I found my Mama in the front yard garden, caught up by the next-door neighbor again. That mouth-running, frizz-hair broad in jean shorts was holding a finger in front of Mama’s face, bouncing it five times in front of her eyes. She was enunciating and talking at her real slow, like Mama was an animal that wanted a treat, and I didn’t like the way Mama was looking back: like an animal that wanted to run. I know hurt when I see it. You don’t have to tell me.
So I walked out of the garage with my arms crossed and said, “What’s going on?”
Mama’s body stiffened. She had her hands cupped in front of her, holding poppy flowers, the dirt from the roots freckling her yellow dishwashing gloves, which she prefers to regular gardening gloves. That’s what she’s always used. Latex is just easier to clean and a woman’s got to be practical if she wants her work to get done. And that’s what she was doing, getting work done, planting new poppy flowers, until this neighbor got in her face with her finger and slow talk.
“What’s going on, Lilah?”
“Oh, Maki, oh, good,” Lilah said. “Come here and listen to this.”
She swung her rawhide arm around Mama’s shoulder and turned her toward me as I walked over. Mama gave me a quizzical look, wide-eyed and eager, like she was trying to convince me to feel something other than what I was feeling. Mama, she’s so small, her eyes looked like they were taking over her entire face. They were—and I can say this for certain because I got up close—wet with unease.
I kicked the empty flower carton out of my way, spreading dirt between us.
“Your mother here was telling me about her new caretaking job?” the willowy broad said. “And you know what she said? She said, ‘My schedule is set illegulaly.’” She bounced her fingers in my face. She repeated, “Ille-gul-lay.”
Mama looked up at me and shrugged.
“I told her to never say that again!” Lilah said, rattling Mama’s shoulders. “My god, what if people think she’s saying illegally? What if they think she’s an illegal worker?”
“I’ve been a citizen since 1998,” Mama said.
“Well, all the more reason that we don’t want people thinking she’s an illegal.” Lilah flashed her teeth, her stupidity damping the air and wetting her lips. “And that’s why we were having ourselves a vocabulary lesson. Say it with me, Kimmi.” She lifted that finger again. “I-rre-gu-lar-ly.”
“I-lle-gu-lal-ly,” Mama repeated.
“That’s pretty good.” Lilah turned to me, leaned forward, and whispered, “The R’s are the hardest, aren’t they?”
She smiled widely at Mama, who tightly pulled the back of my shirt. I felt like I was being suspended from a skyscraper, way up high past the atmosphere of real life, with just that point—Mama’s grip on my dirty t-shirt—holding me back from falling, arms swinging.
“That’s good, though, Kimmi! That’s really, really good,” Lilah said in baby talk. She waved her arm once and walked back to her patch of the street.
“See you both on Garage Sale Day,” she said. “Looking forward to what you have for me this year.”
* * *
Mama says that I don’t have to live here forever, so it’s fine if I want to make a maniac out of myself. But Mama, this is where she lives. Right here, in this neighborhood, Laguna Hills, Southern California. Pays the mortgage, waters the plants, brings home souvenirs for the neighbors as signs of good faith whenever she goes out of town. She even brings home stuff for Lilah and her family of five. If I make trouble, Mama will be the one who will have to deal with whatever mess I leave behind.
“You’ll be on your way someday,” Mama says, her Japanese thick and alive with the Kansai dialect. “You’re going to leave home and you won’t have to make nice with my bad neighbors. You’ll be off in the world, finding bad ones of your own.”
But I want trouble. Ever since moving home this spring, I’ve wanted to mess something up real badly, specifically speaking: that skinny neighbor next door with knees that look like knuckles.
So, I offered to make trouble. “Tactfully,” I said to Mama, as she filled out a participation form for this year’s neighborhood Garage Sale Day. “I’ll be subtle about it. Tell her to please leave us alone, or else. Except without saying that, you know?”
“No. You don’t know subtlety. You can’t do what you don’t know,” Mama said, waving her pen at my chin on her shoulder. “Get away.”
“How about a casual, ‘Stop talking, please?’”
“Being chatty is not a crime.”
This is an understatement (most of what Mama says are understatements). My grandfather, on my papa’s side, a mean old bastard who spanked all the niceness out of me, always said that a chatty girl has her brains spilling out of her mouth. I don’t want to agree with him, but I can see it with Lilah. She particularly likes to talk about how nice it must be that we can afford a Steinway grand piano and she wished her boys could practice on something like that. Who can afford a Steinway? Papa literally died two years ago paying it off. I used to win competitions when I practiced on that piano as a little girl and I was great back then, real promising. Mama was so proud. But Lilah’s kids, they wouldn’t be any good.
Mama stared at a line on the form and read it over several times. She squinted, scrunching her whole face like a baby. Then, she checked off a little box: Yes, I’d love to be a part of Garage Sale Day!
“Why do they word it like that?” Mama asked. “I’d loooooove to.” She shook her head. “I don’t like when a piece of paper speaks for me.”
“Well, don’t let it,” I said and snatched the form from her. “Fuck this. Fuck Garage Sale Day.”
“Can you not?” Mama said, grabbing it back. “Why do you have to be so rough and tough about everything? Be gentle. Be considerate. Think before you act.”
Mama has said this to me for twenty-two years, and I know I need to do better. “I know you love me,” she always says. “I just wish you’d act like it.”
I sat down on the chair next to her and propped my elbows up on the kitchen table. Mama’s head was bent forward; she grimaced slightly.
I don’t look so much like Mama. She has fragile and soft features—feathery eyelashes, delicate bulb nose, fine wrinkles—as if they were drawn on with a script brush, while mine are more deep-set and severe, each part casting its own shadow across my face. I’ve been told we are both beautiful, each in our own way, younger and older.
“You think Lilah is going to pull her shit again this year?” I asked.
Mama groaned. “Who knows?” she said. “And who cares? You talk about Lilah so much I’m starting to think you two are best friends.”
“I care,” I said. “You’re getting played by her cheap ass.”
For the past two years, Lilah’s been coming to Mama’s garage sale and taking things, claiming that she has no money on her and that she’ll pay Mama back later.
“That’s the benefit of being next-door neighbors!” she says each year, waving her arm.
Has she ever brought Mama that money? Never.
Mama half-heartedly suggests that Lilah might actually be struggling, but I don’t believe it for a second. She’s always loading her van up with the things of her life: colorful suitcases and grocery bags; her husband in his aviator sunglasses, who always seems to be home; her boys in swim trunks and their boogie boards, all with the same dopey look like they don’t have a care in the world. What care? They are the poster family for white America, and still, they walk all over what fairness Mama had to earn then stretch, all with their dirty shoes still on.
“I swear, I dare her to try this year,” I said. “Right in front of me. I seriously wish she would.”
“It’s garage sale earnings. Fifteen, twenty bucks at most. So petty,” Mama said. “I am above those twenty dollars, and I don’t have a care about it.”
“Well, what do you care about, then?” I said, a bit louder than I intended.
Can you blame me? Mama, she tells me about all these ridiculous incidents with Lilah and acts as if I shouldn’t be bothered. Like I should just smile and say, “Oh,” the way she does.
Mama looked up from the form, a flush of hurt rising to her cheeks. “I’m happy. I’m fine,” she said. “Why won’t you believe me?” She put her glasses on and turned away. “All I want is a quiet and respected life.”
That’s all Mama ever says she wants: a quiet life in which she can be respected as much as she respects. She’s gotten to a point where she finally feels like she can be treated as equal to the people in this neighborhood, and she’s learned to handle herself. She drives long distances in the fast lane on the freeway, writes decent goodwill letters to creditors who her immigrant friends owe (she learned how to write these when my papa’s computer business was stuck in a rut), and returns things to the store to ask for her money back. She couldn’t do any of these things when she came to the states, pregnant with me, and it wasn’t like people were making it easy for her. She’s gotten corrected, gotten told, gotten spoken over and ignored—those are things that happened on the daily, at the store or the post office. Now, at fifty-five, she feels like she finally has all she needs. No right to ask for anything else.
But my Mama, she deserves more than that.
* * *
When I first met Lilah, Mama wasn’t even home. She was away in Japan for what turned out to be two months, watching her younger sister, who has a leak in her skull that makes brain fluid drip down her spine. The problem is that doctors can’t find the crack and so there’s no way of fixing it. Some even say that Aunt is just imagining it, that she chooses to cry for most of the day, to float in a bathtub for hours with her clothes on when the vertigo becomes unbearable. That’s why I say Mama was watching Aunt—people get suicidal when they are called liars about their pain.
I came home a week before Mama left for Japan. No one else wanted me, and I didn’t have the money to force otherwise. I also got into a bit of trouble up in Santa Ana, where I had been waitressing in a bar. It was a pretty good gig, considering the owner, a thick-armed woman with red hair, let me stay in the closet space above the place. The rent was nothing, came straight out of my tip, and I got to eat most nights for free.
I don’t know why I expected it to last like that, considering that I’m always getting into trouble. Or rather, trouble picks a fight with me, and I don’t have the kind of character to hold myself back from taking the first swing. My metaphor is sort of relevant: one night in February, a white girl threw a plate of empty oyster shells in my face after her boyfriend smacked my ass. He smacked my ass. Anyway, I went into her face like I was digging my way to the motherland.
It had been a stressful spring. The lines under Mama’s eyes puffed into sacks and her hair started springing up a cloudy gray. She suddenly got old, which scared me. I never really thought about Mama as a normal person who had to follow the rules of age. But there she was, becoming smaller by the day.
The least I could do was maintain order while she was gone in Japan, of course not the same way she would, but the best I could. So, I treated the house and the yard like it was made of glass, walked lightly on my toes around every corner. I tried to stay quiet. After a while, I felt like even my limbs were turning into fine china, the way I stayed aware of them, moved them in a delicate, refined way. I felt dangerous being that sensitive, completely unlike myself, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I tried not to touch anything in the house. Who knows what I might’ve ruined?
Anyway, I was keeping house pretty good. Then, one Tuesday, Lilah yoo-hoo’s at me from her front yard to complain to me about the vines wrapped around the gate wall separating her weak backyard from Mama’s gorgeous one.
“You see, my fruit trees don’t get any light because the vines from your side are blocking the sun,” she said, pointing at the lush leaves in full bloom. “I wondered if we could just trim the vines a bit, just so our yard gets some light.”
This was my first time meeting the woman, and she looked harmless enough: thin and long-limbed, wide-mouthed, a large block of a nose, and that frizzy hair—like a walking scarecrow. Her three boys, all just different-sized versions of her, stood behind, listening. I had no problems with her then—I very politely told her that every plant in our yard belonged to Mama, so nothing could be done until she returned from Japan.
Sure enough, I woke up the next morning with a chainsaw whirring outside my window like it was devouring Mama’s whole house. I screamed and ran out to see Lilah’s gardeners ripping the lush vines off the gate, like peeling sinew from bone. Leaves scattered the air, but I could see through it. Our garden was completely exposed to our neighbors’, as was the neighbors’ to us, and I knew then that they would be able to see right into our lives.
When I hopped the gate into her yard, Lilah held out her open hands and shook them at me. She looked terrified. She tripped over a planter as she backed away from me.
“We were just trimming our side!” she said. “We were trimming our side, but we decided to take it all off, because we didn’t want the dead leaves from our wall to fall into your yard, and your mother would’ve had to clean it all up! She is going to be so glad that we cut it off, I know it.”
“I told you not to touch the vines,” I said, moving toward her. “Those are my mother’s vines that she’s been growing for years.”
“But your mother’s going to be so glad,” she said again. “She’ll agree with me.”
I kept moving toward her to the edge of her pool. I could’ve knocked her straight out for ruining my mama’s yard the way she did. God knows I would have. The disappointment that I felt in myself I wouldn’t be able to shake unless I had something to beat on. I thought of my mama, crouching in the dirt, talking to each and every flower softly, asking it to please bloom for her, that she had been waiting all winter to meet them. All that green—gone.
But like I said, I want to change. Be better. And, so I screamed once and held my body tight as I dragged myself back to the house. Be soft, be considerate, think before you act.
“Your mother will agree with me!” Lilah called after me. “I did it for her, too, to help, is all! She’ll be glad I did it!”
* * *
There are these insensitive things people do and say without even knowing, without even thinking about it, and in some cases, with good intentions. I’ve heard people say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In Japanese, it’s called “mistakes of thought.”
I have this image that guides the way I understand people: third-grade, Mama seated in a plastic chair made for kids, mixing different colored paints onto individual plates for some stupid history project, while the white mothers of my white friends stand in a group and laugh in a faraway conversation. Whenever there was a group project, these mothers would delegate all the hands-on, glue-this, cut-that work to Mama, which she did perfectly, so as not to embarrass me in front of my friends. They never asked for opinions, never gave her a chance to fuck up. They didn’t mean to talk about Mama (“Can she do this?” “She should do that”) like she wasn’t even there. They just assumed she didn’t care, because they assumed she didn’t understand. And that’s what those white mothers, Lilah, what they all do: they assume.
Whenever I think of those memories, it makes my chest feel like it’s going to burst, just swell up and explode and take me off this earth. When I feel like that, I go and hug the living breath out of Mama, who squeals and kicks like a little girl. She acts oblivious. She looks at me round-eyed and says that she really enjoyed doing those school projects, that they were really fun. She wishes there had been more such projects, but no one really wanted me to be in their group after I began swinging punches at anyone who tried to confront me or even give me advice. Those were the years I stopped listening.
“You’ll drive yourself out of your mind if you think about all that’s mean or not mean,” Mama says. “When people are mean, you can brush it off, because you know they’re wrong. And somewhere inside, they know they’re wrong, too. But when people, without meanness in their heart, mistreat you or hurt. Well, then, what can you do? They say they are just trying to help.” She laughs, soft gasps of air. “All those people—what can you do?”
She never even got mad about Lilah tearing up her vine wall. She just laughed once and patted my back as I scowled. I don’t know how something like me could have ever come from someone like Mama. I feel so sorry for her sometimes. It can’t be easy, being my mother.
* * *
Someone decided that summer is garage sale season in Laguna Hills, and so once a week in August, our whole neighborhood becomes one large flea market. There was no such thing when I was in school, but I guess they started Garage Sale Day the year I left, the year a bunch of people’s children left home and houses needed to be emptied of their memories. Now, whenever the weather gets too hot, middle-aged folks in Orange County get divorced or have garage sales. As for Mama, she lights incense for my papa and finds another thing to let go from the house.
“I want to die absolutely weightless,” she said, hauling out her tole-painted plates and trays from way back when I was still a toddler and she was still an artist. “The things I need,” she patted her chest, “I want to be here.”
I agreed with her, so I’d been trying to pack my heart, little by little. I had even started looking into classes at the community college because I wanted to be able to speak French. Another language other than Japanese and English could really take Mama and me places, beginning with Paris.
“Maybe we can make it this fall,” I said. “I’ll be done with this summer class and I’ll be able to ask ‘Où sont les toilettes’”
“What does that mean?” Mama asked.
“It means that we can go to Paris and know where to pee.”
“We can’t pee in Paris unless we make a million dollars on Garage Sale Day,” Mama said. “Maybe not a million, but like a good nine hundred thousand.”
“We can do it!” I screeched. “We can make it!”
Mama’s garage sale is something of a highlight in our neighborhood thanks to her toiletry sets. When my papa was still alive and working, he’d stay in hotels in cities up, down, and across California, and every single time, he’d come home with his suitcases stuffed with amenities and toiletries. Mama begged for him to stop bringing them home since no one used them, especially not my papa, but he never listened. Eventually, a corner of my parents’ closet was piled halfway up the wall with shampoos, conditioners, toothbrushes, shower caps, plastic razors, bath salts, and even mini travel sewing kits from when he stayed at the really nice places. The poor in a person’s blood, Mama always said of my papa, it stays forever.
But Mama soon found a way to chip away at the mountain of bathroom conveniences, when she began packaging the individual items up into little sets. She puts one bottle of shampoo with a bottle of conditioner and body wash, throws in a couple other goodies for men and women alike, and makes a perfectly useful little travel bag, full of everything you would need for a night away. She even color coordinates the items and wraps them up in clear cellophane, ties the whole thing up with matching string, which she curls to give it bounce. They are works of art and functional besides. She sells them at her garage sale for a dollar a pop, and they all go by the end of the day.
“These are so detailed, so delicate!” people are always telling her. “You don’t ever find anything like this in American stores.”
* * *
This year, Garage Sale Day started at nine. By eleven, Mama’s toiletries were half gone.
“This year, I got it wrapped up much quicker,” she told one repeat customer, who was carrying half a dozen toiletry packs on Mama’s painted dining platters. “My daughter’s home, and she helped me.”
