At This Moment, in This Space
Paul Hwang does not have any more sons. Just a year ago he had three but now he doesn’t have any. Long ago he had chosen their American names: Jeremy, Michael, John, and Paul. (He never had a fourth son, and when he became a U.S. citizen at the age of forty-six, he decided to take the final name as his own.) A missionary, Jeff, had traveled to the village Paul had grown up in when he was ten and the villagers allowed the westerner to give English names to the four boys born during his visit. The tiny Chinese village had never seen a missionary before, though it’d heard of Christianity—Tian Zhu Jiao, or the faith of heaven’s lord. Confused by the wording, Paul, like the others, interpreted Tian Zhu Jiao to be the religion that the gods themselves worshipped. When he came to the United States, he thought of no better English names than the ones chosen by the missionary, this emissary for the gods’ god.
But Paul isn’t religious, or tries not to be. He knows that others are, and by naming his sons these names, he hoped they’d be able to fit in more easily with Americans. He also believed that, by chance if there was a God, God would be more inclined to forgive his unbelieving by the fact that he’d named his sons after the advice of the missionary. Paul is a superstitious man, though he’d be the last person to admit it, and he sees the recent turn of events—the death of his wife and two sons (the younger ones, Michael and John)—as somehow related, in the way that bad luck likes to chain, and also somehow his fault, in the way that his family would always gang up and blame him for everything when they had been alive.
A month ago, Paul’s wife, Linda, and his two sons died in a car accident, hitting a pothole and ramming into a semi. Technically, Paul does have one son remaining, but they have not spoken in over six months. Jeremy is a junior at Yale, and a year ago he told Paul that he was switching majors from biology to history. Paul asked his son why, and the boy had the nerve to say that it was because he enjoyed it.
Paul is aware of the type of father he is, the type to admire his children from a distance, spinning futures for them. He always pictured Jeremy in a white coat, a stethoscope around his neck, parading down the cardiovascular wing of a hospital, the youngest heart surgeon in the state, like the curly-haired boy on that American TV show they had watched together as a family, Doogie Houser, M.D. This dream shattered, Paul resorted to ignoring his son, hoping vaguely that Jeremy would call him, apologize, and tell him that he was returning to biology.
Before her death, his wife had snuck phone calls to Jeremy every month at work, and on occasion Jeremy did the same. Paul’s feelings about this were mixed. On one hand, Linda told him what was going on in Jeremy’s life: the new girlfriend he had, the courses he was taking, the record of his ultimate Frisbee team. On the other hand, he resented the fact that his sole link to his eldest son was through his wife, who told him of Jeremy’s affairs in a voice as if to suggest she had always been the closer parent.
Though Paul knows that it is his responsibility to tell his son of his mother and brothers’ death, he is too afraid to do so. Everyday he stares at the cell phone, his hands shaking when he flips through the address book to find his son’s name highlighted and glowing.
Secretly, he hopes that Jeremy will find out on his own. This is what he envisions: After a month of not hearing his mother’s voice, Jeremy calls her company. When he asks for Linda Hwang, the person on the other end, the receptionist, will remain silent for a few seconds. She considers whether or not to ask who is calling. To distance herself, she decides she’d better not, and she tells the young man in a hushed voice that she is sorry, but Linda Hwang has passed away. Finally, as a way of closing the conversation, she asks whether he’d like the phone number of the family.
Paul plays this scene again and again in his head, but he can never picture his son’s reaction. Would he be angry and disbelieving, or sad and resigned? Would he demand to speak to her boss, the CEO of the small pharmaceutical where Linda worked? Would he hang up, opting to call home right away? Or would he be too scared, like his father, too scared to even call at all?
When Paul thinks about these possible outcomes, he feels that he no longer knows his son. So much has changed since Jeremy left for college. He’d been timid in high school, a boy terrorized by rejection. He played video games and ran track, the only sport everyone got in. But the voice that Paul heard a few months ago, telling him that his son was not going to become a doctor, did not seem to belong to the same son that Paul remembered. It was a confident, uncompromising voice, one that knew what it wanted but not what was good for it.
These days, sitting alone at the dinner table waiting for the pressure cooker to finish steaming rice, Paul finds his mind repeating, like a looping answering machine, the same questions: Where has my son gone? Where has all my sons gone?
At the funeral, everyone asks about Jeremy. Paul is sipping black tea and breathing in the incense sticks burned for Linda, Michael, and John. A thin smoke rises from the skeletal wood and dissolves in the air in front of the framed picture. The picture was taken three years ago at Washington D.C., the summer before Jeremy left for college, the Lincoln Memorial lurking in the background. Paul remembers taking the picture—he remembers being too scared to ask in his broken English for a passerby to take it for him. Jeremy is also in it, and the incense floating in front of the picture makes it seem as if he was also dead. Most of the people who are at the house knows better, but Michael and John’s piano teacher, Mrs. Ling, tells Paul how sorry she is about Linda and his three sons. Paul doesn’t bother correcting her, the misunderstanding as much his fault as her own.
To closer friends, Paul’s answer for Jeremy’s absence is simple: It was his choice to not show up. “Still,” headmaster Zhang from Chinese school, where Paul spent waiting in front of a gym every Friday night so his sons could learn Mandarin, tells him, “It’s Jeremy’s duty. He should be here with you no matter what.” This has the opposite effect of what the headmaster intends, since it also reminds Paul of his own duty to inform his son of his mother and brothers’ deaths.
Even Jeremy’s friends from high school, the ones still stuck in Flushing, attending Hunter’s College or Nassau Community, disapproves of Jeremy’s behavior. “I know Jeremy,” Anthony Tai says, “He’s just scared. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his mother or his brothers or you. He just doesn’t want to or doesn’t know how to deal with it. Can you blame him? Shit, if this happened to me I might do the same.” This, too, does not comfort Paul. How dare this boy compare himself to Jeremy? Jeremy, who’s attending Yale, and this kid, who’s attending community college. “But I’ll give him a call,” Tai says, “to tell him how much of a wimp he’s being.” Paul considers this for a moment, going over the pros and cons of his son finding out in this manner, and then, in stern Chinese, he says, “No, you will do no such thing.” The kid shrugs, turning around and making his way in his baggy black jeans over to the refreshments table.
Paul seems to be moving back in time. Each morning when he goes downstairs, his expectation of seeing his family grows. He seems to hear the two TVs—one of cartoons or sitcoms or pro-wrestling that Michael and John liked to watch, and the other of Chinese channels they receive over satellite that Linda enjoyed. He seems to smell scallion cakes frying in sesame oil, or the steam from Linda’s rice and sweet potato porridge drifting up the stairs. These things were what he looked forward to when he woke up in the morning. Afterwards, he would drive for thirty minutes to Fordham University, where he teaches several sections of introductory physics and directs the graduate students in his lab, where long ago he gave up the hope of discovering anything of remote importance to humanity.
These mornings, Paul drives to work and thinks about theoretical physics. In the past, he did not believe in string theory. Until recently, theoretical physics have only been a bane to his existence. Funding for physical chemistry, his field, was cut to make room for a new particle accelerator, and he viewed this reallocation of resources as proof of the new decadence in academia: People were no longer interested in doing research on subjects that provided tangible results for the public. Instead, they wanted to shoot expensive protons and neutrons at a high speed and record the results, which could never increase crop yields or make the lives of factory workers less taxing. Once, he had told his peers about his views, and they had called him, jokingly, a communist.
Recently, though, Paul has been thinking seriously about M-theory, a part of string theory that deals with multiple dimensions. Every possible outcome exists on different planes of existence. To Paul, M-theory seems to suggest that there are an infinite number of dimensions where Linda and Michael and John are still alive. Better yet, there are an infinite number of dimensions where Linda and Michael and John are still alive and where Jeremy still talks to him. He remembers a conversation he had with his colleagues about recent developments in subatomic particles, about how certain antiparticles wink in and out of space-time. They come into our dimension briefly, and then vanish. No one knows where they go, but M-theory suggests that they might be entering into other dimensions. Dimensions, Paul considers, in which Linda and Michael and John might still be with him. Although these particles have only been discovered in atomic accelerators, Paul believes that, statistically speaking, there are particles on his body—or even parts of his own body—that are doing the same: winking in and out of existence. It comforts him to think that, however unlikely, this might be possible: that at this very moment he is exchanging particles with a world in which his family was still alive.
At work, his mind wanders, and he finds it difficult to concentrate on his experiments. He pours a liter of sulfuric acid up to the brim before realizing the beaker is too small. Acid spills over and begins eating away at the black tabletop. “Ta ma de,” he curses, and calls over a graduate student to douse the table with a strong base. “Don’t worry, Dr. Hwang,” the young man says. “This stuff happens all the time.” He points to the other rings on the table. Paul feels an eroding pain in his thumb and palm, and he runs a weak base over his hand to numb it.
“Professor Hwang,” he hears another student across the lab yell. He looks up and straightens his glasses with his thumb-knuckle. The student is holding out a phone, tiptoeing and waving to him. “Phone call,” she says.
Suddenly he is filled with a rare kind of terror, one that he knew very well when he was a boy but seemed to have somehow forgotten. He is ten years old again, back in his village, and his parents had driven the mule-carriage that morning to sell leek in the city. They left him instructions for what must be done in the fields, and now, at the end of the day, he remembers that he forgot to pull the weeds out of the cabbage area and to sprinkle the squash stands with pesticides. It’s too late to start the work and his parents are going to be home any minute. He runs to the hut that Jeff the missionary calls a church. He hides there for the entire night. The American gives him cookies, and the sweetness of the chocolate chips makes him cry when he thinks about the beating his father will give him when he has to walk home in the morning.
He feels this fear again, now, at his lab where everyone around him is his subordinate. He takes the phone to his hand, and grasps it between his fingertips and the fat of his palm so that it doesn’t come in contact with his thumb.
“Mr. Hwang,” the voice says.
It is not Jeremy, and the elation leaves as quickly as it arrives: He will have to go through all of this again, and one of those times it will be his son.
“I am Ted Franklin from Yale and I’m just calling to tell you that you’ve missed your last two payments. You still have plenty of time, but I do want to let you know that if we don’t receive a payment from you by the end of this week, your son’s registration for next semester might be delayed. We don’t like to trouble the students with these types of things if we can resolve it with the parents first. The students are busy enough as it is with their schoolwork and social commitments. You understand.”
“Can I pay over the phone?” Paul clears his throat, conscious of his accent. “I have my wallet with me now.”
“Whatever is most convenient for you, Mr. Hwang.”
Paul gives the man his credit card number, the expiration date, and the three-digit code. When the man hangs up, Paul combs his hand through his hair, the sweat on his fingertips trickling to the floor like glucose from an IV drip.
There is the spot where the accident happened. Nothing remains except for a ditch by the road, a section of scorched lawn not larger than a couple square feet before the start of the woods. Paul drives past it every morning and afternoon. Each time he sees it he has the urge to turn around and go to The Home Depot, buy some lawn care product, drive back, and sprinkle seeds onto the seared patch. He’d like to just sit there and watch the patch grow until it looks like the surrounding grass. He doesn’t do this because he is afraid of what incoming traffic might think. They would slow their SUVs and glance at him, wondering if his car broke down, and when they get close they would realize that he was just a crazy Chinese man with nothing better to do than sit by the highway, and with no knowledge of American etiquette.
And Paul thinks: they wouldn’t be too far off. When he was young, he did not wear closed-up pants until the age of six. He wore pants with the bottoms cut open, like every other boy and girl in the village, for ease of defecation. There was no grass in China, Paul considers, not like the kind by the highway, so full and tall and green. Villages couldn’t afford to let such wasteful plants suck up nutrients from the wheat and sorghum fields, and children’s defecation, however unpleasant it might be to look at or smell, enriched the soil. It was all about practicality, not beauty or ambience. He might not be familiar with American etiquette, but he bets most Americans couldn’t even conceive of what it means to grow up in China, where the notion of labor isn’t sitting behind a desk writing on paper or driving a truck that lifts the crates for you.
Paul thinks these thoughts and then questions where his resentment comes from. He doesn’t want to feel this way about the country he lives in, the country his wife and sons died in, and the country his remaining son is getting his education in. In a perfect world—his belief in the existence of this perfect world growing with each day after their deaths—he would not feel resentment at what’s been given to him, or sorrow for his loss, or fear of doing the simplest and most common of activities.
He has taken up meditation. Though he doesn’t believe in Buddhism or Daoism or the benefits of yoga, he sits cross-legged and erect for hours at a time. The other day he checked out some books at the library. Not bothering to read the words, he glanced through the pictures and diagrams and tried to contort his body to be the same as those shown on the page.
Now he closes his eyes. He tries to not think at all but to feel beyond the atoms of his body. Is this the one winking into another dimension? What about this one at the tip of his toe? He wonders if the pin-like sensation he just felt is a particle from another universe. He wonders if he has just come into contact with another, luckier, version of himself.
Ridiculous, he thinks.
It is one of those days that Paul believes God does not have the power to make worse. There is no sun, the sky a kind of smokestack gray that forces him to turn on the lights at lunchtime. The air is damp, and just as he enters the parking lot to drive home, it starts to drizzle. By the time he reaches the highway he has his wipers on full. To make matters worse, his accelerator doesn’t work, and when he looks down to check the gas he sees that the engine temperature needle has shot up beyond the maximum. He pulls his car to the side of the highway, conscious of the annoyed vehicles behind him having to slow down and veer left. When he opens the hood, the radiator is smoking. The rain helps somewhat to cool it down, and after it becomes safe enough to touch, he pulls away some of the wires and sees that the coolant-feeding tube is cut and fluid is leaking. The nearest auto mechanic is fifteen miles away. He spends three hours getting there, driving for five minutes at a time, checking the temperature, pulling over, and then waiting for the engine to cool.
He is soaked when he gets home. There is a message on his answering machine, and at first he is too afraid to check it. He wants to hit erase, but he forces himself to press the button next to it, and he is relieved when he hears that it is Danny from the lab telling him that, before he left the office, he had forgotten to centrifuge several test tubes of a benzene solution.
The phone rings again as soon as he hits the erase button, and for a moment Paul doesn’t suspect it to be anyone else.
“Hello,” he says.
There is a dropped breath, a sigh, and Paul knows who it is as soon as he hears it.
“Hi, dad. I tried calling mom’s extension at work but it was disconnected.” A pause, long enough to signify annoyance but not sadness. “To be honest,” his son continues, “I was hoping that mom would be the one to pick up instead of you. If she’s there and you still don’t want to talk to me, you can just put her on.”
Of course, Linda’s extension. Why would Jeremy bother going through the receptionist at all? Paul thinks for a moment, going over the excuses he has prepared over the last week to explain why he hasn’t called him or told him of the accident and the funeral. He has not prepared for the possibility that his son might call and not know about the situation. None of his excuses make sense. “Your mom—” he says. “Your mom left a while ago.”
“That’s OK. I can talk to you about this, too.”
Paul is silent. He knows that if he doesn’t say anything now, there will be no other opportunity to correct his previous statement. But what about the funeral? What about the fact that he has denied his son of seeing his mother for the last time? Is a lie made during a phone call really so significant, he asks himself, when compared to what he has done already? He opens his mouth, but he is too late.
“It’s simple, really. I got an e-mail from Yale accounting yesterday. They said you guys haven’t been keeping up with payments. I can’t register for next semester.” His son’s voice is expedient, efficient even, with the firm belief that the biggest problem in his life is whether or not he will be able to register for classes.
Paul feels a hint of betrayal from Yale, from—What was his name?—but it is gone after a second, and his mind begins to wander. He wonders if he is seeing the situation in the wrong way. After all, he thinks, isn’t this what he has been hoping for all along?
“Dad,” Jeremy says.
“Is something wrong at home?”
For a moment, Paul is terrified again. His son is tricking him. He knows everything, and this is how he gets his vengeance. Paul can see him, on the other end of the phone, his face angry like the way his own father had been after he returned home with the chocolate chip cookie in his hand. For the next week, his father made him do double his chores, and whenever they went to the missionary’s hut on Sundays his father would turn and look at him as if he had dishonored the family in front of the entire village.
“Are you guys in some kind of financial problem? Did mom get laid-off? Tell me, Dad. I can get a part-time job or a work-study position. It’s not hard.”
He feels his body being pulled apart. Numbness surges through his hands, his feet, and his head. It’s like his organs were placed in separate containers and then pressed so that blood could not enter any of them. He is no longer sure which world he is in.
“Dad. Talk to me. Should I get a temporary loan? If you can’t get the money by this week, I’m going to have to do that. And really, it’s no big deal at all.”
This is a gift from God, Paul thinks. It is as if he has entered into another universe, one in which the biggest problem is paying for his son’s tuition.
These must be it, these tingles.
Soon, perhaps in a few seconds, he will lose all memories that don’t belong.
“You still there, Dad?”
“Yeah,” Paul says. He is speaking English now, suddenly not conscious of his accent. “Don’t worry, Jeremy. I’ve taken care of everything.”
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