Happily ever after

by Michelle Law

I DON'T REMEMBER much about my twenty-first birthday besides being heartbroken. A few weeks before my birthday, my boyfriend and I split up, and I was too preoccupied with the fallout to celebrate anything. We'd been together for nearly three years and were each other's first loves, and like many first loves, we believed that we would be together forever. We planned to travel the world visiting relatives and learning new languages. After a few years, we would get married and settle down. Kids would come along after we bought a house. He wanted two children, because a pair was manageable, and I wanted more, because I loved growing up in a loud household with my four siblings. We could never decide on a number and when we found ourselves arguing too earnestly about the subject, we became uncomfortable and fell silent. But the point was that we had a plan. So when our relationship fell apart, I began drifting.

My ex-boyfriend moved overseas and I stayed in Brisbane. In the immediate weeks afterwards I wandered around my apartment, occasionally stopping to stare at myself in the mirror to remind myself I existed, or to make a packet of two-minute noodles. I took long, hot showers to ready myself for the outside world, and then I would collapse into my bed and cry. On the days I willed myself to leave the house, everything reminded me of what I had lost. We'd eaten at that restaurant to celebrate graduation despite the food being beyond our budgets. We'd stood at that bridge and watched the city lights reflected in the river the night he found out his grandmother died. At that park, he'd sat me on his handlebars and biked us up a steep hill until he had an asthma attack. I needed to escape, so I took a trip home to the Sunshine Coast.

'How are you feeling?' said my sister Candy, winding down the car windows.

'Better than I was expecting,' I said.

I took in the sights on the long drive to Dad's house: flat, main streets flanked by lawnmower outlets and used car dealerships; warehouses selling custom-made kayaks; men blasting hip hop from their utes; and girls with fake tan and hair extensions chatting into their iPhones. Further along, beachgoers rode BMX bikes across the canal with the sun beating down on their bare shoulders. I was home, and for the first time, I didn't hate it.

Growing up, I'd found the coast isolating and stifling. Being Chinese and bookish, I learnt that if you lived on the Sunshine Coast and looked different or had an interest in something beyond water sports, shopping, or drinking, it meant that you were invisible. But it was for those same reasons that I appreciated being back. Right now, I needed to disappear.

 

I STAYED AT Dad's house for a week longer than I planned. Dad gave up his bed and slept on the couch despite his lame leg, and made me supper each night when he returned from work at our family's restaurant. I'd spend the day reading and snacking and trying to forget I was ever in a relationship at all. It was liberating being somewhere I was a stranger and could wallow without restraint. But Dad saw my moods as a bad sign, and each night he would sit me down at the kitchen counter and attempt to make me feel better.

'What's the use in being sad?' he said one evening, sharpening a cleaver with the base of a china bowl. 'Be like your Dad: happy-go-lucky.'

He proceeded to fill the bowl with chopped fruit and nudged it towards me. Eating fruit after work had been Dad's ritual since before I could remember. He'd been managing restaurants for thirty years and most of my childhood memories of him involved apple slices and orange segments at midnight. Depending on the season, he'd come home bearing boxes overflowing with kiwi fruits, or cherries, or bananas, or mangoes. He would set the fruit down, sharpen his knife, and then catch up on his Chinese soaps with my siblings or myself sitting happily at his side.

Dad was in his mid-sixties now and semi-retired, which for him meant working seven-hour shifts, seven days a week, all year. But despite his intense work ethic, I witnessed Dad tiring over the years, and with age came his philosophical and chatty side.

'You can't feel sad forever – you move on,' said Dad. 'For example, even though your mum and I didn't work out, I still hope that she can find someone.'

 

MUM HADN'T DATED anyone since she and Dad separated in 1994. She instigated their separation, and she was often very lonely, but their marriage made her cynical enough to want to wait for someone who would meet her high standards. She wanted a man who was a feminist, but also believed in chivalry and treated her like a queen. He needed to be approved by her children. He couldn't smoke. He needed an STD screening before they had sex. And he should preferably resemble Pierce Brosnan.

'Why kiss so many Mr Wrongs to get to Mr Right?' Mum will say, when we press her about her love life. We try explaining that that is how dating works. She needs to give people a chance. 'I haven't slept with a man in twenty years,' she'll announce proudly. 'I'm in no rush.'

On the flipside, Dad has a very different attitude.

'It's easy to make friends!' he'll say.

'Friends' are what Dad calls the women he's dated since he and Mum divorced. He finds them through mutual friends, or on the internet, or in the classifieds section of the Chinese newspaper. They will send him pictures of themselves standing expressionless before a sculpted hedge, or by a majestic fountain, or in a glamour shot in gaudy clothing beneath harsh studio lights. When we visit Dad, he hands us a stack of printed profiles and asks us to assess and trade them with each other over lunch like baseball cards. Using this love philosophy, Dad attempted to comfort me.

'There are plenty of fish in the sea!' he said.

