trigger warning: profanity, abuse
When I was small, you loved me so much you named your boat in my honor. You called it the Royal Princess, making reference to my Korean name — a name that you carefully folded up and locked away like a relic from a dead, unblessed time. I don’t remember what came first, me or the boat, but I do remember that when you piloted it, you laughed — and when you laughed, your teeth broke white and shining through the tan of your face and that was my cue to laugh along.
I could always make you laugh. It was a skill I acquired early. I’d make you a crown out of garish yellow construction paper, grip a Crayola marker strong-steady in my fist, and spell out your name on the brim until the marker’s pinpoint tip slow-eroded to a blunt plateau. I’d cry out, “Hail to the king!” and parade around the living room and even if you were watching football, you’d spare me a glance and you’d laugh — a gentle, tolerant, paternal laugh — and call me your little princesa. When your team did something you didn’t like, you’d yell in outrage and pound your knee, words I wasn’t supposed to know, and I’d laugh, scurrying out of the room to cover my ears so I wouldn’t accidentally overhear them — but I always listened.
When I got a little older, I developed a penchant for accents that would turn your face red and send you reeling for the first piece of sturdy furniture. You still laughed, but it wasn’t just tolerant anymore. I’d leveled up. You told your friends I was a “funny kid” and put me through my paces. “Do the Rap Reiplinger skit!” you’d urge me, your eyes already laughing in an anticipatory way. “Do the room service one with the haole guy.” I was shy, but I launched through my repertoire with ease. I’d mimic with uncanny accuracy the yawning vowel sounds of Boston and New York, the rollicking singsong of the island, and the chattering quickness of the Filipino family who lived next door. You always laughed. Your friends did, too, but that was just a canned laugh track in the periphery; you were my target audience.
It got so the jokes were so warm and worn that you’d start laughing the second I uttered a fragment of a line of dialogue. They were our jokes. I knew them backwards and forwards.
I was maybe ten when I learned a new brand of humor: the self-deprecating kind. Some boy at the beach who I had a crush on called me fat. “You’ve got a lot of pudge on you,” is what he actually said, not unkindly, just stating the facts and calling the shots as he saw them, and when I went crying to you about it, you laughed — and I watched the white of your smile flash through the dark sheen of your face in the Waikiki sun and for the first time I didn’t get the joke. “Come on, honey,” you said, still grinning, impatience thinning the edges of the mouth that used to blow raspberries into my flyaway hair, knifing your lips into something unfamiliar. “What’re you getting so upset for?” Your voice took on an edge of irritation then that I now habitually wield as a blade against myself: come on, honey, what’re you getting so upset for?
I tried to catch up. I said, “I guess I’m growing out instead of up, yeah?” and you clapped me on the back with your strong-steady hand and laughed. The impatience bled away but I stayed away from the beach after that, and you sold my neon pink and yellow Local Motion shortboard to the same boy who referred to me thereafter as “Pudge” in an exquisite act of betrayal. My love for the sea warred with my fear of the boy and the threat of your growing friendship with him, because he was Korean, too — only he got to keep his name and his Korean parents, which made him more than me. More Korean, more svelte, more worthy. Better surfer, too. When I saw you laugh at a joke of his, your face bright red and your arm groping blindly for the nearest palm tree, I learned to hate myself.
That was around the time I stopped being a “funny kid” and started being a “pain in the ass” or a “smart ass” — (Come on, honey, what’re you getting so upset for?) — and our relationship began to decay. Over the next five years, you laughed — but a lot of the time I was the joke, and I was seldom laughing along. I was fifteen when I met a boy you didn’t approve of, and looking back now, I can’t remember if I was ever able to make that boy laugh. I can’t remember if I ever really tried. That was when we had the cleaning business — when things were good and we could throw money around and the laughing you did at my expense was muted by the cloud-cushion of being found attractive and useful and sweet.
I let that boy own me officially for the next three years until he put me on consignment for the next fifteen, and I learned real quick that I wasn’t any of those things. He’d settled for me, and he made sure I knew it, and I disappointed him about as often as I disappointed you. When things went really south, you found out. You didn’t laugh, but what you learned turned your face red and sent you reeling for the first piece of sturdy furniture: a wooden folding chair. Your strong-steady hand lifted it effortlessly and fierce-flung it at me, and your teeth broke white and shining through the tan of your face as you screamed at me, renaming me: little whore. I showed my teeth, too, warning you away, but you didn’t listen — so I fierce-flung myself at the door and slammed it in your face and slammed the lock home.
You yelled at me through it, shaking the walls with the boom of your voice and the pound of your fist, and I remembered how, when your team did something you didn’t like, you’d yell in outrage and pound your knee, words I wasn’t supposed to know, and I’d laugh, scurrying out of the room to cover my ears so I wouldn’t accidentally overhear them — but this time when I covered my ears it was to keep you out. That’s how you found me when you kicked my door down: palms pressed to my ears, fingernails digging hard into my scalp. You laughed. (Come on, little whore, what’re you getting so upset for?) Your eyes were wide and wild, the gash of your lips sliced open with the serrated alabaster of your triumphant grin, and you laughed, panting and slavering, your mouth wet and cruel and your skin dewed in perspiration.
I could always make you laugh.