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After getting off the overnight bus in San Francisco, he called Dette again, only to reach her voicemail for the third time that day. He wondered what she was up to. He imagined Dette and her new boyfriend going on a run together through the park. Or maybe they were sharing a bottle of wine at the bar around the corner from her apartment.
Whatever the case, he would have to find his own place to stay.
He put on his earbuds - a thrift store purchase that had somehow lasted four years and counting - and began to walk towards the Tenderloin, the only place in the city where he would be able to spend less than $30 a night to not sleep on the sidewalk. Fittingly, his phone began to play Otis Redding, whose pleading baritone could warm his soul better than a glass of whiskey.
Several months ago, he had visited Dette on July 4th. She had opened the door and looked at him as though he were a panhandler who had followed her from Downtown. The sounds of drunken karaoke blared from her living room.
“I thought I would surprise you for the holiday,” he said, leaving out the part that he didn’t have quite enough cash to stay at a local hostel given the holiday rates.
“Dad,” Dette had started. “You can’t just keep showing up like this. Mom and Greg call before they -”
“I called and texted many times - ”
“Yesterday! I was gonna get back to you, but work’s been too crazy.”
For a while, they stood on Dette’s front porch - him with his life’s belongings in the two suitcases he had in hand and Dette with her arms folded and her palms wrapped around her elbows - a habit she had undoubtedly gotten from her mother, he thought.
But in the end, she had let him in. Dette always let him in.
Ever since her parents divorced during her freshman year of college, Dette had transitioned from daughter to parental figure for her father Yano - short for Emiliano.
Whenever Dette visited Yano over winter break or summer, she would be shocked at the state of her childhood home. The single laundry basket would contain both clean and dirty clothes while the kitchen trash can would be overflowing with Jack in the Box brown bags and greasy curly fry containers. The home reeked of neglect, causing Dette to wonder if her father had the willpower to go over to Reno to scratch his gambling itch, the habit that precipitated his divorce.
After a leisurely walk from the bus station, Yano finally arrived at the hostel lobby. By this time, his Spotify algorithm had shifted from Otis Redding to the Eagles, which were the first band that he and his ex-wife Liza had listened to when they had moved into their tiny studio apartment in Daly City. To this day, whenever Yano heard the Eagles harmonizing against an acoustic guitar backdrop, he could still feel Liza nuzzling against his chest as they danced slowly in that empty apartment over thirty years ago.
With nearly anything Liza-related, the first thing to come to Yano’s mind these days was her new husband Greg, the bearded red-head who seemed to be a few levels ahead of Yano in just about every facet of life. He was a few inches taller, was a few inches trimmer around the waist, and made a few hundred thousand dollars more every year.
But the Eagles were Greg-proof. They lived in a plane of existence that was separate from his divorce to Liza. They represented the excitement of leaving the grinding poverty of the Philippines, the awe of living in the greatest country in the world, and the seemingly ever present scent of roses in Liza’s hair during those early years of their marriage.
The chorus of Take it Easy began to play as Yano counted out the cash for the hostel receptionist who told him about their new buy six nights, get the seventh free promo, which meant that he would have more leftover cash than he had anticipated for his weeklong stay.
Having stayed in nearly all the hostels in the area, Yano knew that this hostel was as good as it got, given his budget. He especially liked how the hostel’s shared rooms for two almost always meant single rooms given the lack of demand for shared accommodations with strangers.
But when Yano opened the door to his room, he was surprised to find a short, pot-bellied Chinese man, loudly slurping a bowl of instant ramen while hunched over his bed. The man wore an oversized gray polo and even baggier cargo shorts, the attire of someone too old to care about his clothes.
The man looked up and smiled at Yano before shaking his hand eagerly. He introduced himself as Chen and asked Yano what brought him to San Francisco.
“Visiting my daughter,” Yano said, trying to hide his disappointment at having to share a room. “And you?”
“Ah, you have daughter too,” Chen said as he rummaged through his luggage before pulling out a ragged red beanie with embroidered text that read “Proud to be a Stanford Dad”. “My daughter graduate from Stanford, you know?”
“Good for her,” Yano said, putting on a polite smile. Having pinned Chen as an insecure Asian tiger dad, Yano made a mental note to check in later with the receptionist to see when Chen would be checking out.
Chen, meanwhile, continued to slurp at his noodles while watching Yano put his clothes away.
“You like casino too, eh?” Chen asked, grinning once Yano had finished hanging all of his clothes, half of which were comps that he had gotten from the Reno casinos back in his playing days.
“Well, I did until -”
“I go every day to Graton Casino for $20 free play and free bus,” Chen said, wringing his hands with the anxious excitement of a gambler talking about gambling. “You have plan tomorrow? If not, we wake up at 7am to catch the bus.”
“I’ve got plans with my daughter tomorrow,” Yano lied. “Appreciate the offer though.”
The last time Yano had gone to the casino was for a free 32-inch plasma screen TV that the Reno Circus Circus had offered him. At that point, Yano had been clean for a few months, which had likely triggered some promo in the casino’s marketing department.
“I’ll be back by 2:00pm, and I’ll bring back lunch if you haven’t eaten yet,” Yano had told Liza, kissing her on the cheek before driving out to Reno early that morning.
When Yano arrived back home two days later - exactly 32 hours later than scheduled - he did not bring back the TV, which he had forgotten to pick up. He did, however, bring back flowers as a token of apology for Liza, a much-used gesture that was not to be appreciated given that Liza had begun moving out of their home at 2:10pm the previous day.
The day after arriving in the hostel, Yano woke up alone in his room. Chen had left for Graton hours earlier.
Yawning, Yano reached under his pillow for his phone, surprised to find that he still had no messages from Dette - only emails from companies he hardly cared about. Yano felt his chest tighten as he wondered what was keeping Dette from responding. Given how much Dette worried about Yano’s nomadic lifestyle, she always made sure to get back to him within a few hours.
Most parents would be delighted at the responsiveness of their children, but not Yano. These days, every conversation began with a worried inquiry. Have you had anything to eat today? Do you need anything from me?
With some reluctance, Yano called Liza who would surely know where their daughter was. Yano and Liza had been cordial since the separation, but it had always bothered him that she had begun dating Greg before the divorce was finalized.
He did his best not to curse when Liza’s dial tone was interrupted by Greg’s booming voice.
“Emiliano, hey bud! Liza’s in the restroom right now but how can I help ya?” Greg, as usual, spoke with the confidence of a salesman who had already made quota.
“It’s about Dette actually,” Yano said, doing his best not to mutter. “I haven’t been able to get a hold of her for the past few days.”
“Oh for sure, ya,” Greg responded, somewhat distractedly. Yano heard muffled laughter and music in the background. “Bernadette actually tagged along on our Italy trip so she’s in Tuscany with us right now.”
“Oh ok. And how long are you guys there for?”
“It’s a ten day trip and we just arrived yesterday. Here, let me get Bernadette on the line -“
“Actually, someone’s at the door, so I got to run. I’ll call her back soon.”
As Yano sank into his bed, he thought of something Liza once told him decades ago.
Liza had been eight months pregnant with Dette then, and she had lain next to Yano in bed as she spoke of all the trips they would take with their daughter once she was old enough. One day, Liza had said assuredly, they would travel to Europe together as a family, and their daughter would be smart enough to point out the significance and history behind every medieval town and work of art they encountered.
“You hear that kid?” Yano had said as he playfully patted Liza’s belly. “We expect a lot out of you.”
When Chen returned to their shared room later that evening, Yano told Chen that he would be free to come along to Graton the next day.
“Tomorrow, we make good money then! New players are good luck.” Chen’s glee then translated into a frown. “And your daughter? Everything ok?”
“She’s out of town this whole week actually. Just a miscommunication.”
“My daughter same way,” Chen said, nodding his head. “Haven’t seen her in long, long time.”
Yano hardly heard the longing in Chen’s voice as he talked about his daughter’s life in New York. Yano was too busy imagining what Dette, Liza, and Greg were doing in Italy. Knowing Greg, he would have pushed for a nightcap after dinner, which Dette and Liza wouldn’t be opposed to. They would be too kind to say that they would actually prefer to have gelato.
The next day, Chen introduced Yano to the thirty or so regulars of the 9:00am casino bus as they waited at a bus stop in the heart of Chinatown.
Yano met Alfred Lim, a bespectacled man with wispy white hair who Chen introduced as a non-gambler who gave his free play card to Chen most days. Alfred, Chen explained, only came to Graton to socialize in Teochew, a native dialect he had mostly spoken with his now deceased wife.
Yano also met Sally Chang, a hunch-backed woman, who apparently had the best luck of anyone on the Graton bus. Consistently, she seemed to turn her $20 free play card into three-figure cash outs, thanks to her supposedly sharp eye for finding the hot machines.
And then there was Teddy Tsai who, every day, brought a gallon’s worth of jook in a large thermal jug, which he would sell to the regulars on the bus. Given the food prices at Graton - the cheapest meal was a chicken burger and fries that would run $19.37 after tax - Teddy had no problem selling his chicken porridge, which he loaded up with chunks of chicken thigh, ginger slices, and chopped green onions.
The bus ride was two hours long which gave Yano plenty of time to feel guilty about his decision to go to Graton. For nearly a decade, Yano had been able to stay out of casinos, yet here he was about to throw away his hard-earned streak.
As the bus pulled into the Graton parking lot, Yano decided to wait at a cafe or restaurant until the first bus back to San Francisco. He would order whatever was cheapest on the menu.
But when they got off the bus at Graton, Yano found that there was no natural stopping point between the bus stop and the casino floor. There was no Starbucks or McDonald’s they passed by, much less a bench of any sort. Like lambs to the slaughter, Yano and his fellow bus riders were being efficiently funneled into the killing floor.
Yano followed Chen to the Buffalo-themed digital slot machines where a large, wheelchair-bound woman had just scored a jackpot. Her most recent spin had yielded a string of five consecutive golden-colored Buffalos which were currently roaring loudly as the winning amount of $1,967 pulsated on the digital screen. The woman wore the blank expression of someone who had not yet broken even.
“This big lady with wheels good luck for us,” Chen said to Yano as he sat down to play. Chen then inserted his free play card and pressed the min-bet button, which corresponded to a 25 cent bet.
Five buffaloes lined up neatly in a row - three red, one blue, one yellow.
Chen’s screen began to blink as the five buffalo let out a low growl. His free balance was now at $24.57.
Wearing the smile of a child who just saw an ice cream truck, Chen turned to Yano who was already inserting his free play card at the machine next to Chen. Yano felt himself shaking in anticipation as the machine beeped in short high-pitched bursts, confirming the validity of Yano’s free play card.
Taking a deep breath, Yano took the plunge back into his old life.
Within fifteen minutes, Yano and Chen had both exhausted their free play.
Instinctively, Yano reached for his wallet. From his recent dishwashing gig, he had been able to save up several hundred dollars, which he was planning to spend together with Dette.
But as Yano began to pull a couple twenties from his wallet, he caught Chen staring at him in disbelief.
“No, no,” Chen said gravely. “This how casino wins.”
“The next bus back isn’t for another five hours. What else is there to do?”
“Follow me,” Chen said as he stood up and began to walk deeper in the casinos.
For the next several minutes, they explored the rest of Graton’s casino floor. Chen seemed to give quick looks at every slot machine they passed until suddenly, he darted towards a Godzilla themed machine in an empty corner of the casino. Yano saw that the machine had 14 cents in credit - but with a minimum bet of 25 cents, Chen wouldn’t be able to play.
Instead, Chen pressed the cash out button to print a voucher for 14 cents.
“Doesn’t seem much now,” Chen said as he carefully put the voucher in his pocket. “But you can combine them and they add up.”
“How much are we talking?” Yano asked eagerly.
“On good day,” Chen said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe third of minimum wage.”
For the rest of the day, Yano and Chen continued to scavenge the vast casino floor for leftover credits, occasionally playing once they had accumulated enough for at least a handful of spins. In between the discoveries of free credits and the spinning of slot machines, the two men spoke of their past lives.
Yano reminisced about the sense of community he had in a small town north of Manila where doors were left unlocked, food was always offered to guests, and boisterous late night karaoke sessions were held amongst his parents’ circle of friends.
Chen, for his part, seemed to remember the sounds of his childhood most clearly - the hiss of his mother gently placing dumplings into boiling water and the rumble of the trains arriving at the station adjacent to his family’s 300 square foot apartment in Hong Kong.
Most of the time though, the two men spoke of their daughters.
Yano spoke of doing everything by the book for the first two decades of Dette’s life. He didn’t drink or smoke. He had worked hard at the iconic Fairmont Hotel as a valet driver and had always paid the family bills on time and in full. He had always been true to Liza.
Yet, somehow, these twenty years weren’t at all what defined Yano. Now, Yano was a burden that relatives would ask Dette about, a mistake that Liza had corrected just in the nick of time, an outcast who wasn’t to be loved but to be taken care of. It all seemed so unfair to Yano - could a father not stumble after twenty years of a job well done?
Chen, meanwhile, spoke of his daughter Jennifer’s independence. As a baby, Jennifer would sleep more soundly than her parents, and as a toddler, she had more or less potty trained herself.
But independent wasn’t the right word to describe his daughter, Chen explained. The word suggested that she mostly looked out for herself, but it was quite the opposite. When her mother passed away from cancer, Jennifer had taken a year off Stanford to stay at home with Chen, helping him adjust to a world without the love of his life -
It was right then that Yano felt a persistent buzz from his phone. It was Dette returning his call. Given the noise in the casino, he texted her back, saying he would call once he made it back to his room.
“Next bus to SF leave in five minutes,” Chen pointed out. “You should go so you can catch up with daughter. I stay here a while longer.”
Feeling a sudden sense of warmth for his new friend, Yano gave Chen a quick hug before jogging to the bus stop. On the ride back, Yano sat next to Teddy Tsai who had sold his porridge out for the day and was also headed home early.
“So you spend lot of time with Chen today, eh?” Teddy’s Cantonese accent was sharper and more pronounced than Chen’s.
“Yup, he’s my roommate currently,” Yano replied. “He’s a good guy.”
“Good but crazy guy,” Teddy said shaking his head. “Very sad.”
“What do you mean?”
“His daughter dead ten years but he still pretend it don’t happen.”
It was a car crash from a drunk driver, Teddy explained. Driver wasn’t even from San Francisco but had visited for the weekend for a last minute trip. Manslaughter. Seven years in prison.
Chen, for nearly a year, was despondent. He would occasionally talk politics or the Warriors, but only when spoken to and only a sentence or two at a time. And whenever anyone tried to bring up the topic of his daughter, Chen would ask them quietly to leave his apartment.
At some point though, Chen became his old self once more.
He began shopping for groceries at his usual go-to market on Stocker. He once again began taking the daily bus to Graton. The only difference now was that Chen truly believed that Jennifer was alive and well, living in New York City with her longtime boyfriend and rising up the ladder of a prestigious corporate law firm.
For the rest of the bus ride home, Yano was silent, his head leaned against the seat in front of him.
Yano had only ever cared if suffering existed within his circle of loved ones - Dette, Liza, his parents when they were alive. Most of all, himself.
But maybe, Yano began to think, his circle was too small. Much too small.
After getting off the bus, Yano stopped by the local grocery store to pick up a case of Korean ramen for Chen, the same spicy-looking brand that he saw Chen enjoying yesterday. He also picked up some chocolates for the hostel receptionist who had been kind to him at check-in.
Upon arriving home, Yano returned Dette’s call and for the first time in a long while, Dette did not begin the call by asking Yano where he was sleeping that night. Nor did she ask him if he had anything to eat that day.
Instead, Dette told him excitedly of the creamy mushroom risotto she had the previous day at a small, family-run restaurant in a hidden corner of Siena. She spoke of the simple beauty of old church bells ringing every hour in the walled medieval villages of Tuscany.
She would have shared more with her father if Greg and Liza hadn’t motioned at Dette, instructing her to slow it down with all the stories - no point in making Yano feel left out.
But on the other side of the world, Yano would be smiling to himself as he pictured Dette, full of wonder and awe, walking through the tiny cobblestone streets that he and Liza had dreamt about all those years ago.