In this household, Popiah is a Thanksgiving tradition. It’s our version of a turkey, you could say, but it means much more to Dan and Lina and Bee-Bee who haven’t seen their motherland for at least a decade. I’ve never prepared this dish myself. But today, Dan and Lina are off to run a last-minute errand, so here I am stuck with the prep work. My clumsy grip softens as I rub the delicate hide between my fat fingers.
“Now. Lay here,” Bee-Bee instructs, leaning over my shoulder and indicating the floral porcelain before me. The paper is thin against the plate and an indigo flower burns underneath. Bee-Bee motions to the bean sprouts. I grab a crude handful and they accumulate on the milky white surface of my plate like a pile of bones until the flower has all but vanished. Bee-Bee nods and mutters approval. Her throat lilts like a windy reed, high and thin and hollow. Then-
“Too much, lah!” She slaps my hand and warmth floods my stiff joints.
She scoops the top off the molehill I have formed and places it back on the platter. She can’t help herself. “Leave some for Lina and Dan.”
This is how family works. You leave food for others because their stomachs are yours as well. Not hunger felt in the stomach, but in the chest. Like heartache. I don’t fully comprehend yet, but I nod anyway and reach for the chopped garlic. Step two.
The brown bits fall between the sprouts like dirty hail. I glance up at Bee-Bee. My hand still smarts. Her eyes meet mine and she says nothing, but I stop sprinkling anyway.
“For Lina and Dan,” I say.
Her eyebrows form two thin crescents and those sagging jowls lift. I’ve never noticed how much her skin resembles Popiah in both form and texture, especially her face (the color of peanuts), moisturized every night with secret, age-defying ointments. She is eighty, but looks twenty years younger. “Like wine,” she jokes. “Age increases my value.”
I feel a hand rest softly between my shoulder blades, rubbing in slow circles. She could use words but this is better. My chest flutters and years later, when I live on my own and there is no more serving platter, I will remember this moment when I think of Thanksgiving.
Next is my favorite part. Bee-Bee points to the peanut powder. There is an art to this, one not taught but inherited. Passed down from grandmother to son. In this household, DNA are just twisty ribbons, like the stuff used to tie a Christmas present together. Pretty adornments no sooner discarded when the gift is unwrapped. A convenient way, perhaps, for the world to separate the garlic from the bean sprouts or to twist the contrapuntal melody of the peanut powder into cacophony. But Bee-Bee has taught me to relish foreign flavors. “To you, maybe I am foreign,” she’s often said. “But to me, so are you. Call it even?”
I grab a spoonful of peanut and sprinkle it over the growing mound. The particles tumble down to the rice paper, dusting it a muddy brown. Like protein chocolate, I like to think. And in a way, it is. Sweet like a long, tremulous drag on a violin. A perfect counterbalance to the percussive staccato of the sprouts, the sprightly undulations of garlic. Or like a Cadd9 played slow on a guitar, plucked one string at a time…
When I was little, before Dad died, I used to visit this house every day to play with Dan’s son who went to the local high school. Chris was tall as a Cypress and thin as one, too. He didn’t talk much, but I assumed he took to me. I was, I told myself, the younger brother he always wanted and he, the big brother I never had. When Dad suffered his aneurysm and left to prepare a place for me and Mom, I think that only brought the two of us closer. He’d lost his own mother to a bitter divorce, the type that meant he’d never see both his parents in the same room again, which, I guess, is also a kind of death.
When I got older, Chris started giving me guitar lessons in Bee-Bee’s walk-in closet, which doubled as his room after Dan decided he was old enough to sleep on his own. I stumbled upon him one evening playing “Good Riddance,” eyes closed, brows furrowed in concentration, head lifted to the popcorn ceiling, voice filling that dusty shoebox of a space. I peered at him over the doorframe for what seemed like hours—though it must have been little more than two minutes—entranced in that soft voice, breathy like Bee-Bee, but low like Dan. When I turned around to leave, the strumming stopped.
I froze, debating my next move. I’d never handled a guitar before and didn’t feel like making a fool of myself.
“I can show you,” he added, but what I heard was I won’t judge.
Guitar, I realized, was simple. You just needed your basic chords—C, A minor, F and G—and once you had those four, voila, thousands of hits at your fingertips. That evening, Chris and I played until the wee hours of the morning, while Bee-Bee, after a busy day of housecleaning, slept with a pillow over her head. When you’re playing, you can’t help but lose track of time. Minutes stretch into hours. Months stretch into years. What started as a thirty-minute lesson turned into a three-year ritual that Chris and I kept like close confidantes. Or like brothers, you could say.
