The summer we visited my aunt and uncle’s new house in Changsha, they were having dozens of lemon trees planted in the front yard. A large team of workers had been hired for the task. They were loud and bold—sitting where they liked, setting up makeshift tents here and there on the lawn, telling jokes and drinking beers. When dusk fell, dirty old trucks drove them away, and my sister and I would kick the fruit from some of the older trees into the plaster fountain where they floated in lazy clusters.
“This is western,” my mother said, looking at the trees, the house, the plaster fountain. “Those trees aren’t native here.”
When we went to China, my mother loved to inventory the things that had and hadn’t changed, making sure her home wasn’t vanishing beneath her feet. She noted everything, new and old, with the same solemnity, nodding in resignation at the ugly new high-rises that looked like they had leapt blindly forth from the earth, giving the slightest smile to the older men sitting in plastic chairs in the shade, shirts pulled up over their stomachs, cigarettes hanging indifferently from their age-worn lips. China was like a teenage boy growing too fast, my mother always said, his clothes never fitting him properly before he started growing again. My sister pointed out a chicken pen, half-hidden and coy behind a screen of stirring lemon branches.
“When we were kids they just ran around,” my mom said. “Even inside.”
Her own mother had once given her chicks to take care of. One night my mother had forgotten to close the hatch and woke up in the morning to find that foxes had eaten them all.
When my mother told that story her voice had the sadness of a child, a regret she tried to make light for us.
* * *
When our flight landed from Beijing on that July evening, the air was like a stew, thick and sticky on our skin. I knew that the thin cotton dresses I had packed wouldn’t be enough to free me from the heat. Even naked, there would have been no escape. My sister would later chop all of her hair off to under her ears, but she still had a young child’s brazen lack of self-consciousness and didn’t care how she looked, something that I had lost a while ago.
We were told by my aunt beforehand that we’d be picked up by her driver, and that she was very sorry she and my uncle couldn’t greet us themselves; he had an important board dinner that night. He was an executive for the airport, and though I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I knew it allowed us to walk off the plane from Beijing straight into a waiting black car, avoiding the hectic shuttling through the airport. When I pictured this driver, I imagined someone old, faithful to the family for years and also faithful to the old way of life, someone worn down and servile. When we stepped out of the plane, however, some entirely other figure was waving his arms at us from a car parked below. He was tall and young, with a very round head that made him look even younger, and hooded, polite eyes. He was wearing a pair of ill-fitting black slacks and a loose button-down rolled hastily to the elbow, making him look like a schoolboy who had ambivalently donned a uniform. There were ovals of sweat under his arms, shamelessly visible as he waved, but that was forgivable in this heat.
He told us to call him Xiao Wu. Xiao simply meant young—so to this day, I do not know what his full name was. He drove my uncle’s shiny black car, a proud symbol of wealth. Xiao Wu himself, I realized later, was a symbol of the same kind. He spoke Chinese to my mother.
“I’ll take you to a restaurant to eat dinner,” he said. “Hao, hao,” my mother confirmed.
“Is he our cousin?” my sister whispered loudly to me.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. In China, mysterious people drifted in and out of our lives, claiming to be family, never to be seen again.
“These are my daughters, Mei and Fang,” my mother said, giving him our Chinese names. I once told my mother that I thought my Chinese name sounded like a boy’s name, and she laughed and asked me how I could possibly know. Xiao Wu looked in the mirror and waved. He waved at us like we were little children, and it embarrassed me.
He brought us to a restaurant, and my mother ordered the food as Mei and I prodded each other. I sometimes felt that Mei made me act younger than I was; I was fifteen, but her unashamed youth threw us all into a state of childishness, and I found myself acting like a ten-year-old, too. Xiao Wu was silent beside us. When my mother went to the bathroom, Mei and I quieted down, aware of our momentary independence.
“Are you and Mei sisters?” Xiao Wu asked me, in Chinese. “You speak Chinese?”
“Yes, we’re sisters,” I responded in Chinese.
