Valentines: “know what to say” by Addie Tsai

A fact, or a circumstance, of abuse, depending on which way the glass cuts your vision: if a child experiences a significant amount of trauma, early and consistent enough, the images that make up their experiences, dreams, visions, fantasies, abuse, and nightmares become a kind of kaleidoscopic mosaic. It becomes impossible to tell which is which, and whole chunks of time and experience and color and perspective are lost. Trauma loves to take center stage, and at some point, there’s not much to be done about it.

Sure, I could find you a critical text that proves this point. But, I don’t need to. It lives in my body and mind every day. 

We’ve heard it before. That memory is unreliable. That the teller is the one to direct what is in the foreground, what is in back, and it is the teller’s intention of sharing that particular narrative that casts what lies in focus, and what is held back. 

This story I am about to tell you is no different. 

All I have is my best.

**

A musical, a shaved head, a young crush, a disappointment, an anxiety, and some joy mixed in.

**

I was in fifth grade. I think. And our class was going on a field trip one day, to a theater, to watch a rehearsal of The King and I.

My mother had agreed to be one of the parent escorts. This was unusual.

On the day we were to take the field trip, my mother was late. This was not unusual.

Our teacher had prepared us for the trip earlier in the week by playing some of the songs from the musical on a small boombox, and singing them to our class. The only one I remember is Getting to Know You. Perhaps because it was my favorite.

This song is wrapped in an incident of public shame, then one of joy that quickly returned back to the scene of public shame again, although different.

I didn’t get to see my mother much. That is a sentence I will utter many times, as many times as I need to tell the story. She was always elusive to me, glittery and far away, like the hot sun sparkling a desert to make it look like an ocean. In her embrace, was I swimming or drowning? Was she water or sand? Even today, this answer is always just out of reach.

I wanted so much to be seen by her, that that need often eclipsed whatever decorum was required of me, whatever way I needed to be seen in the world outside of her. I lost all perspective, grace, politeness, behavability. All I saw was her, and my desperate desire to be seen by her. Perhaps if she saw me, truly saw me, she would no longer go away. I, in my visibility, would become a thing she would want. Forever. 

My mother was late. 

My teacher asked me to give her a buzz.

But I was a child of a Chinese immigrant, who did not understand much Mandarin. And Baba did not spend much time speaking to us in any language, only the barest essentials. We were not allowed to make mistakes, or ask questions. Both resulted in severe punishment. What else was there to do, when faced with confusion, but shut down? My little body knew nothing else.

When my teacher asked me to give my mother a buzz, I didn’t have the remotest inkling what she could mean. I knew that it had to do with her lateness. And for Baba, lateness was a cardinal sin. I assumed here it meant no different.

And so I burst into tears.

My teacher took me outside, and put a hand on my shoulder. She waited for my tears to stop, for my shoulders to no longer quake. Then she delicately guided me to a small room, and asked me to give her a call.

Somehow my mother found her way to us. The anxiety beating in my skin now felt almost the same, except now it was a thrill. She was here, she was here, she was really here! I must do whatever it is I can do to impress her enough to stay as long as I can.

I remember the other littles next to me, my classmates.

The blackness of the theater.

The knowledge my teacher was somewhere, also watching.

And the body of my mother next to me, bright pink lipstick, black mascara, blue eyes.

Her body half turned towards me, half toward the theater.

Her voice trying to shush me, while I emptied out all that had happened since the last time I had seen her into her ear. Which parts I knew about from class. My voice not fast, or steady, enough for my thoughts. My breath not able to keep up.

And, then the song.

My favorite. The one I was waiting for, the one I wanted my mother most to hear.

But, in that moment, when the song started—I don’t remember a single detail about the production itself—my desire to be seen by her overwhelmed my usual desire to be invisible. My need to win her for good swallowed up everything else.

“Oh Mom, this is the song I was telling you about!” I said without thinking, and then leapt out of my chair, and began to sing it for her. I don’t know how long I went on full speed ahead, how long it took me to feel the soft touch of her hand on my leg, her whisper for me to sit down, her giggle to my teacher, a kind of knowing code between them, that oh-wasn’t-my-daughter-so sweet-but-I’m-so-sorry-this-is-happening kind of signal. 

At some point, I saw it. 

Her hand and her mouth.

The open mouths of the classmates.

The finger over my teacher’s mouth, the gesture for me to sit down again.

At some point, I felt it.

The heat melt over my face in shame, a feeling I hadn’t experienced before quite like I had in that moment.

The shame of visibility, and the shame of imperfection, in front of the one person I needed most to see me as their opposites.

**

Sixth grade. Her name was Sarah.

She had long tendrils of wavy blond hair that fell casually across her flannel shirts that she wore over her black tees. Beat up acid-washed denim, dirty sneakers. 

It didn’t matter that she bullied me, she and Stephanie, a big-mouthed tomboy who was one of the first to patronize me in our group of five outsiders (I’ll tell you the difference between cute and fine. Fine is Andre Agassi. Cute is like a bunny rabbit, you know, like Addie.), when they somehow convinced me it would be hilarious to tie my shoes together, and then try to walk the five miles in P.E. class. It just mattered that she didn’t take shit from anyone, and reminded me of Darlene from Roseanne.

And I’m not sure how, but somehow, one day, even after tying my shoes together, which caused me to trip and fall and skin my knees, I ended up in her bedroom.

Or was it mine? The image I have in my mind is not one I recall as recognizable with the images I have of my room at the time. The scene that plays out doesn’t include my father, or my twin, or any of the other players that my house accompanies. 

But, it was me, and Sarah, in a room together. And somehow, I had my Asian fan with me, the one that opened to reveal a bright blue peacock. 

Sarah on her stomach, her torso propped up with her elbows, each hand under her chin.

Me, doing a poor impersonation of the fan dance from The King and I, as if that time in fifth grade didn’t have enough karma to keep me from the song for a lifetime. 

I heel-toe-heel-toed around the room as I sang, again, this time in private, arcing my fan in the shape of the infinity symbol, wanting so badly for Sarah to like me. Her face on me as I flipped the fan in front of my face, or with a flick of my pre-adolescent wrist, opened the fan just under my two eyes glued on hers, hoping she would be mine. I didn’t understand it at the time. Maybe she didn’t, either. But she knew enough. 

I should have known better from the first time.

But, a song, even if I had been a better singer, a more skilled fan dancer, would never lead me to the dream of my mother, or of Sarah. 

The next day, Sarah pretended she’d never had anything to do with me, was suddenly friends with the cheerleaders instead, the ones she claimed she couldn’t stand that same day she asked me to do a fan dance for her in the privacy of some bedroom I’ll call ours for the moment. 

She never spoke to me again. Except to tease me with the rest of them when I made another blunder, another mistake, another imperfection. 

It wasn’t like the theater. It wasn’t in the dark, with the world of the class watching me, my mother who I wanted so desperately, telling me to get small again.

It was bright and yellow, like her hair, and all I wanted was her eyes on me again, giggling and taking me in, and that day becoming longer and longer, until it was everything else that was shut out, and just the two of us dancing around one another, making whatever song we wanted, in whatever way we would have it sung.

getting to know you / getting to know all about you

getting to like you / getting to hope you like me

getting to feel free and easy when I am with you

getting to know what to say

About Addie Tsai

Addie Tsai is a queer, nonbinary writer and artist of color. She teaches Creative Writing, Dance, Humanities, and Literature at Houston Community College. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and her PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. The author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin, Addie is a staff writer at Spectrum South, Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, Associate Editor at Raising Mothers, and Assistant Fiction Editor at Anomaly. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Her work has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. Addie is the Founding Editor and Editor in Chief of just femme & dandy, a magazine on fashion for and by the LGBTQIA+ community. She can be found at http://www.addietsai.com, @addiebrook on Twitter, and @bluejuniper on Instagram.