older than their oldest. I never knew what to make of that. They were 8, 6 and 4. The middle one, Hunter, was my favorite. He looked like a Hunter, like a boy who belonged in the jungle with his hazel green eyes and unkempt ash blonde hair, always piddle-paddling around our compound barefoot wearing nothing but a pair of slightly-too-big hand-me-down swim trunks. I think I might have had a crush on him then, well, as much as a 10-year old girl can crush on a 6-year old boy.

That year, my parents dragged me out almost every weekend to open houses all around the Bay Area, once or twice as far south as Pleasanton and once, we went out of state — to Seattle, Washington! I hated it. I didn’t want to move, especially out to the middle of butt-fuck nowhere, which we seemed to be increasingly destined for with every house we saw. Each house a mile further from the neighbors than the last; once I counted 37 curves in the road between the nearest supermarket and our would-be new home;. This house didn’t even have any blinds because it was surrounded by dozens of tall, dark, coniferous trees.

“Nature’s curtains!” The lady showing us the house had said, “And the next house is five miles up the road — so you have all of this to yourself! Wonderful, isn’t it?”

She seemed like the type of person that had lived in this kind solitude all her life and had gone mad from the isolation without knowing it. Still, my parents tried to goad me with swimming pools, an oversized bedroom with a bay window and split floors, several football fields of space for a dog, or dogs, as I’d always wanted, but none of it worked. I was happy with my popcorn-ceiling, beige carpet, fifteen-by-fifteen square feet box of a room in the Inner Sunset. I wanted to stay.

A sound not unlike the high shrill of a cat’s cry followed by muffled sobs came from my parent’s room. It didn’t sound like my mother, but it couldn’t have been anyone else. The cry jolted me and I reactively swung open my bedroom door with such ferocity that the door knob slammed into the wall and left an indentation I imagine is still there to this day.

I ran into my mother’s room directly next to mine, surprising the two men and Ella who were right outside my bedroom — just barely escaping their attempts to slow me down or stop me. But they didn’t need to stop me. The sight itself was more than enough to hold me in my place. I felt like how I imagined one of those baby elephants must feel, helpless and terrorized, while men hack his mother down before him, one fatal gash after another, until she fell onto her side — weak, fading and bleeding to death only to receive the final blow of having her trunks sawed out from under her, her horror-and-pain-stricken eyes never once leaving her son — her last tears falling for the son she couldn’t save.

Except nobody was hacking at my mother.

It took some time before I was able to process the scene before me. My mother was sprawled out on the bed in her sleeveless cotton nightgown. The temperature had oddly risen that week and it had been 89 degrees earlier that day. The comforter was contorted around her legs and body as if she had been doing aerial yoga in bed. And in the small open space of her queen-size bed untouched by the blanket, pillow or her anatomy, lay a pair of scissors and a knife, both of their edges tinted with a thick, crimson, membrane-like liquid.

My eyes traced the dark red liquid, onto the sheets, where the color deepened and the randomly scattered marks seemed to increase in concentration and density in the area where my mother’s hands laid limp. It reminded me of a canvas I’d once seen at the Museum of Modern Art, where the painter, I was told, stood five feet away from his canvas with several huge brushes dipped into big buckets of paint, and flung it towards the canvas to see how the paint would stick. Except in this case, the canvas was her bedsheet, it looked like the only color she’d used was that of her blood, and instead of a brush, she’d cut her wrists and flung them towards the sheet, to see how it would stick. I wondered, for a moment, whether this was art.

A set of hands came to rest gently on my shoulders, and I flinched. I trailed the length of the two hairy limbs to the adjoining face, and immediately recognized that it was the man whose soothing voice I’d heard earlier. His voice matched his face — gentle but firm, kind but hardened, patient but assertive. He’d been standing behind me this whole time, and while he didn’t say anything, I could feel him trying to guide me back out into the hallway, away from her. The other two men and Ella were now all standing just outside my parents’ room, Ella gesturing at me to go to her, and it was only then that I saw the men were in uniform — the same uniform — of firefighters, which I didn’t quite understand.

“Dee…” My ma’s whispers coming out in a pained whimper. She was alive. Of course she was alive, I had heard her cry, hadn’t I? I pivoted myself away from under the kind fireman’s heavy arms and ran to her, kneeling on the floor and reaching for her flaccid hands. Could I touch her there? Should I be moving that part of her? She’s still bleeding, a lot.

And then, seeing her broken face pruned by unabated tears and two slithers of openings for eyes that barely saw me, barely conscious of what she had done and of the world she’d chosen to leave me in, I began to cry.