“You look very different,” he said. “She looks like a Chinese person. You don’t have the same look.”
At this time I was growing out a sad drugstore blonde dye job, and I was fiercely loyal to a Californian aesthetic I would later age out of—tanned skin, sand-scrubbed bare limbs, abused Styrofoam flip flops.
“Well, we’re sisters,” Mei said loudly at him in English. Xiao Wu laughed and shrugged and lit a cigarette. When my mother returned he was respectful and silent again, offering her a cigarette with a gentle gesture, which she turned down.
To make up for the lack of a fitting arrival, my uncle took us to dine the next day in the private room of an extravagantly furnished restaurant in the city, and invited along a number of those mysterious unnamed ‘family members’ to make the atmosphere even more grand and welcoming. Xiao Wu sat with us, along with two other silent and similarly clad men, whom I understood to be other drivers. They didn’t speak once during the meal, but from time to time got up as a group to leave. I watched them out the window, as they stood around smoking by the cars, sleeves rolled up, kicking at invisible things on the pavement. The adults all spoke the Hunan dialect, which Mei and I had never learned. We entertained ourselves instead by playing with our food. Mei challenged me to stuff an entire mantou into my mouth at once. I had the soft white globe shoved partway behind my teeth until I saw Xiao Wu looking at me and laughing.
“Children,” he said, smiling, and I was very serious for the rest of dinner.
* * *
The first week exhausted me. My aunt and the others claiming to be my relatives interrogated me, asking my age, what I liked to do, how my grades were in school, how I liked China, everything. I had little to say. Then they would say they were going to practice their English on me. They would spit out a muddle of words and then laugh loudly at themselves like children. I didn’t know what to do—to encourage them, to laugh, to escape. I didn’t know what they wanted from me.
* * *
My mother and I picked lemons outside one cool evening, when the mosquitoes were less ferocious. She made a face at the fruit as she examined them, still not forgiving them for their invasion.
“This house looks so silly,” she said, when we sat down to look at the sun setting behind the roof. “They’ve built it to look like something European.”
“How should they have built it?” I asked, foolishly imagining grand, ornate buildings like the ones in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
“They have money but no integrity,” my mother said. “The minute they get money they throw away all the old culture and buy up all these tacky, Western-imitation things.”
“Ma,” I said.
“They should have pride in their own culture,” my mother said. “It’s embarrassing how all these Chinese care about is looking like something they’re not.”
The new house had been arranged for my uncle by the airport. I understood him to be a Very Important Man, important enough to let us crawl directly down off the airplane into a private car, important enough to pay for a feast of thirty beautiful dishes and countless bottles of liquor without furrowing his brow. When I was very young he had once taken me to his office in the airport, sat me down indulgently in a leather chair. I remember granite, jade, a lovely tea set I wasn’t allowed to touch. My uncle was tall and broad and liked to smoke while standing on the front terrace, watching the workers moving about on the lawn. In the house he mostly sat on the huge, curving couch in front of the TV, so big that ten people could comfortably sprawl across it, joking to me that he never let work come inside the house. So he wasn’t often in the house, either. When I woke up and came downstairs, he and Xiao Wu would be standing in the foyer with the door open, as if itching to burst forth back into the world, Xiao Wu standing still and poised, waiting for my uncle to pull his shoes on. I thought my uncle would be telling him what to do—go here, take me there, change the oil, wash the car—but they never spoke. It was somehow very impressive to me, this wordlessness between them, how they could simultaneously straighten up and walk out the door without having to agree on who was going first, who would duck out of the way to let the other open his umbrella, if it was raining—all those minute logistical things that could so easily turn two people clumsy. Xiao Wu seemed to approach everything with such calm. There was something about his assuredness, his languid ease, that made me forget he was a paid employee. With his silence, in comparison to my family’s loud and tedious efforts to get to know me, I often found myself relieved in his easy presence. I thought that Xiao Wu must really be an excellent driver, a cut above all the others.
