“It doesn’t count if you don’t see blood,” I say, holding my palm up to my little brother’s face like a mirror. I show him the blood—a lipstick smear right in the middle. Smack. Half a wing dangles from my hand. If you squint hard enough, it looks like I’m shedding my own skin. My brother nods because he is still young enough to agree to everything I say. We are eight and five. We agree to precision. We agree to be a team. Climbing the fat arms of the sofa—perpetually spilling its cloud stuffing—we begin tracking the fluttering legs of another mosquito.
In the humid horror of August, in the afternoon where boredom widens like a cave, when our grandmother falls asleep and dreams of another shore, when we’re not at the restaurant where our parents hack endless bundles of scallions, we like to play a game we call Mosquito Wars. Mosquito: a word we know well enough because of the buzzing pieces of shit that suck our blood. Wars: a word (plural) we are beginning to understand as it relates to our family, layer by fraught layer.
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Mosquitoes only average a flight speed of one to one and a half miles per hour. They are slower than most flying insects, including butterflies, bees, and locusts. The gluttonous ones are slower and easier to catch. They meander about, heavy with their blood-full luggage and sugary song. It’s the hungry, crazy, skinny ones you have to watch out for. The crazy ones that fly all erratic like they’re performing an experimental contemporary dance no one wants to watch.
“Twenty-two. More than yesterday,” I announce with the observational matter-of-factness of a field scientist. I tally this up in our notebook, each pen mark like a thin mosquito leg.
“Suckers!” my brother says. He repeats it again, pleased by its double meaning. “Suckers! Suckers!” He screams this so loudly, the feral cat that usually delivers us dead-animal gifts at noon runs away, a starling dangling in its mouth.
It’s summer on the Jersey Shore and all day, every day, dozens of mosquitoes bite our arms, legs, feet, faces, and butts (in order of terribleness). A bite on the butt is terrible because it’s painful to sit with a bump like a pebble or a diner mint stuck in your back pocket, and no one wants to be seen itching their butt. Though a bite on your face is pretty bad too, especially if you get bit near your eye. Someone might think you have pink eye and are the type to go to cheap water parks where babies swim in their diapers. (And what if you are?) Also, with your eye, you’ll always think about how close the mosquito came to your actual eyeball, how it could have sucked the softest thing by accident. (And what if it did?) You could have woken up with all your eye juice drained. Blind. No, I take it back. The face is definitely worse than the butt.
I’m highly allergic, so my bites puff up like perfect profiteroles, the heat of the bite radiating like dog’s breath. Over weeks, the bites turn hard like tree stumps. Then they leave little scars. Little reminders that you are a target. Then and now: the target of mosquitoes, bullies, racists, bad men. When our father leaves our family six years later, without warning, it will be October—the scars of our bites as faint as autumn-leaf etchings.
I hate it when mosquitoes bite you when you sleep. It’s sneaky, smarmy. Like that guy my mother hired to fix our back-door steps, which had holes in them like bagels. He put in one hour of work, left a bucket of concrete to harden, and ran away with the money to Florida to probably creep on his ex-wife. Why don’t you bite me to my face!, I’d say, shaking my fist in the dark, daring the buzzing I couldn’t see. The feral cat left us extra dead birds that week, full of bright blue plumage, as if to say: Sorry for your luck, sorry for trusting someone. I’ve always admired such gestures of empathy, how they shake loose the wrongdoings of others. As we killed more and more mosquitoes—this disgusting pastime, a kind of love—I hoped someone or something offered the insects their own gestures of empathy. Maybe rain and a new, stagnant pool. Maybe more night, more sleeping children.
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When we’d go over to a friend’s house, a nice house, we’d look around and ask: Where are your mosquitoes? At their house, our limbs would be careless, free. At home or at the restaurant, we’d have to wave our arms around like a windmill or do some jumping jacks since mosquitoes bite when you’re still. That’s when we discovered that some people have screens on their windows. Some people have air conditioning. Some people have fancy-ass citronella candles and monster-truck DEET. Ah, my brother and I’d say in unison. This is why they get us.
