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Uncle, Uncle!

My lament was that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science, is

seen by so few others; by few poets and therefore, even fewer more ordinary people.



Uncle Tsai took up the smaller room beside ours. This was back when we lived in these low-rises situated across from the liquor store called Liquor Store, a 7-Eleven that played tinny recordings of what I later learned to be Stravinsky. Uncle was baba’s old college roommate, a physics PhD student at Illinois Institute of Technology who affectionately and exclusively referred to baba as 大哥 (viz. big bro/man/dude). It’s true that uncle had a few vices, but he also had a rare if not enviable sapere aude way with which he threw himself into his research, this total obsession with the pursuit of knowledge, of the inner workings of things, that verged on a sort of rapture. Uncle was what mama called a necessity borne of inordinate money pressures; to baba, a kindred spirit, a sustenance almost.

On certain summer evenings, he and baba would lounge out on the balcony in plastic lawn chairs while mama cooked. I’d sit near the sliding glass door, pretending to watch TV (mama didn’t like me listening to uncle), while they talked physics—leptoquarks and muons, of Great Men like Dirac, Feynman, Chadwick, Oppenheimer—sometimes work complaints, sometimes old classmates. I didn’t understand the theoretical parts much, though it was then I’d listen closest, collecting key phrases, trying to figure the contours of this great, all-engulfing physics thing, my intrigue only exacerbated by the vagueness and reverence and at times derision with which mama spoke of it.

Baba, unlike uncle, was rather soft-spoken and inward-dwelling, slouchy, so it was then, in these conversations, that I’d glimpse his hidden vitality: the way he could work himself up, red-faced, gesticulating staccato, talking for twenty, thirty minutes uninterrupted with all those barely strung together words stumbling. A strength to him.

One time, he got particularly frenzied discussing the principle of least action—which I understood, though hazily—in relation to light, then, in one swift motion, got off his chair and turned toward uncle.

Listen, baba said. If it’s true that light, at the point of entry, can simply know the shortest, quickest path through water, almost, almost as if it could predict the future, or at least as it appears to us, don’t you think there might be implications on our lives? Some parallels? Maybe, our own many paths, with all the wrong ones canceling out? Do you see where I’m going?

Little fatty, what do you make of all that? uncle said, turning toward me.

I agree, maybe, I said, a bit hot in the face, surprised they knew I was listening.

I’m messing with you, uncle said, turning back to baba. Keep going, maybe there’s something there.

The two of them went on for another few hours, skipping dinner; uncle, at one point, even standing up to applaud. That night mama and I ate alone, our private feast of boiled cabbage, pork sausage, Red Baron’s Meat Trio cut into four slices.

Look at those two, mama said.

I wonder what they’re talking about now, I said.

Mathematical elegance, equations, mama said. Curiosity, numbers, numbers numbers numbers.


A note on inordinate money pressures. Everybody we knew then—barring our landlord, and this regal old lady who lived across from us (after whose regality and, specifically, Town Car, I was named)—all worked in the same lab, and though we all lived off the same overseas per diem, our apartment was the only one furnished with lumpy third-hand furniture and a surplus adult man. Lucky family money, mama’d say of this.

It wasn’t rare in those days for me to wake to an empty bed on certain weekends, both mama and baba gone, only to find one of baba’s colleagues helping baba position a foreign piece of furniture—a 27” Zenith, a linty gingham sofa, a 300-watt floor lamp—in our eating-living-everything room. Often, they were moving elsewhere for some teaching role or another.

It was also these midmornings that I noticed a private unease overtake mama, especially with the better-educated, better-dressed wives and girlfriends, which nobody else—to my knowledge then, not even baba—seemed to register: the way she spoke louder, more boisterously, laughing that strange, projected laugh. She would say to these aunts, in an almost joking way, that we’d eventually repay them, how greatly we appreciated their generosity (though she never came near as rigid as the stodgy “generosity” might imply; she would bump shoulders, bear hug, cajole them in a curious way that often made her seem bigger). Then, after they left, and often with uncle and baba heading off to the lab too, mama and I would spend the afternoon cleaning, repositioning the new decor.

One afternoon, mama was trying to wipe something off a table that came stained when she let out a low guttural sound. She sat down beside me on the futon, not saying much before getting up and returning with an unopened Bud Light. It was the first time I had seen her with one. She must have noticed my discomfort since she quickly put her lips to my forearm and made loud fake fart sounds, over and over, which never failed to make me laugh even when I tried my best to resist.

Stop squinting, she said, sitting down beside me. You want to wear glasses your whole life? You don’t. They shrink your eyes all funny.

Then neither of us said much for a while, watching The Land Before Time, until mama popped the can open, making me flinch even though I was half-expecting it.

There’s a world where I would have taken you and left a long time ago, you know that? she said.

Huh? I asked. Leave where?

I’d take you back to Taiwan, and we’d live with grandma for a bit. Get my old job at the daycare. I’m not nuclear or atomic smart or whatever, but I can manage people. I can manage kids. You’ll be closer to your aunt and uncle, and have your own room, and I’ll take you to buffets to eat steaks, and seafood, and all the guava you can eat. All of that.

Really? I asked.

Why not?

What about baba?

If he gets a job, he can come along too, mama said.

But he has a job already.

No, he has his research. That’s an interest. A selfish one. It’s not a job.