From House of Sticks, a memoir, which will be published this month by Scribner.
Seven o’clock on a Saturday morning, a few years after my family left Vietnam for Ridgewood, Queens. My mother is cooking bò kho, egg noodles in a beef-and-carrot stew, fish sauce and sriracha drizzled on top, one of my favorites. I roll off the straw mat and follow my nose to my mother’s cooking.
My father is counting the cummerbunds we’ve sewn in the apartment, ready to send out the most recent batch and receive a new shipment of fabric. Flight attendants’ scarves are next in line. On the television, an electric guitar solo whines as two gang members knife-fight with their wrists tied. Michael Jackson appears in a red leather jacket singing the chorus to “Beat It.” My father pauses his counting to watch.
He was a big fan of Michael Jackson. He loved the way Michael would grab his privates during performances. I think to him the action represented a kind of raw freedom that he could emulate vicariously by listening to Michael’s music. It was an act of sovereignty, the opposite of my father’s days in a Viet Cong–run prison, sitting upright, chained at the ankles to a slab of stone. Michael’s movements, his moonwalk, his proclamation of manhood as he swept across the stage, were emblematic of a liberation of which my father then could have only dreamed.
Sometimes, we’d catch one of Michael’s videos on MTV2, a channel that we’d mistakenly received through a defect in the cable wiring. Whenever he heard Michael’s voice, my father would put aside what he was doing and come watch, and when the moment came, he’d exclaim, “Look, look at him grabbing it!” Then he’d chuckle loudly to himself. “What a guy.”
One summer years later, after I had been dismissed from the honors college at Hunter and lost my scholarship, I returned to the nail salon my parents by then owned.
That June, news of Michael Jackson’s death spread like wildfire through the salon. “The king is dead.” Clients came in one after another to tell me the news.
“Not Michael. No no no, not Michael.”
“I never believed that shit they said about him being a baby molester.”
“Those assholes ruined a legend.”
My father arrived a little later in the day, after his data-entry job at a fine-goods factory.
“Did you hear?” I asked him.
“Michael Jackson died today.”
“And? Why should I care?”
“I thought you liked his music.”
But he made no response. He sat down at a manicure station and was already beckoning a customer in. He hadn’t even taken off his cap. The customer sat down. “Michael Jackson died today,” she told him.
“Yah, I know,” he said. “My dawduh, she jus toe me.”