In the daylight, my brother and I would seek our revenge. We’d work as a team to corner the mosquitoes along the elbow of a wall like corralling a herd of cows. We’d squat or sit or stretch in slow motion, and then—as swift as a face slap on Jerry Springer—we’d smash them right there! Oftentimes, we’d stand along the wall and stick out our arms like zombies, inviting them. Over here, we’d coo. Sweet, sweet blood. A mosquito would hover over my brother’s arm, smelling his baby sweat. Each time, my brother would wince and look at me with equal parts trust and terror. Family is like this sometimes, mixed with trust and terror. And more often than not, family solidly teeters one way or the other. Trust or terror: curled together in a tornado, or the tornado itself.
Right before the mosquito would wrangle its wanton, many-pronged mouth to pierce his skin, I’d clap it right between my hands like a cymbal. Smack. How easy it is to end such suspension. Then, as per the rules of the game and for the accuracy of the tally, I’d smear the goop on the wall. A kind of painting.
Blood, my brother would say. It counts.
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At a dinner party or on a first date that won’t precede a second, someone always ends up asking me what superpower I’d like to have. Flight or invisibility? And when I tell them invisibility, they always shake their heads and say something like: Ah, you’re the type to steal shit. But I want to tell them they’re missing the point. I want to be invisible so I can be completely present. I want to know what I can’t. For example, these past scenes:
Our grandmother, napping in the afternoon, after folding dozens of wontons, the flour settling into the creases of her wrinkled hands. Maybe, she dreams, the mosquito that bit me ten years ago in China is still flying over there, carrying my blood across a grove of persimmon trees.
Our mother, home from work at midnight, her hair—which smells like the ancient layers of the fryer—pulled up in a wayward bun. She looks at the walls, covered in mosquito carnage and blood, and collapses into the bread-soft sofa. “I’ve raised wild animals!” She actually says this out loud, in Cantonese, to no one at all.
Our father, driving to Atlantic City on the Garden State Parkway at midnight, staying in the right lane to be closer to the ocean. He chews through a packet of SkyFlakes, crumbs along his beard—slightly damp from the humid air. What if, he thinks, I never come back?
Is this normal, to want to be there in the past, present, and future? Later in life, as an adult, I ask my brother: “What do you know about our parents? Like, do you ever wonder what they must have been thinking?”
My brother shrugs. “I mean, I know they were arranged.” Then he pauses. “Wait, what do you know?”
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I know nothing and everything, unfortunately. I know that mosquitoes never bit my father. We’d joke around about it sometimes. How he would just be sitting there in his cigarette-burn armchair, invincible, while all of us waved our arms and legs around, swirling in a swarm of zzzzzzzzzzs. My mother, in July: “Maybe his blood tastes like cigarettes.” My brother, in August: “Maybe his skin is all leathery like his jacket.” Or maybe, year-round, his blood wasn’t meant to mingle with ours.
How does the saying go? One’s own flesh and blood? It’s in the blood? Blood is thicker than water? Blood siblings? In 1991, I remember being obsessed with the movie My Girl and that scene where Vada (Anna Chlumsky) asks Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin) to be blood brothers. They’re on this too-picturesque dock together and they catch a fish, which ends up dying. Vada takes the hook out of its mouth and nicks herself, blood running. “Hey, we can become blood brothers,” she says. Vada convinces Thomas J. to pick the scab off his arm and they rub their blood together, finger painting. I remember being freaked out by this scene, of their blood mixing like that—but then, wasn’t that the same thing happening inside a mosquito? Wasn’t this flying nuisance just trying to bring us closer as a family, as we turn or drift away from each other? For this valiant and free service, couldn’t I love a mosquito?
Then there’s bad blood. And getting blood from a turnip. I spend hours trying to find a blood-related idiom about someone refusing relation. What kind of idiom works for a father who says, I no longer want to be your blood? I look everywhere. But all I can find is a completely confusing metaphor. It’s a Chinese saying that translates to something like, “The soft-shelled turtle eats the soft-shelled turtle.” Which describes someone who turns his back on his family and friends—blasphemy in a Chinese family. The saying just doesn’t work here. I have a hard time thinking of our father like that, swimming around muddy riverbanks, eating other vulnerable turtles, claw by soft claw. No, I know that much. Our father may differ from our blood, but he is not the type to eat his own kind.
