I did not want to move. I liked walking you to school. Your first school. You were still in a stroller. We passed the same man who sat at the same table every morning outside the Parisian-style bistro. He noticed us sometimes. He always had a pastry with his coffee and something to read. Near the drugstore, the pavement buckled, which always took us by surprise. At the Thai restaurant, we would stop in front of the celestial statues, every day, even when it rained. “Good morning, Buddha,” we would say. Then, to the three goddesses, “Good morning, Ladies.”
We found a new home a few blocks from the carousel on the pier. You had your own corner, a windowed space behind the rocking chair that looked out at everything, from the street down below, to the river straight ahead, to the sky high above. You invited me there sometimes. We introduced toys to each other, making up voices for them. Sometimes, we counted taxis.
New Jersey faced us from across the river. It seems unbelievable now, but it didn’t occur to me to check until after we had moved in. Only after we had started to unpack did I wonder: What were the chances that we could see it from where we were? I looked on a map and couldn’t believe it. The building directly across the river—the most prominent and impossible to miss, which every time we gazed outward gazed right back at us—was your uncle Kevin’s building in Union City. If we had telescopes, I bet we could see each other.
If he was here. If he hadn’t left and gone so far away, to China of all places, to find and lose himself, I guess, until the morning your mom and I traveled to the other side of the world to bring him home.
That morning, we were living in the East Village, above a noisy bar that replaced the quiet one your mom once performed her poetry in. I woke up and noticed a string of missed calls from my parents. My dad picked up. “Your brother drowned,” he said in Cantonese, his tone even and factual, incongruous with what he was saying. “Check your email,” he said.
The email was from someone I didn’t know. Someone from Kevin’s circle of friends in Shenzhen, where he had been living for a few years. I had gathered from Facebook and the little he shared that he was living it up over there, going to clubs and getting massages.
He was in Phuket this time with his girlfriend, Luo.* He had turned 36 two days earlier. Luo and PJ—an artist he employed who was part of the new circle—both lived with him in Shenzhen. Kevin had shared with me that he had repeatedly tried to break up with Luo. Each time, she became inconsolable, refused to leave, and, each time, he acquiesced. It was preferable to being alone, he said. The last I had heard about her was that an ex-boyfriend with ties to organized crime was in town and wanted her back, which made Kevin uneasy enough to come home for a spell—the last time we saw each other, as it turned out.
The email was brief and contained the facts. He drowned. I’m sorry. Here’s my number. I called. I remember only that he said something along the lines of, “You have to accept this.” I don’t know why he said that. I wasn’t not accepting it.
I signed onto a WeChat thread. Someone using Kevin’s account was participating in it, which was weird—to see his photo as the icon while the speaker talked about him in third person. The circle of friends was chatting with each other. One came across as a kind of ringleader, who said he was sick and tired of people drowning on these boat tours, as if it ruined his morning.
I called someone at the consulate who said I didn’t have to travel to Thailand, as if saving us the trouble. I could arrange for his body to be shipped home. Years later, I learned that it’s not unusual for families who have lost loved ones overseas to be sent someone else’s ashes instead.
Your mom has an ability. I don’t know what to call it. If she can’t do something, she knows where to find someone who can. She called her friend Preeti, who was Thai. Preeti had a cousin in Bangkok, Pakpao, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Thai military. Pakpao and her colleague, Pensri, agreed to meet us in Phuket and help us wade through the bureaucratic hornet’s nest of bringing Kevin home.
Before we left for the airport, my dad called one last time. “Please tell him I’m sorry,” he said, his voice louder than it needed to be, his tone no longer even. “Tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.”
A few years earlier, my dad had experienced a health scare and said, “Take care of mom.” “Of course!” I had snapped, as if to say, Don’t remind me when you’ve forgotten. My mom suffered from depression—undiagnosed—and I resented him for not doing anything about it. They never went anywhere or did anything. After Kevin died, she broke new ground and hazarded a trip to Peru with friends—booked a year in advance to capture the best deal—while he stayed home. She ended up refusing to leave her hotel room, complaining that the ruins of Machu Picchu were “dusty.”
“I will, Dad,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”
I don’t remember packing or the cab ride to the airport. I know we didn’t have tickets because I recall appealing to the airline counter person: we need to get there. I learned on WeChat that PJ was on his way to Phuket from Shenzhen. Mysteriously, he mentioned that if he had gone on the trip “this time,” the drowning would have been prevented. It’s possible that he meant this in a benign way, in the sense that there would have been an extra set of eyes, but why did that need to be pointed out? Not knowing him at all, I didn’t know how to take it. “So sorry!” he continued, as if he felt personally responsible.
The doors at Phuket International Airport slid open, and two women we had never met approached us. Slight of build, they appeared capable and determined. Pakpao and Pensri seemed to know us on sight and embraced us like family. “Let’s go,” they said. They knew exactly where to go.
Phuket is a popular destination and it was a beautiful sunny day. I had been there once before, years earlier, when I bought a timeshare I never used. We threaded our way past people on vacation to a passenger van where a driver awaited us. Before we knew it, we were on our way.
I messaged PJ that we were an hour from the hospital. He and Luo had seen the body and were waiting at the hotel for our arrival. They had anticipated meeting us at the airport and were thrown by us having made our own arrangements. No one could have anticipated better guides, protectors, or friends than Pakpao and Pensri. They materialized out of thin air and cared for us as if they loved us and as if the loss was their own.
It was a surreal ride to the hospital. I remember feeling weirdly energized, happy even, because Kevin was close. I asked the driver his name and touched him on the shoulder. We were a team. It almost felt like we were on our way to rescue somebody.
