I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Out there on the road we didn’t have much to do, so when the orange butterflies first appeared to us they were a welcome distraction. Sometimes their number seemed endless, all flying together like a blanket in front of the windshield, blocking our grandfather’s view. Whenever we stopped for gas and to use the rest room, Tommy and I traced our names on the dirty windshield, our index fingers covered afterwards with a cake of black dirt and bright-colored sparkles from the wings, what we called butterfly dust. When we returned from the restroom, we always found our names had disappeared, erased.
Apparently, the gas station attendants were kept busy that season wiping windshields clean. The truck drivers we encountered—big, bearded men who sometimes scared us, who sometimes gave Tommy and me sticks of gum—told stories of how the butterflies had been causing trouble all through the past few weeks, how a handful of drivers had even experienced minor accidents, or spilled their loads.
We learned that every six years, thousands of these butterflies flew down together from Canada and traveled along the West Coast, devouring patches of milkweed as they moved south towards Mexico. According to the truck drivers old enough to remember, this season was the worst ever.
Six years, I thought, was almost my whole life. It was one-half of Tommy’s age, and he was five years older than me. Along with our grandparents, we were heading in the direction opposite the butterflies, leaving Los Angeles for Canada and driving north. To me, Canada was still an idea. It meant maple leaves and hockey, a place of safety. In my grandmother’s mind Canada meant Vancouver, with its large Chinatown where friends of hers were living, where we might lose ourselves. My grandmother spoke no English, but she wasn’t shy about speaking to my grandfather in front of the gas station attendants, telling him to carefully count the change when she suspected the attendant might try to cheat us because we were Chinese.
Grandmother was always scared, always on the lookout for those who meant us harm, and the butterfly swarms only further unnerved her. Since the second day of our journey, when we were still in California, we met them head on in our green ’68 Mustang. I never thought such small, delicate things, with wings that tore like paper, could cause so much trouble, could take out large trucks. And years later, after the appearances in court, all the interviews and judges, the endless circle of new and unwelcoming homes, I would think the same thing about my brother and myself: how the two of us alone could cause so much trouble. But the trip up north wasn’t so bad at times, except that our grandparents always seemed on edge. We were always in a hurry, never staying in one place too long, always moving ahead. And driving suddenly into a swarm of butterflies on the road was like being lost in a hurricane of wings. When grandfather refused to pull over to wait for them to fly past us, he told Tommy to reach over and turn on the windshield wipers. That’s how we usually sat: Tommy and grandfather up front, my grandmother and me in the back.
Sometimes any orange butterflies flying too close to the wipers got caught and turned green, smeared across the glass. Whenever this happened I would hear grandmother say, under her breath, “Not a good sign.”
Grandmother was always talking about such things, about good luck and maintaining it.
I just looked away.
We all sat quietly until we arrived at the next gas station, or the next motel, or the next coffee shop, when someone would eventually have to clean the stains off the glass.
The butterflies we encountered always came upon us unexpectedly. One minute the road was clear, and the next we were in a circle of wings.
The way we came to live with our grandparents in Los Angeles was like that, too. One day we were with our mother in Chicago, and the next day we were in LA. One day we were there, and the next day we weren’t.
Our mother had a habit of disappearing for days at a time, leaving Tommy and me alone in the apartment, preparing ourselves TV dinners, canned soup, hard-boiled eggs and Ramen noodles. Once Tommy received a severe burn on his hand after spilling a pot of boiling water, and once we left the oven on for two days, not realizing it until our mother came back from one of her vacations away from us.
We learned how not to answer the phone when the bill collectors called, how to pretend not to be home when social workers notified by our teachers came knocking on the front door.
But despite her instabilities, the court granted our mother custody of Tommy and me. Despite all his problems, our father still believed he could be a better guardian, and that day in Chicago our father picked us up for one of our regular visits, but instead of going to a Bears game or to the zoo, we went straight to the airport. He put us aboard a plane, without any luggage or a change of clothes, and handed us some dollar bills to rent a set of headphones on the flight.