My aunt and her daughter, my cousin Tiantian, were always about the house, Tiantian having just graduated from university and ‘taking some time off.’ I didn’t remember much about Tiantian, except once when she had visited us in the US, she’d gone on a walk around the neighborhood and had come back holding mushrooms she’d picked. In America, one did not simply pick mushrooms from the ground. She was tall and broad like her father, and her face was round and pale like a benevolent moon. As my mother and my aunt prepared food together, my aunt would start talking endlessly about Tiantian, as if she was laying out her worries along with the dried green peppers.
“I don’t know when Tiantian is going to get married,” my aunt said to my mother as they chopped the peppers, filling the air with an invisible sting that made me sneeze. Her hands were already nervous looking, and when she cooked they became quite red and made her look even smaller, prone to breakage. When she spoke about Tiantian getting married, they twisted and clutched each other.
“She’s just graduated,” my mother said.
“She will be thirty soon,” my aunt said, in a mournful reply.
“Maybe she can marry Xiao Wu,” Mei whispered to me, eavesdropping. Somehow, that made sense to both of us—that the world each of these people occupied was as small as we saw it to be—we never imagined Tiantian’s university peers, the women my aunt played board games with on Thursday nights, my uncle’s colleagues. Perhaps I only really wondered about the expanse of Xiao Wu’s world, he who felt so mysterious, who only appeared when needed and then disappeared, in my mind, off into an entirely different world until he was summoned again—like some sort of spirit.
* * *
There were more big dinners, many more, with many more family members and family friends emerging from and melting back into their own big black cars, never to be seen again. My mother knew them all, which I found impressive. Xiao Wu joined us for every dinner, and we were mutually silent, me from inability to communicate, him from the boundaries of his position. Sometimes he would tell Mei and I to try certain dishes. We sat in drowsy, well-fed silence as the adults rapid-fired important conversations, about the government, protests, relocating farmers to expand the airport, things that seemed massive but were just sounds to me, vocabulary words I hadn’t learned yet. When the adults spoke Chinese, it felt like real life stopped—everything I understood became reduced to food, the weather, the simplest of instructions. Sometimes we would play cards with Xiao Wu, and sometimes he told us tales of his own life that we could crudely understand.
“I was born in a very wealthy family,” he would say, passing a bowl of red-braised meat to us, “but my father disowned me because I disgraced the family.”
“What did you DO?” demanded Mei.
“It’s a secret,” he would say, with a wink. Somehow, that was enough of an answer for me. Or he would tell us of how he had been to all seven continents, how he’d lived on a ship for a year, how he had been everything from a farmer to a sailor to an heir—to a driver.
“You haven’t lived long enough to do all that stuff,” Mei would say, rolling her eyes and flicking rice at him. His tales were so vivid with blue seas and distant shores and all the magnificence of the world, things I only saw through the likes of photographs and films, that I didn’t question him.
* * *
The house had no centralized air conditioning, and so the only thing to do once you had showered was to run down and lie beneath the trees out front. It was a horrible feeling, showering in that humid air, stepping out and feeling none of the relief of the water evaporating off of your skin. It stayed heavy in the creases of your body. Mei and I would lay face up beneath the airy green branches. Mei would want to say hello to the workers, but I was shy, so we laid as far from the workers’ tents as possible. We wondered if it would hurt if a lemon fell on our faces. Once, Xiao Wu was walking by and Mei asked him if he knew, a forwardness I never could have mustered. He stopped to think.
“I think a lemon has fallen on my face before,” he said. “It hurt a little. Like a child had hit me in the face.”
And then he suddenly grabbed the branch above our heads as if about to shake, and we shrieked, seeing the yellow fruits bend and bow dangerously on their stems.
“Come in and help your aunt while she cooks,” my mom called from the terrace, and we had to leave our shrieks and laughter behind under the trees and run to her.
“I don’t like that Xiao Wu much,” my mother said to me as we washed vegetables. “He seems like a snake, always watching, never letting you know what he’s thinking.”
“He’s just quiet,” I said. “And he’s a driver, he’s not supposed to talk.”
