by Joy Stoffers
Jin sheng: Second Life
I can still hardly believe what’s happened.
A month before my mother mixed Lunesta into a cup of oolong tea, she asked me to visit her. I should’ve felt suspicious from the moment she invited me in. But the endearment she used threw me off balance—ten years had passed since she last called me “precious daughter.”
I stepped inside the same Chinatown apartment I grew up in. Though it was a Saturday afternoon, behind me came the click of the lock, the sliding of the chain. Ma scuttled the four feet it took to get from the front door to the stove.
I stood, wishing it were cold enough for jackets. Then I’d have something to hide behind, something to hold onto. Something to soak up the silence.
Gossiping about the neighbors, she gestured at the wooden bench. I sat, settling my poncho on my knees, like a blanket. The picnic-style table made me feel American, obtrusive. I resisted the urge to swing my legs. My body wouldn’t appreciate that now.
Still chattering, she filled the kettle with fresh water. She moved like a nervous rabbit.
I offered to help, but Ma dismissed me with a flick of her wrist. Slowing her movements, she hummed the tune to a Chinese folk song I’d long forgotten. I drummed my fingertips on the table and then stopped. She hated my inability to sit still.
My eyes drifted to the state of the kitchen.
From left to right. The blank-faced refrigerator. Pockmarked beige cabinets. On the handle of a drawer, two pairs of dish gloves dangled from a clothespin. Grizzled countertops. Microwave with its broken light. Red banner still covering the right-hand side upper cabinet, characters in black. Gong he xin xi: Happy New Year, all year round. Stainless-steel sink, never large enough. Over the sink, a window with half-bent blinds that offered a view of the brick building next door.
Ma pulled the paring knife off the magnetic knife rack, placing it on a cutting board. I’d always wondered why she chose to have the knives hanging there. Always the same response: Easy to grab and get robbers. I know knives better.
When I stood to take care of the complaining kettle, she reached over to turn off the stove. I’d forgotten: her kitchen, her territory.
She sliced the mango tou dao wei. Head to butt. The mango succumbed, splitting in two.
Watching this ceremony, I regretted how I’d shunned her attempts to teach me. I wondered how she cut like that. Never made any messes.
A smile flitted across her face, like a bird flitting into flight. If you didn’t pay close attention, you missed it. She called me bao bei nu er. She told me, many things I don’t know. I nodded, repositioning my poncho.
Ma diced one side of the mango. I opened the cabinet for bowls only to find plates. I stood staring. She told me she make changes. I asked where she moved the bowls.
She pointed to a lower drawer. Inside, her wedding china. Again I stared. Ma looked at me like I was the strange one. She gave away normal bowls, why so surprised?
I searched for words but found none that were right. So I said nothing.
A pile of mango cubes was accumulating on the right side of the cutting board. No flesh remained on the inner skin of the mango.
My face must have asked for elaboration. She shrugged. Always save for rainy day. So many rainy days passed, still never use. No sense to save anymore. Time for moving on. For using good things.
I moved Ma’s never-die plant to the side of the kitchen table. In its place, she set down the gold-filled, gold-plated bowl before arranging the clay tea set.
Again she pointed. Look-see these shoots. Baihao.
The tea shoots had hair. I couldn’t stop myself from wrinkling my nose.
She frowned. White Hair Silver Needle.
My belly clenched. Would the hairs show up when brewed?
She said no more, deeming it a stupid question.
I saw her hands quiver as she brought the kettle over. Again I offered help. She sucked her teeth. Ai yo! Not weak. Strong, like typhoon. Watch!
But when Ma finally sat down beside me, she shook out her hands. Then it struck me: Ma looked older than sixty-nine. Wrinkled, wispy, worried.
Sighing, she poured us tea.
A faint floral smell rose from my cup. In the pale tea, I discovered little pulpy hairs. But I felt Ma’s eyes studying me. So I closed my eyes and sipped. Subtle, slightly sweet.
She smiled. See? Most expensive, hardest to make. Only pick best buds for production. From Fujian.
Ma filled my bowl with mango. She used pointed chopsticks to serve and eat. But the fruit was too slippery for me. I forked the cubes into my mouth, savoring their juicy sweetness, trying to satisfy my restless belly. Ma would later drink the leftover juice. If I made faces, brought up decorum, she’d say Bie lang fei. Don’t waste.
Qian shi: First Life
“You know your name, Shuang xi. Double happiness. Born on a qi xu. Double Seven Festival. You’re now thirty-three. Doubles align, lucky time. Time for making change. I see your look. You think I don’t know your secret. Twins! Amy Ayi—Auntie—saw you at OB. Don’t hide your face. Now I tell you my secret. Your father just die. Yes, not true that he died when you little. Sit-sit! Calm down with more tea. I’ll tell you how I met him.
“Your father, important man in politics. An American. Yang gui zi, white man. You have his height. Yang gui zi work in Hong Kong for US Consulate. I flee to Hong Kong from Wenhua Da Geming. Mao’s Revolution. I was star performer at famous club. I sing, he fall in love. He already married, but wife feng le. You know, you make circles with your finger. Yes, yes. In insane asylum. We secret meet many times. Then he pay for good lawyer. I move here. I join church, marry Chinese preacher. With him no kids. Raise you like his own. When he died, you remember. Sad time, good-heart man.
“Why then I didn’t marry yang gui zi? No, I can’t tell his name; I know your look. You Goog him up and cause all kind trouble! His wife still living. Even now! All my life, waiting, waiting. We write many times before he die. I’ll give you letters before you leave.
“Of course you meet him. Remember Uncle Churchill? No, that’s not his real name. You think we weren’t careful? One slip, ruin his repute…yes, yes, repyoo-ta-shon. You think English easy, try Chinese! One slip, ruin his career and turn his family against him. What you mean, what about my happiness? Family first. We have saying for this. Jia he wan shi xing. If home in harmony, all things prosper.
“Look at painting on that private screen. Yes, yes, privacy screen. Our love not possible on earth. Like famous Chinese romance legend. Two lovers, Niulang and Zhinu. Cowherd and weaver maid. Double Seven Festival. Celebrated on your birthday. How to say in Chinese? Qi xu. No, try again. ‘Ch’ sound. Chee. No, don’t make cave with your lips. Chee. Yes. Now xu. ‘Sh’ sound. Like ‘shu.’ Yes. Now both together. Right, but you look like a fish. I’m not making fun! Just tell you what I see.
“More tea? Bring your cup close. What’s the story of weaver maid and cowherd? I tell you. A young poor cowherd, Niulang, met a weaver beauty named Zhinu. What you say, when? Bu zhidao. Don’t know. Long time ago, happy? Weaver girl was Goddess of Heaven’s number seven daughter, visiting earth because bored by heaven. Wah, too stupid! But they fall in love, marry in secret. They have two children. Then Goddess find out. Ai yo, fairy daughter married peasant! Yes, cowherd is peasant. Politics? No, just story.
“Goddess make daughter return to heaven. Cowherd stuck on earth, but ox speaks to him. Yes, just happens. No more interrupt! So ox says, kill me and wear my skin. Cowherd cries, loving ox, but kills ox and takes children with him to heaven. But Goddess tears river in the sky. The river is Milky Way, divides lovers forever.
“But one day out of year all magpie fly to heaven and form a bridge. This bridge lets lovers together for one night. This night is night seven of seven moon. Yes, lunar calendar. They meet every festival. Meantime du ri ru nian. Each day drags like one year. This how I feel for your American father. In next life we together. Xia beizi. Next life.
“Why I tell you all this? You’re not like me. You have chance to make change. Go. Go divorce your man. Yes, I know he cheat. You OK on your own. You’ll have daughters. Teach them strong, how I used to be. How I know? Di liu gan. Six sense.”
My mother drank Lunesta oolong tea. Two bottles, 200 pills coaxed her into a never-ending sleep. She flew to the heavens, crossing the Milky Way to meet my father. Both of my fathers.