|| 3. Backup Tires
Mama, why are you calling so early? I was having a great dream.
Your ma missed you. I had a big meeting today, but the only voice I wanted to hear was yours. What time is it where you are anyway?
Here is exactly 12 hours behind you. You can figure it out.
My daughter is so clever. She can teach me how to tell time.
You need to start doing brainteasers, ma. I can't accept the thought of my mother losing her mind in her fifties.
My treasure, I was testing you. Your ba and I thought you ran to California to be with the ABC boy without telling us.
The beeping of the garbage truck backing out of my neighbor's driveway pierces through the window near my bed. I reach over to pull up the blinds.
My mom. She used to tell me I was a baby abandoned in a dumpster that she picked up like a piece of trash. She thought it was cute when small children got mad. And she believed in early childhood development of resilience to a lifetime of obstacles. True to her efforts, I wasn't eating solid foods when relatives started remarking that I've inherited her triangle eyes and her sass.
These days, she's dropped all pretense of neglect to become the smothering mother that is her true form.
I turn on video on my phone and hold it against my bedroom window.
Do you see? Can you hear? That's the melody of a Boston garbage truck.
I flip my phone over. On her end, my mother has also switched on video. She's holding her phone vertically, possibly at her waist, so that on my end, I mostly see her chin jutted out at me in judgement.
Okay, okay. I believe you, she says.
I rub my eyes, which are itchy from lack of sleep. Then I remember Paige saying that rubbing eyes rubs away pieces of cornea, and I stop.
It's Gecko and his constant stream of messages that has kept me up at night.
Send me sexy photos, but not nudes. I have to use my phone for work, is my most recent text. Knowing him, he'll probably take selfies at his next climbing session.
I'm kind of regretting that I'd given Gecko my work number instead of my personal number. But when Phil from IT set up my work phone, he did say the company doesn't read my texts. I take it to mean that they might read my texts, but won't fire me over them.
Is ba even home? I ask my mom.
He just left for Thailand yesterday. Another meditation retreat.
That sounds right. Other middle-aged hedge fund managers split their travels between businesses and mistresses. But my dad has never shown interest in the pretty, pouty young women that swarmed my parents' male colleagues. When work keeps him in Tianjin, he invites scholars of Buddhism into our home to do private scripture studies. But his true love is to travel to the most remote mountain monasteries money can take him.
Better a spiritual husband than an unfaithful one, is my mom's perspective. I don't know if that makes him a more attentive spouse, though. And I doubt he cares about what time zone I'm in any more than if he were one of the cheating husbands of my mother's social circle.
Why did you and ba think I went to California?
You haven't been using your debit card.
Ah yes. The method my parents chose to ensure I haven't been dismembered in a field. Every month, they load money onto a debit card linked to their bank account. My allowance in exchange for my parents' right to track my every move. What can I say for myself? I'm a slave to money.
I've been working overtime all month. No time to shop.
You still have to eat, my mother argues. You're not skipping meals?
I expense my meals when I work overtime.
It's the honest truth. Alongside letting Gecko buy me dinner that one night. But ever since last spring when my parents found out that I'd booked tickets to Jamaica on a personal credit card without telling them, my mom prefers to believe her own imagination—my body in a ditch with different set dressing—over anything I have to say.
Hmm, she purses her lips. Are you even still dating the ABC boy?
And will he propose soon?
In my mother's eyes, being twenty-five means I'm practically twenty-seven. When it suits her sense of urgency, she uses the traditional way of counting age, where infants are aged one at birth and turn two after Chinese New Year.
Twenty-seven is the age where a woman becomes "leftover" in the marriage market. So, naturally, my mom is increasingly worried about my diminishing prospects should Ben and I break up.
Ben's parents cook a whole Thanksgiving turkey and ignore Chinese New Year, but they've chosen to count age the same way.
This expectation to forever act older than we are— this must be why Asian people are always cast as wise mentors in blockbuster movies.
What do you want me to say? I tell my mom. Ben has two more years of medical school at Stanford. I need to muddle around in Boston for another year before my company will write me recommendations for an MBA.
This is not a problem. My mom wears a too cheerful smile that is a little frightening through the tense lighting of her phone. I have a friend who wants you to meet her nephew. He's from a nice family. At MIT, studying for a masters. You and him should chat.
I thought you liked Ben.
I would like Ben if you have him. If you have him, he would have proposed already.
Ma! Why are your beliefs so outdated?
Close your mouth, my mother retorts. My thinking is very modern. And realistic. Your beliefs are too postmodern for your own good.
I stay quiet. I can tell my mom that her beliefs do not translate across generations, over continents. But by that logic, neither do mine.
I certainly can't say that if this guy she wants to adopt as a son-in-law were actively dating and not ugly, I would have swiped right on him already.
His name is Wang Jialu, my mother says. I will forward you his contact information. Get coffee with him. I know you like Ben. Nothing wrong with keeping a backup tire if the main one blows out.
Timing a drive to Logan Airport is always a gamble. Either the highway is jammed with traffic, making you wish your own car has a button for wings, or the few drivers on the road are traveling so freakishly fast that their cars might as well be flying. There's a stretch of the drive that involves going into a tunnel dimly lit by yellow lights underneath Boston Harbor. That part always brings my heart to my throat.
Actually, public transit into the city is okay. I don't need to meet Ben at the airport. But if you love someone hard enough, shouldn't that make you do most things you normally don't like to do?
Chinese people are complicated, my dad likes to say. This is why Americans dislike us, especially now that we are strong. We understand them, but they can never understand us.
Ben is Chinese American. What does that make him? The one doing the understanding or the one being understood?
When I learned that Ben was a tennis playing, pre-med, Chinese-American frat boy, I pegged him as a nice guy who loved the stability of belonging on a good team. I was pretty sure of myself, too. After all, figuring people out is my family's favorite past time. Like fantasy football with more intimate stakes.
For as long as I could remember, each year, over the week of Chinese New Year, my parents would cram their apartment with guests, aunts and uncles the first few days, then their friends and coworkers.
My dad, normally quiet, deliberate with his words, would turn on a certain smiling charm. My mom, normally assertive, would brew jasmine tea for the guests and clear out trays of sunflower seed shells. Though if anyone dared to light a cigarette indoors, she'd throw the windows wide opens, making it known it was the smokers against her and the northwest wind.
My parents believed in early education by qualified adults. They let me eat as many new year's sweets as I wanted as long as I showed interest in our guests. I blame this practice for why I don't have a thigh gap today.
I was a cute kid, though, and I liked attention. I liked it, when my mom's friend, whom her office nicknamed Zhou Bighead for the most physical reasons, asked me, Who's more handsome? Me or your ba? And I responded earnestly, Of course, my ba, and made all my mom's other friends laugh.
Zhou Bighead made a show of looking dejected and said, Next question, who has the longer beard?
You, I said. My dad always kept his face clean shaven.
See, he turns to my mom. Your husband does not best me at everything.
Later, when it was just the three of us, my mom said she was proud of me. Then she said, That was a good answer because Old Zhou likes to joke around. Just don't say your father is better looking every time. People will think you're simple.
What if it's to another Zhou Bighead who's just uglier?
Then say he has a longer beard.
Where appropriate, my parents made me meet their friends. The other doctors in my mother's hospital. The investors working for my dad's firm. My parents' childhood playmates who were swept under the waves of China's economic boom, who ended up as factory workers, schoolteachers, traffic cops, like their parents before them. Their university classmates who became Sea Turtles—people who went abroad when China was poor and came back, flaunting their multiple children, to profit from wealth they didn't help create. What my parents want me to be, eventually.
They were exercises in meeting the world. Because the world was much bigger for me, much closer, than for my parents when they were my age. They wanted me to be ready when I stepped in.
I make it to Logan in record time.
I don't wait long before Ben comes to the parking lot. It's like he's so responsible that he knows how to pick planes that land early.
Two thoughts come to mind when I see Ben. One, he's let his hair grow out, and I want to run my fingers through it. Two, I've missed the soft arch of his eyebrows. Even with circles under his eyes, he looks compellingly cheerful.
"Hey you," he says, planting a kiss on my cheek.
"Missed." I take off his glasses and put them on me, before cupping his face in my hands and kissing him on the lips.
Through the too-strong lens that makes my vision bright and intense, I make out Ben grinning at me.
"Wow," he says. "It's like I'm—"
He laughs. "So I wasn't even going to be original."
"That's okay. I still love you." I hand the glasses back.
Ben takes them and buckles his seatbelt. The rest is somehow silence.
On the highway, I point out the Vegas-style casino that's being erected on the otherwise flat landscape north of the city. I tell Ben about the diversity recruiter my company is looking to hire, and how it would be entertaining to see how they fail.
I think, it's mostly that there's more cars on the road back to Boston that has Ben and I running out of updates to share, quickly. I had hoped he would distract me as I drove through the endless tunnel back into Boston proper.
"Are you tired? Do you still wanna go bowling with my coworkers?"
"Whatever you want." Ben says. In the rear view window, I see him leaning back in his seat with his eyes closed.
"I learned something interesting the other day."
"Selina was saying that when she was in high school, the advice her teachers gave about coming out to your parents or giving them any news that might be shocking is to tell them while they're driving. Doesn't that sound like it could go so badly?"
Ben shrugs. "Maybe Selina's community was full of responsible drivers."
"Promise me you'll never break up with me when I'm driving. I won't be able to handle it."
Ben is silent for a while. Then he says, "The breakup? Or the driving?"
Ben and I used to talk about breakup all the time.
As in, "Sweetie, I love you, but if you start holding burials for flowers and then composing poetry about it, this relationship won't work."
Or, on the buoyancy of a 20th century door in the Atlantic Ocean, "Do you think you would be as selfless as Jack? If not, I will have to break up with you."
I think, between two people, anything can be made light and funny if in the book of your shared history you stand on the same page. This is why Selina and I can swap memes about being Chinese but not about human rights in China. Why Joy and I can joke about sending financial aid offices UNICEF brochures with our names labeling random kids, but the Americans and that one British guy in the office won't get it.
Why, to Ben and me, the word breakup was a running joke tossed around the way water runs down a duck's back. And now it isn't.
We get to the bowling place before schedule. So I guess the traffic wasn't that heavy after all.
"Hi, we're with the group of 30 at 6:00, but we're here early. Is there a bar we can wait at or something?"
"One sec, hon," the hostess says.
I don't have a great view of the bowling alleys behind her, but the sound of clanging is crystal clear. I can't wait to get my hand on a bowling ball and throw it hard. Even better, there's a pizza restaurant next door.
"I don't see a reservation for 30," the hostess says.
"Can you look again—"
Ben places a hand on the small of my back. "Are we sure we have the address right?" he says.
"I was sure. I can check." I open up Arjun's email to the other analysts with details for our outing. "Yeah, this is the place. Look."
I show Ben my phone. As he peers over my shoulder to read the email, it starts beeping.
"What the fuck?" Ben is saying, but his voice is somehow distant. I want to take out my eyeballs.
What are you doing tonight? I miss you, notification of Gecko's text pops up on the screen. Before I can explain that away, another text appears. It's an image of a silk screen painting depicting a scene from imperial China—Ming Dynasty by the shape of the hat worn by the man in the left corner. Without looking closely, the scene is almost generic. Except in the right corner of the image there's a bed with two people on it—the emperor and the empress based on their headpieces. And besides their heads, they're very much naked.
I'm aware that in the past few months, the political climate surrounding a lot of topics that this piece touches on thematically has become a lot tenser. As I'm writing in the first person, I tried to make sure I don't 1) take over my narrator's voice and biases with my own or 2) make a caricature out of my narrator. Please let me know if there's anything you take issue with.
I took out quotation marks when the narrator is speaking to her mother in her native language. My thinking was that I'm presenting a translation of my characters' dialogue, and a translation is not a quote. Let me know if that has made the dialogue confusing to read.
The lines about how the narrator and Ben used to threaten break up with each other contain two references. I believe one is significantly more obscure than the other. But if you didn't get the references, do the lines still work, or did it seem overly arbitrary?
Any feedback would be welcome!
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