Benson is Black, a native of the Houston melting pot that Bryan Washington calls home. Mike is Japanese; his father lives in Osaka, one of the author's favorite destinations that he considers a home-away-from-home. In Memorial, they bring the power and the pain of their experiences to a star-crossed relationship we can’t help but root for. Here, an excerpt from the book we need right now.
My parents pretend I'm not gay. It’s easier for them than it sounds. My father lives in Katy, just west of Houston, and my mother stayed in Bellaire, even after she remarried. Before that, we took most of our family dinners downtown. My father was a meteorologist. It was a status thing. He’d pick up my sister and my mother and me from the house, ferrying us along I-45 just to eat with his coworkers, and he always ordered our table the largest dish on the menu — basted pigs spilling from platters, pounds of steamed crab sizzling over bok choy — and he called this Work, because he was always Working. A question he used to ask us was, How many niggas do you see out here telling the weather?
My mother never debated him or cussed him out or anything like that. She’d repeat exactly what he said. Inflect his voice. That was her thing. She’d make him sound important, like some kind of boss, but my father’s a little man, and her tactics did exactly what you’d think they might do.
Big job today, she’d say, in the car, stuck on the 10.
This forecast’s impressive, she’d say, moments after my father shattered a wine glass on the kitchen wall.
I swear it’s the last one, she’d say, looking him dead in the eyes, as he floundered, drunk, grabbing at her knees, swearing that he’d never touch another single beer.
Eventually, she left. Lydia went with our mother, switching high schools. I stayed in the suburbs, at my old junior high, and my father kept drinking. He lived off his savings once he got fired from the station for being wasted on-air. Sometimes, he'd sub high school science classes, but he mostly stayed on the sofa, booing at the hourly prognoses from KHOU.
Occasionally, in blips of sobriety, I’d come home to him grading papers. Some kid had called precipitation anticipation. Another kid, instead of defining cumulus clouds, drew little fluffs all over the page. One time my father laid three tests on an already too-cluttered end table, all with identical handwriting, with only the names changed.
He waved them at me, asked why everything had to be so f---ing hard.
A few months in, Mike said we could be whatever we wanted to be. Whatever that looked like.
I’m so easy, he said.
I’m not, I told him.
You will be, he said. Just give me a little time.
It’s past midnight when we pull onto our block. Most of the lights are out. Some kids are huddled by the curb, smoking pot, f---ing around with firecrackers.
When a pop explodes behind us, the kids take off. That’s their latest thing. Mike’s mother doesn’t even flinch.
Ma, says Mike, this is home. We live in the Third Ward, a historically Black part of Houston. Our apartment’s entirely too large.
It doesn’t make any sense. At one point, the neighborhood had money, but then crack happened and the money took off, and occasionally you’ll hear gunshots or fistfights or motherf---ers driving way too fast. But the block has recently been invaded by fraternities from the college up the block. And a scattering of professor types. With pockets of rich kids playing at poverty. The Black folks who’ve lived here for decades let them do it, happy for the scientific fact that white kids keep the cops away.
Our immediate neighbors are Venezuelan. They’ve got like nine kids. Our other neighbors are these Black grandparents who’ve lived on the property forever. Every few weeks, Mike cooks for both families, sopa de pescado and yams and macaroni and rice. He’s never made a big deal about it; he just wakes up and does it, and after the first few times I asked Mike if that wasn’t patronizing.
But, after a little while, I noticed people let him linger on their porches. He’d poke at their kids, leaning all over the wood. Sometimes the Black folks invited him inside, showed him pictures of their daughter’s daughters.
Mike’s lived here for years. I left my father’s place for his. On my first night in the apartment, I couldn’t fall asleep for the noise, and Mike said I’d get used to it, but honestly I didn’t want to.
Now Mike’s mother drops her shoes by our door. She runs her hand along the wall. She taps at the counter, toeing the wood. When she steps into the foyer, Mike grins my way, the first smile in what feels like months, and that’s when we hear it: slow at first, after some hiccups, before Mike’s mother begins to cry.
A few years after they split, my parents took me to lunch together in Montrose. We hadn’t all sat at the same table in years. Lydia had mostly cut them off; she’d moved out, and moved on, and she’d told me to do the same, but what I did instead was order a Reuben.
The week before, my father had walked in on some guy jerking me off. It wasn’t anyone who matters. We’d met on some f---ing app. My father opened the door, coughed, and actually said, I’m sorry, as he backed out of the room. The boy beside me made a face like, Should we finish or what.
That night, after he left, I waited for my father to bring it up. But he just sat on the sofa and drank his way through two six-packs. The incident dissolved in the air. Before he drove off, the guy had asked to see me again, and I told him I didn't think so, because we probably weren't actually going anywhere. I still hadn't learned that there is a finite number of people who will ever be interested in you.
When our waiter, a skinny brown guy, asked if we needed anything else, I spoke a little too quickly. He smiled. Then my mother smiled.
You know you can talk to us, she said.
Both of us, she added.
My mother smelled like chocolate. My father wore his nice shirt.
You’d have been hard-pressed to think that this was a man who'd thrown his wife against a wall. Or that this lady, immediately afterward, stuck a fork into his elbow.
Awesome, I said. Thank you.
About anything, said my mother, touching my hand.
When I flinched, she took hers back. My father didn’t say s---.
FROM MEMORIAL BY BRYAN WASHINGTON, TO BE PUBLISHED ON OCT. 27, 2020, BY RIVERHEAD BOOKS, AN IMPRINT OF PENGUIN PUBLISHING GROUP, A DIVISION OF PENGUIN RANDOMHOUSE, LLC. COPYRIGHT (C) 2020 BY BRYAN WASHINGTON.
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