Big Uncle In Havana
In Mandarin, the word for your father’s oldest brother is Big-Uncle-on-Father’s-Side. When I was eleven and Alaina was nine, we went to Havana with Big Uncle during his Chinese New Year vacation. Cuba was Dad’s idea even though no one but me spoke Spanish and, besides visiting family in China, we never ventured further than Nashville. Big Uncle could have stayed with us—he had hosted us twice—but maybe Dad didn’t want to give him the chance to compare Shanghai and Indiana, or didn’t want him in our home, even with so little time left. Maybe he was only trying to display some American adventurousness.
Time has warped and confused some moments from that trip: the church turrets forlornly elegant above decaying rooftops, the chipped sidewalks bristly with dirt and paper scraps, the ear-feel of Cuban Spanish, the landmark-to-landmark passage of days. Others feel preserved and clarified by minute, involuntary revisions.
We aligned layovers to meet Big Uncle in Miami. For Big Uncle, there would be no break between 14- and two-hour flights to countries he did not know, the former reuniting him with Mom after five years, but he looked easy as always: duffel bag by his feet, one hand on his hip, other hand loosely at his side. He grabbed Dad’s forearm—“Nice to see you, Sun,” Dad said—lightly hugged Mom on one side, squatted to hug Alaina, and picked me up against the hard bump of his stomach to spin me. I smelled cigarettes and felt stubble against my neck.
“My favorite niece,” he said. “You’re so tall now.” I planted a kiss on his cheek, something Mom had to make me do for other relatives. Big Uncle’s face was a broader version of Dad’s. I thought he looked like Chinese Leonardo DiCaprio. Though I had only seen Big Uncle a few times, I had always liked him, or at least the idea of him.
“Why am I not your favorite?” Alaina demanded.
“Heidi is smarter,” Big Uncle said. Mom laughed a little, and Dad smiled without showing his teeth.
“I’m glad I made it,” Big Uncle said. “I’m scared of those long flights. You could get a blood clot in your leg and die of an aneurysm. Well, you could get a blood clot in your leg and die of an aneurysm anytime.”
Big Uncle worked from home as an oil salesman. A lifetime of smoking had left him stranded in the desert of his own body, and sitting all day only made it worse. Last time we visited his bachelor’s apartment—he was divorced, and his daughter was at what Dad deemed “an expensive and mediocre college”—Dad tried to get me to talk about my little league sports, and Big Uncle told us that he never exercised intentionally. That must have had everything to do with the sickness. Later, Mom and Dad later said they had not known how to talk about with Alaina and me.
“Those blood clots are pretty scary,” Mom said, looking from Big Uncle to Dad. Dad had a bad leg, its limping rhythm tapped deep into my memories of piggyback rides and walks.
“Is that why you visit so infrequently?” Big Uncle asked. Three years passed between every visit to Big Uncle, and Mom had not come to Shanghai with us last time. Mom lifted a hand as if to stroke Big Uncle’s shoulder, but suspended it midair as Big Uncle began to cough. The skin on Big Uncle’s face turned a ragged red. Mom redirected her hand to the new camera around her neck, a present from Dad.
“You four stand together,” she said quietly when Big Uncle stopped shaking. Alaina groaned.
“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” I told her.
“Why not?” Big Uncle agreed scratchily, pulling us close. “Come here, Little Brother.” Dad stepped behind us. Mom crouched, her walking shoes squeaking on the linoleum, her fingers eager but a bit uncertain around the buttons. When I went through the photos later, I saw that that one had turned out inexplicably beautiful.
Big Uncle and I sat together on the plane, Dad and Mom and Alaina one row behind. Dad kept getting up and walking the aisle.
“What are you reading?” Big Uncle asked. The school librarian, accustomed to my precocious requests, had recommended *The Motorcycle Diaries. *I showed Big Uncle the cover, from which Che Guevara glowered into middle distance. Big Uncle loved history, one reason I liked him. In Shanghai, he would recount each neighborhood’s past as we walked through.
“Che Guevara’s diary. He rode a motorcycle around South America.” When I explained the book’s premise to Dad, he had seemed appalled; I didn’t fully understand about Communism’s history in China and Cuba. As I read, I had been torn between the recklessness and the adventure of it. Big Uncle only smiled approvingly.
“He also helped Fidel Castro win the Cuban Revolution,” I said. “Did it make the news in China when Fidel died?”
“Oh, of course,” Big Uncle said. “China’s not on a different planet. Did you know, Heidi, that Raúl loved Communism before Fidel did? People forget that about him.”
At José Martí Airport, Big Uncle lit a cigarette as we waited for our luggage.
“Sun,” Mom said.
“Let him do it,” Dad said.
“Smoking is gross,” Alaina complained in her awkward Mandarin, tugging on Big Uncle’s shirt. Big Uncle dropped the cigarette.
“Stomp it out for me,” he said.
“It’s going to burn my foot!” The ember pulsed lazily; Alaina ducked behind Mom as smoke began to thread around her face. “Uncle! Put it out!”
I crushed the cigarette with my tennis shoe. Big Uncle smiled and spat a mass of red-flecked phlegm onto the floor. An airport attendant said something derisive in Spanish that ended with los chinos.
“Lo siento,” I told her.
Big Uncle said, “All right. No more cigarettes.”
“You never change,” Mom said.
The hostel Dad booked was in Central Havana, beyond the old city’s government-funded polish. Pastel facades overlaid by rusted balconies, delicately concealing empty interiors, reflected the soft Caribbean sun. Reggaeton thumped through the evenings. Cubans talked on stoops and crowded in the market. Mangy dogs and cats sprawled on the street and pawed overflowing curbside dumpsters. Rickshaws, Soviet-era sedans, and round “coconut taxis” jolted recklessly by, flattening littered cans and cardboard.
Mom insisted we not take taxis unless absolutely necessary. She loved walking, and in Havana loved seeing men and women dressed in all white for Santería, the parks overflowing with Wi-fi users, laundry billowing overhead, even the thick gray exhaust from the vintage cars. She pretended not to hear Dad’s remarks that it was all a bit backward. She kept touching the brim of her big straw hat and the zippers on her purse; she wore too much perfume. On the first morning, when she left the bathroom with a swathe of unblended sunscreen above her eyebrow, Big Uncle reached over to wipe it off with his thumb.
Alaina had not packed walking shoes and made Dad carry her in his uneven piggyback when the street looked too dirty for her sandaled feet. He never would have tolerated that at home, but did not protest as he hurried us between destinations with Alaina clinging to his neck. He did not, I think, want to seem too anxious in front of Big Uncle.
Big Uncle’s swagger absorbed Havana: his egregious floral button-downs attracted disproportionate light; his diminutive, distended frame seemed to take up the whole street. He walked pigeon-toed with his shoulders loose, and never in a straight line. On the broad paved boulevard of the Paseo de Prado, he orbited us in big loop, only staying still when Mom wanted to take a photograph. He bought a box of cigarillos and kept one in his pocket to occasionally place, unlit, between his teeth. (“I like the taste of tobacco,” he told me. “It keeps me from coughing.”) He feinted at the street animals as if to grab them, shouted greetings to local men, and even tossed a few words toward idling girls. They scoffed, but Big Uncle just grinned and patted my back.
Big Uncle’s gutsiness was another reason I liked him. I grew up around Dad’s stories of their rural childhood, when Big Uncle slingshotted birds out of nests, fished in the river with his bare hands, and tossed firecrackers into his neighbors’ pig pens. I always thought I was more like Dad, but I admired how Big Uncle was loud and impulsive and almost surreal.
In the Museum of the Revolution, Big Uncle let me read him the exhibit panels, listening patiently as I translated propagandized histories into broken Mandarin. I had given up on carrying *The Motorcycle Diaries, *and lugged a Spanish-English dictionary instead.
“Did they ever fight among themselves?” Big Uncle asked, moving his face very close to the glass between us and the blurrily enlarged photographs. The guerrillas all looked the same in their beards. “Well, you probably wouldn’t know.” He half-ruffled my head before walking to the next display case. “And what does this say?”
Alaina sped-walk past us. “Hurry up,” she hissed. She had stopped making the effort to speak Mandarin, only talking to Big Uncle via translation when absolutely necessary. “I want to go.”
Dad usually would have stuck with me to listen to my garbled tour, but he did not stray from Mom. I could track their slower progress by the snaps of Mom’s camera shutter.
“Why don’t you just read them?” I heard Dad ask. Mom muttered something and he laughed. At home they always walked side by side, hands swinging close but not touching; that day, he kept his hand on the small of her back.
On the ramparts of the Castillo de Tres Reyes, an old Spanish fort overlooking Havana, Big Uncle pointed out fishermen crouched at the fortress’s base. They fished with lines fed through their bare palms, their toes nearly in the Caribbean water.
“How did they get down there?” I asked. “Doesn’t that cut their hands?”
“I’m sure they’re tough by now. Let’s go take a look.”
We went to the fortress’s lowest tier, where man-smoothed stones gave way to wild rock. The only visible path to the fishermen was a concrete strip along the fortress’ base, barely wide enough to stand on.
I stood beside Big Uncle as he sat down on the edge of the walkway. He swung his calves, flip-flops dangling from his big toes.
“Did you know, Heidi,” Big Uncle said, “Che executed a lot of people in these forts.”
“I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet.”
“It’s probably not in your books.”
He spat toward the water and then, turning to face the fortress, lowered himself to stand on the rock crags half-submerged in water.
“Let’s go talk to those fishermen.” He grinned and wrapped a hand around my ankle. His palm felt surprisingly taut and calloused.
“Get up,” I said, “that’s really dangerous.”
Dad stepped on the walkway. “There you are,” he said. “Alaina’s hungry. Let’s go.”
Big Uncle let go of me. “Heidi and I were going to climb these rocks.”
“No, we weren’t,” I said. “It’s okay, Dad. He’s joking.”
“I’d ask you to join, but I don’t want to strain your leg,” Big Uncle said.
“You get up now,” Dad said.
Big Uncle stared at Dad, then back at me, before heaving himself to safety.
We ate dinner at a restaurant in Havana’s quiet one-street Chinatown. Feral cats slunk around the patio, padding beneath our feet, flashing their marble eyes to solicit food.
“Do you think they’d let us pet them?” Alaina asked.
“They’re wild cats,” I said—in Mandarin, for Big Uncle’s benefit. “They’ll probably scratch you.”
“Alaina wants a cat?” Big Uncle asked me.
“No,” Dad said. Big Uncle smiled at us, slid out of his seat at the head of the table and, with an astonishing downward lunge, grabbed a ginger kitten around the middle. The animal screeched; the tourists at the next table—German, by the sound of their talking—stared, laughing, and turned back to their meals. Big Uncle held the cat away from him as it flailed.
“Put it down, put it down!” Alaina begged.
“You’re being an idiot,” Dad said. “Let it go.”
“I’m just having some fun.” He took a step toward Mom and Alaina. “Anyone want to touch it?”
“Please don’t,” Mom said. Still grinning, Big Uncle took another step; Alaina, sitting on the outside of the table, wildly swung her arm.
The cat screeched and swiped. Alaina screamed. The Germans turned again. The animal landed on its feet and bounded away. Big Uncle twisted Alaina’s palm up toward the paper lanterns overhead, clumsy imitations of the ones that must have festooned Shanghai’s streets to welcome the New Year. The thin red line looked purple under their dim light.
“Why did you scream like that?” I asked Alaina. She wagged her head angrily and banged her good fist on the table.
“It hurt,” she said in English.
“It’s just a scratch,” I said in Mandarin.
Our waiter shuffled over. “Everything okay?”
“Everything is great,” Big Uncle said. Está bien, I translated.
“Why don’t you go back to the apartment, Sun?” Dad said.
“No,” Mom said tiredly, “It’s okay.”
“It was an accident,” Big Uncle said.
“It doesn’t matter. Just go back.”
“What? Don’t believe me?”
“Can we please just eat,” Mom said, but Big Uncle let go of Alaina’s hand and reached into his pocket for his knife. He scored his palm with a cut that bled quickly, thickly, much deeper than Alaina’s. He proffered it for us to see as he sat down. Alaina turned away and slammed her fist again. Plates clattered. There was murmuring from the next table, pale gazes darting like agitated minnows.
Mom pressed her fingertips to her eyelids. “Let’s just eat.”
Big Uncle ate more than the rest of us combined, though he maneuvered his chopsticks awkwardly with his left hand. His right hand curled on a red-specked napkin, a small wounded animal.
On the walk back, I lagged behind with Big Uncle. Alaina slouched between Mom and Dad, clutching Mom with her good hand, the other cradled at her chest. “Stop dragging me,” I heard Mom whisper. Big Uncle fished the cut cigarillo from his pocket and stuck it between his lips.
“Did you know there used to be a lot of Chinese people in Cuba? They fought against Spain for Cuba’s independence. We should go see their memorial before we leave.”
