In Memoriam: Carcinogens and the Common Isopod

Two AI-generated images of East Asian men smoking cigarettes, done in a neo-Impressionist style.

[The above images were generated via DALL-E 2 using the prompt: ‘a tall, sinister-looking east asian man smoking a cigarette’, with the instructions: ‘neo-impressionism expressionist style oil painting, smooth post-impressionist’.]

I must have been younger than ten. These were the days of unanswered questions and rooms that dwindled in size and quantity the more we were tossed about the Greater Los Angeles Area. My father had lost his job, again, and I’d forgotten what he was doing for money when the man with the cigarette arrived on our door.

Was I home alone with my father, or were my mother and other siblings with us? It shouldn’t be difficult to remember, for we were always together, separated only by school or the occasional extracurricular activity, but for whatever reason, I see just my father and me in our cramped second-level apartment. It was summer, perhaps, as the air conditioner was on, although inconstant, and I can feel the sweaty doze of day when sunlight fans downward and blanches one’s musings, with nothing to do but await my older self’s dubious remembrance.

Memory, oftentimes, is prejudiced, barring the presence of certain figures or events in order to better isolate a particular occurrence and thereby grant it the seemingly privileged notion of realness. Perhaps the mind deems the chosen moment supernormal in its formative power, not only favoring its endurance but allowing over it an accrual of detail that may or may not have been actual. Contrary to confusing one’s recollection, these added layers provide to the moment shades of complexity—narrative complexity—that more swiftly ally themselves with blunt ratiocinations. It seems more true; therefore it must be true.

In any case, I can’t fully confirm the fidelity of these details to the actual past, or say how many of them were flourishes after-the-fact, the sort of tinctures a painter applies to a canvas’s inchoate shapes. I can only begin to say that the day had passed noon and the doorbell rang and I opened the door to see a tall man in a suit wreathed in bitter fumes; a stranger whose smile seemed too gratifying to be totally kind.

“Hey, little man,” he said. He was (and this was, immediately, almost tenderly, the most relevant impression) Asian, East Asian, maybe, from the lands that rushed to subjugate our ancestral isles whenever Europe and America were busying themselves elsewhere. “Is your dad home?”

Probably blushing, I stammered something stupid, and in the midst of doing so caught the tiny blaze between his fingers. This was the source of the acrid smell I was only vaguely familiar with. However, the sight of the cigarette, lightly balanced with adult sophistication, ushered in all those dire educational videos they showed in class that involved blackened lungs and old women who spoke like robots through mechanisms jammed in their necks. His eyes, bespectacled and larger than I thought any Asian man’s could be, seemed to burn with self-destruction. But I couldn’t help but also feel an admiration for him, for the way he seemed to step out of a life, a self-possessed way of being, beyond wise and unwise, whose manifestation I hadn’t thought possible.

I felt my father’s presence beside me. Here was the sudden rock, the retired pastor, I could cling to when waves of unfamiliarity surged. I backed up, eyes still fixed on the white stick of death, and, holding onto the paternal shirt-sleeve, said in a quiet voice: “Doddy, look, he’s smoking.”

I hadn’t yet abandoned the accent, myself, and spoke like that for the better part of my childhood, though I remember the spike of embarrassment as I thought how ridiculous and babyish I must’ve sounded to this stranger who’d already mastered the American lingo. He sounded like a principal, or a doctor; how all the fathers on TV sounded, not like my own, who for the whole of his life has lofted the strong whiff of the Third World about his person.

My father laughed, as if I’d just cracked a joke, and not helplessly uttered the grave moral judgment that would drive this suave Satan from our threshold. I was confused, and even more so when the stranger simply followed my father’s laughter with his own. Again, this sounded cartoonishly nice, perfectly natural, faithfully National.

He wasn’t the type of man who ladled egg drop soup into your bowl at the restaurant, or the thin, slightly hunched men who processed themselves down the pews of the Chinese churches we’d sometimes visit, liver-spotted and barking out English in the staccato of their mother tongue. He stood with a casual slant to his hips; dressed himself like the men on billboards, smoldering inside new cars. His name, which I never caught, may have been Steve, Gary, or Greg.

“That’s right,” he said. He lifted his cigarette into the middle distance. Smoke trailed, and I traced its passage in the air as I would a hornet, or a missile. “These things’ll kill you. Don’t ever try ’em, kid.”

“That’s right,” my father echoed, still giggling. “Don’t ever, okay?”

They laughed again, caught up in some hilarious adult conspiracy about that which spews from the mouths of babes. I could only blink in confusion – or was it from the smoke? Or the small, scalding fist I felt tightening between my ribcage?


At some point, I was dismissed: had it been before the stranger crossed over the doorstep, or after? I can’t seem to remember the man ever being inside our home, although he certainly had been, in order to conduct whatever esoteric discussion he needed to have with my father. Because of their amusement, and my own diminutive ignorance, I’ve never known if the matter was serious, or light. Had he come to collect a debt? To help plot one of the various business ventures my father obsessively compelled himself towards?

Before I could know anything, I was gone, and memory transposes me from my father’s hip onto the little dirt islands in the apartment courtyard where I so often played, either with my brother and sister or the now nameless, faceless children who dropped down from the complex’s tiers to take part in whatever game we could scrounge out of our poverty.

I had my fingers in the soil. I didn’t care much for dirtiness; or to be more precise, I felt exceedingly comfortable in the world’s muck, and only washed myself with chagrin. Whatever was in me that recoiled from cigarette-smoke failed to similarly respond when I foraged about the damp recesses between the roots of trees, which hide any number of dangers as worrisome as the sharpness of burnt tobacco.

Soon enough, my favorite little creatures began squirming out of the mud. Their pet name—roly polies—seemed the kind you’re never actually taught, but sort of falls from your tongue unthinkingly, nevertheless; one of those serendipitous instances of form/essence’s perfect merge, dropping into one budding mind sans the prodding of another. Of course, that wasn’t actually their technical designation (I don’t care how precocious you are, the word Armadillidiidae falls with ease from no tongue), but, sometimes, when you’re a child, the proper names serve little use.

I was fascinated by their movement. I was thrilled to feel, as my finger jutted from what must’ve been a sky even more gigantic than my own, their shells contract; the way they hid their softness from view presented itself as a clue to the bewildering nature of my own urges.

Younger-than-ten I was sensitive to things I would only be able to clumsily confront in late adolescence. The face of wonder—whose brilliance frequently erupted from chance physiques— could so effortlessly lure my open stare that I’d have to be warned out of rudeness with a quick pinch. I puttered about in a world which seemed intent on making my difference from it clear, and not only in the expected ways, the ways of culture, in the clichés of the clueless immigrant wandering about the aisles of America, parroting what he must in order to find what he needs. It became evident, early on, what my body was, and how it appeared to others, and the grins of others were so often touched with mockery that I learned to affix upon my own the same unchanging affability that none would care to delve into what stirred beneath.

And those who moved without difficulty, undisturbed by reflections, unknowingly coerced from me wants I wouldn’t dare to name. Their simplest gaze caused those inner ambiguities to cringe upon themselves, all the while pleading for the slake of recognition.

My flesh’s response to such experiences mystified me, and pain made stranger by its periods of more agreeable sensation drew upon my hands as would an open camp-light in heavy winter. In this, too, I hid myself, turning privacy into a self-enclosed cosmos where only my urges took precedence, away from vying eyes. No one, really, is sufficiently prepared for their own life, much less the body one’s intwined to, and the crises life throws on that body come accompanied by ever more persistent queries: why am I this way? Who are they, to speak of me with those words? Who is this, and what possesses them, that I am so changed by their mere entry and egress?

The body’s own answer, through sheer instinct, is to feel, and act, or pose to act, guarded only by one’s rational caution. How separate, then, was I from that common isopod, who curled inwards when an unnamable force seized from without?

Weltered sound my child-mind vaguely perceives as words drifts down from our apartment’s open window. One deep voice, the other almost like my own, and the occasional snatch of laughter. It sounds forced—how easy it is to attribute pathetic effect to my father’s speech, and strength to the stranger’s—and I suppose matters are intensifying for their talk to reach me in the courtyard. Something like longing keeps tilting my head upwards. Would the man come out and lean against the railing and, smiling, ask what I was up to? Would I smile, too, and answer truthfully?

I was cruel, as a child, balling up those small, innocent things with insistent pokes, laughing to myself. I’d bunch them together, several at a time, collecting them in Styrofoam cups to improvise miniature families. They would then uncurl and wriggle and I liked to notice how light their undersides were in contrast to the carapace. Like any child, wilder notions would come upon me, and I’d push a little too hard, shake more vigorously than one ought to, and wonder like a brute what a scorpion or tarantula would do to their vulnerabilities, if initiated. But the impish crustaceans would wriggle too long and I’d grow afraid that the air might somehow kill them. I never took them home, like some children do, because I enjoyed the magnanimity of their freeing, and I played at hearing them humorously sigh in relief as they trundled back into the moist and dark.

I was not their master. Perhaps, wordlessly, I recognized that spirit of kinship more meaningful than the one we shared in deep time, before the water was apportioned from the land – I, who’d curled from a stranger’s voice, its dragon-smog, and the unwonted things winged behind his frame.


But he was just a man, of course, and, like other men, he had things to do, people to see. As clear as his arrival, I can remember his departure, and the banal words acquaintances often trade with each other in semblance of camaraderie. I had the feeling that important things had been said, and certain decisions made, and the overall impression that these two men had no appreciable affection for each other, despite the smiles and blithe gestures.

There I am, back again at my father’s side to say goodbye – but who’s to say that the man’s departure is not simply his arrival in reverse? Recall is often partial to conservation, for so much ends up repeated, ad nauseum, outside its confines that the process becomes effortless enough to mirror within.

Everyone who should be at home is gone, not even retrievable by memory. I see him standing at-ease, the smoke much too lively around his well-groomed costume. Is he asking me a question in expectation of some answer? The firmness of his voice, here, works against itself, so that I can’t sense inside its standard, neutral tone any real hint of his intentions. The door is closing, or is it opening? Maybe he knows that when he leaves, I will never see him again, and in his eyes, not his voice, resides the misery anyone must feel when they are reduced to a bit part in another’s past. The same war of distrust and love stirs inside me—my father’s hand a shadow on the floor—and the man with the cigarette is carrying his words away from us, face receding into that world I only now begin to comprehend.

* * *

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More from Ezekiel Yu: Shoot ’em Dead: Review of Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018), Transforming Claude Monet: On Jessica Schneider’s “Theme de Camille” (EKPHRASM, 2022)Blown Back On Me: Analyzing James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”

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