“I’d like to rebuild our relationship,” Kevin said in the years before China. “We’re somewhat strangers after all these years.” There was a time when he and I were inseparable. When he came home from his first day of kindergarten—by the front door, before he took off his coat—I pressed record on the portable cassette recorder and documented his day like first steps. As we grew up, though, we grew apart. And by the time we were grown men, we actually didn’t know each other very well. “I think we’re doing it,” I replied. “I feel there are phases it needs to go through.” I wanted him to think it was normal.
But it didn’t work that way anymore. He didn’t believe everything I said anymore. It hadn’t been that way for a long time.
A few months after Kevin was buried a short drive from my parents’ home, I found myself standing in another cemetery 2,000 miles away. I was shooting the first season of a medical show, and the first scene on the first day happened to be when my character visits the gravesite of his friend’s brother.
It was a bright sunny day, just like our day. The scene was situated, as one might expect, on flat ground shaded by a picturesque tree, whereas Kevin is buried on an exposed hill. I had loaned the Costume Department some of Kevin’s clothes, and for the scene they let me wear Kevin’s track pants.
It didn’t look like a hospital. We were pulling around the back, though, where the morgue was. There was a white, mold-streaked wall fencing in the building, and its weathered appearance looked like it could have surrounded the ruins of a temple.
I had pictured it all wrong. In my mind, we were in a sterile corridor, a bank of metallic chambers on one side. I imagined one of them being opened, a vinyl tarp being pulled out and unzipped.
We approached a loading bay at the end of a driveway, the sun shining, the air balmy. Inside the bay, orderlies were moving with great deliberateness. At the back was indeed a bank of metallic chambers, out of which they carried a body and laid it on the ground. I could see the hair on the top of his head.
Kevin was seven years younger than me and when he was born, and I loved him as if he were my baby. My mom likes to recall the time I waved over Sister Renée from across the street, tickled and proud. “Come look at my baby!” I had yelled.
I remember when my mom told me he was coming. We were living in a railroad apartment on the edge of Chinatown in the Lower East Side. She was lying in bed and I was crouched at the foot of it. In my memory, she’s tented under a blanket and we’re chatting. Then, like a secret at a campfire, she asks, “How would you like to have a baby brother?” “Very much,” I say. I wanted a playmate and the idea of a permanent one delighted me greatly.
I remember going to the hospital to bring him home. It was 1977, one day after Star Wars opened in theaters. Kevin was born at NYU Medical Center on First Avenue, back when the current Langone building was an open courtyard with trees and pavement that got wet when it rained.
I can still see her walking towards us, exhausted and smiling, carrying a bundle in her arms. At some point, I took the bundle and drifted away from the chattering grownups. At last, my very own baby brother. I wanted him to myself, apart from the noise. A yelp issued from the grownups.
“Where’s the baby?” my mom cried out. With great haste, someone retrieved him from me, everyone chuckling with relief. I didn’t know what the big deal was. He wasn’t crying and I was cradling him properly. Everything was fine.
There was commotion at the morgue. Before I could take a step, PJ appeared in front of me, howling: “He’s gone! He’s gone!” Behind us, at a distance, Luo was wailing nonstop. I put my arms around PJ, not knowing what else to do. A passerby might have guessed that I was consoling him. I moved him aside and made my way to the body.
Just like that, he was here. Right here. His hands placed palms down on his stomach. There was no mistake. It was him. Fit and tan, he had a look on his face of having fallen into one of those deep afternoon sleeps, the ones we don’t realize we need, where we dream dreams we don’t ordinarily dream.
“Are you okay?” I whispered nonsensically. I placed my hand on his chest, which felt solid. It’s remarkable that that happens. His eyelids and lips were parted. “Dad wanted to be here,” I told him. “He said he’s sorry he couldn’t be.”
“I’m so sorry, Kevin,” I might have said. That could have been the look on his face: “You’re sorry?”
Kevin had a small scar near the upper corner of his left eye that I was responsible for. When he was four or five and I was 11 or 12, I threw an antenna at him in a fit of rage. I was stunned, instantly remorseful, and in my panic tried to shush him. “Don’t tell mom,” I begged him, the blood streaming down his face. We often play-wrestled, and “Don’t tell mom” was a common refrain. Often, he didn’t. This time, though, he was hurt and there was no pretending he wasn’t.
Memories, regrets, the last time this and the first time that. Like a computer crunching data to solve an impossible problem. How do I live with this? How do I become okay with this?
The orderlies placed him back in the chamber. The cold, black chamber I fleetingly imagined him waking up in. I leaned against the metallic door. I didn’t want to leave.
Your mom has another ability. This one I do know what to call. Wise to the likelihood that PJ and Luo had co-opted Kevin’s WeChat account, she asked them if they had Kevin’s phone. They produced it and she confiscated it without a word like the stone cold badass she becomes when someone she loves is in trouble.
Kevin and Luo had been on a tour of the Phi Phi Islands in the Andaman Sea near the eastern coast of Phuket. It was the beginning of monsoon season, we were told, and it was a cloudy day. The water was beginning to turn. They were arguing about something, and when the boat dropped anchor at a beach, roped off for snorkeling, Kevin went in the water while Luo stayed on the beach.
Neither of us swam. The first time Kevin and I were in the ocean together was when he visited your mom and me in Hawai’i, at Lanikai Beach on O’ahu, the twin Mokulua Islands on one side and the magical hillside home we rented the following season on the other. We brought you there when you were two years old and took pictures on the beach at sunrise.
Representatives from the tour company were at the morgue when we arrived, and they were eager to take us to the site. PJ felt that he should come along. “I don’t know what’s happening,” I confessed. “Let me go and find out.” At the time, I didn’t pay much mind to PJ. I had just seen Kevin. I’ll be back, I had promised him. I’ll be back to take you home.