“Promise,” I said, as serious as I had ever sounded.
We went to the beach at Santa María del Mar, where Big Uncle and Dad swam, really swam. The lines of their bodies wavered as they moved farther and farther into the ocean, cut by the water’s peaks and troughs and the knifing white slivers of sun. There must have been a grim and gasping understanding as they chased each other forward, steep and intimate stakes.
“When are they going to turn back?” Mom said. “They’ll drown themselves.”
Alaina sat as far from the water as possible, scraping sand into a pyramid with her left hand. “Help me get carry wet sand,” she told me. I rooted at the surf line for muddy fistfuls to sprint back to her. They escaped between my fingers and down my legs as soon as I moved, splattering darkly against the dry sand. Alaina wasted my precious cargo on the pyramid’s top, its weight dispersing the powdery flanks. The harder I worked, the closer the pyramid sank toward nonexistence, but still, for five minutes I ran back and forth.
“It’s not working!” Alaina complained.
“Your dad and uncle are finally coming back,” Mom said. She had stood and watched the entire time, fingers tight around her shuttered camera, book unopened on her towel. “Thank God.”
Big Uncle walked out of the water first. His ribs were moving visibly in the exertions of a landed fish. Seafoam slid down his pale chest and stomach to the heaves of his breath. Dad returned more slowly, a dozen meters behind, fighting the inertia of the shallows. Big Uncle and Mom met eyes, and Gatsby and Daisy would remind me of them, that sentence when they lock gazes and everyone knows.
And then Mom looked beyond Big Uncle to Dad. “You shouldn’t do things like that,” Mom said to him. “Your leg.”
“Not a problem,” Dad replied thinly.
“Two sick old men who can’t even go for a swim in the ocean,” Big Uncle said. “What would you have done if we hadn’t come back, Lu?” He turned to Dad. “What about if I started sinking back there? I have bad lungs, you know.”
“Sun, don’t,” Mom said.
“What would you have done if only I came back? Or if only my Little Brother came back?”
“The girls are here,” Dad said. Alaina kept shunting sand, intent on the listless pile, humming something thoughtless.
“I’m just asking you some questions. Heidi—isn’t that how you say the American education system works? You ask questions.”
“Don’t bring her into this.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be sad at all, you son of a bitch,” Big Uncle said.
Dad punched him in the stomach. Thwack, the sound of a dropped melon. Alaina screamed, and Big Uncle slid to one knee in the sand.
“Stop screaming!” was the only thing I could think to say. There were other people on the beach, who I could feel staring, and the screaming—I grabbed her shoulders and pinched hard.
“Ow! Ow, stop!” Alaina swung her arms, but I had her firmly from behind. I had begun my growth spurt and in the beach’s oppressively bright light she seemed even smaller between my hands. Big Uncle bent over, forearms cradling his paunch, silent.
“Stop, Heidi,” Dad said. I viciously kicked the sand pyramid before I let Alaina go. She lunged and dug her nails into my arm.
“Stop it, I built that! You *hurt *me!”
“Shut up.” Mom yanked Alaina away. Her long eyelashes, clumped by tears, stuck to the whites of her eyes. “Please. Everyone. Shut up.”
“No problem, Little Brother,” Big Uncle wheezed. He groaned and coughed. Blood flecks. “Help me up, Heidi.”
“This doesn’t have to do with you, Heidi,” Dad said.
“I want to go home,” Alaina whimpered. “This place is the worst.”
Big Uncle grinned up at me, squinting against the sun, and held his hand out. The cut was puckered white with salt water; it must have burned when he walked into the ocean. I felt a burning on my own wrist—a ragged pink crescent of skin where Alaina had torn at me. Never had I sensed my family’s presence so acutely. I placed my palm in Big Uncle’s and pulled him to his feet.
Dad came into our room that night after we had turned the lights off and sat on the edge of my bed.
“We’ve all been very tired,” he said. “Me and your mom and uncle. It’s stressful to be in a place you don’t know. I’m sorry if we worried you.” I wasn’t sure that Alaina was awake to hear him, or that Dad needed her to be. I nodded, which he might not have been able to see either. He set his hand on mine for second over the thin sheets and left.
The last place we saw was the Necrópolis Cristobal Colón, the famous cemetery in Vedado. Alaina, who had already packed her suitcase, said she did not want to go.
