Before my father died, I dreamt it. I was six years old. It was the first memory of my dream-life. I told my mother about it after it happened, at eight years old. One year after he died.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. I didn’t know the answer; I hated not knowing the answers. That’s when she knew I had the gift of seeing the future.
The dream is red and sea foam green; we sit around a brown, wooden table. It’s the kind of table where you can see the grooves of the tree in it, with the never-ending swirling circles. Ones that would later reveal how ominous they were.
We sit around the table, my mother, my father and me. My sisters aren’t there, in both my dream-life, thought-life and real life—all my lives. If I have lives, that is. In all my lives, I’m still unsure of my existence.
In my real life they exist only in language’s abstraction—far away, in Bulgaria. Only humans have abstraction in language—the ability to describe what isn’t there, what doesn’t exist, the past or the future. To an animal my sisters would not exist. To me, they exist only in my dreams, but not in this one.
My father lies underneath the dishwasher, fixing it. Something sharp and silver pierces his chest. The muddy foreground of my dream’s colors sweeps his body underneath. We are characters in an impressionist painting, yet we know he is no longer alive.
When I woke up, I only saw red. But in the tawny recliner reminiscent of 90’s style apartment furniture, the chest of my father moved up and down. He was still breathing, wearing that infamous purple polyester sweat suit he lived in when he wasn’t at work. I could hear deep sonorous snores escaping him.
He died one year later in a work accident, falling three stories down from a house’s roof, breaking his neck along the way. He took off his safety harness before he fell. He knew he would die, just like I did. I never told him.
At seven years old you can’t comprehend death. That’s what psychologists say, that you can’t understand the abstraction and the ephemeral nature of biological life. What does it mean for someone to no longer exist?
At seven years old I did not comprehend my father’s death.
When they told my mother, I was with her at her work. She had taken a job babysitting at a local women’s gym. Or rather, the job had been given to her. Immigrants had to take what’s been handed to them otherwise they wouldn’t survive. She didn’t have a college education, barely spoke a word of English, and had three daughters. She survived as much as America’s handouts allowed her to survive. That, coupled with the sheer will to survive. But she didn’t know what was to come; she was not the prophet.
As I sat on the pigeon blue carpet, my small white legs splayed out under me, I fiddled with the teal green plastic handles of the new toy kitchen. It was the sleekest one available, and the parts were my favorite colors—shiny bright aquamarine, white, and magenta pieces jutting out begging to be tampered with.
Oddly enough, John Wadsworth showed up at Linda Evans that day. He wouldn’t have come without a reason.
He pulled her out of the room.
The Wadsworths had hosted my parents in California when they first immigrated here; in fact, my father didn’t even tell John he was coming to California. He called John from a payphone in Texas and announced his arrival. Lucky for my parents, the Wadsworths took them in. That was eight years ago.
My mother came back from the other room shocked and blanched, like a ghost. Tears streamed down her porcelain skin, the kind I always imagined was like Snow White, with her black curls stark against it. I continued to toy with the play microwave handle. Her employers let us go home from work early. I trailed behind my mother clutching onto John, the pack of us trudging toward the car that was waiting for us in the parking lot.
My sister Yulia sat in the trunk of a parked car. She blotted her face with a napkin, face damp with cream-like skin that she inherited from my mother. Her hair was tawny, and it used to curl in Shirley Temple waves. I don’t remember if my sister Dora was there. Maybe she too had already died. Maybe she never lived and was only a character in my castle.
Come the afternoon, there were so many people gathered in our tiny two-bedroom apartment we ran out of seats for everyone. It was like trying to fit seven sardines in a can fit for six. Ours was an apartment of low popcorn ceilings and an oversized, rusty heater in the hallway that blocked the passageway. Never had there been so many people packed in that claustrophobic space. People assembled solemnly along our couches and in my father’s recliner, one that awaited his absence. I went into the bedroom with the giant bed I used to share with my parents to change into my red one-piece bathing suit. Red, like the prophecy of my father. I was the omen. I am the prophet. But I couldn’t comprehend death, only colors. I remember being held by some adults, arms wrapped tight around me as my lanky body in its red swimsuit spread across them, too old to be held like a baby. Too young to not be comforted.