Mama smiled big as she took seven dollars for the whole thing. The woman glanced up at me, and I realized she was the mother of a girl I used to go to middle school with. Emily? Cassidy? She nodded quickly and shuffled off to her Lexus before I got a chance to ask her.
“You should’ve charged more for that platter,” I said. “It’s worth much more than four bucks.”
“Bah,” Mama said. “It’s amateur work. I feel bad that I even charged for it.”
“Can you stop?” I said firmly. “You should’ve charged more.”
The air was soaked with heat—sticky, sleepy hot like it gets in Japan during the summer. I crouched on the ground by Mama’s lawn chair and watched the garage sale move as if through the flame of a candle. More and more things went, things with memories: a three-foot stuffed boa constrictor with a red felt tongue, a paper chandelier, familiar clothes, old lamps with fish painted on the shade and a little lure at the end of the drawstring. Someone even bought a second-place trophy I won in a piano competition when I was twelve. Mama had peeled off the little plate etched with my name, so the trophy—a vague prize spired with a winged figure—would, I suppose, be useable for a good child somewhere.
I wondered when I had stopped trying to be good. It was as if I woke one morning and felt the need to fight off everything that came near me. It had not been so much the adults or the smugness of my white friends that I was resisting. It was the fear that my own obedience and love for these people would become the spider’s silk that wrapped around and around me in an organized lattice, trapping me forever.
How did such a thing happen? In between which object of my memories had I let my warmth shrink into the darkness of my own fears, all the anger? I don’t know. There was nothing I could do. I could only drown in these useless and overdue thoughts until a little past noon, just as the sun began to shift down, when Lilah came.
I knew she was coming even before I saw her: I heard the side gate open next door, the wet panting of their enormous gray poodle, and the thwapping of her boys’ flip-flops against the sidewalk. Then, by the time I lifted my hand to block the sun from my eyes, Lilah was there with her hands on her hips.
She scanned our driveway, and then she went to work. I mean she really went. She pushed grown men aside to grab for chipped china plates, she made her middle son take off his cargo shorts and try on a pair of my old sweatpants, and she tossed scarves and socks in and out of boxes like she was filing mail. She tapped larger items like side tables and a royal-blue rocking sofa chair, screaming out, “Kimmi! This one. This one, too. You got it, Kimmi?” Her face was fixed in this boxy, aggressive smile that didn’t fall once.
Everyone was staring at her, and every time she screamed out Mama’s name, they looked at her, too. Mama wore a tight smile and gestured “OK” with her hand. Our garage sale became overwhelmingly quiet, or at least to me. It sounded like there was no one there but Lilah. I wrote down each thing this woman was claiming for herself and it wasn’t going to be no twenty dollars. It wasn’t an amount that could be casually pushed aside. Even if what she wanted was worth just two pennies—I’m talking about principle.
Lilah shoveled the toiletry sets into her green, reusable bag—three, four, five. She was completely without fear or reservations, moved with the conviction of a seasoned thief. After twenty minutes, she strode over.
“Well,” she said. “You guys have outdone yourselves this year.”
“Oh yes, thanks,” Mama said quietly. She began bagging Lilah’s items.
“You guys refurnish or remodel or something?” Lilah continued. “Because I’d imagine you’d have less and less things to give away after a while, but you always have more. Nice stuff, too. I love it!”
“How many toiletry sets did you get?” I asked
“Oh,” Lilah said. She peeked into her bag and counted. “Five.”
“Let me see,” I said.
Lilah’s smile froze. “I mean, there’s five in there, I told you.” When I said nothing, she dipped the tote forward. “See one, two, three…”
I added up the total and felt a rush of excitement upon seeing it: twenty-one items came out to $56.15. But then when you feel trapped in yourself the way I sometimes do, you can feel emotions churn inside and get crushed in between the shifts. My joy quickly tumbled into a genuine fear that this money would be robbed of us and I was taken by the dread of what had to be done to get it back.
I held up the receipt to Lilah.
“Wow,” she said. She scratched her head. “Wow, really? Are you sure?”
“You cleaned us out,” I said.
“I didn’t expect it to be that much.”
“It is that much, so, you know.”
Lilah stared at me for a moment, but her face split into a smile as she looked at Mama.
“Well, can I get a discount?” she said to her. “A next-door neighbor special?”
She laughed, her horse teeth champing down on her voice. She waved her hand at Mama like she was going by on a parade float and Mama was in the crowd.
“Go inside,” I said to Mama, who wavered, but said nothing.
“Fifty-six, fifteen,” I said to Lilah.
Lilah dropped her hand. She looked at all the things—the broken DVD player, the clothes, the leather photo album with a scratch on the back cover—bagged up in front of her.
“Well,” she said as she shook her head with a chuckle and reached into her bag. “I don’t think I brought that much cash. I have, like, twenty on me at most.” She handed me the bill. “Can I bring you the rest later?”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll hold these things here until you get here. We’ll put it back if you’re not here in an hour.”
I was calm. My voice was like glass. I could hear Mama’s breathing, her presence like a ghost as she stood completely still behind me. I was dangerous again, breakable.
“I thought I’d take the things right now. I—” Lilah paused and turned to point at her boys. “We can get these things off your back. You want more space. You don’t want these things lying around.”
“When did we say that?” I asked. “We don’t mind.”
Lilah seemed to notice for the first time that everyone was staring at her. Strangers, neighbors, everyone. They had stopped their conversations and were silent, watching us. Lilah tucked a strand of damp hair away from her face, and then moved her arms in every which way: crossing them, putting them on her hips, raising them up, pointing at the junk she got. She grunted and scoffed. And all the while doing this, she glared at Mama, never at me.
“Kimmi,” she said in an exhausted voice. “I don’t know why this has to be so difficult. I’m just trying to make things easier for the both of us. We’re neighbors. We’re supposed to be friendly with one another, do you understand? Why can’t I bring you the money later? Why are you acting like we’re strangers?”
Suddenly, I don’t know why, I felt elated, relieved. My heart felt like it was lighting up with a million Christmas lights.
“You won’t bring us the money later, because you’ve pulled this shit for the past two garage sales and you’ve never paid us back,” I said. “Two years, Lilah. And now you come back again? No way in hell. Maybe with Mama, but definitely not with me.”
Lilah’s face looked like it was lifting off her skull. She lowered her voice.
“I paid her,” she said almost in a whisper. “I’m almost certain that I did.”
“No, you did not, Lilah,” I said. “Don’t call us liars. We’re not the ones who are cheating and stealing here.”
“Kimmi,” Lilah whispered sharply. “I paid, right? I paid, didn’t I?”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” I said, putting my hand right into her face. “Who do you think you are? This is our home. Are you trying to call us liars in our own home?”
“If I haven’t paid, it’s an honest mistake,” Lilah said, louder now, not at me, but imploring the crowd as they slowly backed away from us. “I forgot. I must have! I mean, I’ve got three boys.”
“What does that even mean?” I shout. “Everyone has kids. Everyone is busy. But no one ‘forgets’ to bring their next-door neighbor money she owes for two goddamn years in a row.”
“I didn’t mean to, I swear!”
“You people never mean to,” I said.
“Maki!” Mama shouted in Japanese. “You said what you needed and this is over.”
“She forgot, okay?” shouted the oldest son, stretching out an open palm. “She said so!”
“ You little shit. You would take after your nasty mother.”
“Please stop!” Lilah shouted, shielding her boys dramatically. “You’re being crazy!”
I felt my body go cold as I pushed aside the table in front of me and moved toward her.
“I’m crazy? Because I ask for what belongs to us? You treat my mother like she’s nothing, walk all over her, and why? Is it because she’s Asian? Is it? Are you a racist, Lilah?”
“No!” Lilah shouted back. She stumbled out of our driveway, gathering her bag and pulling her kids. “No, no, no!”
“Where do you think you’re going?” I said. “Who’s going to pay for this stuff?”
“I don’t want it.” Lilah’s eyes were wet.
“Sure you do,” I said. “You want all this junk. That’s why you came for the third year in a row.”
“Racist!” I screamed.
A large, white man with white hair started to approach me. “Hey!” he shouted. “That’s quite enough! Stop this foolishness. Race has nothing to do with this!”
He pulled out three twenty-dollar bills from his pocket and wiggled them above my head at arm’s length like they were strips of meat. He pushed me lightly on the shoulder, the bills crinkling into my shirt.
“Here,” he said. “You happy? Here’s your money. Now leave this poor woman and her children alone.”
Mama’s hands gripped my arm, fingers digging into my skin, pulling me with a small might, but I flung her off. Then, I was gone. I was past the man and his money, on the sidewalk, the straps of Lilah’s bag coiled around and around my fists, as I pulled her down to the ground. She fell back with a gasp and I shook the bag with everything in me, until everything inside had splattered out and Lilah’s shoulder was tanned a deep, raw red. Mama somewhere, everywhere, screamed my name, but things were moving too fast.
Lilah crouched on her knees and hands, sobbing in great heaves.
“Where’s our money?” I screamed. “Where you going? You live right next-door, you can’t run! Where are you going?”
Lilah clutched her boys. She dug into her sons’ pockets for their wallets. She tore open the black and blue Velcro and pulled out their cash, as the boys stood there, dumbstruck, with the insides of their pockets hanging out of their pants like tongues. She pulled out all of their money, every last bill, and shoved it hard into my gut as she scrambled to her feet.
“Take it!” she shouted. “Take it all from us!”
She ran home, a child under each arm, her youngest trailing behind like an echo.
* * *
Fury is a terrible thing, I know. It’s born at the end of the evolution of feelings, as something explosive, quick, and festered, out to hurt anyone and everyone. I haven’t had a time when I’ve become fury and am not met with the same ferocity from the other side.
Except with Mama. I’ve been yelled at in school, in churches, in public parks, in summer camps, in Disneyland, in the bedroom, in hospitals, in jail, and in my head with no one else but my own thoughts. And Mama stood up for me. I can actually remember the last time she got furious with anyone—it was at my middle school principal, who had pointed at me as I sat in a little chair and called me a menace. I don’t even remember what I had done, there were so many things I did. But Mama, she looked at me, and she slapped the principal’s hand out of my face. She screamed so much in Japanese that the principal eventually apologized, overwhelmed by Mama’s fury. She didn’t say anything to me on the car ride home. She never yelled or spanked or cursed at me. She just cried. Since then, Mama has always told me that, with her, I have a place to run back to with my tail between my legs, no matter what.
But now, Mama is moving back to Japan, into her sister’s home. She’s selling the house and packing the few things she has away into suitcases and boxes. No one asked her to leave, but she says that it’s time.
“They stare,” Mama says. “And they talk, too.”
When she says, “they,” she means Lilah. She’s been going around to everyone, telling her about what I’ve done or rather, what Mama allowed me to do. Sometimes a police cruiser will pass by the house at random times and roll down the window. This neighborhood, Mama says, maybe it was never the right place for her.
I cry. I haven’t done that in a while, but these days, I can’t hold my head up without it feeling like it’s going to drop right back into my hand. I watch Mama, small and gray-haired, folding her life back to the starting point—full boxes with addresses in Japan—and my head becomes filled with all the things I wish I were. I wish I were a child again. I wish I were a clairvoyant so that I would’ve been able to look into the future on so many occasions. I wish I were born and raised in Japan. I wish, I wish, I wish, and none of it true.
A week before she was set to leave, I begged Mama not to move. This was her home. I promised I would leave and never bother her in this neighborhood again. I would leave her in peace with her neighbors and her quiet, respected life that she had earned for herself. She stroked my back.
“I want to be able to fight for myself in a language I can speak,” she joked. “I want to say bitch to a bitch’s face.”
“Stop,” I said. “Just stop it.”
“There are more important things to me than a quiet, respected life,” she said.
“What’s important to me,” I screamed, pounding on the wall, “is for you stop being such a fucking doormat all the time and to stand up for yourself against these horrible people! Be somebody for once!”
I felt the fire again, the rush that thrusts through my veins and pushes my eyes out of their sockets, making every part of my body alive and lifted, stronger than anything I can even explain, like I can burn down the world if I wanted.
But then, there was the dread. There is always the dread. It came over me and extinguished my strength when Mama, in a soft breath, said, “I’m sorry.”
That neighbor, she opened a crack in me that I’ve been trying to seal for months, years, maybe my whole life, and all I want to do is to get myself back.
Youmi is 28-years-old and recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her work has been published in the Chicago Quarterly Review and Subtropics.