In My Aunt's Apartment

Demian Hess 

There was a place in my aunt's apartment, high on a shelf, in the kitchen, above the dishwasher, in a large glass jar with a white screw-on lid, where she kept the dog biscuits. Whenever my sister and I came to visit, my aunt would take the jar down from its shelf and give us each a dog biscuit to eat.

"Here you go, little puppies!" she'd say.  Sometimes we barked and begged like dogs.

I didn't see my aunt very often because she was Chinese and still lived in New York. My mother had moved away from there when she married my father, a Jewish boy from Scarsdale, and I have only a few, random memories of ever being in Chinatown. I recall eating dinner in a restaurant once with my aunt and grandparents, all of us sitting in the dark, unable to see the carpet. Carts moved up and down the aisles. Voices murmured. I balled rice in my fists because I couldn't use chopsticks, and my grandfather pointed at me and laughed. Another time I hid from dragons that were dancing in the street. Firecrackers exploded. A drum went bong bong bong bong bong, over and over, never ending, until my father carried me upstairs, my fingers in my ears.

"Shhh, it's all right. It's only Chinese New Year."

"Why do they do that?"

"They think it brings good luck."

And I remember sitting on the counter in my aunt's apartment. This is my clearest memory. My mother is rinsing dishes next to me, putting them in the washer. The air is steamy. It is very warm. Sunlight slants over the white counter top, drops off the edge, and slants over blue tile floor. I want another biscuit, but can't beg like a dog for one because I already did that this morning. What else likes to eat dog biscuits?

I bounce up and down on the counter. "I'm a Nigger!" I shout, and wag my tail.

My mother turns from the sink and slaps me across the face. 

"Don't ever call yourself that!" she yells, and runs out of the room. The door swings back and forth, back and forth.

I lie on my back on the counter, my head hanging over the edge. The sun is bright on my face. My eyes begin to hurt. Outside the window, clouds race across blue sky and I think the building is moving. I am falling, falling, falling.

My father finds me and takes me outside to get ice cream. He talks to me quietly, disturbed by what I have done.

"You should never use that word," he says. "It upsets your mother."


"It's an insult. You can't let people call you that."

We reach the ice cream parlor, and he orders me pistachio, my favorite.

"Be careful of what you call yourself," he says, handing me the cone.

The ice cream is cold and green and sticky and sweet. I nod my head, sorry for what I have done.  I didn't know it was bad, I say, and choke over words. Winnie the Pooh. Orange and black stripes. Bouncy bouncy bouncy all day long. Ice cream runs down my face, staining my clothes.

My father listens carefully, then sighs.

"No, that's not right," he says. "That's the wrong word. You meant to say Tigger."

Demian Hess is a graduate student in creative writing at Oregon State University, where he is working on a memoir. His writing has appeared in The Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, Adhoc, and the anthology American Voices: Webs of Diversity (Prentice Hall, 1998).

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