Dealing with customers, I usually called Dad the owner, or the main smog technician if we needed to sound legit, but as a kid, I had always considered him just another Cambodian mechanic – a stereotype, one who’d pinched enough pennies to open his own car repair shop. The summer after college, I felt like a real dumbass for having thought so little of Dad, but in my defense, that was what Cambo men did. They fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.
At least according to Doctor Heng’s wife, who always, regardless of whether her car needed repairs or not, nosed her way into the waiting room of the Shop. Back in our refugee days, when Cambos had just come to California, only her husband had stayed in school long enough to do something legitimate with his life, like become a doctor. She spoke about her husband’s virtues a ton at the Shop, especially after I’d graduated, failed to get a job with my Symbolic Systems degree – a concentration meant for coders not smart enough for the actual hardcore stuff – and moved back home to California from the Midwest. Her hair done up into a misshapen lump, makeup a shade too light, Doctor Heng’s wife would materialize out of nowhere, swinging the sleeves of yet another floral silk blouse, then plop herself in front of the air conditioner and say things like, ‘My husband, Doctor Heng, he never looks up a thing when he diagnoses a patient. He is so much smarter than other men. He remembers everything.’
One day, when I’d just started working at the Shop again, Doctor Heng’s wife went on a tirade about how lazy guys were in my generation. ‘What is wrong with you boys!’ she was saying. ‘Not one Cambodian man since my husband, Doctor Heng, has become a doctor here in America, not even those born with citizenship! My generation came here with nothing. We escaped the communists. So what are boys like you doing?!’
I was busy handling a customer who was getting impatient about his car. ‘Let me consult the main smog technician,’ I said to him, trying my best to communicate through my expression that Doctor Heng’s wife was harmless, despite her tone, and despite her aggressive hair.
When the customer stepped outside to take a phone call, Doctor Heng’s wife approached the counter, then reached over and whacked me on the head with a rolled-up magazine. ‘Why did you not become a doctor?’
She tried whacking me again, but I stepped out of her reach. ‘Ming, please stop,’ I said. ‘Violence will not solve our problems, and neither will the model minority myth.’
‘Useless big words,’ she scoffed. ‘That is all you learned going to college.’ I laughed. It was hard to argue with her.
No one knew why Doctor Heng’s wife came around so much, not even Mom and her gossipy friends, but it had been happening ever since Dad first opened the Shop. It happened when I was eleven and Brian and I took turns depositing checks at the bank across the street, which dumbasses tried robbing so often it was later replaced by a Church’s Chicken. It happened when I was seventeen and studying for the SATs while customers muttered passive aggressive things to Dad for raising his prices. And it happened when I moved back home and started hanging around the Shop, not because Dad paid me – why would I get paid when Dad was already supporting me? – but simply because I had nothing better to do.
Brian thought that Doctor Heng’s wife must have fallen in love with Dad when she was younger, only to lose all hope when Dad married Mom in an instant. Following this logic, Doctor Heng’s wife visited the Shop every day in order to rub it in Dad’s face that her life had turned out better than anyone could have imagined – with her Lexus and her Omega watches and her Louis Vuitton bags smelling of fresh leather, all of them so giant I swore they’d gained consciousness and could swallow me whole, were I to transgress their master.
Who knows? Maybe Brian was right. Though Dad couldn’t have cared less. He barely acknowledged Doctor Heng’s wife half the time, nor anyone else who wasn’t a customer. Most of his day he spent fixing the mistakes his guys made – a transmission misdiagnosed, an alignment over-rotated, a customer’s car interior smudged with oil because one of the guys had forgotten to lay a clean protector sheet on the driver’s seat. Dad was a real softie for his fellow Cambo men. He had hired as many friends as he could, way more than the Shop could actually afford, and let them get away with anything. It was a beautiful enterprise, no matter how flawed, the way Dad sustained so many people, a whole ecosystem, both in terms of providing a service to the neighborhood and also providing twelve Cambo men with jobs. He even paid some of them under the table so they could qualify for welfare, but only the ones with kids. Dad’s epic tolerance for his guys was actually how we got in trouble in the first place. I mean, how we got in trouble when I worked at the Shop full-time, as an adult of sorts. By no means was this the first time the Shop had been in deep shit.
Anyway, towards the end of July, Ohm Young left the keys in the ignition of a customer’s car after test-driving it. Technically, he was the assistant manager but he didn’t do much assistant managing, and he’d parked the car in the lot next to the Shop, where we left the cars that were all done, right out in front of the tiny hair salon that also functioned as a massage parlor and full service mani-pedi spa, not to mention being the only decent place to buy coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves. The next morning the car was gone.
‘Ahhhh, sorry boss,’ Ohm Young said. ‘I do not know what happened.’ He shrugged, as Dad, shocked into a stupid awe, processed his assistant manager’s feat of nonchalance.
‘What do you mean you do not know what happened?’ cried Doctor Heng’s wife, who was of course there to witness this exchange. ‘You lost a car! Not a piece of car. An entire CAR!’
‘Alright, alright, it is okay.’ Dad said, reassuring everyone in the waiting room, except himself, because he looked as if he was about to throw up. ‘Toby,’ he said then, turning to me, ‘go look for the car. Please, oun, okay? – just do it.’
It was a near-impossible task, contingent on the idea, I imagined, that some drunken homeless man had stumbled into the car and taken it for a joy ride around the block, which, in fact, had happened once, years before. The homeless man was named Ace, and he returned the car himself, walking right up to the counter and handing Dad the keys like the Shop was a rental company. A younger version of myself would have resisted Dad’s request – how many good-natured Aces did he think existed in the world? – but I couldn’t hold it against him for wanting to try, for clinging onto a shred of hope that everything might be okay, that the worst parts of his life were over, so nothing happening now could be that bad.
