By Grace Li
(This piece is a second prize winner at "Who Am I/Who Are They" Multimedia Essay Contest")
In hindsight, she should have listened to him. But when he looked at her in that condescending way, over his large glasses and even larger mahogany desk, Maggie Liu would find herself forgetting the fact that Dr. Anderson was the leading expert in his field. Instead, she could only see the gold-framed Harvard degrees – yes, plural – behind his unnaturally large head, and she would remember the way he had corrected her when she had called him Mister instead of Doctor. Excuse me, he had said, I have my Ph.D. He was probably awful to have at family reunions. She could just see him arguing the legitimacy of psychology in a tone that was at once both haughty and defensive. And then mentioning his Ivy League education. Multiple times.
The very first time they’d had their weekly meeting, he’d said, “Don’t do anything that might perpetuate his delusions.” What he should have said was, “Don’t take your schizophrenic son to church.” Okay, so she knew that it wasn’t Dr. Anderson’s fault. But he was easy to blame.
She couldn’t blame Will, certainly, who had braved the four hours of church admirably. If it hadn’t been for the way his eyes had darted back and forth the entire time, the same caged look on his face that she saw in the jungle cats at the zoo downtown, she never would have known how uncomfortable he was. She wondered what the voices had been telling him. Probably the same thing as the pastor, actually – something about sin and eternal damnation.
Maggie glanced at her son now, taking her eyes off the road for a brief moment to assess him. “That wasn’t too bad, was it?”
“Drive faster,” he said, “or they’ll catch up.”
“Of course.” She didn’t ask who they were. It had been long enough that she knew he meant the aliens. Or the CIA. Sometimes both. Instead, she turned back towards the road, her foot pressing just a bit harder on the gas. The Odyssey groaned in protest. It could only go to 55 without beginning to act up, but it was a fifteen-year old minivan and her fifteen-year old son took priority. She and Tom had bought it together as many years ago with the thought that this was the car she would drive when taking their children to soccer practices and piano recitals, the car that their eldest would learn to drive in and that their youngest would eventually crash. But Tom had gone on a July afternoon last year, leaving behind only a note and a son just diagnosed with a mental disorder. It had been their worst fight yet. He had been offered a job five hours away, at a consulting firm that paid twice as much as anything in academia. I have to take it, he said. For the family.
You don’t, she replied. We need you here. Will needs you here. They fought for days. At last, she said, Go, if you want to so badly.
And he did.
She drove faster and tried not to think about him. The note had been in his usual neat handwriting – she used to tease him about how his was better than hers – and he hadn’t even signed his full name. Just initials, like he was signing a business memo or a birthday card to a far-away relative. TL, for when Thomas Liu was too busy to write all the letters out. And he was busy often. At least, he used to be.
She didn’t know if he still was—or even where he was. I might be moving, he said the last time they’d spoken. The next time she had called him, the line had been disconnected. That was six months ago. He probably wasn’t in North Carolina anymore, but maybe he stayed in the South. After all, it was beautiful this time of year. He always pointed out how the trees looked like they were aflame, how the sky was painfully blue right around midday. Right around now.
She exited the highway, easing off the gas. She came to a stop in front of the light and hit her left turn signal, ignoring Will’s shudder. “You’re giving away our position, Mom,” he said. The nervous edge was still in his voice.
“It’ll only be for a second,” Maggie said, eying the car behind her. At that moment, the light turned green and she turned left. The signal stopped blinking, and he let out a sigh of relief. She didn’t use the turn signal for the rest of the way home.
At last, she pulled into the garage. Will darted out, and she followed after him wearily. He was already in his room, so she walked towards the kitchen. It was almost one, and she needed to prepare lunch.
In many respects, she knew their kitchen was typical of every other middle-class American home. The counters were marble and limestone, the dishes all washed and put away, the sink nice and clean. Kitchens weren’t all that exciting or all that unusual. But guests – the few that she had nowadays – were always startled when they saw Maggie’s kitchen. There was an empty spot where a fridge was supposed to be and a hole where a microwave usually sat. The refrigerator, Maggie had learned, was how the aliens beamed you to their ship, and the microwave was the signal they used to locate you. And so she had donated both of them to Goodwill. More accurately, she had tried, but they had pointed her to their list of items that they did not accept, and she had ended up selling both to some sketchy guy on Craigslist who had been overly eager to pick them up from her house. So she had hired people to deliver them to him instead, pretending to be doing him a service but actually just terrified of getting chopped up into tiny bits by a serial killer.
She walked over to the cupboard to get some rice. According to Will, a rice cooker was safe – well, “safe enough” – and so she had been learning to cook more and more Chinese food over the past few months or so, most of which consisted of rice and vegetables that she picked from the garden Tom had started. There she went again, thinking of him. But how could she not, when traces of him were everywhere she looked?
Almost as if on cue, the phone rang. She reached for it, hopeful, as if her thinking of him meant that he was thinking of her, as if he might be the one on the other end. “Hello?” she said, breathless.
Rapid-fire Chinese came from the receiver. “Ma, ma, slow down.”
“Ai-ya,” her mother sighed. “If only you had take Chinese school when you were younger like I had asked.” This time she spoke in English.
“Not this again,” Maggie said. “I tell you, we’re in America, we act like Americans.” But despite her words, she found herself slipping into the same broken, ungrammatical English that she always did when speaking to her parents.
“Ya, ya.” Her mother’s agreement was begrudging as usual.“How is my grandson? Does he still have disease? What do you call it?”
“Schizophrenia,” Maggie said. She couldn’t tell if her mother actually couldn’t remember it or just pretended to forget, as if by ignoring it she could make it go away.
“Scissor – zizo friend – I will just call it shenjingbing, yes? You know what that is?”
“Yes, ma.” Her mom had a way of making her feel like she was six years old again and in Chinese school for the first time.
“What does it mean, mei hua?”
Maggie, she corrected silently. “It means crazy, mama. I know that.”
“Dui, dui. I have been telling our family about your shengjingbin son, how he see thing that aren’t there. Have you take him to more of his lessons?”
Maggie leaned the headset against her shoulder. She needed both hands free to prepare the rice, but she also needed something to distract her. Schizophrenia was an American disease, her family believed. All mental illnesses were. Us Easterners, we aren’t as fragile as they are. We don’t need their pills and their therapy – traditional medicine and stoicism was all it took. And she had believed that too, until Will’s teenage tantrums became something more. Until she had found him in his room, yelling at a blank wall. Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP, he cried. And when she tried to comfort him, he stared at her in horror. Get out, he shouted. You aren’t real. I know you aren’t.
When she took him to the doctor, certain that he had a brain tumor, they referred her to Dr. Anderson. A psychologist, for treating a different type of brain disease. She almost refused. Psychologists weren’t real doctors, and they didn’t treat real problems. Psychologists were for the weak, for those who couldn’t handle bad news or an unexpected failure. Her son didn’t need them. He didn’t fail. But she took him to Dr. Anderson anyway, just to prove that she was right—and then he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In hindsight, she shouldn’t have told her parents either. “He’s fine, ma,” she said. “We’ve been going to psychologist weekly. I took him to church today.” She hit the timer for the rice. Eleven minutes.
“I know, ma. I thought it might help.” Maggie herself hadn’t gone to church in years. In fact, not since high school, when one of her white friends invited her and she was still insecure enough in her popularity, to say nothing of her faith, to agree. It had been just as long and just as boring as it had been today, only she was now two decades older and with a son that she had watched cautiously the entire time. So maybe it had been less boring. Will had been pretty well behaved, though. Really, the worst part of it all wasn’t the actual time in church. It was afterwards, when all the parents were mingling and she was trying to get him (and herself) out of there as fast as possible. It was a predominantly Chinese church, and far enough from her house that she had assumed they wouldn’t see any familiar faces there, but it seemed God’s children did not have any sense of distance because she recognized most of them from the Chinese school she used to take Will to every Saturday. And, of course, they had been all too eager to make conversation, to talk about SAT scores and GPA and did you hear, Harvard is ranked second by the US News and World Report, should we be applying Early Action to Princeton instead? Always the we, the parent and child as one. And to the side, the gangly teenager on his iPhone, texting or scrolling through Facebook. But Will had stood tall next to her, staring straight ahead with a rigid determination, and she had felt a flush of quiet pride for her son, a pride that quickly dissipated when other parents would peer around her to look at Will, and ask him, how are you doing, how have you been, as if he were a china doll – or maybe a bull in a china shop.
She had tried to leave early. She made their excuses, how much cleaning she had to do, the cooking that needed to be done before the guests she was having over that evening arrived, and they looked at her with pity in their eyes. Lying is hard when everyone knows the truth – that Maggie had not had anyone over in ages, that her natural likeability and openness were no match for a disease that had Will talking to the television one day and writing a hundred letters to the President the next. She mailed each one at Will’s request, harboring her secret certainty that the NSA had to be monitoring them. How could they not, after dozens of letters about aliens and mind games and the end of the world? But maybe it was just Will’s paranoia rubbing off on her.
And so Maggie had done a bad thing. She had smiled at them brightly, falsely, and said, why don’t you come over too? She had counted on them being busy, or making up some sort of flimsy excuse, anything to not go over to the house of the divorcee with the crazy son. She already had enough against her, after all, what with Tom leaving her and her son’s disease. They was Chinese – divorce wasn’t part of their vocabulary, and neither was mental illness. There is such a stigma against schizophrenia, Dr. Anderson had said the first time they had met, and she thought, please, you’re telling me? But they had smiled back at her, and agreed readily, and she was now holding a last-minute party for thirty people at five this very evening.
Her mother was still talking – something about a distant cousin that was staying with them in Boston. He, too, insisted on going to church. She took it as a sign that he had become too Americanized, and Maggie decided not to tell her about the spread of Christianity in Asian countries. There had been some reports on it in the New York Times, about how the Chinese government was avidly against it, even burning some churches (not while there were anyone inside them, of course). No, that would only confuse her mother, and give her a reason to tell Maggie not to go for fear of being burned alive. And Maggie didn’t intend on going again anyway. It was just a one-time thing, to see if Will liked it, to see if it would help.
“Ma,” Maggie said. “I’ve got to go. I’m making lunch.”
“Okay, mei hua. Ming tian zai tan?”
“Yes, I’ll call you tomorrow. Tell Dad I said hi.” She hung up the phone, just relieved enough to feel guilty. She loved her mother, but there were some things that her mom would never understand. Like Will.
Resigned, she went outside to pick the vegetables that she needed for lunch. Cooking didn’t take her too long – she had gotten used to not having a microwave or a fridge with a speed that surprised even her. It made for monotonous meals, sure, but not bad ones. Maggie finished cooking and turned the rice cooker off. The rice had been done for some time now, and was cool enough to eat. “Will,” she called. No answer. “Will, it’s time for lunch,” she said again.
He still didn’t reply. Annoyed, she walked to his room. “Will?” She knocked once and pushed the door open. He was sitting on the bed, unmoving, his laptop in front of him. She moved cautiously towards him, fear replacing irritation. “What’s wrong?”
At last, he looked at her, and his eyes were brighter than she had ever seen them. “Mom, I’m Jesus.”
She stared, certain she had misheard him. “What?”
“I’m Jesus,” he repeated. “And I have come to save the world.”
“You’re not Jesus,” she said.
His expression was one of absolute certainty. “Yes, I am.”
“Jesus isn’t real,” she said, the first thing she could think of.
He shook his head. “Ah, but he is. Jesus the savior wasn’t, but a man named Jesus existed. He was schizophrenic. He had delusions that made him think that he was the savior, the son of God.” He was also more coherent than he had been in a long time. “But he was wrong. He was crazy. I’m not. I know the truth. I am Jesus. The real Jesus.” He smiled crookedly at her. “That’s why everyone was talking to us today. Didn’t you notice? They were drawn to me. They’re coming tonight too, to see me. They all know.”
Maggie was at a loss for words. The aliens had been weird. His constant paranoia, his delusions, his hallucinations, they had all been weird. The time he thought the walls were bugged? Weird. When he said his classmates were plotting to kill him because he was too smart? Also weird. But this trumped it all. His delusions, his paranoia, his hallucinations – they all had some element of plausibility, if not a lot. After all, aliens could exist. Maybe not the little green things in movies and picture books, but the universe had so much that was still undiscovered that, sure, there was some chance there were other life forms out there. But Will wasn’t even religious. She shook her head, trying to think. Don’t perpetuate his delusions, Dr. Anderson had said. But she only had a few hours until their guests would arrive and Will hadn’t eaten all day. She made a note to mention this to Dr. Anderson next week.
“Okay, Jesus. Let’s eat lunch.”
He smiled benevolently at her. “Yes, Mom.” He followed her to the kitchen and sat at the table. She noticed with some amusement that he didn’t pray. Perhaps if you were the son of God, you didn’t need to. It would have been funnier if she wasn’t so worried. When was the last time he had taken his medication? She could have sworn he had taken two pills this morning, shaking them out of the bottle and then swallowing them with water and a grimace.
They finished eating in silence, and he returned to his room. She tried not to wonder what he was doing in there, or how he would behave when five o’clock inevitably rolled around. Instead, she busied herself with cleaning the house. Many of her friends hired people to clean for them. Even her parents had cleaning ladies, two women who came around once a month and spoke primarily in Spanish. Maggie knew this because on the first Saturday of every month, her mother, without fail, would text her and ask her how to say good morning in Spanish. And a little after that, how to say please clean the bathroom. And then goodbye, thank you, see you next time. Maggie was not very good at Spanish, despite three semesters of it at college. But she could say hola, and gracias, and the little else her mother required, and she was probably better at writing and reading Spanish than she was at Chinese. Of course, what she didn’t know she could also just Google Translate, something her mother conveniently forgot. Maggie suspected it was an excuse for her mother to talk to her, a conversation opener that could transition, however bumpily, in how Maggie was doing and whether she had found a man yet and if Will was finally better. Each time, Maggie lied through her teeth, which was probably the reason why her parents hadn’t yet flown down to North Carolina to check on her. They had done so quite frequently – far too frequently – when she was at undergrad at the University of North Carolina, but when she started her Ph.D. in economics at Duke, they had stopped. It was her fault, she knew, for telling her parents that she was too busy to have them see her every two months, and then two months turned to three and to six and to more.
She had met Tom at Duke. He had been studying math, which her parents of course approved of, and they dated on and off throughout grad school and were married two weeks after graduation. They had Will a year later, and she had quit her job to take care of him. And even now, taking care of him was still a full-time commitment.
It was times like these when she wished that things were just a little bit different. She never dared make big wishes – those were too risky. But maybe if she could just have their refrigerator back. That was a reasonable wish, wasn’t it? It wasn’t like asking for her husband back, or asking for a more normal teenage son. She picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
“Papa John’s Pizza, how may I help you?”
“Hi, can I get ten large pizzas? Five cheese, five pepperoni.”
“Absolutely!” The voice on the line was chipper. “That’ll be $158.93. What’s your location?”
She gave her address.
“Perfect! That’ll be forty minutes to an hour.”
She hung up the phone and glanced at the clock. It would arrive at half past five. She’d just have to entertain her guests until then. And, at that moment, the doorbell rang. “I’ve got it,” she called, on the off-chance that Will planned on getting the door, and strode over. Confidence was key, she reminded herself. It’s only weird if you make it weird.
“Hi!” she said, opening the door for the Wu family. She knew Jason and Emma from Chinese school and the occasional meet-the-teacher night in middle school. Their son was the same age as Will. She smiled at them.
“Hi Maggie,” Jason said. “Thanks so much for having us over! Jeremy, say hello to Ms. Liu.”
“Nice seeing you again,” Maggie said. He was taller than his father, Maggie realized. When had that happened?
Jeremy nodded mutely. His mother shot him a look. “Hello, Ms. Liu,” he said.
“We brought dumplings,” Emma said, holding up a tinfoil-covered tray. “Can I set them down somewhere?”
Maggie hid her surprise. “Absolutely! Come on in. You really didn’t have to bring anything,” she said, ushering the family in.
“Of course we did,” Jason said. “We couldn’t leave you to cook everything. We assumed it was a potluck.”
“I guess it is,” Maggie said. “Here, Emma, let me take that.” She took the tray of dumplings and set it on the kitchen counter.
Jeremy had been standing next to his father in silence, but at last he spoke. “Why don’t you have a refrigerator?”
“Uh,” Maggie said. The doorbell rang again. “I’ll get that,” she said, relieved. She would have to answer the question sometime, but better later, when more people had arrived and she could get it over with quickly and somewhat less painfully.
More people began to trickle in, and the counter began to fill up with food. Chow mein from the Zhang family. Fried rice with Chinese sausage from Wendy and Jack Huang. Three plates of Chinese cabbage from Henry Zhao and his family. Chaoshao pork from the Lins. Peking duck from Charles and Amanda Wang. Hot and sour soup from the Yuans. Red bean buns for dessert from the Song family. It was a potluck after all.
She worked her way around the room, feeling at home for the first time in a long time. They were happy to talk to her, happy to reminisce about the times when she held these parties weekly. She had forgotten the way things used to be. She couldn’t believe she had ordered pizza – as if people weren’t going to bring food! How ridiculous of her, to think that they would show up to dinner empty-handed. Time had moved both slower and faster since Will’s diagnosis, so that it felt like it had been years and yet like no time at all. And, of course, speaking of Will, where was he? They all wanted to see him. And in those moments, as she acted like everything was the same, Maggie felt it too. Like it had been days instead of months, like Will was still the moody teen with a quicksilver smile and ready wit he used to be, like Tom was just in the other room. She almost believed it. She did believe it.
She opened the door to his room cautiously. “Will?” He didn’t answer. She remembered their conversation from earlier. “I mean – Jesus?” she said. Dr. Anderson would have a field day next week, what with her son thinking he was the Lord and her actively encouraging him to do so. “People want to talk to you. It’s okay if you don’t want to.” In fact, it actually might be better. Still, no response. “Will?” She stepped inside. He was lying on the bed, his eyes closed and his body very still. The bottle of pills she had given him this morning was in his outstretched palm. Maggie ran to his side, unable to keep herself from panicking. He’s just asleep. Please, God, please let him just be asleep.
“Will,” she said again, shaking him.
She fumbled for a heartbeat.
“Will, this isn’t funny.”
His skin was cool to the touch. She choked back a sob, gathering him up in her arms. It took her a moment to realize he had been lying in the shape of a cross. It took her another moment to see the piece of paper on the nightstand. Don’t worry, it said, I need to do this. I’ll be back in three days. And then, his initials, printed neatly at the bottom of the note.
The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” someone said from outside. And then, “Did someone order pizza?” Even from inside Will’s room, she could hear the sound of people laughing, of the party going on uninterrupted.
And though it wasn’t the most important thing, not even close, she thought of what she would have to tell Dr. Anderson – how their trip to church had brought on his new delusion, how far he had taken it. And how she had failed him, but he was Will’s psychologist, not hers, so maybe she should leave that out. Dr. Anderson would probably say, “According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and my own experiences at Harvard, it’s a common symptom of schizophrenia to believe that you are the light of the world,” or something equally pretentious.
And she would say, “But to me, he was.”
Maggie looked at her son. Dark hair covered his eyes, and, reflexively, she brushed it out of the way. Will looked different, she realized. Older. She had been too busy driving him to appointments and searching for new treatments to notice. Or maybe it was just the light of the setting sun, casting evening shadows on his pale face.