Teenage Dreamers

 

My father had this sixth sense. He knew when people would die.

We were watching a Leslie Cheung film together—a Wong Kar-Wai one with swollen colours, Happy Together—and my father was enthralled, totally outside himself, his small feet embracing the seats in front of us. In the dark of the Chinatown cinema, he massaged his wrists.
Leslie’s character was bleeding in an old lover’s doorway.
Without warning, the sound of sobbing leaked through the warm air of the cinema. At first, I thought it was one of the girls in school uniform, hugging each other in the front row. Their Leslie was hurt on screen. They had iPods in their ears, playing his hits, I guess.
But it was my father who made a sound like a ruined gate, his hands clamped to his cheeks.
I kept my eyes nailed straight ahead.
Ever since my mother had left him, my father had become obsessed with Leslie Cheung. I could picture him—a short ball of a man with grey-shot hair amongst the throng of girls, screaming at Leslie’s concerts. He simply studied the singer on stage with the dreaming eyelids.
‘He’s a Solo Man like me,’ my father said after one show, sprinkling in English he learnt from TV. ‘So lonesome tonight.’
If he had been somebody else’s father, I would have thought he was infatuated with Leslie.
While he continued crying in the cinema, I wondered if it would make me want to see him more often, or not again for another three months. Even though the rows of seats were mostly empty and I could hear a truck rumble in the outside world, I still flushed with embarrassment. One of the iPod girls turned to twist her face at me.
‘Ba,’ I said. ‘Do you want a tissue?’
‘He’s going to die.’
‘Come on, you’ve seen this film three times, he doesn’t die. Maybe emotionally, isolation, you know——’
‘Suicide.’
‘That doesn’t happen. How do you even know that word? Take this tissue.’
He wouldn’t stop crying. ‘He was such an April fool. ’
‘Don’t be stupid, he’s still alive.’
He unmasked his face to me and looked more serious than I had ever seen him before. ‘He’s going to die next month,’ he said with a metal sting to his words.
My mother always used to say, ‘Too much drama. Your father is a victim.’
Now I knew what she had seen all those years they were together.
I felt my chest flatten in the now-hot air of the cinema. I arranged my wandering limbs into the leather seat, and I believed him. The previous Spring Festival, my cousin, Fat Lydia, had emerged from hospital with a new lung blown into her. Everybody gave her red envelopes plumped with dollars, teased her about her first grey hairs, and laughed clumsily in chairs around her bed.
Except for father. He said she’d be ‘returning home’ soon. {mosimage}
Her lung didn’t take and her funeral was two weeks later.
I hadn’t believed him then, or cared about Fat Lydia, but the idea of no Leslie Cheung in the silver-screened world made my stomach tense. I was a fan too, though I didn’t go to Kinko’s to get posters of the star laminated, like my father did. I listened to him talking about Leslie’s childhood. His story was recited into the air every other night. My father’s voice was wet with pride for the other son he never had.
Sitting up in the aisle, waiting for my father to stop whimpering, I realised Leslie’s childhood had become muddled with my own; I had reframed his history around mine. Was it me that loved Gone with the Wind? The problem was, some patches of our backstory overlapped. My parents were never at home—working in factories—just like Leslie’s. Other things were obviously fantasy: just like my father had an imaginary Leslie son, I had an imaginary Leslie father. He was the tailor to Cary Grant and other A-list stars; he didn’t work in a Hills Hoist factory. He didn’t live in a weatherboard house in Footscray.
In the restaurant after the movie, my father seemed resigned to the fact of Leslie’s death. ‘Do you have enough money to pay for your own ticket? You should get a real job,’ he said, ripping the crackled pork skin from the shell of bone.
‘Ticket for what?’
‘For Hong Kong, of course, that’s where he was born and where he will die. Beautiful stories. Beautiful pictures.’
I plucked the soy sauce from a small plastic basket on the table for my father. His Kodak memories were making me even more muddled. ‘Accountancy is a real job.’ My face was filled with heat. My parents had pushed me into it. It wasn’t my problem that the moment I actually found satisfaction in my work was the moment that they lost pride in it as a profession.
‘I’m not going. There’s SARS,’ I said. Hong Kong always had the fragrance of death, even before the disease came along. An old man shouldn’t be going there. ‘You wouldn’t even come to my graduation.’
‘We’ll buy face masks.’
‘Paper won’t stop it. I’m staying here.’ I was starving and put some plain rice in my bowl.
‘Poor Leslie. If he wasn’t a gay, he would be happy,’ my father said, slipping his eyes from my gaze. ‘It’s not his fault.’
I never enquired about my father’s private life, but in that pause, I felt I was compelled to do so. We were silent for a long time. The drawn sound of Vietnamese voices stretched from the kitchen. My noodles still hadn’t arrived. The tiled floor felt cold, even through my runners. I dragged the plastic tablecloth between my fingers to keep my hand steady.
A question formed on my lips before I knew I was even asking it. ‘Are you happy?’
My father’s fingernails pressed crescent moons into his hand. A pause. ‘Yes.’
‘Right.’ I pushed up a smile. ‘Why don’t I see if they’ll play that Leslie song, like they did last time?’ I went off and asked the woman to put it on.
Leslie’s voice shone into the room. It was a narrow restaurant, slotted into the street like all the others, but in ours, His voice breathed through it.
We both stared out the red-neon buzzed window to the street below.
‘We’ll have to make a sign to carry,’ I said.
‘What?’
‘For his funeral.’
My father lifted his eyes to mine and swiftly back down. He picked up his chopsticks and wiped the oily ends on a tissue. ‘You loved to draw when you were a boy.’

On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung jumped from the 24th floor of his hotel. In a note he said, ‘In my life I did nothing bad.’
My father and I carried a big placard that read, ‘In my life I did nothing as good as you, Leslie.’

Phillip Tang

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