‘Okay, I’ll go,’ I said, and he forced a smile, tried his best to seem optimistic. Dad was one of those guys who smiled and laughed constantly, but never without a sad look in his eyes. I’d realized this about him shortly after graduating. One of Dad’s other guys, Ohm Luo, a smog technician who didn’t do much smog checking, had cracked a joke about always finding himself in oppressive regimes – first under Pol Pot, then under his wife, and now Ohm Young had driven their whole neighborhood mad practicing the electric keyboard during block parties – which made Dad laugh and laugh and when he stopped laughing, and his eyes caught mine, I saw it, that look of faint, enduring grief.
Realizations I should have had as a kid were, I guess, what kept me mopping the floors of the Shop. Really, I needed to apply for jobs in the Bay Area, jobs with equity and benefits, not just free lunches with Dad and his fake best friend, Ohm Sothuy, who owned a rival car repair shop on the other side of the Costco. I knew I was supposed to find a legitimate job, but at this point of my life, dumb epiphanies about home seemed so precious, urgent, fleeting.
‘I will come, too,’ Doctor Heng’s wife said to Dad, clutching her Louis Vuitton bag as if prepared for battle. ‘I need to talk to this guy over here, anyway,’ she added, gesturing toward me.
Doctor Heng’s wife and I climbed into my Honda Accord, which was twenty years old but would never die, no matter how much it wanted to, as Dad kept fixing our cars to run forever. There was a comfort to driving this car, which was handed-down from Mom to Brian and then to me, but it did have subpar air conditioning.
‘My hot flashes are bad, bad, bad,’ Doctor Heng’s wife said, fanning herself with my expired car registration sheet. ‘When you marry a girl, make sure her mother is not having a bad menopause. It is genetic, you know. Everything is genetic. Everything gets passed down.’
‘I’m gay,’ I told her, turning onto Swain Road, one of the residential streets by the Shop. Though the whole search was a fool’s errand, I drove as slowly as possible so we could check the cars parked on the street. ‘We’re looking for a 2005 Toyota Tundra truck,’ I added. ‘It’s gold.’
‘Yes, I know,’ she responded, though she definitely hadn’t known. She was now fanning herself with a Louis Vuitton wallet that matched her Louis Vuitton bag. ‘You can still marry a woman,’ she said, and I half-expected her to start speculating about the genetics of gayness in my bloodline.
‘I am well aware of that,’ I said, ‘the fact that I’m legally allowed to marry a woman.’
Then Doctor Heng’s wife pinched my cheek and jumped into a monologue: ‘Stupid! Listen to me. I am being serious, like I am always being. I do not joke, and do not assume anything I say is a joking matter. I only have the best intentions in mind for you and everyone your age. Why are boys so dense? Gay boys should be less dense than other boys, no? So how come you are not? Marry a woman because that is what you should do. I am not saying you cannot be gay. How hard is it to be normal and gay? This is the plan. You will marry a girl from Cambodia, a nice girl, a girl from a good family, a rich family, a princess from a rich family, and her parents will pay you fifty thousand, fifty thousand at least, to marry their daughter and get her a green card, and you and this girl will have children, because that is what you should do, have children. And after five years, when the girl passes the citizenship test, you can divorce her and get joint custody of the children. Then you will invest your fifty thousand in the stock market. Your life will be established. You can be as gay as you want after your life is established. That is the plan.’
Her monologue waned as we turned onto a busier street, as Doctor Heng’s wife now listed the companies CNBC had marked as optimal investments. We passed six fast-food chains and three parking lots. Then, at El Dorado Street, Doctor Heng’s wife yelled at me to pull into the parking lot of Angkor Pharmacy. I parked, and as Doctor Heng’s wife jumped out of the car and rushed into the building, I considered her plan for my life. The whole premise was hilarious to me. It turned my future into a slapstick comedy, like The Wedding Banquet but this time with off-brand, brown-skinned Asians.
Looking around the strip mall, I saw the Dollar Tree where I’d always bought school supplies and the music store where I’d bought sheet music for my piano lessons, the cheap sushi place where I’d told my high school girlfriend I was gay, the Cambo grocery store Mom still visited when the owners of the better Cambo grocery store pissed her off. A group of Southeast Asian kids dressed in oversized clothes, reminding me of my childhood friends, rushed toward the grocery store with dollars in their hands, their lanky limbs awkward and spastic, and watching them, I remembered being younger and wanting to rush away from the place where my parents had been dumped, whatever promise I had gripped in my fists. Real Possibility, I’d imagined, only existed in big cities, places where Real Life unfolded, where I could be as gay as I wanted. Wishing the air conditioning worked, I wiped the sweat off my forehead, before thinking, I can’t believe I’m sitting in this beat-up car, a decade older than these kids, and entertaining the possibility of marrying a Cambodian princess for money. What a joke. Still, it was such a heartfelt idea, to think an arrangement like that, the stuff of farce, could actually bridge worlds.
Inside Angkor Pharmacy, Doctor Heng’s wife was leaning against the counter, engaged in a one-sided conversation with the owner, who was just then rummaging through a pile of papers and nodding his head at such a steady rate it seemed like he wasn’t listening at all. When she got back in the car, I asked, ‘Did you get your prescription,’ but she only looked at me confused, like I’d asked her something so dumb she couldn’t process it.
‘Prescription? What are you talking about?’ she responded. ‘I came to propose a new business plan for Angkor Pharmacy. They need to start selling more than just medicine. Look at how well Walgreens is doing!’ And when I started laughing at that, she shot me an angry look and said, ‘What did I tell you? Do not laugh at me. I am not a funny woman.’
But I couldn’t help it. Hands gripping the steering wheel, I just couldn’t stop laughing. ‘So, I guess I’m not the only person you give advice?’ I said, choking on my own joke as I turned out of the parking lot.
‘You are not my only concern, no,’ she said.
We drove through a few more neighborhoods after that, searching for the lost car, listening to a CD of old Khmer songs, the same CD that had been stuck in the stereo since the car belonged to Mom. I couldn’t understand any of the song lyrics, other than a few phrases here and there, but I knew the melodies, the voices, the weird mix of mournful psychedelic tones. When I tried articulating my feelings about home, my mind inevitably returned to these songs, the way the incomprehensible intertwined with what made me feel so comfortable. I’d lived with misunderstanding for so long, I’d stopped even viewing it as bad. It was just there, embedded in everything I knew.
Back at the Shop, the lost car’s owner was screaming at Dad, screaming about suing us, about rallying the neighborhood to take their business elsewhere. Dad responded by calmly telling him the police were right now looking for the car, that he’d sent his own son to search for it, that he would take full responsibility of the financial burden of buying a new car. Ohm Young and I listened from the garage. Standing there, I could already imagine Dad walking out of the waiting room, masking his panic with blankness, only for Ohm Young to shrug his shoulders again and say, ‘Sorry boss, I do not know what happened.’
Business went into a slump after that. The car was never found. Some regulars stopped being regulars. When he came over for family dinners, Brian started conversations about how Dad should be selling the Shop, ridding himself of all that business overhead and investing instead in rental properties, something he’d wanted Dad to do for a while. At the time, Brian was a real-estate agent and sold houses on the side of town with fancy gated communities, so he knew about this stuff.
‘Look, this is all I’m saying,’ Brian said one night, ‘the housing market’s as down as it’ll ever go, so now’s the time to buy. Prices are gonna jolt back up soon, and I don’t want us to be kicking ourselves stupid. I’m telling you, the loans will pay themselves off in no time.’
Dad sighed, as though his oldest son had yet to learn the one lesson he’d been trying to impart for years. ‘Why do you think the housing crisis happened in the first place? You need to be careful about life. You cannot trust banks just like that.’
‘Property is the only stable investment!’ Brian cried, his mouth full of ginger pork. ‘When the government blows up, and society erupts into chaos, the only thing left will be land, and I for one –’
‘Dude,’ I said, ‘swallow your food before yelling apocalyptic nonsense at Ba.’
‘I’m not yelling!’ Brian yelled, punching me in the arm. ‘I’m just saying – I’m the one trying to be careful here. Ba can’t fix cars for the rest of his life!’
Brian and Dad continued to argue, with Brian launching into a crackpot theory about how cars would one day be replaced by some new technological invention, Dad telling Brian to mind his own business, and so on. Occasionally, I tried to step in as their referee, calling Brian out for getting too heated, like he sometimes did, or interrupting Dad to say Brian had actually just made a decent point, despite sounding like he believed the Singularity was soon to destroy us. Mom, who’d spent the entire dinner scrolling through her phone, tuned this conversation out, interjecting only to scold Brian for moving into his own apartment and throwing away money on rent, to which Brian responded, ‘Mom, no girl’s gonna date a twenty-six year old guy still living at home!’
Mom rolled her eyes at Brian. ‘Is it so wrong to want both my sons under my roof?’ she said, before returning to her phone because she hated talking about the Shop. As far as she was concerned, she’d wasted enough of her breath pleading with Dad to fire those of his guys – Ohm Young, in particular – she deemed useless. Throughout my childhood, she always balanced the Shop’s books late into the night, her neck craning over grease-stained invoices, her hands running through her hair as if money might tumble from her scalp. But when I was in high school, after Dad had told her for the thousandth time, ‘These men have families to support,’ Mom renounced her mission of boosting the Shop’s profit margin and started working overtime shifts at the Social Security Office. Now, instead of balancing the books, she spent her free time watching gong-siams dubbed into Khmer on YouTube. She stopped talking about money, and she started dreaming about retirement and traveling to Thailand to learn how to cook authentic Thai dishes, as she’d already mastered every Khmer dish. ‘Thai food is just bad Khmer food,’ she said once, ‘but it’s better than other kinds of food. What am I gonna do? Learn to cook pasta?’
Her future plans never referenced Dad, though sometimes she talked about a time when she’d live between Brian, me, and the grandkids she expected. ‘I want two kids from you, and four kids from Brian,’ she’d say, and I never understood why she wanted fewer kids from me than my older brother. The fact is, I didn’t want any number of kids, really. I was content with myself as a gay man, and I knew gay men could have kids, of course, but it just didn’t seem worth jumping through all the hoops – the surrogates, or the adoption, all the paperwork. The only time I took the idea of kids seriously was when I thought about everyone who’d died, two million points of connection reincarnated into the abyss, how young Cambos like me needed to repopulate the world with more Cambos, especially those with fancy college degrees, whose kids could be legacy admits.
Soon, it was only other Cambos coming to the Shop. That was how you knew business was bad: if white or black or Hispanic people or even mainstream East Asians weren’t walking through the doors. Our hometown had a lot of Cambos, sure, but not enough for a robust customer base. No one needed to fix their cars that often. Plus, these Cambos were usually relatives or relatives of relatives, or friends or friends of friends, so Dad gave them so many discounts, we barely turned a profit. Dad’s guys started playing card games in the back of the garage, where posters of naked Thai women competed for attention with a Chinese zodiac calendar. Without a continual flow of customers in the waiting room, I organized old invoices and scraped crusted oil off every surface. I even tried learning how to balance the books, but Dad got frustrated trying to explain all the expenses to me. The waiting room was the cleanest it’d been since the Shop opened. It made me sad to think that the better the Shop looked, the worse it was doing. This seemed, in some cosmic way, unfair.
When there was no more crusted oil to scrape, I skimmed through job postings on my phone, refreshing the alumni career website over and over again. Doctor Heng’s wife lectured me about going back to school and studying pre-pharmacy. I didn’t apply for any jobs, feeling burned from all the job fairs and interviews I’d bombed in college. Still, it seemed productive to skim through my hypothetical futures – data analyst, technical writer, user interface engineer – though, the harder I thought about it, the less I could imagine taking any of these jobs. Dressing up in slacks and button-downs every day. Making small talk with coworkers about the weather and their favorite hiking trails.
Eventually, the days grew shorter, summer crawling into fall, and some nights, after working at the Shop, I hooked up with Paul, one of Brian’s old friends. We had run into each other at Costco. Mobil 5W-30 oil was on sale, but you could only buy three boxes at a time. There was some local law in place that limited how much of a flammable substance you could buy at once. So Dad sent me to Costco every few hours to stock up, and there I was in the checkout line, hoping the cashier wouldn’t recognize me from earlier that morning, when Paul strolled over from the food court, projecting that casual angst peculiar to guys who never left our hometown, who stayed committed to this dusty, inland California free of ambition or beaches. He asked me how I was doing, so I roped him into buying three boxes of oil for me. When I thanked him, he said, with a nonchalant smirk, that he was sure I could make it up to him. After that, we fell back into old patterns of driving onto the secluded parts of the levee for car sex.
Paul was half Mexican, half Italian, and his girlfriend was Filipino. He worked as the manager of an AT&T store. Made good money, actually, if you included his commissions. He was handsome, in an unassuming way, with a constant stubble that made me go crazy when dragged across my back or stomach. His nose was huge but well-proportioned. Sometimes I closed my eyes and used his nose to apply pressure to my closed eye sockets. It was weird but satisfying, like my eye balls were getting a rough massage. If Paul wasn’t into it, he never said anything to stop me. During one of my winter breaks in college, I’d messaged him on Grindr, after recognizing his Mars Volta T- shirt in the headless torso serving as his profile pic, and we hooked up here and there in the years leading up to my graduation, always in his red Sienna minivan, which used to be the minivan his older sister had driven to drop Brian, Paul, and me off at school when we were kids. That car had been infamous in our high school mythology. High schoolers had called it the party van, because during lunch periods, Paul’s older sister drove as many friends as possible to eat at the Costco food court. Then, when Paul started high school and inherited the van, he assumed the role of shuttling fellow teenagers to cheap food. Ten years later, you could still find Paul at Costco, in the middle of the week, eating dollar-fifty hotdogs.
One night, after Paul finished in me, we were in the backseat of his minivan, my back still glued to his torso with sweat, lube and cum. We stayed like this for a while, Paul burrowing his chin into my shoulder, as I watched the windows fog up from the heat of our bodies. Then, out of nowhere, he asked me if it was alright to bring his car to the Shop; he needed an oil change. Not unless he also convinced all the Mexican, white, and Filipino drivers of the city to bring their cars to the Shop, I joked.
‘Thing is, I’m too white for the Mexicans and too Mexican for whites,’ Paul said, running his fingers through my hair. ‘And I guess I can’t get you the Filipinos either, ’cause, you know, I’m cheating around on my girlfriend with you.’
‘Anyway, you don’t need to ask,’ I said. ‘Drop your car off whenever you like.’
‘Just wanted to make sure, you know – case it’d be awkward.’
‘It’s not awkward,’ I said, remembering a time when I was younger and sitting in the same backseat of this same red minivan feeling awkward around Paul, his older sister driving fifty when she should’ve been driving twenty-five. He was only three years older than me, which felt like nothing, now that we were both in our twenties; still, I felt giddy to be having sex with the cooler older guy from my youth. If only my closeted, sex-deprived self from high school could see me now, I sometimes thought, before realizing, yet again, how dumb it was to think that way about Paul – a closeted gay guy too scared to break up with his first girlfriend.
‘Why are you working at your dad’s place anyway?’ Paul asked.
‘Why not?’ I responded. ‘I don’t have a job. Might as well.’ ‘It just doesn’t seem like your scene.’
‘And what would that be?’
‘I don’t know. It was just a question.’
‘No, it’s not like I’m sensitive about this,’ I assured him. ‘I’m genuinely curious.’
‘Man, I don’t know,’ he started, ‘you already left for college, so . . . why come back? I thought you’d be living away somewhere with some hotshot job by now, dating guys who are, like, good guys, guys who also have hotshot jobs. Bankers and doctors and what not.’
‘I’d never date a banker,’ I said, bracing myself for Paul to get mopey. This happened sometimes when we got together. He’d get in his own head about cheating on his girlfriend, Meryl, who really was a nice person. She was a devout Catholic who said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and always asked you about your day with what appeared as a sincere intention of actually listening to your response. Paul was in love with her, or thought he was, but liked fucking guys too much, and when this started to overwhelm him, he said cringe-worthy things like: I’m not good enough for you.
This night he was saying, ‘I just – I don’t get why you’re living at home, I guess.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘What time is it? We should probably get to bed.’
‘Naw, I’m serious,’ he said. ‘You have hella shit going on, man. You’d kill it in the city. Me, I’m gonna be here forever. I can’t give up driving everywhere, anyway. Parking in cities is fucked.’
I didn’t know what to say. Truth be told, I could have lived like this forever – days at the Shop being lulled by the sounds of rusty machinery, deadbolts being bolted and unbolted, Dad and his guys making fun of American diets for being less effective than the Khmer Rouge diet of boiled grass. All I needed was a hook-up now and then. Paul might not have thought it was sustainable, being gay in this deadbeat city, but how sustainable was it to be severed from the place I called home?
‘Did you know I went to the gayest college?’ I asked.
‘Sounds pretty chill,’ he said, holding me tighter, as if this were the last time we’d hook up, though I knew perfectly well it wasn’t.
