ISSUE #28: Esmé Wang, Justin Wood, Cassowaries

Posted: Monday, April 25, 2011 | | Labels:

Drawing by Justin Wood

by Esmé Wang

Our father, David, was in the psychiatric institution known as Wellbrook from 1964 to 1965. Because I’d never seen Yale — my father’s college, though from what little I know he never graduated — I knit the two together in my imagination. Whether this means that I considered Yale a terrifying place or believed Wellbrook to be a place of refinement, I’m not quite sure, though the answer probably lies somewhere in between. Wellbrook had a brick facade, crawling with patches of dried-up, psoriatic ivy; wooden white front doors; and finally, over the entrance, an enormous half-moon of a stained glass window that read HYGIENE OF THE MIND in black across an autumnal mosaic. This is where the bristly doctors attempted to scrub my dear Daddy’s psyche clean, and this is where he lived for seven months, upstairs, off of one hallway-spoke from the nurses’ fishbowl station. Every room had a sad little bed screwed to the floor, green-gray walls, and a wardrobe, which is where my sister Gillian hid the first time we heard the far-off sound of shrieking. Back then, I put on a brave face while Ma coaxed her out.

Issue #28 soundtrack: Cassowaries "Mère Adorée"

The fact that he was there, and the fact that David’s mother had organized the whole thing in some sort of intervention, drove Ma crazy. “Those damn doctors,” she’d say in Mandarin, “don’t know a thing about your Daddy.” (Gillian and I converse almost exclusively in Mandarin or Taiwanese with Ma, especially in public, but we are primarily English-speakers when together.) But Gillian and I knew much of the devilry that David had pulled in his throes -- the incident with the orange, for example -- and didn’t understand how she seemed so capable of ignoring them, let alone appealing to have him released. The doctors said that David Nowak was there voluntarily, a manic-depressive with psychotic tendencies, and that his mother, Mrs. Peter Nowak, was paying for his treatment. He was sick, and didn’t everyone want the best for him? Of course they did. Of course we did, if we were sensible. There was nothing Ma could do but smoke her skinny cigarettes with a moony face and pace around the house and cook more food than we could possibly eat, all in an effort to distract herself from the fact that David had, more than once, wandered in the woods in his underwear all night, and once returned claiming to have seen Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior cooking hot dogs by His very own holy fire pit.

There was one particular Friday visit, for which Gillian had prepared a self-choreographed song-and-dance routine, and she was so excited. Ma did her hair in French braids -- Gillian, for as long as she’s been old enough, has had her long blond hair in all manner of configurations -- and that day her twin tails were tied with red ribbons, secured by elastics beneath awkward bows. She wore a red-and-white dress with a collar and cuffs, and the skirt of her dress flared out like a bloody swan’s tail as she twirled (a little too manically, I thought) to the Buick.

I wore a button-down shirt and trousers, though I had a morbid and aesthetic distaste for buttons. Ma said that David liked to see me in a button-down shirt -- he’d left a life of East Coast privilege, but signifiers of that privilege lingered -- in his lucid spells, my father even wanted me to wear collar stays. So I dressed ten times my age to go see my father, who probably didn't give a whit about what I was wearing. I could've doffed a top hat or donned a trash bag for all he cared, but I still ironed my own damn shirts, and I got every last wrinkle out. I also tied my own ties. So we were a sartorially excellent threesome standing in a row in front of the first-floor nurse’s counter: two handmade dresses and a small, neatly knotted tie.

“David Nowak,” Ma said, and took out her purse, preparing to show her driver’s license. Beside me, Gillian hopped on one leg. But before Ma could say or do anything more, the bespectacled woman wearing a name tag that read “Rita” told Ma, apologetically, that David Nowak would be having no visitors that day.

It was rare that I saw Ma encounter conflict with a stranger. Strangers were dangerous, she’d always said; they didn’t understand us, and so I nervously watched as she drew herself up before this Rita character like some puffed-up, Oriental bird.

“No visitors?” she asked.

“That’s right."

“But I am his wife. I brought our children to see him."

To her credit, Rita appeared nonplussed by the little blond girl and the black-haired boy before her. She sighed, touched her finger to something behind the counter, and said, “I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”


“It’s not a good day for a visit, I’m afraid. I’m sorry, but I don’t feel… comfortable discussing such matters, under these circumstances.” Rita looked down at Gillian and me. “You understand, ma’am.” Then she crooked her finger towards herself and cupped her hand to the side of her mouth; and Ma leaned in, reluctantly, to listen.

The day that Rita turned us away from Wellbrook was the day Ma assembled us in the master bedroom. She’d been tense the whole drive home, chain-smoking and periodically rolling down the window to throw her cigarette butts out before rolling them back up again, clouding the Buick interior with suffocating smoke, and neither Gillian nor I said a word or coughed for fear of setting her off. At home, in that sparse room of theirs, she told us that Daddy was very sick, and that Daddy would want her to tell us that she and Daddy had plans for us, big plans. She told us that Gillian was my tong yang xi. What does that mean, Gillian asked. It has to do with the adopted daughter and the biological son, Ma said, and she propped her cigarette up on her bedside ashtray. It has to do with the fact that you will be happy together, so happy together, for the rest of your lives. She said this with great enthusiasm, grabbing both of our hands with hers, the way that she did when she praised us for memorizing a difficult piece. In Taiwan this would mean that Gillian and I would be married, but we were in America now and therefore would not be married, though we would be in a very special relationship when the time came. You love one another now as brother and sister, she said, so think of this as an even more special love, a love that will bind the two of you together forever, the kind of love that Ma and Daddy have. (I did not know what this meant, nor did I ask. I assumed it had something to do with the way they touched and kissed one another, which was simultaneously fascinating and disgusting.) We were not to mention this to Daddy. We could not comprehend the complexities of why just yet, because we were children. Daddy might have to stay in Wellbrook for a very long time. How long, Gillian wanted to know. Ma shrugged. Will it be much longer, Gillian asked. I don’t know, Ma said, but I can’t get him out. She picked up the burning cigarette and ashed it in a coffee mug with a big orange flower printed on the side. The coffee mug was half-full of cold coffee and a bluebottle fly, floating.

"The Arrangement" is an excerpt from an Immigrant Gothic work-in-progress by Esmé Wang. This work-in-progress has been awarded a number of prizes, including an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, as well as a Hopwood Award for Novel-in-Progress. Wang is a 2010 graduate from the MFA Fiction program at the University of Michigan. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she maintains a blog at about writing, compassion and care, and living well with mental illness.

Justin Wood lives in New York City, and graduated from the city's School of Visual Arts. He has shown work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Blank Space Gallery, Lana Santorelli Gallery, the New Art Center, Orchard Windows Gallery, and the Lex Leonard Gallery. His recent "Hyper-Presence" work experiments with interactivity between video, paintings, and live objects. View his online portfolio at

Cassowaries is the bedroom pop project of Ryan Carter, currently based in Portland, OR. More often than not, the songs are about plants, weather, childhood, unexplained phenomenon, the dark arts, or any combination of the aforementioned. For more, visit label site I Know Alot About Magic or Cassowaries on Bandcamp or Facebook.