Eliot Li | Flash Fiction

When I come home to San Francisco after dropping Millie off to college, my house is infested with flies. They waited all these years for me to be alone again, before staging their invasion, squeezing through unseen cracks in the floors and walls. 

If Millie were here instead of in a leafy suburb of Boston going through freshman orientation, she’d have a swatter in each hand, murdering the bugs by the hundreds. Millie is a nationally ranked fencer. She self-actualizes through violence.  

Earlier this year, my daughter bought a carnivorous fly-eating pitcher plant from the bonsai store in Japantown. She set the three inch sapling next to our south-facing window, watered it every other day, and it grew into this giant sprawling thing reaching its broad leaves outward, open-mouthed pitchers at the end of each leaf. At the time, we had no flies to feed it.  

I look inside each pitcher one by one, and see nothing but emptiness. The flies ignore the temptation to enter the plant’s bulbous green traps. They swarm and buzz over piles of unwashed plates in the sink. 

Only hours ago, I was in Millie’s new dorm room assembling the fan I bought her from Walmart. She read the instruction sheet out loud, and I responded by pushing pieces of plastic together and turning screws. We ate a final dinner by the harbor, fresh baked cod and clam chowder. 

The black magic of planes. They can transport you from warmth and togetherness with the one you love, to instant isolation and despair somewhere else.  

And when you’re a recovering addict who’s alone again, you’re afraid of what you’re going to do to stuff the void, the gaping pitcher-shaped hole inside. 

If Millie were home, she’d be on the couch with her laptop open, troubleshooting this fly infestation. “They’re probably coming from the dead squirrel carcasses under the house,” she’d say. “The ones you sealed in when you sprayed insulation foam into that crack in the patio. Nice job, Dad.” She’d volunteer to go into the crawl space and retrieve the rotting squirrels, but I wouldn’t have let her.  

So I’m on my belly, wearing thick gloves and a mask, Costco headlamp affixed to my forehead, plastic garbage bag tied to my belt. I slither through the dirt under the house, dreading what I was about to find, but imagining Millie telling me not to be afraid, because she’s just outside in the backyard. I can hear her voice through the grill in the stucco siding, the sun’s light filtering through. 

After retrieving the rodent cadavers, and the countless tiny wriggling white bodies embedded in them, I toss the bag in the garbage bin, and return to the house to hunt flies. I collect all the tiny squashed and twisted up victims, and feed them to the pitcher plant.  

When you’re alone again in middle age, you remember being alone in your twenties, and you fear that you’re going to slip back into that feral, primeval state you thought you’d evolved out of long ago. The lonely spiral, the self-destructive fugue-like existence.  

Maybe the last 18 years of raising my daughter, all that meaning and purpose and love, was just a fever dream of normalcy that I’m now shaking off like sleep. 

I learned a new word this past summer. Parentification. It’s when a parent seeks practical or emotional support from their child, rather than the other way around. It can traumatize a child. Someone on Twitter had been talking about how the scars from it still haven’t healed. 

Whatever happens to me now, I won’t ever let Millie be the victim of parentification. 

I’m walking down Guerrero Street in San Francisco after watching the cult Korean movie Lady Vengeance at the Roxie Theater. Lady Vengeance was on the list of films Millie and I wanted to watch, but we couldn’t find it on any streaming service. It was screening for one night only, to celebrate the film’s 15th anniversary, a week too late for us to watch together. 

Millie didn’t have close friends in high school, so it was usually just the two of us on Friday nights, watching movies on the couch. We put together miniature film festivals. Three straight Jordan Peele movies, for instance. I felt guilty she spent all this time with me, but every time I told her to make friends, she’d roll her eyes and say it was too draining for her to try. She insisted she was OK being alone. 

Lady Vengeance, as it turns out, is a brutal, violent revenge movie—severed fingers, victims tied to chairs and tortured with various bladed instruments, stuff I covered my eyes at while watching. Millie would’ve been captivated by those scenes. 

Guerrero Street is a little gritty, like the movie. The low hum of conversation outside the dive bars. A gang of motorcyclists revving their engines and taking off down the boulevard. The smell of piss near some makeshift tents on the sidewalk. A biting wind.  

What triggers me are the red and pink neon signs in the window of the massage parlors. Flashing, like beacons. I remember, decades ago, wandering these city streets alone. Hungry. The cinderblock steps leading down from the sidewalk to the rusty iron gates. Pressing the white button so I could be buzzed in. The heated basements, women in lingerie seated on long black L-shaped couches, their eyes all going to me, the way they clasped my hands between their palms and rubbed them—You must be so cold. Let me warm you up. Fishing for the folded stack of twenties in my pocket. Private rooms with leather massage tables reflecting a purple glow. Pushing back out through the iron gate afterward and returning to the chill of the street. Vowing never again. Then again. Then the week after that. For years. 

This time, I turn away from the lights. I focus on the soft click of my sneakers on pavement, passing another massage parlor, then another. Jesus, there are so many.  

There’s a pagoda, lit green from within, rising against the night sky. I’ve made it to Japantown. A crowd buzzes around in Peace Plaza. People queue up outside for bubble tea and matcha ice cream.  

The bonsai store, open late. I step inside, surrounded by orchids, scent of vanilla and rose. A full rack of small pitcher plants behind me, the ones Millie once sorted through to select the one she’d bring home. They’re on sale. Some of the pitchers are turning brown. I fish around in my pockets for the folded stack of twenties. I tell the girl behind the counter I want them all. The whole rack. Give me a bigger box. I’ll put them everywhere in the fucking house, seven or eight in each room. Because I’m addicted to pitcher plants.  

I won’t tell Millie. She’ll think I’m fucking crazy.  

I’m FaceTiming with my daughter from my living room. On the screen, her skinny childlike face no longer belongs to a child. She’s sweating.  

“It looks so hot in your dorm,” I say. “Why don’t you study in the library where it’s cooler?” 

“Because then I’d have to be around people,” she says. 

I imagine all those new freshman students around campus looking for human connection, the studious ones in the library, striking up conversations with each other between stacks of books. Being around all those people must be stressful for her. 

I want to tell Millie to go out and make friends, though saying it would just add to her anxiety. 

I want to tell her I’m so close to completely losing my shit. Like any day now.  

“Do you know what parentification is?” I ask. 

“Of course,” she says. “I read Psychology Today. I’m going to be a psych major.” 

I close my eyes and sigh. “Do you think that…you might be the victim of parentification?” 

“No, Dad.” The fan hums in the background, blows strands of hair away from her face. “And you can come to me when you’re feeling down. I don’t mind.” 

The fan sputters. She reaches over to adjust it. 

“Next time I visit, I’ll get you a better fan,” I say. “A stronger one.”  

She squints, gestures at something beyond my shoulder. “What’s all that crap behind you? Are those plants?” 

I point my phone at the windowsill so she can see.