Growing up, the house we lived in near Avenue M in Brooklyn was haunted. It contained a basement that ran the length of the building, where the hulking boiler stood hissing and clanking. Near it was an odd closet. Narrow and deep, it contained no light source. We kept a panel of glass in there and, one night, upon opening the door to the closet, it spontaneously shattered without being touched.
In that house, Kevin once saw a ghost. It happened in the middle of the night, while we slept in separate beds on opposite ends of the room we shared. Four windows faced the street below, a street lamp casting orange rectangles on the walls. Kevin woke and saw a figure standing on the other side of the French doors that separated us from the rest of the house. It looked like a woman, he said afterwards, and with absolute certainty added that she reached out and touched his hand.
It was in that basement that my mom once locked Kevin without his dinner. Defiantly, I brought it to him. He was silently weeping when I turned on the light and descended the creaky steps to find him crouched on the ground, his face in his hands, the boiler making its presence known at unpredictable intervals.
I don’t think it occurred to me to stay with him. I had already chanced making it worse by bringing him his plate. I knew this from those times my mom took to the feather duster and threatened to hit harder when someone asked her to stop.
A few years after Kevin died, I was in a television pilot where the body of a young Chinese man is found washed up on a shore. We filmed mainly in Vancouver, but the story was set in San Francisco, and for the scene where the body is found, we went to China Beach on the edge of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge prominent in the background. Except it wasn’t. That afternoon, the fog was so thick it eliminated any trace of a bridge being there. We could have been anywhere.
It was raining, and umbrellas were snapped open to keep us dry. Looking down at the manikin lying in the sand—a Chinese man dressed in black who had drowned—it was impossible not to notice that it looked like Kevin.
When I walked out of the morgue into the sun, there seemed to be no time to lose. I was glad we didn’t speak Thai and was spared the dubious remorse the tour company reps evidently wished to express while at the same time rushing us as if a house was on fire. They might have been trying to cover their bases by being as upfront as possible, as soon as possible, to mitigate the chance that we would press charges or sue. We had no intention of doing either. It would have necessitated cutting him open for an autopsy, and it wouldn’t have brought him back.
We arrived at the marina where the boats were docked, the smell of the sea mixing with the glint of fiberglass. I imagined Kevin making the same approach to the same boat, his aviator sunglasses reflecting the sparkling water.
Except it was cloudy that day. That’s what BB—a spokesman for the tour company—told us. He posited that the water was rough due to recent bad weather, the tides had risen, and a rip current had pulled Kevin from the shallow to the deep. It wouldn’t have been the first time, he noted. Later, I learned that drownings were so commonplace in Thailand that Ambassador Guan Mu at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok traveled to Phuket—by chance the very day after Kevin drowned—to advocate for better safety measures for Chinese tourists.
The obvious question—why would a tour company not make life vests mandatory in the open sea, especially if such occurrences were prevalent?—remains a mystery.
“You cannot take that,” said BB. The beach was sprinkled with shells, and I had slipped a few in my pocket. “You can’t do that here,” he explained. It was like that in Hawai’i—and there I respected it. I liked respecting it, too, because it meant that I loved Hawai’i and would never take a piece of her to keep as my own. I counted five in my pocket. She let me take those. Maybe that’s how islands give. I kept the shells on an altar. One I meant to turn into a pendant for my mom, but that one got lost.
When Kevin was a baby, there was one night my mom was carrying him downstairs to an elderly neighbor to see if she could manage being his sitter. He was going to spend the night. She stopped at the door and said, “Say good night to your brother.” I kissed him on the lips, surprising my mom. It was almost certainly my first kiss.
There was a period where we would regularly tell each other, “I love you.” Maybe it was when he first started talking. We didn’t do that in my family. Love is either understood or it’s not. If you need to say it, you’re putting on a show and it’s not really love. I have never heard my parents say it this way, but that was the message that came across.
After the island, the next stop was the clinic on a neighboring island where he was taken when the efforts of a fellow tourist failed to resuscitate him. When we reached the shore, I called my parents. “It’s him,” I said. They were both on the line. “They want to know if we want to do an autopsy.” A couple wearing swimsuits overheard the call and pressed me to repeat myself. “Did you say it was going to rain? Is it going to rain? Is it?”
The clinic shared a stretch of the beach with kayak rental shops, smoothie stands, and a place that served New York-style pizza. After acknowledging that I was Kevin’s brother, they explained that it was too late by the time he arrived. He was dead on the boat. BB later told us that they had tried to revive him when he was first brought in, and the moment they realized they couldn’t, the lightbulb in the fixture above their heads popped, cloaking the room in darkness.
The next stop was the island police, a few yards away. I noticed his name spelled incorrectly on a form—“Kavin”—and wondered if that was in fact the correct spelling in Thai.
Pakpao and Pensri graciously took over as I wandered blankly outside. I gazed at the water. I noticed the sign for pizza. Inside the precinct, they were talking, making sure the proper papers were in the proper places. In truth, I don’t know what they were talking about.
The boat ride back to Phuket felt like a roller coaster. Were we late for something? And who was that man in the opaque sunglasses taking pictures of us? He kept his distance at all times and never introduced himself, even as I brushed past him to sit near the bow. Presumably, he was there to document taking us to the site. I didn’t know this at the time, but someone had given your mom a pill, presumably for sea sickness. It made her feel weird, she told me later, like a sleeping pill that doesn’t put you to sleep. As the motion of the speeding boat jostled us right out of our seats, I closed my eyes.
Years ago, I had discovered the secret to enjoying roller coasters. Instead of holding on for dear life, you have to keep your body loose and more or less let go. Furthermore, if you look ahead and can anticipate the dips and turns, it can feel as if you’re flying, as if you’re the one making it happen. My eyes closed, I wondered about the choppiness. Is he trying to impress us with how fast he can take this thing? I wondered about our barefoot helmsman. Was he the driver for Kevin’s boat?