The month Chris was to leave for mandatory military service in Singapore, our lessons ended abruptly. Too much packing and planning to do, Dan insisted, and Chris needed to limit his distractions. Still, I’d play on my new bed (in the refurbished laundry room) for hours on end, just waiting, praying even, for the crack in the door to open on Chris’s lank form, pick in one hand, Ibanez in the other, maybe finger pressed to his lips as he tip-toed in.
That, of course, never happened.
But the day before Chris was to leave, I heard a knock on the door. My heart skipped a beat and, just as quickly, sunk in my chest when Dan filled the doorframe. He glanced at me and then down at my guitar.
“Hey, kiddo. Surprise guest. Few minutes, yeah?”
He stepped aside and there was Chris, sheepishly scratching the back of his head and cradling a guitar.
“Well then,” said Dan with a tap on the doorframe. “Be back.”
And then it was just Chris and me. He looked exhausted, his brooding eyes rimmed with long nights of paperwork and, I guess, the dawning realization that these would be the last weeks he’d spend in America for a very long time. Seeing him there, the one who had opened up to me like a brother, the one who taught me all I knew about guitars and girls and League of Legends, the last person in the house even remotely my age, I think I sort of forgot about the guitars and just wished, for once, we had more time.
“Hey, hey,” said Chris, running over and throwing an arm around my shoulder. “Everything okay?”
The bedsprings groaned under my heavy sobs.
“Why do you have to go?” I said many minutes later, between wet sniffles.
Chris laughed and slapped me on the back. “I’ll be back,” he said. “And next summer, we can pick up where we left off, yeah?”
Chris looked confused.
“For stealing your family,” I continued. “It was wrong. I shouldn’t’ve. I-“
Step four, the bean curd is layered on. This gives the Popiah its texture and nutritional value. Bee-Bee claims it also adds flavor, but I’m not so sure about this. I dump a small scoop—as much, honestly, as I can muster without throwing up—and reach for the lettuce leaves. But before I get there, I feel a stabbing pain on my underarm.
“More, more! So skinny!” she exclaims, capering as I yelp. Brandishing her pincers in front of my face, I can tell this is no mere suggestion.
With a groan, I add an extra helping.
“Can I tell you something that I haven’t told anyone?” Chris said that afternoon after I’d calmed myself down. “I always wanted a brother. But when my mom and dad got divorced, I guess I sort gave up on the idea. Of having someone to play video games with. Someone to go on runs with me in the summer. A guitar buddy.”
Here, he nudged me in the side, which made me laugh like a wet sponge.
“You were better than any blood brother I could have had,” he said with a smirk. “’Cos if you ever did anything stupid, I could tell people we weren’t related I wouldn’t be lying.”
I punched him in the arm. “C’mon, let’s play something.”
He picked up his guitar and started the riff for “Good Riddance,” and when we were done, he set down his guitar, drew me in for another hug and said for the second and final time, “C’mon, I’ll be back next summer.”
There is an inexplicable musical quality to the way Popiah is made and consumed. But I think I just say this because the experience appeals to all four senses—five if you count the soul. Lina and Dan and Bee-Bee are all Catholics and they usually talk in spiritual metaphors. Many Sundays, they’ve brought me to Mass and fed me the words to “All Are Welcome.” Bee-Bee eliding her words and losing the consonants. Lina, a few rows back, bashfully muttering. Dan’s arm around my thin shoulders, sending ripples of his low baritone through my body. Let us build a house where love can dwell. All are welcome in this place. After every service, we go home and watch soccer or Ellery Queen or late-night TV over flat noodles, a Bee-Bee special. This feels all so normal to me. So normal, in fact, I struggle to find the words when people ask why I don’t live with Mom instead. “Choice?” I suggest, but this sounds like I have problems at home. I realize there isn’t an easy way to explain family. It never occurred to me that not all kids are lucky enough to have a Bee-Bee or a Lina or a Dan or a Chris in their life. And to them, what sounds off key is to me just music. A key change that happened so long ago, I’ve forgotten the melody was ever any different.
Chris didn’t make it back that summer, but I heard he was climbing the ranks fast as a Singaporean Armed Forces cadet. I always hung onto the hope that one day, he’d show up to a dinner unexpected, big as the doorframe and maybe a little taller, too. A year bled into three and still, I often think about him. If he’s changed at all. If he even remembers our conversations, our guitar playing. If he anything at all.
Bee-Bee starts making the table as I finish wrapping the roll. She sets down four plates, and then adds another to my right.
“Hold on,” I say. “We don’t need that.”
“Surprise guest tonight.”