By: Christina Cha
There is a murder house in my mind, built by stories. Two-by-four scaffolding and pale amber light between beams. I know this isn’t what the sub-basement of the Puck building looks like, where you are raped and murdered. This memory comes from what I know of the inside of an unfinished wall: the rough shed wall of my best friend’s clubhouse built by her own engineer dad. The exposed wall of a deep scene I can’t face, lit by unseen candles. You walk down a hallway, an echoing space in mid-renovation, to meet your husband who isn’t there, who has deliberately ditched you because you are in a petty fight. This morsel excised from Dad’s book, from your diary. Something about borrowing the car. You are in the right, yet you are the one to reach out, to reconcile. Your husband leaves you to wander the condemned floors of this building alone, to be met by two men in an elevator who force you into the lower levels. The walls are wet and dark and sweat cold black oil. The ceiling is so high the edge is always outside my vision. The sub-basements are a maze.
These are my first memories of you, these are my memories of you:
Two memories next to each other, which happen within days. I am six. Riding in a car to San Francisco with you. Me and my aunts, without my brothers. You make a nest for me in the backseat between a green cooler and the door. We stop in a diner; I am in the booth and out of it, orbiting around you and the hot chocolate that you won’t share with me. Orange booth seats, brown wood paneling, dirty yellows, swathes of color collected as I spin and fidget and wait.
It’s not hot chocolate, you say.
It is hot chocolate. I don’t believe you. Why won’t you share?
You won’t like it, you say, but at last you give up and un-guard your cup and smile.
I don’t remember the heavy cup or how it felt on my lips or the taste of diner grounds. Only hot shock, bitter not-chocolate, and betrayal. I don’t drop it; I think you must have taken the cup from me, waiting for this moment. My first coffee. How could you?
I told you, you say.
And next to this: I follow you up a windowless stairwell, clang of iron steps. I am six. You are on a landing above me when I pause. I flag. I don’t know where we are or how many more turns there might be. I am nowhere, only here, and I see you above me. You are erased by a radiating white. No face, no body, just thick blanking light around you, covering everything but your boots. I don’t know what I am seeing. An angel? I think, because I will still be Catholic for a few more years, but I know that isn’t it because the thing with the coffee seemed mean. I don’t know what I am seeing. The smell of old wood walls of someone’s apartment, scraping of bootheels on cement, San Francisco fog.
You move to New York and draw me colorful felt-tip letters in pictures and all-caps, and when I ask why you write like this, you write back in all lowercase. You paint me in watercolor as a lithe dancer, a gymnast in quick watery lines, long-limbed and tan in running shorts with red racing stripes. Surprising strokes of me with one leg brushed in front of the other, opposite arm up for balance, a mysterious ballet grace far from the grunt of tumbles and minor flips that I know. I will curse in a boy’s face who dares to interrupt my jump rope or jeers at me with vaguely Asian sounds. Your letters, glued by their backs into a half-filled scrapbook with pale, dignified bunnies on its cover. These are my memories of you, disconnected from the images that come later.
You are my Aunt Theresa. You are married; you are dead. These two new facts next to each other, separated by six months, collapsed by kid-time, fused tighter over the years. Sometime after this my parents first tell me about rape. I don’t recall the sex-talk, but I remember the rape-talk, when I am ten.
You are married when I am ten. I am your flower girl.
Uncle James takes a long photo of the whole family before the wedding ceremony. We have to be still for the exposure, so the photo can be wide. There I am, with my crooked braids.
The morning of the wedding I sit at the bottom of the stairs that curve into the front room of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The stairs are still white, not the deep rose they will be later. You and Aunt Bernadette sit on either side of me and braid my hair in complicated ways, like you always do. You pull too tight and take a long time. I close my eyes to the pulling and pling of the tiny teeth of the combs, the warm bloom on my scalp when you draw your parts with the pointy end. On the day of the wedding, though, the braids don’t match and you argue above me. You push my hands away when I want to unravel my hair.
Your dress is a plain white sheath with a scooped neck. The stiff cloth stands away from your body and the sleeves end just above your wrists. The important part is the high lavender sash with diagonal hatch marks of deeper purple. Lavender is your favorite color, irises your favorite flower. You don’t want much at your wedding, you say, but you want these things. Purple is my favorite color, and rainbows and unicorns are important to me. It is 1982.
Your sisters stand close to you, binding and unbinding the cloth around your waist. Grandma frowns as she watches because the cloth is a kimono sash.
Ma, it’s not a kimono; it’s Theresa’s own style. It’s not Japanese, Bernadette says.
Living under Japanese rule is still fresh for Grandma.
Grandma steps back in, moving between her daughters again, trying to be happy you, for marrying Richard. My brothers and I think he is weird. He seems to float sideways instead of walk, appearing or disappearing from a room when you don’t expect it. No one likes him. Before he is a suspect in your murder, before he does the things that he does that make him always suspect, long after he is cleared by the police.
I am there when you pick out your shoes. Lavender, suede high heels that almost look like boots and are very expensive. Bernadette handles them like something precious, making her hands cupped and floating and beautiful.
I am wearing the white dress Grandma made for my first communion two years before, but it still fits, just shorter. She made it that way on purpose. This dress and the satin ribbons Grandma chose for the waist, depending on the occasion: they are the girliest things I own. My ribbon is lavender, like yours. I walk before you to throw petals on the ground. Everyone is in the living room already, and we are facing the tall windows with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the angle of light so familiar in this room now crowded with strangers.
I step down into the living room when the music starts. My first time with shoes in the house, and I am afraid to slip on the silky, white carpet steps. My sandals are taupe, one of my favorite worst words, which my mom loves to torture me with. The straps are an X stitched with rainbow pastels. My white tights are brand-new with no worn spots at heel or toe. I am not cute, I think, and feel ill-cast for the role. But you are my favorite niece, you always say. I am your only niece, I always answer, leaving me glowing in the word favorite, undercut by the only and the adult laughter.
After the ceremony, when the knot of guests expands into the house, I retreat to the stairs where I can see the door and the rooms that connect the party. The broad steps spiral up and get smaller behind me. Uncle James kneels in front of me with his camera and adjusts the long lens, aims, backs up, kneeling and duck-walking and re-aiming. I try not to laugh; it seems like I shouldn’t laugh. I wait impatiently and try to smile without laughing.
The photo of me at the base of the stairs appears on our wall at home, framed by James, with two quotes from your book. Me, close up and black and white with my crooked French braids, the smaller braids branching out from my center part wispy in the sunlight. The quote is from your new book, which you will never see. A copy is waiting in your mailbox on the day you are murdered. Is this true? This is what I remember. If I distill my particular essence of why I hold back, why I am afraid to share my words, I could (conveniently, shamefully, with cowardice) boil it down to this phrase: your book is waiting for you in your mailbox on the day you are murdered. My flavor of this, of a writer afraid to cut a story loose.
Beneath the photo are two cut white squares of words from your book, the main piece in bigger print:
you remain dismembered with the belief that magnolia blooms white even on seemingly dead branches and you wait.
you remain apart from the congregation.
There is more, in italics and smaller, running over the bottom half of the image. The line I come back to often:
chaste you wait you are supposed to you are to wait for the silence to break
I don’t know what I am seeing, or what I am missing.
The table, my parents, the hutch. Three of us sit around the table, just me and my parents, without my brothers. Is it a settee or an armoire? A hutch. I don’t know the correct term and will never bother to learn. The hutch under the window that frames the backyard. The furniture is always moving, so the hutch could be against the wall. I am always in the same chair. I learn to read in this chair, in a book shaped like a fat ginger cat. The and cat, my first words. I am sitting there when they tell my brothers and me you died in a car accident. I am sitting there when they recant. It was not a car accident, they say. You were raped and murdered. Raped, then murdered. Raped and murdered. Those words holding the memory, always linked. They, together, are their own term. Repeated mostly in my head, and occasionally aloud. It spills out.
Why are you telling me this? I ask. Why just me and not my brothers? Because you need to know, they say. The rest of the words sucked upward into heavy silences, or forgotten.
After they tell me, I go up to my room. I have something to write in a new diary I have been saving. A square block of tan hardcover and thick cream pages. Butterflies stamped onto the front, orange and black and purple, outlined in gold. I write something simple; I write slowly. I bear down hard with blue ballpoint. Something like: Today my parents told me Theresa was raped and murdered. They didn’t tell my brothers. The words are upright and round, not my usual slant. Raped becomes the worst word there is, and murdered is the relief that comes after. I put the diary next to my decorative unicorn plate, in a pocket of space between books, high on a shelf.
It is the 80s. My favorite color is purple. I have a rainbow shirt in shades of purple, and deep purple dolphin shorts. I also love my grandma-made clothes. Billowy, forest-green knickers in velvety, wide wale corduroy. Giant, yellow-orange sweater (grandma-knit) with multicolored sleeves. Burnt-orange blouse (grandma-sewn) patterned with smeared, split avocados. Green argyle socks and brown two-tone vans. High fashion. I have no thought that these clothes might be hideous; each piece, individually, makes me happy. I can wear this more easily in San Francisco. At home in Southern California, I can sometimes wear thin cotton cloth with dainty polka dots or small repeating patterns. My quiet girlishness a layer close to my skin and obscured by my loud, dirty mouth and shocking jibes because being cute is a death sentence, being girly is shameful.
Dad writes a book. I don’t know when he starts. The book looms, always there. The book, THE BOOK. A call and response between me and Dad repeated into distortion, from a terrible movie where a lumpy-faced troll shakes a magical tome at the sky, proclaiming the book, the BOOK! The manuscript of his years of trials (seven by the end), as a witness, a brother; the book, his way to process and distance and keep it close. The book fills the house until it settles in the office behind the office, in the addition that he builds, where he does most of his writing. Incarnations of typewriter progressively smoother and quieter, and then a fat monitor with a tiny blue screen. Dad builds the back room without the proper permits, even though he is an engineer and knows what is what. Years later he is asked to destroy this room before he sells the house, and he does. Our house, the same as every other house on the block except for this room.
The first time I read the book, I am seventeen. I ask for it; I want to know. The trials are over, the sentencing. I want to know. I bring the binder into bed with me like a normal book, reading into the night, although I close it carefully and push it away from my bed instead of letting it fall on my chest to follow me into sleep. Still, it stays behind my eyes and in my body, and the nightmare that comes is enormous.
The dream is dark lit; I am escorted by Aunt Bernadette out of a murky arcade and onto a street in Manhattan. She hooks my arm in hers. We pass a canopied bar where the murderer met a friend, after. The name of the bar is written in light bulbs: Stuckey’s, or Shutters, something possessive or plural, starting with an S. This detail used to be important, because I dream it before I read the name. You lean against the side of the brick building, just outside the light. Jean jacket, collar popped, arms folded. Bernadette turns her back on you and hustles me along. That’s not Theresa, she says. The thing that looks like you smiles at me, mocking me, follows my path with your eyes, turns your head. Your sisters lead me down a dark alley while James scouts ahead. They pull me back down when I try to fly away, so I force myself awake.
When I wake up I know that you are at the foot of my bed, and I can’t open my eyes. I do, and then know you must be right outside the door. The grinning, hyperreal caricature of you, outlined, brightened. Minutes standing with my cheek against the thin door, not listening but feeling through the wood, feeling you on the other side until it doesn’t matter anymore. I erase and fold together the moment of opening the door, and leaping across the hall to my older brother’s room. I sit by his bed until morning, waiting for the dream to fade. The nightmare and the memory of the nightmare translate and contain the horror in the bubble of its metaphor. I don’t think to be afraid of the murderer, but I am afraid of you. I know it isn’t you, but it is.
The first time I see you as horror I am at Grandma’s, on the stairs where I am caught in photos sitting at the bottom, and at the top. The wedding, summers, Christmases. Standing unseen at the top of the tight spiral, still connected to downstairs, the light from the stained glass spilling out pink and yellow. It is a good spot in real life. From here I see you, in a ghost-shock of a dream, post-murder, pre-teen. You kneel at the base of the stairs, bowing away from me, in a funereal white dress and long, black braid against your back, to your waist. Long before the various Ring movies and images of angry murdered Asian women in white with long, threatening hair. An image lifted from a performance piece you did, a photo of one, it must have been, the timeline jumbled. I dream of you kneeling there, pulling me to you with an obliterating static and void that leaves its mark, still, of the second-worst thing that is, that never happens. I begin to be afraid of the doom of you, the trappings of you, captured in images, text, wearing your face. Photos on the walls, boxes of your books in our garage.
Dad’s book: reading about the defensive wounds, deep gashes in your forearms from a security guard’s nightstick. The coroner’s Q-tips. Martial arts didn’t help you. Being brought into the scene of the sub-basement, this triangle of dark space. Knowing certain facts: strangled by your scarf. This phrase persists when I put on my own. The faceless second man who is known by the police but can’t be prosecuted. I know nothing about him and don’t want to know, but it leaks through the blurry sense of graying paper holding the stories away, contained in the black three-ring binder that holds this draft. Family names as characters in text, their dialogue in quotes, Dad and Grandma and aunts and uncles having tea and conversations in diners without me.
The first time I read the book, it is summer. Summers become the book, the BOOK. The next summer, I copyedit it, a Dad-granted internship to give structure to my days, to get me out of bed. My days otherwise bound by soccer time, friend time, piano time, which seem plenty to me. The formless grief and ecstasy of lonely summer after I’ve lost my piano teacher, movie-themed, non-classical pieces chosen to distance myself from her and hand-feed my melancholy. At last, old enough for co-ed summer soccer so I can play and pretend I don’t care about the boys I am impressing with my skills. My attempts at flirting subsumed, driven underground into hard tackles, stealing balls, pleased about being the only girl the guys would pass to because I will always pass back, then back again, triangulating with them up and down the field. Quit playing like a girl and they will play with you; it’s so obvious. Why don’t the other girls see that? Complex and encoded desire under Dad’s coaching-overlord, ever-watching eyes. By the pool, cooking in the heat and warmth, the antidote to isolation and too much feeling. Baking away the damp and dripping angst. Reading the same books over and over, epic fantasies that arc and arc and never end.
Dad’s book with its laser-dot words, gray on white and bound in its black folder, splayed open behind memories of this time, enlarged and translucent in the background like a premium sixth grade class photo with one’s ghostly profile looming. I wear aunt hand-me-downs, from you and Bernadette: a red cloth version of a denim jacket with the collar popped, over a fine horizon of black-and-white-striped sailor dress, red leather belt, black shiny flats, one of Bernadette’s thick bracelets clacking against one of mine. She curates this outfit for me, my one indisputably cool, era-appropriate outfit. Every time I see Bernadette at home in Orange or in San Francisco: she takes time to adjust my hair and wardrobe, to razor-cut and accessorize the suburbs out of my bangs and my clothes. On sixth-grade picture day, the photographer calls my jacket ratty and makes me take it off to expose my bare shoulders. There I am, looming over myself, with optimal view of a blemish that has appeared on the side of my nose. My first zit.
When you are found you wear black and white with red. Belt and boots and scarf and jacket were black, white, red. Cool aunt outfit flattened into cloth pieces lying on the ground, empty of you. Your gloves, and a button, some accessories, and a big pool of blood are missing, and the detectives need these things. Finding these things is the worst part for Dad, it must have been, because he spends so much time on this scene.
Dad finds the crime scene. He doesn’t find your body. He finds the crime scene, not the body. Your body, dumped in a parking lot in Little Italy, leaves a mark of black night with big stars above, pitted macadam below. You hover vertically above your body, looking out at me.
Dad and Uncle James and Richard find their way to the larger crime scene, after the police have no more leads, though the murder dogs go nuts in a certain area of the Puck building’s basement. This is the beginning of my own summary, the canned version I hold in my head. What I know, I know from the book: I know Dad is in a dark room, moving along a wall by touch, and feels the edges of a hidden door. The door opens into the sub-basement where he finds the rest of you, his sister reduced to blood and clothes. I know only one basement, Grandma’s, a finished basement with white walls and a bouncy wood floor, your bowls and sculptures in one corner smelling like cold stone. Partway up one wall there is a smaller door to crawl through, more triangles of dark space and long white bends of your sculpture resting on plastic to protect them from the crumbling floor.
So where is the murderer? The question a person wants to ask when they hear raped and murdered. Also: Did you know her? Were you close? Or were you too young?
Did they catch him? Is he in jail? I mean prison. The questions that I ask my parents when I am ten. The conversation cannot go beyond. I don’t think to inquire further. I don’t know what to ask. He isn’t a real person, this serial rapist, this security guard. The serial rapist who raped and murdered my aunt. I can’t call him person, I default to “piece of shit.” He is blonde with sweaty pink skin and blurry eyes framed by white-blonde lashes, wearing the blue uniform of a mall cop. I dream this and it sticks, a vague figure who strangles me in my sleep, but with his hands from behind, not with a scarf. The real rapist is Italian, with black hair and bright blue dead eyes, I read in the book. My older brother, Joe, sees the rapist at the sentencing. I don’t see a real image of him until the internet is invented. He is nothing, a blank space, a placeholder; there is only the fact of my raped and murdered aunt.
Brutally raped. That word not often used. Adjective too inflammatory and unnecessary. Raped is enough; it needs no adjective. Murdered seals it. Words to tell, not show, not feel. Break the rules of writing and storytelling and cap it off, plug it up, use well-worn un-description to hold images at bay. Filtering language, summary. Raped and murdered are words, typed onto a small rectangle of paper, thin cardstock memorialized in Plexiglas. Placed precisely to hold back a wordless expanse of too much. You will have a piece like this at the Whitney. We go there as a family in 1992, to see one of your posthumous shows. We all go; Grandma wants everyone there. The first tug on the thread to unravel my hatred of Manhattan, where aunts are murdered and where dads disappear for months and years.
Then, and now, when feeling the need to relate these facts for this or that reason—and it leaks out more often than I like, a quick shield against vulnerability—raped and murdered (by a serial rapist) is the fast phrase used to sever casual discussions about serial killers, the death penalty, the fevered thrill of true crime. I know my face goes blank and my heart goes flat and I kill the conversation. My eyes go flat, too. Old, used words. I don’t give a shit about the mind of a murderer sounds in my head like a song, an angry song.
In the years between your death and the trials, Dad comes, he goes: I am slow and sad and hushed when he is home, quick and happy when he is gone. All of it makes me feel guilty. While he is in New York, investigating and then testifying at one, two, three trials in seven years, I bond with new soccer coaches. I learn to slide tackle, steal the ball and be back up in one go, so fast the spectators feel the force of me. I can forget and be this, until he comes home or it is time for a trip to San Francisco and a visit to Skylawn.
At Skylawn, the grass is always green and wet. The wind is always high and cold, and your grave is above the fog. Blue sky, green grass, flowers interrupting the gray stone. Always: A white angel looms near the last turn up the hill. The silence is as wide as the view of the valley below. The view below can be trees and water, rolling fog, or vehicles carving brown rows through the green for new levels of graves. The silence, deafening, heavy, all the clichés. An absence of sound that expands to contain the gravelly roll of tires, and is bigger than the wind pulling at our coats and flattening our hair across our faces. The clipping of Grandma’s scissors, clearing grass from the edges of the stones, the insult of grass with a stubborn root requiring extra force, how dare it encroach.
Letters chiseled into the speckled gray: born, died, beloved. My eyes are pressed up against this memory like I am just inches away, but the closest I can be is kneeling next to Grandma, her elbow linked in mine. Maybe once we bowed together. I sponge and soothe and am soaked and darkened by the adult terrors.
The water is poured flat against the stone to wash away the grass and make it shine dark gray again, and this moment is always the same; the cleansing of the stone is the ritual sigh and relief, the sound before the sound, before Grandma starts to cry, and then my aunts and uncles and maybe my mom and hopefully not my dad, but him too, in the beginning, and as years pass only Grandma cries.
Skylawn for Christmas, birthdays, mine, yours, anniversaries, deathaversaries. Grandpa dies suddenly, alone in a restaurant, without ID. The graveside visits multiply, because now you have flat marble stones side by side. You’d think the visits might lessen, that we could double-up.
Decades later, I am thirty-seven. I have long since refused to visit Skylawn. I learn a new friend has been raped and lived. Kidnapped and gang-raped for hours or days? Did I turn hours into days because I can’t fathom the difference, or is days so terrible that I refuse to remember? In this moment: disjuncture of the words rape and murder force an opening in my mind. The words break apart like old pressboard and behind their flat meaninglessness is something new, something real and joyful and terrible, with dimension and a new flavor. Raped and lived! Raped and lived a cool, art-filled life with cool, hapa kids. I am told this story with great care, by the woman’s mother. The next time I see the woman, she is opening her front door to me for a party, stands close and touches my hair, admiring and decoding my artfully messy bun I’ve created with one ponytail holder. Her touch, the ease, the warmth, and it is also her Asian-ness, melt together the edges of the thing that has cracked.
I didn’t know that I never wanted my dad’s book to be read until it was already out there, translated and published first in Korean, now making its way back to the original English. I hear it has opened into something more spacious and airy, details of the trials pared away, the poetry able to break through the facts of the case. So I gather from him, and my mom. I haven’t read it since 2001. I read two more drafts after that first one in 1989, and the transcripts of two of the three trials.
After that first time, when I am seventeen. The book is now a tentative foundation, anchored between us, able to bear one or two light steps. I can ask questions, in scenes and subtext. Did that really happen, I ask. It might not have happened exactly that way, he says. Once or twice some license taken to make the story move faster, and do what it needs to do. These conversations happening in the tall off-season grass of my high school’s football field, where we have our best talks, arcing and spinning a soccer ball between us, kicking up divots of grass. In the last version I read, details disgorged from the underside of his grief and bad choices that I want to put back in their place and tamp down. What do you think, he says. I don’t think that scene feels real, I reply. I don’t think it is necessary for the story. Has mom seen this version? The silences we send back and forth as important as the sentences. I don’t want to read the book again, but I probably will, I have to. I have to see how much of me is in there.
Christina Cha is a teacher for the Story Is a State of Mind School, a short fiction writing program created by acclaimed author Sarah Selecky, featuring master classes with Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Francesca Lia Block, and others. She has studied with Sarah Selecky, ZsuZsi Gartner, and Peter Levitt.