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Was our game cruel? Was it so bad to want to seek revenge? This is our blood, I kept saying to myself. It belongs to us. This was different from the scenes on TV with kids burning ants with magnifying glasses and cataclysmic sun. Or at least I wanted to believe we were kinder than that. Once, one of my college students in a creative writing class wrote about how she put her goldfish in a peanut butter jar as a kid—half peanut butter, half water—just to see what it would do. We were in week one of our nonfiction unit. During office hours, I asked her: What is the emotional weight here? What did you glean from this, later in life? Is this connected to another scene you haven’t written yet? She shook her head. I don’t know. And I’m scared that I don’t know. I told her to write that down. And then I asked her if it was creamy or chunky peanut butter.
Besides being a nuisance, mosquitoes can carry any number of diseases, including malaria, dengue fever, and encephalitis. To support the righteousness of our cruelty, we could tell ourselves whatever we wanted. Like, we need to kill the mosquitoes in order to eradicate disease. Or, we need to kill them to bond with each other. We need to ruin the walls to be noticed by our parents.
And what do we notice, if we don’t turn away? What courses through a family—creeping underneath the carpet like some other kind of undesirable insect, something worse than a mosquito? Our father’s anger, after drinking and gambling all night, cutting through the air like a jet. The gambling debts, the cheating, the hands raised, the disappearing. Everything we didn’t know that led to all of this. Half-lit knowledge. My parents were at war with each other from the moment they were arranged to be married. My brother and I inherit this war and witness cannons, daily. My father accuses my mother of cheating; my mother says he spent all her money at the strip club. They hurl names at each other in Cantonese—words we don’t know, but have a guttural ache to them. My father holds my mother’s shoulders to stop her from screaming. My mother packs her suitcase again and again, throwing silk, tulle, and polyester everywhere. The little wars in our family, the little fires blossoming around us like a garden of deadly nightshade. What terrified me the most was when my parents stopped screaming. Silence: a dark field I wouldn’t dare to trespass, whether I was invisible or not. What we remember, what we don’t want to remember. My mother kept a lot of danger hidden from us, and what I saw and knew, I in turn kept from my brother. We were a domino triptych, a protective triumvirate.
When our father leaves our family for good and without warning, my brother digs out his old dinosaur toys and lines them up on his windowsill, a parade of vegetarians. A brontosaurus and stegosaurus, one after the other. “In case he forgets which house is ours.” Because, once or twice, my father shook a stegosaurus at my brother and smiled.
How swiftly a life can change, how easily. We can kill a mosquito with the palms of our hands, just like that. And just like that, my father’s gambling debts pile so high, it becomes a mountain no one can climb, and the restaurant fails and we must go. A postal worker, my mother almost gets laid off and ends up working night shift for so many years, she develops vertigo. Just like that, her cochlea wobbles and she vomits, but she refuses to go to the hospital. She stays at home and we stay with her. Everything happens so quickly, time collapses. My brother and I forget to grow up.
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How can I describe to you what it feels like to protect my brother from our father’s refusal to be in our bloodline? He’s twenty-six, and has been recording year after year of the NBA playoffs to watch with our father. He wants to visit my father, but wants me to come with him. They only live twenty minutes apart. The plan is to deliver him the tapes and to set up a time to go over the next week to have some “father-son time.” “You can stay in the car,” my brother says. He knows I’ll be too angry to leave the passenger seat; he knows to keep me strapped in my safety belt or else I’ll lunge.
I drive with my brother to our father’s house. I am sitting in his car, watching them. It has been years, maybe five, since they’ve seen each other; it has been longer for me, but I’ve lost count. My brother opens the screen door and it squeaks like a dog toy. My father is there, the door only half open. In my brother’s hands: the old VHS tapes, the ribbons curled neatly inside like a bundle of pasta. He knows our father has only a VHS player, and so he kept our old, clunky machine all these years despite the DVD player. My brother also knows our father loves basketball and so he’s been practicing his layups, even though he’s a seasoned hockey goalie.
How swiftly, how easily.
My brother holds the tapes out with his arms, smiling awkwardly. Our father shakes his head and puts his hands in his pockets, closing the door so slowly. He doesn’t notice me at all in the car. I swear they both age another five years. The dead grass sways in the wind around them. My brother returns with the tapes, hugged tightly to his chest.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I ask again, reminding him that we are a team.
My brother puts his hands on the steering wheel and stretches his fingers out as if to keep them from becoming fists. He turns to look at me and, for once, I wish I’d turned away. His face, marveling at his own fear, realized. His eyes flicker about like snakes.
“He said he was too busy.”
I can’t describe to you my anger. I can’t describe what I wanted to do to that screen door, what I wanted to say to my father. I can’t describe the vicious ventricles of my heart or the depths of revenge and devotion. It’s strange. I can see myself giving my writing student advice: Try! See where it goes, even if you fail. And I can’t even take my own advice. Sometimes, I’m at a loss. Sometimes, I have to quit, sword down.
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There’s this other saying I found while searching for blood in a Chinese family: “A tiger, a father, a tiger, a son.” Like father, like son. I never liked the order of that. What if: “A tiger, a son, a tiger, a father”? I will spend my whole life wanting this. For my father to be more like my brother: the tenderhearted one, the team member, the dinosaur who quietly chomps on leaves, the trusty one who stays by your side, even when he’s deeply uncertain and afraid.
Say it out loud with me: “A tiger, a son, a tiger, a father!”
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At our affectionate best, my brother calls me “seester” and I call him “little bro.”
Seester, when are you coming home? Seester, can you look at my resumé? Seester, remember when we’d lock each other in the freezer at the restaurant? This is one of my favorite things in the world, and it makes me want to hug my brother so hard that I nearly crush his organs like tomatoes.
The thing is, we rarely say “I love you” to each other. In fact, maybe we’ve said it out loud only once. I can’t remember. Maybe we said it while tipsy and playing ping-pong, volleying affections: “I love you, little bro!” and “I love you, seester!” But if we did say it then, we probably laughed in order to clear the air of sentimentality.
I worry we’ve toughened up in order to hide that we’re both too tender. And I worry that it’s my fault. I am the one who taught him to be tougher than he needed to be. When the neighbor kid who ate whole sticks of butter punched my brother in the stomach for no reason and he doubled over crying, I told him to stop, get up, and pay attention as I punched that kid back. Maybe our mother taught me this. She taught me to stand up for myself, to refuse the expectations of others. When a fellow postal worker told her that her pants were too tight, she wore even tighter pants the next day. She looked him directly in the eye and asked: “What exactly are you looking at?”
I could have been more gentle. I could have been the type of person who cups a spider and carries it outside, to a field, and tells it to go wander the world. And sometimes I do. But other times, I am the type to flush a spider down the drain; I point the showerhead until its legs curl up into a rosebud and then wash it out. Without warning, I crush ants with my thumb. My brother—then and now—is a kinder, gentler person. Maybe, if he was the older sibling, he could have taught me to care for the mosquitoes. Maybe he could have showed me how to gather them in a butterfly net, how to scoop them and carry them into the woods. Maybe he could have taught me how to wean them off blood with beet juice. To love even that which hurts us. To love at your fullest capacity, despite failure. My mother and I transmit a message to my brother while we dream: We’re learning, we promise.
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The world’s largest statue of a mosquito is in Komarno, Manitoba. Sculpted in 1984, my birth year, it is made of steel and has a wingspan of fifteen feet. It’s strange to see a mosquito perched on a rock and not an arm. The statue also serves as a weathervane, swiveling in the wind. I think about this giant fake mosquito, about how mosquitoes love stillness: an abandoned pool, a thigh at rest. Instead, this blood-sucking monolith shows us which direction the wind is blowing. Completely harmless and helpful even—though I’m not sure how.
This year, my brother, who is now married and thirty years old, bought a fixer-upper in North Jersey with the help of his wife’s family.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” he tells me when I call to congratulate him. I imagine my brother peeling back the old floral wallpaper, flecked with grime and cigarette ash. The strips of wallpaper cover the floor like the failed drafts of a novel. And on the bare walls, evidence of another life, another family: a smeared insect or two.
“Remember when we used to play Mosquito Wars?” I ask him over the phone, helplessly nostalgic in Bellingham, Washington where I live—2,967.3 miles away. We begin a lot of our conversations like this: Remember when we used the bucket where meat marinated as a kiddie pool? Remember when we fed each other spoonfuls of soda to make one can last? Remember when we tried to buy a slice of pizza next door at Tony’s and got so scared of talking to someone-not-in-our-family that we started shaking and crying? Remember when a drunk stranger knocked on the door and called for our aunt and we hid underneath piles of blankets? Remember playing in the sandpit by the railroad tracks behind the restaurant and the train’s invincible roar? Remember the pill bugs crawling along Yeh Yeh’s yellow electric blanket? Remember when, remember when?
(We do, we do, we do, we do.)
I tell him about a fact I learned from the scientist I’m dating, who I am learning to trust. “Did you know that millions of years ago, mosquitoes were three times as large as they are today? Isn’t that sick?”
“Sick,” he echoes back because he is still younger than me and believes everything I say is true, no matter what. Over the years, he’s learned to be patient with the things I say. My sister is a poet, he tells his friends at his wedding, proudly. I wrote a poem, an epithalamium, for him and his wife, Lauren. When his friends ask me what that’s like, to be a poet, he interrupts and tells them himself: It means she says things differently. I want to tell them he’s kind of a poet too.
“Anyway,” he pauses, “I have to go back to work.” How could I forget so easily? My baby brother is married and owns a house—two things I thought we’d have in common by now, but I can’t seem to understand how to get there too. He isn’t five years old anymore. At best, the dinosaur toys are in the possession of another poor kid, thanks to Goodwill. Our father wasn’t invited to the wedding. I knew this was it. It took my brother thirty years to decide to give up on their relationship. Not because of anger or even disappointment. Sometimes, empathy simply can’t beat exhaustion. When he told me he wasn’t inviting our father, my brother’s beard was full, and he scratched at it like something was biting him. Empathy, out loud: “I didn’t want dad to feel awkward, since obviously no one wants him there.” Exhaustion, not said: Why bother? He doesn’t.
“Yeah, I should get back to work too,” I say. “Congrats again on the house,” and we hang up after saying a quick good-bye. The 2,967.3 miles stretch like saltwater taffy between us.
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At the end of My Girl, Thomas J. dies, swarmed by bees, trying to get Vada’s mood ring back for her. Stung and stung again, her blood brother. My god, I think now, what a completely tragic movie to love as a child. That scene made me deeply sad all the time, and still I watched it. Even if it’s Hollywood-drastic, that dedication moves me still. That commitment, that we’re-in-this-together mentality, that refusal to strike out on one’s own or be a rat abandoning ship, despite the wars that rage around and within us. I believe in loyalty. Maybe that’s old school. Maybe that’s the only Chinese thing about me. Jane and Steven. Our blood: thicker than water, thick as thieves, thick as mosquito vigilantes.
It’s early September in the Pacific Northwest and cool enough for a sweater and a slow-burning firepit. On a whim, I call my brother. It’s East Coast time, so I wake him up at 2 a.m. accidentally and begin by apologizing. It’s over 80 degrees there, and the early fall mosquitoes are the hungry, crazy, skinny ones. He mumbles in his half-sleep: “It’s fine, I was playing video games anyway,” and asks if everything is okay.
I think about how Chinese families never say it, how we hold the word far away from our bodies like a shitting baby—with our noses turned up. How the word floats in a corner like a loner at a middle school dance, pores gleaming with awkward disco-ball light. How love is instead have you eaten yet, is carefully peeled persimmon slices on a clean plate, is immediately offering the fattiest piece of pork belly, is I paid the dinner bill when you were in the bathroom, is sitting in the car while my brother begs our father to be a father.
“I’ll let all the mosquitoes bite me so they won’t bite you,” I say.
“What? Are you crazy?” He laughs and I imagine him shaking his head, all these miles away. “Ugh, my seester, the poet.”
For once, I won’t be one of those poets who say: What I’m trying to say is. No, this time I just say it, ruthlessly sentimental. Without hesitation or simile or metaphor: “I love you.”
And when he says it back to me, slowly, like dipping a toe in a needle-cold lake, I imagine all the mosquitoes in the world bowing their glassy wings.