When the lights dimmed for the movie we both listened, Tommy with his right ear, and me with my left. And when the plane landed our grandparents were there at the airport waiting, and they brought us to an apartment we had never laid eyes on before. We had not seen them for months, and now we knew where they had been, waiting for us.
Leaving Los Angeles was the same—one day we were there, and the next we weren’t.
We left suddenly, our grandparents convinced the authorities in Chicago had tracked us down. What furniture they couldn’t sell—most of it—was abandoned. The furniture was cheap in the first place, all we could afford, but still it hurt—even then I knew—it hurt bad for my grandparents to simply leave it. I remember their house in Chicago: the kitchen drawers full of used pieces of foil and plastic wrap; the plates from TV dinners in the shelves along with the real china; the chairs with broken legs put back together with strong duct tape; the paint on the ceilings peeling. To them, it meant a lot—they had lived lives counting every penny, so it was difficult to see them abandon all that stuff.
So my brother and I, we knew it was serious when we left Los Angeles. By then Tommy was no longer Tommy—he was Michael. And I was someone different also—I was now M__________ . We had to remember this when we started our new schools in LA, but this pretending lasted only a few months before we were told to bring everything home. There wasn’t much—some pencils, erasers, a red notebook, and a few pennies from the school desk. And like grandmother said, I looked in the dimly-lit coat closet of the classroom, but it was empty except for the same blue sweater that had been hanging there since the middle of September.
Our time in Los Angeles had passed quickly, more memorable for what we could have done than for what we actually did. Tommy constantly begged to be taken to Hollywood Boulevard, to go to the movie theaters there, or to look at the stars on the sidewalk, like the one we saw Lucy and Ethel try to steal on an I Love Lucy rerun. Our apartment wasn’t too far from Hollywood Boulevard, and many nights we were startled awake by the sounds of gunfire and sirens, and the roar of low-flying helicopters overhead.
One night Tommy snuck out and wandered along the Boulevard, but he didn’t have enough money to go into one of the movie theaters or to the Hollywood Wax Museum like he wanted. When he returned, I was almost as angry with him as my grandparents. By then, even I knew that what was happening to us wasn’t a game. I could, at times, even begin to understand that the secret lives we had been taught to live, away from the reach of our mother, were maybe for the best. That Tommy could not see this for himself was, for me, most likely the beginning of my contempt for him, one that in the future would grow into years of silence.
My father also became an object of my scorn. During those months in LA, we’d received periodic calls from him. All that time, he was only a voice on the phone. “Ι’lΙ be with you soon,” he promised. “When I come, I’lI be bringing a puppy.”
The plan, I knew, was for us to eventually find a way to live with him, and the reason for being with our grandparents was that it made it more difficult to track us down if the police were looking for us. But our father had never been a large part of our lives, and he was becoming only a bad memory, one quickly fading away.
When he called, he’d speak about a new apartment in a better neighborhood, but I knew he was lying; he was always lying. It was obvious we were already short of money. I had asked my grandmother about their farmhouse outside Chicago that had been sold, lost to us now. I kept asking about it, about what little I could remember. I wanted to know about the things I missed—the books and records and toys we left behind, the things from the farmhouse I liked when I visited, like the old fashioned, wind-up record player in grandmother’s sewing room that I always thought was called a “grandma-phone.”
We wouldn’t have the money to replace all those things, I knew. Grandmother promised a big house in the future, and that she would open bank accounts in our names so that Tommy and I could buy new cars when we turned eighteen.
But while driving up the coast the old car kept stalling, the engine making warning noises like it would soon break down. We ate mostly peanut butter sandwiches, and we were always hungry. We slept in the car if we could find somewhere safe to park, and whenever we checked into a motel we had to ask for a single room for all four of us.
