My mother always dressed me in red, so I would stand out in a crowd, so that she would never lose me. She was always terrified that a stranger might want to carry me off. From an early age, I knew not to talk to strangers. Yet there’s something that my mother never taught me, something that she couldn’t. Sometimes it’s someone close to you who becomes a stranger. It starts with small, innocuous changes, a difference in word choice or a shift in day-to-day activity . . . . It happens slowly, but as the days creep by, you find the people you love can be swallowed into the purgatorial abyss we call the human condition and come out most inhuman. One day you go to kiss them, and you realize that they’re gone. In my fleeting 18 years, I’ve found the most dangerous monsters are the ones who haven’t completely lost their hearts; trapped on that fine line between love and madness, they claw away at themselves and those they hold dear.
My grandmother was born during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in 1944. During World War II, as the villagers fled for sanctuary on higher ground, my great-grandmother collapsed in a church graveyard to give birth. My grandmother was so minute that she fit in her father’s palm and so peaceful that the nuns thought she was stillborn; if not for her magnificent shriek, the howl of someone who very much wanted to be heard, she would have been buried alive in the shoebox she fit inside. The future beauty queen grew up in a big house with servants. She was fearless, only afraid of the water snakes that slithered through the currents and stood upright like floating knives. At 18, she discovered there were no sea serpents in New York. Upon arriving in America for the 1964 World’s Fair, she was crowned Miss Unisphere. Shortly after, she met my grandfather on the streets of Chinatown.He was a rogue, a charmer, a hunter—a debonair with a squirrel monkey on his shoulder and a grin that could charm a nun. My grandmother was a daughter of the air, or perhaps one of fire. Beautiful and ladylike, timid yet shrewd, she did not dare give him the time of day as he stalked her. She tried to ignore him, she resisted, she evaded, but in the end she fell . . . completely and utterly in love.
My grandfather was someone you might call a modern-day huntsman: a parole officer, in fact. Whether he was dealing with thieves, drug-dealers, or murderers, he kept them all in line. Even the craziest and most dangerous of beasts understood the will of the huntsman. With iron fists, feet like lightning, and a mind like a steel trap, the huntsman tamed the wilderness of Manhattan. Nobody dared combat him one on one.
Capable of taking all manner of shapes, the huntsman infiltrated the most dangerous of lairs. When an armed madman took a hostage, the huntsman was quick to cook a solution. Casually, cleverly, he picked up an empty paper bag he saw in the hallway. Pretending he was a Chinese deliveryman, he rang the doorbell over and over again until the seven-foot felon came to the door. “Get out of here, man, I didn’t order no Chinese food!” The huntsman remained persistent. “I got your food here. You pay now!” The quarry opened the door and peeked out, just in time to see the huntsman draw his gun from the paper bag. The poor fool was served a meal he never forgot!
But even Champions can find themselves the clearest of targets. One day, the king of rats decided that he would do away with the huntsman once and for all. He phoned in a false tip and laid an ambush. The trap was set. When the huntsman went to meet the “informant,” someone would be waiting to shoot him from behind. Fortunately for the huntsman, he had to carry another criminal to prison that day, and he was not sent. His partner and close friend, the woodsman, came instead to pick up the tip. When the woodsman showed up at the meeting place, he was met with a hailstorm of bullets. The huntsman’s life was spared, but his heart was shattered by the loss of the woodsman. He retired to his seaside cottage and to the side of my grandmother.
Times turned dark for the couple. Burdened with the guilt of his friend’s untimely death, the huntsman lost his way. He stopped going out. It was as if he slammed a latch on top of his soul. The body that had shackled legions started to betray him. His circulation was the first to go. His hands and feet turned black—and so did his heart. His wife tried to comfort him. He responded by moving to the guest bedroom. The huntsman writhed and hollered at dastardly rats hidden in shadows. “Come out, you motherfucker! I see you! Come on. You’re not so tough!” His wife did her best to please him. She tried to hold him and only got more howls. She tried to make his favorite pork chop dish. He tossed the plate at the wall, showering the room with shrapnel and grease. Sometimes it was as if their entire house was quivering and shaking in pain along with him. I don’t know how my grandmother survived those terrible years as the shock absorber of turmoil. She was meek and obliging on even the worst of days. My grandpa’s tormented wrath was a destructive force that no human could hope to withstand.
Almost a generation later, my grandfather, once the huntsman, has mellowed out. With his new grandchildren, his relatives, and his many friends, he learned not to let himself be sucked into the abyss of his bad moods. He still has occasional flashes of terrible rage and his exterior is gruff as ever, though for the most part he has found the medium between serenity and storm. My grandfather learned to conquer his monstrosity within and saved his humanity, but a horrible price was paid. The universe works in mysterious and often painful ways. One grandparent was saved at the cost of another.
Spring 2009. I receive an urgent text from my mother. Something happened with Mima and Pop Pop. Call me back and come home NOW! I am a little shocked, but not entirely surprised. My grandparents often quarrel. Regardless, I dash home and get into my mother’s car. The drive is hot and stuffy for spring. When I roll down the car window, my jacket begins to whip from our tailwind. A red sleeve grazes my cheek. Today, I’m wearing a jacket I got from Urban Outfitters, the one with the Rising Sun of Japan on it.
My mom parks the car outside and a shudder runs through me. The driveway is empty and the door is open. As we enter, I hear sobbing, but it is not like anything I have ever heard in my lifetime. The slow, wracking cries are not the sound of someone who is merely sad. They are the product of a lifetime of resentment. The stairs are short and few, but each step feels like I am hammering closer and closer to the center of the Earth. Inside my grandmother’s room, I see a wolf lying in my grandmother’s bed. I mean, it is my grandmother, but . . . “I caught him,” she cries and laughs at the same time. “I finally caught the bastard!”
When my grandma speaks, it is as if there are a thousand different voices trying to be heard through her. Her eyes flicker constantly, but still manage to pierce my being. She knows we are afraid and she enjoys it. Very calmly, my mom tries to reassure her. In our family, jumping to conclusions often comes with disastrous consequences, but we’re too late. I watch my grandmother, the smartest, fiercest woman I know, break down before me. She tells us she has proof that my grandfather had an affair with the woman next door. Deftly for her level of hysteria, my grandmother produces a tape recorder. She clicks the button. I brace myself for the horrible truth.
“Can you hear it?” she asks. Nothing. For the longest time, we hear nothing. Nothing but taps and clicks and static. An ocean of oblivion embraces our ears, but no evidence of an affair. Occasionally a blip that sounds like human speech manifests, but nothing on the level that my grandmother hears. We do not hear the woman next door and her daughter knock on the door, asking to be let in. We do not hear the giggles. Just once, someone winning a car on The Price is Right graces our radar, but it is Drew Carey dealing out the prizes—certainly not my grandfather buying a car for “that bitch next door!” After watching hours and hours of Lifetime specials with my grandmother, I am horrified to find myself thrust into one straight from her savage imagination.
And so the fantastical nightmare continues as the huntsman becomes the haunted in his own house. After years of dealing with criminals, my grandfather finds himself face to face with the deadliest mastermind of them all. One who knows everything and everybody he holds dear, and precisely how to destroy them. The fantasy affair my grandmother has crafted for my grandfather is highly reminiscent of an inquisition or witch trial. If he denies it, then he’s a liar and needs to be pressed further, but if he agrees, then all her hard work paid off after all. Fed on a diet of quiet rage for all of her life, my grandmother threw her restraint and rationality out the window. She hurts my grandfather because she loves him—because she would rather destroy him and herself than take her chances with any other force or possibility.
And still, I do not know if she is truly lost. There are days when it seems like she is playing us. There is a certain theatricality and order to her madness. The timing, the finesse, is all so meticulous. If she is crazy, then she is the most cunning madwoman I have had the pleasure of knowing. Even when lost in phantom obsession, her observations are astute and her decisions are planned. Sometimes I wonder if she simply got bored—if she wanted to see how many times she could set the world on fire and rebuild it again and again.
My grandmother lives in a sandy box on a rolling hill. The century-old sycamore at the foot of the abode casts a dusty haze over the front lawn, eternally crumbling, but still unyielding. At night, the wind whistles over the distant ocean—a cry of grief. A lone palm tree greets visitors upon entry, verdant except for a single skeletal branch. Each section of the house is a different climate. The living room is as creamy as vanilla ice cream. The master bedroom is the crimson of an imperial palace, every pillow a sunset bleeding profusely with reds and golds. Even after years of acting as an unwilling witness to this saga of sorrow and rage, it is still very much the house of a lady.
I see my grandma dancing on the precipice between life and death, flailing through the last precious moments she has here. When I look at her, I feel confused, lost, and upset; I am not always sure who is sitting across from me. I see Grandma in the car, her foot on the gas, speeding like a demon; Grandma telling me a bedtime story, resting a hand on my head as I fall asleep; Grandma in black stockings and a mink fur coat: “Am I a cougar?” she coos lasciviously, her lips covered in blood red lipstick. Grandma singing Abba songs while making hot cocoa; Grandma hiding in the bushes, plotting her next move on the woman next door. But when I look at my grandmother, I do not see the manipulative dragon lady that my relatives do. I do not see the wolf that the neighbors fear. I see a little girl, smaller than the palm of my hand, screaming with a tightly clenched fist before someone buries her in a shoebox.