#43 Rebellious teenager
After Khiêm and I have eaten breakfast, we sit down on the couch together, him slouched down against the cushions, me upright with my legs crossed underneath me. He looks sullen, pretending to focus on his coffee like it’s holding all the secrets of the universe.
“Talk to me,” I say softly, taking his free hand in both of mine. “What’s going on between you and your father?”
“We’re in a fight,” he says, shrugging. “No big deal.”
“Your sisters came over, so it is a big deal,” I counter. “Come on, Khiêm. You know all my stupid shit, my past, my insecurities, every little thing. Let me in.”
He sighs and puts his coffee down, rubbing a hand across his face. “It’s not about you, or about us. I never talk about this. Not even with Marcus and Jagger.”
“I’m not them.”
We stare at each other for a long time, and eventually his eyes start to water. “No, you’re not them,” he breathes, pulling me against him. I all but crawl into his lap, snuggling against him, rubbing his back while he pretends he’s not on the verge of crying. Guess Mingmei was right.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I tell him, kissing him softly. “I know better than anyone how much it sucks when your parents aren’t proud of you. I’m so happy me and Mom are doing better now. Maybe you and your father could repair your relationship was well.”
“My dad is no Asia Davis,” he groans, hiding his face against my shirt. “He’s… proud. He gave up his life in Vietnam to come here, left his family behind, and then he met Mom and moved across the country for her, giving up what little he had managed to build. He always did everything for my mother, and for me and my sisters. All he wants in return is for us to try our best to succeed in life, and while I think I’m doing just that, he thinks my career is worthless.”
At least with me, Mom was disappointed because I didn’t have a career at all. No goals. Nothing real. Once I stopped listening to her telling me a career in fashion is a bad idea, and I went after what I wanted, she accepted me. Khiêm has always known what he wants, and he made it happen. He’s successful at it, earning money based on his personality, his voice, his own hard work. It’s impressive to me, and I hate his father doesn’t see that.
“He does watch your stream,” I remind him.
Khiêm shrugs. “Probably to make sure I don’t embarrass him. Which I did.”
“No…” I realize, frowning. “You talked about your parents in Blue Balls, didn’t you? Your sisters said he doesn’t listen to that, but that can’t be true, because he did hear it. He even listens to what he calls your sex line. That must mean something.”
“Right,” Khiêm realizes, pulling back to look at me. “You’re smart.”
I laugh quietly. “Should I be offended by how surprised you sound?”
He chuckles and kisses me hard. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
“Less kissing, more talking,” I decide, even though I’d love to move this party into the bedroom to pick up where we left off before his siters showed up. “What happened between you and your father? Even when Mom and I were on the outs, it wasn’t like this. I still went home for family dinners, we still talked, and I still picked up the phone when she called. My brothers didn’t stage an intervention for me.”
Khiêm rolls his eyes. “They sort of did, Nia. That night you tried to seduce Jagger and they dragged you to your mom so she could yell at you, and then you showed up here in the morning to apologize to Rose and Gracie. That was an intervention for sure.”
“True…” Still, that felt different. I comb my fingers through Khiêm hair while I think about why that is. Marcus and Dshawn disapproved of what I’d done – and they were damn right about that – but they had my back. Dshawn took off from a busy night at work to drag his little sister back home. Marcus crawled into bed with me and held me even though I didn’t deserve his comfort. They still thought of me as their little sister, the loud girl with the kind heart I was when I was 10. The same goes for me when it’s about them. Marcus may be being a dickhead right now, but he’s still my big brother. I love him. I’d drop everything if he needed me, no questions asked. He’s my older brother, the one I’ve always looked up to more than any of my other siblings.
They don’t look up to Khiêm, I realize with a start. He’s the oldest boy in a family full of women, and I just know he must have been their big protector while they were little girls. Yet they don’t act like he’s their big brother. I know I told Marcus to dump Bee, but that was after eleven years of watching him get hurt. I tried with that girl, I truly did. I respect Marcus and try to be there for him when he needs me, because he’s always been there for me since the day I was born. Phuong, Ngoc and Mingmei don’t treat Khiêm like he’s a full-fledged adult and their older brother. Not at all.
“Why do you feel your father’s disapproval impacted your relationship with your sisters?” I ask softly, not liking this sad expression on his face one bit.
“When I was 16, our neighbor came over to ask me if I could help him pass a level on this game he was playing,” Khiêm says going into story mode. “He was this 40-something unemployed guy living off his parents, and he did nothing but play videogames all day long. In our house, he was like… what you don’t want to be when you grow up. A cautionary tale. The guy saw my YouTube channel about that particular game, which I started a few weeks earlier, keeping it hidden from my family. I filmed most of it at school.”
“You were one of those tech-savvy nerds in high school, weren’t you?” I tease, poking him.
He laughs, ant I’m glad to see his tears have dried. “Of course I was. I think we even met back then, you and I… Me, Marcus, Jagger and some other guys mostly hung out at the house of this other kid who had the whole shed behind his parents’ house to himself, but I’ve been over to Marcus’ house during a few weekends, hanging out in the yard. I was 16, so you must have been…”
“12,” I finish, grimacing. “It was my pink hotpants phase with matching princess slippers, I think.”
“I honestly didn’t even recognize you as Marcus’ sister that first night we danced in the club,” Khiêm admits, smiling to himself. “I asked Jagger if you were with Marcus.”
“Ew!” I shudder. “God, that’s gross.”
“First, I thought you were with Marcus, then you turned out to be his sister, but you were throwing yourself at Jagger, and now here we are…”
“I’m all yours, baby,” I whisper, kissing him tenderly. “I love you so much.”
He grunts and pulls me tighter against him. “Love you too, sunshine.”
“Okay, back to story time.” I detach myself a bit from my boyfriend so I can urge him to keep going. “Your neighbor showed up to ask you for help with a game because he watched your YouTube channel.”
Khiêm nods. “Yeah… so, that’s how Dad found out. He was really strict back then. None of us were allowed to go to parties, or be out of the house after darkness fell, and we certainly weren’t allowed to spend time on the internet unsupervised.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Unsupervised?”
Khiêm nods. “Only working on your laptop in the living room, use it strictly for school work, put your phone in the bowl in the hallway when you come in, they had all our passwords, put child spy apps on our phones, that kind of stuff. At night, we’d all read in the living room, and my parents usually picked our books. Fantasy series were frowned upon. We only watched the news on TV and the occasional documentary. Creativity isn’t something my parents value very much.”
“But… but you’re like…” This can’t be right. “You make your living on the internet. You’re always on at least one device, often three at once!”
“A friend of my mother’s made a sex tape that leaked. Ruined her life. With three daughters, I think my parents just didn’t want to risk anything.” He shrugs. “I don’t know. My parents aren’t big talkers. I know hardly anything about Dad’s life in Vietnam or what it was like for Mom to grow up with parents who barely even spoke English, only Chinese.”
I can’t imagine that. I know more about Mom and Dad than I feel comfortable with, actually. Mom is very vocal about her wild teenage years, getting pregnant at 16, fighting her attracted to Dad because he was younger than her and she had a kid to take care of, and how both of them always wished they’d be smarter, richer, able to give us more than they did. Mom has her faults, and so does Dad, but they’re good people, and I feel like I truly know them, especially with Mom opening up to me more about why she’s the type of mother she is.
“You said that you weren’t allowed to read fantasy books, but Mingmei wears a Harry Potter necklace,” I realize.
He smiles, and he looks so young and happy all of a sudden. “I got that for her. I snuck in books and movies for her, because she loved wizards and that kind of stuff. I used to read books to her at night, under the blankets with a flashlight. She used to have nightmares, so my parents were okay with her sneaking into my room at night, and we took full advantage of that. The day I got my first proper paycheck from audio narrating, I bought her that necklace. It’s white gold, because she’s allergic some component in cheap jewelry. She hasn’t taken it off since. My parents have no idea it’s a fantasy series thing. I’m pretty sure they think Hogwarts is a real university.”
We both laugh at that. “Tell me more about your childhood,” I press, wanting to understand all of him. Know all of him.
“We weren’t allowed to have soda, play contact sports, or wear make-up.”
“I bet that last one was really hard on you,” I tease, but inside, I’m reeling. That sounds like such a different childhood from mine. So unlike the Khiêm I know and love. “What happened when they found out you were secretly vlogging about videogames?”
“Dad yelled at me, Mom cried, and then… I started rebelling,” he goes on, his expression far-away. “I brought soda into the house, bought make-up for Ngoc, started streaming and vlogging from my bedroom, stayed out after dark to play videogames over at a friend’s house… everything they didn’t want me to do. My sisters didn’t dare act out like I did, and my parents kept telling them not to be like me. That’s when my relationship changed with them.”
“They wear make-up now,” I say, thinking back of Ngoc’s tight outfit and lipstick-red lips. “And Mingmei made her way through most of the sodas we had in the house.”
He laughs. “Yeah, my parents eased up eventually. I think my rebellion had something to do with that. It’s tiring to keep fighting, and my counselor at high school tried to tell them that I was a good, smart kid with a bright future, so…” He shrugs. “Mom and Dad agreed to ease up on me if I promised to go to college. I wasn’t planning on going, to be honest, but I did, for them.”
“They hoped you’d get a normal job once you got a proper education,” I realize. “And then you didn’t.”
“Exactly.” He sighs and squeezes me tightly. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell my family about you, by the way. It’s just that my exes never supported my career, and my family always convinced the girls I took home to help them in their quest to make me ditch streaming and all the other things I do, settle for an office job instead.”
“That’s not me,” I assure him.
“Yeah, I know,” he agrees with a fond smile. “You accept me for who I am, weird job and flaws and all.”
“Isn’t that how love is supposed to be?”
Khiêm tears up again. “It is,” he whispers, looking into my eyes. “It truly is.” He kisses me so tenderly that I melt into him, moaning when his hands knot into my mess of a hairdo.
“I want you to meet them,” Khiêm decides. “It will probably be a shitshow, but they’re your future in-laws, so we might as well get this show on the road.”
I flush at that, my heartbeat speeding up. “They are?”
He laughs quietly. “I’m not proposing or anything, Nia. I’m just saying… you and me, we’re good together. I could see that kind of future with you. If we’re still this good in a year or so, I’d be stupid not to put a ring on it, right?”
Oh God, now I’m the one crying. “We need to tell Marcus soon,” I realize, wiping at my eyes. It feels wrong to talk about getting married one day when my own brother doesn’t even know we’re together.
“We will,” Khiêm agrees. “Definitely. I want that too. First, let’s get through you meeting my family. If you still want me after that, we’ll face Marcus together.”
“I’ll always want you,” I reply automatically, kissing him again. This guy makes me all sweet and sappy in a way I’ve never been in my 22 years on this earth. I quite like this Nia. I feel more like myself ever since I’ve met him, like it took him seeing me for who I am for me to become that person.