“I’ll stay with her,” Dad said. “I’m a little tired. My leg.”
“You don’t have to go, Sun,” Mom said.
“Of course I’ll go,” Big Uncle said. “I’m not afraid of a graveyard.”
Mom, Big Uncle and I walked half an hour along freeways and overgrown sidewalks. Tour buses and dilapidated pick-ups roared by; passersby stared. The Necrópolis radiated outward from a Central Chapel—140,000 acres and 800,000 graves, according to the map Big Uncle bought me. Sunlight diffused among granite and marble, sank richly into the chapel’s canary yellow paint.
“You go find everything you want to see,” Big Uncle said. “We’ll only slow you down.”
They spoke as they walked in and out of my view. I saw Big Uncle take Mom’s hand; she let him hold it, but then he leaned in close to her face—he might have said something, or maybe she did—and she pulled away. Big Uncle kept her hand captive in his and slid to the ground as if to hug her knees. Later, when I read about Odysseus, I would recognize his supplication. Mom made a frantic gesture, flipping her fingers to the sky again and again—Get up, get up—and eventually he did, slowly. I heard the echoes of his laugh from across the cemetery.
Mom would never tell me what Big Uncle had said, only that of course none of it had been my fault. Before we left, I told Mom and Big Uncle to stand in front of the chapel for a photograph, the only one of them from the trip.
“Otherwise you won’t be in any pictures,” I told Mom. She hugged me, my chin already clearing her shoulder.
For our last dinner in Cuba, Dad made eggs from the hostel’s stocked refrigerator. He made us eggs every Sunday, and would do so until Alaina left for college. His face still looked razed by sun and ocean water, or maybe just fatigue. Even on the unfamiliar gas stove, he cooked our eggs perfectly: Mom’s runny, Alaina’s fried all the way through, mine somewhere in between. For himself and Big Uncle, scrambled.
Alaina forked half of her egg onto my plate. “I’m sorry I scratched you, Heidi,” she said softly.
“Where’s mine?” Big Uncle asked. Alaina huffed but gave him the other half, which, after admiring for a second, he returned with a wink. We ate quietly. Big Uncle announced that he and I were going to look at a memorial.
“Which one? Isn’t it late?” Mom said.
“It’s still light outside, and we made a promise. Didn’t we, Heidi?” I nodded. “Besides—I don’t know when I’ll see her again.” Dad shook his head slightly. Mom’s arm shifted to rest two cool fingers in the crook of his elbow.
We walked toward the Malecón, the sea front, only a chest-high barrier and a few yards of rock between ocean and sidewalk. Waves broke against the rocks in suicidal collisions and splashed over the wall, clear water sliding around our feet toward the curb. The green-pink dusk cooled to granular, blue-gray night, the glow of streetlights filtering through like oily scales. There were still people out, Cubans and tourists, but their numbers dwindled as we walked toward the Castillo.
Big Uncle stopped and lit a cigarette. I paced a tiny, uneasy square on the sidewalk. I could see two older teenagers a dozen yards away, probably Cuban: the girl sat on the seawall, feet dangling toward the city, and the boy stood between her legs with his hands on her kneecaps. They talked intently, too quickly for me to make out words.
“You know where this memorial is?”
“Let me tell you another story,” Big Uncle said. “There were once two brothers. Let’s call them Little and Big. When Little was 16 and Big was 19, one of Little’s friends bought a motorcycle and let Little borrow it for a day. Big, who was home for the New Year, wanted to ride the motorcycle, too. No one else in town had one. After dinner that night, when their Ma wasn’t looking, Big got on the motorcycle behind Little and they went off. Nothing exciting, just to the edge of the town. It was getting dark, and Little wasn’t very good at operating the motorcycle. Big couldn’t see well, either, because Little’s head was blocking his view.”
I had read enough books to guess: “Did Little crash the motorcycle?”
Big Uncle smiled, teeth striated and asymmetrical. “Little crashed intoa man who was walking along the road. When they hit him, Big was thrown off the motorcycle, but not injured. Little’s leg was broken. The motorcycle was in bad shape.”
“And the man?”
“Probably dead before the two brothers picked themselves up.”
The wind tugged an ember from the tip of the cigarette onto Big Uncle’s sleeve; the cotton singed and he did not move. “People would find out what Little had done. They liked that man, and Little had two more years to live in that godforsaken town. So what should they do next?”