When I returned to school in August, a classmate asked me if something good had happened to me during summer. “Something bad happened,” I replied, as if I had some celebratory news, with an upturned inflection in my infantile voice. I still couldn’t comprehend death. Or maybe, I was just dying—no pun intended—to talk about it. But I never did. I just swallowed it down like I did everything else.
By the time I turned sixteen years old, I still couldn’t comprehend my father’s death. And I was searching for answers. I searched for answers in the only place I’d been taught to search for answers—the Bible. I used to lay on the fawn carpet in between the king-sized bed I shared with my mother and the wall of our undersized bedroom.
I spent my Christmas vacations here, hiding the chocolates and books I received under the bed, where I read them by flashlight to hide from Yulia’s verbal abuse. She would burst into my room unsolicited, and screech about the dishes not being done, or tell me and my friends to shut up, or yell about the supposed viruses I had infected our computer with, even though it was in her room and I wasn’t allowed to go in there. I lived in fear under her regime, crouching behind the mattress that hid me from the door’s view. My monster didn’t live in the closet, but in the room next door.
So there I hid with my books and my sweets. During one particular January, I finished almost all of Lemony Snicket’s books accompanied with cheap boxes of Christmas chocolate. The carpet was littered with a collection of foil wrappers like leftover tinsel.
This was also where I spent my high school summers reading the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament and asking God difficult questions.
I cried into the floor. “Why did you take my father?”
How long O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you make me tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous
So that justice is perverted.
Habakkuk, chapter one.
My questions echoed that of the prophet’s: “Do you hear me God?!”
“Why did you take my father?!”
“Why didn’t you take someone else’s father—someone who’s more wicked than me?!”
“Someone that was more wicked than my father?!”
I was strife, and my conflict abounded. I was the prophet.
In the story Habakkuk brought two complaints to God, both with multiple questions. And both times God responded. During Habakkuk’s second complaint, the prophet once again recounted the Babylonian’s wickedness and the monstrosities that followed their conquering of Judah.
So the prophet challenged God: was God to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?
This was the first complaint I made to God, nine years after my father died. I didn’t dare challenge God this time, but I would, ten years later. This time, however, I received an answer by continuing to read until chapter two:
Write down the revelation
And make it plain on tablets
So that the herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
It speaks of an end
And it will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
It will certainly come and will not delay.
The answer was that there was no answer, not yet anyway. But there was another revelation glaring at me in the scriptures; and it was, to write. So I did.
There was a reason for my father’s death, as there was a reason for all things. God just hadn’t told me the reason yet: it will not delay. And in the meantime, I would write, for that in itself was a reason.
My zealous sixteen-year old self was satisfied and I was filled with faith. That this faith was divine I cannot argue; it fueled me for six years.
But the righteous will live by his faith.
I lived by faith, if I even lived at all. But my folly was that I thought I was righteous. I was not.
Epoch II: Fairy Tales
The world weaves us thousands of fairy tales. Like the kind with prince charming riding up on the horse, to save me. Or the kind with the virgin young woman, birthing a deity. Or the kind that tells us about the creation of earth. And there are thousands of these fairy tales in existence: ones that tell us earth’s origin story, explanations and non-explanations of karmic forces, the birthing pains of a deity’s mother, star patterns that determine our destiny. And we all believe in a subset of these fairytales, every single one of us. Every. Single. One.
That’s what faith is; faith is believing in fairy tales. Despite them being fairy tales. Even atheists believe in them. They believe in the fairy tales that explain away fairy tales, the kind without an omniscient, omnipresent force. The kind with a great big bang that gives birth to universes over billions and billions of years across lightyears. The kind where miniscule mutations within a being’s genetics transform entire species. Even atheists have faith in something, for they choose to believe in their fairy tales too.
These were the fairy tales I believed, the ones I clung on to. Even if they didn’t come true. That was faith.
In the emotionally and mentally turbulent years following my high school graduation, I didn’t own a car. I used to wait for my mother to come pick me up after work, to drive us to our very new, but very far-away home. I’d frequent cafes, drinking an overindulgent amount of coffee and reading the Old Testament.
By the time I was twenty-three, I had read the Bible five times. It was as if I was cursed with perpetual thirst and water did not satisfy—I just kept reading. Then one day I just stopped. At twenty-four, I watched my sister slip away in front of me, and my faith slipped with her. I was the prophet, but I did not see.
At nineteen, however, I was engulfed in a naïve fervor, and I spent hours reading the scriptures that split two epochs of civilized history. I carried my thick, Archeological Study Bible everywhere with me so I could read it on my break at work, outside Peet’s Coffee sipping a vanilla iced coffee out of a straw. I used and abused that holy book so much that it began to fall apart. At one point, I left it on the dingy stage at church, and someone drew an ejaculating penis inside one of the pages. In Isaiah, of all places. At first, I laughed this off as funny, to defuse my sensitivity at its defecation. Years later, I realized how patriarchally insulting it was to draw a penis in a Bible. As was our interpretation of God, and had been for thousands of years. But I didn’t say anything about it.
When God finally answered me, I sat in a red plastic chair with effervescent pop blasting in the background, fluorescent lights beaming down on the soda-sticky table that cradled my worn-in Bible. The smell of Domino’s pizza and dark, Colombian coffee wafted in the background. It was a rather astringent mix of aromas. But so was finding God in a supermarket.
I sat in a Target Starbucks; following an early morning shift at Jamba Juice where I’d downed a ruby-red smoothie. The fruit sugars shocked my body in a way I’d grown to crave. My afternoon was left to errands, and to my thoughts.
The supermarket is a weird place to find God. God is everywhere. But, something about American consumerism disconnects us from understanding divine principles. How can a holy God tolerate the wastefulness and exploitive nature of corporate capitalism? We sip from disposable cups and abuse plastic toiletry bottles all for the sake of comfort, beauty, and convenience.
I don’t believe God intended us to live comfortably. Which would explain the purpose of human suffering. Yet, the United States has built cathedrals dedicated to the lucrative business of selling comfort. To millions of blind consumers. Purchase this, you will be happy. The holy scriptures of the first world, verse one.
No wonder Jesus told the millionaire to give away everything he owned before coming to follow him. The man didn’t do it—he was probably an American.
I sat in my throne of convenience, savoring an iced coffee in a wasteful vessel that half an hour later would litter God’s earth. Yet, I was shameless. Around me, fellow shameless shoppers pushed red carts filled with things that would not satisfy them.
I thumbed through the veil-thin pages my Bible. My mom had ducked taped the spine at least twice, in an attempt to resurrect it. It was so dirty and sticky from years of use and countries traveled that the pages stuck together and ruffle-whispered when you turned them. I leafed through to Isaiah, a book I’d read at least four times already. My eyes had glossed over this passage before, but this time I caught something both disturbing and profound:
The righteous perish,
And no one ponders it in his heart;
Devout men are taken away,
And no one understands
That the righteous are taken away
To be spared from evil.
Those who walk uprightly,
Enter into peace;
They find rest as they lie in death.
Three years later, God finally answered me. He told me why He took my father. To be spared from evil. My shoulders slouched as I let out a small, almost nonexistent sigh. My stomach froze yet was in knots. Something gurgled within it, then passed. That same effervescent pop music undulated in the background and the bright lights continued to shine down on me as if I were a spectacle in this place so sacred to American consumerism.
But His message was almost anticlimactic. I wasn’t expecting that answer, and I wasn’t expecting God to tell me, and I wasn’t expecting Him to tell me in a supermarket. And as much as it felt out of place to have one of my life’s epiphanies five feet away from check-out lines and the wafting smell of cheddar cheese and pepperoni, it somehow fit. For malls were after all, the holy sites of the mass market. We all paid pilgrimages to them. The aroma of baking crust and ground Arabic beans wafting up to the high heaven like incense from a thousand fast food altars.