In the vicinity of the island where the drowning occurred, I felt Kevin. So stupid, I felt him say. It’s okay, I responded. I was wearing a baseball cap that said so. The cap was five years old and came from Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu. It said Coke when I bought it, but I had removed the C and the e, snipping the stitching with clippers.
Five years after Kevin died, in the lobby of a crumbling but charming old soundstage in Greenpoint, there was a Rocky III poster where there was no reason for one. To its left was a framed portrait of a soccer player and to its right was the poster for a Nickelodeon mockumentary.
We loved Rocky. Or rather, I did—so he did. I have an audio cassette of Kevin at five years old promoting a catalog of Rocky III merchandise that he had illustrated. Rocky III opened in theaters on the exact day Kevin died, 31 years earlier.
The sun was setting by the time we made it back to the morgue. The body had been moved to an adjacent room where orderlies were preparing to wash it. They asked me if I wanted to participate in the washing. Being family, and I said yes. Having been absent for most of Kevin’s adult life, I didn’t want to say no, but I instantly felt strange. Are you serious? I could hear him say. You’re going to help them give me a bath? PJ and Luo had returned, and Luo insisted on being the one to participate in the washing. In the end, neither of us did. It’s possible they were asking as a courtesy and never expected us to say yes.
At the clinic, it had been revealed that Luo had claimed to be Kevin’s wife and, as immediate family, had declined an autopsy. I didn’t know what to make of it. Not a single member of my family had ever met Luo. Kevin seldom, if ever, spoke of his experiences in China, and my parents, true to form, never asked. To this day, not the faintest hint that they were married has surfaced.
As requested, PJ and Luo had retrieved Kevin’s luggage from the hotel, presumably containing everything he brought on the trip, which we soon discovered was not the case. There was a T-shirt I had given him, a black and white image suggesting wisps of clouds parting in the sky. They returned a cashless wallet and Kevin’s American passport, although later we learned that he had a Chinese one as well. It was discovered among a variety of items, including Kevin’s laptop, which they apparently had no intention of returning.
Kevin had planned to move to Shenzhen. After two or three years of living there speculatively, he had decided to relocate and was in the process of changing his business address in the U.S., no doubt to spare, at least in part, my old school Chinese parents from continuing to receive mail covered with graphic images of buxom vixens engaged in sex acts. As Nevada imposed no income tax, he bought a condo in Las Vegas and got a Nevada driver’s license. Then, something happened. It’s not clear what. He had become disenchanted with the ringleader from the WeChat thread and was entertaining second thoughts about the move.
But there was nothing for him back home. Living alone in his two-bedroom apartment in Union City, he confessed feeling “self-loathing,” playing shooter video games all day or lying in bed. He regretted having missed out on spending time with his friends in the years following college, immersing himself in constructing his business instead, building a network of websites and collaborating with partners and employees from around the world. The subscription-based sites featured animated porn in a variety of styles and took in a significant amount of money. Porn was economy-proof, he recognized. In fact, it was during depressed economic times that making money in porn was most reliable.
What’s more, it was easy. Once the systems were up and running, being automated, they ran themselves. “What exactly do you do?” I once asked, and he laughed. “I’m basically a retiree,” he said. “I should feel guilty.”
Coming out of the loading bay earlier in the day, I had crouched beside Luo in an effort to console her—the only person Kevin was with when he died—but she seemed inaccessible, folded into herself. Surely she speaks English, I thought. Kevin seldom spoke Cantonese and although I knew he had taken classes, it was hard to imagine that his Mandarin was all they had to go on. PJ, on the other hand, obviously spoke English, and after a cursory appraisal of the contents of the luggage, we stepped outside to talk.
Immediately, I sensed resistance. He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t bringing legal action to the doorstep of the tour company. “I need to bring him home to his parents,” I said. He didn’t want to hear it, and I didn’t know how to explain that I didn’t need him to. We were strangers from parts of Kevin’s life that he deliberately kept separate, circling one another.
“We have rights,” he insisted.
“Do you have more rights than his parents?” I asked, incredulous.
His answer, unbelievably: “Yes!”
Your uncle Kevin started high school around the time I discovered acting. My dad kept his books from City College on shelves in his office at home, and among them were some plays. Thanks to this collection, the first play I ever read was A Hatful of Rain by Michael Gazzo. I opened it up one afternoon while Kevin was downstairs and read it aloud, making it a point to be loud enough to be heard.
We were living in New Jersey by this time, in one of those suburban housing communities where every house looks the same. Kevin had his own room, down the hall from mine, and I don’t remember a time it didn’t contain a video game console. We used to play well into the night. Alex Kidd in Miracle World. MLB baseball. The volume kept low so as to not disturb our parents, the light from the TV the only light in the house, escaping through a crack in the door into the hallway. I loved those nights. Often, when I became tired and withdrew to my room, I would notice the glow continuing to issue from his, casting oblong shadows as he continued to play.
To tell my parents I wanted to be an actor, I wrote them a letter. I had mentioned it at dinner but the silence that followed made me seek a different way. I left the letter on my dad’s desk and he responded a few nights later. It was late as I crept home and nearly made it to my room. He remained hidden in his, so I only heard his voice. At one point, my mom appeared, crossing the hallway to the bathroom, crying, as if instead of actor I had said terminal cancer. If Kevin was listening, he wouldn’t have heard a peep from me, as I didn’t make a sound, standing stock-still by my door as if waiting out a storm.
