“Want to cut them off?”
After that kid shot me in the face outside Club Twelve, after the team of surgeons took an hour to dig that tiny resin ball out of the soft tissue in my cheek, after my mom cried in the hospital room when she saw the size of my swollen head—after all that happened, I tried to call my dad, and it went straight to voicemail. I hung up without leaving a message, not doubting that he was busy with Malee. I figured he would get back to me whenever he noticed my missed call. It always took him a couple days.
The hospital discharged me the following morning, though my entire face never stopped feeling like it was split open. The attending doctor offered to write me a prescription for a sledgehammer of a painkiller to take home, but my mom had told everyone in the trauma unit about my line of work, so he chose not to press the issue when I turned down the drugs. It made me wonder how many other addicts in recovery went on to become counselors and somehow found themselves rolling into this building on a gurney. It was unlikely I was the first or last.
I had a small studio apartment downtown that I wanted to get back to, but my mom insisted that I stay at her place, the house where I grew up in the suburbs. It was a traditional red-brick home sitting on a cul-de-sac in DeZavala Trails. When I plopped into the timeworn La-Z-Boy sectional that absorbed the den, I noticed the Persian rug under my sneakers and the yellow landscape print of the wheat gleaners hanging askew over the fireplace. The house was a relic of another life. Little had changed since I was a teenager, back when shit hit the proverbial fan.
There’s this concept in family therapy, the identified patient. When a family unit falls apart, that whole family unit has a psychological problem. But there’s always an identified patient—the one person everyone pays attention to, the one person everyone points to and says, Him. He’s the reason behind this mess. The whole family unit is diseased, but there is a visible nexus of tension, so everyone else gets to ignore their problems. Dad’s wasted on a beach somewhere in Thailand, drinking Mai Tai’s and screwing around with random hard bodies, so I might as well empty my savings account on booze and blow, right? That was the bind. All of our issues were intricately woven around the transgressions of my father.
The fabric of time itself warped under my mom’s care. She nurtured aggressively, like she was the codependent wife of a fat man slowly eating himself to death on camera. Helpless to deny her, I reverted back to the pitiful submission I felt when I was cut from the baseball team and dumped by my first girlfriend. I seldom moved from the spot on the couch where I watched scrambled pixels illuminate the television screen late into the evening, unable to sleep.
The morning birds were singing, and my mom was fixing a pot of coffee for us in the kitchen when my dad finally rang, about forty-eight hours later as expected. I snatched my phone and held the speaker to the side of my face that least resembled the deformed orphan from The Goonies. “What’s up, Champ?” my dad asked, cheerful as ever. I could hear the chime of Malee’s girlish voice in the background somewhere.
I filled him in on what happened—no, no, I’m fine—yeah, they arrested the guy—yeah, it was some low-level dealer tryna to push crystal at the meeting I run—I swear, it was an airsoft gun, I’m fine—no, it’s cool, I’m at the house.
“Chrissakes, Jonathan,” he said. “Why didn’t you call me?”
There was a painful pause. The hole in my face throbbed with my heartbeat.
“Well, I tried.”
“Malee and I are booking a flight to San Antonio,” he said. “I don’t care about that stuff with your mom, we will be there for you tonight, I swear.”
He hung up first, and I dropped the phone onto the couch. Mom stepped out of the kitchen, her knuckles tight around the handle of the steaming mug in her hand.
“Who was that?” she asked, as if she didn’t already know.
* * *
I gained a lot of weight after I got sober, so the old family portrait that sat on the side table in the den looked nothing like me at thirty. I was so lanky when that picture was taken, but the buttons were practically popping off my suit at my dad’s wedding a couple months ago. Malee had teased me, the only sibling that showed up for the ceremony. Jackie was boycotting the marriage after a rumor surfaced that our father met his newly betrothed in a sex bar, and James had scoffed that he would consider making it to the next wedding. They have big boys in America, Malee said to me, grinning and giggling in that way she does. Her bony hands poked into my shoulders as we swayed together in a farce of a mother-son dance. That was last summer. Now my twenty-three-year-old stepmother was roosting on the ottoman across from me, staring vacantly at the ballooning wound on my face. And there I was, gritting my teeth, the identified patient of the moment.
My dad was investigating the contents of the den like it was a misplaced time capsule. It had been years since he jetted off to Thailand to elope with his second wife, whom he found on a dating website before he separated from my mom. On some level, I think even my dad knew that proposing to his mistress on the shores of Siam wouldn’t pan out well. I imagined that he expected things to go differently this time with Malee. She moved to the States to marry him on American soil and the bureaucratic safety net of a K-1 visa must have felt judicious to him. As he studied the dusty frame of the family portrait, it was clear that he was still learning to tread lightly in his old age.
“I remember this day,” my dad said, handling the picture like a cursed artifact. He chuckled quietly. “Look at how skinny we were.”
He pushed aside the wicker basket of plastic tulips on the coffee table, placing the family portrait in central view. We were almost seated in the same poses, with my dad eagerly leaning forward and me wilting against the armrest like wallflowers are wont to do.
My mom crossed and uncrossed her legs. She looked violated, like she was reverting to those initial stages of discovering my dad’s infidelity overseas. All the psychic noise from when I was fifteen rematerialized behind her eyes. I was returning from a trip to Schlitterbahn with my dad and younger sister, and I had seen the photographs glowing in the darkness of the motel room on my dad’s smudged computer screen. I told my mom what I knew that night.
“I moved that,” she said. She stood up from her spot by the fireplace and paced tensely, stopping between the den and the threshold of the kitchen. “I moved that for a reason.”
“All I’m saying—” my dad started to say, bracing himself for impact. “It’s old is all I’m saying.”
I looked at Malee, who seemed to be as stupefied as I was. We were both under a spell that had rendered us powerless in the presence of the bickering divorcees. I blinked and waited for my mom to drop the axe with bated breath.
“Old as your wife?”
“Do not insult my wife, Jennifer.”
“I’m making an observation,” my mom replied. “It wasn’t an insult.”
I could feel my skin turning inside-out from the pulsing cavity in my face. The familiar sting of my responsibility for the brokenness of my family was bubbling up from the bottom of my stomach. It tasted like acid.
“Mom—” I tried to interject. “Dad—”
My mom pointed into the sanctuary of her kitchen with an incisive finger. “Come here for a second,” she commanded, disappearing into her territory.
My dad unfolded from his seat on the couch, lumbering toward the enemy lines with the understanding that he was the indefensible asshole in this situation. His stride slowed with each step he took away from Malee, still perched like a songbird on the leather ottoman across from me. We were alone together, Malee and me, while my parents battled it out in the kitchen. I was uncomfortable nested into the chaos of my childhood home, so this parental row must have felt incommunicable to her. She was only slightly older than I was when my dad left.
“Jonathan,” Malee said, breaking the tension. “We are happy you are alive.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but it wasn’t a real gun, you know.”
“But you were afraid?” she asked. “It was scary to be shot?”
I couldn’t think of an appropriate response, but Malee left me no time to deliberate. She burrowed through the litter inside her purse to present me with a coil of string that resembled butchers’ twine. “I bring this for you,” she said, neatly unravelling the string. “Hold out your hand.”
I followed her lead. She moved deliberately, wrapping three strands into bracelets around my wrist before sawing off the excess with a sharp metal file.
“In my culture,” she began to explain, placing her slender white hands over the bracelets, “we do this when we pray for someone to get better.” She murmured something in Thai.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I ask for good health for the whole family.”
I brought my wrist eye-level to examine the strings closely, overcome by a vaguely recognizable sort of magic, of cleanness. It was the same sensation I felt when I received my first chip at Club Twelve—it felt like getting better.
“Thank you for this,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
“When you remove the Sai Sin threads, do not cut or break them,” she instructed, lightly tapping her index finger on the knots. “You untie them, so you do not undo the prayer.”
In the disputed terrain of the kitchen, I could hear my parents starting to shout at each other. I wasn’t listening to them, instead observing the shape and texture of the bracelets, but I saw my dad exit the kitchen. “I think it’s time for us to go, Champ,” he said, patting my shoulder. As he quickly gathered his coat, I thanked him and Malee for the visit, not knowing when I would see them next. I walked them outside and watched them stumble into my dad’s rental car before its headlights disappeared into the darkness of the suburbs. I had never wanted a drag of a cigarette more in my life, but the cold night air sufficed.
I stood there for a while, thinking about my brief conversation with Malee. I wondered how often she prayed over bracelets for her own brothers and sisters back in Bangkok. I thought about her family wanting to wrap a million threads around her whole body before she left the country to marry a wealthy man that would provide for them too. The strings would stretch over the sapphire ocean, flexing and tightening with each wave that swelled between them, and Malee would feel them tugging her homeward.
I heard the wooden creek of the screen door behind me as my mom stepped outside to join me on the front porch. “The nerve of him,” she said, her arms crossed tightly. “Bringing his child bride into my house.”
“She’s alright,” I said. “And at least he showed up.”
“What’s that?” she asked, gesturing to the bracelets tied around my wrist.
“Malee gave them to me.”
“Want to cut them off?”
“No,” I answered, staring into the night. The stars were clear, and the heat of my breath clouded the sliver of the moon in the dark sky. “I don’t think I will yet.”
Abby Mangel is a PhD student in English at the University of Texas-San Antonio.
“Three Strings” won first prize in the doctoral-level creative writing contest at the 2022 College of Liberal and Fine Arts Research Conference hosted by UTSA.