“Bury the man?”
“They would find the body, and then the brothers would be guilty of something worse than the accident.”
“Tell them someone else killed him.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why are you telling me this story?
Big Uncle took another drag. “Big loved a girl. He promised he would get a high-paying job and marry her. She was the most beautiful girl in his town, or maybe anywhere. After Big told the town he hit the man—to protect his brother, you know, because you can’t imagine what it could have been like in those villages—she could never see him the same. She eventually married Little, who had always wanted her, and maybe you can’t blame her. Their family was the most prosperous there, and they were the two smartest boys. If she was going to have a comfortable life with anyone, it would be them. Big went back into the world. He married another woman and had a daughter with her.”
Another drag. “Or maybe,” he said, “Big and Little were play-fighting on the farm one day, a little shoving, and there was an accident with the equipment. Little’s leg was never the same.”
And another drag. “Or maybe,” he said, “Big and Little got into a plain fight. Because Little said something mean to Big, or over the girl, or because they’re brothers. That simple. Maybe Big kicked Little in the knee harder than he meant to. Once something starts, how mean it gets has nothing to do with the reason for fighting.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“You don’t have to. They’re just stories.”
“You’re trying to tell me why Dad’s leg is like that.”
“I didn’t say anything about your Dad,” he said.
I crossed my arms, angry. “You’re lying.”
“I’ll tell you the truth if you’ll believe it,” Big Uncle said. He let the breeze take the remnants of his cigarette, slid the knife from his pocket, and pointed the tip at my hand. I heard the Cuban couple’s sudden silence. The night shifted—sharpened, particularized.
“When you cut your hand and shake, you can’t go back on the promise,” Big Uncle said.
I didn’t want to look scared, so I said “Fine.” Louder, for the Cubans, I said, “Está bien.”
“This won’t hurt,” Big Uncle said. The knife had no temperature in my skin. Big Uncle traced an inch along my fate line just deep enough for it to flush darkly, and he was right, it did not hurt, but when it came to himself he slashed carelessly. Red droplets trailed to his fingertips. We shook. The Cuban girl murmured to her boyfriend, still watching us.
“Was that motorcycle story true? What actually happened to Dad’s leg?”
Big Uncle pointed at the horizon. Blood wound its way toward the crook of his elbow. “A fisherman fell into the ocean,” he said.
“No, he didn’t. Answer my question.”
“Did the wind push him? Or his friend?”
“No one fell in.” The more times I denied what he said, the less convinced I felt. “If there’s really someone in the water, we should get help.”
“Help? You are American, huh? No one would get here in time.”
“We should go back,” I said. The light had hardened into diamond chips, and I was afraid now—afraid of the foreign dark, afraid of him. “You cut yourself really deep. Why did you do that? Let’s go back, we’ll bandage it.” He did not seem to hear me. “I don’t mind about the story,” I said. He lifted himself onto the seawall, its concrete gleaming slick and treacherous as causality, and stood facing the water. The Cuban girl slid from the barrier and took two steps toward us.
“¿Qué pasa acá?” she said loudly. Her boyfriend muttered something behind her.
“Big Uncle, please.”
His silhouette, arm trembling, felt around its pocket. The girl waited. The ocean threw itself against the Malecón. Line cut into fishermen’s hands.
“That was my last cigarette,” Big Uncle said. He made a sound, a horrendous cough or a broken laugh, and tossed the empty carton onto the rocks. “Help me get rid of this—” he jumped down and handed me his pocket cigarillo “—and we’ll go.” I threw it hard as I could into the navy dark.
“Está bien,” I told the Cubans. “Nos vamos.” The girl still looked concerned, but when the boy pulled her close she relented and turned her face into his chest.
Big Uncle killed himself a couple weeks after returning to Shanghai—a plunge from the balcony of his apartment. Dad would tell me that much, at least.
Eventually, I came to perceive the burdens, fears, and histories with which we try to marshal the past. Before that, though, there was Big Uncle and I walking back to the apartment with his arm around my shoulders. I do not know what his prognosis was, but it could not have given him long. He was a glutton at heart—for stories, for life. Maybe I would also say he wanted revenge or justice if it had been anything so rational as that, anything less desperate than the fish who tears its organs to escape the hook.
“I don’t know what your Dad tells you about me,” he said, “but I really am a family man.” He spat on the ground. We stopped in a bar to clean the blood from our arms.