‘It was just a ton of gay guys in the middle of nowhere Ohio,’ I said, moving away from him so I could collect my clothes. ‘A bunch of theater majors and aspiring musicians and artists. I actually lost my virginity to a triple major in theatre, music and art, though I think he’s in coding boot camp now. Anyway, I had so much bad sex those first two years, my dick and ass were, like, constantly sore. I couldn’t even sit in lectures right. I had to lean onto, like, a single butt cheek at a time.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ Paul laughed.
‘I don’t know. It was fun,’ I continued, maneuvering back into my pants. ‘I’m not saying it wasn’t. But, you know, when I think back to college, that’s all it was – fun.’
‘I’m not getting you here.’
‘I feel happy – that’s all – just being here.’ I put on my shirt, leaned over, and kissed him, then gathered some of the cum on his stomach and slathered his face with my now sticky hand.
‘Goddamn it,’ he said, wiping the cum away, and we both started laughing.
Later, as Paul drove me home, I watched the cars pass us by. Headlights streaked through the night in flashes of yellow and white. It was too dark to see clearly, but I still found myself looking for the lost car. I wanted so badly for one of the passing blurs to be that golden truck.
A week later, Paul brought his red minivan into the Shop. Brian accompanied him. They walked in through the glass door, Brian leading the way in his best real estate agent’s suit, the navy one he wore to close major sales. It accentuated his amiable confidence, the air of being fully able to put you in a headlock and somehow make it seem good-natured, like you were the one asking to be restrained in the first place. Brian had never moved away because he excelled in this city. It was reassuring to know that something about home let guys like my brother thrive. Sometimes I wondered how different I was from Brian, if the mere fact of my gayness meant I needed to move away to be the best version of myself.
‘I’m here to block Ba from giving this dope a discount,’ Brian said, as he leaned toward us across the counter, pointing at Paul discreetly with his thumb as if he couldn’t be heard. ‘But seriously, Paul has a job. He can pay for his own oil change.’
‘Yeah, Mr. Chey,’ Paul said, shrugging, hands in his pockets. ‘It’s okay – hit me with the full charge or whatnot.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Paul,’ Dad said, standing up from his office chair. ‘You are part of the family. Just by making sure these two guys do not kill each other, you do me a favor.’ He patted my head with a paternal amusement, a joking condescension, the grease from broken cars getting into my hair.
‘That’s not even the reason he likes you,’ I said to Paul. ‘He still talks about how you can eat durian.’
‘Christ,’ Brian said, moving away from the counter to pace around the room while stretching his arms, as if limbering himself up to jump on new opportunities. ‘Can we not talk about durian right now? You’re making me nauseous.’
‘You guys are not Cambodian,’ Dad said. ‘You are not even Cambodian-American! Durian is real, true Cambodian food.’
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I like durian. I don’t even think it smells bad. It just reminds me of gasoline, which, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve spent half my life marinating in the smell of.’
‘Which one’s durian again?’ Paul asked.
Brian stopped stretching, grabbed Paul’s shoulders, and started shaking him, but playfully. ‘It’s the only food that Andrew Zimmern has refused to eat on Bizarre Foods! Just think about that for a second! The dude eats fried grasshoppers and even he thinks durian is gross. The fruit is protected by a giant spiky shell. They’re so crazy and lethal they fall from trees and strike elephants on the head and, like, kill ’em! How is that not a sign we shouldn’t mess with that shit?’
‘Oh right,’ Paul said. ‘I think I do like durian.’
‘My kids are so spoiled!’ Dad snorted. ‘Anything you can eat, you should. Do you think everything we ate during the genocide smelled right?’
‘Ba,’ I laughed, enjoying this banter, the kind I’d missed every day of college. ‘When are you gonna stop using the genocide to win arguments?’
Before Dad could respond, Doctor Heng’s wife burst into the waiting room and charged towards the counter. Brian and Paul instinctively stepped to the side – you didn’t want to get in her way.
‘Bong!’ Doctor Heng’s wife said to Dad. ‘I talked to the monks, and I know what you need to do.’
Dad raised his eyebrows and sighed, a skeptical defeat his go-to response for just about anything Doctor Heng’s wife said. Oblivious to Dad’s expression, she started digging into her Louis Vuitton purse, which seemed bigger than ever today, pulled out a golden statue of Buddha, and placed it on the counter.
‘We need to boost your karma,’ she said, seriously, turning the Buddha so that his fat, cocky smirk faced me and Dad. ‘This is the key to your success.’
As Doctor Heng’s wife explained to Dad the details of the monks’ plan, Brian signaled for me to meet him outside. I quickly placed an empty invoice onto a clipboard and handed it to Paul to fill out, then left to meet Brian on the sidewalk.
Brian was looking through the window, into the waiting room, his face serious, arms crossed. ‘How’s Ba today?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, also looking through the window, watching Doctor Heng’s wife place the Buddha statue around the waiting room, testing different locations. ‘He seems fine.’
‘You’re kidding, right?’ Brian said. ‘Are you not paying attention at all? His business is failing. Everyone knows.’
‘It’s just a slump,’ I said. ‘It’ll pass over. The Shop got, like, one bad Yelp review cause of the stolen car. We’ve been through worse.’
‘Dumbfuck,’ Brian said, shaking his head, ‘You haven’t been around like I have.’
I looked over at Dad. He seemed normal to me – tired but amused – and I wondered if I’d just gotten used to seeing him this defeated, if I could no longer tell the difference.
‘Guess I should check in with him,’ I said.
Brian’s face settled into a slight irritation. ‘Yeah, do that, dumbfuck.’
Then I found myself looking at Paul, who glanced up from the clipboard and caught me staring. He smiled and risked a wink. It was corny, so damn corny, and again I felt like a kid gushing over his older crush, only this time I felt exposed, Brian, Dad, and Doctor Heng’s wife, of all people, standing so close.