At every motel, grandmother burned sticks of incense for good luck once the desk clerk stepped out and left us alone. I didn’t understand her superstitions, her ways of relieving her fears. I’d open the windows so we wouldn’t get in trouble for setting off the fire alarm. At times like those, I was furious, thinking I was the only one among us with any common sense.
Tommy and I slept in a fold-out cot while grandmother and grandfather got the one bed. At night, I could hear everyone breathing as I lay awake in the unfamiliar darkness waiting to fall asleep. I had noticed that my grandparents were usually quiet, and when they spoke, did so only to us kids, and not to each other.
Maybe it was this silence between them, I thought, that made it possible for them to stay together so long. Our own parents were always talking when they were together, and maybe this was their problem.
Sometimes it seemed as if we were headed nowhere—our days were a series of stops and starts, stops and starts.
I remember all the cemeteries we constantly passed, each one indistinguishable from all the others that marked the roads we traveled along. Passing by them, I always looked for the mounds of dirt indicating freshly dug graves for the newly dead to be laid to rest.
On the road grandmother always appeared tired and weak. Our travel seemed endless, and in truth, I don’t think my grandparents knew for sure what would happen once we reached our destination. At the end of each day, we seemed no closer to our goal. Sometimes we drove for just two hours the whole day, spending our time wandering in a park or a new city; and some times we drove back towards LA, because grandfather thought following an unusual route made us more difficult to track. When there was a city we found pleasant, we stayed a couple of days, sleeping in the car. I don’t remember how long our trip took–back then, time seemed to stop, and the only thing I knew was that we were always moving.
Often I looked out the window at the cars next to us, illuminated by all the headlights on the road, and it seemed like no one was moving at all. Of course this was just a trick of the eye—all the cars were really moving at a similar speed—but it was fun to think we were all just standing still.
One night, we drove past a factory and observed thick black smoke gushing out from the roof. At first we thought the factory was on fire, but then we realized that this was the same smoke the factory put out all day long, and we were just viewing it in the dark. The slow movement of the black billows of smoke across the clear, evening sky was really beautiful. I wanted to roll down the window to smell it, but grandmother wouldn’t let me. Because it was a mild, still night with no trace of wind, the smoke clouds seemed to hang in the air, suspended.
As we were resting in a public park one day, I found a friendly stray cat. It was happy as could be playing around in a large JC Penney paper bag we had in the car, and I thought that if we kept her the bag could be her home. I was fascinated just watching the cat clean herself for hours, and my grandparents humored me by letting me take her along with us. The next day, though, we discovered from the cat’s behavior that she was probably a bit crazy, so we abandoned her alongside the road. I had not even had enough time to give her a name, but during the one day I had her, I know I loved her.
The cat’s bizarre behavior reminded me of my mother. I understood that, given her problems, she did the best she could with us. And compared to our father, at least she didn’t drink and had never been in jail. But with her problems, our mother never held a job for too long, and our time with her in one sense prepared us for the years ahead as we moved from apartment to apartment, bad neighborhood to bad neighborhood, our lives in constant motion.
The apartment we had with our grandparents in Hollywood was in as bad an area as where we lived in Chicago. I remember at Halloween all the houses with the lights turned off, not offering any candy. If we persisted in knocking someone might scream out through the door, in a voice both angry and sad, “We have no money!” After that we understood, so we just went on with our masks and bags of candy to the next house and to the convenience stores on Hollywood Boulevard, where we hoped to score some Snickers. But still, we were a bit mad at being turned away.
Occasionally I would glance out the window and read the names of the roads and cities we were passing, names I knew I would soon forget and never need to know of in the future.
Some cities we drove through like ghosts.
Once on the road a lone man on a motorcycle sped by us and then disappeared around the next curve. As he passed us he glanced my way and caught me staring at him, and he looked me in the eye through his sunglasses and nodded at me. I wanted so much then to trade places with him. As I watched him disappear, I thought to myself, I wish that were me.
On the road, our grandmother was the most nervous of us all. She knew the danger of what we were doing, and in the car or the motel room she always clutched an old, tattered Chinese Bible and a jewelry box full of good luck charms. I once opened the box to see what was hidden in there, and I found a ring, a bracelet, a pair of silver earrings shaped like half moons, some old coins, a jade Buddha statue, postcards and letters written in Chinese that I couldn’t read, and small little cardboard cylinders that contained important documents rolled inside them. Looking at all these old things, I realized how many years she had lived, and the thought that, even with her age, our situation still scared her, made me more frightened myself.
We were all jittery in the car. Our grandparents’ fears rubbed off onto us. There were so many things to watch out for—the police, menacing truckers, drunk drivers—so many bad things on the road. Grandfather allowed us to play the radio, but softly.
The stations changed as we headed from city to city. We’d be listening to one station and as we drove further, the reception became less clear and more faint until finally it died out altogether and we were left with static or silence.
It was a surprise to realize the stations we listened to couldn’t be heard by other people somewhere else, just as my sense of displacement was heightened when we first arrived in LA and I discovered that some of the TV shows I watched in Chicago were not shown there. I had always assumed before that anywhere in the country someone could turn on the TV and see the same thing I was watching at home.
When we first got into the state of Washington, without either a TV or a home, grandmother’s hands were shaking. She made grandfather stop in front of a church because she wanted to go in and pray. He never read the Bible and wouldn’t step into any church, so Tommy and I waited outside with him, drinking sodas. We sat in front of the church under a large rusted statue of some saint or angel. The inscription on the base of the figure read: WE MOVE TOWARD WHAT WE THINK.
Grandmother came out looking different than when she went in, although she was wearing the same clothes and her hair was still white like before. She appeared calmer. And then it was time to move on.
And that was the beginning, the start of the lost years.
I didn’t know then of the difficulties in the years to come, nor the fact that one day my life would come crashing to my feet, and then I would legally and in every other sense be the only person left to pick it up, to love it and save it, to be in charge of it. But back then the journey we were on seemed at times like some fantastic story out of a picture book, one where all the problems would be fixed—all the worries gone, conflicts resolved, scars healed—before I could get to the words “the end.”
In Seattle during the last days of the trip, our sightings of the butterflies became rarer. It was drizzling and foggy, the roads dark and wet, and I wondered where it was that butterflies went to get out of the rain. That image of Seattle was one I kept in my mind and saved for the future, and years later the idea of the weather in Seattle being perpetually bad seemed to me to be not far from the truth.
Correct or not, back then it didn’t matter, just as it also didn’t seem what was right or wrong, true or false, had much at all to do with what was happening. The sign in front of the church proclaiming that we move toward what we think confused me. I didn’t know what to think.
There was so much to be careful of, so much, both good and bad, like the truckers who we could trust and those who tried to run us off the road and told us to “go back home.” I wished we had one to return to, and not our life of motels and new keys; gas station rest rooms; the blur of new faces and voices and road signs; and the ever-shifting, ever-changing landscape and beds that we left before they ever became familiar.
That time on the run was full of confusion, and the strangeness of the road. It was a year marked by the weirdness and the beauty of the butterflies, flying in and out of our lives, then disappearing with the rains.
It was a time when my grandfather could be heard humming along to a song on the radio, a map of Canada we bought in a Seattle gas station in his lap, when I would suddenly fly hard against the side of the car as he recklessly makes a sharp turn because of something he thinks he sees in the rearview mirror. And before I can begin dreaming of a life with a familiar bed and a constant phone number, the car is swerving like crazy, and then we’re flying down the road. And before I can scream “I’m tired, I want it to stop,” before anything, we’re all looking out the back window as grandfather’s easygoing tone of voice disappears, and we’re watching to see if we’re being followed, listening for sirens and knowing we’re only two hours away from the border.
David Marshall Chan grew up in Los Angeles, where most of his stories are set. “Lost Years” is from a story collection entitled Goblin Fruit.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee