by Jennifer Tseng
Once upon a time, I floated within my mother’s sea. I’d never seen a book or a person suffering. I’d never seen anything. It was dark. My eyes were closed. I never spoke. I didn’t yet have wishes or complaints. She gave me everything. Even the sea inside herself she gave to me; it touched me everywhere. If I dreamed, I can’t remember. What came after is what I remember.
My father didn’t come to the hospital because he had office hours. I would like to be that serious but I’m always laughing to myself about something. I don’t remember the first time I saw him. I have a picture of him helping me walk with his index finger—my fat fist holding it tight—a picture of him helping me ride a tricycle and a picture of us at the zoo. Wearing a yellow dress, a yellow bow taped to my head, surrounded by wild animals, holding his hand, I look ecstatic. I don’t remember any of it.
My mother’s sea seemed distant, even when she held me and it was an inch away. Almost forgotten. Beyond memory. My body itself the only evidence. Shaped by my mother’s sea, with a face like my father’s. Could my sister sense me waiting for her? There on the other side of our mother? I love my body the way some people love love letters. It is proof of what happened.
Our mother bought me my first book of poems. She said I could pick any book in the bookstore and I chose Robert Frost’s Collected Poems. Our father’s books covered the dining room table. My sister and I called Dial-a-Story obsessively. The number was 544-9899. When we were teenagers, she used to read to me. I would fall asleep. The four of us spent hours in libraries. We made book rafts and floated away.
My mother raised me. My father raised me. My sister raised me. Books raised me. Strangers raised me. Wolves raised me. My mother taught me how to be content, how to be quiet, how to be a guest, how to float. My father taught me to speak, to swim, to keep going. At night while he slept, he sounded like he was swimming. He swam every night of my childhood. I would lie in bed wondering where he was trying to go. My sister taught me to open my eyes under water. To see. We traveled the same sea. No one else has been there.
Jean said, “You know how in dreams you are everyone:/awake too you are everyone:”* As a child, I never knew if I was awake or dreaming. I would wake up and think, is this still the dream? I never knew if I was my mother or my father or my sister. I always knew who I was.
*From Jean Valentine’s poem, “To the Bardo” Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965-2003
Poet and fiction writer Jennifer Tseng was born in Indiana and raised in California by a first generation Chinese engineer and a third generation German American microbiologist. Her flash fiction collection, The Passion of Woo & Isolde (Rose Metal Press 2017), was a Firecracker Award finalist and winner of an Eric Hoffer Book Award; and her novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions 2015), was shortlisted for the PEN American Center’s Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the New England Book Award; it’s available in English, Italian, and Danish. She’s also the author of three award-winning books of poetry, The Man With My Face (AAWW 2005); the bilingual Red Flower, White Flower (Marick Press 2013) featuring Chinese translations by Mengying Han and Aaron Crippen; and Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press 2017), poems made with her Chinese father’s English letters. She is currently an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz.