When I met Cara, I was at the bar and lounge on Thursday night, choking on a chunk of grilled cheese sandwich. Cara ran up behind me and performed the Heimlich maneuver, as I vomited on her purse, cheese staining the stitching on the red leather. “You saved me,” I said, catching my breath.
“Little old me?” she asked. “No biggie.”
I bought us beers, we did the cheers, and drank. I sipped on my beer, the taste of the sandwich still clinging to my mouth.
As I was dating Cara, she often told me I looked like my Mom, a teacher. But as Cara and I grew apart and stopped seeing each other, the last thing she told me was that I looked like my Dad, a car salesman.
I had gained my Mom’s upturned nose and plush cheeks. And from my Dad, I had inherited his dark brown eyes and his strong chin. I had also received my Dad’s habit for drinking beer. I had grown up in Annandale, a small quiet suburb in Northern Virginia right off of Interstate 95 where there was that same bar and lounge. Dad and I would always go there to drink after a day of hard work. We didn’t do that anymore; now, we each drank alone.
I lit a bowl, smoked, and thought about how I was 24 years old but still felt like I was a little kid. Then I put away my weed and I went to the bathroom and washed my face. As I dried the cold water dripping down my cheeks, I looked at the mirror and honestly believed I looked nothing like my Mom, nor did I look like my Dad. But I did know that I looked like a failure. I was always failing at something.
When Dad got fired from the dealership, he bought a six pack of Coors and drank out on the back patio, staring at the tall trees in the backyard that were swaying in the wind. He drank one beer and then drank a second beer. He was sobbing and drinking, taking moments to wipe the tears away from his face before he took another swig from his bottle. I was sitting next to him as he lit tobacco from a wooden pipe. Dad coughed out smoke and started screaming.
The neighbors popped their heads over the tarnished picket fence, and asked “What’s wrong, Jon?”
Dad waved his beer back and forth, and screamed at them, “You. You’re what’s wrong!” The neighbors made faces and left.
Mom opened the sliding glass door and stepped out to the back patio. She put a hand on Dad’s shoulder and rubbed his back, asking, “Jon, what happened?”
Dad brushed her hand off, sighed, and kept watching the trees sway in the wind. A leaf fell from a branch and landed in the grass. “Everything.”
She looked at me for confirmation. “Roger?” she asked me.
And I looked at Dad and then looked back at Mom and said, “Nothing happened.”
Mom bit her bottom lip as she picked up the empty bottles, door slamming shut, as she went back inside. Dad looked at me, his eyes bloodshot. “Thanks, Roger.” He chugged a third beer. He stood up and walked over to the grass, picking up the fallen leaf, and held it in his hand.
Later that night, Dad slept and choked on his vomit.
A month after my Dad’s funeral, Cara and I went to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She wanted to see her grandfather.
Cara’s white. I’m Vietnamese American. When I was younger, I thought these things mattered and in the end they never really did in the ways I’d imagined.
When we arrived at Constitution Gardens, I was drinking vodka from a flask, as we walked up to the two long, black granite walls. There were thousands of names—names like Nathan, George, Todd, Bennie, etc.—etched into the granite, people who had fought the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War.
Cara touched one of the walls with her index finger, dragging it along the panels, her face reflecting back, a look of anguish that I’d never seen before. An hour passed by, as Cara was shuffling across the stone pathway, when she stopped and stood still, her finger stuck on a name. She looked back at me and took a deep breath. “I found him,” she said.
I took a step closer, drank the vodka, my shoulder grazing her arm, as I looked at the name. John L. Williams. John was her grandfather and he had served in the war as a combat medic. Cara had never met John, had only seen him in black and white pictures. John had died from a bayonet wound to the belly. At least that’s what I thought happened.
Jon was also my Dad’s name. But he was Jon without an “H.”
Cara took a small piece of paper from her purse and placed it over John L. Williams, and then drew over it with a graphite pencil. “Don’t worry, this is called ‘rubbing,’” she said. “It’s like reverse vandalism. Sorry, that was crass. It’s supposed to be cathartic.” Cara was rubbing the pencil over the paper with different motions: top and down, back and forth, crisscross. Her hand shook, even as she pulled the pencil and paper away from the wall.
Her fingers were goose pimpled. I reached over to put my hand on her shoulder, when she turned to me, tears were flowing down her cheeks. “Cara, what’s wrong?” I asked her. She shook her head. “It’s okay. I’m just exhausted,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I nodded and stepped back to give her space.
I stared at the black walls. I understood its power, its significance. But I didn’t understand why my heart was thumping so hard I thought I could hear it. I dropped my flask, glass shattering into chipped fragments, vodka spilling against the granite.
“Roger?” Cara asked reaching out to my hand.
And I was on the ground, hugging my knees to my chest, with my head tucked in, and my hands buried in my hair. I glanced back at the walls; the black granite, the names, my reflection. But I didn’t see my face, only my Dad’s.
It was a Sunday in winter when Cara and I spent the afternoon at Burke Lake Park sitting at a picnic table covered in slush and frost. I wrote a scene in my screenplay on a piece of computer paper and when it was finished, I showed it to Cara. And she smiled, and I knew she was being nice, but sometimes that was all you needed to keep going.
The scene was about a girl named Bethany who was taking care of her older brother Sam after he had gotten released from a mental hospital. Sam had been diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder and he was struggling to reinvent himself after a manic episode.
Cara lit a joint and the smoke hovered over our heads like a small grey cloud. She asked, “Is Sam your Dad?”
“Could be. I’m not sure,” I said. Ever since, I’d passed out at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, we hadn’t talked about my Dad. I took the joint from Cara and puffed on it for so long that my lungs started to swell. I coughed into my shoulder, turned to the side, and hawked on the ground.
“Did you throw up?” Cara asked, her face scrunching up. “Do you need water?”
I stubbed the joint out on the picnic table and flicked the butt into the frozen grass. “I don’t need anything.” I knew she was asking me questions out of concern, but I didn’t want to hear them.
A gust of wind swept through the park and picked up my screenplay. I got up from the table and chased after the piece of paper, reaching for it with my hands, running fast and breathing hard, clumps of snow kicking up from my boots. The paper landed in the lake and as it sank into the water, I thought about my Dad. Cara came up behind me wrapping her arms around my waist and her hands were cold, but I didn’t want her to let go of me.
The next morning, I went to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. After I flushed it, for a moment, I pressed my back against the bathtub, closing my eyes, as I thought about feeling clean and free. I didn’t like throwing up but I also didn’t like having my stomach roll up and down with sickness—the feeling in my empty gut as it shifted from side to side, closing up the hole again and again, until it was all gone, until it had washed away the sickness.
I got up from the floor and washed my hands with soap and hot water. I brushed my teeth. I looked into the mirror.
I saw my Dad. No. It was my Mom. No.
But it wasn’t me.
Mom was on the front porch drinking black coffee in one hand, and reading a book in the other. She sipped on the coffee and cleared her throat. I leaned my elbows against the wooden railing and took in a deep breath. “It’s nice outside,” I said.
“It’s about to thunder,” she said.
“You sure?” I asked. “How do you know?”
Mom nodded and set the coffee on a small lawn table. She dog-eared a page in her book, looked at me, and said, “I just know.”
“Wish I had that superpower,” I said.
“It’s not a superpower. It’s experience. Life experience,” she said, chuckling. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to be a superhero.”
“Why not?” I asked looking out into the neighborhood. The blue sky had darkened with greys and blacks and now rain was falling on the asphalt. “You could save people’s lives.”
“I don’t want to save anyone. I really don’t want to.”
I tapped my fingers against the porch railing. “What do you want?”
“More coffee,” Mom picked up her coffee and checked the cup.
After work, I bought a six pack of Natty Bo and sat on the back patio watching my tuxedo cat Eleanor climb up a tree, falling back to the muddy ground, scratching at the coarse bark. There was a blue bird perched on one of the low hanging branches. I pulled the tab on a beer and drank it, feeling the cold alcohol pour down my throat. I chugged it and opened a second beer. Again, Eleanor tried to scramble up the tree’s trunk and managed to set her paw on one of the branches. But eventually, she landed back on the ground, mud caking the sides of her legs. I hadn’t hung out in the backyard on the patio ever since Dad had passed away. I didn’t see him die.
Mom had woken me up and told me he had choked on his vomit. I remember looking out my bedroom window and seeing an ambulance pull up our driveway and hearing a police car’s siren blare with violence. Mom’s face had looked deadpan. We hugged each other and her tears dropped on my shoulders and she squeezed my body so hard and I thought I heard her scream, then realized I was the one who had screamed.
Eleanor made it to the low hanging branch and lunged at the blue bird. I drank my beer and watched the blue bird fly away, over the picket fence, over my house, and into the foliage of the trees. I crushed the beer in my hand and tossed it on the ground. Eleanor looked back at me and yawned.
I stood up from my chair and staggered forward into the grass. I fell on my face, flecks of mud smearing my cheek, my mind going black, as I heard a bird singing a sad song. No, it wasn’t sad. But it felt like a song I’d heard before.
Damien Cephus (29) is a Washington, DC based artist who produces work in a variety of mediums. Traditionally and digitally trained the emerging artist frequently posts to his Instagram page. Influenced by cartoons, music and films he hopes to blend the bright colors of fictional landscapes and grounded topics such as depression, isolation, and the pursuit of happiness. Follow the artist Instagram: @Cephgawd