Chapter 1 – Tell the World I'm Coming Home
August 2011, Plymouth, Michigan
As the taxi pulls off the freeway after just a short run down from Detroit Metropolitan Airport and rolls through Plymouth, I let the sensation of homecoming wash over me. Because this is my real home, my first home; it's where I rightfully ought to be.
Suburbia is supposed to be blandly, mind-numbingly boring, but this time around, I'm unreasonably, ecstatically thrilled to find myself in the heart of the suburbs. After you've experienced what it's like to have nowhere to call home, you can't ever be tired of the warm, safe feeling of finally having a home to go back to. This is what I've waited a full 20 years for – the day I can return to the house I lived in as a child. And this time, I'm here to stay.
It's a day for firsts, because for the very first time in a decade or more, I've got real family of my own to greet me at the door. My sister Sophia pounces on me in a gigantic bear hug, which grows into a group hug with the addition of her four-year-old daughter Tiffany. They've been here for an entire summer by now, so they've had time to put away all the moving boxes, and Sophia can't wait to show me the comprehensive re-decoration job she's done.
When I last stepped into this house, it had a homey, lived-in quality, but in your usual '60s or '70s kind of way: with linoleum, carpet and lumpy overstuffed furniture co-existing in a sea of various orange, yellowish, olive and puce-colored textiles. It was the kind of interior you'd imagine from a retro sepia photograph brought into real life. Sophia's remake has updated everything to uber-chic contemporary standards, with even more character to boot because she's integrated little eclectic touches from the various places she's lived in, ranging from the Polynesian-inspired accent pieces scattered in the living room to the tatami corner in the master bedroom. Seeing what she's done with our house, I'm triply glad she was able to use the college funds Ed and I saved by getting scholarships to put herself through design school in the end; the human, personal touch from this being her own home has come together with her natural talent to create a masterpiece.
The best part has to be my new bedroom, the one which used to belong to Sophia when we were kids. There's no hint at all of her former pink floral color scheme, and she's redone everything in minimalist chrome and black. It's exactly the way I would've wanted it if I had a bachelor pad of my own. She's given me Dad's old desk, the one she took with her everywhere she moved to, and the matching desk chair, nicely covered in matt black leather. A glass-fronted display cabinet and all the walls are left bare on purpose; this is where I'll be displaying all my aircraft models and other paraphernalia, and she's leaving it entirely up to me to decide just how I want to go about it. The entire setup of the room is Sophia's way of acknowledging that she sees me as a grown man now, rather than an irritating little brother who's always underfoot at the wrong times, and it's both touching and flattering all at once.
In short, Sophia's done a perfect job with the house. Most designers would throw out everything old to create a uniformly new look, but she knows what to keep, and how to work around it. All the furniture Dad made himself is still there: the dining table and chairs, and all the bed frames. Even though everything's been nicely varnished, Sophia's kept another special touch too - the word "Wentworth" I carved into each piece of Dad's handmade wooden furniture with my penknife the day before we moved out, in the tiniest letters I could make so our tenants wouldn't notice and complain about the furniture being defaced or something like that. I never confessed to Sophia about it, of course; so the only clue I have that she's seen and deliberately kept my carvings is the minute attention she's given to every other tiny detail in every corner of the house.
Yeah, right, I could just go on and on singing Sophia's praises like this; until I find that she has transformed my room into a shrine to Hello Kitty. Not my room, of course, but the one that Ed and I used to sleep in when we were kids. Just about everything in the room is pink and white, and the face of that... uh... feline, is staring at me from virtually everywhere. Like for example, the curtains Sophia has hung from the top bunk as a kind of canopy for the bottom bunk bed.
It's obvious which bunk is meant for Tiffany, because the top bunk, the one I used to sleep in as a child, is occupied by a huge inflatable white rabbit sprawling on its stomach. To my admittedly undiscerning eye, this creature looks pretty much like a rabbit version of Hello Kitty. Sophia and Tiffany must've seen me gaping at it, because out of nowhere, they're both trying to explain its origins to me.
"That's Miffy," says Sophia. "You can guess why Tiffany likes her almost as much as Hello Kitty." Oh, of course. Both are white. Both are irresistibly cute to the fifty percent of the world population that's female. Me, I am completely missing the point, though.
"No, Mommy, that's Walter," says Tiffany. "See? His face is different. And he's lying down."
"Oh sorry, excuse me. This isn't Miffy, it's a character called Walter which was created by an Asian artist. They displayed it in a museum exhibition last year, and Tiffany liked it so much we just had to get the mini version."
Mini version, my foot – that inflatable rabbit's as big as I was when Dad made the bunk bed for Ed and me. In my whole life, I've only known one Walter. Correction – I've only known of one Walter, because I've never actually met him. And any namesake of Walter Elliot is the last thing I want sleeping in my bunk bed.
Even though I know it's absolutely infantile, I can't help but wonder how I can sneak a porcupine into the house someday when Sophia's not looking. This kind of thinking is bringing me right down to Tiffany's level, and if only she knew what's on my mind now, Tiffany would probably kill me this very second.
It's been a long time since I last felt the pull of family as strongly as this; in fact, I can safely say I haven't had this feeling in more than a decade, not since the time when I was engaged to Anne Elliot. But that's the power of family; they're the only ones who can make you do things you'd otherwise never want to do. I'd be lying if I said I don't miss the adrenaline rush of flying a fighter jet, and I'd equally be lying if I said the Air Force was all glitz and glamour. True, my days in Afghanistan and Iraq have given me some of the most gruesome memories of my life. Still, the net balance is positive; I'd have wanted to stay there till I'm too old to fly, if Sophia hadn't asked me to come back at the end of my 10-year service commitment.
"I've already lost enough of the people I love, without you going out there risking your life every day," she'd said. "Please find another job, one where I know you'll be coming home for sure."
Sadly, it's true. My brother-in-law was an admiral, forty-five years old and fit as a fiddle; yet he's gone just like that, right in the middle of a triathlon. They were living in Okinawa when it happened just this spring, and that's what brought Sophia and Tiffany back to the US, to build a new life in our old home. With a pull like that, how could I resist? It's kind of warped to think of myself as a father figure to Tiffany when her mom is my sister, but it isn't that far from the truth. I want to play a role in giving Tiffany a stable, happy, all-American childhood, the type of childhood I'd have wished for myself, and that's the real force that brought me back.
Back to Detroit, the same city where Anne Elliot's living in, to the best of my information. I wonder if she felt the same pull when she'd moved back from Everett way back in '01? It's not until now, when I'm doing practically the same thing too, that I really understand just how straightforward it all is; at those times when your family needs you in the face of loss, there's absolutely no competition to speak of between your family and your dreams. It may be painful for personal ambition to take a back seat, but yet doing the right thing feels so natural that it gives you the strength to put your fallen aspirations behind you for good and to shelve away any regrets you may have so they won't eat you alive.
Only Anne Elliot's story is very different from mine; for her, it's not such a simple story as just coming back to Detroit to take care of her family. It's been 10 years now, and I'm sure her grandma can't possibly have lived for this long with Stage 4 cancer. Yet not only has she never contacted me in all these years, she's never showed up at any of the class reunions or gatherings since graduation either. She might as well have vanished from the face of the earth, the way her former girlfriends never mention anything about her or her life, even though Tom and James have been asking them about Anne every time they meet up. That's the worst part of it; the people she's thrown aside aren't limited to just me alone, but also include all my friends from MIT, maybe hers as well. She's wiped us out of her life as though we never existed. As though we're not good enough for her any more, now that she's moved back into the Elliot family. Knowing what I do about the Elliot mentality, it's not much of a stretch to guess that she's probably living in the lap of luxury right now; maybe she's married to someone filthy rich, definitely someone with business value to them. Idling her time away with the country-club set, with their fancy yachts and shiny limos, practically dripping in designer labels and jewelry, I'll bet. And her path isn't going to cross with mine anytime soon; I'm far from hanging around in the rarefied circles that those Elliots move around in. So what if I'm also living in the Detroit area now? I could've still been in Afghanistan or Iraq, and it wouldn't make a single iota of difference to the probability of my running into her by chance.
Once upon a time, I believed that Anne Elliot could practically become my family; she was that close to me. Now I know that my vision of Anne and I building a life together was just the fantasy of a lonely kid yearning for stability and a sense of belonging; a kid with no parents to turn to and two siblings living abroad, too far away for him to really feel their presence. The same kid who naively believed that joining the Air Force would be pure fun and excitement; a complacently smug kid who thought he'd seen the worst that society could dish out to him, not knowing how sheltered he still was in the big scheme of things; sheltered enough, at least, to take world peace for granted. That kid has grown into a man now, and in fact, having been right in the middle of the War on Terror, I've seen and experienced much more than most men in this country have. So what's Anne Elliot to me now? I've got no more need to hang onto that kind of pseudo-family, when the only family that will ever matter are the ones who're tied to me by blood, the ones who've gone through the same thick and thin as I did and lived the same life as I have, literally from the day I was born.
Growing up has given me a new perspective about my family; there was once a time I didn't appreciate them the same way I do now, but I'm long past that. Sophia's nagging, and Dad's when he was alive, used to be a running irritation constantly buzzing in my ear; I took it that they were comparing me to Ed in ways where I'd always come up short, and I resented them for it. Because I won't apologize for the way I've been born, how I can't stand sitting still and keeping quiet, and how I always need some kind of thrills and spills to really feel alive. How I just can't be a pure bookworm the way Ed is; it was only when the carrot of an Air Force pilot slot was dangled in front of me that I actually felt motivated about hitting the books hard. Only after I grew much older did I realize how everything they've said to me ties back to how much my family values education, and come to recognize that this was one of the main reasons, if not the reason, why I've been able to walk down a different path from the stereotypical kid in the 'hood.
As I grew older, I came to understand what a difficult decision Sophia had to make when moving us out of our childhood home. Our neighbors offered to help us, even to take us in, and at thirteen, I couldn't identify with what I thought was her pride in keeping us from being beholden to others. It wasn't till she was getting married and I was heading to college that she told me her real reason for moving us out wasn't about pride at all; it was because she wanted to cut our costs and earn some rental income so Ed and I could go to college with the minimum of financial aid, so we could start our working lives without being saddled by student loan debt. That's when I came to appreciate the implicit trust she had in us; she'd had faith that we believed enough in going to college to stay focused towards getting there, regardless of where the other kids in our neighborhood were headed. Susceptible as I was to peer pressure at the time, she'd still believed I had the strength not to cave in where it counted. Not that she had much choice about putting us through the public school system anyway; move or no move, there's no way she could've possibly sprung for private school for Ed and me.
And no matter how preoccupied they were, Dad, Mom and Sophia must've taught me well in the end, because getting a good education is precisely how I've come back to where I am today. It's also the social leveler that gave me the audacity to conceive of joining my future to Anne Elliot's, despite the vast difference between her economic status and mine at that time. Having access to education is the reason why we have a flat society today, where anyone can make it with the right amount of ability and effort, regardless of the circumstances they were born with. In this society, it isn't my fault that my so-called engagement with Anne Elliot turned out to be such a fiasco. No, none of it's my fault at all; the fault's all hers.
Disclaimer: The actual "Walter" is a work by Singaporean artist Dawn Ng, which has been displayed at the "Art Garden" exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum.