Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Once, my Chinese teacher made us read an article about yang lao yuan and when we were done, she asked, when your parents grow old will you make room in your house for them, or will you put them in a nursing home? The one non-Chinese kid in our class raised his hand and said, I will put them in hospice because I don’t want them to die in my house. dead people smell bad, and if they die, it will make my house smell bad too and we all laughed as if we didn’t secretly agree. Chen laoshi raised her eyebrows, then frowned at the answer as if impersonating Confucius.
At first when my dad and I had trudged up the stairs to Mother’s apartment we thought perhaps the fish we bought was spoiled, and that quelled any doubts we had about the scent. It was a perfume marinated from chalk; KBBQ; my underwear when I hadn’t changed my pad for twelve hours on the heaviest day of my period; petrichor and algae and eggs left out to spoil in the summer, kind of like the time our recycling club went down to pick up trash by the stream and found a fleshless coyote skeleton with the neck vertebrae still dangling from the back of its skull.
Her body was in the kitchen. Facedown, thankfully, because even in life I wouldn’t have been able to make eye contact. There was dehydrated vomit flaking off the white walls and the faucet and the acrylic copy of Thiebaud’s cupcakes I’d painted in fourth grade. Some of it was white like a bird’s turd, other pieces were bright pink, the same color as the kind of lipstick that Mother would scoff at for being too garish. Sprawled over the counter were half a dozen empty paper Tylenol cartons.
Two years before her death, Mother had lost her job, and the bitterness grew in her, sharpening her already shrill voice until every word became a command. By then even her zhajiang noodles and dill-and-turkey dumplings weren’t apology enough to compensate for the constant nagging for me to rub my monolids and pinch my nose, as if some Chinese folk magic would miraculously morph me into the beauty she expected. I’d grown sick of the way she’d watch YouTube shoulder to shoulder with me while reminding me to do my homework, even though she was unemployed. I’d grown sick of the mirror she installed in the dining room that mocked me as I ate. So my dad and I moved out. I started eating pizza and fries instead of rice and tomato stir fried with eggs. I stopped listening to Chinese music, stopped speaking Chinese altogether because being the mother tongue, it would always be associated with her. The only time I’d have to see her was when my dad and I stopped by her apartment to drop off groceries every Sunday.
That Sunday she had drawn me in for our last good night kiss and I had reluctantly succumbed as had become my custom during our weekly reunions, my hips twisting evasively away from hers. As our lips approached, the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes came into focus, stacked like the thousand-layer sesame pancakes she baked that child me could never resist eating. Dark freckles of age were splattered across her bronzed face, so close to mine it writhed, it turned, it distorted itself— I could still see it, the two of us twisting our foreheads against each other slowly as our lips still bridged during the kiss to give the impression of the other’s face melting asymmetrically, “Picasso face!” seven-year-old me had exclaimed with glee at the creation of a new bedtime game.
The day they lifted the corpse away from where she laid I got on my knees and washed each tile three times with a rag, polished the dining room mirror with some lemon-scented cleaner. That’s the way she would have wanted it, the way she would have done it every night after cooking four dishes and a soup, traditional Chinese style. The dawn after they lifted the corpse away, the sunlight slanted through the window shades in the kitchen and the rays were still straight even after they passed to the mirror, still straight even when they reached the chocolate wooden floorboards in the dining room. For once the kitchen was so empty that there weren’t any bottles of spices or vases of snowy carnations that the light had to tiptoe around.
The week after, I asked a friend I had just met out to the mall. I’d headed straight to Sephora and plucked armies of lipsticks and primers from their backlit holders, swatched eyeshadows and eyeliners, filled our shopping cart to the brim with blush palettes and cakes of soap and skin cleansers. Mother had hated that emptiness of naked skin. She would have been proud.
The week after that was the week of Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, and I’d reserved a table at a modern Chinese restaurant in the heart of the city. The napkins were pink in anticipation of the holiday and as the sun set its rays cascaded down like a warm blanket, descending over my friend’s dress like a quilt of liquid gold. From across the table her eyes glowed a milky hazelnut brown, a shade brighter than the boba pearls in the glass perched in front of her. She looked like she had been peeled out of Mother’s favorite Klimt painting.
When we left the restaurant it was already black outside. Impulsively, I’d grabbed my friend but instead my arms reached further, tumbling further into the recesses of memory, searching, yearning, longing for the thick muscular shelter of her arms, of a mother’s comforting haven. The curves of our lips caressed, pressing into one another, pulsating warmly against each other like apricot skins warmed by the sun. I closed my eyes and suddenly she was again in my arms, the scenes merging. Bitter residue of all the homecoming rejections were wet on my cheeks when she had unfurled a bouquet of the reddest roses I’d seen, a shade that echoed the hue swatched over her withered lips. “I love you,” she had pronounced, “even if all those boys don’t.” How pathetic that the only flowers I will ever receive are from my mother, I remembered thinking resentfully.
As I let go the world was still reeling, the buildings a string of bright yellow lights dancing, rippling through my field of vision. I turned away from my friend just as the raindrops started to trickle down. In the periphery of the fog the stone lions guarding the restaurant entrance opened their jaws in half-yawn, half-laugh. When your mother grows old will you make room in your house for her?
This piece was published in Split Lip Magazine, September 2020
This piece paints the tragedy of loss with striking emotions that perfectly capture the relational nuances of the Asian-American family.
Rui-Yang Peng/彭瑞阳 is a student at Princeton University. She is a nihilist, biologist, visual artist, and writer, not necessarily in that order. She believes that love as we know it is nonexistent and has made peace with the fact. Her work lives online @linaria17.
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