“And having a driver is just silly,” my mother continued. “It’s just another way to brag about your money.”
“I like him,” I said.
“Of course you do,” she said. “You’re young, and don’t know things.” I sulked as I washed the dirt from the remaining leaves.
As a child, I did not yet understand my mother’s place in China, the anxious longing she felt returning to the land that had once been her home. I noticed that she had become mysterious and distant upon coming to my uncle’s house, but attributed it to the novelty of hearing her speak in another language, as if I were now looking at her through filtered glass. As an adult, I would return to my uncle’s house alone, and realize how strange and difficult it was for my mother to walk through the door of their Western-imitation home, even to look about her at the surrounding city, clamoring for the sky, devouring its old self. I mostly noticed how different my mother and my aunt were from each other. My aunt was grudgingly admired in the family for “marrying rich.” Once she’d married my uncle, she’d dropped out of university and become a homemaker.
My mother had a master’s degree and a job. My aunt already seemed like a grandmother, though she was younger than my mother, or how I would picture a grandmother—her hair was curled in an old-fashioned way, her face folded gently into a pleated smile; she bustled about the house, adjusting and cleaning here, cooking there. She squeezed my face and stroked my hair like I thought a grandmother would. Her favorite indulgence was soaking her feet in hot water at the end of the day. My mother, on the other hand—perhaps because she was my mother—was timeless; she was slender and elegant, she was well-dressed and read great novels from around the world. But she cooked only Chinese food at home, spoke Chinese to us, told us rich stories of her childhood—and so I had the greatest respect for her, as a woman with awareness, balancing culture with worldliness, a love of her roots with a desire to participate in the rest of the world. In my uncle’s house, however, she joined my aunt in soaking her feet, the two of them sitting upon the massive couch, talking about whether Tiantian would ever get married or be happy.
Tiantian mostly kept to herself, though she wasn’t unfriendly. She showed us her room when we met her, and told us we could play with the collection of figurines and toys she’d accumulated through her childhood. Her room, unlike the others, was on the main floor, near the living room with the big couch. She spent most of her time folded up on the huge couch watching TV programs, her thin hair sticking limply to her face. When my uncle came home he would sit next to his daughter, in tired, pleasant silence. I never heard him say he was worried about Tiantian getting married.
I was in Tiantian’s room, looking at the figurines, when I saw Xiao Wu walk past the door. I stepped out.
“What are you doing in here?” I said to his back. He turned slowly, as if he’d expected me to stop him, humoring me in my demand.
“Why shouldn’t I be here?” he said.
“I’ve never seen you inside before,” I said.
“I go inside all the time,” he said easily. “I have to drive your aunt to the store. What should I do, wait outside? Am I not good enough to go inside?”
His voice was light, joking. I noticed that he wore a beautiful watch—something big and extravagant and strange, I thought, for a driver. He raised his wrist and winked.
“You like my watch?” he asked.
I shrugged and went back into Tiantian’s room, unable to end the conversation properly with my limited Chinese. He came and leaned in the doorway.
“Little foreign girl, do you see me as a servant?” he said, still smiling.
How could I tell him that of everyone, I liked him best? That I wasn’t a little girl? But he slid off the door and kept walking. The next time I saw him, the fancy watch was gone.
* * *
One night my aunt wanted to have a chicken for dinner.
“All right,” my mother said, walking to the door. “Which chicken?”
My aunt looked at her with a blank expression, and then seemed to realize what ma meant, her face softening and closing in embarrassment.
“Jiejie, we don’t eat those chickens in the pen,” she said quietly. My mother scoffed.
“You don’t eat those chickens?” my mother said. “Are you kidding? What are they for, then? I’ll go get one right now.”
My mother had told Mei and I about killing her first chicken, wringing its delicate neck with her young hands. I had been in awe of my mother, understanding that she was not soft and sentimental like we were. She could face the necessity of killing something, a strength I could not imagine. Seeing my mother, wearing her elegant clothes, off to kill a chicken, just like that. It filled me with a strange pride.