The next couple of weeks, Cambos rolled in and out of the Shop. Some brought their cars for actual repairs, but everyone brought Buddha statues of all sizes and colors, even an alarming hot pink one, to decorate the waiting room. Doctor Heng’s wife orchestrated the whole affair, having told everyone in the community that the Shop needed better karma. Every Ma, Gong, Ming and Pou I’d ever met tried helping the best they knew how. We put Buddhas anywhere it made sense – a crowd of medium Buddhas on top of the mini fridge, an army of miniature Buddhas lining the edge of the desk, a giant Buddha hanging out with the bamboo plants in the corner, even a couple of Buddhas stuffed between the desk and the wall, just to ensure we had our bases covered.
When people ran out of actual Buddhas to give, they started coming in to the Shop with Buddhist insignias scribbled onto scraps of paper. We taped them all over the walls, next to the smog-check certificates, the framed photo of my youth baseball team, which the Shop had sponsored. I stopped a half-blind Gong from taping an insignia right in the center of the computer screen; we settled on the lower right corner.
Every time a Cambo waltzed into the waiting room with another Buddhist emblem, Dad looked more disgruntled, more disappointed to hear the door swing open, the sound of a potential new customer, only to realize it was just another guy who’d picked rice alongside him in the concentration camps. Each point of good karma the Shop accrued seemed pilfered straight from Dad’s life force. Dad always entertained these Cambos all the same. They had only good intentions, after all, and Dad asked them about their kids, their lives. Witnessing the Shop bloat with spiritualism, you had to appreciate the middling optimism keeping our community afloat, those teachings all but promising that our lives, and our reincarnated lives thereafter, would remain at best barely tolerable.
I stopped scrolling through job postings, as I spent most of the day trying to cheer Dad up. Even non-Cambo customers might find these superstitions amusing, I told him. As they waited for their cars to be fixed, they could play visual counting games, like the kind found in those magazines for toddlers. ‘How many ink blotches and fat Buddhas can you count here at March Lane Brake and Tune?’ I asked Dad, and he laughed until he didn’t.
Dad started bringing plain rice from home to eat for lunch. He clutched invoices so close to his face it seemed like he might suffocate himself. I couldn’t remember if Dad had always been this stressed, if he’d always held invoices that way. When I was a kid, he had avoided doctors, never wanting to spring for the copays, let alone an optometrist for something as basic as his ability to see. But even that hardly explained this behavior.
During the Shop’s karmic makeover, Paul and I hooked up almost every night. Our sex became rougher, quicker, as if we’d only just met off Grindr. I forgot lube a couple of times, and Paul never carried any around (because what if Meryl found it?), so we just used spit. The pain felt good, appropriate even. My need to get off, to find relief, only grew as the days marched into winter, as I became more and more worried about the Shop.
‘Way to make a guy feel special,’ Paul joked one night, after I came only five minutes into our hookup.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Lemme help you out.’
‘I’m just kidding, though – yeah, that would be great.’
Five minutes later, I was pulling on my clothes, and Paul said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s just chill. Meryl’s doing some Church thing, so I’m actually free all night.’ He pulled me down into his arms, and I collapsed into his embrace, landing onto his torso so hard it hurt. ‘I have something to tell you.’
‘I think I’m finally ready to come out.’
I didn’t know what to say, so I shuffled my body to look at his face. His expression was genuine, calm, serene even, with a gentle grin like one of the Buddhas decorating the Shop.
‘I just think it’s unfair to Meryl if I don’t just, you know, come out.’
‘No shit,’ I blurted, but he remained unfazed. ‘So what prompted this?’
‘I’ve been thinking about it for a while,’ he answered. ‘I guess I just finally worked up the courage. You had a lot to do with it, to be honest. You’re just so comfortable being yourself, even here, like, in front of your dad and everything.’
He held onto me harder, and I found myself wondering if he expected me to be his new Meryl. Then I thought, maybe that would be nice. I imagined our lives together, our buying a house close to my parents, shopping at a Cambo grocery store every week, being an openly gay couple in the community, being that radical symbol of love for the young gays of this city, for anyone who ever thought they had to quit their home, their family, their lives, just to be themselves.
‘Why did you never move away?’ I asked. ‘Like seriously. I mean, I feel like it would’ve been easier for you to come out sooner if you had. It’s not like I’m special or anything. I just had the opportunity to leave. You know?’
He made a face as though this was the hardest question he’d received in years. ‘It just never made much sense,’ he said. ‘What would I even do?’
We were silent a moment.
‘So when are you gonna officially tell her?’
‘We’ll see,’ he said, and I didn’t know how much I factored into his we, whether I wanted to be a part of it or not.
The next week Dad seemed on the verge of snapping. He stopped laughing at jokes. He yelled at me for using blue paper towels to clean the windows, and not old newspapers. He even threatened to send his guys home indefinitely, without pay, when Ohm Young teased him about not being a good boss and ordering everyone lunch.
‘You are lucky I still stand to see your face!’ Dad yelled at Ohm Young, who laughed in response until he realized Dad wasn’t joking.
Later that afternoon, a new customer walked through the doors, the first one we’d seen all day. She was old and white, dressed in one of those white grandma cardigans. Dad was so excited he gave her a new pen to fill out her contact info, tried his best to speak with zero trace of his accent, made sure she knew that the owner and main smog technician would be handling her car repair. The customer spoke languidly, as though she was about to die right there in the waiting room, and this, combined with Dad’s strained effort to avoid stressing the last syllable of his words, like most Cambos do, lent a slow motion quality to the whole interaction.
Dad did the preliminary diagnostic himself, which was unnecessary, because all the car needed was an oil change. But apparently, he could no longer trust his guys to do even the simplest of tasks. In the waiting room, the customer asked me if the grocery store across the street was open, and I told her, ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ even though I’d never called anyone that in my life. As she left to go shopping, I thought of telling her that specific store only carried expired canned foods, but I didn’t want to disrupt the shaky equilibrium of her patronage.
Ohm Young came into the waiting room after the customer left. He was holding a stack of sheet music. ‘You still know how to read this stuff?’
‘Let me see,’ I said, remembering how as a teenager I’d labeled all the notes of Ohm Young’s sheet music, even going so far as to write down which finger should play what key. He’d hover over my shoulder as I transcribed the notes at the desk. The sheet music he handed me now was for the song, ‘Every Breath You Take.’
‘It’s good you are here for your Dad,’ he said, grabbing both my shoulders. ‘Because now you can do this for me!’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ I said. ‘What’s this for anyway?’
‘When the monks come, I will ask them if my band can play at Cambodian New Year. The monks love Sting.’
‘Wait, the monks are coming?’
‘You do not know? They come tomorrow.’
I glanced to my left, through the open door to the garage, and at Dad, his head ducking beneath the car’s hood. ‘That’s bad, right?’
‘None of us wanted it to come down to this,’ Ohm Young sighed. ‘Monks coming – that only happens when you fail. They come when you first open business, to bless everything, but after that, they are not supposed to come, no, we are not supposed to need them . . .Hey! Please keep on doing the music, okay? It is my Plan B, you know. Playing music. I cannot fix cars my whole life.’
‘Oh. Right,’ I said, looking down at the endless bars of melody.
By the time the customer returned from the store, Dad had finished working on her car, and now he completed her invoice with the same painstaking attention to detail, marking down the 29.99 charge. Suddenly that lecture Doctor Heng’s wife had delivered came back to me, her plan for me to marry a Cambodian girl who needed a green card. How many completed oil changes, I wondered, would it take to get to fifty thousand dollars? The customer took back her keys and paid, as satisfied with our services as she could be. Before she left, Dad told her to recommend the Shop to her friends, who were all probably dead, anyway.
At home that night, Mom was rolling egg rolls in the kitchen while Dad napped on the couch, the TV blaring out a football game. I asked Mom if she needed help, and she responded, ‘So now you have time for me?’ She scooped minced meat out of a bowl and onto an egg roll wrapper. ‘How lucky of me. Tonight, my own son will not abandon me like he does every other night.’
‘This for the monks tomorrow?’ I asked, and she nodded, rolling her eyes.
If anyone had ever listened to me, we wouldn’t need this. You think I have time to roll a hundred egg rolls on a workday?’
‘Want me to help roll? What can I do?’
‘No, you’re too clumsy. Go mix the fish sauce.’
‘How do I do that again? I . . . forgot,’ I said, and she rolled her eyes again.
Mom walked over to the cabinets and pulled out an empty plastic cylinder, one of those cheap containers that restaurants give you for leftovers. Along the side, she’d stuck three pieces of blue painter’s tape, spaced out unevenly. She pointed at each piece of tape, saying, ‘Water to here, vinegar to here, fish sauce to here. Sugar and roasted peanuts to taste.’
‘What happens when you lose this container?’ I joked, taking it from her hands. ‘How will we make fish sauce without you?’
‘You better not lose my stuff when I die,’ she said, scooping more meat. ‘So when are we meeting him?’
‘Meet who?’ I asked as I started mixing the fish sauce. ‘The boy you’re seeing.’
‘What? I’m not seeing anyone.’
‘Don’t tell me you go out every night and aren’t seeing a boy. Don’t lie to me. I’m your mother.’ She raised the egg roll she’d just rolled to our eye level. ‘Now, see? This is perfect,’ she said. And it was.
Holding the plastic container now filled with liquid, I felt its weight shift from my left hand to my right. Of course, based off Mom’s method, it was easy to measure out and record the exact ratios needed for fish sauce. Yet at that moment, for whatever reason, the future seemed so precarious, the way a tradition like this could depend on a flimsy takeout container.
‘I’m not seeing anyone, really, I’m not,’ I told her again, still thinking about our culture, how it seemed like Cambos could only retain their Camboness through food. Egg rolls stirring up portals back home, but only in your mouth, until they disintegrated into saliva, vanishing down your throat. Mom looked at me skeptically, then rolled another egg roll.
Lying on my bed after Mom and I had finished in the kitchen, I texted Paul saying I didn’t feel well, but that we’d definitely hook up tomorrow. I put my phone away and fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I could smell Mom deep frying egg rolls before heading off to work. I read the texts Paul had sent the night before. Awwww, ain’t a thing but some blue balls. Then, I think tonights the night it happens. Gonna tell Meryl. Then, nothing.
I thought of responding, how’d it go, feeling more excited than I cared to admit, if also unsettled, as if sending a text might cement something into our relationship I wasn’t yet ready for. I ended up sending nothing.
Right when we got to the Shop that morning, hours before the divine assault was scheduled, Dad and I started mopping up the residual grease of the garage, made sure the Buddhas in the waiting room looked pristine, and took down the posters of naked Thai women. Then we set up a folded table, placed a clean sheet over it, and arranged Mom’s egg rolls next to other dishes made by the wives of Dad’s guys – lemongrass beef sticks, glass noodles stir-fried with bean curd and ground pork, red hot papaya salad, not to forget the huge pot of white rice. The entire time Dad had looked especially grave, as if the communists were pulling another coup d’état. I wanted to say something to cheer him up, to remind him that no one thought any less of him, but I couldn’t think of anything.
Around noon, five monks came marching behind Doctor Heng’s wife, in their burnt orange robes and Croc sandals, armed with packets of incense. Dad and I greeted them by individually bowing down to each monk in a row, our hands clasped together in a prayer. Then, the monks walked around the Shop, inspecting each corner and crevice, sprinkling blessed water over every last grease stain. When they finished their inspection, the monks lit incense in every room, even the storage room, with its cases and cases of flammable oil. The smell of burning flowers, I guessed, was supposed to create a force field that would thwart evil spirits while attracting customers.
After the Shop had been suffused with a light haze, Doctor Heng’s wife spread woven mats over the garage floor, then quickly gestured at Dad, his guys, and me, saying, as if ten minutes had already passed, ‘Get down! You cannot put yourselves in a position above the monks. They need to sit! What are you doing, just standing around?’
We quickly fell to our knees, and the monks followed, sitting down in the center of the mat, and started chanting prayers, ones I’d heard since I was a kid but had never bothered to try and understand. We watched them pray, our hands clasped together again. Ten minutes of nonstop chanting passed, and maybe I only felt this because of my numb bottom half, but the aroma from the incense felt asphyxiating, jammed into my pores and blasted into my nostrils, like it was clogging the very space between my cells. A headache cleaved through my brain, and all of a sudden, I remembered the first time I learned about the genocide.
I was eleven years old, barely into the double digits, and it was Cambodian New Year. Some older kids had been making fun of me behind the temple, interrogating me about having communists for relatives. ‘Your Gong probably helped murder everyone,’ they were saying. ‘Probably sucked Pol Pot’s dick.’ I didn’t fully understand their taunts, but I was still upset, and when I ran back to Dad crying, he denied any communist connections to our family but confirmed our history – how half of everyone’s family had died.
‘It was something that just happened to us,’ he said before wiping away my tears. ‘You better get all the crying out now,’ he also said. ‘No use in that when it already happened.’ Then he took my hand and led me into the temple, where a crowd had gathered to pray with the monks. We joined them and started praying ourselves, for good karma and luck and blessings, for the upcoming year and our future reincarnated lives, and I felt unbearably hopeless. What had we done in our past lives to deserve such violence? How terrible must our karma have been for genocide to take so many of us?
Kneeling there in the Shop, now, probably on the same woven mats from that fateful Cambodian New Year, these questions came rushing back to me, filling me with a gloom only deepened by the thrumming of unintelligible chants. I couldn’t bear watching Dad resort to these broken beliefs, not a moment longer.
Suddenly, I thought about Paul. He was a decent guy with a decent job, someone I could establish a life with. And he was about to become even more decent, if he had actually come out, had stopped lying to his girlfriend. I could be with Paul, I thought, settle down, commit to helping out Dad. I could be the kind of dutiful, responsible son he could rely on. I didn’t quite know what I had to offer, other than being the Shop’s janitor and transcribing sheet music for Ohm Young. But right then, moving away again struck me as the most selfish thing I could do.
‘Ba,’ I whispered.
He didn’t hear me, or maybe he was ignoring me, so I kept muttering, ‘Ba . . .Ba . . .Ba.’ ‘Focus,’ Dad finally answered, though I didn’t know what it was I was supposed to focus on. ‘Ba, don’t worry,’ I said, my legs shaking from being numb. ‘I’m gonna help you. I don’t know how, but I’m gonna help the Shop.’
‘Oun,’ Dad said gruffly. He sighed and turned his face towards me. ‘Worry about yourself. Okay? The Shop is only here to help you.’
And it hit me. Again that look of grief, but in its full force this time. The past year suddenly flashed across my eyes – the days I’d spent at the Shop doing nothing, my inability to apply for legitimate jobs. What had everyone thought of me, I wondered, of Dad? His son jobless, a college degree going to waste. I began to realize now to what extent I was the one chaining my father down to a failing business, preventing his life from moving forward. Dad’s attention returned to the monks trying to fix the Shop, and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe myself.
Then Paul came to my thoughts again – I couldn’t help it – how we were supposed to hang out that night. What I’d just envisioned, settling down, committing to a life here, it started to seem stupid, even as the sentiment retained a sort of comfort. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, secretly checking my notifications as it lay on the ground in front of me. Several messages appeared, but before I could open them, the monks stopped chanting and everyone stopped praying.
Doctor Heng’s wife placed empty bowls in front of the monks. Still crouched on our knees, Dad, his guys, and I formed a line, holding our own bowls filled with cooked rice. We shuffled through the line, crawling, taking turns scooping rice onto each of the monks’ plates. When the ritual was done, the monks started eating, and I stood next to the waiting room door, one hand stuffed into my pocket, the other gripping my phone. My motivation to read Paul’s messages waning, I looked around the Shop’s garage. It looked smaller than before. Machines that had once seemed gigantic now only came up to my shoulders.
From inside the waiting room, I heard Doctor Heng’s wife talking to Dad, so I peeked through the doorway. ‘Bong, you need to make a donation now,’ she was saying. ‘Write the check before the monks finish eating. Do it now, Bong.’
‘Okay, okay, okay,’ Dad said, as though chanting a prayer, and as he wrote out the check, I found myself trying to read the creases of his disgruntled, defeated brow, as if they were spelling something out for me, some message from across the universe, sent by the accumulation of our reincarnated lives, from every different past we’d ever experienced. ‘Maybe if we harness as much karma as possible,’ his wrinkles were saying, ‘more spiritual power than this community has ever seen, maybe then the Shop will get good business. And when that happens, hopefully, fingers crossed, the Shop will break even from the cost of this donation.’
Standing between the waiting room and the garage, I watched Dad finish signing the check. Watched him hand that flimsy paper to Doctor Heng’s wife, who now stuffed it into her giant purse. All that money, probably a whole month’s earnings, was now swimming among someone’s loose pocket change, and I stopped caring about Paul’s messages, the smallness of the Shop, the monks stuffing their mouths with Mom’s egg rolls. Nothing behind me seemed to matter. Everything receded into the smoky blur of the incense, the shadows of all those Buddhas.
I wished for only one thing – to send a response to Dad’s message, etched onto my own forehead, a beacon I’d project out into the ether. ‘But what,’ I was ready to ask, for every life Dad and I had lived and lost, ‘will we do after?’
Image © Pete Ashton