That period was a turning point. Kevin and I stopped talking as much. I started to take the bus into the city, signing up for auditions, while he dug in his heels at the split-level high school close to home. He changed his name to Reese. He never liked the name Kevin, he confessed. It rang hollow to his ears and maybe it sounded a little too much like mine.
I had named him Kevin when my dad asked me to name him, the proviso being that it begin with a K. In Chinese, every same-sex sibling shares the same first name, and it’s the second name that’s unique. I always preferred his Chinese second name to mine, as far as that goes, feeling that Jun Ling sounded more pleasing than Jun Bong.
Your mom is an understanding person, but there are some things she flatly has no patience for. PJ’s abject refusal to treat us with civility was one of them. As I boarded the van, determined to leave, I noticed her outside, having it out with the two of them. Luo had evidently found her voice, her countenance suddenly changed. She and PJ were screaming at your mom as a crush of mediators were trying to keep them apart. “Bools!” I shouted to no one’s ears but my own. Then, in a flash, PJ pushed her, and I made a beeline to him.
The lights on that side of the hospital had been turned off, the morgue shuttered for the day. Lit by a streetlamp, I grabbed both his wrists and held them down by his side. “You do not touch her!” I barked in his face. At such close quarters, I noticed that he was wearing makeup, a light foundation coating his face. “She touched me first!” he shouted, and suddenly it became clear. He was a child. Kevin had poached him from some mainland artist collective, impressed by his drawing. He had given PJ a new lease on life, housing him as well as employing him. Like Kevin, PJ was reveling in a carefree lifestyle, everything paid for, every indulgence met. Then, in an instant, all of it disappeared.
“Are you five years old?” I shouted back, still holding his wrists, and this appeared to stump him. For all his obstinacy, asking him this made something inside him stop.
“Get in the van,” Pakpao pleaded, and PJ dropped a bomb. Luo had been pregnant. They had decided not to keep it. I imagined Kevin’s surprise, his reinvention as playboy-expat suddenly falling apart. I imagined him turning a lock, Luo on the other side banging and screaming, him relenting, offering conditions. We can keep this going if this. I will let you in if that. Also, a flash, which faded as fast as it formed. My baby brother’s baby. Like a crack in the universe glimpsing an alternate reality. And this boy in front of me, this defiant, desperate stranger who wasn’t the owner of the secret he was spilling, who wasn’t even on the trip, was making a claim he could only know secondhand.
“Get in the van!” And we did. We got in the van and the driver started the engine. Then, crazily, Luo stepped in front of the van, blocking our path. Headlights blaring in her face, she was beside herself, anguished, her cries muted by the rolled up windows. “Lock the doors!” somebody shouted. PJ was trying to make his way in. We had their passports, he claimed, pulling on the doors, the van rocking from the pulling. I felt like we were in danger, but I didn’t understand why. What were we afraid of? What did they need from us that we could have given them?
One of the tour reps—it might have been Oi—managed to talk Luo into moving aside, and we drove off. Looking through the rear window, I could see them trying to calm her down. But I couldn’t tell if we were doing the right thing.
When a loved one passes, often one of the things we hope is to see them in our dreams. One of the peculiarities of life, though, is that sometimes the more we want something, the more we create a tension that keeps the thing away. I didn’t dream about Kevin for two years.
He finally showed up the night before I left for London to play a small role in the next Star Wars, 37 years after the first film opened on the eve of his birth. I have to tell Carrie about him, I decided. Like most boys, he loved Leia, his first screen crush. I bet he would love that.
“You were my brother’s first crush,” I blurted out of nowhere one day. “And not yours?” she snapped, disgusted, as if suspecting it all along. Carrie had an ability to disarm such that it conveyed kindness. She could make you feel ridiculous and cared for at the same time. Not knowing how to respond, I laughed. I know he did, too.
We were staying at the same hotel as PJ and Luo. I alternated between wondering how Kevin might have felt about what transpired and what would happen if we ran into them in the lobby or elevator. Che, Kevin might have said. Che was a Chinese expression he used frequently. The e pronounced somewhere between the e in Chet and the a in chat, it’s commonly uttered to indicate exasperation. Staying in his room in New Jersey when he returned for brief periods, he would say it often. My parents lived alone, both sons having long moved out, and their insularity had calcified. During his visits, Kevin could often be heard shuffling between his room and the bathroom, railing against the silence like an old person in a nursing home, “This is ridiculous!” My parents carried out their routines like military personnel or monks in a hermitage. It became grating on Kevin and he might have experimented with calling out all kinds of things, the house showing no signs of being occupied, trying to elicit a response.
It wasn’t always this way. Back when Kevin was still my baby, our family still resembled a family. We had a family car, a red Buick Century Limited, in which our dad would drive us to Bear Mountain State Park, Harrisburg, PA, and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. There were weekend getaways near lakes and trees with cousins and colleagues, involving mahjong tables and rice cookers set up in economy hotel rooms not designed for parties. Harrisburg was the home of a grand uncle who had married a white woman, both deceased, her family the reason for the trip. Kevin must have been the age you are as I write this. I have flashes of him wearing the vermilion coat with the fur hood running happily through wet grass and riding a pony.
We spent summers with our paternal grandparents in Queens and the rest of the year attended the same yellow brick parochial school four blocks from our home in Brooklyn. I would drop him off at a side entrance, per protocol for the lower grades, before entering the building from the front. He would elicit cooing from my classmates whenever he had reason to have a word with me in my classroom on the upper floor. Girls who never spoke to me felt compelled to tell me how cute he was. At lunchtime I would wait for him at the same spot and we would walk home holding hands.
At night, I would tell him stories and we would lie awake talking, our beds on opposite sides of the room. Depending on the season, we might hear sounds from the street, the thumping music from a passing car warped by its passing.
