“Farewell Room” by Ysabelle Cheung, read by Vesper Liu

Performed at “Exits & Entrances,” on December 9, 2019.

When is it appropriate to cry?

My husband whispered it in the funeral home bathroom as I traced a black watery line over an eyelid.

I paused.

I thought back to my father’s funeral, just months prior. The public breakdowns one after another, the tears, the shaky hands unable to sign the guest book. The endless entrances and exits into the farewell room, an enclosed shrine with my father’s corpse decorated in white flowers. A woman, hours late, flying into the long white muted hallway with a piercing wail. Her eyes so wet she seemed half-blind.  

The more one screams and wails, the more respect one shows toward the deceased. As is custom. This is what my mother had told me. 

My mother, who had been my father’s classmate, whom he had married at age 20, who had been his sole life partner for 50 years. Withdrawn, silent, cordial. Her face remained uncrumpled throughout the ceremony. Later, I heard guests whispering of her indecency, the strangeness of her stiff composure. She’s always been different, all her life.

When is it appropriate to cry?

After my mother’s death in the hospital, after the tubes had been removed from her face and chest, after all the proceedings had been arranged, I still couldn’t cry. Lately, I’ve been asking my husband to smother me. I like to feel his weighted, solid, smooth flesh against my own, which now always felt vaguely chilled, as if everything in me had stopped trying so hard, even my blood, which had once pushed up to my skin, warm, tingling, and was now just listlessly circulating around my useless body.

*

Later, after the burning of the hell money, after the steward decorates my mother’s pallid face, approximating with red paint where her lips ended and the once-animated corners of her face began: My youngest brother, of ragged breath, feet tumbling over high steps of white marble, rushing, stuttering, alarmed, sweat dripping off his palms. Panic. They’re here, they’re here, they’re all here.

Who?

But I already know. I see three onyx cars draw up outside the building. The movie star steps out under an already drawn umbrella held by one of her consorts, her crimped skirt blowing a semi-circle about her figure. Of course, she’s wearing shades. Paparazzi swarm the entrance, respecting the all-black dress code despite the odious finger-clicking. Guests begin to murmur, craning forward from their positions, breaking the reverie of the collective steady crying. I see someone, far in the back, take out their iPhone.

The funeral director himself has come out, tries to shoo the photographers away. Have you no shame, he says, and in his voice I suddenly hear my now-dead mother. She screamed this so often at the cameras. At private mah-jong functions. Banquet dinners. Kids’ birthday parties. Holidays. Hotels. Will you never leave us alone? Can’t two best friends spend time together?

The star: our brightest, our ming sing. A homonym for “reputation.” She pays her respects at the altar, remains in the farewell room alone for twenty minutes, then walks steadily and slowly in a direct line out of the hall, her expression indiscernible beneath the haloed blackness of her glasses. Soundless. No tears.

*

Unofficially, they were on and off, for many years. My mother seemed distracted at certain periods, although looking back it’s hard to tell if it was out of unhappiness or guilt. I just knew that the star, who I called auntie, was mostly always around. She was there for my graduation, and then, suddenly, she wasn’t. In the last few years, my mother had become withdrawn, constantly forgetful, morose. I wish I had asked her about it all then, attempted to ease her lifelong pain, offered some solace before her death. But I was too selfish—too afraid of disrupting whatever our family was, the constructed life that we all lead.

Recently I found an old photo album at the back of her wardrobe, gummed between yearbooks and old issues of American Vogue from the 1960s. I unstuck it from its position, ripping a magazine cover off with it. There are photographs of my mother, my father and the star, and some other faces I don’t recognize, all in their teens. Some are of my parents, on the beach or at one of their family homes. There are a few of my mother, father and the star, hanging out, smoking, at a party somewhere. Often, the women aren’t wearing shoes. There are fewer still of just my mother and the star, two best friends, chatting, presumably taken by my father.

I looked for a long time at this one particular image of my mother in her wedding dress and the star in her maid-of-honor gown, their skin translucent and soft, hair whipped from dancing, fingers jammed into a tower of ivory buttercream and cake. In the corner is my father, a fuzzed ghost, entering the frame: there but also not there. My mother is wearing a pair of shell earrings, a fat glistening pearl stuck in the center of each one, which now rests on her cold lifeless ears. It is the only photograph from the wedding in this hidden album. The rest of them—including dozens of my parents awkwardly posed, the smiles sweet and artificial—are in other books, in the living room, out where people can see and judge them, condemning them to an ordinary, and otherwise unspectacular life.

*

My mother and father loved each other. I can be sure of that. My mother also loved the star, and the star loved her. This formulation is as mathematically logical as a triangle: three lines set just so to meet, coaxing a sheltered, shared space to life. It should have been a perfect union, from beginning to end.

Was it? There’s no way to tell, now. Two are dead and the third is far away—the last I heard, the star moved to the South of France. There were no witnesses that day in the farewell room, no one to overhear or publicize their final exchange. There are no references to her in either of my parents’ wills. All I have is this photograph, this static image of their smiles; a false memory, a wound that keeps pricking. And when I happen to glance upon those faces, sitting on my dresser, I wonder of their lives, and the sacrifices that were made for my own happiness.


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