When I was a little girl, my parents were typical Asians in that their greatest fear was their daughter entangling herself in love and romance and, as a result, bringing shame to the family. A dutiful daughter — no matter how young or old — was one who was innocent and oblivious of matters of the heart. My parents threatened to disown me and to beat me (in their defense, many of the Asian parents back then made similar threats to their own children). As frightening as my mom was, that fear didn’t squash my boy-craziness. In the second grade, my girl friends and I would deliriously run at recess, screaming in delight as the cutest and most popular boys in class chased us among oak trees. In the third grade, a redhead named Mikey would prop up his chin in the cup of his hands and openly declared his affection for me. I still remember his long eyelashes fluttering in my face as he asked if he could make an announcement to the entire school via the intercom. In the fifth grade, I almost fainted when the music teacher paired me with a tall skinny blonde, with whom I was to practice the waltz for a school performance. That would be my first time touching a boy’s hand. I didn’t understand what the big deal was about having a boyfriend or even just liking boys: I was still able to bring home good grades. Sure, I spent much of my time daydreaming (and nightdreaming) about those boys. Sure, I spent about as much time attempting to calm my too-loud-thumping heart. But, along with time wasted, there were butterflies. Those flying insects soared and dipped in my stomach, they lifted my feet off the ground, and they brought warmth — and sometimes fire — to my cheeks. I kept my grade-school love life hidden from my parents and pledged that I would be different from them when the time came.
A few years ago, Danith’s teenaged niece came to live with us for two school years. In many ways (at least, I would like to think so), Elizabeth was like me. She wanted to excel. She wanted to have a friend with whom she shared deep roots. And she liked the boys. As far as we were aware, she had first tried at the romance pool when she was only in the third grade. In fact, she had inadvertently placed herself in a love triangle. After her parents discovered this, she vowed to all of us that she would never have a boyfriend again. Of course, I did not consider third-grade love affairs to be indicative of her worth as a girl or her future professional life, and I believe I even spoke to that sentiment to her parents. When Elizabeth moved in with us for her seventh grade year, Danith and I noticed that she possessed great qualities, among them drive and spunk. We were the typical parent-figures in that we believed anything was possible for our niece. And that was when the fears set in for me as her guardian: what if Elizabeth became so entrenched in a relationship that it would ruin her future? (Her being only in middle school at the time didn’t seem to mitigate the fear.) I never threatened to disown Elizabeth or to beat her, but I did begin to speak to her about boys, explaining that they would occupy too much of her mind and that she needed her mind for the books. “You can like boys,” I said. “But don’t make them your boyfriend. This will cause you so many problems.” She never argued with me, always nodding her head and promising that she was listening to me. I found myself skeptical of her easy-to-please nature, though, so I began to make deals with her: get your bachelor’s degree first and then have as many boyfriends as you want!
I am not sure if my talks about romance confused Elizabeth. On the one hand, I permitted her to like boys. On the other hand, I ordered her to stay away from them. The ridiculousness of my thinking that I had such control was not lost on me, but I couldn’t sit still and do nothing. So, although I realized that I was sounding absurd and equivocal during those talks, I prided myself on honesty and, thus, I didn’t try to sound otherwise. For one, I knew that I couldn’t forbid Elizabeth to like boys or even stop her from secretly starting a relationship with one. If she were as similar to me as I thought she was, then she was already spending hours at night wondering about her crush. Does he like me, too? For two, there is something to be said about young love. It is green — of the most tender shade — and beautiful and real, and the height to which those young butterflies soar can not and should not be shortened with a leash.
A couple of years ago when Niall Horan began singing about a town, the lyrics consumed me. It wasn’t Danith who was occupying my mind, but Daffy. Even today, when the song plays in the car, my mind goes back to our older daughter.
Waking up to kiss you and nobody’s there
The smell of your perfume still stuck in the air
Yesterday I thought I saw your shadow running round
It’s funny how things never change in this old town
So far from the stars
Wish I was there with you now
If the whole world was watching I’d still dance with you
Drive highways and byways to be there with you
Over and over the only truth
Everything comes back to you
Daffy was my first child. My first love.