Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Eric Grossman
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
The Folly of Fantasy Fulfillment
The following submission is inspired by the text Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Though the protagonist of this novel is a young, French, nineteenth-century housewife, in her I was able to see hints of my twenty-first century, middle-aged, Vietnamese immigrant father. Thus, when writing this personal narrative, I saw it only fitting to weave Flaubert’s words in with mine. The quotes from his text are italicized so as to clearly set it apart from my own work.
The Folly of Fantasy Fulfillment
My father has always loved to read fantasies. Living on the outskirts of a dull provincial town in rural Vietnam, a mongrel region where the language [was] without expressive emphasis, just as the landscape [was] without character, the only time his vivid sense of wonder could blossom was when he heard the hearty voices of authors through their masterfully crafted images. The metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, and marriage everlasting that recur in [novels] stirred unexpectedly sweet sensations in the depths of [his] soul. He fantasized about a life in America with a wife who doted on him, whispering beautiful words into his ear at night, building palaces out of paragraphs he no longer had to read to envision. Together, they would bear kids who crafted hodgepodge birthday cards for him overflowing with paste, glitter, and love. Infatuated with what could be, he felt imprisoned by the mundaneness of his present life.
Leaving his monotonous village, a myriad of cousins, and the sweeping valleys with little trees sprinkled across the skyline behind, he was met at age twenty-three by the imposing skyscrapers and scintillating nightlife of Manhattan. When he stumbled into an obscure, welcoming café underwhelmingly tucked away between two lofty establishments, his only expectations for his Sunday afternoon were a bitter cappuccino and a piping hot, decadent chocolate croissant. Instead, his eyes fell upon a breathtaking young woman, her flowing chestnut hair drawn back, a serious expression settled upon her delicate lips, and eyes that were illuminated by the glow of her computer screen and spark of her soul. He decided upon a table near her, captivated by this savvy, conscientious, blazer-clad woman. Perhaps if he hadn’t been dazzled by the novelty of his New York life, or blinded by the excitement of new possibilities, or economically vulnerable as an unemployed immigrant and susceptible to grasping onto any means of securing financial stability, he wouldn’t have approached this shrewd businesswoman. But it didn’t matter. Love had intoxicated [him] at first, and [he] thought of nothing beyond it.
He was overwhelmed by all of his ardent fantasies, the most beautiful things [he] had read, [his] strongest desires. Adamant on obtaining her hand in marriage and escaping the confines of his past life’s financial troubles and tiresome monotony, he approached her, sweeping her from her world of debt profiling and bond issuances and launching her into his, one that seemed to behold thrilling adventures he longed for. He hoped she had longed for them too.
The brevity of their courtship was a carefully calculated measure on his part. As the novelty of their relationship and marriage faded, though, so did his enthusiasm. The endlessly fascinating woman he thought he was lucky to stumble upon turned out to be hopelessly boring. Her conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and excited no emotion, no laughter, no reverie. He could feel himself growing disillusioned with her, so he clung onto his love and tried to amplify it in in a discreet and concentrated way, sustaining it by all the artifices of [his] affection, a little afraid that it might one day vanish.
Bringing a baby girl into the world less than a year after they were wed, his love for her was renewed. The excitement of the drastic changes occurring in his life helped convince [him] that the calm life [he] was living was the happiness of which [he] had dreamed. He filled the shelves of my nursery with fairy tales, murmuring words of faraway lands and true love and fantasy as I drifted off to sleep. And he eagerly anticipated the day I would begin to understand the world as he thought it should be.
I grew up with the work ethic of my mother and idealistic hopes of my father. I strolled through life with starry eyes and facing inevitable disappointment, envisioning how everything should occur before it did. Nothing ever measured up to the cotton-candy dreams and picture-perfect families I had read about. They animated my life, and at age five, I couldn’t figure out why things didn’t quite happen the way they were supposed to.
As I outgrew my clothes, shoes, and the picture books I adored in my childhood, I noticed my father grappling with the same demons. As the intimacy of [my parents’] life grew closer, an inner detachment formed which loosened [his] ties to [her]. He fought desperately to mend the rift he felt growing between the two; he kept trying to experience love. His dreams of a great love, in which [he] lived immersed, seemed to be seeping away under [him], like the waters of a river being absorbed into its own bed, and [he] could see the mud. [He] did not want to believe it; [he] redoubled [his] affection. Leaving work, he would delay his commute to race to the little flower shop on 56 and Sixth. Proudly surprising his wife with a vibrant magenta bouquet of silky, delicate carnations, he awaited the kisses and affection she would express.
Instead, he was berated by her. She lashed out at him, exclaiming how foolish he was to waste money on such an impractical thing… his lifestyle was too lofty for their station in life!
“Besides,” she snarled in a tone laced with conceit, “I’m the one who has a real job! All you do is cook, and clean, and read those stupid books, like a petty housewife! Make some money before you waste all of mine!”
And so unhappiness manifested itself into their marriage. Gentle speeches in a voice trembling with rage were the only responses my father could afford to produce during their arguments. Losing my mother would mean not only losing economic stability, but losing the fantasy of a happy family and life he had for so long desperately craved. This vision, to him, was everything. He was now imprisoned by the monotony of his own life once again, the very feeling he had left Vietnam in order to escape. Shouldn’t a marriage initiate you into the intensities of passion, the refinements of life, all its mysteries? Yet this [woman] taught [him] nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing. He longed to be told whimsical stories; she spoke only of private equity research.
He was a passionate, idealistic, impractical man who fell in love with the idea of love, not the very practical woman he was with. The disappointment of not living the fairy tale he once thought he would suffocated him. He began to take less and less care to hide his indifference.
I slip into our car at twelve-thirty a.m. one Friday night, coming home late with my cheeks numb and stomach aching from laughter after time spent with my friends. He’s livid on the drive from the train station to our house, slumped in the passenger seat with his disheveled black hair and buttons undone, reeking of cheap liquor. She grips the steering wheel, resentment plastered across her face. My smile vanishes and that warm, fuzzy feeling nestled in my soul dissipates as my perfect night is interrupted by my mother vehemently shrieking about how we don’t have the kind of money for him to be drinking.
“I drink to forget,” my father retorts in a drunken slur. “Maybe if you could ever make me happy, I wouldn’t have problems that need forgetting.”
Street signs and traffic lights dance around as we’re drawn closer to our destination. The potent scent of tequila and sharp, vicious words slice through the hazy midnight air. I try focusing on the two mustard colored lines on the center of the road, rather than his rough breathing and their anguished, almost frightening screaming. But the lines keep blurring and my heart won’t stand still.
My mother races to the front door upon our arrival, but my father and I linger behind like the bitter taste of alcohol in his throat and the tears welling up in my eyes. The veins on his temples throb, and I see him digging his fingernails into the beds of his palms, leaving behind harsh crimson crescent moons. I choke back sobs as he hollers with a pain electric in his eyes and striking in his voice. He raves about how unbearable their marriage is, how desperately he wants to escape, how trapped he feels by his predicament and… me.
“You’re the only reason we haven’t gotten a divorce yet,” he proclaims, during his incessant, impassioned rant. “The second you leave for college I’m getting the hell out.”
Then, he burst into laughter, horrible, frantic, despairing laughter. I stare at him, petrified, unaccustomed to seeing his inner demons unleashed. “I’m such a pathetic man… ” he mutters bitterly, thinking aloud.
I still read those fantasy novels, though. They’re longer, more intricate, and don’t begin with “once upon a time” anymore. But they’re still my escape, allowing me to, for a fleeting moment, abandon this lackluster life that confines me, something my father teaches best.
But I won’t make the same mistakes as him. I refuse to let my desires and the most tempting, beautiful things I read about delude me into thinking my expectations must become reality. Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing onto yielding hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of love are but foolish delusions, useless yearnings. I take care to not get swept up by the dreams of a fairy tale ending, falling too hard and too fast for a man who can’t catch me. If you constantly seek and dwell upon the things you don’t have, you will never be satisfied with what you’re given.
When my father, drunk and dejected, sat in our car on that hazy night and realized he could never be gratified by his marriage, I recognized the toxicity of his fantasies. [He] was not happy and never had been. Everything he craved for turned immediately to dust, and chasing these dreams would never satisfy him. But I never could have imagined that his vain longing for a more sublime pleasure would compel him to bring dirty mistresses into the very bedroom where he so long ago read me to sleep with those captivating fables.