We used to ride together on my bicycle, a green and yellow banana seat Schwinn, Kevin in front, his feet propped on the frame. He had a pedal car of his own, in which he would circle our cement paved backyard overlooked by the apartment building next door. We shared an orange plush bear we called Matilda, a name I knew from the boxing kangaroo. She came from a nearby store called Consumers Distributing, where items were chosen from catalogs and then brought out from the back. We loved Matilda. Or rather, I did—so he did.
Around this time, it was decided that our grandfather should take us to Disney World while he was still able to. We were relieved from school for a few days, and the three of us boarded a tour bus from Chinatown to Orlando, making an overnight stop in one of the Carolinas. I had made the same trip with my mom, in 1976, when I was still an only child. To this day, I remember that trip with my mom, vividly in parts, as I had never felt closer to her before or since. I felt anxious on the trip with Kevin and my grandfather, seesawing between my thirst for pre-teen independence and an impossible hope to recapture the time with my mom. Occasionally, I abandoned them, opting to go on rides alone, even leaving them at one point, at Epcot, to reconvene later. My grandfather was an exceedingly kind and perceptive man, and not once did he protest. He let me do what I wanted, and consequently he and Kevin shared something that belonged only to them. In later years, as we grew up, Kevin and I, separately and periodically, returned to Disney World, with this friend and that, both in attempts to resurrect something lost.
In the morning, we returned to the morgue. There were papers to obtain, cause of death to confirm, citizenship to verify. His name spelled incorrectly on that document was in fact a problem, and Pakpao and Pensri left to sort it out. Kevin’s body was brought out again, and this time there was no one else around. Your mom might have arranged for me to spend some time alone with the body. It was the kind of thing she would do.
I rested my hand on his chest and closed my eyes. The air circulated from outside and I could feel a faint breeze. It was quiet, and riding the breeze was the morning song of birds. I didn’t say anything this time. There was nothing to say.
Kevin had a way of carrying himself that at a glance might have suggested that he had depression. There was a weariness in him. “Nothing fits me here,” he once lamented about the sizing of American clothing. I don’t think he was depressed, though, unlike my mom. He was more like my dad, quick to laugh when not weighed down by the vagaries of life.
My dad dreamt of becoming an architect. The pressures of making a living in an adopted country, though, caused him to forfeit his dream in favor of something more attainable and sound. He taught math in the New York City public school system, and eventually AP Calculus, like Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. He was beloved by his students, which I discovered while secretly videotaping testimonials for a surprise party—Kevin’s idea—to celebrate his early retirement. Dad had become disillusioned by No Child Left Behind, a controversial law requiring teachers to teach for testing. He had developed creative methods to teach abstract concepts—using the principles of baseball, for example, in place of rote formulas—and when that space was taken away, there was nothing left in it for him.
Kevin dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur, constantly brainstorming business ideas, like hot tub karaoke and a satchel for beer worn by dogs so sports enthusiasts could stay glued to the TV without making forays to the refrigerator. After high school, my dad gave him his old computer, and so began Kevin’s scheme to find a way to finance the freedom to flap his entrepreneurial wings.
Under the surface, though, there was a heaviness. Like my dad, he moved almost invisibly, often seeming deep in thought. I was just lazy, I can hear him say, dismissing the notion of depth, dismissing anything inauthentic or impractical. He never dismissed my insistence on the presence of signs, though. Maybe he noticed them, too.
It’s imprecise to call them signs, as it implies a need to be noticed. I don’t think they do. Things happen, and it’s our own story to notice or not. Everyone is different. Coincidences doesn’t really work, either. Let’s not call them anything. Let’s number them. The things—the touch points—that tell me he’s here.
Over lunch, the tour reps briefed us on what had happened after the van pulled away. They had accompanied Luo and PJ to their hotel room and noticed the Chinese passport and Kevin’s laptop, which we supposed contained his business files and saved access to his financial accounts, including ones he opened at Chinese banks. We wondered if that was why they held onto the Chinese passport. Pushing away from the table, we hustled back to the hotel.
“They checked out,” said the front desk. They mentioned leaving for Bangkok. If they left the country, we knew, the laptop would be irretrievable. “Let’s go!” said Pakpao, as she introduced us to the part of her that was indomitable, tireless, and certain.
Our hearts were racing. It felt like a Mission: Impossible movie. Kevin loved Mission: Impossible, so much so that he adopted another name—Ethan—as a frequent online moniker. Arriving at the airport, Pakpao said, “Wait here,” and disappeared through the entryway to the security checkpoint. A mix of hopelessness and uselessness made me wonder what your mom was doing. Given the fracas of the previous night, she felt it was best to stay behind.
Before I knew it, Pakpao reappeared. They weren’t on the next flight to Bangkok. They weren’t on any flight to Bangkok. They had apparently lied to the hotel. Somehow, Pakpao had their passport photos and took them posthaste to a kind of central command station in the terminal. If it hadn’t appeared that she was on a mission before, it did then.
The owner of the tour company and a few of his colleagues were waiting in a coffee shop in the terminal. He and Oi had a son, he volunteered. The son was a fan and would love a picture. I didn’t know he and Oi were a couple. Why is he here? I wondered. Who cast him in our Mission: Impossible movie?
Then, against all odds, there they were—PJ and Luo—poised defiantly alongside Pakpao and the chief of airport police beside the central command station. There was an arrangement of items on the ground in front of them, and, in PJ’s hands, a laptop. “He is family!” Pakpao was saying to PJ as I approached. Ordered by the chief to hand over the laptop, he held it out limply and I ripped it from his hands. He claimed that it contained files that belonged to him, as I knelt down to collect the other items. From the corner of my eye, Luo presented me with something as if relinquishing something precious. It was a calendar, notated throughout in Kevin’s handwriting. When to pay this bill and update that website. It was a Norman Rockwell calendar, an artist I didn’t know he liked.
Pakpao had distributed the photos to every airline counter in the airport. In this way, it was deduced that they were headed to Singapore. The operation reminded me of a small town, hastily drawn wanted posters passed out, patrons of the general store and barber shop asking each other weren’t they this and didn’t they that. By the time they were located, they were already at the gate.
It was Christmas morning. Kevin was home from Shenzhen and the four of us were in the kitchen. My mom made mention of an acquaintance, someone she almost always mentioned derisively. To a degree, this was deserved, as this acquaintance was routinely pompous and dismissive. She mentioned hearing that he was sick, and that because he was sick, she didn’t think it was a good time to see him. She offered this engagingly, as if to say, see, I do intend to see people. This struck a chord, and I said, “You would think you’d want to see someone because they’re sick.” “You always criticize us!” my dad complained, and the struck chord snapped. I gathered my things and headed for the door. Kevin was still walking towards me when I shut the door. “Hey, c’mon, it’s Christm—” was the last thing I heard.
It was a variation on a theme begun the night I came home after leaving that letter on my dad’s desk, replayed in different forms over and over as the years passed. I was championing a new way, which ran counter to what they knew, and the resulting divergence made us see each other less and less the farther we got, until I saw deceit in her attempts to connect and he saw contempt in my attempts to be free.
My phone rang as I marched toward the bus stop.
“You know how they are,” Kevin said. “They’re not going to change.”
“That’s the difference between you and me,” I replied. “I believe they can.”
“They’re too old,” he said. “And one day they’ll be gone.”
“If they keep living this way, it’s like they’re gone already.”
“It is sad,” I agreed. “I’m not saying it’s not sad.”
At last, the journey home was free to proceed, preparations for the funeral already underway. It would be open casket, and my dad mentioned putting him in a suit. I panicked. My brother was not a wearer of suits. Please don’t let them make me look like a douche, I felt him say. I told this to Nirav, one of Kevin’s oldest, true blue friends from Old Bridge. There were a number of his friends in Old Bridge who for days had been waiting helplessly for clarity about what happened, commenting in tourism forums, searching for news articles, and sharing photos they had kept over the years. This circle of friends didn’t have a ringleader. They knew Kevin because they grew up together, went to the same school, shot hoops, debated movies. A team was dispatched to the mall to find something suitable. Kevin’s wardrobe was highly consistent. He favored clothes that were black or muted, typically wearing similar styles from G-Star, Express, and Abercrombie & Fitch.
There is a stretch of Mulberry Street, between Worth and Bayard, where three or four funeral homes serve the local community. They span the east side of Columbus Park, where a children’s playground and recreational field are serenaded by the temperate strains of erhus during the day. It was in one of those funeral homes that I viewed my first dead body. It was in Columbus Park that I used to drop in on my uncle, Luke, a dwarf with a hunched back whom I witnessed being kicked out of the family—non-metaphorically—in the 1970s, and for whom I was promptly shut down for telling Kevin about.
“You know the midget who plays chess in Columbus Park?” I asked him one afternoon.
“Stop!” my mom insisted. “Why are you telling him this?”
“He should know about his own uncle.”
“Why tell him something that can only make him feel bad?”
I hadn’t anticipated making him feel bad. I had always admired Uncle Luke, who managed to eke out a near mythical existence despite his exile, selling paintings in the street and challenging strangers to Chinese Chess. I once saw him play two boards simultaneously, two moves per turn, a crowd of onlookers buzzing nearby. After my grandfather died, my grandmother welcomed him back, and we began to catch glimpses of Uncle Luke at Thanksgiving again. Your mom remembers the first such Thanksgiving she was present for, where a cousin who lived with Uncle Luke saw him passing through and, puzzled, remarked, “There’s that guy again.”
To prepare the body for transport, the orderlies had embalmed it, applying a white powder I assumed was Thai custom. It made him less recognizable, I noticed, as the body was moved from the loading bay onto the driveway. Arrangements were made for two vehicles, one carrying the body and the other carrying us, to travel in tandem to Bangkok, where we would fly home on the same flight.
Wouldn’t he have needed to be in deep enough water for a rip current to happen? How did he end up in water so deep? He might have drifted there unknowingly if he was snorkeling, but why would he snorkel without a vest if he didn’t know how to swim? Wouldn’t a non-swimmer be particularly vigilant about drifting too far?
It was hard for me to not suspect something sinister, for the math of an American expat living in a city reputed to be a haven for schemers and crooks, running a lucrative, self-generating business designed to scratch baser itches to not point to something shady. The falling out with the ringleader coincided with Kevin making Las Vegas his business address, and I couldn’t help wondering if he wanted to move there, too, recognizing a similar vibe, minus the leeching cronies and underworld ex-boyfriends. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was coincidental that the accident happened at the same time he might have been considering coming home.
Arriving in Bangkok, Pakpao checked us into a hotel under her name. The body was brought to a different morgue on the edge of town. We would view it one last time, the following day, before coming home.
As executor of Kevin’s estate, I spent three years squaring his affairs. The laptop Pakpao rescued proved indispensable, as it stored information not stored elsewhere. Notably, after combing through its contents, I found nothing that resembled anything that could have belonged to PJ.
The following day, the rain came down in sheets, the downpour flooding the streets like rapids. I watched the water rushing past and was struck by a notion. Kevin was in the water. The water was alive and Kevin was in it.
By the time we reached the city limits, the rain had stopped. Pakpao asked us to wait outside what was more identifiable as a hospital while she checked on the body. It felt like the emergency wing, a ramp to the street easing the transport of a patient on a gurney being wheeled out while we waited. Unlike an emergency room, there was no sense of urgency, no beeping of monitors or moans of distress. It was quiet, and the patient on the gurney was not complaining.