“Killing chickens with our hands…we don’t do that anymore,” my aunt said, still embarrassed. “It is a little…rustic, right?”
I still don’t have a good translation for the word my aunt used. Something like provincial, uncultured. Poor.
My mother stared at her.
“Rustic?” she said. “We killed chickens all the time as children. What, are we suddenly too good for killing our own chickens?”
My aunt said nothing.
“I see that you have not just bought yourself a new house, meimei,” my mother said. “You have bought yourself a completely new life.”
She walked out of the room.
My mother had told me stories, many stories, to impress upon me how poor they had all been as children. I’ve always remembered my mother telling us about her and her siblings having to bring coal to warm their apartment in a big sack from the factories across town. You got covered in the black coal dust, and there was nothing more embarrassing than having your classmates see you while you walked home. You just looked so poor, she said.
I went with my aunt to buy a chicken at the grocery store, and ma went upstairs and closed the door. My aunt said she wanted to get to know me better. She got into the front seat next to Xiao Wu, and I slumped in the back.
“What your favorite study in school?” my aunt asked, trying to speak English. “English,” I said.
“You and your sister good friends?”
The questions made me feel sorry for her, and I didn’t want to feel that way about someone who was older than I, so much wiser, with so much more understanding of the world. When she tried to speak English I almost saw her as a child, borrowing an innocence from the poorness with which she spoke the language, the good-natured embarrassment she expressed as she tried. Soon she switched back to speaking Chinese with Xiao Wu, and I was relieved.
“The Chinese and American mix is so interesting in Fang,” my aunt said to Xiao Wu. “Parts of her are Chinese, and parts of her are American.”
“Her skin and eyes are Chinese,” Xiao Wu replied, to my surprise. I hadn’t expected him to have any kind of opinion on my appearance. “But her haircut, her clothes, are American. It looks nice.” I was flattered to think that he noticed me.
My aunt began telling Xiao Wu about a woman who had just moved in down the street, who let her young son play alone in the front yard, near all the cars. He nodded seriously and made little hm sounds. I wondered if on grocery trips my aunt often spoke to Xiao Wu, gossiping, worrying about Tiantian. I wondered if Xiao Wu replied, giving advice, telling jokes. Perhaps my aunt didn’t kill her own chickens because if she did, she would lose these moments driving to the grocery store, telling Xiao Wu of her small, daily torments. I noticed that Xiao Wu was wearing his fine watch again. It caught the light as he turned the steering wheel, his fingers resting on the leather like it was the arm of an intimate friend.
* * *
“Did you know that Xiao Wu is really from a wealthy family?” I told my mother one day as I helped her hang smoked meats in the cool cellar. My mother rolled up her sleeves and laughed.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t think he’d work as a driver if he was.”
“He told us about his family, and the house he lived in,” I said. “He even wears a beautiful gold watch sometimes, I’ve seen it, and it looks really expensive. I think maybe it was an old gift from his family.”
My mother hung up the piece of meat she was holding and looked at me. There were some spices from the meat, black and crumbling, on her shirt.
“Really,” she said, not exactly a question, but like a sudden and much bigger understanding. She didn’t say anything else.
* * *
Xiao Wu and my aunt often drove off together, to the store, to her friends’ houses, to the city for shopping. The moment they stepped out of the door, the two of them leaned together, whispering like schoolchildren. I planted myself near the door, trying to look bored and unoccupied, so that they might invite me to come along, but after that one time getting the chicken, they never noticed me. I watched out the window as Xiao Wu opened the door of the car for my aunt, my aunt laying her hand on his arm to steady herself as she got in. I watched until they drove away, seeing my aunt throw her head back in laughter through the tinted car window. I wondered what I would have to do to gain access to their small, perfect world.
* * *
I sometimes wonder if my respect for Xiao Wu, my childlike faith in anything he did, was due in part to how we only operated within his language. Speaking Chinese, he was assured and wry, whereas I blustered and stumbled. When we spoke, it was as if he were catching me by the arm as I fell, giving me a confident wink, and putting me back on my feet. Perhaps if he had tried to speak English with me like everyone else—accented, stumbling, embarrassed—I would have questioned him as much as I did everyone else.
* * *
At night, the house had an enchanted quality that amplified in my romantic, adolescent mind. The moonlight would lie in a pale net across the lemon trees, the impersonal geometry of the distant city. Pushing through the glass doors onto my balcony, I felt like a woebegone heroine, alone in foreign lands. On one such night, I could see Xiao Wu from the orange spot at the end of his cigarette. He saw me standing in the wan light, and gestured at me, tracing a vague orange curve in the air.
“You smoke?” he asked in Chinese. He wasn’t asking seriously, but I didn’t know how to joke in Chinese.
“No,” I said. “Smoking is not good for you.”
He laughed. “There are worse things,” he said, and took a long drag.
He said it like a man who had seen many things, been through many hardships worthy of being turned into fables and tales. I had nothing in my vocabulary to respond to him. Suddenly he quit his languid pose, his arm arcing through the air to throw the pack of cigarettes up into the balcony. Its sharp corner hit my leg.
“You can have it,” he said, laughing. “Maybe you will need them someday.” I picked it up, dropped it back over the edge, and went back inside.
“What were you doing?” Mei asked from the other bed. I thought she was asleep.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I heard you, you were talking to Xiao Wu,” she whispered conspiratorially. “From the balcony, like Romeo and Juliet.”
“No,” I said, forcefully throwing myself into bed.
“Romeo, Romeo, where art thou Romeo?” my sister sang, messing up the words. I pretended that I had already fallen asleep. I did not wonder why Xiao Wu had been on the lawn, under the lemon trees, long after anyone would need to be driven anywhere.
* * *
There were whispers in the air that morning when I awoke. “Thief,” everyone whispered. I went downstairs in my pajamas and found everyone standing around with an awkward helplessness, except my mother, who sat on the couch with her arms crossed. My uncle, who never furrowed his brow at a dinner bill, was furrowing his brow with his hands on his hips. My aunt’s red fingers clutched at the air. Tiantian ran her fingers nervously through her thin hair. Mei was still asleep.
“What is it?” I asked my mother.
“Someone has stolen your aunt’s diamond necklace,” my mother said in Chinese, surprisingly loud. My aunt glared at my mother, then looked away. I sat down beside my mother. “Your uncle noticed the box was empty this morning, and your aunt doesn’t know where it is.”
“We think,” my aunt said, looking at her husband, “Maybe…one of the workers stole it?”
“Hm,” was all my uncle said.
“After all,” my aunt quavered on, still looking at my uncle, “There are so many of them going all about the property during the day? And sometimes I let one come in to refill their jugs of water. I have a heart, don’t I? Besides, that necklace…it was old, tacky. I don’t see why we’re getting into such a fuss over it.”
No one said anything.
“None of you really believe what meimei is saying,” my mother said, coldly. “Not even meimei herself. You all know the obvious truth.”
My aunt looked at my mother, her face and fingers twisting, as if willing her to stop. My mother went on.
“It’s obvious. Of course, Xiao Wu stole it.”
There was a hard, buzzing silence; a childish, defensive anger, that I could feel thrumming hard and fast through the air.
“Jiejie,” my aunt said, “That is just complete nonsense.”
“Stop lying to yourself,” my mother said, her voice harsh and loud. “You don’t want to believe it. But it makes the most sense.”
“No, no,” my uncle said. “Xiao Wu is a loyal, trustworthy employee. He’s been my driver for two and a half years.”
“You hate the way we live,” my aunt spat through her teeth at my mother. “You’re just accusing Xiao Wu because you think we’re frivolous, flaunting our wealth.”
“When did I ever say such a thing, meimei?” My mother said. “That’s all coming out of your own head, and your own worries.”
“You have no proof of any of this,” my aunt cried. “Xiao Wu would never.”
It pained me, thinking of how she must have truly thought of Xiao Wu as a friend—someone she could say anything to. With his cool, unconcerned voice, that assured charm. How she could feel herself losing those afternoons driving with him, the childish glee, the gossip, the laughter. I could feel my aunt’s agony, imagining that her good friend could possibly be a thief.
“Have you noticed one of your watches missing?” my mother said, ignoring her sister, to my uncle. “Xiao Wu stole it. Fang, tell them about how you saw Xiao Wu wearing it.”
I stared at my mother, her crossed arms, pinched lips, planted legs, poised like a fighter. To realize that since I’d told her about the watch, so trusting and stupid, she must have been hatching this plan, waiting until she could bring her evidence forward, a testimonial. It was my big mouth that would be bringing about the end of Xiao Wu.
“What does she mean, Fang?” my uncle asked. “Was Xiao Wu wearing my watch?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Jiejie, stop,” my aunt hissed. “Just leave this alone. No one asked you to get involved.”
“Meimei, wake up and face reality,” my mother said. “Xiao Wu can’t be here in this house anymore. You’re putting your whole lifestyle in danger.” It seemed like a strange thing to say, a coded statement with massive meanings hidden behind the words. I thought, then, of how much my mother knew and saw that the rest of us couldn’t quite grasp. She was a woman who slid easily between languages, worlds, unlike the rest of us—we stumbled, blinded by our individual limitations. My mother and my aunt stared at one another, and I felt as if there was a whole world held between their eyes, something sharp, private.
“One of my watches is missing,” my uncle said. “I thought I’d left it at the office.” My aunt dropped her eyes.
“You see?” my mother said, and looking at the hurt and disbelief on the faces of my uncle and aunt, I thought that she was brutal, ruthless; I thought of her steeling her heart as a young girl to kill her first chicken, her face blank and cold, plowing on with her attack despite the shuddering desperation of the animal in her hands. Only later, when I had forgiven her, I would remember the chicks that she had loved, how they still haunted her dreams forty years later.
When I had finished describing the watch, I ran upstairs and threw myself on the bed and wouldn’t come downstairs. My mother came upstairs later, sat down beside me on the bed, and put her hand on my hair.
“I’m sorry,” she said. I didn’t say anything out of anger. And I wasn’t angry at what she had done—but rather what she knew: that I would forgive her, because she was my mother. But I would never forgive Xiao Wu.
* * *
Before we left, there was a final banquet—everything didn’t just completely fall apart, of course, once Xiao Wu had been swept out—but Mei was inconsolable that Xiao Wu wasn’t there, and we all lacked the energy to calm her.
“How am I supposed to have any fun here without him?” Mei demanded shrilly, to anyone who would listen. She’d been told that Xiao Wu had resigned abruptly for family reasons. Everyone ignored her but my mother and me.
“Mei, shush,” my mother said. “You’re being dramatic. Have fun with your sister. She’s family.”
“Xiao Wu is more fun than Fang,” Mei pouted. I wasn’t too hurt; I knew she was lobbing meaningless words out of childish disappointment. But my mother turned and I saw there was real anger in her eyes; I almost expected her to shout. But Mei was allowed to go on wailing about the absent driver, unaware that her words were biting like horseflies at the hearts of the adults in the room.
I watched my aunt. Her pleated face folded downwards, as if its skin were too heavy to lift into a smile. She barely spoke or ate, and her reddened fingers twisted and clutched one another in her lap like small, newborn creatures. My mother ferried small morsels onto her sister’s plate with her chopsticks, saying softly, “Try this, meimei. It’s good.”
When we drove away from the house, in a taxi ordered by my aunt, my mother looked out at the receding lemon trees.
“Those won’t last here,” she said. “I bet the next time we come back they’ll be gone.”
Samantha Xiao Cody is a queer, half-Chinese writer with degrees in Physics and Creative Writing from Princeton University. She has work forthcoming or published in Split Lip Magazine, Jellyfish Review, and 3Elements Review, and is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. She previously lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she taught Math and Physics at a project-based-learning high school, and is an incoming MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.