'I'm not thinking about dating right now, Dad. I just loved someone and it feels strange that we're not together anymore. Do you know what I mean?' Dad stared at me and gave me a half nod. I wanted him to understand. 'Do you think you've ever been in love?' I said, hoping to open up the conversation. He and Mum had been married for nearly twenty years and he was gutted after the split – surely he understood.

Dad popped a piece of apple into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. He paused and then answered, 'No, I don't think so.'

 

JENNY HAD HEARD that Danny was very handsome. He was her brother-in-law's best friend and according to her sister, Danny was tall, sophisticated and charming – everything Jenny envisioned a man should be.

As a child growing up in Malaysia, Jenny loved western pop stars and crooners. The Beatles, Elvis, and the Bee Gees were her favourites because they were romantic, young men who were sensitive and expressed their feelings. They called their girls the prettiest in the world, and Jenny hoped to meet a boy who treated her the same. But it wasn't difficult for Jenny to meet boys. They came to her. From a young age, people were enamored by Jenny's beauty. Photographers approached her on the street and begged her to sign with their agencies. In Hong Kong, classmates lined up at her door, hoping to be the lucky one who walked her to school. Jenny had the pick of the litter, but she had her eye on the perfect man: David.

David was a consultant at the carpet store opposite the boutique where Jenny worked as a sales girl. He was smart, good-looking, had a great sense of humour, and surprised Jenny on her lunch breaks with gifts of candy and perfume. David even gained the trust of Jenny's overprotective father, which meant they were free to date.

After being together a year or so, David brought up the subject of sex, about which Jenny was reluctant. She wanted to wait until they were married and David agreed. So they waited, until some months later when David broke down in tears. He confessed that he had slept with a call girl and now they were seeing each other regularly.

'She seduced me,' said David. 'I was fitting carpet in her apartment for a quote and then she lured me into her shower. I couldn't resist.'

Jenny went home and through tears, relayed what happened to her father. He ordered that Jenny forget about David – he was scum. But no matter how hard she tried, Jenny couldn't stop thinking about him or the call girl. She called David and told him she wanted to meet his new girlfriend to see what made her so desirable.

Later that week, Jenny, David, and the call girl met in a crowded bar in Kowloon. Jenny wore a long, pleated skirt and a batik shirt. The call girl wore thick make-up, a showy blouse, and expensive jewelry. She was surprisingly pretty.

'You're a child,' said the call girl, lighting a cigarette and surveying Jenny. David shifted on his seat nervously. 'He needs a woman.'

Afterwards, Jenny ripped David's photo into pieces and flushed it down the toilet. When David called the following week, saying that he'd been dumped and was begging for Jenny's forgiveness, Jenny's father forbade them from meeting. So Jenny ignored David's messages, which he left daily, and tried to move on.

'Forget about David,' said Josephine, Jenny's eldest sister. 'Danny is a good man. It wouldn't hurt just to meet him.'

Jenny agreed, and Danny was just as wonderful as Josephine had described. He was charming and worldly and came from a good family. He bought Jenny jewellery, and took her to the movies, and introduced her to his mother. In the months they spent together, she forgot about David. So when Danny proposed, Jenny accepted without hesitation. When he asked her to move to Australia with him, leaving her family behind in Hong Kong, she saw it as her duty as his wife. It was a new adventure with the love of her life, and she was willing to follow him anywhere.

But at the wedding, Jenny couldn't ignore the feeling that perhaps she had made a mistake marrying Danny. Danny had chosen the wedding venue and her dress, which she hated, and he had booked a photographer for his side of the family but not hers. It wasn't an accident: he just hadn't bothered.

It got worse when they moved to Australia. Despite speaking English fluently, Jenny felt culture shocked: the food and landscape were alien and the people were uninviting. To Jenny, the Sunshine Coast was a 'ghost town' because it was empty, and because everyone who lived there was white. Jenny and Danny went on fewer dates and spoke to each other less. She spent more and more time at home, and Danny spent all of his time focusing on making their restaurant a success.

When Jenny was pregnant with their first child, she waitressed at the restaurant full time until her water broke. Danny became more distant after the child was born, and Jenny missed her family, who she spoke to sporadically over the phone.

'I'm lonely,' she would tell them. 'I miss everyone.'

'This was your decision,' they'd say. 'You have to follow your husband.'

At her lowest points, Jenny considered taking her own life, but now she had a daughter to live for. And then she had a son, and then another son and two more daughters. It didn't matter that she and Danny were falling apart, because now she had someone else to love and be loved by.

 

DANNY WAS LOOKING for a wife. He was resistant to the idea of marriage, but he was nearing thirty and was an only child, and his mother wanted to see him settled down. He had been engaged once, but his mother broke it off after the matchmaker discovered the girls' parents had died in a car crash. As a superstitious woman, she believed the deaths would bring bad luck. But Danny's family had had its own share of bad luck.

Danny grew up in Guangzhou without his father, who lived in San Francisco. There, his father managed a successful Mandarin Club for expats and wired his earnings back to his wife and son in China. He did this for more than a decade, never once visiting his wife, who was twenty years his junior, or their son.

When Danny turned twelve, he met his father for the first time in Hong Kong, where the family planned to start their new life together. His father had earned enough money in America to secure them a comfortable life.

In their new apartment, Danny watched as a tall, bespectacled man in a suit approached him and rested a hand on his shoulder.

'You're a big boy now,' said his father, smiling.

Moments later, his father fell to the ground, clutching his chest. After a decade of alcohol and cigarettes used to dull his loneliness, he'd become overwhelmed meeting his grown son and had a heart attack. He died on the spot. Danny felt sad about his father's death, and sad for his father, but the man was practically a stranger. Life carried on.

As a child, Danny had been raised to be sensible and pragmatic. His mother had survived World War II and was a hard woman whose main preoccupations were ensuring the house was in order and her son had a bright future. Despite her friends' pleas to remarry, she felt she was an old maid in her mid twenties and didn't want to compromise her son's upbringing. They had each other, and he was such a dutiful boy she didn't need any more children.

'Danny is happy on his own,' she said. 'He's independent.'

Danny was accustomed to solitude. His favorite pastime was climbing trees, picking ripe papayas and snatching bird's eggs from nests and feasting in the treetops. As he ate, he watched the village down below and spat seeds into the air, enjoying the breeze as it cut through the tree branches.

When Danny came of age, he left home and travelled the world by ship. He made his longest stop in America, where he tracked down gangsters who owed his father money and used the money to travel to Australia. In Australia, he discovered he had a knack for drawing, and was offered a scholarship at a visual arts school in Sydney. But there was little money in art, so he declined and returned to Hong Kong, where his mother urged him to meet with his friend's sister-in-law.

'I hear she looks like a movie star,' she said. 'And she comes from a very respectable family.'

Jenny came from Ipoh, where it was believed something in the town's water was responsible for producing gorgeous girls. She was also hardworking and intelligent, and could speak three languages including English, which was a major drawcard for Danny. He was planning to move to Australia after hearing rumours about Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule. Compared to China, Australia was paradise: people were relaxed, it was warm, and there was lots of space. It was the perfect place to raise a family and start a business. He'd heard that Chinese food in Australia was popular; customers found Asian culture exotic.

When Danny and Jenny moved to Caloundra in 1975, their restaurant was a booming success. Word spread about Sunny Village Chinese Restaurant on Bulcock Street and the locals couldn't get enough. Plates piled high with fried rice and sweet and sour pork left the kitchen and returned scraped clean.

Danny devoted his life to the restaurant: cooking, cleaning, and doing the accounts himself. He worked every day, from morning to midnight, when he would escape into the back room amongst tomorrow's stock and play mah jong into the early morning.

As the family grew, Jenny came to Danny with more anxieties. She felt alone, and no longer felt like they were a couple. Where was the romance? Didn't he care for her anymore? Danny didn't understand and found her melodramatic. He was working for the family and simply didn't have time to worry about trivial things.

One day, after a trip to Hong Kong visiting her family, Jenny returned home and told Danny she wanted a divorce. Their fights had become more frequent and intense over the past year, and their interactions with each other were increasingly volatile. The children hid in the master bedroom as Danny and Jenny's fight, their most colossal yet, weaved around the house like an angry beast. At its climax, Danny stood poised before Jenny with his hand raised before lowering it, defeated, and walking away.

During the long, four-year process of their separation, Danny begged Jenny to take him back. He promised he would be a better husband and would try harder. But Jenny said no – even she had given up on the fairy tale.

 

AS A CHILD, I never fantasised about my parents reconciling because the concept was simply inconceivable. I was four years old when they separated, and I couldn't remember them being a happy couple, let alone being together in the same room. The only words I remember Mum saying about Dad were hateful things about child support and him brainwashing us with money, whereas Dad was passive-aggressive and bitter and rarely acknowledged Mum's existence at all. These days, at family events, Mum and Dad happily coexist in the same space but they never speak to each other. They have a history, but much of their tension can also be attributed to how incompatible they are as people.

Despite my parents' breakup, I still believe in fairy tales. However, they are usually the ones that entail people choosing the life that makes them happy. I'm in my early twenties and in a long-term relationship. My eldest sister Candy is in her late thirties and dating. My eldest brother Andrew lives alone and is looking. My brother Ben and his boyfriend have been together for eleven years. And my sister Tammy is getting married this year, despite always being vehemently against the concept. We all lead very different lives, because that makes us happier than pining after a fairytale we've been taught to believe everyone should want: a straight, monogamous relationship that leads to marriage and children. To me, there's nothing wrong with that story, but it doesn't always end with 'happily ever after', and it doesn't remain simple or static, and it isn't always fair to those who are excluded from its narrative. It's also not the only story – there are countless other endings that are up to us to determine.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 42: Once Upon a Time in Oz © Copyright Griffith University & the author.