Session Five Anthology
MENTOR: Donald Quist
How to Build a Home
Beheading fish is secondhand to my grandpa. I watch him, crouched outside on the front lawn, send the silver-scaled head flying with one measured blow, a flashing blur in the sun. See, Yen Yen, this is how you do it. The blood soaks into the grass. I squat next to him, nodding with enough enthusiasm to topple my own skull off my bony shoulders. This is how you separate the body from the head.
Grandpa drafted a blueprint for the treehouse when the cold shut us in and curved our bodies around steaming dinner dishes. He built it in the spring. I watched him survey planks of wood in the garage and power-saw pieces off after carefully tracing and measuring each length and width.
My brother, who wanted the treehouse last winter, sat inside watching reruns of Tom & Jerry with my grandma. I itched to yell at him but I didn’t want to leave my post. Liana, can I borrow your Nintendo. Liana, can I use your colored pencils. Liana, can you ask grandpa what time we have to come over for dinner. I would pat him on the head, hold his smooth, unblemished cheek in my hand, and ask him why he couldn’t ask for himself. Because I don’t know how to say it. But he learned the rhythm of Tom hitting Jerry with a frying pan with grandma, who could also understand violence.
The hammer came down on the nails in beats of three—thump—a gush of air blew crabapples west—thump—the rain washed away the red stains—thump—I mirrored grandpa with my own smaller, wooden hammer he made from scattered pieces used in past projects. I would send smashed crabapples flying in every direction in my pretend world, where I was making a special dish for the beady ants, who would swarm on my concoction the moment I extended my body up to the sky to stretch from a long, concentrated squat. I watched pieces of the treehouse start to come together with every stroke of grandpa’s hammer. This is the floor. This is the door. There isn’t a roof because the leaves are so dense and you aren’t living in there anyway.
When the air started to chill we’d migrate indoors, done for the day. I’d dig my colored pencils out from under my books and folders, thankful to find their familiar fullness in my hands. I drew faces disproportionate to their bodies, eyes too detailed for a simple mouth, hands hidden behind the dresses because they were too difficult to draw. One time, I found the largest piece of paper in the house and sat down to draw a mansion, complete with multiple floors, pets, and flowers. My face warmed with excitement or pride.
I showed grandpa, who was watching the news with grandma. The news anchors spoke faster than I could understand. They both laughed when they saw my mansion. Grandpa pointed at the grand staircases. Do you think your dad would even buy that for you? My face burned again, but in shame. What I didn’t understand, other than the Chinese news, about what he really meant: Do you know what I have built with my body?
He finished the treehouse by the time it became unbearable to be outside. I clamored up the ladder with my brother, pushing him aside so I could go up first. Hey, be careful. Grandpa watched on the driveway. The inside was tiny—when my brother joined me we craned our bodies away from each other. Is it good? Are you having fun? I nodded, only five feet off the ground but feeling like I could touch the clouds and more. My brother and I endured the heat long enough to feel every crevice in our new playhouse before retreating indoors. I could tell grandpa was happy by the smile that seemed to break his face in half.
That summer was a summer lived in our treehouse. We spied on people walking their dogs, pretended to fight each other for territory. Grandpa watched us while he was sitting in a plastic chair on the driveway or quenching the grass or gutting another fish for dinner. Our neighbor, a delicate white girl with glasses too big for her face, came over to the treehouse some days. Sometimes she’d see grandpa toss a glob of guts into a bucket. Somehow her eyes would widen enough to fit her glasses, mesmerized by my grandpa’s placid gaze as he slammed the live fish on the sidewalk to knock it out. Wait until he cuts the head off, I’d say. She’d squirm and look away. I looked—I always looked. The knife glimmered.
Late summer showers started to strip the coating from the wooden planks until they peeled, as if sunburned. My brother and I didn’t fight as often to be the first one inside. Grandpa would coat the wood again when it dried, but rain came again. He coated again. But nothing could hide the aging, and by the time leaves lined the treehouse floor we abandoned it for reruns inside with grandma. Grandpa decided to deconstruct the wooden house one day deep into my first month of middle school. It’s getting dangerous, what if it falls apart? Each piece detached as carefully as it was assembled, and a pile of dark wood littered the driveway. Grandpa had seen bigger buildings fall, had seen taller ones touch the sky. But then, stripped of any country, he took it apart by hand, slab by slab, until the tree looked naked and started to grow more leaves to hide itself. No matter what you build, nothing lasts here.
Walking back home from school, I’d pass the tree sprouting white flowers falling with every breath of air. I felt my body start to move away, but I didn't let myself forget the soft scent of spring. I let myself remember the small indentations—barely visible—marking the weight of what the branches carried.
(Excerpt from Memoir-in-Progress)
Gabby and I are smoking cigarettes outside the venue, wasting time before the next poet goes up to read. She is going on about how the stomach cancer helped her lose over twenty pounds and now she looks fabulous. I’m laughing with her and we’re ignoring how hard she coughs after every puff.
I tell her about how my parents think I should just find a job already but I still want to tour and possibly go to grad school for my MFA. She pulls a drag on her cig, points the butt end at me, “Do it. Go. Be. A. Poet.” I nod my head and wait until she’s back inside to start crying.
Months later, after she’s died, someone posts a video of her from that night. It’s her last performance before the chemo becomes too much for her to move around or talk. In the video, she’s on stage reading a poem about what it means to suddenly be dying and not know when the end is coming.
Then she says my name.
And then she says “Don’t you dare waste your fucking time.”
And it becomes an ethos, a way for me to live.
A year and half after both Gabby and my fiancé have both died, I’m sitting on a Greyhound, headed to Albuquerque for my first out of state show before traveling to twenty-three cities in three months, reading poetry and performing in all the big-name venues. The Greenmill in Chicago. Busboys and Poets in DC. The Nuyorican Café in New York City. I meet the couple who will later adopt my baby, the poets who will later introduce me to my mentor Patricia Smith, and meet a man who will wake my heart back up.
The world will get bigger. It will seem like anything is possible. The memory of my own success will stay so vivid in my mind that I will not be able to fathom how I can go from that—to sitting my own venue drinking whiskey and being called a nigger.
Heat runs through my cheeks, hurries into my chest and I try shake out the lightning in my mouth. I immediately understand how a poet could prefer this sort of initiation. The burn quickens throughout my body and I am acutely more aware of the fluorescent bulbs swinging over us in our corner of the bar, the slight static pitch of the songs slipping through the old speakers, the musty flush of air coming through the door frame of the women’s restroom.
There are now a dozen or so tiny bowls of whiskey glistening on the table and I order one water as well. I know that tonight, I will drink one of every whiskey from every bar in town. Tonight, I will suspend myself over the streets, throw my laughter through the cool air and undo the ties holding me together. I will be allowed to fall apart. Finally.