Eastvale, California, USA
Eleanor Roosevelt High School
At our favorite deli, Ma and I order two hot soy milks and two pork baozi buns. She fishes a twenty from her wallet before I can and hands it to the moon-faced owner.
Her movements are languid, her laugh hushed. A set of parentheses frames her mouth.
Outside, we open our bounty. Meat filling slicks their plastic wrap first, then our words, until oil glazes over the undiscussed.
If I close my eyes, I can feel that iced kitchen tile Saturday under my feet. I am yanking open the freezer when Ma tells me.
Are you excited about meimei? Little sister? she says. Her words curl like a puppy’s tail, looking for affirmation.
I quip, What if she eats all my baozi? The frozen pork buns tumble into the cooker. I pull my finger across the switch and it glows a hot orange.
You going to be a jiejie soon, Ma informs me later when we tangle on the couch. An ocean documentary swims on the TV. My tongue kisses the roof of my mouth twice as I roll out the word experimentally: big sister.
I look at her waistline. How big will your belly get?
About here. She traces an arc in front of it, rounding over an invisible dome. I prod her abdomen and decide that it resembles a shark’s underside.
Sometimes, Ma weeps at the kitchen counter, her syntax undone. In the window, citrus slivers of moon hang silently. As if her yearning had pulled it.
I draw stick figures on construction paper and newspaper ads. We have pink lines bleeding where our mouths are because I pressed the marker too hard, but she sticks us to the fridge anyways.
The number four is unlucky in Chinese culture because the pronunciation is one tone change away from meaning death.
I’m relieved when Ma and I are told your due date is in March. We huddle over the sheet that renders you in black and white. You’re lying on your back, the epitome of ease. Your tiny hands and feet are reminiscent of flower buds—how fitting it is that you have a spring birthday. I picture all the flower species I’ve seen, but none of them can compare to yours.
Their nondescript packaging doesn’t do their baozi justice, so we take advantage of our little-known secret. We buy them in bulk at our local supermarket—our freezer has never missed those familiar orange boxes. They’re also simple to cook. If I pop a few on a plate, put it in our pressure cooker, and add some water … I have enough buns to satiate me for hours.
Ma prefers sesame baozi. The summer she is pregnant with you, our house smells perpetually like the saccharine filling. Sesame dots her fingers, her plates, the washcloth at the kitchen sink. Awoken by a bad dream, I creep to her bedroom one night and see her holding a bun to her stomach. She exchanges both whispers and crumbs with you, watching you so tenderly that my fears shrink.
She offers me sesame baozi every morning before she returns the package to the freezer. But I’ve never cared for sesame unless Sesame Street was involved, plus, you seem to love it (aren’t I already a generous sister?).
I practice being a jiejie. I put away my pencils so you won’t chew on them like my friends’ siblings do; I reread all the fairy tales you’ll beg to hear at bedtime.
Why isn’t she crying?
The first time we touch: your cheek is slick putty, pliable and cool.
I want to envelop your body in mine, slow. You won’t decipher the words I feed you yet, but will you understand me?
Ma lies on her back—spectral hair an ink mass on the sheets—the seven pounds of you tight against her chest. Your sea anemone fingers curl inwards. I want to hold her, I insist, inching closer to the hospital bed.
Your eyes aren’t quite closed. They are patches of black ice, the type I’ve been warned to avoid. We share the same lips that don’t suit me, but on you, achieve equilibrium with your doe features. The pink tint of your skin reminds me of candy sold only when Valentine’s Day is close.
The last time we touch: your cheek is slick putty, pliable and cool.
Our window traps us in whorls of early May humidity. Vertigo pulses in time with stewed heat, rendering my ribs dry of marrow.
I nestle my chin against Ma’s shoulder, which carries the same musk as the rest of the bedroom. Her stare is engorged in the dwindling light. She doesn’t stir even at the sight of fresh sesame baozi.
She’s childlike in a soft T-shirt, the pale fish of her arms helpless. Her hand trails absentmindedly across her abdomen.
It’s swollen with promise. I picture you curled in the womb, dreaming of green shot through warming soil. You’re in there sleeping; you’re just tired.
I lay my palm on Ma’s belly, not daring to breathe. Wake up, meimei.
I feel you stir beneath my hand, spring personified. A kick? Just like the ones Ma used to document on receipts, napkins, gum wrappers, anything we could grab when she felt you move.
I grab her shoulder and tell her we need to get up and go to the hospital now, now—
Ma turns, and her face is all too readable. She folds into herself like origami: the flesh around her mouth crumples, the sharp angles of her elbows and knees snap, and she falls soundlessly.
Someone tells me you would have been a Pisces. Pisces are water signs—the last constellation of the zodiac. They’re known for being sensitive creatures who drift somewhat aimlessly between dreams and reality.
We erase you from our life even though you were written in Sharpie.
Gone from the refrigerator door is the only photo of you and your elfin limbs, snug in Ma’s bubble-wrap belly. Our list of baby names. Unfinished.
During our next grocery trip, Ma ventures unsteadily down the frozen aisle. She selects peas and mixed berries. A 5-pack of corn dogs. I’m waiting for her to add that distinctive orange box to our cart until she picks up speed and makes a sharp turn. We become a strictly baozi-free household, the topic of much dissent. I argue fervently for my pork baozi until she bursts into tears right in the produce section.
Let’s get apples, she says. A week later, I watch those apples decompose in our fruit bowl.
Our neighbor’s daughter stops by for a playdate. What happened to your sister?
I play with my T-shirt hem. A black thread unravels a trail of ants as I respond, I don’t have one.
A group of girls on the first day of eighth grade. Either history or language arts class, I don’t remember. One of them goes off on a tangent about how much she hates her brother. He drives me crazy. Do you have siblings, or are you lucky?
Both, I lie.
Sophomore year with my first boyfriend. His little sister, an adorable cherub, waves at me when I drop off his Christmas present. I’ve forgotten how to breathe. Can he hear that my heart has suddenly sprouted gills?
End of graduation day. Summer sops heavy on my shoulders, and the sky is an aching blue. I’m seated next to a girl I’ve talked to maybe twice – she reveals a mouthful of braces.
I weave through the crowd to find my mother. She’s in the same seat as before, but now I see something I missed earlier. The girl’s family occupies ten or so spaces next to her, all of them redheaded and broad-shouldered. Her siblings yell over each other and take turns wrenching at her gown. At one point, she trips, and it’s a massive clump of orange-red wrestling on the ground (I want to wear it! No, me! I called dibs!)
I must have stared at them for too long, because her eyes meet mine. She waves too enthusiastically. My neck burns acid with an emotion I fail to identify.
I don’t have to look at my mother to know the aversion on her lips. Once we’re out of earshot, she brings up the family. Why they have so many kids? So hard to take care!
When I get home, I step out of the heavy gown and it falls corpse-like to my dresser. I angle my head in the mirror and see that girl’s expression branded on my neck: unmistakable pity. I dig my nails into my flesh. In my mind, I claw aside skin and veins, pick through tissue, and uncover my own jealousy gleaming beneath bone.
The day before I leave for college, I take Ma to breakfast. We order two hot soy milks and two pork baozi.
I feel monstrous; I am cruel for splitting our tiny family unit. But Ma assures me she’ll keep busy—there are lots of responsibilities she has to fulfill. Cooking, gardening, redecorating the house.
She pushes questions about professors as my gaze remains fixed on passerby and my responses monosyllabic. I fiddle with my napkin. I do everything but address the situation at hand. It’s not long before we fall into silence.
Ma, will you be fine at home? I muster.
She chuckles. I catch the tremor when she replies, Shouldn’t I be asking that? My little girl grow up so fast.
Ma eats slowly—all soft-spoken and creased linen. In her details, I see us. Her bare ring finger, her tortoiseshell barrette. The smattering of age across her cheeks.
We collect our trash, and Ma stands, slipping on sunglasses. She says something about L.A. light and how I should invest in a pair. Her lips are in limbo between feigned joy and fear.
Suddenly, I want you so much it hurts. I look into my cup and see you. A warm cheek, rollerblades, a laugh reverberating from dregs of soy milk.
Your features are muddled by Styrofoam, so I try to imagine what you would look like today. Pigtails? Braids? Would the band-aids on your elbows be patterned or plain? Would you beg to sit in the passenger seat, like I used to? Would you beg Ma to take you to my dorm even when you’re not supposed to? Would you draw posters for me to stick onto my shiny new mini fridge?
You don’t belong here at breakfast but you do, scrawled on the receipt in red pen Ma rolled twice to coax the ink out. I head back inside the deli.
Peruse the menu and there it is. Three sesame baozi, please.
Even if you've never tried baozi before, "sesame baozi" will give you a taste of this food's sweet filling as it crafts a recipe to hold a family together.
Isabelle Kong is a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, California. Her work, which has been recognized by YoungArts and Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, focuses on themes of grief and rebirth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR