Deep Conditioning with Wilson Phillips

By

I am thrilled to introduce this partnership between The Rumpus and VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts, the only multi-genre summer workshop for writers of color in the US. Founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones in 1999, VONA/Voices is committed—like The Rumpus—to creating spaces where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how. And like The Rumpus, we nurture writing that’s challenging, brave, passionate, and true (and yes, sometimes very funny).  

In our seventeen years, VONA/Voices has helped integrate the literary landscape by mentoring 2,000 writers from around the globe, birthing more than 200 books, and launching the careers of countless writers, some of whom, like Olivia Olivia and Soo Na Pak, were published for the first time at The Rumpus. Their commitment to creating outlets for diverse voices is critical to our work. In March, The Rumpus published an important Roundtable on Writing, Editing, and Race, whose members spoke about the role VONA/Voices played in their careers. We are eternally grateful and extend special thanks to Mary-Kim Arnold, Marisa Siegel, and everyone involved in this joint venture.  

–Faith Adiele

***

I was six years old when my father told me he was going to die. I’d just taken his blood pressure. While I squished and pumped the black rubber ball with my little fist and watched the nylon cuff wrapped around his arm inflate, my father held the gauge close to his face. Just as I was taught, I listened intently for the muffled beating of his heart through the stethoscope and called out, “Start.” When the low pulse disappeared, I said, “Stop.” He twisted the release valve and the cuff hissed.

“It’s very high,” he said. I didn’t quite understand what that meant at the time, just that it was bad. “We’ll wait till your mother comes home and decide what to do.” His face was pale and he spoke as if he was out of air. He said he was too weak to stand up. He sat in a fetal position on the living room floor of our split-level house, while I knelt beside him and cried.

“Tommy, you know I might not be around much longer,” he said. “I’m sad I’m not going to see you grow up into a man.” My dad’s stubby fingers caressed my bird-boned shoulders while I smashed my sweaty face into the gold shag carpet, inhaling the musty smell in between sobs. He gave me advice I wouldn’t understand for at least another decade.

“Don’t become a professor,” he said. “I’d rather you become a garbage man. They get paid more and have better benefits.”

pyun 1If there were more wisdom to be bestowed, I’d never find out. While he lectured me on how he’d wasted his life, my mother barged through the front door.

“Oh my God, it smells like gas!”

She dropped her brown paper shopping bags on the vinyl foyer floor and jetted around the house opening windows. While the frigid February air cleared the fumes, she noticed us huddled in the middle of the floor and shook her head. “What’s wrong with you? How can you both not smell that?”

One of the gas burners on the stove had been left on and neither my dad nor me had a particularly keen olfactory system.

My dad didn’t die that night or the night after. He died five years later of a stroke at the age of fifty-seven. At his memorial service, my mom spoke to herself as if arguing with God, “If he had only gotten tenure, this never would’ve happened.”

*

On my first day of 5th grade at a new school, my mother warned, “If anyone asks where your father works, you know what to say?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I know. He’s a part-time professor of philosophy at C.W. Post and Columbia,” I said in a sarcastic monotone while I rolled my head on top of my neck in a circular motion like a bored poltergeist.

All of this was somewhat true. My father was a philosophy professor. He’d earned his PhD from Columbia where he was a teaching assistant back in the late 1950s. He’d worked at C.W. Post, a private, junior college, but hadn’t taught there since before I was born. In truth, my father was a professor of liberal arts at the Unification Theological Seminary (UTS), a school founded by the Reverend Sung Myung Moon. A self-proclaimed Messiah, Reverend Moon founded the Unification Church—a cult based on “select” Christian principles. Followers of the Reverend are pejoratively known as “Moonies,” and still number in the thousands across the globe. The school advertised that it had a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Buddhist priest, and multiple Protestant ministers on faculty. As much as it sounded like a bad joke that opened with all of them entering a bar, it appeared to be the Reverend’s earnest attempt to legitimize the religion with the American public.

Although my father taught the “Moonies,” neither he nor the rest of the family followed the faith. In fact, we never talked about my dad’s job or his boss. Once, when my mom and I were watching the evening news, the anchor announced, “Earlier this evening, over 2,000 couples were married by Reverend Sung Myung Moon in a mass wedding at Madison Square Garden…”

My mother leaped up from the floor and shut the TV off in the middle of the anchorman’s sentence. I only got a glimpse of the image of thousands of couples dressed in identical tuxedos and wedding dresses bowing in unison to the Reverend, but it remained etched in my mind.

My dad took the job after he didn’t get tenure from his previous one. To gain tenure, one had to create and follow a syllabus, give grades on time, and publish original scholarly works. He preferred unstructured discussion, self-grading, and had been working on the same book for almost a decade. Soon after he was let go, my mother claims there were other job offers in far away places such as Oklahoma and the more rural parts of South Korea, but he’d turned them all down. He’d had an image of himself—someone destined for greatness—or at least moderate prestige. He was almost forty years old at time and I have a hunch it was his first failure in life.

To my mother’s chagrin, my dad sat on the couch, demoralized and depressed. Six years later, he got a job offer from UTS. It was like a benediction. The Reverend had personally recruited him and according to family folklore, he came to our simple suburban home in a black limo after my dad accepted the position. The Reverend and his wife ate off of the gold-plated Limoges china that my mother had bought at a garage sale. To this day, my mother claims it was the last and only time she’d ever used the set. It appeared my mom had a complicated relationship with the Reverend. She was ashamed by our family’s affiliation with him, but was also in awe of his wealth and power. Though she denies it, she probably felt indebted to the Reverend for providing her chronically unemployed husband with a steady paycheck.

For my father, the job was a significant step down. It was a non-tenure track position—aka shitty pay and benefits—and it wasn’t even an accredited school. The job represented the last rung on a downwardly mobile ladder for him. Less than two decades earlier, his father had served as UN Ambassador and later Prime Minister of a newly formed South Korea. Like the elite of many poor countries, he’d sent his son to America for college in hopes that he would return home to serve in a leadership position in government or academia. Instead, my dad stayed in the US and ended up as an instructor at a seminary run by a notorious cult leader.

My father endured a three-and-a-half-hour commute to work: a thirty-minute drive to the Long Island Railroad station and a one hour train ride to Manhattan, where he caught a two-hour bus ride to Barrytown, NY each week. He stayed two nights in the faculty dormitory and then returned home. After his workweek, he entered the house in one of three distinct moods.

When he was in a good mood, which was seldom, he’d greet me with a smile and a pat on top of my bowl-cut hair. “I have a treat for you,” he’d announce while opening his black leather briefcase so weather beaten that the handles were almost white, smelling of tobacco, leather, and juicy fruit gum. Although I’d hoped for a toy or a Snickers bar, I would hide my disappointment when the treat was a mushy, overripe mango or stale Danish. I’d thank him and gobble up whatever it was in front of me. If he were in an especially good mood, he would tell me about the manuscript he was working on and describe it as the “greatest book ever written in the English language.”

If my mother arrived late at the train station to pick him up, even by a few minutes, he’d be enraged. The deep worry lines in his forehead would become more pronounced, his villainish eyebrows would further arch into an upside down V-shape, and his round face would turn a reddish-purple. He’d knock over or break a chair or small table on the way to his study—our garage was a cluttered cemetery for splintered furniture—to change into his usual uniform of cut-off denim shorts and a ribbed tank top that accentuated his Buddha belly. Throughout, his voice would continue booming in Korean—none of which my sisters and me understood—until he returned to his room and slammed the door.

But most days, he’d beeline straight to his study after work, stone-faced and silent. For days and sometimes weeks, he would sequester himself in his room chain-smoking Kent cigarettes, sheets of smoke billowing out of the bottom of the door. In order to prevent trips to the bathroom, he would urinate into a plastic gallon milk-container and emerge in the middle of the night to dump the jug full of dark yellow fluid in the toilet or scurry to the kitchen for leftovers. Behind the closed door, I imagined he spent his days furiously finishing the “greatest book ever written in the English language.”

One of my happiest memories with my dad was the one time I accompanied him to work. I was only four so I don’t remember a lot, but I do recall that everyone at the Seminary was nice. Really nice. Like maybe too nice. His students smiled so big that it seemed to hurt their faces. They were so attentive toward me and generous with hugs that the lack of personal space forced me to cling to my father’s tweed-jacketed arm for protection. A woman with Joni Mitchell hair gave me a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal, which I slept with until the bright yellow felt faded into a grayish-mustard hue. While he taught classes, I sat in the back of the classroom and colored. During one class, he called out my name and asked a question with big words I couldn’t understand. I shrugged my shoulders and chirped, “I don’t know.”

The class erupted in laughter and I planted my face and hands into the top of the desk to hide from their cooing. Afterward, my father and I ate white toast with orange marmalade in the gothic dining hall. Students milled around our table—doting on me and venerating my dad—quite the contrast from home where his wife treated him with disdain for neglecting his household duties and his four children avoided him, tiptoeing around him and his moods. Rather than remain hidden in his office, my father interacted with these students—his cement-gray, dour face opened into sunshine, his head nodded in agreement, and his wit tossed quips that led to more painfully wide smiles and hearty laughs from them. It was a lesson in the need to cultivate multiple selves. At home, you could be a reclusive and moody bastard, but when in the outside world, you could transform into a charming, intellectual prince holding court.

*

One week, my dad was home from work a day earlier than expected. He and my mom argued in the kitchen.

“Why were you eating a hot dog?” my mother said. “You know you can’t eat that because of your blood pressure.”

“Who cares about the hot dog? I’ve lost everything!”

While he’d waited for his bus at Port Authority, my dad stopped at a hot dog stand and set his briefcase on the ground. As he paid the vendor, a young man snatched his briefcase and ran away with it. I visualized my dad dressed in his tweed jacket and orthopedic black sneakers futilely chasing the nimble man down Eighth Avenue, his short, fifty-seven year old legs failing him with every step. “Stop that man!” I imagined him yelling. “He has my briefcase!” Pedestrians turned their heads to observe the young man fly down the sidewalk, weaving through groups of people seamlessly as if floating, while my father huffed and puffed from a growing distance behind.

“It was almost finished.”

He’d hoped to avoid paying two cents a page at the local library and had carried the manuscript to work that day so he could copy it for free in the department office. When my mom suggested he start over again using his notes, he shook his head.

“I’ve already spent more than ten years on it.”

pyun 2Two weeks later he passed in his sleep. A clot in a blood vessel had blocked blood flow to his brain. I was thirteen. After they took his body away, my mom was in shock. Surrounded by my aunties, she leaned against his office door to hold herself steady. Her cheeks were puffy and drenched and her thick, horse-haired bob obscured her face. She bellowed something in Korean I didn’t understand, while she vigorously shook a full prescription bottle in her hand. I didn’t need to be fluent to know that he’d stopped taking his medication.

During the funeral service, I felt the urge to run, to escape the mourning and sorrow. The farthest I could get was the men’s bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror and was taken aback by my red eyes and the teardrop of snot leaking out of my right nostril. After I blew my nose, I examined my braces for stray bits of food stuck in between green neon rubber bands. To pass time, I played with my long black bangs that crept passed my nostrils. I used my fingers to brush them out of my eyes and observed how they cascaded back into my face. The night before, overwhelmed by my feelings, I’d locked myself in the bathroom. In order to sooth myself, I drizzled a Vo5 Hot Oil treatment onto my scalp while blasting “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips on a CD Walkman. While family and friends grieved downstairs, I massaged ammonia-scented suds into my hair and sang along with the melody. My voice cracked during the soaring chorus, the beginnings of puberty peeking through. In the men’s restroom in the funeral home, I felt the urge to start singing again. Instead I lip-synched, “If you hoooold on for one more day-uh-yeah, things will go your waaay… oh things’ll go your way. Hold on for one more day-uh-yay!”

I stared at the androgynous, pubescent face in the mirror and searched for recent physical changes—a whisker, a millimeter of chin bone growth, a wrinkle—but found no signs of manhood. All I saw was my dad.

*

When I turned thirty-five, I saw a new therapist named Rafael.

At our first appointment, he asked why I was interested in changing therapists.

“To sort out all my daddy issues.”

Although this was true, I had more pressing concerns, namely a persistent fear that I would die the same age my father did and therefore had less than twenty years left to live. Rafael probed me about my fear of dying young and I told him about the gas leak years earlier and my father’s prediction of his death.

“Did you ever think he was trying to kill you both?”

I shouted at Rafael. My shrill voice drowned the sound of the ocean waves that whirred from the noise machines outside his office door.

“He was a crappy father, but he wasn’t a monster,” I said. “He was depressed, not a sicko or a murderer!”

Upon Rafael’s urging, I took a deep breath and explained what had happened after my mom arrived to open windows to clear the gas leak. The morning after she’d found us, my dad’s blood pressure had been dangerously high and his arm was numb. She’d brought him to the ER where they’d discovered he’d suffered a series of mini-strokes that explained his delirium and his talk of pending death.

pyun 3Although I believed the gas leak was an accident, it forced me to question my relationship with my father and his life story. I felt compelled to stitch together a new narrative for him, to examine and redefine his role in my early life. I wanted to be the good son—the type of son who immortalized the legacy of his father and showed the world his greatest accomplishments. So I did research. I ordered all the remaining copies I could find of his only published book, Nature, Intelligibility, and Metaphysics: Studies in the Philosophy of F.J.E. Woodbridge. I couldn’t understand the first paragraph on the first page. After I gave that up, I googled the Unification Theological Seminary website. In one website photo, graduates—an array of students of different races and ages—posed in cap and gown on the lush campus lawn. A press release broadcasted that a Washington Times columnist would serve as the year’s commencement speaker. If you ignored the occasional photo of a mass wedding, the website made it look like any other school—just another place where my dad worked.

Two days into my web research, I remembered an old UTS newsletter that one of my sisters had uncovered a few years earlier that featured my dad’s obituary. I printed it out and fingered the edges of the page.

Dr. Pyun was a good man and much liked by his students and colleagues. His teaching associates attest to the fact that he was charming, witty and brilliant. Although he was a professor of Oriental philosophy, he was also thoroughly grounded in all areas, problems and schools of philosophy…

All these years, I’d thought his job was a source of shame, something we were forbidden to discuss with anyone outside the family. Yet this short blurb revealed that it might have been his greatest accomplishment during his too-brief, unrealized life.

I read on.

…he was always willing to spend extra time with his students, and they found him fascinating and enriching to be with. He shared his wisdom with nearly a generation of young people.

He shared his time and wisdom with hundreds of Moonies. He left me, his only son, one piece of advice.

***

Rumpus original art by Max Winter.


Tom Pyun is a 2015 VONA/Voices Travel Writing fellow. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Reed Magazine and Blue Mesa Review. His most recent essay, "Mothers Always Know," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2015. He's currently working on his first novel about international gay surrogacy/adoption. More from this author →