Kobe died. My cousin broke the news to me before a hello. Not even a glance up from her phone. She soliloquy’d Tweets because she couldn’t find words for such a loss on her own, the death of a Trojan spirit wrapped in purple and gold, a legend that filled living rooms with families, faded jerseys in full optimism, brimmed plastic party cups with liquor store ice and canned sodas, beers. Uncles and aunts, sporting looks of domesticity, pushing through rising griddled pork clouds, shrimp, and buttered mushrooms topped on cold rice noodles. Egg rolls, pickled white cabbage and carrots.
She shoved a Worldstar video of the helicopter crash, the blazing vanishing act right in my face, on loop, a husband and a father, and I would later learn, a daughter and a sister. This was the Lunar New Year. High spirits sank quickly.
I bit my tongue. On purpose. I thought about her screen, the way she talked to me, and the many years we kept between each other because I never felt at home with any side of my family. Later in the evening, at another function, I was hit with the laundry list of THE questions: How do you like your job? Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? Do you think you’ll ever move back home? You know, closer to family?
I bit my tongue for too long that I tasted childhood rust, old playgrounds, the smell of burning parks because the summers sweltered, the savored glands of careless fun with younger versions of my cousins, when judgement had no play in our play. The taste of the hard work my aunts slaved over for hours dwindled down to an empty umami that made me believe that maybe I’ve always made the right decisions. What decisions, I can’t say, but the definitive rightness of all my decision-making. I swished silence and a grass jelly drink between my gums. I looked to my cousins, one hand pulling noodles to their mouths, the other hand scrolling through feeds. Second-hand nature obliged me to do the same, but I continued watching them, staring almost, a voyeur to it all.
I was a voyeur to the fact that this reunion didn’t belong on plots of dirt and dead grass per usual. We didn’t have to meet halfway at tears and broken selves. If my family knows anything at all, we know loss. We’ve been to more funerals than weddings, idle in wakes, mastering masks of vulnerability fashioned in pews.
Unless we’ve taken new meanings to death. On phones scrolling so fast that validation wept in waves of purple and gold condolences.
“I’m trying to minimize my screen time,” he said.
This would be the final family gathering I lugged myself to. Cousins didn’t run in and out of the house like I remembered. Instead, they slouched in couches, hiding their faces with fruity siliconed iPads.
He talked with an adolescent lisp, one digging its footing through puberty, but carried an air about him that fidgeted its way towards a personality, and, I guess it was the first time I took sight to someone crafting his voice, live and alive, right in front of my eyes.
He told me about the start of his days. Cold showers. Morning swims. And then, school. A junior in high school. He shared his anxieties, the help he sought out, the self-help books he read geared towards entrepreneurship and developing better habits.
Other cousins sat silently, scrolling through TikTok and Instagram. It was just him and I, and his outshone voice. He’s building communities, creating disciplines for himself and others.
This was Kobe. A kid unlike his contemporaries. This was someone already thinking of making impacts on the world, not meddling in the do-nothing meanders of twentysomethings. This was someone much more composed than my adolescent self. At his age, I was in competition with other students in IB. AP wasn’t enough. Honors wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough. Because I am a product of a generation that fled from war. I came from a generation whose skill sets existed on survival. What did my parents know but to translate their mixed up building blocks from Vietnam and America into my academics?
I can’t blame them. But with much of my growing up, I was confused.
And here was someone born at a time where you can monetize lifestyles and jump into resale markets with such ease where audiences feed off this kind of content. In my time (nearly a decade his senior), we had maps and MapQuest, Craigslist looked sketch (and still does), and Angie’s List just began.
I looked over to my other cousins, still on their phones, swiping back and forth between apps, refreshing and refreshing, testing the WiFi connection. Unblinkingly. Kobe looked up, eyes upward to some possible future, in reach.
“That’s my Ted Talk,” he raised his hands, open palms. “What’s yours?”
I gave him a blank look. I realized I hadn’t written for the past two weeks since I’ve been home. And I distinctly remember telling myself that I would. That I would discipline myself. That it was important for me to practice promises that I made for 2020.
Why hadn’t I aligned my core beliefs with my reality when right in front of me was a teenage boy as composed as he could be? The adults in the other room all stood up. I watched them walk through the hallway, out of the light, through the dark hallway, and met with Kobe and I, in light.
Scorn weighted me to my feet, and Kobe’s head lowered.
“I wish there was more time,” I sighed, in between saying goodbye to my relatives and Kobe, half-meaning my sincerity to the other kids still on their phones. An immediate pang hit my chest. A cold chime, rustic freeze.
I left him, about to ask for his Instagram when I remembered he had deleted it. I thought about SMS, an impossibility as I was about to leave for Korea again, my US number a bust. Was it Godard? That said SMS stood for Save My Soul? I wanted to keep in touch, be in reach of a certain hope.
I went home and started writing this post only to be sucked into going out. With friends. One last outing before I went back to Korea.
I drank, danced. At the Copper Door in Santa Ana. Cholos and ABG’s, buff Arab guys that crept in the back and even queer latinX folks, chatter everywhere, catching up, a round of Grey Goose shots for us all. A friend’s 25th birthday.
In all honesty, I came back to California with high anxieties. With a feeling absent of purpose. As if my writing knew that I was coming back to its craft. And so I distracted myself. Marie-Kondo-ing my room. Getting rid of decade-old things. Junk mail. Old knick knacks. Books and DVD’s. Dust all over. Broken things. Electronics outdated. What was the use of all this (now) waste? What had they formed about me? About my own habitualities?
Am I living intentionally?
Every year is like this. A swathing waft of dissatisfaction urging me to do something. Refresh my role models. Update sacred texts that ground me. Maybe it’ll be Diane Keaton’s autobiographies, another Lucia Berlin book, and hopefully tackling Elena Ferrante. Maybe I’ll go back to Virginia Woolf. Start on Noah Baumbach’s dad’s fiction. Short stories, novellas. Channel Keaton. Become vivacious with humble undercurrents. See like Luca Guadagnino. Go out on weekdays, stay in on weekends. Hide in my own half-baked virtue.
Is this enough? Am I enough?
My mantras are questions, always asked in the dead of night, and before I get to answering them, I sleep soundly, only to wake up to the same questions, unanswered, and go on with another day.
My friend noticed that I stopped moving, begged me to come up on stage with her, but one of the security guards pulled me down. I splashed beer, kicking sloppy heels to the sticky floor. “Ladies only, kid,” he warned me. His eyes, warned me, putting me in my place.
I stepped away.
To piss, to gather myself. To wash my hands and look up in the mirror, breathing in and out to buffer tailgating testosterone. In the mirror, I saw myself and yet, was not myself all at once. I fixed my hair, begged for that burrito which, later in the evening, KO’d me.
Moving back to LA, indefinitely, is something I cannot avoid, to come home to all of this. But I have faith. Faith of a new Kobe. Someone who can lead, someone among a generation after me that is surviving the unseen traumas that social media has wired into youths. The possibility of an exit.
Of course, the next day, I woke up hungover to a pile of red envelopes on my desk. I gathered them in my lap, and remembered that when my family finished eating, we ended up in my cousin’s room. Inside jokes crowded the air. Laughter passed between everyone. Even I laughed. Just because. Smiled. I smiled the way my mother does when she sees my brothers and I in our silly antics, knowing that this is what a family looks like. They shared memes, funny filters, and for a brief moment, spirits rose to bolden a moon that burned bright to lift the deadbeat cold off the suburbs.