Again, I felt the strange sensation of being thrilled to see Kevin, as if I didn’t leave without explanation all those years ago, and that when he saw me, he’d feel the same.
Death has a smell. Years ago, I had visited a morgue in San Diego to prepare for a role and noticed it. I want to say it smells like a mixture of burnt almonds and old socks. It’s not repellent, the smell, but it’s unmistakable, and even if you’ve never smelled it before, you somehow know what it is.
This time, the room was clean and brightly lit, the body lying on a proper gurney in the center. The white powder had been removed, and he was beginning to show signs of deterioration. A few days afterwards, after two planes and further embalming at the hands of one of those funeral homes on Mulberry, not to mention the whole time the body had been in the water, he would be unrecognizable. “That’s not him,” my mom would say when she saw him. “Are you sure that’s him?”
As if. As if there had been some mistake and it was in fact a different person we were looking at.
“Yes, ma,” I said. “I’m sure.”
He was wearing my cap. I had placed it on his head that final afternoon outside Bangkok. I wanted to leave him something, my o-k cap a piece of me and Hawai’i at the same time.
A talisman, I guess. In case you forget how to be.
“Am I hard to talk to?”
He took a beat to answer me, standing in my alcove studio on East 5th that had nowhere to sit.
“Sometimes,” he said. It might have been the second time he had visited me since I left home, the first time in my studio on West 93rd which had hardly anywhere to stand. For a moment, it felt like us again. A break from posturing and making a case for ourselves. For once, we weren’t hiding behind computer screens. Occasionally, I’ll ask myself which moments I would most like to return to if I could, which ones I would most like to freeze. I almost always choose some moment in the distant past, when we were kids. But that was one. “I’m working on it,” I said. “I want you to know that.”
Afterwards, we walked the three blocks to St. Mark’s Place, just us, and sang Wonderwall together at a karaoke bar, surrounded by strangers. It was his idea that we do that.
“Let’s go home, Kev.”
My dad instructed us to call out to him. “As you board, even in Japan.” I assured him that we would, that we had been. Nirav and the others, too. They had asked if there was anything they could do. In fact, there was. “Call him home.”
In Japan, it was my mom who answered the phone. “We’re changing planes,” I said. “Okay,” she replied, noticeably relieved. They had been on tenterhooks all week, worried that in populous, less affluent countries, there was a leaning towards higher corruption and lower regard for human life. Through the glass looking onto the tarmac, we watched the coffin being raised towards the cargo hold of the parked plane. It was inside a shipping container, wrapped thoroughly. It might not have been obvious that it was a coffin.
When we arrived at JFK, it was my mom again. My dad had stopped answering the phone. “Fan jo lei la,” I said. “You’re home,” she repeated in a tone I didn’t recognize. Worrying about us had offered a reprieve that abruptly ended the moment we got back. “We won’t bother you,” she said, and under different circumstances, I might have pressed her. What does that mean? Why are you saying that? It was the kind of remark that ordinarily derailed us. But I understood this time. “Don’t worry about that,” I snapped, as to convey certainty. “You can’t bother me.”
I went to see him twice before the service. I had assumed that my parents would be impatient to see him, but I was mistaken. They waited until the service. The first time I went to see him was the day after we returned, after the airlines had delivered him to the funeral home on the corner of Mulberry and Mosco, that short and narrow, steeply sloped street that feels like time travel to traverse. The second time, I didn’t go inside. I sat across the street in the playground. Chinese people have a custom where before the body is brought to the cemetery, it is brought home, where the front door is opened, the hearse parked in front with its rear door opened. Where we used to live on Catherine Street was only a few blocks from the playground, so I stopped there, too.
On the day of the service, all of his friends showed, all dressed in a kind of uniform, echoing what Kevin was wearing in the casket, as if to say, we are the same as you. We will always be the same.
I have always felt that I would be a father someday. It occurred to me after Kevin died that my child had an uncle they would never meet. It would be up to me, what the child knew. Two years later, under a full moon, on the one day each year the skies coast to coast are lit up by fireworks, you found us.
He came back.
It was the kid him, not the grownup, but somehow the kid possessed the grownup’s consciousness. He suggested that we give our dad a musical doorbell. Dad cultivated an expertise in top of the line hi-fi equipment. I walked down a long dark hallway to Kevin’s room. “I want to know the whole story,” he said, “but in time.” I told him we were all different people, that his death had changed us. The acquaintance my mom mentioned on Christmas was there. He relayed to Kevin something I had said, that we raise puppies as if his spirit was in them, which made us all laugh. It was late, and we arrived at a celebratory gathering of strangers. I complimented a girl on some innovation and she called me egocentric. “So what?” I said, and woke up.
When I woke up, I remember being aware that our dreams are what’s real, and that it’s when we’re awake that we’re unconscious. This is, of course, echoed in many Eastern philosophies. At least, I think it is. I remember feeling comforted by the certainty that this was true, and remain comforted by it to this day.
I turned my head. “Oh, sorry. Ken, I mean.”
I was on a superhero show in which I played Karnak. Due to the instant proliferation of information through social media, shows had become unprecedentedly secretive, and this one was no different. Not only did the title of the show have a code name, but the characters, as listed on the call sheet, did too, and the code name for Karnak was Kevin. The character of Karnak, in the comics at least, had a brother, Triton. Like Aquaman, Triton had the power to breathe underwater, consort with fish, and thrive in the depths of the sea. As if to consecrate this parallel, the show was shot in O’ahu, and this time, you were there.
We were there together.
Ken Leung is an actor based in New York.